Meandering through a region that isn’t your own, you do find yourself with some time on your hands. Especially if you’re really only there in a touristic capacity, especially if there are glorious beaches with not much to do and especially if you’ve been ordered to relax by the doctors (damaged rib – nothing serious). So, of course, the simple book becomes the vehicle of entertainment for back-packers and overlanders alike. They get finished quickly, devoured would be the correct word, given the time and space allotted to their enjoyment, and, once finished, you must hunt around for another – your hunting ground is now the tourist hotels and bars where there might be a few shelves of old and random books underneath a well scrawled sign that says ‘Book Swap’.
Browsing such a shelf is not exactly like shopping for books at home or even the internet. You are constrained by the choice available but you are released, too, by the absence of promotion, reviews and critics pointing towards one but not the other. These books have journeyed far to be found on this particular shelf at the back of a bar, at the end of a series of bars, on a quiet beach, at a remote town in the middle of Central America. Who knows their stories? – not the ones written out inside but the history that tells of their arriving here, far from their origin. Were they snapped up at an airport in the American Midwest, in a rush to get on the plane, and brought straight here? Or have they migrated slowly around the world, from Book Swap to Book Swap, outlasting the adventures of their first, brief owners and continuing their own particular earth circuit?
The choice of books available can be as predictable or as incredible as you like. For sure, are the Dorothy Sayers and Dan Browns whose worldwide ubiquity even forces them to be here . But then there are, too, utter gems by authors you have never heard of. The English language is a widespread medium of communication and many thousands of books written in, or translated to, English are published every year- at the Traveller’s Book Swap, you’ll find examples that speak of popularity in their home nation but you’ve never heard of them – they can even claim to be prime examples of a genre you didn’t even know existed.
Two excellent examples that have passed through my hands:
The first has all the creative detail of a film by Terry Gilliam, while the second must surely have been one of the first cyber-punk novels. Both of these books were written decades ago and are of the “can’t put down” variety… Without the Traveler’s Book Swap, I doubt if I would have ever had the chance to pick them up…
[We’re doing our reading in Boquete, Panama – the (literally) coolest place in Panama to hang out for a while before we hit the big city…]
People had been warning us for weeks about how expensive Costa Rica is – so we’d stocked up with food, smokes and a bottle of Flor de Caña, crossing the border from Nicaragua on the Pan American with the determination of flying through to Panama if it all got a bit too much for the old budget. There were, however, a few problems with this plan;
I was still technically convalescing with a damaged rib that required some easy beach time.
We had plans to meet friends on Costa Rica’s west coast, plans to meet friends in the Central Valley and plans to catch up with some friends on the east coast.
Costs Rica is well known for being one of the world’s most biologically and diverse countries with immensely stunning National Parks and natural scenery that shouldn’t be rushed.
The old budget got well busted a long time ago and we could hardly recruit it’s stinking corpse into our route planning now, could we?
First stop, then, was Santa Teresa, a surfer’s paradise, down at the end of the Nicoya Peninsular. This is a beautiful beach and, even if you don’t surf, it is very entertaining to watch the hundreds that do come down every morning and evening for their watery fix. The Costa Rican regulations against building right on the beachfront is truly inspired – the place looks lush, green, jungle and wild when you turn round to look at it, the persistent waves crashing around. I suppose it must mean a real lack of water-front, beach-view cabinas and camping is not allowed – yet, no one said anything to us, parked for a few days, a mere 2 or 3 metres from high tide.
People had also been warning us about the roads on the peninsula. Coming from the north, from Liberia, the road was actually brand new for quite a few kilometres. The best road in Costa Rica as it turned out. And then between Playa Naranjo and Paquera, the road is totally unpaved for 30km, probably the worst that we saw, and took us 3 hours. From Paquera, it is paved until the turn offs for Montezuma and Mal Pais/Santa Teresa which are only ten or so klicks further on. Paquera is where you can catch the ferry to Punta Arenas in order to continue further south and San Jose which is the way most people are driving in – limiting their bumpy, bumpy to just a few kilometres worth. But, for our truck, that ferry’s $40 so, if you’re coming from the north, it is cheaper on the wallet (if not on your suspension) to endure the section between Naranjos and Paquera.
Anyway, the real thing to say here is that Costa Rican roads and traffic conditions are the worst we have experienced since the more busy sections of Russia, say through the Urals. Yes, funny that, no? One of the more wealthier countries in Central America (which means we see more traffic in a few hours than the whole of Guatemala or Honduras) has a pretty inadequate road network that seemed to be crumbling away on every mountain corner with single-lane bridges over most rivers. Of course, you feel kind of feel wrong advocating more roads in such a beautiful country but, believe me, chugging around at an average 10 mph ain’t doing anyone any favours.
From the Pacific coast, we got to San Jose, past nightfall in a real rush-hour jam, and parked up on a traffic island next to a McDonalds to nick their WiFi and some mayonnaise for our home-cooked chips. The next day, it took us quite a few hours in the Sunday traffic to cover the 25 klicks to the small town of Orosi where we had our second rendez-vous to make. This area is quite breathtaking country (well, don’t look at the roads) and, incredibly, it gets cool at night. For the first time in a month I put a T-shirt on.
A few days later, we leave for the Caribbean coast, spending a couple of days at Puerto Viejo just before the border with Panama. PV seems a cool place to hang out. We found a nice enough park up at the Todo Es Posible Hostel which is next to Rocking J’s (the supposed party place of the town). Again, these places are set back from the beaches leaving them unspoilt and beautiful.
So in the end, we kinda rushed through Costa Rica. It was, of course, a bit heavy on the pocket – diesel was $1.25 a litre, smokes $2 a pack and a bottle of beer the same. Supermarkets were like being in the States again; as usual you wonder how the poorest survive. I don’t know if the infamous Tico ‘Pura Vida’ goes that far. (Hint – before I forget to mention it: locked WiFi signals may respond to a ‘Pura Vida’ password). Another cliche that rang true was the flora and fauna – the wildlife will come to you – it’s not just the traffic that’s crawling…
It’s really getting interesting now – this new ferry route from Panama to Colombia. The stakes are high; if we can get onto it, and don’t have to send the truck on a normal freight ship, it might save us nearly $3000 and a whole load of headaches like having to board up the bus to protect it from the obligatory thieving that happens in and around freight shipping. But, as of today, no one seems to know when this service is going to start up. In fact, no one seems to know, in fact, where the bloody ferry is – it’s last recorded location was in dry dock in Greece 36-odd days ago. Please, please, please correct me if I’m wrong. The stakes are very high.
As you may or may not know, the Darién Gap is a fifty mile wide section of primeval jungle filled with many dangers. It separates North and Central America from the South and there is no road through. Why is there no road? I’m not sure – to stop drugs flowing north is the commonly given answer (though I imagine a lawless jungle area is good drug-running territory). It’s like just a few miles beyond the Panama Canal, where they have linked the two watery hemispheres together, the Pan American Highway grinds to a halt and you must divert to Panama’s Caribbean port of Colon to catch a boat to Cartagena in Colombia. This 200 km crossing costs more than getting from North America to South Korea, across the Pacific – a fact that should be of some interest to North American based overlanders looking for something truly exotic like East Asia to explore. However, a simple RO-RO (roll on – roll off) ferry such as they have all over the world would greatly reduce travel costs and simplify the procedures since you can travel with the vehicle. So in April, it was announced that there was to be a new ferry service and hundreds of press releases were sent out stating the first voyage was set for 10th May. Well the wheels had fallen off and that date has come and gone: Some people who had reserved tickets have been told that the ferry won’t start until the end of the summer (I’m not sure when that is in a tropical country). No one is even exactly sure what the documents required for buying a ticket. Some people say they’ve been asked to show proof of an onward flight from Panama. Or maybe that’s Colombia. We’ve been told we can’t take the dog. We’ve also been told we can take the dog. Our plan, at the moment, is to observe what happens on the 31st May – the latest date of departure that is rumored. What a glorious mess! Have a look at Drive The Americas site to check out the evolving situation…
The same kind of thing was happening back in South Korea, looking for a way out – we couldn’t go back to Russia, couldn’t go onto China or Japan. There was always N.Korea. We scoped out the border but it didn’t look good. So that was kind of different to now – we had no choice but to throw ourselves at the mercy of freight shipping companies. Here we kind have a choice.
It’s more like the time at the junction east of Ulan Ude, Buryatia. The new road that kept us going eastwards in Russia was being built, we knew. But was it actually finished? Travelers coming the other way told us it was nearly finished but it still wasn’t marked on any map and no one could tell us whether it would take us six weeks to get round to Vladivostok or whether it could be just a few days. And meanwhile the 3-month Russian visa was ticking down; could we afford the time to drive south into Mongolia, especially with our trucks just beginning to show suspension problems? There, we thought the stakes were high; I didn’t want to think about what would happen if we overstayed a Russian visa. Just the thought of my dog alone in the dark van down in the customs yard while us humans were locked up somewhere brought tears to my eyes.
Of course, the uncertainty ahead, the route unknown, is very much a part of traveling – even the commute back home from work can present a myriad of geographical options that could result in a missed game of football on TV, say. and, during that journey, you exist in a live state, you are trying to second guess the future, you are at one with time. Not everyone has the luxury of enjoying it though – spare a thought for trans-world migrants whose impoverished families are relying on the limited choices available to someone who could, at any minute, be arrested, deported or worse. Or someone escaping injustice, tyranny… The biggest mass movements in history were generally disaster zones. Luckily for us this ferry thing is just a ferry.
And if the new Colon to Cartagena service turns out be a complete joke, some kind of hoax that has got legions of over-landers banging on the ticket-office door, begging, frothing at the mouth – one or two of them wondering how difficult it could be to pool resources and start our own bloody ferry company – then, well, no big loss, eh – you have to embrace whatever the future brings. It’s just this Schrödinger’s cat of a situation is such a buzz. And (will it sail?/won’t it sail?) is happening right now!
A few days after leaving Nicaragua, I read a report from some overlanders with a right-hand drive vehicle across the Nicaraguan northern border. They said that they had been refused entry because their steering wheel was on the wrong side. Apparently, Transit Law 431, Art 165 says no RHD vehicle is allowed on Nicaraguan roads even though we had just driven through the country with no problems. So the first thing to note is how random certain authorities can be in enforcing their own laws. The second thing is, well, thank fuck for that.
And, of course, if we had known about that law before we entered Nicaragua, I can just imagine the nerves and tension as we would have approached the border – Dunia, pretending to drive, sitting on the left, clutching a fake steering wheel fashioned from an old bucket, maybe, the dashboard hidden under a blanket. We’re on a trip around the world and there is no alternative to going through Nicaragua if you want to drive the Americas – you can’t just go back the other way. I’m so glad we didn’t do much route planning, researching the road ahead. If we had discovered Law 431, Art 165 what on earth would we have done? Let that be a lesson; a little naivety will get you a long way in this game: If anyone knows of any other country ahead of us that, too, forbids RHD vehicles – please keep the information to yourself – we don’t want to know.
So, having calmed down a bit, I got to thinking, why does Nicaragua have this law? A little shimmy around the www, of course, offers few answers. I suppose it’s because they think it’s dangerous – to be sitting on the right hand side of your vehicle, driving on the right hand side of the road, the kerbside whizzing past your right shoulder while your co-pilot (placed towards the centre of the carriageway) is in abject terror as you perform blind overtaking manoeuvres or keep to the centre line speeding round curves. Never mind that we have already driven 25000 miles in such a configuration; ignore the fact that, as a UK car-buyer spending every summer in Europe, such a configuration is normal for me. Maybe the Nico authorities have little trust in their own people – completely losing it if they see a UK, Japanese or Australian built vehicle coming towards them. I don’t know – all I can say is that there was nothing strange, in this sense, about the country and we traversed without incident.
So, how is it, driving a RHD on the wrong side of the road? Well, you kind of get used to it. Of course, the biggest problem is overtaking – luckily in our old bus, that doesn’t happen too often. To perform a successful pass requires some coordination with your co-pilot in most cases but there are tricks that can help: If you find yourself stuck behind a slow-moving semi, allow a car to overtake you first and then when you see them going out, past the slow vehicle in front, you know that it’s safe to move to the left and have a look – any vehicle coming the other way is going to hit them first – you are safe; any trouble and you can nip back in: You are using this car to lead the way, to scout the safe moment when you can overtake. Another thing is that on a right hand curve, often it is you, sitting on the right hand side who has a better view of the road ahead; you can confidently move out where, if you were driving a “normal” car, you wouldn’t be able to see a thing.
There are other situations, such as at toll booths and those machines that dispense tickets as you enter a parking lot, where your co-pilot becomes indispensable. Also, of course, if you’re driving a bus or a camper, you’ll find your doors on the busy side and not by the sidewalk when you park. these are minor issues, surely. And there are advantages with being differently handed compared to all the other road-users: Consider driving a long a narrow road, whether a tight, city street or a mountain track. As a vehicle approaches the other way, you can check easily how close you can get to the edge by your shoulder – the other driver can check how close your two vehicles can be – you are, in fact, covered on both sides and can move along more fluently than if you were driving the same kind of vehicle as everyone else. I like to think that there’s an important point to be learnt here: Sometimes it pays to be different.
All these points hold equally for a left hand drive vehicle operating in a country where you must drive on the left. I imagine that the Germans have plenty of things to say about driving in places like India and Pakistan. Not to mention the problems driving a RHD vehicle on the left side of the road or vice-versa (i.e. the normal configuration in any given country) when you have spent your entire life doing the opposite – your hand that normally operates the gear shift now opens the door. And, of course, we have plenty of anecdotes in the UK about foreigners having problems on our roads. Hitch-hiking around England, I have been picked up more than once by a rattled, overseas visitor whose first question was, ‘do you have a driving licence?’ and just wanted me to chauffeur them around the place. The key thing, really, is that you get used to it. Talk to the Russians living in the Far East of their country who import vehicles from Japan. By the time you reach Vladivostok, every single vehicle bar the public buses, have their steering wheels on the right – even police cars, even, and this, of course, makes sense, the cars they learn how to drive in. Vladmir Putin, the eternal Russian president operating from European Russia once tried to ban these imports – he was refused by the locals who really couldn’t see any problem. They had the fortune to be living close to Japan and it’s enormous fleet of well-made but unwanted vehicles, why be dictated to from thousands of miles away simply because the Europeans found the situation bizarre?
Of course, the conversation turns to why there are some countries who drive on the left and some on the right. The answer is here.
Our first conversation in Nicaragua, with an actual Nico, went something like this:
“Hi, where are you from?”, “Portugal – my husband [yeah, me] is from England.”, “You need some help with the border?”, “No, we’re good, thanks, we’ve done many borders…”, “OK, you know, you’re very lucky, you come to Nicaragua and all the Nicos want to help you. But if a Nicaraguan comes to your country, they are treated very badly.”, “That’s not good, have you been to Portugal?”, “I was in America – they treat all the black people like shit. I want to be a terrorist and kill all the white people.”, “Oh….”, “People like you…”
I’d like to do a little post here about Nicaragua – hopefully it might be of some interest to anyone hoping to visit the place on the way through Central America – you know, it might give you a feel for the country – I dunno, it might dispel a few misconceptions and, seen through the prism of a couple of crazy overlanders such as us, might just confirm a few notions that you had about this area. I can’t say that I knew much about the place before we arrived on the border from Honduras, so, at first, we wondered whether the Nicaraguans would really like to kill us – when, in fact, by the time we left for Costa Rica I felt that they had saved my life…
That first conversation had taken place at the border even before anyone had seen our passports. Of course, that was the only “problem” we encountered at the frontier – the officials were all pleasant enough and, other than waiting for the big commercial trucks to move out of the way, we were soon speeding down through the gentle hills towards volcano land. We talked about this wanabe-terrorist; he was just having a laugh with the rich gringos; he must have had some bad experience in America, maybe; he’d been absorbing too much anti-Western news and media – he wasn’t even black – in Dunia’s own country, he would have looked pretty much the same as most of the Portuguese… But it was kind of a strange conversation to have for us – this kind of casual hostility that neither of us had encountered before on our travels. One week later, we had another conversation just like it – hmm, was a pattern developing here? Welcome to Nicaragua.
Until that second conversation, however, we had a smooth and easy time. We headed for the volcanoes, stopping at San Jacinto to see the pools of boiling mud and hang out with some of the children there who wandered around with us in return for being able to inspect the inside of our truck. A few miles on and we came to Leon, where we found a vet to update Vaga’s vaccinations, watched some football at the Bigfoot Traveller’s Hostel, before heading to the beach close by for a couple of days.
One week in, we hadn’t felt the need to resort to any paid parking – the country seemed safe and secure and the only guns we saw were attached to actual police people… One cop did want a tip for doing his job, keeping an eye on his allotted zone in Leon where we had parked the bus. He seemed embarrassed, in the end, when we questioned why – we gave him less than a dollar. Another cop asked us if we could give him one of our bicycles so that he could do his rounds easier. Well, you can park for free but you might have to help subsidize the police force. At the beach we found a large open area to park up, paid $2 for Wi-Fi for a day, and stayed to take a breather from the previous couple of weeks moving around. The biggest problem we had was that the shops hardly ever had any change and the trading of cigarettes, beers and stuff became like a web of IOU’s and promises to pay tomorrow.
If you stay on the Pacific side of Nicaragua, you’ll have no problems moving around the country. Further east, in the jungles laced with rivers that is known as Miskitia, you’ll need a 4×4, a canoe, a helicopter or some combination of all three. But we had come to see the volcanoes which are arranged in a spine running the length of the country on the western side. Looking at the exhibitions at the Masaya National Park I learnt that Central America is not so much where North and South drifted together but it Is a volcanic production, Nicaragua especially, come bubbling up from under the sea to join the two continents. The volcano at Masaya should be especially noted because it’s one of the only active volcanoes that you can drive right up to the crater’s rim and peer down into the groaning, hissing, bubbling, fuming hell below.
Bypassing any possible delights to be had in Managua, we drove onto Granada which is Nicaragua’s beautiful, colonial gem of a town on the shores of the 19th biggest lake in the world. In reality it has none of the genuine charm of Leon. The street kids here are more clued up, speaking very good English but ironically hard to communicate with because you’re never quite sure if the conversation is heading towards a scam of one kind or another. They operate in the shadows of the big, $200 a night, hotel and among the crowds of westerners – many of which actually live here, gentrifying the neighborhood. This is where we were told that Nicaraguans want to kill us for the second time. They guy was much more drunk than the first but now I could kind of understand his anger, if that was what it was.
We were just coming into Granada – amidst the various road-side advertisements offering tourist services to tourists, one particular sign stood out: Japanese Hospital. We’ll have to remember that one if we need it, Dunia said. She was, of course, alluding to the Japanese funded building going up at Tikal, Guatemala, that we had seen; remembering the sight of some Japanese workers in immaculate hi-tech overalls and hard hats carrying shiny tool boxes and various gadgets slung from their belts. Slightly out of place on a Central American construction site. No doubt if ever you needed a hospital then a Japanese one would certainly do. A day later, I found myself there, in agony, not caring a fuck about the nationality of the doctor.
We had a long conversation afterwards about whether Dunia had ‘caused’ the whole episode by saying what she did, tempting fate. The philosophy of coincidence is a vast one, far beyond the scope of this humble blog offering although a business visit to a Nicaraguan hospital certainly deserves a mention – especially, given the satisfactory outcome and the end of my agony. I am endlessly grateful, to the Nicaraguans working there, to the Japanese who, I suppose, contributed funding and, of course, Dunia who had to negotiate the truck that she barely drives through the old colonial streets of Granada while I lay clutching my sides, thinking I was close to death.
It turned out to be a damaged rib most probably from various exertions undertaken when changing pieces of our old, rusty bus a month previously. Basically I can say that the doctors and nurses alleviated the extreme pain with shots of something like liquid MDMA; they took blood, urine tests and x-rays; they let me sleep overnight under observation and in the morning they served up the diagnosis which must have taken an experienced eye to spot as this injury is most normally seen in the knees of teenage basketball players. Well, that’s the case in the west anyway – maybe, here, where sometimes people have to work very, very hard to survive, it’s more common. All I can say is that the treatment was efficient and free.
After this scare, we had a few days rest at the Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful old crater filled with mineral water. The parking is easy but we spent a few dollars using the amenities offered by the Cultural Centre of Apoyo so that I could gently come to terms with my sudden medical condition. This is a beautiful, relaxing place to be with enough activities to keep you going for a while. Highly recommended would be some kind of contribution to their Peace Project in benefit of the local children.
A few days later we drove south and out towards Costa Rica, parking up, for the last time in Nicaragua, opposite the twin volcanoes of Ometepe, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. The border was fun – the Nicaraguans making it much more work to get out of their country than to get in, in terms of customs inspections and the various bits of paper. Maybe there is a good reason for that but I doubt it. You can sense an underlying chaos in this country, something that grows with years of civil-war possibly. One minute they might mention they want to kill you – the next they could save your life.