In our final days of Costa Rica, we parted the comforts of the Nislys to embark on a route near Volcán Arenal. The small, yet active volcano has become a symbol for local businesses and hotels, which attract loads of tourists looking to soak in impressive vistas of the big green cone through adventure hiking or ziplining. We caught a slice of Arenal luxury when we bathed in a thermal stream at the base of the volcano. The hidden location, a recommendation of the Nislys, provided fantastic free relaxation without the exorbidant prices demanded by the numerous local spa-resorts. Arenal also has an artificial lake at which we arrived toward the end of one day. Here, we had no idea where we would sleep. While Michael and Abe struggled to secure a tent location with the dam guard, Levi struck up a conversation with the boat owners down by the dock. Soon enough, a young, party-boat captain named Alejandro extended the invitation to sleep on his boat for the night.
In the morning as the sunrise sparkled over the lake, we each swam in the cool water, then let the warm light dry our bodies while eating juicy pineapple and drinking fresh-brewed Costa Rican coffee. Needless to say, we left refreshed, looking onward to the flat Nicaraguan borderlands 150 km away.
The new country greeted us with distinct themes. The currency is in córdobas (25 córdobas=1 USD), the tortillas are handmade, and the dialect is difficult to understand because the “s” is dropped and the locals use a grammatical form “vos” that we had not heard since southern Bolivia. For sure, we began enjoying the lower prices too, and rejoiced again upon the return of street vendors and markets selling tasty, inexpensive snacks. After coasting along the windswept banks of Lake Nicaragua, we passed through the towns of Rivas and Tola, all the while perceiving the new flavor the land and people, dense with heritage, activities, processions, and rich vocabulary.
We arrived after dark to Playa Gigante, or Giant Beach, at the house of a Warm Showers host named John Eames, who we regrettably never met because he and his girlfriend were having their baby in Managua at the time. The beach is fairly touristy–enough to affect the flavor of the town and delay our discovery of the true Nicaraguan heartland, yet people are brought there for good reason; the long, sprawling white sand and rocky outcroppings are an eye feast. Furthermore, the seabed and ocean currents produce world-class surfing conditions. Thankfully, we had a New Jersey coastal native, Paul, explaining to us these maritime subtleties. Arguably a more hardcore dude than any one of us, Paul was another bike tourist staying a couple of days with the Warm Showers host while he made his way from Alaska to Argentina. After a day of tumbling in vicious 10-foot waves, Paul camly told us stories about surfing, about marine biology adventures, and about his own trip. It is great to intersect lives with others who are living out the same kind of biking experience we are, yet who bring to the table an entirely new life background and knowledge set.
After spending one day at the beach, Levi biked 120 km onward to La Concepción, where he had a clinical internship. Abe and Michael decided to take an extra day at Playa Gigante to give surfing the old “college try.” Despite many failed attempts to actually stand up on the board, it was fun being out in the surf enjoying the sun and company of other, much more advanced surfers. About halfway through the morning, Abe scored his second poorly-timed wild animal experience. He was wading out to catch bigger waves when suddenly a sharp prick on the foot caused him to vigorously kick the water in an effort to remove what he thought was a crab. Limping to the shore, Abe looked down and saw blood streaming from a stinging wound. Paul made it quickly to shore and easily diagnosed the wound as a sting ray prick. Thankfully the treatment was simple and after soaking his foot in hot water to kill off the numbing enzymes, Abe was back in the waves for an afternoon of surf.
With time to bum around, Abe and Michael decided to check out Ometepe Island, the biggest landmass floating in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Home to twin volcanoes Concepción and Maderas, ancient petroglyphs and mineral pools, Ometepe Island is a worthy detour. On our boat ride from the mainland a young woman heard that we were looking for a place to lay our sleeping bags and said she had just the spot in mind. We followed the woman, with her young sister in hand, down a small road that turned to dirt at the outskirts of the city of Moyagalpa. She said that the government had given them this land, and so she felt it was fitting that she would offer hospitality to others. Her mother, standing by the firewood stove of the small house, greeted us as we bent our heads to fit into the Isleña-sized doorframe. We soon were sharing a meal of rice, beans, a small salad and corn tortillas. President Daniel Ortega’s government had indeed given them this land to build on, and they had erected a wood frame and tin roof in the year they had lived there. Kids and grandkids came in and out during the meal on plastic chairs on the dirt floor, and she explained how difficult it was to support everybody. She worked recycling plastic bottles, but the government hadn’t paid her salary of $80/month for 3 months. Later that night we talked to the father, who had a drinking problem and clearly placed the work of raising and supporting the family in her hands. To be shown hospitality by this family, sharing what little they had with us strangers, was heartwrenching. These experiences fill us with a personal responsibility to reciprocate that love and a social responsibility to work for justice among families and between those who have food and housing and those who don’t.
Having heard there was a Mennonite church somewhere near Volcán Maderas on Ometepe Island, we started a word-of-mouth search. Arriving in the small town of Mérida, we followed the faint sound of four-part hymn singing down a bumpy dirt road and arrived at the doorsteps of a white clapboard building. Why aren’t more Mennonites churches on nicely paved roads in the centers of cities? We tied up our bikes, straighted our collars and before we even stepped into the building pastor Jimmy Ramírez saw us, walked outside and gave a warm bienvenida. We felt very welcome joining the small congregation for a few hymns and the Sunday school portion of their service. Started nine years ago as a mission of the Costa Rican La Estrella congregation in San Carlos, now congregants are mostly from the island itself, and one man told Michael he was attracted to the Mennonites for their practical, everyday faith. Pastor Jimmy and his wife Anita met and married in Costa Rica, where Beachy Amish missionaries had started a Mennonite community. Her parents moved to Costa Rica from the Kleine Gemeinde community in Belize and Jimmy’s family is native Tico (Costa Rican). Now doing mission work in Nicaragua, their family really represented the multifaceted, diverse story of Anabaptist groups in Latin America. It felt a bit like we had returned to John Roth’s Anabaptist-Mennonite History class in Paraguay, and indeed the Ramírezes knew members of the Luz y Esperanza Beachy Amish community we had visited there. Chatting on their front porch over bowls of caramel popcorn and later playing Rook felt just like we had joined the family.
After seeing a few of the stone petroglyphs and soaking in a cold volcanic pool on the island, we returned to mainland Nicaragua and spent the night in the fire station in Rivas. Michael realized that he instinctively judges cities on two main points: how many people are on pedal-powered vehicles on the streets, and how cheap, local and fresh the food is. Rivas had flying colors on both points, as biking in the city meant joining in a mass of bicycles and bike taxis on sometimes separated trails by the main roads. And boy, the market was bursting with bananas, oranges, papayas and hot corn tortillas pressed by the hands of an older woman who has been making them for years.
We were heading straight into the area of the country in which Goshen College’s Study-Service Term is focused. And so we couldn’t help but stop by Jinotepe, where the study portion is focused, to buy some fruit at the market. In nearby Dolores we visited the past host family of our friend Andrew Glick. His little brother Gabriel was sure eager to have someone else to play with firecrackers in the street, and his dad, Marvin, invited us to attend their church’s youth group meeting. The next day we headed up to the small town of La Concepción, where Michael’s sister Renee had spent the service portion of SST. Her old host family hosted Levi in his internship and welcomed Michael and Abe right in. We decided to stay for Christmas.