In Nicaragua, even the smallest thing can become quite an adventure. Provided you are relaxed enough to go with the flow and you don't let your experiences be overshadowed by fears.
Such as a weekend away. After eight weeks of living in the beautiful colonial city of Granada, I figured it was time to head down to the coast and check out the country's main beach resort, San Juan Del Sur.
A few weeks ago, on the internet forums, I had read about so many people who had been robbed on buses or in 'collectivo' taxis (which pick up passengers all along the route) that I had considered becoming a 'Gringo' for a weekend and going on one of those express shuttle buses reserved for foreigners.
The price? A whopping US$46 return for a two hour journey.
Well, after a few months of living in Nicaragua I've come to the conclusion that the country is not as scary as all the forums make out. People do get robbed in cabs or buses, but usually they've been just unlucky or fallen asleep and left an expensive camera or piece of equipment as too easy a target for an impoverished opportunist.
There have been people held up at knife-point after getting 'collectivo' taxis, forced to go to ATMs and take out money by a driver and accomplices who target foreigners at the side of the road.
But, feck it, you would never go outside your front door in Ireland if you listened to all the scare stories and people's fears.
It is a fact that Nicaragua is not as dangerous as most other Central American countries. In fact, they say that only boring old Canada is safer in the whole of the Americas, and I'm sure that there are parts of LA, New York, Chicago, etc., which are a lot more dangerous for the unsuspecting visitor.
So, anyway, armed with a rucksack and my diving gear, I found myself at Granada's bustling bus station last Friday morning. It was hot and sticky as I climbed on the bus for the start of an adventure.
The first thing that hits you is the amount of vendors who pile onto the buses in every town and city in this country, as I had discovered during a trip to Masaya's famous markets (about 40 minutes away) the previous weekend. They sell fruit juices, tortillas, cakes, sodas, a huge variety of things.
And, because there are so few cars in this poor country, people think nothing about bringing a car battery or a bag of cement or even a live chicken onto a bus here. It just adds to the fun.
Beside me on the first bus was a teacher from one of the schools we work with, who shared a brilliant conversation with me about his work. Then he hopped off in the middle of nowhere, as the road south climbed towards the spectacular Volcan Mombachu.
Having told the conductor, who hollers out the destination at every stop, that I was going to Rivas, he roared out for me mid-trip as he had sourced another bus for me to change over on the highway. I needed to be quick to grab my rucksack and change over, but it was all part of the fun.
In Rivas, I had an hour's wait, where the woman selling meals for about $1.50 a go wanted to know if I was single. She was a single mum, about my age, attractive and great fun, and I was tempted to stay on ... if I hadn't booked a day's scuba diving for the following day!
I was approached by a taxi driver, who wanted to bring me to the coast for 200 cordobas (about $10). When I made it clear I wanted to travel by bus, he sat down beside me and talked about politics for half an hour.
There was no pressure on me to pay for his cab and every now and then he would jump up to approach passengers descending from a bus on the highway. Then he'd come back to my table and resume talking about the current border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Suddenly, I was really glad that I had improved my Spanish so much over the past couple of months.
Then my third bus, packed to the brim, pulled up and I was on my way to the gorgeous resort town of SJDS, with its lovely horse-shoe bay.
I checked into my accommodation, the beach front Hostal Esperanza, where I had a private room for $20 per night and then headed off to find the dive centre and meet Fidel, the owner, to arrange a time to meet up for the following morning (a ridiculously early 7.30 a.m., but that's diving for you!).
I ate a lovely meal in a comodor at the market for 40 cordobas, for just over a euro, and walked the scenic promenade at sunset. It was simply gorgeous!
The day's diving proved to be a bit of a disappointment, it was like tumbling around inside a washing machine, so strong were the currents.
But the weather was glorious, I met a few local divers from Managua, and saw some of the most amazing, deserted beaches I've come across in my entire life, including one where turtles are hatching this season. We saw a huge turtle on the way to the dive sites and a school of enthusiastic dolphins kept us hugely entertained with their antics as they danced around the boat, leaping out of the water, on the way back to the deserted beach.
I had gone to SJDS alone, just to dive, but managed to meet eight people I know from Granada, including six of our volunteers. Three were on their way home for a visa run to nearby Costa Rica, it really is a small world!
You learn that in Central America ... there are places on the travellers' circuit where you tend to run into people a few times.
Glad to have been back underwater after a seven month break from diving, I was really tired after swimming so hard against the strong current and was in bed, asleep, by 10 p.m. I could never imagine that happening on a Saturday night in Ireland!
That meant an early start on Sunday, and a trip to the huge statue of Jesus which is up on a hill overlooking the town. Again, the weather was glorious and Ishmael, the friendly hostal manager, advised me to leave all my valuables in my room. Even at 8.30 on a Sunday morning, it seems that rich foreign tourists can be targets for local hoods.
But nothing bad happened to me during a wonderful two hour walk to the summit. I even met a friendly bulldog on the beach who accompanied me all the way up the deserted steps to the hill, where I had to jump over a gate which said 'private property' in order to reach the clifftop statue.
Meeting the bulldog was another one of those strange coincidences that have happened to me so often this year. Suddenly, I had a big security guard and I felt the Gods were on my side.
After meeting a few volunteers on the beach, I decided to head back to Granada quite early and found myself at the bus-stop at midday. Then a 'collectivo' pulled up and the driver offered to take me to Rivas for 50 cords (just over $2).
Already in the cab were a woman in her 50s and a man my age in the front seat, so I stored my rucksack in the boot and sat in beside the woman.
When we got to the edge of town, the driver stopped to pick up a woman and four children at the side of the road. I couldn't believe it when they all piled in on top of us, but that just added to the fun.
Soon, I was reminded of how sociable and downright friendly the Nicas can be. The woman beside me took a seven year old girl she had never met onto her knee and then proceeded to weave her hair into a lovely design as we made our way towards Rivas.
The other woman to my right told me that two of the children were her own, and the other two were nieces who had been abandoned by their mother. Again, I was so glad to have improved my Spanish as we laughed and exchanged stories in the glorious sunshine.
In front of us was the amazing Volcan Conception, rising out of Lake Nicaragua at a height of 1,610 metres. I felt I would be too much of a 'gringo' to point out the scenery while these beautiful but poor people interacted so warmly with each other and with the big, lanky Irish man in the middle of the back seat.
At Rivas, I hopped on a bus to Managua, and got in the good books when I offered my seat to an 80 year old woman, who took a five year old boy from another lady on her knee. The bus was crowded and I was the only foreigner on board, but I never felt threatened or in danger of being robbed.
In the middle of nowhere, I jumped out of the bus and ran across the highway to catch my Granada connection, one of those old American-style school buses, for a cost of seven cordobas or about 25 cents (in euros).
Soon I was back 'home' in Granada after a lovely weekend.
The diving had been disappointing, with poor visibility and choppy seas.
But it was the fun I had in getting to San Juan and back, experiencing the warmth of poor rural people, which made this a fabulous weekend.
Thank God I didn't take the advice of some richer expats by taking the 'Gringo' shuttle direct from Granada to San Juan Del Sur. If I had, I wouldn't have experienced half as much of an adventure!
A day in the life of our volunteers
4 days ago