Saturday, August 2, 2008

Granada, Nicaragua

Day: 146

Miles: 149

Total Mileage: 7,220

The beautiful countryside, I really like the views here.

You see a lot of volcanoes around here, and they never cease to impress. They just soar out of the countryside straight up into the sky, and when they smoke like this, it really gives you a sense of how small you are.

Church in Leon.

A typical street vendor, these provide all kinds of cheap goodies, from fruit to tacos to hot dogs. A nice way to get good food at a good price.

This is a common sight in Latin America, in El Salvador, he would have had a flak jacket and a buddy with a Machine Gun.

Not all of the churches here are so well maintained.

The fine highways of Nicaragua. They actually got much worse than this, and this is a major highway in the country.

I am currently in a really relaxing city called Granada, in Nicaragua. This has been a mixed bag of a country and after the chaos of getting in, it nice to have been able to just kick back and catch my breathe for a few days.

Crossing the border was a nightmare. It began as I approached, riding closer to Nicaragua, the people just changed. International borders are nearly always shady, uncomfortable kinds of places but this one was the worst I have encountered.

As I got closer people started yelling things at me, the usual being Gringo, hey Gringo! Now, you get that a lot in Latin American countries, especially in Mexico, but when someone says it to you there, it is nearly always in a joking manner where you both get a laugh, not meant to be an insult.

Here, they use it to be a slur, and it really started to eat at me. Normally I laugh that kind of thing off, and just forget it, but when every other slack jawed moron in an entire village comes running out of his hovel to yell Gringo Gringo and point at you as you ride by, time after time, it starts to eat at you. And its not the word itself, its the way they say it, spitefully, and the laugher. Not a, hey that was a good joke, but the kind of laughter you hear in that dream when you are in the halls of your high school in you underwear. Even that, I could have dealt with, but it got worse.

So, as I approach the border, I am already pretty aggravated by the racial slurs, and a group of idiots that see me riding up all jump out of there seats and point at me jumping up and down, Gringo gringo!, laughing their rear ends off. I was just about to walk into a restaurant to spend my last few Honduran dollars when all of the people inside looked out at me. I could tell they were just about to start laughing too when I just lost it and I wanted to walk over the smash the morons in the face, but I knew that wouldn't help anything so instead I shouted in Spanish, "Girngo girngo gringo, that's all I hear around here!"

That shut the hecklers up and shamed the locals at the restaurant enough that they then bent over backwards to serve me and try and make small talk with me. I normally do not get so upset by this sort of thing, and I kept telling myself, its a different culture, these people are different with different values. But then I thought to myself, wait, I wouldn't tolerate this kind of behavior from myself, from my family or from any of my friends, why should I excuse these people? If a Nicaraguan or a Honduran came riding his bike down the street in a neighborhood back in California and everyone came running out of their house pointing and shouting racial slurs, I would think they were scum and despicably ignorant fools. So if I hold myself and those around me to this moral standard, why should I hold anyone else to anything less? It just really pissed me off, and it makes me that much more aware of treating everyone around me equally and with respect, unless they prove to not deserve it.

After I ate, I went to the border crossing proper and what an absolute disaster of organization it was. As soon as I pulled up on my bike I was swarmed, literally, by about 20 guys waving money in my face trying to change mine for Cordobas (Nicaraguan money), or guide me to the immigration office or sell me some stupid little trinkets, etc. They were all inches from my face pressing in on me, yelling and touching me, calling me friend and amigo (what happened to Gringo, gringo!). I had to push them away from me, I HATE being in a crowd of people, I seriously hate it. The feeling of being crushed in, it makes me flip out. Some guy tried to guide me to the immigration office despite my insisting I didn't need his help. When I got there, he wanted money for his "help" which I refused, and so he got angry, but tough cookies buddy.

I got my passport stamped and then they told me I needed to pay 7 bucks US to get into Nicaragua. I had just stupidly spent my last couple of bucks on a meal so I didn't have the cash. I asked if I could pay with a credit card or check, no and no. Then I asked if there was an ATM at the border crossing. No, there was a bank there, but it didn't change money, give money, or take money....ok. What the hell were they doing there exactly?

The nearest ATM or bank was 40 miles have got to be kidding me. It was a total joke, it would take two seconds to install an ATM there, and anyone who did would make a mint off of everyone needing to pay the border crossing fee.

But no, that is one of the joys of the third world: terrible infrastructure. So, not wanting to waste the entire day riding 80 miles round trip to get to an ATM, paying the fee to my bank to take out money and then having to change money to Cordobas (losing more money in the exchange) I tried to think laterally. My first instinct was just to sneak over the border as the guards are not exactly the model of vigilance. While I honestly think I could have pulled it off, the risk was not worth it. If I were to be caught, I am sure they would have extorted a ton of money out of me, fined me or thrown my butt in the slammer for a few days, all of which were worse than going back to town. A few years ago though, I would not have even thought twice about it and just charged it. I guess I am getting older and maybe a little wiser (although not wise enough to keep a few bucks in my pocket for the border crossing).

My second plan was to talk to fellow travelers crossing the border and explain my situation, see if I could trade something I had for a few bucks, or maybe just follow them over the border and pay them back on the Nicaraguan side at the first ATM. No one had the money unfortunately and a few of them were in the same boat I was. They all tried to help but the various efforts were unsuccessful.

So, I had to borrow money from one of the money changers with the promise to change money with him before I crossed the border. Then I had to take a bus back to the town, then take a cab from the bus station to the bank, back into a cab, back into a bus, back to the border.

The buses here are insane death traps too, by the way. They call them chicken buses and they are operated by clinically insane crews that must have suicidal impulses. They are called chicken buses because they are usually filled with people (obviously), but also with chickens, goats, pigs, and other types of livestock, which are often tied to the roof. But then, people often sit on the roof too when the bus is full. And full they get, to bursting. People will squeeze into these death traps until they are literally hanging out of the doors as the thing rattles and slams down horrible dirt roads through the mountains at break neck speeds.

These buses are old American school buses (painted in all kinds of fantastic paint schemes) that have about a million miles on them and are sold to central American companies to recoup a little of the cost before buying new buses for American school kids.

They are buses that are not safe enough for westerners anymore, but are given a new life in Central American countries. Oh joy.

Not only are they unsafe, but the crews running them are mad men. There are usually three guys, a driver and two helpers to get people, animals and things on and off of the buses. The driver will blare on his horn to let people know he is coming, then he slows down just enough to let people get off (he doesn't actually stop mind you) and then speed off again. If there are people waiting to get on, he stops and then the helpers jump off, one of them throws the new arrivals things up to the top while the other one climbs up and ties them down and tosses the departing passengers things off, and then, as soon as everyone is on the bus, the driver hits the gas and is gone. The helper on the ground has to run to jump into the bus, the helper on the roof has to not fall off then crawl in through the window or the rear emergency door (which is pretty much always open.

It is so totally, blatantly unsafe that I was just flabbergasted. Apparently these things crash quite often and send entire bus loads of people to their deaths, which surprises me not in the least.

So, two and a half hours later back at the border, I am the last guy in the bus and as it pulls in, up swarm the locusts trying to change money with me. They zero in on the gringos like a fat kid on a cupcake. These sharks get on the bus and push their way back to me waving their money in my face. This time, already pissed off because of the delay, the near death experience of riding the bus, the insults, the heat, and everything else, I just start yelling at them and pushing them. I didn't give a rat's behind at that point if I was being rude or not, I just wanted off of the damn bus and these guys out of my face.

After fighting my way back to the immigration office, I found the money changer who lent me the money for the bus, who then proceeded to try and screw me on the exchange. I argued him back to a slightly gentler reaming (he did help me out after all) and then went to get my bike form the police station.

There, a gaggle of the most pitiful looking little kids came running up to me begging for money. The cops just stared at me with completely blank stares, not caring one way or another if I yelled at them, gave them money or what not. Its like they weren't there.

One kid said he had watched my bike and when I checked to make sure everything was there, I gave him my last coin out of my pocket, which turned out to be a bad idea. I felt like I had just taken a handful of raw meat and put it into a pond full of piranhas. All the kids started tugging on my shirt asking for money, yelling, pleading begging, it was terrible. With kids, its different, they are victims and so its not anger I feel but pity. I wanted to help out but I didn't have anything. So, I took out a half used stick of chap stick and went to offer it to one of the little girls and before I could even say, "do you want this" she snatched it form my hand and was spreading a huge smear of it onto her lips.
The other girls looked so disappointed that I felt worse than before. So, I told the girl with the chap stick to share and then took off. I just didn't know what else to do, the poverty here is shocking in some places.

After that debacle, I rode hard for a city as night was coming, at least I tried to ride hard. The roads in Nicaragua are atrocious, just terrible. Road isn't even a word I feel should apply, there needs to a new word made up to describe these things.

After busting my butt I managed to pull into Chinandega, a smallish town near Leon. I managed to find my way through the city in the dark (nearly no streetlights) and got a cheap room for the night.

The next day I hit it early and rode the 20 miles to Leon, one of the Nicaragua's two oldest cities, the other being Granada, both founded in the first years of the 16th century. All I can say is wow, what a change from the country. Usually the cities are not enjoyable compared to the villages, but here it was the opposite. It was a bit dirty and there were as many horse drawn carts as cars, but the city had an air of class that the dirt couldn't disguise. The people were friendly and helpful. It was so nice after the headache of getting there. I stayed at an awesome Hostel, called Lazybones and just sort out a long sigh of relief.

I only stayed for a day however, and the next morning took off for Granada. I had two flats that really slowed me down which was bad as it was a fairly long distance to cover and I wanted to do it in just one day. About 30ish miles out of Granada passing through the outskirts of the capitol, Managua, a cyclist on a nice road bike (the first I have seen in Nicaragua) pulled up next to me and we started chatting. His name was Cesar and he was a super guy.

He was commuting home from work and we rode together the rest of the way. He was a good cyclist and told me he normally rides at about 25 to 30 mph which is really moving. He competes in the bike races here and we had a good time talking bikes. He set a tough pace too, 20 mph which is hard to keep up normally, but on a loaded touring bike at the end of a long ride in hills, its really tough. It felt good though riding hard, I enjoy tough physical challenges very much, and thanks to Cesar I made good time and got into Granada just before full dark.

Granada is a great town, it and Leon are both colonial cities, Leon being traditionally liberal, Granada conservative. The city is full of old stone buildings and churches and sits right on a giant freshwater lake which holds the only fresh water sharks in the world.

I have not been doing much here but eating and sleeping though, just because I needed to rest. I had a bit of a shock yesterday when I weighed myself. I clocked in at a hefty 178!! Ouch, I was 205 before I left! That is nearly 30 lbs gone, even with me eating huge amounts. I should start a weight loss system when I get back. You can eat anything you want and you still lose weight, all you have to do is ride a bike 6 to 10 hours a day!

At any rate, I am going to leave tomorrow and head out to an island in the lake here that is formed by two massive volcanoes. I plan on climbing one of them and camping out at the top, where there is a lake in the caldera, which will be really cool. After that, I will head towards Costa Rica.

All my love, until next time!


TP said...

Great to hear you still have your spirits about you amidst the trials and tribulations associated with travel in underdeveloped parts of the world. Take care my friend and enjoy your break. Much Love.

Heather said...

My husband and I biked across the US last year. Your blog is definitely one of the best I've read. I've enjoyed reading your stories about the culture and the people. You've inspired me to start thinking about a bike tour outside of the US. May the weather be cooperative, and the wind at your tail.

Lisa in Louisiana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa in Louisiana said...

Aaahhh . . . the relentless persistance of the Nicaraguans . . . I know it well.

Lizzie Morrison said...

It's almost like your starting to live in the movie - Romancing the Stone.. Not far to Colombia after all.

Reece, do you ever go on the Lonely Planet website? They have up to date security warnings for example: Costa Rica basically says its a peaceful oasis and Panama says:

Travel Warning: Darién Province Unsafe

Bandits, smugglers, Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary forces make the area of Darién Province between Yaviza and the Colombian border along the upper Tuira River unsafe. However, the vast majority of Darién National Park is relatively safe - travel with a guide is recommended.

There have been reports of armed criminals targeting travelers at Madden Dam in Chagre National Park.

Its pretty useful stuff.

Anonymous said...

Reece you're going to love Coasta Rica when you get there. Shwag's sister is there right now.

Rich Chen

Reecius said...

Hey everyone, yeah, it has been interesting in the developing world to say the least. Most of the people are wonderful though; i dont want to put anyone off from visiting; i was just really flustered that day.

And thanks Heather! that makes me feel really good, and I hope you and your husband go for a trip out of the country; i have been loving it, Mexico was just great and its close to home.

Hahaha, romance of the stone, what a great movie! and yes, I do check in twith lonely planet, a great resource. The Darien gap actually has no raods going through it, you cant ride to Colombia, and yes it is very dangerous. I will have to fly or find a boat camptain to take me to Colombia, but that is still a few weeks off yet.

Shwag´s sister is in Costa Rica? Cool, maybe i will bump into her and say hi.