Monday, January 16, 2006

A little country that starts with an "N" and ends with and "a" and in the middle is "icaragu"

Gazing back into the mists of time... it's been fully two weeks since we went to Nicaragua. But this newspaper feels a civic duty to document these final few steps as Katherine closes in on every traveler's goal of visiting as many countries as she has spent years on the planet. (If we collect all seven Central American countries by the time we leave, she'll have it with one to spare. Nicaragua is number four of the seven. Once she hits 30 countries during her 30th year, she wins a free liter of the local watery lager at the flea-ridden Hostel International of her choice (Offer not valid in CA).)

We wound up going to Nicaragua mostly because Copa Airlines was running a big fare sale for New Year's, but the flights to Costa Rica and Panama were booked. We went ahead and bought tickets first, then checked the guidebook to see if there is actually anything to do in Nicaragua. Thankfully, there is.

Throwing around our American dollars as time was the more precious resource, we took a taxi from the Managua airport all the way to Granada. Not to be confused with the tiny island we liberated in 1983, Granada is Nicaragua's take on the "charming colonial town near scenic volcanos" genre which Antigua Guatemala has perfected. No shame in second place for Granada, though: It's got beautiful old convents and churches, a great main plaza for strolling in, a local delicacy made of spiced cabbage and pork rinds served on a banana leaf, and if that wasn't enough, it adds a lake the size of El Salvador to the mix.

We had two main tasks there: First on the slate was kayaking around the small islands that resulted from some long-ago volcanic eruption. Lake Nicaragua is big enough to develop some serious waves (and to support freshwater sharks!), but in the still water of the many inlets, a swamp -- almost a charicature of a swamp -- has developed. The water is completely covered in small floating plant life; the sensation was of kayaking across a carpet rather than a lake. There were gnarled trees shooting off roots and branches in every direction, creatively formatted flowers, and tiny jumping fish that one could catch just by putting a hand at the surface of the water and waiting for one to jump on. On slightly less protected islands, we saw an agressive spider monkey who made your faithful correspondant wish his rabies shots were up-to-date, more birds, and a fort that was built back when French pirates would sail up the river, into the lake, and sack Granada. Avast, ye lubbers!

The second adventure took us to Ometepe, the volcanic island in the middle of the lake. After dutifully avoiding them in Guatemala for months due to safety concerns, we took the "chicken bus" to San Jorge, where we could catch the ferry to the island. "Chicken bus" is the term used for the school buses that American school districts have deemed unsafe, which are then auctioned off, driven to Central America, repainted in gaudy colors, and then put in service on inter-city routes at far beyond capacity, blaring latin pop songs, leaving a wake of detritus and debris as people throw the trash from snacks sold on board out the windows, packed to bursting with people, market goods, and every now and again, the namesake chickens. To complete the experience, we each had a bottle of soda served in a plastic sandwich bag with a straw. (The seller can't give away the bottle with the soda, or they would lose the deposit.) I admit it: taking a "When in Rome" attitude, I threw my plastic baggie out the window. I'm not proud of it. I just got swept up in the latin flavor. On behalf of America, I apologize.

After the bus and another taxi ride, we took the ferry to Moyogalpa, the town on Ometepe island, and with Jesus's help, arrived safely. New Year's Eve was deciedly low key, as we sat in a near-empty bar enjoying the floor show of five-year-olds enraptured by sparklers and the musical accompaniment of max-volume American music videos on DVD, which transitioned over the course of the evening from the gangsta rap of Jay-Z and 50 Cent to the epic rock of Guns 'n' Roses' "November Rain" to several songs of 80's pop like A-Ha and the Bangles, and eventually, inexplicably, to 110 decibels of easy-listening AM Gold, like that one song that goes "Loving you/Is easy 'cause you're beautiful / Doo do do do doooo, oooh AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!" We were in bed by ten.

While that may have been an adventure in itself, the Official Adventure was climbing Volcan Concepcion, which juts out of the middle of the lake and rises to 1610 meters (almost exactly one mile) in altitude. In a venerable tradition that those accustomed to hiking in US National Parks may find peculiar, the "trail" went basically straight up the side of the mountain, with no apparent course-setting -- it was a deer path that enough people had walked up, or enough rain had run down, to clear a line through the jungle. About halfway up, the jungle suddenly ended, and we scrambled up jagged volcanic rock and diabolically placed scree. Once we got out of the jungle, we experienced the climate zones of fog, mist, cloud, rain inside of misty cloud, and innumerable others. Our guide, a typically lean young Nicaraguan, and the other tourist climbers that day, two surfer dudes from California, more or less ran up the mountain, periodically waiting for us to huff along a few minutes behind them. After four hours of climbing with nary a switchback, the guide declared it too dangerous to go any further. We felt a little cheated, until the guide explained that the top was really only 20 meters away and that you couldn't see anything there anyway, because the prevailing climate zone there was "dense cloud with fog and mist," and that the muddy ash at the very top was truly too slippery to climb. We weren't going to tempt any kind of "Into Thin Air" situation; we declared victory, snapped a photo of us sopping wet at the summit (of which all copies have been destroyed at Katherine's request and the Holla photo editor's enthusiastic assent), and began to pick our way down the scree fields. All injuries sustained were minor.

Eventually, the clouds parted briefly, presenting some disorienting views. Being on the very evenly sloped side of the mountain, then suddenly seeing farmland straight ahead surrounded by lake water the same flat gray as the sky, making the shore line look like a horizon line, can make one's head spin for just a moment. [As can run-on sentences with too many commas, which we hope to limit in the future. -ed.] Much to our guide's frustration, we stopped and enjoyed the only good views of the day before descending the rest of the way.

In an unusual twist, one of the surfer dudes was wearing fashionably low-cut socks, and could barely walk by the time he got down to the bottom; the backs of his ankles were rubbed completely raw. At which point we were informed that the bus that would take us the three miles back to the village wouldn't be running that day. Yet surfer dude was resistant to pay a couple bucks to get a ride in the back of a pickup. Ah, the budget-savvy backpacking world! We laughed and laughed. By that evening, our quads were so sore that we couldn't walk for three days, and this correspondent had to shuffle his way around the office even slower than is normally dictated by his role as a government bureaucrat, while the guy with the anklet socks was probably already out Surfing Nicaragua with some band-aids on his ankles.

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