San Juan del Sur sits on the Southwestern corner of Nicaragua. The steep walls of the quarter-mile circular bay nearly close off a cluster of sailboats from the Pacific. The grid system of narrow paved roads and colorful, aged bed & breakfasts are connected to the bay by 30 yards of sand and smooth, two-foot waves that are as long as the beach. I have the dumb idea to sell pancaces by the beach somewhere. I run energetically around town checking prices of propane stoves, and ingredients. Sunset beers every night. The town is kind of a run-down tourist trap. Not much soul. After a few days, we head for Omatepe.
Twin volcanoes in the largest freshwater lake of the Americas after the Great Lakes. We´ve been traveling too fast, so its 99.9% local population (this is the only place I´ve been, since the Himalayas, without pizza) is sure to chill us out. We chill. We hike a volcano. We chill. We ride bikes to the beach. The locals go all out for Inmaculada Concepcion and I feel the wrath of a $1 bottle of rum. We chill more and talk about pancakes. Next to my hotel apears a shelf of various propane stoves. Accross the street, more propane stoves. (Alright, I get it! I´ll buy one.) I buy one. Boat, taxi, bus, Granada.
First Look at a Central American jewel
Five-hundred year-old colonial architecture and every house has an interior courtyard like you used to make on The Sims. Tile sidewalks and vibrant, randomly colored buildings. From the bell tower of La Merced Iglesia, you can see palm trees poking through the middle roofs all over the city. Beautiful city. We go to a ballgame. Granada vs. Leon is like Chicago vs. LA for Nicaragua. We refuse to pay the $1.78 and are the only gringos in the away section, which sets us back $0.85. Weird ballgame food. Half cooked potatoes, unchewable cabbage, and ketchup in a big green banana leaf. Beer is cold and the home team loses 4-1. Half of the stadium leaves between the 8th and 9th, because it will take seconds, if not minutes, to get out of the parking lot. Seriously, there might be 200 fans at the game. Afterwards there is a crowd of Gringos at a local bar. We play a long game of ¨Oh, you´re buying me a drink? Well here´s two.¨ I promise two pancake deliveries por la mañana. At 7:44AM I walk to the Super Mercado for Nutella, PB, mix, eggs (one order is crepes), and chocolate chips. Next door goes 5 walkin-rolls of various flavors. Across town I run over a Nutella and a pineapple-coconut crepe.
A guy who is part of the first group, passed out at the second group´s apartment. He woke up to one of my crepes, winded his way across town back to his hostel and ate one of my pancake wraps. Comprende? Weird. Lesson: if you cook it, they will come.
A Second Chance
A bee landed on my beer at dinner. I reprimanded him as he tried to fly back up the neck. Not enough pitch; if I tilt the neck, he will get swamped. He denies the knife ladder I offer and ends up floating in my beer. I finish drinking the beer about 15 minutes later, careful not to touch the bee. I dump him and the last few drops on the table. He lays there motionless for what seems like seconds. He twitches his legs. The drunk finds his feet and tries to dry his wings, but is too intoxicated to fly and stumbles around instead. I share the miraculous tale with our server, who, in turn, tells other members of the bar´s staff. His story was probably about a different drunk at my table.
-Places don´t matter. Only the states our minds are in.-tmf
The Bearded Monkey
It´s hard to find a bad hostel, because the people staying and the owners are usually all travelers. I´ve stayed at 50 or more hostels throughout Europe, Asia, Central America, and one in Georgia. In my experience, every 10th hostel is not just another hostel. I look for setting, vibe, and people. Some travelers are just looking for bag storage, and expediently devour all of the regional offerings. Some expect their $5 accommodation to include hot water, breakfast, and unlimited wifi bandwidth. The vibe at the first hostel in Granada sucked. This could have been solely due to the unfriendly travelers, but I believe it stems from something deeper. Maybe long developed structural vibrations still echoing through the walls. Nobody is happy. Hilary and I are ¨left hanging¨ by a total of 6 guests with our attempts to strike up conversation or simply say good morning. I cook pancakes at the community kitchen using some oil, which is often provided by hostels to preserve their pans and improve cleaning. A girl snatches up the bottle and storms off. When she returns I explain the confusion and offer to pay for the oil that I stole. She just looks at me like I am an idiot. Hilary and I walk around to find a new place to stay.
A week and a half ago, Hills and I decided to split up in Granada. Today, we walk up and down streets, looking at half a dozen hostels around the city. She likes Entre Amigos. I like The Bearded Monkey, which is next door. I could have chosen any one of the city´s 30 hostels, but this one seems right. We hang out for another day and a half and she leaves for Leon. I decide to give her a few days head start to avoid paranoia of an awkward accidental meeting in another city. We were traveling together for a month and each need to regain our independence.
Inside Bearded Monkey is a 25´x25´open-air section of dirt, plants, and stone protected by 6 hammocks, 2 single-rope woven swing chairs hanging between twelve 16´ wooden columns supporting the edge of the inward-sloping, tiled roof. Beyond the hammock fence is another 15´ deep perimeter of rustic red and white tile floor, covered with tables, leading to the 25´ tall walls. The walls divide the open space from four 12-bunk dormitories, 5 privados, and the back half (kitchen, baños, 2nd courtyard) of the hostel. Spending an afternoon in a hammock here has caused many travelers to extend their stay beyond original plans.
I don´t love Granada. I mention to Tod, the Texan ex-pat working the counter, that he has a cool job. The next morning, Yolanda (Nica manager) tells me I can get a free room if I work the desk 4 days a week. With my mind on track to reach Caribbean islands and an end-of-the-world party at some Mayan ruins, I don´t want to commit a lot of time to Granada. I ask her for how long. Four days is her reply. Great. I want the experience of working in a hostel and will be free for parties on the 21st. Training takes 10 minutes and Tod says they want to re-open the kitchen for breakfast. I write a menu on the chalk board and sell some pancakes and crepes the following mornings. On the fourth day, I tell Yolanda I´m gonna leave for 4 days and then come back and work some more. With a smile, she says, ¨Si.¨ Her reaction is my first glimpse into the laidback mindset of Nicaraguans.
Back to Omatepe I go with a very, very cool French chick called Sarah. We camp near the hotel in the town of Chaco Verde, which lies on the southeastern foot of the north volcano, with 20 or so other festival tenters. Two days of electronic music on the beach to celebrate the western contortion of the Mayan calendar. The 25lb, yellow propane tank hanging from a blue nylon rope around my shoulder is not welcomed by the two Nicas running the festival. They put it into storage and I put my stove in the tent, relieved that I can just enjoy the festivities. The pancake nomad will have to revise his methods in the future. On day 3, I reclaim my tank and ride on the roof of a van back to the port town of Mayagalpa. Boat, taxi, bus, and I´m back in Granada. The day after Christmas, I ask Tod if he wants to take the restaurant seriously. He does, so I decide to stay through the busy season. I´ve made thousands of Cordobas selling omelettes, huevos rancheros, pancakes, and french toast. The exchange rate from $ to C$ is 1 to 24. After the cost of food, I´ve pocketed $60. I spent $100 on a new mini fridge for the kitchen. The busy season goes from the beginning of January to the end of March.
The characters that stay at and travel through the hostel make the place. Bobby Love plays piano in the corner when he´s not arguing in his old school New York accent with some young backpacker. We exchange light, philosophical comments and he extends his culinary knowledge from days of chefdom. He is a riot and occasionally sleeps on tables around the hostel as a result of demasiado mucho cervezas. After 4 months of living here, the only piece of information about his past that has been extracted is that he is from East Timor.
Tod and I have some pretty intense jam sessions when we aren´t riding around town on the bouncy roads in a truck with virtually no suspension. Instruments sound great reverberating off concrete walls.
Mauricio takes me on his boat tour for the free through islets with a group of backpackers. He´s a local pool shark with smirking white teeth and eyes of a bandito admiring the fruits of his latest heist. He and his Scandinavian girlfriend, Marion, teach me Spanish as we barbeque in the back courtyard.
Yolanda´s oldest son, Francisco trades me Spanish for martial arts lessons. I cook her youngest, Kevin, breakfast most days, and we stay up past our bed-times watching Hollywood movies in Spanish.
For Christmas, we made a pot-luck dinner for 10 and put tables together under the stars. By New Years, Tod´s ribs are perfected and there are 7 tables lined end on end. Even Bobby Love makes his self-proclaimed potato salad. Primo.
We are a temporary family and this is my current home.