From Costa Rica and beyond

Saturday, November 5, 2011

From Managua to San Jose

Nicaragua continued to charm even after my time in Leon.  A veritable convoy of us (Laurent and Carole, Nick and Ivanka, Mark and Maggie, Jarik, and I) rolled out of Nicaragua, albeit with a couple different destinations in mind.  Some went directly to Granada.  Mark and Maggie, Nick and Ivanka and I drove into Managua to meet up with acquaintances she has through her work with Ubuntu (an open source operating system).  Our first stop in Managua was for checking directions. When we looked up from the maps we saw we were parked right in front of the US Embassy.  The very first thing I really noticed though was across the street from it: a large billboard promoting the Sandinista Party complete with a smiling Daniel Ortega.  Given the location and the history between him and the US, perhaps he should have been winking or even giving the bird to our diplomatic corps.  Clearly, this was worth a photo.  Mark saw me reach for my camera and told me that pictures of embassies are not allowed.  I balked but resumed when I realized I could capture the billboard and a small sign in front of the embassy without showing anything from the actual compound.  After three quick pics, I looked up and saw a US security guard (not an American) strolling toward me. In my mind, I instantly pictured Mark with an all-knowing grin, shaking his finger at me ("Dumbass!!"). The guard greeted me nicely and told me photos aren´t allowed.  I told him I had no shots of the compound.  So he reviewed my photos, told me to delete two and then had a change of heart and allowed me to retake one he had told me to delete.  Good grief.

Our hostel was in a quiet neighborhood of nicely cared for single story dwellings, almost all of them behind fences, many with razor wire atop the fences.  We needed food and some relief from the intense heat.  Nearby was a shopping mall - how could a group of Westerners resist?  The mall was cool and festive.  Not only were they prepping for Halloween, but also for Christmas!  The Christmas tree was decked and so were some of the halls.  The food court was just as one would find in the US, including Subway, McDonalds and your usual Chinese fastfood option, albeit without General Tsao´s chicken. Bummer.  Outside the mall, homeless people were a frequent sight and they truly appeared deperate.  Inside the mall, the middle and upper classes were free to shop in perfect consumerist harmony.

That evening, we joined several of Ivanka´s friends.  They had already been helpful to us as we planned Kevin´s urgent departure to Ireland (Btw, Kevin will be back with us at the end of November).  Now it was a pleasure to meet them and to learn a bit more about Nicaragua. We first went to a beergarden and later to a very modest but delicious restaurant.  I had a sore throat and was not feeling well.  Nick caught me nodding off at the beergarden (sacrilege!).  Still, I was awake enough to learn that the Sandinistas would very definitely win the upcoming election and that those whosupport them are frustrated about political patronage and stagnation.
I was disappointed not to find an urban focal point in Managua, a sort of downtown where business, arts, and entertainment coincide. Aparently there is also no visitworthy lakefront on the reportedly polluted Lake Managua.  There were however a couple interesting things to take in even during this very brief visit.  Ladas.  I hadn´t seen a Russian car in a long time, but there are quite a few there and most are in good condition.  Whether that is due to good quality or good care I´ll let you decide.  There are numerous large Christmas trees decorating the night.  It turns out these are there year round. I guess they do look nice, but they are also smiled upon by the Sandinistas who like to flaunt their Christian credentials.

The next day, our quintet made the short jaunt to Granada, named for the famous Spanish home of the Alhambra. No great Muslim palace or art here, but it was a charming city nonetheless. The city sits just back from the shore of Lake Nicaragua (Lake Cocibolca is the native name), Central America´s largest lake. Granada´s Parque Central is graced with arcaded buildings, a handsome yellow cathedral and a few restored colonial buildings.  Outside this zone, around the marketplace is where the real Granada ticks.  The market is housed in an old hall, but the vendors spill into the adjacent streets.  Stall after stall of fruit and veggie vendors, butchers, jean and shoe sellers, and a few food stands at the heart of the market.  A major street passed in front of my hotel.  From the porch, I watched shoe repairmen work at antique sewing machines, and people sell juices contained in plastic baggies, upon which the drinker sucks almost like they are breastfeeding.  Cars and buses, old and new, drove by leaving clouds of blackened air behind them.  More numerous than cars were the bicycles.  Often a passenger was sitting sidesaddle on the top bar of the bike.  Sons pedaled their mothers and grandmothers, girls pedaled their younger sisters and friends, and young men pedaled their girlfriends around, making for especially cute scenes.

Again, there were many bikers present.  In addition to the crew that met in Leon, Adrian and Tim joined us.  I also met Todd, another KLR rider from San Diego.

Ivanka´s friends were also a part of our time here.  Neville invited us to his family´s property on Lago Appoyo.  Here I took the second swim of my trip in a crater lake.  This lake was lovely, if a bit less dramatic and grand than its Oregonian brother.  The water was of course warmer and had just a touch of sulphur in it, giving it a very soft sensation.  We loved the location and the water and were amused by floaties...bouyant rocks.  Find them, clean them off and they will float.  Who knew?
I stayed in Granada for at least four nights.  It was pleasant and inexpensive.  When the others left, I stayed and waited for Andre, whose bike was repaired following his dog crash.  We celebrated with some Toña cerveza - AFTER he cleaned his face blackened from diesel soot.
Our last night in Nicaragua was in San Juan del Sur, a surfer´s destination on the Pacific. This town was too small to hide any bikers.  I found Kerman, a French friend, in just minutes.  Later, we met Todd along with his two riding mates. All of us enjoyed an excellent dinner at a small French restaurant in town - delicieux!

Kerman, Andre and I headed into Costa Rica the next day.  We were ready for this crossing and it showed in how quickly we made it through: 1.5 hours.  About two hours later we were in Playas del Coco on the Pacific. Playas del Coco is home to LOTS of expats.  One woman with whom I made eye contact greeted me with "Bonjour."  I was floored.  Clearly the expats are not all Americans.  There are Canadians, Quebecois and I reckon a good number of Europeans as well.  Usually I find something to dislike about expat communities.  There though they just looked like kids´ grandparents in a slightly different country.  Nicaragua is quite different from the US; Costa Rica, sometimes called Central America´s Switzerland, seems like it could be a 51st state.  It´s clean and orderly, there are almost no stray dogs, horses, cows, etc running amok, and people are more likely to observe traffic rules.

Andre, Kerman and I spent two days and nights there.  We loved the bay, the pleasant brown-sand beach, and the very nice weather.  Kerman offered to cook both nights.  He did not disappoint.  The first night´s menu included ratatouille and porc in a dijon/white wine sauce.  French food two nights in a row!!  The next night Kerman proved his mastery of international gastronomy by conjuring a delicious Pasta Carbonara - very exotique!!
That was Thursday night.  On Monday, the adventure rider world will bid adieu (at least for now) to a woman who has ridden with her husband, Mark all around the world.  Maggie has been a great friend to many, many people and to me since I first met her as we boarded the ferry in La Paz, Mexico.  Her husband will continue solo to Tierra del Fuego, but he won´t be the only one missing her.

For that reason, I drove to San Jose, Costa Rica´s capital.  This was a solo ride that climbed steadily from the ocean to Costa Rica´s highlands where San Jose resides.  It is cooler up here.  Both last night and today, I have enjoyed perfect weather.  The focal point I missed in Managua thrives in San Jose.  This saturday morning, masses of people were out enjoying the parks, the pedestrian zones, and the plethora of stores and eateries this city offers.  It is great to be in a really major city again.  I love the masses of people as they converge and diverge, the full buses taking them to and fro. I enjoyed a great lunch of rice, beans, and meat served on a big banana tree leaf in a little "soda" (Costa Rican for little restaurant or diner) in what I would guess is a vintage 1930s era marketplace.  The architecture of this city is varied and attractive.  There are buildings harking back to the Beaux-Arts era.  A couple reminded me of buidings in Quebec city with their colored tin roofs.  Most prominent though are the Brutalist buildings.  I´m not much of a fan of these concrete monstrosities, but somehow these buildings work here.  One buiding of probably 15 stories is a clear Brutalist materpiece.  The building reportedly houses the Instituto Nacional de Seguros...Now I just need to find the architect!  Beyond this, there is the National Library, a church that reminds me of Muskegon´s St. Francis de Sales, and a nearby apartment building.  Perhaps all this Brutalism reflects the fashion and taste of the 60s and 70s or maybe concrete was a prefered building material for some reason.  Regardless, I like their imprint on this town.  Overall walking around San Jose reminded me a bit of Montreal with its many different architectures, although the skyline is not as towering.

San Jose certainly feels safe.  Police, men and women, are paired all over this city.  I suppose some people might find this a bit oppressive, but the Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) seem unbothered.  The only thing San Jose seems to lack is diversity.  Aside from tourists and some western expats, this city appears pretty homogenous, both ethnically and racially as well as lifestyle (although it is supposedly home to Central America´s most open gay and lesbian community).  I aim to look for where the Bohemians reside, though. Perhaps I´ll find more diversity there.

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