The Same Old Thing

This blog entry about the events of Friday, December 28, 2007 was originally posted on January 26, 2008.

DAYS 37-38:  If you’ve known me since my formative years in suburban New Jersey, or if you’ve paid attention to the comments on The Global Trip blog since its beginning in 2003 (wow, has it been five years already?), you are probably familiar with the name “Elaine,” who always ends her comments with the catch phrase, “I’m jealous!”  This supposed jealousy towards my traveling isn’t really warranted because Elaine — who I’ve known for years and is practically my cousin — is quite well-traveled herself, having spent many extended weekends living it up somewhere else in the world, in South America, Europe, and Africa.  She had been to Central America a few times before, but never to the country of Nicaragua — and it was her idea to be there for the turnover from 2007 into 2008.

NICARAGUA IS RELATIVELY NEW on the tourist radar, although more and more people are flocking there since it’s a bit cheaper than its Costa Rican neighbor — plus more and more people are getting over any stigmas that the name “Nicaragua” has been associated with, you know, with its violent past of guerrila warriors shooting guns in the 1980s.  Perhaps this lingering paranoia is two-sided, for it was a Nicaraguan that stopped to interrogate me, just after I’d cleared immigration at the airport.  I had been stopped by a plain clothes federal officer who was suspicious of me, and at first I thought I might have fallen into a scam from a corrupt or phony cop trying to get a bribe like I’d been through in Siberia, but people were still around and I figured I was more or less safe — I was only being interrogated by the feds this time, again, like the time I landed in Cairo and also looked “suspicious”Interrogated by the feds again, I thought.  The same old thing.  I’ve done this before.

“Uh, I don’t speak Spanish,” I told the Spanish-only-speaking officer in my American accent.  To try and weasel out of the investigation, I pretended not to understand much Spanish — which, upon looking at me, only made him more suspicious.  Rather than get frustrated and let me go, he brought me over to the nearby police office to get some translation help from another officer — a stern woman with short hair. 

“[Where are you coming from?]” she asked in Spanish.


“[And where have you been before?]”


“[And for how long?]”

“Seis dias.  Por Navidad.”

“[How many bags do you have?]”

“Dos.”  I pointed at my big bag and my carry-on backpack.

“[How long are you here for?]”

“Quatro dias.”

The fact that I had comprehended and responded in Spanish, only made the two of them more suspicious after I’d told them I couldn’t.  They took my passport and scrutinized it, looking for something — anything — but they had nothing on me.  The stern female officer closed my passport and handed it to me with her fingers. 

“Gracias.  Uh, thank you.”

It was nighttime when I cleared customs at the airport in Nicaragua’s gritty capital of Managua, one hour before Elaine’s scheduled landing time from Houston.  I say “scheduled,” because it was delayed by over an hour — not that I could get this information without pulling some teeth; there were no display monitors showing departures and arrivals like in any normal airport.  Adding to my suspicious activity, I had to walk through the behind-the-scenes bowels of the airport, trying to find information from airline offices.  Fortunately they spoke English.

ELAINE HAD TEXTED ME updates to my phone and lo and behold, she, like Stephanie, had met a guy on the flight from Houston.  What’s the deal with Houston? I wondered.  Is that where guys go to meet cool, well-traveled girls?  Elaine’s new friend Steve was actually a friend of a friend back in New York, and he too was headed our way — not to gritty and arguably unsafe Managua, but to relaxed Grenada, about an hour and a half away by shuttle bus.  Grenada is to Managua what Antigua is to Guatemala City, a charming Spanish colonial town with brightly-colored exteriors, a central park plaza with horse and carriages, all flanked by a cathedral (and of course a Christmas tree).  It’s where many travelers based themselves near the capital before heading towards volcanos, the beaches, or where we’d head next: Isla Ometepe in the middle of the Lago Nicaragua.

Steve had his own transport, home-stay and Spanish school arranged, so it was just Elaine and I, along with about six others, on a Paxos shuttle to Grenada.  After riding through the darkness on the main road to Grenada, the driver dropped us off at Libertad, a hostel that Elaine found on the internet and made us a reservation at.  She got us spots in the dorm, much to my chagrin.  “I don’t know if I can do dorms anymore,” I told her.  Elaine was a backpacker tried and true — one that loves to jump in photos I may add — and hadn’t outgrown the idea of shared bathrooms, or the other annoyances that come with dorms (and age).  “I really don’t have the tolerance for the sound of rustling plastic at five in the morning anymore,” I told her jokingly, but in all seriousness.  (Any backpacker can tell you how that sound at that time is very common, no matter where you are.)  Elaine laughed at my comment at the time, but was also annoyed when three bitches came into the dorm around three in the morning, turned on the lights, and made a lot more noise than rustling plastic. 

“As soon as that happened, I thought about what you said!” Elaine told me, giggling the next morning.  Alas, she didn’t have to go through the other annoying thing that night: wait in line for the solitary bathroom at 3 a.m.; Libertad, like Tina’s in Caye Caulker, had a person-to-bathroom ratio in the double digits. 

But our first night in Grenada wasn’t a total drag; it could have been a lot louder if we’d stayed at the hostel across the street: El Club, which is a weird sort of concept: a super loud bar with a DJ and dancefloor, all right next to the sleeping rooms.  How anyone could sleep in that place I don’t know, but perhaps that’s the point.  Elaine and I checked it out our first night — it was inevitable since the music echoed through our own dorm across the street. 

“I wonder if this is reason why people said Grenada was so great,” I told Elaine, explaining that I’d met a bunch of people on the road telling me that “Grenada is ten times better than Antigua” and “Grenada is a big party.”  Around us it was the same old thing; a generic bar/club scene with a crowd of gringos and locals — but we speculated that many people didn’t come from New York or a lively city, and a scene like that was perhaps the best they’d ever have.

“I feel like I’m at a Filipino party in the mid 90s,” I said, reminiscing with Elaine about the usual parties we’d frequent ten years prior, filled with dancehall reggae music.  Not that there was anything wrong with it; we had a decent time at El Club anyway, with Cokes and Toña beers, plus, supposedly a picture someone took of us is somewhere on  Also, we befriended a lone Irishman who looked like he could use some company; his name was Jerry and he was going for his doctorate in archaeology. 

“Can we call you Doctor Jerry?” Elaine asked him.

“Well, I won’t be a doctor for another nine months.”

“How about ‘Nine-Months-Until-Doctor Jerry?’”

AFTER A RESTLESS NIGHT, morning was a bit calmer, at least in the early hours after sunrise at the hostel.  Elaine and I, and a guy from Brooklyn were sure to make more than the sounds of rustling plastic with the lights on in retaliation of the three rude girls who were still trying to sleep in. 

After a quick breakfast tamale, Elaine and I went out to explore the town.  It wasn’t nearly as lively as everyone had hyped it to be, and so we decided to make headway towards Isla Ometepe in the middle of Lago Nicaragua — a highlight for many people I’d met on the road, including Sebastian (Morocco).  This was prompted after we’d asked at a local travel agency about getting there, and they telling us that getting there sooner than later was better since most places would be booked up for New Year’s.  For piece of mind, we called ahead to one place for a reservation and, to my chagrin, secured two available spots in the dorm.

THERE ARE TWO WAYS to get to the island in the middle of Nicaragua’s biggest eponymous lake: 1) the long ferry ride from Grenada or 2) take a local bus to Rivas, then a taxi to the ferry port to take a short ferry ride.  The former only ran a couple of days a week, and with poor timing, we could only do the latter, and so we packed our bags and lugged them to the bus station.  Riding the chicken bus was the same old thing albeit a bit more fun with happy-go-lucky Elaine with me, egging the two little boys outside our window to jump for food.  On the way to Rivas, a funny man wearing a Santa hat came on to entertain us with a harmonica and percussion can — the song was funny apparently because he got a lot of laughs singing, “Aye Margarita… Aye aye aye aye, Aye Margarita…. Oh Margarita…” in a suggestively sexual, but funny way.

The chicken bus pulled into Rivas, and not surprisingly, we were assaulted by taxi drivers knowing quite well we needed a ride to the ferry port across town.  Together with three Canadians, two school teachers and a 23-year-old daughter, we arranged and packed into a little car at an agreeable price — Elaine and I squeezed up front and made our driver Edgar smile a cheesy grin (picture above).  The ferry wouldn’t depart for another hour or so, so we all ended up at a little family-run food shack that served yummy home-cooked food, orange soda, and beers

“Look, it’s Jim Henson!” I pointed out to Elaine, nudging her to look over to the old white-haired, bearded man at another table.  “He’s alive and hiding out in Nicaragua!”

“Hahahaha!” Elaine laughed.  “It is Jim Henson!”

“He’s alive and he has muppets in his bag,” I said.

All snickering aside, we actually had to talk to Jim Henson (real name Bob) when Grace, the older, hippie Canadian woman asked to comandeer his local cell phone to make a reservation somewhere.

“This guy says everything on the island will be booked,” she told us.

“We already made a reservation,” I told her.

“Man, you guys are always one step ahead of us!”  Grace asked me nicely to use what limited Spanish I had to make a reservation for them, even if it was a dorm.  Luckily for them I got the three of them a private room for four, which they’d split three-ways.  “You can use our private bathroom,” she thanked me.

Grace was more animated on the ferry ride to Ometepe, sharing her crazy stories of being a hippie backpacker in the early 80s with the crazy non-internet-savvy travel set.  Not surprisingly, she cited the use of many drugs, although some being prescription ones that she uses to keep healthy nowadays.  At any rate, she was a real character to say the least. 

LAKE NICARAGUA is one of those really big lakes, so big that when you’re there it looks like an ocean stretching out to the horizon, like the Great Lakes of Michigan.  Fortunately, Isla Ometepe was only about an hour away from the port at San Jorge on the mainland, and the ferry captain (sans cheesy smile) got us there in no time.  We passed the time watching the seagulls follow closely by the ship — one passenger even grabbed a close one with his bare hands! — and chatting with Grace and other characters we’d soon be on the island with.

Isla Ometepe, the volcanic island with two standing volcano craters standing tall on both halves of land, was where we made our landing, not only us travelers but many local families, some in their own trucks and cars.  One family was particularly happy traveling in the back of a pick-up truck, not for the ride but mostly the fact that someone was blasting 4 Non-Blonde’s immortal “What’s Goin’ On,” a song that is surprisingly international.  (As a matter of fact, it was one of the big beer drinking songs at Oktoberfest.)

Yet again we commandeered transport across the island to our final destination of the night, Hostel Hacienda Merida, which was more like a mini lake eco resort like the eco lodge in Honduras.  With interconnecting bungalows, including the big dorm house, a common area, internet table, and dining area with inexpensive nightly dinner buffets, it was a great place for a backpacker to chill out for a while — the flashpacker too for that matter, with many travelers toting their laptops using the free wifi.  The shared dorm situation might have been the “same old thing” again — albeit the rude awakenings or high person-to-toilet ratio — but the friendly community of travelers made it all worth it.  It was that first night at the “summer camp” that we started making bonds with the people that would make the rest of our stay in Nicaragua a memorable one.

Best of all, that first sunset at the camp that dusk was as awe-inspiring as it was relaxing, as we sat out on the pier to watch the sky change colors.  Sunsets may be the same old thing in many of the places I’ve been, but they still make even the most jaded traveler smile

Next entry: Agua In Nicaragua

Previous entry: Panamania

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Comments for “The Same Old Thing”

  • I haven’t proofread this one yet, but here it is for now…  Two more to go after this one!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/26  at  12:24 AM

  • Thanks for the latest entries!  I just checked back and found some new ones to read.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/26  at  08:57 PM

  • I enjoyed Grenada, but then again, I was only there for a few hours. The time I flew into Managua from Houston, we were VERY delayed and had no bags for almost a day. The time I flew from Costa Rica, no problems… interesting, I say… Houston is the late one… I need to look at your pictures… Are you only on Ometepe and in Grenada?
    Or, are you back and I’m just now realizing this??

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/27  at  05:47 AM

  • Yeah, just read the date and the post date… I’m behind. Oops.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/27  at  05:48 AM

  • I missed you guys in Grandad by like one or two days, I think!  I was there January 4 or 5?  You came back through there, right?

    I liked Granada but not as much as Antigua.  Did you find that the Nicaraguans speak spanish really fast?  I was making nice progress with my spanish in Guatemala, then I get to Nicaragua and I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying!

    Posted by sara  on  01/27  at  04:26 PM

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This blog post is one of thirty-nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: The Central American Eviction Tour* (*with jaunt to Colombia)," which chronicled a six-week journey through Central America, with a jaunt to Bogota, Colombia.

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