Somehow my week of student life seemed to disappear, even as the days seemed long.
Tim and I had a few (too many) mojitos the night before I was to begin class and he was to take off for his surf beach. At 2 for 1 for 50 cordobas ($2) mojito happy hour, how could this realistically not happen? (I know you can probably do the math on that, but that’s $1 for a mojito. How much did you pay for your last mojito? And they aren’t even made with bad rum. Nicaragua’s national rum, which then equals house rum, is the delicious and excellent Flor de Caña, of which I will most certainly be smuggling several bottles into Costa Rica [just in case they have some weird vendetta against Nicaraguan rum and you can’t get it there] and then also to Canada [provided I can get it at duty free in Brazil]. Tell me you aren’t looking at flights to Nicaragua right now…)
Anyways, there was an evening of rum and mint and lime, dancing to an excellent blues band at Big Wave Dave’s, meeting a handful of random middle-aged Canadians from Saskatchewan, and not nearly enough sleep before I woke up to begin my serious life as a student. I will tell you this now: 4 hours of intensive Spanish study hung-over is no fun. No fun at all.
My teacher was a heavy-set woman named Flor, who had one of the trademark voices of Latin American women. A voice that has, somehow, genetically evolved to be able to yell out “pan de coco” or “hay tortilla” consistently for hours on end without losing intensity or volume. If one’s profession doesn’t require it, it does not mean it doesn’t exist, it simply may most often be employed to get a friend’s attention or haggle with merchants in the market. I heard it in true form as Flor yelled after the agua de coco guy as he pushed his cart down the street. Booming is the wrong word, but it’s close.
She dove right in, and my mind felt like it was alternately contracting into a tiny ball, reminiscent of a ball of elastic bands, and then exploding as I tried to process, comprehend, and regurgitate all of the information being flung at me. I will do my best not to rant on about the difficulties of trying to learn a language, but I will tell you this: Flor has what she refers to as her Bible, which is a book, several hundred pages long, with the hateful title 501 Spanish Verbs. Unlike in English (but similar to French and Italian), the verbs themselves change in Spanish – what is known as conjugating verbs. In Spanish, there are six different subjects/ways to conjugate each verb. Latin America (vs. Spain) uses five of them (for me, you, he/her, our, their). Then there are 14 tenses that require different conjugations for all of these subjects. Math again? 501 verbs x 5 subjects x 14 tenses? Just over 35,000 verb conjugations in Flor’s hateful book. And that’s just the verbs. Of course, you start off learning one tense (present) and move on to the next (past) and in theory, on to the next. I didn’t get past past.
So, a day in my life this week? Wake up around 7 a.m. and make my presence known to my host family, who seem to take awhile to get breakfast going in the morning. Eat a standard meal – gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed together), eggs, a bit of bread, and coffee. Head to class, less than a 10-minute walk through town away, and arrive for an 8 a.m. start. Sit down with Flor and learn verbs, practice conjugations, write stories, etc. for two hours before a 10 a.m. break, during which I’d pop over to the café next door to alternately have a smoothie or simply lurk outside and steal wifi. Back to class, where it was conversation time. Two hours of struggling through basic Spanish conversation, asking as many questions as my battered mind could come up with, and trying to articulate answers to questions I was being asked. This was the hardest but most interesting part, as I got a little peak into Nicaraguan life. Flor and I chatted (and I use that term loosely) about our lives, Semana Santa, divorce, the environment, drugs, contraception, healthcare, kids, travel, gender roles, food … After class, I returned home for lunch (generally along the lines of gallo pinto, chicken, plantains) and spent a while just relaxing. I read a lot, watched a lot of movies, wrote a lot. Once the heat backed off a bit, I’d wander down to the beach and stroll up and down, waiting to catch the sunset. One afternoon I went to salsa lessons – great fun! Then it was dinner (gallo pinto – see a theme? – tacos or meat or eggs, salad), and the day was done. A couple of evenings I met up with some friends for a few drinks; my favourite bar being The Loose Moose Canadian Bar. This tiny, friendly bar has in stock everything a travelling Canadian may be craving. Namely: Caesars, poutine,* and sushi. I unfortunately broke down and gave into my cravings on Sunday, only to find out that they were closing that afternoon for the entirety of Semana Santa and I would get to eat neither sushi nor poutine for God knows how long to come. I know you’ll appreciate how shattering this was.
And that was San Juan del Sur. Oh, except for the earthquakes.
So, I’ve learnt that the capital city, Managua, is built at the intersection of five major fault lines. If that ain’t poor city planning, I’m not sure what is. And remember all of those volcanoes I was talking about? Yeah, there’s basically a line of them down the pacific side of Nicaragua. In not as many days, three major earthquakes, and dozens of aftershocks and small quakes, shook Nicaragua. Various scholars and experts fear that this seismic activity could awaken (a) Momotombo Volcano, close to Managua and/or (b) the chain of volcanoes throughout Nicaragua. Obviously, both of these scenarios are incredibly frightening. One of the quakes struck near Rivas, which is only about 30 minutes from San Juan, and the majority of San Juan felt the tremor.
It felt as though the bed I was sitting on had turned into a washing machine and I literally looked around for some kind of huge appliance that could be making it happen. I’d never felt such a thing before. I caught the eye of my host mother through my open bedroom window, and her look of reserved fear made it click for me: earthquake. I shot up and left the room. The rest of the family was congregating in the front drive, but I followed the young girl in the pink shirt who, with a look of terror on her face, had darted back inside. I found her cowering in the doorway of a closet, crying. I stood there with her for a moment, to be sure the tremor had stopped, and then walked her outside to join the rest of the family. “My first time.” I told them, and they looked surprised. I took a moment to be thankful that where I grew up in Canada, though perhaps lacking the dramatic skyline of volcano-rich countries, had little to be worried about in the sense of natural disasters. Tornadoes (which is met with a resounding “Cool!” when mentioned abroad) is about as bad as it gets. And, at home, they are small and tend to cause little damage and less loss of life. The country and the people of Nicaragua are on high alert as they wait for any further activity.
And pretty much with that, it was time to leave San Juan del Sur.
* For my Canadian friends, I don’t have to ask – I know you appreciate the glory of poutine. For everyone who is wondering what the hell I am talking about, poutine is basically the only food, aside from maple syrup, that Canada can claim as its own. Basically, poutine is an outstanding invention from the French Canadians that consists of French fries (chips), covered in a special type of cheese called cheese curds (entirely delicious despite the weird-sounding name) and then smothered with gravy. No! I know what you’re going to say – “Yeah, we have that too, it’s called chips, cheese and gravy.” – You’re wrong. Describing poutine as chips, cheese, and gravy is akin to describing pizza as dough, sauce, and cheese. Technically, yes, those are the ingredients, but it somehow manages to become much, much more than the sum of those products. So unless you’ve had proper poutine, with cheese curds, in Canada, you will simply not understand.