Chicken Bus’n it to Nicaragua.

“It’s all part of the adventure” is a euphemism backpackers like to use when best laid plans turn to shit. You have to expect a few bumps in the road whilst traveling, but then there are times when things go so far off plan that you find yourself waking up in Nicaragua’s seediest hotel on the morning of your 33rd birthday.

Being the cheap-o traveler I am, I skipped the tourist shuttle and took the local ‘chicken’ buses to travel from El Salvador to Nicaragua. Chicken buses are a slow but cheap’n’cheerful way of getting around Central America. Called ‘chicken buses’ by tourists because they are sometimes used by people to transport live animals, they are usually old American school buses, often brightly re-repainted with a bit of an “I love Jesus” theme. They rattle from town to town and just when you think another person could not possibly fit, two more get in. At every stop, shop vendors stream onto the bus selling everything from hot food to pens. We even had a couple of buskers come one and play some songs at one point.

Taking the chicken bus from El Salvador to Nicaragua is a long day with multiple bus changes and involves crossing into Honduras for a couple of hours. It was interesting, but exhausting, so when a man I talked to in the immigration line at the Honduras/Nicaragua border, offered me a ride all the way to León I happily accepted. Sweet. Saves me getting yet another bus. He also offered a ride to a young, German gap-year kid and I assumed we’d all be going in a car. We followed him out of immigration to where this was parked

With only two seats, David was to go in one truck while I was to ride in another with his mate.

Admittedly, I did have the thought of;

“Hmmmm is it really smart to be hitching a ride in a truck in Nicaragua at night?”,  but I figured old-mate didn’t use truck driving as a front for kidnapping backpackers, so I told myself to relax.

My driver and I attempted a bit of conversation, but the language barrier made it difficult, so we settled into a comfortable silence. Barely fifteen minutes into our trip, the driver’s phone rang and I tuned out as he chatted away in Spanish. When he hung up the phone, he turned to me and said something that sounded like,

“The roads are too dangerous to go further, so we have to turn off and spend the night at a truck stop.”

My Spanish is poor, so surely I misheard. I did not just hear we were going to be spending the night at a truck-stop. If I had to make a list of all the places I would least like to sleep, a truck-stop in Nicaragua would be near the top.

“León? Esta noche?”  I asked.

“No, León  mañana.”

“Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?”

As we pulled off the road and into the truck-stop all I could do was say a silent thanks to any god that wanted to listen that Gap-Year David was there as well. David spoke fluent Spanish so he headed on over to the local trucker bar and asked if there were any hotels around while I stood around and tried not to think about what a bad idea this had turned out to be. David came back with the news that there was a hotel, half a k up the road. So off we went. As we walked, David told me that his truck driver had told him that he had received a call and up ahead people were throwing rocks at trucks and attacking them.

Yay! Awesome!

I was a bit nervous walking down the road at night, but we didn’t have a whole lot of options. Ten minutes later we arrived at Nicaragua’s seediest hotel. I think they took their design inspiration from a sort of brothel/gaol cell fusion look.

It was a window-less concrete block of a room with a supply of free condoms and water-proof covers on the mattresses. I think it’s where truckers take their ladies of the night and I am sure you could pay-by-the-hour if you wanted to.

Complimentary condoms.

Complimentary condoms.

I am not sure I even want to know what this thing next to the bed is meant to be.

I am not sure I even want to know what this thing next to the bed is meant to be.

The owner arranged another mattress so David and I wouldn’t have to share a bed, then he turned on the portable fan and proceeded to spray air-freshener at it, wafting it around the room giving it an over-powering, freshly cleaned public toilet fragrance. The room was hot as hell, we didn’t even have a top sheet on the beds and I probably woke up covered in microscopic bits of trucker jizz.

Did I mention it was my birthday?

The truck drivers had told us that they were leaving again at four-thirty in the morning, so we were both up again before the sun came up. As we walked out of our hotel, a police officer who randomly happened to be standing there, told us to be careful, because it was dangerous to be walking around.

Awesome.

We made it back to the trucks and the drivers kindly drove us to León without a drama.

I think I’ll be taking the bus from now on though, and I’ve promised Mum, no more hitching rides with truck-drivers.

Talking to Strangers.

I’ve been in this country just a day and already I have found the people of El Salvador to be wonderfully warm and friendly.

Even before I arrived, waiting for the bus in Guatemala City, I got to talking to Chris, a young Salvadoran guy. I had a ticket to the capital, San Salvador, but what I really wanted to do was go “to the beach”  only I had no idea which beach or how to get there. Chris told me about the different beaches in El Salvador and even took the time to write down some names and how long it would take me to get there.

“Come and find me if you need me” he said as we boarded.

When we arrived in San Salvador Chris came up to me and asked me if I needed and help. When I told him I needed to change money he took me to the currency exchange shop.

“Is there a catch?” a little voice wondered, “why should this stranger go out of his way to help me?”

After I exchanged money, he walked me to the taxi stand and told the driver where I needed to go. As I was putting my stuff in the boot he asked if we could share the cab.

Every thing seemed legit and I assumed Chris was a good bloke, so I agreed. I have been in dodgy cabs before though, and as Chris chatted away to the driver in Spanish a tiny thought crept into my head,

“I really hope everything is all cool here and this isn’t some set-up. I have just exchanged a wad of cash and no-one other than these guys, knows where I am.”

As we pulled up at the bus terminal, I reached into my bag to pay.Chris waved my money away,

“I’ll get it” he said.

I tried to insist, but he laughed and shook his head, “You women, always worrying.”

I collected my bags and thanked Chris. He waved as he drove off in the cab, to wherever it was he was heading.

Sometimes, lots of times, people really are just kind for no reason.

Beautiful El Savador.

Beautiful El Savador.

This experience got me thinking. When travelling, especially when travelling alone, how do you find the balance between being trusting and open and being wary and street smart? No-one wants to be taken for a mug (or worse) but if you spend your entire trip assuming everyone is out to cheat you, you may as well stay at home.

Years ago now, I was on a train in Morocco with my girlfriend Katie. We had planned to arrive in Tanger in the afternoon and take the boat back over to Spain, however delay after delay meant there was no way we were going to be getting a boat that day. Chatting to a young Moroccan dude on the train, we asked him if he could recommend a hotel in Tanger.

“You don’t need a hotel, just stay with me.” he said.

It turned out he lived with his aunt and uncle and their four children, none of whom seemed the least bit phased by their nephew bringing home to young Aussie backpackers at ten o’clock at night. They welcomed us into their home, fed us and made us and made up a bed for us both and even gave us breakfast the next morning.

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Way back when. Katie and I in Marrakech in 2006.

Sometimes, you just have to trust people.

Another night, this time in Barcelona, too much beer made me miss my hostel lock-out time. This left me with two options, roam around Barcelona alone in the early hours of the morning until I found more accommodation, or go back to a bar somewhere and stay out drinking until the sun came up and my hostel opened it’s doors once again. I was tired  and a bit drunk and just wanted to go to bed, so I sat down to have a think.

Out of the darkness, along came a young guy around 16 or 17 years old, riding on his bicycle. He pulled up when he saw me and sat down to talk with me. When I told him why it was I was sitting outside alone in the middle of the night, he insisited I come and stay at his place. I hesitated, but with just a few euros rolling around my purse, I didn’t have a whole lot of other options. He doubled me on his bike back to his flat, me sitting on his handle-bars, balancing precariously.

When we arrived he showed me to a bed in the spare room and left me to it. I woke up some time the next morning to an empty flat, made my bed and headed back out to the street, closing the door behind me.

Lots of times, people are just kind for no reason.

There is good and bad everywhere though. No matter how much you pride yourself on your good instincts or judge of character, sometimes, shit happens. In Bangkok one evening, I met one young Canadian bloke who had made friend’s with a local guy. He remembers going for a few drinks with him then nothing until over 12 hours later when he woke up on the street somewhere with his wallet and passport gone.

Sometimes, at home as well as while away, people are just total dicks.

There is no magical formula for deciding who to trust and who not to trust when travelling, but I think, for the most part, people are basically the same all over the world and people are basically good.

And, when inevitably while on the road, you are tricked, robbed or ripped-off, don’t let it spoil your trip, or lose your trust in all people. There is good and bad everywhere, but most people are pretty alright.

Lake Atitilan – A little piece of Eden.

Lake Atitilan is a ridiculously beautiful volcanic lake in the Guatemalan Highlands. Still blue water sits at the foot of lush green mountains and volcanos while dotted around the edges of the lake are colourful towns and villages, each with their own unique vibe. Mayan culture remains strong here with people speaking Mayan languages and dressing in traditional  clothing.

I'm no photographer and no photos I took did this place justice. Do yourself a favour and Google' Lake Atitilan images'. this place really is spectacular.

View of the lake from San Pedro. I’m not much of a photographer, but if you Google ‘Lake Atitilan images’ you will get a glimpse at how spectacular this place is.

Ladies in traditional Mayan clothing selling fruit.

Ladies in traditional Mayan clothing selling fruit.

I spent a week at Lake Atitilan, mostly in the village of San Pedro. San Pedro is the backpacker party town of the lake and it is a magnet for gap-year kids and wandering hippies. I took some Spanish classes here and my school arranged  a home-stay with a local family for me.  Unusually for me, I stayed out of the party scene this week. The family I stayed with lived away from the main strip and I didn’t really fancy stumbling home at all hours and waking everyone up. I was content to spend my days exploring and going to classes and nights hanging with my host family. Sometimes after dinner I would read the little girl stories and my pronunciation must be ok because she seemed to understand and enjoy the stories even if I had no idea what I was saying.

During the day I visited a couple of other nearby villages. San Marcos is a very pretty, chill little village where people go to do yoga, meditate and refresh their chakras. It is also home to the gorgeous Cerro Tzankujil nature reserve where I spent a beautiful morning bushwalking.

Quick rest before I head up the path.

Quick rest before I head up the path.

In San Marcos I also got involved with a bamboo building workshop. The plan is to build a shelter for local ladies who have been trained in Chinese massage where they can see clients and run classes. The shelter is made from bamboo held together with old bike inner tubes. We didn’t it finish but we did make a good start on the frame. It wasn’t that hard and if/when the apocalypse comes I reckon I’ll be able to knock myself up a bamboo hut without a drama – as long as I have some bike inner-tubes.

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I rode a tuk-tuk to visit the village of San Juan. San Juan is one of the smaller of the villages and is home to a number of co-operatives that produce and sell traditional arts and textiles. It is also home to some beautiful street art and is a bit less touristy than the other places I visited.

Tuk-tuks or boats are the way to get from village to village.

Tuk-tuks or boats are the way to get from village to village.

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San Juan.

San Juan.

My next stop is Semuc Champey and I will be staying in a hostel this time. I loved my home-stay but now I am looking forward to having a few beers some other travellers.

Cheers!

I am always curious about who visits this blog and I love when people leave a comment, even if it is just to say hi. So please do.

Breakfast with a Side of Awkward.

Maybe the fact he was drinking rum on the rocks alone at midday should have been a bit of a red flag.

When I arrived back in Antigua, Guatemala last week, one of the first things I wanted to do was catch up with my old Spanish teacher, Jen. We went out for beers and we were the only people in the bar, other than an older gentleman sitting alone reading and sipping rum.

The man got up to order another drink and we overheard him asking the bar tender if he could recommend any Spanish teachers in town. Wanting to help drum up some business for my friend, I chased after him as he left the bar.

“Excuse me, did I hear you say you were looking for a Spanish teacher?” I asked, waving my friend’s card at him.

His name was Frank and as it turned out he was looking for a Spanish teacher, for him and his daughter. He came back inside and bought us both a drink. He said that he lived in a big house with five-bedrooms and three maids. His daughter also needed some help with reading and writing in both English and Spanish, and we were both welcome to come and stay with them.

“Why don’t you both come over for breakfast tomorrow?” he said, “you can see the place and we can talk about this more.”

Bright and early the next day, I met Jen and we headed to his place together.

“Do you think he will remember us?” she said.

“Yeah” I said, “of course he will, he only met us yesterday.”

I knocked on the door and he answered.

“Hey Frank! How’s it going?” He looked a little bit confused but stepped aside to let us both in. He pottered around a bit, while Jen and I followed behind. He then called out for another person.

“James!”

A young Canadian guy came out of one of the rooms. He introduced himself to me. He introduced himself to Jen. Jen and I introduced ourselves back. Jen, Frank, James and I then all just stood there, looking at each other. It was 8.30 in the morning.

“Well” said Frank breaking the silence, “I don’t know what we are doing here.”

“Errrr, you invited us to breakfast yesterday.” I said.

I could tell by the look on his face no bells were ringing. The poor bastard had no idea who we were or what he had invited us to breakfast. Thankfully, James’ stepped in and saved the day.

“There are some boiled eggs and a tortillas in the kitchen. Would you like coffee?”

“That would be great, thank you” I said. Actually, I just wanted to get out of there, but in for a penny, in for a pound. Jen and I exchanged looks and I shook my head and tried not to giggle.

We headed to the dining table and James brought us all out food and coffee while Jen and I stumbled through small talk with Frank. We tried to refresh his memory of the day before and things slowly seemed to fall back into place.

When Frank got up from the table to clear the plates I whispered to Jen, “Just give him your details, tell him to call you if he needs you and lets go!”

Frank returned and we thanked him for the breakfast. Jen handed him her card and told him to call her if he decided he wanted lessons from her. We all shook hands and Jen and I got out of there.

In case you were wondering, Frank never did call her for lessons. At least the breakfast was good.

Va-Va -Voom Vegas!

Britney Spears first broke onto the scene around the same time I was visiting my bestie Brandy in California back in 1999 .We were both 16 and every time she came on the radio we’d scream “BRITNEY” and turn the volume right up. We had dancing in the car down to a fine art.

17 years later, I get off the plane at LAX and the first thing Brandy says to me is,

“I got us tickets to Britney Spears in Las Vegas!”

Oh.My.God.

It's Britney, Bitch.

It’s Britney, Bitch.

After a couple of days in California, we packed up the car and road tripped to the bright lights of Las Vegas. This city is insane. Not only can you gamble everywhere – including at the petrol station, but they have 24 hour buffet passes.

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I love food, but even I think maybe that might be too much of a good thing.  We still hit up a few buffets and I spent almost my entire time in Vegas with a food baby.

I’m not really a gambler but gambling in Vegas means free cocktails. If you play very, very sloooooowly it wouldn’t be hard to get pissed on the cheap.

No luck for me! I may as well have taken $20 and set it on fire. At least I got a pina colada.

No luck for me! I may as well have taken $20 and set it on fire. At least I got a pina colada.

Jackpot! Brandy had more luck than me.

Jackpot! Brandy had more luck than me.

The night we went to see Britney, we  stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, just off the strip.

Lights of Vegas outside our window.

Lights of Vegas outside our window.

Hot Vegas tip – if you want to party on the cheap, go mid-week. Our room cost something like $30 for the two of us.

Britney was really fun. There was a lot of Vegas razzle-dazzle and we spent the whole show up dancing. I had a couple of cocktails during the show (at $24 a pop! I suggest smuggling in a hip flask if you want to drink). Cocktails combined with the pre-Britney drinks I’d had left me a little bit sloshed by the end of the show. When Britney walked off, I tried to get her to come back by starting a chant of “One more song, one more song, encore, encore” but no one wanted to join my chants. A few people gave me funny looks, probably thinking, “look at that one woman gronk-show.”

After partying with Britney and eating our way through Vegas we headed back to Brandy’s place in California to spend our last few days together.

Huntington Beach.

Huntington Beach.

On my last day, we headed into Los Angeles to see ifwe could spot any celebs before Brandy dropped me at the airport. Brandy and I cruised around Beverly Hills and picked out which houses we want for when we get famous for something. I thought I saw Al Pacino but then I realised he was driving a pretty shit car. Maybe Al Pacino likes shit cars and it was him, I can’t be sure. You never know what you’ll find in LA.

View from Mulholland Drive. The Internet says we drove past Madonna's house.

View from Mulholland Drive. The Internet says we drove past Madonna’s house.

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I think that big white house there might be quite nice for when I’m famous.

After a wonderful week it was time to say a sad good-bye to Brandy and hop on my plane to Guatemala for the next leg of my trip.

How Not To Catch A Cab In San Jose.

There are towns and cities in this world that I have visited and just instantly fallen in love with. Places that have left me feeling like, “Wow, I could see myself living here for a while.”

San Jose, Costa Rica was not one of those places.

Simone and I arrived there after a week working on a farm in the jungle, to meet up with our friends Amy and Cathy.

Here we are, all together!

Here we are, all together!

I’d already heard that there wasn’t much to see or do in San Jose and the couple of days we had there did nothing to change my mind. We’d only really gone there at all because that’s where the girls flew into and we were all happy to be getting out of the city and heading to the Caribbean Coast.

Walking out of the hostel, loaded with bags, one of the hostel staff members asked me, “taxi?”

“Yes please” I said.

Conveniently, waiting right out the front of the hostel, was a cab with a smiley, jolly driver. The hostel guy and the taxi driver had a quick chat then our taxi man started loading our bags into the cab. We four girls squeezed in and away we went. As we drove away I realised we hadn’t agreed on a price first. Rookie mistake.

I tried asking him how much, but he said something about clocks and drew circles on his hand. I had no idea what that was about so I gave up.

“Dammit”, I thought. “Now he is probably going to overcharge us, like ask for $10 instead of $4 ho hum.”

Our driver was all smiling and friendly. He asked us where we were going. When we told him Puerto Viajo, he recommended us many things.

“I recommend you keep pass-a-port close, like baby”

“I recommend you looking, no talking blah, blah to people at terminal”

“Keep money close, no in big bag, many dangerous peoples at bus terminal.”

“Here, see” he rolled up his sock and showed me an old scar, “for iphone, at bus terminal” then he made his fingers into a gun shape and said, “bang, bang”.

“No ATM near Caribbean, I recommend you get money now”

I sort of had doubts. No ATMs in a popular tourist are in 2015…… really? But I guess we don’t want to get stuck without money. He pulled up at an ATM and we all got out and withdrew a wad of cash. The moment we got back into the cab and started driving, my heart sank.

I suddenly just knew he was lying about there being no banks in the Caribbean.  Now he knew we all had a few hundred dollars cash on us. I looked around the cab to see if his taxi licence was displayed anywhere, and saw none. My heart sunk a little further.

He got on his mobile and started talking in a low voice to someone.

“It’s going to be OK.” I told myself, but I felt a little bit sick.

He pulled up in some random area nowhere near the bus station and told us we had to walk a block to the bus terminal and that he couldn’t drive up that way.

He then asked for a fare of 68,000 colones, or, around $160.

“That can’t be right” I thought. I figured he must mean 6,800 colones, a rip-off for sure but I was happy to pay the equivalent of $16 or $17 to get away from him. I handed him a 10,000 note, expecting change.

He shook his fat head.

He drove forward a little.

I asked him to write it down, that I didn’t understand.

68,000.

“That can’t be possible” I said.

“Si, possible”

He drove forward some more and the smile was gone.

He got back on his mobile phone. My heart rate went right up.

He then dropped the price to around 35,000.

I tried to argue some more but I was getting really scared, he kept driving forward, further from the busy street. Mr Happy Cabby was now Mr Pissed Off and Mr. Pissed off had us trapped and wanted his money now. I was waiting for his mates to pull up at any moment.

In the end he reluctantly lowered his price to 20,000. He gave me this look, as though I was ripping him off. A look that said, “the fare is $160 but I guess I’ll just take $50 because what more can I do you selfish woman”

I shoved the money at him as he kept driving along. “Stop, stop” I said, feeling a little panicky wondering where on earth he was going to take us.

He pulled up on the corner of Shady-As Rd and Shithole St in Downtown Ghettosville, then drove off.

There we were, with all our bags, our passports, our electronics and hundreds and hundreds of dollars in cash between us in some dodgy-arse part of San Jose.

There were groups of sketchy looking dudes huddled around on the corner, staring.

“Hey Lady,” one called out.

One started walking towards us.

Another looked at us and made some hissing sound.

Every single shop on the street was boarded up. I can’t speak for the others, but I was shitting myself. Up ahead was a busy looking street full of cars and people, “If we can just get there without getting stabbed” I thought, “we will be ok”.

After the longest hundred metre walk of my life, we made it to the busy street and my heart rate slowed just slightly. A young guy asked us where we were headed, and he was very nice and helpful. We were still a fair way from the bus terminal and he advised us not to walk because it was dangerous so we reluctantly got into another cab – this time agreeing on a price first. Our new driver took us to the bus station, without a drama, for 2,000 colones, or around 4 or 5 dollars.

I don’t like to think about how much worse it could have been, but it’s all behind us now and we are chilling in the Caribbean paradise of Puerto Viajo.

 

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Rio Carnival 2015

Despite reaching my early 30’s with a lacklustre career, no assests, no boyfriend, a dismal bank account, no fixed address, and no direction in life, I have decided to move even further away from something that resembles a successful person by taking yet another 6-12 months out of real life to travel around South and Central America.

Delaying adult-hood for one more year.

All packed and ready to delay adult-hood for one more year.

I’m travelling with Simone and we kicked off the trip in our usual sensible and subdued manner by heading to the worlds’s biggest party, Rio Carnival.

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The whole thing was insane. Carnivale is non-stop parties day and night. As well as the famous parades, there is live music, colour, costumes and parties all over town. We went to one party in the park that had a band singing Beatles songs Samba style. People of all ages dressed up in costumes, singing, dancing and drinking a lot of beer.

At the Beatles Samba-Style party.

At the Beatles Samba-Style party.

Simone making new friends.

Simone making new friends.

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The streets were packed with people every night. When you have tens of thousands of people in the street drinking, you have tens of thousands of people needing a wee. There were port-a-loos, but they got pretty vile pretty quick so most dudes seemed to just opt to wee against a wall somewhere. Every night the streets were filled with streams of piss and they stunk. As I walked along bits of liquid would flick up off my thongs and hit my ankles. I like to think it was just someone’s spilt beer, but in reality I don’t think there was a night that I went home without someone else’s wee splashed up my lower calves.

I’ve had all my shots so I’m sure it’s fine.

The high-light and most famous part of Carnival are the incredible parades. Rather than watch one Simone and I decided to march in one. Anyone can join, you just need to buy a costume from a samba school and you become a member of that samba school for the night and can march along with them.

Samba time!

Samba time!

We had a song we had to sing and dance along to but all the words were in Portuguese and I have no idea how to samba so I just opened and closed my mouth, pretending to sing and shook my hips and banged on my bongo drum.

After the parade we headed back to the street parties and kicked on. We were still awake when the sun came up and ended up partying until 1030am.

I make myself sound like such a rager. To be honest, I partied until about 8:00am then dragged my feet and dreamt of bed while everyone partied around me. At one point I fell asleep in McDonalds. 

I’ve heard Carnival has a bit of a wrap for being dangerous but the biggest drama I had was when some dude yelled “Happy Carnival!!!” then tried to pash me by opening his entire mouth onto my face. I tried to push him away and ended up with his teeth and spit wiping across my nose. Thanks mate. Other than that it was all cool, and everyone was friendly.

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It was full on and by our final night we were both exhausted and a little bit partied out. We already had tickets to the gay ball though, so like the troopers we are we got dressed up in our sparkly wigs and headed to yet another party. I’m glad we did, seeing some of the costumes alone was worth it and the ball ticket included food and an open bar so we couldn’t let that go to waste.

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It was two very exhausted and hungover girls that got on a flight the next day. It was epic and amazing but by the end I just wanted a quiet room, a massive nap and something non-alcoholic to drink.