Any seasoned traveller knows that if a holiday goes well and without a hitch, then you have not had an adventure. Well, the first twenty-four hours of a trip to Nicaragua with my husband and two adult children a few Christmases ago, provided enough adventure for several trips.
We, meaning I, made the strategic decision to travel on Christmas day, allowing us to partake in family events on Christmas Eve, as well as take advantage of relatively lower pricing and ostensibly lower traveller numbers at this busy travel time. Always with an eye to saving a buck where I can on our vacations, I suggested that instead of costly taxi fares, we use an airport parking garage I had tried a few months before and which had worked out quite well. A creature of habit, my husband, Craig, uttered the usual objections, (we would have to leave earlier; how far is it from the airport; how frequent were the monorail trains), which were summarily overrode.
As we approached the airport, my directions of how to get to the garage become more vague (I had only used the service once myself, after all). The tension in the car began to climb. After only one wrong turn, we approached the pay station where a panicked discussion ensued about how payment was executed. With windows starting to fog from the building steam, we proceeded to loop our way up and around the densely-packed multiplex garage, the volume of Craig’s voice increasing with each successive level until we finally managed to secure a parking spot.
After a pleasant interval in the Maple Leaf Lounge, where tempers were somewhat mollified by the gratuitous booze, we boarded our late day flight. After realizing our seats were not together because I had refused to pay the extra cost for assigned seating, I was happy enough to sit apart as blood pressure levels were once more on the rise. So, there we were, leaned back in our seats, while visions of palm trees and aqua waters danced in our heads, well mine anyway … and we proceeded to sit on the runway for at least an hour before the flight eventually took off. Prepared for the layover in Houston to be one big rush to get from one terminal to the next to make our connecting flight, we found no rush was needed, as the flight to Nicaragua was also delayed.
By the time we finally arrived in Managua, it was a hot and steamy 1:00 am. After a brief stint in customs, we dragged our tired butts to the baggage carousel, where the rest of the family plucked their luggage off the conveyor, while I stood and watched the dwindling piles of baggage going around and around. When it was past apparent that my luggage had not made the flight, I made my way over to baggage claims, wondering if my limited Spanish was up to the task. Luckily, the man spoke much better English than my sorry Spanish and informed me that my bag would likely arrive on the next flight which was coming in just after midday that same day.
Right. So, our plan to pick up the rental car bright and early the next day and hit the road for the two-hour drive to our final destination on the coast, was up in smoke, with no guarantee that my luggage was indeed on the flight.
Past tired now, with my daughter sporting a mutinous look on her face, partly the result of severe sinuous pain from to a cold she had contracted some time between leaving home and our arrival in Nicaragua, we trudged toward the few remaining taxis. When a driver rattled off the cost of a taxi ride to our overnight hotel, it took some time for my tired brain to process the rapid-fire Spanish, sure I had not heard right, given we were only a five-minute drive from the airport. My feeble attempts to argue with the man only wasted more time, as it became apparent we were not going to get to our hotel unless we met the extortionist’s demands. By the time we got to our rooms, close on 2:30 am, I was too tired and wound up to sleep.
Morning came, warm and sunny. Leaving an ailing daughter and a comatose son by a pool surrounded by the tropical palms I had been dreaming of, Craig and I made our way back to the airport for the 10:00 am pick up of the rental car, where we were courteously informed that the rental car was, regrettably, not ready, something to do with a sticky door lock. There were, of course, no extra cars, it being the holiday season and all. But they were working on it. The car would be ready by 11:00 am and they would send it over to the hotel.
Hoping to enjoy some time by the poolside with the kids, we left a message at the front desk as to where we’d be when the car arrived.
The clock struck 11:00 am, no car. Then 11:30 am and still no car and no message. By this time, the scramble was on to implement plan B, which was to find a driver to take us the 2 hours to the coast. With the plan in place, and worried Craig would wear a hole in the hotel’s flooring, I dragged him out to explore the hotel grounds. After a pleasant interlude, during which we stumbled upon a large cage of native parrots and macaws, it was back to the airport (which I was now triply thankful was only five minutes away), to the happy news that my suitcase had indeed arrived and surprise, surprise, that the car was ready. Finally, the stars were aligning for this holiday.
We raced back to the hotel, grabbed the suitcases, shoved the kids into the car and had shifted the engine into gear, when we heard frantic shouting. I looked out the window to see a hotel employee running toward us, waving his arms. WTF!
Seems that the bottles of water I grabbed on the way out as I gave my room number, needed to be paid with cash as they could not be added to the hotel bill.
If it had been me driving, I’m sure the tires would have squealed when we finally left the hotel driveway.
For those of you who are not aware of the Google maps offline download, those are a life saver. In a country where roads have no signage and where the written directions to get to our hotel were a series of turn left, then right, then drive straight on, I don’t think we would have gone more than five minutes without getting hopelessly lost if it weren’t for my daughter’s downloaded maps.
So, finally, there we were, the city behind us, a wide-open road ahead, chatting amiably about plans for the vacation, when a truck weighted down with farm produce merged on to the highway ahead of us. After it became obvious that the truck’s speed was not going to increase beyond its measured pace, the car grew silent again as each of us, no doubt, silently contemplated how long our two-hour drive to the coast would now take if we sat too long behind this truck.
With both hands gripping the wheel, Craig wondered aloud whether he should overtake the car. All three of us answered in the affirmative. Sure, why not. No one else on the road. When he pointed out the double lines, our son just scoffed and replied that the traffic laws were likely not that strict anyway, a remark likely based on past experience driving in another developing country, namely my native land of Trinidad and Tobago. No sooner did my husband overtake the truck and then slide back into place, when up ahead a man stepped into our path and waved us off the road to where a couple of cars were pulled over. Unable to believe what was happening, we slowed and pulled off the road to stop behind the police check point, as the laden down truck meandered past.
Well, when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language and you get pulled over by the cops, you play dumb. The man started to prattle in Spanish and when it became clear from the glazed look in Craig’s eyes that he was getting nowhere, he turned to me and tried again. Thing is, I have Mediterranean looks. Whether it be Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or Middle Eastern, they all think I’m one of them and so should speak their language. As my daughter is a mini me, the man started looking between the two of us and I could tell he refused to believe that neither of us spoke Spanish. Resorting to hand gestures, he made it quite clear he had seen the illegal overtake. He told us the fine for our transgression and able to translate the number, I counted out the money, only for him to shake his head and prattle on some more about having to take the money to a bank to pay the fine. Still playing dumb, we watched as the officer walked over to his compadre, conferred for a few minutes, then returned and waved us on our way, correctly guessing that the chance of us paying the fine at a bank would be next to nil.
The car was quiet as we drove off, the three of us no doubt waiting for Craig to explode. But the travails of the past twenty-four hours must have worn him down, for there were no reprisals for persuading him to break the law. We saw at least seven other check points before we finally made it to our destination in sunny San Juan del Sur. Seemed that the holidays were a lucrative opportunity for the police to pad the coffers. The refreshing surprise was that, unlike other Latin American countries, the fine had not been part of police shake down, with the money going into their own pockets.
A forgettable start to a holiday which ended with a memorable scorpion bite, but that is a story for another day.