A Travellerspoint blog

Jo versus (another) volcano

My (unintended) barefoot volcano walk

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Isla de Ometepe. Two conical volcanos looming out of Lake Nicaragua. What else was there to do on the island but to climb them (or at least one of them). It was a decision that would bring me the closest to a near death situation on my trip and, indeed, my life.

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But before getting to Ometepe we spent a few days in San Juan del Sur. After smiling nicely at a local in the surf shop, he slung us in the back of his truck and took us down the dusty dirt tracks to the beach. A beautiful but dangerous place. No, not because of the locals, gun crime, drugs etc. I was injured by a taco. Yep, a brittle, crispy, vicious taco that tore into one of my front teeth sheering half of it away. The honesty on the German Girl's face when she saw the damage told me it wasn't good. I looked like I'd been on the bad end of a bar fight. It was as injury that ultimately wouldn't get fixed for nearly two months and has seen me wince once more back in England - cost of taco: $1.50. Cost of dental repair work: $2,000. Financially painful but preferrable to the alternative - extracciones: pulling it out in the midst of Rivas market town with a rusty pair of Nicaraguan pliers.

But enough of my dental disaster...We decided to leave San Juan on the second day of our stay because of a power cut which had no predicted end in sight. No lights, no water, no chilled beer, we were off. Next stop, Ometepe.

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The junk boat that took us the hour long journey was like the arc (full of animals) but without the same level of water tightness. As the water started to seep in encroaching on my toes, then up to my ankles, for the first time on my trip I turned my eyes skywards and started to hope and pray there might be someone up there who was a better swimmer than me and might claw me out of this impending drowning situation. As I watched a man heft his dog in a potato sack above his head to keep him dry my panic increased. But it was thanks to the man next to me and his kind efforts to understand my bad Spanish in a distracting conversation that got me through. It turned out he was a local guide and for a mere $5 each would take us up the smaller, inactive one of Ometepe's volcanoes, Maderas.

7am the next day me, the German Girl, the two Californian's and another American guy who was a friend of the guide convened in the hotel restaurant (think outdoor rustic space with gobsmacking views, not Ramada with fruit bowl paintings on the wall). An hour of faffing later and we set off.

Having send my sturdy Inca Trail trekking footwear back home my options for the volcano walk were flipflops or what I considered to be a robust set of Merrell walking sandals. Yes, they would be fine our guide determined as we started out, with packed lunch and water bottles at the ready.

The stroll started well. Beautiful greenery (we were in coffee plantation country) and amazing sounds - birds and howler monkeys galore. Hmmm, this promised to be a wonderfully relaxing day.

Lifting your foot to a place higher than your waist and heaving yourself up unimaginably steep rocks is not my idea of relaxing! But within thirty minutes of setting off the slightly gravelly terrain had changed quite dramatically. And it was due to get worse.

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Add mud. Lots and lots of knee high mud. As we ascended the volcano we quickly found ourselves in cloud forest. And with cloud comes precipitation and, mixed with soft soil, produces...mud. The German Girl landed on her backside first and within minutes I felt like I was in the midst of a mud wrap except I was fully clothed and not lounging on a bed in The Covent Garden Sanctuary Spa. We kept trekking.

And that is when my shoes started to fail me. The open nature of my cursed shoes meant that the insole became saturated and with the slippiness of the mud each step became treacherous as my foot headed in one direction and the sole of my tethered sandle the other. The hike was hard enough without my previously pretty pink shoes betraying me.

Slowly by slowly I got slower and slower as my footwear situation deteriorated. Quitting would have been the sensible option but I'm a stubborn thing and after hours of hiking and with a final mad scramble up and then down several metres we found ourselves in the volcano's crater. Mission accomplished, or so I thought.

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The people who gave Lake Erie its name had clearly had never been to the crater lake inside Maderas volcano. A vast expanse of still, greenish water, with cloud whispering across it, I had the heebie-jeebies and after a rest, some lunch and a failed attempt to dry out my traitorous footwear, we started the descent. Surely this was going to be easier?

Within five minutes and a particularly squelchy foot landing, my sandal tore away from my foot. Damn. And a short time later, my other evil shoe abandoned me too. And so it began, the start of my barefoot trek down the volcano.

Now, for all extreme sports fanatics out there, I can highly recommend not doing a barefoot volcano walk. With mud blinding you from what you are stepping on, a foundation of volcanic shale-like rock and a tendency for your feet to slip when it hits the floor and dangerously steep steps, you have a sure-fire recipe for feet laceration.

The first toenail chip was nothing compared to the small toenail being ripped off and my soles getting slashed by rock. As blood burst its way through my inch thick muddy feet like jam squeezing out of a chocolate sponge I could do nothing but laugh. How did I get myself into these situations? At least I'd had all my jabs before I came away.

But it wasn't illness that was concerning me. It was death. This truly was how stupid people died on volcanoes and between requiring the assistance of the guide for every step and the painfully slow pace that followed, the sound of the howler monkeys pierced the air indicating that night was fast drawing in. And we still had a three hour downward trek to go.

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Patience was shot, my feet were in ribbons of pain and darkness had taken hold. The Californian's, practised in all manner of sports, headed off at pace to locate a new pair of shoes, anything that could speed up the process while the rest of us continued, worry following us all the way down and with only two torches between four, our steps were more treacherous and slower than ever as we stumbled every few steps.

It was 9pm before we finally saw the promise of light and the hotel up ahead. I was limping like a maniac and for the millionth time that day had taken an interest in the man (or woman) upstairs who, it seemed, had deigned to save me from what would otherwise be considered to be suicide by stupidity. And a certain place in the Darwin Awards.

Reunited with the Californians who had taken a wrong turn, much to our concern, but who had also managed to return safely I was overcome with gratitude.

Back at the hotel there was no more than a dribble of water to wash or cleanse my feet but there was a bucket of ice to numb them and a cold beer for my nerves. I truly had survived another day on the road.

Volcano conquered (oh how confident I sound now that enough time has passed for my feet to reform), the last stop in our whirlwind tour of Nicaragua was Granada, a beautiful Spanish colonial town with a layout of streets that could find you lost if you merely stopped to tie a shoe lace. In Granada we wondered around, indulged in a cheap massage, took a boat onto lake Managua, witnessed a funeral and went to a jazz festival in neighbouring Masaya. It was the perfect volcano antidote.

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On from Granada, Antigua, Guatemala was my next stop. I said goodbye to my latest travel friends and the lovely German Girl. Sad at the departure but excited for the next chapter of my trip I once more slung on my backpack and, with half a missing tooth, two missing toe nails and lacerated feet, I hobbled out of Nicaragua. I'd had the time of my life.

Posted by JoBlogs 11:03 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

The path to enlightenment is not filled with beef and wine

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Let's travel forward six months from Costa Rica to India (don't worry, we'll be back)....

Having just completed a 10 day stint at a Vipassana Meditation Centre I thought I would share this particular experience while the memory is still very raw...I mean fresh.

Before I got to India, the spiritual epicentre of the world, I knew I wanted to give meditation a try. Let's face it, drinking and partying is so low on India's agenda as to be non-existent, and I’d seen enough forts to last a lifetime, what else was there to do? Plus, if meditation could shave off even a milli-percent of the tantrums I'm prone too or get my mind to, well, simply shut the hell up when I'm trying to get to sleep and can't get on the Internet to book that train ticket anyway, it would be a success.

I came across Vipassana meditation in the same way most Westerners do - Google. It sounded good, based on science and biology to understand why we react and think rather than converting to some underworld religious sect. So far, so good. But there were a few precepts that had to be adhered to during the 10 day stay:

1. Do not kill - easy...

...hang on…the lawyer in me reads the small print…this included not killing mosquitoes and excluded indirect killing i.e. become vegetarian for 10 days. Already hankering for beef, I knew this would be tough, but weighing it up and with the addition of insect repellant, it was do-able.

2. Do not steal - with no restaurant salt and pepper pots or shot glasses to tempt me I would be fine.

3. No intoxicants - as already mentioned, India is not party central so I'd been off the booze for about four weeks already - this wasn't going to be a problem.

4. No sex - fine, monks don't do it for me anyway, not since the last time…(joke!)

5. Do not lie – I’m a lawyer, don’t you know. (No comments please!)

6. Maintain a 10 day period of 'noble silence' - what? I clicked off the page....no way. That was that. No Viapassana meditation for me

Weeks passed and my anger in India grew – I was arguing regularly with tuk-tuk drivers, pushing and shoving along with the rest of the nation. It was all becoming too much. My Latin American days of tranquilo seemed so far away. I couldn’t soothe my stress with a nice glass of Oyster Bay. Something needed to change. 10 days isn't that long I told myself. And the whole not talking thing, well, I was never going to find a party meditation course (though a possible business idea?). I was ready for some solitude, so I signed up.

Within a day my confirmation was sent through. Goody. And that was when I started to get a real feel for Vipassana. The 10 day course ran from 1-12 September. I counted the days again. Yep, a 10 day course lasting 12 days?!

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The day came and I checked in. As instructed, I duly handed over all my electrical items - camera, laptop, iPad, external hard drive - with the realisation that I am a bit of a techno junkie.

There was also a large sign telling me to check all reading and writing materials - one book, one guide book, two notebooks, one diary, several pens, two pencils. Another realisation - I am also a word junkie. And then a third, more striking, realisation – finally understanding why I have so little space for clothes and shoes in my backpack. One hour at the Vipassana centre and already I was seeing the light.

I conveniently turned away from the notice telling me to hand in my books - an indirect breach of the not lying precept I knew, but if I was going to die or go crazy in the center, I at least wanted to be able to record my final words - I wasn't going to be allowed to speak them!

I already knew there was a grueling schedule starting each day with the wake up bell at 4am and ending with lights out at 9.30pm. And with no less than 10 full hours meditation per day there would be little chance to use my contraband paper and pen along the way, though I did manage to scratch down snippets from my days...

Day One

4am thought: I can do this.

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Morning meditation: Had a successful first few hours learning to meditate - it's just breathing. I do this all day every day. Hah - I think I will be good at this.

Breakfast: I have been bullied on my first day! Outrage and fear for the rest of my stay.

When I left the dining hall I was surrounded by the meditation centre gang. It was so intimidating.

I tried to hold my nerve and entered into a staring competition with the leader, but he swaggered up to me and gestured at my banana. He wanted it. That’s when it turned physical. He pushed me. A whole handed push, hitting me square in my lady parts! Shocked, I screamed (another precept broken) and threw the banana at him. He tucked into it with a smile.

The monkeys here are vicious!

Day two

4am thought: I can't do this.

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End of a tough day, 20 hours of focused breathing already invested and earth shattering news comes. One cannot reach full enlightenment unless one agrees to abide by some of the more important precepts for the rest of one’s life. Namely, no killing (read vegetarianism) and no intoxication (read no social life). WTF? This wasn’t clear on the website. Is there really any point to me completing this course if I can never reach the full goal? Do I stay? Do I go? I feel cheated, but most of all I feel exhausted, I fall onto my straw mattress bed. I'll think about it in the morning.

Day three

4am thought: what did I do wrong? How did I end up here? Realisation: I'm here voluntarily. Decision: Today I will leave.

Morning meditation: Oooooh, if I promise to breathe all day today, tomorrow I will receive wisdom. How exciting. I must stay for that.

Day four

4am thought: excited about wisdom.

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Morning meditation: Wisdom is pain! Literally. Turns out the basis of Vipassana is enduring meditation without moving your limbs. If you feel pain, just remind yourself that it is impermanent. Observe it objectively and do not react to it. Only then can you cleanse any deep rooted issues. What?! I'm leaving right now...oh, no, I can't, because I can't walk, because I've been sat in one position for hours on end and no longer have any feeling in my legs. As soon as I can walk again, I'm gone!

Comment for suggestion box: the meditation is torture enough without inflicting the chef’s attempts at cooking on us.

Day five

4am thought: my legs are broken. So is my back. My neck. I think I might be dying.

Morning meditation: One of the teachers shouted at me today for stretching my legs. I hate that teacher. I am plotting revenge. I may break another precept (do not kill). Oh dear, Vipassana is not working, I am full of anger and sin, I must try harder. I must stay longer.

Day six

4am thought: how can my throat be sore, I'm not talking. And why is it raining in my room?

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Morning meditation: I hobble to meditation hall. I hobble back 30 minutes later and crawl into my damp bed. My rucksack is growing mold from the permanent rain. I have lost my sense of taste with the repetitive vegetarian food. I have giant sized ants in my room (some of which I killed. Intentionally. And enjoyed! Blatant breach of the no killing precept). My drain is blocked with the paint that is peeling from the dripping roof and this is all without the pain of meditation. It is too much. I will sleep then pack and leave.

Ahhhh, sleep until 6.30am. Bliss. I feel refreshed. Maybe I can do this after all. And I am half way through. It can't get any worse.

Day seven

4am thought: must go meditate, must go meditate, must go meditate...

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Morning meditation: It got worse. I was allocated a cell. Their word, not mine, though a description I fully agree with. A windowless, airless room with a mat and a cushion. An actual cell. With a lock on the outside but no way to open it from the inside.

The following two days are days of serious meditation.

I'm scared!

Comment for suggestion box: the meditation is difficult enough without inflicting the insanely bad chanting/mock singing on us.

Day eight

4am thought: if I can sneak out of my room after lights out, scale the wall of the administration building, find the keys to the valuables box, pick up my laptop, purse and passport, get past the monkeys and find a tuk-tuk...shit, final bell...I'll continue my escape plan later...

Morning meditation: Had a productive day in my cell!

I practiced headstands for an hour. I can now stay upright for more than two minutes - much longer than I can meditate for.

I planned my next 22 blogs.

I tried to remember every birthday I've ever had.

I recalled every Eastenders character that Ian Beal has had his wicked way with.

I counted the number of stripes on my mat (it took three counts to get an accurate number).

I'm exhausted, I must sleep...what was that thing nagging at me this morning...zzzzzzz

Day nine

4am thought: blankness

Torture and sensory deprivation are illegal under the Geneva Convention, yet appear to be the cornerstones of the Vipassana meditation technique. Discuss.

Day nine (Vipassana counting)

4am thought: F@ck it, I'm going back to sleep. If any of the teachers knock on my door again, I will hit them with a broom. Not very Vipassana, but very true.

Lunch: except for at a funeral, and perhaps the Tube on a wintry Monday morning, I've never seen such a collection of miserable, depressed faces. If a stranger walked into the dining hall, they might mistake us for a large suicide pact.

Afternoon meditation: We were locked in the hall. I don't have full confidence we will be allowed out of this place. I’m no longer able to concentrate on meditation, too busy considering the different ways I can contact my family and friends. I get kidnap cover on my issuance, surely they can help....

...panic is setting in, breathing, breathing, breathing, ooooh, what is that deeply calming and relaxing sensation flowing through my body? Oh my holy Buddha, I think I took my first step to enlightenment...

Day ten

4am thought: last day, last day, last day, last day...

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After morning meditation: I regain the power of speech. Feels weird. Is that what I sound like? I've got my Scouse accent back...oh wait, no, it's gone again!

Strangest first conversations ever. Asked (in Hindi and through a strange series of gestures of pointing and scratching) if I have any cream to give a woman for her itchy vagina! She actually used the word poonani. Priceless.

Rest of the day proceeds with excitement. We have been paroled. Release is tomorrow. Just one more evening. How hard can it be?

Evening meditation: I am going to Vipassana hell. Several women turn hysterical at the sight of a large insect on one of the meditation cushions. Careful to no break the do not kill precept, I heroically take it outside.

Inside, all hell breaks loose. I have broken the unspoken precept. Do not touch another person's cushion. And never, ever, ever....ever take it outside the meditation hall. I have stolen her energy (not her fault for carelessly leaving it lying around). From what I gather, she might now die (thus breaking the do no kill precept anyway). Her soul will be damned to eternity. Mine is going to hell.

I leave Vipassana wondering if this is really for me.

One day on

I am sitting cross-legged as I write this. My Internet isn't working, it is tipping down with rain and it took nearly 2 hours longer to escape the Vipassana prison, yet I feel strangely calm.

Despite my doubts along the way, I wonder if maybe there is something to it. After all, if I can take a tuk-tuck in India without getting into a blaring row, as I managed this morning, there must be some benefit? Though it remains to be seen how long my new found serenity will last.

Whatever, the outcome, I doubt I will ever reach Vipassana full enlightenment…but that's ok, who needs enlightenment when you can have the pleasures of a good steak and a glass of red wine?

Be happy.

Jo Blogs

Posted by JoBlogs 13:28 Archived in India Tagged india meditation jaipur vipassana Comments (0)

The civil war is over, people

A long blog for a long journey: from Santa Teresa, Costa Rica to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

A long blog for a long journey

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I hit Central America without much of a plan, so comfortable I had become with my wandering ways. Nicaragua was next door to Costa Rica, I was generally heading north and so that was how simple my decision to visit was. Plus, I’d heard amazing things about this tiny country.

Images of war-torn Nicaraguan teens toting guns is often what springs to mind at the mention of Nicaragua, but as the Lonely Planet puts it, ‘The civil war is over, people.’ And Nicaragua is, ironically, now one of the safest countries in Central America. Ok, we’re not talking Redbourn with its residents so infirm as to be incapable of getting out of their plaid slippers to commit a crime, but by backpacking standards, the statistics looked good.

Yes, gun possession is still high – check out any park signage as proof: No littering, no spitting, no guns, no dogs off leads, but it is all a matter of perspective. My mum would sooner face a loaded gun than a dog any day of the week (cat-size Chihuahuas included) and there is something about people gobbing-up a throat full of phlegm that would make me consider guns less offensive.

But what comes with a country that has faced a war induced tourist drought is the very thing most backpackers are searching for - the chance to tread their own path in a place that hasn’t become a carbon copy of South East Asia. A place where beaches are still pristine and the people are bright eyed and intrigued, welcoming of visitors with open arms (machetes and guns safely stowed on a string slung cross body and around the back).

Though I didn’t really know any of this until I arrived, of course. My main experience of Nicaragua was the reaction of non-travellers, their eyes widening at my suggestion pre-trip that I might skip into Nicaragua along the way. But there are many more common dangers threatening our existence, the scape-goat banana skin being one of them, and I haven’t turned me back on our yellow fruit friend so why would I avoid this apparent gem of Central America? And anyway, Lonely Planet had practically guaranteed that I wouldn’t come to harm. So, equipped with a false sense of security and a pinch of trepidation I headed for the border.

The night before the morning after

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Now, from my last blog (no need to confess if you haven’t read it, just skip back a beat), you will recall that I had gathered one of the German girls to accompany me. The night before the border cross we were all set – clothes randomly distributed around the room that had been our home for two weeks, lost room keys (tut-tut, naughty German Girl, how annoyed were you), vague plan for a 6am start and…I’d like to say early night…

…after the first bottle of rum, we decided to head to the beach for a final finale and farewell bonfire. Fate had contrived it so that the majority of Tranquilo Backpacker’s hostel had decided to decamp the following day, various destinations in mind. And with that many people leaving, it would have been improper to not have a ‘leaving-do’.

The next part of the blog should be a description of the events of the night, the teary goodbyes, lamenting the departure from Santa Teresa, and I’m sure all of this happened, but with the addition of a further bottle of rum and some red wine, there is little recollection that I can drag from my brain. I do have a fleeting memory of us going to a post bonfire bar, I’m guessing around 2am.

Somewhere around 4am we found our bunks and slept, the next moment of startling reality being the sound of collective alarm clocks ringing out the worst news. It was 5:30am and time to get up. No pancakes that morning, panic ensued as we crammed our articles into our bags and with less than three minutes to go, hoofed it to the dusty road side in the hope that the ever irregular 6am bus intended to put in an appearance.

Bus 1: Santa Teresa to somewhere north of Santa Teresa

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Like all buses that you are running late for, it came early but with a wing and a prayer myself and the German Girl, bleary eyed and holding back vomit, threw ourselves onto the suspensionless, sports-bra requiring vehicle. And that is when the pain began.
Always keen to avoid going backwards (to San Jose) we plotted a tortuous route up the side of Costa Rica and into Nicaragua, picking up two ex-tranquilo travel buddies on the way:

Us: Where are you headed?

Them: Monteverde [Costa Rica]

Us: Cool. [Pause to stifle vomit] How you getting’ there?

Them: Dunno. [Pause to stifle vomit]

Us: Hmmm, wanna come to Nicaragua instead?

Them: Er, ok.

Bus 2: Somewhere north of Santa Teresa to Paquera followed by Ferry to Punterenas

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Twenty minutes later we were dumped road-side for a bus change, dust and grit spraying into our eyes as the first bus wheel spun out of town. We knew this was going to be the first of many transport changes. Only 6:30am and already the day was feeling long and hot.

To our surprise, the next bus arrived quite quickly, a chicken bus picking up all manner of people and species, music bobbing as the bus wobbled on its old axels before spewing us out at the port of Paquera for the choppy one hour crossing. This time without the jubilance of a Costa Rica stag do. (Look, if you don’t get the reference,you really must follow my blog more diligently!).

Claiming mental prizes for retaining our stomach contents (bonfire smoke, red wine, rum and more red wine) we made it to the other side having picked up a Canadian Couple on the way. The Canadians knew the way to the bus stop, a 1.5km hike it turned out, in the increasingly hot sun.

Bus 3: Punterenas to Liberia

We could have collectively cried when at 11am we turned up at the bus stop (read: shack) to find out that for the second time in Central American history and both times being in the same day, the 11am bus had left early. Arghhh. A one and a half hour wait, an attempt at some slime covered undercooked chicken later and we were off on our third bus journey to Liberia.

A one and a half hour journey the guide book promised. Three hours later, we finally limped into the bus terminal, the feeling of death eating at our stomachs.

We would have been at an all-time low if I had not spoken to the Canadian Couple. There is something about somebody else’s misfortune that can brighten your spirits. Firstly, I should explain that the Canadian Couple were really young, but, I’m afraid to say, that does not excuse their stupidity. They too had an incredibly long journey ahead of them. They had singularly failed to look at a map, check a guide book or indeed speak to anyone about the best way to get to Tamarindo.

Located a mere one bus and one hour north of their original location near Santa Teresa, the couple had deemed it necessary to go across (by ferry), up, over and down the peninsula in order to get to their destination. A journey that looked set to take 20 hours to complete. Six hours into their journey, I didn’t have the heart to show them the error of their ways. Instead, with sadness in my eyes for their plight, I said goodbye at Liberia unsure that anyone would ever see them again. I guess some people are not safe to travel alone.

Taxi 1: Liberia to Pena Blancas – Nicaraguan Border

Back to our own journey, Liberian tiredness had taken hold and we buckled at the offer of a $20 taxi to Pena Blancas, the long awaited Costa Rican - Nicaraguan border. It turned out to be the best decision as we sailed past lines of traffic that were so long the queues had to be broken into three, each sprawling back for miles. We would have been there all night our taxi driver proudly informed us as he sailed past the queues, apparently not required to join it. We were not necessarily convinced, but we certainly did not care - we were moving and no one else was.

Taxi 2: The final frontier

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As we neared the border, it once again became apparent that I had got into a ‘taxi’ that was not, in fact, a taxi as the driver pulled over and unloaded our bags. We had to change vehicle from his ‘unofficial’ vehicle to an ‘official’ one. We paid the fake driver who paid the real driver, money swapping and changing hands at a rate I could barely keep up with. Bags re-loaded, keeping an eye on the string holding the back seat door closed and we were on our way, the sound of 80s classic weepy love songs blurring in our ears. Hello, is it me you’re looking for? Apparently our new driver was searching for the love he’d lost circa 1986.

At the border we were once again thrown out on our ears and made the border crossing by foot. All day we had one plan in mind, to follow all the advice and make the crossing before nightfall. Approaching the administration building the sun was rapidly disappearing from the horizon while our tension turned up a notch, desperate to get the paperwork done before dark when the machete wielding, gun owning Nicaraguans would surely come out to play and relieve us of, at best, our possessions and, at worst, our lives.

Fortunately, we were the only idiots to attempt the crossing so late in the day and had missed the queues by hours, promising a rapid transition from one country to another. But not so rapid that we managed to escape the lingering locals allegedly offering assistance. As suspicious tourists we clutched our bags, kept a close eye on our passports and prayed for the best. What did these people want, telling us where immigration was, what forms we needed, no, don’t go that way, the bus is this way. Surely it was all a ploy to rob and kill us? Darkness loomed in the distance, the theme music from Lost Boys looping in my mind.

Where are you going, they asked? Towards Rivas, we reluctantly admitted (fear isn’t conducive to lying no matter what Jack Bauer will have you believe). ‘Go-go-go, run,’ we were instructed as the locals wrestled our bags off us and legged it. What, where, when, how, confusion, panic…then a short burst of realisation as we gave chase. We were about to miss the bus.

With a great team effort of locals at the border and those on the bus and with a running entrance we managed to board the bus, our backpacks slung onto the roof – by the locals, of course, not the poor, weak travel-weary gringos.

Bus..blah, stopped counting: Penas Blancas to Rivas, so close yet so far

Another chicken bus and thirteen hours of travel under our belts, we were over-due a shower, food and bed (not necessarily in that order) when, once again, we were slung out of the bus road side. We had to change bus one final time.

The further north I travelled in Central America, the more makeshift the ‘bus stops’ became, but this one was almost comedic, I mused, as we sat in a drunk Nicaraguan man’s garden on the brink of a junction looking in all directions for any sign of a vehicle that might pass as public transport (definition includes a car with a vacant seat) that could be flagged down at a moment’s notice.

Still reeling from our suspicions at the border we were once again overly cautious as our new friend hefted our bags onto his property. But half an hour later, despite the fact that the night had turned pitch black (permanent power not something Nicaragua is known for) and being exhausted and consequently vulnerable, we realised this man wanted nothing more than to chat. It was Saturday night, he’d had some fizzy pop and his only company had been his mother until four gringos were unceremoniously dumped in his garden. Of course we were a better option.

Another effing bus: Nicaraguan man’s garden to San Juan del Sur

And so chat we did until eventually the saviour that was our final bus arrived. We were smelly, famished and desperate for a lie down. The next part of the journey should have described a final 30 minute ride, ten minutes locating our pre-selected hostel then shower, food and bed.

Alas, no.

We arrived at the hostel to be told sorry, no rooms. Hmm, we walked a few paces and asked at the hostel a few doors down. Same story. Double hmm. San Juan was a backpacking enclave and had apparently become quite popular, but we did not fear, there were no less than 12 hostels to stay at in the town.

After we were told sorry, no room for the 12th time, our hearts sank. Still packing around 15 kilos each, we trudged our feet from door to door now borderline begging for anywhere to sleep for the night. So desperate we had become we got excited at the idea of a bed some other backpackers told us about in the local ‘crack den’.

Even they were full. But they were kind enough to take us to the man next door who would let us sleep on his concrete floor. Almost admitting defeat and bedding down with the curious stranger, we tried once more, this time splitting up, and after an hour of begging and pleading found ourselves proper beds in two hostels.

What was with San Juan, we asked as we checked in, wearier than weary. We really must have been tired, our new hostel mates informed us, to miss the four hundred Harley Davidson bikers who had rocked up in town for a one-off festival. Ahhh, those scary looking people were not the locals? No. For the third time since arriving, I had massively misjudged the locals.

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My initial fears about the people of Nicaragua were consistently proved wrong over the coming days. There were so many wonderful people in this country - the kind man who let us hitch a lift in the back of his truck to the beach, the man who offered to buy me a drink after he mistakenly saw me naked (Hannah – why does anyone have to be naked?), the man who took us to the jazz festival, and finally the man who saved my life when I found myself barefoot, in the dark, half way down a volcano - all to come in my next blog.

As the long day of travel came to an end and the dawn rose on a whole new day, the Alice in scary Nicaraguan Wonderland pills had worn off. The machete wielding men were farmers not fighters, the Harley bikers were fun and not permanent. The Nicaraguan people were some of the nicest I have ever met* making Nicaragua one of the best places I have visited. By far.

  • exclusion applies to all locals I encountered in connection with my broken tooth (see next blog)

Posted by JoBlogs 15:10 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Surf City Here I Come

Settling in Santa Teresa

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The day didn't start well. In addition to the 4am wake-up, I ended up at the wrong bus station. I knew that I had to get there early to join the rabble-come-queue for the ludicrously popular Saturday morning bus to Santa Teresa. (Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica). So, when it dawned on me that I was in the wrong place, I broke into panicked Spanglish explaining my problem to anyone who would listen. 'Me no in right-o place-o. Need-o bus-o.'

Within minutes I was installed in the back of a beaten up car having negotiated a 1,000 Colon fare (about £1.25) to get me to the correct station, pronto.

It wouldn't be the last time on my trip that mid-route, doors locked, travelling at speed, it occurred to me that I wasn't in an actual taxi. Shit. Dark as night, alone, in San Jose, convinced the driver was eyeing up my vital (and non-vital) organs, panic crept over me. Not yet fully recovered from my cough, I began to splutter and choke as my heart beat faster.

Less than five minutes later, we two-wheeled into the station. The 'taxi driver' took my money and quickly prized me and my diseased belongings out of his car. Seemingly he preferred his 1,000 Colon over my terminal lungs. I was insulted! But safe.

Making a mental note to be more careful in furture, and forgetting my mental note as quickly as it was made, I got my elbows out and, in the same manner I used for years cramming onto the tube at rush hour, I rugby tackled my way onto the bus. Thanks to London Underground and its excellent training I managed to secure a seat. Jo -1, Costa Rican's - 0. Several upturned crates in the aisle and 20 extra passengers later and we were off. First stop, the ferry port.

The waters sparked peacefully while the boat pumped out dance tunes on steroids. A Costa Rican stag party is, experience tells me, no different to an English one. Excessive drinking (statement of fact, not judgment), silly outfits (pure judgment), semi nakedness and later, based on the cheering, I guess, full nakedness, leering, shouting and ultimately vomiting with a little bit of crying. I was having such a ball with entertainment lasting the full crossing I had to steal myself from ordering a beer when I went to the bar - I checked my watch, it was only 8am!

It took the rest of the day to reach the small backpacker enclave of Santa Teresa. Honeymooners and holiday makers long having priced the budget travellers out of their original spot in Montezuma (which shares its name with the infamous Montezuma's Revenge - apply Google if you're not familiar, I'm not describing it!), backpackers had headed south to Santa Teresa. And what a good spot they'd picked.

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I found my feet pretty quickly, which was not difficult in the tiny stretch of dusty road that calls itself the town. No more than a handful of small supermarkets, cafes, bars and surf shops, it was not possible to get lost there. After a false start with a weird hostel (guys, hippy communes and swinging fell out of favour in the mainstream a long time ago), I got myself a bed in Tranquilo hostel. And boy was it tranquilo. My intended three night stay turned into a week, which turned into two. An actual lifetime in the backpacking world. Santa Teresa certainly offered a slice of the good life and I took my piece.

After a happy, beer filled reunion with the German girls (oh, how I miss you!), we quickly fell into a comfortable routine, something my life had lacked since I left. But quite unlike life back in England, this routine was one I didn't want to break.

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It went a little something like this:

- Morning: free hostel pancakes and coffee eaten over invariably failed attempts to recall the night before.

- Post breakfast - small doze in a hammock - pancake eating and partying to dawn, it turns out, is exhausting.

- Post nap - time for the first beach session of the day.

- Beach - book reading, gossiping, surf watching, time passing we'd sit until our stomach's rumbled indicating....

...Lunch - with the freshest avocado and tomatoes on God's Earth, and a budget in mind this combination became a Costa Rican institution. Add cheese, all set.

- Post lunch - small doze in a hammock - lunch eating and lying on the beach, it turns out, is exhausting.

- Post nap - time for the second beach session of the day.

- Beach - repeat performance of morning beach session with one important, glorious addition...

...Watching the sun set.

Now I need to make special mention of this phenomenon because who knew that beyond the dark corners of office spaces around the world this astonishing wonder of a huge, hot shiny ball of fire falling beyond the horizon of the ocean happens every day. And it is so beautiful. Tear-jerkingly so. How had I got to the age of, ahem, 26 and not known this before?

As if I'd discovered the Earth wasn't flat, I watched the sun set over Santa Teresa every day like it was a wonder that I didn't quite believe and with suspicion and worry that it might never happen again. It was always my favourite part of each day and some of the most enjoyable sights of my trip. What was in those love-giving avocados?!

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By night, another meal, another hammock swing and then, slowly but surely, the hostel would lurch into life. Beer, rum, music and, with the assistance of a few natural born fire-starters, a trip to the beach for a bonfire and more of Costa Rica's excellent and cheap (or just excellently cheap) rum.

Now this routine may seem a bit dull to you - hardly exploring the hard hitting sights of the world or discovering indigenous cultures, or, as I am prone to, getting into a fix.

But fear not, there were a couple of deviations to this routine along the way.

The first won't mean anything to you until you experience the taste yourself, but it was in Costa Rica that I stumbled upon my very first shakshuka. No, not an illegal drug, but an Israeli (or Middle Eastern, depending who you ask) breakfast which is a magical mix of tomatoes and fried eggs stuffed down with bread and tahini. This dish is currently running in top place as my favourite newly discovered dish, though possibly because I'm writing this post from Israel! Recipe below - taste it, love it, spread the word.

Perhaps one of the more interesting of my experiences in Santa Teresa, especially for the observers, was my attempt at surfing.

Being told I was 'goofy' within the first five minutes of the lesson (apparently not an insult - the instructor was goofy too i.e. leading with the left foot), and having a personal part of my upper body pried free from my bikini by the sheer force of the white water was not the best introduction to the sport. But with some perseverance and a lot of head diving into and drinking of salty sea water, I managed to make it up onto the board.

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I won't pretend I looked cool or that it was a pretty sight, a grimace of fear spread on my face as I wobbled in an ungainly fashion over the waves, but I did it. More than once. But afterwards I couldn't walk. Or pick up a fork to eat my pancakes. Surfing was fun, but it hurt like hell. It was unravelling all of the good work Santa Teresa was doing on the relaxation front so, at the very tender age of novice and with cries of 'nooooo' from those on the beach who had delighted in my stunt(wo)man style falls, I retired from my surf career returning to my preferred horizontal position, book in hand - not such an easy position on a board.

And then there is always the one thing which none of my destinations or blogs seem to be without - the embarrassing moment. But now that I've talked up the story, how do I make it funny? Answer - I don't. All I'm going to say is it involved a dark beach, a bare bum (mine), a search for dry wood (not so easy - see earlier reference to bare bum) and a French man calling out to me through the dark scared by the screaming he'd heard and worried I'd been taken. If you want the details, feed me more rum on my return and you will be rewarded with the full antics.

Santa Teresa also gave me my first (sand-filled) taste of full-moon parties. However, I think its version was being more on the scale of what Thailand's Kho Phangan was in its hey-day before is saw up to 35,000 revellers drinking and peeing on its shores, all in the name of the cheese cratered disc in the sky (oh another blog awaits on this behemoth of a party).

In fact, Santa Teresa gave me so much - surf scars, record breaking levels of mosquito bites and an extra inch to my waist (pancakes and horizontal living) but it also gave me time to stop and simply enjoy life as it is in the here and now (or as it was in the then and there).

But that wasn't all. As well as generating one of the best tans I've ever had, I staggered away from my beach bum lifestyle with another rum filled hangover and accompanied by one of the German girls who I was very pleased to have kidnapped/persuaded to come with me. I had all the makings for a riotous trip to the next destination. Nicaragua... but that is for next time.

Shakshuka Recipe

http://smittenkitchen.com/2010/04/shakshuka/

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Ok, I don't have a kitchen to whip this up and try the recipe, but it looks like it has all the good stuff:

But my advice:

- don't EVER let the eggs set (unless you are old or pregnant...God, I wish the lawyer in me would go away)

- ditch the feta and add a side sauce of Tahini.

- Special instructions for Stephen & John - omit onions and garlic for a fight free dish.

Enjoy!

Posted by JoBlogs 15:29 Comments (0)

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