Current Location: La Bueno Onda Hostel, Matagalpa, Nicaragua
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.