nicaragua

The Paperwork And The Money

Written March 1, 2016

When you ride south from Granada, Nicaragua you are along the shore of massive Lake Nicaragua, where fresh-water sharks swim, and you’ll also find the tallest island volcano of any lake in the world, at about 2,000 meters.  It was hot when we left at 7 am, and when we got to the border crossing into Costa Rica about an hour later, we were sweating, even in our mesh riding gear.

The cops motioned us into a shaded area, where an Aduana guy (Customs) looked at our bikes and issued us each a official-looking piece of paper to take to the next station.  We rolled 100 meters ahead and parked where the cop pointed, then I went inside and started on my Passport stamp out of Nicaragua.  All went well until I got to the window where I should have been given a free form to fill out, but the kid outside wanted $2 for it.  I asked the lady behind the glass for a form, but she just pointed to the kid.  I wasn’t going for it.  I returned to Jalene, and we agreed to let a “fixer” help us through the process.  Hector went so far as to help us through the Aduana process, but I still had to walk back to the beginning and get the correct signature on the official-looking paper for Jalene’s bike.  After Aduana and Hector told us we were finished (and vanished instantly with our “tip”), we were denied exit and sent back because our passports weren’t properly stamped.  This time I paid the kid two bucks, took the forms, got our stamps, and out of Nicaragua we went. 

Ride forward 200 meters over the stripe.  Entering Costa Rica, we got our passports stamped no problem, but they gave me 90 days automatically and Jalene only 30, because they asked her, and she only asked for 30.   Then we had to go get insurance, where the lady spent 45 minutes talking with her office buddies before helping Jalene.  When my turn came, she had to finish the text or Facebook post or whatever it was before I could be dealt with.  Talk to the hand.  Then, insurance certificate in hand, to Aduana to import the bikes now that we had proof of insurability, then back to finish up with the insurance, this time with a much more efficient and helpful person.  Finally, we rolled up to the gate and by some miracle all was correct and we took off into Costa Rica!  Only about 4 hours, but this crossing was the most BS-filled yet.  I don’t know that they can get much worse, but we’ll see.

This border crossing did one good thing.  All the pressure from vendors, fixers, and the whole circus of figuring out how to get through the border had us chipping at each other pretty good at one point.  We had a long discussion later about what happened, and agreed that when certain “triggers” occur from now on, we will simply stop, no matter what is going on around us, and let the one who’s strengths are called for take over.  We are the ones with the paperwork and the money, so everyone else can wait.

And that leads me to a larger subject, which we also shot a little video about.  Jalene and I have both changed quite a bit on this trip, and our marriage has been improved because of it.  My take on a relationship is that because it is made up of two individuals, if it is going to be improved then it’s the individuals that have to do the growing and learning.  We have each changed in various ways – for me, I’ve become much more willing to stand up and call BS on someone who is being unkind or prejudicial or just rude. What really changed is that I’m far less tolerant of that behavior in myself.  At the same time, I’ve become much more open to other’s ideas, especially Jalene’s, in areas where I normally assume that I know best what to do, such as navigating or working on the bikes, and especially about scheduling.

We only travelled about 15 or 20 kilometers into Costa Rica before finding the campground at Cañas Castillo, a peaceful, beautiful place on the lazy Rio Sapoa.  There are both cabañas and a camping area, so we elected to pitch the tent.  The camping area includes a bathhouse with showers and a covered kitchen area with tables and chairs and potable water on tap, the first we’d seen since crossing into Mexico.  This place was magic, with howler and spider monkeys, toucans, and sloths seen everyday in the trees overhead, and a 4-5 meter long crocodile that loved to haul out on a flat rock near us in the afternoon.  He was quiet and never came over to the shore where we were, so we could watch in relative safety.  We spent time walking the various nature trails that circled out and back, and saw lots of critters, including blue butterflies, which are big and bright, but never land anywhere long enough to give you a chance at a picture.  We loved it so much there that we stayed an extra couple of days so as not to travel on a Saturday.

At the border into Costa Rica, we had met a couple from South Korea, TB and Yoon, who had flown over to Seattle with their bicycles, and had spent the last 9 months pedaling south.  They had gone right by our house in Oregon, probably when we were still there.  About an hour after we pulled into the campground, there they came, and they pulled in to camp with us.  We spent the next four days camped with them, and so enjoyed our time getting to know them.  I lived in Korea in the mid-80’s and so many memories came flooding back about words, food, places, and many other things I loved about that country (I can still count to ten!).  I was only about 25 then, and remember the way I was instructed to talk differently to elder folks, out of respect and reverence.  I noticed that TB and Yoon treating me the same way, which I found wonderful, confusing, funny, and a little bit sad all at once.  Now I’m one of the respected elders, I guess.  You can’t stop the years going by, but I hope I’m handling them with grace.  Yoon and TB, wherever you are, thank you for four days filled with interesting conversations and fun.  I hope you reach Tierra del Fuego safely, and that your trip around the world creates extraordinary memories for you, and you collect many tales to share with your families and friends.

As we went to bed one night, Jalene found her sleeping pad ballooned up along one side, where the longitudinal internal baffles had ripped apart inside.  She was able to pile riding gear under the “low” side, and still sleep well.  Our mats are made by ExPed, and when I emailed them with the problem, the answer was instant – we’ll send you a new one right away.  Per instructions, I checked the manufacturing lot number, and noticed it was the same on both our pads.  I told the company this, and they have sent TWO pads to Panama City for us, just in case.  I can’t tell you how impressed I am by this kind of customer service and willingness to stand behind a warranty.  There was no hesitation about shipping to a foreign country, just “send us the address and we’ll take care of it.”  My advice: buy ExPed products.  More expensive, sure, but well worth it in the end.

We headed south to Puntarenas, Costa Rica from there, not for any good reason except that it was on the Pacific coast, and from there we could decide whether to head across to the Caribbean side, go through the central mountains, or stay along the Pacific side.  We stayed at a funky hotel that had the best-ever pool, and a kitchen area we could use to cook our own dinner.  The heat was pretty bad, so we didn’t balk at the higher price, but when you can make your own dinner, it always saves a ton of money.  The next morning we were able to get going by fairly early, and took the highway up into the mountains.  We crossed the central range that runs down the spine of the country after working our way through San Jose and Cartago, taking the twisty Hwy 10 over the top in about 4 hours.  The nicely paved road wound up and down and around, with comparatively little traffic, and we had a ton of fun while seeing incredible green vistas of farmland and forest, wonderful flowers, jungle trees, and in general a richly fertile land.

We stopped for the night in Siquirres after descending the eastern side of the mountains, and then took off early in the morning for the east coast.  After crossing the rich coastal plains with massive banana plantations, big braided rivers, and thick jungle everywhere, we began to see cleared areas with stacks of shipping containers, and trucks running inland from the port of Limon.  Limon is a scrappy little port town, and we rolled in hoping to replace a little screw for my helmet shield mount, which was flopping around loose and threatening to break.  After a few stops, we found Casa de Tornillos (House of Bolts), and they had just what I needed.  We left Limon and headed south along the coast of the Caribbean for about 60 kilometers to Puerto Viejo, where we checked into Kaya’s Place, a very relaxed and inexpensive hostel and brewery on the beach.  What a great place to chill for a few days, drink local beer, and enjoy a relaxed little town.  The beaches are black sand, so be sure to wear your flip-flops or it’ll burn.  The water is warm, and you can just walk in with no hesitation, and a swim seems just the thing about three times a day.  A shop not far away has ice cream, a great way to survive a hot afternoon.

This morning I replaced the water pump in my bike for the second time.  It was replaced in Austin, Texas, only about 7,000 miles ago.  This is totally unacceptable pump life, and I’m glad I was carrying spare pump kits with us.  I will buy two more kits in Panama City, but I’ve never had a bike that has even needed water pump attention before, and I’m extremely disappointed with BMW’s design (Rotax actually builds the engines).  In all other areas, these are great bikes, but this is a real Achilles Heel.  I also noted that the plastic gears that drive the water pump are in bad shape and so I’m going to have to do this all over again when I get a set of them in Panama.  I will automatically replace the gears in Jalene’s.  Her bike went for 40,000 miles before needing a water pump rebuild, mine is now on it’s third pump at 35,000.  I had a covered area to do the job today, but was still on my knees in the mud just inside a woodshed behind the hostel.  Not fun.

Another repair job that was a bit more fun occurred after Jalene’s bike rolled off the kickstand and it broke her windshield against my fork leg.  It cracked right across the bottom, just above the bolts that hold it to the bike, cleanly into two pieces.  It’s a Cee Bailey shield, and I’m wondering if the aircraft-quality plastic used in making it kept it from shattering into small pieces.  I sanded the break, then used JB Weld to epoxy the two pieces back together.  That by itself seemed to form a strong bond, but the next day, I drilled small holes in rows on either side of the break, and “stitched” it all the way across with stainless steel wire twisted very tight.  Looks like Frankentein, but it holds well when flexed – I’m hoping it holds for the duration.  In any case, it gets attention, and people love the look of it.  I’d seen the wire-stitching done before on other travelers’ bikes, so knew it was a good approach. 

We’ve regrouped quite a bit the last few days.  We fixed the laptop, my helmet, Jay’s windshield, and my water pump, and arranged to replace the sleeping pad.  I think we’re ready to head for Panama. 

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Lots more photos HERE. And HERE, you can watch Jalene's video of our new friends from South Korea talking about the "big happiness" they find during their travels.

Back Up Regularly

Our road has been a little rocky the past few days.  I had a blog post all ready to go last week, but before we could get it posted to the webpage, something happened deep inside Jalene’s laptop, and we had to restore from a backup we made two weeks ago.  So I started this over from scratch.  But that’s life on the road now, things happen and we adjust.  We do the best we can and move on.  I don’t remember all the details, but what the heck, there are still lots of fun things to tell about.  About all we lost was one blog post and some photos from an iPhone, as the majority of pictures were still on the camera cards, and most other stuff was saved in Dropbox.  But you can bet that the first thing we did once things were back in place was another backup.

Looking back, I last wrote to you in Antigua, and much has happened since then.  We’ve ridden across Honduras and Nicaragua, and now we’re in Costa Rica getting ready to cross into Panama.  These are small countries, and they go quickly, even when you are in wander-mode like we are.  If one wanted, one could ride through them in one or two days each.  It’s the border crossings that take extra time, but that’s just part of the package.

We left Antigua and headed for the Honduras border with three other friends journeying to South America.  They were travelling at a much faster pace, and we would only be together for a few days.  Together we made the Honduras border very early in the day, only to be told that the border personnel would not be there for another 90 minutes.  So we cooled our heels on the steps and waited, #26 in line.  Don’t worry, there are always vendors with tons of snacks and sodas at the borders.  We eventually got through, the whole exercise taking about six hours including our wait time, plus a little extra to go back and get the proper stamp out of Guatemala and all the copies we had to have made of this paper and that.  The office with the copier was in Guatemala, so I must have walked back and forth between the two countries 4 or 5 times before everything was complete.

We rolled into Copan, just inside the Honduran border, and stayed two nights there.  Copan has a very large Mayan ruin just on the edge of town, and it’s well worth seeing.  This was my favorite, as it combines a park-like setting in one part, with big lawns around some of the stonework, and a more jungle-like atmosphere in other parts, with trees and shade around massive ball-courts, residences, and other structures.  We spent several hours climbing around and exploring.  One feature of this ruin is a wide staircase running up a steep hillside, and every single stone block is carved into a face or figure of some kind.  This is covered and shaded by a massive canvas tarp, while they try to figure out the best way of preserving the stones.  It seems very slow and careful work.  Near the entrance, they keep high trays loaded with fruit and nuts to keep the beautiful red, orange, and blue macaws around, along with lots of other loud and brightly colored birds.  They were fun to photograph, and would let you get very, very close.  Photos on the wing were more of a challenge.

Leaving Copan, our friends headed straight for Nicaragua, while we elected to visit Laga de Joyoa and D&D Brewery for a couple of nights, still in northwest Honduras.  Turned out to be a good call, as a cold front came through and we stayed four nights total while it rained, some days very hard and steady.  The temps dropped down to about 60, which had the locals looking like it was Vermont in January.  D&D was a fun place, with some local hikes to lookouts and waterfalls, and walks to the broad lake, as well as a big fish-fry one night that fed 7 people for the equivalent of about $18.  We kind of liked the rain forcing us to stay, because it was just the excuse we needed to stay and watch the Super Bowl with a whole bunch of non-Americans who tried to follow along, some having an impressive grasp of the rules.

Honduras is a poor country, the poorest we’ve experienced.  But still, we felt safe and welcome there.  As with everywhere, we stayed on alert for potential thievery or other trouble, but there was none.  Jalene did note that at one lunch stop, there was a guy that gave her some lecherous looks.  Another time we stopped for lunch on the road in Tegucigulpa, a big gritty working crossroads city, where everything seems to be happening all at once, but even there we felt secure and had no trouble.  All through this trip, we learn again and again how kind and friendly regular folks are the world over.  Roads were sometimes poor, sometimes great.  Often the paved roads would have big potholes, sometimes several feet across and quite deep.  Hitting one at speed would “taco” a front wheel, so we had to be very careful on open highways travelling fast.  Some roads were littered with them, so our speeds stayed very low, and we did a lot of weaving around.  The most dangerous situation was where there was a good paved road with just the very occasional big pothole to catch you off-guard.  But being on the bike, we could still travel much faster than the cars and trucks, so that at least was good.  Finding working ATMs in Honduras was a bit hit-or-miss, so we made sure we had enough cash on hand.  Gas was plentiful and stations were frequent enough for us (always ask for “Super”), but we stayed on some fairly main roads through Honduras, only getting off the beaten track near Laga de Joyoa.

The weather let up, and we took off to the southeast toward Nicaragua.  We navigated through the maze of Tegucigulpa, where there were few signs to guide us, thank goodness for the GPS and good maps for it.  We stopped in Danli for the night just short of the border, and then crossed into Nicaragua the next morning.  This border crossing was pretty straightforward, taking about 3 hours in our now-established leapfrog style where one person watches the bikes while the other takes their turn getting processed in or out of the country.  I asked what the building under construction on the Nicaraguan side was, and it’s a “truck scanner” for imaging or x-raying whole semi-truck loads, I’m not sure exactly.  Nicaragua is a seriously up-and-coming country, and they are investing a lot of money in infrastructure such as this.  A new Aduana y Migracion (Customs and Immigration) building will be built in April, and the great big guy at the tiny desk and window seemed really pleased about that.  I’ve found that if you can get the officers processing you through into any kind of a conversation that gets a smile, things go much more smoothly – they really do want to help you.

The border was at the top of a low pass, and as we rolled down into Nicaragua, we entered a valley full of big hardwood trees covered with spectacular bright orange flowers, almost glowing fluorescent.  It reminded me of New Hampshire in the fall, only I was hot and sweating.  What a way to enter a country, absolutely stunning.  I turned around to ride back up and shoot some pictures.  I find us taking fewer photos from the road, as it all blends together now and there is less that looks completely new and different.  We have to remind ourselves to stop and pull the camera out.    Our first night in Nicaragua, we stayed at the rather eco-cool Hostel Sonati in Esteli, and wandered into town for dinner.  Leaving Esteli, we took a turn to the northwest, and headed up along a line of smoking volcanoes until hitting the Pacific beaches at tiny Jiquilillo.  We stayed four nights at Rancho Tranquillo, a perfectly named little place on a very hot beach, with cheap beer and good food.  It was nice to chill out and relax, and look at where else in Nicaragua we’d like to go.  I found a cool puffer-fish skin and some twine while roaming around on the beach, so I hung it up to dry and it now hangs over the bar.  All the guts and bones were gone, leaving just a spiky skin with a fresh smell-of-the-sea fragrance.

We ended up heading for Leon after leaving the beach, now moving along the southern side of the volcanoes, and took an inexpensive room in a downtown hostel just off the main square, which always means lots of fun is right outside your door, with vendors, street food, music, and ice cream right there.  The town of Granada was next, and again we found a good spot right near the square, just off the main tourist drag so we could watch the gringo fun.  Hospedajie Valeria is run by the tall, bosomy Valerie who welcomed us in with big squeeze hugs.  It was Valentine’s Day, so Jalene got a rose and a little white teddy bear. Granada is right on Lake Nicaragua (rare freshwater sharks!), and so there are ferry rides to the volcanic islands and all sorts of things to do, but mostly we took it easy and had fun in town.  The heat was impressive, up over 100 while we were there, but it was pretty dry.  We’re getting used to the heat now, so it’s not so much of a bother.

Nicaragua is our favorite country so far, edging out Guatemala and Mexico.  The roads are great, it’s cleaner relative to other Central American countries (except Costa Rica), the roads are great, there are no topes, the prices are pretty cheap, and, as always, the people are warm and friendly.  Daniel Ortega is El Presidente (remember him?), and the government seems to have a socialist-capitalist attitude that is doing good things for their economy.  I didn’t have enough time in the country to learn details about the government, but talking to people gave me the feeling that Ortega’s voter base is in the older generation who remember the conditions before and during the Revolution in the 70’s and 80’s with hundreds of thousands homeless and destitute.

While in Granada, with secure internet, we took stock of the spending patterns so far, and were pleased to see that we have what it takes to continue all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.  We’ve had some tough moments in Central America, with occasions where one of the other was ready to throw in the towel.  But as we approach Panama, and the crossing of the Darien Gap into Panama, we realize that we’ve come too far to quit now, and the challenge of completing this journey has taken on new meaning.  We’ve done some tough border crossings, fixed breakdowns, survived computer failures, and many other tests and challenges.  We’re ready to go on.

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Check out the photos HERE. And, we made a video to share the changes we've noticed inside our marriage; click HERE to see it.