Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Taking The Leap

Before coming to Nicaragua, I had never officially lived in a city. I mean sure, I had spent the large majority of my life living in metropolitan areas AROUND various cities (i.e. the BURBS). It’s just that until I shook hands with my current landlords and handed over that first month’s rent, I had never been a TRUE urbanite.

These days, I live in the proverbial concrete jungle. The exhaust, the traffic, the incredible decibel levels, dirt, trash, smog, miles upon miles of broken glass and concrete……THESE are the components of my most recent environment, the place I am calling home. Put another way…….COMPLETE ISOLATION from the natural world. Don’t’ get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’ve chosen this present life, and it’s perfect for my current line of work. It’s just that it has taken a little…….well…..getting used to.

A bit of history: In 1991, for reasons I can’t seem to remember at the moment, I paid my FIRST dues to this new group (new to ME, that is) called The Sierra Club. And since a short time after, I seem to have been a tree-hugging/veggie-and-granola-eating/Birkenstock-wearing/hippie freak, to one degree or another (OK…at least on the INSIDE). To put it another way, I’m a BIG fan of the natural world…..yes, card-carrying ENVIRONMENTALIST…… and as one can imagine, the great state of Colorado, where I have called my home for the previous 11 years or so, has proven to be a spectacular place for someone such as myself to hug a tree or two (or at least ski amongst them). The majesty and intrinsic beauty of it all.....definitely food for the soul……and certainly a far cry from my CURRENT surroundings that tends to burn, kill, eat, or needlessly destroy anything that lives, breathes, moves, or grows in any form or fashion.

I think the first time I noticed “the void” was last year while making my way south through Costa Rica. I had just left Managua that morning and was traveling through the mountains en route to Panama. The bus stopped for a short break, and I got off to relieve myself of the morning’s excess of coffee. The only available facility was a small store/bathroom that was constructed quite literally into the side of the hill. And it was within this facility….um……mid-stream…..where I noticed the wall was the actual hillside. Soil……earth…..dirt……..TERRA FIRMA. There it was, in all its glory. It struck me as something so unusual, so foreign, so out of place…..and so…so….strangely wonderful. An odd moment……a ridiculous story, I know…..but profound nonetheless.

Since that time, I’ve experienced a number of such moments (don’t worry….all completely OUTSIDE the realm of restrooms and bodily functions) that have lead me to a very similar conclusion. The conclusion, that is, that it is absolutely necessary to get out of the city now and then. Whether it’s the beach (one hour to the East)….the mountains (one hour to the North)……a local volcano (take your pick….plenty to choose from)……or just a small pueblo outside of Managua…’s essential for the maintenance of inward health and wellbeing.

That being said, when my friend Lila suggested a trip to a nearby “refuge” for a bit of hiking and rappelling, I told her I was in.

“Just say the word, and I’m there!!!!!”

And after several weeks of ………“well, we WERE going to go, but this or that happened, or this or that person backed out”……… the big day finally arrived. I got up early on Sunday morning, did my usual routine, met Lila and the rest of the group, and got on the road by 8AM. By 10AM, we had passed through countless small towns and navigated more than a few curvy mountain roads in order to arrive at what was perhaps the most foreign site I had seen in quite some time.
“Ummmm…..excuse me, but does that sign really say “Eco-lodge” and “Nature-preserve”??????

Fortunately, that is exactly what it said, and within minutes we were admiring a beautiful view of the Masaya Volcano and lake (OK….so MAYBE the majority of the raw sewage from the town just MIGHT flow directly into the lake……but let’s just focus on the view for now) while standing next to a sign exhibiting the various species of birds indigenous to the area.

“Yeeeesssss………I do believe this is going to be a good day”.

Within a few MORE minutes, after getting more acquainted with the group, I realized that we were actually on an organized outing by something called RAPPEL TEAM. Hiking…...savoring the beauty of the natural world…….well, that may have been a bit of a stretch for the day’s agenda. In reality, we were there to do ONE THING and one thing only, to jump off a 200’ cliff. And the more I talked with the members of this newly discovered subculture, the more it became clear that they were certainly motivated by the “adrenaline aspect” of things.

“I’m a teacher during the week, but on the weekends I do anything I can find that’s DANGEROUS….anything that has the potential of killing me!!!!”

….note to self…..remember not to catch a ride home with THAT guy.

“Hey Jason……what’s the MOST EXTREME thing you’ve ever done????? Mine is skydiving. Woohooooooo!”

“You’re from Colorado? I heard that they have A reserve in Colorado that’s JUST FOR SKIING!!!”

“Yep….absolutely true,” I told him. “We do have ONE of those”.

After the big HIKE from the “eco-lodge” to the rappel site (all 1minute and 30 seconds of it……downhill), Team Rappel began setting up the ropes. Now, although I don’t consider myself a true expert in such matters, I’m also no stranger to the “sport” of rappelling. Between various recreational pursuits in the mountains, technical rescue team with the fire dept., and those pine trees in Steven Flynt’s backyard (cirque 1985), I’ve had a fair amount of experience with the world of ropes and knots. But as often crosses my mind, such things as SAFETY STANDARDS don’t always carry the exact same meaning in this part of the world.

“….better pay particularly close attention to the system they’re setting up”.

Well, after putting together a pretty good “anchor” and giving a VERY BRIEF instructional talk, they asked if I wanted to be the first to go. After all, I was the only person that brought any personal gear. Checking and rechecking harnesses, carabineers, knots, and other equipment using the buddy system? Not in this group. Safety line in case of emergency or catastrophic failure of the system? Nope…not today……they forgot that at home.

“So you’re asking me if I want t be the first one to TEST THE SYSTEM? Thanks but no thanks”, I said. “I trust you and all, buuuuuuuut NO”.

Fortunately, despite that fact that I would have certainly made a few minor adjustments here and there, everything turned out just fine (i.e. nobody plummeted to a premature death). I ended up going in the middle of the group, and really did enjoy the descent…….beautiful volcanic cliff and even BETTER view than the one from the lodge. Of course, upon reaching the bottom, I was quickly reminded of just WHERE I was by ONE…..the enormous amount of garbage (literal) on the rocks below, and TWO…..the two guys carrying assault rifles and machetes.

“Funny….I don’t remember THEM being in our group”.

“So what are you guys shooting today?”, I asked.

NO response.

“I’m hoping it’s not anything of the human variety….yea?”.

Vague smiles.

For the next hour or so, we waited at the bottom of the cliff for the rest of the group to make the descent. It was quiet and beautiful, and I even saw a bit of wildlife (large white owl that we startled from the cliff wall). We hung out watching the individual descents, all the while dodging rock fall from above (literally the most dangerous part of the day……..have you guys thought about investing in helmets? ) until it came time for the actual HIKE back, a 30 minute scramble up the adjacent hill……..lots of fun.

From there, we enjoyed an excellent lunch prepared by the folks at “the lodge” and ended up rolling out around 5PM. I arrived back in Managua an hour or so later, rested and refreshed for yet another week in my little “paradise by the lake”. As I always do after a mini-vacation from the city, I experienced a nice sense of rejuvenation, as if the soul had just done the old……

“And now that we’ve all found our happy place……inhale through the nose………..OK, hold it……and exhale through the mouth……….aaaaahhhhhhh.”

Also, as is often par for the course around here, the lack of stress accompanying my mini-vacation was relatively short-lived. That same night, one of the dogs from our house found herself on the wrong end of a speeding vehicle. In the end, all was well that ended well. But in the midst of it all, I learned that although I AM still technically a paramedic, I’m NOT much of veterinarian.

……..but that’s another story for another day.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Home Depot, Frogger, And A Change Of Scenery

So I drove around Colorado Springs, past the big box stores, the malls, the businesses, the roads, the other vehicles on the roads, etc. etc. etc. And I just kept being struck by the absolute ENORMITY of it all. I’ll give you an example. The average hardware store here in Managua is about the size of the rental desk at your local airport. In contrast, as I was driving around Colorado, I continued to notice..........uh….well…..there’s another one…….HOME DEPOT.
And SPEAKING of driving……..

I know I’ve written quite a bit about the culture of third world traffic over the last year, especially after my little run-in (literal) with the transit system last year. But at the risk of being redundant, I have to say that I was ONCE AGAIN struck by the culture of transit, this time from the other side.

As a pedestrian, I’ve found navigating the streets here in Managua to be quite similar to the game FROGGER (think Atari…1983). The pedestrians are EVERYWHERE and cross one lane at a time, pausing regularly to stand on the painted (at least there USED to be paint) lane markers as traffic whizzes by VERY close and often VERY fast. It’s as if these poorly painted lines are capable of offering some type of traffic-shield or oasis of safety, like the “safety zones” from one of those games you would play as a kid. Fortunately, I haven’t witnessed any auto-pedestrian accidents yet. But I always imagine the post-accident conversation as the reporting is officer takes the report.

Driver……I don’t know what she was thinking. She crossed right in front of me!

Pedestrian…..NO! NO! I was on the line! I was in the safety zone! YOUR FAULT….YOUR FAULT!!!

To me, it seems horribly dangerous and unpredictable. On the other hand, if done correctly, it seems to be relatively quick and painless. The streets are all very small, and one can generally be across in no time.

Because I spent most of the vacation at my brother’s house in Colorado Springs, I was able to WALK most of my local errands. Obviously, along with that, I found myself crossing the streets on a daily basis. As I mentioned, in Nicaragua it’s quick and painless. On the contrary, in Colorado each crossing seemed like an eternity. Seriously! After looking both ways like the good pedestrian I am, I would regularly start to cross the street, only to be struck by the fact that after what seemed like a SIGNIFICANT period of time and several city blocks, I WAS STILL CROSSING THE SAME STREET!!!!!!!. It was incredible! I got to the point that I was having to give myself the same little pep talk that I give myself at the base of especially long endeavors of the athletic variety (i.e. mountain climbing).

“Remember Jason……you’ve trained hard…’re ready….this is NOT a sprint……this IS a marathon…..ready?......OK let’s cross.”

Driving. Driving in the US is quite unique in its own way, but before I go in that direction, I’ll make one last reference to the culture down south. Remember that Frogger game? OK, now we’re in one of the cars. There are the pedestrians wandering about the lanes, the taxies and buses with their utter lack of predictability, the wooden carts pulled by either people or livestock, the disrepair of the roads and other vehicles making their way along the same path of travel, the lack of actual lanes, the trash, old tires, and debris (often times on fire) sprinkled about the roadway, etc. etc. etc. It’s really not that bad and something that I think I’ve grown relatively accustomed to, but it’s ANYTHING but relaxing. Not unlike the scenario I just described above, I often give myself that little pep talk upon mounting the motorcycle each day. After all, to turn on the motor and enter the race without first putting on the proper “game face”……well…..that’s just asking for trouble.

But as I reunited with my trusty sidekick in the US (1990 Subaru Legacy sedan……280K and still going strong……baby!!!!!) and took to the streets, I found myself confronted with a challenge of a slightly different variety. The streets…..the traffic…..the whole system……so LARGE… SMOOTH….so PREDICTABLE….ORGANIZED…….and so…….aaaaahhhhhh…….utterly relaxing.
You see, the problem I found in the US was the exact opposite of the problem I have here in Nicaragua. The problem I had in the US was literally staying AWAKE! I’m not kidding. I would get in the car to drive somewhere, only to find that within 10 or 15 minutes, I was struggling to keep my eyes open! Everything was so tranquil and mellow…..the radio….…..the purr of the 1990 4 cylinder technology……the sun shining through the windows……the ease of it all… utterly……utterly…..

…..whoa, sorry about that, I actually just nodded off thinking about it.

……..Utterly relaxing. It was like getting some kind of transit massage. I kept thinking that I was like one of those infants that get placed in the minivan by their parents and driven around the block until reaching a point of slumber. Struggling with insomnia? I had certainly found the cure. And I know….I know….there are a myriad of dangers associated with being lulled into a sense of complacency amidst making one’s way from point A to point B. But the difference between my two respective cultures was comically astounding…….such worlds apart.

But alas, as both pedestrian AND driver in my great homeland, I survived my six week vacation and lived to Blog another day from………well, THAT brings me to my next story. The initial plan was to head south for ONE year. I took the leave of absence from the fire dept, made a few changes (sold a house, began my personal “liquidation of assets”, etc. etc. etc.), and pledged to spend the next 12 months working a few things out of my proverbial system. Not terribly surprising though, as the 12 months unfolded, I found myself unable to shake the increasing desire to stick around a bit longer. How much longer? That’s yet to be determined. All I can say is that at this point, I’ve labeled myself as “here indefinitely”.

Soooo……to prepare for the “indefinite” life change, I spent the six weeks in Colorado taking care of all the associated logistics. There was the official resignation from LFR, the completion of the liquidation (with my 2 new best friends……Craigslist and Salvation Army), the many trips and phone calls to the various banks, insurance companies, tax man, etc. etc. etc. But it wasn’t ALL business. I had a great time staying with family (maybe a little TOO good….tough to leave), caught up with some friends, and even survived a few Colorado hikes despite my 12 month hiatus from any form of physical exercise. Oh, and besides that, I became a temporary jewelry salesman to benefit the project here in Nicaragua (not bad for my first time out…..if I do say so myself).

And that was that…….six weeks in the land of plenty before heading south once again. I won’t lie…..last year was challenging in many ways, and I was certainly in need of some rest by mid December. But after my little Christmas break, I returned rested and refreshed (both mentally and physically), ready to pick up where I left off.

Before leaving the US, I was at the point of experiencing only the occasional moment of shock from a cultural perspective. When I landed on the other side though, I realized that I was in for yet another adjustment. I had been away just long enough to return to things looking different, smelling different, and seeming different than they had just six weeks prior. At the same time though, there was a pleasant familiarity about it all. I was welcomed back warmly by my “community” down here, I still had a bed to sleep in (albeit a filthy one due to the continual influx of dust from the street outside), and the motorcycle started…….eventually. Yep, it felt good to be back. I mean sure the Spanish was a bit rusty, but the passing busses didn’t even seem as loud as last year (yes I know……potential hearing loss on my part….but I’m choosing to focus on the positive).

Around work, there has been a flurry of activity as the school year has started up again. NicaHOPE has added a variety of new projects, and my personal level of responsibility basically doubled overnight with the addition of a second feeding program. Things are busy but good. Outside of work, I’ve been meeting lots of new folks, getting to know the country more (i.e. traveling), and pledging on a weekly basis to paint and decorate the room (it may actually happen eventually). AND…..I am happy to report that contrary to last year, I have remained physically healthy since my return in 09. Ahhhhh…….life is good.

So we’ll see where things go. As I mentioned above, the plan is to stick around for a while, at the moment quite unsure as to where or to what that may eventually lead. In the meantime I’m simply attempting to focus on the here and now…….the present. After all, that’s all we really have……right?