Nicaragua Trip (Oct 2014)

Palmer Family Blog: Living in Central America For a Year

Jan 2 Entry (Nicaragua Part 2 of 2)
Boom!! Mortars started going off a block away at 4am during our first morning in Granada back in November. Was hard to sleep. I didn’t know why they heck they were shooting them off but at sunrise, I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and rolled out the door, making my way to the front desk of the condo we were staying at. Turns out the Christmas festivities had begun that inaugural morning and, being a very religious city and country, they honor Mary with the mortars – and the countless fireworks that people shoot off randomly in the streets and the central square.

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(checking out a volcano atop the famous bell tower in the city of Granada)

Granada is a beautiful city – one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas from what I was told. Very colorful and the inhabitants are full of life… albeit, Nicaragua is poorer than Costa Rica and there are many beggars looking for your dollars. That was a bit of an eye-opener because even the kids were quite aggressive and in-your-face, asking for food and other handouts. Was tough on the heart at times seeing these youngsters.

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(armed and dangerous at a bank entrance… needless to say, it’s a very safe building! lol)

Mind you, one evening at a local ice-cream parlour we had bumped into two guys around 12 years old who were evidently street-savvy and looking for opportunities. Incessant in their begging, one of them looked like he was going to take a run at Ryan to steal his ball cap. I made sure I was between them. They ended up following us back to the hotel – we didn’t know if they had knives… but they backed off eventually and receded into the streets. You always had to be aware of your surroundings in Granada. Speaking of which, we kept away from the wooded areas in a certain sector of the city where lots of machete attacks happen (we were warned by a Canadian couple who run a bakery – they used to live in Canmore… small world!)
Back to the condo… it was a 2-bedroom but there weren’t enough beds for all of us so I grabbed the cushions off the couch and slept on them on the floor in the boys’ bedroom. Multiple wakeups! And it kinked up my back a bit, but when the first mortar round went off at 4am, I pretty much jumped out of my deep sleep, consequently unkinking my back into normal. Good!
There were so many wonderful things to do in the city with the family – a few of which were:

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(Andrew with his friend on the chocolate tour… chocolate smeared all over their faces. Wasn’t part of the tour – just things kids do!)
1. Chocolate Tour – was great! There are no negatives to making your own chocolate and the instructor was fun! Not to mention the chocolate smearing on the face, the chocolate dancing to the Gods around the cocoa beans… it was everything chocolate. And we learned that white chocolate isn’t even chocolate!! Betrayed… I never knew that
2. Massages – for as low as $30/hr and they’re just as thorough as any spa in North America
3. Climbing the narrow bell tower – tallest structure in the city for beautiful views of the volcanoes, city and nearby lake
4. Horse & carriage ride – covered a lot of ground with these guys
Money-wise, it’s much cheaper in Nicaragua than Costa Rica (in Granada, it appeared to be about 30%-50% cheaper). For example, I had popped into a corner store to pick up a 380 ml of water and pop (coke). Less than $1…! I mean, these locals are living very precariously on subsistence (the civil wars in the 70s-90s really hammered their economy). But everyone seemed happy enough. Very friendly… but you have to learn to negotiate with these guys. Case-in-point: to get from our hotel to the downtown square, a lady with a horse and buggy initially said she’d do it for $16. I suggested $10 and she quickly accepted. Coming back from the square that night, I made a bet with Catharine, suggesting I could get us home for as little as $3. Sure enough, a rider accepted. Lots of disparity! One last example – a cab ride from our hotel to the bus depot cost us $6 U.S. For another family who we were vacationing with at the same hotel, he negotiated his fair to $1. And regarding breakfasts – a $10 breaky total for a family of 5 (eggs, bacon, fruit bowl, toast) in Nicaragua would equal a $25 breakfast in Costa Rica or a $50 breakfast in Calgary… all things being relatively equal.
After many lively meals (one of which involved a 3-man salsa band that had no problem getting the patrons up and dancing!), touring, activities and people-watching, it was time to head home on the dreaded Tica Bus. The good news: the border crossing took ½ the time. The bad news: I made my way to the bathroom on the bus at some point but realized the toilet didn’t work. I mean, there was no water in the toilet bowl, and nothing happened when you tried to flush it. I took care of business anyway… couldn’t hold back any longer (my apologies to the young American backpackers who were sitting at the rear).
And now I return to Luis Miguel (re: my previous blog entry). Turns out this guy is a Puerto Rican singer, icon, beloved in many Spanish-speaking countries. Above us in the bus on the video screens, his videos were played endlessly for hours (even a chick-flick would have been a wonderful escape!). I couldn’t escape the guy. And the videos! Holy…. from the 70s and 80s it seemed – corny, glossy, a wee bit outlandish, his hair caked in gel… always with the same type of storyline – boy meets girl, boy overcomes challenge, boy gets girl… hilarious! I cringed through most of them… until there was so much of him that I eventually fell under his spell… but enough on that. That fascination is over now. Time for me to move on.
Next topic – owning a vehicle in Costa Rica! (buyer beware! It’s a risky area)

Dec 14 Entry (Part 1 of 2)

I never thought I’d be watching Luis Miguel videos (Puerto Rican singer, icon) for hours on end during our Nicaraguan trip (in October 2014) but I’ll get to that later. Nicaragua was a very interesting country to visit – and to get there, we took the Tica bus to reduce all the administrative issues that can happen when deciding to drive your own vehicle across the border from Costa Rica. How wrong we were! Lol (it would have been faster by car)

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(carriage tour around the city of Granada)

First off – obtaining Tica bus tickets requires a plethora of emails back and forth with the Tica agents (providing passports, forms, confirming times/dates, visa info, etc.) After all this is done, the agent then emails you the tickets and then you have to find a printer in the village to print off the tickets. In theory, it shouldn’t take any more than a few hours’ worth of admin. For us – ½ a week. With two days before our departure date (after the agent had finally emailed us the tickets… $54.60/person return trip), I did one last check of the tickets and noticed the agent had booked us on the wrong day and bus time… frustrating! I spent another ½ day with a different agent getting the tickets adjusted via emails. Eventually new tickets were emailed and all seemed to be back on the rails.

We took a shuttle to Liberia (2 ½ hrs from Nosara) where we’d be picked up by the Tica Bus. Not on time, though! Darn. But it arrived eventually, 1 ½ hrs later. Another family we were travelling with also had their tickets booked incorrectly by the Tica agent so they didn’t make it onto that bus… they had to wait for the next one hours later.

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(a 3-man Nicaraguan band… they knew how to get the people up and dancing!)

The bus itself was fairly modern and comfy – and it was packed! We were one of the few Caucasians on it – the rest being locals. And the guy I was sitting beside reeked of liquor. He was passed out for a lot of the ride (about 5 hrs to Granada). But I made the best of it, pushing his knee back into his space against the window to attain a comfortable position. Our two boys were across from me and Catharine/Jenna were a few rows ahead.

After an hour or two, the border loomed up. You haven’t lived until you’ve gone through a Nicaraguan border crossing! The guards, all armed and loaded with steely gazes (I felt like I was being herded into a WWII German POW camp), watched your every move while we moved through the multitude of lineups. You had to pay import taxes, departure taxes… and here’s an example of how the transaction works at the border (lots of lawlessness to go around!) – I gave the cashier (behind a bullet-proof panel) $40 ($7/person x 5 for departure tax = $35) expecting $5 in return. Nothing. She looked at me as she handed the receipt over, I looked at her (with a tired but middle-aged steely gaze which wasn’t terribly menacing)… I spoke in my best Spanish (which was English) and she gave me a blank look. But hers was intentional. The $5 I was expecting in return wasn’t much (just the principle involved)… and then we had to forget about it and take off for the next lineup (to pay the next tax… $14/person for the Nicaraguan arrival tax) b/c the bus doesn’t wait for long (in normal circumstances). I thought she just made an honest mistake but when I looked at the receipt, it showed a $35 cost which she had looked at. And that, my friends, is how it’s done! Most everyone warned us to bring small bills and use “exact” change at the border b/c it’s rare you get change back… slightly (?!?) corrupt.

And then there was the gauntlet of people who herd all over you, trying to sell you trinkets of every kind or hammocks, food, pop, watches… and others with hands through the border fences, yelling at you, trying to offer you “interesting” exchange rates on U.S./Nicaraguan money – with each of them holding a huge bundle of cash in plain view… and people pressuring you to pay them money to get you through the border quickly.

And you have to pay money for ANY type of service at the border. We had to go to the washroom and, sure enough, a lady was sitting there at the entrance saying we couldn’t go in without paying $5 each (didn’t know if she was legit or not. Believe me, there was lots of illegitimacy going on). Maybe it’s the Scottish in me – I couldn’t justify paying $5 to use the can (don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind spending money, but I don’t like wasting money). Besides, at that point, I only had a few $10s and based on past experience, I wasn’t expecting any change back from her. So the boys and I went behind one of the derelict buildings near some woods and relieved ourselves when no one was looking.

And then we waited… and waited… outside in the heat… and then a downpour blew in and all the passengers are huddled underneath a roof of another run-down building. I looked at Catharine and she looked at me… we had a good laugh. But a better laugh was soon to come. Our bus officials advised us to take all our luggage out of the bus and place it on a long wooden table for an inspection (we’re talking 40-60 ft long). So everyone’s luggage is laid out and we’re expecting the officials to pick through it all. What really happened – one old guy walked down the line of luggage looking at each piece and nodded okay at various points. He didn’t even touch them! Lol Then he gave the “ok” for everyone to grab their bags. The officials placed them all back in the bus. Explain that one to me…!

Finally, after 2 hrs at the border we were put back on the bus again… only to go through some type of fumigation as a handful of officials outfitted in masks, walked up and down spraying the bus with machines that looked like leaf-blowers. And the liquids were blowing back on the men who didn’t have any protective clothing on. I was thinking they needed a review of their safety guidelines… pretty lax!

(you feel very small in the universe when you go through such an experience as all this… lol)

But we had made it through the border and were now in Nicaragua! It was clear sailing now as we barreled down the road on the groovy Tica bus… and then one of the bus officials walks down the aisle to collect more money from each passenger. I have no idea what the money was for and I didn’t care to ask at that point. I just handed him the amount he was requesting. No receipt was issued… no surprise.

“Nicaragua Part II” for the next blog entry!

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