Volcano Boarding?

meAfterAt some point along the way, someone with a lot of imagination looked at a live volcano and said, “I think I’ll slide down the side of that volcano on a board. I’ll call it volcano boarding”. This person was a nut. Brilliant, though.

I have to add that, because I went volcano boarding today.

Actually, I have been up and down two volcanoes in the last three days, though I only slid down one of them on a board. Both were live volcanoes, and both had erupted fairly recently (one of them last year, the other in 1999), but for me the comparison pretty much stops there. The two could not have been more different. The first one, which we climbed on Christmas day, was Telica, which last erupted in 2011. It’s a long, beautiful hike to the top, through an alternating pattern of rugged red igneous terrain and lovely peaceful meadows.

San Cristobal day before eruption

San Cristobal shortly before its most recent eruption.


San Cristobal Erupting

San Cristobal erupting, a couple of days after the previous photo. Incidentally, the reddish volcano to the right, just in front of San Cristobal, is Telica.

As we climbed we were able to see another volcano more and more clearly – Telica offers an extremely good view of the San Cristobal volcano, which started erupting the night of December 25th (just hours after the photo here was taken). That volcano is currently throwing out massive quantities of ash and smoke, and a “Yellow” alert has been called for the area – the second highest disaster warning level in Nicaragua.

So. We arrived at the top, by design, at just before sunset, watched the sunset, then walked around the crater to a point where we were able to look down in the dark to see and hear the lava (or is it magma?) at the bottom, about 125 meters down. I lay on my  belly at the edge, found a suitable rock (not having a tripod with me), and held my camera perfectly still for a few long exposures – 6 seconds, 8 seconds, 11 seconds. Here is one of the photos that resulted:

the lava flow at the bottom of the crater of the Telica Volcano in northern Nicaragua.

A long exposure of the lava flow at the bottom of the crater of the Telica Volcano in northern Nicaragua.

That was Telica. Cerro Negro, where Cas and I went volcano boarding today is what is known as a basaltic cinder cone volcano. It is almost completely black and lifeless, but for the occasional plant struggling between the rocks.  On one side of it are great boulders (and smaller stones), thrown up by the force of various explosions, while the slope on the other side is a fine grain – not sand, exactly, but too small to be called stones. In the centre is a horseshoe-shaped crater of black, yellow, red and white (carbon, sulphur, iron and iodine) with a bulge in the middle that is slowly growing under pressure from below. We were told today that volcanologists say that it is due to blow some time soon, but that there is a monitoring station that ought to be able to give about 2 days notice before it happens.

Yeah, well. The cone is slowly growing. That’s all I needed to know.  Incidentally, Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America at only 162 years old (it first appeared in 1850).  It sticks out of the green surrounding area like a black pimple.

So basically, what you do is walk to the top of the volcano. It’s a 40 degree angle, so needless to say you don’t climb straight up but rather wind around the outside a bit, on the “back” side where all the boulders are. You walk along the rim of the crater, and then come out on top. Look at the view. Pose for some pictures. Get into your overalls (we had signed up with a good tour company, which offers these green and yellow coveralls along with elbow and knee pads, in addition to gloves and goggles. We saw some others going down in their regular clothes with just goggles and did not envy them).


Cas skootching down the side of the volcano. At least, we said, if it starts to erupt while we’re on it we will have a quick way down!

Then you get on your board, do a little training session with the guide, and either shoot down like a toboggan or swoosh down like a snowboarder. We tobogganed.

And yes, it was a blast. But not that bad, eruption kind of blast.

Sunset from Telica Volcano.

Sunset from Telica Volcano.


Leave a comment

Filed under Composition, darkness, Travel

Iglesia San Juan Bautisto de Subiata

Sun in Church Ceiling

This sun was placed in the ceiling of the church to convince the sun-worshipping indigenous people that God was, indeed, inside the building – or so the story goes, at least.

I’m back in León!

Actually, Cas and I are here together. Cas is my partner in crime (and life) and we decided that a vacation was a good idea, as it often is. And since I was hoping to return to Nicaragua this month or next to continue the photo project I have been pursuing with the community of Santa Julia (on that, more in another post), Cas suggested that a visit to León and the Corn Islands (a pair of islands off Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast) was an idea she could get behind. Needless to say, I agreed, and here we are, for a week in León followed by several days on Big Corn… followed by another week, on my own, in Santa Julia and Managua.

As my friends know, I like to visit places of worship when I travel, and León has several really interesting ones. One in particular, which I didn’t have time to visit last time I was here, is the Iglesia San Juan Bautisto de Subiata (the Church of Saint John the Baptist of Subiata).

Altar Detail - San Juan Bautista de Subiata

Part of the Christmas decorations on the altar at the Subiata church.

Subiata is a barrio of indigenous people, descendents of the original inhabitants of the region. This church was established by missionaries intent on converting the natives.

The problem the missionaries faced was this: that the indigenous peoples worshipped the sun, or at least a god symbolised by the sun. This meant that it seemed ridiculous to them that Christians worshipped indoors, and they refused to go into the church, at least to pray.  So conversion was difficult.

But we should never underestimate the creativity of a missionary intent on seducing someone to his faith!  The priests thought about it and, in the true Christian tradition of integrating the beliefs and practices of other faiths into one’s own, they had a metal sculpture of a sun made. This they placed in the ceiling of the Church to show that God was, indeed, inside. And the story is that the people converted.

Now, I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but it is a cool story, and that sun is still there, very beautifully ‘shining’ from the ceiling of this very beautiful church, which was in the process of being decorated for Christmas while we were there.

That’s it at the top. Happy holidays!

preparing the Church

Men prepare the decorations for Christmas day. These banners are pretty typical, but most of the ones I have seen were yellow and white – the papal colours. This is the first time I have seen red, which I very much prefer.


Filed under Travel

Dedicated to a Newtown School


photo made in the Cathedral in Catarina, Nicaragua – Dec. 8, 2011.

I have started a new blog on my portfolio website, which is http://brucetoombs.ca.  This site is mirrored there more or less (I have to deliberately import), but I’m also writing different things there.

Here is the latest post from that site, put up a couple of days ago, about the Newtown massacre.

– B

I lack words to describe how I am feeling about the Newtown massacre, in which 20 little children were murdered in their classroom. So in their memory I am offering an image and a poem, which William Butler Yeats published in 1919. It expresses as well as anyone every could the horror I feel.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(source: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html)


Filed under Photography and life

Hey León! You’re STINKING HOT but I like you.

I have several things to write about, but a couple of them are going to have to wait until I get home, because the photos I want to use really are crying out for particular edits in Photoshop, and I don’t want to just post the jpgs. I leave Nicaragua tomorrow morning, alas, but at least that means I can get to the computer next week at some point and edit a few of the … well, lots and lots of photos I’m bringing back with me.

Naturally, I’ll post some of them right here!

So I am in León, which is one of the main colonial cities of Nicaragua, north of Lake Managua (Lago Xolotlán, to use the aboriginal name for the place, which is commonly used here). Except for an hour or two passing through on the way to the beach, I had never been here before, and little did I know how much I was missing out! León is great.


The great Nicaraguan writer, Rubén Darío, is buried in the Basilica de l’Asunción in León, which is the city’s main cathedral. The cathedral has several lions around and inside it, of which this one, in perpetual mourning, guards the poet’s final resting place.

In Nicaragua, there are two large cities I consider tourist spots : Grenada and León (nope, Estelí isn’t in the list. But you should go there). Grenada is polluted by tourism, though. The whole place feels like one big tourist trap. Also, a lot of foreigners have moved there and some of them have made asses of themselves, which doesn’t help a bit.  Don’t get me wrong: Grenada is beautiful and worth a visit, and from there you can see many of the things every tourist in Nicaragua must try to see – the Laguna de Apoyo, the Mombacho cloud forest, Las Isletas de Grenada, Catarina and the Pueblos Blancos, and … well, you get the idea. But Granada itself? I am sure there are many people who would disagree, but I would stay for a day or two at most.

Four of these guys hold up the Cathedral bells. I took advantage of the roof tour to take more shots like this than shots of the view.

León, on the other hand…! Aside from the almost unbearable heat (it’s a two or three shower a day climate and I’m not a big fan of hot weather), this is a vibrant, lovely city with cultural sites worth visiting (a very good gallery of Latin American art, for example, which also had a couple of Picasso and Miró etchings I had never seen before), good restaurants (I recommend Bar Baro, not all that far from the cathedral and the gallery), and at least one great hostel (La Tortuga Booluda, where I stayed, but I understand a lot of them are excellent). The fact that it is a colonial city founded in 1524, that it served a couple of times as Nicaragua’s Capital City, and that much of the original architecture survives… well, none of this hurts one bit.

So all that to say that I have been having a stellar time here, and I hope to come back ASAP, but this time for more than just two nights. Maybe next summer.

Another cat picture.
Many of the houses in León are painted in these kinds of bright colours.

Iglesia Pilar de Zaragosa, which is not far from the hostel where I am staying. Pigeons have taken up residence in the bell tower.

It’s hard to get a straight-on shot of the Cathedral these days, as they are renovating the park in front of it and there is a high metal wall blocking access to it from the street. I got this shot by standing on a hunk of concrete and carefully lifting my camera over the top of the fence… all the while trying not to cut my arms on the edge of the corrugated zinc.


Filed under Photography and life

Walkabout in Panamá Soberana

Last Thursday I went walking around Estelí a bit, taking pictures as I went. Without further comment, here are some of them.

(As always on this trip, I am not able to edit my photos much, and these are jpegs more or less straight from the camera (I have been doing minor adjustments in the Microsoft Picture manager in the cyber cafe I work from. Needless to say, it is not a subtle tool). I’m looking forward to getting home soon, where I will be able to dump all my RAW files into Lightroom and Photoshop!)

And of course, there I go – offering further comment after promising no further comment!

To the photos!

in the barrio of Panamá Soberana, on the other side of the river from downtown.

A view of a kitchen in Panamá Soberana, where Nacatamales are made. Nacatamales are cornmeal and/or rice with various spices and meat, wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled until done. Very tasty if done right. A mushy mess when done wrong.

Also in Panamá Soberana.

Also in Panamá Soberana. If I were into selective colour, I would probably select for green in this photo.

This is the bridge leading into the barrio of Panamá Soberana, where most of these images were taken. The view here is away from that Barrio and towards the main part of the city.

Looking away from the bridge, upstream along the Rio Estelí (Estelí River). The water is low right now, but when it rains heavily it can sweep you away.

Making furniture in Panamá Soberana. I really love the name of this Barrio, and it has quite a few small workshops like this one.

Nice Dog, living two doors down from where I am staying, NOT in Panamá Soberana (in case you were wondering).

Washing up. This was taken in the family home where I have been staying for most of the last six weeks.

And that’s all! See you in a couple of days.


Filed under Photography and life, Street photography, Travel

Meat & Veggies

Ah, Shopping.

I have to admit that I am rather fond of this first picture, but that might be  because I had to wait quite a while, hunkered in a corner, waiting for everyone (dog, humans) to move into position. But that’s photography. It often involves a lot of patience.

Apparently there is only one municipal slaughterhouse in Estelí, which does not operate every day of the week, but which does operate on Wednesday and/or Thursday, so the meat is freshest Thursday (I have not been able to verify this so it falls into the category of “so they say”, and your mileage may vary).
I think the dogs are happy with the meat on pretty much any day of the week, though.

Every couple of days while staying in Estelí, I have been walking over to the market at 6 AM to meet people and take pictures. Ostensibly, the point is the photos – I think I said in another post that I really like the market first thing in the morning because you see things then that you often can’t see at other times of day, and besides, it being 6 AM the light outside is better than later in the day – the sun is low in the sky; the light has a slightly golden hue to it, and all that good stuff that causes photographers to call the little while just after sunrise (and just before sunset) the “golden hour”.

But there is more to it than that – the people in the market seem to be in a pretty good mood early in the morning, even though they are generally working pretty hard. Nicaraguans are usually welcoming and friendly when you approach them, especially with a camera (most love to have their pictures taken). But they seem even more accessible in the market first thing in the morning. Maybe its the sense of a new day and all the things it will bring; maybe it’s the abundance of the market when it is first set up; maybe it’s my imagination. Who knows? Anyway, I like it.

So here are a couple of guys I rather enjoyed meeting.

Gustavo Castro Rodriguez

Gustavo Castro Rodriguez and I spoke for a few minutes in the meat alley, where he was laughing and commenting on the fact that I was taking a lot of pictures while getting low on my knees, and because I was making sure to get a dog in a couple of the shots (like the one at the top of this post). He is a very jovial guy, laughing a lot, and very happy to make your acquaintance at 6:15 or so in the morning.
His initial pose in his chair was rather jaunty, with one hand on the mirror and his head tilted to one side, but it didn’t quite work. The angle on this shot is a bit more straightforward, but it’s a shot that you can see… and that shows his character somewhat, I think.
Gustavo, others told me, was injured during the Contra War during the 80s. I should have just asked, but silly me, I had a moment of shyness about asking why his legs were gone. If I can meet him again (this is a possibility) I will ask and if the story is not what I was told I’ll post a correction. But anyway, what a nice guy.
Tomás Oroscos Blandón (I added the accents based on how he said his name. I hope I’m right) was wearing a BlueJays hat! Obviously, this was someone to talk to.
Tomás is a campesino in for the day at the market. He seemed attached to the corner stall where I was taking photos of a guy cutting the ends of some yucca.

Tomás Oroscos Blandón

He approached me to ask where I was from. Someone who had met me on another day in the same place told him I was from Canada, and he started asking me what I thought about the market.
“There is a lot of poverty in Nicaragua,” he said, “are you taking pictures of poverty?”
“No,” I replied in my broken spanish, “I’m taking pictures of Nicaragua. And anyway, there isn’t much poverty here. The market is full of abundance.”
“Nicaragua isn’t the poorest country. Haiti is poorer.”
I agreed that yes, it was.
“But Canada is rich.”
Again, I had to agree.
“But it’s warm here, and cold there.”
… I didn’t really have the heart at this point to say that Canada had been experiencing a heat wave and that it was probably warmer in Toronto and Montreal than Estelí at the moment.
“Sometimes,” I said.
When I asked Tomás his name, I wrote it down. He also took my book and wrote his first name in spidery letters. I suspect he might not be able to write much.
So there you have it:  just a glimpse of my morning trip to the market. One of these days I might also actually buy something.
And until next time, here are some  more of this morning’s shots!

Trimming Yucca.

More Meat. It is sold at the ambient temperature.


Filed under light, Portraiture, Street photography, Travel

Sun, Dust, and Poverty

A man carries water to his home at the top of the hill.

One week in rural Nicaragua, and I don’t know when I will run out of stories about it, if I ever do. The village I just got back from is quiet and tranquil, with dark nights and unreliable electricity. There are no paved roads. Food comes largely from what the people themselves can  hunt, raise, or grow – and while they also earn money through jobs picking coffee, working at a sugarcane plantation, and doing various other things, unemployment hovers at between 40% and 60%. The village has only a couple of motorized vehicles, one of which is a pickup truck (the others are motorcycles – I think there are two of them), and these are easily outnumbered by horses, of which there are also only a handful, and bicycles. Most people walk everywhere.

People often keep birds as pets. This was taken in the kitchen.

So obviously, after a week, I must have a thousand stories! The question is:  where to begin?

I was there for a photo project I had worked out with the community leaders. The idea was to document, as much as possible in a week, the life and work of the community while also taking as many portraits as possible. I went around to almost all the houses and tried to take photos of everyone there. I also followed people around as they worked in the fields, doing laundry, cooking, and so on… I even went with some sugarcane workers to the plantation where they work. But that’s just a tease for another time. The photos will eventually be used to promote development projects.

So the point here is, I’m not kidding about stories : I actually do have a lot of them. And a good place to begin, I think, is with a comment by Eloisa, my hostess for the week in Santa Julia (72 families, about 490 people). In reply to a comment by me about how much greener Nicaragua is in July as compared to December and January, which is when I normally come, Eloisa said:

“Right now, everything is green. The soil is rich. Plants and animals grow well. We have plenty to eat.

“In the dry season there is nothing but sun, dust and poverty.”

She was talking about water. Or rather, lack of it.

In Santa Julia, water is a big deal. Even though a lot of it is falling from the sky right now (though oddly, Santa Julia is experiencing a dry spell at the moment), the people in this community still have to manage it carefully. They rarely have as much as they need, and certainly not as much as they want.

A woman carries water away from a pila. This is not an appropriate source of drinking water, but it is sometimes used for washing.

Santa Julia lies on a mountain ridge just below the town of El Crucero, which is about 40 minutes north-west of Managua. Officially, it is also part of El Crucero – what Nicaraguans call a comarca (“suburb” just doesn’t capture it) – and to get there from El Crucero you have to travel about 8 kilometers down a very bad dirt road. Typically, that part of the trip takes about 15 or 20 minutes all by itself in a vehicle, for a total of about an hour to get from Casa Canadiense, my base in Managua, to the centre of Santa Julia.

Just to compare, the road in can be walked in about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on which way you’re going (uphill or downhill).

It’s beautiful. The whole place is just simply beautiful.

Now, El Crucero pipes water in to Santa Julia. That doesn’t mean it goes to people’s homes, however. There are two faucets: one in a spot out back of Eloisa and Domingo’s house, and another in front of Lola and Alfonso’s house, at the bottom of a hill near the other side of town. Whenever the water comes on (this can be for a couple of hours in the middle of the night), people rush to the faucets with buckets and oil drums and pop bottles and basically anything else that will carry or store water, and they carry away as much as they can. They do this, on average, every fifteen days.

Yes, that’s right. The entire community gets water from two faucets every two weeks. If they’re lucky. In February, March and April of 2012, Santa Julia went for about three months without water. To get it, they had to compete with several other villages for access to a small spring about three or four kilometers away and down a track so narrow and difficult that horses can’t always take it. The women were taking laundry down to wash, and returning with the wet laundry on their heads. They also took large buckets down and returned with those on their heads, full of water to drink.


Another relatively reliable source of water is a couple of large ‘pilas’, which remain from the time when a large coffee plantation sat on this site. Pilas are concrete containers in the ground, where water is stored for medium-term use. Many homes have them, and they can store enough water to last a couple of weeks or a couple of months, depending on the size of the family or the size of the pila. They are typically replenished by hand when water is plentiful, but they also catch rain.

However, the unused, industrial-sized pilas, left over from the plantation, are another matter. As far as I know, the water in these is replenished primarily by rain and stays for a long time, growing green or yellow over time from various algae blooms and who knows what else. The people sometimes have to use this water to wash clothing or people. However, they say that when they do so it makes them itch.

At certain times, when there is no choice, they also put as much chlorine as they can into this water and drink it. They prefer not to do this, for obvious reasons.

In the kitchen.

Let’s not forget that access to clean drinking water is a human right.

That said, people right now are not suffering from a serious water shortage. In fact, the faucets were turned on twice in one week recently, though we shouldn’t take that as a sign of changes to come. And they’re pretty good-humoured about it most of the time, though there is a strong undercurrent of anger and frustration that shows up every now and then in comments like Eloisa’s.

I don’t claim to know everything – or even very much – about the complexities of water politics in general or Nicaragua’s water situation in particular, and I am not writing this to make anybody feel guilty. In Canada we have a lot of water, use it freely, and don’t even always charge for its distribution or use. We’re lucky. We need to protect our water resources and not do things with them that could have the effect of making them unavailable in the future (like polluting lakes or diverting rivers to sell the water in bulk).

About Nicaragua, all I can say is that I would like my friends to have enough to drink without getting sick from it. I would also like them to be able to wash their clothes and children in clear water that won’t make them itch. How we get from here to there is a complex matter.

Want to see some other pictures? Here you go.

See you next time!

Leave a comment

Filed under Activism, Photography and life, solidarity, Travel