Photos after the text.
I understand now how Central America sorta blurs together in others' accounts. The countries are distinct, yet somehow you're in the middle of the next before the previous has finished. One day you're on top of the world in Guatemala beholding the beauty of a neighboring volcano, and the next, at sea level, queasy, contemplating if eating strictly El Salvadorian street food is really the answer to your digestive woes. And then, seemingly overnight, and actually in the night, you're traversing international waters on a supermoon cruise, fixated on an invisibly black horizon line, bypassing Honduras altogether. It was off to the left somewhere. And then, as we watched our initial claim of Columbia by Christmas become glaringly unrealistic, we settled for the slightly less catchy Nicaragua for the new year. Portland to penguins loves its alliteration. And just as I'm getting around to finally writing a post about Central America in its entirety, Costa Rica has come and gone and I'm perched on Dory's couch in Panama, with a dental cleaning on the calendar, guzzling water from the tap, and it feels the closest to home of anywhere.
1) "Supermoon cruise," although seemingly romantic, was actually just the seafood cargo boat we waited three days for that finally set sail in the black of night, illuminated only by the larger-than-normal moon.
2) Murder rate aside, we've heard positive things about Honduras. Our choice to bypass an entire country made sense as the alternative would have just nipped the bottom corner of the country. Two days on the Pan American Highway and not much else. Hardly counts as seeing a place.
3) Dory = mom
And now, from Panama, our final North American country, it feels fitting to report on some of Central America's highs/lows/whoas before crossing into South America, the home stretch.*
* We're not even half way.
Due to a pair of budget tamales, crossing into El Salvador was way harder than it needed to be. The bargain breakfast consequences unleashed on me first. Fitting as it was my famous(ly stupid) last words that haunted us for almost a week after wolfing down the banana leaf-wrapped morsels. I don't recall the exact phrasing, but I do remember using Spaghettios as a positive descriptor rather than the waving red flag it ought to be. Blinding hunger impairs judgement. Faux-pasta-flavor flashbacks still make my mouth water. And that viscous texture...buhhh. Aidan's symptoms lagged a day or two, but mine hit promptly the moment El Salvador came into sight. Fresh out of the highlands of Guatemala, spoiled by evenings in long sleeves and beanies, the sea-level smoldering reality of El Salvador was crushing. As the immigrations officer inspected each and every page of my passport with a thoroughness that seemed impossibly unnecessary, I glazed over as the walls closed in. Uh oh, vertigo. My jaw clenched into an obligatory smile. White knuckling the counter, an essential effort in remaining upright. Señor, please hand over my passport. Hand over my passport, please. HAND OVER MY GODDAMN PASSPORT. As the color drained from my face, 110% of my concentration shifted from charming the hand that stamps towards not projectile vomiting on the officials armed with automatic weapons. (I've since developed a systematic approach to crossing borders. Pretty groundbreaking stuff; smile, wipe the dirt off your face, maybe turn the tank inside out if it's been a particularly dusty day, fluff the helmet hair, widen the bright blues and exercise a level of Spanish just bad enough to exemplify respect and effort, but nowhere near advanced enough for anyone to actually want to have to deal with the language barrier repercussions of denying you entry.) With energy for none of the former, this particular performance left something to be desired. Either tired of seeing or smelling me, the passport was finally released. Clenching it, I pinballed back through the line to the safety of our bikes. Essentially collapsing at his feet, Aidan rushed off to a nearby tienda for "oh shit" crackers. And I laid guard, puddled on the ground, one eye on the bikes, sort of. Someone will have to navigate my sweaty, lifeless body if they want to steal anything. The unrelenting men selling currency even left me alone. And they don't leave anyone alone. Luckily, post pathetic saltine snack we were able to get moving again. Because anything is better than a border loiter. Rhyme damn it.
Our bodies would slowly normalize over the course of the next week, but I never felt quite right in El Salvador. A fish out of water. A cat in the water. Or maybe just an Alaskan too close to the equator. It was all too fitting that our exit from the country was as trying as our entrance. We'd read about boats making the crossing from El Salvador to Nicaragua, but also knew that no real schedule existed. You just sorta turn up at the dock in La Union and wing it, which requires a serious ability to just go with the flow. Sidenote: I'm not awesome at going with the flow. Regardless, we were flagged down immediately upon arrival and offered space on boat leaving in 30 minutes. Too good to be true. $200 to ride as cargo with the seafood. Exorbitant even if a 5-star seafood buffet was included, which it obviously wasn't. We decided to stay put and shop around before hopping in the first guy's boat who batted his oars at us. And boy did we show him. Three short (read long) days later, we finally hitched a cheaper ride.
La Union, El Salvador is on no one's vacay itinerary. We were warned that it's a dangerous, unpleasant place to spend time. And while that didn't seem too far-fetched, we never had any issues over the course of our 3-day holding pattern. If anything I grew to appreciate its authenticity, although raw with civil war scars. The place was edgy and conjured up nostalgic feelings of culture shock I haven't experienced since landing in Kathmandu for the first time. On our final day in La Union amidst a 10-hour immigration office loiter, uncomfortably full off a set of expanding pupusas, I noticed a woman combing through a kittycornering trash pile. I was hunkered on a different curb, somewhat camouflaged by all the encircling junk, just watching. My eyes fixated on the woman as she picked oranges, bananas and mystery bread products from the depths of the roasting, smelly heap. Front of the shin sweat. Between the boobs beads. Swampy shorts. Fuck it's hot. The mountain of garbage was actually cooking. Seemingly unphased, she deepened her dig, collecting provisions in rounds. First the quality stuff. Orange oranges and yellowish bananas. She'd occasionally disappear behind a fence and resurface with empty arms, ready to reload. Now, second tier stuff. Shriveled produce and black bananas. Back behind the fence. It wasn't until she went in for round three that I lost it. A pile of stale biscuits were scattered around the oil-slicked, urine-soaked pavement. A pack of dogs, maybe fifteen minutes prior, had all lifted their legs on the same collection of curbside cookies. Not even the mangy mutts wanted to eat them. As she plucked each individual one from the pavement, tears streamed down my face. Upset partially because we'd been waiting for three days and the anxiety of the unknown and discomfort of dehydrating my microscopic bladder in preparation for a long boat ride was wearing me down. Trying desperately to go with the flow. Thirsty, stressed, discouraged. But jesus, the dog biscuits? The whole scene struck me, and I felt almost a sense of panic to get out of El Salvador. Is it right that we are even here? Just sitting. And waiting. And watching. This place is kind of fucked up. All this while the town soundchecked a wall of 20-some speakers wide by 15-some high in preparation for a massive party later in the evening. Questioning the allocation of resources, butts tingling from an impressive sidewalk stint, sweating profusely, feeling remorseful for complaining about petty discomforts as the image of the woman harvesting garbage sunburned into my brain, it was the loudest music I've ever heard. Panic-inducing. Yeah, you guys, THE GODDAMN SPEAKERS WORK. We finally boarded the boat, and although anxious under pitch black skies, the relief of leaving simply overwhelmed any remaining reservations. Fuck it. Bon voyage. Let's do this. We told ourselves that an adequate number (or any) life jackets must just be under that pile of stuff in the bow. Mmm, hmm. Although irresponsible, it was all fine in the end, as it usually is. No pirates or capsizingings. A few hours later we arrived to Nicaragua's black sand beach in the black of night, and it all just sorta worked out.
I get why people love Nicaragua. I love Nicaragua. Although incredibly poverty-stricken, the areas we rode through were nothing short of hospitable. Reason enough to finally slow down. We made mountainous detours, gaining an obscene amount of elevation in the "wrong" cardinal direction, backtracked and generally made decisions based on what we felt like doing rather than those solely advancing our southward progression. Trading heavily trafficked roads for those more quaint, requiring only occasional livestock navigation, the country in its entirety was a breath of fresh air. And thanks to an incredibly generous friend who has invested a mammoth amount of time and energy into elevating the quality of education in the greater Tola, Nicaragua area, we had a comfortable place to ring in the new year. We spent five days in Popoyo, commuting by (unloaded) bikes a couple miles each way to the beach, surfing to our hearts' (and my body's) content and retreating back to our peaceful hillside abode each evening for home-cooked meals and hands of cards. Felt like vacation. And also served as an important reminder to give a damn. If you really love a place, then figure out how to give back to it rather than simply visiting your surf shack once a year. Hats off to you, Espen.
So often our experience of a place contrasts the advisories and/or rave reviews from others. There is danger in preconceived notions and expectations. We're very cautious when advising others where to go, and not to go. Because everyone's experience is inevitably different. We've told friends traveling by other means to go to places that they hated. High season arrived and their experience was nothing like ours. People sucked huh? But did you have the fish tacos from that place we told you about? A good plate of food is enough for us remember a place fondly. A beautiful aspect of bicycle travel is how easily we're made happy. The small stuff. Like when someone tells us we can drink the tap water. And I envision my mouth wide open under the powerful stream, chugging freely. Or when someone tells us that our Spanish is good. Because we know it's not. Or watching those blonde curls bounce as Aidan NBA-pivots his way down a crowded street in order to catch up to the tray of donuts balanced on a passing woman's head. And brushing the sugar crystals off his face when he returns, armed with a smile and an empty grease-stained bag. Or slicing into yet another perfect papaya and watching as the seeds landslide onto the cutting board, gloating to Aidan with my eyes that "I've done it again." As if I've conquered something far more consequential than the local fruit stand. Or when a howler monkey cuts loose on a desolate dirt road, reminding us of how far we are from home. And how much work it's taken to get here. And how there's no other animal in the world that sounds as prehistoric as the one directly above our heads. Or, most recently, watching Dory explode with excitement at the sight of a couple freeloaders turning up on her doorstep. Thanks again for putting us up, mom.
We've been surprised every single day by something. Undying enthusiasm of strangers. Beauty in the simplicities. Joy in all things edible. Discomfort in the sun. Reward for our efforts. And so on. Our expectations of people and places are consistently inaccurate. We were warned of El Salvadorian gangs, Mexican cartels, Guatemalan drivers, Nicaraguan tourism and Costa Rican prices. And while Guatemalan drivers drove me to throw my bicycle, twice, the other generalizations, in general, seem a bit unfair. Costa Rica is infamously many people's least favorite Central American country. Too touristy. Too expensive. And while prices were higher and Westerners aplenty in parts, it was also the most biodiverse place I've ever been. Everything felt alive, in turn making me feel more alive. And the back to back to back to back to back acts of hospitality from strangers made up for the extra couple bucks spent at each meal. The tendency among travelers to compete with one another for least money spent and most countries "done" still very much exists. We understand that there are plenty of people more badass than us. And we're ok with that. If we wanted to be taken seriously, we wouldn't have named our trip Portland to Penguins. Because that's not tough, it's goddamn adorable. In a time with infinite access to information and resources, it's more important than ever to see it for yourself. And form your own opinions. We were really taken with people in Costa Rica and look forward to our expectations of upcoming places being just the right amount of wrong.
Of course to hold yourself to a set of unrealistic expectations is just as dangerous. We expected a lot out of ourselves on this trip. To have more energy for day-to-day interactions. To have read more books. And written more. And taken more photos, of course. We absolutely expected to be more proficient at Spanish by now. And myself, better at surfing. But the reality is that we're trying really hard. Every day throws some sort of unexpected challenge our way and we're left in unchartered territory, swinging at something, anything in the dark, gassed and humbled. We remind each other to appreciate the things that do go right. Focus less on the nervous, stammering gringa you were during that interaction and more on the fact that you used air quotes in (Spanish) conversation for the first time. Progress! Focus less on the salt water cascading from your orifices, re-tie your shorts, tuck righty back in and paddle into another one. Appreciate the way your body defies gravity and flexibility as its violently dragged through the undertow. Focus less on the impossibility that is Dump and more on the fact that the world is exploding with an incredibly moving outcry of political activism. When you're discouraged, uncomfortable, embarrassed or just fucking mad, it can feel impossible to just look at the bright side. And you certainly don't want someone else telling you to do so. Positivity is a mentality we have far from mastered. We call ourselves out regularly though, and strive to live intentionally on the road. If this trip isn't a gateway to building understanding and compassion for place and people then it's simply a longish flippin' bike ride. I don't want to be bobbing on a piece of Antarctic ice, snugg'ing a penguin, wishing I had done it differently.
There will be penguins.
Until we feel like leaving or there's a boat with our names on it, we'll be here in Panama, with Dory, enjoying long walks, fluffy pancakes, boxes of wine and competitive card games.
I am absolutely floored by the female folk back home. A sincere thank you for looking after the place. I'll be here, dreaming up quippy protest sign lines, being the best ambassador, with the worst tan lines, that I can be.