Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Tennessee Weekend

Free lodging presented itself unexpectedly in the Nashville, Tennessee area and that was all the reason we needed to make a weekend of it. We stayed from the 15th-18th of August. I joked that this was Lydia's trip because we spent most of our time doing things she likes: touring caves and touring old houses with people in historical costumes. They are both pretty exciting, let me tell you.

It was funny because the first thing we did the morning after driving all the way to Nashville was drive even further back up to Kentucky. Our destination was Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest known cave system in the world at about 400 miles long. After visiting I felt like I had experienced something really cool. However since it's such a gigantic place, I felt a bit unsatisfied, like I hadn't really seen it because I'd only walked through one tiny part. I had the same feeling after visiting the Grand Canyon.

"The passageways of Mammoth Cave, the world's longest known cave system, cover hundreds of miles. They don't stretch in one straight line, but intersect and run above and below each other like a big but shallow platter of spaghetti."

I liked the pre-tour peptalk from our friendly park ranger. A lot of it was trying to scare the faint of heart. "There aren't any bathrooms in the cave, if you get hurt in the cave it will be hours until we can get you to a hospital", and so forth. There was a very narrow passage that we went through called Fat Man's Misery. I thought it was kind of scary that they didn't tell people exactly how fat was too fat. Getting stuck in the middle of a pitch black cave doesn't sound like good times.

"During the War of 1812 over 400,000 lbs. of calcium nitrate was extracted from Mammoth Cave.

Fresh water from the cave entrance was piped into the cave to wooden hoppers filled with cave earth. The water leached through this nitrate-rich dirt and filtered through split logs at the hopper base into a holding tank. A large upright pump forced this nitrate solution up to a higher tank then fed through another set of pipes to the entrance. On the surface, the solution was processed into salt-petre which was a major ingredient in manufacturing black gunpowder for the war."

Later that night we checked out a little Nashville nightlife. We had no choice but to explore Broadway, where the honky tonks were all rocking out. We found a nice one towards the end of the street that wasn't too packed. This was probably the best free bar entertainment that I've ever experienced. We both thought it was funny how many packs of girls there were in the area. Every bachelorette and birthday party from miles around seemed to congregate on this one street.

The next day we continued our "whatever Lydia wants" theme and headed out to Franklin, Tennessee to see the Carnton Plantation and the really nice little town nearby.

 Our first stop was Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant. It had a great atmosphere and the food was fantastic.

The Carnton Plantation's main claim to fame is the role that it played in the Battle of Franklin. The building was very close to the fighting and was used as a field hospital. Blood stains are still visible in the floorboards from all of the amputations that took place. I feel like the battle's context was so well explained by our guide that it made me realize how interesting the Civil War was and how very little I know about it.

"McGavok Confederate Cemetery

In the spring of 1866, Col. John McGavock, seeing the deteriorating condition of the Confederate graves on the Franklin battlefield, set aside two acres of Carnton Plantation as the nation's largest private Confederate cemetery. The dead were reinterred here in order by states. In 1890, the wooden markers, which were inscribed with the names of the men, their companies and regiments, when known, were replaced with stone markers. Burial records were preserved by Col. McGavock's wife, the former Carrie Winder. She and her husband maintained the cemetery for the balance of their lives."

The last day of our trip Lydia proclaimed "let us see more old houses and people dressed in funny old clothes". So that's what we did.

Belle Meade doesn't have any gruesome history, but it was an interesting place nonetheless. This plantation was used to breed racing horses.

Both plantations were very cool and worth their respective visits. One of my few complaints was the cost. Carnton admission was $15 and Belle Meade $16 per person, meaning the two of us spent $62 on old house tours. It felt a bit extreme.

The long road home passed through scenic Paducah, Kentucky.

This was a cool levee-looking structure right next to the river.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

El Eskimo, Then Buen Viaje!

Today was our last full day in Nicaragua, and it was made completely free of any sort of productivity. We ate lunch at Restaurante El Eskimo, of Eskimo brand ice cream fame. The food was honestly pretty bad, but we were really there for the ice cream. Lydia ordered a giant banana split, and I had to fight to get even one tiny bite of it.

We had to stop our bus in Nejapa and wait for a procession to pass. I assume it had to do with the Santo Domingo festival. We had been hearing fireworks and loud music pretty much every single night while at our compound.

Our last official group outing was to the market. It wasn't as scary as the one we visited earlier thankfully. This one had a section devoted to tourist trinkets as well as food and lots more. I didn't end up buying anything, but the people watching and the scenery made the visit well worth it. It was here that I think I was the most threatened I'd been during my whole visit. There was a group of teenagers in fake looking "security" uniforms that approached me and demanded a donation. It was pretty clear what they wanted but I stuck to my "I don't speak Spanish" routine and kept walking, and thankfully the little Hitler Youth eventually gave up.

The next morning we flew from Augusto Sandino International to George Bush Intercontinental. That felt pretty funny.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Secret Tour of Managua

The first half of the day was mostly a repeat. We went to the children’s hospital and passed out more toys and took Polaroids of mothers with their new babies. I heard that the reason we don’t go to the hospital’s second floor is that the building isn't structurally sound. That prompted a discussion on which floor you’d rather be on if the building collapsed.

The process of our group exchanging currency consisted of whistling at a guy on the side of the road. He would hop on the bus, do the conversions with a small calculator, and hand out the bills.

Some of our group went out to the houses in the town to pass out the toys that were remaining from the hospital visits. They predictably had several kids following them all over. They said that one kid even changed his shirt in order to try to get two toys.

After lunch we had made previous arrangements to go on a secret tour of the city. We only told our group leader, mostly because all of the seats in our taxi were already reserved and we didn't want anyone else to feel sour about it. The part of the plan that I was most proud of was that the husband of the principal at the school we’d been toiling at was a cab driver. I thought that pretty much guaranteed protection against any sort of taxi shadiness that can arise when in a foreign land.

My trusty guidebook really shined at this point. I had already read about several places that I wanted to go and check out. Emilio, a local Managuan who works with our group, was also kind enough to come with us and help guide us around.

Our first stop was the Museo Las Huellas(footprints) de Acahualinca. As our beat up taxi arrived at the museum, we weren't completely sure that we were at the right place. The front of the building was entirely caged in and the guard behind the closed gate didn't move a muscle as we approached. He finally lost the staring contest and mumbled something as he swung open the gate. Our treatment by the ticket-takers was similarly strange. They acted like they had never performed this transaction before. One funny thing: I believe it was 4 dollars to get in and 5 if we wanted to take pictures. Since our pal Emilio was Nicaraguan he got in free. Lucky dog, that guy. (I figured that since just about everyone in Nicaragua accepted US dollars that there wasn't any point in going through the hassle of currency exchange, so dollars means dollars kids.)

Well once we got in I thought that the site itself was pretty interesting but the attached museum’s production values were pretty weak. I didn't see much explaining the excavation site either. Not a single brochure was to be had.

The footprints were made 6000 years ago by people walking across volcanic mud. This has got to be the oldest evidence of humanity that I have ever seen.

We drove by the US Embassy. It was like a fortress city, very similar to the one I saw in Colombia.

Next we checked out the national square area. One side had some sort of presidential palace but Emilio said the president doesn't live there. It sounded like a pretty strange situation.

On a different side of the square stood the Catedral de Santiago. It was about as close to ruins as a building can be while still standing. That gave it a definite vampires-live-here sort of spooky quality. It was not open for visitors.

Also on the square was the National Palace of Culture. It was funny because we initially said we wanted to go to the “national palace” and the cab dropped us off in front of the same post office building that we had been at a couple days prior. You’d think there’d only be one national palace per country. Who knows. The first floor of the real national palace held the national museum. This operation was thankfully running much more smoothly than the footprint place. It was cheap, and the guy that took our money at the door then gave us a guided tour of the entire museum. Emilio was kind enough to translate. The museum boasted a good overview of the country’s natural history with volcanoes, rivers, and dinosaurs.

The cultural stuff was probably the most interesting. 

They had an entire room devoted to the costumes used during productions of El Gueguense, a satirical drama performed during the feast of San Sebasti├ín. 

Outside we stumbled on a student parade of some sort.

We left the little square and then Emilio took over in giving the cab driver directions. We went to a nice lookout area that provided a great view of the city below. There was even a gigantic Augusto Sandino silhouette up there standing watch.

The little tank was a gift from Mussolini.

This is the rear of Managua's Crowne Plaza Hotel. According to the guide book a very crazy sounding Howard Hughes lived on the top floor until the large earthquake of 1972. He "spent most of his days sitting naked on his favourite high-backed leather chair engrossed in films". His daily diet while at the hotel consisted of Campbell's soup and Hershey's chocolate bars. 

We then headed over to Puerto Salvador Allende which was a really nice little waterfront area. There were lots of different restaurants and shops lined up along Lake Managua. I appreciated the help choosing the place because it wasn't very well described in my guidebook, and I would have missed it!

Lastly we went to one of the big malls in town, Metrocentro. I thought it would be a nice change of pace in case the girls were sick of doing all the stuff I wanted to do. We did a little shopping, hit the food court, and then headed home. I’d say our double secret trip was a success.

Keeping with the style in Nicaragua, the mall was only sort of halfway contained. There were lots of spaces that opened directly to the outside. Because of this many of the stores in the mall had their glass doors closed with their own air-conditioners humming within.