Thursday, August 31, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 1 - Trying To Remember Why We Do This

This was  a trip that Paul really wanted to do. He wanted to find a place where no phone call could find him, no work emergency could stop him and where all he had to worry about was his new sleeping bag. Oh yes, backpacking is not really about taking less stuff, it is about taking more really expensive lightweight stuff. This was the trial time for Paul's new ultralight backpack, that weighed less than my Android tablet. Of course, that new backpack required a new smaller, super expensive sleeping bag, but it was all worth it if he felt better while hiking. Me? My plan was to have ULTRA-LIGHT stitched on the back of my pack so the other hikers would think I was cool. My real problem was not my pack but the sixpack of muffins that was stuffed in my gear.

We flew straight through to Bangor, ME from Florida and in 3 hours went  from the land of flat and hot to the land of hiking.
Our shuttle driver picked us up at the airport and we began the 2 hour journey to the small town of Stratton where we would hit the trail. The ride was mostly in silence but slowly our driver opened to us with tales of hiking the local trails. I was really pumped up about getting out there with my pack. We finally reached the trailhead, which was actually a small gravel area off a deserted two lane road in the middle of nowhere. We grabbed our packs out of the back of the SUV, cinched everything up tight and took one last look at something approaching civilization.
As our driver turned to leave us, he remarked "So you're going to challenge the Bigelows right off the bat?"
The only thing more disconcerting than that phrase  was my brother, the expert hiker's response: "whaaaat?"

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 26 - Pam versus Miami

If there is any good cop-bad cop in our relationship, Pam is the bad cop. Everybody that deals with us gets told it is for their own good to deal with me when they can. I can control Pam, and keep her in check when needed, except for a few times in life that almost ended with a tazing.
So, when things started going south at customs in the Miami airport, about the best I can say is, the leash broke.
We left our nice flight and went into a terminal full of the largest crowd of people being lined up by the meanest, nastiest workers you can imagine. We had one hour to make our connecting flight to Orlando, and all we had to worry about was our carry-ons. We were heading back home and were almost there, what could possibly go wrong? Now, try to imagine the nice Pam, sweetly speaking Spanish to a maid in Nicaragua, and then imagine her cocking back for a roundhouse swing at a surly customs lady in Miami. I'm not saying that it wouldn't have been deserved, but I was worrying that I might get tazed just for standing next to her.
At first, I thought, "we are so far ahead of Nicaragua." When I saw the fancy kiosk machines that almost automated the whole passport process, then the first worker told us to go get in line. To call what I saw a line would be the kindest thing anybody could ever say about the mess we witnessed. You can be very sure that there were signs, lit up signs, that proclaimed no photos, audio or video recordings allowed. I'm pretty sure that if I did try to record any of it, I would be locked away in some blacksite prison. I wasn't worried about Pam spending my retirement money though, because I was having an extremely hard time keeping her from recording it.
People pushed, people cussed, some giant black football player-looking guys tried to step ahead as if they were late for their super bowl game, but the tongue lashing they got from the meanest old black HSA lady I ever saw, had them whimpering just like me.
Her co-worker was trying to talk her down from her mean place, but she was in a state to take on President Trump head on. Her friend was saying "take the baby, take the baby in your arms...".
I believe my main thought was about renting a car and driving home.....but somehow, in spite all of that, we got through customs and started running for our flight, only to find our bags had to go through security again.  Pam fumed, while I told her sweet nothings, which kept her calm until the scanner lady pulled Pam's bag aside for further ransacking.  Then the lady turned to a coworker and told him she was taking her break and walked over to a friend, while our group grew larger. I was starting to feel like I might need one of those suits the bomb disposal guys wear. Pam was looking like she really might get us in trouble, but somehow found favor with one of the men working the security area and they brought our security lady back.

Pam grumbled a little too loud about the delay and yet one more mean old black lady made sure her bag got done last and took the longest. I can still remember part of the conversation, "What's in this bag? Rocks?", "Yeah, rocks, so what?".

Of course, our gate was at the other end of the terminal from where we were, so we ran faster than anybody else there, me dragging two heavier than usual carry-ons, while Pam carried her handbag, a coffeecup, and dragged her bum foot.
We got there, only seconds before the flight started boarding. We even got offered better seats, and I thought that the adventure was finally over.
That was when the storm hit....

This is dedicated to my mother, Kay Perkins, who pointed me down this path, and my wife, Pam Perkins, who keeps steering me in the right direction.

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 25 - Is The First World Preferable?

We were leaving. My board was somewhere back in Popoyo. It was probably the best board I'd had, yet I knew I could always get another. That is something you think hard about in Nicaragua, that no matter what happens, you can usually fix it with money, if you are somebody that has the ways and means. Most of the people that live there do not. Even when we got back to the Best Western Mercedes Hotel by the airport, I was thinking about where the people that work at the hotel live. However, it was bothering me a little bit less than it did two weeks ago, and that concerned me.

We had to get up so early the next morning, that it was actually still dark in Managua, a place where I had yet to see sunrise. Even me, the early riser, was getting used to experiencing full daylight at 5am in the morning. Many times I had seen yard workers hard at it while I walked to the beach, wiping the sleep out of my eyes. It was with a heavy heart that we left the Hotel Mercedes before they started breakfast. Our bellman scooped us up at 4:45am, and magically transported us across the street without upsetting any horsecarts or knocking any motorcyclists aside.
Without the paddleboard to transport through the airport, life was easy. Pam worked her lingo magic on the customs official, but he was bored with his day already, and after Pam's perfect Spanish phrase describing how she had no rocks or pottery, he replied, "Ok, thanks, you're good.".
Life was good, and there was even a coffee shop by our gate that had some of the best cafe con leche of our trip...for $2.00.
I could finally relax, no more worries about spending the rest of my life in a Nicaraguan prison for hitting someone's perro in the road, while my wife spent my retirement money with some young Romeo on a European river cruise.
We waited in the airport with a large group of missionaries that were heading back to the states and I saw many of them staring off in the distance at something.  Nicaragua was telling us that she had one last thing to show us before we left. How many places do you visit where you can watch an active volcano from the comfort of your seat at the airport...I must admit that my thoughts of getting home in one piece were a little bit unsettled by this sight until I heard from one of the vendors that this is a normal every day view, not some catastrophe unfolding before my eyes.

we finally got on the plane after a security person decided that I looked shady and patted me and my stuff down thoroughly. I actually felt pretty good that somebody still felt like I was worth keeping an eye on.
As we cruised over the deep blue ocean, thoughts of regular life drifted dreamily through my mind. We were going back to normal, where I knew the language, I knew where to get food and drink, and most places I would travel to didn't need four wheel drive. And to top all of that off, I would have a clean car again. Something that might stay clean for more than a day.
Yes, I was a happy boy right then, heading into Miami for a connecting flight without a care. It is a very good thing that we do not know what is ahead in life.....

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 24 - Rivas And The Ride Home

It was getting near the end of our adventure, and although a part of me wanted to see it not end, another part was worried that we hadn't yet made it back home in one piece. I find that I don't really relax until the bags are on the floor at home and I'm sure that the air conditioner hasn't blown up, water pipes are intact, pets are still breathing, and the pool is still blue. But, we were on the downhill side. I had survived the surf, I had managed the traffic in the cities, and as long as there was a bathroom nearby, I could handle the little varmints in my stomach from the local water. So far on this trip, it seemed that only Pam and the kids had gone unscathed from Montezuma's revenge. All the rest of us had at least 3 days of "I think I will just take a nap this afternoon". It wasn't that bad, until you were driving down a dirt road, wondering if you would just stop, jump a barbed wire fence and go in the jungle, or hope that somewhere down the road there was a gas station with a public restroom...since I had seen only 3 gas stations the whole trip, I carried a little bit of toilet paper with me at all times.
We said goodbye to the beach and Pam took in some of the power there, in an effort to get me one with our vehicle and traffic that lay ahead. We decided that Popoyo was awesome and could even deserve a second trip.
We found cool animals right at the Hotel Popoyo and found it was a great place to relax after surfing or sightseeing. They had a driver that could take you to Magnific Rock and it seemed that you could arrange a whole trip here without having to rent a car yourself and drive...and by car, I mean 4x4 truck or SUV.

The drive back to Managua was much easier than the drive out, and my best guess is that I was starting to get used to this country. It helped that I no longer had the big paddleboard to worry about and I knew that the locals probably figured we had no money left, as we weren't hounded at traffic lights going back to the airport hotel.
We went to Rivas along the way and stopped for a quick bite to eat and a short run to the "Poli", which Sam explained was the Latin version of a small Walmart. The walk to the Poli and the shopping inside was something that I am not sure how to describe. A crowded small street town, think Saint Augustine in Florida, maybe after things went really bad for a long time, going into a small grocery store that also carried flat screen TV's, and had guards at the door, and scores of beggars outside waiting for you when you left. You didn't just feel uncomfortable, you felt really bad. I can remember Emily asking her parents if she could leave something in a guy's bowl on the ground. I'm not sure what's worse, seeing that scene or the idea that you could get used to seeing it and have it bother you no longer. Nicaragua has seen a lot of bad times, and I hope that somehow our being there and spending money did a little bit of something. I know that everywhere we went we were told to "tell your friends!". It was as if the country wanted to make sure that we didn't forget they had something special there.
I know that with Pam's blessing, we left a 70% tip to the women that cleaned our rooms and waited on us for the 4 days at the hotel. We were sure that they piled 3 or more on a little motorcycle and rode to homes with dirt floors and no windows.I really wanted to leave behind everything we had in our suitcases with us, but Pam was adamant about keeping her rock collection, which came back to haunt us later...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 23 - The Orange Board And The French Guy

As I stood there on the beach, readying myself to make sure that these guys knew that to get to our women they'd have to go through me, I realized that the deadly set of car keys held as a weapon in my clenched left hand, were actually a small keyring and a plastic fob key. I was not certain how much damage could be inflicted on my enemy, much less how I was going to draw blood across my chest with this pathetic thing. It was then I heard a voice behind me and turned to see Sam and Miguel walking up from their surf session and noticed they were waving Hello and speaking in Spanish to the people approaching from the village. As I turned back and saw them up close, I realized that this was a mom and dad and their three children heading up the beach to play in one of the tidal pools. I don't know, they sure looked menacing from a distance. We turned and headed back to the van which, thankfully was still protected from vandals by our guards and several horses that had decided they wanted a piece of the action.
I decided that I preferred places like Magnific Rock and our secret beach. I wanted to have at least one more surf session before we left this land of endless blue water and headed back home to brown sloppy mush.
We rested up at the Hotel Popoyo, while the kids played in the pool. I enjoyed the food and drink there, but as I had already learned, I had to pick the right foods to eat.

While it was easy to just eat right there at the Hotel, some of the gang wanted to check out what else was around. Me? I could not imagine there being anything else around, except cows, horses, and shacks. I was wrong however, as Sam drove us in the other direction down a narrow rutted trail which ended at some kind of crazy scene: A little surf town was there. rental rooms, hostels, places to eat, and once again the strange image of a guy watching a big flatscreen TV in an open porch room with a dirt floor.

What surprised me was there was a real surfshop there. Well, real compared to what I had seen so far, still something far different than what most people are used to.
A French guy owned the place and we spent quite a bit of time admiring his boards. He had the Popoyo break across the street and a stream behind his store. It was so cool, yet at the same time, it looked like a falling down shack. Miguel suggested that this might be the place to leave my board behind. I had been thinking during the trip that I might just leave my board in Nicaragua, instead of paying to fly it back and deal with customs. I thought there was no way anyone would be interested in a surfing paddleboard around Popoyo, but the owner was and we came up with a deal that made everyone happy. He was smiling, and I'm sure that he had some big plans for the big orange board, I only wish that someday I get to see a photo of him riding it on the outer reef.
My plan was to go back to Magnific rock with the guys and get one last session in before we returned to Managua, only this time I was going to rent a longboard and see if I still had any longboard skills left in me. The restaurant had a little rental shop inside and they had the best collection of rental boards I had seen anywhere in Nicaragua.
It was a great plan I thought. While the ladies packed up, the men would enjoy a final ride at this beautiful spot. We piled up in my truck, with only the bare essentials and headed up to Magnific rock. I didn't care what the tide was like, how big the waves were, I was going to paddle out and at least enjoy the beautiful blue water, and the fantastic rock formations all around.
We got to the top and the guys jumped out, grabbing their boards, and me wandering over to the store to see if the board I saw earlier was still available. It was and I was feeling that excitement of getting back in the water and making today the best day of the trip. "I'm sorry Senor, the boards are all rented out," said the nice young woman behind the hostess kiosk. "But, there are over 20 boards here!", I exclaimed. "A company has reserved all of the boards today for their guests," she replied.

And that is how it came to be, that on our last, most awesome day in a surfer's paradise, that I sat watching with surfboards all around me, and no camera, while my friends played in the surf. It wasn't until weeks later that it occurred to me how much it would have been worth to me to surf those final three hours rather than sitting watching. I think I could have bought a new board and given it to a kid on the side of the road and I would still have been ahead.....bring your own board...

Monday, August 7, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 22 - The One Thing You Are Not Supposed To Do

We had been in Nicaragua for almost two weeks and I was starting to get used to the idea that we were traveling from one exotic spot to another, passing through villages of extremely poor people on the way. I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about how those people might feel about us, but this time Sam was taking us to a place we weren't supposed to be. We were driving down a dirt road that nobody really knew exactly where it went. We were heading to some fancy resort that Sam figured we could bribe our way into. We rode past the first fishing village I had seen on this trip, featuring a little cove that was somehow protected from the waves and had many of these little wooden boats they call "pangas". Sam said that this was a place where it was a good thing to not slow down too much. This was a local's beach and not for tourists. His idea was to get us into the fancy resort and go surfing while the families ate a meal at the restaurant. That idea fizzled when the guard decided he wanted more than $20 American for every person in the van. That would have been a nice little bite for him and didn't sound good to us. We went on further, passing woods, barbed wired fences and amazingly, a giant castle with an observatory that looked like it belonged in Iraq. I could not even fathom how it was built there, much less how the materials were delivered. I couldn't have been more astounded if I had seen an Egyptian pyramid sitting on the beach. As that passed by, something almost as mysterious came up on our left. An abandoned resort that was still guarded by two guys and a couple of dogs.
Once upon a time, somebody thought it would be a great idea to build fancy vacation cottages right on a good surfing spot. Something went wrong, after a lot of money was spent and now all that is left are the half-finished shells of the buildings and a couple of guards. Sam negotiated a $5 toll and we now had a place to park. I felt pretty certain that the guards were not making sure the property was protected for the owners, but as with most Nicaraguans we had seen, figured out a way to make a little bit of money in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, $5 to make sure the van was still there when we got back seemed reasonable enough.
We were in a really different location, no surfers, no cars, and just our guards, a few dogs, and now a couple of horses coming by to check out the food situation. One of the guards didn't like one of the horses coming and over and I had a few minutes to watch that interesting exchange, which must happen on a daily basis. I don't know much about horses, but the ones I saw there didn't seem to like being bossed around much.

We walked out on the beach and I immediately saw that this was not going to be a spot for me and my paddleboard. The waves came in fast and jacked up very close to the beach. This was shortboard heaven, the kind of waves that Sam drooled over. For me, this was a great time to take photos.

As I watched Sam and Miguel get worked in the surf and occasionally get a few great rides, it occurred to me that here I was, on the beach at twilight, far away anywhere, the only adult male in a group of 3 women and 3 children. This was the kind of thing I had read about when researching Nicaragua: avoid staying too late on the beach and keep an eye on the people around you. Fortunately, I figured we were a good distance from that fishing village and it was a good chance that they might not even notice the big white van and the distinctly not-local look of us. I turned to get a better look at how far we were from the fishing village and once again I was surprised that all of our driving hadn't taken us far. I could actually count the panga boats from where we were, and really wished that I could do that, but it was the group of villagers heading towards us that had my attention. I stood there, thinking of that Indian on the log in the movie Predator, realizing that he could not escape, so he made his last stand. I spread my legs and put the car keys between the knuckles of my left hand and got ready to drag those keys across my chest, leaving those bloody lines that indicate I was ready for my last stand...

Friday, August 4, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 21 - Surfing The Rock

There was a strange thing about this trip..only one, you say? It was that we hadn't really gone really far and done that much driving, but I felt like I had been to the moon and back already. My truck had only used half a tank of gas so far and it surprised me, perhaps it was because so much of the driving was down slow, bumpy dirt roads. I was quite ready for just sticking around one place for a longer period of time, thinking we had seen what Nicaragua had to offer, but Sam said, "Just wait" and he was right.
Our final destination was Popoyo. I still don't quite understand the name. There are several breaks and if there is one outstanding thing in that area it is Magnific Rock. The closest I can relate this to for a Floridian, is imagine that you are eating lunch out on a pier, watching the surfers, only instead you are way above them, WAY above them, and the waves are bigger than anything you've seen before in person. If you wanted, at low tide, you could climb down from the restaurant and get on the rock itself, and sit right there, watching surfers in the water next to you, catching the waves as they come into the cove. Huge waves come across the ocean, smash into the rock and some section of that wraps around the rock and there are almost always surfers there to catch them.
The break inside the cove is referred to as the 'beginner's break' and I have to say that it is possible that I was there during some extreme swell, but God help any Florida beginners that tried that wave. To be sure, there were plenty of people out on rented softtops, sitting in the lineup and not catching waves, but there was plenty of good surfing going on.
This is where Sam showed what he knew. He stationed himself right next to the rock, and waited for one of the big boys to smash against it and send him flying down the line of the reformed wave. He said that it kind of reminded him of Typhoon Lagoon, hearing a big whooshing sound and then taking off in a cloud of whitewater. Me? I pretty much stayed in the mid-break with my paddleboard. Sitting next to that rock with the water swirling around and the wind pushing me towards the rock didn't sound like the way I wanted to end the trip.
I had to overcome a lot on this trip. If you saw this place at low tide from above, there were rocks everywhere. I'm guessing it was all the newbies sitting out there that finally got me to my feet and out in the water. It was still quite spooky seeing the really big waves coming towards us, even knowing that the rock would block them.
We had a lot of fun at this spot, but as I was learning on this trip, my friend Sam, is quite an adrenaline junky. It was hard for him to stay here when he saw the other breaks going off.
We were staying at the Hotel Popoyo, which we loved. I would go there again, but maybe next time I'd have somebody else drive. The food was good, we slept well, and had plenty to do. One thing we did not do, and someday I may get the courage to do is to paddle out to the outer reef break. From the restaurant at the top of the rock, you can see this wave breaking way out there, and usually a couple of boats sitting next to it. Then you see little ants scattered in the water, and every once in a while you see one of those little ants go flying across one of those waves, much faster than you would have believed possible. The water between here and there was calm, and I could have done the distance easily on the paddleboard, but I had already found out something new on this trip: the extreme wind.
In Florida, you can read the wind from looking at the surf. If it's blowing ten miles per hour, it's probably choppy, any more than that and we get a 'soupbowl'. In Nicaragua, it's nothing like that. You'd have to read the wind from watching the spray off the top of the wave. At Magnific Rock, the wind seems amplified by getting funneled down the cliff and out to the water. On one afternoon there, I paddled for a wave on my board, and realized it was as if somebody had grabbed my fin and was holding my board, I could make no forward movement. Another time, I watched as my board just started slowly turning in a circle. It started me thinking that there was a point where a paddleboard was less than useful.
But, Sam was not thinking about the outer reef break...he had a better idea. The usual break that he liked was totally closing out, and by closing out, I mean that there were shorebreak explosions that kept my wife awake at night. Overhead waves breaking in inches of water were not what we were seeking, but Sam knew about another secret spot, and this one was going to be a little bit tricky getting past the locals....

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 20 - Out In The Water

From the perspective of a native Floridian, the waves in Nicaragua are a bit intimidating. I'd been out in large waves before, and even found happiness at the secret beach there, but Playa Colorado and Panga Drops were something quite different. Try to imagine the largest waves at Sebastian Inlet only bigger and that will give you an idea of what we were looking at with Colorado...except all day long, every day we were there. That plus we were observing some very, very good surfers on the waves. Just think about how serious you would have to be to even come to this place. Even then, when I saw boats bringing surfers to this private beach, I noticed that not everybody that got out of the boat caught waves. Many caught nothing, some got worked, but a few shone like I hadn't seen, even in a Florida surf contest.
In the mornings, I would get up and walk down to the break and see if somebody good was out there. No matter how early I got up, someone was always at Colorado. It wasn't like it was perfect every time. Low tide was not right and all the way to high tide made it too hard to catch on the shortboards, but like me, there were some that figured a smaller crowd meant more opportunities.
The photo above is Miguel, surfing between the two major breaks, which is what I also found worked for me. I did see a guy one day on a paddleboard at Colorado and he was ripping. I don't know how he did it on that wave.
At the end of the beach, right in front of the main break was a little thatched hut bar, with a little pool and it was a great place to sit and watch surfing that you usually only see in a video. Sam, our guide, picked this time to be there because he knew there would be big swells, but it seemed to me that the ocean was just a non-stop wave machine. I was actually hoping for a day here and there that wouldn't be death-defying. My real dream was to ride Panga Drops, which was a break at the other end of the beach. The name was for boats dropping people off at the break, because the beach is private. Boats are used frequently to travel the different breaks because the roads take so much longer.  Unfortunately, I saw way too many, what Sam refers to as "Macker sets". This is when you sit watching a break, seeing guys riding waves and think "I might be able to handle that" and then see five giant waves, almost double the size, come marching in, surfers paddling to get over them, most of them not making it and boards flying. Sam got a broken leash and held down underwater for several waves. Miguel got munched and was much more cautious the rest of the trip.
Meanwhile, Pam was exploring and taking photos. It turned out that I was in a very small number of those shots. She said that I needed to get better waves, and it was hard to argue with that. I think I need to go back to the place where beginners surf so I look better. A side note here...I guess this goes on everywhere and I did see it in California as well. You stand on the beach looking at what you might call experts-only conditions and see someone holding a softtop board at some funny angle and you realize that a rank newbie is going to try to go surfing there. Even at overhead Colorado, I saw this. The lack of fear must be because it looks easy in the movies or something.

While Pam lost interest in my wave catching session, she wandered down with Emily to find the place where the ocean appeared to come into a large tidal pool and some locals were working a net.
In her own way, Pam has no fear, and she approached the family, hoping to see if they had fish in the net. She started thinking they were going for crabs, and wanted to show her willingness to communicate in their native tongue. "Son esos Conejos?" she said, pleased with herself and her best Latin accent. Puzzled looks were followed by much laughter. It wasn't until much later in the day when Pam related this to Yvonne, who told her that the word she wanted was "cangrejos" and that "Conejos" meant rabbit. I'm sure they are still telling that story around the village back in Nicaragua...