Monthly Archives: June 2013

Finding Granada

When last we saw our intrepid explorer, he had just stepped off a cramped bus somewhere in Nicaragua…

My first impression of Granada was not glowingly positive. But walking just a few blocks, I arrived at the parque central and took in a whole different vibe. Granada was founded as a Spanish colonial outpost- a few years ago, Karen and I visited the Moorish city it’s named after in southern Spain. While much strife has crossed these avenues, the citizens have rebuilt and restored key buildings after each conflict. The central park is bright, clean, and bustling.

Looming particularly large in Nicaraguan history is William Walker, a Tennessee native who in the 1850s set his sights on no less than conquering all of Central America. After his army was turned back in Santa Rosa, Costa Rica, he sought refuge in Granada. However, he hadn’t made many friends in the region. When the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan armies came knocking, he fled. Naturally, his men set the town ablaze on their way out.

The residents seemed to have patched things up nicely, ready and waiting for us photo-snapping tourists.

Basking in colorful colonial architecture is nice and all, but I was worn out from that bus ride. After dropping my bag at the hotel, I stumbled back to Parque Central seeking a snack… and found one of my favorites: plantains- in this case, plantain chips with cheese.

Plantain chips

So simple, so delicious. Rejuvenated, I made the most of the remaining daylight. Climbing to the top of Iglesia de La Merced’s bell tower reveals a boffo view all the way to Lake Nicaragua and beyond.

You call that a view? Ha! The guidebook tells of a fort, Fortaleza La Polvora, with “the best view in town.” Walking west to find it, I noticed the city’s painted veneer wearing off, block by block. The fort rests in a scruffy part of town, with ramshackle homes resembling those along the bus route.

Ramshackle abodes

Turns out the fort was closed, so no “best view” for me.

Back in the park, where painted buildings abound, I stumbled upon a good old-fashioned singing/musical/dancing exhibition/competition/spectacle (rural Nicaragua’s version of a reality show?).

Hmm, that clip wasn’t exactly up to my usual standards of hard-hitting video journalism. Actually, I just wanted to get back to the hotel, where I discovered… the nap. A monumental invention, dating back to- well, a long time ago. Ninety-five degree days… in Latin America… and until now I’ve forgotten to take a sueñecito. A nap.

OK! I’m back! Full of energy! Oh, yeah, it’s 8pm. I treated myself to a fancy dinner: a trio of fancy enchiladas and a glass of wine for US$13. Well-rested and well-fed, I wandered the streets a bit, snapping night photos around the park.

Night walk

Yes, this is the sort of walk that would terrify many fearful Americans. No, I didn’t feel at all unsafe.

Granada was drifting off to sleep, and soon enough, so was I.

Next Stop: Nicaragua

If you’re like most Americans of a certain age, when you read the name Nicaragua in the title your first thought was: Sandanistas! That term sprang into my mind when I first met Fernando in the ’90s and he described his frequent vacation trips north. It became a running joke between us: me feigning fear of shadowy revolutionaries run amok; him threatening to drive me to the border and spirit me across.

Now he finally had his chance.

Profesor Fernando had the weekend off and a hankering to take me to Nicaragua. What luck: I would be visiting a new (to me) country with a native Spanish speaker to show me around.

My luck ran out the day before we were to leave, when Fernando checked his passport. It was valid but didn’t have at least six months remaining, as required for entry into Nicaragua (and many other countries).

I’d gotten it in my head that I was going to Nicaragua, so I was going to Nicaragua. I just wouldn’t have a tour guide. In other words, I was going back into Next Stop: World mode for a couple days. About damn time.

On the wings of the worldwide web, the relevant sections of the Lonely Planet guidebook arrived on my phone (no laptop on this trip). I booked a hotel in Granada, the historic town that was my destination, and started a To Do list.

On Saturday morning, Fernando and I set out for the border, or La Frontera in Spanish (really, he’s been spoiling me by chauffeuring me all over the place). I wondered what the crossing at Peñas Blancas would be like, especially after reading this article. Not only does the author claim that “a jaunt over the border is at best a sweaty and shuffling two-hour inconvenience, at worst a full-day Dantean undertaking.” He also says:

Peñas Blancas is the single largest drug transit point in the Americas. The majority of the cocaine that ends up on a street corner near you in the US moves from Colombia to the shores of Costa Rica, then runs up through this border crossing into Central America and overland to Mexico.

You would never guess that an international game of cat and mouse worth tens of billions of dollars every year is going on right at this border. Last year alone they confiscated 10 tons of cocaine at La Frontera, smuggled in the fake gas tanks and hollowed-out tires of the trucks. Now you can understand why each eighteen wheeler is searched so carefully and they’re backed up for miles, sometimes waiting three days to cross.

Oh, hey, there they are: the lines of trucks.

Line up for Costa Rica

Fernando zips around them and pulls into a parking lot. A quick conversation with a Costa Rican soldier, and we pull forward into a space. Fernando will escort me as far as he is allowed.

Those people yelling at us from behind the fence are currency changers. Apparently they used to hassle people, so authorities placed them behind a fence. How orderly. It’s always a good idea to enter a country with a bit of local coin, so I exchange some colónes for córdobas. Fernando gets me a good rate.

My shadow is about to fade in the Nicaraguan sun: Fernando can go no further. He describes the circuitous path I should take on the other side: keep left/right at the first/second building, go to the office on the right/left of the path (or something like that), then look for a white door that leads to the bus stop, where I can get a cheap bus ride north.

And then he’s gone. A Costa Rican guard waves me through without fanfare.

Border path

I shake my head at the completely unmarked path before me, then shuffle forward, resisting the advances of a man waving papers at me. He wants to “help” me fill out the customs form, in exchange for a tip. I simply follow the trickle of pedestrians ahead of me. No sign of millions of dollars worth of cocaine. But then, there wouldn’t be, would there?

At the open-air office, a humorless official collects my one dollar municipal fee. Figuring that can’t be all, I get into the other line everyone is getting into. I pay another fee (US$12), feeling a bit ridiculous as I try to remember where I keep my dollars, my colónes, my córdobas. They accept any of the above.

Where's the white door?

Emerging into the sunlight, I try to look nonchalant; I have no idea where to go next. No trickle of pedestrians to follow. Wasn’t there something about a white door? I wander past a couple buildings that seem to be closed shops, eyeing up the wall that runs the length of the road. Over there: one might call that a white door. I shall go through it!

Bus station wannabe

Yup, that was it. The noise of bus engines, the shouts of hawkers, and suddenly the taxi drivers are all over me, offering me rides to Granada (that’s where all the tourists go). I seek shelter alongside a ramshackle restaurant and eat a sandwich from my backpack, really just an excuse to get the lay of the land. All the buses are behind the building… so that’s where I go and start asking for the bus to Granada, in Spanish fit for a five-year-old. A couple bystanders try to explain something to me that I don’t quite get, and then a taxi driver latches on to me. Do I want to go to Granada for $40? No. How about Rivas (part of the way to Granada) for $15? How about $10, I counter. We have a deal, and I fold myself into his diminutive sedan. While my border crossing experience was no trip to Disneyland, neither was it two hours long nor even vaguely Dantean. And for that I am thankful.

Usually, before I journey to a new (to me) country, I spend a few nights curled up with a guidebook, learning about the nation’s history and culture. I didn’t have the chance this time, which is too bad because the driver is a chatterbox, regaling me with his thoughts on politics and economics. It’s hard enough for me to follow Spanish; harder still when I can’t quite piece together the words I do understand. Wait, Daniel Ortega, wasn’t he the president in the ’80s? (Yes, I would later confirm, and he’s president again now. ¡Viva la Sandanistas!) I think the driver was saying that the politicians have brought positive economic development- like those wind turbines on the horizon- to Nicaragua but have kept most of the spoils for themselves. In other words, politicians are the same the world over.

Lovely RivasAfter 20 minutes or so, we arrive in Rivas and drive right up to the bus terminal. Not wanting to whip out the stack of twenties in my pocket, I ask to pay in córdobas, but the amount he requests doesn’t quite match the exchange rate I expected, which I call to his attention. “The exchange rate is different on the street,” he says earnestly. I’m not going to quibble over a buck; I pay him $11.67 for my $10 cab ride.

Finding myself once again acting nonchalant while trying to figure out what’s going on, I instantly put the puzzle together. Back at the border, people looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for the bus to Granada; that’s because you need to take a bus to Rivas and then catch a bus to Granada. I’m sure they tried to tell me that.

RivasAs much as I want the next bus to Granada, I want a bathroom even more. The first person I ask points over there, so I go over there. The next person points through there, so I go through there. The next person- well, now I’m afraid I’m going to get lost, so I double back. I consider peeing right here on the side of a building, but hey, this isn’t India. Mercifully, a bathroom presents itself, and I’m back at the bus stop in time to snag a window seat.

Plenty of time, as it turns out. We sit inside the stifling bus, apparently waiting until it is full (and then some) before setting out, around noon.

All aboard to GranadaAs the bus bounces along the dusty road, I try to ward off heat-induced hallucinations by concentrating on the roadside scenery.

Nicaragua is visibly scruffier than Costa Rica. Ramshackle houses with corrugated metal roofs line the dusty roads in this largely agrarian country.

The conflict between the Sandanistas and Contras halted the nation’s development for over a decade. Of course the US was there to boost the good guys- we just couldn’t decide who they were. At first, Jimmy Carter gave money to the Sandanistas, but as the political tides changed, Ronald Reagan had a better idea: sell weapons to Iran (!) and give the money to the Contras. The past appears to be prologue: in recent years election results have been questioned, opposition parties have been silenced, and US aid has been offered and then withdrawn. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. (Panama and Costa Rica are the richest.)

On the plus side, riding the bus for a couple hours costs just over a dollar.

Scruffy Granada

The bus lurches to a final stop. Passengers disembark and disperse. I find myself on a street corner, squinting at dilapidated buildings through a tangle of power lines. I am tired, hungry, worn out. This is where I’m gonna spend two days of my vacation? Has Fernando steered me wrong?

There’s one way to find out. I walk into Granada.

Learn to Surf the Ken Way in Three Easy Steps!

Beth & Bob

After a long day spent molding young minds (into the shapes of puppets), I looked forward to relaxing with my high school comrade Beth and her family. To be honest, I didn’t really know her that well, having drifted out of touch since high school. She’s got a biology degree and was in a band in Alaska? Really? And she’s married to a pilot/mountain climber/adventurer? Really?!

A slice of the suburbs

That biology degree came in handy when Beth, Bob, and I ventured behind their idyllic (practically suburban) house to hike a trail through the forest. Beth launched right back into Montessori mode, teaching me about monkey combs and, um, whatever that other thing is.

Though my time was running short, one cannot depart the Nicoya Peninsula without going surfing. This is Costa Rica’s Surf HQ, its Hang Ten U. Bob rides the waves just about every day. Beth has taken lessons. Me? I had never even been raked over a choka bommie in the pocket of a corduroy party wave. I have no idea what I just said.

After numerous runs, sometimes utilizing unconventional techniques developed on the spot, I am proud to convey to you my surfing method in three easy steps:

Surfing Step One

Surfing Step Two

Surfing Step Three

A couple times, I managed to ride the wave in a kneeling position, approximating the view of one of the many dogs who can surf better than I.

At this point, I would like to show a clip of my hosts’ son Clayton effortlessly riding a wave. However, documenting this achievement proved more difficult than I expected.

All I can offer are my thanks to Beth and the gang for a memorable weekend.

And a non-moving image of the aforementioned surfer dude in action, with his dad looking on.

Surfer dudes

Back to (Montessori) School

Beth and I went to high school together, when we looked like this.

Visions of high school

We were both in Chamber Choir, which looked like this.

Chamber Choir

Which means we went on the big choir trip to Russia, Poland, and Hungary in 1987, which looked like this.

Red Square back in the day

(How Miss Hartzell herded all those troublemaking kids through the heart of the Soviet Union, I’ll never know.)

Fast forward a couple decades, and Beth announced that she and her family were moving to Costa Rica for a year. At the time I vaguely thought, “Hey, we should visit her.” And now, here I am at Playa Pelado, waiting to meet her.

Beth, husband Bob, and their two sons showed up as promised, and we shared a pizza, memories of Russia, and observations about Costa Rica. As she told me about her teaching gig at a Montessori school, I mentioned that I would love to sit in on her class. She got a devilish gleam in her eye.

Back to school

The next morning, for the second time this week, I found myself teaching in a classroom. This new batch of students was a bit younger and way more energetic than my university audience.

My love of puppets, be they Cambodian, Chinese, or Hensonian, is well-known. With the students just starting a unit on Asia, Beth figured this was the perfect opportunity to (a) have a new face in class, (b) talk about puppetry’s Asian origins, and (c) make puppets!

It was a blast. The kids- there are so many of them- jumped into the project with unbridled enthusiasm.

With a sympathetic, you’ve-put-in-your-time smile, Beth gave me permission to leave at lunchtime. But some students had yet to start their puppets, while others had unattached arms or missing eyes (the puppets, not the students). My judgment possibly impaired by the heat, I stuck around a while longer, encouraging the kids to make different kinds of puppets- how about a dragon? a robot? an animal? Most stuck pretty close to the examples I had shown them or what their friends were making, while a few creative types ventured into new territory.

Hard to beat these guys for sheer creativity.

In a room filled with more energy than a nuclear power plant, Beth and her fellow teachers maintained an easygoing control over the pint-sized atomic particles bouncing around the reactor- er, classroom. At one point, she calmed the frenzy by breaking into song: Dona nobis pacem, an old Chamber Choir favorite. One by one, the students dropped what they were doing and began singing along. That the words are Latin for “grant us peace” is probably no coincidence.

Grant us peace

When the students began lining up to go to their daily Agriculture lesson, I made a break for it. I was sweaty, dehydrated, exhausted. How teachers (and parents) manage these little goofballs all day every day, I’ll never know.

A funny group of puppetmakers

The funny group photo

A serious group of puppetmakers

The serious group photo (oddly similar to the funny one)

Later, Beth reported that one of the kids said, “We like him. We should find a job for him here.” I’m not going to quit my day job (actually, I don’t have a day job just yet), but it’s good to hear that after a long day of puppetmaking.