Tuesday, April 26, 2016

-- Running Jet-lagged in the U.S. & the U.K. --

The engines roar in a mild canned noise as the empty plane gains altitude soaring over the dark Nicaraguan plain beneath us. I try to find comfort in the grey seat, closely watched by the round brown eyes of a young and tired-looking flight attendant. She approaches me, timidly asking if I'm fluent in Spanish with a nervous smile drawn on her face.
I say 'Yes'. She calls me into the front galley, pulling a series of scripts from her smartphones, asking me to read out scripted passenger announcements written in English... but in Spanish, for a brief moment, bringing memories of my time working in the Middle East for Qatar Airways, which by now looks like a lifetime ago.

Three fellow members of the crew approach me, thanking me with weary yet quirky smiles, whilst and I am offered an unlimited assortment of food and beverages free of charge.
What I once dreaded as a flight on one of the most infamous low-cost airlines, turning into an incredibly pleasant flight, improvising a lie-flat seat by stretching my legs over a row of three, napping and munching on an over sized bag of salty pretzels and a can of Minute Maid.
Some three hours later, the plane overflies the Gulf of Mexico and an endless lineup of orange street lights emerge from the thick morning fog leading our sleepy Airbus into Houston Intercontinental Airport where we wait on the tarmac for several minutes for our gate to be ready.

Despite the somnolent outlook of the airport from the outside, the terminals inside burst with travelers both entering and leaving the United States, moment in which I am directed to a queue where high tech totems perform an immigration check on ESTA travelers, most of whom grin in frustration after being redirected to another queue for a second inspection holding their passports and a stub of paper marked with a big X.
In my case this morning, this second inspection leads to confusion and some time spent in the 'secondary inspection room'. No access to my passport, blinding neon lights forcing squinting eyes and prayers sent upwards.
A friendly officer calls my name within a pool of travelers who seem to have been waiting for hours holding onto their colorful canvas bags, saris and golden jewelry, their skins looking paler under the lights of scrutiny and uncertainty. Seconds later, I am waved my way into the United States with a smile and I run across three terminals and a sky train to make it to my connecting flight.

The distance between Houston and Los Angeles is covered in under four hours in a pretty uneventful flight in which most passengers seem to be asleep, allowing me to perform several trips to the back galley in an pointless effort of shaking the jet lag and fatigue out of my system.
Damp clouds make way to a clear sky revealing the bone dry landscape of the Nevada desert whilst the airplane balances side to side in an effort of conquering the San Bernardino mountains on its final dive into the busy motorways of Los Angeles and the international airport, a moment sweetened by the amicable conversation of a girl from Chicago (now living in Houston) , her passion for Ireland sprouting from her thick American accent, her love for children pullulating from her blue eyes framed by thick square glasses.

The fatigue abruptly takes over my body, transforming a bus journey from the airport to Santa Monica into a faded fusion of direction-giving (despite not being local and being my first time on a Californian public bus) and chitchatting with a lost Brazilian mother and her child, as well as a vague awareness of following the bus route so I don't miss my stop.
A toy store magazine catalog. A landscape coming out of a magazine for Lego or Mattel. This is Santa Monica to me.

Manicured gardens, squeaky clean streets, colorful pastel signs which are oddly proportioned to the building they are embedded in, athletic blonds politely fighting for space with jocks wearing salmon-coloured jerseys and hordes of Chinese tourists with overly sized SLR cameras.
I take it all in whilst my lungs fill with the fresh humid air coming from the Pacific a few meters down the road and check into one of the nicest (and most expensive) hostels I've stayed in, the Hostelling International in Santa Monica where a friendly receptionist promptly complete the basic formalities and invites me to have breakfast.
The convenience of shower rooms coated in shiny green tiles polished by a thick layer of Dettol, or starched-drenched dry cleaned bed sheets which only accentuate the softer touch given to a much-needed power nap  shall never be under appreciated anymore.

A light layer of oceanic winter mist prevents the sunshine to break loose over the famous Santa Monica pier, crowded with foreign and domestic tourists alike, which seem to almost hanging off the wooden deck and steel railings, like seagulls waiting for the wind to pick up and soar over the emerald-colored cold ocean.
I walk through the pier and, in a desperate attempt of avoiding the crowds of Chinese tourists clumsily spending money on price-inflated junk food and waving selfie sticks and iPads across the heads of those who are relatively taller than them, later venturing on a long walk sinking my feet in the cold sand all the way to Venice Beach, greeted by a weak late afternoon sunshine which turns the waves into a wobbly silver sculpture scratched by the painfully-looking lines of surfers conquering the high swell.

All of a sudden, my body craves for fat, perhaps consequence of days surviving on rice with beans, fruit and vegetables in Central America, and I find true satisfaction on the oiliest corn dog Muscle Beach has ever seen, followed by a quarter-pounder, a cinnamon roll and a 'slushie' to wash it down. Surprisingly, a sugar rush whose energy fuel my walk back to Santa Monica, surrounded by a street line up of small family homes facing a weak sun now disappearing across the overcast horizon drawn over the deserted beach.
I collapse early at night, only to wake up the next morning to the bluest of the skies, a lavish breakfast and a stroll around the Santa Monica promenade to do some last-minute shopping.
Shortly after midday on a Sunday in which Californians start queuing for brunch blending in a series of light jumpers, shorts and large sunglasses, I take the bus back to Sepulveda Boulevard for some 'head-shaving plane spotting' by the In-n-Out joint, indulging on my last couple of California-style burgers topped with bright yellow cheddar cheese and crimson tomato sauce.

The Dreamliner awaits. A 12-hour flight aiming to teleport me from the sun kissed glass windows and sweet-smelling convenience stores of Terminal 2 in Los Angeles International, to the gloomy depths of London Heathrow's Terminal 3. All seats bar one are taken, to my delight, such seat is next to mine, making the cramped journey slightly more bearable.
Sleek, modern, silent. The Dreamliner is any aviation geek's candy store, their heart (and mine) racing with excitement at the sound of novelty chimes, LED-powered lighting, or my all-time favourite: the lack of window shades.

Hours over Manitoba and Hudson Bay go by. The Danish Girl disturbingly messes up with my thoughts over the Atlantic, and a nice sunshine breaks through the shade-less windows on approach over the Thames. I try to transfer onto an earlier Dublin-bound flight unsuccessfully.
I land myself and reluctantly take the 'tube' into the city, only emerging at Picadilly Circus for a breath of fresh wintry European air. 'I am home, well almost there'.
I stretch my legs by briskly walking from Picadilly Circus to Covent Garden. It is already Monday and the city is swarming with both, tourists shopping and Londoners selling. Pause for a coffee for the soul and a bit of granola with yogurt for the bloated body.

I proceed to walk through quiet alleyways leading downwards to Embankment where a wintry wind blows freely from the West cutting the skin like a knife, the bells at the Big Ben loudly reminding me it's nearly time to retreat back to Heathrow.
My head lets go, tilting sideways with the rocking train. The sun dips into a horizon dominated by tall Victorian houses as we cruise over Hammersmith. I fall asleep and -luckily- wake up as the train pulls into the Heathrow station.
A woman in green uniform prints a boarding card, the airplane is nearly empty, we taxi and wait at the threshold, I blank out...

...I feel a heavy bump from the plane's undercarriage. Outside my window, the flaps are fully deployed. One light becomes two, the sequence repeats and multiplies, we touchdown. I have now landed in Dublin and the chilly wind pressing against my sunburned skin enlightens my journey into the city center.
Memories of the past weeks sprout through my head. The volcanoes, rivers, lakes, chicken buses. The surf, the frustration, the laughter, the sickness, the people met, the stories now created.

Central America has taught me about (the lack of) personal space, about smiling through the struggles of life, simplicity, about resilience.
As I learn that many people travel to run from their reality, I also learn how much I look forward to face mine, to return to the comfort of my one-bedroom apartment in the Victorian side of Dublin, to my friends, to return home.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

- Mesoamerican Odyssey: Nicaraguan Epiphany -

A sweet smell of ripe banana overexposed to the scorching morning sunshine intoxicates the air whilst my arms swing my blue backpack from a small old taxi into a leaving 'chicken bus'.
No time to waste this hot early morning in March. My friends and I have decided to leave the busy streets of Leon and head South through a road winding down plains in which thorny trees stand lonely only crowned by chunky black crows.

In less than an hour, the chaos of suburban Leon is remarkably replaced by the colourful wooden shacks of Poneloya, a backwater town caressed by the waves of the Pacific Ocean roaring from the distant reef and invading the ramshackle stilt houses from below, like some sort of private sewage system.
We pay a dollar each for a 15-minute boat journey through a shallow mangrove blooming with wildlife in the low tide, almost untouched by the human hand except for the battered wooden sign with colourful prints at the shallow beach where the speedboat runs aground to a waiting oxcart.

My plans of making it to the Pacific Coast had materialised the night before during a conversation around bottles of local beers. Despite having no reservations, an urge to venture to the coast once again was not to be resisted.
The remoteness of The Surfing Turtle Lodge is only broken by an assortment of blond-haired heads, overly-sunburned skins, english signage and relatively good wi-fi.
I am offered a tent for my stay, which I reluctantly accept when setting up camp in the scorching grey sand whilst the sunshine cooks every possibility of human life within the small polyester confinement at midday.

The Surfing Turtle Lodge, born as a self-sustained ecological project focused on the conservation of sea turtles is somehow idillyc. No food can be sourced from the outside world, so a tab is created for every guest, which makes ordering food easy yet very pricey. Think about a slice of fresh avocado seasoned with the price of money.
The beach might not match the turquoise-coloured magazine-worthy paradise of Yucatan, but the swell makes up for perfect and steady surf in a water which temperature and pristineness can only be described as absolute perfection.

Hours and days go by staring at the constant crashing of waves against the grey volcanic sand, at moments surrendering the limbs to repose in colourful net hammocks, napping and indulging in fresh juice.
An afternoon daily beach volleyball tournament makes for some amusement in a sticky sand and sweat combination minutes before the sun graciously sets over the orange sea, giving way to nights of philosophical talks about life, resting the head on the warm dry sand,  whilst sipping on a beer under the clearest of the skies.
Moments which incite moments. Perhaps that childhood memory laying on a worn-out tablecloth in the warm summer grass with my parents watching the stars, slightly paranoid at the thought of a moving light which my mother would call an UFO (although years later I discovered they were airplanes).

This is the effect of traveling as I see it. There is indeed a pleasure on the constant come-and-go and the discovery of new places, but there is also an added value on the fact that these new places can bring memories that our minds render worth to be relived over and over again, in a different time and place,  almost like life acquiring several dimensions, making the moment even more fulfilling.

The days filled with surf, balancing ropes and naps, combined with surprisingly pleasant nights in my own little tent, reduced the omnipresent fast pace nature of this trip to my own surprise and needless to say, to my own delight.
I leave the Surfing Turtle Lodge in the early morning. The short voyage through the virgin mangrove brings me back to mainland, to reality, to the melancholic thought of a nearly-ending journey.

My friends and I exchange contacts and take selfies on the bus back to Leon knowing that in a few minutes, each one of us will be taking different paths. A hopeful selfie working as a testimony of a short 'friendship' with the only hope of meeting again, providing the circular dynamics of travelling keeps its loop, evoking once again moments that deserve to be relived in a different time and place.

Once in Leon, a taxi takes me across the hot and busy town to the bus station, where I take a minivan to Managua on a three-hour journey along a route that moves away from the dry plains of the Pacific and shaves the shores of Lake Managua in a peaceful landscape only interrupted by the sudden dramatic eruption of the mighty Volcan Momotombo and by the eternal traffic congestions of the Nicaraguan capital.

I have no interest in seeing the city, whose historical core, sitting over several geological faults, has been destroyed by repeated volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, perhaps also destroying its identity, transforming the capital into a metropolis focused on the flat soulless suburbs riddled with traffic congestions and shopping centres.
Taking it with a pinch of salt, I try not despair to the intimidating sight of Managua, since only an hour away through a modern motorway lies Granada, Nicaragua's so-called 'colonial jewel'.

Granada is indeed gorgeous. A colonial-style marvel in which colorful facades provide constant shelter from the scorching summer sunshine and streets are kept free of any rubbish, whilst polite locals greet you at every corner.
A few minutes down the main road of this pretty small city embedded on a swampy shore of large Lake Nicaragua, the concept behind Granada becomes noticeable: a city completely catering for tourists, sheltered from Nicaragua's social issues, like a controlled and embellished chaos that is not to be seen by the rich tourist spending good foreign money in a famously known corrupt country.

It is the end of my trip and the pace has noticeably slowed me down, inciting me to splurge on a private room with a small window and a loud fan in a little hotel located in the touristy core of Granada. Convenience and comfort become my credo.
The cathedrals in Granada are kept spotless, its simple interiors once again a testimony of past natural catastrophes and future expressions of tourism-fuelled religious festivals.

I spend my time in Granada alone. Glancing through half-open doors into the lives of the Nicaraguan middle class, sipping on my fresh smoothies and buying overpriced souvenirs.
A lavish breakfast is had with a Canadian/Spanish couple at the 'House of Chocolate', chatting about bitterly cold summers in Saskachtewan around the comfort of a freshly-made banana and cacao pancake.
Later that day and almost vomiting their words, I engage into conversation with two American girls staying at the same hotel. Their clothes ragged from weeks in the Nicaraguan jungle, their spirits broken with the disappointment of a terrible volunteering experience.

A refreshing afternoon is spent cruising on the vast silver-coloured Lake Nicaragua, along with a ridiculously good-looking Dutch couple, sipping on cheap rum and munching on peanuts, a time in which we skip from mangroves where children amuse themselves on makeshifts swings into the murky water, to islands where overly fed monkeys play with our hair whilst their genitals touch our naked shoulders and finally to a little hostel-island with a small pool where we watch the excursion and the day coming to an end.

My last night in Nicaragua is a blur memory of hot and spicy street food smothered in a bittersweet sauce and served in a banana-tree leaf and an obscene amount of mojitos sipped at Granada's Irish pub, whilst the drunk eyes of the American girls constantly protrude at the chance of talking about conservationism and pesky locals interrupt the dynamics of an alcohol-induced discussion with an assortment of items to sell. Your typical tourism-riddled town scene.

Granada is left behind the following morning. I find shelter from the heat and any sort of human contact at the, ironically, busy Metrocentro.
A place where rich Nicaraguans shop American-imported goods, have a fatty fast food meal and wave their iPhones into a mesh of youngsters obsessed with selfies.

I sip on my last coffee in Central America, buy a pair of cheap shoes (since I have been wearing flip-flops for a week now) and shelter from the crowd in a comfortable sofa below a fly of stairs whilst enjoying the free wi-fi.
A taxi takes me through Managua's suburbia into the airport in the late afternoon, arriving at the modern air conditioned terminal about five hours before my flight, providing enough time to rearrange my luggage and why not, my ideas.

Fellow travellers queue at the bright yellow Spirit Airlines' counter, closely watched by an overly large painting of Augusto Sandino, proudly displaying some Nicaraguan history to those 'Nicas' that, along with me and a few other tourists, are now leaving the country.
The flight to Fort Lauderdale is overbooked, whilst the one taking me to Houston Intercontinental has only over thirty passengers.

Both flights leave almost at the same. Both Airbuses overflying Managua at almost 02:00 in the morning, time in which the 'Nicas' in the city below are asleep and the passengers in both flights get ready to go 'home'.

Friday, April 22, 2016

- Mesoamerican Odyssey: A Nicaraguan Surprise -

The beaten up bus continues swerving side to side through the main highway whilst just across the narrow corridor, sticking his head above a pile of merchandise wrapped in black polystyrene bags, a large young man wearing a thick black rain jacket (oblivious to the nearly 40 degrees Celsius temperature outside) acknowledges my presence with a steady stare, seconds before his lips gather enough momentum to engage into a conversation in which he proudly states his Nicaraguan origin, shuddering at the explanation of this fortnightly commute between his workplace in dangerous Tegucigalpa and his sweet home in Chinandega, some two hours away from the Hondurean border.

At midday, the bus pulls next to a house in an almost-deserted dusty village taken over by stray dogs covered in scabies, and the short queue at the poorly lit immigration office means our passports are stamped out of Honduras in no time, followed by a short walk through a tall Japanese-funded bridge into the last country to be conquered on this trip, Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is regarded as one of the safest countries in Latin America, a statement over-reinforced as soon as one sets a foot on their side of their bridge where two sturdy border police staff relay the checking bags/checking passport stamps tasks, noisily asking details about previous trips.

The second 'filter' into this country is the health control in which some sort of 'temperature machine gun' directly aimed at one's face checks for possible signs of fever and, if clear, a white little stub is glued onto a passport page.
Next is the passport control in which two queues are formed around a circular air conditioned booth in which three officers work hastily filling out details on large computers.
A white sign announces the USD 10 charge for foreign tourists entering the country, carefully placed next to an unlikely-located bank branch.

'No problem' - I think, after remembering I have no cash left whatsoever.
'Not happening'- my debit card later claims as verdict.

With no means of crossing the border, and stuck in a limbo between already exited Honduras and impossible-to-enter Nicaragua, thoughts of spending a good amount of hours at the border, returning to Honduras or even selling some belongings ramble through my head, moment in which the large Nicaraguan man pulls some Lempiras out of his heavy rain jacket pocket, exchanges them for a crisp USD 10 note and hands it to me, whilst I speechlessly pay for the entry fee and manage to get my passport stamped into the country.
I breathe in relief, I am desperately craving for a bottle of water but I keep my mouth shut, trying to settle into the new country and most importantly, trying to forget the sour experience of clearing my entry into it.
My new friend pays for my bus ticket with colorful plastic-made Cordobas and a long chat about Nicaraguan left-wing politics, as you would in Central America, swiftly takes us through soft plains conquered by a well-maintained highway which graciously links the border in Guasaule to the city of Chinandega.

I find true joy at the sight of colorful ATMs lined up at the air conditioned convenience store in Chinandega, where I withdraw plenty of plastic-made Nicaraguan notes, buy a much needed bottle of water and give my friend a crisp USD 20 note whilst hurtling over a plentiful fried chicken meal in gratitude for his company and friendship.

My new friend is now home whereas I must continue heading East. The previous episode has drawn a massive smile on my face and my comfortable one-hour journey to Leon is filled with imaginary images of a winter in Minsk as narrated by a fellow older passenger who spent three years in Belarus learning the mysteries of drill and lathe machines right when the Soviet Union was a superpower and Central American Communist governments sent waves of youngsters overseas to 'rebuild the countries' and learn productive skills.

Excitement is highly felt when the white minibus is surrounded by the mess of the haphazard bus station in Leon.
Whilst I sip on a half-frozen bottled apple juice, I try to find my way around the brick-layered streets into the city centre, a street landscape changing rapidly from 'grubby suburban' to 'Colonial chic' within a matter of five minutes.
This is Leon, a backpacker's paradise in which hipster restaurants alight with noisy hostels, conveniently embedded in a whitewashed street scenery that has not changed in over 500 years. Exciting, yet quaint, just enough to keep you happy for a few days.

I glance through my Lonely Planet guidebook and spot the name 'Lazybones', a hostel which a few streets down the road serves as pure rewarding indulgence accompanied with a bottle of cold Toña beer by the small yet refreshing swimming pool.
The evening is spent in the main square chugging on small bags of green mango sprinkled with salt and chilli pepper, quenched by a large freshly-made smoothie, whilst a summer music concert blasts through the trembling windows of adjacent whitewashed buildings covered in revolutionary murals.

The relative comfort of my hostel bed is void by the noisy adjacent street. Nevertheless and despite having slept only a few hours, I am joined by six fellow guests the next morning at the lobby, sparking the typical self-centred presentation about oneself, and boarding a safari-like Land Cruiser which takes us out of the city and, through a grey dirt road, to a Nicaragua frozen in time, splattered with oxcarts, corn crops and dirt walled houses.

Behold the Cerro Negro!

Rising 728 meters over the hot flat plain, the hunchback-like Cerro Negro's top is conquered with a 45 minute hike through a narrow pathway covered in sharp and loose volcanic stone, whilst strongly holding colorful flat pieces of wood with both arms, unsuccessfully trying to convey in terms with the powerful gusts of winds blowing from the steamy and geologically active surroundings.

The aim of this ascend? To change into dusty baggy jumpsuits and slide down the side of the volcano in some sort of smooth gigantic slide carefully shaped by nature and lava eruptions on a forty-five degree angle.

A short briefing on safety, as well as leg positions 'show-and'-tell' demo are performed. My heart start racing faster as I ride the precarious wooden board.
The speed rapidly increases to over fifty kilometers per hour in a descent that takes about a minute, with volcanic debris impregnating the desperately grasped stale air. Adrenaline invades my every muscle and volcanic ash covers any piece of exposed skin with a thin layer of dust whilst my shoes fill up with small sharp rocks rendering them useless after this peculiar excursion.

Once the ash-filthy group return to Leon, an afternoon of sipping on small bottles of beers by the hostel pool is at moments interrupted by the sound of thunders, despite the clear skies. I later learn that the nearby volcanoes were erupting, creating this particular sound which echoes through the hot Nicaraguan plain.
The fresh evening breeze  invites for an outdoor dinner at the local market, where young girls in stained white aprons sell all sort of pungent grilled meats accompanied with rice, beans and plantains in a hazy line up of chipped wooden tables laid on the street, lit by kerosene lamps.

Plans for the next (and last) destinations of the trip are drawn with my new travel companions from the Benelux area whilst we chew on juicy pieces of beef and drink bottles of 'roja', some sort of poisonous and highly sugary red-coloured soft drink.
A loud truck drives by, spraying a cloud of foul-smelling insecticide which aims to kill Zika virus-transmitter mosquitoes, numbing the energies for the evening and closing my time visiting the colonial town of Leon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

-- Mesoamerican Odyssey: Honduran Tales --

What to make of one of the most neglected countries in the Americas?.
A place historically notable for coup-de-etats, social unrest, gang wars and natural disasters, a place that most tourists drive whilst undertaking the 'Pan-American adventure'.

Indeed, the first time I heard about Honduras was sometime in my childhood, when scenes of the legacy of Hurricane Mitch poured through the media outlets, showing a country devastated by floods, mudslides, cholera and poverty-motivated corruption.
Shortly before boarding the plane to Mexico, I superficially grasped some current basic information about the troubled governments, corruption scandals and drug wars which have tainted the reputation of this country overseas, at the same time creating a fascination about the local life and combined with constant aviation geek-fueled views of mesmerizing footage of planes performing landings at Toncontin Airport, one of the most dangerous in the world.

The (lack of) information, as rare as a crisp two hundred Honduran Lempira note, provided the crossing the Honduran border with a tone of caution, of leaving behind the hordes of fellow backpackers and explore a place where not many stories usually come from.

'The smell of petrol makes me seasick', a girl exclaims. We exchange stares and smiles seconds before the small boat runs aground the silver sands of Playa El Burro.
Rickshaw drivers approach passengers like piranhas in an Amazon swamp and, without much protocol, I am pushed into a cramped red 'adapted motorcycle' along with a family of two, my new local friend and four large boxes.

It is a fresh evening and the rickshaw pushes up and down a cobblestone road to the dazzling-lit village of Amapala, where I plan to spend the night at the luxurious Casa de las Gargolas Hotel.
The shiny new hotel, famous for its misplaced dark grey gargoyles overlooking a pristine pool area and wooden balconies is, like most tourist facilities in this part of the country, dead.
I am greeted by a lone TV, a pile of receipts and an empty hammock, whilst I unload my backpack and finally provide some rest to my shoulders.
A skint receptionist appears minutes later, promptly reciting hefty room rates and stressing on the lack of availability for the next night, also frowning at the thought of even touching a credit/debit card, immediately directing me into town for the ONLY ATM in the island.

It has been a long day and the drag of my flip-flops loudly scrape against the long cobblestone street, lined with wide open doors leading into the depths of colorfully neglected wooden houses just as testimony of a typical Friday night in rural Honduras: no flat-screen TVs or trendy furniture but instead, multi-function rooms in which 1970s 'Frigidaires' and kitchen appliances merge with melamine dining tables covered in plastic tablecloths and oak rocking chairs provide entertainment to adults having chats zealously surveilled by damp faded portraits of gone by family members.

To my surprise, the main square is bubbling with youngsters. Their faces glaring to the screen of their fancy smartphones, making use of one of the only spots in the island with free public wi-fi. Time to check my own messages and report my success (or not) in reaching this remote place.
To my disappointment, the only ATM in the island does not recognize my debit card and panic rapidly rushes through my veins.

Inflatable balloons and brand new fridges are hanged next to jumbo bags of popcorn in a relatively large convenience store next to the main church. My only salvation for the night, the only place with a 'point of sale' device.
As the machine dials and beeps 'Approved' on the screen, I am also offered an affordable room upstairs with available space for 10 people but for tonight, one person should be enough to cover the costs of using the hard bed covered with a light bed sheet and the hole in the bathroom wall dispensing cold water as a means of shower box.

Debit card accepted and accommodation paid for, I use the few U.S. Dollars I have left from El Salvador to enjoy my first 'baleada', a thin tortilla filled with white cheese and black beans, whilst browsing through my Facebook feed surrounded by the sound of tree leaves being brushed by the maritime night breeze and dozing off at around midnight whilst locals loudly call random numbers outside my window in yet another night of exciting 'street bingo'.

My sleep is interrupted minutes before the sun rises, leaving the deserted island at my own little mercy, waving hello to dark skin-burned fishermen neatly tying up their nets and preparing their nightly harvest for sale, taking pictures of colloquially elaborate billboards and running away from territorial house dogs.

The sun rises and unveils a mighty cone-shaped mountain being caressed by the waters of the Gulf of Fonseca from every flank, adding a sense of deep remoteness to this serene and friendly place.

Another 'baleada' for breakfast before setting off to the brand new ferry port and wait. Wait for someone else with a will to make it to mainland, wait for minutes, perhaps hours, perhaps for a boat owner who wants to make an extra buck, because this is the main thing about Honduras, it is a daily fight for simple things in life.
I leave for mainland on my own 'private boat', leaving the volcanic island behind, minding that the two U.S. Dollars left in my pocket should buy my way out of the country and with luck , a bottle of cold refreshing water.

A 'chicken bus' awaits in Coyolito for a journey colorfully tinted by a young girl who swiftly asks for my Facebook a few minutes before we reach our final stop at San Lorenzo, immediately connecting to a comfortable bus full of sleepy commuters traveling from 'Tegus' and bound for Choluteca.

Choluteca makes no sense. An intricate set of paved streets embedded in the middle of a hellishly hot and dry plain, a place only apt for connecting buses.
The 'Town of Honduran broken dreams', perhaps accurately translated through the dark brown eyes of a smiley 15-year old, dazzled by his lifetime desire of living in the United States and expressed on an eager attempt to speak English with me, momentarily leaving behind the reality borne by his shoulders, now tired of selling sweets and bags of mineral water at the makeshift bus station. One day.

Dust is left behind. The streets of Choluteca join the Pan-American Highway which, at the section connecting the town/city to the Nicaraguan border, is infested with monumental potholes.
The bus constantly swerves to avoid them, whilst the sideways bounce of our heads, worthy of a children fair ride, incite an apology I'll never forget:

- 'Look at this dilapidated bus, look at this joke of a road. Honduras is bust, a shambles, I apologize for my country' -

A wavy-haired, over-perfumed local woman whispers through her crooked smile, sealing my short visit to a land in which I did not see a single sign of violence but instead, I saw a pure sense of resilience from people that would make a living with whatever is available, with the widest of the smiles and the brightest of the eyes.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

-- Mesoamerican Odyssey: El Salvador & Public Transport --

Spanning over an area of roughly 20,000 square kilometers, El Salvador is a country that can be driven across in about 5 hours from the Guatemalan to the Hondurean borders.
This was the premise that turned a planned visit to the smallest nation in the Americas into a relaxed affair in which no plans were made, apart from visiting the coastal region.

A couple of hours after crossing the scorching border, the minivan leaves the windy coastal road and detours into a small village consisting of wooden houses sheltered from the afternoon sun under thick palm trees.
I have just arrived at El Tunco, a small yet very popular surf/sunset spot in which a small number of wooden shacks merge with clusters of cheap restaurants, 'backpacker accommodations' and boutique hotels.

A place in which my backpacking trip takes the 'solitude' turn.

When days of jumping from city to city in the company of fellow travellers/freshly made friends whilst repeating the same personal introduction like a broken record of a highly egotistical monologue, finally break 'the mask', the one featuring that smiley and colourful persona we decide to embrace at the time of embarking upon a solo adventure.
This is the time in which splurging is much needed, and the place in which I book my first simple 'single' room, crooked noisy fan and a dark private bathroom included, in a wooden lodge overlooking the Pacific for the mere sum of USD 15 a night.

It becomes an idyllic spot to enjoy 06:00am ocean dips whilst trying to avoid being tossed around the sharp pebbly beach by the powerful Pacific Ocean tide, to indulge in long naps on hammocks hanged under tall palm trees or to enjoy short dips in the small yet clean swimming pool.
Most importantly, an ideal spot to just being on my own, without worrying about anyone else, doing as I please.
Breakfast at 11:00am? Lunch of pupusas filled with pork and cheese on my own? Ice cream for dinner? Why not.

Three days of this relaxed routine in which I interacted with fellow human beings about four times set the mood for the next leg of the Central American Odyssey: Honduras, famous for being the most violent country in the world.
A second review of El Salvador boundaries suggests that, with the country being as small as it is and with a planned route only cruising along the narrow strip that connects Honduras to the Pacific Coast at Gulf of Fonseca, should be a matter of a few hours to make it to my next stop.

I call this : 'Chronicles of Central American Public Transport '

Stage One: It's 07:00am and I walk out of the village to the main highway. 10 minutes later, I catch a colorful 'chicken bus' to the larger port town of La Libertad, a place which most people would avoid.

Stage Two: From the haphazard market area at La Libertad, I am told to jump into what I define as 'chicken bus on steroids', sexually suggestive stickers, LED lights and DVD player included.
The vague outdated information I had read online instructed me to request a stop just before the viaduct that intersects the highway to Comalapa Airport and so I do this.
Time to wait at a makeshift bus stop underneath the viaduct whilst enjoying some fresh oranges sold for a 'cora' (word derived from 'quarter' since the currency in El Salvador is the U.S. Dollar) and getting my picture taken by roguish local women sporting high tech smartphones.

Stage Three: I take a large ramshackle bus, laid in a 2-3 seat layout. Having broad swimmer shoulders prove to be a disadvantage.
A thin female passengers wearing a pink top reading 'SEX MACHINE' in large silver letters stands up and, almost like a perfectly-crafted infomercial, recites the benefits/starts selling random merchandise ranging from 'magic pens' to toothbrushes. Two hours later, I am just outside Usulutan.

Stage Four: I immediately catch a connecting and rather comfortable bus to the town of San Miguel, the largest in Western El Salvador.
Shortly after the bus caresses the perfectly cone-shaped San Miguel volcano, a smiley passenger stands up in the middle of the corridor and, just as she had just been spirit-possessed, spends nearly one hour energetically speaking about the Lord Jesus and, with a pungent language, telling stories about her past as a prostitute in the United States... donations are of course well appreciated after the strongly religious speech in this rather eventful bus ride.

Stage Five: It's already midday. The dusty thermometer placed outside the crowded bus terminal at San Miguel marks nearly 40 degrees Celsius, however, I manage to catch yet another bus to what seems to be the border with Honduras.
The landscape turns hilly shortly before arriving at Santa Rosa de Lima, where everyone gets off the bus... except me. I am told another bus has been arranged to take me to the border.

Stage Six: The 'bus from the 1930s' pulls off the Pan-American Highway just outside of Santa Rosa de Lima and wait for more passengers to board. I mumble some swear words in English whilst fellow passengers jump into the dilapidated bus with several bags of groceries and goods.

I start worrying. The general advice is that buses in these countries stop running at 18:00pm, time in which it is too dangerous to ride or drive any sort of public transport, so the companies basically stop their services at this time.
At this stage being 14:00pm, with half the journey to be completed and a border crossing to be conquered, the thoughts of not making it to my next stop and end up stuck in some roadside Honduran motel escalate, whilst I both swear and pray for this journey to end.
Avoiding a five-kilometer queue of idle trucks, I make it to El Amatillo at 15:00pm where I am waved good-bye from El Salvador and hastening cross a whitewash tall bridge into Honduras.

The border control in Honduras is slow and every traveller is heavily scrutinised, turning it into a good opportunity to exchange my U.S. Dollars into Lempiras and grab a bottle of much needed cold water.

Stage Seven: A bright yellow 'chicken bus' parked next to the border post announces its departure to Choluteca and half an hour later, starts its procession-like departure through the Pan American highway. With each passenger-picking stop I feel like both kicking my seat and crying in frustration.
However, my spirit is slightly lifted by the wind blowing through the dirty window whilst the bus gains speed and rockets through the narrow highway swerving around the soft dry hills conquered by wire fences and dirt-made shacks, breathing in relief when the driver announces my stop, some three kilometres before the town of San Lorenzo. It is now 17:45pm.

Stage Eight: A minute after I finally arrive at my bus stop, a sharply-dressed student stands next to me and, to my relief, confirms he is waiting for the next and last bus of the day.
The end of the afternoon turns the road into an orange/pink asphalt line, lost in between plain fields of dry land and the winds finally blow a fresh southerly breeze.
The bus finally arrives from San Lorenzo, I immediately try to find a place in the crowded last service of the day: a combination of loud salsa music being played by a group of pre-teens students sitting at the back of the bus, women carrying their sleepy children on their laps, hypnotised by the dramatic sunset shining from the right hand side of the vehicle and the gentle sway of the bus hitting shallow potholes.

Whilst standing in the crowded corridor, my mind is struck by a combination of sadness, loneliness, paranoia but most importantly, relief.
I have indeed made it to the last bus and despite the sweat, fatigue and frustration, I made it safely.

As the bus empties with every passing village allowing me to find a free seat, a smartly dressed 29 year-old man recites anecdotes of working for the Honduran Marine, having been displaced across the country for work several times and proudly disclosing trips to the United States for military training, conversation repeatedly interrupted by missed calls and text from his wife, now living seven hours away.

I arrive in Coyolito amidst a dark and quiet evening, where a small boat is lined up to take the passengers of the last bus of the day across the Gulf of Fonseca.
Boxes and passengers are swiftly transferred in a matter of a couple of minutes, the roaring of the small boat engine joins the serenity of a fresh starlit night, magically transforming the 14-hour ordeal of taking eight buses (and a boat) into a rewarding experience.
The dark silhouette of a volcano splits the Milky Way sight into two and the boat anchors in a silver-coloured sandy beach only lit by the pale lights of a few rickshaws waiting for the last passengers from mainland to arrive. I have made it to Isla del Tigre in Honduras.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

-- Mesoamerican Odyssey: Guate! (Part 2) --

With such a gloomy landscape outside the graffiti-covered walls of the dirty terminal, I approach two backpackers who quietly try to find comfort on the worn out navy blue plastic benches and who confirm that a transfer to Antigua at 07:00 am has been prearranged for them.
Once their driver disrupt the somnolence of the building by calling all of his 'pre booked passengers' in the typically loud Latin American way, I bag myself and my Chinese travel companion an immediate transfer out of the Guatemalan capital.

What I see through the misty window when leaving the city centre, is a concrete jungle that extends over steep mountain ridges which cut a very narrow valley whilst within its boundaries, a constant race through congested avenues over flooded with loud colourful 'chichen buses' and road-unworthy cars takes place.
On every sidewalk, street vendors fight for their own space in the Guatemalan battle and set up precarious shacks selling every possible item imaginable to morning commuters at a time in which a hazy sun rises over the sinuous motorways.
Shortly after crowning the top of the narrow valley, a a kamikaze-style descent through what I can only describe as the 'longest roller-coaster highway I've seen in my life' finally lands us in Antigua Guatemala.
In a matter of seconds, the chaos of the Guatemalan capital is replaced by a landscape of colonial low rising houses whilst the minibus' suspension struggles to cope with rows and rows of stone-layered streets.

Antigua Guatemala looks like the perfect postcard town. A hideaway from the bustling chaos of the capital in which ancient architectural jewels lay in rows of wide streets organised in a perfect square grid around a main square and, almost like an imaginary children storybook, surveilled by two tall entities: The Volcan de Agua (Volcano of Water) and the Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire).

I avoid the 'party hostels' and book myself in at the Three Monkeys Hostel, a large red-bricked colonial house. One word: peace.
Despite arriving very early and our rooms not being ready, we are invited to use the facilities (read lay on a hammock and sleep) and, without sounding cliche, to 'feel at home'.

The constant moving around of the past days has me craving for some proper rest, something that probably makes me appreciate the quaintness of this venue a little more than expected.
The pleasure of relaxed hours laying on colorful hammocks watching people come and go, the copious sips of excellent and free Guatemalan coffee fetched from the home-like kitchen or the sunny bare concrete terrace in which I  spend hours laying shirtless on, enjoying the cold mountain sunshine whilst looking at the Volcan de Fuego mischievously releasing smoke trails behind the inactive and pristine Volcan de Agua.

Antigua Guatemala (literally Ancient Guatemala) served as the capital of the Spanish Colony of Guatemala which covered a territory between the Mexican state of Chiapas and current Panama.
The city was completely destroyed by the powerful San Miguel and Santa Maria earthquakes in 1717, thus the capital was subsequently moved to where it lies now, some 40 kilometers away.

It is said that Antigua Guatemala in the times of its maximum splendour, was one of the three prettiest cities in the Spanish Indies, a statement that could still be argued until now and a thought that crosses every visiting person's mind whilst sight tries to take every single colorful facade in, hearing invigorates at the sound of small stone-carved fountains splashing towards the blue skies and smell rejoices with the aromas of freshly cut watermelons and mangoes sold everywhere across the street.
In this city, the whitewashed cathedral stands proudly overlooking at the main square, rebuilt in a simple architectural style after learning the lessons of past natural catastrophes.
Derelict thick walls that once proudly worked as sanctuaries of Catholic faith have now been overgrown by bushes and weed, a testimony of a colonial past that still haunts the present (and the future) of this idyllic town village at every corner.

In Antigua, there is no concrete plan of what to see or what to visit, but instead, a number of days are spent with regular visits to the local market for sumptuous breakfasts of fresh vegetables and omelettes crowned with the 'oh-so-good' white local cheese, followed by long strolls through stone-layered streets and crafted archways (for sunshine protection), morning naps, afternoon naps and recurrent visits to the Central American food joint just two houses down the road from the hostel for cheap and rich pupusas and tacos.
A visit to Antigua would not be complete without a hike up the hill in which a cross has been planted as a symbol of strong religious ties, in a spot from which the square grid that defines the town down below seems to merge with the pristine Volcan de Agua, momentarily covered by a dense late afternoon fog.

Antigua is the place in which my Chinese travel companion sets course North to Mexico and the place in which the wonders of backpacking open new possibilities, new people, new random conversations which range from discussing the selection of hostels in Toronto, to which country has the best seafood in South America, or a long afternoon laying on hammocks, sipping on strong coffee and listening to the heartbreaking stories experienced whilst volunteering in the Guatemalan countryside by a blond British girl.

Much needed laundry was done and energies were replenished with, surprisingly, the simple pleasures of a set routine (and copious amounts of naps).
A few mornings later, I set course South East, sharing a white minivan packed with spoiled (and somehow obnoxious) young backpackers for a grueling five-hour journey descending from the fresh mountains to the 'Hot dry belt' region, reaching the border town of Hachadura shortly after midday.

A queue is formed just outside of the white van at the Guatemalan side where our passports are stamped and we are waved out of the country.
Shortly after crossing an empty bridge, a friendly border policeman wearing a spotless blue-white uniform salutes me, checks for previous stamps on my passport and, despite the 39 degrees Celsius temperature blasting outside of his well-lit counter, welcomes me to the Republic of El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America.