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.