Backpacker Politics

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Central America Caribbean » Nicaragua
January 29th 2012
Published: March 19th 2012
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It must be something in the air here but whenever a simple game of anything is played there is always some people who take it too seriously. Two weeks earlier a Tico (Costa Rican) came across the table during a beer pong match. Now I had a German bitch all in my face over a game of Jenga. I get hounded all day by locals but do I have to put up with this with what I thought was my own kind?

I entered Nicaragua after an 11-hour journey from Tamarindo to San Juan Del Sur. Again sarcastically thinking, “Yeah central America is so easy to travel.” These two towns are surfing destinations. In between them is the border with Costa Rica. Up until here I had entered into a country on a more rural post but here I got in on Highway 1 (this is the highway that goes down the whole Pacific Coast of the Americas, minus the Darien Gap in Panama)

I get off the bus at the border and ask these two other backpackers whether they know where to go. They were as clueless as I was and we joined up. They were two 20 year old girls from Canada and Australia. This was their first ever land crossing and it would be my longest wait for a stamp since Israel. At least in Israel they had seats and hot girls in uniform. Here we had the blistering sun beating down for 3 hours (with about 45 mins of shade) These things you come to expect at time to time but from Costa Rica, the wealthy one of the region, you’d expect more.

Another hour at the Nicaragua side and we were through. A few firsts happened on this border. One, was they had people selling the immigration papers you need to fill in with your basic information, some were going for $1 each. I find it mind boggling that this stuff is given the okay. That has never, ever happened in any other border crossing I’ve been to. (Don’t go buying just wait till you are at the desk.)

The second one was when we exited, I got stopped and they said that we have to pay a $1 town fee to enter. They had made tickets up with stamps on it to make it look official. I call their bluff and we walk the long way round to get a taxi for $15.

I had grand plans for Nicaragua but with my body asking for a rest it turned out to be Tamarindo. If I was able to move one more time it would have been San Juan Del Sur. San Juan Del Sur is a lot more chilled. The beach is not as nice and it costs about $5 to get a boat to another beach. There are nice restaurants on the beach though so that makes up for it in a way.

We got our accommodation up a hill a bit out of town called Naked Tiger, a mansion design made for parties. It was Saturday night when we checked in and we were straight into the drinks. The rum of choice here is Flor de Cana and for $4 for 375ml it’s quite easy to get use to. My night has some blanks in it and that is because by the time I had hit the hay I was up for about 23 hours straight… It’s the only way to spend a night after a long border crossing day.

I didn’t do much the next day the NFL Conference Finals were on and I didn’t want to go out of my way to go to the beach so I stayed at the pool and went out at night to have Texan Ribs at the Texan Restaurant. Okay not local but sometimes you have to do these things and these rubs were even better than Texas.

The hostel scene was one of those ones where a bunch of early 20’s think they are being all cultured because they are getting to know the local lifestyle by hanging around a tourist friendly place. They say they “get to know the locals” but those local generally have hung around a bunch of tourists already so it’s a bit distorted. Also “getting to know the locals” is more to do with a local herb. Generally these locals are able to hook up the cultured seeking tourist with parties that is generally reggae playing or some guy swivelling a stick that’s on fire or in South Americas case Capoeira. Just because a local can help you get pissed easier or can get you the next batch of cocaine doesn’t mean you are getting to know the place.

This place was incredible, the last night I was there some guys were going to join a group of us to have some ribs but then couldn’t make their mind up. The new batch of cocaine came in and they wanted to make sure they wouldn’t miss out. So about 5 people were going in the free shuttle to town than off it, than back on… It was like I was around a bunch of 2 year olds.

Sometimes the people you meet make a trip a bit more special other times they are boring and predictable and you just want out. A scene I have never been into was left behind and I headed for Granada. I am meeting my sister and her fiancé in a few weeks so I was forced to rush this part of my trip and I was back to the ‘I must see everything as quick as possible’ type mentality.

The first ride was on a mini bus that was not express. Along a dirt road that just would not end. Stopping and starting to pick up and drop off. A Canadian couple in their late 40’s were having their first real travel experience instead of the resort style trip.

It was a great indicator as to what level I am at with these buses. Where as they would get up out of their seat, yell out to one another about something like an “ox and cart is coming!” I’d sit in my seat squashed up with no facial expression like a local. When they got their camera out and pointed it out of the bus window to take a shot. I kept my hands to myself. When the guy got up to give someone a seat than every time a seat was available he’d try and manoeuvre his upright body around the aisle so someone else could sit. I stayed put. A local eventually told him to sit down already.

I must look like a bastard sometimes to new travellers. It’s a look out for number 1 mentality except for a few exceptions like when an elderly person comes on board. They get help with the baggage up the stairs and to their seat, which is vacated if necessary. In our culture you are almost not allowed to do it in fear that the elderly person sees you as a sick pervert who preys on elderly people (okay over the top their but it is rare to see our society help the elderly now with common courtesy.)

I moved on from this bus to my first real chicken bus. I’ll get to the logistics of it after but it turned out to be the smoothest ride and quickest ride. I had bitched about Central American transport since I got here and for the first time I could compliment it and it’s from the crapiest form of transport that gave it to me.

It took me from Rivas to Granada. Due to the schedule I missed Ometepe an island with two volcanos. From the other side of the lake it looks good but Central America is loaded with volcanoes so it doesn’t take long to forget that you missed one.

Granada was an instant hit for me. An old colonial town it was once the jewel of Central America. Founded in 1524 it’s the oldest Spanish built city in the region. Large restoration is in progress with many looking well kept with freshly put on paint that varies in bright colours to provide a vibrant atmosphere.

The main market is an imposing green structure combined with the narrow streets made even narrower by the tarpaulin stands that houses local produce, clothes and electrical bits and pieces. Try the pieces of fruit that come in plastic bags. The green mango is interesting as they put spices in them. A unique way to eat and taste of fruit.

I got there late afternoon and it was in this time I realised that really only a few hours is all you need to get a grasp of the place. If you haven’t seen an old Spanish colonial city before than it is worth longer. The numerous churches that are mostly derelict on the outside are quite nice. With shredded paint falling off the outer walls you don’t expect the inside to look brand new.

The other catch here is that it is a colonial city and they are living in it doing their everyday thing. It’s an open museum in a way. Not as big as other places in the world but there is only really one tourist street with restaurants, bars and cafes with a few in the surrounding streets. I saw this at the end of my walk so perhaps that’s what attracted me at first. My first impressions was of a real place (although tourism is reality I hear you say but you get my point.)

The next day it was time to move on and hit Leon an old colonial town again but the main venue to go boarding down a live volcano. Again a smooth transition from bus to bus and within a bit less than 3 hours I was in Leon. I am starting to get what people are saying now re-transport. It can be quick and easy to the next point.

Compared to Granada, Leon is not as good, its not bad just not as photogenic overall. There is still some good spots especially late in the day if you go to the yellow worn down church called Inglesia de la Recoleccion. It glows when the afternoon light hits.

When I got off the bus I met these 2 Canadians and we joined up to go to our hostel. We took a cycle rickshaw, which seems to be popular the further north you go. They were meeting a friend and the 4 of us went out for dinner and a few drinks.

It had taken over a month but I finally felt I had reached Central America. So far I just keep on bumping into masses of tourists. It is high season so I’m not sure what I was expecting but I was expecting to get a real Latin feel and Leon finally gave it to me.

First up the hostel Via Via plays Latin music out the front in its high ceiling café so the music just sounds perfect. Then we had dinner in a place that played Latin music then after we went to a bar which had live Latin Music. Encouraged by this new turn of events we put down a bottle and a half between the 3 of us and then some.

The next day was dedicated to building enough balls to slide down a volcano with a piece of plywood. Its one of the main reasons to come here. The idea is to go to Cerro Negro (720m). The black volcano and youngest volcano in the area. It costs $23 plus $5 park fee to do it. It was voted 2nd in the 50 thrill seekers bucket list last year (2011).

The tour is pretty good as it incorporates a few extra things that are added bonuses. The bumpy road out goes through the local farming area, which is full of rich volcanic soil. The road is blocked off at times by annoying locals trying to do their thing like using their ox and cart full of stuff that helps them get by. See the mode of transport to take the tourists out is what appears to be this massive unnecessary truck that holds about 20 people. What must the locals be thinking when they first saw of this monstrosity going back and forth every day of the year?

The other bonus is that even with that massive truck its not big enough to get you to the top before you slide down. This means you get the joy of lugging your board and other gear like, protective suit and mask, up the volcano.

About 5 minutes before you hit the park the truck stops for the best view of the volcano and it does look intimidating with the sharp decent. It’s the only volcano in a series of them that is pure black hence the name.

The view from the top is something, with the original crater spewed out from the side the flow of ash stops abruptly where the black changes to green vegetation. Steam still comes out with the last explosion being 1999. Lava cannot be seen from the top so even though it was nice, boarding was what I came here for.

Not one who can proudly scream success when it comes to thrill seeking of the adrenalin kind I still felt I had to give it a go. Generally I always find a way to stuff things up so that was my concern as rumours of broken ankles, collarbones and massive lesions were talked about on the way to here over the past month.

We kitted up in bright orange suits with goggles that were so scuffed up you couldn’t see anything. This could be a good thing so you can’t see how quick you are going. The guide let the girls go first and then told the guys how to go faster. This would be the downfall for most guys.

The board is a wooden, almost toboggan style and you sit on the back. Your hands are holding a handle that is attached to a rope that attaches to the front of the board. The brake and direction is your feet where you lightly tap the volcano with both heels to stop and if you go right, tap with the left to go straight again and vica-versa.

Pretty simple! So lets go!! Two at a time the Belgium guy next to me started pretty much in line with the track a thin worn out area going straight down. I had to manoeuvre the board by swivelling back and forth until momentum started so he was half way down before I got going.

The moment goes in a flash with bits of black volcano spraying on your face, your hair and when a smile comes on your face into your mouth as well. I’d say I was going a fair pace by the time the volcano drops to 41 degrees. This is the point of no return. There was a point during the around 20 second adventure where I felt in full control. Testosterone must have built up at this point and I took the guides advice on how to go faster.

See there was a speedometer at the end of the run and a board at the Bigfoot Hostel, which has the fastest speeds. 89km/hr was the time to beat. I wasn’t expecting to get anywhere close to it but it encourages you to go faster to see what you can do.

I put my feet off the ground and on the board. This was roughly the same time that I saw the Belgium who started on my left and was now in front of me and going to my right. He was on my track and crashed. I think I was off course anyway but I went well left from him and ended up on his course and got a massive chunk of the volcano and at a point where I felt I could duck and roll I let go of the board and failed not only at another adrenaline activity but failed to register a speed clocking 0km/hr… OFFICIAL!

I picked up my board incorrectly (this smooth pad that helps you go quick was scorching) as I rearranged to complete the last 15 or so metres of the track (… oh so close to the finish too). I walked to the oversized truck after my limp finish and saw one of the guys earlier with a massive graze. Apparently he flipped and even with the full length suits it didn’t save him with a massive graze down his arm.

A bumpy ride back despite the massive truck happened again. We had to manoeuvre around those bloody locals again doing their day to day things. Gosh and they try and make it better by having there cute kids wave and run after you with big smiles on their faces. But on a serious note this massive truck doesn’t really help the bumpy road does it?

We got a few free mojitos at the bar when we got back to get us all in the mood to party. Latin America really do fail to do a good mojito I remember this feeling in 06-07 but a few free mojitos was all I was to drink for the night. I was undecided whether I will go out or not. I didn’t really feel I overly liked the group I was on tour with bar a few and the Canadians were there so maybe.

A game of giant jenga was on and finished I decided why not have a game when the next game was on offer. Now I also have to point out that all day I had a hangover and there were two people that just erked me. No fault of their own just that the personalities they were just…. Oh I don’t know.

One was an Australian girl that had to be involved or had an opinion on everything and how it should be done. Her voice was like a yell without prior coughing to get whatever is restricting out. I was so close to saying, “COUGH! For fuck sake! COUGH!” So I couldn’t say anything because she meant well and is a nice person. She did say however to the guide at the volcano “Is that steam coming out of the volcano? Look is that steam?” I’m being harsh there.

She organises how many people are playing, its 9 people and after who knows how long its my go again with not many moves left. I go for a ballsy move thinking there is no consequences here and rip the piece out. After almost working, the top half slowly collapses. I was told later I could have tried to keep it up… (That’s not jenga…)

Within an instant everyone is saying I have to buy them a drink. I’m like, “Yeah nice one, nice banter but I wasn’t born yesterday.” But than it got a bit more aggressive. Some still kept the banter going whilst others were like I just literally robbed them of money or committed a crime. “Poor form” I was told. I’m like, “What are these people serious?”

After saying, “If they were the rules I wouldn’t have played.” I was told later that they were the rules and that’s why they were pissed off. I just said I was playing put my hand in and after waiting ages for people to put their hand in I went off to get my drink or I don’t know. I just didn’t hear the call the girl with the voice I tried to ignore all day (finally successfully it now appears) said. But this comment would outcast me from a section of the group for the rest of the night.

Now the beers are not that much so I was only going to be down probably $5 but I don’t know I just don’t think that stuff should be done. If these were really close friends that I get along with than sure. Mainly because they would have realised that I didn’t hear and would have had the decency to explain.

But now I was like, “No I’m not giving into this peer pressure. This backpacker politics, in a desperate need to get pissed they have to howned some guy for half a beer. This is the other thing they were getting half a beer so why bother?

At this point of the trip to I was on an extreme budget, the credit card will be used extensively for the last month. With that even with the cheapness of alcohol here I have to be diplomatic with my choices from now on with whom I go and get pissed with.

This German bitch came up to me soon after and she shitted me all day from the moment I said hello to her waiting for the boarding tour to leave. She was that quintessential German the movies take the piss out of. I swear that at the end of session in bed she’d sit up and study through memory and critique the performance and than say, “Hmm Ja Ja Ja I have sort about it and ja sis was good sex.” (I wish you could hear me interpret that last quote.)

Anyway I digress, she comes up to me about half an hour later and is in my face pissed off that I didn’t pay for some beers. “Ja okay now I am aboaut to get another beer should I be paying or are you going to be paying.” I say, “No I don’t think so” Politely enough I and the two guys I went out with the previous night thought and she laid in.

“You know that is really slack of you to not do it.” Finger starts pointing, “You know I lost the game before and I paid up and I am a woman you are a man.” (I didn’t play the first game and didn’t see her buy drinks) I reply back “Well that was your decision to do that I have made my decision.”

She was still at it. I say, “Look I am on a budget and $5 is too much for me.” She raises the voice even more. “So am I but I paid! You should pay!” “No I don’t. Who are you to know what everyone else’s budget is? Not everyone’s budget is the same. Yours might be more than mine I don’t know.” She cuts me off. “Everyone here will think you are tight.” “That’s fine I have no problem with that.” She storms off.

I was so close to laying on one of the biggest F bombs I’ve ever laid. Mainly because she was so disillusioned that someone would dare go against the backpacker code that if a group of people say you need to buy them a drink you pay up. I wanted to tell her that what she is doing is worse than anything I have done.

Fancy having to be hounded at every bus stop being protective of your belongings all the time. Yet in the safe haven of your fellow travellers you (German bitch) kept hounding a person, which has forced the recipient of the barrage (Me) to treat you the aggressor (German Bitch) like some desperate poor person on the street. Yes I do have the money love but I’d much prefer to give it to someone who needs it more than you and your stomach, which I sure got its fill by the end of the night.

In fact if it weren’t for my friends from the previous night I would have been completely ostracised for at least till the end of the night. A group of about 20 people than moved to another bar, which I thought okay last nights music was really good. I went along and the live band was just playing western music so that was me finished for the night and I walked back.

I definitely can tell a generational change in the backpacker world or that could well just be me. Maybe I am outgrowing the scene? I am very close to handing over the mantle. I’ve dedicated 10 years of my life saving and travelling and so has the time come? Especially in Central America I have rarely met people I’d say I would be friends with. Together with the a lack of connection with the locals. Okay my Spanish is terrible now but still I couldn’t speak most languages around the world yet still got something out of most regions I’ve travelled.

I must have lost the true understanding of what it is like to be a backpacker with a blinkered view of the world. And that is what its like here in Central America. Another day I got told off by a young backpacker like I committed a crime when drunk waiting for a bus. I have learnt to strategically litter. Sounds stupid but there are areas in places you can litter and it will have a higher chance of getting picked up when no bins are around. I’ve learnt this in less fortunate countries but explain that to some girl that’s visiting their 2nd country outside of Australia.

Try and find the airspace to explain that if you think that my strategic littering (Nicaragua is very clean in the towns actually) next to a café that is clean, targeted towards the western tourist is not going to be cleaned up in the morning. Some people may say you should just hold onto it. But its not humanly possible to have done this for 10 months in Africa and other developing countires for every piece of paper. You have to think outside the square and think what has a higher chance of being cleaned up instead of landing in the gutter. I could go on about things like this. Like how rubbish bins get thorwn out on to the streets but what’s the point.

I was feed up with having to be around young people with poor communication skills so I had two options, which resulted in a flip of the coin. Go for the more expensive, comfortable and longer wait or the local way and get going. I chose and flipped the local way, the more adventurous way, to get to El Salvador from Nicaragua via Honduras.

The local way is generally a chicken bus but as a sign of progress Nicaragua has express mini buses, which are generally less comfortable. That was my first bus for 50 minutes before the real deal. A traffic jam was not ideal as my flip of the coin meant instead of having the backpack in a compartment at the bottom of the bus it was resting on my legs. Eventually we arrive and again a straight connection. Because of the small distances they go pretty frequent no waiting between 2 hours and 24 hours like in Africa.

This time I got the whole treatment. The dirty white bus that is a close resemblance to the USA yellow school bus, was leaving. There are two entry points, the front via the passenger side and the back from its rear emergency exit door. Since the bus was already moving, my backpack was taken to the top. The bus is beeping saying “Get in” but I aint going in until I see the backpack getting tied up. It does and then I jump in at the rear.

The back is a squashy affair where the big moment happens. In the efforts to claim footing the daypack with all my major belongings, laptop, camera, external hard drive etc. is on the ground. The assistant points to the racks on the side above the passenger’s heads. Like, “Why don’t you put it up here? It’s safe as bro!”

This is where I presume thefts happen. See even though you are in a tight spot you won’t finish off in that spot. Standing room is a constant move as people go in and out on a regular basis so you’ll probably end up somewhere further to the front by the end.

A large silver handrail is down the middle, which would reach about my forehead. The whole time I had my bag near my feet keeping an eye on it regularly. My wallet is always down the front of my underwear. Standing is actually pretty comfortable. The view is pretty ordinary as the only view is the eruption of luggage spewed out on the rails like 24 pack of toilet paper, rice sacks and other small bags. This far outweighs the volcano view outside…

With the standing means no cramping up although eventually you do get a seat and the legroom is not that bad - Far better than the mini vans. Luck was not on my side when the natural progression is when a person leaves from the window seat you get up from your seat let them leave than take the window seat.

When this happened to me the mother carrying her baby had a leak coming from the cloth. I look at my new seat and it has this liquid glistening on the otherwise dirt filled seat. A puddle for my bag and feet topped it off. So I wipe it down and think, “Yes! This is what I want! A great… great flip of the coin!”

We arrive and a guy is straight on with good English saying he’ll cycle me to the border and all this other stuff. “No price you give me tip.” He quips whilst my bag was already on the bike. “How much?” “No you decide just tip at the end.” “Okay fine!” I grab my bag to indicate no bullshit. He says, “Okay vente!” (20 – about 95cents.)

I ended up giving him a bit more because he did help me out when there was a problem with yellow fever certificate. Instead of saying I needed it, the immigration guy tells me to read a massive piece of paper in Spanish of which I thought futile.

I get through to Honduras and the young officer at the bridge couldn’t be bothered going through the stamps and asked for some money. I tell him I don’t have any, all local currency is gone. He points to the bag of which I ignore. Giving up, I was on my way. It wasn’t too long before I was on my mini bus to Choluteca the 4th biggest city in Honduras

There was nothing exciting about the place to start with. Just a bunch of concrete buildings with a lack of design more so put up through necessity than art. But I felt I was travelling again. I opened my private room, my first one since Christmas I see the dirty walls painted in white on the top half and a light green on the bottom half. A isolating fan with no protector on it, a toilet with no seat. I was home at last.

This is what its about just walking the streets stuffing up the translation as you try and buy some of the best cheese you could have in the Americas. Seeing people appreciating you giving their town the time of day. Unlike the touristy spots which loose its realism.

So the bumming about is over I know my kind and its not hanging around a touristy place for days or months on end. This might be the only time I ever hit up Central America, I am only months away from working full time again and living like a normal person. Lets make the most of it dribblers; there surely are some fascinating things to explore in this pint-sized region of the world. It’s never too late to get started.

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15th April 2012

This blog made me realize how little I am interested in the backpacker scene. Hanging out in hostels and pubs with other backpackers isn't necessarily my idea of a good travel experience. I'm surprised you even bothered to talk to this German chick. What she did was something very German: she tried to teach you a lesson, Germans just love to do that, even if they're not a teacher, you're not their student, and both of you are not inside a classroom. I don't think I would have been able to keep my cool as well as you did in that situation. Too bad Central America seems to be overrun by that type of idiotic tourist, but luckily one can usually avoid them by going to places that are not hyped by LP, which is still quite easy, even in smaller countries such as Nicaragua.
17th April 2012

Thanks Jens for you support
Yeah their is a whole undiscovered area in Honduras and Nic's but that needs a bit of mental strength to get through. At this point of the trip I wasn't prepared for it. Too close to Africa.

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