Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Neighbour – Samara, Costa Rica



D: There’s something in our hammock.

L: Like what?

L is in the bathroom, rinsing sand and salt and tangles from her hair. D is looking apprehensively out of the living room window.

D: Not sure. It’s wriggling.

L: Is it an animal? Or a bird?

D: No, more of a small human.

L: Like a child?

D: Yes, there’s a child in our hammock.

L: Well I didn’t put it there. What sort of child?

D: A short one. With yellow hair. And no clothes on.

L: Oh. I expect that’s alright. It’s hardly going to catch cold. What’s it doing?

D: Swinging.

L:   Does it look lost? Or miserable?

D: No. It’s singing. In French.

L: Well in that case, you’ll have to deal with it. I don’t speak French.

D reluctantly heads outdoors to investigate.

They have been in the house for five weeks.   They took a risk – booking it, and paying the rent in advance, before seeing the place, but it suits them well. They had been looking for somewhere to live and work for a couple of months, in the sun, away from the gloomy British winter. And on Google Earth, the village of Samara, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, looked just right. Not too big and not too small, with a huge safe swimming beach.

And so it has proved. They run along the beach in the early mornings. It is only a short walk back from the supermarket, laden with pineapples, melons and beer. The five minute stroll to the sea takes them past the bakery, a concrete footbridge guarded by four sunbathing iguanas, and the best steakhouse in town.

The house itself is hidden from the road by a thick hibiscus hedge, at which a hummingbird feeds at breakfast. The single storey building, red roofed and yellow painted, is divided into two small apartments, sharing a tiled front terrace and a gravelled back yard. Tall slender trees growing on the steeply rising slope behind the house provide afternoon shade in the yard, and are a popular meeting place for howler monkeys at four in the morning.   It’s not perfect – the bank and the trees and the hedge also shelter the house from any breezes. It is very hot. Right after moving in, they shared the outdoor space for a few days with a Canadian couple, who couldn’t take the heat and fled to Spain. Since then, they have had the place to themselves.   Until now.

D returns and reports his findings through the bathroom door.

D: It belongs next door.

L: Good.

D: But it’s bored.

L: Right.

D: And hot.

L: Yes. Where is it now?

D: In our fridge.

L: What d’you mean, in our fridge?

D: It likes the cool air. I haven’t shut the door or anything. It just sort of climbed in.

L: Oh.

D: It’s fine. Except for the dirty footprints. And I think it stood on the ham.


It is morning. D chats with the neighbours while L chops melon, banana and pineapple into two bowls. She brings them out onto the terrace. D joins her and they eat their breakfast. The neighbours are also having breakfast. The child leaves its family and wanders over, sitting contentedly on the floor at their feet, eating bread and chocolate spread. There is chocolate on its cheek. And on its elbow.

D: It wants to go to the beach.

L: With us?

D: Its mother suggested it.

L: But we could be anybody.

D: But we’re not. We’re us.

L: Yes, but how does she know?

D: She can tell. She’s that sort of person.

L: OK. But what if we break it?

D: She says it’s good in the sea. It likes diving through waves.

L: That’s alright then. Can it swim?

D: I assume so.

L: Let’s check.

D: It looks like a swimmer.

L: Let’s check.

D: I bet it swims like a fish.

L: Let’s check.

D goes next door to ask, and returns.

L: All OK? It can swim?

D: Um, no. No, it can’t.

L:   Right. We’d better remember that.


It is evening. They are preparing to sit out on the terrace, with beer and peanuts. Appetising cooking smells are coming from next door. The child runs between the two terraces, waving a stainless steel pole.

Child: Shlack!

L: What’s that pole?

D: It’s not a pole. It’s a light sabre.

Child: Shlack!

D: Could you bring me a drink?

Child: Shlack, shlack!

D: I would get it myself, but it’s chopped off my legs.

L: I see.


It is morning. They are sitting on the terrace with their bowls of fruit and mugs of coffee. The child spots them. Today it is clutching a slice of cheese on toast.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: Qu’est ce que tu fais?

D: Eating my breakfast.

Child: Et après?

D: Then I’m going to drink my coffee.

Child: Et après?

D: Brush my teeth.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some work.

Child: Et après?

D: Have lunch.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some more work.

Child: Et après?

D: Go to the beach.

Child: Can I come to the beach?


It is evening. They are on the terrace with beer and peanuts. The neighbours are playing a guitar rather beautifully, but the child is unappreciative and trots over to join them.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: How do you say hello in Arabic?

D: I don’t know.

Child: But maman says you’re a translator.

D: I am, but not in Arabic.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Japanese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Chinese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Russian?

D: I don’t know. I don’t translate ALL languages.

Child: Oh. Why not?


It is morning. L is chopping the fruit, D is on the terrace drinking coffee.   The child is running laps of the building and timing itself on an ipad. It dashes past and stops, panting.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Maman: Breakfast!

Child: Oh. I’m just going to have my breakfast.

D: Right.

Child: I’ll be back.

D: Right.

Child: En 1 heure.

D: OK.

Child: Actually, en 1 seconde.

D: Fine.

Child: No, en 5 minutes.

D: Good.

Child: En 30 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 10 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 minutes.

D: OK.

Child: En 5 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 secondes.

D: See you later.


Child: Salut. I’m back, can we go to the beach?


It is evening. On the terrace. There is beer and peanuts. There is no sign of the child.

D: They’re leaving tomorrow.

L: Oh. I’m going to miss our little friend.

D: Yes. Except for the light sabre.

L:   Careful with your big feet kicking the table – you’re spilling our drinks.

D: It’s not me. It’s our little friend. It’s under the table.

L: Oh. What’s it doing?

D: I think it’s stuck.

L: Should we do something?

D: I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem to mind.

Child: Shlack!

P1030165-2 (2)

On Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 2 - first

L: Poor things! They’re entirely covered in bandages!

D: Not entirely – only the right hand half of them.

L: They must be SO sore.

L and D are drinking beer, their feet in the hotel pool, watching the sun sink into Lake Nicaragua and paint the horizon gold. Nearby, a couple have arrived, limping slowly to a pair of loungers and easing very gingerly into them. Once settled, they explain to their friends that they don’t think they’ll be quite up to the horse-riding booked for the following morning. They can hardly move.

L: Perhaps Ometepe’s not the place to learn to ride a scooter after all.

D: Perhaps not.

L: Maybe the ditches and speed bumps and potholes and pedestrians and hens and dogs and cows and horses and pigs and bicycles make things tricky.

D: Maybe.

L: Shall we get taxis instead?

D: Let’s.

The following morning….

A 4WD utility vehicle arrives. The driver greets them cheerfully, introduces himself, and ushers them into the car.

L: (whispering) How romantic – he’s called Byron!

D: I heard.

L: (whispering) And he called me chica!

D: I heard that too.

They set off along the island’s one road, paralleling the lake. The surface is stony and ridged, making for a bumpy ride, and progress is slow. A woman at the roadside waves, and they stop. Two small children clamber up into the open back of the vehicle. They remain standing, holding on tight, the little boy protected from the bumps and lurches by the encircling body of his big sister. They stop again, to let the children off at their auntie’s house.

Byron points out monkeys in the trees and answers their questions.

Byron: The brick to build the houses is made here on the island. With mud from the lake.

Ometepe 2 - boat by lakeL: Does everyone get their drinking water from the lake?

Byron: No, the lake’s not used for drinking, though it could be.   On this side, water comes from a crater lake high up on Volcan Maderas, and over by Concepción there are wells.

L: And is there always enough water?

Byron: Yes, though 2014 was very dry. The rainy season didn’t really happen. The government told us to stop keeping chickens for food, as they use a lot of water. They told us to eat iguanas instead.

L: And did you?

Byron: Si, iguana meat is good. But there’s always plenty to eat on the island. The soil is so fertile – it’s the volcanic ash.

D: Is it a problem when Concepción erupts?

Byron: No. Every five years or so, up it goes, and the government tells us all to evacuate the island.

L: Blimey. And do you?

Byron:   No. Nobody takes any notice.

Byron drops them off at the foot of the hill. It is still early, just after 8am. They want to be the first. They follow a farm track, then a footpath for about 3km, through pastures and forest, ascending a flank of Volcan Maderas. They pass a rock painted with an arrow and the words “1 km”. There are caupuchin and howler monkeys in the trees. Magpie jays chatter overhead and a brilliant blue morpho butterfly flits by. They see no-one, but there’s no time to waste. The path ends at a dry river bed, strewn with boulders and enclosed by tall cliffs.Ometepe 2 - to San Ramon

L: Oh. We’ve done about 1km since the rock. Where is it?

D: Just along here. Follow me.

They pick their way up the stream bed, over gravel and rocks and around boulders and small trees. Until it becomes impassable.

L: Are we lost?

D: No. It’s just along here.

They climb out of the stream bed and follow a steep, rocky footpath winding through the woods. And on.

L: This is the world’s longest kilometre. Or we’re lost.

D: We’re not lost. It’s just along here.

L:   You keep saying that. I’ll just stay here. Can I have a biscuit?

D: But I can hear it.

L: Oh.

Ometepe 2 - San RamonJust around the next corner they arrive. The San Ramon Waterfall cascades down the mountain from 40 metres above, ending in a shallow pool. It is so tall and so sheer that they have to tilt their heads backwards, further and further, necks cricking, just to see the top. Moss and tiny ferns line the cliff wall and wet rock glistens in the sunlight. They have the place entirely to themselves, like one big awesome secret. They stand under the waterfall happily, wade in the pool and admire. They sit on a rock, drying off and eating biscuits. Soon a woman arrives with her son, aged about ten. The secret’s out. It’s time to leave.

On the steep scramble down, they meet four people.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 10 minutes.

In the river bed they meet two more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 20 minutes.

On the path through the forest they meet more, and more, and more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 25 minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes.

They come across a clump of tethered horses. They meet a school group of girls taking selfies. Back on the track, people are parking, getting out of cars. Motorbikes arrive. In all they count 57 people heading to the waterfall. A long way down, a red faced man is wrestling his way up the uneven surface on a scooter. He stops, sweating.

Man: Is it much further? Will I make it on this?

D: Ummm….maybe. There are other cars and motorbikes up there. Not sure about scooters. You can drive to within a kilometre of the falls.

L: (under her breath) The world’s longest kilometre.

L worries for the rest of the day that the man will skid and fall and end up covered in bandages.

D: He’ll be fine. He’d only hurt himself on one side anyway.


Ometepe 2 - laundry in lakeThey are kayaking along the lakeshore. Women stand in the shallows doing their laundry on rock platforms built for the purpose. Toddlers play on the shore. A fisherman sits on the gunwale of his boat, mending nets. From time to time a rustic wooden dwelling is visible amongst a clump of palm trees at the water’s edge. But mostly the shore is given over to forest and pastures. They spot herons, kingfishers, egrets and ospreys.

The River Istiam is at its lowest. They find the narrow mouth, almost hidden in reeds at the edge of the lake, and glide silently along the shallow muddy stream.   Their guide is a young islander, and he knows his stuff. He reels off the names of the birds as they pass, spotting the invisible, time and again.

Ometepe 2 - great egretGuide: Look, a great egret, and next to him a great blue heron.

D fumbles for the camera.

Guide: There, a green heron.

L: Take a photo!

D: Missed it.

Guide: Look, turtles.

L: Where?

He points. A cluster of sharp little noses poke above the surface and disappear. He scoops up a turtle on the end of his paddle to show them.

Ometepe 2 - kayakingL: Take a photo!

D: Damn, missed it.

Guide: Look, caiman.

D: Where?

But it is gone. They look in vain for the caimans that they know are there, lurking out of sight.

Guide: Look, iguana.

D: Where?

L: There, stupid. It’s enormous! Even I can see that one. Right above your head on that branch.

Guide: In the reeds there. A little blue heron.

Ometepe 2 - kayakGuide: On the bank. Black necked stilt birds.

They watch them pick their long-legged way through the mud.

L: Take a photo!

D: Crap, missed them.

Guide: Green kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

The area is bursting with water birds. They can’t look in all directions at once. They drift past water lilies, duck under overhanging trees and around the spreading roots of mangroves. They pass just one other kayak – other than that the river is empty. And apart from the occasional lap of water against paddle, and the noise of the birds around them, it is completely silent.Ometepe 2 - cows

On their return, they pull their kayak up the beach. A herd of cows ambles past them and down to the shore, all amongst the boats, and into the lake for a drink.

They walk back to the hotel.

L: There’s the man! Oh, I’m so happy!

D: What man?

L: The man on the scooter. He’s still in one piece.

The next morning….

Byron is back, and he’s on a mission. He collects them at 4.45am. They need to make their way across the island to catch the first ferry at 6am. The journey takes a good hour in the daylight.   But at this hour it is still pitch dark. They hurtle along the unpaved, stony, rutted road, accelerating at every opportunity and breaking hard at the drainage ditches, the speedbumps, and the potholes. Every so often, objects loom suddenly into view, without warning, lit up by the car’s headlights. At considerable speed they swerve to avoid a cow, two pigs, a horse, several dogs, a cat, two cows, more dogs, another horse, a bicycle without lights, more dogs, pedestrians without lights, another dog, another bicycle without lights, a horse, a man sleeping by the roadside, a dog, a bicycle without lights, a motorbike without rear lights, pedestrians, a dog, two more motorbikes without rear lights.

They arrive at 5.55am. Byron is triumphant. L is a wreck. D is carsick. They are really sorry to leave.

Ometepe 2 - last


A Scorpion in the Promised Land – Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 1 - first

L: Why have we stopped?

Ometepe 1 - driveThe minibus is full. Every seat is taken and the roof is piled high with rucksacks and surfboards. It is heading south from the city of Leon, through flat dry landscapes reminiscent of Australian outback, towards Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific surfing town of San Juan del Sur.

The driver gets out and crosses the road to a ramshackle food-stall. He returns with his lunch and sets off again, the bus now filling with mouth-watering wafts of hot barbecued meat. Fifteen bellies growl with hunger. There are hours of this journey left yet.

The roads are straight and paved. Every so often they pass a flat-bed wooden cart drawn by a skinny pony. Rural dwellings are scattered along the roadside, with walls of wooden planks and roofs of tin, each with their separate outhouse a few metres away – wood-framed and sheathed in tarpaulin or corrugated iron. Hens peck in the dust and livestock stands in the shade.

When they reach the dock, the ferry is loading. Half a dozen vehicles squeeze on to the tiny aft deck. The rest of the space is for foot passengers. They find a spot at the railing on the upper deck, next to a tall gringo. 20 kilometres across Lake Nicaragua rise the perfect twin cones of Volcanoes Concepción and Maderas, on the island of Ometepe.

The American: It’s something, isn’t it?

D: Yes. It certainly is.

Ometepe 1 - ferryThe American: She can get lively from time to time.

D: Which one? Concepción?

They look at the taller of the two volcanoes.

The American: Yeah. She grumbles and smokes and spits ash every coupla years. She’s about due now. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American cracks open a can and drinks deeply.

The American: Been here 18 months, and that view still gets me, every time.

D: Is it a good place to be?

The American: The best. Got two Nica kids in the local school system – getting a good education, and it’s free. And you know what? No uniform, so no poverty barrier – all the kids get to go. Island feels like a real community – everyone’s proud of where they live, and they care, you know? That it’s safe and clean and friendly, so it stays that way. Best place on earth.

D: I heard a Chinese company’s about build a canal here bigger than the Panama Canal – going right across the lake and past the island. Are people worried about that?

The American: Nah. Personally, don’t think it’ll ever happen. The guy just lost all his money in the stock market crash. But if it does? Sure there’d be plenty of short term disruption. And sure it could change life completely for the islanders. But in the grand scheme of things – would that be a bad thing? Don’t think so. It’s progress. Opportunity.   Across a region where opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

D: But the environmental impact….?

The American: Sure. There’s that. Don’t have much time for the tree huggers myself. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American opens another can.

D: Nicaragua seems to have a thing about becoming bigger and better than Costa Rica. I suppose the canal would help with that.

The American: Lived in both countries over the last 20 years. Nicaragua’s too Nicaraguan, man!

D: What d’you mean?

The American: Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing. In some ways, Costa Rica’s sorta lost its cultural identity. Sorta sold out to the US. Nica’ll never do that. Way too much national identity. Sure, the country’s getting more stable, the infrastructure’s getting better, the tourist bucks’re getting bigger, inward investment’s getting stronger. But, if you ask me, Nica’ll never be CR, man. Being a Tico (Costa Rican) is about attitude and way of life. Being a Nica is about blood and history and hard-won freedom. Goes deep.Ometepe 1 - croc

The ferry is approaching the island. The American picks up his bag.

The American: Nice meeting you, man. Big croc – see him?

He points at a huge log floating in the harbour, which blinks and disappears.

D: Gosh – is that really….?

The American has gone.

Ometepe 1 - ConcepcionThey disembark and find a taxi. The driver gives them a map of the island. There is one road, shaped like a pair of spectacles, circling the foot of the two volcanoes and joining up in the middle. Two thirds of it is unpaved. The landscape is stunning – the volcanic soil rich and fertile. Lush green pastures, woods and plantain groves spread like skirts around the bare cone of Volcan Concepción, whilst lower Volcan Maderas rises as a thickly wooded clump of peaks and ridges and gullies. Along the road, vivid splashes of bougainvillea tumble over garden fences. Ometepe 1 - beachHouses are of brightly painted breezeblock, or brick, or wood, with corrugated iron roofs. Sun glints off the clean waters of the lake whose shores include long swathes of sandy beach. The taxi slows frequently, easing across drainage ditches and speed bumps. The traffic is heavy – there are mopeds and bicycles, there are pedestrians, families, children, and men carrying huge tree branches home for fuel. There are chickens, and dogs, and cows, and horses and pigs. There are almost no other cars.

They visit the Ojo de Agua – a local favourite. The spring-fed swimming pools are surrounded by forest. Ometepe 1 - Ojo de AquaThe water is cool, clear and blue. Families sit around the edge, in or out of the water, picnicking and drinking pipa fria through straws – cold coconut water straight from the shell. A few swim solemn lengths. At one end is a tightrope – teenagers wobble and flail for seconds before crashing headlong into the water. At the other end is a rope swing. Fathers and sons climb into a tree, launch themselves out over the pool and let go. The boys flip and somersault to cheers and applause, the men hit the water heavily, swamping those at the edge who squeal in delighted protest.

Later, they walk through the gardens and orchards of the hilltop Ecolodge Porvenir, hunting for petroglyphs.

L: Some of these rock carvings are over a thousand years old, maybe even older. No-one really knows. There’s more than 1700 of them across the island, and they’re still being discovered. The ones here are still pretty much where they were found.

They study the soft swirls and circles, spirals and doodles, carved into boulders.

L: That pair of spirals could be the island.

D: Who did them?

L: Possibly the Nicaraos. Or the Nahuas from Mexico before that. No-one really knows. But “Ometepe” means “two hills” in Nahua. It was seen as a sort of promised land, and you can see why, with all this sunshine and fresh water and fertile soil. This half of the island, under the peaks of Maderas, was the place of the sun, whilst Concepción was brother of the moon.

Ometepe 1 - man with hairThey walk on, distracted from their search by trees dangling breadfruit, gourds, cocoa pods and other exotic mysteries. D looks sceptically at a lively looking fellow with his stone-carved hair on end and a monkey at his side.

D: Are you sure the dates are right? He’s excellent but he looks a bit frivolous to me.

L: Mmm…he does, but some of the carvings might be serious and symbolic whilst others could be more like graffiti, like your friend here. No-one really knows.

Ometepe 1 - petroglyphD: Humph. Oh, come over here. This’s more like it!

They stop at a huge boulder. It is elaborately decorated with depictions of a monkey, a fish and other symbols – maybe a bird, a river, a snake.

D: What does it all actually mean? Does anyone really know?

L: Err, no. Memories. Stories recorded for future generations. All the way down the line to us, standing here now. Makes you feel connected, doesn’t it? Part of the place somehow.

D: Makes me feel a bit thirsty.

L: Oh. OK.

On the way out, they pass a couple earnestly discussing the importance of fertility symbols and phallic engravings left by ancient civilisations, as they study a nearby rock.

L: (whispering) That’s not phallic. That’s a crocodile.

D: (whispering) Is it though? It’s all open to interpretation. No-one really knows.

L: (loudly) It’s got teeth.


Their hotel is small, with beautiful hillside gardens looking west across the lake. There is a magnificent sunset to be seen from the infinity pool and a gigantic brown scorpion in their room. L waves at a housekeeper who is emerging from a nearby building.Ometepe 1 - scorpion

L: Ummm… disculpe, està un scorpione muy grande en el habitacion.

The housekeeper looks baffled, and comes to take a look.

Housekeeper: Ay, un alacran!

L: Es peligroso? Is it dangerous?

Housekeeper: Si.

The creature is in the top corner, where wall meets ceiling. Its body is close to 3 inches long, its tail at least that again. The three of them look up at it doubtfully. The housekeeper fetches her broom. As the tallest, D takes it and prepares to brush the scorpion off the wall. The housekeeper shakes her head.

Housekeeper: No, no!

She turns the broom around, so the handle is pointing upwards, makes vicious beating motions, and hands it back to him. D understands that she requires the scorpion to be killed and him to do it.   He gamely reaches up and pins it to the wall with the broom handle. It thrashes energetically, waving its full length of tail. D applies more pressure. The scorpion thrashes harder. This goes on for some time. On the far side of the room, L flaps her hands and climbs onto a chair. D and the scorpion continue to wrestle on opposite ends of the broom handle. The scorpion wins, wriggles free and drops to the floor. L shrieks helpfully. The housekeeper picks up a shoe and hands it to D. He hits the scorpion, repeatedly, and squashes it. The housekeeper is pleased and impressed. D is a bit queasy. They inspect the remnants.

Housekeeper: Ay, muy grande!

She picks it up in a paper napkin and disposes of it. D and the housekeeper smile at each other and shake hands triumphantly. L climbs down off her chair.

L: Beer?

D: Definitely.

Ometepe 1 - last

Four Tales of Folklore – Leon, Nicaragua

Leon folk - first

D: What the hell is that?

L: What?

D: What d’you mean what? That!

L: That what?

D: That 30 foot tall woman with the huge chest and the top hat!

L: Where?

D: Now you’re just being annoying.

L: Oh. OK. She’s called La Gigantona. The Giantess.

Leon folk - GigantonaThey are crossing Leon’s central plaza, where the figure, in her rainbow striped dress, stands the full height of the two storey municipal building running along one side of the square.

L: Where’s her little friend?

D: What little friend?

L: Usually she has a tiny fellow with her, with a really big head. He’s called Pepe Cabezon.

D: No sign of him. Anyway, who are they?

L: She’s the tall, white, rich Spanish woman who arrived with the conquistadors in the 16th century. He’s the Nicaraguan – short, dark, poor but very intelligent – hence the enormous head. It’s about class struggles and Spanish oppression of indigenous Nicaraguans, and about making fun of the Spanish colonialists. They have a drummer with them. And they dance.

D: Don’t be ridiculous – she’s no dancer. Have you seen the size of her?

L: Maybe not her. But other versions of her. Normally she’d be smaller – about 3 metres high. And he’d be less than half that. So the drummer drums, and they dance and whirl. The drummer controls the dance, making La Gigantona start and stop as he plays, showing that although the Spanish might appear to be bigger and taller, they’re not the ones in charge.

D: Right.

L: Also, I think poor Pepe Cabezon might have a massive crush on La Gigantona but she doesn’t love him back.

D: Didn’t we see them dancing in the street in Granada?

L: Yes! Pepe Cabezon was tiny – he was being danced by a child. There’re street performances of La Gigantona all over the country. Nicaragua loves its folklore and legends.

They sit on the cathedral steps, from where they can see her in all her glory, six times life-sized, peering down at them over her formidable bosom.

D: Right – it should be open now.

Behind them is a doorway, in which sits a man in uniform.

D: Buenas dias, señor. Two tickets for the cathedral roof please.

He shakes his head. They are in the wrong place. He explains and gives directions. They thank him. They walk the full length of the cathedral’s outside wall, to the rear, where there is a hobbit sized door. It’s locked. They walk all the way back to the man in the doorway. He tells them it should be open now, but to come back if it’s not. They walk all the way back to the hobbit door. It’s open. They buy two tickets, and look for the onward route.

D: Disculpe, how do we actually get on to the roof?

They are directed all the way back round the building, to the man in the doorway.

Man: Ah, there you are. This way.

He asks for their tickets, tears them in half and points them up a stairway in the alcove behind him.

L: We’ve walked so far already, I might be too tired to get up the stairs.

At the top, a second man takes the other half of their tickets. It is not clear what could happen between the bottom and the top of the stairs, to warrant ticket checks at both ends. They are in a bell tower with views over the plaza. A small side door displays a sign. “Remove your shoes”.

L: Really? Curiouser and curiouser. What with the giant woman and the hobbit door and the ticket men, today’s beginning to feel a bit Alice in Wonderland.

The man looks sternly at their feet. The sign is serious. They remove their shoes and step outside.

L: Oh my goodness. It’s so beautiful! It’s just SO beautiful. Isn’t it beautiful? Look how beautiful it is.

D: Yes. It’s beautiful.Leon folk - roof and Momotombo

The roof is beautiful. They are in a pristine white world, walking barefoot on a smooth whitewashed surface, under a perfectly cloudless blue sky. They have access to the whole of the top of the building, with its white domes and balustrades and pinnacles and views on all sides.

L: It’s just so beautiful.

D: I think you’ve said that already.

L: Look, come and look at this. It’s beautiful.

D: Yes. It is.

The whole of the city is visible, from edge to edge, and silhouetted on the western horizon are the outlines of several volcanoes.

D: You know Leon started out somewhere different.

L: What d’you mean?

D: Leon was Nicaragua’s first capital city, built by the Spanish over there by Lake Managua, near the volcanoes. But in the late 1500s it was shaken up by several earthquakes, and then in 1610, Volcan Momotombo, which is the pointy one on the right, blew up big time and buried the entire town under ash.

L: Blimey. Like Pompeii.

D: Yup. So the Spanish moved a safe distance and built another town here instead. Now this is Leon, and that’s Leon Viejo – Old Leon.

L: What’s it like now?

D: They lost it, completely, for 300 years. It was only found again in 1967, and they’ve been excavating it ever since.

L: Wow. We should visit. But not today. It’s so beautiful up here, I could stay all day.

D: Actually you couldn’t. You’re burning. Your nose is pink.

L: Damn – quick, let’s find some shade. Where next? Can it be something completely different? otherwise it’ll be disappointing after this. Oh, and it’d better be indoors.

D: There’s a folklore museum. In a prison. It sounds a bit eccentric. The woman who founded it made a collection of weird papier-maché figures of various Nicaraguan legends.

L: Sounds perfect. Very Wonderland-esque. Maybe we’ll meet a White Rabbit. Or a Cheshire Cat. Vamonos!

They take a hot walk south down the Avenue Central. Vendors sit in shaded doorways selling melons and limes from baskets on the pavement. They find the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones in a fortress turned prison turned museum, opposite a bombed-out church – a victim and reminder of the revolution in 1979.

A walkway runs along the top of tall stone walls, and there are murals depicting horrendous tortures inflicted on the prisoners by Somoza’s National Guard in the ‘70s. In startling contrast, in the courtyards and cells, the splendid Señora Toruña has arranged an eclectic collection of home-made life-sized figures of Nicaraguan legend, and around the walls of a pretty enclosed garden are a series of mosaics illustrating the country’s myths and folklore. The combination is disturbing. And eccentric. And fantastic. Alice would be quite at home.  Leon folk - Pepe Cabezon

L: I’ve found him!

D: Who? Oh yes – La Gigantona’s sidekick, Pepe Cabezon.

L: There’s a man throwing a hand grenade at him.

D: He’s a revolutionary. I think he’s just throwing the grenade generally.

L: Oh. That’s all right then.

They recognise the two figures again, in mosaic form on the wall, The Giantess with long blonde hair and her tiny companion wearing revolutionary khaki uniform.

They explore the cells.

L: Who’s this fine fellow on a dear little pony?

Leon folk - ArrachevalaD: Let me check. Oh – he’s not a fine fellow. He’s called Arrechavala and he was vile. Now he’s a ghost. You should be looking a bit more terrified.

L: OK. It’s difficult though – his horse has such a sweet face. Look at its lovely eyelashes. Anyway, tell me the story.

D: Right – let’s see. Arrechavala was an extremely unpleasant Spanish Colonel who hated Nicaraguans and used to beat them as he galloped around through town. He was also seriously corrupt, and made a deal with the devil, who made him exceedingly rich in return for being given the souls of virgins and unbaptised children.

L: Nice.

D: Now Arrechavala’s ghost can’t rest until he finds one of his descendants, so he can pass on where he’s hidden his fortune. But Nicaraguans have decided he doesn’t deserve to rest in peace. They’ve vowed never to tell him where to find his relatives, so he‘s likely to haunt the city for ever.

L: Seems a bit unfair on the adorable horse – condemned to ghost-hood for eternity just because his owner was so beastly.

She pats the pony on the nose, and they continue.

Leon folk - cart of deathL: Yikes – is this the Grim Reaper? This one does look terrifying – quite nightmarish. What’s going on?

D: It’s La Carreta Nagua – The Cart of Death. It dates back to when Spanish caravans used to ride through the country capturing Nicaraguans for slaves.

L: Have you noticed that all the legends we’ve come across are connected to the Spanish conquistadors?

D: It makes sense, I suppose. If you think about it, folklore is a sort of cultural reaction to the important stuff. Once the Spanish turned up here, things would have been pretty traumatic.

L: Yes, and for a very long time. Carry on.

D: What was I saying?

L: The Cart of Death.

D: Right. So here it’s being driven by Death and pulled by two dead oxen.  Apparently if you’re ill or dying, you can hear the wooden boards of the cart banging as it makes its way through the streets at night, collecting the souls of the dead.

L: Don’t worry – we’ve got no chance of hearing the cart over the din of our air-conditioning. We’ll be fine.

D: Hold on, there’s more. Curiously the cart can’t cross intersections – it just disappears before it reaches a junction.

L: Oh. That’s handy to know I suppose. So junctions are safe zones. From the Cart of Death.

They leave the cells and return to sit in the walled garden, watching the shadows lengthen.

L: It’s so peaceful. It’s hard to imagine all the unpleasantness that must have gone on while it was a prison and during the revolution.

D: Except for the murals.

L: Yes.

D: And the tank over there.

L: Yes.

D: And the fellow with the grenade.

L: Yes. Shut up.

D: Right.

They inspect the colourful mosaic panels on the opposite wall.

L: Who’s the fellow with no head?

D: Errr….just a minute….He’s El Padre Sin Cabeza – The Headless Priest.

L: I can see that. But what happened to him?Leon folk - headless priest

D: I’m getting to it. He was a much loved archbishop in Old Leon – the original Leon by the lake. One day some men came into his church, chopped off his head at the altar, and walked around the city, chucking his head around between them until they somehow lost it. This made God so cross that He made the Momotombo Volcano erupt and wipe out the city.

L: So that’s why it happened!

D: Apparently so. Anyway, the headless priest is still seen over there, praying and looking for his head.

L: Poor man.

D: On Thursdays and Fridays.

L: What?

D: Those are the days when he looks for his head.

L: Oh. Right. Well hopefully they’ll find it for him in the excavations.

Leon folk - last