Nicaragua for Beginners The salubrious southwest, Semana Santa 1999

31/3/99 - Holy Week Mayhem

The worst possible time to travel anywhere in Central America is around Easter, also known as Semana Santa, also known as Holy Week. Even worse is to attempt to travel on the day before the actual public holiday and of course, due to my usual non-commitment to planning that's exactly what I did.
On the day of travel I got off to a supremely good start, setting my watch for 4am and waking up at the 5.50am, 10 minutes before the last bus was due to leave San Jose for Nicaragua. A quick call confirmed that yes, it was all full and no, there would be no more and no, there was no refund either.
With a sense of resignation and nothing else to do I climbed aboard my packed-ready-for-adventure bike and pedalled off to the Tica Bus station anyway. As it turned out, they were running just one more bus, but I had to sit and wait for a space. The normally surly hombre behind the counter made a joke which had the queue tittering. A woman translated it to "She missed her bus because she had such nice company in bed this morning". If only.

Needless to say, I was very, very lucky to get a seat, and settled into the spot opposite the toilet with the door no-one could seem to close throughout the entire trip. The driver insisted on charging me $US7.50 for transporting my folding bicycle. In Costa Rica, people charge because they can.

The 4-hour trip north to the Nicaraguan border was uneventful. I noted the dry, savannah-like environs flanking the Interanericana Highway north of Liberia; this dusty and uninspiring stretch is what I planned to cycle through on my way back froom Nicaragua. Ah well, there's always the bus. The border rigmarole was as the guidebooks warned - no real hassle on the Costa Rican side, but extensive beaurocracy on the Nica side. Luggage was unloaded and we had to wait for an eternity in the grimy heat right beside the unnecessarily revving, smelly bus. Several "helpers" ventured forth offering their services in the hope for a tip, but as far as I could see, their assistance was limited to shifting your things along using their back muscles rather than yours, and didn't get you past the customs officer any faster. Eventually I appealed to the officer that I had to get on the last boat to Isla Ometepe tonight, and he let me go without checking nuttin'. Thus, my illicitly concealed apple, carrot, cucumber and half tin of refried beans crossed the border. Less than an hour later we pulled in at Rivas, and from there it was a short, flat 5km to the ferry at San Jorge.

The first thing I noticed that told me I was in a different country to Costa Rica were the people - poorer, unsmiling, even slightly suspicious of this garishly clad alien zipping along on a weird small-wheeled bike. Having had little interest in politics for most of my life it was only later that I read a sorrowful summary of Nicaragua's past at the boots of the US, which explained why the timid, slow-talkin' Yankee I met from Washing State doubted he'd receive a big wet kiss at the border and decided to skip Nicaragua altogether.

The ferry dock was crowded with locals and Nicas escaping stressy places like Managua, the capital. Looming high and wide before us were the twin cones of Isla Ometepe, a funkily-shaped island formed by two volcanoes joined together by the overflow of lava - the treeless, perfectly symmetrical Volcan Concepcion and the smaller, more verdant Madera.

Directly ahead a small, three-tiered wooden boat was plying the choppy waters towards us, and it took a while to register that this little tugboat was going to ingest the numerous cars, trucks, foot passengers, crates, sacks, bicycles and other squawking cargo crammed on the pier. Stills from the Titanic flashed before my eyes. At 6pm the little boat pulled away and ploughed through the sea-like conditions of the lake towards the darkened cones of the island, silhouetted against  an enormous yellow moon. On the boat I met a blond, willowy Janet Jackson from Georgia, who'd spent all of her life smiling wanly at the obvious jokes about her name. An hour and a dollar-fifty later (12 cordobas to the dollar at the time of writing) we arrived in Moyagalpa, the principal town on the island. Janet and I checked into Pension Aly, a very basic shared room for less than 3 dollars a piece. I think the sheets were clean. We immediately splashed out on an expensive meal in the hotel's restaurant - fresh lake fish baked with vegetables for $US4.50. It was excellent, but slow enough to scare us away from eating in that restaurant again.

1/4/99 -  Mariachis in Moyagalpa

Whilst loitering with intent around the town we met Oscar and Ramirez, two guitar strummin' 'n' hummin' hombres whose family owned the cheapest hotel in town, Pension Jade, where singles started at $2/night. Around this price the hotels are like sleeping in a garage, complete with dodgy lighting. An extra dollar buys you a private bath and an extra two dollars buys real class. We spent most of the time sheltering from the searing heat in Oscar's family home whilst the pair serenaded us with Latino love ballads on their equally dodgily-wired guitars. Oscar's mama explained that they made a lot of money in Costa Rica by putting a sombrerito (little baseball cap) on the pavement, but here in Nicaragua, busking just doesn't pay. At least, that's what I think she said. Ramirez taught me how to play "Como Dueles en los Labios" by the Mexican group Mana, and which had been playing constantly on the radio everywhere. In turn, I taught Oscar "Just the Way You Are". The four of us set out on a long hike to Punta Jesus Maria, an hour's walk south along the coast, with Oscar making numerous attempts at learning this song all the way, testing even my liking for the song.

Janet and I followed the Semana Santa procession which consisted of a band, some townfolk dressed as the Three Wise Men, and an effigy of Jesus on the cross. A mobile sermon accompanied this grave procession, amplified by a couple of speakers which were hastily unplugged, carried to the next stopping point (someone's house) and re-plugged. The lads left us to it. "It's the same every year" they moaned. We found an excellent little soda on the beach serving chicken dinners for 13 cordobas, or less than a dollar thirty. This same meal cost an outrageous 23 cordobas (a whole dollar more!) in the hotel. With our table positioned on the beach, we watched the sun go down. Nearby, the tireless little wooden ferry was in the process of disgorging a giant yellow bus.

3/4/99 - To Alta Gracia

I bade Janet farewell and biked to the other main town on the island, 12 miles east on a sandy, bumpy road with a few climbs to boot. Nothing so difficult except I had left a little late, languishing over a pancake breakfast at Los Ranchitos and didn't get on the road until 8.30am. By this time the sun was already midday hot, the only thing that told me it wasn't midday was the faint cool breeze against my skin when coasting. I paused at a pulperia (shop), and an immaculately turned out old farmer appeared on an equally buffed horse. Sitting high and proud, in a clean-pressed checked shirt, clean white jeans, unscuffed boots and a large white stetson, astride a well-polished, intricately-tooled saddle and riding tack, replete with long leather fringes skimming the muscular flanks of his steed, he could well have stepped out of an ad for Malborogh Country, albeit with Spanish subtitles. Before I could think about reaching for my camera the vision vanished. I concluded that horseback we definitely THE way to get around in hot, hilly places, faster than buses on the dusty, rocky roads, and requiring little sweat-inducing effort on the part of the rider. I pressed onto Alta Gracia, needing to stop several times to avoid getting heatstroke. I've discovered that simply wearing a loose white long sleeve shirt over my riding gear seems to stave off the heat. Eventually I arrived, an unbelievable four hours later. The town, a small grid of grey, sandy tracks with shack-like buildings lining their perimeters was empty and sultry. All persons in their right mind had fled to the beach just an hour's ride away. Too heat-struck to bother looking for a hotel straight away I bought two cans of cold juice and all but swallowed them whole, can and all. I then booked into the El Castillo hospedaje.

The guidebooks raved about Senor Castillo as being "an uncappable font of information and one of the island's treasures" etc etc. It's a pity I couldn't take full advantage of his encyclopedic knowledge of Ometepe bacause he directed a well-rehearsed stream of Espanol at me with little heed to my desperate attempts to grasp every fifth word. Just as swiftly as he appeared, he swivelled on a heel to bark orders at his cowering staff. Still, the place was clean and eerily serene, and I quickly downed a plate of comida corriente in the courtyard restaurant. Janet turned up the same day, having taken the one-hour, 70-cent bus, and had even found the excellent tamales at soda Buen Gusto, also 70 cents.

5/4/99 - To Paradise - Santa Domingo Beach

After two days in Alta Gracia I exhausted its few delights an got on the bike nice 'n' early (7am) for the 1 hour ride to Santa Domingo Beach, 8 km away. The track alternated between desert, dry river bed, and everything in between. After the static heat of inland Ometepe, the lake's edge with its constant breeze and rhythmic, sea-like waves hitting the shore was an oasis. I checked into the acclaimed $5/night Villa Paraiso, an extremely salubrious budget hotel which would fetch a lot more at a different geographical coordinate. After a couple of days I pitched my tent a little way down the beach in a sheltered nook. Here, I waited for Jungle Boy to turn up, as he'd planned. He never showed.

Dear Jungle Boy,
It is so beautiful here. I wake up at 5.30am with the sun rising through the door of my tent and the restless lake breeze on my face. Although after almost a week here I'm convinced it's not a lake at all but the sea. It's now Saturday. Last night was the third night I've spent camped on the beach, eating, sleeping, bathing, writing and hoping you'd stroll up any minute now and kick sand in my tent. I'm eating gallo pinto for the upteenth day in a row, and maybe if I continue the mosquitos will tire of me.... Yesterday I hiked up Volcan Madera with a guide called Douglas from the hotel, 4 hours up to a tranquil laguna shrouded in mist that slowly lifted to reveal a tapestry of different grasses, textures and layers of thick foliage.  Like one of those places you see in your dreams. I sat and munched crackers and tuna and thought of passing the night there, under a tin tarp erected by someone with the same idea. This would no doubt have pleased my guide, a shy 22-year old Nica who seems to have taken a fancy to me. He paid me a surprise visit at my campsite despite my telling him several times that to visit a lone muchacha in her tent after nightfall is to risk being doused with pepper spray. At least, I had instructed him, announce your presence loud and clear. I sent him packing with a definitive "hasta manana!". Earlier, he'd asked me how to say "You're beautiful" in English. I quickly changed the subject. The summit required a feet-and-hands scramble along a ledge for which a rope is recommended. My enchanted guide told me that his 17 year old cousin, Rafael, had portered a ghetto blaster and 2 dozen cervezes (beers) to this spot with a couple of Gringos then carted the empties all the way down again. I had enough trouble portering just the clothes I was wearing as my besotted guide had insisted on carrying my daypack stuffed to Himalayan expedition proportions. The descent convinced me I'm no hard-core walker; I quickly grew bored of the calf-deep mud, rock, damp cloud and more mud, the constant need to stare fixedly at the path the strain such a descent puts on your knees. At 4pm, well beyond my pain and patience threshold we reached the bottom and took a quick sortie to a 400AD petroglyph (stone carving)...

To cope with the heat at night, I decided to take a bold step in reducing the security of my tent by removing the fly. Despite the constant breeze blowing directly ashore I found the air a little sultry in my tent, a single-hoop Macpac Microlite pitched of necessity end-on to the wind. I wandered down to the other hotel to eat with an Aussie from Perth and a Californian who I'd met on the hike. Over a somewhat sub-standard soup seemingly made from Pot Noodles and a few root vegetables thrown in, the Californian gave me a run-down on Guanacaste and Nicoya, the region of Northern Costa Rica where I planned to ride my bike on the way back to Costa Rica. "Full of Americans who make me want to vomit" he said in his strong west coast accent. Whilst visiting the appealingly-named Playa Tamarindo, one of the region's more devleloped beaches, he'd sat in on a council meeting attended exclusively by white Americans, and there was apparently not a Tico in sight. Outside, Tico police stood guard lest a scuffle break out. Inside, strident yankee voices belted out demands like, "How can we make Tamarindo better? We need pavement! We need (etc etc)!!!!"

11/4/99 - A Surprise Visit from Manzanillo

Today, just as I was ruminating over Jungle Boy's no-show, up strolled Joshua, an Italian jewellery maker from, surprise surprise, Manzanillo, and who, surprise surprise surprise, knew Jungle Boy.  Joshua had learnt all his Spanish travelling from San Jose to Manzanillo and all his English from the Rastas in Puerto Viejo. Joshua was in motion: Manzanillo was no longer paradise for him; after 4 years he felt displaced and felt that you needed money and a block of land and a small dwelling to really belong to that community. Lacking money he felt insecure and unloved and was heading to Mexico with his tools of trade in his backpack. An interesting thing to note was that despite many years in Costa Rica, he, like Jungle Boy, was still a Europhile, albeit in Rasta clothing.  In the salubrious Villa Paraiso restaurant, Joshua watched in horror as Aussie Boy stirred his beetroot-sodden side salad into his spaghetti napolitana, making a purple haze. "Never do this in Italy", he said, shaking his head in polite disgust, "... never.".

10/4/99 - Close Encounter With My Own Kind

I returned to my tent to find one of the zipper tabs falling off the slider. Someone had tried to force the combination lock. In fact, my tent was now effectively open but nothing appeared to have been taken. This little act of break and entry threw me into an uncharacteristic spin - well, I was in Nicaragua after all. But my lakeside idyll was suddenly shattered. Aussie Boy offered his room in exchange for my tent or alternatively,  his services as a bodyguard in either location. We ended up in my tent and there I further acquainted myself with this slow-talkin' West Coaster whose laconic drawl punctuated with "fuckin'" every third word I'd earlier found a complete turn-off, but who's submerged intelligence soon had me enchanted. Of course, my equally enchanted guide chose this very moment to pay me a second visit but quickly retreated when he heard two voices, confused for sure given my earlier insistence on sleeping solo. In la manana I squeezed past my bodyguard to watch the sun rise over the marching waves. Raphael, Douglas' iridescent-eyed teenage cousin strolled up and proceeded to relate a very convincing tale of how his uncle beat him up last night and wasn't going to pay him for the 6 months he'd worked as a building assistant and that he had to leave for Managua tomorrow and join his mama and two sisters who rely on him for money and how it would be difficult to find work and that he would probably have to go to Costa Rica but didn't have the money for the bus la de da de da. For some reason I didn't find myself reaching for my wallet just yet.  Aussie Boy emerged blinking and yawning, and translated a further detail with his better Spanish about Raphael not being able to work at either of the hotels because he was infatuated by the boss's daughter and the boss didn't approve and besides was a friend of the other boss la de da de da, before sloping off mumbling about having to do his washing. Later I quizzed my lovelorn guide about his cousin's sob story. "Mentiras (lies)", he replied, tapping his forehead.

11/4/99 - Last Days in Ometepe

As if to say, "isn't it time you moved on?" the skies didn't clear to a brilliant blue after sunup but became thick and leaden, leaching a warm rain, swept along by a chilly breeze. I returned to my tent after breakfast to find my $40  grey mud-stained Patagonia t-shirt missing from its drying place in the trees. My seductive $1 purple velvet lace knickers were untouched. Even in Nicaragua, thieves know their brands.  We suspected a local kleptomaniac who Douglas had seen loitering near my tent a few days ago. "No me gusta" said Douglas, which translates roughly to "I don't like him". Even more disturbingly, he admitted he'd pay "mucho, mucho, MUCHO!" to ... he finished the sentence by making a slitting action with his finger across his adam's apple.

Since Douglas had caught me with Aussie Boy on two occasions I thought he'd cool off a bit, but no, he seemed to like "la muchacha de Australia" and presented me with a stone necklace, as a parting gift, the type his cousin Raphael tried to sell me this morning, despite reprimands about his tall stories. I packed up my tent, loaded up the bike, then got a ride all the way back across the waters to the mainland and halfway to Granada. The road was flat and fast, with little traffic. Just the constant tooting and "Pssst! Chinita!" which is one of the mating calls of the latino male.

12/4/99 - Granada

For me, Granada was the Spain I missed out on when I left Europe in Jan 99. Gracious colonial buildings stood stolidly in the baking sun, thankfully fanned by the breeze from Lago de Nicaragua. I found the place strangely quiet. I spent three days there doing I don't know what. A good haircut cost me a dollar.

16/4/99 - To Masaya

I rose at 5am to leave for Masaya, just 18 km away, before the sun got too hot. The trip was a little hairy, the buses don't move over an inch and instead, honk loud and long then speed up as they pass creating a balance-compromising rush of air. I arrived at 8am, a nice change. I rode in circles trying to find a hotel. A guy on the back of a motorbike rolled up and offered assistance. Miguel operated a small but successful gym around the corner. He explained why it was virtually impossible to find peace and quiet around Nicaraguans, who always ensure there is a a ghetto blaster or television nearby turned up to distortion level. (In fact, if you listen to those pirated tapes sold on every street corner, the distortion is probably considered an integral part of the end product - and you thought it was just bad quality). "People like music in order not to hear the problems", he said, tapping his temples meaningfully. "Silence is not golden here". I think that's what he said.
My guidebook said that the decent hotels in Masaya tend to be on the pricey side and the budget hotels on the shady side. I didn't detect anything particularly shady about Masaya, except that   on the first night as I lay dozing in a hammock, the sounds of a healthy spat between un hombre y una muchacha emanated through the paper-thin walls, punctuated by rather disturbing sounds of slapping and furniture being kicked around. Fortunately, perhaps, I didn't know the vocab for an argument in Spanish, so I couldn't tell if the concern was about infidelity, money, what was on TV, or the piquancy of today's rice and beans, or all of the above. However, he sounded like a pig, just his intonation and the unmistakeable timbre of sarcasm. Later, she appeared with a bandage over her left eye. "An abcess", she said, when I questioned her, somewhat concerned. Even later, everything seemed just fine, he sprawled out on a hammock in front of the TV, she bustling about her chores, both casting loving looks at each other.
The next night I was propositioned by a creepy young guy who insisted I shake his hand which he then kissed with a whispered offer of "Venga!" (= Come!). Despite having a wife and child in the next room he didn't let up, and I had to order him out of my room which he'd somehow slithered into.
I spent a couple of hours cruising around the famous Masaya Market for things I didn't want or need, like a purse made from an entire frog with the frog's glassy-eyed mug protruding from one side, and those baskety things and tooled leather things you see everywhere in every market around the world.

17/4/99 - Scaling Volcan Masaya

Just down the road was the entrance to Parque Volcan Masaya. The ride to the top of the volcano was a steep 5km, and I had to get off and push near the top. Once at the top a carpark allowed you to look right into the smoking crater. Signs leading to lower levels read "Avoid fines, do not enter". Since it did not say "Avoid Death" I proceeded with caution, much to the consternation of the white-runner-clad brigade on the viewing platform above. Peering over the edge into the billowing abyss I saw hell's front door mat, an even deeper ledge onto which some crazy fan had descended to make the words "SANDINO" in rocks.  I retreated, covered in dust. A wiry brown woman with sparkling, almond-shaped eyes was selling coconuts to drink for a staggering 10 cordobas (around $1). I offered to pay a dollar fifty for two, still an extortionate price, but then she told me how she started out and finished her day - carrying 25 cocos in a sack on her head some 2.5 hours over the prohibitively hot and dusty volcanic hills from her village. At the end of the day, she had to carry the 25 empty shells home. I asked why she couldn't just throw the shells into the smoking crater nearby. "Prohibido" she answered. Or maybe in reality she got a ride to and from in her husband's aircon Toyota Landcruiser. Who knows. Like in every poor country, some people make a lot of money and $25 bucks a day made her 25 times better off than the average campesino with six kids living in a dirt floor grass hut.  I was about to leave when I noticed my front tyre was flat. Suspecting a naughty prankster, I swiftly replaced the tube not bothering to look for the hole there and then. I then noticed the neighbouring volcano, a big extinct cone with spectacular views from the rim. I decided to hike it. A quarter of the way around I disturbed a gaggle of predatory birds, don't ask me the species, meaty black beady-eyed things with powerful bills. They hulked themselves aside with such indignance I thought I'd somehow strayed off the beaten track. The views of the dry flatlands punctuated by a couple of hills and serene Laguna Masaya made the hour-long scramble well worth it. On returning to base a group of park guards had gathered around my bike. What, again, I exclaimed, staring at my flat front tyre.  There was no puncture, however. We agreed it must have been a cheeky kid who'd let down my tyre twice. Or bored park guards.

18/4/99 - To Masatepe

Today I pedalled east to the Cerazo region of pueblos, starting with Catarina, where there was meant to be a spectacular lookout, but I completely missed it. Oh well. Next, Nihicomhomo, distinguished by a display of carved, queen-sized wooden beds sitting on the roadside at the entrance to the village. I resisted the temptation to buy and pedalled on. I shot right past Masatepe, but spotted a woman selling coconuts on the side of the road. Stop, reverse, cross. Sitting in the shade of her stand was, I thought, a gringo - white skin, baseball hat, shorts, running shoes and backpack. Jose was, in fact, a very white Nica, lived in Masatepe all his 47 years. He insisted I come and stay with his family - all 14 of them, including the daughter of his estranged wife.  At his cool, courtyard house I was regarded with the curiosity I always seem to get being a Chinita muchacha on a bicicletita. Masatepe boasts a stately, colonial-looking church in front of a palm-studded park just like most villages in Latin America of reasonable population. In the local Kodak shop with its frigid air conditioning and squeaky clean merchandising I could have been standing in a department store in Sydney. At dusk the spidery palms silhouetted against the pink sky gave the place a bedouin feel. We ate, I paid, he proposed. However, I didn't need another lonely, wounded man in my life. Later he introduced me to his friend Jorge, also divorced and living with his mama in the tiny pulperia around the corner. A slight difference here was that Jorge was the splitting image of Paul Newman in his prime, and had in fact acted in a film about the famous Nicaraguan revolutionary, Sandino, namesake of the Sandinistas.  That night I slept on Jose's sofa and in the morning gave his mama 20 cordobas, which she gladly accepted. For the strange thing was the house was beautiful, the family immaculately and cleanly dressed, but there appeared to be no food. No offer of dinner or breakfast even to pay for. Jorge explained that some Nicaraguans would rather go without food than put on a bad appearance. I wheeled my bike around to his place and where we'd agreed to meet for a ride to his finca (farm). His finca was a half-hour, exhilarating trail ride through banana and coffee plantations, rambling forest and campos, i.e. small, dirt-floor and grass-roofed huts where families eke out a living on a dollar a day. Yet the children were always clean, beautifully dressed with frilly socks and shiny shoes and dresses and bows in their hair. And a calm resiliance in their faces.  Jorge's finca was perched on a rise offering a spectacular vista of Laguna Masaya and the nearby volcanoes. For six months of the year he and his papa cultivated hochotes and cocos, bedding down for several nites in a little dirt floor shack. At this opportune moment with Paul Newman silhouetted against this panorama that few tourists were privy to, my camera decided to pack it in. Drat.  We stopped by to visit his wealthy sister and admire her house. Her husband was a highly paid government economist (though judging by the state of the the country's economy, you'd wonder what people like him actually did apart from draw uneconomical salaries). His sister bore all the traits of that privileged minority, the rich Nica - makeup, coiffed hair, gold jewellery and a generous layer of fat to get one through the hard times. She sat, filling her chair and firing short, sharp get-to-know-your-worth questions at me with one eye on the TV and another on the nail she was filing attentively. Her equally corpulent spouse made a brief entry and exit. Her son regarded me with the indifference bred by a diet of electronic entertainment. Her house was big but perhaps beautiful only to the average Nica earning $2 a day. Heavy, ornate furniture filled every possible space not occupied by replicas of chinese lacquer paintings and other oriental paraphenalia. A source of pride was the western-style bathroom with gold taps, gold lamp fittings, gilt-edged tiles, scallop-shaped handbasins and a flushing toilet you could drop the paper into rather than have to put it in a basket.
That night I tried in vain to sleep in Jorge's plastic hammock, first using my thermorest as a mattress (too hot), then my sleep sheet (still too hot), then sleeping at 90 degrees (too narrow),  then turning 180 degrees (now my feet were too high), then sleeping on the concrete floor with my mat with the cockroaches (too hard, I wish I'd bought the thicker mat). Finally in exhausted desperation, I relented to Jorge's unintelligable please and climbed into his bed. Of course, this action will almost always lead to an awkward situation (I have only once slept beside a male friend who showed no interest whatsoever in jeopardising the friendship) and I woke several times to find myself in the role of a teddy bear. "No es posible que un hombre y una mujer duermen juntas, solo dormir?" I asked, which is extremely average Spanish for "Is it not possible for a man and a woman to sleep together, just sleep?" For although I was in the close confines of Paul Newman with Spanish subtitles, he just wasn't my type. (Don't ask me what my type is). The night passed uneventfully. The next morning I rose at 6am and packed. Jorge avoided eye contact (definitely not my type) and bade me farewell in a most perfunctory fashion.

20/4/99 - To La Boquita

From Masatepe it was a fast 18km through San Marcos, Jinotepe and Diriambra to the turnoff toward the Pacific Coast. In Diriambra I ate breakfast at the market in the company of a friendly taxi driver. The 30km road to La Boquita was the longest, straightest downhill freewheel I have ever traversed; several motorcycles careened past me with their engines off. Thoughts of a thrilling sail-mounted go-kart race all the way to the coast flashed through my mind as I clung for dear life to my handlebars, burning brake rubber. The landscape soon turned from lush green to outback-dry. The Pacific Coast of Central America is characterised thus -  hot, dry, windy, treeless. In La Bouquita I delivered a message from a friend on Ometepe to the owner of the swank resort hotel. My budget relegated me to the ramshackle pension next door, boasting breezy rickety upstairs balcony rooms which, with some persuasion, went from $15 down to 10 then 5 a night for this lonely and only guest. The pension was actually Dona Anita's family home, with the guests upstairs funding the TV-addicted throng down below. What the place lacked in Michelan stars though, it made up for in service. I asked for a refresco natural at the swank hotel next door and was given the famous "No hay" (there ain't none, baby) - just Coke, Coke and more Coke. Dona Anita motioned me to wait and after a time, returned with a perfect pineapple and orange cocktail freshly squeezed by hand. In fact, that is one tragedy I see happening in these countries - the gradual disappearance of fresh juice drinks in favour of "refresco gaseosa" - i.e. Coke, Coke, more Coke. And Pepsi, of course. I hate them all. The next day I thought I would treat myself to pancakes in the hotel. Again, No hay. I retreated back to my true station in life and Dona Anita served me a baby lobster with rice and salad - for less than $1.50.  I did, however, lounge around the hotel pool (someone had to) where I met a Nicaraguan tourism lecturer and his five nubile young charges, all merrily tanked on the local brew. They taught me a few useful Spanish phrases like, "Anda come mierda!" (Go and eat shit) and "No quiero verte!" (I don't see you!).  They invited me back to Managua but I declined on this occasion, my eye upon the rapidly advancing visa expiry date in my passport. The next day I took the bus all the way back to Jinotepe, sitting in the roof with my bike and dodging the powerlines and low-lying branches - forty cents well spent.

22/4/99 - Flat out in San Juan Del Sur

After spending the night in Jinotepe I hit the Interamericana Highway at 6.30am, making it all the way south to San Juan Del Sur, near the Costa Rican border by 4pm, a very long, flat but gruelling 100k. I stopped in Rivas where students were burning tyres in a nationwide protest over government cuts to education. In Managua, a student was killed by a policeman's rubber bullet. The last hill into SJDS took me an hour. The first thing I did when I arrived was to grab a banana milkshake from the much-lauded Marie Bar, then promptly spent the next ten days in bed with a stomach bug.  After convalescing in the sauna-like confines of my room I crawled up to the Central Health Bureau where a very amiable doctor whose smile stretched his brown face into a football shape issued me with some hard drugs. In between trips to the toilet I played the guitar borrowed from a friendly Nica who managed the local ice factory. I also ran into an American woman, Diana, who'd lived in spiritual communities for the past 10 years and was impressively informed but also deeply alarmed and about the Y2K problem. "I didn't eat or sleep for a month and cried all the time", she said. She had persuaded her parents to stock up on canned food and supplies, draw out all their money by June 1999 and construct a self contained underground living space, nuclear-holocaust-style. She was looking at Nicaragua as a place to finally "arrive". One thing I noticed time and time again was that people rarely said "thank you" in these countries if you bought them a meal, say, or a drink. Diana had an explanation for this. "They're just words", she said. "In this country, caressing and other forms of non-verbal reassurance is the mode of communication right from infancy, so in comparison words are of little importance. Personally darling, I hate the English language". This reminded me of Jungle Boy's comment on language.  "When I speak Spanish, I'm more affectionate and I touch people more, even total strangers. When I switch English, I become more closed". Of course, I invited him to speak Spanish with me from then on but he cast me a pained look and politely refused. I immediately made plans to study my Spanish book religiously every night.
With 3 days left on my visa I decided to sit it out in SJDS literally. The pain and cramps were more spread now, but the diahorrea was still in full force and my diet became bananas and dry breadsticks and water with rehydration salts. I managed a little day trip to Rivas to do some emailing for just $US2 per hour at a place called INSCOMP. Of course there was a compromise - I sat for quite a while waiting until the line was free of telephone calls. Good, cheap, fast - pick two ( thanks to my good friend Peter Rush for that one). While I waited, a cart pulled by a tired old white horse clopped past. On the back of the cart the owner had stuck a "Landcruiser" badge in approximately the same place you'd find it on a Landcruiser. After an hour and a half of emailing the young handsome co-owner of the business invited me to lunch around the corner. I owe him one next  time.

29/4/99 - Leaving Nicaragua

I was supposed to leave yesterday, but when the alarm rang I just wasn't up for it. Plus, a cheekier part of me wanted to rest my eyes on Claudio, the handsome 33-year old Nica I encountered a couple of nights ago. Lured by the dulcet tones of a guitar in the shadows, I stumbled across this hombre sittin' strummin' on the tiles of his porch. I spent the next two days pretending to be intent on watching his playing when I was actually watching him. So today I rose at 4am to catch the 5am bus, gazed wistfully at the darkened windows of Claudio's house musing at what might have been, and got dropped off at the crossroads at La Virgin  18km away.  From there it was a flat 25km ride to the Costa Rican border, where the police insisted I show papers allowing me on exit on a bicycle. "Como?" I said incredulously. "En bicicleta????".  They waved me on.  Continued

Copyright 2003 Lynette Chiang All Rights Reserved