Wednesday, August 12, 2009

empty ATMs, volcanoes & fruit barges, oh my!

The lovely MJ is posting today as I am either at the pool or beach soaking up as much sun as I possibly can before the week is out...she's got quite a story for you about her adventure in Nicaragua. I'm not sure I would have been as calm as she was in this situation. Hang on tight....and make sure to check out her blog if you already haven't!!!

I spent the spring semester of my junior year at la Universidad de Costa Rica in San José, Costa Rica. To do this, I took a leave of absence from my regular university and applied to “la U” as it’s affectionately called and to Butler University’s study abroad program which handles the credit transfer and housing arrangements. My classes were all in Spanish and included such exciting topics as Photography, Costa Rican Literature, History of the Industrial Revolution, and Art History of Latin America. (Cleverly, I had planned ahead and held off on fulfilling my elective requirements until this semester.)

There were only three of us who had come to la U through Butler University, and we were all placed with families nearby one another in San Pedro, a suburb of San José. Anne, Chaunty and I stuck together a lot in the beginning—three gringas in an exotic, tropical land.

For Semana Santa, the week before Easter, the three of us decided to take a trip across the border to Nicaragua.
Our first stop was Granada, a gorgeous colonial town to the north of Lake Nicaragua. While there, we went to the open-air mercado, marveled at the elaborate, gold-embellished basilicas, which stood out starkly in this impoverished town, and smoked hand-rolled cigars while lying in hammocks.

After a couple of days in Granada, we decided to go to la Isla de Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua. In preparation for our trip, we purchased some snacks and stopped by the ATM. Empty. The banks were closed and wouldn’t refill the machines until after Semana Santa, according to the locals.

Oh well, we thought, we’ll get money on the island, and we hailed a taxi to take us to the dock where we could catch a boat to Ometepe. The scene around the dock was unlike anything I had ever seen before—there were hundreds of nicas, wearing tattered clothes, wading in the water, most fully clothed.

Once we docked on the island, Anne, Chauntay and I took a public bus—a dilapidated, old school bus—to our hostel. I found myself in a three-person seat with a man with his two grandchildren and a woman with a sack of limes. There’s no such thing as personal space in Latin America. I watched out the window as we traveled down a dusty, bumpy road, passing by single room homes, with windows without screens or glass, dirt floors and no running water or electricity.

Our room at the hostel was a rugged cabin with bunk beds and an outdoor shower. On our second day, Anne and I decided to hike one of the two inactive volcanoes on the island. There was a guided group hike, but Anne and I insisted on hiring our own guide for the hike. Presumably as punishment for our superior, we’re-not-like-those-stupid-tourists attitudes, the guide took us up the more challenging trail to the top of the volcano. Parts of the trail were practically vertical; we had to climb using tree roots and vines as hand and foot holds. One part actually was vertical—we had to scale it using a rope attached to a tree at the top of the ledge. At a certain altitude, we entered a new micro-climate—a cloud forest. The mud was almost knee deep, and I slid, falling on my ass several times. When we finally made it to the top (panting), we were disappointed to find that the view of the island was completely blocked by the clouds in the sky, and garbage and funk had collected in the pool of blue-green water that had long replaced the fiery magma from the volcano’s active period.

Muddy and tired, we descended the volcano and hitched a ride to our hostel on the back of a pick-up truck. We met back up with Chauntay at dinner and she informed us that she had talked with the owners of the hostel, and we wouldn’t be able to pay our bill with a credit card and that there were no banks or ATM machines on the island. Luckily, we were able to scrounge our bags and scour our pockets for just enough U.S. dollars, Costa Rican colones and Nicaraguan cordobas to pay the bill. We didn’t have enough money for the ferry back to Granada though….

Defeated, we asked one of the hostel workers what we should do. He said that there was a much cheaper way off the island, a lancha that we could walk to if we had to. So that’s what we did. We bummed a little bit of cash from a fellow traveler and set off on foot down a dusty road, carrying our monstrous packs on our backs with the hot sun beating down on us.

We got to the docks where the lancha was supposed to leave from and found a surprise. The lancha was not a passenger ferry at all, but instead a big, rickety commercial fruit barge. Young men with dirt under their fingernails and sweat rolling down their foreheads were heaving huge sacks of naranjas, limones y más onto the boat. We were not only the only gringas at the docks, but the only women too.

I timidly approached one of the men working and asked how much for a ride to land. He looked at me funny and told me the price. We had just enough money for the lancha and to buy two cokes to share!

The boat ride was slow and the accommodations were minimal at best. Religious sermons in Spanish blared through the speakers, and the young workers, covered in grime were lying, napping among the sacks of fruit.

Anne and I figured “when in Nicaragua, do as the Nicaraguans do,” and we laid side by side, using the fruit sacks as pillows. Spiders and other insects crawled on our skin, and the humidity was close to intolerable, but we slept. Chauntay on the other hand just stood around looking nervous for the entire trip. When we finally reached the shore, I think she actually kissed the ground.


M.J. said...

Hope your having a great time at the beach! Thanks again for letting me guest post on your blog.

To add a little TMI to this "vacation" story, I wound up with a nasty case of what I can only assume was amoebic dysentery after going to Nicaragua. After about 2 weeks back in Costa Rica and some continuing seriously nasty stomach issues, I was all ready to go to the emergency room when suddenly it just cleared up. My stomach has been "touchy" ever since. There's probably some kind of scary creature living in my intestinal tract.

Lora said...

this is an awesome story!

JW.BW said...

WOw, thats an interesting story!! You guys really lucked out with that ride back to shore! I think I would have panicked a bit. And I definatly would NOT have been chilling with the spiders, I just cant handle those creep crawly things!!

Stylo said...

Whoa MJ... Thanks for sharing! Even the TMI part... Sounds like a great adventure all the way around... well except for the stomach issues.

Travel & Dive Girl said...

WOW - what a story and what great memories!

Krystyn said...

Wow! What a story to tell!

PS I visited Granada when I was in Nicaragua, too.

Dani said...

I'm jealous of your look so happy laying with the fruit and spiders!