May

13

Nicaragua lacks first-world eases and is constantly bowing to the golden rule of travel that the less money spent the more adventures. This is the poorest Central America country, from the Caribbean swamp up the volcanic spine and down to the Pacific white sands, where I want to introduce you to the people I rubbed elbows with.

No one runs after a bus in Nicaragua. There will always be another one. A traveler with a map need have no fixed plan if he thinks quickly. The bus terminals in the towns I frequent are usually dirt lots turned steamy mud if it rains. Dozens of buses and mini-vans await like crouched animals, and the choice, while munching a sandwich, often boils down to selecting the driver and passengers. I board early, drop my pack onto a front seat for the reservation, and leave for a drink as the bus fills for departure. When it's stuffed out the windows, the dogs are shooed and the gladdest moment begins- a start into a strange land.

Often across this watery nation the buses link with park-and-ride horsemen and ferries. In boondocks Rama, after weeks of brown faces and Spanish, I step down from the bus onto a tug for a chug along the Rio Escondido to Bluefields on the Caribbean. Sun and wind in the face sitting on the bow, over my shoulder floats, "Oh no, not another Gringo!".

I swivel and behold a huge graying cowboy under the broadest brim extending the biggest hand on the planet. I rise but he withdraws the hand. In one swift motion he pulls first from the right boot and throws a shadowy knife, then from the left boot, one from each shoulder, both sides of the waist, and finally the breast for a total of seven invisible blades. I reply, "The peculiar thing is that each barely nicked my skin", which is accurate had they been real. He guffaws, pumps my hand, and states, "My friends call me Lucky; I have no enemies."

He blocks out the sun and spins his story between banks of waving grass. Raised on an Arizona cattle ranch, Lucky's father was a career soldier who disallowed his Navy Seal son to go to Viet Nam. So Lucky took his penchant for cutting things first to darts, winning the world championship, and then to wood carving a bedroom set that sold for $300 on a Phoenix street corner and blossomed into a million dollar a year business employing five steadfast Nicaraguans. Three decades passed until a year ago. He lay down in a bed he'd made and told his wife, "Honey, give me a divorce. I crave the old America without the strangling rules. I'm going to Nicaragua and start a cattle ranch!" He bought land near Esteli in the central mountains, cleared it to waist deep grass, bought good stock, and gained a reputation for throwing the best calves in the country. Trouble is, one calf is a month salary on a man's shoulder under a rustler's moon. He patrolled nightly forty fenced acres on horseback with a shotgun, two .45 pistols and seven knives, only to get stung by boot scorpions, lose a horse to a rattler, and gradually lose the rustlers' war to fatigue. He arrived yesterday in Rama for a Last Hurrah, the name of the proposed ranch, carved somewhere along the Caribbean at a remote place that thieves can't discover. "It's easy," he says. "First, find land with tall grass and water, and buy an acre per best cow you can purchase. Inseminate them with the best bull. Watch them eat grass, make love, and make money. Take cold showers for a year, and you're a rich man. Look at this river grass- my Last Hurrah is around the bend!".

Bluefields on the Caribbean swings into view around the river mouth, the tug cautiously pulls alongside her tilting pier posts, groans, ropes heaved, and the thirty Latino passengers bustle to the fore to disembark. However, we hang aft, our interest taken by a dozen staring men like statues plugged onto the wharf. "Whew!" I whistle softly .They resemble apes in rags, with drug glazed eyes as flat as bottomless seas under tremendous brows. Lucky grabs his homestead suitcase in one hand and reaches a big mitt in a pocket, withdraws it to his side- there's the click of a metal switchblade- and hides it up his sleeve. "Adios, Bo!" he grins, and the sly dog lets me walk the gangplank ahead.

The throng of dock trolls parts for the odd couple, and a few steps beyond on a busy main street Lucky, with a suitcase, and I, with a knapsack, depart with a warm handshake. The usual practice is to amble to the seedy part of town for a room, but today I stride to any clue au contraire- a painted shop, well dressed citizen, clock that runs- but find none and feel trapped in a pirate's novel. The wooden two-story buildings along main street look 18th century and the ambling citizens are black or brown, and relatively tall. The matron of my eventual hotel overhanging a reggae disco outweighs me but politely points out after accepting $10 that they room keys were stolen yesterday by the help. I gladly slap my own lock on door #8 and will push the inner bureau against it tonight.

Craving a sunset fish dinner, I pen the hotel name on my thigh and stroll five minutes across town to a cafeteria with a greasy window. Licking fingers and avoiding the leftover eye that's always bothered me, a skeletal Bassett breaks a patron's leash and I give it to him. The waitress spots the dog and shoos it out the door with a broom and the owner screeching after past a line of little beggars pressing noses against the window at the only gringo. To mistakenly tip the first would telegraph the rest, and I would be skin and bones. I rise, walk out and they chase me with outstretched hands and wails for a block until a sympathetic senora points to a darkened lane where I may lose them and, she says, "perhaps your life".

She lowers the finger and vanishes, and out of curious mule-headedness I take that lane where the kids don't follow. Suddenly an arm wraps my shoulders and flexes as I whirl. His free paw grasps my palm in a quasi handshake, yet I grab the wrist and spin from both arms, and we lock eyes. "I want to ask for a dime," he says pitifully, and I feel horrible. "I'm sorry, but I can't help…," I repeat with a stout heart again and again until he fades into the old woodwork of the alley. I find the hotel on swift legs, shower in clothes, lie on the thin bed and count drops off the bureau mirror with the backbeat of reggae looking at myself in wonder at where I am.

The next morning, I discover it's a chancy town even for a stray Gringo like Lucky when we meet on the old wharf for a 7am launch out of town. He will scour the interior away from this gritty port for a ranch, and I… well, we'll see. A hard-nosed girl with a grin and jiggling "Tourist Police" badge slaloms dog piles along the dock to ask for passports. "What did we do?" I cry, but she says it's routine to scrawl gringo names and destinations in a notebook because of the volume of drug flow along the coast.

Lucky boards a skiff to Laguna de Perlas, and I sit watching similar launches spaghetti in and out the port until the Tourist Police nudges me toward the correct one, a 20-passenger "speedboat" with benches and seatbelts. A lady sits next to me refusing to strap the belt until a port guard with a hip stiletto leans over me and affixes it. She screeches lost rights and broken spirits out the harbor, actually buoying, until the 100Hp Johnson motor drowns her out up the river mouth.

The next stop is Granada, an exception to the nationwide shortage of everything soft and nice, except for the night I arrive the electricity goes out. I check by flashlight into a hotel, take a candle with the key, cold shower, and rock on a porch chair convincing myself that when the sun goes down and the power goes out it's time to take to the streets to see who's timid behind shutters. I rise, and walk the starlit streets down to the west shore of Lake Nicaragua looking over a million moonlit wavelets. There you are at another dark tit of a road waiting for something to steer you when footsteps pad, and on a twirl a man materializes like a muse and mutters, "It was three short years ago on this spot that a bad man cut a tourist's throat for no good."

He is slight, fiery eyed with an impish nose. "Relax. I tell stories instead of beg. They are true, and I'm hungry. One tourist had his hands hacked off" I teeter fore and aft on toes in consideration that the most interesting trips you take in life are meeting people halfway. We mosey the cobblestone streets chatting amicably for an hour, with everyone else indoors. Finally, I award him three dollars, thrust my hands in my pockets, and walk alone back to the hotel.

Normally, I alight fresh each night in a pueblo and ask directions to the omnipresent Central Park where the town turns out. Latinos circle the opposite sex past the greens, fountains, church, and this is where I find the cheapest hotels. One rose sweetened evening, floating from a bench, "Pleased to meet you. Welcome to our country. I'm an official tourist guide." I tip my hat. A few steps later, "Pleased to meet you. Welcome to our country. I'm an official tourist guide." The senoritas punctuate it with quiet flushes, having an incapacity to carry on in English. At the third "Pleased to meet you. Welcome to our country. I'm an official tourist guide", a thirties senorita steps under a lamplight and points to a breast name badge, "Nicaragua Official Tourist Guide." She continues in fair English that a nearby tourist college graduates just a few smart girls, and opens a dog-eared Moon guidebook and pages to her photo wearing the shield. "It's true!" I excite, and buy meals at a local eatery. We part, she with leftovers in a bag for her mother, and I reflecting that she isn't poor because she thinks she is not.

One afternoon on a lot, I see a mini-bus window soaped "San Juan del Sur" and find it on a map going to the Pacific. That's a lovely thought after a week on the Caribbean and central mountains. As usual, the bus has no schedule, waits till full, and at last needs just one more body for a vacant seat before the driver will twist the key. It, an elderly gent, sits sipping coffee in the bus station café across the windows from thirty equally complacent passengers. I'm frantic with the possibilities. The driver will miss one fare by leaving early, or may face walk-offs, or the gent will miss the bus if someone enters first, or I may buy the seat. However, the station is slow and so he swallows. In ten minutes he boards and that's business as usual.

Driving a bus is an athletic event on this forgotten road so chuckholed to the Pacific that it should have been left dirt, and a spectator sport. The driver pauses every five minutes to take on or discharge patrons that turns the 50 miles jaunt into a two hour expedition, as his teenage son yells in people, collects fares, sells cokes, and tosses baggage atop the rack. He takes my fare up front promising to return from the rear with change. This is a bus courtesy in the boondocks to chop up an otherwise useless large denomination bill; I tip for the service. Nicaraguans commonly are above the Alzheimer's trick of forgetting the change, but today the youngster doesn't, and before stepping down at the beach I get dad after son for the money, and go for a walk.

San Juan del Sur is an engendering ex-pat trap with cheap hostels around a horseshoe bay, vegetarian cafes, and a dozen language schools. You can sleep in a hammock, learn Spanish, eat yourself healthy at an outdoor market, and drink cheap rum at night mulling the worse ways to go. There's nothing here for a rover, so by quirk three hours after arrival I board the same mini-bus to return. Same hackneyed story, we wait thirty minutes for two passengers to finish tacos across the road before I, owning the probabilities, rally the group to hire cabs. "It's twice as fast, costs 25% more, and leaves now!" I shout like an old-time picketer. Three strikers and I march off the bus into a cab, and that night I wager the son got a spanking.

The cheapest hotel of my life is in central Nicaragua at $.75, the cost of a box of tissue, for an 8"x10" cubicle, squeezed between more like it, with a bare mattress and dangling light bulb. Given thrift and adventure go hand in hand, walk down the hall to the toilet, a smelly fathomless hole, and peril.

Poverty is the father of invention in Nicaragua. I see power lines spanning broken branches jammed in the dirt for miles and sagging under epiphytes, wasps nests and tennis shoes. There are fences of living trees ranging from one-foot saplings planted three feet apart to hundred year old adults at the same gap. And, oh say, the billions of Nicaraguan national flags of baggies flapping on the lines and fences. The song of the nation is, we're too poor for glasses and the mil is exceedingly thin so the plastic blows miles before the sun.

One can ride a bus without getting off and grow old, wise and fat. The houses I see are clapped hybrid wood slats, adobe, cane, concrete, tin, thatched and blankets. At each home the extended family members tie one end of the threads of life and venture out into the village. The adults are driven to poverty until it's so instilled that even a windfall- unless there's a TV- won't alter their mentality. The cold-water savvy children own a delayed gratification that makes them ripe for a prudent education. The first step to this is literacy, the bridge from the hut to anywhere. The second step is convincing the government to teach critical thinking- greeting every moment's situation with a thought instead of passion- so that high school graduates will infiltrate the government. The weak link in this process from poverty to home to school to society to beyond is that en route Latinos forget their silent power of austerity.

A few days beyond this conclusion, on a second-class bus in north-central Nicaragua, I meet the first bona-fide traveler in two months since leaving the USA, a bespectacled Dutch programmer with a nippy sense of humor who's traveled a hundred countries. He's moving light across Central America for six weeks in search of a home away from Holland since he can work anywhere there's internet. The gringos I look for on the road are mavericks who everyone in the world loves, wishes to be, and hopes to accomplish something beyond rebellion. Dutch's outlook is so bright, life seems so good, he is ready for all, so that when he invites me, "Volcano surfing!"

"What on earth ?"  I pipe. He spells out the safety and merits of renting a board to slide down the cone, albeit it will be his first time. I can do nothing but accompany him for two days into the north volcanic country. We step down in historic Leon and immediately up onto the first pickup with surfboards and soaped "Vulcan Negro". One thinks he has surpassed childhood acrophobia until seeing the heights nature shoves in his face.

The truck grinds uphill dirt roads with racing children on horseback for an hour toward a 1,300" active cone. The kids fall behind in exhaust and dust, and farmhouses fade on a black carpet of grit that thickens from inches to feet without a speck of vegetation approaching the base. We park and hike a winding, steep trail through sharp lava carrying the 6’ surfboards that become sails in a stiff wind near the top. There are six of us: half girls, all Europeans, and me. The lighter girls get twirled like pinwheels scant yards from the cone venting sulfur steam where the ground is too hot to touch long. On one side of the cone without lava, the guide bids us to sit on the boards and insists that it's faster to sled than stand. He invented the rudderless boards with a tin skid pad for a speed record of 40mph, and explains how to sit back and steer by leaning, but doesn't demonstrate. We don orange suits for protection from the cinders of the 45-degree quarter-mile slope. This is ridiculous, but " I'm glad that I'm trapped in a clown suit, helmet, goggles, my pride and leaky knees. The guide prompts me, "Show them you aren't a pussy!" (See eruption photograph).  Down!  zoom! white knuckles over black cinders, too fast, tumble and crash, climb on for some fun!

Back in Leon, Dutch and I take $6 rooms at the Dentist Hostel where the owner ushers me first into the office chair for open wide and says she'll crown a cracked tooth for another $110. I demur, and exit for a city tour. I had seen a downtown sign, "Walking Tour $6" and was struck by the novelty. I draw with two others a long-legged guide, a political science major, who asserts in correct English while striding past thousands of bullet holes in buildings and walls that Leon has a long tradition of liberal politics. His father and uncle were tortured supporting the Sandinistas against the federal troops in the 80's and, patting a spreading oak at the town edge, this tree is the symbol of resistance. The war is decades over, but the rebel consciousness remains. Our guide points up at razor wire on the 12' brick wall hemming the school that even so he scaled twice to enter the mix. This town has some of the grandest architecture in the world because it hasn't been restored for the simple reason of a town code forbidding the knocking down or patching of ruins with other than the original material. The cathedral, missing bricks and bullet strewn like an old general, is the largest in Central America, where the guide insists, "The priests pocket some of the donations but the people think it's worth their blessings." Houses appearing from the 18-19th centuries line street after street, except in the affluent section where new homes are built inside old ones. That is, the 3' thick adobe walls of ruins become the shells three inches from the inner walls of luxurious houses. The only graffiti is "Bush the Diablo of Genocide!"that the young guide tries to explain away but chokes on the truth. At the three-hour tour's end, I buy from him "The best map of Nicaragua" and spread it before me like a magic carpet. It shows a network of lanes as thick as spider webs laid over the countryside where I hatch a plan to connect the villages by foot from the Pacific to Caribbean.

For others, Leon is a budding bohemia. In two days, I chatted with the following: A Spokane lady who got in a car wreck, swore off autos and is riding a bicycle alone to Tierra del Fuego until she got waylaid here; A Portlander motorcycle mechanic who refused to rest on an obsession and is motorcycling to Panama's Darien but likewise is stalled here for "the 24-hour action"; An effervescing 70's Berkley graybeard who's built a business over the decades teaching Spanish, Chinese, French and guitar to tourists; Today's newly arrived veteran with a chest full of two wars' medals tottering on a cane and a pretty senorita's arm to the embassy for permanent residence; And the Dutchman declares he shall buy a vacation apartment!

Just before moving into the apartment, a day later, my cohort hurls his Lonely Planet guide to the floor and bellows the Dutch equivalent of, "Horseshit!" This globetrotter of twenty years stomps around it quoting the "lovely primary colors" of our actually dank rooms, and declares that in a six-week informal study through Central America at the suggested hotels and attractions he has repeatedly been told by proprietors that the Lonely Planet teams walk through (if they go at all) and out the cheaper hotels to trade lavish recommendations for freebee rooms and tickets at the posh spots. This parallels my findings of the past eight weeks, and supports a theory, an untold story, that Lonely Planet pioneered as well as recently quashed world budget travel. I imagine the same pivotal decision faced by the guidebook is daily weighed by businesses and individuals finding themselves in this expanding world. Do you adjust your methods and codes to grow quickly with the times, or maintain integrity and advance slowly?

"The globe is an anthill of travelers under backpacks going from one world wonder to the next, sleeping and eating in the same places- as described in the Lonely Planet guidebooks" I opened travel lectures during the 1980's with these words to colleges and outfitting stores. Anyone with a passport and the guidebook could go nearly anyplace with confidence as carefully researched by handpicked pioneer authors. I met one on his knees with fatigue before the Great Wall of China, one lost in malaria in Africa, and one in South America; they got around. (Today, Lonely Planet has 500 staff members and 300 authors.) The books spun details from the wisdom of having been there. It’s safe to say that modern budget travel exists because of Lonely Planet that seeded my early travels and anchored soulful impressions to make their story around the world, in a way, my own. The first full guide, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring was my first trip, and on with the ensuing books to Europe, Australia, New Zealand. Africa, India, South America… for a total of 96 countries. (The publication now has about 700 titles.)

Before leaving Leon, I enter a Cyber Café and learn online that Lonely Planet a few months ago (Sept. 2007) was purchased by BBC. The theory is true: The publication that single-handedly created budget travel has as easily replaced it with tourists who read how to hail a cab to massages. The new breed of traveler works hard and deserves it, but beware that once an organization or individual loses its pioneering spirit, all progress stops. In a flash in the Cyber Café, the solution to the day-to-day use of Lonely Planet strikes: I shall use the guide frankly in reverse to eschew its picks and blaze new trails to its cautions. This will prove delightful.

Should you visit the largest, poorest, least developed country of Central America? A developing nation has two faces, and it's your choice of how to view the experience. The blessings are people in hand-me-down clothes and old-fashioned smiles against a backdrop of untouched natural splendor. The daily thrashings are rice and beans with cold showers. I nearly always felt safe, and the lack of personal possessions makes Nicaraguans among the most generous in the world. I encourage a pilgrimage into poverty somewhere anytime for it's fast lessons. Think that and you determine your destination.

Honduras Immigration is ahead, and the dread line of wolfish officials with their red ink.


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1 Comment so far

  1. ken wasserman on August 11, 2008 12:03 am

    love your essays. where are you now? it's now almost three months without hearing from you.

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