I find myself writing this to all of you from the charming colonial town of Granada, in southern Nicaragua. It is a beautiful little town, with colorful stucco homes and cobbled streets, all the brochures talk about its tourist appeal. However, at dinner tonight, the truth of the hardships faced by so many native Nicaraguans painted a much more real picture of this town and land for everyone sitting at my table. We were about half way through our meal when two people, a young male teenager, and an older woman, walked right up to a few of us and stuck their hands into our plates stealing our food from under our noses. We were eating al fresco on the street, and from that point on, we noticed several others lurking behind our table, waiting to be given any leftovers we might have had. After all these years of globetrotting, not much surprises me anymore. This sure did.
I am just over a week into my trip traveling with Gap Adventures through Central America. I chose this company as they provide accommodation and transport only – leaving you to worry only about activities and areas of interest at each stop along the way. As I mentioned in my last email, this trip was very last minute, so I didn´t even really have time to plan or read up on where I was going. The itinerary looked very appealing- it was called the Volcano trail for one, and promised opportunities to hike, dive off the coast of Honduras, climb volcanoes, observe a lot of wildlife in jungles, and cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Sounded like my cup of tea.
So off I flew from Seattle to Guatemala city via Atlanta. It was a “red-eye” flight and I was very very sleepy when I arrived, especially after having just experienced a grueling 2 day test right before getting on the aircraft. I had a cab drive me to Antigua which was the first stop on my 17 day tour. It’s a beautiful little town and a welcome retreat from the noise, pollution, and horrendous traffic of Guatemala City. I checked into the little “posada” and took a well needed shower. I spent the next couple of hours wandering around the town, which has entirely cobbled streets, narrow footpaths, and colorful buildings. It was also the start of a Catholic festival, and many of the young boys and men were dressed head to foot in bright purple as the town prepared for the afternoon´s procession…which I got to witness right as it began in the town square. One could tell almost immediately just how devout the Guatemalans are, and what a source of comfort their faith is to them. After a long nap, I met up with some of my fellow travelers (unfortunately for me…most of them had already been traveling together for the past 3 weeks and formed bonds with one another…I was the new kid and have had a hard time feeling included) and went out for dinner. By around 9pm I was delirious from exhaustion and passed out.
This trip has been filled with early morning departures (the second day we left the hotel at 4:45am…its amazing how well I deal with mornings when I´m not at home in the States…I don´t seem to mind them at all!) and quite a lot of time spent on buses, taxis, and ferries. Lots of time to think (not so good for me), and lots of time to read (good because I brought the sequel to Pillars of the Earth – all 1000 pages of it and am loving it). Our first stop was to cross the border into the “Banana Republic” of Honduras (did you all know that?) and deal with the inefficiencies and tedium which has come to characterize many of the customer/service type interactions thus far. Bureaucracy. From there we drove on to the town of Copas Ruinas which is famous for its Mayan ruins of the city of Copas…the militaristic headquarters of the grand Mayan Empire of long ago. After setting down our backpacks and enjoying a wonderful lunch of a burrito the size of my head, a few of us set out to check out the ruins.
We ended up getting a tour guide by the name of Mario who ended nearly every sentence with “…and things like that” whether it grammatically suited the phrase or not. He was a dear old man, and explained that he had been working at the UNESCO world heritage site for the past 30 years, and had never missed a day. The ruins were impressive from the perspective of the quality of sculptures. It was not as grand as the Mayan sites I´d visited in the Yucatan, but the artwork was vastly superior. We were also lucky enough to get some close up shots of vibrantly covered Macaws.
It was so strange walking around that day in the relentless heat and humidity, thinking that just a short 36 hours before, I was completing at test at Shoreline community college…so weird. Its taken at least a week for my being here to even really sink in.
There are 10 of us in the group- from the US, Canada, Australia, England, and Norway respectively. Our tour guide is from Spokane. Small world, eh? I travel to Central America to get a complete change of scene…and my guide is a Washingtonian. Typical. That night we had a wonderful meal and then drank beers on the rooftop terrace of our hostel, retiring early as we had another early start.
We spent the entire next day traveling on “chicken” buses through the winding highlands to the east coast of Honduras where we boarded a catamaran to the Bay Island paradise of Utila. This ended up a hilarious adventure when we all decided to sit out on deck, and enjoy the fresh air of the crossing, only to also enjoy being constantly pounded by waves crashing over the side of the boat and drenching us all to the bone. We laughed without stopping for about 30 minutes straight, at that point it all got rather cold and our sense of fun was taken away by the knowledge that we were only 1-2 way there!
We arrived, shivering drowned rats, to this tiny little settlement that the next few days revealed to house an assortment of strange characters seeking escape from the civilized western world in one form or another. The hot shower felt so good that night…and our spirits were all raised by the best bbq I´ve ever had…all for a fantastic $7 which included an ice cold cerveza!
Utila is on the second largest coral reef in the world and I intended to make the most of it! I got to the dive shop at 6am only to be told that the vis would be pretty bad as the weather was calling for choppy seas. I decided to postpone my dive until the following day and went in search of coffee.
A few of us decided to go on a snorkel trip which included a visit to a couple of uninhabited “Robinson Crusoe” like islands, one of which was only 200 metres wide by 400 metres long. Fantastic. It was leisurely day where we all got pretty much roasted by the sun, snorkeled to our hearts content, and lay out on pure white sand and drank beer. Very harsh indeed. It was so beautiful: but I found myself just wishing for someone to share it all with (other than my new, somewhat lame travel companions).
I got to scuba dive the following day : the conditions were perfect. As this was also a prime Whale Shark season, I was told that there was even a decent chance of spotting a Whale Shark for a snorkel encounter. After having had Whale Sharks elude me twice so far in my travels, both on the West Coast of Australia and Mexico…I did not want to hype myself up too much in case I was disappointed again. Alas, the sharkies did not come to us…as was explained by our very eccentric divemaster from the UK, Adam, who insisted on STANDING on the roof of the boat as we pounded the sea at full speed, screaming at the top of his lungs “NO!! NO Whale Sharks today…I know when they´re around coz I can SMELL THEM!! ARRRGGGHHHH!!” Very odd, but entertaining.
It was great to be diving again; though the memory of Jennifer still haunted me as I checked my regulator, o-ring, second stage, and tank…feeling tears come to my eyes. The dives on Utila were rather shallow…we didn´t go down more than 60 feet. I´ve been horribly spoiled in my diving experiences…I found the reef to be somewhat lacking in fish, though the diversity of the coral itself was outstanding. All the same, I´m still always filled with that momentary exquisite realization when I dive that is outside of the visual stimuli of wildlife itself- its just that blatant realization of “shit! I´m underwater…and breathing air!! This is fantastic!”
The next two days was almost entirely traveling, again in a variety of long, uncomfortable buses. Something I´m used to thankfully. The highlight for me was after arriving in the Honduran capital of Tegulcipalca, we experienced the kind of hair raising cab ride that made you feel you were living in a Jackie Chan movie. Our driver was completely insane, about as insane as the traffic, noise, dirt, crowds, and general nastiness of this sprawling megatropolis which I think in all my travels can only be rivaled by Saigon or India for its intensity. I could never live there.
Our driver would not stop for stop signs. Why bother, when you can risk yours and your passengers lives by flooring it through intersecting moving traffic??? And why believe that you should stick to one side of the road? Especially when you´re forced to wait….no! Just pull over into the opposing lane, floor it around a blind corner doing 50 mph, and then simply slam on the brakes for dear life when at the last possible second you see a truck heading straight for you in a near death head-on collision forcing you to put the car in reverse and drive backwards for nearly 3 minutes? And lest I forget, I also learned the importance of short cuts. Why drive a normal street when you can cut straight through an open public market, driving so fast that stall keepers and small children are forced to run for their lives to get out of the way, and there´s barely room for a bicycle to squeeze through let alone a car? Craziness.
When we got to our hotel, my 20 year old Norwegian companion just looked at me, finally exhaled, and said “Well. They don´t do that in Oslo.¨”
We arrived in Granada yesterday evening. Today I spent much of my day in this Internet cafe and taking a tour of Lake Nicaragua. Will write again soon!