Come Sail Away with Me

As I drift off to sleep under the million stars on Rendezvous Caye, I realize no one who knows me in the world knows where I am right now.

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Twenty-two passengers and four crew set sail from Caye Caulker, Belize for a three day adventure with Raggamuffin Tours that would take us about 300 km down the Belizean coastline to Placencia. Our boat – the Raggamuffin Empress – an elegant white catamaran with plenty of space on board to lay out and a net over the water on which to chill, cut through turquoise waters on all sides so clear the bottom was almost always visible.

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For three days our motley crew unplugged from the outside world, our only companions the others on board. We didn’t wear shoes…a major concern for the oldest passenger and a source of ongoing amusement for the rest of us… basked in the sun, snorkeled up to four times a day on deserted reefs, and let our stomachs guide us as to the time of day, all to a background reggae beat. If heaven exists, I hope it looks a lot like this (if I’m invited, of course…).

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Captain Ish, crew members Shawn (a budding reggae artist and all around good time guy), Marvin (filet master of all catches of the day), and Linton (chef and on-board medic who tended to the giant blister on my foot by pouring hydrogen peroxide on it and, when I winced, telling me not to be such a baby…he was right of course) took us on an adventure that ranks among the top highlights of my travelling life.

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Day One
Flip flops confiscated, we boarded the Raggamuffin Empress with only our day packs containing everything we might need for the next three days. Turns out, it isn’t much. Since there won’t even be showers until we reach our second night accommodation, all pretense is immediately thrown out to sea and we find ourselves content with the most basic of necessities.

We sailed for a few hours, absorbing the warmth of the sun and for me, setting the stage for the deepest tan of my life…healthy, not likely…amazing, totally…until we came to the first of four snorkeling stops. The crew dove into the water with spear guns in hand, divided us into three groups and lead us on an underwater guided tour with stops for spearfishing for our dinner.

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After stop one, barracuda was definitely on the menu for the evening. As we pulled up anchor, Marvin got out a giant knife and a hammer to fillet our dinner as we all watched (barracuda has a thick spine that can’t be severed without the force of a hammer on the knife). Brutal but very satisfying…and ultimately tasty…work.

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Midway through the first afternoon, one of the passengers we nicknamed “The General” felt a strong tug on his fishing line and Captain Ish relinquished the wheel to help reel it in. Much to everyone’s surprise, including the crew’s, The General snagged a mah-mahi! A round of cheering took over the boat…Ish said in the 9 years he’s been doing the tour it was the first mahi-mahi ever caught.

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The rum punch flowed freely, but only after the day’s activities were through. This was the kind of adventure that could easily turn into a dreaded booze cruise, but the vibe was chill and relaxed and even after we landed on Rendezvous Caye for the evening, no one overindulged.

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Rendezvous Caye…what can I say…a beautiful white sand, totally deserted (except for one caretaker) beach. We erected our tents on the soft, white sand, pausing to watch the sun go down, and tucked into the most fantastically fresh and satisfying meal of my life. The sea air, the fresh fish, the miracles that came out of Linton’s tiny onboard kitchen…unbelievable.

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Day Two
We set sail early to avoid a cruise ship excursion that would soon take over our tiny private island. Three hundred people were expected to descend on our paradise…I can’t even begin to imagine what the might look like…

Much as the previous day, we lazed on deck, snorkeled often, watched the crew spearfish, ate pringles and cookies at ridiculous hours of the morning and afternoon and let the digital detox truly set in.

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On the second night we set up camp on Tobacco Caye, a much more populated island with an island bar and a couple of tiny “resorts”. Not nearly as pristine as Rendezvous Caye and occupied by others, it didn’t have the same magical appeal as the previous Caye, but sleeping on a beach under the stars really never gets old.

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Day Three
I was keen to leave Tobacco Caye the next morning (it was sort of run down and had kind of a lot of ocean and island trash laying around) but sad to know it was our last day and that our group, who despite our varied ages, nationalities and backgrounds, got along so easily and with the kind of familiarity that comes with being slightly grimy and very laid back, would be soon torn apart.

Just as I was beginning to feel slightly maudlin, a cheer once again rose, this time from the front of the boat…a dolphin had come to play in our wake! For the next 20 minutes, we were transfixed, watching it breech and dive, totally putting on a show for us. I don’t think I will ever get tired of seeing that.

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We arrived in Placencia at about 5 pm and Pandora from the Anda di Hows hostel (say it out loud…it’s patois) was at the dock to meet me. She had several available beds in her lovely 10 bed hostel, so three of us made our way there. Having two of my travelling companions with me made the transition from the laid back vibe of Caye Caulker and the Raggamuffin to the hustle of Placencia less abrupt.

Belize was never high on my travel list. I came to Belize because I wanted to get my scuba and I could get a decently priced flight from Toronto. It’s also one of the more expensive countries in Central America, but as I boarded the Tropic Air flight home, there’s one thing I know for sure…the people I met, the adventures I had…Belize will forever hold a special place in my travel heart.

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The only person on the flight!
The only person on the flight!

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You’d Better Belize It

Taking a tiny plane…one where I can literally reach out and touch the pilot…across a body of water teeming with sharks (okay, nurse sharks, but still…SHARKS) and manatees and rays and who knows what else, wasn’t actually as terrifying as I’d imagined.

When the Tropic Air gate attendant asked me to follow him on to the tarmac, I realized I was the only passenger boarding the Cessna in Belize City. Wow, I thought…they sent an airplane just for me! The fantasy of being the only passenger on a plane was totally destroyed when I realized there were already other passengers onboard from various other destinations. Ah well….

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I’ve never been on a 10 seater plane before. I’ve never before been on a flight where I could reach out and touch the pilot…I mean, not that I did…it’s probably against the law….I’ve never flown so low over a body of water that I could see the sea life below. I was totally transfixed for the entire 5 minute flight…after which I was the only passenger to get off in Caye Caulker, an 8 km long island that is to be my home for the next week.

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Caye Caulker is a small island off the coast of Belize. There are 3 main roads and a few side streets. Population about 1,000 full time residents. The only motorized transportation is via golf cart, otherwise residents get from place to place on foot or by bike.DSCN0002

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This is DEFINITELY a place where everybody knows everybody’s business.

The main attraction of this small…ok, tiny… island is the Belize Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and is one of the healthiest reef systems in the world. The Great Blue Hole is part of this system, a site made famous by Jacques Cousteau who called it one of the top ten scuba diving sites in the world.

While I won’t be exploring the Great Blue Hole as it’s only for experienced divers, the plan for my Belize adventure is to get my open water scuba certification. I signed up with Frenchie’s, one of the oldest diving establishments in Caye Caulker and, much to my delight, was my dive master Dominick’s only student. Patient and very calm, Dominick took me through 3 days of scuba lessons in 2 days.

By the end of the first day it was all I could do to get myself back to my hostel room and pass out on my super soft, back-destroying bed. I had no idea breathing could take so much out of me. I consider myself fit, so I’m not sure how anyone who is out of shape can do this.

Hot and humid the first day, so much so the short wet suit was a burden to wear in the sun, the second day was the complete opposite…I needed a long sleeved wet suit and huddled in the boat as soon as I surfaced from my lesson.

But what an incredible experience! We saw rays and sharks, stone fish, groupers and fish I can’t even describe, lobsters and crabs, eels and sea urchins. No pictures…I’m not good enough yet to both breathe under water and take photographs. That’s totally next level….

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Best of all…now I can dive anywhere in the world!

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Almost time to trade sandals for parkas

Friday, February 15.

I’m generally not a photo person. I don’t really like to look at the world through a little screen. But today was different. Today I took photos until I drained the battery in my camera.

From a tile factory in downtown Granada to a Samoza run prison high in the hills overlooking the town of Masaya, from the giant market in Masaya to a whole town specializing in pottery, from Catrina mirador (lookout) over Laguna de Apoyo, to a New Orleans style cemetery across from the grocery store in Granada, and witnessing a horse and buggy funeral procession, yesterday was a feast for the eyes.

The tile factory in Granada is a wonder — they hand make and hand dye/paint each floor tile individually. The work is incredibly physical and labour intensive. Watching the 5 or 6 guys work at lightening speed is like watching a well choreographed dance. There is absolutely no question in my mind why Spanish style tiles are so expensive.

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Coyotepe Prison was first a fort, then turned into a prison for political prisoners by the Somoza government. Unlike other historical landmarks of its kind, there are hardly any people walking through. Dark, cramped and, according to the locals, haunted, it’s a place I can’t imagine being held for months or years. It’s utterly horrifying the ways in which we have come up with to hurt, humiliate and kill one another. The guide was telling me that after the prisoners died, their bodies were loaded into a helicopter and dumped into the mouth of Masaya volcano. No evidence, no atrocities. Coyotepe Prision is now run, interestingly, by the Boy Scouts. Perhaps an odd marriage, but when you think about it, the Boy Scouts are an internationally recognized and respected, and most importantly, non-political organization. It’s a terrible place, but as Renee my guide said, we have to have this here as a reminder that it can never happen again.

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216Masaya market is huge. Filled with stalls selling everything imaginable (except food), it’s where Nicaragua comes to stock up on gifts for birthdays, Christmas, etc. I dive in and spot a red scarf I think I might like. C$180. ($7.50). I say, how about C$150? He shakes his head and shows me what he’s willing to part with for that. Gaudy. I fold like a house of cards and hand over the C$180. I am not good at haggling. Not good at all.

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After a quick trip to San Juan del Oriente, a whole town that specializes in making pottery and a jaunt to Catarina to look out over Laguna de Apoyo, where they have just recently found a new species of fish (!),

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we head back to Granada to check out the cemetery. It’s so unusual that I take massive numbers of photos.

Unlike our graveyards, these are family crypts, some so large and ornate it’s hard to believe they could even exist here. There are walls too that hold caskets, these less ornate, some of them with the names just hand painted on, but it’s like a Vietnam War Memorial kind of thing with the FLSN flag (Sandanista) flag painted beside their name to show they fought for their country. The birth and death dates also give it away. So many young men.

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It’s interesting that just about every Nica I ask about the war didn’t want to talk about it. It’s in the past, they say. We’re thinking about the future. And with a stable Sandinista government currently running the country, and infrastructure and wages and standard of living increasing, I can understand why they would be reluctant to dwell in the past.

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Nicaraguan funeral procession

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As my last stop of the day and my contribution to a growing Nicaraguan economy, I go to “liberate” the handbag I’ve decided should come home with me to Canada…

Saturday, February 16.
Last day in paradise. Last day of flip flops and Spanish immersion and hair that can’t be controlled in the humidity (and this is MY hair, imagine what would happen to someone who actually had bounce or wave in their hair!!).

My return trip to Nicaragua didn’t disappoint. It’s a beautiful country, filled with kind and generous people — people who have overcome and are still overcoming incredible challenges both as a country and as individuals. People who want to know more about me, and are willing to open themselves up to a stranger. People who managed to figure out what I needed or wanted despite my broken Spanish and who looked at my confused face, then led me exactly where I needed to go.

Have things always run smoothly or efficiently? Heck no, but that’s part of the fun, of the letting go and realizing you have to fit into their life and their way of operating, not the other way around. And truly, every experience has a funny side if you look hard enough.

Travelling solo means every day putting your faith and trust in strangers and hoping for the best. And you know what? I haven’t been disappointed yet.

Adios, Nicaragua. And thank you.

And now for something completely different…

**Due to internet being down, and then being fixed, and then being dial-up slow… (welcome to Nicaragua), I’m behind in my storytelling. At least the power has (mostly) stayed on. But just to mix it up a little, yesterday the water went off in Granada…

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I really did mean to get back on the chicken bus and make my way like a local from San Juan del Sur to Granada. Really. But as I’m hauling my bags down the hill past the travel arranger, I think, heck, maybe I’ll just pop my head in and see…and before I could say a word, she turns to me and says, “The transport will be here in 15 minutes.” It’s a sign. Decision made. I part with $30. About 4 times more than I spent to get here, but I rationalize that it’s worth shaving hours off the minimum 2 hour journey. As a result, I arrive in Granada fresh, happy, and confidently knowing where I’m going since this is the second time I’ve been here.

Granada couldn’t be more different than SJDS. Granada’s colonial beauty and vibrancy is in direct counterpoint to down town SJDS’s grunge and laidback surfer/party atmosphere. I would venture to say it’s the most gorgeous and colourful city in Nicaragua.

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My hotel, Casa del Agua, is a beautiful colonial building just off the Park Central. I’ve been put in the balcony room — it’s huge and overlooks the interior pool. Usually reserved for couples and honeymooners, it has a lovely four poster, wrought iron, canopied bed, hot water (a pure luxury!) and truly more space than I could ever need.

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Last time I was in Granada, I couldn’t stop buying handbags. And so like last time, I have a mission. I take to the streets. Success! I’ve spotted 2, just have to decide which one will now make it’s new home in Canada. I have until Saturday morning to wrestle with the decision. The pressure…

The Park Central is constantly bustling with activity. Outdoor restaurants, people selling all manner of roadside food, fruit, hammocks, shoe shine guys, taxi touts, horse drawn carriage rides, pretty much everything you might need in pinch or a hurry. I sit down lon a bench that’s frankly seen better days (and missing some slats) with a quesillo to consider where to wander next. Setting me back about 50 cents, a quesillo is a tortilla filled with cheese, sour cream and onions, served in a plastic bag. It’s excellent.

Fortified with food, but realizing I’m sweating just sitting there eating it, I head back for a dip in the pool at Casa del Agua. Nothing like going for a swim in your living room.

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

On Wednesday nights, all the expats and a lot of the travellers head over to the Calzada, a main street that closes in the evening and becomes a pedestrian street filled with cafes and street performers, for trivia night at O’Shea’s Irish Pub. Entry is C$10, which goes to a children’s literacy program. I team up with some people around me and we actually come in fourth! We lose the coveted third place on a tiebreaking question about World Cup soccer. Clearly not an area of my personal expertise, but I would have thought the Irish and the Scots around me would have shown better. Alas. And shame. Thank god it wasn’t a hockey question…

Thursday, February 14. Valentine’s Day

Now I wouldn’t have thought Valentine’s Day was a really big thing here. Apparently love knows no cultural or language barriers, as evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t get a table at El Zaguan last night. But I’m ahead of myself.

Yesterday was all about livin’ like a rock star. Spent the day at Hotel Spa Granada. For $40, I had a manicure, pedicure, facial, massage and all day access to the infinity pool. Pretty darn swish.

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Had one of the best massages of my life — by a blind massage therapist! This is not the first place I’ve seen that hires blind massage therapists — and considering people with disabilities don’t really have a lot of working options in a place like Nicaragua, it’s a pretty good profession to get into.

Since El Zaguan, a fancy restaurant in town, is fully booked for dinner, I wander over to another restaurant that looks of the same caliber. If I’m living like a rock star, I’m not eating street fritanga (bbq) tonight! I’m shown to a table in the courtyard. I order a glass of red wine and a filet mignon. When the steak arrives I absolutely can’t believe my eyes. It’s the biggest piece of filet mignon I have ever seen. I do some mental math and realize that it’s more than twice the size and less than half the price I’d pay in a restaurant in Canada. And it’s good. And comes with salad and potatoes and squash and empanada and rice. You know how rice is called a side dish? In Nicaragaua, it’s quite literally served in a dish. At the side.

The waiter clearly feels badly for me, eating alone on Valentine’s Day, because he looks at me and says with great sincerity, he would marry me if he could. Huh. Thanks. Um. I’ll keep that in mind. For now, how’s about just a glass of water? And the bill.

So full I can hardly breathe (because I can’t be the kind of person who leaves steak on her plate in a country where people live on less than $5 a day), and surrounded by couples cooing declarations of love at one another, I call it quits on my day of decadence.

Surfer Girl

I did it! I actually surfed!!! Surf instructor Alfredo even said I was good. I told him I thought he said it to all the girls. He said he didn´t bull***t his clients. So what am I to do but believe him. (Smiles).

Boarded the open air truck from down town SJDS and headed out to the northern beach, Playa Marsella, for the ¨beginner waves¨. One thing I´ve noticed on all these open air trucks, jeeps and buses I´ve merrily boarded without question — the driver ALWAYS wears his seatbelt. Probably just in case an ox cart appears out of nowhere…

But never mind the passengers. Let them hang off the back or sit on stools or crowd as many bodies as will fit in whatever tiny space…just for god´s sake, make sure the driver is securely buckled in.

Alfredo gave four of us — Anna, Hannah and Katerina from Austria and me — an hour long dry land lesson. I can totally see how surfing and yoga are connected. Surf stance is basically warrior two. I thought my snow boarding prowess would serve me well in this situation, and it did in a sense, and while the stance is similar, the trick is to put your balance and weight forward on the board. Paddle, lift the upper body, knee forward along the centre line, other foot forward at a 45 degree angle, back foot at 90 degrees, bum out, front arm straight ahead (doesn’t matter what you do with the back arm, you can wave it, you can let it hang down, whatever) watch where you want to go. Simple right? Ummm…not as hard as I thought it might be to get up, but with only one lesson under my belt, maybe I´m ready for the big time….

The truly excellent news it that I didn’t lose my bikini bottoms EVER, even when I got slammed under water. 🙂 Dignity still in check!

Salt water helps wounds heal
Salt water helps wounds heal

To avoid the temptation of becoming a beach bum, I set out tomorrow for Granada, trading surf boards for colonial architecture and a decadent day by a pool of massages, manicure, pedicure and facial. Just in time too — surfing is murder on one´s pedicure.

Willie Nelson might have been excited to get “on the road again”, but clearly he never road a chicken bus through Nicaragua with his butt firmly wedged between the back of the seat and the base of the seat, which isn´t actually attched to anything, more like gingerly laid on the metal seat skeleton, next to a sleeing woman so old that it was a toss up as to whether she was just deeply asleep or actually…dead. But I suppose better than sitting next to the woman who´d bought enough fish (in the mid day sun) to feed an army.

Let the spine-jarring travels begin again!

San Juan del Sur

It´s my last full day in SJDS. Spent the morning wandering every street in town, taking photos and generally taking it all in. There´s a cruise ship in town today, so the grungy backpackers have been joined by anxious tourists in Tilley hats taking photos on the malecon (waterfront). Not one of them will leave the safety of the first or second street away from the waterfront, and every hawker knows this so they hang around and offer up souvenirs that can be had for half the price a block away.

The absolute BEST hawker I met today was a crazy looking woman, American I think, who´s clearly been living here a long, long time. Dressed in a bathing suit, pareo, sparkly hat, lots of bangles, rings and other assorted jewelry, and way too much green eye shadow, she and her monkey Cindy offer up photos with Cindy to passing tourists for a donation. I couldn’t resist. I handed over 7 cordobas for the opportunity to pet and pose with her monkey (only after ascertaining Cindy was relatively domesticated.) Turns out her fur feels a lot like my cat. Cindy didn’t even try to steal my camera. She just sat quietly in her basket, waiting to be fed another Cheeto.

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I stopped for coffee at Gato Negro, a much talked about cafe-bookshop here in town. Flipping through the menu, I came to the part that expains why they don´t do take out coffee. In a nutshell, too many Americans drink and eat in their cars. It´s unhealthy and dangerous — dangerous because when you are drinking coffee you are a distracted driver and at any time an ox cart could appear out of nowhere, or an insane cyclist (their words, clearly not mine!) could get too close. I must keep this in mind the next time I´m driving to work with my travel mug in hand. Watch out for ox carts!

Oh yes, dinner last night. Two beautiful lobster tails, al ajillo (with garlic sauce), rice, tostones and a vaso de vino blanco. C$414 or about $27 (including tip and the discount I scored with my coupon!). It was a meal to remember. I sat in the open air thatched roof restaurant, situated right on the beach, watched the waves lap against the beach (and shooed away little boys trying to sell me gum and lollipops), and also for a brief moment, smiled at the people scattering to get out of the torrential downpour that lasted all of 30 secords. Algo mas? says the waiter to me (Anything more?). Nope, it´s pretty perfect.

I´m hoping this perfect state of mind, this zen, continues into the afternoon as I finally hit the beach in search of the perfect wave. The beach in town isn’t great for swimming or surfing (too bad really), so we´ll be heading out to Playa Marsella just out of town. With the idea of visualization turning into reality, I see me standing up on the board, wind in my hair, riding the surf all the way to the beach….hmmm……

Flying Abuela

The lady sitting next to me in the back of the transport jeep leans conspiratorially close and says to me, I´m glad they didn’t ask our ages. Apparently after seventy, they don´t let you go zip lining….

Great.

Maureen is 77. Harry is… I don´t know, but he´s nearly deaf and he´s on hip replacement number three. Harry´s son has Harry´s cane strapped to his back as he zips through the forest. Zack is eight and it´s hard for him to reach up so the zip line guy can hook him on to the line. Zack´s mother and I round out our merry bunch.

Seventeen platforms of forest fun high above San Juan del Sur. We don´t have to pay our US$30 until we´re finished. Since I´m almost positive the concept of liability insurance doesn’t exist, I´m assuming the real insurance is that they have to keep us alive until the end so they can collect the fee.

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Despite our group´s various challenges, it was a super day. Several hours of zipping through the jungle/forest among the monkeys. Many, many families of howler monkeys just hanging around by their tails. Too cool. I keep my camera close, not so I can take photos of them, but so they don´t steal it. Monkeys are total crooks.

Some of the zip lines are so fast that several of our group, including Harry with the new hip replacement, slam into the guides or into the trees on which the platforms are build. Seriously? Even if they say, don´t brake until the end, they don´t mean RIGHT at the END. I nearly got taken out by Harry when he slammed into the platform. Good thing were were all strapped to the zip lines with our carabeeners.

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Tonight I’m splurging on dinner at a beach side restaurant. Instead of less than five dollars, I´m going to spend about twenty. I´m going out for lobster! When on the beach, eat at the beach! (Plus, don´t you know, I have a coupon for ten percent off the cost of my dinner! )

Beach side dinner
Beach side dinner

One glass of wine ONLY to go with my dinner. Why? Because when I signed up for surf lessons the other day, the instructor looked sternly at me and said, Come at 12:30. Not Nica time. Canada time. No hangovers. Yes sir! I can´t imagine learning to surf with a pounding headache and swallowing tons of sea water with an upset stomach. So I´m going to be a good student. Especially if I´m the only one. He´s lending me a wet suit because while the salt water will likely be good for my arm, the thought of it rubbing against a surf board makes me cringe.

On the upside, I’ve very successfully negotiated several transactions, in farmacias, in Spanish.

I can ask to make an international phone call. I can reserve a computer for internet access. I can negotiate a better price on an item. I´m friendly with my local pulperia lady (the corner store), where I buy a big bottle of water every day for a dollar.

In fact, my Spanish is getting less and less dodgy. If I start the conversation and know the context I´m pretty good. On the downside, if someone else starts the conversation, and I´m not clear what the point is, I´m still just about totally lost. Rome wasn’t built in a day…

It might be a long way to Tipperary, but it´s an even longer way to San Juan del Sur

Monday morning and the memories of travelling hundreds of miles on buses is fading — I´m at the point where I can look back and laugh. Pretty much.

Spend long enough on a bus and you begin to understand that horns are more useful than we back home make of them. Honking means I´m turning right (or left), I´m right behind you, get out of the way, do you need a lift?, I´m passing you but there´s someone coming right at me, please slow down so I can wedge my vechicle in, it´s a blind curve is there anyone coming in the oncoming direction?…

During one of the many hours I spent looking out the window and watching rural Nicaragua pass me by, we ventured into watermelon growing country. And a long the side of the road was stall after stall of watermelons for sale. Each stall arranged nearly identically. Each run by a different woman. Each selling watermelon at the same price. How does one choose which stand to patronize? How does one decide which watermelon is best? And does one then avoid eye contact with the other 5 women whose watermelons you didn´t buy?

San Juan del Sur is definitely a surf town. It´s small, so small in fact that i´ve got a very good sense of direction here. It´s the most touristy place I´ve been so far, bedraggled surf dudes and chicas wandering around town, messy hair, vaguely hungover looking, sometimes in bare feet. It´s like spring break all the time…and I´m here in low season.

Sunday was definitely a quiet day here in San Juan, probably a hang over day for most, based on the fact that I had to wear my earplugs to bed. Hotel Maracuya is an absolutely beautiful hostel, very clean (the maid comes in a makes my bed every day), very new, with a fantastic breakfast included in the price.

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Terrible water pressure in the shower, but if that´s the only downside, that´s fine with me. It´s situated at the top of a hill. San Juan is a town of hills, so much so that I´m going to have the best looking calves by the time I leave. Breakfast is served on the terrace every morning and yesterday I ate my eggs and sipped my coffee and watermelon juice (I wonder which lady they bought it from and how they chose her…) while looking out over all of San Juan and the bay. It´s breathtaking.

Breakfast made to order, on the terrace
Breakfast made to order, on the terrace

Being situated at the top of the hill, right above the main ¨drag¨ does mean that the sounds drift upwards from the many, many bars that line the beach. Even through the haze of my exhaustion on Saturday night, I couldn´t get to sleep because of the noise. So I pulled out my trusty earplugs and all was well. About 4.30 am I woke up and took out my earplugs, thinking I wouldn´t need them any more. Oh no. The bar sounds were replaced by the most enthusiastic rooster. Get up! Get up! Get up! If I find that pollo, I´m going to eat him!

So yesterday being Sunday there wasn’t much open. The rappelling tour that sounded like so much fun didn´t have the minimum number of people signed up. The zip line was closed. What to do??? And then it hit me. It´s Sunday. The perfect day to hike up to Cristo. There´s a huge statue of Jesus overlooking San Juan. It´s about a 3 km hike, uphill, and $2 to get in. The hike was massive. Up dirt roads that twisted and turned. But I made it, sweaty and a little out of breath. The view was worth every step in my Tevas. I couldn´t stop taking photos. AND because it was Sunday, there was a mass going on, inside the statue! There were Nica families all over the site, most of them having Sunday picnics and just generally hanging out. Once again, I looked around and wondered where all the other travellers were. Once again, I´m the token gringa, covered in sweat. It was at that point that I took in the Nica guy standing next to me… wearing jeans and a hoodie!!

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The trip back down the hills was just as tenuous and the trip up. My arm is still in pretty bad shape, and I had visions of loosing my footing and rolling down the dirt and cobblestone road. And that´s just what I need, to be picking gravel out of my arm AGAIN.

After all the climibing, I figured lunch was in order. So I consulted my Rough Guide and settled on Big Wave Dave´s– apparently a SJDS institution not to be missed. I´m not sure when the last time the editors were here, but Big Wave Dave is clearly not what he used to be. At the back of the restaurant, sitting around a bar were they typcial barflies, getting drunk in the afternoon. I settled on a low, comfortable chair away from the bar and ordered a hamburger. It looked beautiful. And then I cut into it. Practically raw on the inside. I actually made an audible sound of disgust. I tried eating around the edges, but at the end of the day, I figured food poisoning wasn´t worth the $8. Big Wave Dave comped part of my bill, which was good, but I won´t be coming back for seconds any time soon.

Looking for something else to fill out the afternoon, I stopped into SJDS Surf Shop. For $20 I could get on a booze cruise. I’m generally vaguely horrified by the idea of booze cruises — I have visions of 20 somethings drinking and vomiting on my Tevas, but what the heck, it was a cheap way to see the town from the water. So I gave in. Thankfully, the drunken 20 somethings never materialized, and I ended up meeting 2 great couples, one from Calgary and one from Alaska.

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The view from the water was tremendous, although much to my surprise, the water is freezing! Apparently some tide has come in, making the water more the temperature of a Great Lake rather than a bathtub, which is what I was expecting. Surfing will be a little chilly! Out on the water we got another, fantastic surprise. Suddenly from no where a couple of dolphins came to play! They jumped out of the water, swam alongside and under the boat and generally played in the water for us. So absolutely worth my $20. Just as the dolphins high tailed it out of there (or high flippered it out of there), a flock of pelicans appeared. Just so you know, pelicans are bigger than you might think! The 2 hour cruise, which we renamed the sunset cruise, after we managed to stay out longer than 2 hours and were met with a gorgeous sunset over the water, was incredible. I’ve totally changed my mind about booze cruises!

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Monday has brought out a new SJDS. All the shops are open. Construction in underway, deliveries are being made, people are working and shopping and the town is generally bustling. After another excellent breakfast-with-a-view, I wandered down to Casa Oro, a hostel in town that also doubles as a sort of travel-activity agency, and booked myself into a zip lining trip with Da Flying Frog. No minimum number of people required, which is excellent because as a solo traveller, I´m often left waiting until the last minute to find out if anyone else has signed up for whatever activity. So at 1 pm I´ll set out for yet another death defying Super Chica moment. But not until I find some lunch, and this time I´m hoping it´s cooked.

Tomorrow though, is the big day. The day I came all the way back to Nicaragua to experience. It´s surfing day. I get transport to the beach, a four hour sufing lesson and a video of me in all my glorious grace and agility, all for the low, low price of $25! What could possibly go wrong….

OMG. Just OMG.

I am in San Juan del Sur. I´m sure it´s beautiful, but I can´t see it through the fog of exhaustion.

For the past 8 hours, I have been the only gringa on an endless series of buses and relying almost entirely on the kindness of people who speak not a word of my language, and I having only the most tenuous grasp of theirs.

Bus stations are chaotic places full of many, many smells. And people trying to sell everything. (I did cave for popcorn…yum! and only C$3 or something like 15 cents.) The short version: left Leon at about 10 am. Arrived in San Juan del Sur at 6 pm. I have eaten precious little today, and have drunk even less in fear of having to use what I can only imagine would be a horrifying bus station bathroom. While wearing flip flops.
In the interim:
Taxi from ViaVia hostel to Bus Station C$20
Express bus from Leon to Managua C$51
Express bus from Managua to Jinotepe C$30
Collectivo bus from Jinotepe to Rivas C$30 (also including a two hour wait in the bus station)
Collectivo bus from Rivas to San Juan del Sur C$16

Total: about $7 or $8 or a cup of Starbucks and a TTC ticket.
Actual price paid: my sanity and ability to think straight. Best part of today: my luggage survived being strapped to the top of a collectivo bus. I kind of thought I might never see it again, or might see it bouncing along side the bus. The bus being the oldest school bus I’ve ever been on.

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From the back of the bus…

All I want know is to find comfort food — a pizzaeria. I am unduly excited that my hole room comes with a tiny tv. Feet up. Brain off.

Now that’s gonna sting!

An excellent day of volcano boarding. At 1 pm, I got in the back of a huge Mercedes Benz truck. Managed to snag a bench seat, rather than one of the stools in the middle of the truck. Yup sounds safe to me…sit on a stool…on a moving vehicle…over 45 minutes of dirt roads…

Got to Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Nicaragua. It’s erupted 23 times since they began keeping track of these things. The last time was in 1999. I’m pretty sure it’s due to blow again. Thankfully, it didn’t choose today. Hiked up the steep incline for about an hour. It’s both steep and rocky and I was breathing hard in sections. Lord knows how those young things who had a smoke break before we started hiking felt! And I say those young things in all seriousness. Besides the Irish guy with the Dublin Marathon tshirt I was definitely the oldest one on the trip. And yet, among the top five to reach the summit. Ha!

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Then we pulled out our awesome safety gear. The ugliest orange jumpsuits, patched in many places — think chain gang, but not as cute– and our cheap goggles. Looking pretty good! And the wind was so strong at the summit that I’m pretty sure we could have used our suits to set sail. The funniest thing was this really tall guy got a jumpsuit that was not only miles too short, but the wrists and ankles were also cuffed with elastic. He looked like he was wearing the stupidest pjs ever.

I situated myself on the board — my toboggan really– leaned back, held the rope with 2 hands and shoved off. And it was going so well. I was flying. And staying on course. And looking really good without being obnoxious about it, you know…and then I just don’t know what happened. I wobbled. Then I wobbled again. And then I was rolling…and I remembered the guide saying cover your face…so I did. And I eventually came to a stop midway down the volcano. Brushed myself off and got back on the board, and sailed through the end at 29 km an hour. (Today’s fastest time was 85km. The record is 90.) It was only really at the base of the volcano that I was able to assess the outcome. Ankle– think I hit it with the board. Kind of swollen and achy. Left forearm…it’s been in better shape…

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Of all the stuff I packed, why did I not bring polysporin with me? Imagine the worst burn you’ve ever had. Then pick gravel out of it. (Thank god for the Irish guy with the marathon t-shirt who, because he is a grown up and thinks of these things, brought some sort of liquid antiseptic that smelled so much like old hospital that it had to be real medicine. Even after a shower, I still feel like I’m getting whiffs of it…) I held my arm close to me the entire way back because bouncing around in the back of a packed truck just meant that it kept getting knocked against stuff, which each time sent me squirming.

So I get back to the hostel and reach for the advil. Only to realize the ONLY liquid I have to down it with is warm beer from a can. Or unfiltered tap water. Warm beer starts to look pretty inviting.Oh yeah, and even after a shower, I still pulled a bit of rock out of my back teeth. After volcano boarding twice, I am now certain of one very important thing …this is clearly not my sport.

But I had fun, and really, I’ll probably live through the night. And it’s really just an abrasion and it probably won’t leave a scar…