Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Harrowing Week

Well, where to start? Our lives were turned upside down within a week. 

On Monday April 16 the president of Nicaragua and his wife, who is also the vice president, bypassed congress and announced a major change to the social security program. The social security program has been mishandled for a long time and is close to bankrupt. The changes were increases to employee taxes and employer taxes. The biggest change was a 5% reduction to retirement pension pay outs. With already meager pension incomes the retired Nicaraguans can't made ends meet as it is, a 5% reduction created a panic.

Tuesday some elderly people went to the streets in protest over the changes. Unfortunately, the police overreacted and some peacefully protesting elderly people were injured by police batons. Understandably, this caused outrage from a lot of people. The university students reacted strongly and began to protest against the social security changes.

Wednesday the protests became more heated as the unarmed university students rallied and the police responded in force. The government shut down all of the independent news stations in effort to control the news being disseminated. This was a huge shock to everyone since the Nicaraguan constitution guarantees freedom of press as well as the right to organize and demonstrate peacefully. The government was clearly overstepping their authority in effort to maintain power. This strategy caused even more outrage among the people and only fueled the fire. Maybe the president didn't realize that more information is spread through social media than the news? Plenty of first hand reports were being shared through Facebook Live, Twitter, and other social media platforms.

By Thursday this had turned into a full blown conflict and as the university students rallied, the police arrived in riot gear and began throwing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets. Thursday morning I stocked up on food and water and charged all of our devices and battery packs expecting that we would likely have to stay in our house for a few days. Thursday afternoon the school notified the parents and suspended classes the rest of the afternoon and Friday. I picked up the kids from school and then waited in a long line to fill up the car with gas. It was surreal to see people filling barrels with gasoline; that's when I began to think this conflict may be more serious than I originally thought. It seemed that many people were expecting this unrest to last a while. That night the situation quickly devolved when live rounds were fired into the groups of university students and several students, and one police officer died. Many were injured that night.

These trees were installed throughout Managua and other parts of Nicaragua as a gift from the First Lady. She is extremely unpopular and many of them were torn down and burned as part of the anti-government protesting.

This is in front of the artisan market in Masaya. Masaya endured a particularly intense battle in the streets.

On Saturday morning we were all really sick of being stuck in the house for several days and really wanted to get out. Since the riots were mostly starting in the late afternoons and lasting until late in the night I felt it was safe enough to venture out Saturday morning to the grocery store.

The line to check out was halfway back the warehouse! The tension was palpable, no one seemed panicked but everyone felt that this was a grave situation. 
Sunday morning we received notice that church had been cancelled country wide by the Area Authority. Our bishop lives in our neighborhood and we invited him and another couple of families to our home for a short sacrament meeting. They came a little before 10:00 am. I hadn't looked at any of the news that morning and the bishop's wife told me that the night before many stores had been looted including some grocery stores. She was genuinely worried and even afraid. She looked me in the eye and said "I don't know how I will get milk for my kids." That comment really shocked me. I had the resources to stock up on food, including milk. I had a well stocked pantry and freezer and I knew my family could continue to eat for quite some time with just what I had on hand. However, many Nicaraguans buy food weekly or even daily. We knew that if the stores weren't able to reopen or restock, food could become scarce. If there were to be widespread food shortages the violence could really get out of control fast. It was the looting that changed our sense of security in our home and caused us to consider leaving. About 11:30 am we decided that it would be wise to leave the country.

At 11:30 am Mitchell drove to his office to print some of our residency documents and to see if the roads were clear enough for us to travel.

While Mitchell was gone I had a family council with the kids to explain what was going on and that we were going to leave. It was a hard conversation and felt really scary to tell the kids that we were basically fleeing. I wanted to stay calm at least on the outside so they wouldn't be scared but I did start to cry a bit. We knelt down and said a prayer and as soon as I asked for angels to accompany us on the journey I felt immense calm. It was confirmation enough for me that we were doing the wise thing.

I had each of the kids gather 3 changes of clothes and one "special thing." Meanwhile, I gathered all of the cash we had on hand and separated it into ziplock bags. I had seen videos of road barricades and heard of people having to pay bribes to get to the airport. I truly hoped and prayed that we wouldn't encounter any hostile barricades or have to pay any bribes. I prepared nonetheless. It was quite an experience reducing everything we own to 1 suitcase! Rather than feel loss at everything we were leaving behind, I just felt really blessed that we were together and safe. It's a huge blessing that we had the means and ability so easily leave and return to the US. I also felt good knowing that the useful things and food we were leaving behind would be distributed to those in need by a trusted friend.

When I checked on the kids they had gathered their 3 changes of clothes and Reid, our rule follower, added his prized wallet to the pile. Redick came out with 3 blankets and 2 stuffed animals and big tears coming down his cheeks, "Mom, I can't decide." I sobbed and hugged him and told him he definitely did not need to choose and to bring all of it. Audrey took matters into her own hands and stuffed as much of her precious things into a tote bag as would fit. When Mitchell got home with our residency renewal documents he removed the hard drive from our computer and we closed everything up and got in the car. We dropped off our house keys with a trusted friend with instructions to be sure to not let any of the food go to waste and we started for the border.

We were pretty nervous about how the road conditions would be. Our main goal was to get out of Managua without encountering any groups of people and to get to the border before dark. It was such a relief to find that the only thing that looked out of the ordinary leaving Managua were the long lines coming out of crowded gas stations.

So thankful I had waited in a much shorter line on Thursday to fill up our gas tank.

We did pass a roundabout that was conspicuously missing its metal tree; all that was left was a pile of burnt up wires. Once we left the city limits everything seemed completely normal, calmer than normal in fact. We definitely felt the prayers of many who were praying for us and angels leading our way. We made it to the border about 3:30pm with plenty of daylight left. We were very nervous about the border crossing. It is a nerve wracking experience anyway with about a dozen procedural steps and very unhelpful government agents. This time we were even more stressed because our residency cards had expired in March. We submitted the renewal forms well in advance of the expiration but the government is very slow and we didn't have anything but copies of the renewal forms and an email from the immigration office in Managua stating our renewal had been processed. We, along with many family members and friends, were praying we would be able to cross the border one way or another. Miraculously, the border agent checked our passports (with overstayed visas, since we were residents) and our expired residency cards and didn't even seem to notice the expired residency cards, let alone say anything. The other miracle was that he stamped our passports and sent us across the border to the Costa Rica entrance counter. There are usually about 6 steps in this process!! No one said anything about changing the process and there weren't long lines of people leaving the country either. It was simply a much needed and appreciated miracle. When we got to the Costa Rica border they didn't even have us fill out immigration forms. Just a passport stamp and "Welcome to Costa Rica." Such a blessing and a relief.

At the border we parked Mitchell's company car in a secure area and paid a guy to watch it for us for a week. Knowing that there was a chance it wouldn't be us coming to retrieve it, Mitchell gave the guy his business card and told him that if someone else came for the car they needed to give the office phone number as a password. Here we all are with our suitcase.

My whole world right there walking in to Costa Rica

Everyone was calm and in good spirits throughout the day. 

We made it! What a relief!
Last year we took a family trip to San Jose, Costa Rica. While there we met another mom from Utah and struck up a fast friendship. From the moment we met I knew it wasn't a coincidental meeting, we were mean't to become friends. At the time she was going through some hard challenges and I thought we must have met so that I could be a help to her through a lonely time. What a blessing to know someone in San Jose at this time of need! I texted her on our way out of Managua and explained our situation. I asked her if I could use her address in case the border agents ask us where and why we are entering Costa Rica. She was so generous and offered to let us stay with them that night and pick us up from the bus terminal. The border agents never asked for a destination address but right as we walked out of the Costa Rica border office, a bus headed for San Jose showed up! We bought $9 tickets and boarded the bus. What an enormous relief to have had everything with the drive and the border crossing go so smoothly. We got to relax for the 5 hour bus ride to San Jose, knowing a friend was there waiting for us.

It was a long bus ride and we didn't get to San Jose until after 11:30pm. As promised, Ashley and her husband Andres were waiting for us at the bus terminal. They took us to his grandparent's house and got us set up for the night. We are so grateful to their family for opening their home to us! In the morning we met the grandparents and they were so generous and kind. We ended up staying there for 3 nights instead of finding an Airbnb or hotel as we had planned. We had a fun couple of days in Costa Rica. The next morning was Monday and the US Embassy in Managua ordered all non-essential embassy staff and all family members of embassy employees to evacuate the country. We knew we had left at exactly the right time. When we read that notice we decided for sure that we wouldn't go back to Nicaragua. Mitchell's company was very accommodating and helpful. The HR director was able to completely re-book our plane tickets with no extra fees or cost. They were originally scheduled for June 29 from Managua to Sacramento, CA and she got me and the kids tickets for Wednesday that week from San Jose, Costa Rica to Salt Lake City. 

On Wednesday morning the kids and I arrived at the airport really early in the morning and got on a long flight to LAX. The kids were so good on our long flights! It helped that they each had a personal screen loaded with movies, cartoons and games. The fight attendant even gave them headphones for free! On our layover in Los Angeles they wanted to play hide and seek but I gave that idea a firm NO and suggested Red Light, Green Light instead. The layover passed quickly and our shorter flight to SLC was as enjoyable as the first. Even flying alone with 4 kids I was able to watch 2 movies and doze a little! Hooray!

Our first ever UBER!

Waiting to check baggage at 5:30am

Having fun feeling like tourists

Waiting for a pancake breakfast, with bacon!

What's an airport visit without a Cinnabon!!??!

My traveling buddies. They are great travelers!

These screens made the day so easy! Why are screens so hypnotic for kids?

That morning Mitchell took a bus from San Jose back to the border and drove our car back to Managua. He was able to spend Thursday sorting through our house with the help of 5 friends. Most of our stuff was donated to the community but Mitchell was able to bring another suitcase and a half back with him. He flew to SLC from Managua on Friday.

We are glad to be safe, home, and together.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Beach Day is Always a Great Day!

Two Saturdays ago we went to the beach for our weekend adventure. We always love the beach!! Before we left we checked the tide tables and unfortunately, the tide was going to be high at our favorite beach, El Transito. The waves get really big at high tide and it's too dangerous for our little swimmers. We decided to go to our least favorite beach instead, Pochomil. The sand and waves there are fine, we really dislike how commercialized it is. The only way to access the beach is through one of the many restaurants. Here's how it happens. When we drive to the access road to the beach there are half a dozen guys at the gate that run up to your car telling you to follow them to their restaurant. They are all basically the same. It is nice that you get free covered parking right there on the beach but you do have to order food that is mediocre at best. We are more of the pack sandwiches and bottled water beach minimalist types. It was a fun day anyway!

The boys out catching some waves

About an hour before sunset we noticed a tent set up on the beach renting 4 wheelers to the beach-goers. We weren't planning on renting one but just thought we would inquire about the price. Mitchell found out it was only $8 for 30 minutes! We couldn't pass that up. Mitchell, Redick, and Audrey took a 15 minute run up the beach and back. Then Reid, Layne, and I took our 15 minute turn. 

Now I know how this boy got SO sandy!

Redick learned how to cross his eyes and can't take a normal picture anymore!

Learning craziness from his big brothers!

Oh it was such a fun day!!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

El Hoyo

Mitchell had Thursday and Friday off work so we decided it was time to climb El Hoyo. El Hoyo is a really neat looking volcano in Leon. It last erupted in the 1950s but is not considered active now. The most distinctive feature is a giant perfectly circular sink hole along the slope of the volcano. The first time we drove through the volcano national reserve and saw El Hoyo and its giant hole we knew we wanted to go up there and check it out! It's taken us 21 months to get to it but it was worth the wait!

Here's a nice picture of the hunk in my life! And the sink hole in the background. Hehe.
We made our way to Leon on Wednesday evening so we would be ready to hike bright and early Thursday morning. At 7:00am we met our guides and the rest of the hiking group. We packed our gear and enjoyed a delicious breakfast together. A little after 8:00am we loaded our backpacks and ourselves into a couple of trucks and made way to the volcanoes!

Most of the group chose to go volcano boarding first thing. We decided to opt out since we have done it several times already and we knew the kids would need to be fresh in order to make it on the strenuous 5.5 mile hike up to the sink hole. While we waited for the volcano boarders we ended up discovering a few new fun outdoor games that we will play with the kids on other camping trips for sure! This trip was an overnight hike and we had to carry up all of our water for drinking, cooking, and washing. Each pack was pretty heavy with 8 liters of water per person. Of course our little kids were going to be challenged enough just hiking the trail, there is no way they could carry a heavy pack on top of that. We were able to hire a local rancher and 2 of his horses to carry our gear up and back down the trail. That was invaluable!! Audrey, Redick, and Reid each carried a small backpack with a few snacks and a 1 liter bottle of water that we kept refilled.

Right after lunch we started for the trail. For better or for worse the hardest part of the trail was the first 70 minutes. It was a very steep climb in full sun with no flat breaks. Knowing that we would be joining a group hike tour and that it would likely be a large group since it was spring break I gave the kids a challenge on Wednesday night. The challenge was to not be the weakest hikers in the group. They were totally up for the challenge! Reid charged up the trail along side the guide and earned himself the title of assistant guide! Redick and Audrey climbed strong and steady and even Layne walked a good portion of that uphill challenge! They were amazing. We hiked that day for about 4 hours and none of them were at any time the weakest hikers! 

Getting silly as we started up the steep trail
Our first snack and water break on the trail

Layne walked up most of the hardest part!! He was a champ.
After all of that hard work he was ready for a nap. Our kids can literally sleep anywhere. When Mitchell's back couldn't take it anymore I carried Layne a while and he stayed asleep as we transferred him and rigged up a carrier with Mitchell's belt. Once he woke up he walked about a half a mile until we arrived at camp.

We had a magnificent view of Momotombo in the background!!

Before sundown we arrived at our campsite for the night. We got our tents set up and walked up the trail to discover the hole, or El Hoyo. Then we climbed up to the summit of the volcano to watch the sun set. The view was magnificent! We could see the whole string of volcanoes all the way to San Cristobal!

There we are at the hole!

This was a large fumarole, or steam vent

We were all just as dirty as Reid!

All of those shadowed ridges in the background are volcanoes!! This is such an amazing place!

By the time we got back to camp it was fully dark and we were all very happy to find that the other 2 guides had started a camp fire, chopped a huge pot of veggies, and had our dinner of pasta with veggie tomato sauce all ready to eat! We were definitely HUNGRY!! We even roasted some marshmallows and the kids loved that. Some members of the group stayed up a little later but most of the group headed right to bed after dinner. This was no easy hike even for the adults!

We had a very early 5:00am wake up time on Friday so that we could get down off the volcano before the full heat of the day set in. We all got up and broke camp and packed everything up. Our family had arranged for a fresh horse to haul our gear down the second day so we got the horse loaded up and on its way. We didn't see the horse again but they had dropped our gear off at the trucks once we got all the way back from the hike.

We had an incredible view of the hole from our campsite!

The whole group!

The second day was very hot and was a longer trail than the first day. I used my GPS watch on the first day to measure our distance and it was 6 miles to our camp. The second day's hike was even longer so I estimate we hiked 13-14 miles in total!

Enjoying a well deserved rest!
The best part of the second day was visiting this lagoon!! In this photo you can see the shadow of the sink hole on the volcano in the background. That was our starting point that morning, we made it all the way to the lagoon by lunch time and the cool water was so welcome and refreshing! We had a quick swim for about 20 minutes. It wasn't long enough but we were tired and hungry and wanted to get back to the trucks before too late. After we dressed again we ate a delicious lunch of vegetarian burritos and it was back to the trail for us. Fortunately it was only 45 more minutes back to the trucks. Unfortunately, 20 of those minutes were a very steep incline! We were totally bushed.

This hike is one we have been looking forward to since soon after we moved here! It was awesome to finally do it. What fun it is to have strong and adventurous kids who love to join us on these adventures! Of course, it may very well be that they are the adventurous ones that drag us along. Mitchell and I could barely hobble out of bed the two days following his hike but the kids didn't seem phased at all!