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Safety helmets, gas-masks and sacrificial virgins

Since I last wrote, the marching band from the Merced church has settled down; we aren't getting any more 4:30am wake up surprises so I guess Saint Maria Auxiliadora has been duly celebrated. It has been pretending to rain, although I don't know that I'm overly impressed by the "wet season" yet... raining every day. Huh! We'll see. However, the lack of extreme rain every day means that we have managed to get out and do stuff that would otherwise have been overly damp. And I might add that when it rains, it really, really means it.

It was Mother's Day of the 30th of May, which is a pretty big deal over here. There are special events, and concerts, and our mobiles were getting sent advertisment text messages constantly in the week leading up to it. All the kids get the day off school (Happy mothers day, mum! You have to stay home from work and look after the kids!) and Kaleb's school had a mother's day outing on the day before. As you can imagine, I was somewhat trepidatious about such an outing, especially when I discovered that it would require food and drink and a "secret santa" style gift that the mothers were going to exchange.

So on the 29th of May, Kaleb and I set out for the school wearing our sturdy walking shoes (as requested) with a couple of packets of Pringles and a bottle of Sprite (as advised) and an fairly average picture frame in a gift bag (you can't go wrong with a frame!). When we arrived a school, the mothers and nannies were flowing in to the school and the kids were all dressed up. Kaleb goes to a private school, and this was made fairly clear by the car we got pooled into... a luxury 4WD with a DVD player and cranked air conditioning. Which was a relief because there were five little kids in the car and it took an hour to get out to the farm.

When I say "farm" I of course mean "monster coffee plantation with elegant sprawling grounds and ponds and walking paths and trellises". We went for an hour long walk through the plantations to admire the nature (I saw a squirrel and an iguana and had the mothers practice their English on me, so I responded in Spanish and we were all happy). Then we were taken back to the main area and force fed large quantities of food, before I was whisked off to another little open air room with all the mothers and a maid serving cake and coffee where I was force fed more food. Because you can only really say "no" to cake four or five times, before you realise they just won't stop asking till you eat a piece. After this the children gave us the gifts they made us at school (which were lovely) and we did the secret "santa" (I received four bright orange martini glasses which I hope to be able to bring back to Australia with me), and then we all went home again. All in all, not too scary.

On Mother's Day we took Kaleb to the Laguna De Apoyo as he had never been before, and we did lots of swimming and kayaking and general hanging out at the Monkey Hut, and of course played with the kittens. And we went to dinner at our new favourite restaurant called "Jimmy Three Fingers" and yes, it is run by a guy who is missing two fingers. (Which actually leaves eight remaining fingers but it doesn't have the same ring to it).

However, last weekend we went on a far more physically demanding activity that involved safety helmets again. Why is it that everything we do here seems to require safety helmets?

Our excursion took us to Volcan Masaya, the most active volcano in Nicaragua. It's half a hour drive from Granada up the Carretera Managua, and although you can go up there without a guide we decided that we would get one because firstly, we don't have a car and tour guides do, and secondly, we wanted to do the whole cave/bats/lava/tunnels thing, which you can't do without a guide anyway.

We were collected from Granada at four in the afternoon, because they do half of it in the dark. Because it's the "rainy season" the light has been quite impressive here in the afternoons because of the occasional cloud pretending to rain, so it was a nice drive up through national park surrounding the volcano. We stopped off at the museum, which is half way up the volcano, so we could have an impromptu geology lesson and see some artifacts that were discovered in the volcano. Okay, so I'm more of an art gallery fan than a museum fan, but what I really enjoyed about the museum what that it contained lots of art! We saw some earth cross sections, and diagrams of the different ways volcanoes erupt (comforting, when you're just down from a live one!), and some indigenous burial urns that were dug up in the caves we were going to visit, and lots of artistic depictions of the animals, indigenous ceremonies, and volcanic eruptions around the walls.

Once we'd had our cultural fill we hopped back in the van and headed up the volcano. Masaya is nowhere near as steep or as tall as Mombacho, and the surroundings are totally different - the further you get up Mombacho, the greener and more luxuriant the foliage gets. However, foliage doesn't seem to relish the huge plumes of sulfurous smoke that billow out of Masaya constantly, so as you get further up it becomes rockier and less green. There is a parking lot at the top, which is the first lookout point. Dave and I didn't take a photo of the sign up there, which was gold as far as signs went... it said something along the lines of "Masaya is an active volcano. Please take the necessary precautions. Park all cars facing the exit. If there is an eruption, the safest place is under your car. We recommend spending no more than 20 minutes at the crater. People with asthma and breathing difficulties should stay back". Apparently the last time Volcan Masaya had a spit was back in 2002, when a whole pile of rocks were flung around the car park. No people got damaged, but some cars suffered. The last time it blew lava was way back around the seventeen hundreds, when it threatened some local villages and rampaged into the Laguna Masaya. Apparently, the villagers were displeased by this turn of events and took a statute of the virgin Mary to stop the lava. Which apparently she did. There is apparently a scientific explanation also, but in Nicaragua people like to tell you that there are two histories for every event, and they tell the folklore one with great gusto and then they breeze over the scientific/factual/boring one quickly. And why not.

There was a small barrier around the tourist bit of the volcano; if it was in Australia I'm sure you wouldn't be allowed up it at all, and if you were it would be fenced off with barbed wire and you would have to sign a waver first. I really can't describe the awesomeness of looking into the crater, and photos can't do it justice. But you feel pretty damn small standing there watching the sulfur billow up, blotting out the sun and taking up the majority of sky. And staring into it is pretty big too. You can't see much, because it smokes so much, but you KNOW what's there.

After we had our first peek in, the nice national park ranger who was accompanying us told us we could get a better view if we followed him, so we wandered past the "Danger, authorised personnel only" sign down to the bit with no fences, where you can see three of the five smoking craters and some moonscape style slopes culminating in sheer drop into sulfur. Apparently, people go there at night and slide down the slopes on boards... volcano surfing. As long as you didn't veer off course! There was a section of flat earth under some of the moonscape slopes, which was where the Indigenous people of the region used to sacrifice the virgins to placate the hag goddess at the bottom of the volcano who dictated the rain. Very exciting. Apparently when the Spanish arrived, they saw all the skeletons littering the slopes and smelled the sulfur and thought it was the entrance to hell, and so built a massive cross at the top point (a replica of which remains today). As we were standing there appreciating the whole business, a great cloud of sulfur wafted our way, and we had our first taste of what hell allegedly smells like. Which is seriously intense. Imagine being in a confined space and having several boxes of matches struck in the immediate vicinity of your nose. So we moved along from that bit and climbed up to the cross. The path was all gravelly scree and it is very hard to walk up because you keep sliding back as though you're on skates. Then we went down the other side back to the car park for our next big climb.

We took the car up to the next walking track around dusk, because nothing says enjoyment like hiking up scree in the twilight. We went past another one of those "Danger" signs... very comforting! At the top, it was worth it. You could see the whole volcanic system, with all the little bits where lava had erupted in the land around the volcano, and one of the inactive craters as well. There was the added bonus of a couple of sky shows courtesy of one close and one distant thunderstorm, which were pretty thrilling to watch from that height. It almost made up for the scrambling down scree in the dark that we did next...

As it was completely dark we proceeded along to check out the bats. There are a series of interconnecting caves that run through the ground, some of which exit into the volcano, which is fun. We were met by some more park rangers who gave us hard hats and torches, and then we walked along the trail to the cave entrance. Along the way we saw some flashes of light in the bushes... little flying insects called "broken silver" in Spanish which flash on and off as they fly. Very cool. The first cave we went to was for bats only, and although we could have gone in there it all looked a bit precarious. However, we clambered down to the cave entrance and turned off our torches, and we could feel the bats flying around us. There are twenty thousand bats living in those caves, so there were quite a few. We stood still and waited for the bats to sound and then we'd turn on the torches, and you would see twenty odd bats at a time flying out of the cave into the night.

We left that cave and moved on to the one we were actually going into. It was situated under a particularly large tree, whose roots were visible through a lot of the cave. There was the added bonus of a couple of little baby bats who were asleep in the cave still, so we got to stare at them close up. The had little turned up noses which were very cute. We went quite a distance into the cave, until it turned from a tunnel into a big space. This was where the indigenous burial urns had been discovered. It was also where the people used to distill illegal maize liquor in the fifties, and where kids used to hide from the war "conscription" of the eighties. And we turned out the lights, to see just how dark total darkness really is.

When we left the cave it was pouring with rain, and it was all very adventurous finding our way up the path in helmets by torchlight in the teeming rain. Then we moved on the the final phase of our visit... lava. We drove a bit (at this stage, we were round the other side of the original crater) and were handed out gas masks. Then, our guide told us to go up to the park ranger but to be careful, because, you know, sheer drop into lava. Sadly, rain makes the sulfur thicken, which meant the lava wasn't as clear as usual, but we waited for a bit and could see the occasional bit of red glow down below when the sulfur cleared. Apparently on other nights you can actually see it bubble and stuff. Still, pretty damn cool. Then we all hopped back on the bus, sans gas masks and other paraphernalia, and trouped back to Granada.

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Yep, I'm loving the gas masks: it's a little slice of Berlin nightlife, right there on a volcano in South America...