Living la vida loca

I’ve been living large like a rock star for the past two days. I can see how the lifestyle can become addictive….

Buying handbags (which you already know about), indulging at the spa yesterday — mani, pedi, hour massage, facial ($40) in an old colonial house — and hanging out at the uber swanky Hotel Granada pool this afternoon ($7 entry for the day, $7 for lunch, including a drink).

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Yesterday I also got turned around in the hot, close, loud and grungy municipal market. Thankfully I found the right street out pretty quickly. I wanted to take photos, but I knew if I stopped walking, even for a moment, my possessions would walk away without me.

Two such vastly different worlds only scant blocks apart.

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I’ve had an awesome adventure. I’ve broken a sweat just standing still. I’ve eaten a meal of street food that cost me $1 and lived to see the morning. I’ve been helped out in Spanish by locals and travellers alike. I’ve managed to avoid being run over by cars, bicycles, pedicabs, motorcycles and horses, sometimes all on the same street. I’ve been called Chica. Pretty lady. Hello! every day by young men, old men, men with children, men with their girlfriends. I’ve learned the most expensive thing in Nicaragua is electricity. I’ve negotiated the bus station and avoided being pick pocketed. I’ve marvelled that EVERYONE wears jeans in the stifling heat (I’ve even seen a Nica woman in a scarf and one in a turtleneck!). I’ve seen mountains of plastic bags littering the side of the road. I’ve been face to face with 300 year old trees and 500 year old statues. I’ve watched the sun set while standing on the edge of a volcano crater, then looked down into it to see the lava and breathed in the sulfur. I’ve eaten a mango that fell off a tree and landed in front of me. I’ve stood in awe at stunning architecture and buildings that took decades to complete. I’ve fed bread to angry monkeys trapped on a small island (don’t tell PETA), and stepped over the sleeping dogs that seem to be on every sidewalk. I’ve seen incredible wealth next to crushing poverty.

But it’s time to come home. (Please tell me it’s turned into spring!)

Backpack Heirarchy

I’ve come to the conclusion that I´m just about the only person here who hasn’t sold all their possessions and packed up a giant backpack to travel around Central America for months and months. When I tell backpackers I´m here for only 10 days, they look at me like What´s the point of that!!??

Don´t get me wrong. The vast majority of backpackers, even the hard core ones who have been away from home for months, even years, are truly lovely, generous people.

But I’ve noticed there’s a hierarchy within the backpack culture. A select few might best be described as “backpacker snobs”.

They have a look that´s obvious from a distance — they´re wearing weird combinations of clothes they’ve purchased along their journey. And ratty old flip flops. They may also have have given up on personal hygiene.

For this backpacker, it’s vitally important that everything be done the hard way. They can´t just sign up for a guided tour. They have to hire a small Guatemalan boy to guide them through the dense jungle to pick up a leaky canoe they will then paddle for hours upstream to get to a hut with no running water and teaming with insects. To get the authentic experience.

I, on the other hand, am having my own kind of authentic experience.

Because apparently in Nicaragua I’ve become a woman obsessed with handbags. I’ve bought two already. And naturally, I’ve also purchased a pair of shoes. Who am I kidding… I would have bought another pair, but the shop was shuttered for lunch. I’ll go back there tomorrow. 🙂

Beautiful handmade leather bags are comparatively, ridiculously inexpensive. Sigh.

This new obsession did cause a moment of panic, though. I realized I should probably have more cash on me than I do (due to the handbag situation), just to make sure my transport back to the airport in Managua is adequately covered. (I’m taking a shuttle because I’m leaving so early and that definitely doesn’t come cheap.)

So this morning I go to an ATM and stick my bank card in. And the ATM tells me it can’t read my card. Okay. I go to the other bank across the street. And I put in my card. And the ATM tells me it can’t read my card. And some woman is suddenly standing right at my shoulder looking to use the machine… or take my money…. but since the ATM refuses to play nice with my bank card, there’s no chance she’s getting any of my money since I can’t … which leads to the slight rising panic in my chest. So I go to the third ATM. And I put in my card…

…and the ATM asks me for my PIN!!! I’m saved. Until I realize the ATM speaks Spanish…but there’s a Language button choice and I chose English…and the panic goes away.

So no backpack for me, but lots of bags…. and I don’t have to figure out how to get to Managua on the chicken bus with leather bags and a rolley suitcase.

Come to think of it, I could probably use one of those gigantic backpacks right now to take home my handbags…

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s Super Chica!

And I have the bruises to prove it! I was the only person on the canopy zip-line tour this morning, but Carlos and Nestor took very good care of me and didn’t let me fall even once! The harness was so tight around my waist that I have a “bruise belt” that will definitely be a point of conversation the next time I’m wearing a bathing suit!

I am not a zip-line newbie, having done it before in Costa Rica. But apparently in Costa Rica there are rules. In Nicaragua, the only rule is that there are no rules!

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So I get in the tour van this morning. And no one else on the van is doing just the canopy tour, the rest of them are hiking then zipping. So it’s just me and the two guides — Nestor, who thankfully speaks English and is able to give me the proper instructions, and Carlos, who speaks not a word of English, but who speaks Spanish slowly enough that I make out basically what he’s saying, including that I should keep my ankles together and not kick him as he’s catching me at the end of a platform — no mas ninos! (no more babies!) Got it. Don’t kick Carlos.

They give me a helmet.  They give me gloves. They strap me into the harness (tightly!). 17 platforms in total, multiple bridges. The first time is easy, go straight ahead, brake at the end. No problemo. Then they ask if I want to do tricks. Sure! Because in Costa Rica you can’t do any tricks. Nica is a whole new ballgame. Upside down. Superman. Spinning, Backwards. Bouncing. One platform you basically run off the end into nothing, kind of like bungee jumping, but not so high up, the the zip line catches and you speed over the forest floor. (I learned I won’t be bungee jumping any time soon…)

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Nestor took lots of photos, pointed out interesting bugs (read BIG), let me chew on a coffee bean (tastes sort of like chocolate), took photos of birds and told me about trees, including, fittingly for today, the Love Tree. (Happy Valentine’s Day!) I look like a dunce in most of the photos, but when you see them, think She’s having a great time! Rather than, Why does she look like a blithering idiot?

Going to try to catch the boat tour this afternoon, the one that got cancelled on me yesterday — if nothing else, here I’m learning to just “go with the flow”… (the lava flow that is…I did that adventure last night…but that’s another story…)

Hiking the Gringo Trail

What a difference a day makes! Yesterday morning I was in a funk and a quandry. My surfing lessons had yet again been cancelled, and I felt as though I´d done everything I wanted to do in Leon. However, when I contacted my hotel in Granada, they were all booked up, so I couldn´t check in a day earlier (there´s a poetry festival going on and the cultural gliteratti from all over Latin America are here in town). But, after some thought, I decided to wing it and leave Leon for the far more picturesque and less confrontational Granada. And so the journey of taxi, bus to Managua, bus to Granada began. Bus stations here are, shall we say, a little frantic.

What I´m doing is called ¨hiking the gringo trail¨ because you keep running into the same people along the way. And it´s true, I keep seeing familiar faces heading in and out of the same places.

Anyway, back to the hot and sweaty journey (but cheap!). Best roadside attraction on the way from Leon to Managua — a guy by the side of the road selling gigantic iguanas (tastes like chicken!). He´s holding them up by the tail — kind of like the Nicaraguan version of roadside corn or other seasonal produce. We didn´t stop, so I´ve no idea how much iguana costs by the pound. And they don´t seem to sell it in the La Union grocery store, which, by the way, is actually owned by Wal-Mart. There´s even a greeter. But no iguana.

So the bus drops us all off in Granada. In the middle of the Central Square, which is totally bustling with musicians, people selling food, handicrafts, water, everything under the sun, kids playing, mothers yelling… I have NO IDEA where I am. And it seems like a bad idea to stand there with my rolly suitcase and pull out my map. So I ask another Gringa who speaks great Spanish just where the heck we are. She points it out on my little map and I´m like one block from Casa del Agua. So I roll my suitcase over there and get in for a cold drink and a quick sit. Gerry the owner gets me a $9 room across the street for the night because the Casa is full.

Ever wonder what a $9 a night room looks like? It looks just like what you´re thinking.

Double bed. Beside table. One fan. Ashtray.

Walls are paper thin, in fact I can see if someone turns the light on in the bathroom down the hall because the wall doesn’t quite reach the ceiling.

The disco bar, which was in full and glorious swing last night (hello! it´s Sunday people!! Does no one work tomorrow?), heavy on the bass and the patrons singing along, felt like it was right beneath me. The partying went full stop until midnight. As it turns out, the loudest guysfrom the bar then came into the hostel and had about two dozen beer between them (I stepped over the cans of beer this morning on my way out), talking over each other about their chicas (girls). Myself, I got a few hours sleep.

I also opted not to take a shower there this morning because I noticed beneath the shower head were two suspicious looking wires hanging down that once were held together with duct tape but now just hanging uselessly.

Casa del Agua is the complete opposite of Hostel El Ranchito. Gracias a dios.

Casa del Agua - there's a pool in the living room!
Casa del Agua – there’s a pool in the living room!

Most excitingly, have set myself up on a boat tour this afternoon of Las Isletas de Granada, a miniature archipelago of tiny tropical islands rife with birds, flowers, mansions (where the super rich Nicas have their cottages), a spanish fortress, a swimming area and Monkey Island. I will not be getting too close to the monkeys, and I will hold on to my stuff because monkeys are generally thieves of the worst kind. But heck, how often do you get to go to a monkey island??

Tomorrow I´ll soar through the trees on a 17 platform canopy tour, and on Wednesday afternoon-evening, if a few more people sign up, I´ll be taking a walk into the heart of the earth via the Masaya volcano, getting to walk through lava tubes (whatever those are!!) while bats fly overhead. I think I´ll put my hair in a pony tail…

I doubt I´ll be signing a waiver for any of this. If I´m lucky there will be a helmet involved at some point…

So I´m happily doing the tourist thing again. But I STILL don´t have a tan.

Keep your mouth shut…or you’ll end up with rocks for teeth

Volcano boarding was as excellent as I imagined it would be!

About 25 of us pile into a shuttle truck and take the 45 minute drive over dusty, bumpy back roads to Cerro Negro. The volcano is one of Nicaragua’s youngest volcanoes and is still active, last erupting in 1999. It’s overdue to erupt again.

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It’s 730 metres to the top and because of the various fitness levels and abilities of everyone on the tour, the climb took the better part of an hour over sometimes rocky terrain. We carried our boards and our bags, containing what can only be described as orange prison overalls, to the top.

There’s a guy with a speed gun at the bottom clocking the times. The fastest time on record is 89km/h, which is VERY fast on what amounts to a toboggan.

The instructions are lean back, keep your legs out to the side, hold the toggle rope and whatever you do, DON’T put your hands down!! Also, don’t smile or yell whee as you speed to the bottom because you’ll get a mouthful of black rocks. It turns out it’s not black ash but tiny volcanic rocks.

And I’m off! Like grease lightening! I’m thinking I’m going to break the record…I can see the bottom…it’s amazing…and then I start to drift. And I try to get back on track, but I forget what he said about tapping which foot to get the board back to straight… and in my moment of glory I let the front of the board get low and it buries itself in the tiny rocks and I come to a dead stop. In the middle of the hill. Dreams of having bragging rights for the rest of the day totally destroyed.

The woman who started out next to me clocked a final speed of 70km/h. I, on the other hand, only managed 20 although I swear at the beginning I was FLYING. But not a total epic fail as at least I made it down with speed, which not everyone could say. And although she ended up with the fastest speed of the day, the woman beside me also came away with some major abrasions to her leg when she flew off her board at the bottom of the hill. Someone else took all the skin of her elbow. Except for having tiny rocks absolutely everywhere — hair, ears, nose — I was totally unscathed.

Catherine Volcano Boarding Nicaragua 2013

But what a rush! The only bad thing is that you only go once. One shot at greatness and the adrenaline rush.

Everyone on the truck ride home was psyched. There was live music that night at my hostel so after showers all around, we all met up for dinner and a celebratory drink. A perfect end to the day.

In my country, cock fighting is illegal…

…but apparently in Nica it´s a Sunday afternoon outing with the family. I don´t think I´ll take the opportunity to go on that particular tour, however for those who might be interested during their own trip, for $12 you can attend the rooster fights on Sunday. 3-6 pm. Open bar.

Although I won´t have to use the bank while I´m here, I did notice that it should be a fairly safe thing to do. Each bank has a guard at every entrance. Holding a very serious looking gun.

Big breakfast this morning in anticipation of volcano boarding. Very good french toast. The thing is thought that it´s so hot I don´t really have an appetite, but I figure I need sustenance to hurl myself down the volcanic ash.

However, since the tour doesn´t leave until 1 pm, this morning I went to the Cathedral of Leon, a gigantic church in a city of giant churches. It was built in the 1600s, burned down the rebuilt over the course of 100 years. And we think contractors take a long time on our renovations…

The cathedral is built of stone but its been blackened on the outside due to volcanic ash. I suppose they just can’t keep up with the cleaning.

Apparently this church was actually meant to be built in Lima Peru, but someone screwed up the plans and it was built in Leon instead. I´m thinking someone lost their job over that one.

Cathedral de Leon
Cathedral de Leon

I think I managed to take some beautiful photos of Leon and the surrounding area from the very top of the church. I generally take substandard photos, so I hope these turn out. You can see the volcanos smoking in the background. I got this Kiwi guy to take a photo of me in the bell tower. He looks at my camera (borrowed from my sister, thank you, Erika) and says, That´s a classic digital camera. And I say, By classic, I take it you mean old. Smile. Yup. He, on the other hand, has this huge gizmo of a camera with telephoto lenses and hands it to me, asking me to take a photo with it. Seriously?? Okay Catherine, don´t drop this because it´s got to be worth a small fortune. No pressure. I think I took a very nice picture for him.

Gracias a Dios indeed

I am sweating in Leon…which is of course what I wanted and was hoping for. Heaven!

I left Hotel La Pyramid in a nice taxi driven by Jose Angel, Bob Marley on the radio. He spoke English and a tiny bit of French. First conversation I’ve had since arriving where I actually felt like I knew exactly what we were talking about. REALLY wish I hadn´t left my spanish phrase book at home.

So Jose Angel got me safely to the bus station near the UCA and I piled into a minibus with about 20 other people. Next time I get asked if I want to sit in the front or the back, I will choose the back. Seat belt. No. Sticker on the windscreen Gracias a Dios. Check. This should turn out just fine…

The driver was pretty good and we had only one little blip which involved the transport trailer in front of us hitting his brakes so hard they smoked. It´s quite exhilarating to be in a vehicle passing 4 or 5 other vehicles, including horse and buggy, gas truck, truck with day labourers, you get the picture.

Oh yeah, if you were wondering who buys all the white vechicles every car manufacturer produces, I can now tell you. Central Americans. If they have a vechicle, you can pretty much guess that it´s white and very shiny.

The microbus trip also got me thinking. I´m pretty sure it´s not a nuclear bomb that will end life as we know it on earth. It´s bits of plastic. Plastic bags are literally everywhere. As far as the eye can see. As well as more plastic bits and pieces. This country is drowing in it.

If someone wanted to open a recycling plant in Nicaragua, they could be rich.

After 1.75 hours or so we pulled into the bus station in Leon. I get out of the microbus and I´m surrounded by guys yelling in Spanish, wanting to take me to my hotel. I chose the pedicab, an open air taxi driven by a guy on a bike. He tried valiantly to chat with me, but of course I speak only poco espanol, so it was a losing battle. The trip cost me $20 Cordobas, which is about $1. I overpaid… the going rate is $15C but the guy was on a bike and it´s stinking humid. I figured he deserved it.

The Lion of Leon
The Lion of Leon

Checked into Via Via, had a beer and lunch. Then went out for a wander around the city. I have ZERO sense of direction. Nada. I did get lost, a little, but kept my wits about me and just decided to keep wandering until I got back to the hostel. Must admit I´m a teensy bit proud of myself.

Also negotiated the Supermercado. Wandered the aisles like any other woman after work. Lots of familiar products but in odd packaging. Mayonnaise in a squeeze bag anyone?

Tomorrow is volcano boarding day. I leave at 1:00 pm to throw myself down the side of a volcano. Seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do!

Who thought THIS was a good idea?!

The great Central American invention, affectionately known as the suicide shower.

Suicide shower. Don't change the settings while under the spray.
Suicide shower. Don’t change the settings while under the spray.

Everywhere has a shower. Not everywhere has a shower with hot water. To create hot water an electric heater is affixed (duct taped) to the top of the shower head. I remember being taught that electricity and water don’t mix… perhaps it’s best not to touch the shower head while the water is running. And wear rubber shower shoes.
Have had shower. Still alive. Day 2.

Slept like a log last night. Its a bit muggy but not stinking hot yet. Because I hardly slept the night before I left, last night I had dinner, took a beer up to my room and watched an hour of some english language TV and fell into a deep sleep. After a lovely breakfast of fruit, juice (passionfruit maybe) and 2 cups of coffee, I’m ready to figure out the mini bus system that will get me to Leon today. It’ll be about $2 and 1.25 hours to get there. Money and passport safely stowed in the moneybelt around my waist.

Great score – in the book exchange I found a hardback copy of a book I wanted to bring with me but was too cheap to buy. So now my reading material is covered for the trip. I will leave something in return.

Leaving you with this — although this is an excellent hotel, highly recommended on trip advisor, and one where you have to ring the bell and get let in by security, I guess some things always need to be spelled out. Sign on the back of my hotel room door For your and the other guests safety no visitors or prostitutes as permitted in the rooms. Okay. Duly noted. And done.

Hola from Managua

I have arrived! I’m on a solo trip around Nicaragua — the plan is to visit Leon and Granada.

Made it through three airports, three security checks and rush hour traffic and am safely at Hotel La Pyramid, which, by the way, does indeed look like a pyramid. I am in the Isis room.
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Its very clear that I need to pick up a little bit more Spanish, but so far smiling and saying gracias seems to be working.

Miami was okay for the 1.5 hours I was there, except that it was overcast and not at all sunny. I did however get to purchase a beer at a kiosk in the airport, she poured it into a Coke cup and said I could drink it anywhere. So I had a beer in the departures lounge. That is after she asked me for age ID. Absolutely, I said 🙂 happy!

Best thing about Nicaragua customs…the entry health form asked if I was suffering from a variety of maladies from a sore throat and dizziness to decay. Decay of what?? I said no to be safe.

Am about to having dinner and a well deserved beer.

Tomorrow I get the shuttle bus to Leon. More from there. Adios!!