Casa Jardin(2)

Casa Jardin was beautiful but…..

Unfortunately it was more garden than house;wonderful if the many species of winged insects kept to themselves but they didn’t and we were eaten alive for two full days. The garden was full of flies; huge numbers of tiny biting insects and we’re talking plague proportions here.Biblical stuff!

Angry red bites appeared all over our bodies, sore itchy lumps that worsened with heat and sweat. We were especially worried about Darragh whose skin reacted badly to the bites, breaking out in allergic-like swellings.

It worried us like hell and sent us scurrying to the Web. Trawling sites like the US Centre for Disease Control and studying all the maps of Malaria, Dengue and Zika . We had passed through lots of Zika-infected countries without any reaction so while the disease has terrible effects, we had already faced those fears.But Malaria or Dengue terrified us.

We fought back ,covering up at dusk and dawn and spraying ourselves head to foot  but it wasn’t working.So we went to La Colonia supermarket and bought every conceivable type of insect repellent. Lavender coils, perfumed candles, heavy duty jungle formula,natural products containing citronella, No Pickex soaps. You name it we bought it, but still the critters got us.

Casa Jardin was more like camping than indoor living and there were more than the mosquitoes and midges to cope with.

The owner had left a hand-written manual about the house which catalogued the different birds, butterflies and bats we would encounter. In artistic cursive script she left cheery advice like

‘The toads are our friends!’ and ‘I hope the bat droppings don’t bother you. Be kind to the bats , remember they eat mosquitoes.  If you don’t like them in your bedroom, keep the doors closed during the day.’

It was so incredibly hot too. Thirty eight degrees by day, cooling to a grill-like thirty one degrees by night. There was no airconditioning   but each bedroom had a big helicopter-like fan that moved the hot air around. Deafening but it gave some relief.

On our second night , I heard a thud and a small leathery creature landed onto my chest. I swiped it off with a scream and jumped up, fumbling panic stricken for the light.
‘What is it ? What is it ?’Nan howled hysterically and when I told her a bat landed on me that was the final straw for Casa Jardin. We had to get out.

In retrospect, I wondered what kind of a bat would crash into a moving propellor above my bed so asked our resident bat expert , Darragh. Our young chiropterologist, so knowledgeable after his tour of the bat jungle in Costa Rica, pointed out that there were three types of bats in Nicaragua. White bats,  wrinkled faced bats and common vampire bats. But none dumb enough to fly into a fan, he added nonchalantly.

Ok so maybe it was a gecko! Who knows but between the bites and the falling wildlife, we were out of there.
We pleaded our case to the estate agents and showed them our bites. They explained that there was probably an infestation of chayules or midges which come from the lake. Non-malaria and non-dengue carrying they assured us.

They offered to fumigate the house but we had enough of our garden home so they decently changed our lease, moving us to Apartamentos Sofia, half a block  from Iglesia La Mereced and far from the lake and chayules.

Our  Nicaraguan Living experience was over before it had even begun.

Casa Jardin (1)

 We had paid in advance online for a month in Casa Jardin and now that we were in Granada, it didn’t seem like one of our brightest ideas. What if we hated it? A month can be a very long time.
 We signed contracts with Vanessa in the office and moved outside where she hailed a battered old taxi to bring us to our house. There was already one passenger in the cab, an old lady with shopping bags who shuffled along the seat to let us in. Taxis are shared in Nicaragua so regularly stop and pick up random passengers enroute; this little old lady looked safe so we didn’t mind the company.

We parked directly across from Guadalupe Church, an incredibly striking building near Lago Nicaragua. While the worn, unpainted facade was really beautiful and rustic, it created an eerie melancholic ambience in the evening light. ‘Quite the perfect setting for a horror movie’ I thought, so we were a little unsettled as we stepped up the concrete stoop to the house.

It looked nothing special from outside but that was to be expected , it is inside that Nicaraguan homes are so wonderful. First, we opened the metal grill, common to all Nica houses, then the big old doors and stepped into the dark salon. The moment of truth!
We hit the lights and took in the surroundings; it was stunning,everything we had dreamed of. A huge living room with a soaring ceiling and thick white adobe walls decorated with tasteful art work. Propped on an artist’s easel in the corner was a huge jungle painting of colourful vines and threadlike tendrils. Other brightly coloured works hung on the wall, all capturing the same humid tropical beauty.
 In the centre of the spacious salon was a small table surrounded by wood and wicker rocking chairs. Just like La Doña’s house.
‘ Wait till you see outside’ said Vanessa as she grappled with keys and opened two huge doors leading to a central garden. Left of the garden patio was a kitchen stove and sink ,while on the right were a hammock, sofa bed and another set of rocking chairs . A half roof extended out from the salon creating these cool, shaded living spaces.
‘Nicaraguan kitchens are half-in half-out, you can cook and clean and still enjoy the birds and butterflies ‘ Vanessa chirped ‘ the bedrooms are down at the end of the garden’
She directed us down past luscious vegetation, exotic palms and fruit trees to an outhouse which she opened with another set of keys. The ensuite bedroom inside was beautiful but contained only one bed. ‘Where does Darragh sleep ?’ we wondered, hoping it wasn’t the outside sofa bed. 

‘There’s another room but it’s a bit hidden’she laughed. The other outhouse was behind tall palms at the end of the garden.Vanessa unlocked it with yet another key revealing an ensuite-bedroom even more beautiful than the first. Darragh loved it but we, his over-protective parents thought it was awfully far away.
All in all, we gave the place the thumbs up and were delighted that all the rent from the house would go to local charities for clean water and educational development.
Outside a cacophonous brass band seemed to get nearer and nearer. We scrambled to the front door to check it out and saw a statue being carried high along the street followed by a brass band blaring mournful and sombre sounds.
‘Semana Santa’ Vanessa explained. Guadeloupe is the centre of the carnival. You’ll have a perfect view of the parades and festival right from your doorstep. Semana Santa is a huge deal in Nicaragua’
‘ Let me know if you have any problems’ she shouted over the din,handing us two sets of keys. I was too distracted by a huge man sweating profusely in a tuba to pay proper attention to Vanessa’s goodbye.

Little did we realise that our problems were about to begin.

Don William

I was a bit taken aback by my welcome in the Nicaraguan estate agency. ‘Welcome to Granada, Don Will-i-am’ a friendly lady greeted. It wasn’t the “William”that got me; I’ve been William not Billy since Ushuaia last December. Billy is too much trouble here, too unusual in Latin America, difficult to pronounce and spell but ‘Will-i-am’ pronounced like the Brazilian Chelsea footballer is much simpler.

Yes, now when asked, I offer William as my name but in Ireland only strangers call me by my full moniker. It’s the name on all my official documents so only agents of the state and banks use it and of course occasional junk mail from the Archbishop of Durban and Time Magazine.
But’Don William’ was a new departure. I was never called Don on my previous trip to Nicaragua but sometime over those seventeen years, I must have stepped across a magical line , moving from one age category to the next and became a Don.

Don or Doña is used respectfully here to address …ahem ..older generations. And yes , you’ve guessed it, everywhere I go here in Nicaragua I am Don William.
Even,when I queue for coffee and reply William to the girl who wants to write my name on a paper cup, she loudly calls out Don William when it’s ready. The cashier in Lá Colonia supermarket looks me in the eye and says “Gracias Don William” when he hands back my credit card.
It’s the same every time we go for burritos and ok , I admit, I’m getting used to it. Dare I say, I even like my new title.

But, yesterday in Taco Stop, I sent Darragh to order. I can only handle so many Dons a day.
Darragh has worse difficulties here with his name than I had with Billy,so I laughed when the guy behind the counter asked for his name. No problem this time for Darragh.
‘Juan ‘ he replied.


On our last night in Costa Rica, we had met Wayne, a bubbly, heavily-tattooed motorbike enthusiast from Idaho.
‘I had to get out of Idaho man! It gets to 18 below; when you throw a cup of coffee outside in the air,it freezes before it hits the ground. The heat here is great!’

Wayne had told us his life story, how he had built up a successful metal fabrication business but stepped back from it when he hit 5o,handing over the running of the business to his daughter while he travelled Central America.

‘My friends told me I was mad and that I’d be kidnapped down here,’he laughed.’But me, I’m having the time of my life, I’ve met so many good people. I have friends all over the world now! I can go wherever I want,’ he enthused in his extraordinarily high-pitched voice.(Darragh claimed he must have been on helium)

‘I just gotta be back for my granddaughter’s birthday. I promised her; she’s five, I got her a little chopper just like my one, otherwise I’d keep going and going. Travelling is great’

Standing a day later in blistering heat , twenty miles outside Granada, I thought of  Wayne and the fire in his belly. I no longer  shared his enthusiasm.

Our flame was fairly low now, a mere flicker. We were tired of travel and would go home to Ireland now, given a choice. Darragh especially was on a count-down. He wanted to see his cousins and friends, play football and jump off the pier in Caorán Mór, no matter how cold the water would be ( we’ll wait and see if he does it)

Having our own colonial home in Granada for a month gave us something to look forward to,but discovering that it was still 20 miles away was a kick in the stomach. We dropped to the ground exhausted.

It was impossible to walk in this heat with heavy bags, so we found shade, factored up with sun cream and waited. Hopefully a taxi or bus would pass soon.

Waiting, we played ” Top 5″. Best countries we visited,meals, sights, hotels, beaches until we spotted a little van approaching.

Three of us flagged it down and the young lad ,hanging from the side ,said it would bring us to Granada.

‘Where have we heard that before?’I  thought.

The only seats were right at the back of the mini-van but we couldn’t get back there with our bags,so the passengers at the front took them from us and we squeezed down to the rear.

The van passed the hulking Mombacho volcano overlooking Granada while we spoke about our rented home,  Casa Jardin. The website painted a beautiful picture of this artist’s residence across from the lovely and historic Guadalupe Church. It promised a cosy place with plenty of natural light and all the character and colour of traditional Nicaraguan living.

It sounded just like La Doña’s house where we stayed so comfortably seventeen years ago, hopefully we would be just as happy  in Casa Jardin ,our very own Nicaraguan home.

Soon we could see the three searing domes of Granada cathedral and drove the warren of streets to the central market terminal.

Nicaraguan addresses use local landmarks not street names. Our house key could be collected from an agency two blocks north and a block east of the Cathedral,so we made our way there through the bustling open market, past the peddler stalls to the Central Park.

The park was book-cover perfect with trees and food stalls and lines of painted carriages waiting to ferry tourists about.  But, there were lots of beggars, arms outstretched looking for ‘one dollar, one dollar’ Little boys came up to us with banana leaf flowers and rehearsed English phrases ‘ It’s a gift.Free for you’. Bizarrely, one was wearing a Kerry GAA jersey.

We smiled but continued to the cavernous colonial cathedral, originally built in the 16th century but sacked and destroyed  many times by maurading pirates ; firstly by Captain Morgan and years later by Dampier.It’s brightly painted yellow facade and red-tiled roofs create both a beautiful backdrop and convenient reference point.

We walked up the cobbled pedestrian streets past Casa Tres Mundos where La Doña had sent us to see the Sandinista folk singer; one of many buildings burned to the ground by the American filibuster William Walker, declared president of Nicaragua in 1856.

We paused to read a plaque outside Tres Mundos ‘what a pity it is to be blind in Granada.’ Poet Francisco A De Icaza’s tribute to the Alhambra and Granada’s Spanish namesake.

The city’s magnificent old buildings, its poetry and pace were bringing  back wonderful memories, opening our eyes and rekindling our faded enthusiasm.

Perhaps, there was a little bit of Bubbly Wayne’s fire in the belly left in us yet.


Nicaraguans are friendly, interesting people who once you get to know them are happy to share their life stories with you. They have incredible back stories, having lived through terrible times caught up in war, political unrest and economic hardship.

Victor works as the caretaker in our apartment, a job he is happy to have. He is particularly proud of his uniform, a crisp clean polo shirt with company crest.  ‘Better than my first uniform ‘he says.

Victor and I get on well. He wants to learn English so I teach him a few words while having long conversations each day when we talk about our lives.We have somethings in common; same age, same size family but our lives have been so different.

In 1987 while I trained to be a teacher , he was conscripted into the army.  He told me that both he and his brother were stopped on the street in Granada one day and told to report for duty the following day.

They were sent to Managua to train and given Soviet uniforms

‘Russians are tall but here in Nicaragua, we’re small. Nothing fitted. The boots were three sizes too big and the pants came up to my chest. I had to roll it up around my stomach and again down at the ankles’

They were soon sent to the swamps, savannahs and rain forests of the Mosquito Coast on Nicaraguan’s Atlantic shore to fight for the Sandinistas. In  the  jungle, in torrential rain and mud they fought the Contras who wanted to overthrow the Sandanista Communists by waging war from bases just inside the Honduran border.

They fought too against the inhabitants of the Mosquito Coast who wanted independence for that part of Nicaragua which is so entirely different to the rest of the country. Most inhabitants are of African or indigenous racial stock, speak English, are Protestant and have strong links with the United  States. No paved road has ever connected them with Managua and they have a  deep distrust of ‘the Spanish’ as they called the majority of Nicaraguans

Victor and his brother Fernando were given new camoflauge uniforms, Russian AK 47s and grenades and canned sardines from the Soviet States

Across the border, the Contras were funded,trained and armed by Ronald Reagan, the US Congress and the CIA.

Victor’s unit made their own liquor, leaving maize to ferment in the sun for weeks.

‘It smelled really bad but it got us drunk. There was a lot of drink and drugs’ Victor told me

There were a lot of mines too and one day Fernando stepped on one. His left leg was badly damaged but a helicopter couldn’t come for him so they  put him on a mule and brought him to the nearest medical care.

It was too late for his leg which became infected on the mule trip and was amputated from the knee down.

Victor survived the war and emerged unscathed but with  an addiction to alcohol and drugs.

He  first worked in construction and later trained to weave rocking chairs but alcohol soon took over his life. He neglected his wife and two young children to party at the cantinas on the Granada lake shore.
By the time,we first visited Granada in 1999, Victor was living on the street,sleeping on cardboard  and sifting through rubbish bins for food.

He lived like this for twelve years until one day we went to a soup kitchen run by an American religious charity. There he was told to write a letter to Jesus outlining what he wanted  his future to be like.

Victor left school after 6 years but could read and write. He didn’t want to write any letter he only wanted the soup but to get the missionaries off his back he wrote it.

Somehow, the process worked for him and it was his redemption . With the society’s help he quit alcohol and drugs and got his life back together.

He started a new relationship, has an infant son and got a job .He loves his baby blue polo shirt with company logo and is grateful for the second chance.

I’m glad to have met him , he’s taught me a lot

El Último, our final Latin American bus trip.

We had no luck boarding the packed bus at the Nicaraguan Border. Youngsters yelling out destinations ignored our pleas for a ticket, our taxi drivers scared them off, we were ‘taxi customers’ they warned.

We walked away, to busy kiosks selling soft drinks and phone cards. It was early  morning and there was no rush, we would sit back , have a drink and bide our time.

The touts were disgusted.

‘ It is too dangerous here, we can take you to Granada now’ they badgered.

‘It’s ok, there is no rush.’ I returned. Thankfully, they withdrew, watching us from a distance.

Near the kiosks, ladies shouted ‘ fresco, fresco’ and waved bags of brown liquid. Icy milky-watery drinks of grains ,seeds and sweet seasoning.  

‘Grama ? Tamarindo? Cebada? One lady called out. ‘Only five cordobas! Delicious!’

Our stomachs couldn’t cope  so we opted for gaseosos at a kiosk where they emptied bottles of soft drinks into clear plastic bags, popping pink straws through the top .

I asked the sellers about buses to Granada but no one knew anthing. They pointed to the back where buses waited before moving up one at a time to load up. I walked down to the parking lot and was shown a bus that would leave soon and bring us to Granada.

When this bus was ready to take passengers,we were still unsure whether it would take us to Granada or not.Our taxi touts repeated that bus staff were robbers and wouldn’t bring us. But boy yellers ,leaning out of the bus, chanting ‘Managua! Managua!’promised the bus would bring us directly to Granada. Fellow passengers confirmed their promise.

The heat aboard was intense and the music loud. 80’s ballads again. Supertramp’s ‘Breakfast in America’  It was chaotic with more and more passengers pouring on. Refresco ladies and food-sellers walked up and down the aisle shouting for sales. Mobile phone sellers flogged Nicarguan phone chips, disassembling phones up and down the aisle, inserting new cards.

The scene was crazy. So crazy, we laughed aloud. Then it got even more bizarre.

A frowning  border guard marched on ,holding up a counterfeit 100 dollar bill, looking for the person who had spent it.  No one was owning up and he walked up and down the aisle trying to identify a face. He stopped right behind us, asking two guys for documentation. They didn’t have passports but showed letters and spoke with heavily accented Spanish. I couldn’t figure out where they were from. 

The guard wanted reimbursement of the 100 dollars and soon an argument broke out . There were  lots of denials and shaking of heads but the guard was having none of it.  The lads emptied their pockets but were still short. They sent the guard to friends sitting up front who then sent him back down to another sitting  at the back. He was losing patience and becoming irritable,soon all the gang  were standing up shouting at each other and random passengers were egging them on and laughing. Thankfully, they finally cobbled enough cash together to get the guard off their backs and he left.

It was pure theatre and passengers were enjoying the spectacle despite the half hour delay. The departure time didn’t seem to matter to anyone. The bus would leave only when it was absolutely full to the brim.

When  it did pull off,  the passengers, in good spirits after the pre-trip entertainment, slid open all the windows creating a warm hair drier-in-your face current, numbing our faces and dulling our hearing. The bus was packed to capacity , the aisle full of luggage, we were wedged in.

For a couple of hours, we crawled up the isthmus marvelling at the streetscape outside. Passing  yellow American school buses,overloaded scooters and bicycles.Familes of four balanced precariously on some bikes while other cyclists carried gas canisters and other unwieldy goods.A van loaded with bamboo whizzed by, then another packed with passengers and a pig.

All the time, a yelling youth leaned out the door soliciting pedestrians to hop on and join us to Managua.

My first impression was just how poor yet beautiful the country was. We passed Lago Nicaragua with twin volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. Stunning scenery but between the bus and the lake was a dry,brown landscape strewn with rubbish  and dotted with power-generating windmills. Some broken and neglected on the ground.

We travelled like this for a few hours until one of the passengers shouted at me

‘Are you going to  Granada? you’ve just passed it.’

 I was confused, I’d been keeping an eye out and hadn’t seen the city

Another passenger suggested that Granada was still a bit away. Another debate broke out with many passengers saying we had passed Granada, calling for the bus to stop. One of the boy yellers appeared ,stepping over aisle luggage and told us we were OK , he would advise us when we were in Granada.

After twenty minutes, he shouted down to us and the bus stopped,leaving us out on the roadside. The boy pointed to a bend near the back  of the bus, declaring Granada around the corner.

‘Well Darragh’ I said , ‘we’re here. You’re finished with buses.’

He was delighted.

We hoisted up our bags and took the last few fateful steps round the bend in searing heat.  

There a hill  stretched out to the horizon.

We struggled, up in 35 degree heat, till  we stopped a passerby.

‘Is Granada this way?’

‘Yes my friend, it is?’

‘How far more ?’

‘Far !’he replied sympathetically, ‘about 20 miles’


At Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica’s northern frontier, we got off the bus into a melee of coyotes or money-changers with eager eyes and pleading voices,waving wads of currency in our faces. They jostled with yellow t-shirted women, selling emigration forms and demanding exit fees, and with young children who wanted to be our guides and lead us across the border. 
We ignored them all. Competing cumbian beats from car radios was our soundtrack, as we made our way through the discord to Costa Rican emigration. Like pied pipers, children followed, pleading to guide us.

At the counter, a bored border guard directed us to an automated machine to pay the exit tax. We queued while a young girl outside rapped at the window, miming actions to use the machine. We didn’t need advice, we had our own digital native Darragh who stepped up, navigated all the screen options, scanned our passports and paid the fees.
In baking heat, bags on back, we strolled across no-man’s land to Nicaguara. For years, the country and its people have had a special place in our hearts. So much so, that Nicaragua was my computer password for many years.( I’ll have to change now that I’ve told you all)
Memory and imagination can build us up, only to tear us down. Perhaps our memories had romanticised and idealised the country. Would it disappoint?
The change was immediate, it looked much poorer and dirtier than Cosa Rica as we squeezed past squads of soldiers in lines. The soldiers directed us to the right  along a broken path to a lone lady in a timber shelter who asked our nationality, scribbled ‘three persons’ on a scrap of paper and send us off.
We wondered whether that was it, but there more formalities and dollars to be handed over. A city hall fee of one dollar plus entrance fees of ten dollars each. All smoothly conducted in a modern building before we emerged,blinking into glaring sunlight, coyotes, child guides , taxis and touts.

The taxi drivers were especially persistent, listing out Nicaraguan destinations and fares. We told them nothing but our eyes must have flickered when they mentioned Granada. They knew where we wanted to go.

“There are no buses to Granada. I’ll bring you by taxi. Much safer than the collectivos” gushed one wanna-be driver in a New York baseball cap. A gold chain round his neck sparkled in the sun, catching my attention.

He thought he had me so continued in a concerned, caring tone.
“Friend! Think of your child, the collectivos are dangerous.”
The prospect of travelling for two hours alone with one of these sharks struck me as much more dangerous than collectivos or chicken buses,so I told him we would catch a bus.
But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and stayed with us as we moved down the street, searching for the terminal.

I was struck by the smell of diesel fumes and the waft of open sewers, by the disorder and the poverty.
We soon spotted crowds heaving onto a wretched old bus. The bus was already thronged,a mountain of bags, baskets and plastic chairs tied to the roof.
“Oh God! Do we have to go on that!” Darragh gasped.
Our Nicaraguan adventure was about to begin!