The Shakes


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2014-05-30 05.16.55

One of the nicer smoothie shops in Leon (Nicaragua) and a shot of early morning San Juan Del Sur, near the church looking toward the beach. My protein smoothie (with ginger, banana and more, if I remember correctly) was US$2.35 and delicious.


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.

2014-05-29 09.20.21

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.






Here’s a take on the main Cathedral in town and two shots of the back garden here at Harvest House Leon Guest House.



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Pictured (poorly) above:

1 lightweight hat that I overpaid US$5.88 for at a tourist stand.  The brim is narrow but does a great job of keeping the sun off my fragile, pale outer layer. It looks less ridiculous than it should.
1 pair of Cubavera linen/rayon pants, baggy enough to be from ’92. Trust me, I was there.  I paid US$2 and they seem new.
1 pair of Royal Robbins hiking pants.  Wonderfully constructed, used, probably abandoned by some backpacker who reached the excessively hot stretch of their trip.  Perfect shape, no visible wear, US$10.
1 purple T shirt and 1 purple polo, both cotton/poly blend, both very comfortable thus far.  The T was used, the poly new with tags: US$2.35 and US$4.
3 polos: great Structure, I mean “Express Men” cotton/lycra shirt, polyester white, green and ambiguously branded tennis shirt (which I’m wearing as I type this) and a very lightweight cotton shirt that probably won’t last long: all three for US$4.71.

1 Pair of Avia performance shorts.  These have become half of my daily uniform.  They seem appropriate for swimming, but I haven’t tried yet. They stretch, breath and don’t show dirt.  New with tags: US$5.50

And finally, what debonair gentlemen in this part of the world might look like while enjoying an afternoon conversation.

All of these clothes (including, presumably, those in the last picture) where purchased here in Leon at a mix of new and second hand stores.  All in (5 shirts, 2 pants, 1 shorts, 1 hat) my purchases add up to US$34.44, $10 of which were the hiking pants alone.

Price of a beer in a bar: US$0.86/12 ounce bottle

Song currently stuck in my head: Plush (Stone Temple Pilots)

I’m traveling light and most of the clothes I packed were near the end of their careers. At best they could look forward to a boring retirement in a rag pile under the kitchen sink or in a special drawer for things to wear when I climb under the car, but instead I decided to give them one last fling. I tend to dress down on these trips, especially on travel days when I’m a one-stop-muggers-shop for a wad of cash, all my possessions and a US passport.  I also tend to dress in shirts with collars, as it gets you noticeably better treatment from the locals.  In the past I inadvertently dressed just like older Central American guys; button down short sleeved shirt and a pair of slacks. Sometimes my shirt was even a guayabera, just because I liked the look.  Old guys on the street would look me up and down and then lock eyes and nod approvingly.  The compliment meant the world to me, not because I was looking for acceptance but because I wanted to rip off their style and this indicated I was on the right path.  My shirts were usually from Goodwill or their slightly creepier counterpart, the religious militants over at The Salvation Army. If you’ve ever dealt with them at the organizational level, you know they take that “Army” part seriously; they have ranks and shit. They also have good prices. Anyway, I used to be able to buy up neat, clean collared button downs in a range of colors for less than US$2/piece. That fit my travel budget just fine. They were usually white, blue or light tan and tagged with names like Montgomery Wards. I’d take a little ribbing from the other backpackers, but nothing mean spirited.  Meanwhile their cotton Ts were mangled beyond recognition by backpack straps, excessive perspiration and aggressively repetitive, frictious contact with concrete washboards.  My shirts did just fine. They were

Since then I’ve given in to the siren song of high performance, moisture wicking polyesters and nylons, but I’m about to give up on them.  They make great base layers,  but it’s 100 degrees here and if I could peel off my skin (Nature’s Base Layer) I would. The good? They’re easy to wash, quick to dry and they keep their shape.  The bad?  They smell like someone filled your jock with unpasteurized cheese and hung it as a sachet. The smell washes right out and if you’re a “wear one, wash one” kind of traveler these are still the best option, but if you’re a “build a load of laundry and pay 3 dollars to have it done” kind of guy, like me when I do these 30 day visits, then these garments force you to seal your dirty clothes in a plastic bag to avoid filling you entire apartment with hamper odor. The shirts aren’t even comfortable in the heat.  The briefs breathe poorly.

As with anything (and perhaps more than most), your mileage may vary.  Exoficio has made a mint branding their shirts and underwear as wearable for several days at a time while traveling.  Other items have insect repelling and odor (bacteria) controlling nanoparticles “infused into” (“sprayed on”) the fabrics. These advantages will eventually wash out, but they’re said to last quite a while. I have experience with some of the higher end items, but only in cold weather. My sub tropical bus wear, as well as most of what’s in my pack, is chosen specifically to minimize the chance that I’ll care if it gets stolen or destroyed.

Here in Leon I feel a little under dressed.  I wear shorts, as do most of the gringos and many of they younger Nicas.  No one really bats an eye at that unless my knees are visible, but then they take notice.  They don’t scoff or anything, you just see their eyes dart for your knees when you get near them. I assume this is what it’s like to have breasts; no big deal. I don’t think I’m offending anyone, it’s just an unusual sight.  Since most of my shirts were coming undone, I decided to upgrade to some locally available apparel. Almost of the clothes in Leon fall into one of three categories; 1) used stuff that’s filtered down through outlets in the US, like Goodwill, and arrives in bulk bundles that are bought, sorted, displayed and sold. 2) New stuff that’s similarly filtered down through retail outlets in the US and 3) Counterfeit goods manufactured in the region (I’m guessing in the CA-4 countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, who have a trade agreement), knockoff Levis’ and polos embroidered with logos that would triple or quadruple their market value in The US.  It’s worth taking a close look at the black market apparel.  Sometimes it’s straight from the same assembly line, made from the same materials by the same workers as the real thing. Running an unauthorized night shift and selling the goods out the back door probably makes you more money (per unit) than the Nike contract your filling during the other two shifts.

So I went shopping.  I’m experimenting with some cotton/poly and cotton/lycra blends (yeah, I’m going to Hell, but after a summer in Leon I’m not sure I’ll notice) in hopes that they’ll keep their shape better than cotton alone. At the same time, old habits die hard and I’ve found some high performance stuff I couldn’t pass up at this price. Expect a picture or two on Wednesday of the new hotness.

If you’re a permanent beach dweller in a climate like this you can totally pare down to a couple of pairs of shorts, a sarong, a couple tank tops, a long sleeve shirt and a pair of sandles.  It’s attractive in it’s simplicity, but it also assumes your laundry gets done constantly.  I’d rather have one washer’s worth + one outfit.  It’s more to keep track of but so much less to worry about. Every few weeks or months I drop off a load, pick it up dry and folded and climb back into my hammock.

Trike Taxi


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These trikes are popular in Nicaragua and throughout much of the developing world.  They sip gas and beat the hell out of walking in the sun.  Here’s a shot of the cockpit, the craft itself and the scenery that rolls by.