Stepping Outside One’s Comfort Zone

Most tourists do not see Nicaragua outside the centres of old cities, where visitors sip their cappuccinos in pleasant cafes in refurbished colonial buildings. Most probably they never realize that half the population earn less per day than the cost of the coffee. As cycle tourists we see a little more, especially when using dirt roads. But the truth is the roads we travel on are the arteries of the economy, and those that live on them are comparatively well off.

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My $1.30 morning cappuccino

I have to thank Colin, my brother-in-law, for arranging for us to visit an amazing school, in a migrant slum in Granada. This is where the poorest of the poor live, and earning a dollar a day is only a dream. The vast majority of the buildings have dirt floors, perhaps 20% are of cement construction, and most are little more than tin shacks. The inhabitants are too poor to live in single family units, so extended families live together and support each other. But the people here are proud, clothes are clean, and in the vast majority of dwellings that dirt floor is swept several times a day: It’s a clean dirt floor. The first thing done when the dwelling is established is to dig the outhouse.

I don’t generally take photos of poverty, I find something morally wrong with doing so. But I sneaked one picture because I knew my description would fail to bring home the situation without photographic evidence.

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Residence. The outhouse is a the bottom of the garden just out of the picture to the left.

The state school system in Nicaragua was really only setup in this century. There are not enough buildings so children only go to school for half days. There are not enough text books so students have to write everything down. Many children go to school hungry, and it is difficult to learn when you are hungry. Teachers are in short supply, so you only need a grade eight education to be a teacher. Without additional help, students have little hope of improving their lot in life.

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Casa de los Sueños

Within a stone’s throw of that residence is the school, Casa de los Sueños. It is a beacon of hope, staffed by people with a moral code I can only aspire to. I would be happy to place my own child in this school. We sat in on a lesson and saw first hand these children being taught critical thinking. It was impressive beyond words. The library was bigger than at the state school our daughter attended in France. Children are given what we would take for granted: food, drinking water, access to flush toilets, and school supplies. All provided by donations.

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Artwork

We helped in the classroom, but it became evident that we would better to relieve the teachers of other duties. So today we arrived at 8 a.m. to re-paint the welcome sign to the school. This wall was south facing, and the previous tiled sign had fallen off because of the heat. So we prepared the wall and then with ad-hoc help from the students the new sign was painted. No child got paint on their clothes, and they took turns under our edict of only three painters at a time.

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Painting the sign

The resulting sign is not a thing of particular beauty. With suitable materials a much superior quality sign could be made… anybody want to rise to the challenge?

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Nicaragua

2017/02/06: Chinandega 76 km
2017/02/07: Leon 45 km

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I was surprised to find out that the satellite dish is connected to a large flat screen monitor, inside a straw hut with no sides.

The first 14 km from Potosi was on dirt road through farmland. There were plenty of animals to dodge, mainly cattle being moved to their day’s grazing locations. The hotel we found in Chinandega was basic with “no hot water”, but what came out of the tap was more than warm enough for us in this weather.
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Horses use the bike paths

The day to Leon was even hotter, but we arrived before noon at the relatively fancy hotel Chris had booked. We found a café half a block away where we became more or less regulars.

2017/02/08-09: In Leon
Chris’s front derailleur had bitten the dust on our last day in El Salvador; it was ten years old and the spring had broken. We’d inquired about bike repairs upon arrival in Leon, and set out on our first day in town to the location we’d been directed to. It was an area of stalls geared to keeping local utility bikes moving. A friendly fellow installed a new front derailleur on Chris’s bike (definitely NOT Shimano) for a very affordable 150 cordobas. He even donated a rag to the cause of our next chain cleaning session.

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Fitted while you wait and act as a bike stand

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Returning the bikes to a storage room at the hotel, we set out to the Revolution Museum. Along with a couple from Montreal, we were given a considered account of recent Nicaraguan history as we toured black and white photos and memorabilia inside a former college building. At the end of the tour we were taken to the roof of the building so as to put key revolutionary events that happened here into perspective. We walked carefully on rusting corrugated metal panels, and avoided leaning on crumbling concrete railings as we admired the view.

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View from the roof of the Our Lady of Grace Cathedral, León

On our second day in Leon, we spent the morning at the art gallery Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdian viewing works of a wide range of Latin American artists. This is likely the most comprehensive collection of modern Latin American art in the world, set in two grand colonial buildings.

2017/02/10: Managua 57 km
We knew the ride to Managua was over 90 km, so we got up well before dawn. I managed to step on the night watchman who was sleeping on the floor in the dark storage room where our bikes were parked. Poor fellow!

It was a hot and windy ride. The rolling terrain that we rode across was scrubby grazing land with few tall trees to slow the headwinds and side gusts that buffeted us. We were each pushed off the pavement into the shoulder several times. After consideration of the likelihood of being pushed the other way into trucks, we decided to wait at a bus stop and get a ride to Managua on the next chicken bus.

We helped heave our fully loaded bikes in the back door, and sat near them. Even as the bus became more crowded, no one complained about our bikes blocking the aisle and making some seats hard to reach while passengers stood. As a woman got out of her seat to disembark, something inside her shoulder bag poked its beak out and squawked loudly, proving we were indeed on a chicken bus. The conductor collected the grand sum of 120 cordobas from us as we disembarked at a hectic terminal, and we braved incredible traffic for a short way and collapsed into a hotel.

2017/02/11: Granada 52 km
We ate the hotel’s included breakfast at 6:30 a.m., and set out relatively late. The ride out of Managua was a series of sharp ascents on a six lane highway with traffic of all sizes and speeds including horse-drawn carts. We stopped at a café when we felt we were almost half way, and scarfed tres leches cake with our coffee. As we were leaving, we greeted, a group of road cyclists decked in Lycra and logos who had just pulled in. Chris suggested I ask them about the road ahead. There are times when simply being self- propelled on two wheels creates instant kinship, but this wasn’t one of those times. They were all male twenty somethings. I think our greyness and my gender offended their fragile machismo.

We’ve reached Granada and settled ourselves into the Casa del Agua hostel where Chris had made reservations. One of us has already dutifully cleaned and lubed her bike chain. And we’ve arranged to visit the school for migrants on Monday.

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Excitement of the day: click on image for movie

Speaking of our greyness, there are two memorable roadside comments we received in El Salvador:

The day we entered the country, someone called out ”¡Abuelita sportiva!” at me. Well, I can take “Sporty granny” a whole lot better than “Gringo”. And on our final day, a child shouted out “¡Papa Noel!” at Chris. His beard has grown long and is mainly white.

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Sugar Cane Harvest

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Freshly crushed can on hard shoulder, old cane debris in gutter


For the ride through the lowlands of Guatemala and El Salvador a constant aspect has been the sugar cane harvest. The side of the road is strewn with mainly squashed canes, and a slightly fermented smell prevails. Trucks laden with canes pass frequently, and men work with machetes in the fields. There are even small trucks clearing the roads of un-squashed sugar canes, in much the same way as there are log salvagers on the coast of British Columbia.

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Machete equiped workers

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A loaded double trailer

Crossing from El Salvador to Nicaragua

2017/02/05: La Union, El Salvador, to Potosi, Nicaragua

Consider crossing Barkley Sound from Ucluelet to Bamfield in a considerable wind

When we first agreed on making the crossing, the boat operator had urged us to hurry to the immigration office so we could set out before the winds picked up. Off we went to find it closed. We sat on the steps for almost three hours, and periodically the would-be boat operator or one of his mates would get news of what the officer might be doing, or when he might arrive to open the office. He finally appeared. Our passports and the boat operator’s license to transport us were photocopied to create a document allowing us to proceed, and our passports were stamped.

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No pictures of crossing itself due to terrified passengers hanging on for dear life

In a rising wind, our bags and bikes were loaded into the skiff, covered with a plastic tarp, and secured with ropes. Gasoline was purchased an loaded aboard. We set off, and soon our knuckles were white from gripping the gunwhales as we crashed downward after cresting each wave. The anchor was placed on top of our gear to hold the flapping tarp, and there was a metallic thunking sound as we descended from each crest. Chris remarked that at least we’d never worry again when entrusting boxed bikes to baggage handlers.

The driver pointed out Meanguera del Golfo as we passed the disputed island now deemed to belong to El Salvador. As we approached a spit of Nicaraguan land, he paused …either as if he was unaware of the port’s location, or as if he was testing us. Chris pulled out his cell phone with gps capability, and directed him onward. Then a boatload of Nicaraguan border personnel pulled alongside, to inspect our documents and cargo. After over two hours of battering travel, we finally landed on a black sand beach.

The volcanic sand was hot as blazes. We had bare feet to get out of the boat and move bikes and bags up the beach. Chris put shoes on with sandy feet, but I didn’t and I have never done such a fast high step to get to the immigration office. I was yelping to get them to open the gate because it felt like walking on hot coals. When I got to the women’s toilet, the fastest way to cool my feet was to dip them into the toilet bowl, so I did.

After filling in forms and paying a $12 entrance fee at immigration, we mounted bags onto the bikes. Our gear was inspected by a customs officer, first at the office and later at a gate, as we pushed our bikes up the concrete slab. To our surprised relief, we’d arrived unscathed, and we moved on to something like a motel, a simple place run by a cheerful pair of animal lovers who welcomed us. Chris carelessly parked his bike under the perching parrots, and realized his mistake when they saw what they did to his bike.

This boat crossing meant we missed two or three days in somewhat sketchy Honduras, and would also put us on a nice quiet road for a day. Chris’s first Nicaraguan beer arrived in an insulated sleeve to keep it from warming too quickly. Yes, it was hot. Possibly hotter than El Salvador.

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Final Days in El Salvador

La Libertad to La Union

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We are generally heading east which means we are cycling into  the sun every morning

2017/02/02: Zacatecoluca 55 km

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Women are often wearing frilly aprons and white kerchiefs. We wonder if their kerchiefs have any ethnic or religious significance.

We had a pleasant juice stop at a farmers’ market, with a good chat with the man selling shrimps.

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Indoor market stall

The only hotel option in Zacatecoluca was La Zona Auto Hotel, a unique experience for us in all our travels. We entered a private and well guarded courtyard, off which there were curtained parking stalls with a room beside each. The rooms have lots of mirrors, including on the ceiling, and some rather odd looking furniture. These are “love hotels”, normally rented for three hours at a time. We made a deal for the afternoon and night, having ridden since 6 a.m.. It was cleaner had better sheets and towels than anything seen since Antigua, with wifi and air conditioning. I’m sure we’re not the first cyclists to stay in such a place.

2017/02/03: Usualatan 60 km
The ride was flat and uneventful. We leapt at the rare chance to have a bath in our hotel, and soon got a phone call to say the bath had leaked to the floor below. We switched rooms.

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Constant reminders that we are following the Ring of Fire.

2017/02/04: El Carao 48 km
A highlight was meeting two cyclists coming the other way, and stopping for a good natter and cold drinks. Luci had ridden from her home Brazil and Gunver, from Germany, had started in Ushuaia. Each of these young women had been travelling solo till they met and teamed up a few weeks ago. They had been expecting to meet us, after spending the previous night with Jose, the stellar Warmshowers host we were on our way to meet.

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Luci and Gunver with Margo.

Jose is a delightful man, the father of two young children here in El Salvador, and an older daughter in Montreal, where he lived from when he was 13 till 2003. That year he cycled from Montreal to El Salvador in response to a bet made in a bar in Montreal! He and I quickly decided it was best to communicate in French. He gave us key information for getting across the Gulf of Fonseca by boat, which would get us directly to Nicaragua without crossing Honduras, and keep us on smaller roads.

Jose was busy moving construction materials, but lent us a car to drive to the nearby beach down a rough road dodging some large pigs. At the beach café a family arrived and a woman in American looking attire began to tap her feet happily and sing aloud to the music. We felt we’d learned to pick out jubilant returning expats, of which she was one of many. We slept in a completed but unfurnished room of the motel Jose is building to a high standard.

2017/02/05: La Union 43 km
We set out at dawn, because we understood there was the chance of a collective boat leaving to cross the gulf at around 9 a.m.. Jose had told us the likely price for crossing with bikes in such a boat. However, on arriving by 9 at the port, we were informed there was no boat expected to leave till Wednesday – and that departure was far from certain. An enterprising boatman quoted a price for a custom crossing. We considered his US$200 to be fair for a journey of two hours each way, and agreed. We were tired from our early ride, and guzzled Coke as we extracted the last US$ from the seat-post of Chris’s bicycle. The driver wanted to leave promptly before the wind rose, and whisked us to the immigration office for an exit stamp. The office was closed.

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