Friday, July 28, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 17 - The Island Of Iguanas

As we looked at each other, hopelessly stuck in the jungle, with no idea of what to do next, nobody seemed concerned about the sound I had just heard. The sudden silence was ended by the sound of honking horns, which is a fairly ordinary sound in Nicaragua, except that we were far from the city and traffic. And yet there it was, a mounting line of trucks behind us, wanting those stupid tourists to move over.

I considered for a moment, jumping out of the van and just running for it on my own, but I had seen enough horror movies to know that would merely make me the first victim. There was still hope that I was merely hearing things, and that this was the first sign of me losing my mind, as opposed to the idea that a monster was making his way towards us  in that slow, methodical movement that almost all giant things seem to do.
In a turn of events that almost seemed like machinery of the gods at the time, our friend was able to bring over his "hermano" who just happened to be nearby with a tractor and a chain.  They hooked it up, yanked the van up the hill and we were free, after giving them a quite generous tip. I never felt so relieved, especially because I now had my window up, and we were rolling downhill. It occurred to me much later that it was extremely possible that a jungle telegraph had started the minute a local saw some gringos heading towards Maderas in a city that wilderness, everybody was an entrepreneur. Hey, Florida's not that different. Just think about how many tow trucks like to cruise around Volusia county beaches at high tide..
We finally got back to the lodge with stories to tell. Unfortunately, Pam was having none of my monster tale. She was sure that I had heard a donkey braying off in the distance. As if I couldn't tell the difference between a "E-Haw" and a bloodthirsty moan, indicating sharp, grinding teeth at the same time. I tried to be really specific, using what I had learned from years of working at a music recording school. I said, "It sounded like a Low-Fi recording of a pack of wolves barking, run through a gated-reverb, and with a lot of the bass rolled off at 1k."
"Donkeys", she said.
And so we left Maderas with yet another unsolved mystery. We then drove to our next destination, which was pretty much the opposite of the Eco-Lodge,  an upscale gated community, beach slash golf resort. I could not even imagine that such a thing existed from what I had seen so far, but about two hours later, I was looking at it, or at least the guard gate, which was nothing like the gate at a community in the USA.

This was looked more like a military gate at a Navy base, except no uniforms. The three guards came out of their shack and eyed Sam's papers, while he used his British version of Spanish. Then Miguel did his thing, smiling and making friends, and soon the gate opened. Sam drove on through and I moved forward only to have the gate slam down in front of my truck. The guard approached me with a frown on his face and held out his hand, speaking some rapid fire Spanish, and I can truly say that in spite of my experience, I didn't recognize one word.
My Spanish training was two years of classes back in high school. I can still remember "un vasa de agua" a phrase I will never use again....I need a BOTTLE of water. But I did get further training. I have watched the whole run of "El Patron de Mal" which I figure is worth something, but perhaps not as much as I would like.

I looked at the guard helplessly and saw the van vanishing once again off in the distance. Here I am, stuck without enough Spanish, figuring that speaking more loudly in English would help. He was having none of it, and was one of those guys that didn't want to listen to a woman either, much to Pam's dismay. After fumbling around and not finding my paperwork, I pointed at the van which was now a speck in a cloud of dust and said, "Mi Muchachos!".....he laughed let me through..

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 16: Stuck In The Middle Of Nowhere

You know how you kind of chuckle when the car next to you at a traffic light is a jeep with giant mud tires, brush bars, floodlights, a snorkel, and a roof rack that could carry more than the inside of the jeep? And if the person is really into it, they have a 5 gallon gas can on back and perhaps a tall jack that can handle those monster tires. Where is that guy going in Florida to need all of that stuff? Well, in Nicaragua, that stuff is for real. Folks don't have much, but almost all of the vehicles, including mini vans had brush bars on front and back, a lot of them had snorkels, and almost all of the little cars had very expensive Thule luggage racks on top. I spent a bit of time wondering what company had deal to sell all of those racks to the people. I never saw one business that looked like it could even install a brush guard or any of those parts, much less sell them. I laughed a bit at first, until I had driven around the country for a few days, then I started wishing I had all of that stuff on my truck. The brush guards weren't for mudding around on the dirt roads, they were to protect your vehicle from damage in collisions with the many cars, trucks, motorcycles, and livestock that might jump right in front of you at any given time. The roof racks were there because if you had something that could carry people and things, you were in big demand. I didn't see any UPS or any kind of delivery trucks, unless you counted the guys that rode around in a stake truck full of produce with a speaker system announcing "Avocados! Pineapples! Papaya!" Of course, none of that was in English, for the first few times I heard the speaker in the distance, I thought it was revolutionaries trying to gather support, and then found it was the Nicaraguan version of our Ice Cream trucks.

Probably the first time I realized that we were truly in 4x4 country was on the road to the secret beach, where I came home with an image burned into my brain. After struggling down the muddy, winding single-width trail through the jungle in 4 wheel drive mode and in first gear, I came upon something I will probably never understand, sort of like Sasquatch. It was two beautiful women in a late model Mercedes sedan fishtailing down the trail towards us. I pulled over as far as I could, mere inches from a barbed wire fence and watched them slide by, with no idea of where they could be going and how they would get there. If there was one thing in the world more out of place than me in Nicaragua, it was those ladies, that car, and this road. It was one more mystery on this trip, but it was not the last.

The second time I knew why you needed a 4x4 was the time Sam decided that his van could make the trip to Playa Maderas. The three guys climbed in and stacked our boards inside and took off. Our first hint should have been when the van barely made it to the top of the hill in first gear, but we were excited about our last day of surfing at Maderas, and I was certain that I was going to conquer the waves that day. The next hint should have been when we noticed how steep it seemed in the van going downhill to the beach. We had fun in the waves, or the other guys did. I got a beatdown again, and this time the Pacific took my brand new GoPro camera for good measure. If I cried, it wasn't so much for my new toy, it was the realization that it had a 64gb card in it of three day's worth of surfing images that I hadn't yet uploaded to the cloud. In so doing, the ocean made sure that the only images I have of secret beach are in my memory.

While I was bummed about the camera loss, and the feeling that there were probably going to be stories told for years by the locals about some bald-headed gringo on a big orange paddleboard trying to surf Maderas, I was pretty sure that nobody had footage of it, or at least until some extreme low tide day sometime way in the future. My two friends were in good spirits, although I think Miguel had similar feelings about bringing a paddleboard to that break. 
It was about halfway up the hill to the Eco Lodge that Sam stopped smiling. Sam is the kind of guy that has been everywhere, done everything and can handle most all of it, including the big waves. However, the shaking truck, and the sliding sound of rubber on mud was confirming something none of us wanted to imagine. We were stuck in the middle of the jungle, uphill on a muddy trail in a brand new forty thousand dollar Toyota van. You are probably thinking that you just pick up your cellphone and call a tow truck. Besides the small matter that none of us had a cellphone that had service since the day we left the USA, we had the problem that none of us had seen anything that even looked like a tow truck the whole trip. I saw that confident smile fade, and listened to Miguel coming up with ideas about how we could get out of this, and I was just thinking about how we were blocking the whole road and all of the traffic to Maderas.
Suddenly, a small truck with dually tires managed to climb it's way around us, and what appeared to be a sixteen year old kid got out and spoke with Miguel and Sam about pulling us up the hill with his truck. I'm thinking that our van weighed more than his truck, but he was excited about helping us and I was starting to feel better until he came back with something that looked like a long belt to tie to our van. That belt didn't look strong enough to pull me up the hill much less the van, but they decided to try it. He got in his truck and revved the engine and Sam revved our engine. There was a loud snap! and the strap was broken.  We were goners. The two guys thought I was in shock over the whole deal because I was so quiet, but it wasn't that. I was on the front passenger side of the van and had my window down. Next to me was a head high berm of red clay and beyond that was nothing but jungle. What had my attention was a sound I had never before in my life outside of a horror movie. The closest I can come to describing it was a bad recording of a bunch of dogs barking, or more likely...a monster approaching. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 15 - La Cuidad del Squeaky Toy

We stood on the beach at twilight, this place quite different than anything else I'd seen on the trip. The water was calm, no waves at all, and the harbor was loaded with small moored boats. Lots of casual beach soccer games going on as well as families splashing in the water. Then there was the huge status of Jesus on top of the mountain off in the distance. It seemed like that statue was somehow visible most of our trip.

 The scene was peaceful, but not quite restful. The sand was more like dirt and many of the people milling about seemed not to be on vacation time.

If there was a constant sound, it wasn't the gentle sound of the ocean lapping on the beach, it was the incessant sound of Flipper, the dolphin. Not a real dolphin, but vendors of beach toys with little noisemakers designed to get your attention. If that didn't work, the vendors would then try plan B: stand right next to you for the next 30 minutes squeaking that gizmo. Since we had children in our posse, we got to enjoy the sound for most of our time on the beach, sometimes in stereo.

Sam and Elena..before they had anything to worry about

We had decided to have dinner in San Juan del Sur, a place described by Sam as the Mecca for beach tourism in Nicaragua. It had surf shops, bars, and plenty of people strolling through the town. Sam drove the big van, while Pam and I rode in the back. I was quite happy at not driving for a while, and yet, I still had the white knuckles while Sam drove down the smallest city streets I'd ever seen. The place was quite edgy, streets full of people selling their wares, dark bars with music blaring, and the constant feeling that our vehicle contained some of the only white people that had ever ventured this way. All I know is that Pam kept filming and I kept saying "Put that camera away!"...but I'm glad she got the shot. I'm not saying the town was rough, but Pam really wanted to go shopping, and she never mentioned it once in this place...
my vantage point of driving through San Juan Del Sur

Waiting for the bus
the kid got the good helmet

the food I wanted to try...but didn't

The van seemed to take up the whole road, and we were constantly dodging rickshaws, pedestrians, and the ubiquitous dirtbikes with multiple passengers on them.

Sam was expert with this and even parallel parked the monster easily in front of the restaurant. I glanced around, somehow feeling like I was in a James Bond movie, and that I would be able to spot the bad guy in the crowd. But, there was no bad guy and we just enjoyed a really nice dinner on the beach, while listening to classic rock on the club sound system. I often wondered if they switched the music depending on what kind of crowd they had that night. I sure didn't need to hear the same old stuff in another country, and after a while the music was switched to something I knew nothing about, modern Spanish rock music and Reggaeton.

I enjoyed the music, the food, and the people. And...I didn't have to drive back in the dark, so I was good. I had a really nice time, and every once in a while when I felt that something was missing, the Flipper sound would start back up and I knew everything was going to be Ok.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 14 - The Treasure Of Playa Secreta

Sam and Elena comparing fruit versus the REAL breakfast! 
You may be wondering what the food was like on the trip. It was very good I'd say, as long as you stuck with the right things from the menu. Pam and Sam had advised me to stay away from anything fresh, like fruit or salad, as the water that it was cleaned it could give one "issues". Well, I already had the "issues" by the third day of the trip, but I also realized that things could be worse.
Breakfast was best if you ordered eggs with beans and rice. There were pancakes, French toast and more, but for some reason, good bread was never available. The juice and coffee were excellent. Café con leche was my drug on the trip. When I got home from the adventure and had my next Starbucks coffee, I said "When did they start watering this stuff down?!"
The only food besides salad that I began to avoid was red meat, after having a hamburger one night, and getting a strange feeling that I wasn't eating beef. I pretty much stuck to chicken after that.
Emily warning me about the ice in the margarita

One bummer about the Eco Lodge was that there was absolutely no way for me to have coffee before 7am. I know, I know, I now fully understand what first-world problems are, but this meant that we left for surf sessions at 5:30-6:00am in the morning without caffeine to get me going. It was full, broad daylight, and the women and kids were still in bed, so it was free time. The only thing was Maderas was not too friendly for Miguel and I on Paddleboards, so Sam suggested a trip to a secret beach. It kind of sounded crazy to a Floridian to drive an hour when you are already so close to a surfing beach, but we did it. And it was on this trip that I found what a truly secret beach is.
You see, on the east coast and west coast of the United States, we have highways that run right down the coastline. Most of the time, the problem is finding a parking space. In Nicaragua, they don't have roads that run down the coast. They have single lane muddy trails that can go on for hours, and there aren't any street signs. There are situations where you are at one beach, and there is another beach that you could almost swim to, but it is over an hour by car, excuse me, four wheel drive vehicle. The road to Playa Secreta, was the first road I'd driven on where I was absolutely certain that you would get stuck without four wheel drive. When we finally got to the end and saw the little cove with the ramshackle outdoor café and something resembling a surfshop, I was surprised to find that the only parking was right on the trail. The waves looked great and there were only a couple of people out. We scrambled out of the truck and the guys were already in the water by the time I got my stuff ready. For some reason, I decided to go barefoot. I always was booties, but not this time.
The next two hours were full of some of the most fun I've had. The water was warm, blue and there was just enough sun. The wind was holding the waves up and it just seemed like there would be no end to the ride. We met a guy out in the water named Dave, who told us he always came to this beach because you could just keep a smile on your face the whole time, even with the large waves that came in. I didn't fully understand this at the time, I thought my terror-stricken look was only for Playa Maderas.
Miguel and Yvonne relaxing at the beach

Dave told us to line up on a particular rock on part of the cove and we would be in a perfect location when the next set came in. Miguel dubbed that, "Dave's Rock". Dave was one of my favorite characters we met on the journey, an ex-pat moved from California to enjoy the laid-back life-style of Nicaragua. He was almost my age, tall and lean, with a big shock of white hair and large smile full of shining white, perfect teeth. He really did seem like a Californian, and I liked this guy a lot. The strangest thing about my mind is that it keeps finding matches in my database of people and sometimes it's a bad match. In this case, I kept seeing in Dave, a startling resemblance to a really bad boss that I had once. It was a jolt, because Dave seemed to be everything that my old boss wished he could be. He rode around on a big four-wheeler that had a surfboard rack built onto it, and before he left, we got introduced to the owner of the little café. This guy was very interested in our paddleboards and I got the feeling that we may have been the first paddlesurfers to find this place. He invited us in for a drink and I got the best café con leche ever.
If I ever have dreams about surfing, it will be about this place. And it will only be in dreams, because all of the photos I took there were lost on the ocean floor....

Monday, July 24, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 13 - The Rock Hound Of Maderas

There was a point in our journey when a customs official picked up Pam's bag for inspection and said "What have you got in this thing, rocks?" and Pam replied, "Yeah. So What?"...all the while I was considering what the current prison sentence was for bringing rocks home from a foreign country.
Pam has a rock garden at home that has samples from all of our travels. It's safe to say that she is the only person in the world that knows where they came from. All I know is that there always seem to be room for just a couple more. If this trip was supposed to be about epic waves, it was really about epic rock collecting.
Not only did Pam find Nicaraguan beaches about perfect for rock hunting, she found a whole team that she was able to enlist in finding only the best rocks. Emily and Miguel had the most interest, while I was more like a pack mule. All I kept thinking about was that somebody was going to have to lift her bag up over their head and put it in that shelf in the plane. And I was pretty sure that Short-stuff wasn't going to be lifting her bag full of rocks. Even I had to admit that the beaches were great opportunities for people like Pam. It seemed to be a lot of what looked like shale and there were always patterns in it that made you think of really cool ideas for flooring in a house.
There was an afternoon at low tide, when the killer waves were even more deadly and we were all walking down the beach. It was overcast and cool, and the fun was in walking over all of the rocks exposed by the low tide. In Pam's case, it was more hobbling than walking because of her swollen "blackfoot" situation, but even though she couldn't wear shoes, she somehow had a pair of crocs that would work.  Looking back, I'd have to say Pam climbing on those rocks in those old crocs probably made my adventures in the water look tame. At least I had a decent chance of NOT falling on rocks.
Lest I leave you with the feeling that this trip was nothing less than idyllic, I should not neglect to mention that you should always drink bottled water while on trips to Latin America. In spite of Pam's repeated warnings, there were some of us that decided cheap margaritas had enough alcohol in them to kill any bacteria in the water. We were proven wrong on that one. And so it was that some of us on that beautiful beach walk were actually frantically searching for a bathroom rather than the next cool rock for the collection.

The highlight of the day was when Pam approached a couple of young girls that were coming out of the water from a surf session. She asked them if they knew where to watch out for rocks in the surf, in hopes of helping us be safer next time out. The girls took Pam for a surfer as well, and told her to stay over to the left and she would be okay. From that moment on, I was instructed by my wife to tell anybody that asked that she was sidelined by a foot injury, otherwise she would be out there with us. All I can say is that she does say "dude" a lot, so I'm not really surprised..... 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 12 - We Finally See Why We Are Here

As you may notice from the map, the place we stayed wasn't exactly ON the beach, nor is there a road to the beach on the map, but there is something, something that really likes a 4x4 vehicle and it was our first trip to go surfing that I figured out why Sam had me get a truck. The guys all piled into the truck with the boards back in the bed and we headed up the hill to find the beach....two wrong turns later, we finally found the cove where the epic surf was supposed to be. I know, how can you get lost on a dirt road that close to the beach? All I can say is that I was damn glad to have four wheel drive.
First thing I saw on the way, was a couple of surf shops. I'm using the term loosely here, because most of you are thinking of Ron Jon's or some place that sells towels and boogie boards to tourists. I think these places sold shots of whiskey and beat up old surfboards. I didn't see any windows, doors or customers, perhaps a dark skinned guy or two giving us the thumb and little finger wiggle all surfers use to say Hi. It never even occurred to me to think about going in and looking for a t-shirt to take home.
When we finally got to the beach itself, I was initially surprised at how small the area was, but the place had everything, sketchy places to eat (or more likely, get tequila shots), rocks, bone crushing waves, and even girls.
A little side note here, I have seen on surfing forums that surfer dudes worry a little bit about not finding girls while on vacation in Nicaragua. From what I saw, they will find them out there in the lineup. Just about everybody that I saw surfing was better than I am, but there were a folks here and there that decided they always wanted to try surfing. I can still remember one young woman taking a surf lesson from a local guy that looked like some kind of romance book cover dude, and that girl looked like she was having the best day of her life....not comprehending that death waves were only a couple of hundred feet further outside. Amazingly to me, was while seeing all of these brave women walking around in bikinis, I was looking around for some bad guy to konk me on my head for my camera. I recall one young well-endowed Latin lady coming in from her surf lesson and casually changing from a one-piece to a bikini in front of about fifteen drooling guys that I wouldn't trust with my worst enemy's daughter. The whole time she was pulling bra strings this way and that, she was taking selfie's with the other hand. The sight was almost as incredible as the waves.
I actually did paddle out there, even knowing the back of my mind that this wasn't the best place I ever thought of taking a paddleboard to. And I was promptly rewarded for my trouble with  a quick beatdown...the Pacific Ocean was letting me know that the Atlantic was a little wussy compared to what I was in for here.
A little note about surfing in Nicaragua: If you are from Florida, and you've surfed eight foot waves, you have done something pretty difficult. In Florida, if the waves are big, then they are coming in pretty close together and you have to paddle like crazy to even get past the break and into the lineup. There have been many hurricane days when I got what we call "denied", meaning I went home with my tail between my legs, never even making it outside. The good news is that if you did make it out, you probably had what it takes to ride those waves..The Pacific, on the other hand is a whole different animal.

Waves come traveling long distances and there are very long lulls between the waves. It is possible for a rank beginner to find themselves in the lineup when a 15 foot cleanup set rolls through. And, that is pretty much how I felt at Maderas. The waves weren't all that big, and I got through the shorepound easy enough, my brain was still on Florida and when I saw a nice headhigh wave present it's shoulder to me, it was like a video game...I couldn't miss. Two strokes and I was on...the only thing I had not prepared for was how fast the wave was, how quickly it went from nice little shoulder to giant closeout wall. And, of course, I ignored Sam's rule: never take the first wave of a set...because the rest of the set will catch you in the impact zone...and that is how I got introduced to "why we don't ride paddleboards here".

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 11 - Us And Los Animales

This trip sure had some head-turning moments, and one that would strike most of us living in the good old USA, is all of the animals running around loose. I mean, there were horses tied up beside the road, but most of the animals I saw were free to go wherever they pleased. This actually made for some very interesting behavior. For example, if you happened to be walking around and saw a loose emaciated dog in Florida, you would probably steer clear, thinking something bad was going to happen, and the dog would growl and sort of creep away. Not in Nicaragua...I'm pretty sure that anything that was still living had figured the key to survival was making friends with a human. Our days at the Eco Lodge were filled with cats, and these cats were the only ones I saw anywhere that looked healthy. If I walked up to our wonderful room at the top of the mountain, I would have at least two cats heading up there with me. They would then station themselves on either end of the porch, looking over the edge on guard for something. One day, after a surf session, I was lounging with Pam, me on the hammock on the porch while she read a book and griped about her foot. The two cats were all stretched out looking for birds or mice or something, when a third cat came padding up the last steps. Instantly, one of our cats jumped in my lap and made like he was my best friend ever. Now, I saw what they were watching for: interlopers. I'm guessing I was their human, and they wanted to let the newcomer know who was in charge here. Pam made some sounds and said that I'll probably get cat scratch fever and die from the infection, and that she wasn't going to bring my body home. Me? I was proud, and explained that I knew how to deal with strange animals safely. As the third cat left, and my cat jumped up, I went to go tell the kids about my experience, but instead met them halfway down the steps, each kid carrying a cat like a stuffed animal, I guess they already figured it out.

No cat or dog ever begged for food, nor jumped on the table when we were eating, but they were around, just in case we were feeling generous. It occurred to me frequently that there were no bad domestic animals because they led very short lives.
The one animal that did seem to be getting it together about getting handouts, was the horse. On more than one occasion while driving down some muddy road littered with shacks and loose pigs, cats, and dogs, there would be a situation where a horse just sort of walked out into the road and stood there, perhaps with a few friends, and I felt sure that the 'mordida' in this case really was to be a bite of something, perhaps an apple? Sam never slowed down for such foolishness, but I would like to have found out if I was brave enough to present my hand with food in it to a hungry horse.
Every place we stayed came with some kind of animals, and mostly, they were tolerated by the locals. One house came with two big dogs that just came an lay on the porch and came over for a petting once in a while. I thought, "This is probably as safe as it gets for a dog. They pretend we own them, and other people leave them alone".

Even Pam at one point was finally won over by a big white dog that followed her around, while she was looking for rocks on the beach. He would come over and rub against her leg and then go play in the water for a while. Once again, I thought, the dog knows he's safe when he appears to be with a more Chinese food for me here!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 10 - Blackfoot And The World Travelers

It was during our time at the Eco-Lodge that Pam and I really started getting to know the families we were traveling with. Just like any group, there was a bit of discussion about "Hey, you guys don't think you're just going off surfing all day and leaving us here in a strange country with the kids, do you?".
Pam and I had traveled once long ago, back when we were dumb and brave, taking our 14 year-old son and 11 year-old daughter to Costa Rica. That was scary for me then, and for some reason, this was even scarier. Perhaps it was because I thought a bit more about what could happen. Pam had already pointed out what she thought to be a women's clinic on the side of the road while driving. I took one look and thought it appeared more like a set for a Quentin Tarantino movie about vampires. There was no way I'd park my truck there, much less go inside with Pam...she didn't want to go there anymore than I did. Thank God we had a big bottle of ibuprofen with us. That and a big bottle of rum. The rum was for me, although Pam had a few swigs at our late night gatherings.
I was a little bit puzzled how the guys talked their women into going on such a journey with much younger children in tow. As it turned out, we were in the company of some folks that had seen much more of the world than we had. Sam, a British citizen, grew up on a sailboat in the Bahamas and pretty much was totally on his own by his teens. His wife, Elena, had left Russia at 18 years old to seek her fortune in the USA. I'd still rather believe that she was his Russian mail-order bride, but they are sticking to that old "met-online" stuff. They have two cute young tow-headed kids that were intent on having fun without regard for being in a 3rd world country. Emily, turned into our substitute for Zoey. I had a lot of fun trying to catch her in a photo when she wasn't making faces, and Pam found someone that would follow her looking for 'treasures' on the beach.

Miguel was from Puerto Rico, and was our master of making things happen with the people that knew little or no English. His wife Yvonne, was from Mexico, looking nothing like any Mexican I ever met, tall and thin with long wavy hair, she was able to charm anyone that wouldn't listen to Miguel. Their son Marcos, was one of those cool kids that can talk equally well in English or Spanish with and without an accent. Some of my favorite times were when Mom was trying to correct him in English and Spanish and he would reply "nooo...quiero......" so long and drawn out that he sounded like me trying to do a Mexican accent. Then he would put his head down and look up with these giant brown eyes, doing his best imitation of Puss-In-Boots in Shrek.

Pam and I loved the kids, and in a way, we were stand-in grandparents on the trip. The parents were close to the ages of our kids, and since we don't have grandkids yet, it was a lot of fun, just watching the children until they got grumpy, and handing them back to their folks. The kids in turn, loved Pam, and she proved that she still knew how to get kids excited about something. Somehow, Pam's foot issue, although a pain for her, turned into a source of fun for children. It had gone from a blazing red color to an ashen gray, reminding me of a zombie appendage, but the kids coined the name "Blackfoot" and for the rest of the trip Pam was Blackfoot.

As far as surfing and the division of labor, it would depend on who you asked. If you asked the guys, we spent way more time watching the kids while women got massages and took naps. If you asked the girls, they would probably say they never saw the men until it was dinnertime....

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 9 - The Incident At Maderas

The Eco Lodge was really rustic, but if you like rustic, we had the honeymoon suite. We had the room at the top of the mountain and from our front porch, you could see forever on three sides. There was a constant cool 30mph wind and you had the feeling you could just sit up there all day...or that is what Pam did, while I found the only way to work up a sweat there, carrying all of our luggage up the 50 rock steps to the top. The place was so eco-friendly that you were not to put toilet paper in the toilet and the shower had one temperature....not hot. I didn't really mind any of that and neither did Pam, but she did start noticing that the mosquito netting on the bed was not just for looks and not just for mosquitos. I've never seen so many different kinds of bugs, especially beetles. On the sink, in the shower, and in Pam's hair. At first she screamed when she found one on her, later she would just pull them off, take a second look and toss them off the balcony.

While I was making what seemed like my 100th trip up the steps, with somehow more stuff than we carried on the plane, Pam managed to get really hurt by just standing on the balcony. It turns out that the wind is such an issue there, that the rooms had huge tarps tied up to block the wind. Our tarp wasn't quite secure enough and blew a chair over onto her foot.
A little note about the furniture in Nicaragua. I believe that it was Miguel that picked this up from one of his many acquaintances on the trip, that termites are a problem and that a lot of furniture is made from a really dense wood that termites won't eat. All I know is that most furniture looks rough and is really, really heavy. The bar chair that landed on her foot probably weighed 50 lbs. The top of her foot swelled up like a baseball and her whole foot turned an bright red.
When I arrived at the top of the steps, proud that I had finally carried the last bit and could sit down and have a beer, I found her sobbing on the floor and saying that there was no way she could get back down the steps. It was then I realized that there was no EMT, no doctor, no x-rays, no nothing but figure-it-out-yourself.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 8 - Playa Maderas And Living Eco-Style

Late afternoon of our second day in Nicaragua, we finally reached the first destination of our trip: The Playa Maderas Eco Lodge. I didn't really know what to expect, but I did know that there was no air-conditioning. Coming from Florida, I had huge concerns about that, but as it turned out, that wasn't really an issue. The big surprise was that the last 45 minutes of the drive was going down a pot-holed, rutted up mess, that we would have said was a unknown road to a secret fishing spot. In Nicaragua, this was the main road to Playa Maderas. That last 45 minutes contained some of the worst living places I have ever seen in person. In my mind, I kept thinking of images I had seen from Africa. The people were dressed nice and clean, some were walking, some on motorcycles, and extremely rarely, in a truck. The average house I saw along the way was a one room affair, openings for windows, but no glass, either no door, or the door was wide open. Sometimes you would see the motorcycle parked in the middle of the house. My guess was that a good working motorcycle was worth it's weight in gold. I could not imagine what these people thought of us. Sam, was working his van between the potholes, and nothing much ever looked so out of place as that brand new Toyota van in this backcountry...perhaps a couple of gringos in a pickup truck with a paddleboard on top? One thing is for sure, everybody there knows about surfers, and that the trucks and vans that come through their villages are heading for Maderas.

When we finally got to the Eco-Lodge, for some reason, my first thought was that we had arrived at a prisoner of war compound in Vietnam. There was a giant wall, a guard tower and a small opening for our vehicles to come in. The guard climbed down, eyeing us suspiciously, and pulling out the clipboard that every single guard in Nicaragua seemed to have and began furiously writing down our tag numbers. I've often wondered what they do with that information, but at the time I was mainly worried that he would toss us back out there to the locals.
What I did not know at the time was that we had a secret weapon: If I thought Pam was good at winning over strangers, Miguel was the master. If there was ever a time that you couldn't find him, he would be talking to the 1) gardener  2) the security guard  3) or just about anybody that was looking at us funny.  Miguel and that guard were fast friends. Miguel's Spanish is superb and he is convinced that Nicaraguans are nice to him because he is Puerto Rican and being Puerto Rican is hip in Nica. I'm not so sure about that, but he is one smooth talker. I know we came to use his skills a lot on the trip.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 7 - The Volcano In The Lake

While driving down the road, Sam suddenly jerked the wheel of his van to the left and pulled into a small dirt street between a couple of houses. I saw a small sign indicating something, but none of that prepared me for what we saw there. At the end of the dirt road was nothing. It was merely a pull-off, a place where one might turn around, that is, until you looked up and saw what was in front of you. Sam explained that we were looking at Lake Cociboica aka Lake Nicaragua, the second largest lake in Latin America.
The lake was so large that you couldn't see the other side. What you could see was a large island with two volcanos jutting up into the sky. The wind was howling and the brown water was full of whitecaps. It looked like windsurfing Nirvana, if you didn't mind the brown water. Sam explained that the lake was supposed to have the world's only freshwater sharks, plus some other fish that only usually live in salt water. I had seen saltwater fish in Blue Springs in Florida, so I could see the possibility. I did some reading on this later and it turns out that scientists now think that once upon a time the lake did meet the ocean and that's how the saltwater fish found their way into the lake. They were saying that the bull sharks that are in the lake are actually the same species as the ones in the ocean....well, that didn't make me feel any better about going swimming in that lake. I looked up from the lake and the muddy shoreline and saw a few houses, and farm animals.
There were a couple of horses just milling about and suddenly one started running towards us, as if we might have something good to eat, then made an abrupt 90 degree turn when he saw his owner coming out of the house.
As much as we felt for the poverty of the people we saw in Nicaragua, what really hit you hard is something you don't see much in the USA, animals that look like they are starving. Almost everywhere we went you could count the ribs on any animal you saw. Frequently, horses were tied on a short tether on the side of the road. We thought that this was so they could graze on the grass. At first I thought, "Hey, somebody could steal that horse", then I realized that if they took the horse, they'd have to feed it. There were dogs and cats everywhere that looked so pitiful you had to look away.
Then you'd look up and see this giant farm of windmills, those science fiction-looking propellers going off in the distance as far as you could see. You'd start to wonder, who could come here and build that? Nobody that lives here could even have the skill to do it, much less the money to do it. I heard that electricity was expensive here, and that you were even charged extra in your stay if you used too much.
Once again, it was overwhelming to see all of this in one little throwaway stop, that looked like a pullover for some rednecks with a johnboat. The view was epic and most of the people of the world will never see it.
Sam reminded us that this lake is responsible for a lot. The constant wind keeps the turbines turning, and cools the area down quite a bit. It also keeps the wind almost always offshore for the surf. In fact, most of the trip, we were fairly comfortable, unlike a normal summer day in Florida.
So far, we knew that Nicaragua was supposed to have really good waves for surfers, volcanos, and a kind of rugged frontier that would be good for our adventure, and I thought I understood that people didn't have a lot, but at least they had their land and a beautiful place to live in.
The part that I didn't comprehend at this point was that we were still on paved roads. These people around this lake were the people that were doing well. I didn't even know about the mud roads and the people that lived on them...but I would very very soon....