Tag Archives: Travel

Final Nicaragua

Well I’ve been meaning to write this post since I got back to the US months ago but of course I haven’t.  Now that I’m teaching a class on Nicaragua in the next month I figure this is a great time to tie it up.

I spent the last week or so of my trip in Granada.  It’s a beautiful city with plenty for everyone to see and do and a great location for tours and other things for people who don’t want to go it alone.  The one issue with Granada is that it’s sites and more specifically it’s shopping is ignored by many guidebooks.  I’m not sure why that is since it’s easily one of the better places to shop.

For those who know me the idea that I’m going to post about shopping may seem bizarre but there are a number of great artisan places to experience here and they need some publicity.

The best way to deal with this guidebook issue is to pick up one of the many tourist maps printed of the city and free almost everywhere.  They are helpful and very useful if you plan on walking around Granada (and I encourage you to do exactly that… it’s a great and relatively safe place to walk around).

When looking at your map make sure to find the Lucha Libro Book store.  It may come up as a bakery because it also has amazingly good donuts.  That’s right, donuts and English language books!  For anyone who has been to Nicaragua you now know why I simply must write about this.  It’s a bit like finding Nirvana and was for me when I was at the end of my books with a week and a lot of airplane time to go before I was home.  You can find them on Facebook and for those in town with crappy Granada webs (worse than other cities in Nicaragua for some reason) simply walk past Eskimo Ice Cream on the sunny side of Calzada between parquet central and el lago and you’ll find it.  Have a donut for me too… they are too good to miss.

You’ll likely already be going to the Euro Cafe for sandwiches and other delicious food items (or the amazing courtyard) but it’s worth noting that they have a small book store attached as well.  Not nearly as good as Lucha Libro it’s worth checking out and you’re likely here anyway.

If you’ll be in Granada for long enough (or coming back through), a free book might well be a great option for you and you’ll find it at the Garden Cafe’s lending library.  This place is amazing for both food and atmosphere but you can also check out a book.  It’s on the honor system and the folks who run the place are great so drop off your read books here and pick up a new one if you have the time to bring it back.

Chocolate.  Seriously, stop by the chocolate museum and if you can, get their all you can eat breakfast.  The chocolate crepe is so good that I’d fly back to Granada just for that.  The workers there are very knowledgeable and the information about chocolate is interesting to say the least.  A stop in Granada without going here would simply be wrong.

Finally make sure to check out El Parche Giftshop.  Unlike most of the “artisan markets” touted in your guidebook you will actually get work made by the folks who run this shop when you shop here.  Their work is simply beautiful and well worth the price.  The pictures do a much better job than I ever could…

One thing to avoid in Granada is Pure.  It looks awesome… go ahead, open that post, the website is beautiful.  It, however, is not beautiful.  It’s a gym, a dirty one at that.  If you don’t mind hearing dropping weights and grunting while enjoying your “spa” experience this place might be for you.  Otherwise skip this place.

A few other places I didn’t get to in Nicaragua that would be worth checking out:

Rancho Tranquilo
Veggie Restaurant, Bar and Hostel
Tina Morris
Jiquilillo, Los Zorros- bus from Cinandega
8968-2290

Treehouse Poste Rojo
Hostel, between Granada and San Juan del Sur (10km from Granada)
Spanish School, Wood burning pizza oven, internets!
http://www.posterojo.com/


WARNING!

It never fails.  Before you leave for a trip people will tell you horror stories.  They usually involve getting robbed or getting ripped off by a corrupt police officer or something similar.  The one thing they don’t include is any kind of actually helpful information which always makes me question the intention of the “helper”.

Let me give you an example of a warning.  Right in my very neighborhood in Seattle a woman was kidnapped, taken to a man’s house, tied up and kept for at least 24 hours.  There’s likely a number of other horrid sexual details that go with the story but I don’t recall enough to include them.  I could well tell this to travelers that come to Seattle and it is horrible, right?  Until you find out that the woman in question is a hooker.  Now don’t get me wrong, she didn’t “have it coming” simply because of her occupation, that’s not why I am including the story.  I’m including it because, for the majority of us, it’s easy enough to avoid this problem.  The warning isn’t that my neighborhood or Seattle is horribly sketchy and one should never leave the house.  The warning, when given with complete information, is that it’s dangerous to turn tricks on Aurora.  “Got it, thanks.  I’ll do my best to avoid that.”

And that’s why these vague warnings make me want to smack people.  “Wait, you mean something bad happened to someone once upon a time in Nicaragua?”  Sort of ludicrous when you really look at what you’re being told (and not told) isn’t it?  Maybe the person telling me just thinks I’m so damn stupid that I don’t know that places can be dangerous?

The story I was told is that people were being kidnapped by cab drivers, driven around for hours and then robbed.  Which is very slightly true and a lot false.  Were all cabs dangerous, all over Nicaragua?  I finally learned the true story from a hostel website and was given information to help me insure, as much as is possible, that I didn’t have the same experience.  (and really, you helpers out there, if you are really trying to help shouldn’t YOU too give enough information to be helpful rather than simply being fear mongers?).  There have been problems at two bus stations in Managua (a sketchy place as a whole) where, when you get off the bus and grab a cab into town, you’ll get jacked.  They drive you to a cash machine, make you get cash and then dump you off.  At this point no one has been physically hurt.

Fortunately the warning from the hostel was a quality warning as it came with specifics of both what was happening and what to do.  The solution?  Get off the bus before the station and catch a cab from where you got off.  Easy peasey.  Worst case scenario, if you make it to the bus station because you didn’t know where to get off before it (easy to do, especially if you don’t speak the language) simply get on another bus and get off at their first stop leaving the bus station.  Sure, you’ll pay full price for that bus but at 20 or 40 Cordobas (less than $2) it’s more than worth it.  And now to the real point of this post.

Some of my female friends suggested I write a blog post about traveling alone as a female.  Well, I definitely have my suggestions but I also know that many women do it differently.  It is, and always will be, your choice how you decide to travel but these are the things I do when traveling alone.

  • On travel days (days on the bus or in a cab or on a boat or on a plane) I always wear my hiking boots.  In fact any time that things could possibly get sketchy or when I want to look extra tough I wear my hiking boots.   I always wear my boots when I have all my gear with me.  Why?  Because I walk differently in them, because even if I won’t ever need to I KNOW I can’t run in flip-flops.  A huge part of safety is putting on your own personal mental protective armor and, for me, boots does it pretty well.  Plus if you’re carrying all your crap it’s easier to have the light flip-flops in your pack and the boots on your feet rather than the other way around.
  • You know all those sexy little outfits you want to bring with you?  Take them out of your closet and put them in your luggage.  Look how pretty they look there.  Now get a grocery bag, pull them back out of your luggage and put them away in the bottom of your closet where you won’t be tempted by them.  Unless the point of your trip is to hook up with random strangers you don’t need clothing that screams “I’m a slutty, American victim!”  You will have more than your fair share of attention in countries like Nicaragua simply by being from the US no matter what you’re wearing.  Trust me, if someone like me gets cat calls you will too and more than you have ever wanted.  Put on some short shorts and a skimpy tank and you might well get more than just calls.  If you’re hoping to meet some hot, foreign traveler then fine, bring one outfit but wear it very selectively.  In the states women are trying to educate men that a provocative outfit doesn’t mean she wants some (or at least it doesn’t mean she wants some from you) but you don’t get to force that belief while traveling and really, your job is to protect yourself.  Fight for women’s rights in another, less dangerous way.
  • Wear long pants most of the time.  This actually is as much about attracting attention as it is about keeping the evil bugs off of you.  Yes, it’s ever so slightly warmer but it’s not the difference between sweating like a pig and not sweating like a pig.  You will be sweating, even if you walk around naked.
  • Carry a backpack with a sternum strap and keep it hooked when you’re walking about.  This makes it just that much harder for someone to jack your bag.  Purses are pretty easy to grab, backpacks a little harder and when you have a sternum strap they may take your bag but they’ll have to take you with it.
  • Get some pants with lots of pockets (LOVE THESE!) and keep your expensive stuff there, in buttoned pockets.  I don’t like having expensive stuff in a bag.  If someone does manage to steal my bag from me they usually are getting nothing more than a book, some band aids and some water.  And of course don’t take all the expensive stuff with you.  Bring only what you need.
  • Have two credit cards with pin numbers to get cash (don’t get cash from them except in an emergency) and two separate cash machine cards (different banks completely) with money in them.  One credit card and one cash card comes with you, the other is hidden in your bag at the hotel.  If you should manage to get yourself into trouble or lose your wallet you’ll have a backup.  You wouldn’t want to misplace your credit card or cash card and have no other options.
  • Get or make a money belt.  I don’t mean a money pouch that is worn under your clothes.  I mean an actual belt like this.  Keep some American cash in it and any extra cash you have of the local currency.  Should you lose everything it’s unlikely the thieves will steal your belt too (and if they do you likely have bigger problems) so this will make sure you have enough money for a room or travel to get to a place to get help.  It also keeps you from carrying too much money in an obvious way.

Which brings me to my next point.  These are all the “stupid” things I did that worked out just fine.

  • I carried my money in my regular wallet in my back pocket, just like I do at home.  Shock of all shocks, I was not pick pocketed.  That said, I always walked around with a shirt tied around my waist which meant a pick pocket would have to get under the shirt and into my buttoned back pocket without me knowing.  At that point they probably deserve my wallet don’t you think?
  • I took an unmarked cab from the square in Grenada. I was not killed or robbed.  Trust your instincts.  Does it feel OK or does it feel sketchy?  Don’t talk yourself into something because you don’t want to be paranoid.  I firmly believe that a huge part of being a victim is thinking you’re going to be a victim.  The bad guys are looking for easy victims and I truly believe they can smell fear just like an aggressive dog.  There were places where I didn’t leave my hotel because I didn’t feel safe in the town.  Don’t beat yourself up for being overly safe.
  • I took out my camera and took pictures in crowded markets.  These are places where the halls between stalls are barely big enough for one person and the entire market takes up many city blocks… it’s easy to get lost.
Everything is for sale here!
If you don’t take out your camera you don’t get these pictures!
  • I did go out at night.  Alone.  As a female.  Trust yourself and really, with these great parties going on I never felt insecure… at least not in Grenada.
Beautiful lights for the celebration make the streets extra safe!

Finally, when you get back and while you’re there, tell the real story.  Don’t write-up a story that makes everything sound perfectly lovely unless it was perfectly lovely.  Why?  Because your job as a traveler is to bring back reality.  We get sold enough nonsense on the television and when it gets down to it people need to know that an adventure isn’t simply the perfectly happy things.  Indeed what makes it an adventure and what we (science says) enjoy the most is overcoming things, be it our own fears or a trying situation.  When you tell the truth you help break the myths about travel.  You break the cycle of fear mongering that keeps people from leaving the US or the comfort of places that are too similar to the US to make a mental impact.  This isolation leads to people taking for granted what they have and thinking that somehow no one is to thank for their fortunes but them. No, sorry, you are not the sole person who made your life the way it is.  You are blessed.  You don’t deserve what you have any more than that kid in Nicaragua who lives in a shack deserves to live there.

This is the reality of what much of Nicaragua looks like:

All of Nicaragua is covered in garbage.  That’s the reality.

And this is what you do with it… burning garbage in the streets.


Into the Lions Den

Every once in a while things go better than you expect.  My trip to Leon was just such an occurance.

There aren’t many buses from Esteli to Leon and the few that run are at very unfortunate times.  I don’t want to get up to catch a 5:30 or 6:30 bus ans a bus at 3:30 is too late.  While I was willing to get to Esteli in the evening I didn’t want to get to a major city at night.  That just seemed stupid.

Fortunately there were microbuses (vans with bench seats) that ran at 8:30 and 9:30, leaving when they were full.  But would I make it?  Turns out I got there in plenty of time to catch one and I’m glad I did.  I expect I will try to catch only these from this point forward as they are much quicker than the regular buses.

The funny part about this particular trip was the music.  Unlike any trip before in this country this one came complete with classic American rock.  By classic I mean Chicago and of course Trans-X which is of course a staple on any classic rock station in the states.  The crazy synths in the song added a bit of humor to my trip out of the mountains and into the plains and put me in a good mood.

Getting to Leon early meant that I could find my place to stay and then explore a bit.  Right off the bat something about Leon seemed different from other places… safer.  Enough so that I would walk a few blocks at dusk or after dark without being concerned.  And I’m glad I did.

The first afternoon I took a bit of a nap but kept waking up to what sounded like gunfire.  Crap, that’s not awesome.  Maybe it’s just backfires from tailpipes.  Reasonable considering the state of about 3/4 of the vehicles on the road.  But no, later I figured out what I had been hearing.  While probably obvious to all of you it was fireworks.  Unlike fireworks in the state these don’t have any multiple explosion sounds so it was a bit less obvious they were fireworks.  Just one loud bang.  But what was going on?

On the way back from scoping out a business location I finally found out.  Rounding a corner I walked into a parade of sorts.  Not really sure what was going on it consisted of three marching bands, all playing something different and all relatively close to each other, meaning it was, I guess, a sort of battle of the bands.  But that wasn’t the intention (I think) as along with the bands were huge… floats? of the Virgin Mary being carried by pall-bearers of sorts.  It was enough to make me wonder if some beloved towns person had passed and was having the most awesome funeral procession ever known to man.

Clip of the band

The floats were large enough that they had a guy up front with a pole holding up the power lines so Mary could get under them.  I followed the parade to a church where the bands stopped and played side by side with each other.  Again, totally different songs and now competing more closely with the guy lighting off fireworks at the church.  The entire scene was surreal and made me think that I don’t recall multiple marching bands and fireworks at my church growing up.

What it’s all about.

Not long after all this most of the festivities died down and I moved on only to round the corner to yet another parade of the same variety heading into the church.  While I got a picture of the sign above that explains a little I suspect someone who is Catholic might better explain what that day might have been.

What a fantastic hello to a new city.  The beautiful thing about not speaking the language is that for a brief second I could pretend the parade was for me.  After all, no one was going to tell me different, at least not in any language I could understand!

The next day I did things, or I assume I did.  The trouble with my time here in Leon is that it has been overshadowed by itchiness.  In Esteli I was apparently attacked more than I knew and I have spent the last few days attempting to remove my own skin with my fingernails.  Yes, I know, don’t itch but it’s impossible to actually do that.  Indeed I only remember a few things from yesterday… walking made me more itchy so I stopped that, and the pharmacy.

There’s a nice, clean, big pharmacy across the street from my hostel and as I felt insanity coming on I walked across determined to get something, anything to stop the itching.  You know that you’re about to lose it when you’re attempting to buy drugs in a country where you don’t speak the language.

Fortunately I wound up at a counter where I could show the woman my legs.  Somehow I was able to determine that she was asking if I wanted pills or lotion. YES!  Give me ALL THE THINGS!  Seriously lady, anything you got to make me stop itching.  I walked away with one pill and a small bottle of lotion.  Sitting down to breakfast I took that pill, completely uncertain of what it contained and not caring.  You aren’t itchy when you’re dead and I suspected it wasn’t going to kill me anyway.  I just wouldn’t take anything else until I figured out what I had consumed.  Turns out it was just Claritin.  No crazy, unapproved in the US drug for me.  I was kind of hoping for that since I wasn’t sure anything we have in the US would really cut it.  Turns out the Claritin only slightly worked, enough that I could get some sleep which was better than nothing.

Today I woke up still itchy but my legs weren’t quite as puffy and read as before.  I would have taken a picture but it was just too disturbing to document.  Seriously, I’ve never seen my skin look so disgusting before in my life.

I decided that today would be Jessica’s great day of culture and proceeded to both the art gallery and the cathedral.  Sadly the gallery has a policy of no pictures and unlike a US gallery it has virtually no gift shop either.  A true bummer as I’d have liked to purchase a few pictures of the pieces I had seen.  Nope, sorry.

The only picture

The cathedral was another story.  The largest in all of Central America this thing is HUGE and absolutely impressive.  While the outside leaves a bit to be desired the art on the inside was phenomenal and the views from the top were outstanding.  Day of culture for the win!

One of these days I’ll write about how I actual spend my days.  Turns out reading Malcom Gladwell will spin you off into thinking about things like pollution, gender roles and all sorts of other issues brought to head by the differences between this country and my own.  And so mostly I spend my days reading and thinking, pondering the concept of a better world and what will make that happen and considering the differences in culture, some good, some bad between my home country and this one.  More so that anything this is why I travel.  But it’s too late now to write about things that require such insight so I’ll leave you with these pictures instead.

Isn’t this on candles in the US?

Stairway to the top

Written on the cathedral roof…

But will it be true love always?

Look hard and you can see the smoke…

Carrying the weight


Cowboys and Natural Medicine

Well Nicaragua has set out to teach me a lesson.  Don’t make plans.

I spent a nice rest day on Big Corn Island.  It was a lovely day complete with lounging in hammocks reading books and walking on the beach.  I found the little Italian place and while the food was only so-so the host was so ludicrously charming that I’d go there for the hospitality alone.  When I went to leave and walk back to my place in the dark, a short walk along either a clear road or the beach she insisted that her father walk me back, just to be safe.  Fantastico!

The next day I had a grand plan.  Fly to Bluefields and on to Managua, then hop on the bus to Esteli.  With the early flight and buses running every 30 minutes I should be there by 2 or 3pm, well before dusk which is a poor time to arrive anywhere in Nicaragua or for that matter most cities when you’re not familiar.

Yeah, back to not making plans right?  I had to actually switch planes in Bluefields and as I waited for my next flight I was eventually told my flight would be 4 hours late.  While this is annoying in any airport, in an airport without any food for lunch this turned what was to be a perfectly lovely day into another day of no food travel.  I think I just have to realize that when you travel in Nicaragua you just don’t get to eat or drink.  OK, got it.  Oh and plan for dodgy travel though I suppose this small plane is fine but still…. a bit scary.

So eventually I get to Managua, a place I do NOT want to stay again.  My options are to stay or hop on the bus at 3:30 which means I’ll get to Esteli in the dark.   For whatever reason I decide to trust that I’ll be OK and I hop on the bus.  I won’t be arriving really late, just after dark.  Normal people will still be out and about, but what of the bus depot?  Many are dangerous but this one is right on the Carraterra Panamericana which means it will be on a busy highway, better than in a dark market away from town as many bus stations are.

I’m glad I took that late bus frankly.  Riding as the sun set on the beautiful highway made me think about friends who have ridden this very road on their motorcycles.  What a beautiful piece of pavement or more specifically what beautiful scenery.  Plus I got to see the cathedral here at dark and it’s even more lovely when its stained glass is lit up.  One of the best cathedrals I’ve seen thus far and as most of you know, I’ve seen a LOT of them.

Arriving in town wasn’t terribly sketchy and I found a cab quickly that took me to my hostel.  I had hoped for a private room but spent the first night in the dorm which was frankly much nicer than it could have been.  The next day I was able to move to a private room and I’ve spent the days here just exploring. I had meant to head up to a canyon hike but to be honest, I realize that I enjoy learning the towns and seeing the sites there more than trying to arrange travel.  Again, any days traveling suck when you’re not on a motorcycle.  It’s just the rule.

CHEESE!

Best Lunch EVER!

The first day I managed to hit the local organic farmers market and then I headed out to a place called La Casita, a beautiful little house serving snack type food and in the middle of a botanical garden.  It was lovely and I got the only decent bread I’ve had since Ometepe.  A real treat in a land where baked goods mostly resemble wonder bread.  I walked most of the way back (gringos don’t really do that) and then spent some of the rest of the day exploring town.

Mural

Painting the Signs

Armed Guards

(is it weird that I think nothing of people with guns anymore?)

What strikes me about Esteli is that it’s different from anywhere I’ve been thus far.  For days of walking around I was NEVER yelled at.  No “Hey Baby”, not once during the day and only slightly more attention when I was walking around closer to dusk.  Why is this town so different?

I suspect part of it is that people here seem to be actively employed.  It’s a cowboy community and somehow that means that people are more worried about what they need to do than the tourist girl.  The other aspect is that there are plenty of gringos here, a few ex pats and I think this makes me stick out a little less.  When there are no gringos I get attention from everyone, here, just a look and no more.  It was refreshing to be able to look at men and even smile without it being seen as flirting and without it leading to inappropriate comments.  I’ll need to turn the smiles off tomorrow I suspect.  Too bad, it’s enjoyable to be friendly.

Making Saddles

So Esteli is known for cigars, cowboy boots and leather work and in my opinion, excellent street art.  The cigars came about thanks to the Cuban revolution apparently, the cowboy boots go without saying and I’m not sure where the great street art comes from… if only every graffiti artist would make stuff this interesting.  Oddly this community also has a fairly large interest in natural medicine which means I have something for my mosquito bites (BIG strike against going to the Caribbean side of Nicaragua).  We’ll see if it works… it says it’s good for virtually every ailment under the sun so…

Tomorrow the plan is (BWAHAHAHA) to head to Leon.  The buses run VERY early and I really don’t want to get up quite that early.  The mini buses run at 8:30 and 9:30 which seems much more reasonable.  I guess I’ll set my alarm for the 8:30 bus and if I manage to get up in time for the 6:30 bus I’ll go then.  From here I’ll spend some time in Leon, possibly on the coast at a cabana turtle hatchery and in Grenada.  I’ve done my time off the gringo trail and I hope that the rest of my adventure is more rest and relax and less surreal travel adventures.  We’ll see.

As I think about it I know I can’t stop making plans.  Maybe the point is not that you stop planning, but that you let go of the attachment to that plan actually coming true.  Seems like a good… plan.


Pirates!

No, really (or maybe?).  But we’ll get to that.

So left Grenada in a taxi, hoping to get to a town said to be lovely.  A place called Jaigalpa.  A place that is distinctly not lovely.  It was interesting to see guys dressed like they were from Texas, big boots, jeans, I think even some cowboy hats, but the place itself was rough, even more so since it was well off the gringo trail.  As my friend Mary states in her blog, there’s benefits to the gringo trail.  In my case I draw a little bit less attention when I’m on it and usually feel a tiny bit safer for that reason.

I wound up staying at the disco hotel.  No really.  They had a huge dance floor though I don’t know that anyone cared.  It was insanely loud and I decided to hit my crappy bed before things got to exciting.  The next morning I was up early and with the town not catering to tourists I decided to hop on the bus without trying to find breakfast, something that often doesn’t exist in an easy to find way when off the gringo trail.

The bus ride was four hours long or so.  With no stops.  And no bathroom.  I knew this in advance and didn’t drink too much water as there’d be nothing I could do if I needed to go.  HEADACHE!  No food and no water will do that to you…. but I had planned on that.  Yes, I had planned on having a horrible headache.  Who does that?  Once I got to my destination, El Rama I finally found the area to catch the panga to Bluefields.  Rama was said to have cleaned up a bit from its seedy past but I can’t see it.  This is a place I’m very glad I didn’t stay, or get to after dark.  It was sketchy walking around during the day.

I can’t say how I judge places to be frightening.  I think it’s a combination of garbage (everywhere here but worse in the bad places), a lack of people who seem to be doing legitimate business, a lack of clean-looking businesses, roads that are mud pits more than roads.  But there’s something more to it too.  A general sense you get that people aren’t up to any good. There’s plenty of small towns that don’t freak me out at all.  In the end you just have to trust your instincts I think.

Anyway, the panga to Bluefields was… funny, scary, hilarious, absurd.  Think small boat with 18 or so people shoved in, squeezed in is more like it.  Open top, so like a big row-boat… with a motor… going so insanely fast that no one but the standing captain could see over the front of the boat.  And all our stuff is piled high in the front virtually hanging over the sides and not tied in.

I was a bit worried about taking the open panga since it had been raining on and off for the last several days.  What would we do if it started to rain?  The rain here is the kind that can drench you completely in a matter of minutes making this a decent concern.  Well I learned soon enough.  What we do is huddle together under this big piece of clear plastic that those of us on the outside have to try to hold down.  Something that’s extremely hard to do at the speeds we’re going.  Of course this gave all of us something else to do besides worrying that we were going to die which frankly seemed pretty imminent.

I really wish I had pictures of any of this but between the rain and the general sketchiness of the places I was there was no way I was going to pull out any kind of electronic gadget.

The speeding boat went around corners so fast I could have easily stuck my head in the water without leaving my seat, or at least that’s the way it felt.  Of course the other problem with rain is that it comes with wind, wind that makes the water very rough especially on wooden plank seats, as if there needed to be more to this adventure.  Oh, wait, but there is.

Pirates.  OK, maybe not but here’s what happened.  As we round a corner this bigger boat speeds out in front of us and stops, blocking our passage.  We slow more quickly than you’d think was possible and swing around so we’re side by side to the boat.  The guys in the boat seem to be arguing with the guys on the bigger boat.  Eventually a ton of cordobas are handed from our boat to the bigger one and we move on.  Sure, there’s probably a perfectly good explanation for this but the sunken ships on the side of the river added to the mystique and the yelling and arguing didn’t help.  I had meant to ask the one English speaker on the boat what was going on but later forgot after a few more sessions of rain plastic and rough water.

At one point I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.  I could have flown to Corn Islands and skipped this whole thing but that wouldn’t be quite the same now would it?  I simply had to have the authentic experience and yet I was starting to feel like a character in some novel only missing my adventure hat and vest.  Here I am, a single woman in her late thirties in some tiny boat on a filthy river with a bunch of people I can’t talk to.  Who the hell does this crap?  People in fiction novels, that’s who.  I guess that means it just seemed a bit surreal.

Getting to Bluefields I realized that this entire experience would be very “authentic”.  Yup, another place I shouldn’t use the camera.  While not horrible it was the first time I thought “there’s a fine reason this isn’t on the Gringo trail…. there’s really nothing to see or do here”.  Sure, the place is named after a pirate but that’s about the only charming part of it.  Ethnically there’s a ton more going on here than in Western Nicaragua but most of the exploration into the native groups of people involve heading north to remote areas that I won’t go to alone for obvious reasons.  But hey, I have been to the Mosquito Coast and that’s something.

The next day I went to the airport and bought a ticket to Big Corn Island.  While in theory I could have taken a boat here they only run on certain days and apparently then only run if they’re full and take all day.  The flight takes about 30 minutes.  I also bought a flight back to Managua.  As much fun as the panga experience was I think I should only tempt fate that way once.  Yes, I’m wimping out and I’m ok with that.  Shortening travel time is my new mantra.

So now I’m on Big Corn Island.  While Little Corn is supposed to be “the place” to go the huge amount of gringos heading there was just a bit too much for me to take.  There’s something about self righteous girls from LA insisting that the airline worker take their picture and getting pissed off that the worker didn’t want them to get too close to the props on the plane that just makes me want to smack people.  I wound up in a cab with them and they were nice enough, just young and self-absorbed like most are when we’re young.  And yes, there’s nothing but gringos at this little slice of heaven but there are a few more natives on the island as well.  A lot more really considering that Big Corn seems to have been eclipsed by his little sister.  There isn’t much of anything here and at least a few places in the guidebooks from just two years ago are already closed.

Walked past this house and there was a guy on the porch playing the Christmas Song on saxophone.

Be Careful!

Ice Cream Man

That means that tomorrow is rest day.  Reading, relaxing, doing nothing and maybe finding the little hotel owned by Italians down the road that is said to have the most amazing food in Nicaragua.  Seems like a good plan for a day.


Tiny Heart

I have a tiny heart.  No I don’t mean I’m the Grinch.  I mean I literally have a small heart.  Small enough that my heart rate at rest is usually the same as someone else while exercising, and when cycling or hiking it gets very high.  Pass out high.  Bonk, can’t move any further high.  Dangerous high.

Up until recently I didn’t know this and just beat myself up about my physical abilities.  It seemed no matter how much I would do activity wise I’d still not be able to keep up with others.  I couldn’t help but feel like a failure when it came to simply jogging a mile.  I’ve never been able to.  Never.  Not in High School or Junior High when I was running track and participating in all sorts of other sports, highly active and in excellent shape.  So when I finally found out that while healthy my heart is just very small I actually was pretty relieved.  I wasn’t a failure, or even super out of shape as I had always assumed.  That made more sense than the story I was telling myself.  How could I be super out of shape when I was riding my bike 30 miles 3-4 times a week and spending the other days at the gym for at least a couple of hours?  Funny the negative stories we tell ourselves when look to others as a comparison.

While it’s good to know it hasn’t (yet) stopped me from feeling, believing and acting as though I’m totally normal.  I mean sure, I’m normal, just limited.

Back to Nicaragua.  I rode up to the parking area for the waterfall and proceeded to hike.  “It’s meant to be flat” I had been told by an English tourist who had not done the hike.  Yeah, well I was meant to have a pony… doesn’t mean it’s true.  The hike wasn’t flat.  Not even close.  Certainly not when you’re eventually bouldering through the actual stream coming from the waterfall.  Crawling up rocks many feet high isn’t what I consider flat.  Your mileage may vary.

The waterfall in the distance

As I climbed up my tiny little heart did what it could to keep up.  Stupidly I got to the trailhead at about 12:30 having ate breakfast early that morning and with nothing but a small bottle of water on me.  I climbed, my heart raced, I tried to stop and rest, my heart didn’t recover, I pushed on.  Eventually not more than a few minutes from the top I turned back.  I felt as though I might pass out, I was mostly out of water and I couldn’t get my heart rate down enough to push on.  I was out of fuel and my body was screaming at me.  I was very concerned that I’d get to a point of no return, possibly literally.  I’ve done it before.

But on top of that I could tell that while the waterfall is likely gorgeous in the rainy season it was no more than a trickle now.  I thought about how spoiled I am living in a place where waterfalls with minutes long hikes are so huge and rushing that you could get seriously hurt standing under one.  I love the rest of the world but the place I call home is made more amazing with every trip away.  Sorry, no waterfall pictures in this post.

Oh, did I mention that a downpour started just as I got back to the parking area meaning that the steep hill to the parking area was super slick and the puddles were going to be even bigger on the gnarly road.  Awesome.  In fact there were two other guys on bikes when I got back to the parking lot and one took a nasty spill not more than a few yards down the road.  I proceeded to duck walk much of the way down.  Breaking stuff, my bike or me, wasn’t in the plan and would have been too easy to do with how exhausted, hungry and thirsty I was.

I sincerely hope I’ve learned my lesson.  I can do all sorts of things, it’ll just take me a lot longer and to a large extent it means I need to be kinder to my body.  My little heart just can’t keep up.

Fortunately the hotel with decent food was close-ish and I was able to get water and fuel.  Even more fortunately I didn’t feel like I was going to pass out after eating which is always the concern when you’ve pushed too far.  There wasn’t time for a nap.

Hilarious Sign on the Paved Road

Riding the gnarly road back with it being wet and slick was interesting.  Fortunately it hadn’t quite poured like it had the other days so while the puddles were bigger the road wasn’t under water completely (which does happen).  Back at the hotel in mud splattered pants I was actually really happy. Maybe more so than any other day.

They say that we get true happiness from overcoming things, not from easy success.  This day was exactly that.  I’d overcome crazy roads, my own stupidity, I’d hiked pretty far up a crazy trail and I did it without falling and hurting myself or losing the bike at all.  I was honestly content.

My new friend Robinson (motorcycle rental guy) and his sister.  Both charming, Robinson lived somewhere in Tennessee for a while.

The next day I hopped back on the boat leaving the island and the Cornerhouse, my home in Ometepe.  The boat ride was a bit less chaotic though there were more tourists than before.  I can’t help but laugh at the huge packs these kids carry… multiple packs in most cases.  Do you really need so many clothes?  Sure, some may be camping but considering I’ve stayed in the same places with many of them I know many aren’t.  I guess when you’re young and hooking up is as much a part of traveling as exploring is you probably need more in the clothing bag than I do.  Almost everyone is surprised at how little I have and yet I have way too much in my opinion.

When we got to the dock in San Jorge there were a couple of BMWs so of course I had to go say hello.  Funny enough they were from BC Canada.  Two couples who were traveling back from Panama.  I was jealous… having a bike would save me all the haggling with taxi drivers and crazy long bus rides that will follow the rest of my trip.  On the way to Grenada in a taxi (woot, I finally haggled enough to get the correct price!) another lone BMW passed, this time with someone in a rally suit.  I am being taunted.

And now I’m in Grenada, staying for two nights and certain to come back just before I leave to pick up crafts and other trinkets for myself and others.  My hotel is crappy and likely run by a prostitute.  For $15 more I will have a sweet room when I’m back.  It’s always so hard knowing what you can afford before you go and look around and often the differences are huge for only a few dollars more.

These are all the lessons that I learned in Baja but seem to have forgotten.  So for me and others:

Rule #1 REALLY LOOK at how clean a place is.  Are the walls dirty?  My first impression is rarely accurate and I find more to be grossed out about the longer I stay in a place.  Stay in clean places.  It’s more important than anything else.

Rule #2 Just because a hotel has wifi doesn’t mean your room does.  Use your phone to check signal.  I’m paying for wifi and if the place doesn’t have it in the room it might as well not have it.  At least not unless it has a FANTASTIC place to sit and post.  Most places do not.  Sitting in the parking lot so you can make a skype call home is obnoxious.

Rule #3 Your priorities are different than you think.  A fan is fine once the night cools off.  Just because it’s fracking hot during the day doesn’t mean you need to pay that much more for AC.  For me priorities are like this:

CLEAN.  Really clean.  Nothing is more important than this.  Nothing.

Good wifi signal.  Silly maybe, but when it gets dark early and I don’t want to read I can keep myself very busy with the web, much more so than TV.

Those are really all that’s important.  A fan is a must if that’s all there is, but that’s enough to keep me quite content.  For fun:

Cable.  Never thought I’d say this but having US TV is pretty nice.  Only a channel or two but enough to keep me busy on my early nights in.

AC almost at the bottom of the list.  Unless the temps here climb significantly I don’t feel like this is all that important if I have a good fan and windows to open.

Hot water.  This one used to rank a lot higher but now I realize I can do without it here.  Just don’t shower first thing in the morning or at night.  Shower in the afternoon when you’re sweaty and hot and before you go to dinner.  Works fine and you’ll feel refreshed.  Yes, I can actually still take a very long cold shower.

OK, enough of that.  Just a good reminder for my next trip since I tend to forget what’s really important to me.  Maybe not just when traveling…


Ometepe or Riding Without Gear

So many things I’ve wanted to share but I’ve been too tired and too disconnected to write.  For whatever reason I’ve not slept particularly well here and I’m not sure why.  It is noisy so that could well be it.

From Rivas and San Jorge I headed to Ometepe island on what could be the most incredibly bumpy journey by boat I’ve ever had.  As I thought about all the cargo up top on the boat and watched us rock back and forth so much I thought water would come in, I literally planned my escape should the thing tip over.  It’s probably not helpful that I’d just read a book about traveling via the worlds most dangerous boats, plans, trains and buses.  Here’s a little view from the way back, a significantly less troublesome journey than the way there.

On the island I wound up staying in the main town/city rather than journeying further into the island and frankly I’m quite happy I did.  My time was spent at the LOVELY Cornerhouse B&B, owned by expats from the UK and Canada.  It was an absolutely lovely room that while lacking in hot water and AC more than made up for it with cleanliness, attention to detail and to be quite frank, the incredible welcoming attitude of both of the owners.  Some of the most lovely people I have met to date.

Staying in town afforded me the ability to get around without any trouble.  While I’m not particularly paranoid I like being in a place where I feel pretty safe to walk the streets in the evening and since it gets dark here at about 5pm evening is really early.  I like having choices of where to eat and what to do and you give much of that up when you stay someplace a bit more remote.  Sure, it was noisy but it also made me feel like I was really experiencing town life, instead of just some tourist resort.  Besides:

Top that off with excellent coffee, smoothies and food (best steak and caramelized onion sandwiches ever and the best bread I’ve had in ages) and this place is my favorite place I’ve stayed thus far.  I can’t possibly recommend it enough.

When I got to the island I simply had to take a picture of the motorcycle loaded on top of the boat.  I couldn’t help but think about it as the boat rocked back and forth on the journey to the island.

My new friend Robinson noticed me looking and spent the next couple of days telling me I needed to rent a motorcycle from him.  He had the best bikes, in good repair and it was the only way to see the island. But how could I possibly do this?  After all, I spend time telling people how stupid it is to ride without gear.  Sure, I had long pants, a long sleeve shirt and boots that I’d ride in even at home plus Robinson had helmets but we all know that’s not gear.  I struggled with the idea for a couple of days.  And then I stopped.

How incredibly ludicrous of me.  The ENTIRE reason I started riding motorcycles was for this VERY situation.  I didn’t get my endorsement because I wanted to ride in the US, I didn’t think I’d love the freedom of riding (I do now).  No, I started riding because I knew in other countries a little motorcycle would give me the ability to travel to places I couldn’t get to easily and that they’d be cheaper and less isolated than a car.  And yet here I was questioning the idea of renting because I didn’t have my proper motorcycle kit.

As I thought about how incredibly stupid that was I figured I did still need to have some standards.  So how about range standards?  No skin below the chin.  Sure, my cotton shirt wasn’t going to help me much in a crash, but I also wasn’t going to be going 70mph on the highway… I don’t think that 125cc dirt bike could get over about 40 even with a strong tail wind.  But that did mean I spent a decent chunk of time going around the small town looking for gloves.  Some crappy leather work gloves would have to do and frankly they likely would be fine for what I was attempting.  And I was off.

It was so much fun riding on the little paved roads.  The idea that they could build these roads with paver blocks is just amazing.  But then the pavement ended…

Unlike dirt roads in the states the roads on the island immediately turned to complete rubbish.  Fortunately the little bike bounced right over the rocks sticking out of the road by many inches since frankly there was no way to pick through them, you just had to aim to hit them as straight on as possible and go for it.  Bumpy as can be but it never took the handlebars from me or twisted them in any way.  I suspect having Bob would have made things more difficult…. he tends to twist a bit when hitting big rocks.

I really wish I’d taken video of some of the trucks and buses on this road as watching them go over 2 foot drops and into deep puddles was amazing.  They were literally crawling along no faster than you could walk.  It can take hours to go only a few kilometers here just due to the conditions of  the road.  The fact that it had been raining didn’t make things any better.  The road was OK where wet but the puddles were deep thick mud and one definitely tried to take the bike from me.  Having been warned about any single scratch on the bike costing me a fortune I was especially concerned about not putting the bike down.  On another topic, the bike largely stopped the comments from the guys.  There was no more “Hey Baby” but just looks of surprise when they realized I was alone on a bike on these roads.  I don’t know that they’d seen that before.  Certainly not often.

Heading on I rode up to the waterfall hike and learned a new lesson… you can’t change who you are, the best you can do is accept yourself.  More on that in the next post.