The Honduran/Nicaraguan border turned out to be fairly simplistic, as the instructions I had printed off (a fellow group of travelers have a blog at Life Remotely that I have been following) were pretty much perfect, and there wasn't a perfect storm of problems that I faced at El Amatillo. The fact that I had my game face well and truly on probably helped too. One tout approached me before I had even stopped, but I shot him a look that would've scared Medusa herself. I don't know if he told the others, or if they saw, but they all kept their distance after that. (Mental note: must learn how to say "shove it up your arse" in Spanish).
About 10kms past the border, I came upon a police checkpoint. The cop checked out Isabella, then asked for 10 dollars for 'gas money'. This time I worked it out pretty quickly, but decided to toy with him a bit. I kept repeating "no thanks, I've got plenty of gas" and "does your partner over there need gas? I can lend him some". Eventually he made it too obvious what he wanted, so I had to just repeatedly say no. He checked over Isabella again (no doubt looking for a potential infringement to hang over my head), but then sighed, gave me back my ID and off I went. It's almost getting fun, acting out a small Monty Python-esque scene on the road.
León is another colonial town, with one particular point of difference: nearby Cerro Negro (Black Hill). A cinder cone volcano, it is the youngest volcano in Central America at only 170 years old. It grows with each successive eruption (usually 7 years apart, although the last eruption was in 1999) by ejecting lava that rapidly cools and forms rocks of various sizes. In case you missed that, Cerro Negro is a highly active, and overdue volcano. Wind patterns means that the smaller rocks accumulate on a particular face of the hill. The upshot of this: a 600m high hill of pebble/sand consistency. Which must be rode down, of course. I checked into a hostel that runs daily trips up the slope, and put Isabella inside for safety (after Antigua, I'm taking no chances).
The next morning, I headed out to see the sights and sounds of León. There are quite a few old churches, for those of you into that sort of thing, but I am starting to get over them. It's not that they aren't pretty or reasonably interesting, it's more that they get repetitive after the fifth or so city. So I sought out something different: a museum housed in a former jail for guerillas during the civil war. This isn't just any museum though - it was a myths and legends musem, using mannequins as models. It was pretty quirky and interesting, that's for sure.
In the afternoon it was time to hit the slope. Rollcall included 4 staff, about 14 boarders, and a Yahoo! news crew. That's right, I may be on the news. Online. In Nicaragua. Anyway, we took a quick truck trip the base of the slope, had a look at an Iguana tank, and began our hike up to the top. Once on the top and photos opportunities exhausted, we suited up and paired up, letting gravity do its thing 2 at a time. One of the first down may have unintentionally slowed down everybody else - about 3/4 of the way down, the board dug in, and she proceeded to cartwheel and backflip almost the rest of the way down. It was one of the most spectacular crashes I've ever seen outside of a television or computer screen. The collective "OOOOHHHH!!!" and then silence from the rest of us at the top was almost comedic. But she got up, finished, and we continued.
The basic idea: sitting on the edge of your toboggan, you lean right back (holding on to a rope attached to the board) and use your heels to steer and brake. Some people just wanted to make it down, others wanted to go fast. I've traveled far too fast and far on a motorbike to go slow now, so I had the 90km/h record firmly in my sights. I lined up the board (a Japanese tourist went ahead on another track next to mine), started off, got lined up early, and then prayed. The boards get a new layer of plastic every run, so they pick up speed quickly. To get good speed, you almost need to be lying down (very similar to luge), and at the distance, the rocks look dangerously large, and going past at incredible speed. I couldn't see too much in front of me, but when I did look ahead, I didn't like it much: a dip had formed. At the speed I was going, it meant one thing: I was going airbourne. That was somewhat scary- to be flying inches above rocks on an active volcano with only a tenuous grasp of a plank of wood I had previously been sitting on. I landed ok, and kept gaining speed all the way down to the bottom, where I crashed after slowing down on the flats and passing a staff member with a radar gun. My speed: 84km/h. While not the all time record, it was damn close and enough to top the monthly leaderboard, with several mojitos as a reward. I was a happy camper.
The leader announced on the way back that he had booked a table at a bar with traditional music. To be honest, he had me at bar, but the music was a good bonus. I tried to get some new threads to replace those taken in Antigua, but nowhere was open so shorts and flip flops it was. The rum was flowing, probably a bit too freely. I don't remember much of the night, but what I do I enjoyed, and somewhere during the night I lost my flip flops. That's right, Mike's going clubbing barefoot. Not my smartest moment, but I woke up with no injuries other than a throbbing head. I don't think I made many friends in the dorm that night though, especially the guy who had taken to sleeping in my bed (he didn't get much sleep that night, as I slept underneath him in the bunk).
The next morning, I waited till I had sobered up and pointed Isabella towards Granada. It took most of the day to make the 150km - riding hungover is not a pleasant experience. I checked into my new accomodation (a cross between a homestay and hostel) and collapsed on the bed. I had pupusas for dinner (I've become a bit of a fan of the Salvadorian meal), and went back to sleep.
The next day was pretty quiet, and I barely left the room. I did go and check out a local market, and had a cheap meal at a local comida. I'm beginning to not only get used to the local cuisine, but actually prefer it to more familiar fare. I am seriously craving decent asian food though - what they pass off as quality food wouldn't even be passable for a late night BYO joint back home.
The next stop was a treehouse. Seriously, the next hostel I stayed at was in the jungle, up in the trees. I turned up, and the owner and a staff member were stuck into a bottle of Nicuarguan rum (Flor de Cana is everywhere), and painting a clown onto the bar. I settled in, and joined them for a drink or two. At the end of the night, we (along with 5 other guests) had polished off about 2.5L of quality rum, and taken advantage of the firemans pole and rope bridge. A party in a treehouse is an awesome thing and it got me thinking why we don't have something similar down in the southwest, like Pemberton. If I ever buy property in that area (as soon as I win lotto), I'm building off the ground. I came for 1 night, and ended up staying for 3.
The next day my laptop charger broke. The Nica jungle is about as far from an electronics store as you can get, so the next two days was spent travelling into towns to find a replacement and stock up on other items before coming to Costa Rica, where everything costs more. Granada couldn't help me (I did get some much needed clothes), so on the second day I headed into the capital ciy Managua.
The hostel staff said my best bet would be at the Galerias de Santo Domingo, a sprawling mega mall that wouldn't be out of place in any US metropolis. It had a Sony Center, HP store, Apple store and 2 Radioshacks all spread amongst high end fashion boutiques such as Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic. I parked in the Moto section, happy that the dedicated and heavily armed guard meant that Isabella would be safe. After wandering around aimlessly for an hour (it was sunday, so the shops didn't open until noon), I went into the main Radioshack & found what I needed, at a reasonable cost. I didn't have the money on me, so I headed off to the ATMs. I was walking towards the escalators when I heard the screams coming from around the corner. In this part of the world people yell outside all the time, but inside a mall like this, screaming is not a good sign. Then I heard a clip-clop-clop-clop noise, getting louder. I was a couple of metres from a small cell phone kiosk when the cause of all the noise turned the corner up about 10 metres ahead.
Galerias Santo Domingo - pretty upscale, not where you'd expect....
A freaking cow and bull, obviously disoriented and panicking came running towards me. The girl manning the kiosk was hiding inside her stall- which neatly divided the walkway in two, before it funneled into a tight space under repair, coincedently exactly where I was at that point. I don't think I screamed, but I definitely said "Holy Sh*t" in a manner that now seems funny - the sort of reaction that would feature prominently in an adult Wile. E. Coyote video. I bolted up to the kiosk, ready to make a choice - left, right or jump right into the bloody kiosk. Thankfully, they both took the right passage, which made the most important decision of my life the easiest. I sprinted up the left passage, and didn't look back. In a moment of dangerous confusion, I remembered that bovines can't climb stairs (they can, it's going down that they struggle with) and so flew up the escalator. I was about 4 steps up when I heard an almighty smash, as the animals smashed through the glass doors of the department store that had been behind me. As someone who walks quickly, I can sympathize - I often almost hit those slow automatic sliding doors, and have sometimes wanted to kick them in. Anyway, I came back down to inspect the damage. As it turns out, you can run cattle through a Harvey Norman style building and only damage the entrance doors, despite the pecariously placed TV screens. For more proof, check out the Mythbusters episode about the bull in a china shop.
I joined in with the rapidly forming crowd to exchange looks of disbelief and wonder what the crowd of 20-strong security guards chasing after the animals were going to be able to do, besides putting the animals down. Thankfully for the animals, I didn't hear any shots (I guess they caught the parking guards by surprise too, and made good their getaway). Interesting fact of the day: you don't have to speak any Spanish to be able to communicate "Can you believe that cattle just ran through the mall? Are you ok? How the hell does that even happen?". After the commotion was over, I went up to the ATMs next to the food court where people were eating, completely oblivious to the chaos that had just unfolded. I stared at them like they were from anther planet - how can you miss several tonnes of beef hurtling past? Heading back down to the Radioshack, I had to convince the shivering employee to unlock the doors again. She had opened the store by herself, and probably would've closed for the day right then and there if her fellow employees hadn't turned up for their shifts as I was buying the charger. They must have seen what had happened from the carpark, as they were grinning from ear to ear and laughed when the poor girl tried to explain what happened. In good news, she gave me a massive discount on the charger.
I think now would be a good time to explain dangers in Central America. If government websites are to be believed, I should have already been kidnapped, raped and killed several times over. The fact is, Central America is not as bad as people think - yes, crime is present (I've been a victim, and a witness) but you'd have to be extremely unluckly or foolhardy to suffer any pysical harm. Murders do happen (100+ every week in Guatemala alone) but unless you deal in drugs, or are trying to stop them, you have little to fear. I was in possibly the safest area in Nicaragua, and was in the most dangerous situation of my trip so far - it just goes to prove that these sorts of things can happen anywhere.
So I had lunch, headed back to the hostel and had a well deserved drink. The next day I headed off to Isla de Ometepe, an island in the middle of Lago Nicaragua that was formed by two volcanoes. It's an impressive site. I bought the tickets for the ferry ride over (all up $6 for me and the bike, for an hour long trip - take that rottnest ferry!) and headed down to the pier towards a fairly large car ferry. But that wasn't going to be my ride (it wasn't leaving for a few hours). The boat I was going on was significantly smaller and less seaworthy. I don't often know where the lifejackets are on ferries I catch, but I found them on this boat before I even stepped aboard. We took on 4 motorbikes, a large amount of supplies and about 50 people too many. I wondered about everyone's swimming ability - I could make it to a shoreline no matter where we were, but what about everyone else? As I was pondering this, we set off. I found a group of gringos, and was quickly reassured - apparently these ships don't sink as often as you'd think. One of the guys worked at the hostel I was headed too, and we got talking about motorbikes and travelling/living on the isthmus.
Once on the island, I headed out to the hostel and got settled in, had dinner and went to sleep. I didn't particularly like the hostel, so the next day headed out to another location in a coffee plantation near the base of the smaller volcano, Maderas. Most of the road was paved with bricks, but areas were under repair, and covered in gravel. I came across one of these areas, when I noticed a sharp, deep ditch where a small stream was obviously flowing. Not wanting to break the suspension, I hit the brakes (not locking up, but slowing hard). While watching and preparing the ditch, I missed a small rock, which lifted and bumped my back tire to the left. It landed on a smooth surface with a thin layer of fine sand, which may as well have been oil on glass. Rear wheel going left, front wheel going forward, I was going down. It's not the first time I've put Isabella down, but it is the first time at a bit of speed (I'd say 40km/h). I couldn't have taken the fall better - palms pushed out and then rolled. My head didn't hit the ground, and all my safety gear did it's job (Jack & Annette!!). I even hit the kill engine switch pretty much immediately. The damage? a scratch on the bark busters, and grazed palms. A bit of roadside first aid, and bike and rider were all good.
However, I no longer really wanted to be on a remote island (let alone climbing a volcano) should infection or serious mechanical problems happen later. So I turned around and left the island, bound for Costa Rica (hopefully leaving my bad luck at the border). As I write this, all seems fine for both of us, but it was after returning from visiting Costa Rica that Christopher Columbus found Queen Isabella on her deathbed, no longer able to support his voyage through the Americas, so my poetic coincidence meter is going off the chart at the moment.
Photos available Here