Liv and I volunteered at a language school in Nicaragua (I am not going to write about the 18-hour bus ride through El Salvador and Honduras, nor am I going to write about Leon and Granada, because they were rubbish). The language school was called La Mariposa – hereafter LM, because I don’t want to accidentally SEO my article and have the founders reading this blog and messaging me with beef.
I heard of LM from a backpacker several weeks ago, and on arriving in Granada (again: shite) Liv and I booked a week at the Spanish school. One week of tuition is something like $320, but if you volunteer for several hours each day the price drops to $200. There were no dorms available, which mean for our seven-day course we’d be based in a homestay, with the price further lowered to $180 each. Swell.
We took a couple of buses out of Granada, and it was very unpleasant. Nicaragua’s buses, named chicken buses by expats for their cramped, chaotic nature, are retired school buses donated by the USA. According to one backpacker I met, the US owes billions to various Central American countries for reparations for all their meddling and murders over the years, and for some reason they are paying this debt off in the form of crumbly school buses.
There is no upper limit on capacity onboard a chicken bus. You climb aboard via the backdoor, shove your bag under a seat, and cram yourself in – knees straining against the back of the seat in front, proportions designed for 11-year-old children. And then the other seats fill up and you think ‘ah, the bus is full now, we will be off soon’, but you are wrong: the chicken bus is never full. People continue to get on for the next 30 minutes, standing in the aisle, shuffling down, lugging suitcases and handbags and random household equipment. And not only people who need to ride the bus! People hoist themselves aboard armed with sweets and crisps, with bushels of carrots, coriander and garlic, with plastic bags filled with fizzy pop*.
*When you buy a bottle of Coke or Fanta from a street vendor here, they take the glass bottle and decant it into a transparent plastic sandwich bag, which they then poke a straw in and tie at the top. They do this so they can return the glass bottles to get a deposit back. This means you’re left sipping from a little fairground-goldfish blob of liquid in your palm.
The food vendors squeeze their way down the heaving bus, arms and arses everywhere, yelling out whatever they’re selling. But they don’t just say it once – oh goodness no. They shriek it, at ear piercing volumes, again and again until for the length of time it takes them to traverse the entire bus.
“PLATANO PLATANO PLATANOOOOOOOOOOOO! PLATANO PLATANO PLATANOOOOOOOOOOOO! PLATANO PLATANO PLATANOOOOOOOOOOOO! PLATANO PLATANO PLATA-”
So that’s rough.
And then you have the ticket guy at the back of the bus, who yells down the length of the bus to the driver everytime somebody wants to get on or off – which is approximately every 20 seconds. There’s no bell or button: everything is done by yelling. You yell to the guy at the back, and he does one of those ear-splitting whistles to the driver to let him know to pull over, and then bellows the name of the place you’re stopping in case anyone else wants to get off. Then he leans out of the bus to anybody loitering on the pavement nearby and bellows the destination of the bus at them. Then they get on too, and everybody shuffles down, and more fruit sellers climb on and start howling, and then some guy behind you starts playing music out loud on his phone (headphones exist here and are cheap – people simply choose not to use them), and the woman in front of you begins watching Instagram reels on full blast, and some old man gets shoved right up against you and doesn’t seem to notice or care that his cock and balls are now resting soundly on your shoulder.
Anyway, three hours later we arrived in San Juan.
San Juan is a small town way out in nowhere, somewhere between the Pacific Coast and the can’t-see-the-other-side impossible vastness of Lake Nicaragua. There’s nothing special about the town – no reason a tourist should visit, save for the language school. That was its appeal: a chance to get off the beaten track, to see the real Nicaragua, to meet local people and escape the backpacker bubble.
Deposited by the bus at the side of a dusty jungle road, Liv and I navigated to the language school. It’s a large white building in the jungle, two storeys with a kitchen, several single-occupancy bedrooms, a library, and a few classrooms. It’s beset on all sides by dense jungle, and as we explored I was mortified to discover a spindly-legged, thick-bodied, glossy-backed spider the size of my entire palm. It was sitting in a web that I stopped an inch short of walking into, mouth open. I told the receptionist about this spider, expecting her to yell ‘FUCK’ and run off to load a gun, but she just smiled gently and nodded, pointing to the dozen or so other monstrous spiders around us that I had until then failed to notice. I made a mental map of their webs so I’d not find myself wearing them like a facemask.
Not a mariposa in sight, however.
“I suppose if they called this place ‘The Spider’ they’d get fewer customers,” I pondered to Liv.
A woman called Tamara showed us around the complex. Aside from the accommodation, the school had several huge cages on its grounds, surrounded by thick jungle. These cages housed some curious slender monkeys and a lot of birds. One of them said ‘hello’ as I walked past, in the voice of a young English woman.
Tamara led us back into the town, to our homestay. We were staying with a grandma named Miriam, along with her husband Gonzalo, her daughter Yaderlina, her son-in-law Chepe, and her grandchildren, Erik and Wilmara (very sweet, four years old). The family of six live in a home made of painted concrete, rotten wooden beams and corrugated iron sheets. Their windows are gauze, not glass, and their kitchen is stained black from the hob and the fire they burn to heat up large vats of beans. There’s a muddy inner courtyard, and their toilet is outdoors. To flush it you have to fill an old plastic milk carton with water from a rusting metal barrel outside. The shower is four walls of concrete, corrugated iron roof, with a yellow towel stretched across the entrance acting as a door. To wash yourself you take a jug, fill it with cold water from another barrel, and splash it over yourself.
Miriam and Yaderlina greeted us warmly, and we introduced ourselves in what little Spanish we already knew. We were showed to our room – iron ceiling, cement walls, two beds, no furniture, framed painting of a bleeding Jesus on the wall, crucifix by the door – and we dropped off our bags. Then it was time to begin work.
Because we’d arrived late in the day, Tamara informed us that we’d be volunteering in the afternoon rather than the morning. This meant we’d not have time for a Spanish lesson that day (Monday) despite paying for a week’s worth, which felt like a bit of a rip off but hey ho.
Liv and I left the little home in San Juan and followed Tamara up the road, past a row of sweet stalls and barbershops, down a quiet road. From there we passed through a large yellow gate and entered the jungle. We passed shacks and a collection of dogs sleeping in the dirt that woke up and ran over to us barking.
Standing beside a cute little vegetable patch surrounding by tall trees, Tamara introduced us to Juan. I must stress, here, that all these introductions – to the school, to Miriam’s family, to Juan – were entirely in Spanish. Most of the time I had not a clue what was being said. But we smiled along anyway; you could figure it out from the context. Juan was big and gentle with a kind smile. When Tamara left he showed us around the vegetable patch, letting us know what was growing where, and we nodded and acted like we understood.
This was the pattern for the next five days: rise at 7am, eat a hearty Nicaraguan breakfast cooked by Miriam (rice, beans, plantain), head down to the garden to meet Juan at 8am, spend 3 hours digging holes, raking leaves, planting trees, picking vegetables and cementing walls, then back to the homestay to throw a bucket of cold water over ourselves. Head up to LM for 12 to take lunch (usually a salad with some sort of carb, never meat), then at 1pm begin Spanish lessons. 2 hours of Spanish grammar rules with a young guy called Juan (everybody is called Juan), a 10-minute break, then 2 hours of Spanish conversation with a lady called Haydee. I was always exhausted by the time of Haydee’s lesson but she was an absolute MILF so that helped.
Juan’s grammar lessons were brutal. There was minimal chatter between the two of us – for two hours he simply wrote reems of information on the board, which I was expected to copy down. He refused to speak any English with me, even though he spoke it well, because he was following, I suppose, the ‘total immersion’ technique of language teaching. It’s a frustrating way to learn: having the complex grammar rules of a language you cannot speak explained to you in the very language you cannot speak.
Lessons finished at 5pm, at which point we’d be free to use the school WiFi to message family or whatever, and then at 5.30pm it was back down to the homestay for dinner, courtesy of Miriam. Dinner was rice, beans and plantain, usually with a bonus ingredient like mashed potato or corn. It was simple food but Miriam was a very good cook, and we were always very hungry.
Every evening, when we arrived home shattered, Miriam and Gonzalo were sitting in their smoke-darkened open kitchen, and would open the lock on the gate to let us inside. They asked us how our day was each time, and we always answered the same – the only Spanish we could remember:
This made Miriam laugh every day. Wilmara always wanted to play when we got home, and while we ate dinner, falling asleep at the table, she dance around us and crawled under the table and ran around wearing tiaras and masks, chuckling heartily to herself. Liv is more comfortable around kids than me, so I usually slunk off earlier to lie on my bed and read my book, invariably falling into a deep sleep by 7pm.
We never got to sleep long: the neighbourhood is full of cockerels, and it turns out they do not begin to crow at the crack of dawn – they crow all the way through the bastard night. The closest cockerel to us, and the loudest, woke me up every single morning at 3am with a 15-minute bout of squawking. It wasn’t even a good squawk, a classic ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’. The bird was either very stupid or had a fucked-up voice box: its morning call was a demented ‘AAAAUUURRGHHHHHH!?!?!??!’ repeated every ten or eleven seconds for a quarter of an hour. Liv had earplugs. I did not. Each morning I lay in bed from 3am until daylight, eyes peeled and bloodshot, fists clenched, engulfed by furious fantasies of leaping out of bed, procuring an axe, and roaming the streets silencing the chorus of idiot shrieks one by one.
It wasn’t just the cockerels either: the stray dogs, so lethargic in the daytime, spent all night barking and fighting and wailing. Crickets sang, geckos in the ceiling chirped, rain pattered on the corrugated iron, and every now and then a cat would leap onto the roof and rattle the entire thing like a thunderclap. And on our last night a very large rat got into the room and chased us around for a while.
We left LM and San Juan after 5 nights; there were no classes on the weekend anyway, and we didn’t fancy sticking around any longer than we had to. I bought some chocolates for Wilmara, we hugged Miriam goodbye and tipped her, and we beat it – back onto the chicken bus and away out of town.
If I sound a little jaded, it’s because I bloody am.