We’ve seen Mombacho from a distance for days. On Tuesday we stood on it.

The biology majors — especially Katy — took the time slowly after we got off of the safari-style truck. There were so many things to see and hear in the Mombacho Cloud Forest.

Light and shadow danced on lush green leaves. Neon green moss clung to trees. Howler Monkeys howled. Exotic birds sang. A sloth eluded everyone but Travis. And the flowers! Orchids of many colors and sizes, tiny buds reaching for light, poinsettias, bogenvelia, hibiscus and more welcomed us at different heights in the forest.

Some of us were continuously amazed that we were WALKING IN A RAINFOREST, only to be speechless again at the next lookout point. At the top of what was actually a volcanic crater now covered with plant life we could see many of the places we’ve been:

The view was truly breathtaking. We all enjoyed the opportunity. Nicaragua’s natural beauty is so rich. The country may be impoverished but this nation is rich in so many ways. Imagine if the U.S. government had invested in its potential rather than making the decisions it did in the 1980s.

Las Isletas from Volcan Mombacho

Las Isletas from Volcan Mombacho

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We had the opportunity to have dinner on Tuesday night at the Cafe de los Mimos, a project of the School of Comedy and Mime (website in Spanish). The school provides opportunity to homeless children in the Granada area, teaching them acting and circus-style performance.

The performance we saw was similar in style to Cirque du Solei with beginning skill. There was contortion, juggling, stilts, tricks of strength and wonderful acting with facial expression.

After the play, we heard a band perform. There was a lot of dancing. Music and dance are a big part of the culture here. As we saw in El Limon, even young children learn the basic steps and moves of several dances. There were very few wallflowers at the cafe. And there were professional dancers from Costa Rica who had come from a performance still wearing face makeup.

The show was a great end to a day exploring an amazing city. Our guides, Lucy and Aldo, have gone out of their way to make sure we learn about the country by visiting service groups as often as possible. For many of us, that way of exploring communities may become standard practice.

The band at Cafe de los Mimos.

The band at Cafe de los Mimos.

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We spent lunchtime yesterday at an amazing place. In 2012 a Spanish man named Antonio decided to invest in Nicaraguan youth who are differently able.

Originally, he imagined supporting an already existing effort. But he discovered there weren’t such groups that provided job kills to blind, deaf, hard of hearing and young people otherwise unable to communicate. So he started one.

Centro Social Tio Anonio, a hammock workshop, and Cafe de las Sonrisas in Granada, are that place. While there, several students were able to help make hammocks. We met a young blind man who made a hammock for Pope Francis. We met another who is fluent in English, Spanish and Nicaraguan sign language. The language has a lot in common with American Sign Language (ASL) but is its own unique language.

And we tested our communication skills yet again during lunch. Our waiter and waitress were both deaf. Signs on the wall of the cafe and a laminated placard with useful signs were available to help.

Several group members purchased hammocks, available in several sizes, to support the Tio Antonio’s. Others marveled at two efforts underway at the center. One: An ongoing fundraising drive to support hurricane relief in the Philippines. The other: turning discarded plastic bags into an “endless hammock.” The bags are tied together and woven to create a hammock that will continue to grow. No end date has been set for the effort that is cleaning up plastic by repurposing it.

Yet another lesson about Nicaraguans: We may think generally about how they have little themselves, but so many selfless acts we have seen show their concern as global citizens. May we remember this lesson always.

Learn more:

The endless hammock, multicolored.

The endless hammock in progress.

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It is widely known here that there are 365 isletas (little islands) near Granada, created when Volcan Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago, spewing lava into Lake Nicaragua. On Monday, Jan. 13, we saw a few dozen of them.

There are islands with public restaurants and homes to rent. Islands with palm trees. Islands with monkeys. Islands with some of the fanciest homes in the entire country. Islands for sale. And islands with some flora species only found here.

Seeing it from a boat with an experienced isletas guide — and Aldo, who is always happy to share what he knows about local plant species — was more than a treat. Michaela took 250 photos of the incredible, ocean-like views, monkeys, bats, birds and the contrast of homes from Rum magnates and subsistence fishermen.

We were able to see Mombacho from a different point of view, and visualize the power of the eruption that created the islands. We saw historic Granada’s cathedral — a landmark that identifies the central square from anywhere in the central city. One particular flower made an impression: it reminded us all of a firecracker. It had a sheath that made it look almost banana-like, but when slid down a striking flower with fuschia tips on each of dozens of fingers.

Volcan Mombacho from the boat on Lake Nicaragua.

Volcan Mombacho from the boat on Lake Nicaragua.

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We packed a lot in today. Too much to post tonight in detail, but here’s a quick preview:

  • Breakfast at a waffel house! With BACON!
  • A boat tour of the islands in Lake Nicaragua created by the erruption of Mombacho Volcano several thousand years ago. This included some amazing wildlife (MONKEYS!) and plants.
  • Lunch at a cafe focused on providing employment to Nicaraguans who are blind, deaf and hard of hearing. Many of the youth who work there make hammocks, while others work in the cafe.
  • And afternoon exploring the history of this colonial city, including museums and a church constructed in 1536.
  • Dinner at a cultural cafe, including a show by children who live in a group home that teaches them circus acts.

Tomorrow we climb Mombacho!

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We’ve arrived in Granada. We’ll be off exploring this beautiful colonial city soon.

I think it’s safe to say that after our stay in El Limon several members of the group are disappointed by the accommodations of the hostel. The lesson: It’s all about perspective.

The running water, indoor showers and toilets are luxury compared to what many of us experienced in El Limon. But they are nothing like the facilities at home in Kansas that many were clearly hoping for.

The drive from El Limon to Esteli, where we picked up some items we left at the hostel for safe keeping, to Masaya where we stopped to eat at a gas station cafe to Granada took about four hours.

There was a lot of beautiful scenery and an incredible amount of plastic waste littering the highway. In the cities, plastic is collected and sold to recycling operations. But apparently in the countryside there is no program or system for collecting garbage. I guess we should appreciate the adopt-a-highway program back home, and be conscious of the amount of plastic we consume because it does not quickly biodegrade.

Plastic on the roadside.

Plastic on the roadside.

More from Granada soon.

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There is a small cigar shop across the street from our hostel in Esteli and this afternoon we popped in to see the process from tobacco leaf to cigar for ourselves.

There were fewer than a dozen employees in the family-owned business, which sells its cigars locally and in one shop in Chicago. (The building has a small outline of the Chicago skyline, too.)

Nicaraguan tobacco leaves in a crate, ready to be used.

Nicaraguan tobacco leaves.

Cigar bundles stacked on a shelf.

Cigars ready to be packaged for sale.

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Aldo Marcell

Aldo Marcell

Aldo Marcell welcomed us to his home town of Esteli, Nicaragua today with a special opportunity.

We’ve gotten to know Aldo this week as he has guided us along our journey. We knew that the 35-year-old is the youngest child in his family and has two passions: plants and origami art.

Everywhere we have gone, Aldo has told us the names of the plants, flowers and trees. The Nicaraguan government recently tapped his knowledge for an environmental impact study related to a potential canal project and he is widely recognized for his skill in botany throughout the country. It’s been fun to watch him collect plants for his garden as we travel around the country, too.

“If I see something at a good price I act quickly,” he told us. He’s in the process now of planning and developing a garden at his family’s farm.

We’ve heard and seen a bit about his origami before today. But at his family home, just a few blocks from the hostel where we are staying, we were able to see the work of a master. (Aldo is very humble and would never call himself a master.)

“I am an enthusiast,” he said. “There are many people better than me.”

He was introduced to origami at age 10 and became serious about the craft at age 19. Now, he is invited to conferences and collaborates with other origami artists on projects. Suffice it to say we were all blown away by what our friend can create with paper, patience and skill.

Some of our favorites included original designs.

“I have seen Aldo’s origami five different times now. It gets better every time. I don’t know how he does it,” Rick said during today’s reflection. “I think it’s amazing. You have so much knowledge. You amaze me and I’m so glad to be your friend.”

We couldn’t agree more.

A table featuring a variety of boxes and vases made of paper with intricate origami.

Each of these items — and dozens of others we saw today — were made by Aldo Marcell.

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This image -- a Latina take on Rosie the Riveter -- is on the women's bathroom door at Casa Abya Yala collective cafe.

This image — a Latina take on Rosie the Riveter — is on the women’s bathroom door at Casa Abya Yala collective cafe.

Last night we had dinner at Casa Abya Yala, a women’s collective that opened last year. The name of the cafe means “The Americas.”

In addition to a relatively large menu, the cafe sold items made by local women including jewelry and bags. The art on the walls included a focus on literacy — the words “Leer para volar” or “read to fly” were painted above a bookshelf and books were growing like flowers in one mural. Other murals featured women as freedom fighters.

Ashonte took the time to read as much of the poetry as she could and didn’t realize that she hadn’t ordered for nearly an hour. Katy liked the lights made of recycled plastic jugs and a decorative tree with flowers made of repurposed soda bottles. A group of men sang songs in another room of the cafe and it music added to the fun and feel of the place, which distracted us from the time it took to get our food. (We are a huge group and they had a very small staff, we expected it.)

We helped make the place feel vibrant with our laughter, too. More of that is sure to flow today.

The atmosphere at Casa Abya Yala cultural cafe included murals focused on the women's role in revolution and the importance of literacy. Recycled bottles provided decoration as well.

The atmosphere at Casa Abya Yala cultural cafe included murals focused on the women’s role in revolution and the importance of literacy. Recycled bottles provided decoration as well.

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I don’t know why I am so taken with the sounds of this place. But waking up to the sounds of life being lived strikes me as so much better than an alarm clock.

This morning, a rooster near the hostel began to crow just after 5 a.m., as the sun began to sneak into the sky. Soon after I could hear people chattering, dishes clanking and what I assume to be the sounds of shops opening and people beginning their days. Just before 6:30 a.m., music and the sound of a voice in Spanish saying something about Matagalpa blared into our room. It sounded almost like a radio station promotion truck was driving down the road, but I don’t understand enough Spanish to know for sure. I was glad to be already awake. One of my roommates was startled awake but found a way to get back to sleep.

Katy and I will return to Casa Materna this morning to visit and exercise with the women staying there. I am the mother of an almost two-year-old and I am stunned at the idea of women who are 38-40 weeks pregnant walking up that hill. They know it could be time to meet their babies any minute. That walk was tough for us yesterday and most of us had no more than purses to carry. It is a testiment to the work they are used to, the physical demands of living in an economically impoverished country where everyone does what they have to.

When we get back, we will all travel to an organic coffee farm. We will meet the farmer, learn about the growing and roasting processes and, of course, try some. There’s more planned for the afternoon as well. It’s sure to be another incredible day.


Part of a mural on a wall at Casa Materna. We were all taken with the doctor holding the baby in front of the sun.

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