Costa Rica

The company took a trip to Costa Rica together for some team building & sun (mainly sun, because winter in Pittsburgh can be cold).

Though I was a little tired of traveling having just returned from India a few days ago, it was great to spend 4 days lazing around and taking it easy. We stayed at the Westin in Playa Conchal. 

I devoured a couple of good books in my room and ordered a lot of room service (we were staying in a package type hotel, with food & drinks included in the room rate). I also managed to find time to watch the Republican primary debates with my roommate, André.

Though I was tempted to just laze in the room, we were at a beach resort after all. I made time to venture out a few times and enjoy the beach and pool, in addition to participating in the company team-building activities.

This was pretty much one of the only photos I took during the trip (I made it incumbent upon myself to disconnect from email and didn't bring my phone out from the room):

The beach outside our resort.

The beach outside our resort.

But thanks to my co-worker Hideki, I have a couple more great photos:

We took a beginner surfing class. I'd love to do it again someday -- it was a ton of fun. The hardest part wasn't standing up on the surfboard, but getting back into the ocean after surfing closer to the shore. (Photo credit: Hideki)

We took a beginner surfing class. I'd love to do it again someday -- it was a ton of fun. The hardest part wasn't standing up on the surfboard, but getting back into the ocean after surfing closer to the shore. (Photo credit: Hideki)

The resort had many resident creatures. This must be the most adorable thing ever. (Photo credit: Hideki)

The resort had many resident creatures. This must be the most adorable thing ever. (Photo credit: Hideki)

Nicaragua: Final Reflections

It has been two weeks since I left Nicaragua, and I've finally found time to pen the final post in this series, an overall reflection of sorts.

Traveling in Nicaragua was a real adventure for me. I spent a year before college backpacking around the world by myself, so I'm no stranger to traveling alone, but this short trip of just 35 days was exhilarating just the same. I traversed the entire country, visiting Granada, Isle de Ometepe, San Carlos, El Castillo, San Juan de Nicaragua, Juigalpa, Managua, Great Corn Island, Leon, Matagalpa, Esteli and finally Masaya.

I engaged with nature in as many ways as I could, kayaking down pristine, jungle-laced rivers, trekking up volcanoes, riding horses across grassy fields, hiking through cloud forests and even skinny dipping in a deserted crater lake.

I also got more than my fair dose of urbanity, visiting several towns and cities. I drank one of the best cups of coffee in my life at Matagalpa, visited cathedrals in Leon, and admired colorful mural paintings in Esteli.

But it was the people that left the deepest impression on me. They were incredibly genuine, warm and friendly. I have never felt so welcome in a foreign country before. Everywhere, people waved and said hi, and were curious to learn more about me and my culture. At first, I couldn't even understand their questions. But being fully immersed in a country does help one pick up a language quickly, and by the time I was about to leave, I was able to speak halting Spanish without resorting to too many hand gestures.

From the friendly demeanor of the people I met, I wouldn't have been able to tell just how hard their lives were. But everywhere I went, I was confronted with widespread poverty in the form of homeless people, torn clothing and slums. Almost 80% of Nicaraguans live below US$2 a day, and the country's infrastructure is inadequate and crumbling. Perhaps it is most telling that 1 block away from the plaza at the heart of the capital Managua, was a large ghetto, beset by problems such as poverty, crime and violence, and where I saw shuttered storefronts and fires burning in the middle of the street in broad daylight.

Traveling in Nicaragua has made me even more thankful of where I am today. When I was in a taxi in Managua, I saw a young boy, who must have been no older than 6, furiously dashing from car to car with a bucket of soapy water and a cloth in his hand, working hard at scrubbing the windshields of cars stopping at a busy intersection in the city. It was noon and baking hot and I couldn't help but wonder why he wasn't at school. Maybe he didn't have a chance to go to school? Maybe he's not old enough to go to school yet? Whatever the case, there he was, sunburnt, working hard and sweating profusely, at the tender age of 6. And he was also barefoot.

I beckoned for the boy to come over and pressed a US$1 bill into his palm. He looked at me confusingly for half a second before a huge smile spread across his face. Then he jumped in happiness and ran back to his mother, who was also hard at work on the median strip, selling bottled water to passing motorists. The little boy waved the $1 bill high above his head, the picture of George Washington fluttering in the air. Still smiling, he described to his mother what had just happened and pointed excitedly to me.

I guess I should have waved back. But I didn't; I was deep in thought.

I've led a sheltered life since I was born, had access to good education, and never had to work to support my family. Like many in my generation, I never had to worry about getting by in life. And there I was, in one of the poorest countries in the world, making the day of a little boy just by giving him a US$1 bill. It almost felt too easy.

The lights turned green and as our taxi drove off, I turned back for a last glance. The boy was still smiling and pointing at me.

Nicaragua Day 11-12: Around Ometepe

After breakfast, I walked along quiet rural roads lined with farms baking under the hot sun, with gorgeous picture-perfect views of Volcan Concepcion. Found my way to Charco Verde. It was a peaceful, quiet pond with waters lapping against the shore and perpetual cool breezes with Volcan Madeiras topped by clouds in the background. The sun's rays reflected off shimmering waters. The entire scene, with the volcano in the background, looked like a tropical version of a vista of Mount Fuji.

I gave a little kid C$5, and was regretting doing so, fretting that it might encourage begging in Ometepe, which currently doesn't exist. Thankfully the kid volunteered to be my guide up to the Mirador del Diablo, so I didn't feel so bad.

I really enjoyed the time I spent with this shirtless, scrawny, tanned 12-year old who spoke with a lot of confidence. If only I could understand what he was saying in Spanish. Mirador del Diablo was nice, with an okay view, though its nothing to write home about.

A bunch of Americans ascended after me, and were complaining loudly. A middle-aged woman in a blue sleeveless top said loudly how surprised she was that "this park" was so undeveloped, and had no gentle meandering path up through the forest but instead had such a steep, direct climb. Felt above it all and strangely fit as I sat there with the little kid. I gave him C$100, a pencil, packet of 1/2-eaten banana chips and a bottle of water.

Later, I hitchhiked my way to Altagracia on a succcession of 3 vehicles. It was cool to sit in the back of an open-top pickup, feel the wind blowing through my hair and see the sights along the way instead of squeezing in another old creaky schoolbus.

The afternoon wasn't spent as pleasantly. I waited to buy ferry tickets and then waited to board the ferry. The entire process took about 5 hours, and it was horrible. It was in a dusty, small settlement in the corner of nowhere surrounded by flies and rubbish. Fortunately I had some good company, including an old British couple (the husband is 81 years old) who are spending their retirement traveling the world. They said the friendliest place they had visited was China, and that they wouldn't mind living there. It's interesting hearing that because as a Singaporean, I have had different experiences in China.

Trekked the 2km back into town for some grub. Disappointing. Nicaraguan food, except vigoron in Granada's parque central, fried chicken at Tip-Top, Lucila's cooking and that fish dinner at Posada Chico Largo, seems to always turn out disappointing. The variety is small, and the meat is always overcooked. The meat was so tough that you could clobber someone on the head with it. Ugh. I miss Asian food. Next time I travel, I'll go to some place famous for its food.

Nicaragua Day 10: Volcano Concepcion

Climbed Volcano Concepcion on Monday. Had a very greasy breakfast of an omelet which cost C$50 (US$2.30 or so). It was more like an extremely deep-fried and salty egg with toppings, dripping in oil.

Concepcion was a good experience. I gave the guide, Carlos, C$500 for about 5 hours, a pretty reasonable sum I'd say. He first drove me on a motorcycle to the trailhead. Then we walked along a relatively flat, tree-shaded path lined with farms and ranches on both sides. Occasionally a cowboy (dressed the part too) with a few heads of cattle would pass us by. This was an extremely shady and picturesque trail, and I enjoyed it. We stopped at an extremely gigantic and old tree that was buried half-deep by the lava flow in what was apparently 1946 if my Spanish was correct.

Then we started ascending through great, pristine, untouched forest with no rubbish in sight. Make no mistake, this doesn't look like a primary rainforest though. There is evidence of some human activity, just that it's very clean and free of unsightly plastic bags and the like. Saw wild banana trees and lots of tangly vines and roots which we used as useful supports for going up. It was tough, I wouldn't lie. Took several breaks and wondered where the climb would end. My thighs were sore and I still felt a bit weak after that bout of dengue fever a couple of days ago.

Tree cover became sparser and sparser as we went up. Tree height decreased and the layers of vegetation thinned too. Finally, we emerged out of the tree line into a very windy slope sparsely covered in grass.

This was it. We had reached the end-point. 1300m out of about 1600m, the height of the volcano. We weren't allowed to go any further because of toxic gases and the fact that the last part involves dangerous scrambling up loose volcanic rock against what seemed to be gale-force winds. I'm glad we stopped there though. You see, I was tired and the sight of the peak, looming high above, was pretty discouraging.

Took the public bus back to Moyogalpa. And like all public bus trips, this one was crowded and full of colorful local characters. Had a great, clean shower and then took the bus again, a crowded experience, to Charco Verde.

Accomodation was pretty fully-occupied there because it was peak season, so I had no choice but to cough up the US$15 Hostal Chico Largo was asking for a dorm bed in a terrible room, including dinner and breakfast. I was angry that they blatantly charged so much more than the going rate (which was about US$4, without any food, and food doesn't cost that much here anyway). The shower did not even have a strong enough water flow for any substantial washing of one's body. Thankfully I had already showered. Had already made up my mind to be a mindful consumer and write something about this on TripAdvisor when I saw the sunset.

My worries and frustration melted away as I stared at the amazing orange hue of the evening sky and its reflection on the calm waters of the lake. Coupled with the frequent strong breezes and an almost ethereal light, I was starting to see why this is called a 'magical island'.

Dinner was pretty good too. It was substantial and definitely worth at least US$5. Really fresh fish and other tasty morsels. And it appeared that I was going to have the entire dorm to myself, so really, I got a private room with the price I paid.

Morning. Wow. Strong breezes and magical light moments again. Volcan Concepcion, just seemingly behind the hostel, never looked so incredible. And I saw lots of birdlife, in assorted colors (blue birds, yellow birds, and white big ones - ok, I need to brush up on my knowledge of bird species), flying from tree to tree, darting along the waterfront mangroves. Beautiful. It was another one of those 'million dollar view for a couple of US dollars' moment in Nicaragua that seem to happen so often along this trip.

Nicaragua Day 3: Having the Entire Crater to Myself (well, almost)

Swam naked in a 200m deep, 200 centuries old lake today.

After a mind-boggling morning of Spanish regular and irregular verb conjugations, I needed some adventure and adrenaline. Thought about cycling out to the Peninsula de Asese, which according to trusty old Lonely Planet, is "one of the cleanest swimming spots around". Unfortunately, the bike rental shop told me that it wasn't safe, and robbers lay waiting along secluded stretches of the road waiting to prey on unsuspecting, loaded tourists.

So I decided to cycle to the Laguna de Apoyo instead. Was taking a risk by doing so, because I didn't ask anyone if it was accessible on bike and safe to go to. I'm glad I went though, because it was one of those experiences that remind me why I travel. I'm not one to sugercoat my travel memories and erase unhappy encounters, but really, almost everything was so perfect that I'm thankful I decided to go.

Started off a dirt path from the cemetery southwest of the city center, and soon was cycling through some seriously impoverished and rundown slums. Now I understand why its said that about 75% of Nicaraguans live on below US$2 a day. The dirt road degraded into an extremely uneven, bumpy surface covered with dust, and I was worried I might not make it to the lake in good time. But even though I was surrounded by poverty, the Nicas (Nicaraguans) were all extremely friendly. They smiled and waved 'hola' at me, the odd Asian guy who seemed to hail from another planet. I kept going, and part of the way a German woman in her 40s caught up to me and we rode together all the way to the lake. She's pretty interesting, because she studied language and business economics in college, and now works in London. We motivated each other and the trip suddenly became much easier.

After some time, we arrived, soaked with sweat, at the top of the crater where we parked our bikes and hiked down 15 minutes to the lagoon. The views were splendid, as you can tell from the picture. The lagoon was HUGE and except for a house perched faraway atop the slope, there was nothing that reminded me of civilization. Lush forests blanketed the hillsides, eventually giving way to the clearest, cleanest, calmest body of water I've ever seen.

German woman swam off to join her friends in a corner of the lagoon (her friends took a different route here), and I had pretty much everywhere else to myself. It wasn't at all possible to swim across/around the lagoon, so I just stayed by the side in the water near the mangrove trees, and enjoyed the cool water and hot sunshine. And because I've always wanted to do this ever since I saw Ian Wright do it on the Travel Channel, I took off all my clothes and jumped in completely naked (the Germans were far enough that they were just little specks in my vision). It was extremely refreshing, and if the first two days didn't do enough to ease me into the travelling, relaxed mood, I've now achieved that state, a state pretty close to nirvana.

Time passed too quickly and soon it was time to head back. German woman and I (alright, I admit I forgot her name :P) took another route back. This was still a dirt path but much wider and smoother, and we breezed downhill through beautiful scenery in a great bike ride. It was that magical moment in the late afternoon when the sun casts long shadows and a golden hue on the landscape. Along the way we even passed a herd of approximately 10 cows. They were moving along the road in an orderly, disciplined fashion! Probably trained to go back every evening to the farm they came from. 

Rode through a busy, bustling streetside market on my way back to return the bike. And as always, it was bursting with energy, color and smiles, just like the people of this amazing country.

Nicaragua Day 1: Arrival

Its great to finally walk out into 80 degree temperatures and its wonderful to feel the humidity in the air, sticking to your skin (maybe I should explain - I'm from tropical Singapore). Three hours into arriving at Nicaragua, I can say its been good so far. Uneventful, actually, which comes as a bit of a pleasant surprise after what all my friends have warned me about. Backpacking alone in a country like Nicaragua for 34 nights sounded like a recipe for kidnapping, organ theft or robbery to almost about anyone I shared my travel plans with.

I've checked into a nice hostel called Hospedaje La Libertad in the city of Granada (I chose to bypass the capital Managua and head straight to this city). Its only US$5 a night for a dorm bed, and though my vision might be slightly impaired by the darkness, it looks gorgeous so far. There's a bar next to a central courtyard surrounded by plenty of hammocks and rocking chairs for travellers to chill. Lovely bright colorful tiles, thatched roofs, leafy shrubs and free wifi complete the deal. And so, I sit here on my first night in Nicaragua, a tasty empanada in my tummy, fresh after a refreshing shower, content and at peace with the world.