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"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"
April 17, 2000

Holy Week procession in Alta Gracia

My escape from Tegucigalpa did not come quickly. I had hoped to catch a bus to some nice, small village on the outskirts of town, and start biking in the morning. I rushed across town to catch the 7 pm bus, only to find out that the last bus left at 5:30. One more night of lovely Tegucigalpa. Actually, I wasn't technically in Tegucigalpa anymore, but rather a sister city, called Comoyaguëla, which lay on the other side of the river. Kind of like Buda and Pest, except that Tegucigalpa and Comoyaguëla are nasty places, and from what I hear Budapest is fantastic. At least Comoyaguëla had parallel streets and less traffic. Wanting to avoid biking around town at all costs, I stayed in the hotel right across the street from the bus station. Comoyaguëla was the "more dangerous" of the two cities, but I found it far more civilized and relaxing.

Dinner in Comoyaguëla Just a block away from my hotel a friendly old woman was cooking carne asada and tortillas. It was there that I met José, a Nicaraguan whom, like me, was en route to Panamá. We chatted, he bought me dinner, and he invited me to visit his farm in Nicaragua. It was too good an offer to turn down. We made plans to meet in Chinandega two days hence. Even with the bus trip to a nearby town, I didn't have quite enough time to make it to Chinandega in two days. So I decided to take the bus another 20k further. The first bus left at 6am, so I arrived at the station at 5:45, in plenty of time to load my bike. Or so I thought. As I was busily disassembling my bike, the man loading bags into the bus decided that he didn't want to deal with my bike, so he told me to wait for the next bus, which he assured me was leaving in 10 minutes. I was pretty sure there wasn't another bus for over an hour, so I ran over to the ticket booth to confirm. As I suspected, the next bus was scheduled to leave at 7:30. I ran back to the bus, but they pulled away to keep me from boarding. I took the 7:30 bus.

The bus was standing room only, but unlike every other time I'd been in a packed bus, the money collector seemed very concerned about the overcrowding. Every few minutes, he would make everyone standing crouch down, apparently afraid that some official along the route would take notice. I watched in horror as the bus crawled down some of the most tantilizing downhills I had seen in ages. If I would have been biking, I would have been screaming down the hill. My bus shortcut was turning out to not be a time saver at all.

The terrain was slightly downhill most of the day, but the scorching heat robbed me of the oppportunity of enjoying it. Since I was on a tight schedule to get to Chinandega by the next day, I didn't get to sit out the hottest hours of the day. I couldn't drink water fast enough; it seemed to go straight from my mouth to my pores. I eventally bypassed the intermediate step and just started pouring water all over myself. My purple bking shirt was almost entirely white from the salt of my sweat. My goal was the border town of El Triunfo, but as it was getting dark, I decided to camp at the side of the road a few kilometers short. There were slim pickings for campsites, and I had to hunt for somewhere even slightly level. One spot was promising. I heard what I thought was running water nearby, but it turned out to be the sound of thousands of long-legged spiders rustling through the leaves. The insect situation wasn't much better elsewhere, so as soon as my bivy touched ground, I frantically zipped myself inside. Even with my rapid entrance, I found myself sharing quarters with five grasshopers, three spiders, three large beetle/cockroach looking things, and various flying critters. Those who did not promptly accept my offer of exit through an open zipper were dealt with by other means. It was a hot evening, and my "breathable" bivy sack couldn't breathe enough to vent away my copious sweat. Seeing as it was only 7pm, I tried to keep myself busy by eating and writing, but I barely had enough room to hold my pen upright. I resigned myself to quietly sweating and watching the bugs run back and forth across the mosquito netting. I eventually fell asleep, awash in a pool of my own sweat and squashed bugs.

Ants! At 4am I was abruptly awoken by a sharp, jabbing pain all over my body. Somehow, a swarm of biting ants had found a secret passage into my bivy, and were making quick work of my skin. I immediately evacuated the premises and cleared everyone out. I didn't get any more sleep.

My bike's visa At daybreak, I packed up and continued my push for the border, arriving before the gates were open. It costs US$7 to enter Nicaragua, and you have to pay in dollars. It doesn't say a lot about the stability of a currency when the government won't even use it. After an hour of formalities, I was at the border of Nicaragua, stamped passport in hand. But I was stopped as I tried to cross - I hadn't registered my vehicle. That's right, I had to go through another hour of bureacracy to get my bike's papers in order. Seeing as my bike is a dependent, it was allowed to share my passport, although it required an entry visa and I did not. Back to the border crossing I went, and this time I sailed right through.

The terrain of Nicaragua The Pacific coast of Nicaragua is flat, hot, and desolate. As far as the eye could see were low shrubs and dirt. The heat problem was quickly solved by the 30kt headwinds that ripped through the place. I alternated my time between battling winds and taking cover in the bunker-like buildings that sold water. The general rule for third world travel is to avoid drirnking unfiltered water or drinking anything with ice. You need to make sure that bottles of water are factory sealed. All of that went out the window. The only water available was sold in little baggies, with a knot in top to seal it. I gladly gulped them down, preferably served over ice. It was just too dry and hot to consider anything else.

Keep your eye on the road The roads were bad - large potholes connected together with patches of pavement. The abuse proved to be too much for my camera, as my most expensive lens literally shook apart. An internal lens element unscrewewd itself from all the vibrations, and the metal casing rattled around between the adjacent glass elements. My camera was demanding as much repair time as my bike.

Smooth roads and a favorable shift in wind direction in the afternoon made up for time lost at the border, and I found myself in Chinandega in plenty of time to meet José. Unfortunately, it was a moot point, as he never showed. I waited at the designated meeting spot, eating eskimo pies, until I could stomach no more. I headed on to León.

León was a vast improvement on the hot, dry, and charm-free Chinandega, but it suffered from the same food quality problems as Honduras: not much good local food, a few places selling spagetti for US$5/plate, and lots of hot dogs.

Relaxing on a flatbed truck I managed to keep myself busy in the morning, by which time it was too hot to travel, so I didn't get biking to Managua until 2pm. Even without headwinds, 90k is a lot to do in 4 hours, and with winds I didn't have even the slightest chance of arriving in Managua that day. As I struggled against the wind, bouncing from one pothole to the next, a flatbed truck pulled up and offered me a ride. It was exactly what I needed. I hopped on board and sat watching the sunset from the bed of the truck. I was dropped off about 30k short, but after only a few minutes of riding, a man at the side of the road flagged me down and offered me a ride the rest of the way to Managua in his truck. It was my lucky day. The man was an ex-pat from Alabama, who had decided to leave his practice as a lawyer in the states and start a new life in Nicaragua. He thoughtfully pointed out every speedtrap on the way, as we barreled past them. We arrived about 6:30, and he dropped me off near some hostels. I rode in the direction of the hostels, but only managed to find a bunch of optomistrists. Conveniently, the city of Managua had thoughtfully placed prostitutes at every streetcorner to provide directions. Unfortunately, none of them knew of the place where I wanted to go.

The old cathedral in Managua Managua was a strange place. Once a beautiful colonial town, it was destroyed in an earthquake in '72. Having discoved the hard way that the town center was build on a faultline, new development moved to the outskirts of the city. The end result was a series of districts spread out over a large area, with no center. The districts were connected with wide, unmarked and featureless roadways. The lack of signs, directions or a decent map left me wandering aimlessly. I eventually found the old cathedral, which was in the old city center, and used it to orient myself. By that point it was 7pm and dark, but I stuck to major streets that were well lit.

As I was riding on one such road, I noticed out of the corner of my eye two men running at me. I immediately could tell they were up to no good, and I started pedalling faster. Realizing that I wasn't going to escape, and not wanting to be attacked from behind, I ditched the bike at full speed, slamming into the pavement in the process. I jumped up to face my attackers. Both men in their early 20's, one had a wood pole, four feet long and 2 1/2" in diameter, the other a knife.

The scene of the crime The one with the pole started beating me repeatedly on the head, but seeing as I was wearing a bike helmet, I could barely feel the blows. Apparently upset that his beating was not having the desired effect, he increased the intensity, each blow more forceful than the last. My trusty helmet stayed intact. The man with the pole rendered impotent, I focused my attention on the one with the knife, who was starting to cart my entire bike, laden with panniers full of all of my money, my clothes, my passport, my camera gear and all of my worldly possessions, into the darkness. Somehow, I don't think he knew what he was in for. My bike, when fully loaded, weighs in at about 100 lbs, and is not exactly a snatch and run item. Like an overly ambitions ant trying to carry away too much, he struggled and strained to carry away his prize, but I kept the bike on the ground, knowing that the only was it was going to move was if it was delicately rolled away. He slashed at me with his blade several times as I held down the frame, hitting me several times. With my holding down the bike, and with his partner still whacking away in vain, they made little progress. As a wave of vehicles approached, they cut their losses and ran back into the wooded darkness. Seeing as the bike was still in the middle of the road, the traffic stopped, and I got my bike upright and rolled it down the center of the road, the cars escorting me from behind. Once at the traffic light, I flagged down the first taxi I could find, threw the bike part way into the trunk, and we drove off to the hostel. I was only a kilometer away, but the driver had the nerve to charge me 50 Cordobas (about US$3.50) for the priviledge, and I was in no position to negotiate.

My cracked helmet The final damage report: bad road rash on one hip, a skinned knee, a badly bruised shoulder, all from laying down the bike. On my left arm there was the slightest knife cut, barely worth mentioning. I don't know what kind of knife he was using, but it certainly needed sharpening. My helmet was the only victim, having cracked all the way through in several places from the punishment. I always knew that a bike helmet would save my life someday, I just never expected it would be like this.

Safely holed up in my hostel, I started the first aid: I put neosporin on my various wounds, then headed across the street to the bar where they sold rum by the bottle. Nicaragua was not winning many points with me. As Matt Groening might say, "Nicaragua - where the elite meet to be beat and to suffer from the heat."

The modern cathedral in Managua The next morning I was ready to leave Managua far behind, so after spending some time chatting with a great group of new Peace Corp recruits (Hi Kimberly, Katherine, and Shane - good luck!), I headed out on a whirlwidn tour of the city. Featured stops included the new, gaudy cathedral (which had a Christe encased in a glass dome) and the scene of the crime from the previous night. After confirming that Managua didn't have amuch more going for it in the daylight, I high-tailed it to Granada. I was told it was only 30k away, bu tit truned out to be 60km, once again into headwinds.

Transportation in Granada As I rode into Granada, it was as if I were waking up from a bad dream, finding myself safe in my cozy bed. Granada was warm and inviting, and the people charming and helpful. The late afternoon sun set the place aglow. Every few blocks sat a beautiful colonial-era cathedral, and a few blocks from the main street, a beach on Lake Nicaragua, with palm trees and gently rolling waves. This was not the Nicaragua I knew and hated - this was a different country.

The island of Ometepe I spent two more days there, eating great food, photographing the market, even going out to the movies. I could have spent a week there but I had some serious relaxing to do - on the island of Ometepe.

Ometepe is the largest fresh water island in the world. It is volcanic, with two large volcanos dominating the landscape. One of them, Concepción, is a perfect cone, and is still active. Ometepe is also home to the nicest people in Nicaragua, thanks to a combination of tropical mellowness and the fact that the war passed Ometepe by.

Me in the fog on top of Conceptión My first morning, I headed out with a guide to climb Concepción, Whoever blazed the trail to the top obviously didn't like switchbacks, since the trail went straight up, through thick jungle. The howler monkeys laughed as I struggled up the muddy, slick train, my biking shoes completely inadequate for the task. Luckily I carried all 15 lbs. of my camera gear, so I could get a fine shot of the pea soup thick fog and 50kt winds at the top. The round trip took 7 hours, with nearly 5000ft of rise, which pretty much finished me off for the day.

The next day, my legs trashed from the previous day's climb, I went for a "short" bike ride to the next village, which turned out to be a 55km journey over soft, volcanic sand. I didn't bother to bring my tools and spare parts, so consequently I broke both a derallier cable and my chain.

The age old question asks, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" A better question would be why didn't anyone teach it to look both ways before crossing. One ran right in front of my wheel on the way back. I ran right over it, but when the feathers cleared, it had somehow survived, and it made it to the other side.

Palm Sunday in Alta Gracia I was in Ometepe for the beginning of Semana Santa, the holy week between Palm Sunday and Easter. On Palm Sunday, pretty much the entire island carried palm fronds, neatly tied in the shape of crosses, out to the palm fields. There, everyone sang, danced, prayed, and waved their palm fronds in unison. It was an amazing show of faith.

By the last night, I had settled into a routine: the same house for dinner, the same soda stand for orange soda and "Cremino" chocolates, and a chat with the wonderful old couple that tended it. Ometepe had restored my faith in Nicaragua. It was a place where pigs walked the streets, where young couples would ride two to a bike, where it was safe to stroll through the park by moonlight. I was sorry to leave, but the time came to catch the boat to San Carlos, the beginning of my long journey to Panamá.

Copyright © 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.