Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Blame Ollie North

So it has been a while. Sorry to not really finish this summer's African adventure. There was a coup in Mauritania and my schedule got all screwy and I ended up taking all sorts of weird Eastern European carriers, but I did eventually get home. And went to Graduate School. And then on vacation to Central America.

I have always avoided Latin America because I can't speak Spanish. But I got a really sweet cheap flight from New York to Honduras, practically free, so I figured I had to learn at some point... I landed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and figured out just how little Spanish I spoke. I was able to mime my way through directions and ordering dinner (if you moo repeatedly at the counter staff of the local tacoeria, you eventually get a beef taco. I thought that was more dignified than the Chicken Dance...) Next morning I headed out for the coast. Bay Islands, beautiful weather, great diving...

Sort of. The weather was disastrously bad. (I spent the whole ride over on the ferry flipping my stomach inside out.) There were mosquitoes by the billions, and the diving was sub-par. There was one decent wreck but the island caters too intro divers so they have killed most of the coral... I didn't stay too long...

Back on the mainland I decided to have a day of "Adventure EcoTourism." I always hate this after I do it because I spend too much money and never really get that much of a rush, but I continue to do it anyway... I was picked up from the hostel in something that was one part truck, one part school bus, one part tractor and one part armored personnel carrier. The most likely possible explanation is that is WAS actually one part all those things and just soldered together by a creative mechanic. It got me up the steep "road" into the mountains though so I guess I shouldn't complain.

My first "extreme eco-sport" was canopying. This is were you hike around a mountain, occasionally zip lining across rivers, ravines, etc, hoping not to hit the surrounding trees. I wasn't very good at this sport and would continuously start spinning dangerously like a top when I was over water. I managed not to fall, break any bones or piss off any of the fire ant communities along the way, so I suppose it was worth the thirty bucks.

Then I went rafting. This was not the most organized eco-lodge in the jungle, so they misplaced the group I was supposed to go rafting with. Instead, because they couldn't lose my fee by not taking me out, they sent me out with two "guides-in-training," which is Spanish for, "Kids who don't speak English." Apparently though they too dream of hoping in the adventure tourism moneytrain, so they needed to learn. We set off in our little boat through the class IV and V rapids. What could go wrong right? Well, the "guides-in-training" haven't gotten to "left" and "right" in their English classes yet, so when the actually Guide yelled commands, they usually go it wrong, sending up dangerously spinning in the wrong direction. This led people to get thrown out of the boat. Which is really funny when it is one of the "guides-in-training." Less funny when it is you. Completely ruined my pedicure getting dragged across the boulders in a class V. I headed out the next day.

I needed to catch the bus to Nicaragua from the un-picturesque and slightly dangerous regional capital of San Pedro Sula. Of course I am staying at a $5 a night flop house in the middle of town, which doesn't improve the situation. I spent most of the afternoon walking around the market, haggling of stuff I really didn't need, then read my book until it was time to go to dinner. I went out onto the street to see every commercial establishment was guarded by people in uniform with pump action shotguns, or without uniform and sawed-off shotguns. There was a little man that sold handmade saddles and rope from a glorified cardboard box of a stand. He had a, I kid you not, Wyatt Earp era six shooter, with extra ammo in his belt. I ate a plate of chicken and beans across the street, returned to the hotel, shoved a chair under the door, and went to sleep.

See how careful I was? See what common sense I had? Fat lot of good it did me the next day in Managua, Nicaragua.

I am not green. I have been doing this a long time. I trust my instincts and keep my guard up. I check into a hotel in Managua that was a little off, but Matt was flying in from Paris to meet me there so I was stuck with it. I needed to go to the ATM to get some Nicaraguan currency and I wanted to make sure I could do that, hit the internet cafe and grab a bite before it got dark. It is not safe to walk around at night alone. I didn't trust the desk, so I took everything worth stealing and put it in my purse. Then set off on a crowded street, in the middle of the afternoon, to the ATM.

Two guys saw me coming (or, more likely, were tipped off by that SOB at the hotel). They ran up and tried to grab my bag. No way bastards. What I lack in size I make up for in sheer stubbornness. They could break my damned collarbone before they got that bag off my shoulder.

I guess they figured this out, or maybe got nervous because they were trying this on a crowded street in the middle of the day. Or they were just high. In any case the bigger of the two takes out a big shiny handgun and puts it against my throat.

I gave them the bag.

Man was I mad. It never occurred to me to be scared. But I was furious afterwards. I lost everything. Wallet. Passport. Credit cards. Camera. MP3. Watch. Everything.

A butterfly flaps its wings in Toyko, and it rains in Boston. Oliver North and Ronald Reagan send boatloads of arms to Contras, I get mugged in Nicaragua. See what happens when you vote Republican?

Matt arrived a few hours later and bailed me out. I got a new passport the next day and Prince Charming had me sleeping on 300 count sheets in a beautiful restored hotel in the colonial city of Granada by the next evening.

The next day we set out for the island of Omtepe. Omtepe is an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua formed by two volcanoes, and, as far as I know, the only black sand, fresh water beaches in the world. We took a rickety old fishing boat out. We could have waited for the nice car ferry, but this thing looked sturdy enough, especially if you sat on the upper deck where the life jackets were. We checked into the Hotel Aly (a backpacker dive, but the price was right) and set off to explore the town and surrounding area.

The next day we wanted to climb a volcano. Conception is the taller of the two, and our first choice. Unfortunately it has been spewing noxious fumes for months (the island has been evacuated four times in the past year because they think she is going to blow...), so we couldn't climb it. That left Madras, the smaller, wetter and quieter of the two.

As we were driving out that morning, the guide was talking a blue streak, mostly about guide crap that no one cares about. Then he says, "Well we are not really supposed to tell tourists this..." (we thought it was going to be another stupid story) "... but the ferry sank yesterday..."

Holy Crap. Good thing we took the fishing boat! Apparently they overloaded it with plantains and down it went. Oops.

Matt ended up not going on the hike because he didn't feel well. (We were both drinking the tap water, but as I have been doing that all over the world for years and likely actually have a negative ph in my stomach, I didn't get sick.) So I slogged up the volcano in the rain (they said "cloud forest", they didn't mention the accompanying downpour) and ankle deep mud with a Hungarian woman and her German husband who looked like a cross between Ice Man in Top Gun and the breeding stud down at the local dairy farm.

Needless to say, they were in better shape that I was... They were also better equipped that I was. (Did you know that volcanic mud and the soles of Converse All-Stars form a perfectly frictionless surface? One for the physicists....) And man was it wet. The mud was the only thing not growing moss. There was moss that grew specially on other moss. It was truly impressive. There might have even be moss on the white face and howler monkeys, but we didn't get close enough to check.

We headed out the next day, back to Granada. It took FOREVER to get off the island. Apparently someone discovered a book of "safety precautions" for the boats.

Once in Granada, we set off to see the Volcan Massaya. It was supposedly easier than Madras, mostly because you took a bus to the entrance, paid your fee, hitchhiked your way up to the crater, walked around a bit looking at the lava fields and taking in the noxious gases, then hitchhiked back down. We stopped in the "bat caves" while were were up there. They were old lava tunnels with blood bats in them, which the guide assured us were unlikely to bit humans but not to poke them nonetheless... We took the tour with a guy about our age, Nicaraguan-American, and his little blond girlfriend from New York. He had a car and took us around a little bit after the hike. We went to the top of another volcano (noticing a trend here?) and watched the sunset while eating traditional Nicaraguan snacks (fruit, cheese and meat, in various concoctions, deepfried...) (He was very sympathetic about my robbery. Lots of guns in Nicaragua. He carries a Glock himself...)

Next day Matt headed back to Paris and I headed down to San Juan del Sur on the Costa Rican border. It was a surfer hangout. I don't really dig the surf but I like the beach. The best beaches were a couple km outside of town, so you had to get a pick-up from the hostel to take you out there. The kid that drove us out was Canadian and man was he dumb. Or fried. Or both. We spent the day in the sun. On the way back, the other group was running late. I told the kid I would be on the beach and come get me when before they left. He forgot. Short-term I suppose... It took me FOREVER to hitchhike back to town... I went to the hostel to tell them about getting left. They responded, "again?" and gave me my money back.

That night after I was all showered and aloe vera'ed, I was sitting around shooting the shit with the other backpackers. They were talking about the Hotel Aly on Ometepe. Yeah I stayed there too. No, what happened to you? You too? Massive tarantula problems? Size of dinner plates? I promptly excused myself and shook every article of clothing out of my bag.

Next day I spent on the beach and using the Lonely Planet as my primary source to write an overdue research proposal for a spring trip to Cuba. I am going to study tourism, not surprisingly...

Next day it was back north to Esteli. Lonely Planet says it was a picturesque little town damaged heavily in the war. I didn't find it picturesque. And maybe it was war-damaged as compared to, oh, I don't know, Toledo, but it has nothing on Dubrovnik or Brazzaville. Lonely Planet Central America is about as up-to-date and useful as Christopher Columbus' journals.

Next morning I began the long and arduous journey back to Tegucigalpa to go home. This was comprised of 6 local bus trips. I made the journey with a Swedish kid named Marcus. He didn't know too much English and our two days together was straight out of a Beckett play, but the company was nice.

Then I headed for home. I had bought a couple pieces of ceramics and I packed them up in a cardboard box that I stole from a grocery store, and headed out.

Now I don't check luggage when I fly because I never have anything big enough that requires it. So I had my Box and my backpack and a 9 hour layover in El Salvador. Like hell I was staying in the airport.

I went to the Immigration officials, that assured me that all I needed was a pass and I could leave without having to pay the $32 tourist tax to re-enter the airport. I should get that pass from my airline. When I asked for said pass I was told the following things by a sequence of people leading up the food chain (I had nine hours, I could ask to speak to supervisors all afternoon...) (1) Passes are only for people who missed connections. (2) Passes are only for people with layovers shorter than 10 hours - when I pointed out that in fact my layover was shorter than ten hours, I was told that the hours were not regular hours, but aeronautical hours, which were different and my layover was longer than ten hours. (3) Passes do not exist. Come and go as you please.

So Box and I left. The taxis wanted almost $30 to take me to the local beach resorts. Forget that. I knew the word for beach in Spanish, so Box and I walked down an exit ramp to the intersection where the public buses were. We jumped on a bus to a little town called San Luis where we waited at a roadside stand for the pickup truck to take us to "la playa." I loaded Box onto the front with the eggs and sacks of corn, climbed in an off we went.

After about 15 km, we did indeed reach a beautiful coastline. The others on the pickup assured me that I wanted the hotel at the end of the road. So Box and I bumped along the dirt track through little Salvadorian villages until we reach this huge yellow compound. I let myself in. It was incredible. Beachfront bungalows, decks, pools, restaurants, marina, birds of paradise... and no people. I wandered around until I found a kid working construction who spoke slow enough for me to understand. The hotel is only for North American on package deals. It is only open from Wednesday to Sunday. Would I please come back then? Box and I asked to sit on the deck for a while. We sat long enough for me to finish my book before I got bored and we headed back. I had lunch at the little sandwich stand where I had waited for the pickup that morning, and headed back to the aeropeurto, back to New York.

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