Coyotepe prison, dark with a narrow strip of window with bars

Inside the first level of Coyotepe prison.

This afternoon we visited a former political prison — El Coyotepe. Some of us fought back tears. Some of us felt shame at the new-found knowledge that the United States government supported the dictatorship that tortured an unknown number of Nicaraguans right where we stood. All of us were moved.

Today, Coyotepe is preserved and operated by Nicaraguan Boy Scouts. Our guide, who works as a volunteer for tips, (again, with Lucy as our interpreter) took us through the two levels of dark cells, explaining what is known about what happened in the place unknown to even most Nicaraguans for many years.

Coyotepe, which means “coyote caves” in a local indigenous language, was originally built originally as a fortress to protect the community of Masaya.

In 1944, the Somoza government began using it as a political prison. That continued until the Revolution in 1979, when the Sandonista prisoners were liberated and the guards and other Somoza supporters were jailed there.

The Sandonista government improved conditions in the prison, adding bathroom facilities and electricity. But they continued to use it as a prison until 1983.

During the Somoza dictatorship, three levels of prison cells were used at Coyotepe. The bottom level collapsed in the 1970s. Our guide said there are theories that Somoza had it destroyed to hide an unknown number of dead prisoners. Another theory suggests dead prisoners were dumped into the nearby Masaya Volcano. Many believe the place in haunted.

It is believed that more than 600 people were held at Coyotepe at a time, 90 percent of them men.

In one of the cells on the second level, used for more “serious suspects” — likely suspected to assassination plots or other efforts to overthrow the government — we could see markings on the wall likely made by the prisoners.

“Mi quiera morir!!!” or “I want to die” is scrawled into the wall in one place. In another, the Spanish for “only Christ saves” is scratched with the date 1978.

“Aldo was my best friend because he held my hand the whole time,” Tara said. “I hung on to my St. Christopher (medal) the whole time.”

It was hard to be there, to know what happened so recently, and to confront the reality that it may be happening somewhere else in the world right now.

Reflecting as a group later on, Deanna said: “People talk about what Hitler did. This is kinda the same. I’d never even heard about all of this until now. This affected their entire country.”

Kata reminded us of the prison we learned of yesterday, in the lower levels of the Somoza palace.

Wyatt spoke of how “Medieval” it all was, but occurring as recently as 34 years ago.

“I’m glad we know that history,” Meghan said. “I can’t believe it was this recent.”

And the questions poured from us. What did the tour guide think of us? What else does our government not want us to know? How can we get the information we deserve as concerned global citizens?

Coyotepe fortress

Coyotepe was originally a fort built to protect Masaya. It was later used as a political prison by both the Somoza regime and the Sandonistas.

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Jenna Frick, posing with the evacuation route sign at the Masaya volcano

Jenna Frick, our unofficial safety officer, posing with the evacuation route sign at the Masaya volcano.

Jenna Frick is our unofficial safety officer.

In our meetings, she was the one asking questions about travelers’ stomach trouble, risk of parasites from local water and risk of botflies. (Answers: Possible, but easily treatable as long as medicine is taken early. None. All water we are drinking is filtered. Extremely unlikely. No participant in any previous trip has contracted any sort of illness from any sort of bite.)

Before takeoff on each airplane, the 21-year-old Zeta Tau Alpha member from Kansas City, Kan. carefully read the safety information in the seat pocket. And she listened with rapt attention to the flight attendants explaining safety procedures.

Today, entering the Parque National Volcan Masaya, each of us was given a sheet explaining the security regulations for the crater areas. Jenna read them to herself, but aloud, pointing out the following:

  • This volcano may erupt without notice since its activity is frequent.
  • Don’t worry guys, we’ll get helmets. (We didn’t actually get helmets, but a portion of the park was closed because of the level of recent activity related to volcanic gasses.

Helmets were mentioned third on the list and she may have been the only one to read about it.

Frick attributes her safety-consciousness to being the second-oldest of six children. She’s used other skills gained in that role while on the trip, too. For example, this morning, she French braided our guide Lucy’s hair in record time.

Frick is a senior majoring in biochemistry and education. She plans to work as a chemistry teacher. She serves on the Washburn Student Government Association and recently tied for first place in the bi-annual Nall Speak Off public speaking competition at Washburn.

Profiles of the Ichabods and their unique roles on the trip will continue.

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How many cities in the world can you visit where there are more than 2.4 million people but you will wake up to the sound of a rooster’s crow?

I’m sure Managua isn’t the only such place, but it is just one example of the beautiful contrast of this place.

Laura, Sam and Jenna ready for breakfast

Laura, Sam and Jenna ready for breakfast

We are heading for the volcano and market in Masaya soon, but first — breakfast. Coffee, juice, eggs, rice and beans, tortillas, watermelon, white pineapple, avocado and cheese. The tortillas here are made of corn but are much thicker than you would find in an American grocery store, similar to pita bread.

We are learning and experiencing so much about this place. It may be weeks after we return home before we can process it all.

Conversations are becoming more common among the group about what will happen during our family stays, the work we’ll do and what it will be like to live in their homes. We’re getting to know each other better, too.

More after today’s adventure.

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Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

We are spoiled as guests of Quaker House. Our meals are cooked for us and for the last two nights we have enjoyed personal concerts. (Read about our visit with Philip Montalban)

Tonight we heard some of the most popular folk songs in Nicaragua, played on Marimba by 10-year-old Brisa, and on guitar by her mother. The family, from Managua, are good friends with ProNica staff.

Brisa, who, again, is only 10, played a wooden Marimba intricately painted with mango trees. When her small concert of six songs was finished, she continued to play a song in her head by moving the mallets in the air, never touching the bars. She had an obvious passion for the music and smiled brightly as she played, and at our applause.

After the concert in the Quaker House living room, we were able to browse through handicrafts available for purchase that were made by the same family.

Now, a group is playing the card game Spoons, while others read, journal or visit.

Next up: Tomorrow we visit the Masaya Volcano National Park and Masaya Market, known for its artisan works.

Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

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painting of Augusto Sandino

This painting of Augusto Sandino fills an entire wall at the memorial museum.

After a few hours of rest time — for napping or going to the nearby grocery store — we headed out for the rest of our history adventure.

First stop — a lookout point and Augusto Sandino memorial museum on the site once occupied by the personal palace and home of the Somoza family. (Three different Somozas, the father and two sons, ran Nicaragua as dictators until the Revolution.) Somoza family members fled and the palace and all of their land and businesses were claimed by the country.

The employee at the Viva Sandino museum explained the gallery of photos and information to us, with the help of our guide, Lucy, who interpreted for us.

Sandino was killed by Somoza supporters in the 1930s after agreeing to a truce in the guerrilla revolution he led. Sandino and his supported fought against policies that oppressed the poor and against the government’s reliance on the United States. (“North Americans,” as we were told at the museum. Everyone we have met is carful not to saddle us with any blame.)

The Sandinistas in the 1980s took the name to honor the spirit of Augusto Sandino. The national hero is memorialized in many ways, including images of his silhouette and straw hats.

light tree and Sandino silhouette

One of the new “Tree of Life” lighted trees and the iconic Sandino image.

Next, our bus took us to the central plaza to see the National Museum — filled with artifacts, painting, sculpture and parakeets chirping in a courtyard.

The city’s center was badly damaged and basically abandoned after an earthquake in the 1970s. Recently, work has been done to reclaim the space as an attraction.


The group in front of the National Museum.

On the way back to Quaker House, children tried to climb on to the ladder of our bus. Rolando, the driver, got out of the bus and put on his dad face.

The group is staring to experience some mild culture shock. There was a lot of talk of pizza, fried chicken or some other sort of “American food.” But most of us are enjoying the traditional food prepared for us while at Quaker House.

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The walls of Quaker House include social justice quotes and heroes, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nicaraguan national hero Augusto Sandino — the man depicted in the small painting with the yellow background.

What does justice look like? What can we do to live justly? We’ll spend a lot of time answering these questions throughout our lives.

Our history lesson this morning, with Mark Lester of the Center for Global Education, gave us a lot to think about.

Lester has lived in Nicaragua since 1985, originally coming to the country through his work as a pastor. He was a wealth of information about the important dates, players, political system and impact of United States influence in Nicaragua over time.

He told us about influence of the United States occurred even in the 1800s, when the two political parties curried favor with the US to get support for their unique agendas. There were U.S. Marines in Nicaragua in 1908 and from 1912-1933, Lester explained. Decades later, the U.S. involvement played out in what we in America know as the “Iran-Contra Affair” and what is known in Nicaragua as the insurrection. Most here believe the Revolution is what occurred from July 19, 1979 until 1990, when the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown.

Lester told us about the continued U.S. involvement here, and how many of the same tactics used to convince the American people of the need for involvement in Nicaragua in the 1980s were used — by many of the exact same people — to make the case for invasion of Iraq.

While who the “good guys and bad guys” are continues to be murky today, our history lesson gave us an awareness of that murkiness, of all of layers of truth and reality involved in something so complicated. And we will hopefully be ready to question more, and deeper, when something just doesn’t feel right.

This afternoon we will visit several historic sites and take in even more. I think it’s safe to say our transformation is underway.

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5 Cordoba coins

Nicaraguan Cordoba

Tomorrow is our day of history lessons. We’ll learn the facts then see several sights, museums and the like. So tonight, it was time to get ready.

Nicaragua is a very impoverished* country. Only Haiti is poorer per person in the Western Hemisphere. That means we will see things that make us uncomfortable. Like the children — young children maybe seven to 10 years old — who came to Laguna de Apoyo to sell tamales, bananas and other food.

Downtown tomorrow, we were advised, there will be children with their hands out and “it will break your heart.”

But, we’ve been asked not to give money.

“We encourage you not to give them money,” said our guide, Lucy. “We don’t want to encourage that dependency, particularly from the U.S.”

Lucy is originally from Chicago but lived in El Salvador for several years as a child. She’s been in Nicaragua for three years and ours is her first trip as a guide for ProNica.

Rick Ellis agreed with Lucy’s suggestion.

“That paternalistic sense of ‘We’re gonna take care of you’ — really you’re replicating what one country does to another on a smaller scale.”

The purpose of our day of history is to ensure we know the context of the country we are experiencing for these two weeks. It’s not to make us feel bad for what we have. But we might. And it might light fires under us to make change when we return.

*NOTE: This post originally said Nicaragua is a very poor country. Nicaragua is economically impoverished but rich in many other areas, including natural resources of timber, gold and fresh water.

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Philip and Thomas Montalban

Philip Montalban and his son, Thomas Montalban.

Philip Montalban played a short concert for us on the back porch at Quaker House tonight, and gave us a history lesson of the Caribbean coast of the country.

Montalban is a reggae artist from Bluefields, Nicaragua now living in Managua. He has visited the Washburn campus for concerts three different times and we hope he can join us again soon.

When Rick Ellis walked onto the porch, Montalban stopped talking and flashed a full-face smile.

“Oh, my brother! How are you doing?” Montalban said. After a hug Montalban said “We have a big link with Mr. Rick.”

I think it’s safe to say we all felt lucky that their connection was being shared with us, too.

For us, he played a variety of songs representing many of the ethnic groups and cultures that make up the Caribbean coast, including the Mosquito indians, Garafina and Creole.

Montalban told us about the history of colonization in the Caribbean and the eastern half of Nicaragua, which until the 1890s was actually a separate country, including influences of the English, Dutch and Spanish.

“It’s a nice little country,” Montalban said of his homeland. “Now, we have to ways of living without creating unnecessary division. We are citizens of the universe. You and me are human beings on earth doing the same things.”

The experience concluded with a sing-along, with us as the response to a song Montalban wrote in honor of Bob Marley. Watch for a video of the sing along when we get back to Kansas.

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At Laguna de Apoyo

At Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo was much larger than the word Laguna — lagoon — would suggest. It was huge, with the sound of the ocean. And completely breathtaking.

We had hours to do as our hearts desired — kayaking the lake, swimming, laying out on platforms or in chairs on the beach, playing cards and enjoying fresh fish, salad, fajitas and the like at the top-notch resort restaurant.

Laguna de Apoyo was not a national park — that will come later in our trip. It was, instead, a private resort beach. ProNica covered our entry fee and our meals and we were free to relax. On the bus ride back, we chatted about how peaceful we felt. How nice it was to just be for an entire day. And how fortunate we were to start 2014 in such fashion.

More soon.

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We enjoyed our more tropical surroundings with bowls of fresh fruit this morning, plus eggs, coffee, cereal and other options as we liked.

White pineapple, banana and papaya are readily available — and full of amazing flavor — so there were bowls of them waiting for us and we nearly polished it off.

bowls of fruit

The bowl on the left started as a salad of white pineapple, banana and papaya. The bowl of papaya on the right was brought out when we were getting low on fruit.

Dr. Ellis made scrambled eggs for several of the Ichabods, and many drank coffee. We’ll leave in about an hour for the volcano crater lake at the national park — Laguna de Apoyo. We’ll get to see Managua in the daylight today, too.

Quaker House, where we are staying for the next few days, has WiFi so we’ll update again when we return.

We hope the second day of 2014 is going well for you all. We’re already having an amazing experience.

One more thing. Please don’t worry about us having quality wanter to drink. There are two large coolers that filter our water and we are all encouraged to refill our personal bottles often.

water filters

The water filters at Quaker House

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