Sunday, July 31, 2016

Nicaragua

The Hitchhiker
I ordered a 7 year old Flor De Cana neat. “Actually, make it a double”. I know how to trim my own sails. In 10 minutes it’s gone and in 15 minutes I know everyone in the bar. There are 3 of us, and that’s counting the bartender. It’s midday and I just escaped my own murder. Here’s the story:

I used a “Tramitador”, who is a local that knows the procedure of crossing the border from Honduras to Nicaragua. I paid him ten bucks and he eased me through the bureaucracy. When we were cleared through, he asked for a ride to the end of the border zone and since I had just spent 2 hours with him I was happy to help. We had a pleasant ride and when he hopped out a young man standing right in that spot immediately asked for a lift to the next town. Ordinarily I would have declined but my door was already open, the truck was in park, I’d just had a good experience and he caught me off guard. 

As soon as he climbed in and I saw how dirty he was I knew I had made a mistake.  It went downhill from there quickly. I tried to make small talk in Spanish and he responded in curt English.

After a long silence he asked me if his ear disturbed me. I looked at the side of his head to see that his ear had been cut off. “I didn’t even notice”.

More silence. “My dad was a mean drunk but good with a knife.”

When you have a camper on the back of a pickup truck that rearview mirror that lives in the middle of your windshield is only there so you can catch a glimpse of yourself, stare into your own eyes while thinking, “You can do this. Don’t shut down. Make him see you as a human.”

I came back with a smile and started talking about my trip so far, my mom and brother whom I love, all the wonderful things I’ve seen, how kind everyone has been to me and then I asked him why he wanted to go to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

“For work. I have nothing. I need a job.”

I came up with a plan. “Miguel, you aren’t going to get a job in those clothes. I have some clean clothes for you in the back. I’m going to give them to you. When we stop in a little bit for food, I’ll fill your stomach and get you dressed for success and listen, I can even give you some money so you can take the bus and won’t have to hitchhike. I believe things are going to get better for you. I’ll help you.”

His attitude improved. He was more talkative and he told me about his gang life in San Pedro Sula, the notoriously dangerous capital of Honduras. He talked about killing people but then amended his proclamation to clarify that those killings were when he was in the military. I wasn’t aware that Honduras had sent troops anywhere but I left it alone.

I remember thinking, “I have 62 km to the next town. Keep the speed up and stop at nothing until we are in a public place.”

Of all places, when we entered the city of Esteli I saw a Pizza Hut and pulled right in. I had my door open before I even put it in park. “Come on man, I’ll buy. Let’s eat all the pizza we can!” While he was gorging himself I excused myself for the bathroom. I went out to the camper and grabbed him a clean shirt and a pair of jeans. I gave them to him at the table with the change from the meal – easily enough for him to get a bus to Managua. I tried to say goodbye at the restaurant but he followed me to the truck and asked for a ride to the edge of town so he could start hitchhiking again.

“Miguel, that’s why I gave you the money, so you could take the bus.”

“I’m gonna keep that money for later.”

“I’m sorry, I bought you food, gave you clothes and cash, and I gotta be honest, I’m not comfortable getting back in the truck with you. I’m going to leave by myself now.”

He was silent. We were standing in front of Pizza Hut with a big glass picture window with plenty of diners just a meter away. I felt comfortable enough to ask the following: “Miguel, when you got in the truck this morning, did you mean to do me harm?”

“The worst kind.”


Night and Day
There is a huge geographical difference between Nicaragua and Honduras. Honduras was the Switzerland of Central America with its lush green pastures saddled between mountains crowned with cool moist air while Nicaruagua is flat, dead, brown, dry & ugly.
I went from the prettiest country to the ugliest country in Central America. The beaches were the saving grace, and I put Maderas at the top
Good waves at Madreas
(but I’m getting ahead of myself) No more Mayans of ancient splendor – I entered with a bad taste and it grew even more sour. Then I met the police.

My First Sustained Corruption
These cops are shameless. They pull you over and steal your lunch money. It’s like being the last guy in the locker room at Central High all over again. The secret to dealing with these corrupt cops actually proved to me that my Spanish has really improved. I had to consciously dumb down my vocabulary and purposely conjugate my verbs incorrectly. The less I speak & comprehend, the sooner they get frustrated and wave me on.
Granada

Catnip
If the cops are this corrupt I began to think I really needed to be on my toes with the more pedestrian version of thieves. Shiny and new is like catnip to those who want your stuff, that’s why I never wash Elsie. I want her to look beat and broke from the exterior. Shiny and new is all relative: Someone tried to pop the lock on the cab of the truck and rip me off while I was sleeping. They screwed the door up for a day but they got nothing. My good friend and personal mechanic fixed the damage. Ladies and gentlemen: Mark Sessions

2 Weeks With A Childhood Friend
Mark is actually the friend who found and purchased the camper and truck that would become Elsie. “You don’t have to buy it, but if you want it, you can have it at cost. I think you should fly over here and check it out.” I did, and I did. Then he put his boys to work adapting her to her upcoming travails. She’s done well because they did a fine job.
That's how a cashew nut grows


We drove around Nicaragua and had one touristy good time after another. Mark has only traveled to Mexico and he was really shocked by how many people he met from all over the world that were traveling Central America. He made me laugh out loud a few times and I want to share the quotes with you. It was so frequent and classic that I took to recording him.

“You're Dutch? My wife is a dental hygienist, and she went to.... Hey Bobby. Where'd she go again? Yea, she went to the Dominican Republic.”

“How could you understand that guy? I couldn't understand that guy at all. Is he from France?”
“Mark, he's from Manchester.”
“That sounds French.” 
“That's in England.”

“No we don't eat lamb. That's for foreigners. Hey Bobby how do you say "fatty" in Swiss?”

To a Dutch girl: “Do you call your parents every day? Cuz I have a 21 year old daughter. How old are you? Bobby, how old do you think she is? Ask her how old she is. See, parents worry.”

“But this metal is springy. See, springy. Look, see how it bounces? It's springy. Bobby, how do you say “springy” or maybe “bouncy”?”
San Juan Del Sur. We hired a man to guard the camper during Semana Santa

Semana Santa
Everything sucks during Semana Santa. Just don’t be in a Latin country during Semana Santa. What’s Semana Santa? No way am I gonna relive that. You look it up.

Find what you love and let it kill you
I’m not trying to be morbid here, but we all expire. I wouldn’t post this but my mom is actually going to be here in a couple days and I can sooth the upset that this will bring.


Death while adventuring: Worth it. So worth it. The pain doesn’t last that long. Even when it’s a bad death, in the big scope, it wasn’t that long or that much suffering. And the memories I’ve savored since I began all those years ago wouldn’t have been with me if I didn’t take chances. So I take chances and I eventually will get caught. Hey, on a long enough timeline – everything ends in disaster, and it was completely worth it. Please remember this if you ever find yourself standing in front of my closed casket.

No I don’t have a death wish. I’ve never had a suicidal tendency in my life. For this dispatch - I started on a scary note and I’m going out on one. But, I promise on the next dispatch to also write whatever I want….;-)
My crew at Playa Maderas

Your man on point,

Captain Bobby

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Honduras

In My Moment
Through the fog of evaporating sleep the scream of the rooster sounds like a woman discovering a body. As I enter consciousness it slowly comes to me that I’m in a camper in the jungles of Honduras.
Out in the wild, not in a park
I step outside to give my “maquina de libertad” a walk around. The cabover jutting forward makes Elsie look like a female Elvis impersonator in full pompadour glory. This is such a wonderfully weird life.
That's an unearthed Mayan pyramid in the background

Goodbye El Salvador
My last night in El Salvador was spent parked on the main street of Suchitoto. I loved that town ten years ago. This time around it bored me. What does that mean? Am I becoming a little jaded around the edges perhaps?

The next morning I began the extremely long journey to Copan, Honduras. The slalom course that is the Honduran highway in my seven ton sled took weeks off my life in mere hours. Dodge a manhole here, straddle a sinkhole there, scream aloud when an under horse powered car tries to pass me on a curve. I literally earned a blister on my finger from death gripping that wheel for 8 hours. Shoehorn a 3 hour inefficient border crossing into the center of the timeline and that forced me to spend the last 1.5 hours driving on truly dangerous roads in the blackest of inkwell nights. I swore I’d never drive at night. Either they don’t have street lights or someone stole the bulbs. I coached myself aloud as the behemoth semis avalanched past me.
But I made it, and I loved Copan.
It’s no Tikal, but it’s good, and the little town that has grown up around it is a pleasant place to frit away a week of your life.


First Impressions of Honduras
This is the 61st country I’ve visited. I was warned it was the most dangerous country in all of Central America and you’d have to be nuts to go there. My camper is a research vessel. I conduct my own studies, thank you very much. I never had an issue and I spent a month in Honduras. The explanation I got while in country is that the danger exists for the locals, and that the organized crime element has a strict “hands off policy” regarding the tourists. They bring in lots of money and everyone has at least one family member who works in the tourist industry. They don’t want the bottom to fall out and one murdered tourist will do that in a single headline. Now, that doesn’t mean some desperado won’t cut your neck for your phone but it didn’t happen. 

Como?
The worst Spanish in Central America is in Honduras. Mush mouth slang makes it very hard to comprehend. I’ve never returned so many blank stares. I didn’t see one Spanish language school and that’s a first. I like Hondurans and I can vouch for them unequivocally, but make sure your Spanish teacher hails from a different nation. 

Honduras at 30MPH
In the other countries I was disappointed because I had to drive so slowly. Not Honduras. This country is over the top gorgeous. It’s the Switzerland of Central America. I slowed down to enjoy it. Western Honduras had terrible roads – I averaged about 15 mph. The eastern side was pretty good – 35 mph.
Nothing about Driving Elsie (good band name?) on these roads is relaxing. She’s enormous, so when I’m in these old Spanish colonial towns she doesn’t really fit on the tiny ox-cart streets. On the highways their low level of engineering is suspect – I just end up bouncing and then I have to greatly reduce speed because I’m so high and heavy and these roads aren’t even close to flat.  A couple drawers have broken free of their runners, my 2 doors are no longer square and don’t close correctly, I sometimes have to prime the water pump after a particularly rough pounding, a shelf has broken twice, only half of the lights are functioning, and the microwave is dead. You can’t jar this camper for 12,000 miles on these terrible roads without realizing breakage. It’s all part of the deal. I’m a mobile repair unit servicing one client only.


Goin to the brink, Of oblivion, Gonna need a shrink, To get back again - - The Cramps
The Central Americans often endanger their own lives and in so doing, mine as well. When they pass me going into a curve and they are directly alongside, where do you think they are going to go when a vehicle comes around the bend in their lane? They are going to run me off the road without thinking twice. Because I get tired of yelling at the top of my lungs as I sit alone in the cab how stupid they are once per mile, I’m just going to decide that they simply have a “lower level of safety consciousness”.
Stupid is so much shorter and easier, but I’ll spend the extra syllables since I really do like these suicidal bastards. They aren’t stupid, they just haven’t evolved their level of safety consciousness to the same level as first worlders. There is no doubt that we have a heightened sense of cautiousness in the first world. Maybe good, maybe bad. I’ve passed on a curve exactly once, and in mid pass my self-preservation gene kicked in and I realized that it was stupid and unsafe for everyone on the road, and when it was over I remember thinking “I could have been killed, I’m not gonna ever do that again!” I guess they never say the following words, “My life is pretty sweet, why would I risk passing on a curve?” Defensive driving in Spanishland is constant. I have to assume that danger is about to fly at me around every turn. I always thought I’d die at sea but these drivers have given me reason to rethink that.
Overlander of yesteryear


Today's detour brought to you by the collapsing bridges of Honduras

The Police Woman
I parked for one night in Esperanza. There is no reason to ever go there. The prison dominates everything and they give the citizens of the town free wifi since all cell phones are blocked to prevent the inmates from calling out (does that make any sense when nearly every phone has wifi capabilities?) I was in the town plaza catching up on my internet stuff when I was approached by a police woman in uniform. It was a pleasant meeting and it seemed she only wanted to practice her English. Then she asked me to accompany her back to her hovel. I want to see how the locals live and I couldn’t be rude. She took off her hat, unbuckled her belt and let that gut fall out, then she reclined on what I’m sure was a stolen prison mattress and propositioned me. Repeatedly. God am I glad I’m not a pretty girl. Those were horribly awkward moments. I barely got out of there with my Honduran virginity intact. Exquisitely unattractive and obviously insane, I hid in the camper and hoped the knock would never come. I was out of there at first light.

There is a Brewery
Lago Yojoa is barely worth visiting. There is a brewery that is located near there. It’s the perfect example of creating a tourist destination location. It has only 2 draws: the other white people who are on the backpack trail, and something other than thin tasteless beer. You’ll speak English with tourists from all over the world, and can collectively convince yourselves that you are really doing something extreme. This is where I lose readers, friends and open myself up to ridicule from the few among you who are real adventurers.

Up in the mountains above La Ceiba
Here's the hierarchy bottom to top: 4.) Those without passports, 3.) Weekers (my code word for “tourists”), 2.) Travelers, & 1.) Adventurers. I don’t even strive for the top slot. In fact, I often fall short of being a traveler. I like sleeping in Elsie with my faithful pillow, screen doors, constant fans and inconsistent aircon.  There are those that are absolutely sure they are well traveled, and they have spent lots of money on international flights, and they do rank above those who don’t own passports but they are still weekers: They fly into a place for 2 – 4 weeks, “Do the country” and fly back knowing that they are now authorities on all things Central American. This is most of you. Then there’s Nick. www.theamazonadventure.com. I first learned about this guy from my buddy Todd who told me he was pedaling a bike all the way to South America. He rode thru the Darien Gap! And what about these people who are walking? I don’t qualify as an adventurer, not on this scale.

Here’s my challenge to you who do own passports: Stay longer, go deeper, learn the language, avoid other white people, and try to go a couple days without using the words, “Awesome” or “Amazing”. You’re better than that.

Utila

I parked Elsie up in the mountains and paid for a safe spot so I could abandon her for scuba diving on an offshore island. My dive buddy was a regal looking gentleman from Nashville named Howard Rosenblum.
Photo by Howard Rosenblum
 
Photo by Howard Rosenblum
I’m a big fan. First, his photos are gorgeous and he allowed me to share them with you. But more importantly, I credit him with keeping scuba diving in my bag of tricks.

After that horrendous experience in a cave in the Yucatan of Mexico this would be my first dive. The boat dropped the hook; we geared & buddied up and splashed into the water. I gave the “all clear sign” but my pulse was a little quick. I opened the valve on my BCD, dumped my air and let the weights on my hips do their trick. About 15 feet down the panic gripped me. “Out! I want out!”
Photo by Howard Rosenblum
I surfaced, everyone else surfaced, I sheepishly explained that I’d had a bad experience, I thought I was over it, but apparently I’m not. I swam back to the boat in total defeat.
They completed their dive and when they returned everyone treated me like the kid in the wheelchair. Except Howard. I don’t know him well, but I’m guessing his kids think he’s the greatest. He was patient, sympathetic, and a good listener. After our surface interval, I made the second dive, and then 2 more the next day. And there was Howard, looking after me the whole way. I’m back, but that cave really spooked me.

Pulhanpanzak
Fire hose to the eyes.
























Lost Civilizations – Goodbye To The Mayans

The Mayans didn’t expand their colossal empire south of Honduras. How I have loved exploring their ruins, but that’s over, and I suppose I will look forward to the Incas. Here’s one thing I learned and I think it’s telling:  They hit their peak of population around 900 AD and disappeared shortly after. Did you catch that? They peaked and then their civilization hit a near total collapse very soon thereafter. Civilizations lament their recessions, but maybe what we should really fear is the apex. These are happy times folks.

I can look anyone dead in the eye, and all dogs like me. That must count on some level for living honestly.

Your man on point,

It takes only 17 pounds of pressure to take off a finger. These things deliver 800
Blacktop Bobby