Same Same But Different
A common saying from Thailand describes the situation well.
Passing across the border between Honduras and Nicaragua was a bit of an interesting experience. I spent a good amount of time debating (in broken Spanish) with the Nicaraguan immigration officials about their entry policy.
Honduras gave me the typical exit stamp in my passport, but the problem was one window over, with the Nicaragua. They had no issue with taking my US$7 to enter their country, but wouldn't give me a stamp. Instead, they simply scribbled three or four random characters onto my used Honduran immigration form, and dismissed me. I wasn't about to step away, and eventually had three officials explaining to me that this was the policy for people bound for Costa Rica (at least at this checkpoint).
Nicaragua and Costa Rica are not the best of friends. In fact, one border official used the word "enemy" and proclaimed that Costa Rica was not a part of Central America.
I gave up though, and bused onward to Estelí via Ocotal, wondering what fun would await me at the border to the south in a week or two. Other travelers have told me since that Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala have recently changed their border crossing policy, and have started sharing forms and the such. Who knows.
My first exposure to a Nicaraguan town wasn't exactly what I expected. Estelí, or at least the central (downtown) part of it, is a massive collection of small, service and appeal based shops. Over 100,000 people live in and around the town, surrounded by vast fields of tobacco crops. Eight major factories produce some very desirable cigars, although Estelíans prefer cigarettes—there isn't a cigar shop to be found. Not long ago Estelí was in town in ruins—the site of some very bloody revolutionary activities.
With so many dental outfits in such a relatively small area, it was too tempting not to pop into one to check on prices for a regular cleaning. I was sold as soon as Dr. Rodolfo Badilla Rivera switched over from Spanish to English on me. My first trip to a dentist outside of the U.S. went well (although the cavity check lacked depth), and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation with the doctor afterward. Price: C$350 (about US$20)
HOT. I haven't felt such heat since Mérida, Mexico. Even though it's only an hour inland from the Pacific Ocean, word on the street has it that León is the hottest city in the country. Back at the bottom of the backpack my fleece goes.
Host to the largest cathedral in the Central America—yeah, it's pretty damn big—and droves of gringo's either studying Spanish or passing through, León is a lively (albeit crazy-warm) town.
I stayed at Hostel Big Foot, across the street from a popular hostel called Vía Vía—a bit of a culture shock for me. The last time I stayed in a dorm was a couple of months (and four countries) ago, way back in Mexico. Ever since there hasn't been any hostels to be found, or single rooms were so cheap I didn't bother (I was usually paying about US$3 for a room in Guatemala).
Big Foot was definitely a party zone, and last night I found myself at bar with a great live band, the manager of the hostel, his friend (originally from Miami), and three bottles of aged rum (on the rocks). A entertaining evening full of drinking, driving, and police bribes ensued.
Finding no real reason to stay in León, I picked myself up this morning and made my way to a bus that would take me the in the direction of the popular lakeside town of Granada.
Even after all my accumulated hours of bus travel, I don't really have any horror stories to tell. Sure, plenty of uncomfortable, agitating moments, but nothing that won't be forgotten.
For example, my chicken bus from León to Managua today blew a tire, stranding us in the middle of nowhere. We couldn't do much but wait for an hour or so in the noon heat for another bus to pass.
I must share with you what I've dubbed my chicken bus theme song. It's called La Camisa Negra, by Juanes. Even though the lyrics are actually rather sad (the title translates into "The Black Shirt"), it's a fun, peppy song that completely works for bus travel. Download it, close your eyes, and imagine the countryside of an unfamiliar nation blurring past the window of an old school bus.
Not a particularly inexpensive city, Granada's boldly painted cathedral makes up for it (initially). I'm not sure what the deal is with the power in this town, though. I arrived and a Canadian backpacker told me to be sure I carried around a flashlight after about 8:00. It would seem the power to the entire city has been going out for about two hours every night for a while now. The power company is fighting with the government, asking for more money. In protest, they cut the power to the town whenever they feel like it.
I was walking through the plaza tonight when it happened. Wham—a shroud of darkness fell over the city as every light in sight vanished. Pretty stars… without all the light pollution.
I'm not sure how long I'll stay here, maybe three nights or so. I'm thinking about jumping off to the beach and recharging my solar-powered spirit.
With 70% of the population living below the poverty line, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in this hemisphere (after Haiti). It's said that 72% of the population is under the age of 30, and 40% is younger than 15. I wonder if all the older folks got killed off in the warring that has been a part of this country during the 20th century.
I hate coins, and find myself missing Honduran currency. The Nicaraguan córdoba is about the same value as the lempira, but Honduras uses paper bills all the way down to L$1 (about a US nickle). You only get coins (worth next to nothing) from the odd prices found in supermarkets—it's wonderful.
For being the poorest country in the area, Nicaragua hasn't really shown it to me yet. Well, with the exception of the roads—some of the worst I've been on, although I'm told Costa Rica's are pretty awful (which is a bit of a surprise). What a difference, even the principle roadways seem like they've been cluster bombed. On one occasion I was so tired of being bounced around and beat up on a chicken bus that I actually just stood up in the aisle, knees bent slightly—much better.