Friday, February 29, 2008

Costa Rica to Nicaragua: The Longest Day Ever

By the time the alarm goes off at 7 AM I’m awake and have been for at least an hour. A combination of heat, street noise and a fan so loud it sounds like I could be sucked into a jet engine at any minute. Goddamn Costa Rica. I don’t feel like unpacking my towels - my bags are packed so tightly that opening them before I get to Granada could spell disaster, repacking wise - so I use the towel the woman at the front desk gave me.

It’s a hand towel. A scratchy, stained hand towel.

And I’ll be sharing the shower with five thousand of my closest ant friends. Fuck.

I bag washing my hair and take a two minute rinse off. The water pressure is good at least, and the cold water is nice after how humid the room is. At the front desk they tell me there’s a Central Line bus going to Granada at 8.30. Just like Tica bus, they promise me, and it leaves right from here.

I go to a coffee shop in Parque Central and order café con leche. Cream with sugar and a bit of coffee - like breakfast candy. Postel? The older woman behind the counter asks me. No, solamente café. When she brings the coffee out she sets a plate with a pastry down next to it. Flaca. She says and pokes my shoulder. Necessito comedor. Don’t screw with the big, motherly Central American woman. I have phobias about Costa Rican food but I eat it. It’s delicious, some sort of breakfast take on chicken pot pie.

(Amusing flashback to a conversation a few days back regarding who will supervise my caloric intake here. Apparently random café owners in Liberia will.)

Back at the hotel the bus is late and I wait outside, on the restaurant patio. The bus will always be late, FYI. Welcome to Central America. The bus will be here when the bus gets here and to think otherwise is pure folly.

There’s a few other people waiting for the bus. An older couple from Oregon starts talking to me. The woman is really cool - she taught some physical therapy classes in Managua years ago. Her husband is horrid. These people, he tells me loudly, you have to watch them like hawks. You’re just a wallet on legs to them.

He says this incredibly loudly and the restaurant is full of Ticans. I want to crawl under the table.

A Canadian guy from Victoria comes and sits with us. He’s doing the Central American surf thing or was until he got mugged in Montezuma. It occurs to me I have no idea where Montezuma is. I should ask but don’t. I am up to my ass in travel insta-friends and am kind of over it. We are all white, thus we are buddies.

The husband is telling fantastic stories in which he finds errors on dinner bills. He has a billion of these stories. I want to choke him.

Eventually the bus comes and we all board. It is like a Tica bus, thank god, all big plush seats and TV monitors. All the white people sit in the back of the bus. I have no idea why but we do. I get two seats to myself. My duffel bag takes up one and a half of them.

I pay the attendant for my fare. As he’s making change a photo falls out of his wallet - a wedding picture. I hand it back. Linda, I say, Tu esposa es linda. His face lights up. All of a sudden he is unraveling a whole slew of pictures - his twenty two month old son, his honeymoon, his new truck. We talk for a while - he’s patient with my Spanish and it‘s good practice for me. It’s a nice break from the Gringo Bitchfest.

There’s a traffic jam up at the border - massive. The bus is stuck about a half mile back from the building where you go to get stamped out of Costa Rica. To save time they send us off the bus while the driver sits in traffic. Luckily we don’t have to bring our checked luggage but everything on board with us has to go. Me and the thirty pound duffel bag are going hiking. Ouch.

I totally had this coming.

While I’m walking up to the building the money changers descend. Two of them, young guys, shoo the other ones off. They offer to carry my bag. No. They offer me 19 cordova to the dollar - 18 is the going rate. I accept, hand them $60. They hand me 400c. That’s not right I tell them. Not right. He pops out his calculator and does the math - it comes up 400. No, I tell him, it’s at least 900 c. They take off.

The $40 Idiot Gringa Tax. Why did I try to change money while carrying heavy bags a half mile away from the border and hence all the armed guards? Street money changers are the best way to do it - you get the best rate and I’ve never gotten jacked before. Truly poor judgment on my part, though, letting myself get peeled off the group and being so far away. Most of the money changers hang out right in front of the banks or the border offices - not way the fuck down, out of sight of the cops.

When I get to the office I foist my bag off on the Canadian kid and go find the cops. I tell them in broken Spanish what happened. They don’t get it. They bring a guy over to translate. Not a cop, just some random Tican guy who speaks some English. I tell him my story. You were stupid he tells me, not bothering to translate to the eight cops standing there. Yeah, thanks, I got that.
I go into the exit office. Stamp me out of this country and let me go. Please.

As the last of the passengers comes out of the office the bus finally gets through. We all get back on for the 500 foot drive to the Nicaraguan entry port. They start hauling all the baggage out from under the bus. Crap. This is new. As we get off to go through passport control the bus driver collects everyone’s customs forms and $8. The husband is sure this is a scam. It’s not, I tell him, it’s just the entry fee.

He doesn’t buy it. She speaks Spanish, he tells his wife - have her translate for me.

Side note: when I am the only person in any given group that is proficient enough to be considered the translator for government affairs we are all screwed. I tell him this. He doesn’t buy it. His wife and the Canadian kid side with him. Translate. Ask them exactly what this is for. Por que? I ask the driver. Por la tariff. For the entry fee I tell the husband. He goes off on some diatribe. Even if I could translate that, which I can’t, I wouldn’t. I hand the driver my $8. Bien. Gracias.

We all get our bags and line up. It’s worth three bucks to me to get a porter to help with my stuff. He hauls everything over cheerfully. They’ve instituted a new system, an all new low in random search stupidity. The customs guy stands next to a big green button with a red light and a green light above it. You hand him your other form and he has you push the button. Randomly either the green light or the red light above it will light up. It reeks of a low rent game show. I push it, the light comes up green, no search. Yay. The Canadian pushes and it comes up red. He is ushered to another table. He puts his bags down on the table, starts to open them. The customs guy looks at him for a second and then waves him on without touching or opening anything.

The border is bustling with vendors - bootlegged videos, food, stolen watches. Every other time I’ve been through there’s been a cell phone guy - $5 dollar phones undoubtedly from dubious sources. I’ve patronized the watch guy, the bootleg guy, the food ladies in the past. Today I want the cell phone guy and he’s nowhere to be found. Damn.

We mill around waiting to be put back on the bus. Little kids come over selling chiclets. One of them tries to pick the Canadian kid’s pocket. They’re rodents, the husband fumes, little rodents nibbling away at you.

They wave us back on to the bus. The porter carefully puts my stuff under the bus. I give him three bucks. He is absurdly grateful. I’m torn between feeling that I over tipped and guilt for not giving him more. All told I have more than 120 lbs of luggage - my body weight, essentially. He’s a small guy, smaller than me.

Once we get back on the bus we hit another jam, parked at the exit for forty minutes. I put on the iPod, fall asleep. I wake up when we stop in Rivas and pangs of nostalgia hit me hard. I think for a bit then fall back to sleep. When I wake up again Ometepe looms off to the right, foreboding and beautiful beyond the fields of cattle and scrub trees. I look for monkeys in the trees.

We pass a road sign. Twelve kilometers to Granada. Almost home. I stare out the window. We pass the cemetery, gorgeous with statuary and massive. The abandoned hospital, regal and crumbling.

Finally the bus stops. The Canadian kid gets off here, too. The husband from hell and his poor wife are headed on to Managua. Do you know a good place to stay? Bearded Monkey, I tell him. It’s run by a nice Canadian couple. You’ll like them. We shake hands and part ways - the end of a traveling insta-friendship. He takes the first cab. It pulls out then stops. The Canadian’s head pops out the window. The driver doesn’t know it. Can you help?

I lean in. No conoce el Mono? I ask him. He shakes his head. I give him some landmarks. Cerca de bombaderos. Oh, si, el hostel grande. They take off.

My cab doesn’t know Santa Lucia Social Club. We drive down Calle Santa Lucia. Yo miro, I tell him, yo conozco. Bad grammar but true - I’ll know it when I see it. A block away I spot the bright blue front. Alli, alli - alta. He takes my bags out, piles them in front of the gate.

The bar is essentially gone and in it’s place is a clothing boutique. The door is open but the outer gate is locked. Nicaraguan doorbell time. Lilly, I yell. Lilly. The bar-come-boutique is in the front of the compound, then a courtyard, then in the way back Lilly’s house and the apartments. I stand in front of the gate with my mountain of luggage. A woman pops her head out of the house next door. Lee-lee? She asks. Si. Necessito Lilly. She smiles, holds up a cell phone, dials. A second later Lilly comes up to the gate with Pacino, her shy, sweet Doberman at her heels. I just, she said, stepped in the back for a second. Come in come in and it’s so good to see you and god you’re so skinny, look at your face but you look great. We haul my stuff in the door, close the gate back up. She gives me a big hug. First we sit and catch up and then we get you settled in.

We go back to the courtyard, to the sofas by the pool. Lilly fills me in. Tom got in a skiing accident but is fine. The one Dutch teenager we both liked stayed in touch. Kit is around. Toni is doing surgeries. There’s two other people in the house, both of whom she’s sure I’ll love. The woman at the Pulperia on the corner remembered me and is happy I’m coming back. There’s a great new American couple on the corner - every Friday night they project movies onto the wall and everyone comes out and watches and I have to go. They made a documentary about Calle Santa Lucia, she tells me, about the neighborhood. All the little kids come and watch it, too, and when they see themselves they cheer. We gossip some, talk about men and kids and taxes and houses and Donna, who got a very prestigious award from the US Government for her work here. Donna will probably want to do breakfast with you tomorrow. But let’s go get you settled in.

In the front room I stop to look at the clothes in the boutique. Lilly has wicked taste and there’s about ten things I love. I finger a cotton shirt. You don’t need it, she tells me. Save your money. She shoulders my blue duffel bag. Jesus, she asks, what do you have in here?

We walk across the street to the house. It looks the same - some changes but good ones. There’s a sofa in the courtyard now, a big overstuffed one. The kitchen has been repainted. The front area has been converted to lending library but it has a separate entrance. Look, she shows me, the mangoes are just coming back in again. There’s a pile of them on the table, soft and ripe.
You get the front room, she tells me, the big one. Last time I had one in the back. It was nice but the front room is actually two rooms - a bedroom with a full size bed and a separate clothing/bathroom. It’s beautiful. She leaves me to unpack.

After she leaves I eat a mango.

I start to unpack but realize there’s things I need. Clothes hangers. Shower curtain hooks and a rod. My energy is fading fast. Shop now or go down. I pull on my flip flops, walk towards the Mercado. It closes at 3.00 but the street vendors are still out. I go into a storefront, find clothes hangers. There are teenage girls working in the shop and they’re fascinated by me. Every time I turn around they’re right behind me, staring at my arms, my hair, smiling shyly. I’m not used to being an object of fascination again yet and it’s a bit disconcerting.

A funny thing about Nicaragua: all the plastic dollar store crap we have in the states is stupidly expensive here. I pass on Tupperware.

And lest you think this is easy, try buying shower curtain hooks in a place where your language skills are severely limited. I’ll give you the word for shower - but not curtain or hook, neither of which I know. A very complicated pantomime ensues. Neither of us get it. I give up. Another day.

I go to Pali, the closest thing to a supermarket we have. In the States, in my own language I lack the ability to shop for myself. My main staple, Clif Bars, are nowhere to be found. I’m at a dead loss. I stare at cereal, yogurt. A younger woman notices me looking lost in the cereal aisle. She holds up a bag of something floury, some sort of cooked cereal. Es rica, she tells me. I smile at her. I can’t cook in English, let alone Spanish. I get tortillas, some soup, some granola, a bag of milk. I look at the fruit but can’t see the point in paying store prices for it when the streets are full of fruit vendors. Pali is stiflingly hot, dark. I pay and leave as quickly as I can. Out on the street I buy peppers, onions, some bananas.

A friend told me that the bananas here are better than the US ones, different. I think of him and buy a bunch. They’re smaller, sweeter, but nothing earth shattering. The eggs are good though - 2 c. each. Nicaraguan eggs are fresher than the US ones, richer. The don’t come in an egg carton, he ties them into a plastic bag that I carry carefully. Though I’m the queen of walking everywhere I splurge, spend 10 c. - about sixty cents - on a cab home.

As I’m putting the food away it occurs to me that aside from the banana and mango, the pastry thirteen hours ago I haven’t eaten anything today. I must have at least walked five or six miles, some of it with a thirty pound bag on my back. For the first time since I left the states I take a proper shower, devoid of ants, and wash my hair. I get dressed and head out to Calle La Calzadera, the restaurant street a few blocks away.

Outside the post work block party is in full swing - people sit out on the sidewalk in their folding chairs talking. Music blares from ten or fifteen different stereos. Kids have hauled makeshift goals into the street and are playing soccer. Mopeds and bikes dodge them. When cars come the kids scatter, pull the goals to the side a bit and the cars slalom through them. The chicken lady is out on the corner. It smells good but I want to sit someplace and eat tonight, read my book. Lilly told me to get her if I wanted to go have dinner but she wasn’t in her front room and I’m not adverse to being by myself.

Some musicians are hauling instruments into a bar. Older musicians, probably a folk band. When I walk by them guitar player turns, smiles, plays a few notes in my direction, then bows.
Nectar, Lilly’s new bar, is on the street and I look in. It’s beautiful, stark and modern and brightly colored, a blend of the Upper East Side and Central America. Pure Lilly. I get a hamburger at a gringo restaurant, sit at a table on the sidewalk, read my book until it gets dark. At home it’s windy and I leave the double doors to my room open for a while, listen to the mangoes thud in the courtyard. When I close my doors the breeze comes through the grates near the ceiling.

I’m contemplating a muscle relaxant for my back when it occurs to me I haven’t called my father. I promised him I’d call. Yes, it’s 11.30 at night but your father isn’t like mine. Shit. I pull my clothes back on and do the ½ mile flip flop run back to Calle La Calzadera, hoping beyond hope that one of the call centers is still open. None of them are but one of the bars is a hotel, too, and they have a call center. I call him over the blaring music, people chattering, and glasses clinking. Everything is good I tell him. I’m here. I’m fine. I’m happy. We talk for a few minutes and I say goodbye, head back to home and bed.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

And Here We Go Again...

There is not one latino person on this plane. There is, in fact, no one on this plane that is not white. Like white white, too. Most everyone on this plane, aside from me, is from Quebec. I walk down to the restroom and pass a dozen French conversations.

Welcome to Costa Rica, kids. The Norway of Central America. More gringos per square mile than Iowa.

I am stewing on this fact when the plane finally lands in Liberia. There’s a fire truck at the end of the runway with the sirens going. In the States this would alarm me. Here I don’t think much of it. They like drama, the bombaderos. If you have a siren you should at least show it off once in a while, play with it. A hundred sets of eyes stare out the plane windows in alarm. The fire truck drives in circles, lights and sirens blaring. Weeeee! Have fun, boys.

Liberia airport is an open air pavilion. I get off the plane, down the stairs to the tarmac. I ask a security guard ‘fumo alli?’ and point to a banana tree with a bunch of people in uniforms smoking. The words feel odd, clumsy, coming out. It’s the first Spanish I’ve spoken in months. No, he tells me, fumo afuerta. He points past customs to the waiting herd of taxis outside the front door. No cigarette until I clear customs.

The air is damp and smells like Central America - humid, earthy, a little acrid. It feels good on my skin.

Pretty much everyone knows I’m a little concerned about clearing customs this time. I have supplies for the clinic with me this time, as well as a ton of other crap. I’m the first person to be snaky as hell about the Costa Rica Tourist Infestation but I’m also enough of a wuss that I have my own sheets, towels, conditioner with me. There was an emergency stop on the way to the airport this morning for a shower curtain.

The guy in front of me holds up the line. He left the ‘destination’ line on his customs form blank and the pretty Tican customs woman is trying to get the information out of him. ‘I’m just here to be here, you know?’ he tells her. ‘Just want to go where it feels right, travel some’.

They need to offer courses on how to clear customs for dippy surfers. All the poor woman wants to know is where he’s staying tonight, something to put on the form and instead we are all being held up for a treatise on the nature of international travel. She finally manages to elicit an answer of sorts from him and then I’m up. I haven’t claimed my bags yet and if I get pulled for a search it will hold me up forever - they haven’t even brought them off the plane yet and I have made full use of the baggage allowance. The flight was already delayed and I’m sort of up in the air about where I’m staying tonight. I just want to get through this.

I hand her my passport, my forms, say hello in Spanish. She smiles, asks me the normal questions. Soy voluntario en Nicaragua. Voluntario? She asks. Si. Con animales. She beams at me, stamps my passport, hands it back. Bien. Gracias. Adios.

Sometimes people surprise you.

I get my bags, prop my pack on a box and slide it on. Something creaks, clicks in my back. I’m getting too old for this shit.

Outside the taxi driver hustle is in full swing, dozens of them holding up signs and yelling. I make an executive decision to just go to the crappy hotel I booked and if it’s a nightmare I’ll figure something else out. But right now I just want to be headed someplace with a bed, a shower, access to a bottle of water. All of the French Canadians have formed a huddle in the midst of it and stand there looking lost.

The drivers are yelling out ridiculous prices - $20 American to Parque Central, a five minute drive. Like sheep the Canadians aquiese, peel off from the herd, follow different drivers. A bunch of drivers cluster around me, yelling over each other. Alone and buried under a mountain of baggage, I look like a prime target for a ridiculous fare. Fucking Costa Rica.

Habla ingles? I ask. Necesitto habla ingles. One of the drivers grabs a teenage Tican boy away from a cluster of French Canadians. He doesn’t seem to be a driver, more of a driver referee and translator.

I ask how much to the hotel and he quotes me something ridiculous - $15, more than the room costs. No way, I tell him. It was $6 last time. He smiles, ‘the problem with Costa Rica’ he explains in flawless English, ‘is that the taxes go up all the time‘. I argue with him. The drivers try to interject in Spanish, coming down a dollar or two. Ocho. Ocho y no mas. Diez, one of the drivers yells. ‘He says $10’ the kid explains. And I said $8. Finally one of them steps forward. Ocho. He says. I nod and he picks up my bags.

I didn’t, one of the Canadian women says in accented English when I walk past, know you could do that. I thought it wasn’t allowed.

And all of a sudden I feel good, confident. I know how to do this, how to find my own way.
My driver’s name is Huell. We have a stilted conversation. Between my crappy Spanish and his few words of English we have about one fourth of a language between us. I tell him I’m going to Nicaragua. He offers to take me to Penas Blancas, the border, instead. For a second I consider it. Just go straight there, skip Costa Rica entirely, get through the border, get a cab to Rivas and try to find a place there tonight. It’s a good thought but impractical. I don’t know if the border closes and I don’t much feel like walking through it with over a hundred pounds of baggage. If it is open, will there be a cab this time of night? Will I wind up camping out there? And even if I can make it Rivas tonight, Rivas is kind of a shithole. A Nicaraguan shithole, as opposed to Liberia’s Costa Rican shithole, but a shithole none the less. And I’d be hitting it pretty late at night. And if Huell is already jacking me for a five minute hotel fare god only knows how much he’d jack me for a 78 kilometer trek.

No, the hotel.

The bad news is the place is still the same pit it was last time I stayed there. The good news is I have a lock on my door this time. More bad news: they put me in a room in the way back. By the time I haul my stuff all the way back there and see it has a lock I’m lacking the energy to complain about the fact that it’s the size of a closet. Literally. A very small closet. The single bed hits both walls and the fan is pointed towards nothing and unmovable. The bathroom borders on terrifying. I pile my stuff in, close the door, lock it and sit and think for a bit, be a little melancholy.

My original plan was to skip the Costa Rican Experience as much as possible. Go directly to hotel. Go to bed. Get up. Get the hell on a Tica bus pointed north immediately. But I’m not terribly tired, I have a lot on my mind and I don’t want to be sitting in a small, stuffy room poking through the contents of my own brain. I grab the key, stuff my valuables in the Ugly Orange Nicaraguan Hippy Purse and head off into the night. Five feet out the door something occurs, to me. I go back to my room, take off my sneakers and socks, put on my flip flops, roll my jeans over my calves and head back out into the night.

I stop at the Jumbo Supermercado for a two liter bottle of water which I stick in my bag. Ugly, yes, but highly functional. I savor what will probably be my last glimpse of American-style grocery shopping for a while. Everything is clean, well lit, nicely arranged. Distinctly un-Nicaraguan.

From there I walk the mile into Parque Central. It’s at least 9.30 on a school night but the streets are alive with people. Skaters are trying to do kick-flips across the gazebo. High school kids are walking endless laps around the park, flirting with each other. Older couples sit on the benches and talk. Herein lies the difference between the US and Central America. Public space is truly public space, to be used and enjoyed. Life is lived outside, with other people, not in your house in front of your television. I sit on a bench and smoke a cigarette, people watch. A couple of older men make hissing noises at me. I ignore them and they keep walking. Ten feet down they hiss at another woman. Be rude not to.

And I sit and observe and remember and stew a bit. Think of the last time I was here, think of where I was last night, where I am now, where I will be tomorrow. And then I walk back to my room, pull a chair out into the courtyard and plug my laptop into the only outlet I can find, light a cigarette.