La Mariposa Spanish School, Nicaragua

September 10th 2014, 10:09:00 am

One of the goal I set for myself that I wanted to achieve in my travels was to learn a second language. Years ago, right after living in Europe (where every other person you meet seems to speak 4 languages) I had a go at learning Spanish in Melbourne but I never found the opportunity to practice outside of class and my interest waned. Being in Latin America it seemed like a good time to try again.

I had heard about a school in Nicaragua near Masaya called "La Mariposa" from Nick at Poi Love Camp. I did a bit of my own research and the place looked really good, so I signed up for a month of intensive lessons.

The school is set amongst it's own little plot of forest with all kinds of plants and flowers growing, and quite a few coffee plants too. There were little sheltered structures around the forests in which the classes often took place

The place was full of rescue animals. I think there were 11-12 rescue dogs on the school grounds alone (there was a separate farm that I think had another 20 or so dogs), a number of cats, there was some rescued white-headed capuchin monkeys, and lots of birds including a pair of beautiful toucans.

All the dogs seemed to be totally friendly to any of the students, from the first moment they arrived, but when a unknown local showed up they would all bark like crazy. I'm told it's because Nicaraguan don't treat dogs very well.

There was one old senile dog who I took a real liking too, who would just randomly bark at nothing, sitting happily and calmly between barks. He'd sometimes set off all the other dogs, and then just go back to sitting and smiling. Maybe he thought he was telling the turkeys to stay in their turkey enclosure, I don't know :P

I initially chose to stay in their very nice private cabaña because I didn't feel like I'd have enough language to do a homestay. The cabaña was lovely, away from the school and the hotel buildings, out in the forest so you could hear all sorts of animal sounds in the evenings. It was a little 2 storey building made of a material like bamboo, comprising of three separate rooms for students. The walls were full of gaps so it was pretty much open air. There was a mosquito net but after a few nights I started to wonder if it was even needed, tried sleeping one night without it and found I didn't get any bites so I stopped using it.

One night I had what I thought was a spider come out in the cabaña, and I made a deal with him that if he didn't move he could stay. I looked away for a while and he disappeared, but I heard he visited the next person who stayed too. I showed the photo to a guy who knows about bugs and it turns out he's not a spider, but a tailless whip scorpion. I found another one in the shower one night and saw him move, and these guy can move crazy fast!

Mornings I would wake to the sound of all the birds making as much noise as they could. I was quite surprised to find out that toucans actually make a sound that sounds like a frog croaking. I don't know what sound I expected them to make, but that wasn't it!

There was constant stream of interesting people coming and going each week, far too numerous to try and list. Everyone from students to doctors, landscape designers to masseuses. There was a huge cross sections of ages from children all the way through to retirees. Everyone I met was really interesting, coming from all walks of life with all different motivations for learning Spanish. I think the people really made the month for me and I hope to run into many of you again in the future.

All meals were provided at the school, a delicious buffet of mostly vegetarian cuisine. Beans and rice were a staple, but there was a nice selection of salad and other vegetables too, and occasionally some chicken. Everything looked so tasty that you never felt guilty about going back for seconds when there was enough. Maybe a dangerous illusion!

The intensive lessons consisted of four hours of 1-on-1 classes per day, five days a week. The time was split into two hours of grammar, and two hours of conversation. You got a new conversation teacher each week, but kept the same grammar teacher throughout unless you ask to change.

I initially got a grammar teacher who spoke absolutely no English, and was hopeful that it would mean I'd have no choice but to pick things up quickly.

It turns out that's not the way my brain works at all, and I just found myself frustrated to no end by not having my questions answered because my Spanish wasn't good enough to express them; And so I changed after the first week to someone who had at least a little bit of English.

Maybe it works for some people, but when it comes to something dry, complicated and arbitrary like grammar, I feel being able to ask "why?", even if the answer is just "because that's how it is" is very important. Asking why about something specific that's bothering you, and then having the high-level basic concept repeated at me more loudly and more slowly just made me frustrated and put me in a state where I didn't seem to absorb any new information.

My other grammar teacher suited me much better, although I feel that learning grammar in such a robotic way isn't really ideal for me. There must be a better way, since I can speak English without really knowing the grammar. I actually questioned my English teaching mother why I don't remember ever formally learning English grammar and apparently they phased it out when _she_ was a child, in favour of teaching it through immersion. Hence why I can't say why something is correct or incorrect English, but I can tell you when something sounds wrong.

My conversation classes were much more enjoyable, covering all sorts of topics from how life in Australia differs to Nicaragua (a lot), the government, to drug policies and illegal animal fighting. It was good having a new teacher every week to keep the conversations fresh.

Classes where pretty flexible; if you wanted to make a trip into town you could do so with your teacher in tow, allowing you to ask questions and come across conversation topics that you might not otherwise think of. I even interrupted one class to buy my ticket to Burning Man. A good thing I did too, since they sold out in 45 minutes; it definitely couldn't have waited until after class.

Pretty much every afternoon, and full days on weekends, the school ran activities that you could go along on. Activities included things like visiting a nearby nature reserve, trips to nearby cities (Leon, Managua, Masaya, Granada), dinners out, visiting local volcanoes, a trip to the beach, horseback riding, a tour of an organic dried fruit processing plant, a visit to Laguna Apoyo and salsa classes.

Initially I went along to way too many activities, and felt that I did not have enough time for study. Later started being a bit more picky and choosier so I could try and be a good student too.

One of my favourite regular activities was the weekly talk about the history of Nicaragua, spoken in very clear, slow Spanish, then translated into English for those of us without enough vocabulary yet. It was great to see my comprehension progress each week and it was really interesting to learn about Nicaraguan history, and made visiting a lot of historic sites more interesting because I actually knew the stories behind them.

About half way through the month I decided that staying at the school in the cabaña was letting me be lazy and speak too much English with other students, so I asked if I could move into a homestay.

I got placed in a home with host mother Jamy, whose daughter Paola and son-in-law live with them, along with their 2 year old child Camila. Camila was very shy the first night I arrived, not even saying "hola", but warmed right up to me the next day, trying to show me every one of her toys, one by one (btw, to a 2 year old a deck of cards is 52 toys), and by the end I was "Tio Lucas". So cute!

The house was a fairly traditional Nicaraguan house, quite rustic and open, walls without ceilings under the roof so it was nice and airy. The area, San Juan de la Concepción, is in drought so they only have running water a few times per week, which mean that the toilet was flushed with buckets, and showers were also of the bucket variety. It's amazing how little water you really need to get clean (although maybe I'd feel differently if I had long hair).

Homestay food was a bit different than food at La Mariposa. Lots of beans and rice and chicken for dinner and eggs for breakfast. Nothing a bit of hot sauce can't salvage, but I did miss all the healthy veggies I had gotten used to. I was glad that we still got lunch at the school, even in the homestay.

Noise levels in town during the nights wasn't quite as serene as at the school. It sounded like there were hundreds of dogs running around barking at each other every single night. Endlessly. All night. I'm lucky enough to be a heavy sleeper, so once I got to sleep I was fine.

One weekend I asked Jamy to demonstrate for me how the old style washboard hand washing laundry worked but she ended up doing pretty much all of my washing for me! I did have a go and found that it's harder work than it looks, although it's easier than hand washing in a bathroom sink.

Towards the end of my month my grammar teacher started to really pick up the pace, sometimes covering two or three tenses in a day, getting right through to the subjunctive. At the time I was thinking it was way more than I needed, but I've found that it's made revisiting those topics much easier as the seeds have all been planted.

By the end of a month of study I had learnt a lot of study, and a lot more about how I learn. I'd thought I'd be much better after a month, but I'm much slower at learning spoken languages than I'm used to. With most other things, I feel like I only need to be shown a quick over view and I can figure out the rest, but with languages the way I think just doesn't help. Too many exceptions to rules, and too many irregularities for me to just "get a feel for it". It feels like I'm gonna have to ROTE learn a bunch of stuff if I'm ever going to get to where I want to be. Looking at it as a challenge for myself; I need to figure out something that works for me or I'll bore myself to death with repetition :P