Saturday, December 1, 2012

Central American Madness; Stage III: Going Solo

Editor's Note:  This is Part 3 of a three-part feature about my recent trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua with two friends.  Here are Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them.  

Phase III:  Going It Solo 

And so I was a lone, with three days to make my way from San José to Managua, Nicaragua.

And it turns out being alone is great.  Being with friends is great too, for different reasons.  But when I'm alone in Latin America I become immersed in the language and culture in a way I've not experienced in a group setting.  I talk to all sorts of people, sometimes out of necessity but more often just for fun, to practice the language and to see what makes them tick--their lives are so interesting, and so different from ours.  And by the way, it's much easier to talk to random people on the street in countries like that than in the US, at least for me.  Perhaps because I'm a novelty to them as a random American tourist who happens to be fully fluent in Spanish.  Or maybe they're more friendly than Americans.  Or both.  Or other things.  You tell me.  But it's awesome.  And a big part of why I love being there.   

Back to our narrative.    

Fri, 26 Oct (continued):

After Brit left I ventured briefly into downtown San Jose to walk around for a while and see what it was all about.  It was strikingly different to see the inner-city bustle and cold veneer compared to the touristy rural areas we'd been frequenting to this point;  it just had a totally different energy to it.

When I drove out of the city I headed North towards Nicaragua.  And this time, for a change, I enjoyed the drive.  It had its usual allotment of wrong turns and absent road signs--getting from highway 27 to highway 1 was complicated and time-consuming--but with nobody wincing in the seat next to me, I raced over the dirt roads and pot holes with little a care.  And once I got to highway 1 (aka the Panamerican Highway), I felt like I was playing Mario Kart.  I drove late into the evening, passing slow trucks and other grandma-esque drivers at upwards of 120 kph.  (Yes, we're still using the metric system.  I think I'm ready to switch over for good.)  I pulled into Liberia (the Northernmost major town in Costa Rica) around 9pm. 

After strolling through the square and grabbing the usual fare for dinner, I looked at a room in an extremely ugly hotel that was just eight bucks a night.  Luckily I decided to walk down the street first and check for other options.  At Hotel Liberia I got a much nicer room for only four dollars more. 

Sat, 27 Oct:

After much internal deliberation, I decided to forgo Tamarindo (a beach town in Northwest Costa Rica we’d heard great things about, and where Brit had been excited to surf) and head straight for the Nicaraguan border, about 80 kilometers away.  I had a close call after forgetting to gas up in Liberia--I'd been on empty for several kilometers when I found a station in a small town called La Cruz.  The attendant told me that was the only gas station between Liberia and the border.  I also picked up hitchhikers for the second time in my life (and first outside the US)--a few girls needed a ride about five kilometers up the highway to their small home town.      

For the last four kilometers leading up to the border, there was a steady line of semi trucks on the highway who were waiting to cross.  While following a bus at a distance, I managed to bypass all of them by driving in the left lane, pulling off the road or squeezing in between semis for occasional oncoming traffic.   

The car rental office was right on the border, and it was time to bid farewell to the Yaris.  A sad day indeed.  I had a pleasant conversation with Ileana, the girl at the agency, and helped her practice some English phrases that were useful for her job.  It was nice that we hit it off well, because she then went out of her to make phone calls and facilitate paperwork so that I wouldn’t be responsible for some minor damage the Yaris had sustained.  I was also very glad we got the full insurance. 

Ileana drove me the final few hundred meters to the border, and I was on foot from there, really looking like a tourist at this point, wearing my touristy hat and Chacos while carrying all my stuff in the large hiking backpack I'd borrowed from my roommate Dave.  At the border I paid the $13 fee to enter Nicaragua, changed a few dollars into córdobas (Nicaraguan currency), and was on a bus within minutes.  I decided against renting a car in Nicaragua--I was kinda tired of driving by this point (go figure), things are closer in Nicaragua, and I thought it'd be interesting to see how well I could get around in buses and taxis.    

Two short bus rides and 1.5 hours later I was in San Juan del Sur, a beautiful little beach town in SW Nicaragua.  I could have been happy there for at least a week, but sadly my revised itinerary only allowed for one day.  "Hostal Elizabeth" near the bus stop gave me a room for only $8.  The only catch was there were ants in the bed, and no private bathroom.  It was definitely the dumpiest place I stayed on the trip. The beach was just a five-minute walk down the road from the hostel, and since I happened to get into town right before the "golden hour", I moseyed on down to snap a few photos.  It was magnificent, and several assorted fishing boats were positioned some two hundred meters out in the bay.  

After playing frisbee with a couple kids on the beach, I joined a man and his daughter who were practicing volleyball as the rest of their family relaxed nearby.  I ended up conversing with them for quite some time, and was really impressed.  They seemed like an awesome family, and they even invited me to meet them and go to their house the following day (sadly I didn't make it).  

After grabbing dinner at an open-air restaurant nearby that was showing the World Series (everybody was watching it down there--baseball is big in Nicaragua), I played a few games of pool with Sonia, an employee of a local bar that hadn't gotten too busy yet.  She was better than I expected, and we split about five games.   Second dinner--pupusas and plantains--at an El Salvadoreñan place only cost me $2, including the tip!

On the way home I stopped several times to make conversation--at a surf shop, an internet cafe, a group of taxi drivers--and lastly met a girl named Milagros who was sitting out front a tienda with her sister.  We chatted for more than an hour, thoroughly enjoyed it, and made plans to meet up the next day for lunch.   

Back at  Hostal Elizabeth, I entered to the sound of someone pounding on a door with a hammer.  It was 11pm, so I was a little concerned about so much racket at so late an hour.  Turned out the surfer dude two doors down had locked his key in his room, and was knocking out some pieces of the door so he could reach in and get it.  He ended using a big metal pole with a hook on the end to fish the key out.  But by then the lock was trashed and he couldn't open it anyway.  The whole affair was quite entertaining as he discussed the progress in horrible Spanish with a hostel employee.       

Shortly thereafter, I cozied up for a night's rest with the friendly ants and other assorted bed bugs.  

Sun, 28 Oct:

After a morning stroll down to the beach, I got breakfast at a local comedor (diner)--I got the usual, except the gallo pinto in Nicaragua is usually made with  red beans (in place of the black beans used in Costa Rica).  While I was eating, a couple older American guys showed up.  They were having the darndest time telling the waitress what they wanted to eat, so eventually I offered to help.  One of the guys told me he'd been roaming around looking for a place to retire.  San Juan was a prime candidate because it's a beautiful beach town and everything's really cheap.  The other guy recounted that he's been bouncing around Latin American for the past 30+ years, but still hasn't learned much Spanish. 

After breakfast, I decided to try my hand at boogie boarding one more time, so I rented a board at the beach.  It was a beautiful morning, and though the waves were fairly small (the serious surfers drive a short distance to other beaches in the area), I was able to ride a few for a goodly distance. 

The waves crept higher and higher on the beach, and one of the times I went to move my stuff so it wouldn't float away, I bumped into a girl named América who had driven down from Managua with her 7-year-old daughter, Ana Lucía.  After we chatted a bit, she said if I wanted to accompany them to some pools that were up on the hill overlooking the town, afterwards she could give me a ride to the capital.  I wished I could stay in San Juan longer to hang out with Milagros and the family I'd met on the beach the day before, but it was too good of an offer to pass up.  Riding with them would be significantly more efficient and comfortable, and I needed to be at the airport by the following night anyway.  So I quickly packed my things from the hostel, and we drove up to the pools. 

The "pools" turned out to be a resort called "Blue Eyes", where there are various swimming pools along with a hotel and restaurant that have an incredible view of the beach and town below.  We hung out there for a few hours and had lunch.  It was a beautiful place.  In other news, though I put sunscreen on my head and on my arms, I didn't put any on my back or shoulders...and between the beach and the swimming pools I got ridiculously burnt, the worst I can remember.  My whole back and shoulders were a deep red.  A week later I was peeling like a snowstorm, and even now my back is noticeably darker and kind of reddish, with a bunch of new freckles and sun spots.   

América and Ana Lucía live near Managua, but went out of their way to drop me off in Granada, the one other town I hoped to see before leaving the country.  They even helped me find inexpensive lodging (Hostal el Panda), and we ate and drank some native Granadan fare (Vigurones and Cacao) in the park before they left for home.  We enjoyed it much like these people

Coincidentally, there was a political rally going on next to the central park in Granada, which mainly consisted of teenagers dancing and singing in various styles to get people excited about one of the parties.  I thought it was pretty hilarious, as about half of the numbers they performed seemed inappropriate or offensive, and definitely wouldn't have convinced me to vote for anyone.  Some of the dances were cool though, particularly the old-fashioned ones done in fancy dresses. 

I took a walk down the party street (Calle la Calzada) in Granada, and even saw some people doing karaoke in Spanish (the first singer I heard was not just comically bad, but painfully bad), before heading back to El Panda and calling it a night.

Mon, 29, Oct:

My last day in Nicaragua. :( 

I thought I'd just walk out and find some place to eat breakfast, but as it turned out, a carriage awaited me outside.  It was Winston, the guide I'd made arrangements with to give me a tour of Lake Nicaragua.  He was a half hour early. 

So Winston drove me in his carriage, on the cobblestone streets of Granada, to a restaurant he picked for breakfast.  I think the owner must be paying him, as the food was ordinary and a bit over-priced.  I went to the pharmacy next door while waiting for the food, and was surprised to find the only pill sizes for ibuprofen were 400, 600, and 800 milligrams (in the US it normally comes in 200 mg, and 800 requires a prescription).  Maybe I should have asked what kind of antibiotics they were frivolously dispensing and how they felt about drug-resistant bacteria while I was at it. 

After breakfast Winston and I continued our carriage ride out to nearby Lake Nicaragua.  América told me it's the eighth largest lake in the world, Winston told me there are 365 islands ("Igual a los dias del año?  Si, igual a los dias del año.").  And several different people informed me that there are fresh water sharks in the lake, and possibly nowhere else in the world.  

Luckily, I didn't fall in.  But I did get a tour of several of the islands from Winston.  The islands are really small, but several of them have have houses on them, mostly vacation homes owned by really rich people.  One had a little fort and some cannons, he said it was used for defense against the Spanish.  We also saw some spider monkeys and cool birds, and the lake has a nice view of the volcano called Mombacho.  And dang, that lake is huge.  Que diacachimba! (That's Nicaraguan slang for really cool or something.)  

Subsequently, I rented a bicycle (just $5 for a half-day) so I could ride around Granada and get a better look.  That was fun, and I also bought a couple souvenirs in the park.  Those were slightly more expensive than I expected, especially after meeting a kid who was practically giving away a hammock in the street the night before. 

América had told me the night before to meet her at her office in Managua so she could give me a ride to the airport.  Time got away from me a bit, so I took a taxi instead of a bus as planned, and the driver was able to get me there in under an hour.  Not only did América drive me to the airport, but she and Ana Lucía took me on a little tour of Managua, and then we went to one of their favorite restaurants for dinner.  In addition to one last great Nicaraguan meal, I also got to try some tasty local drinks such as Cebada and Chicha.  After that they dropped me off at the airport, around 9pm.  I couldn't believe how much they went out of their way to help me, having just met them the day before.  Of course, América did also ask me to take some nacatamales back to the US and ship them overnight to her pregnant friend in Utah who'd been craving she may have just been using me for that. ;)  Just kidding.  I sent the nacatamales the day after I got home, and word has it they were deliciosos.

With some time to kill at the airport, I chatted with the girl at the little souvenir shop and bought a couple small items with leftover cash.  I guess I have a compulsive need to always be talking to people when I'm in Latin America, maybe 'cause it's such a great chance to practice Spanish, and maybe because the people there live in such a different world from our own, and it's fascinating to learn about.  This girl (María), for example, was 25, had 2 kids, had basically dropped out of school, had been cohabitating but was now separated, and worked at the souvenir shop for a paycheck of about $70 every two weeks.  This story is anything but atypical.  She pulled at my heartstrings a little, and I decided to give her the rest of my cordobas (maybe like ten bucks) and triple her salary for the day. 

Tue, 30 Oct:  

My flight left around 1am on Tuesday.  I was basically a zombie while waiting in line and boarding, and even though Spirit's seats don't recline (blast them!), I still slept for almost the entirety of the three flights back to Vegas (again stumbling like a zombie through customs and security in Florida).  Counting Nicaragua (equivalent to the mountain time zone), my two layovers in Ft. Lauderdale and Dallas, and my destination in Vegas, I was on the ground in all four US time zones within about ten hours on my way home.

Brit picked me up from the airport since his dad flew in from Arizona the same morning to help him pack up his things and move.  Brit seemed to be doing alright, though his collar bone was still pretty unstable--he had abandoned the sling a few days prior because he didn't think it was helping.  It only took a few hours for him and his dad to pack up all his stuff.  We exchanged some pictures, stories, and souvenirs, and then Brit was off for Arizona (that's where he's doing his rotations).  Though sad the trip had ended, I was of course more sad to see a good friend (and roommate for a year) move away. 

Currently, Brit's doing well, and we just finished our first month of rotations.  I'm thinking about going back to Central America when I finish PA school next year (I'm also going to Guatemala in February for a rotation)...who wants to come along? :)

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