GREAT EXPECTATIONS ARE all too rarely realised. I wanted to like Nicaragua. I really did. So many people, well-respected travellers from home especially, had told me what a great country it is, how friendly the people are etc. Sadly, neither myself nor my companions were to find this to be the case. I suppose one of the beauties of travel is that so many people can have such a wide variety of experiences in the same place. It's just a shame (for us) that some of the people I spoke to had the great ones, and we got the soiled end of the proverbial walking aid.
Borders are never the nicest places. The one between Honduras and Nicaragua is a pain in the arse. You are turfed off the bus at one point, bags searched, bus given the once-over by armed men. You jump back on, and the rusting jalopy is barely into third gear before it's grinding to a halt for the whole rigmarole to be repeated; this time you have to carry your bags from the hold to an examining room, where an old man with a face like a sun-dried raisin prods your clothes and gives your open bag a cursory glance, all the while eyeing you like you've just ravaged his teenage daughter. The process is far from rapid, so I was stood in the oven of a room, rivulets of sweat trickling down my back, waiting for the old duffer to get to me. Judging by the disinterested search he gave my bag, I could have brought a few kilos of uncut Colombian cocaine and a couple of AK47s...he wouldn't have noticed. Some of these processes are designed just to keep people in a job.
I spied an ice-cream vendor as I waited for the rest of the passengers to escape the oven. Wandering over, I made idle chit-chat as I asked the price of his wares, hoping they hadn't melted and been reformed at any point in their lifetime...especially seeing as there was no toilet on this particular bus. Well, there was a toilet, but without a fistful of asbestos up each nostril, there'd be now way you'd go anywhere near it: the stench could have curled the edges of a sandwich from ten paces. It was only as I walked away from the vendor that I realised he'd charged me double. 20 Cordobas was the price; I'd given him a dollar. I turned back and pointed this out. The man pointed in one direction and said "Honduras" and then in the other "Nicaragua". I tried again "Un dollar es 40 Cordobas, no..?" He repeated his concise geography lesson again, so I told him I hoped other Nicaraguans were honest, and got back on the bus. Bandit.
I arrived in Esteli, a dusty working town on the road to nowhere. The bus disappeared in a cloud of grit, and I chewed dirt as I trudgeed towards the centre in the dying sun. Responses to white faces in this town ranged from indifferent to contemptuous. And that's just the friendly ones. I'd already decided I'd be out of this place in the morning. Besides, I was expecting to catch up with Stef and Maxy pretty soon. Perusing my mail once checked into Hostal Unfriendly, I got the sorry saga from the lads.
The CA-4 Agreement between Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua was designed to allow free movement and trade between nationalities of those countries. What this means for the traveller is that you get a 90 day visa for those countries as a whole. The confusion comes when moving between the countries, as sometimes you get another 90 day stamp in your passport at a border. Result! you think...another 90 days. Wrong. If you go over the alloted 90 days for the whole region, you are fined $1 per day overstay when you cross into Belize, Mexico or Costa Rica.
So Maxy had crossed into Nicaragua from Honduras, only to be told he had to get out of the region immediately, as he was two days over his visa. The pair of them had to cross the whole country in a day, and had a few hours in Costa Rica before coming back into Nicaragua and heading for San Juan Del Sur, a surfing town in the southwest. So it was an early start for me. Four buses and two taxis later, relief washing over me as I escaped the dustbowl of human detritus known as Managua, I was chatting to an amiable cabbie ferrying me the last 20km. San Juan came into view, and looked a nice enough place. Dumping the bags, I set off out to find the boys. I needed a drink.
Happily reunited in the street, we swapped stories over a few beers. There was nothing much happening in the town, it being the low season. But we shot a little pool, and sank a few more beers. San Juan isn't a large town, perhaps four streets run parallel behind it's beachfront road; this road is dark at night, and gangs of youths and ne'er-do-wells hang around once the sun goes down. As we walked home, a group of three men were walking towards us. One decided to menace a stray dog in the street, creeping up to it and lunging at it. Understandably, the hound went for him, snarling. The man started kicking it. Red rag to a bull, in this dog-lover's book. We appealed to him to stop. Red rag to a bull, in a gringo-hater's book. He squared up to Stef, the other two hung back. Myself and Maxy moved sideways, keeping an eye on his companions. Despite being so baby-faced, Maxy is a Glaswegian, and he understood the look I gave him after looking over the other two. If it kicks off, I'll take this one nearest me. He nodded. We smiled at our potential adversaries with beery bravado. They soon lost interest in the heated discussion though, and carried on walking. Stef pointed at us and told the dog-kicker "Your friends have left you, and now these two guys are going to kick your ass." He looked around the three of us rapidly, uncertain of himself now alone, and retreated to the sound of our laughter. We had no intention of beating him up; I approve of a fair fight or nothing at all. But he needed a fright. Nothing, bar watching Preston North End of a Saturday afternoon, will make my blood boil like someone beating an animal.
We decided to cool off, literally and metaphorically, with a midnight swim. We nipped back to the hostel, changed into shorts and ran across the road to the beach. After swimming a stupid distance under the influence of alcohol, we headed home. The security guard at the hostal admonished us for swimming there. He pointed out the dark treeline separating the beach from the street, and told us local men like to hang out there and wait for people on the beach at night; robbery, assault or both, dependent on hour and mood. Charming.
I'd hoped there'd be no more trouble in San Juan. Some hope. Playing pool again as, if you don't surf, there isn't much else to do in this town, we were minding our own business down the far end of a bar the following night. The Scot was lining up a shot when a muscly Nicaraguan came by, on his way to the bathroom. He stood inches away from the end of Maxy's hand as he lined up the shot, and began a stupid dance, rolling his forearms like a barrel. Finishing this ridiculous diplay, he popped a hand out near the Scot's head and demanded "Name?!" Our friend sighed, took his shot and said "Maxy" without looking at the payaso. This didn't go down well at all. On the way back from his unfeasibly long bathroom break, and I'm talking cocaine rather than a difficult poo, Muscles was at it again. Slighted by a diminutive Scotsman? No way, Jose. Towering over Maxy, he glared as he passed him, forking two fingers at his own eyes and then jabbing Maxy's chest as if to say "I'm watching you." Stef thought that a little joke would ease the tension. It didn't. "Hey, man..." said the Italian from his stool as Muscles passed him "...I see you like my young friend? If you like, I can introduce you?" This went down like a shit sandwich. With dysentry salsa. Stopping a Nica kicking a dog is one thing, suggesting he may have an interest in batting for the Other Team is ill-advised.
Anticipating a punch, Stef stood as Muscles got nasty. Well...nastier. I lost track of the Spanish exchanged in the heat of the moment; Muscles spraying spit everywhere as he ranted and raved, carotid arteries bulging from his neck. I had a pool cue in my hand, and told Maxy to pick up a bottle and stick it in his pocket. Muscle's friends were looking on, and we were heavily outnumbered. Thankfully his amigos had many more brain cells than he, and one split the confrontation up, pushing Stef away from his musclebound freak of a friend. I nodded my thanks, dropped the cue; we moved to leave. Muscles threw a lame, token punch at Stef's shoulder. I laughed: if he'd wanted to fight, he could easily have broken free of his compatriots. All show.
"Never forget, you are in Nicaragua, motherfucker!!!" he spat in Stefano's face. What was this...two geography lessons in one day? I'll say this for the Nicas, they certainly know where they are. Who needs GPS? I thought of asking Muscles if he worked for the Tourist Board, or if he could point in the general direction of Costa Rica, so that I could leave immediately. What a pleasant thought: Muscles in a nicely-ironed uniform, complete with hat, fetid breath melting tourists' ice-creams as he screams "You're in San Juan Del Sur, hijo de puta!" on being asked directions to the beach.
Stef was almost speechless as we walked back to the hostel "Man, what is this place? What is their problem?" I suggested we leave the very next morning, as things were getting a bit too tasty for my liking.
If I wanted to get into a fight every night, I'd never have left my hometown, Preston.