Monday, September 26, 2005

Hotel Mansion Teodolinda, Managua, Nicaragua

I said earlier cars come to Mexico to die a slow death. More accurate would be that they come down here to start a new life. Cars and trucks that we in the U.S. have long forgotten, are down here still rolling along (under their own power, or not). Thirty-year-old cars are common. I would guess that fifteen years is about the average.

The pollution in cities is amazing, as buses and trucks belch thick black clouds of exhaust. I can feel my lungs tighten and the rising urgency to escape these unhealthy environs.

Out on the road, truckers honk and wave as we pass each other. People seem to cheer me on. (Jeez, I'm feeling like Lance Armstrong! Okay, perhaps that's a stretch.) I stopped at a gas station in El Paraiso, just down the street from a school. Kids in uniform were streaming into the street. Several came to look at the motorcycle, and regard me with curiosity. They just stood close around. They didn’t seem to be looking for a hand-out, as first I suspected. I sifted through my tank bag and found the zip-lock bag of candy and gum, and opened it for them to help themselves. They stayed around until I left.

From Tegucigalpa to the Nicaragua border, the roads were rough, with many pot holes. For the last couple miles, I passed a solid line of trucks parked on both sides of the shoulder, most pointed toward Tegucigalpa, but some towards Nicaragua as well. Drivers were out talking in small groups.

“What’s going on here? A strike?” I drove on through, as some whooped and hollered. As the only vehicle approaching the border, I noticed a motley group converging on me, waving arms and shouting out directions. I looked for the “official” among them. He had a light blue uniform shirt and an I.D. hung from his neck. I focused on him. He pointed me toward the immigration office. But within moments, the money changers and tramitadores were there to assist.

Took my time getting out of my gear, doing everything intentionally. Then turned to the money changer and asked his rate. 16.30 Cordoba per dollar. Last I checked (a few days ago), that was nearly the bank rate. I bought $100 worth. I shrugged off the tramitadores (they wear official badges here identifying them as such!) I wanted to see if I could do this myself. Still, one stuck with me like a shadow, always there to point me to the next step.

This border crossing was neatly organized and very civil. The Honduran and Nicaraguan immigration officials share the same office. First you see the Honduran official to formerly exit Honduras, then he hands your passport to the Nicaraguan official seated next to him. (I begin to worry as I see the Honduran stamp take up another full page of my passport. That’s two pages for this puny country! I may have to apply for a new passport down the road if there is not enough room for future immigration stamps.)

Paid a $3.00 exit fee in U.S. dollars, then a $7.00 Nicaraguan immigration fee, also in U.S. dollars. Only received a receipt for the exit fee – and that said $2. I didn’t press the issue. It was a minor cost, and I was ready to move on. At the Nicaraguan customs office, they filled out some documents, handed me a copy, then said I was free to go. Mounting the bike, an old woman with a young girl at her side came over to beg for a hand-out. I looked at the girl as if to ask, “should I give in to this scam?” She gave me a big grin. So I handed the old lady a few coins. I also gave the tramitadore a couple dollars though his service was not really required.

Across the border, the road was great, as nice as any two-lane highway in the States, winding through the mountains in nice sweeping curves. The land too seemed cleaner, evidence perhaps of more respect.

It was one of those cool rainy days, similar in feel to that day I drove across West Virginia. A different kind of rain, the sky blanketed in a thick gray stratus layer, not the cumulonimbus clouds that are part of the daily cycle in the tropics.

Managua was right on the edge of all the rain, and when I rolled into this crazy city, it was actually dry. So many people on the streets (and IN the streets) trying to make a buck. Not a place I felt real comfortable riding an expensive motorcycle. It elicited the usual shouts of approval though.

Scrambling for a hotel as night fell, I found two that were business hotels, and quite out of my range (over $100!) At the second, a gentleman offered to lead me to a more reasonable hotel. This one, at $65, is also a business hotel, but a little less luxurious. The rooms actually offer much more than I need, including kitchenettes.

One of the staff recommended Dona Aida for dinner. I made an attempt to find it, but then gave up and instead went to a little place that caught my eye earlier: Kahlua Café. Remembering my obligation to Mr. Shaw, tried the Tuña cerveza.

Sad news from my friends and former co-workers in California. Marcia Andrews and Ray Garassino passed away recently, both from cancer. They had only been gone from Robert Mondavi a short while, beginning new lives. I keep hearing the wise counsel "never postpone what truly must be done. We never know how much time has been allotted."

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