The waterfall in Nicaragua created by the dam.

Nicaraguan Hitching, Caribbean Vibes, and Beautiful French People

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Last I wrote I was in Leon, Nicaragua. I said my goodbyes to Idriss as I hopped off his motorbike on the outskirts of the city. I was once again underway, this time, for the Caribbean coast, where I had dreams of coconuts, music, and cool breezes to smite the heat. It was only 2 days away, and so I got right down to business.

It wasn’t long before a truck stopped to pick me up. I hopped in the bed and we were off toward Managua, a city I’ve heard people compare with the wild American west… because of the lawlessness. In fact, though, Nicaragua is statistically the safest Central American country, despite the fact that it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. We arrived an hour and a half later in Managua. At one point during the ride some liquid splattered against the tailgate. Good thing I wasn’t sitting there because it turned out to be vomit from a guy up front who couldn’t handle the curves.

I didn´t stay in Managua to find out what kind of city it really was. They say it has no center, which was simply too daunting. I hopped on a 10 cent bus out of town after asking a few people how to get to the ‘Carretera Norte’. The only one who was less than helpful was the bus driver. It was not the first time that a bus driver dropped me off when I’d felt like I knew better where to get off than he. As it turns out I got off of bus 112, then got right back on the next bus 112 that came by, which did indeed take me to my highway.

Crowded trucks in Nicaragua.

Crowded trucks in Nicaragua. Source.

At a Texaco gas station I strolled up to a pickup truck filling its tank. I asked for Juigalpa, a 3 hour ride away. Then I noticed that the bed of truck was covered so I said thank you anyway. Like most Nicaraguans that I’ve met, they were beyond friendly, and insisted that I come with them anyway. So, I found myself sitting in the bed of a pickup whose cover was propped up with a shaft of wood. We were underway. I started to hold on to the shaft after we’d hit a bump, which had dislodged the wood and sent the cover crashing down on my head. That was weeks ago and I still have a bump. Also, I had to keep throwing my head back into the wind because the black exhaust smoke was swirling backward and into the open bed, choking and smelly.

The car dropped me at Juigalpa around dusk. A dollar meal and a talk with a dude from LA who had so many tattoos I couldn’t tell what he looked like later, and I found myself walking out of town toward where I’d come from. Before leaving Idriss’ I had browsed through his Nicaragua guidebook and jotted down some things. I was walking toward a place called Pozo El Salto. I found it 5 kilometers later about 500 meters behind a locked fence and a mini- jungle. The spot was wonderful; a swimming hole beneath a 30 foot partly damned waterfall. It was a roaring beast shadowed by a condemned building perched on a rock outcrop. I pitched my tent above the falls, because you never know about how rivers will change during rainy season. Dinner was cream cookies. I laid back in my tent to relax.

The waterfall in Nicaragua created by the dam.

The waterfall in Nicaragua created by the dam. Source.

Not 5 minutes after I began to doze off there was a flash of bright light and then a sudden and powerful screaming crack of thunder that sent my hands uncontrollably to clasp around my ears. I literally lost control of my reflexes during the next hour or so, as the thunder claps continued with fury, the flash preceding them only by milliseconds. The rain begins to fall.

Wet. I was wet. I was in my tent but I was wet. I scrambled outside into the clamor of the rain to tighten my tent straps, thankfully with my handy UMBRELLA. However, back in the tent, I discovered the entire floor was leaking. Well, it wasn’t leaking, it was sweating, more like. A combination of wear and tear, humidity, rain, and a few holes from ants and alas, my tent was no longer waterproof. The night lasted longer than I would’ve liked.
In the morning I took a dip in the swimming hole as my tent dried in the sun (and my sleeping bag). I took the opportunity to wash the clothes I was wearing, and then dove under the falls butt naked, and alone.

My stuff packed, I got a quick ride with a trucker to a highway that would take me up into the mountains away from the main road. I had time to arrive at El Rama, the river port town where I would catch a boat to the coast, so I decided to take a detour. It wasn’t a long wait there before I jumped into the bed of yet another truck, who took me the hour drive to La Libertad. La Libertad is where the current head honcho, Daniel Ortega, was born. Obviously, it’s an FSLN town. FSLN is the Sandinista party, and the Sandinistas are the party of the revolution. If a town is mostly for one party or the other, you know it, as the flag of the party and party colors are everywhere. In La Libertad’s case, every pole and tree truck is painted black and red, for the FSLN. I don’t like how the political parties saturate the public sphere, but then again at least it´s obvious, unlike the subliminal campaigns of more northerly countries.

I didn’t stay long in that town, especially after a random feller was walking by, pointed at me with a broken grin, and drew his thumb across his neck in jest. So, after my meal in a hidden away eatery, where the kitchen consisted of giant iron pots over earthen ovens in an obscure back room, I was again on my way.

The rest of the day was slow but pleasant, I moved with the rides over rolling hills, past countless laborers walking the dirt roads scraping their machetes on the ground. I saw granite peaks looming over green pasture, where bony cows scavenged the slopes for something edible. The people are generous. I stood atop a truck as it wove through the fields, whistling as best I could to sing the kilometers by one by one. A woman gave me 20 cordobas at a bus stop, I ate some of the best-cooked chicken I’ve ever tasted that just fell off the bone like water from a leaf, and I got denied space to put my tent at a hotel due to some political convention.

La Libertad Travel Drawing

La Libertad, Nicaragua. Travel drawing the Pepsi sign, which is rare these days.

 

By then it was getting dark, and I found myself walking out of a town called Santo Tomas. I tossed my thumb out sparingly, part of me wanting a ride further on, part of me wanting to just walk to find my own way. Sometimes it’s like that, and it’s not tiring or inconvenient, it’s just different. I didn’t know where I was going to put my head that night, but it didn’t matter. Why? Why not?

A sign in Nicaragua: look out for iguanas.

A sign in Nicaragua: look out for iguanas. Source.

Eventually, after one of my thumbings got me a ride, I was walking in the middle of nowhere rural Nicaragua. This night would turn out to be the night I would experience the poorest conditions I’ve ever stayed in. A half hour of walking passed as I hurriedly searched for where to put my tent. If I were to go into the forest, it would be over several barbed wire fences and I would most likely step in lots of fresh cow shit. So, when a shack came into view, I decided to test my luck there.

There were 4 or 5 kids hanging out on a concrete porch, and a couple adolescents. They all stared blankly at me as I approached.

“Hey there, I was wondering if I could pitch my tent on your property?”

No response.

“Is there someone I could talk with about putting my tent on your property?”

The stares were as blank as before. But eventually an “older” woman, maybe of about 30 years, comes out and shares a stare at the gringo.

“Yes.”

And I had my place to stay. As I set up my tent I had a crowd around me, curious at the bright orange color of the poles and the small size of the structure that resulted. I was anxious to set up my tent as it was beginning to drizzle (hoping that if I tightened the straps well, I could avoid a repeat of the leaking disaster last night).

When I finished I took count of my surroundings. There was a skinny dog with a metal chain around his neck. Chickens and cats ran around the muddy yard. The house was made of concrete and thatch, and the windows were window- and shutter-less. There were about 4 kids, 3 adolescents, and the ‘older’ woman. Their clothes were old, used and torn. I usually look pretty raggedy with my single shirt and pair of pants, but I must’ve looked somewhat stylish to them. Or, at least, it often occurs that my attire has nothing to do with how I am approached, but my white face does. I sat on the porch. No one was really talking, but I couldn’t help myself. I made some joke that I can’t remember which fell on deaf ears. I acted out laughing and urged them to laugh. Thankfully they did, and I felt like I’d just broken at least the superficial layer of ice.

More people kept returning from a day’s work in the fields, a monotonous work that earns them little more than what with which they can feed themselves the bare minimum. Most were younger than me. I talked a bit with one of the adolescents, Edgar, but there was no enthusiasm. There was no running water, and no electricity. Two flashlights. The house, which at first glance one might think could fit 5 people, held 4 families, around 15 people. I could tell when they’d be talking amongst themselves about me because their voices would be muffled. I didn’t mind. One of the kids had a kid; that much I was able to deduce. Otherwise, I was distracted by the pastel pink sky behind the imminent low-lying storm clouds, the branches of a Birch tree silhouetted against the scene.

Nicaragua's main dish is Gallo Pinto.

Nicaragua’s main dish is Gallo Pinto.

That night was painfully awkward. I’m used to being the center of attention these days. But there was very little interest in why I was there. It was clear that I was the first traveler to have shown up like that. I wanted to believe that the shock of such a thing stunted any conversation. But in reality, the fact that I was there would not have any effect on their daily lives, it would not alleviate in any way their desperate situation. Believe me, it was a scene of desperation, which is why I was beyond floored with gratitude when I was handed in silence a small bowl of rice, beans, and a banana.

 

El Rama Nicaragua

El Rama Nicaragua. Source.

The loud roosters and the boys with men’s voices woke me up. It was an uneventful departure, as most of the family was already out in the fields cutting away. I left. I took a shit and brushed my teeth in a drainage tunnel. Then I walked. I noticed a lot of things as I walked for a few hours. If there wasn’t horse crap in the road, then there were surely dry white stains of past crap. I found a vast colony of small red ants attacking bigger red ants, and some enormous red ants just stomping around the battlefield like drunk referees. I spent a time sitting at a small bridge, watching cattle trains go by, led by men with red flags sticking out of their belts as they called “euh huhhh”.

El Rama was still the destination. From there, there were boats that cost 7 dollars to get to Bluefields, the big town on the Caribbean coast. Being the cheap traveler that I am, I was going to wait until Monday for a ship called Captain-D to come to the El Rama port that cost 2 dollars. It was Friday, so I had plenty of time to kill still. This is why I surprised myself when, the next car that stopped, I allowed it to take me all the way to El Rama. Back of the truck again for another 3 hours. Good thing I have sun screen, otherwise I’d be toasty.

El Rama already has hints of the Caribbean vibe. I sat under an awning overlooking the fork in the river, the faint scent of rum in the air. Men swung in their hammocks to combat the heat and the mosquitoes, and kids down on the dock challenged each other to jump further into the river. On the corner where I sat there was a wooden building that looked like it was transplanted from a Clint Eastwood Western flick, a cantina down below and ‘hotel’ up above, whose balcony looked ready and able to crash to the ground. I met some cops who were at first trying to give me trouble but by the time they left they were insisting that I come by the station to ensure that I’m still alive. Apparently there are a lot of ‘ladrones’ , or robbers, in El Rama, and it’s not so safe to fall asleep on the dock. What, did I say that that was my plan?

I lost taste in the spot where I sat after I witnessed a guy chuck a wrapper down into the river. There was a very large garbage bin right next to him. At first I told myself that I can’t judge those who litter here, because they don’t have the system to deal with all the garbage. That’s bullshit. You’re next to a trash can, you throw your trash in the can, that’s common sense, or at least it needs to be.

I walked to the main dock where the ‘pangas’ leave for an hour boat ride to Bluefields. I made friends with the security guard there and he told me there was a boat heading to Bluefields tomorrow around 4 pm from the port! I wouldn’t have to wait three days! I made my way out of town toward the International Port of El Rama. It was getting late and, as has become natural, my eyes began searching for possible places to camp. I found a grocery store next to the international port (“Pali” stores were once Costa Rican but are now owned by Wal-Mart), where I bought a jug of water. On the other side of the grocery store I saw a man sitting outside his house, and there was a little space in his front yard.

“Scuse me, can I pitch my tent here tonight?”

“Sure. Actually, I’ll do you one better.”

I followed him onto the property next door, which was a very large property full with a big house, yard, and around back there was an outdoor reception hall with an overhanging view of the river. “Put your tent wherever you want. They helped me out a lot when I was in the States, I like to do the same if I can. Hell, you could sleep inside in a room if you want”

He had just offered a whole empty house to me, but the outdoor view from my tent was more appealing, and breezy. I pitched my tent, ate some more cookies, and let the pink pastel sky once again fade me to sleep.
The morning happened at 5am for me. I woke to relieve myself, and my behind was soon pelted with mosquito bites. One might confuse the scene for chicken pox. In the night I sweated heavily. The coast was already looking to be a difficult time, but at least over there there might be a breeze.

I detached the poles from my tent, rolled the canvas, clipped the sleeping bag and tent bag to my backpack, and snuck quietly passed the gate onto the road. At the port entrance I threw down my stuff. The plan was this: I was going to spend the day hanging out at the port trying to convince captains of other boats to give me a ride in exchange for work, or a drawing.

The day passed slowly. I made friends with the guards at the gate. I couldn´t enter the port until one of the boats was leaving, and any case entrance to the port cost 6 cordobas. So, I remained outside, shooting the shit with the guards and yawning most of the day. I strolled across the street for a 20 cordoba meal at an old wooden home. Wood is the cheapest construction material here, and many buildings are made with horizontal planks. Wood is a rich keeper of time, and the stains of age are pleasant to regard.

El Rama Nicaragua Port

Travel drawing of the El Rama Nicaragua port as I wait outside. Eventually, the guards didn’t charge me and let me in.

At one point during the day I met some people from Pearl Lagoon, the place I was hoping to get to after Bluefields. They spoke creole, which is a mixture of English, Spanish, and Miskito languages. They paid the entrance to the port and the guards let me help one of the guys carry a big cooler filled with ice and shrimp to the dock. My arms have not been taxed like that for well over a year. It would be a further week before the soreness would subside.
The day dragged itself into dusk before I was able to get into the port. The guards were bedazzled by stories I shared of my journey, and they even conspired together and bought me a strange violet fruit drink that tasted like Gatorade´s next eccentric flavor: “Foreign Frost”. I drew a picture of the gate with my new friends, and gave it to them as a present. I had not had any luck with the captains that had passed by, so I figured I´d just have to pay the 50 cordoba for the trip. Eventually the guards let me into the port without charging me the entry fee, but not before I met a French couple who showed up suddenly on a motorbike.

His name was Jeremy and hers Sara. He drove the motorbike back to their hotel to store it after I gave a little explanation about the roads that I´d read about, and she decided to buy me some water. We entered the port together and I said goodbye to my guard friends. At the dock we walked over to one of the boats being loaded. It was a quintessential old wooden riverboat about 60 feet in length and 15 feet in width. The white and blue paint was cracking. I recognized the captain, an old Morgan Freeman type with lively blue eyes and a tired demeanor.

“Permission to come aboard captain?”

“Please do!” Luckily he didn´t mind that I was playing the role of an excited kid. He even gave me a big smile and a fatherly shoulder squeeze as a welcome.

Nicaragua River Boat

Nicaragua River Boat. Source.

His name was Thomas, so it was that he would be called Captain Thomas. There were some others on the boat, and plenty of hands were still loading enormous hand-woven baskets packed tight with fruit. A large man was encouraging these men, whom he called “mis burros” “my donkeys” (the title has a positive ring to it in Spanish, suggesting the strength of the laborers).

The departure was delayed a few hours past 4 because we had to await the arrival of the last semi to load onto the barge we would be hauling with us to Bluefields, 8 hours downriver from El Rama. The French couple and I decided to climb up on the roof. A creole girl who was breastfeeding an infant said:

“It´s cold up dere.”

“Naw, what´s cold for you might be normal for me,” I replied.

“You go-na be seein´”

As the mumbling of the engine grew louder, we were underway. We first stopped at the municipal dock to take on the local passengers, who came aboard in a throng. The boat was packed beyond its limits. I climbed down to see the back area of the boat. If humans could weave webs, it might look like what I saw. The passengers had all brought hammocks onboard, which they strung from the metal rafters of the roof, so close to each other that it was hard to tell where one hammock stopped and another began. The single light bulb gave an eerie ambiance to the scene, which I left soon thereafter to return to my new French friends up on the roof.

Thomas, a French traveler in Nicaragua.

Thomas, a French traveler in Nicaragua.

We sat on either side of the main floodlamp of the boat. By now the sun had set, and the French were lighting a spliff. The motor hummed and there was a slight shake, maybe the boat´s muscles shuddering from the weight. The breeze was fresh and gentle, as our speed did not surpass 10 miles an hour. The pace slow, the black horizon seemed not to move, as though the boat was frozen in the dark water. The sky was dotted with stars, and we appeared to be on a heading to the right of the brightest one. Maybe it was Neverland we were going to. The Milky Way was as milky as I´d ever seen it. It was the first time I looked at it and thought “home.” I leaned back against a wicker basket and rested my head on a watermelon, peering off into nothingness. I thought of another thing the breastfeeding girl had asked:

“Will ya meet a girl in Bluefield, taker ´er back to yer place?”

I slept on the roof of that riverboat, a surreal and unforgiving dew sticking to everything exposed. Jeremy and Sara were pleasant, and we had long conversations in French before dozing off. I was venting about how I disliked French street people because they live off generous government handouts and yet still beg for change (Sara agreed), and Jeremy was telling stories about his car trip from Canada.

When we arrived in Bluefields a guy decided to guide us around. I never let guides come with me because I spend money solely on food. My French friends didn´t mind. “C´est bon on a de sous,” “It´s alright we have money.” They´d alright bought me water, but I would also be treated to breakfast before they would be off straight to Pearl Lagoon. I was going to meet someone in Bluefields I´d contacted through CS and stay with her for two days.

Bluefields in the morning is misty and quiet. The first thing you might remark is a stark difference between the racial composition of this city and cities on the “Spanish” Pacific coast, as here in Bluefields the black Creoles, who are descended from African slaves, are at home. The buildings are mostly concrete, and you might notice the roads are paved with shells. I was entranced by stories of Victorian splendor, but Bluefields lost that when a hurricane destroyed the city in the 80´s. The guide took us to the market, where the French treated me to a meal. The meal was gallo pinto, fried cheese, and amazing crispy fried tortillas called soda (because they contain baking soda, among others ingredients like sugar, flour, salt, butter, oil and water). It was astoundingly good. I´ve eaten a lot of gallo pinto and fried cheese, but the very large creole woman who served us with a frown can cook better than them all. The tortilla was splendid, not unlike the Indian tortillas my friend Vikas cooked up for me back in Veracruz, Mexico.

After the meal and an hour wandering around with Sara and Jeremy, they were off and I was left to my lonesome. I sat under my umbrella to protect myself from the heat as I drew a picture of some boats at the dock. Later I made my way to the one internet café that was open,luckily, as it was Sunday. I looked up a message from my host, a Swiss woman named Georgina. She had given me directions to find her, and so I got to it.

Sketching in Bluefields, Nicaragua

Bluefields is on the Caribbean coast, accessible via an 8-hour ferry. This is a travel drawing of the port.

After a long discourse with a drugged out Rastafarian explaining to me that the drug runners are the ones who look after the communities out here, I flagged down a taxi. I wanted to learn more about the drug runners but it was hard enough as was to follow creole, but a stuttering creole was even more difficult. The first taxi I´ ve taken in over a year dropped me at the end of a long dirt road 30 minutes and 50 cents later.

Georgina showed up at the place she told me to wait in the message a few minutes after I arrived, because she was going to check if I´d arrived every hour, as I hadn´t been able to say exactly when that would be. I met a smiling face to my delight, and we hugged hello with the customary bis on the cheek. She is a Swiss French woman from Geneva, but she has lived and had a project in Bluefields for 8 years. She guided me up a long concrete staircase flanked by newly constructed wooden shack homes with mothers cradling their babies in the ubiquitous and mandatory Nicaraguan rocking chairs. This was the far end of town, where the paved roads had not yet reached. It was a landscape of rolling grassy hills dotted with houses as if they were shaking out of a giant sack in the sky and landed where they were. We walked passed these houses on paths between fences. Bluefields pulsates with a Caribbean beat constantly, as music pours out from many hidden corners. Some of the wooden homes that remain standing after the deadly hurricane 20 years back remind me of Eugene Oregon porch fronts, minus the college students sipping Black Butte in beach chairs.

We continued on, passed a store that read “Where fun party begin”. There are a lot of examples of phrases like that that look incorrect. Indeed, if we were to look at these phrases with a critical eye keen on “proper” English grammar, then we would see a fault, but you must understand that Creole is completely grammatical in its own right, a full complete language that cannot be judge by an English lens. What snobby English grammarians might see as a mistake was once upon a time indeed a mistake made by those using a common language to communicate between themselves. However, today the mistakes have been regularized by generations of children being taught it. If what we might see as a “mistake” is reoccurring, that indicates that said “mistake” is, in the Creole grammar system, completely regular and correct. Children learning a new language fill in the blanks, which means that they created a grammatical norm for a Pidgin language that was before used only for practical purposes, and thus the language was awarded the title of Creole, being self-sufficient and correct on its own, separate from the same strict rules that govern the language of origin, in this case English.

Randy in Bluefields, Nicaragua

Randy in Bluefields, Nicaragua

It was not long before I made a new Creole friend. I met Randy, Georgina´s friend who works at her fincita where she has her project. He had just climbed down a tree after fetching a home-made diamond plastic kite for a child neighbor. He too was full of smiles, and immediately offered me a chair and some well water. I thanked him. He was a little shorter than me, but built like an athlete. As I found out he was an athlete, a basketball player. The tattoo on his shoulder read “Capsula”, which is his nickname around town and was his call sign as an ace basketball dunk. Randy was extremely friendly and full of life, and Georgina was encouraging and patient. She had short grey hair and sloped eyes but her personality seemed to emanate a light, deceiving her 60 some odd years of age.

The fincita or “little farm” was built with Randy´s and the communities´ help. There are several buildings of wood that are open to the fresh air. There´s a workshop, a kitchen area, a bathroom and shower are next to a wheel well that draws up water via an enclosed PVC pipe and knotted rope, and then there is the pink house where there is a bedroom, computer, stove and sink. The view is of the area´s rolling hills spreading off inland. We sat together on the porch and sipped water. My shirt was soaked from sweat because the heat had been battering me all day, the weight of my pack adding to the wetness.

Randy on Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast

This a sketch of Randy, my Nicaraguan friend on the Caribbean coast.

 

The purpose of the fincita is to help adolescents and young adults who would otherwise be on the street possibly as thieves by giving them an alternative place to spend their time, working the garden they planted, making arts and crafts in the workshop, or chatting with Randy about his own experience as a would-be street thug. Randy recounted his story to me as we strolled into the surrounding hills in search of a waterhole called Walpatarra, which in the Miskito language means “big rock”. He told me he had been a troubled youth, surprising as he is only 26. But indeed he had been attracted to the thugs life, and said he would probably have been a nobody, doing harm to others, if he had not completely changed the course of his life. After he had given up aspirations of violence, he had gone away, as many locals here seem to do, to work on Caribbean cruise liners. He said he loved it. I have always thought to go off and work on a cruise line. Unfortunately, Nicaraguans are only paid half of what other workers doing the same business are paid. Eventually he returned to Bluefields and met Georgina, and they created the fincita.

The waterhole was isolated, and there was indeed a big rock. There were about 6 adolescents jumping around when we arrived. Randy wasted no time in diving head first into the hole, just under the small waterfall. I followed suit and was surprised that Randy had dove when my feet smacked against the rocks on the bottom.

A donkey cart on the Coast of Nicaragua.

A donkey cart on the Coast of Nicaragua.

My time in Bluefields, which as I found out was named after a Dutch pirate named Bluefeldt, passed in two days. The night I´d arrived we´d gone to a bar on the bay called Lala. It played Garifuna, reggae, country, and banda music all within one hour! It down poured hard and we moved to a sticky indoor table. The lights were dim, and the dance floor was speckled with black and brown and occasionally obvious white bodies. I didn´t dance. Georgina bought me some Victoria beers (there is also Mexican Victoria, this beer was Nicaraguan). We took a taxi back to her house, a good ways from the fincita. After a half mile of different fences and turns we arrived. It was a lovely mahogany wood home built with supervision and healthy amounts of money. I slept in a separate building with my own room, mosquito net, and fan (very necessary I’d say). The next day I´d walked around, disappointed that I didn´t arrive to the market early enough to eat more soda tortillas. The three of us had lovely conversations by incense and candle light about Nicaragua, traveling, and the world at the fincita. We spent hours on the computer as I was showing them how they could use the internet to search for volunteers (they want a fulltime volunteer to work at the fincita-if anyone is interested let me know). On the second morning I packed my bags and left the house.

 


 

Bluefields Nicaragua.

Bluefields Nicaragua. Source.

I made it in time to the giant creole woman´s food stand in the market for some soda tortillas. The steam from the cast iron pots swayed as it climbed into the rafters of the sheet metal roof. It smelled sweet. It was here, sitting at a long table by myself, that I met Joshua. He had a bright face and short pointed black hair. He looked more mestizo than black, but he spoke creole like Randy. His English was better than Randy´s though (in fact I mostly spoke Spanish with Randy, and some French with Georgina). My plan for the day was to make it to Pearl Lagoon, a place I´d read was “true Caribbean culture”. The idea was to arrive there, and walk around until I found someone who would let me pitch my tent in their yard. After a few days in that town I hitch back to El Rama via a dirt road. I had initially wanted to return to Bluefields´port called El Bluff to try to meet lobster boat captains that could take me south down the coast to San Juan del Norte, from which I would boat back toward the Lake of Nicaragua. I told all this to Joshua enthusiastically as I was in a strangely good mood. Joshua smiled and shook his head, his single left earring glistening in the dim light. He had told me he lived in Cinncinati, a town I´m somewhat familiar with since my mom comes from there and where we´ve visited family on many occasions. I asked if he knew an area called Amelia, or Mount something (I couldn´t remember the names of the places where I had family). “Yea yea, that sounds familiar.” He smiled when I´d told him about my Pearl Lagoon destination.

“I´m have an aunt live in da Pearl Lagoon, you should stay wid ´er.”

“Your kidding, really? Cause I had nowhere to stay otherwise, I was just gonna, you know, ask about pitching my tent.”

“Yea I stay der with other Americans once and Swiss, they put they tent in da yard dem times too.”

“That would be great!”

“I give you her number”

I was pleasantly surprised, when he also said:

“I got an oncle too. He named Oncle Cleveland, he work on de lobster boats and he go down to San Juan. You come back here and we go together with him down der.”

Joshua was suddenly revitalizing my plans that I had thought were doomed. Suddenly I wasn´t going to be hitching back to El Rama, but instead making my way back to Bluefields to meet Joshua and go with him and his uncle south, for free!

We walked together back to the dock, through a large parade of brightly decorated participants celebrating Nicarguan Independence Day. My my. Anyway, I was looking to catch a slow boat that should cost 80 cordobas for 4 hours to Pearl Lagoon. Unfortunately I learned that only the speed boat pangas were going, a whopping 150 cordobas. Oh well, I had figured this into my original plan anyway, as I hadn´t known about the slow boat to Pearl until I´d met the creoles who I helped out with the cooler in Rama.

Nicaraguan money.

Nicaraguan money.

Joshua had written his and his aunt Janice´s number on a yellow piece of paper. As we stood on the dock he called her to tell her I was coming, saying something about how he was waiting for get paid and didn’t have any cash. Joshua was a marine biologist on the popular Corn Islands, by the way. He looked at me and said, “Janice says I ought borrow the money from you.” My stomach felt strange at first, because I never lend money. Hell, 150 cordobas is 7 dollars and I rarely even carry that much on me at any one time. But Joshua had done so much for me, so I lent him the money. He told me to call Janice when I arrived in Pearl Lagoon and to call him when I would be coming back to Bluefields, because the lobster boat would leave in 4 days.

I boarded the panga, paid 150 cordobas and we were off. The boat broke the surface of the water with crashing force and we sped north along the coast for the hour long ride. I began to feel strange. I reevaluated what had just happened. I just met a guy in a market, who had come up to me in the first place. I was under the impression that he had done a lot for me, so I trusted him to pay me back the 150 cordobas I lent. But I felt like I shouldn´t have given him the money. Then I realized, wait a second, he hadn´t done anything for me, it was all an illusion. I just gave some random guy who spun an amazing story 7 bucks! Damn it! I think I´ve just been scammed! Shit. And now I have these fake numbers in my pocket and not a hope in the world. The story was too perfect. He had a place for me in the town where I was headed, and a ride on a boat to the southern town I wanted to go to. Unreal. I felt horrible, but at least I got to experience why con artists are called artists: he painted quite a picture.

An hour past, speeding through a maze of mangrove waterways, stopping at a few small towns along the way, and then finally we arrived in Pearl Lagoon. I was still torn over this fiasco of losing 7 dollars without breaking a sweat. As I vented to myself and came up with a new rule (never lend money), I realized I still had these fake numbers in my pocket. I decided to give it a try anyway. I went to the police station to use a phone. The police are all mestizo from the Pacific, but the population is all black creole, an interesting and new phenomenon in town, I was to find out. The phone wasn´t any good, but they sent me to a hotel called Casa Blanca. The policeman told me he would send an escort with me because there were a lot of ladrones here who would otherwise rob me blind, and as he put it “we don´t permit that.” I insisted that no, I would go alone, thank you. I would not be caught dead walking down the street with a policeman, that alone would be reason enough to jump this racist gringo who went to the police because he´s afraid of the black population. Fuck that, I was already feeling shitty as was.

A photo of a girl in Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua.

A photo of a girl in Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua. Source.

At the Casa Blanca, the fanciest hotel in town but probably wouldn´t classify as two star, the folks were more than friendly with me, and they let me use a cell phone. It costs 50 cents a minute, a fortune here, so I handed them 10 cordobas for the call. To my amazement, I got a response from what sounded like an old woman.

“Hello? Is this Janice?”

“Who dat?”

“I´m Chael, I´m your nephew Joshua´s friend, he told me you could put me up?”

“Ah yea! Where you at I go-na send somebody et you.”

Well well well, the entire story turned out to be true. I was so preoccupied with the idea that I ´d just been scammed that I barely gave myself room to consider the possibility that Joshua was telling the truth, that he really was trying to help me, and that he really would pay me back when I got back to Bluefields. I realized that this meant that I had a place to stay, and also that I would be going on a lobster boat south to San Juan del Norte with Joshua and Oncle Cleveland!

Nicaragua Caribbean Culture

The caribs showing Nicaraguan spirit in the Caribbean.

Now that I was rid of my worries, I was able to take count of my surroundings. I was in Pearl Lagoon, heart of Caribbean culture. The roads were all dirt. Everyone was creole and wearing either flip flops or walking barefoot. The sun was hot and high, and as I´d walked to the hotel the greetings were, “alright alright” or “ok”. The folks at Casa Blanca let me hang out while I wait for someone to show up looking for a gringo. I played keep it up with balloons with the kids of the house. I think it was someone´s birthday party. At one point the kid disappeared and returned with a large yellow balloon and a devious grin that spread across his face “we play beda wid dis one!”

An hour later James showed up. He had a Cleveland Indians cap, shorts, and a tank top. He was younger than me, and quietly enthusiastic that I was coming to the house. We walked the dirt roads past wood and concrete homes of varying degrees of decay. The people were smiling, and the Caribbean vibes were beating from stereos here and there. A fruit truck stopped, and a woman looking over the product was approach by a man from behind who grabbed her, and they spun each other around to the music for a minute, smiles as bright as day.

We made it to the house, hidden behind a few others new the point of the bay. There were children playing marbles in the dirt, and large black plastic sheets drying tiny shrimp in the sun. We entered the house, the walls packed with pictures of family. There was a small tv, a sofa, and two chairs. The roof was metal, and the house was open to the outside air. It was basically a concrete shell with wooden innards separating the individual rooms. We walked down the corridor to the back, where the kitchen and Miss Janice were waiting.

Nicaragua Atlantic Coast

Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast.

Janice was a short and very large creole woman with cloudy blue eyes, a protruding wart on her cheek and sweat beads forming at the tip of her nose. She was full of friendliness and instantly give me a big ole hug.

“Welcome welcome welcome, dis be yer house.” I was reminded of the creole woman in the Pirates of the Caribbean who plays Calipso.

“Thank you so much, I was floored when your nephew Joshua said I could stay with you.”

“Who dat?”

“Joshua, you´re nephew, the biologist from Corn Island.”

“I don´t know no Joshua, but all the same welcome to de home.”

Ah ha, so Joshua called Janice his aunt, but they weren´t blood related, it was just to mark closeness. Surely Janice knew Joshua, she must have just forgotten for the time being. How else would Joshua know Janice anywho?

“You in yer home her, and you cun stay how you like.”

“Where could I set up my tent?”

“Ooooohh darling, der be no need fer dat now. You go-na sleep der in dat Jame´s room.”

Janice and her family were teaching me something new about hospitality. I would be sleeping in a bed under a mosquito net and with a fan on me all night. I am continually amazed at the kindness I am shown. I am a stranger from a rich country, and these people are living at or below the poverty line. Amazing. Human.

I met Elmond, Janice´s husband, a slow and quiet man with a special frown that exerts happiness. I met Jessalyn, her daughter who lives apart in another house next to this one, she´s 26 with a kid and another on the way. There were also a bunch of little grandchildren running around. One was named Carrion, and was particularly keen on reggae ton and stripping down in front of everywhere. Maybe the unusually large endowment he has for his age of 5 years has something to do with that tendency! Another grandkid was always playing marbles. Jessalyn explained the pictures on the wall. Janice had 7 children, three of which were away working on cruise lines in the Bahamas. The entire family was otherwise in town.

I spent three days in Pearl Lagoon with Janice and the family. It was shrimping season, and so I offered my help. We hauled heavy wicker sacks filled with shrimp out to the lawn each morning, where we dumped them on the 30 foot lengths of black plastic, spreading them out with sticks to leave them to dry during the day. Otherwise on the front porch there was always a huge pile of dried shrimp on a table, to be sorted through. I spent hours on end picking out dead fish and shells, and sweeping the separated shrimp into fresh wicker bags. When I was finished I´d move the big bags as Janice had instructed, “drag ´er over yonder.” Janice had a small tiendita, and people were always coming to make purchases. They´d show up in front of the house and call out “come buy”.

Pearl Lagoon Moravian Church

Pearl Lagoon was one of the poorest communities I’ve been to. I sketched this Moravian church there.

 

I ate like I haven´t eaten in ages. On arrival at the house Janice had fed me rice and beans with banana, and saucy shrimp. On the second day it was various kinds of fish, and on the third day I ate fried lobster. Glorious to live where seafood costs little. Nonetheless, I gave Janice some cordobas for the food, because I knew I was an expense, regardless of my helping out with the shrimp harvest.

My name for the kids was “de white man,” and I think they liked me. I couldn´t play marbles quite like they could. The trick was to snap your marble against the other marbles, trying to push as many out of the circle as you could. The pack of children laughed at some of my more embarrassing attempts, but ooed and ahhhed when I decided to juggle the marbles (I´m getting better but my forte is still with limes). I talk Carrion and his young sister a trick with your hands: “here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, and see all the people.” They showed everyone.

One of the poor houses of Nicaragua's Pearl Lagoon.

One of the poor houses of Nicaragua’s Pearl Lagoon.

The days were long and relaxing. The people work hard and rest easy. In the nights we watched a Mexican soap opera, or “telenovela”, called “Soy Tu Dueno-I´m your pain.” I lost track of who was sleeping with whom after a few minutes. I spent one day walking around town. The houses had their plots but they were truly separate from each other, and there were very few fences. At Janice´s for example, the yard seemed pretty much communal. The neighbor was the captain of slow boat that I was hoping to take back to Bluefields, it had a fence. Maybe I could work for my passage.

I drew the Moravian church of the town, with a small crowd gathered to watch. Two Jehovah´s Witnesses from California came up and we chatted for a moment. They offered me some reading material but I didn´t feel like reading about Why We Do Bad Things.

I also drew Elmond sitting and sorting shrimp at the old wooden table. It made his daughter laugh. I spent a couple hours drawing the house, which I eventually gave to the family as a thing to remember me by. Carrion had stolen a pencil and ate the eraser, but I got the pencil back. The local children and a few girls around my age had gathered around to watch me sketch. The girls were beautiful, but most with children of their own. Humph.

Travel Sketch of Nicaraguan

Eder sorting shrimp in Pearl Lagoon. The people there follow the seasons as they shift from shrimp to fish to nothing.

 

After my three days with the family I felt like I could understand creole better. I´d seen it in writing on the instructions on a water filter bucket (the family put the well water in here). The instruction read:

→Wash yu han dem gud. Put aan di kova.

Creole is also a mix of other languages, and I was able to make out a few. It uses the French word ´bonbon´ for candy. And it uses the Spanish word ´helado´ for ice cream.

Well, my experience with the family in Pearl Lagoon then came to an end on the forth morning. I bade farewell, and walked to the dock, where I would get the slow boat to Bluefields for half the price. On board I climbed alone onto the roof, and shaded myself with my umbrella. I knew the woman who took my payment, she was one of the ladies I help with the shrimp. I said I´d thought to work for passage, and she said I should have asked her sooner and she would have been glad to oblige. Oh well, I guess paying the first panga to get to Pearl Lagoon had made me lazy about work.

The 4 hour ride passed smoothly. We passed smaller boats with entire trees onboard to offer shade. There were rocking chairs on the roof that a few older men were lounging in. A group of guitarists strummed the whole way, hymns and folk songs mostly. I read some of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a very appropriate book for this kind of trip. One passage stood out: “Men desire to do things that are prohibited to them.” A testament to human nature to desire that which is most difficult to obtain. Somehow, perhaps this journey of mine has something to do with that aspect of human nature. Perhaps.

Back in Bluefields, Joshua was not at the dock like he´d said he´d be. But my worries were unfounded when I met him at his other “aunts” house near the dock. It was a wood shack, and he was working to repair the rotting banister. I thanked him for having given me Janice´s number, that it was a wonderful stay.

However, the homecoming to Bluefields was fraught with disappointment. There was to be no journey south on a lobster boat. Why? Because an American aircraft carrier conducting anti-pirating operations nearby had prohibited boats from exiting the port. This came as sour news, because everything had been fitting together so perfectly, and now my foreseen adventure was going to have to either wait 10 days or change completely. 10 days is a lot of time, and although I was only spending 2 or 3 dollars a day, that means for the price of 10 days I could just pay a boat to head south. Not the same. I decided to return to El Rama. I found out a slow boat was leaving for El Rama this very evening. I rushed to the dock to confirm the news, and found that the boat to be leaving was the Maria Gloria Z with Captain Thomas at the helm. I rushed back to Joshua´s aunt´s and gathered my stuff.

Joshua said he would meet me at the dock to say goodbye and to pay me back, because he was waiting for his aunt to withdraw money to give him. I went to the dock and boarded the boat. There was plenty of activity going on, the burros loading new baskets and preparing the same barge to be hauled back to Rama. It was around 3 o´clock. Joshua showed up to say goodbye but his news on paying me back was sour as well. I will say now that getting paid back via Western Union was something that preoccupied my mind a lot of the next couple weeks, but that I was never going to get paid back. Ironically, a random woman on the boat asked me to lend her 50 cordobas for the passage. My new rule forbade it: no lending money to strangers.

The Maria Gloria pushed off the dock, tensed it´s anchors on the barge and we were off. I was again on the roof, in anticipation of seeing homey Milky Way. We had surprising luck not to be rained on the first voyage; I figured maybe that would be the case again. It was.

Bluefield Nicaragua Bay

The beautiful bay of Bluefields. Source.

 

I spread out my sleeping bag and lay down to write. Seconds later I met Guillermo, a 17 year old hand on deck, son to the man the other burros call Chino, since he looks Chinese.

“Hey, provecho” I was eating a plate of rice and beans, and provecho means bon appetite.

“Thanks, suerte en el trabajo” Thanks, good luck with the work.

“Oh we´re done working until we get to Rama. Then we spend all day loading and unloading.”

“Shoot, you guys really are burros, I don´t have the hands for that, nor the back.”

“Bah. Where you from?”

Guillermo and I chatted for a long time it seemed. He was a mestizo living in Bluefields his whole life, and Spanish was the language we used. He had a girlfriend and he was clearly head over heels about her. I shared my story of travels and means of transportation, how I live, etc. I was the first foreigner he´d ever had a conversation with, and he remarked that it was new for him to talk about things other than work, girls, and the weather, as he would with the other burros (in case you forgot, burros means deckhands for these guys). I showed him my sketches and his eyes lit up with an idea.

“How long does it take you to draw these?”

“Depends. Sometimes many hours, but on average about an hour and a half.”

“Could you draw something for me? I mean, to give to my girlfriend?”

“You really like her huh?”

“Ohh. Oh. Yes. A lot. She´s beautiful.”

“Ok, what is it that you´d like me to draw?”

Guillermo disappeared for a few minutes and then returned, handing me a small plastic wrapper meant for candy. It read in bubble letters “Dulce Amor” and “Te quiero” (“Sweet love” “I love you”), and there was a picture of a cupid shooting a heart arrowhead bow.

“Can you do it?”

“Sure. I´ll get to. I got my head lamp so I think I´ll be able to finish tonight.”

With that I began to draw the little wrapper, grasping it so that it wouldn´t float away with the soft breeze. I used a 5H, a hard pencil, to outline the entities on my thick all-purpose sketch paper. Then I worked in some shade with a 4B softer pencil. Finally I added the profound depth using an 8B super soft and dark pencil, pushing the detailed black around with the 5H. At one point, when night had fallen, Guillermo had shown up again with a tall glass of coffee, but which tasted more like mocha late, delicious. At another point one of the burros showed up while Guillermo was watching me draw, asking for the 50 cordoba passage. I had told Guillermo how I tried to draw the boat for my first passage, and so he looked at the other burro and said “no, Chael is going to draw the boat instead.” The guy smiled with a mouth full of teeth and said “dale pues!”

I finished the drawing alone, and fell briskly to sleep. The morning came slowly, a purple sky crawling over the clouds. I was awoken to the sounds of people walking. The passengers unloaded their belongings at the municipal dock, and then we continued to the international port where we delivered the barge and tied up to the “muelle”. I jumped down from the roof and climbed over the side onto the dock. It was not long before the scene was animated with loading and unloading. I ripped out the picture of the cupid, sitting on my pack. The burros noticed me and 5 or 6 gathered around. Guillermo showed up and I smiled, handed him the picture. The others started laughing hysterically. I´d just handed a piece of paper with a cupid that read “Sweet love, I love you” to a young man, and the others noticed the irony. They appreciated the detail of the drawing, and one of them pointed at the boat. The rumor was true! The gringo was going to draw the boat instead of paying 2 dollars for the 8 hour ride! I found a good spot and got to work on the boat drawing. There were about 5 other ships loading and unloading, and some were just parked. The sun came out in force, and it was not long before the evil little beads began to form and drizzle down my chest. I was sweating like a cold can of coke in the sun.

The river in El Rama, Nicaragua.

The river in El Rama, Nicaragua. Source.

I drew for 2 hours, by which time it was 8 o´clock. All of the deckhands from all the boats had come over to check out what I was up to. At one point I easily had 15 people crowding around. It made me somewhat nervous, so I took off my hat, put it on the ground, pointed at it, and said “propinas” “tips.” The crowd dwindled. Captain Thomas´ nephew Black brought me a cold Pepsi. When finished, Black admired the work and took the drawing all over the dock showing everyone. There was again a crowd around me and him. I was asked by two different captains to draw their boats for free rides, one of which was going back to Bluefields, the other one going all the way to Corn Island, a 150 cordoba ride. I wasn´t going to go, however, because I don´t like backtracking so much, and the mosquitoes on the Caribbean, which I forgot to mention, are all crazy.

Most of the deckhands are around my age or a bit older. They gather around and interrogate me on my trip. The questions are always the same “how do you travel?” “what do you do for work?” “you have a lot of money?”

“I hitchhike and camp, so the only money I spend is on food… or boats. I worked a little before leaving, but since I´m traveling very far I need to spend as little as possible. I don´t like money.”

“What!? You don´t like money?” They asked

“No. It´s corrupting. I try not to think in money, and try to use it as little as possible. I won ´t go as far as to travel without it, but I will do what I can to avoid it. For instance, the passage to Bluefields, you guys charge 50 cordobas. I could probably sell that drawing of the boat for upwards of 20 dollars. But it´s not the price that I´m thinking of. I did a service in exchange for a service. A picture for a ride. Not a picture for 50 cordobas. When we think like that, we are corrupted.”

My little speech drew various reactions, because their struggle for money is something that I don´t ever have to deal with. I have the capacity to always return to my country, get a simple job and make a living (assuming I have no obligations, such as family). Simply put, I have opportunities and they do not. That being said, I still believe in the little speech I gave, regardless of financial status.

The impression I made on these shirtless laborers must have been a good one as they patted me on the back with wide smiles as I was getting ready to continue on my way. Black got me a ride with a semi truck, however I declined because I would have to sit up on top of gas tanks for 4 hours in the sun bumping up and down, and the bright orange cab was already full. So, I said my goodbyes, saluted Captain Thomas, and walked out toward the main gate, my journey having lost a leg but gained a story.


 

The Atlantic Coast was behind me, and the winds were blowing west once more. Plans are strange. They can make or break a journey or trip, and making them depends on what exactly you´re looking for. During my 3 weeks in Mexico City I stayed with Carmina, fantastic girl, and very analytical. There were books and magazines everywhere. I found plenty of time to read and consider things in general. I came across an extremely relevant quote by American photographer Jacob Holdt. It went like this: “A backpacker travels from A to B, while a vagabond moves in a third dimension: he advances with each punch life throws. From the beginning I realized that, if I gave myself the option to choose, I would never arrive at where I wanted to go; further from the scenes.” My point is this: I only have ideas, which are changeable, and never have set plans. The idea was to go to Granada, a purported beautiful colonial city on Lake Nicaragua. The first obstacle was hitching a ride out of El Rama, a small town at the end of the road.

I walked out of town with a plate of rice and beans. The sun was unrelenting. I once had a pair of sunglasses, but I broke them in the north of Mexico when I was boulder running in a canyon near Mexicali. My grey hat was fraying at the brim, but at least it offered some protection.

The large orange semi whose ride I declined passed me as I sat near a speed bump outside of town. I used to never pass of rides. However, the philosophy always comes true: you WILL eventually get picked up. Alas the wait was on.

 

Nicaragua's national flag.

Nicaragua’s national flag. Source.

Fast forward 4 hours and there I was in a bathroom with running water and toilet paper (I serendipitously gathered as much as I could and hid it in my pack.) I had gotten a ride in the backseat of a pickup truck, with air conditioning and good company. So, I turned down 4 hours of sun burning, gas tank sitting, and bumpy pain for 4 hours of soft felt seats with a cold breeze smiting the drops of sweat rolling down my forehead.

The guys in the front seats were ex Sandinista soldiers during the revolution. They dazzled me with horror stories of ambushes carried out by the contras on this very highway. The past is the past, and today Sandinista and contra soldiers live together. That red and black FSLN flag, nonetheless, is omnipresent, as it was on the dashboard of my generous ride. So generous, in fact, that when we ate lunch they treated me to extra portions of meat and rice.

Forward in time to the bathroom, I was now shirtless in a Shell gas station bathroom, scrubbing away at my single polyester shirt. Sadly, it looks to be on its last leg (it´s been with me in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica…-sniff-). While I was stringing black wash-off into the sink, a man of about 45 years, a heavier frame, and slightly balding looks at me.

“It´s hot out,” I said directly.

“You´re a backpacker?”

“Something like that.”

“I know backpackers. Do you use couchsurfing?”

My ears perked to a familiar sound. Couchsurfing. This guy knows couchsurfing? Granted there are over 2,000,000 CS, but in Nicaragua there are relatively few and what´s more is that I am in a Shell gas station bathroom.

Stuttering from surprise I blurt, “yea, yeah I use it all the time.”

“I have people at my home, you should come.”

“Of course, what now?”

“I have to take a plane to a small town to open a casino, but meet me in front of the Ceviche y Pollo in Masaya centro tomorrow at 3.”

Wow. I´ve stayed with hundreds of people using the website, but never had I met a host in such a bizarre way. Tomorrow I would be in a comfortable place, and possibly take a shower (Heaven knows I could use one after only one bucket shower in Pearl Lagoon).

I yanked out my little map from my robber-proof pocket (2 things: my pocket was sewed up so that even I had trouble getting my hand in and out because of when I was pick pocketed in Veracruz, and two the little map was a page from a Lonely Planet which I stole from an evil bitch in whose hostel I worked in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico). I was in a town called Tipitapa, 20 kilometers from Masaya. There was apparently a lagoon next to the city, called also Masaya. That would have to be it.

Masaya Nicaragua Market

Baskets in a market of Masaya.

It was around 3:30 in the afternoon, and the clouds seemed to be pulling themselves apart. It was quiet as I began to walk in the direction of the next highway. A few motorized rickshaws screamed by, some rumbling semi trucks, but otherwise I felt peaceful in the knowledge that I would have a place to stay the next day.

But, Oh! The wonders that would befall me before that day would come! I smiled with reason as my outstretched arm and attracted the attention of a passing Geo. Inside was a quiet chauffer and Adriana, a 40 year old politician, A Sandinista but anti-Ortega. That might be something like an anti-Bush republican, only on the other side of the political spectrum. She explained that she was going to a place called Catarina, and it would be a better option than Laguna de Masaya. She said there was another lagoon called Apoyo. Thankfully, I had no plans.

We drove through Masya and on south, up a gentle incline until we stopped in Catarina, and I said my goodbyes. I walked through curvy streets with dozens of green gardens and flower vendors, in search of the place called ´El Mirador´ ´The Lookout´. Many arts and crafts stalls later I found guard post, parking lot, and entrance to the lookout. The guard stopped me. I explained myself thus:

“I don´t want to pay 2 dollars to go in, I want to go in an camp for free, then I´ll leave tomorrow.”

The fates collided in superb fashion, and my new guard friend Pedro not only let me in but ended up guiding me to a part of the mirador with roofs and trees. But before that, we crested the hill and beheld the view before us. It has been a while since I had that feeling. Amazement. The Laguna de Apoyo was a humble display of nature´s beauty. It sat nestled within an ancient volcanic crater, I standing atop the highest part of the forested rim peering down, and beyond laid the vast Lago de Nicaragua, and to the south towered the quintessential volcano Mombacho, which cast a dominating shadow upon the far rim. The lit moon was framed among rose clouds, and in between the lagoon and the lake glistened a distant orange Granada. The Marimba music made for a serene and yet surreal experience, frozen there as though staring at a masterpiece of paint and brush. In a way, that is exactly what I was looking at: a masterpiece.

Laguna de Apoyo Travel Sketch

At the lookout above Laguna de Apoyo.

 

I camped there that night, having dined on tortillas stuffed with cheese I´d bought on the walk through town. In the morning I tore the tip of a plastic bag of water with my teeth and poured it into my Nalgene (yes, brand nirvana). I took in the sunrise over the lagoon, the reflections in the water. I´m told it is still active, that the water is warm. I´m told it is the cleanest water in Central America. I needed to get down there…

Laguna de Apoyo Nicaragua

This is the actual Laguna de Apoyo. Source.

…An hour later I let myself fall fully clothed into the water, exhausted but thankful. I held my breath and floated face down for a time. The walk down was monstruous to say the least. The torrential rains and constant humidity had made any and all boulders and rocks impossibly slippery by creating a slime of a moss on nearly every surface. The way down was called ‘Bajadera el Caballito.’ It had been intended for horses and donkeys. It was 45 degrees the whole way down, and the canopy of jungle withheld the sun´s heat from escaping. My pack weighed more than a panzer tank and I was sweating so much that I might well have passed for a faucet. An hour and a half of hellish scramble later, and it was all worth it.

I swam in the semi-thermal water for hours and hours, burning my body in the process, but I didn´t care. I was alone; there were only a few houses down the road that the trail had come out onto. Glorious.

Swimming in Nicaragua

Swimming in Nicaragua.

I´m an absurd and bizarre person, if you didn´t already cleave that much. It´s mostly because of random thoughts. The one that entered my head as I floated in that water was: “maybe I´m looking for people who are very happy in life.”

 

Masaya, Ceviche y Pollo, 3 o´clock, don´t be late. I put on my crusty hiking boots (a small tear indicating the end) and walk toward the road out. I see a group of people who couldn´t be anything else but Peace Corps volunteers. “Hey, we´re with the Peace Corps.” “I know you are.”

I walked for 40 minutes along the road that borders the lagoon. There was no traffic, even as I started to ascend the road up and out of the crater. Eventually a car picked me up, and for 15 minutes I spoke French with a family from New Caledonia. They prefer Costa Rica.

A disgusting mini hotdog and Ernesto´s chicken stories later and I´m sitting on a park bench in front of a place called ´Ceviche y Pollo´ in Masaya´s center. It´s 3pm. There are chickens running around. A man stabs a garbage can with his umbrella and pulls some of the trash out onto the ground. Francisco Perez shows up, my unlikely CS host for what would turn out to be two days.

On the morning of the third day I rode with a pair of pick-up trucks back to Catarina. I would miss my unlikely host and his wonderful family. They fed me every meal, or Francisco treated me at restaurants. Their house maid was my age, but had 2 kids. Ugh. Their daughter was my sister´s age and loved hearing my stories. I spent an entire day watching TV. I called home because they had an American line. I read some of “A World Lit Only by Fire” (read that).

Francisco´s home was a large house that would fit into the North Shore. His brother´s home was on the same property, which was expansive. His home was, shall we say, expected, but his brother Carlos´ home was interesting. It opened to a large chamber, like that of an early Christian church, whose walls were lined high with books and paintings. There was even a phantom suit of armor on display. I was alone when I decided to put an opera CD into the player. La Apoteosis de la Opera, Bizet & Wagner.

Sketching a Goose in Nicaragua

A sketch of a goose at the house of a congressman who picked me up.

 

I had a house to myself, because Carlos lived at their aging parent´s home in the city center. He was a strange and interesting person who invited me to temple (he´s a Jewish convert), insisted that I can stay as long as I want, and shared my enthusiasm of Medieval times. I noticed on the wall as I perused the main hall of his house a photo on the wall. There was Carlos, and there was Nelson Mandela. I learned that Carlos was the head of the African desk at the foreign secretary in the previous government. I also learned that Francisco was a congressman, and will be running for congress again this coming election in 2011. Carlos had met Nelson Mandela! And the king of Spain, and also Lesser Arafat, among others. 2 things are important in regards to me:

  1. Considering the theory of 6 degrees of separation, it´s awesome that I´m only 2 degrees of separation from Nelson Mandela, that makes you 3 degrees from him, if you haven´t already got the connection.
  2. If I ever play five fingers (Never Have I Ever) again, I´ll have to put down a finger if you say “I’ve never been invited by a congressman to his house in a gas station bathroom”

The night before I left Masaya, I was watching the Untouchables until the deafening cracks of thunder doused the power, then all I had to listen to was the whimpering of the dogs and the creaking of the wooden floor planks under the boom of the storm.

 

Granada Nicaragua Church

A church in Granada. Source.

When the damp morning arrived, I hitched to Catarina, there to draw the beautiful view. As I walked to the mirador, I admired the strange sight of a hot asphalt road steaming from the morning drizzle. At the mirador the sun came out and I sat at a bench. I´d gotten in to the mirador again, this time through a back entrance that I had discovered when I had been looking for the way down to the lagoon. I spent hours at my drawing. By the time I was nearly finished, the crowd was a group of Canadians and Nicaraguans, maybe 9 or 10 people hovering around me. Tourists. That was a joke, I know I play the tourist from now and again, however I hope through these writings I can try to redefine the kind of tourism I´m involved in, if it can even be called that in the first place, given that tourism is meant to bring money into the country, and I´m not so great at that.

I ended up sleeping another night at the mirador, and in the morning, after waiting too long for a ride, after getting a ride with a semi-racist defense contractor in a luxury car who talked about the importance of raising children with the mentality of treasuring life, and after a ride with a semi-racist Danish man named Martin, I arrived in the colonial jewel called Granada. It was a good idea to spend the night in Catarina so that I´d have a whole day in Granada, since I would be visiting and also searching for places to pitch tent.

Granada is a beautiful city, indeed. It has always been the more conservative hub of the country, the richer hub as well and naturally, it is more expensive. As a result of the well kempt buildings, Granada is the most popular attraction in the country. It was constructed on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, not far from the volcano Mombacho, and a boat ride away from the island of Ometepe.

Sketch of a Spanish Fort in Granada, Nicaragua

Sketch of a Spanish Fort in Granada, Nicaragua

 

In centuries past, pirates navigated the Rio San Juan, were able to reach the lake, and then sack Granada. They did this many times. My lobster boat would have taken me to the mouth of the Rio San Juan, and I had had the idea of following the river all the way to the lake, and then to Granada. However, the pieces fell where they did, and my Catarina and Masaya adventure would have been equally enticing were I to have had the choice…

I walked around the town with my pack, drawing here and there, eating a plate of rice and beans, chatting with hammock vendors in the park. On one street a guy asked in quick succession:

“You need a hotel? Weed? Coke? Girls? Can you give me some change?”

A blond girl and a Nicaraguan with a grin came up and asked if I need a hotel also. I said that no, I was going to camp (although I´d already been to the lakefront and I didn´t feel like camping there).

“Oh” the blond blurted, “Are you camping at the Red Cross?”

I knew that the Red Cross gave vaccinations, but camp there? I remember that I´d walked by it on the way to the lakefront, so I made my way back. I met Eddy and a few kids running around the complex. I asked if I could set up camp there that night and he cheerfully agreed. He even let me use the bathroom, and stash my stuff for the rest of the day in a storage room. Wonderful! My idea was to leave Granada and camp outside the city, but this way I can relax and enjoy the city!

Travel sketching in Granada

A travel sketch drawing in the streets of Granada, Nicaragua.

Colonial facades in Colonial Granada.

Colonial facades in Colonial Granada.

 

I left the compound, with the idea to return before midnight, when they close up shop. The streets were quiet for only being 4 o´clock. My muscles were relaxed and there was a hop in my stride, the sound of my steps echoing off the high walls of the buildings (Granada is not as tall as Leon, mind you). I made my way back to the stringy crowds near the cathedral. It was a beautiful day. It was calm, a line of horse carriages waited patiently on the far side of the park. I could feel myself blinking. Then I blinked a sight I hadn´t seen yet on this journey.

There was a girl on a bench across the street, and she was drawing.

 


The girl looked around my age, she was North American or European, and her dirty blond hair fell in long spirals to her shoulders. The black tank top and coffee brown rolled-up patterned pants might´ve given me a hint as to where she was from, but the completely obliterated shoes threw me off. I never approach people, but this time I walked up to her.

“Hola.”

“Hola.”

“Hablas ingles?”

Smile, “nooon” I heard that!

“Aaa, cést sur que tu parles le francais!”

“Comment tu sais ca?… How do you know that I speak French?”

“I don´t know it was just a hunch.”

“How do you speak French? Where are you from?”

“Chicago, but I lived in France for a spell. I never walk up to people but I also draw when I travel so I thought I would come say hello and see your drawing.”

Street in Granada Nicaragua

Street in Granada Nicaragua

Her drawings were wonderful and clear, pen sketches. She let me browse through her book and I lent her mine to look at. We ooed and ahhed for a couple of minutes. I had made a new friend. She had a curious name, Toinon, which would mean in French “You no”. We discovered we had quite a lot in common. We feel similarly about tourism (that being that we don´t really take part), and also we have the same idea about cameras. Cameras, that is, can be dangerously cliché in traveling. We both have been in Latin America for 10 months, and we both stay with families whenever possible. We also both learned Spanish on the road. She is also a hitchhiker and a camper, but not here, since she is traveling alone. She also tries to spend as little money as possible, believing that money is corrupting when it preoccupies us.

The marketplace in Granada.

The marketplace in Granada. Nicaragua’s markets are wonderful. Source.

Well, by the time the conversation ended with “let´s go to the market and eat something”, we´d decided to join up. She was staying in a hostel for the moment because she hadn´t spent any money for about a month and so was treating herself well. The next day we would hang out in Granada and the following day we would hitchhike together to a town called San Jorge, where a cheaper boat would take us to the island of Ometepe.

We went to the market and bought some bread, rice, and beans, and cooked everything up in her hostel. I played my repertoire of “Come As You Are” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” on her little travel guitar, and we feasted. That night I dozed off in my tent only to awake to renewed cracks of thunder and a downpour that snuck, once more, into my tent. I shrugged off the frustration.

The next day was bright and shining. Toinon and I walked the length of the lakefront and swam in the dirty, warm water. I took a little bath as I had a bar of soap that the other French friends had given me in Bluefields. Boat guides yelled at us to buy a tour for 15 bucks, but instead we sun burned all day.

Lago de Nicaragua

Lago de Nicaragua. Source.

 

Another wet night later, a short walk and we were next to a cemetery trying to hitch a ride south to San Jorge. Cemeteries here are something of a bizarre phenomenon. I supposed it´s not bizarre if you´re Catholic, though. Nicaragua is a poor country, but it´s hard to find a grave that isn´t actually an expensive family tomb.

A pick up let us hop in the back, and later it was a wide-eyed trucker with a Cat cap on, spinning tales about trucking between Georgia and New Jersey. At a city called Rivas we walked several kilometers to San Jorge, stopping to convince a family to feed us the cheap stuff. In Nicaragua the people are happy to help without question if you want to eat on the cheap. In some other countries, it might take a little more effort on your part to convince them that you are not a typical cash-toting visitor.

The Ferry to Ometepe

The ferry that would bring us to the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe. Source.

The captain of this boat sternly shook his head ´no´ when one of his mates, after examining my sketchbook, ran up to ask him to let me draw the boat for our passage. No, we´d pay the 30 cordobas. The old wooden boat fit some 30 passengers, and seemed to drag itself across the water to Moyagalpa, the big city on the island.

The big city had about 5,000 habitants I´d say. The island is actually two big volcanoes sticking out of the water, connected by a small strip of land. Unfortunately for us there was a blanket of cloud for the entire time we were there blocking most of the volcanos´ slopes. I won´t mention that again.

Toinon is cheerful and intense. She speaks French in a quite vulgar fashion, but luckily for her I feel completely comfortable saying even more vulgar things. So much so, in fact, that it has begun to bother her a bit. I joke that she should learn English if she wants to meet the real me.

We debarked on the island, ready to pass a few days, except that the idea had been to relax in the sun, which at this point looked pretty unlikely. It looked even more unlikely when we noticed that half the dock, a truck, and a restaurant were half flooded. Apparently, all the rain has raised the level of the water to the point that the beaches that normally rim the island are all submerged. I´ll say it: Fuck.

The beautiful volcanic island of Ometepe.

The beautiful volcanic island of Ometepe.

 

We´re here, so we continue. We decided we needed to buy some food in this city for the next day. We went to a store in town. The back wall of products was tall and accessible by ladder, something out of the old Charlie and The Chocolate Factory movie. We bought 4 huge loaves of fresh bread and a stick of butter.

Walking out of town, we examined a colorful map of the islands painted on the side of a building. I noticed a waterfall on the far side of the island, and Toinon noticed a lake on our side. It was late in the day, so we opted to try to get to Lake Chaco Verde and camp on it’s shores.

A pick-up drops us at the entrance to Chaco Verde. Walking down a long dirt road, a car of people stops and tells us that the hotel is closed, but of course, we´re not going to the hotel, thank you. We arrived at a gate, and realized that it was the hotel. Where was the lake? A man on the property waved that the hotel was closed but I gestured for him to come over.

Erwin was the groundskeeper of the hotel, which was closed because the water was too high, the beaches were submerged. We found out from Erwin that the Chaco Verde (which is separate from the big Lake Nicaragua in which Ometepe finds itself) is on the property of the hotel, but that it too is flooded. He invited us onto the hotel property to wait for the boss man to return (the car we encountered on the way in). We three sat at a table at the outdoor restaurant on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, I speaking English with Bluefields-born Erwin. He brought us cups of coffee to stem the chill. It was drizzling, and the sky was becoming obscure. The waves lapped against sandbags they had piled up to protect the floor. A children’s play place stood isolated in the surf, an awkward image. Thankfully Erwin offered to let us sleep under the car park roof, as it was getting late.

We woke at 5 the next morning to find that the bread had been stolen by the neighbor´s dog, along with a small bag of salt I´d had since Tegucigalpa. And the butter. It was such good bread, too. The sadness was not relieved by the sun, which decided not to show it´s face today either.

Ometepe is not dreadfully big, but it took all day to arrive to San Ramon, the town where the waterfall was. Right out of Chaco Verde, which we never even got to see, we hitched a ride in a pickup. Down the road we hitched another ride standing atop lava rocks. I made the mistake, when asked if Toinon was my girlfriend, of saying no. The two guys with us were bending their brows and clicking at me. They told me that she was pretty, silly, since she´s is right there and they could tell her that. One guy started to explain that he was single, and I covered my tracks by filling in the blanks, “oh, she has a boyfriend, it’s just not me.” We spoke awkwardly of how I should get a Nicaraguan girl in front of Toinon. Anyway, I couldn´t date most Nicaraguan girls. For one thing, they´re mostly hidden from public eye (although men are everywhere). Secondly, in a conservative society of Catholic traditions and which is financially suffering, I unfortunately represent an investment above all, and so any kind of relation would be a farce from the very start.

The truck dropped us in a small town called Santa Cruz. We both knew of a organic farm here that was obviously popular with the backpackers. We decided not to go, especially since they still charge you to put up you tent even if you work all day.

From this town the road degraded. Rather, the road ceased to be a road and instead took the form of Beggar´s Canyon from Tatooine. Imagine an impassable road. Then drive over it. With a school bus. We weren´t going to cave in and pay the bus, even though there were no cars for hours. We walked and sat and walked and sat. When finally we weren´t counting our footsteps, a red pickup approached. The German inside let us jump in the back.

The 10 kilometers seemed like 60, navigating the canyons in the road as though we were in a 4X4 competition. The road even passed through the lake itself, which had flooded several bends that were cut too close to the water.

San Ramon, the waterfall on Ometepe, Nicaragua.

San Ramon, the waterfall on Ometepe, Nicaragua. Source.

At San Ramon we learned that the waterfall cost 3 dollars to look at. Then we learned it was really far, although we could see part of it from where we sat. No sort of trade in sketched was going to happen. We walked further along the road until we reached a house with a covered table. We at a meal of rice and beans and fried banana, and filled our bottles with the well water out back.

Then we continued on, and found a hidden spot outside of the village in the piney jungle, having had to bushwhack through webs of quarter-sized striped spiders. The waves here were monstrous for the size of the lake. But the winds were high and so the roughness was just. We went for a swim, laughing and playing baseball with fruit. It was a strange shore in that, since the beach was flooded, the waves were crashing waist-deep among a half-submerged forest.

Afterward, Toinon set up her tent and I lollygagged. When I decided to set up mine, it began to downpour. I scrambled and managed to get my tent up without too much wetness, except that I was soaked. We slept to the pounding of waves and rain, and in the morning we packed up and returned to town. There, we ate some bread from a store (the only thing we could get at a regular price, everything else was pumped up to match the tourist prices elsewhere on the island). A couple of hours later we jumped out of the back of an electrical repairman´s pickup after he drove us to the strip of land between the two volcanoes.

We had walked by this spot on the way to San Ramon. There was nothing but a dirt road, a house that had a bakery, and on the other side of a hill there were sand outcroppings held together by vines on the shore of the lake. This side of the island was calm, not a single wave. Actually, we were in a sort of bay, as the shores of the two volcanoes jutted out beyond the latitude of our spot. Here we would camp.

We swam, spit water, pretended we had superpowers, and paddled far out on a big log we’d come across. I had my doubts, because, although they are said to be almost completely extinct, Lake Nicaragua is the only place in the world where you find freshwater sharks. However we were both in good moods since the sun had decided to at least cast some rays on the foliage in the distance.

In the evening, while I lounged, Toinon went on a mission to get dinner: bread from the bakery. She returned with two big bowls covered with thick round tortillas. Underneath I found steamy macaroni, rice, and eggs. “You done good,” I told her. She replied, “and we’re invited back to have breakfast with them at 8”.

A map of the island of Ometepe, Nicarauga.

A map of the island of Ometepe, Nicarauga. Source.

 

We woke early and had a swim. Toinon had fallen asleep while I was enthusiastically talking about linguistics. We ate with the old woman at the bakery. The house was adobe brick and crackling. We ate some sardines that had been cooked, apparently. Sardines are in season, and there had been several families in the water near our tents with big nets. Two would hold the net and the third would walk in a semi circle out and around to herd the sardines into the nets. We also sipped on fresh cow milk coffee and salted cream.

A 2 hour walk, an orange Fanta, and a ride in a police truck later, and we were back in Moyagalpa. We missed the 1pm boat to San Jorge by 2 minutes. Instead we ate a 50 cent meal of bread. Toinon met someone she already knew. Two more French. They talked amongst themselves as French reunited are like to do. Apparently they also hitchhike and they had just been robbed in Rivas by one of their rides.

Moyagalpa Nicaragua

The streets of Moyagalpa Nicaragua, on theisland of Ometepe.

I walked down to the dock, where I ran into Erwin, who was heading back to Bluefields for the first time in 2 years. The waves were violent. I sat at a table in the lakefront park, which had been protected by large crates of rocks. Toinon arrived and we boarded the 3pm boat.

Everyone at the San Jorge dock seemed to know about Toinon´s French friends´ encounter in Rivas, as they had been granted free passage to Moyogalpa. Taxis were being very aggressive, but we decided to walk until we got a ride. The ride was a free taxi lift to the highway. The idea was to head back to Catarina, as I had been hyping it up so forcefully that now there was no escaping a return trip. The only question was whether we could make it before nightfall. There, we flagged a flatbed truck. Toinon went up front in the cab with two guys and I sat on the flatbed with about 5 others. They were delivering 500 pound concrete sinks. Apparently one of the guys in the cab borrowed the guitar to serenade Toinon, I wish I´d seen that.

Instantly the questions began as they always seem too, now that I´m traveling with a cute Western girl: “is that you´re girlfriend?” “Are you married?” “Are you going to go back to her country or you hers?” “Where is she from?” “How long have you been together?” And my response: “yes..yes we´re a couple, yes… for 1 week now. I don´t know if we´ll marry, it´s only been one week.” When the truck was stopped at one of the deliveries, and came around to the cab to say to Toinon:

“We´re a couple.”

“I know, I said the same thing! How long have we been together?”

“I said a week.”

“Me too!” We were like little kids playing a guessing game.

Architecture in the colonial city of Granada.

Architecture in the colonial city of Granada.

It´s different traveling with a girl. She has all of the attention. The eyes of every man are fixated on her as we walk by, or as they drive by they whistle and holler. Sometimes Toinon soaks it up with smiles and a wave, but sometimes I stare as hard as I can at the men so that their eyes would give her a break. But the rides are different, since the person who will stop for her is a different person than who would stop for me.

By the last delivery, it was dark, and we were still not at the crossroads for Catarina. The truck was headed to Granada. I had a change of heart, as I decided that my record of safety depended on a strict rule of not hitching at night. Toinon later told me her heart sank with relief when I told the driver that we´d go to Granada with them. That night we camped one last time at the Red Cross with Eddy.

The next day began with a chance encounter, a Dutch girl chasing us down to convince us to give an interview on being a ´backpacker´. Her photographer took pictures, mostly of our shoes. She bought us coffee and gave us 20 bucks, and we were on our way.

Outside of town we got a ride in the bed of a pickup. We were headed to the beach at the Laguna de Apoyo. It rained hard during the ride, but we stayed dry as we huddled close to the cab, the torrent passing over the air draft. Providence? It had stopped raining when we hopped out. I had stopped the car once, and they stopped in the middle of the highway. I thought I saw our turnoff, but they said it was further on. When we passed the turnoff for Catarina I knew I had been right about the Apoyo turnoff. Oh well.

We were out of the truck and had decided to just go to Catarina. Something bizarre was about to happen. I skipped down a hill to relieve myself, and when I returned we crossed the street with a pair of Nicaraguans that had started talking with Toinon. They were not wet at all, and had come out of nowhere. The woman was talking to me and the guy to Toinon.

“Hi my name´s Carolina, where are you going? Apoyo, oh! I work there, we can all go together in bus. Oh you travel with rides, we can go too. Oh here´s a car, this one gives us a ride.”

Carolina was strangely nice, and among all the cars that had passed, decided to flag down a red sedan with tinted windows. It stopped as if it always had that intention. Carolina popped the trunk, the driver and passengers didn´t even talk. Why was she pretending to hitch this car, it´s clear she knows them.

“Put your packs in here, and get in.”

“No, that´s ok, there´s no space.”

The back passenger door was open but there was only one seat, and I was seeing, essentially 4 of us outside of the car. A strange feeling crept in.

“No, I insist, thank you but we´re going to get another car.”

Without another word, the guy who was not going to get into the car, and Carolina, get into the sedan, slam the doors and speed away. They said they were going to Apoyo, but took the first u-turn and sped back in the other direction. That´s when we realized that they were clearly trying to rob us. We could´ve just lost our packs, or everything if we had also gotten into the car. They´d come out of nowhere. Toinon realized then that that red sedan had been behind us the whole drive from Granada, and had not complained when our ride stopped in the middle of the road, but just sat patiently behind. It had also dropped the two off when we had left the pickup. Perhaps it was the same robbers who got to the French.

A lime green truck later and I was back in Catarina, this time with a friend. We walked toward the center, and there ran into my security guard friend who had let me in last time. He wasn´t working. I told him we were going around back to get in.

“Just hold on, I´m going to call my colleague to tell him to charge you guys 100 cordobas.”

He said it so seriously I almost thought he was going to do it. Instead he walked along with us to the back entrance. One thing I don´t like about traveling with a gal is that we have to assume everyone is otherwise interested in her sexually, which changes the dynamics of my relationships with the people we meet.

The tent I use for hitchhiking around Central America.

The tent I use for hitchhiking around Central America. Source.

We walked to the roofs and pitched our tents. The view was clearing up, and Toinon had a look of utter splendor on her face. I was happy to have brought her here. Later I walked around until I found a store that sold me some bags of water, bread, and gallo pinto in a bag. That impressed Toinon. Except that the next day, when it was her turn to go for food, she returned with a legitimate meal for the same price.

We stayed two nights at Catarina mirador, a new security guard looking after our well-being, kind of. The new idea was to get to San Jose, Costa Rica in a day or two. Right off the bat we scored two quick pick-up rides that took us the 2 hours to Rivas. It was here where we ate in the bustling market, and I discovered at a Western Union that indeed, Joshua was not going to be paying me back.

We walked out of town and got a ride with a trucker. This trucker was a mix between Irish and Mexican, but was from San Salvador. He had obviously stopped for Toinon, not for me. His fiery red hair was bizarre but it was hard not to look at it, with its pulsating glow when the sun hit it.

He let us out at the border. Toinon and I have in common the fact that our nerves tense up at border crossings, for a number of reasons:

  1. It´s unnatural that a human need paper to move from A to B
  2. There are also scammers yelling at you to buy this form or that
  3. Maybe we don´t have a piece of paper that we ought to
  4. The fact that we´d prefer to sneak across makes doing it legitimately hard to bear
The border of Costa Rica with Nicaragua.

The border of Costa Rica with Nicaragua.

For the 6th time in a year I crossed into a country I had never been before. The first thing I saw was “No orina aqui” “Don´t piss here.” You would never see that sign in any other Central American country. Costa Rica has the reputation of being clean and expensive, and its people are so proud you can feel it. There is very little trash in the streets. Infrastructure is a little more together here, as foreign investment rolls in without many hindrances. For instance, it is illegal to herd cattle on the road. You know you´re still in Central America because there are stray dogs, but you know you´re in Costa Rica because these dogs´ skins are not clinging to their bones.

Trucks crossing the border of Costa Rica.

Trucks crossing the border of Costa Rica. Source.

You know you´re in Costa Rica because it takes 2 hours to get a ride. We waited, we waited, the sun climbed the heavens. Finally I walked back toward the border and began climbing trucks to ask the drivers until finally one agreed. His truck was clean, it was his, and he had lived in the States and talked about all the opportunities opened to him once he had had 2 years under his belt in the north. He also bad-mouthed Panama for what seemed like an hour. My theory, except for Nicaragua to Costa Rica, holds true that countries continually say that the country south of it is dangerous or shitty somehow. He dropped us off in a town called Canas in the middle of a downpour.

It was 4:30 and looked unlikely that we could get a ride in the rain. We walked over to a police station nearby.

“Evening, could you help us out?”

“What do you need?”

“Well, we need t get to San Jose but don´t have money with us until we get there. We´re hitching. Could we crash out on the floor here outside, not inside your office, but out here. It´s dry and since we´re going to be sleeping outside we´d feel safer here if you guy are here all night.”

The man didn´t even have the kindness to respond to me, instead simply shaking his head back and forth with squinted eyes. I did, however, have luck convincing him to let me use his phone. We were headed to San Jose to stay with a friend of my dad´s, Denise. I had her number and left a message saying we´d make it tomorrow, hopefully.

I started to ask an older cop for the bathroom, and when he started to shake his head no, I finished by saying “for my friend” and he changed his mind and let Toinon in. Then, as he mopped the floor (I still don´t understand this strange phenomenon in this part of the world where everyone is always sweeping and mopping constantly), he squinted his blue eyes and let out a breath of air, “can´t get to San Jose, road´s out”.

Damn it.

The church in Canas, Costa Rica.

The church in Canas, Costa Rica.

Apparently, the road was out in 5 different places along the pan am. It was of no use to worry about it now, we would stay in this town for the night. We walked toward the bus station, where we thought would be a good place to sleep. Not so, it is also the market and everyone was saying we´d be robbed. We opted for a dry spot under an overhang in front of the beautiful modern mosaic church in the central park. The drizzle lasted through the night.

In the morning I saw a dog on a leash. Whoa. It has been a while since I´ve seen that image. Thousands of birds in the trees sang and chattered like a stadium´s crowd awaiting the kick-off. Back at the highway a man passed and warned: “zona peligroso.” The only dangerous thing that seemed to happen was when a drunk the size of the Governator almost crushed my hand in a friendly greeting.

Costa Rica gas station

Costa Rica gas station. Source.

2 hours of no luck later and we were at a gas station asking for rides. We met Kalor, a guy who honestly deserves the descriptive term ´cool´. He had a Chinese-made Chevy copy. It was yellow. He drove us for an hour down the road, treated us both to a breakfast that must have cost around 4 dollars each. Rice, beans, empanadas, banana, and for me hot chocolate (doesn´t quite have the same effect in the tropics as it does in a Chicago winter).

He dropped us at a gas station where I washed my shirt again, unfortunately not meeting a congressman this time. Again someone tells us that´s it´s dangerous here, and again we wait 2 long hours before anyone stops. We had so far been told that ´it´ was dangerous in this country in 2 days more than in any other country we´d been in.

Ohhh the sun was treacherous. The umbrella, once again, is more than likely one of the best inventions ever devised by man.

David stopped in a mini truck, and he took us all the way to Heredia. The road had opened up this morning to regular traffic. Providence? Luck? Coincidence? Maybe that´s all the same thing. David also treated us to lunch.

Costa Rican food.

Costa Rican food.

 

This time we had chicken, rice, beans, salad, and a fresh squeezed fruit drink. He dropped us off in the center of Heredia. I still can´t believe the kindness of strangers. At times I want to stop all this and switch roles. I want to be the one who helps out the travelers, cooks them meals, treats them to a movie, etc. Someday soon, that´ll be me.

San Jose Costa Rica.

San Jose, Costa Rica.

Costa Rica uses dollars and colons. We had a few bucks, and we took a dollar bus to downtown San Jose. There we hung out until around 6pm, listening to Christian rap and an old Willy Nelson type singing hymns. San Jose is a city on the move. It´s the most like an American city I´ve seen yet, metropolitan and fast-fooded, but I think it probably has to do with the freedom of expression in looks and how white the population is. Whiteness is prevalent almost, and girls are in the streets here! It´s unreal, the difference between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and they are geographically so close. Most girls walking around San Jose, if we transplant them suddenly to Nicaragua, they would be suddenly inappropriate.

San Jose restaurant - pollo campero drawing

In the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, Pollo Campero is a restaurant. Why do Latin American chicken joints always have a happy chicken as their mascot? It’s sinister.

 

I called Denise´s home and her servant Maria Elena gave me instructions to take a taxi to San Rafael. When we arrived at the house, she paid the taxi. All of a sudden, upon arrival at this property, I felt like I was transported back to Winnetka. Denise and her husband are professionals, and thusly they make bank. The house is large, 4 bedroom, plenty of elegance in the wood panel floor. Each painting has a light fixture of its own. Every morning I find dried rose petals in the garbage where you throw the toilet paper. There´s a movie theatre on the second floor and cinematic eye candy in the form of an old film set camera the size of a small car with peeling army green paint. The property extends several hundred feet in all directions, surrounded by a high wall and patrolled by two security guards in the night. There are orange and lime trees, palm trees, papaya trees, there are dozens of chickens, 2 peacocks, 2 fat dogs, 3 cars, and a gate that automatically opens, sliding into the wall.

Toinon was amazed, and said that she had never been to a place like this in her life. I said I grew up around similar houses. “Are you rich?”

We watched a lot of movies already, and we have eaten every meal here with Maria Elena. Denise and her husband are lovely hosts, except that during the week we rarely see them. They offer everything they have as though it is already ours. Toinon and I went with Denise to watch her ride a horse and perform Dressage. It is a world I´m unfamiliar with. It didn´t look like anything special, but then again, the point is to make the horse do strange things while looking as though you´re doing nothing to provoke them.

It has been 4 days since we arrived, and soon I will be on the road again. I will continue alone, something that I mentioned to Toinon before we even began to travel. It was a good idea to mention it, because I think all of her plans have changed on account of me. I like to travel with others, but not for very long. I become irritated by the slightest things, and it can damage my relationships with others. Alas, my rule saves me from losing new friends. I suppose it´s not as bad as all that, but all the same I prefer to travel alone. There’s something about it…

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