Friday, 5 August 2011
Moan Moan Moan...
WE HEADED FOR Granada, Nicaragua's colonial jewel on the shores of the lake it shares with Ometepe. The buses in latin countries just aren't designed for western legs. And if it was uncomfortable for me, it was worse for Stefano, him being taller. We sat at the back, and got chatting with a few Nicas on their return from working in Costa Rica, picking oranges. They told us that the wages were so much better there. It was quite sobering when we asked how much better. One man excitedly, loudly and proudly exclaimed to us and fellow Nicas in earshot that he could earn as much as $20 a day over there. It makes you wonder what the average wage is here. He also told us that his family get by on $5 a day.
We discussed the cost of living in Europe with the fellow, as he enquired. As ever, it's diplomatic to talk down exactly how much we earn and spend back home. It always tempers their dismay at the riches of the West when you tell them how much we pay for a beer or a sandwich, or the rental of a poky flat in London. For sure, most of us are financially better off than them, but this money doesn't go as far as they'd likely think. Tell them you pay $3 for a mango, and they laugh. The Nica threw some rubbish out of the bus window, and was incredulous that this was illegal in Europe. He told us that it was just trash, and that he didn't need it any more. He shrugged when we pointed out that, if everybody did this, the place would be a dump. His indifference suggested that he thought it already was a dump. He roared with laughter when we told him that a policeman catching you doing this in Europe was likely to take $80 from you.
We pulled into Granada, and hailed a taxi to yet another hostal with aloof, moody staff. Be as pleasant as you like, speak in Spanish...this bunch still wouldn't give you the time of day. I had to smirk at the large box on the counter with "Tips" on it in black marker: there'd be a piece of paper with "Smile" written on it deposited there before I left. We made our way to our 8-bed dorm, and found a young girl unpacking. We exchanged pleasantries, and Stef asked where she was from. "Oh, I'm from Israel...like everyone else here." Stef shot me a look which said Great. I returned it with a similarly pained expression.
Granada is Antígua without the polish; rougher around the edges than her Guatemalan counterpart, akin to a faded dame past her best who could still turn a head or two if she'd only put in the effort. The city doesn't make the most of its lakeside location either, there being no promenade to speak of; the main plaza is a kilometre from the shores. The road from the heart of town to the water is a line of steadily shabbier houses, punctuated by an oily gas station. The main square, though picturesque during daylight hours, is a whore-infested black hole at night; wholly inadvisable for a midnight stroll. Pass through it and you're treated to the sight of locals pissing against trees, teenagers trying to sell you distinctly low-grade drugs while their sisters try to sell you their conchas. "Heeey, meestah...wanna fock me?" Er...not really. You ought to go see a dentist, by the way.
It's not the cleanest city. I walked various districts, searching for photographic subjects and a decent coffee. Failing to see anything of appeal, I wandered the back streets, casting the odd smile or buenas tardes at an indifferent local. The whiff of excrement and sewage is never far from your nostrils in this place. Passing open manholes meant averting the eyes, but only so far, to avoid falling in. Talk about a fate worse than death? Taking the steps up to a row of pillared arches, said stench hit me in the face. I noted the piles of shit right next to the pillars, flies swarming ravenously around them; either there were some dirty bastards in this town, or the dogs were too embarrassed to defecate in the open.
At any rate, none of the three of us saw much reason to stick around amongst the tourist hordes. And the travellers at the hostal were of the brainless variety. I know we were all young once, but to listen to some of these kids go on and on is tantamount to torture: the CIA should ship a few of them down to Guantanamo Bay to relate their travel tales and outlooks on life to the prisoners...there wouldn't be enough pens to go around for bogus 9/11 confessions. And it's not just me. Several folk have bemoaned the median age and intelligence of today's traveller. Not that I haven't met plenty of switched-on youngsters: I have, they're just a rarity. The age of the iPhone means that foreign travel is too accessible, too easy, anybody can do it...including the oiks from your local high-rise estate who normally wouldn't get further than a mate's front room for a 12-hour McDonalds and Xbox session. There was a Welshman at the hostel who was on the road with a Canadian of similar age. Sat at the bar one night, I listened in to their stories. These seemed to revolve around being wasted, hangovers, and which hostels were the best for shagging fellow travellers. Not once was a beautiful spot mentioned, a blissful beach, foreign friendships or any type of cultural experience. I find it depressing that people like this are allowed to board aeroplanes. He sighed "Well...we can't do this forever. I don't want to get old, me. If I'm not dead by the time I'm 40, I'm going to kill myself." Dismayed at this final straw, I turned to say something, but simply laughed to myself when I saw his baseball hat perched on the back of his head, above his stupid face. GRINGO it read in block capitals. How apt. There was no need to make this chap look an arsehole...he was doing an admirable job of it himself.
Speaking of arseholes, we met another one at dinner one evening, and he made me ashamed to be English. We'd headed out for a pint with the Canadian barman from the hostel, and he brought a few people along, a public-schoolboy type among them. Sitting outside a bar, we were getting pestered by the usual kids with boxes strapped to their midriffs, selling sweets, chewing gum and cigarettes. Some can be a pain, but some amuse with their cheek and basic English. One such kid was having a laugh with us, and kept asking for one of the English guy's chips. He declined, and kept eating. Thinking he was just holding out for a laugh, we all said "Come on...give the kid a chip?" Without even looking up, this posh twit said in his cut-glass accent "I'm sure he's got enough gallo pinto at home." Gallo pinto is a mix of kidney beans and rice, the staple diet of the poor. The table went silent, but His Lordship was unmoved. If I'd been sat next to him, his plate of chips would have been passed to the kid immediately...and I'd liked to have seen what the toffee-nosed git would have done about that? Ignorant bastard. Stefano shook his head, incredulous.
I've lost count of the groups of youthful sunburnt Irishmen camped-out in hostels, inebriated from 10am onwards, and never leaving the place. Can someone explain to me the point of travelling from one Lonely Planet-rated hostal to another, and staying in all day getting drunk? They're all at it. I honestly think that people these days just travel because it's the done thing, it's not a rarity any longer. If I regret anything in life, it's not travelling sooner, when I was in my 20s. Before the internet; before smartphones; before Sky TV; before round-robin emails and facebook updates. Walk into any internet cafe worldwide, and 60% of people are checking out what others are doing back at home. I'd love to have travelled when it was all postcards home, and a short, crackly and echoing phone call to your parents to inform them that you're still alive. There are some of us looking for a more rewarding experience than the Gringo Trail. But maybe that type of travel is over? I know...I shouldn't complain. But I do. It seems a little churlish to moan on the road in foreign climes, but things can get on top of you just like they do at home.
So we moved on to León, the one town I really did like in Nicaragua. Friendlier and more authentic than Granada, I chose to study more Spanish here. It's not the prettiest place, but the folk are friendly and it's a good place to stay put for longer than a few days; find a few good local places to eat in, a decent coffee shop to frequent. The weather was beginning to turn for the worst, though. Heavy rain in León and thunderstorms in the Corn Islands saw us reviewing our plans. My friends were keen to get to Colombia via Panamá's San Blás islands, and so made to leave the next day. I wasn't in the mood for getting to know anyone else, save an Irishman my age who moaned more than me. No...honestly. The food, the people, the weather...the lot. He loved Mexico, and compared Nicaragua very unfavourably. He was also notable for being the only man I've ever met who squeezed nine fucks and fuckings into one shortand sentence. Jesus...I thought I was bad? I resolved to stop swearing, or at least cutting down, after meeting this chap.
Stef and Maxy made their exit for Panamá. The Irish fella headed back to Mexico. What to do? Where to go? My dorm had emptied, and I was alone in a 6-bed room. I watched the rain hammer the garden of the hostal as I lay on my bed, pondering my next move. It's better to have too many options than none at all, though. I certainly won't complain about that. Mine currently consisted of: heading back up to Mexico, as my flight was from Cancún later in the year; heading back to London early for some freelance work before hitting Asia earlier than planned; spending some time in Spain. The weather in Mexico looked dire. A little research online (yes, yes...I know) showed that Spain would break the bank within a month. The London summer was an oxymoron yet again...maybe not the best time to go home to her warm, familiar bosom? I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next, and I was tired. 6 months on the road can take it out of you.
I thought about South America. The weather would be better on the equator. Then something my PADI Course Director in Honduras, Andy Phillips, had mentioned to me resurfaced in my mind. He'd said to let him know if I was in Ecuador at any point, as he knew a company who did good standby rates for dive liveaboards to the Galápagos Islands. Dragging my diving gear around Central America, and not getting it wet since the poor diving on Utila, had got me down a little...I'd regretted bringing it out with me, especially as most trainee instructors had used the shop gear. I'd have had a far lighter pack without it. I mailed Andy: he was his usual punctual self, and within two days I'd confirmed my place on the trip scheduled 11-18th July. At just half the price of a pre-booked trip, too.
Brightened at the prospect of diving with hammerhead sharks, seals and gargantuan whalesharks, I had a ticket out of Nicaragua booked the same afternoon. It was time to skip through to Panamá City and return to South America.