Written below is my entry for the contest. Although I chose to write about Nicaragua, in the event I am selected as the winner, I would like to visit and write about India.

Thank you for the opportunity,

Leah Nichols

The Leah ChroNichols-Nicaragua

During my recent travels to Nicaragua, I was faced with the inevitable reality of Central American border crossing. With my destination of San Juan Del Sur over 20 hours away, my only choice was to book myself a one-way ticket on the infamous Ticabus, and spend the next two and a half days on the road. Notoriously plagued with issues of narcotics, illegal immigration and the smuggling of weapons, the Central American border patrol did not exactly resemble the Welcome Wagon. There were no sunny brochures handed to me upon my entrance into El Salvador, no "Buenas Dias, Leahs!" upon my descent into Honduras, and definitely no complimentary towels given to me at the frontier of Nicaragua.

The last place anyone would want to end up is in the highly dangerous and downright ugly capitol of Managua, Nicaragua. Moments upon arrival, the place felt different than any other Central American capital city I have been in thus far. You could almost feel the anger in hot wind, you could see the hate in the eyes of the local people, you could practically taste the cocaine drip in the back of your throat.

The second I stepped of the bus on to the curb outside, I was immediately ambushed by the most dissonant and abrasive human beings I had ever encountered. My bags were literally thrown off the bus and I had least 4 cab drivers yelling in my face, trying to charge me an exorbitant amount of money to take me a mere 10 blocks to the connecting bus station.

Considering I was lining up My Little Ponies on the window sill, selling Snoopy Snow Cones on the corner and planning my 11th birthday party during the Iran-Contra Affair, I think I deserved a little bit of a break; I halfway expected to see some sort of banner stating, Welcome to Nicafuckingragua.

A short bus ride away was the beautiful beach town of San Juan Del Sur. In addition to the swarms of hot international surfers, the plethora of palm trees bursting with coconuts and the ample assortment of flora and fauna, the most obvious characteristic of this coastal hamlet was the unusually high population of parrots. A novelty in the U.S., these green-faced feathered friends could be found in copious quantities babbling (and eavesdropping) in nearly every tree. Two of these aforementioned chatterboxes had their home in a palm right outside my hotel window, and would start in with their incessant chitchat around 6A.M. and wouldn't cease until long after the sun disappeared into the Pacific. I made the mistake of teaching them how to say my name in the first few days, and from the second I opened my eyes, at least one of them would poke their green mug in my window and yell, Hola! Bueno! Leah! Adios! Leah!, and many other Spanish phrases I could not decipher.

In addition to their hackneyed mocking and whistling, the parrots also had this eerie laugh/chortle that sounded like an unsettling combination of Popeye, The Wicked Witch of the West and that creepy little kid laugh track/sound bite they often play in low budget horror movies. Over the course of a week, these little rats with wings became the thorn in my side, the bane of my existence, the Tanya Harding to my inner Nancy Kerrigan.

One afternoon, we met a teenage Nicaraguan boy that invited us to a supposed private party on Saturday night that was set to be held at a disco near the end of the beach. We all had visions dancing in our head of the seedy and soft underbelly of Nicaraguan nightlife, men in fur coats and gold chains drinking top shelf rum out of bright yellow stilettos, woman in Brazilian string bikinis snorting cocaine from gold straws and clutching crystal champagne glasses with flamingo colored nails and every other Hollywood image one could conjure up. But upon arrival, all prior expectations were shattered when much to our surprise, the fiesta privado was nothing more than a Nicaraguan high school graduation party.

Now one girls own private hell proved to be 8 guys heaven on earth when they voraciously scanned the room at the 200 17 year-old Nicaraguan girls as I simultaneously gazed in horror at the hundreds of salivating and squirrelly high school boys.

3 hours, 27 minutes, 66 `I Love You`s`, 42 marriage proposals and one attempted Humpty Dance later, I crept out the back door leaving the guys in their adolescent Utopia and disappeared into the night.

After a bumpy ride on the chicken bus, we arrived in the former Nicaraguan capital of Leon. The citys colonial charm was an enchanting concoction of Havana and New Orleans sprinkled with a side of Spain. On one particularly memorable evening, we stumbled across a fascinating but peculiar sight. Coming from inside one of the many cathedrals was really loud disco music and some sort of religious singing. As we prowled through the back door, we were amazed to find over 400 men, woman and children wailing at the top of their lungs at this magical and musical midnight mass. Up on stage was this minister a la Tom Jones singing religious hymns and preaching to the congregation as this short Nicaraguan man rocked out on the electronic synthesizer in the corner. At one point, everyone in the church (us included) put their hands in the air in a sort of raise-the-roof formation. As we reached to the heavens in search of that ever eternal and holy "what what", we all resembled some sort of religiously fanatical Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg video.

The next day, we decided to climb the infamous Cerro Negro Volcano located about and hour and a half from town. The vast specimen stands 2,500 meters tall and is one of the most active volcanos in Central America (they told us this tidbit of info AFTER we started climbing it). The fact that no warnings were issued prior to the trek will continue to blow my mind for the rest of my life, translated, climbing that motherfucker was hard--the most strenuous thing I have done to date. Led by a middle-aged Nicaraguan man and his six-year old son, about 10 of us signed on to climb the infamous "Cerro Negro". Equipped with my celebratory can of Victoria beer, I paid my 35 Cordobas and was ready to roll. What started out as a nice afternoon stroll in nature slowly turned into an unexpected physical challenge of steep hills, loose rocks and scratching branches.

Pretty soon, the ground as we knew it was replaced by slippery molten rock conveniently at the same time we reached the foot of the volcano, where the incline was almost straight up. This volcanic play-dough can only be described as quicksand and the whole scene strongly resembled footage I have seen of the moons surface. Now imagine having to hike a sharp incline in quicksand, without eating anything all day, with 35 mile an hour whipping winds, freezing to death, smelling like a bar room floor (my "celebratory" Victoria exploded all over my back because of the altitude) AND in a pair of H & M jeans no less. By the time we got to the top, faces black, foaming at the mouth, snot running in a straight stream from our noses, all ten of us laid on our backs and warmed ourselves on the hot rocks that surrounded the gaping volcanic hole. Due to the fact that we were so high in the sky, we were completely immersed in clouds, so close, you could touch them. While it was, indeed, a glorious moment, most of us were a little to preoccupied to authentically live in it. The same nagging and agonizing question lingered in one giant comic strip bubble over our heads...How the hell are we going to get down?

Lucky for us, the trip to the bottom wasnt nearly as difficult or treacherous as the way up, yet it was not without its own set of physical challenges. The once evil molten quicksand became like Aspen powder as we skied (literally skied) at breakneck speeds all the way to the base. One wrong move, you could easily have broken a bone or two. Although it was one of the most physically grueling (and dangerous) things I have ever done, I know it was a moment I will remember forever. It was a moment where I was presented with a challenge and exceeded my own expectations. It was a moment where I was like, Wait...I am on a fucking active volcano in the middle of Nicaragua that could blow at any moment--am I crazy?