Thursday, March 3, 2011

Playa Aserradores

For the past week, three trips, Adventures of Dave and Ann, Pleasure Device, and SprinterLife had been linked as we formed a caravan up through El Salvador to a less-used border and across Honduras. The last time Ann and I had tried to leave the group, we’d been mugged in the mountains of El Salvador, and legend had it, bad things would happen to anyone who tried to leave again. Tree and Stevie had planned to leave us after the brewery at Lago de Yajoa and their turbo resonator had failed. And so, our combined journey, “The Adventures of Pleasure Life,” crossed into Nicaragua heading for Playa Aserradores and “The Boom Wave.”


Chad and Emily drive their "weathered” 1991 Ford Econoline van - roof rack piled with a spare tire, some gas cans and a few motley storage boxes - with the windows down and tunes from super hip bands like Arcade Fire blaring from an iPhone wired into the stereo through a heating vent. Trivia Fact: Their blog name comes from Chad’s old band, Pleasure Device, although I was most impressed by the fact that he was in Dynamite Hack, best known for their mellow, acoustic cover of Eazy-E’s “Boyz in the da ‘Hood.” Tree and Stevie - in the their white 2006 high top Sprinter van, narrow in the hips but sporting a flourish of surf boards on top fit for Derby Day - drive in complete silence, interrupted only by navigational cues or insightful geopolitical insights from Stevie in the passenger seat, Kiki draped across her lap with her head out the window. Ann and I drive with the windows up, AC on, GPS suction-cupped on the windshield with Quacker Texas Ranger - the rubber ducky we “adopted” from the Ahwahnee 4 months ago - squished in front of it surveying the road ahead, the map from the current country across Ann’s legs so she doesn’t get burned, and one of hundreds of “This American Life” podcasts coming through the speakers.



On the long, desolate stretch of farmland from the northern Nicaragua border south to the beach, the topic of the show we listened to was “quitting.” The guest was a woman who’d started a newsletter about quitting - quitting jobs, relationships, habits – and the feeling of relief, almost euphoria, that comes with it. Preparing to leave home for six months required us to “quit” a lot of things; We canceled utilities and services, thinned out everything in our house so we could rent it, and let people know we wouldn’t be available for the things they usually count on us for. We figured out what we’d need for clothes, hygiene and personal health, communication and entertainment, sleeping, eating and general survival on a daily basis for the next 6 months to a year. And while it was sad and scary at times, it really was also euphoric. There was a feeling of complete freedom, especially when followed by departure on a trip where we could stop wherever we wanted and stay as long as we liked.

And now we find ourselves with about two months left, starting to think about the things we’ve quit, which of them we miss and which of them we’re glad to have moved on from. It makes us question why we were doing something in the first place. Was it habit? A feeling of obligation? An outdated impression of ourselves? But at the same time, we also generally like to be involved. I know I, for one, have a hard time saying no to anything, and that’s often resulted in a feeling that I’m stretched too thin to do any one of those things to my satisfaction. We have a unique opportunity when we return, having had the trip not only as an “excuse” to quit most if not all of the things that tied us down at home but as a window to the possibilities of what we could be doing, to rebuild from the ground up, including only the things that are most valuable to us and adding from the new experiences we’ve had. Now, as a guarantee we don’t fall back into our old routines, we just learned that our tenants like our house so much, they want to stay for the full 9 month term as opposed to ending it at 6 months as we recently proposed. No problem, that’s their right; Add where we’ll live to the list of things we get to reevaluate over the summer. In a way, it’s a perfectly fitting way for us to have complete control over our reentry.



In the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central America, techtonic movement is sucking the Cocos Plate under the Caribbean Plate. The result is a “volcanic arc” that runs through Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Volcans Fuego, Agua, Pacaya and the others we saw in Guatemala are part of it, and the volcanoes we were now seeing rising on the horizon are a continuation.



By now, our police checkpoint drill is well-rehearsed. At the first sign of cones and a truck parked alongside the road, the glove box flies open; In goes the camera and the iPhone. Next the GPS is unsucked from the windshield, its power cable pulled from the 3 outlet cigarette lighter splitter, and the lot stuffed in before the glove box is slammed. It’s like we just got the call that the revenuers are on their way, and we have to dismantle the still and turn the place back into a pet shop. At this first Nicaraguan stop, the officer wanted to see our insurance documents which we happily showed him. When he couldn’t find anything wrong, almost unable to keep a straight face, he asked if we had any foreign money. “I’m a collector,” he explained.

Come on. You guys are gonna have to do better than that. I’m sure experiences have been different for other travelers who have felt the “mordida” - the bite - but thus far, we’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with the exhortative techniques of the crooked cops we’ve encountered. Where are the cigars in the mouths? Where are the mirrored sunglasses? Where are the thick mustaches, curled at the ends with the grease of the last gringo that betrayed the bearer? Another fun trivia fact: The Spanish word for mustache is “bigote.”

Leading a caravan of three vehicles into a busy crossroads town in Nicaragua is not as easy as it sounds. Actually, wait, it’s exactly as easy as it sounds. Traffic felt a little more frantic, people a little more impatient, and after a few missed turns, I was ready for the day to be over. We stocked up at an uninspiring grocery store and followed small roads leading out towards the coast. Unfortunately, it was rush hour…



The Hotel Chancletas is a collection of few buildings and a palapa restaurant at the end of a dirt road leading to Playa Aserradores. The owners and staff were very mellow but professional and the restaurant was actually really good. Along with a our key to one of the four private rooms came a Tona from a fridge with a digital readout: 4 degrees below zero. I don’t know if I’ve tasted a beer that cold or if I ever want to taste one that’s not. Delightful.




We walked down the short path towards the water, emerging to find two miles of empty coastline spreading out in either direction. We had the wide beach, endless waves and the sunset to ourselves.



We know who the real star is…







The hotel, though “surf camp” is probably a better description for it, was a great place to hang out for a couple days. Each morning, one by one we’d congregate under the palapa with our laptops, pushing the wireless to its limits. It can seem strange sitting in such a beautiful location with a computer in front of you, but for me, it’s a means of processing all the experiences we’re having: Reviewing pictures, writing blog posts, researching the next destination down the road. Plus Tree relentlessly instant messages me to upload pictures from the current day so he can shamelessly steal them for the SprinterLife blog. I take the flagrant thievery as a compliment. Most of my pictures are of Kiki anyway. We also regularly accuse him of pre-writing the day’s activities before we’ve left the breakfast table. It’s the only explanation for how they keep so up to date.

In the shared bathroom, Ann counted 14 frogs on the women’s side; There was not one visible on the men’s. Her theory was along the lines of “boys are smelly.” The next morning however, I had just finished using the toilet, and when I flushed, a frog leapt wildly from somewhere between my legs. While he was quite startled by the flush, what I had been doing before it had not seemed to bother him in the least.






But as much as we’d enjoyed traveling with SprinterLife and PleasureDevice, meeting Tree and Stevie and Chad and Emily, and having people to talk to about the little everyday challenges and victories of a trip like this, after a couple days, we were ready to move on. Chad and Emily decided to set off in search of a cheaper place to stay in order to extend their time at the Boom Wave; When they went to leave, they found their right front tire flat. But we’re not superstitious people, and the next morning, our solar panel had kept our battery topped up despite an increased load on the fridge in the heat, and the truck fired right up. So much for the curse.

As we pulled out the dirt road, Tree ran alongside the truck. Sadly Kiki was no where to be seen. We’d all said our goodbyes, unsure if our trips would cross again but confident that if we all wanted to, we’d find a way to hang out once again, whether in San Francisco, Venice or Mendoza, Argentina. Besides, I had a feeling I’d be getting an email from Tree 5 minutes before sunset for the foreseeable future.



THIS JUST IN: The afternoon Chad and Emily left, they drove to a public beach access. Along the way, they got 2 more flat tires in addition to the one they had before they left. They were somehow able to repair them and continue on. Once at the beach, the van got stuck below the high tide line, and they spent hours trying to dig it out before someone arrived to help. On the way back to the main road, they got another flat. The curse lives. God help us.