The only thing I won’t miss about León are the mosquitos. We’ve just a few days left before leaving the city which has been our home for the last three months. León is in the north west of Nicaragua, some 20 kilometres from the beach and surrounded by volcanoes. It’s hot and vibrant, with a strong revolutionary past. After all the travelling around, it has been a pleasure to unpack the bags, have a front door to shut and get to know somewhere a little better.
These four quite special people have all gone out of their way to share with us what makes León special to them. It’s rubbed off. I’ll be sad to leave.
Shortly after turning up at the lovely Tortuga Booluda hostel, the manager, Eleanor, offered us a couple of rooms to rent in her house in central León. Eleanor’s inside out house is the modern equivalent of the original colonial design you can find all over León. There is a central garden, complete with hummingbirds in the bushes, ripening mangoes in the trees and sunbathing iguanas on the walls, which is surrounded by virtually wall free kitchen, dining and living rooms.
Londoner Eleanor has made León her home, choosing with thought and care how to live as a citizen and not as a long term tourist. She has introduced us to the best of León, from local greengrocers to air conditioned cinemas, from lunchtime dining rooms to swimming pools. Her lively black and white dog, Luna, has also given us the excuse to walk far and wide. My favourite walks have been the early morning and sunset trips to nearby Poneloya. Volcano San Cristobal has stood watch while Luna and the children jump in and out of the waves, and the fishermen bring in their catch.
Rigo is one of the most humble men I have ever met, although he could turn his hand to anything. He may be big, in stature and influence, but he pays attention to detail. Without fail, when we meet he shakes all five of us by the hand, gives us each an embrace and looks into our eyes as he asks how we are. Rigo’s family have lived in León for generations. While his siblings have moved away, Rigo’s love for Nicaragua always brings him back.
Rigo has shown us how beautiful and fragile the coastline is around León. To cries of “Bon voyage” and “Good luck turtles”, we released tiny 5 hour old sea turtles into the raging Pacific, as part of a project to increase their survival rate. The stats are pretty poor for sea turtles everywhere but here they are under threat before they even hatch because sea turtle eggs fetch a price good enough to feed your family. This project pays the families to protect the eggs so they don’t need to sell them.
We also spent a magical afternoon, knee deep in mud, planting mangrove seedlings with Rigo and some of his friends. The mangroves had been their playground when they were the age of our children. These days they encourage their neighbours to appreciate the value of these endangered mangroves instead of using them as a free source of firewood and building materials. I’ll leave Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh to tell you more about this in the next blog.
David runs the León Spanish School Nicaragua, which has become the cornerstone of our daily lives. The children have loved their morning Spanish lessons and have thrived on the routine after months on the road. They have learnt enough to have simple conversations, without fear of making a mistake, and seem genuinely excited about being able to speak another language.
Although David’s business card has him down as the director of the Spanish school, really he’s an ambassador for León’s rich culture and history. The Spanish school itself is housed in the Casa de la Cultura, which helps keep the cultural centre open for all sorts of community activities and as a gallery for some important pieces of political art. David’s knowledge, sense of humour and pride in Nicaragua encourages his students to look beyond volcano boarding and surfing, to what else makes León tick. Without David we wouldn’t have visited El Fortin, one of the dictatorship’s prisons for political prisoners, perched on a hill on the outskirts of León; Textil La Fe, a women’s textile co-op making gorgeous blankets with 80 year old looms; or Cucaracha’s, the best place for red bean soup in the city.
Alejandro runs our local greengrocers, which was first recommended for his ability to find the perfect papaya. We call in every day and eat something from Alejandro’s at almost every meal. But it’s not the fruit and veg which captures your attention.
Propped up on the top of the wooden shelves are Alejandro’s bright, Primitivist paintings. They are extraordinary, picking out the magic and beauty of León’s grid patterned streets or Nicaragua’s countryside. You may even find Alejandro painting in the middle of the tiny shop, putting down the brush to serve customers. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some twee organic fruit gallery aimed at art loving vegetarians. It’s a lucky coincidence that with considerable hard work the fruit and veg, just about, support Alejandro’s extended family, and if he’s lucky, Alejandro has a chance to paint.
Alejandro is just finishing a painting for us to bring home. Whichever wall it ends up on, it’ll remind us of the three months we called León home.