Woke up yesterday and immediately jumped into an ice cold shower: penance for my lack of vigilance the night before. You see, it’s been, what, four years since I’ve been on the road like this? A long time to lose critical skills like remembering to ask the hotelier (more like a roach motel, but hey) if they have hot water. It was late, it’d been a long haul from the Canal Zone to the border and on into Costa Rica. I was exhausted and I slipped.
Honestly, there was a bit of the old frisson as I counted to five and jumped into the ice cold water, quickly sucked in air, and breathed rapidly under the deluge. It’s called earning your stripes. After that I dried off quickly, grabbed my bags and walked into the brightness peridot-like hills, pregnant tropical clouds and blue skies. Just another typical Costa Rican morning.
Got breakfast. Post breakfast negotiated with a driver for passage to Penas Blancas, the border with Nicaragua.
“Look, son, I don’t give a flying two handed monkey fuck how much it costs, but I am not taking the chicken bus today. I am seventy-one years old and have earned a little bit of luxury. Especially after galavanting with you across Central Asia and God knows where else we’ve been together,” Dad said.
So I negotiated hard, finally settled on a price with a young man named Juan Carlos—handsome in that Latin American way—grabbed our bags and off we went down the road, chasing hope, the possibility that we’d sleep in Granada.
And what a road it was!
The first portion of the morning we traveled the Pan-American Highway—IH 35 for you gringos and gringas—that runs from Chicago to the Tierra del Fuego with only one 53 mile break amidst the impenetrable jungles of Darien between Panama and Columbia. Our heading was vaguely northwest towards Nicaragua. Most of the morning we ran parallel the Pacific with the water popping into and out of view. The urge to halt the car, grab a board and abjure all responsibility was strong with me that morning. Were Dad not with me I might have, alas we pressed on.
On my left the endless quicksilver blue of the Pacific. To my right the timeless procession of jungle clad hills, mountains and countless rivers draining the high plateau of water. An infinity of greens. A riot of floral colors and one “soda” (small restaurants in Costa Rica) after another.
My Spanish grew rapidly as the day progressed but father’s grew exponentially.
A digression: truth be told here, father’s linguistic abilities have always been somewhere between abysmal and non-existent. His ear for Chinese, Turkish, Russian, French, Italian, Farsi and Uzbek totally laughable, much like the yip and yap a coyote drowning in a vat of melted cellophane would make. But this? This was remarkable. And then it all came back to me, as a boy growing up on a farm north of San Antonio—how, as we fed the horse he named them in Spanish, as we grabbed eggs from the chickens he made me say “huevos” and how he’d point at the goats and say, “cabrito” forcing me to roll my “Rs.” Thus he gave me the gift of a passable natural accent. By the end of the day he and Juan Carlos were just talking. My father is my best friend and I fancy I know all about him, but he surprised me. And after forty three years of knowing one’s father that’s a good thing.
On we drove, the minutes rolling over with the miles on the odometer, little change in scenery: always skirting the ocean and hugging the jungle. Aside from pitstops every hour or so the day was uniform, the persistent squeak of the rear shock absorber, droning engine and Father and Juan Carlos speaking in Spanish in the front seat. I listened but mostly did my favorite thing in the whole world, the best life has to offer: I simply watched country roll by.
“And where is your family from,” Dad asked Juan Carlos.
“Mi madre in San Jose, mi padre no se,” replied Juan Carlos in a well rehearsed rhyme on the misfortune of being fatherless.
“You don’t know your father?” my father asked, surprised.
“Si,” Juan Carlos replied in that languid, oneiric way.
“Neither did I,” confessed my father by way of reply. The bond between them grows stronger, even though both know they will never see each other again. Two fatherless men, out in the world alone.
Most Costan Rican geology is igneous, dark brown to black basaltic volcanic rock. The beaches too are a dark brown to black sand. Fine and pretty but hot as hell in the sun. We stopped at an unnamed beach somewhere before the Nicoya Peninsula turns the tall Pacific swells into the smooth, harmless agua de bahia. Dad bought some ceviche and for the next two hours the smell of onions, lemon and fish hung in the air. We pulled away from the beach and rolled on.
Most mountain streams, be they rivers (rios) or creeks (quebradas) along the way ran cold, narrow and clear, but one river was muddy and wide. The Rio Tarcoles was also full of crocodiles. Big, nasty looking river gargoyles that would chew your face over without thinking twice. They had ill looking skin anywhere from a sickly tan, fleshy color, better to blend into the muddy waters, to green with black spots and tan nictitating reptilian eyes. I obligingly took photos and walked back to the car. In a tall ‘Brilliant’ (stress on the iant portion of the word) tree a small flock of Yellow-crowned Euphonias sang and ate and flickered about brining the sound of joy to slow lapping sounds of river water.
We motored on. The Pacific turned into the Gulf of Nicoya, a peninsula, which on a map looks like an upside down boot spur. The dirt here had changed from a tropical red to an almost Post Oak Prairie black. A road cut explained why: there lay dun-colored multi-layered beds of limestone with a thick black igneous dyke sliced diagonally through it. Clearly this rock sat for eons on the bottom of a shallow sea, much as the bed rock of the Gulf of Nicoya does now. Just as geology changed so too did the topography. We were now up on a slightly elevated plateau that slopes slowly down towards the bowl containing the Lago de Nicaragua. Here in Costa Rica it is punctuated dramatically by two lumbering volcanoes on the horizon.
Magnificent rancheros circled us. Brahman bulls and cows, like little grey cotton balls on a blanket of green, were covered by a ceiling awash in the finest ceramic blue possible. A volcano smoldered, smoked. Then the wind picked up. Blades of tall grass bent horizontally across the road. Then we passed an 18 wheeler blown off the road. Juan Carlos gave the wind a name, “Alicious,” which comes off the volcanoes cool and furious, pulled down by the languid humidity of the Nicoyan Gulf. Dusts devils blew across the road at 30-40 mile per hour blasts. We stopped the car to feel the full effect. Dust flung about by the winds stung my bare arms and face, rain mixed into my hair creating an intolerable clay-like mess.
We covered our eyes and got back into the car. It was getting late. And when it gets dark in the tropics, the darkness comes on fast. The sun began its nightly rainbow brigade. The scirocco coming off the mountains created a madness of color: from God’s own golden start to the mandarin middle and the crimson finale this sunset whispered a promise: you’ll sleep in Granada tonight.
We drove now into the dark but the closer to the border we got the more tense I grew. The Costa Rican side of this border crossing is easy, but the Nicaraguan side beggars description.
I lectured Dad on safety.
We arrived. We said our goodbyes, then plunged into the fray like it was a mosh pit.
I lectured Dad on safety, again.
Three times more times for good measure, including a string of f-bomb adjectives unfit for a family publication.
We stamped out of Costa Rica and began the kilometer walk in the jungle night to the Nicaraguan side. Countless rigs passed us in a roar we had to scream over to communicate. There were easily a hundred on wait and more coming every minute. This is free trade in the Americas now. Big rigs, diesel smells and insanely crowded border posts.
In a quiet moment father asked, “son, are we in no-man’s land?”
The ring of tension tightened a bit more about my neck. We were, indeed, technically out of Costa Rica but not in Nicaragua.
“Yes, father, we are,” I said somberly.
We reached the first police post.
Then passed through a second.
There was a third, but with the noise total, it was perfunctory. Then the darkness crowded back in upon us, the smell and sense of bodies nearby menacing.
The immigration post was barely discernible amidst the mad darkness. I found it somehow. A hundred migrants waiting for their papers while we breezed through, paid our entry fee, got our stamps and walked towards the fourth and final police checkpoint. In an uncommon bout of good sense I asked the immigration officer what was the most realistic price of a taxi to Granada?
“$60-70,” he said. I thank him and walked away towards the final checkpoint, preparing for the mayhem that would erupt when we walked out into the press and jumble of taxi drivers, bus riders and touts.
A hundred meters before we got there a young man approached me.
“You go to Rivas? San Juan? Granada?”
Apprehensively, worries of taxi kidnappings, left in the middle of nowhere, all our things stolen, disturbed my internal dialogue, but I asked, “how much to Granada?”
“Vamos con tigo,” I said. This turned out to be an excellent choice.
We passed through the final checkpoint without a second glance and were quickly guided into our taxi. A fight threatened to break out over us, so our taxi driver hurried us along.
Digression: once in a town between Samarkand, Uzbekistan and Bukhara a fight broke out between three taxi drivers, slugging it out, bloody noses and all, over me, a lone traveler trying to get to Bukhara. This was a serious moment in Nicaragua and I was happy to see it pass without violence.)
All of the sudden Granada felt possible.
Rivas was a blur of light—the baseball stadium lit up the humid jungle night. Rivas versus Chinandega. An American was playing for Rivas, Ty Williams, which is all I understood from the radio blasting out beisbol in Spanish.
The wind farm on the Lago de Nicaragua whirled and whirred in the deep tropical night, providing precious low cost, eternal energy to a very poor country. The moon hung over the lake—the island of Ometepe’s dueling volcanoes crouching with fierce potential power in the shadowy night. We turned off the main highway. East into more darkness. And then even more, as the Mombacho volcano blotted out the moon and stars. I nodded off, sleepy and exhausted.
A horse in the road.
And then the Plaza Colones.
Tonight I would sleep in Granada.
Nota Bene: As always, the most recent photos can be found in the full set, here.> The most recent upload start here and moves forward. Enjoy!
(Consider a tip if the mood strikes you.)