Price of beer in a bar: I was in an ‘expat’ bar the other night with the gaul to charge US$1.57/bottle. Them’s beach prices and I was not on the beach.
Song currently stuck in my head: Water Fountain (Tune-yards)
San Juan Del Sur has been observing an on-again/off-again festival for the last 3 weeks to celebrate St. John’s Day, the local patron saint. The Girlfriend was educated in Catholic environs but I don’t pretend to know if this is a local thing or a wider Catholic thing. I could probably look it up, but to me researching religion is like majoring in astrology so it’s not atop my admittedly meager to-do list. The Nicas seem convinced that Old Johnny Boy is catching a celestial nap and it’s their duty to wake him, because above all else they honor him with noise. I’ve seen this style of observance before, it’s really the norm in the region and perhaps in Catholic conquered lands beyond. Here’s what you can expect:
Parades: Some are grand, some could be mistaken for a small pub crawl. There will be a vehicle in front with either 1) a gas generator powering a stereo system of some kind or 2) some type of religious graven image. Sometimes it’s #2, but there’s no truck and the icons are carried on foot. An uncoordinated crowd of people will shuffle behind. They’ll either be jubilant or reverent. There may also be…
Marching Bands: Not always marching, often just riding in the back of a pickup truck, they canvas the town at pre-dawn hours (here that means 4am or so) blaring horns and beating bass drums. It really is like an outtake from a slapstick cartoon where someone has a headache or is making a souffle and a marching band takes the scene for no apparent reason. This usually happens in the absence of ancillary activity. It’s just a marching band driving around with the goal of… uh… early morning Catholicizing? They only know one tune, but it’s absolutely soothing compared to…
The bombs: They light off explosives, because apparently God’s into that kind of thing. They boom loud, shaking everything for blocks and setting off car alarms, which add to the festive spirit. In The US this would have to be done on an expansive property, far away from private homes and businesses, because no one allows this kind of noise. I’m pretty sure my hearing is damaged from being in my home within 2 blocks of ground zero, where the loudest bombs concuss the structure and shock my spine. I lived in earplugs off and on for three weeks. Earbuds with music playing did nothing. Again, while there is no discernible pattern, this often happens early in the morning. I can’t imagine who *wants* this. And the thing is, they have actual, functioning church bells, which seem like they would be so much more appropriate for creating a reverent yet celebratory sound.
The street parties: Bands (sometimes quite good) and DJs (seldom any good) provide a musical backdrop for greased pole contests, beauty pageants and other events familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a 4H fair, though I don’t think they’re selling livestock. Vendors roam the crowd selling a wide array of things that light up and otherwise amuse children, grills are fired up and plates of tipica are on offer. It’s not a bad time, but without good company you habituate to it quickly.
This all built to a climax on Tuesday (Jun 24th, these post on a delay) with a great band (I mistook them for Mexican, mostly based on their sponsor and their shoes), but Rumor says they’re a big deal Nica band. They gave the crowd several great sets over the course of the afternoon and evening, but when they weren’t on stage the quality of music cratered. Popular music in this region is *awful* and has been as long as I’ve been traveling. Now understand, in 1980’s Nicaragua, the Contras (who The US Government backed) used to take over a town, herd everyone into the square and publicly execute the few people with local influence and power (priests, mayors, etc) and I’ve seen a room full of guys who were there pass around a backpacker’s acoustic guitar and sing softly in unison about it. It will crush you. Some of the most moving and entrancing musical experiences of my life have Latin music to thank. Cuban music transubstantiates into it’s own dance partner. The Argentine’s might be the only culture still turning out dependably good rock (last I knew). But the stuff that reaches a critical mass down here makes Pitbull seem listenable.
As the browning of America takes hold in earnest, expect our food to get better and our music to get way, way worse.
Current Location: Second Floor Patio, Iguana Bar/Restaurant, San Juan Beach, San Juan Del Sur, Pacific Coast of Nicaragua
Price of a beer in a bar: I’m in a beach front tourist bar that’s advertising $1 beers, which probably means closer to US$1.20 or so because 1) the exchange rate they use is probably tuned to their advantage and 2) the posted price doesn’t include a tourism tax that is, I think, 15%. Pay in greenbacks if you can, especially if you order a lot of them. I’m drinking a US$0.40 cup of coffee, but they should start a 9am happy hour.
Song currently stuck in my head: Yellow Bird (Chris Isaak)
I’m sitting in (Henry’s) Iguana, on the upper patio section, of course. If you arrive early, while the sun’s still entering the water at low angles, you can mistake the beach for Caribbean. I’m enjoying a consistent breeze while I watch the wobble of boats mored in the harbor, the waves crashing the rocks on the outer edge of the bay and the bar tender occasionally crack his newspaper back into shape.
God I love it. But let me tell you how I got here.
In my last report I was killing time in Leon, waiting for my afternoon shuttle. Travel around here always has even odds of being terrible and there’s very little you can do about it. You can throw money at the problem, but that makes the lows so much lower. When I travel on the cheap my expectations are generally too low for anyone to fall short of them, but when I pay extra I can actually get disappointed. This time I paid extra and got disappointed. I booked my shuttle from a small office a few doors down from Via Via; it might have been called Nica Time. I waited out the final hour until my scheduled departure in their office/storefront and I realized the place was owned by the infamous Bigfoot Hostel. I try to avoid doing business with Bigfoot as they have a pretty rough reputation for enforcing a strict “No Nicaraguans” policy in their bar/restaurant which has earned them no small amount of derision from Nicas and local volunteers. But they already had my money and my dislike is based on rumor and online reviews (no first hand experience), so I carried on with the plan. Plus this is the only direct bus to SJDS from Leon (and vice versa), as far as I can tell, and that’s pretty persuasive talk to me.
Some Gringa who seemed to be in charge let me know that my departure would be delayed by about 30 minutes due to mechanical trouble with a connecting bus and I was more impressed than disappointed. This is not the kind of thing you usually get advance notice of around here. My bus ended up leaving a little over an hour and a half late, but not because of the connecting vehicle. I’m still not really sure why we left an hour late, but we were all there by 3:30 so it wasn’t because we were waiting on people to arrive. I learned along the ride that some enterprising girls got together a group of 11 and booked this bus for this run. They were given the impression that is was, more or less, a charter bus ride and would leave when they wanted, stop where they wanted and generally cater to their whims; that it was their bus. I still have no idea who actually owns/operates the bus (people bought tickets from several outlets, the bus its self bore no insignia), but the operators decided to sell off the extra seats without mentioning any of this. Fair enough, I’d have still bought in, though some notice would have been nice.
It turns out one of the people they sold an extra seat to wasn’t going to SJDS, she was going to Granada… and now so are the rest of us.
So that adds some time. Plus leaving 90 minutes late puts us in Managua during rush hour, and that also adds some time. I hear a lot of conflicting reports about how long that trip should take, but 4 hours (or something) seems to be the consensus. It took us 7.5. There was some traffic, but the vast majority of that time was just senseless “not bothering to keep moving while complaining about how long this is taking.” We were originally scheduled for 3, ready around 3:30 and left just before 4:30. We stopped for food *twice* on what was supposed to be a 4 hour trip, the first time before even leaving Leon, when we sat in a gas station parking lot for 25 minutes while some girls stood around outside eating hotdogs. I have no idea why we weren’t moving. This scene repeated its self twice, the most frustrating being near the end of the night, about 30 minutes outside of SJDS, when we spent well over a half hour watching fellow passengers eat ramen noodles in another gas station. I don’t know if waiting 30 minutes was just too tall of an order or if they just really enjoy Nicaraguan gas station food. On all of these occasions we lingered until everyone climbed onto the bus; the customary “We leave in 15 minutes” situation (normally managed by the driver) was not observed because this was, in some sense, a charter. So people just stood around outside going “I guess we’re not ready yet” while people sat in the bus going “why aren’t they ready yet.”
I’m pretty sure the driver got lost in Managua. I know he got lost in Granada, where everyone else vacated the bus even though we were only discharging one passenger, this was the first replay of the gas station scenario and one girl insisted that she should go full on GROCERY SHOPPING a few blocks away while we waited. The driver seemed to be lost in SJDS as well, but at that point I spoke up and requested he stop and let me out. We’d made a circle in town and were now heading away from my destination; I wasn’t going down with that ship. The bus stopped and I did that thing that friends from the military mention where they immediately take stock of how they’d exit a room. I’m not sure why, I have no military training nor did I feel threatened, but I was so close and I didn’t want anything new to impede me. The girl to my right was more than happy to clear the way, but the guy by the door hesitated in a way that surprised me for an instant and then concerned me greatly. As I feared, he started dithering and arguing with me. He didn’t want me to get off of the bus. I’d barely spoke at all on this trip and never to this guy, so there was no existing issue between us. I had done nothing to cultivate an air of tension on this trip, though plenty of people had been vocal about their dissatisfaction. But there’s this weird thing that happens with groups of people when no one takes the lead; they become personally attached to the indecision and when someone begins taking action, even action without wider repercussions, it disrupts the established (lack of) order and they get… edgy. People hate change, even on a micro level. When you single one of them out, like I had to in order to get this guy to open the door and clear the way, they dig their heels in.
Honestly, for a solid chunk of seconds, I foresaw this whole thing was headed sideways and moving toward violence. I didn’t foresee fighting the guy, so much as having to force my way physically through him to exit. And every second he wasn’t reaching for the door I felt this likelihood increasing. At first he was just acting confused, like he didn’t understand that I was leaving. Then he started arguing about how it would take too long to retrieve my bag from the roof so I shouldn’t leave until we all got where we were going. The crowd had already made it clear that their destination was not getting decided anytime soon. I think they probably ended up outside of town, far away from there I headed, and nothing could compel me to come along. We were in SJDS, a tiny town of a few blocks, and they couldn’t figure out where they wanted to go and god knows they hadn’t decided when they made their arrangement nor during the seven and a half preceding hours.
They didn’t *disagree* about where to go. That would have required at least 2 opinions and they hadn’t mustered half of that. I would not be the least bit surprised to find out it was another hour and a half before they unloaded; they had reached a kind of standstill where something had to decided and that was definitely not their strong suite.
I explained to this guy that I had my bags and they wouldn’t have to wait while we untied my bags from all of the rest. I used as few words as possible, giving him a simple mantra to concentrate on.
“…because all of the bags are on the roof..”
“Not mine. Open the door.”
“Open the door. Literally open the door. It’s that simple.”
“Let me out.”
This asshole shrugs and sighs, like I just can’t be reasoned with. He reaches over and slides the door open, but I’ve seen enough terminally ineffective people to know I’m not out of bus yet. I can’t possibly make it around this guy politely, he’s blocking my path in it’s entirety. He needs to step out and when I alert him of this (in as simple of terms as possible) I receive another prolonged shrug and sigh and I have my last pang of anger about to be made audible. I struggled to maintain, knowing anything I said would work against my exit; especially what I had chambered, which was a terse “LISTEN. TO ME, YOU. PIECE. OF. SHIT. I SAT. IN. a GAS STATION. PARKING. LOT. and WATCHED YOU. EAT NOODLES. for TWENTY FIVE. FUCKING. MINUTES. I don’t WANT. to HEAR. a. FUCKING. WORD. OUT of YOU. ABOUT DELAY. YOU. are HOLDING. US. UP. RIGHT NOW.
I suppressed the urge, a point of minor pride since it’s a habit that few would consider “well developed” in me. I stepped off the bus, checked my pockets, bid farewell to that rudderless clusterfuck and 15 minutes later I was moved into my guest house and out enjoying fritanga fare against the faint sound of rolling surf from two blocks away.
I’d do it again; the only thing worse than that journey was the irritation that’s promised by traveling that particular route via local buses (or, possibly, traveling by regional bus in The US). Plus I’d have a better idea what to expect.
Now where was I?
Oh yeah, reasonably close to paradise.
Price of a beer in a bar: US$0.86
Song currently stuck in my head: Barrytown (Steely Dan)
I’m sitting in Via Via, having an overpriced traveler breakfast. It’s almost exactly double what it would cost a few blocks away, which still only comes out to US$3.14. I’m on a ~6 hour layover in Leon, having caught a 6am bus out of Matagalpa (US$2.90 for a 2+ hour ride in a chicken bus) and having found the 10am shuttle to San Juan Del Sur (which I also intended to overpay for) full. The next shuttle runs at 3pm, which is a pleasant surprise. They have a dependable daily schedule for the 10am bus but everything else seems experimental. They’re trying an early bus on Sundays to arrive in time for “Sunday Funday”, a super successful bar crawl that draws backpackers southward, out of their post-vocanoboarding Leonese languor, pickles them in the lightly chlorinated waters of several SJDS swimming pools and infuses them with as much booze as they’re willing to pay double for. For US$20 you get a “free” shirt and a few drinks; you see the shirts everywhere.
Via Via feels a long way away from that, even though, physically, it’s across the street from one of that scene’s epicenters. But here at a courtyard table, sipping damn good coffee, I’m remembering how much I really appreciate the decor. It’s bent toward invigorating wary travelers, but the colonial motif is fashioned directly from raw materials, reminiscent of everything I didn’t hate about Guatemala. They’ve simply stretched a light layer of “Travelers Welcome” over the pre-exiting Spanish Colonial Grandeur of the property. It’s a favorite and I’ll take any excuse to overpay for food here. This morning’s excuse is my 6 hour layover; I have my everything on me and have already walked as far as I care to in the Leon heat, so I’m locked in a tight orbit around my shuttle pickup at 3. It’s getting hotter, I’m not getting better rested and Via Via was only a few doors down. I’m considering getting drunk; ordering a succession of well timed beers over the next several hours would be an affordable way to justify my ongoing presence here, plugged in to their power and linked up to their wifi. But I’m more likely to hike it down to Rosita, have a cappuccino or two and play it from there. Maybe I’ll come back for a late lunch. I know a worldly El Salvadorian who drinks here most afternoons and if I catch him before he gets too far in the bag he makes pretty good conversation.
In a few hours I’m paying US$25 for a shuttle to take me directly from Leon to San Juan Del Sur, about a 4.5 hour drive most days, though this seems extremely contentious. If I wanted to do this the hard way it would probably cost me about half that, but there are some big variables being rounded into that math. From here to Managua is ~US$2 and from Managua to the Southern Border, which SJDS is just shy of, is ~US$5. If the tea leaves/coffee grounds/chicken bones/wrinkles on my hand/sky spirit/dice worked in my favor and I managed to get from Managua to SJDS on one bus (and not end up routed through Rivas and/or Granada and/or some shit), which is entirely possible, then that just leaves a taxi ride between the Managua bus station I get dropped off at (“UCA”, pronounced “You-kah”) and the one I need to leave from (“Mayorea”, I think, but I’m off line and you really shouldn’t take my word for it anyway; I’m speculating and repeating what I’ve been told, not telling you what I’ve done). That might cost… well… money. I don’t know. I might get robbed, figuratively or literally. I hate urban cabbies and I don’t think Managua has a flat rate. I think it could cost around US$6, which brings us up to half what I’m paying. But leg room gets to be an issue after a few hours and I started the day with 2.25 hours crammed into a child’s seat. Going by (chicken) bus means going by US school bus with the original seating (though mercifully reupholstered). Not only are the seats close together (since they were built to accommodate children), but they’re also low (since they were MADE to ACCOMMODATE CHILDREN). Nica women sure aren’t going to notice a problem and neither will the vast majority of the men, but with 34 inches of gringo inseam I tower over most of these people. Have you ever, as an adult, tried to sit at a child’s desk? I know, I know, but think about it. Maybe you were at a parent/teacher conference. Maybe you were role playing in the bedroom. Maybe you were filming a cover video to “Hot For Teacher”… whatever, I don’t judge. If you have this experience, imagine doing it for several hours at a time with your neighbor crammed next to you about as snug as those padded harnesses on roller coasters. Yeah, I’m opting for the US$3/hour premium.
South American buses are nothing like this, by the way. I assume the Darrien Gap makes importing them too expensive to be favorable. Their buses are wonderful. So are select bus lines here, but your destination options are limited to major cities (usually just capitals) and while I’m headed to a major tourist destination, it’s one that still clings to the fiction of being a small fishing village.
Pictured here: an example of a steep incline in Matagalpa and a “Walker: Texas Ranger” themed truck. The trucks and buses down here are often decorated around a theme, everything from a certain Disney character to God to, well, Walker: Texas Ranger. This isn’t a particularly ornate example, but I love it. I can’t wait to board a bus decked out with “La Ley Y El Orden” iconography.
Price of a beer in a bar: There’s quite a variance here. The hostel charges US$1.18/12 ounce bottle, which is a little high but also mirrored in some of the higher end bar/cafes here.
Song currently stuck in my head: Telemiscommunications (Deadmau5)
When I stepped off the bus in Matagalpa I felt like a refugee. Not in the bad way, like you used to when you stepped off the Ticabus in San Jose (Costa Rica), a wriggling mob of taxi drivers, would be muggers, hotel barkers, money changers and people whose purpose was difficult to surmise, all pushing hard against iron gates, shouting and gesturing, scanning for the biggest, brightest backpacks, already trying to part you from your money at 20 yards. It was jarring, to say the least. Ticabus later put a hotel onsite so you weren’t forced to venture out into this until daylight (and because it was a shitty neighborhood in general; bus stations are too big for prime real estate) or not at all if you were continuing on to Panama 8 hours later. I was surprised it took them so long.
I feel a little guilty for making light of refuges, but there’s quite a variance there as well, from my friend who spent a chunk of his childhood living off of rats and starvation rations in a Singaporean (it was Singapore, wasn’t it?) camp while his family sought refuge from Vietnam all the way to storied tales of a few false documents wrapped in cash and a quick one way trip, tourist class. I feel like I have some leeway.
I digress. After a month of the hot season in Leon, Matagalpa feels like all the autonomy I’ve been denied by that yoke of oppressive heat. It’s fully 15 degrees cooler here if you measure by the metrics of my homeland. What is that in Celsius? Fucking refreshing.
There’s far more city here than I expected. There are traffic lights; not just one red light somewhere, flashing and ignored, but full-on, 3-color, timed-to-allow-left-turns traffic lights; plural. The terrain is steep enough to make some stretches of road look impossible, like a mirage or a scene from the Inception trailers. It’s hard to imagine you can maintain control of a vehicle going down; perhaps it’s one way upward. I knew a guy who regularly had to use a winch to get home in Panama. He had a coffee farm and needed to be up at elevation, and his driveway was barely passable when he was sober and the terrain was dry. Add some liquids to either and forget it, get out the hook and cable. Some of the roads here are no better, except for being paved.
I’ve been here a little under a day, but this town puts my mind somewhere between La Paz, Bolivia and Esteli, Nicaragua. The comparisons with Esteli are obvious; same region, agricultural hubs, similar size… sister cities, really. It resembles La Paz in terrain and apparent infrastructure (the aforementioned traffic lights as well as several multistory buildings, supermarkets, boutique shopping and the like). I’m staying at the only hostel in town, as far as I can tell, La Buena Onda (US$8/dorm, US$30/private), which lacks kitchen access and wants US$9/large bag to do laundry by machine (much/most laundry in Nicaragua is beaten clean against concrete washboards by hand). This is 3X the going rate for laundry in Leon, but I think Matagalpa lacks “water security”, as the IMF types say, and the price probably includes a dryer cycle since the damp mountain air contraindicates line drying. I’m still suspicious of anywhere that rents you a bed, sells booze at a premium, but won’t let you b your own b. This is one of those places. There are lots of hotels in town (cheaper private rooms sit around US$15/night) as there seems to be a pretty well established tourist scene. We’re in coffee country, after all. There just isn’t much of a backpacker scene. The town feels downright sophisticated by Nicaragua standards; there are packs of joggers out in the early morning, the streets are clean(ish), the sidewalks wide(ish), the curbs are freshly painted yellow and drivers seem to care. In Leon drivers are constantly leaning on their horns just to remind you that they’re behind the wheel and every stop sign is treated as a “yield” at best. Here everything is much more orderly and, well, pleasant. Nicas walk dogs on leashes. Read that again. Nicas have dogs that they keep in their homes and they occasionally attach a leash to the dog’s collar and spend their time out walking the dog. This was not common in Leon. Is this common in Granada? I don’t recall seeing much of it, but I’d appreciate it if someone who lives there now could chime in. Somebody (probably the city but maybe the owners) even seem to clean up the waste.
The aforementioned blaring horns are a real irritation in Leon. The habit is long standing, but the horns used to be the little piezoelectric buzzers that are common, I believe, in Europe and Asia. I seem to remember an amusing article about “louder horns” being one of the modifications that had to be made to cars exported to The US, since Americans wouldn’t buy cares that couldn’t audibly assault those around them; too “faggy” I’m told. I’m not sure what happened (global economic forces of some stripe, no doubt, perhaps an influx of Mexican assembled autos intended primarily for the American market, which seems to have suddenly developed a taste for the smaller, more fuel efficient cars that have long been a staple elsewhere) but now the forest of chirps has been replaced by a cacophony of full on Yankee “HHHHHAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNGGGGGGGKKKK-KKKK”s and the air in Leon in filled with them. You feel it; not just the shudder that it induces, but the actual impact of the audible waves, like the DARPA projects to disperse protesters without the bad press you get with fire hoses. I miss it less than I miss the heat. You know what? Fuck Leon.
I could definitely spend some time here, but I won’t. I have a line on a sublease in SJDS that sounds perfect for my purposes, so I’ll be making my way there sooner rather than later. I’m told our old place now rents for US$400/month + utilities, a 33% increase over 2010.
Also, I can’t not shop. It’s a sickness. These cities are like neighborhood sized thrift stores and occasionally there’s something really nice for a dollar or two. I’ve had to raise the bar to “incredibly useful” before I’ll purchase something, otherwise I’d no longer be traveling light (I’m already carrying two pounds of coffee from Harvest House and that makes me feel like a schmuck, light-travel-wise).
The gym on Parque Morazan, Fitness Life (or something), is the best gym I’ve used in Latin America. Well, there was one that was better in La Ceiba, Honduras, but still. I’ve seen really beautiful gyms in these countries, but they’re rare and pricey. This place, which I just worked out in, was reasonable (US$20/month, US$15/month/person on a family plan, US$1.57/day; twice the price of my Leon Gym, but come on) and wonderful. All of the equipment seemed in top working order, with coordinated upholstery, a good range of stuff, Insanity classes (among others), great views of the city and surrounding mountain peaks, a juicebar, changing rooms, I think there were showers… it was on par with a better Bally Total Fitness (at least 10 years ago when I last walked into one).
I went to see an apartment here; furnished, kitchenette, medium sized fridge, up high with views and breeze, cable/gas/electric included but no internet, small, modest but serviceable. On a 6 month lease the rent is US$180/month, add US$20/month for month-to-month. The woman who owns the house is a delight. Ask at Buena Onda about the apartments next to the Women’s Center.