Monthly Archives: February 2016

One of the most frustrating things about travelling in Latin America

There are several things in Latin America that try your patience if you let them – people who take one look at you and push in line in front of you because they assume you don’t speak the language, waiting for who-know-how-long when the chicken bus you are on stops for who-knows-what reason (there is never an explanation), people writing cheques at the supermarket checkout (yes, some countries still do this!)

Over the years, I’ve learned to relax and chill out when these things happen – after all, the pace of life in many of these countries (at least outside of the major cities) is very different to that in Australia, and most of the time I’m not really in any great hurry anyway.

But the one thing that really frustrates me is withdrawing money from an ATM.  The process itself is really no different to withdrawing money from an ATM in Australia and it all goes well nine times out of ten (though there are some ATMs that don’t take Mastercard, only VISA or Cirrus/Maestro).  You can even choose whether you want to have instructions in English or Spanish.

The problem is: they always spit out ridiculously large notes that you simply cannot use in an everyday scenario.

Ridiculously large denominations ATMs give out

For example – here I have 1000 Córdobas (~AUD$50) that includes 200 and 500  Córdoba notes (you can probably get away with the 100 Córdoba note). Given that a can of coke costs 7 Córdobas, and to pay 200 Córdobas for an everyday item means its a pretty expensive purchase … breaking the 200, let alone the 500 is not necessarily an easy thing to do – especially if you are travelling alone (and therefore buying for 1) and are on the road at the equivalent of a truck-stop or in a non-touristy town!

The only hope is to:

  1. buy something that is relatively expensive or stock up on enough junkfood so that the large note is accepted 🙂   Problem is that you probably have better things to do with the money…
  2. buy some stuff in a supermarket so they can break your big notes into smaller ones
  3. ask a bank to change them into smaller notes (I’ve done this more than once – withdrawn the money outside, then walked in and joined the queue in the bank)
  4. approach a money-changer (who usually changes money from $USD to local currency) and ask for help

The slight problem is that the town I’m in for these first 2 months:

  1. doesn’t have a supermarket, only pulperias (kind of like corner shops)
  2. doesn’t have a bank
  3. doesn’t have money-changers

All of these things are a 20-30 minute microbus trip (10 Córdobas) away (more on microbuses in a future post).

OK, granted, I’m in a very small and (apart from students studying spanish) not very touristy place, but still… it presents challenges.

You learn very quickly as you start to travel around Latin America that you guard your small change with your life, even though every person you buy something from will ask you if you “have something smaller” to pay with.   Don’t feel sorry for them and get suckered in!   At least not unless you, and they, are absolutely desperate.   They are also guarding their small change with their lives 🙂

Exercising at La Mariposa

Am trying to maintain fitness now that I’ve had to give up boxing to travel and am trying to get the whole self-motivation thing happening, something I find very difficult to do!

My plan is to do one of the workouts from the 12 minute athlete  3-4 times/week and then some body-weight strength training on the other days.   So far I’m managing the first part…

I’m using the biggest of the outdoor classrooms (where they also do salsa dancing classes each Friday) as my gym.

My gym at La Mariposa

And, I have a trainer – Molly!

Molly - my trainer at La Mariposa

Supporting Local Artists – Concert at La Mariposa

La Mariposa supports lots of things within the community of La Concepcion and has added a concert by local artists to the program.   This is a local family and some of their friends performing Mexican and traditional Nicaraguan music for us.   My favourite was Nicaragua Mia – love the line “soy puro pinolero”



And there was even dancing 🙂

supporting local artists


My schedule at the minute

OK – I know I’ve been here for 2 weeks for very few blog posts, but you won’t believe me if I try to explain how busy I am!  A rundown of my day:

5am (ok, so I haven’t quite made it out of bed at 5am yet, but I’m getting closer!  Currently 5:30am): wake up and review the Spanish homework I did the afternoon before.

6am: Exercise.  Mostly doing 12-minute-athlete stuff, but also some bodyweight strength training as well (ok, I admit it, I haven’t actually started the bodyweight strength training yet … this week!)

6:45am:  Wash clothes.  Given I’m only travelling with 4 shirts, 2 pairs of pants and very limited underwear, I have to wash almost every day!  If I don’t have to wash, try to read another few pages of my book in Spanish.

7:15am:  Breakfast.  World’s best granola with fresh fruit (usually a combination of pineapple, paw paw, watermelon, banana and rockmelon), followed by something small and hot from the kitchen.  Today it was pancakes with honey, but more typically it is gallo pinto (one of the most common dishes in Nicaragua that is made of rice and beans) or a variation thereof, served with fresh tomatoes and fried plantain.

Parf of the awesome breakfast at La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol

8:00am: Grammar class with Eliza

9:50am:  Morning tea.  The school has an abundance of bananas that you can help yourself to at any time out on the patio and they always make fresh fruit juice for the break.

10:10am:  Conversation class with a different teacher each week

12:00pm:  Lunch.  Taken with all the other students out on the patio.   Almost always vegetarian, almost always incredible!

1:00pm:  Time out for email/social media.  The only thing I read in english.

2:00pm:  Homework

5:00pm:  Mosey down to the kitchen to see what Chayo, Jardelina and Bretannia are cooking for dinner, write down the recipe if I don’t already have it and take photos for the cookbook

5:45pm:  Pre-dinner entertainment.   There are 2 chickens here that entertain us by leaping up to a high perch every night with a great deal of extensive and noisy flapping.   Yes, we cheer them on 🙂

Jumping chicken at La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol

The white one in the photo has been lazy the past couple of nights and only 1/2 jumped and then crawled the rest of the way up through the vines – very disappointing.    However, the superstar that appears in this video of the jumping chicken at La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol (courtesy of Sven Hanson – thanks Sven!) has kept up the performance 🙂


6:00pm:  Dinner.  Always includes dessert which is usually awesome.

And here’s the hardest thing to get used to — it is pitch dark by 6:10pm.   So by the time 7pm rolls around, it feels like 10pm and everyone starts heading to bed.   But last time I was here, and for the past week and a half, there has been a group of us who sit around after dinner just relaxing and chatting.  Thank you guys for making this a really lovely and interesting part of the day!  Was very sad to see you go on Saturday!

post-dinner chat crew

Around 8:30pm or 9:00pm we head to our rooms and I try to do about an hour of reading before turning out the light.

Oh and somewhere in there I’m trying to also keep my own journal… And this get this blog going…

Did I mention they were very full days?!    And that is without the added extras – I’m also taking photographs of many of the projects the school does and do that some afternoons.   There’s also a couple of activities that I didn’t do last time I was here and will do this time.

All good and fun times though 🙂

La Mariposa Escuela de Español

Thought I’d write a bit more about La Mariposa Escuela de Español so you get a good idea of what I’m doing and where I am for the first 2 months of my trip.

The school is located in a small town about 45 minutes from Managua and an hour from Granada.  It is owned by Paulette (originally from the UK) and is the best Spanish school experience I’ve ever come across (and I’ve been to a few Spanish schools over the years!).  I came here for a month back in 2012/2013 and there was no question that I would return.  So it forms the natural jumping off point of my trip, 10 months of which is in Spanish-speaking countries.

Aside from being outside of a major, or touristic, city, La Mariposa has several other distinguishing characteristics (you can read much, much more at their extensive website):

Its teachers are absolutely first-rate! They come from the local community and are specially trained to teach Spanish to visitors.  They also have a program of continuous professional development so that all the teachers remain current and are introduced to different ideas.  During conversation class (more on this in a minute), it’s pretty common for you to head out into the town and walk around with your teacher while conversing, which is great experience given that the way people talk in the street is very different to how the teachers talk in the school.   The teachers speak slowly and clearly (though they speed up and speak more naturally with advanced students) because all of the classes are in Spanish – there is no English even if you come here not knowing a word!  Trust me, this is the way to do it and they are very, very skilled at ensuring that you can understand what’s going on and can progress quickly.    The classes here are held outside under cover (it is always warm in Nicaragua) in “classrooms” scattered throughout the grounds.  Advantage is that you can bird and butterfly watch while studying 🙂

conversation class at la mariposa escuela de espanol

Grammar and conversation classes are usually held in outdoor classrooms

It has a really nice eco-hotel attached if you do not wish to stay in a homestay (there are pros and cons to both options) and it is set in beautiful grounds with quite a few short walking trails. They specifically plant trees and bushes to attract birds and butterflies to the grounds so there is never any shortage of flora and fauna.

eco-hotel at la mariposa escuela de espanol


Walking trails

Molly walking the trails

The school cooks lunch for all of its students Monday – Friday. This is absolutely genius because it fosters a sense of community amongst the students at the school.   At all the other Spanish schools I’ve been to, you might see the other students for 5-10 minutes before class and on one of the activities that sometimes run in the afternoon, but that’s it.    Here, everyone congregates for lunch and its really easy to meet new people and make friends.

Testament to this is the fact I keep in touch with at least 6 people I met last time I was here and I got to reconnect with one of them face-to-face over the last 2 weeks! Phil was back again (Phil is an awesome guy with incredible enthusiasm for everything – but especially for all things that fly and things that crawl through the undergrowth at night) and I got to meet his lovely mum, Sue, as well!

Old friends

I was at La Mariposa with Phil 2 years ago – another repeat learner.

Actually – there are a LOT of repeat customers.  The school is very full at the moment (much less so next month which is not good!), and of those students, I would say about ½ of them have been here before and elected to come back to continue their studies.  It’s just that kind of place.

If you choose to do the activity program (rather than the volunteer program) there are activities every day of the week. Other Spanish schools usually offer only 1 or 2 activities per week.  Activities include:

  • visiting the projects the School is involved in in the community
  • hiking and horse riding around San Juan de la Concepcion
  • a Nicaraguan cooking class
  • Nicaraguan history classes (really interesting!)
  • visiting local artisans
  • visiting local markets
  • hiking the 2 closest volcanos
  • longer day trips each Saturday (to the beach, to Granada)

and much more.

activites at la mariposa escuela de espanol

Activity schedule for the month and the sign-up board for this week.

It has one of the most varied volunteer programs of any school – anything from reading to school children, to working with children with disabilities, to working with animals, to working on the farm growing the food, to helping prepare the food in the kitchen.  I’m actually creating a recipe book for the school while I’m here this time that showcases the awesome, and predominantly vegetarian, food that the school cooks for its students.

It has an ethos of sustainability – all the buildings are built using ecologically friendly methods, they grow as much of their own food as they can, they rescue animals.

Condor the dog

Condor was the first of the local dogs rescued by Paulette 9 years ago.

It does a lot of great work in the community of La Concepcion– currently 18 projects on the go through their NGO: La Association de Tierra.

Its very family-friendly – there have been 5 families here in the past 2 weeks!

My recommendation is, if you want to learn Spanish, don’t try to learn in a non-spanish speaking country.  Although the airfares are expensive (at least from Australia), it is infinitely better to come to central America and attend a Spanish school here.  You will learn way more in 1 month than you will learn in several years back in (for example) Australia and it won’t actually end up costing you much, if any, more money to reach the same level of proficiency (once you are here, Central America is very cheap).    And you don’t need to come for a month – many people come for 1-2 weeks and then travel afterwards.   Oh, and while you are saving for the airfare, you can do skype lessons for USD$10/hour!   Of course, the time difference between Australia and Central America is truly horrible, but it is possible and very worthwhile – I did several before returning this time 🙂

OK – so a bit more about how the formal part of the school works.    Basically you have 4 hours of Spanish Monday to Friday, and usually 1-1 with a teacher.  2 hours of this is grammar class (I’ve learned so much about English grammar by studying Spanish!) and, at La Mariposa at least, they try to make sure you have the same grammar teacher for the length of your stay.  The other 2 hours (after a 20-minute break) is conversation where you start to put into practice the grammar you are learning.  Here your teacher changes each week so you can experience different ways of speaking and learn about the Nicaraguan culture from different perspectives.  Yes – it is full-on (even for advanced students like me), particularly if you are really serious about improving.   But because of this, it is possible to improve fairly quickly if you put in a bit of effort.

student in grammar class at la mariposa escuela de espanol

Each outdoor classroom is equipped with a whiteboard to help with learning grammar and new vocabulary.

I have the same grammar teacher this time as what I had last time and I absolutely love her!   My main goal on a daily basis is to impress Eliza with my homework, and over the past week I’ve managed to do it 3 out of 4 times 😉     I’m at the point now where my written Spanish (especially after the last 2 weeks) is excellent and with few errors – even when I’m playing with very complicated sentence structures.

The homework she has set me is to:

Read in Spanish for at least 20 minutes/day. I try to get an hour in at least and am currently reading a chick-lit book “Maggie ve la luz”/”Maggie sees the light”, a Marian Keyes book translated into Spanish from English.   Its slow-going (but getting faster) and a really good way to further study the use of the different parts of the grammar, as well as learn vocabulary and useful phrases.

Write. I’ve probably taken this to the extreme and have been writing for 2-3 hours per day.   Ok – granted – that equates to only 1000 words at this stage but I firmly believe that a big chunk of this time is taken up creating the story.    To speed things up a bit and to give us more writing to correct the next day I actually write ~500 words of a made-up story (for some reason I tend to write romances :-/) and ~500 words that I’ve transcribed from something on the internet written in English.   The first 500 words takes me over 2 hours (because I make up the story as I go along), the second 500 words take me about 40 minutes.   Really hope I’m going to get faster at this as well… but at least I make very few mistakes!

Then yesterday I mentioned that I also have a bunch of podcasts here from a Chilean radio program, so there is now:

Listen to at least 20 minutes of this each day. The main problem I have with this is that the Chileans speak VERY quickly and sloppily so it is quite hard to understand.  Eliza asked me today how much I understood last night and I said about 50% (I can understand 100% of what she, and the other teachers say to me without even trying).   She looked surprised so I played her a bit and then she understood 🙂    She said I definitely have to continue with this exercise and I have always thought that if I can finally understand Chilean Spanish, I can understand anyone!

So far this time I’ve had Alba and Katy for my conversation teachers – both really interesting women!  Interested to see who I’ll be chatting with next week.

The Journey Begins

Well, the big day finally arrived!

After far too many farewells, I’m now on my 12 month journey which currently looks like this:

  • February – March 2016:  perfecting my spanish at La Mariposa Escuela de Español in La Concha in Nicaragua.
  • April – June 2016: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala
  • July 2016: Cuba
  • August – November 2016 : Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile (of course 🙂 )
  • November/December 2016: Kenya
  • December/January 2017: Ethiopia

Here it is pictorially with the current basic stops plotted:


Yes, there are some crazy flights in there to keep the cost of the airfare down – a million thank yous to Craig Neville at Flight Centre in Geelong – you are a legend!  And Taryn for recommending him 🙂    Will update as I go along and it will be interesting to see how much it changes, or whether I simply fill in the details.

Qantas helpfully decided to cancel my direct flight to Dallas and so I ended up having to fly Sydney – LAX – Dallas-Fortworth.   According to Qantas my plane was still in London with a missing engine, however, I suspect that they had 2 half-full planes and decided to combine to the two flights.

Synopsis of movies from SYD-LAX flight:

  • The Dressmaker” – really, really good!   Highly recommended
  • Everest” – might have lost something on the tiny screen – was OK
  • Sicario” – meh

Surprisingly there was no wait at immigration at LAX, which turned out to be a good thing given the massive queue I joined waiting to get through the TSA checkpoint over at the American Airlines terminal for the flight to Dallas.  Why do those TSA lines move so slowly?

Still – made it eventually, got to the Marriott Courtyard Hotel and was relieved to see all 4 parcels from Amazon waiting for me.  I had ordered a bunch of camera accessories given they were about 1/4 the price in the US than in Australia (yes, even with the terrible exchange rate).     Hotel was nice, and close to the airport – but that meant it was a long way from anything useful.  There was only coffee in the room and when I went down to reception to ask for tea … no joy.   Good thing I packed some rooibos!   Then I asked about plain, no-added-sugar yogurt (they had other types of yoghurt there in a little mini-mart) given I’d also bought some muesli with me … again no joy.   So I asked for a small carton of milk that I could see, and they felt so sorry for me about the tea and the yoghurt that they gave it to me for free!   Had to make my tea via the coffee pot in the room but thankfully the taste of coffee wasn’t too strong 🙂

Next day at Dallas-Fortworth airport again, I believe I temporarily fell into a parallel universe when there was absolutely no other passengers at the TSA checkpoint.  Seriously!  Good thing too because I had a) forgotten to take my shoes off and b) didn’t actually know I had to take my jacket (actually just a long-sleeved zip up top) off.    What is it with the shoe thing?

Wandering Dallas-Fortworth and very, very impressed to come across the yoga studio – what an unbelievably cool idea!

Yoga Studio at DFW airport Yoga Studio at DFW airport

Also had the best view in the airport out to the planes, so entertained myself for about 1/2 hour following along with the yoga video that is on continuous play.   Every airport should do this!

Flight to Nicaragua was uneventful, though was disappointed that the movie “Sherlock Holmes” (from a few years ago) was not as good as I’d hoped.   Changed my remaining Australian Dollars at the airport (I didn’t want to know the exchange rate to know how badly I was being ripped off – but I know it was bad) and was met by Josue – one of the drivers from La Mariposa Escuela de Español.    The school is located in San Juan de la Concepcion which is about a 45 minute drive from the capital of Managua.  We chatted all the way to the school and I was shown to my room in the Eco-hotel — the same room I stayed in 2 years ago when I was here for a month 🙂

The rooms really are lovely at the hotel – very simple but with a private bathroom that normally has hot (solar) water.  Very much a luxury in this part of the world.

Room in Eco-hotel at La Mariposa Spanish School

Room in Eco-hotel at La Mariposa Spanish School

Was very pleased to have finally arrived and felt immediately like was back in a place I really wanted to be 🙂  It is a very special place this one!