Day 12, Nicaragua
North of Liberia, Costa Rica, the countryside is drier and more sparsely populated. This is ranching country. The quality of housing rapidly deteriorates and for the last ten miles to the Nicaraguan border, disintegrates virtually to shacks.
I stop in La Cruz, CR for gas and ride through town. The main street is paved and filled with people. All other streets are dirt.
Nothing prepares you for the border crossing to Nicaragua, although it was actually easier than I expected. I'd read about it, talked to others about it, and was prepared for the worst. The Costa Rican side is shabby and jammed with people. A group of eight to ten young kids surround my bike, pulling at my and the bike, jabbering away in Spanish, trying to get my attention. They want to guide my through the border formalities. Everything except my sleeping bag is locked down, and at ninety degrees they are welcome to that. I know I need to select two - one to watch the bike and the other to lead me through the maze of red tape that is the exit from Costa Rica. "Who can tell me what's 7 + 7?" I ask in English. There is silence. "Who speaks English?" I ask. Again there is silence. I quickly deduce that nobody speaks English and so select two at random. The younger will watch the bike. Upon selection he takes control, and firmly stands by the red Guzzi, waving off the remaining eight. They obey.
My guide, by uttering universal words like "passporte" and "licensia," and pointing, pulls me from line to line as I unload colones (the local currency) in large quantities for various taxes and fees, and get my documents stamped. A crowd of at least 100 presses through the various lines with me, but in a half hour I'm on my way across 100 meters of no-man's land, Antonio (who appears to be the leader of the gaggle of ten young men clawing for both my attention and, money for dinner, I might add) sprinting along beside me, to Nicaraguan Customs.
Although an extremely poor country, Nicaragua is much better organized in a quite new, and strangely out-of-place building. The two men who guard it with automatic weapons are proudly wearing "Wackenhut" uniforms. Remembering that Wackenhut also employs the baggage screeners at Seattle's airport, and still mindful of the weapons they posses, I hope they are better trained. I smile a lot and they smile back. Antonio leads me through eight stations where I either get a form or get another stamped, and after a 1/2 hours I'm in Nicaragua. Antonio gets $15 US for his work. I true bargain, I might add, for my side.
Antonio tells me not to miss the old colonial city of Grenada, and having also been urged to do so by my guidebooks, I continue on for about 75 miles on fairly good road, beautiful Lake Nicaragua with its twin volcanic islands, just on my right. It is very hot - perhaps 100 degrees.
I turn the bike into a very old and incredibly shabby version of New Orleans French Quarter and into the most appalling urban poverty I have ever encountered. Concrete and corrugated tin shanties, connected to each other in long rows and apparently without either doors or windows, line dirt streets. Dilapidated buildings of unknown use surround the square, as usual containing both a park and a splendid cathedral. I see a hotel and fervently hope that I won't need to stay there.
In a maze of one-way streets, a few blocks from the square and just a mile from the highway, I promptly get lost. The pothole-filled streets I drive on have markets in crude open-air shacks, lining each cross street. I could head back to the square (to get my bearings) by making two either right or left-hand turns, but given the squalor and in my mind, the real fear of never seeing America again, I can't make myself turn the bike. As my emotions move from concern to something bordering on fear, a brand new Shell gas station appears from the malaise. I stop, although getting has is not an immediate need. It just looks safe. I ask for directions, but my Spanish fails me, and not a word of English is spoken. A middle-aged man in a terribly beat-up Toyota pickup engages me in rapid-fire conversation about 18 inches from my face. I don't comprehend even one word. To his credit, he smiles a lot.
I'm ready to leave without directions when a small motorbike appears, and the pillion rider, in perfect English asks, "are you an American?" Duh....or from Mars. I answer in the affirmative and immediately ask for directions to Masaya, a small town about twenty miles away that's on the Pan-American Highway. "Turn right in another block" he says, "hen right again at the cemetery." I remember the stunning cemetery, with its white-stone crypts really more of a very tranquil small village than an actual cemetery, and that an intersection nearby leads me to the main road. A quick thank you and I'm off, but not before the unknown young man explains his fluency in English is from six years in New Orleans. I make a mental note to thank whoever bought him the airline ticket back to Grenada, Nicaragua.
With nothing more serious than driving the wrong way on a way-way street and two wrong turns, I let the Guzzi take its lead and head for Esteli, where I've determined I'll spend the night. The road improves and as I ride through high desert reminiscent of Nevada or northern Arizona, I am overwhelmed by the poverty of Nicaragua.
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