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Black in black

We arrived back into León and went straight back to ViaVia. The recent good weather had made it possible for us to reconsider volcano boarding. So we got settled in & went across the road to book ourselves in for the next day. I was excited but secretly terrified.

The next morning, while I waited for Skye – a muscular dude with silky skin; clean, neat dreads and an amiable demeanour came over to introduce himself in Spanish. I told him what I tell everyone else, “Mi Español is terrible!” We switched to English & got chatting. I learnt he was part-Nicaraguan and had spent the better part of his life in NYC. He was an articulate documentary-maker with some interesting things to say. One of his films was about the Black Christ and the other was on the subject of young Nicaraguan baseball players who get screwed over financially for their talent.

Anthony told me he would be our guide for the day. We met the others in our group as we climbed up into a bright orange army truck. There was a weekend warrior from Melbourne, who was travelling around Central America at breakneck speed (basically collecting passport stamps). I think he said he’d done 6 countries in 2 weeks. And 2 friendly and fit-looking snowboarding Canadian girls. The three of them were all in their mid 20s.

Cerro Negro is only 400m high but the ascent is steep and tough, especially on a stinking hot day. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua. The latest eruption happened in 1999. Since its birth in 1850, it has erupted approximately 23 times. It’s approximately a 45 minute hike up black chunky volcanic rocks which degenerate into a fine black sand, making it trickier to climb the higher you go.

Skye and I had to make several stops on the way up. She has a heart condition which means she needs to take it easy and ensure her heart rate doesn’t escalate too high, too fast. Me? Well, since my last bootcamp session with Tobes just before my 40th birthday nearly a year ago – I must confess I’ve done very little strenuous exercise, so I’m a little out of shape.

Anthony was carrying Skye’s board and offered on many occasions to carry mine as well. But I had challenged myself to the whole shebang. And as tempting as it was, I was bloody determined to do it unassisted. We made it up. Quite a ways behind the others. But we did it!

Nicaragua really has stolen my heart in a very short space of time. Not least for the diversity in its geography. It’s just gorgeous. From the jewel-like Caribbean, sweeping tropical plains rise up to meet a chain of 13 volcanoes on the Pacific coast – making for a truly majestic landscape. And here I was, standing on top of one of those volcanoes.

About to do something that can only be described as Stupid.

We hopped into our big bright orange jumpsuits and put on out goggles. Anthony gave us a little bit of a background of how this stupidity all began.

Needless to say, it was an Aussie who came up with the bright idea. A Queenslander by the name of Darryn Webb who apparently tested a variety of methods of boarding the mountain: boogie boards, mattresses and even a fridge door.

Anthony briefed us on how to control the speed and the direction of the board. Which was really just a piece of MDF with a couple of strips of Formica on the underside, a little strip of timber acrossways to rest our feet upon, and a waterski rope handle.

Bigfoot uses a police speed gun to clock people’s speeds as they’re coming down the slippery sandy slope. The record is 82km / hour and is held by an English girl. The slowest person took 15 minutes to get down the hill. I personally wasn’t about speed. I just wanted to get down in one piece.

Given my inclination to fall over non-existent cracks in the footpath – I really am not the sort of person who should be hurtling herself off the side of a volcano on a tiny plank of wood. Don’t ask me why I keep putting myself in these situations. It’s probably got something to do with that other character who insists on getting riotously drunk before having to travel somewhere for 12 hours.

One of the gutsy little Canadian girls went down first and she was gunning it! From our vantage point it looked as though she had made it all the way down without a stack. The other Canadian girl went next and we saw her crash & burn several times.

I got on my board, sat down, and off I went! I could hear Anthony yelling at me, his voice fading fast, “LIFT YOUR FEET!” I think I literally went down braking the whole way. Every time I tried to lift my feet, in an attempt to pick up speed, I felt myself lose control of the board. I’d get scared and drop them back down again. I was collecting massive amounts of ash (not hot, thank fuck) between the board and under my legs and this was slowing me down even more. The rate I was going, there was no way on earth I was going to be falling off. That being said, volcanic sand was still flying everywhere and it was still a complete head rush.

I knew I was erring on the side of caution but I was still surprised when I got to the bottom and they told me i had clocked a god-almighty speed of 15km / hour. Just call me Speedy freakin Gonzales. I just laughed. It seriously felt like I was going at least 3 times that. There was a part of me that wanted to go back and do it all over again, this time really throwing caution to the wind.

Skye came down next. A wee bit faster and with a few tumbles thrown in for good measure.

Then it was the Weekend Warrior’s turn. He looked to be a moving at a pretty decent speed, when he had a nice looking stack about ½ way down. His board was a good few metres up the hill from where he had landed and so he started scrambling his way back up to retrieve it.

Meanwhile, Anthony had already started his mission and was tearing down the mountain at a rate of knots. He was heading straight for WW and we all stood at the bottom, thinking surely he had seen the WW and would divert his course any second now. Surely.

He didn’t. And he launched straight into the WW at full throttle. His board flew into the air. He somehow managed to somersaulted over the top of him, and collect him all at once. I saw a board fly into the air.

At the bottom there was a collective gasp, yelp, and cringe. The pair of them stood up almost immediately, so we figured it couldn’t have been too bad. They made it down without further incident. There was some blood but nothing was broken.

We got back to the hostel and celebrated our speeds and stacks with many many mojitos. So many in fact, that I was in bed by 7 o’clock that night. Note to self: Water not cocktails after strenuous exercise.

I woke up the next day feeling very bruised in more ways than one and so not up for a day of travel to the colonial town of Granada, where we would spend the next few days.

I came down a little ill for a couple of days, which may have tainted my views on the place. But to be honest, Granada has been one of my least favourite places. It’s a big dirty city, there’s a lot beggars and insofar as colonial cities go it hasn’t got a patch on my pretty Antigua, as far as I’m concerned.

The highlights for me included catching up with Dave & Suze. Skye & I had a few delicious healthy meals at a place called The Garden Cafe. I visited the museum and a few boutique galleries and talked with some local artists, which was cool. But that was about the size of it.

I was dead keen to get to Isla de Ometepe, which LP described as something out of a fairytale… an island set between “two volcanic peaks which rise from the hazy blue expanse of Cocibolca, ‘the Sweet Sea’ (Lago de Nicaragua), and form an hourglass of beaches and jungles cinched to a sinuous isthmus between them.”

Just what the doctor ordered.

Friday 28 October

Mysterious ways

Religion on the whole, doesn’t really blow my skirt up. Very little of it makes sense to me. The do good, be good bits do. But it’s not hard to work that stuff out on your own, is it?

It’s easy to write off folks with a faith because… well, there’s evolution for starters… but really, I think because there are so many freaking religious nut jobs out there. Ranging from those who live in pretty green countries who are warring with their neighbors, through to racist grandmothers who go to church every Sunday, and the pedophiliac priests who don’t think my gay friends have a right to be married.

Having said that – I have met some wonderfully smart, incredibly articulate, well travelled, open-minded and completely inspirational people who are religious.

I don’t think I had ever met a nun, before I was invited to have dinner with ACDC’s Aunty Ivy. She totally fits my definition of cool. She is interesting. And interested. She’s quietly spoken by nature, but you can see how rowdy she’d get at Rabbitoh’s game. She’s got a gentle spirit but I don’t think you’d be wise to be messin with anyone she loves. She struck me as someone who likes her creature comforts but she’d also happily sleep on a dirt floor in an African country to do volunteer work with kids in need. I just loved all the contradictions. I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me that you could be a nun and like a tinny or two.

A couple of years ago, I met this bloke at a party full of fitness freaks. Short and ruddy with an unruly beard and a gruff voice – his name was Graham Long and he was the larrikin pastor of a well-known chapel in Sydney’s red light district, a place called The Wayside. Their ethos is giving people a hand up not a handout. They provide a range of services to people who have fallen, well… by the wayside. Everything from showers, to referrals for health and home agencies, advocacy, and I love this: “a judgment free space for those just looking for a chat, a coffee or a quiet place to think.” God only knows, we all need that. I remember him (Graham, not God) saying to me that he came home “at the end of every day completely spent, but completely energized” by what he did for work. And that he didn’t really consider it a job. He’d do it even if they didn’t pay him.

A few weeks later, I was reading an article about a woman who was coordinating a singles / charity event. I really liked the idea of mixing the two. Fail to meet the right bloke? That’s okay. You still get to feel good about yourself, because you’re doing something for someone else. She said, “I don’t have a job. I have a life I love.”

Both of these things have been rattling around in my head for a long time.

I suppose you could say I’ve done some interesting stuff for work. I’ve been the voiceover in upscale department stores. I’ve sold everything from ice creams, to ‘sexy giftware’, to cars. I was the production manager on a low budget film shoot. I did a short stint in the medical imaging field. I once wore a bunny suit (man, those things Smell. Bad.) I was the graphic designer of an independent newspaper. I worked in the engineering industry for a while (loved those boys. They swore like sailors and introduced me to French champagne). I worked for a wee while at one of London’s top ad agencies as a proofreader. I waited tables (that only lasted 4 hours). I have hosted trivia nights and been the MC at weddings (although i did the latter for love). And most recently, I was one of the Marketing Managers for one of Australia’s most famous icons (the pointy white building on Sydney Harbour).

I’ve spent a bit of time over the past year thinking, what would make me feel like the pastor or the social entrepreneur? What do I want be when I grow up?

Things that kept popping up time and time again: writing, teaching and / or training, having my own consultancy…  I also harbored romantic notions of owning  an old-school pub and spending my days listening to old sea dogs swill stories around inside their schooners.

So, when I decided to take some time out this year to travel – I also decided I would work towards effecting change in this part of my life… To that end, I found myself signing up for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification.

It has been a particularly intense month. I haven’t done any formal study (apart from a few professional development courses) for a decade, so it was a complete shock to the system. I don’t know what planet I was on – but I really did think I was just going to swan on in to our pretty lil Spanish colonial school for a few hours of class, maybe do a bit of homework in the gorgeous garden with its statues and water fountain…  and then breeze through a couple of prac lessons. I mean – there couldn’t be that much to teaching English. Surely.

On day one, our teacher told us to not make plans for the last two weekends before the course ended. And now i know why. We’ve basically squeezed a uni semester’s worth of work into 150 hours. We’ve had 6 hours of practical teaching which has necessitated hours of lesson planning, prior. We’ve had reading almost every night for anywhere between 1-2 hours. So I’ve seen the inside of the classroom, the computer lab, my text books, and my eyelids. And very little of Antigua.

We had to study grammar. And then we had to study how to teach grammar. And then we had to teach grammar.

In the 70s, grammar wasn’t on the Australian curriculum. So it was just as well, from a very early age – I had taken a personal if not rather peculiar interest in the way our language was constructed. I read a dictionary like a normal book. Like from front to back. I was editing the high school newspaper at age 13. I took a 2 day intensive course on grammar at Sydney University. Of my own free will. (nerd.)

A native speaker simply acquires knowledge of grammar through common usage. We don’t need to understand it. I intrinsically understand what goes where and when. I just suck at knowing what it’s called and knowing why we use it. And i wouldn’t be all that bothered, except you do kinda need to know this stuff if you’re going to teach English to others. And you need to be prepared that some of your students will know more about grammar than you do.

I still don’t remember what past perfect progressive is.

Anyway, I was absolutely fine with it all until I had started having The Meltdown, which began on Wednesday night. All the feedback I was hearing (& I should make the distinction between hearing and receiving) was so damn ‘constructive’ – I was wondering if I was in the wrong place. Maybe i wasn’t cut out to be a teacher after all.

My good friend Andrea prompted me to recall how it felt to start any new job. I don’t know about you, but I always end those first few weeks in a new job, thinking maybe I’d rather just work in a record store.

The Meltdown bubbled and boiled for two days. Apparently The Meltdown is not uncommon among TEFLers. One of our classmates dropped out. Another got quite ill. My stress just manifested through my leaky eyeballs.

Then at the end of my last prac lesson on Friday – my students made an announcement (in English) saying they wanted to host a party for me to say thank you. Then they laid out a little spread of home-made Guatemalan food in the garden. And sung me happy birthday. (My birthday’s not until November.) And well, that just sent me right over the edge. There were tears. Of gratitude. And i admit, of relief. But mostly of gratitude. These people have so little and yet were being so generous towards me. I was just lost for words.

For the last few days, I had been of the mindset that I wouldn’t actually pursue any teaching jobs. Because I felt like I sucked at it. And because grammar could go fuck itself.

But then last night we had a wee graduation party at our school. And of course, as fate would have it – a lady who had taken the course with our teacher in Feb and who was now teaching in Costa Rica had come up to Guatemala for her border run. She had walked past the school earlier that day, swung in to say hi and ended up at our party.

We talked, and she told me she had gone through EXACTLY the same thing. She said it was entirely different, once you were out in the field. She said it was far more relaxed than she ever imagined. And all the students wanted was to practice their English and to have a laugh. And then she said this: She didn’t feel like it was really work, she had so much fun everyday.

And I was reminded of the social entrepreneur and the pastor. Maybe God does work in mysterious ways.