Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Reunion of Man and Machine

July 2nd to 10th

After two months back in Britain and an emotional good bye to our families, we finally head back to Nicaragua to try and pick up our bikes and the threads of our interrupted tour.

Arriving in Managua by aeroplane is like clashing the gears of a high power sports car - it jars the nerves! Approaching by bicycle, Central America creeps up on you at low speed. Air travel slams it in your face and allows no time for the senses to adjust. As we leave the airport it's like entering another world.

The heat and humidity suddenly envelop you like a warm wet blanket. The buildings fall apart - all crumbling concrete and exposed steel clawing at the sky. Bodies swarm at you from all sides - gone is the sense of decorum and personal space we British expect from strangers. "Taxi!", "Hotel" the high volume cries, as hopefuls make grabs for our rucksacks to seal the deal and cause you to follow. Despite the jet lag and crusty eyes from a 26 hour journey we run the gauntlet and repel all comers to flag down a taxi down in the street we know will cost less than half price.

It's 10 miles from the airport to Managua centre where we return to Hostal Santos. I feel my legs tensing up and then making for an imaginary brake pedal as we speed towards a red light at 60mph. The driver, seeing my wasted efforts, laughs and casually explains that after two motorcyclists were dragged from their bikes and shot; the police no longer enforce traffic restrictions after dark. Welcome back to Nicaragua!

In our absence, Central America has passed from Summer into Winter - meaning we are now in the rainy season. It's not like a winter back home and temperatures are still in the 80's and 90's. There are just two seasons here and winter lasts for seven or eight months with torrential rains and tropical storms a violent and daily feature. The vegetation has an otherwordly greeness and growth rates are prodigious....


Above, great flocks of parakeets squabble and squawk as they tear between tree perches with the best pickings...


As is becoming a common way to start our tour, we are both laid low with headcolds. By choice we would never have visited Managua and this is now our third stay and it's all a bit depressing. After three days we can stand it no more and head on out.

Travel without the bicis is a torrid affair and I have new found sympathy for backpackers. We take a taxi to the bus terminal where we are assaulted by maybe 10 competing companies looking for fares and all grabbing at our clothes. It's two hours to Rivas and the bus is choc-a-bloc. Amazingly we both get seats - Sue shares with a mother and two young lads and I get half a buttock on a back seat facing sideways. There are people and gear everywhere in the aisle and it's a hot sweaty ride with armpits jammed in your face. As I am the nearest, whenever we stop I am responsible for the rear door and an impossible number of new passengers climb in over my legs and feet. It's a human version of the popular 'Tetris' game fitting them all in.

As we near our stop, the conductor, unable to move down the aisle - spider-mans his way up on to the roof of the moving bus, over the top and in at the back door. He explains he can get us a taxi to the ferry port and; whilst hanging bodily out of the door, slings one of our rucksacks over one shoulder, then the other over his other shoulder. As the bus slows to a running speed, like a paratrooper he disappears out the door taking all our kit. Being less adventurous, we almost wait for the bus to stop before jumping out whereupon the hyper-active bus-man is already running back towards us gesticulating at the car he has launched our bags into. He is up and the bus is off before we can even reach the taxi.

From taxi to ferry and another lesson in how shockingly wasteful Western travel is with it's 'Maximum Passenger Loads'....


From ferry to bus and four more hours of mixed paved and dirt road to cross Ometepe Island. We are minor celebrities it would seem when I explain to the bus conductor we are returning to collect our bikes from Oswaldo's place. 'Ahhhh these are the gringos' he announces to the bus load of locals and they all nod as if a nagging problem has finally been solved. At least we learn that Oswaldo has been good to his word and the bikes and kit is just as we left it. I can't tell you how big a relief this news is!

As luck would have it, the bus terminates at Rancho Merida where we frantically left our trusty steeds two months earlier and it's a happy reunion of man and machine.

Partly to fully recover from our headcolds and mainly to push some money Oswaldo's way (as he refuses to take money for bicycle storage) we stay four days at his hostal and restaurant. Many thanks amigo - you really helped us out when we needed it.

To be honest it's also partly to put off the inevitable ride back to the ferry port. Two months off does not prepare you for this as a first day back on a fully loaded bike...


Last time we rode here, we were well in the groove and the roads were dry. Now there are added water features and it's all gone slick and treacherous....


All this water is manna from heaven for butterflies and they swirl and flutter around us, gathering in congregation in damp spots....


Sue manages to spill some of her kit on a nasty stretch....


Later she spills herself and takes a tumble in the dirt. Day one and our first use of the first aid kit as she bangs up a wrist. It all gets too much as we approach a volcanic water hole that boasts medicinal properties for it's mineral rich water. A patient checks in for some aquatic healing....


We intended to stay an hour and remain for four when the healing proves more tempting than the riding. The rainy season proves to be more than a rumour when the heavens open and we deluged with a cascade of water. It's odd to be swimming in a cold sulphurous pool under warm rain.

After so long enjoying long summer evenings of daylight back home in Britain, it's a bit of a shock to be chasing the last of the sun's rays at just six o'clock as we make our sodden ride back to a hotel by the ferry port. The streets are in darkness as the power suddenly fails and we just make it before it's pitch black.

Leaving the island, the imposing cone of Conception volcano is noticeably greener than two months ago. When it emerges from dense cloud banks that is. A swift, flat dash along the lake takes us through a surprisingly modern metal forest of giant rotating wind turbines that supply the local area with green energy....


It's a relaxing ride towards the chaos that is the Penas Blancas border crossing. We are immediately accosted by youths who tell us the wait to be stamped out of Nicaragua is two hours, but for $10 each they can speed things up. We decline and the queue is indeed right around the building. The 'speeding up process' consists of marching people close to the front of the queue and telling them to blatantly push in. Four Americans are having a disagreement with their 'helper' explaining that is not what they had in mind when they handed over what is an average day's wage for a local.

Nicaraguan organisation at it's finest....



The whole thing is chaotic and trying to queue with our bikes becomes impossible with all the jostling. In the melee Sue drops her bike, only catching it when the chain-ring gouges a path down her shin. Where the sharp metal teeth have bitten into her leg, it looks like she has been mauled by the claws of a bear and the blood flows freely into her sock and shoe. I think she is going to need a stitch or two. Eventually after an hour and a half we get the formalities of the passport stamp out of the way and we can finally dress her still-bleeding wound.

Some countries you leave with a heavy heart, some countries you just leave. Adios Nicaragua we'll not miss you....

After the wasted time at the border we again chase the daylight and arrive 20kms later at 'La Cruz' the first Costa Rican town of any size. Bienvenidos a Costa Rica.....

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