Bedroom Adventures

It’s been an interesting 24 hours in Granada.

Right now it’s 5:30 a.m. and I’m writing this in the darkness of the living room in my casa. I was awoken about 15 minutes ago by a giant storm — wind rattling the windows and rain pelting the house. I finally gave up on sleep and came downstairs to open the doors and windows, letting a cool(ish) breeze inside. After about a month of travel in Mexico and Central America over the last year, this is the first rain I’ve seen, and it’s a welcome change.

(Everybody in Portland just put their fists through their computer screens.)

I’m sitting in the dark because the power is out. This has stopped being noteworthy, as the power has gone out repeatedly over the last day. Yesterday it was out from about 3-6 p.m., and then it cycled through another hour of five minutes on and five minutes off. I’ve read that power outages in Nicaragua are a way of life, a combination of shaky infrastructure and lack of supply. Yesterday, during the first power outage, I went to the local lavanderia to drop off my laundry, and the employees were out front starting up a giant portable generator. Clearly this is not a one-time event.

Then again, four days ago the power company slipped a note under the door that said the electricity would be turned off today if they didn’t receive payment, and yesterday they delivered a follow-up threat, so it’s entirely possible that my landlord simply neglected to pay the electric bill. I won’t take this lying down. Somebody’s getting a sternly-worded review in the spiral-bound guestbook on the coffee table.

All of this pales in comparison to last night’s bedtime adventure.

As with every night, I brushed my teeth, went upstairs to the bedroom, closed the door, took off my clothes, climbed into bed, reached for the light switch and…


Was that a sound? Something in the hallway? It might just be the wind, or my imagination, or a creaky house, I thought to myself.


That definitely sounded like something. The walls here are pretty thin. Is it one of the neighbors moving around? I reached for the light switch and…

[Thump] [Flutter]

What the heck…?

Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw movement on the other side of the room. I climbed out of bed and turned on another light and…

[Thump] [Flutter] [SWOOP!] [DIVEBOMB!]


Yes, somehow a bat had gotten into my (not at all large) bedroom, and it was now swooping wildly in a panic around my head as I ducked and shrieked. The bat kept banging into the door looking for an exit and then flying back at my face, while I flailed my hands in front of me like a drunk, naked televangelist casting out demons.

I then performed the following three activities, in this order:

1) Grabbed my iPhone so I could capture this event on camera. First I tried a still shot, but I soon realized that a black swooping bat in a dark room was not going to be visible. Then I switched over to video mode and tried to follow the flight of the bat while simultaneously ducking and weaving out of the way. It became clear right away that not only was I going to fail in capturing any footage of the bat flapping around the room, but I was also most likely to accidentally capture footage of my own man parts flapping around the room. I am not Googling “drunk guy accidentally filming his own junk” to see if there is a salable market for this.

Just one of the quality action photos:

2) I put down the phone, and selected the most appropriate defensive weapon I could find — a pillow. I don’t think I have to remind anyone how effective this gambit has been in any number of vampire movies.

3) I began edging toward the bat, which was currently hanging on the wall above the door. I held the pillow in front of me and occasionally swung it in a manner that was intended to convey a combination of empathy and defensive menace. The bat took one look at the wild naked guy crab-walking across the room waving a plush bludgeon and high-tailed it for the ceiling, where it hung upside down and looked at me as if I were a lunatic. Bats are surprisingly good judges of character.

I managed to crank open the door, and as I slowly backed away the bat flew into the hallway. I don’t know where it went after that, because I slammed the door and waited for my heartbeat to slow from Defcon Hamster to normal. For all I know, the bat may have flown downstairs to eat my bananas and write a sternly-worded note in the guestbook.

To make matters worse, I awoke this morning with some itchy, swollen insect bites on my feet and hands, so clearly these bats aren’t doing their job of eating bugs in the house. If I catch malaria, dengue fever or any of the extensive catalog of tropical diseases warned about in the US State Department travel advisory, I know a bat that is going to be given a severe pillowing.

It’s Cloudy in a Cloud Forest

Yesterday I took a tour to Volcán Mombacho, the allegedly-dormant volcano that towers over Granada. The tour brochure suggested bringing walkable shoes, a jacket, mosquito repellent and water, advice that was soundly rejected by most of the rest of the tour group, to their later chagrin. But not by me. I also brought sunscreen, food, pens, paper, a GPS and a hat. It’s my Alaskan survival instinct. I cannot go to the mall without taking a week’s worth of freeze dried food and signal flares. Hadas will back this up.

Also: “Volcán Mombacho” would be a great name for a professional wrestler.

The tour was to begin at 9:30 a.m., and it was a short walk over to the office, where I paid the fee and met our guide, David (pronounced Da-VEED), and our driver, Javíer (pronounced Javíer). Another couple was also waiting there for the tour, a lovely young pair from London. We made introductions and the three of us piled into the back of a four-wheel drive vehicle that seats six comfortably. David told us we were going to pick up six more people.

We took a couple loops around Granda picking up the rest of the tour participants. The cast of characters included another young couple from London, a couple in their late 60s from the North Carolina coast, and a doughy couple from Atlanta that looked like a chunky Amy Adams and a dorky Phil Mickelson.

The nine of us were squeezed into the back of the 4WD vehicle on two benches that faced each other, a bit like a prison transport vehicle only with less random shivving. David launched into a lengthy and painstakingly-detailed explanation of what we would do on today’s tour, leaving out absolutely nothing. I’m not certain, but I think he was being paid by the word.

During the drive we all made introductions and small talk. One of the Brits played bass in a band. “Just like Sting!” said the grandmother from North Carolina. Dork Mickelson groused about trying to order breakfast in English. Apparently Nicaragua did not change its official language to English just because he showed up and wanted flapjacks.

After 25 minutes of driving, most of which was spent with David telling us what we were going to see on the tour, we reached the base of the mountain. Because the road up to the top is a narrow cobblestoned affair, we had to stop and check in at the main booth so they could radio ahead and make sure that nobody was coming down at the same time. We turned off the air conditioning (the engine needed all the power it could get), slid open the windows and cranked into first gear. Up the mountain we went. Thanks to the power of gravity, inertia and cobblestones, we got to know each other real well during the next 15 minutes.

David, who had given up the front passenger seat to Grandpa North Carolina, was now sitting in the back, and as I wedged into him like a teenage boy at a drive-in movie, we cheerfully conversed in my very bad Spanish. Eventually he decided to teach me some popular Nicaraguan slang aphorisms. Either my Spanish is very fuzzy, or Nicaraguan parents like to admonish their children: “The one-armed monkey that swims with a cat on its head, often enjoys licking peanut butter out of a horse hotel.”

About halfway up the mountain we reached our first destination, a coffee farm. There wasn’t anything we could actually see (such as farming, bean processing, roasting, separating, packaging, Starbucking, etc), but David gamely spent 15 minutes describing the process for us in painstaking detail, shouting to be heard over the bean sorting equipment that was in a building we didn’t have access to. We also got free samples of coffee to drink — neither I nor Sting are coffee drinkers, for those keeping score — and a chance to roam around the gift shop to purchase coffee beans, t-shirts or Nature Valley granola bars.

David and I popped into the bathroom at the same time, and he joked in Spanish that these were the nicest bathrooms in Nicaragua. Actually, I don’t think he was joking. They were wicked nice bathrooms.

We all piled back into the 4WD and continued our ascent up the mountain. After another 10 minutes we reached the visitor’s center, where we piled out for our hike around the volcano rim through the cloud forest. It was delightfully cool up at 1,000 meters, and also impenetrably cloudy. When clear, there is a spectacular view of Granada, Managua, Lake Nicaragua and many hundreds of square miles. We had a view of the following: clouds.

Gamely, we plunged ahead onto the trail, with David keeping up a running commentary about every plant in the forest. He spent a fair amount of time looking up into the trees to try to find us a sloth (spoiler: fail) and poking around in random bromeliads to try to find a salamander (spoiler: fail). He also pointed out a number of orchids, and seemed to be particularly interested in the tiniest of the tiny orchids, which he showed us with great gusto. I can report that a tiny orchid looks remarkably like “nothing.”

The niftiest thing we saw was a sensitive plant, the kind that folds up its leaves and retracts when you touch it, sort of like Little Shop of Horrors without the songs, dancing or Rick Moranis. We all got down and spent some time poking plants. I’m fairly certain we looked like morons.

Another development: socked in by clouds, and with the wind howling, it started to get rather cold. After suffering through 90 degree heat in Granada for four days it was pure bliss to feel the cool wind on my skin. The Brits, however, were shivering like they were in the Antarctic, and apparently none of them had heeded the direction to bring jackets. They were getting progressively more miserable, but gamely tried to put on a happy face as we reached an exposed overlook and stood in the howling wind to enjoy a spectacular view of the following: clouds.

Periodically we would pass another tour group and the guides would whisper to one another “Peresoso? Peresoso?” They really wanted to produce a sloth for us, but alas it was not to be. One of the tour guides was nicknamed Jackie Chan, because he bore a (vague) resemblance to a Nicaraguan Jackie Chan. David told us that everyone in Nicaragua has a nickname. We asked what his nickname was, and he sheepishly told us: Hombre Verde — Green Man. He asked if we could guess why. I figured it was because of his interest in the forests and plants, but it turned out to be because The Incredible Hulk was popular in Nicaragua when he was growing up and his friends used to call him David Banner. It’s a small world, folks.

As we stood around waiting for the clouds to clear (spoiler: nope), David didn’t hesitate to give us his opinions on a variety of topics including witch doctors, politicians and Costa Ricans. None of these were favorable. He also appeared deeply chagrined about the lack of a view, as if it was his own personal fault that a cloud forest was covered in clouds.

Toward the middle of the hike we reached the fumaroles, which are steam vents in the volcano. This immediately called into question exactly how dormant this dormant volcano actually is. One minute we were freezing our British tushies off, and the next minute we were standing next to a giant gaping hole in the ground with warm sauna-like air wafting over us. Let’s just say I’m not going to buy property on this mountain any time soon.

We then headed back toward the visitor center, passing through a narrow crevice that had been formed by an earthquake, to an overlook where we enjoyed a spectacular view of: more clouds.

The visitor’s center had a small snack bar and an impressive collection of dead snakes in jars, which made me lose interest in both snacking and hiking. [Note: Insert your own Samuel L. Jackson impression here.]

From there it was back down the mountain, accompanied by David’s running commentary on Nicaraguan food (the three local specialties are: nacatamales, a wholly-unique Nicaraguan version of the tamale; quesillos, a tortilla with cheese that you suck out of a bag; and vigorón, which is cabbage and pork rinds served on a banana leaf). David claimed that you cannot get good nacatamales in any restaurant, which makes me call into question its status as the national food.

Back at the tour headquarters I tipped David 200 Cordobas, which with the exchange rate works out to about .00000000001 cent per word.

That night, after a long nap, I went out for a walk around central Granada. I do a lot of walking at night in Latin America. It’s cooler and often hauntingly beautiful.

Today was a low-key day. I have a number of projects I’m working on while I’m down here, so I spent a good deal of time writing. At midday I ventured out in the sun to the supermarket and the Mercado to pick up some food and toothpaste and two different varieties of banana (cute and cuter).

Around 5:30 p.m. I made the world-class stupid decision to go for a run, figuring with the sun setting it must be cooler. It was not. It was 90 degrees. I huffed and puffed and sweated my way through a 3.5 mile run, to the bemusement of the citizens of Granada who made the international face for “What the hell is that gringo running around in 90 degree weather for?” It did not help that I was carrying signal flares.

Settling In

Here’s a handy tip for anyone traveling abroad: Do not read the US State Department Travel Advisory for the country you are visiting. Despite being considered by many to be one of the safest countries in the Americas, the State Department website has a laundry list of potential hazards, including:

  • Political demonstrations and strikes that occasionally become violent, including any of the following: tear gas, rubber bullets, fireworks, rock-throwing, tire burning, road blocks, bus/vehicle burning.
  • Armed robberies.
  • Kidnappings.
  • Sexual assault, murder, rapes.
  • Carjacking.
  • Freshwater sharks.

OK, that last one isn’t actually on the State Department list, but Lake Nicaragua (a 10 minute walk from my casa) is one of two lakes in the world featuring sharks. For those keeping score it’s the Bull Shark, an enterprising monster that is able to swim from the ocean, up many miles of rivers, until it reaches a lake where it can eat tourists while limiting its sodium intake. Needless to say I’m extra cautious when stepping into the shower around here, and if I come across a political demonstration I’m going to watch for burning sharks.

Possible source of political unrest. Look who’s running for Presidente:

Nicaragua is also the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, trailing only Haiti (the heavyweight champion of poor countries). Even with the shine they put on Granada for tourists, it still has a feel of poverty about it. Besides the obvious beggars in the streets, there’s just a sense that nothing is quite being kept up like it should. Mexico seemed like Dubai compared to here. Because of the vast wealth differential between the people of Nicaragua and tourists, petty crime such as theft and pickpocketing are said to be rampant. Notwithstanding all that, I’m of the mind that the vast majority of Nicaraguans are good, honest people, so I plunge ahead into crowds without being especially paranoid. So far everyone I’ve interacted with has been very nice, but I don’t go walking around flashing my gold chains and diamonds like I do at home.

Granada’s central point is the Parque Central, which is about four blocks from my casa. One of the quirks about this place is that there are no street addresses, so everything is described in relation to something else. For instance, my place is on “Calle Corrales, four houses toward the lake from the gym.” Everything is described this way. Finding specific businesses can be a bit of a challenge.

I like this address system, though. I think I’m going to start using it at home. From now on, address my mail to:

Andrew Berkowitz
45th Street
Three doors west of the the crazy guy who walks around with a military backpack while peeking in people’s garbage cans

Vancouver, Washington 

Yesterday I did some initial exploring, including a walk through the Mercado Municipal. This is a fairly massive open air market sprawling over several city blocks, some of it outside, some of it inside, and some of it under a mass of tents and awnings. I’ve been through there twice now, and each time I get lost and can’t find my way back to where I was before. The market has vendors selling everything from eggs to fruits and vegetables, to meat and sausage, to beans, rice, spices and fish. The fish section of the market is a smell I will not soon forget.

Need a whole pig’s head? Done. And also a pair of shoes and a bootleg CD of Celine Dion? No problem. It’s a mass of dark, narrow, winding passageways with everything you can possibly imagine. Very few tourists seem to venture in there; they seem to stick to the four block stretch around the Parque Central. As far as fruits and vegetables, there seems to be an abundance of onions, tomatoes and about 25 different varieties of bananas. Yesterday I bought some delicious mini bananas that taste almost nothing like the bananas in the US and are, to put it plainly, adorable.

Horse-drawn carriages are one of the primary forms of transportation. There are mercifully few cars in Granada, and most of those are taxis or motorcycles:

This morning I was awoken at 6:30 a.m. by a Catholic processional of some sort outside my window, complete with a giant crucified Jesus statue and accompanied by tubas, trombones and clarinets played by people who may not have technically played these instruments before this morning. I can sleep through a lot, but not amateur tuba hour beneath my bedroom window. Apparently the devout want to beat the heat. 

After a quick morning snack I went out for a walk down to the lake, which stretches as far as the eye can see. (Quick fact: It is the 19th largest lake in the world, the 9th largest lake in the Americas and the largest lake in Central America. Wikipedia did not offer a size comparison to Ricki Lake.)

There’s a long stretch of restaurants and bars near the lake, which were completely closed and empty at 7 a.m. In fact, the entire area was deserted. The lakefront area has the look of something that was hastily built without a lot of thought. For instance, there is a playground for children approximately every 15 feet, which seems excessive unless the entire town is under the age of eight. Also, they have entirely superfluous signs in front of everything. For instance, there was a sign in front of the playground that showed a picture of a playground, in case you couldn’t figure out what the swings and slide were by, you know, looking at them. And even more puzzling, a sign in front of an area for posting signs that showed that it was a sign posting area. I have a feeling that the designer of the lakefront area was Capitán Obvious.

I was hot and sweaty when I got back to the casa, and the internet was still out (and had been since the night before), so I took a shower and went to a lovely cafe to have breakfast and avail myself of some complimentary wi-fi. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the exchange rate. It’s about 23 Cordobas to the dollar, and most of the conversions I make in my head are wildly inaccurate. My 87 Cordoba breakfast was about $3.80. The money here is gorgeous, which I guess makes sense because it’s essentially more decorative than functional.

After breakfast I did some more exploring of the town, arranged a tour to the top of Volcán Mombacho for tomorrow, and came back to the casa to get some work done. While I was working, Roberta the housekeeper came by to clean. She comes for an hour or more every day, which is wild overkill. By the end of my trip she will have spent more time cleaning this house than I’ve spent in total cleaning my own house over the last 20 years. She left this afternoon at 4:30 and is coming back tomorrow morning. I’m actually starting to feel panicky about messing up the house enough in the intervening 15 hours to make it worth her time. I may let a passing goat into the house for a nightcap.

The decoration of this house could be described as “Basic Chicken”:

The casa features a small (unheated) jetted pool in the middle of the living room. I have not yet been in it, but two Michael Phelps-sized cockroaches did laps last night:

Travel Day to Nicaragua

The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. to start my long travel day to Nicaragua. Ordinarily, the only time I’m awake at that hour is to rush Hadas to the hospital, so I was a bit disoriented while getting breakfast and a shower. Luckily, one of us is a morning person. The other one of us is “me.”

Unbeknownst to me, the security line at the airport is crazy long for early morning flights. This was apparently beknownst to the TSA, as they had a large squad there to handle the rush, and I got to my gate with 10 minutes to spare. I was considering it a good omen that I didn’t leave anything behind at security, until I was walking away and a woman called after me to ask if the see-through ladies cosmetics bag on the conveyor belt was mine. Apparently I exude “transvestite.”

The first leg of my flight, from Portland to Denver on Southwest Airlines, was uneventful. It was my first-ever flight with wi-fi, something I had been looking forward to with great anticipation and which promptly caused me to fall asleep. When I awoke I fired up my iPhone just in time for them to announce that we had begun our descent and it was time to put away electronic devices. I remain zero-for-inflight-wi-fi.

My subsequent flights from Denver to Managua were going to be on Continental Airlines, which is now sort of merged with United Airlines and sort of not. I think it’s a common-law merger. Just to confuse matters, the actual reservation was made on something called Copa Airlines, which was being operated by Continental. I would describe the whole relationship as “Airline with benefits.” I put the odds of actually seeing a plane at around 50-50.

I had received cheerful automated emails and phone calls from Continental the day before telling me I could check in online, and when I did so they offered to email me my boarding passes. Sweet! The attached file they sent by email was a PDF that said “We can’t give you boarding passes because someone needs to check your passport.” Thanks guys. Most helpful attachment ever.

Their mobile site claimed that I could get boarding passes at any Continental kiosk, so I dutifully found a Continental kiosk in the United customer service area (of course) and started the check-in process. After verifying my flight information, the kiosk informed me that I should scan my passport. The only problem was I didn’t see how I could achieve this. I attempted the following maneuvers:

  1. Tried to insert the magnetic strip of my open passport into the credit card slot. Result: fail. Not even close to the right size slot.
  2. Tried inserting my closed passport into the other slot in the machine, which I realized (in hindsight) is the slot where the boarding passes come out of. Result: sheepish fail.
  3. Looking around to make sure nobody was watching, I tried holding my open passport up to the touch screen in case the touch screen also had some sort of scanner built in. Result: mortified fail.

It turns out that there is no way to scan your passport at the kiosks, but nobody bothered to tell the person who wrote the software (presumably the same programmer who devised a PDF attachment to say “This PDF does not contain your boarding passes, nyah nyah nyah”). So I pressed the cancel button and went to my gate to wait for a person to show up so I could show them my passport. Eventually I got my boarding pass. If anyone asks me, I’m telling them the kiosks are voice activated.

The flight to Houston was uneventful. I slept some more and decided not to pay $7.99 for in-seat DirecTV, as I have no need to see “Whitney” at 35,000 feet (or at any altitude, for that matter).

(Please note that the joke in the previous paragraph has now guaranteed that some poor schmo googling for “Whitney Houston” is going to land on this blog.)

Upon landing in Houston I texted my ex-Texan friend Donna, as is the tradition, and she texted back with the traditional desultory Houston remarks. That accomplished, I went to the next gate where they re-examined my passport to make sure it hadn’t expired in the time it took me to fly from Denver. It hadn’t. We boarded the plane for Managua and were off!

In-flight movie: The Big Year. I didn’t watch it, but I would describe it as 90 minutes of Steve Martin and Jack Black making funny faces at birds.

Other notable details about the flight:

  1. They served a meal. I didn’t know they still did that. It was some sort of “chicken” patty on a bun. I made a funny face at it.
  2. The couple sitting next to me were from Houston. When we landed, they immediately turned on their iPhones and ran up $42,000 worth of roaming charges before they figured out how to turn off their phones. I should add that, at takeoff, they interpreted the part about “Please turn off your electronic devices” to mean “Please check Facebook while the plane is accelerating down the runway.” That farm isn’t going to ville itself, apparently.
  3. As we were waiting to de-plane, the couple asked me if I was traveling alone and when I told them I was they informed me that I was going to get mugged and die.

Going through customs was a breeze, with a $10 fee for, I think, dealer prep. I had to fill out the usual forms promising that I was not bringing any livestock or more than $500,000 in cash into the country. I’m not sure what the ruling is on $500,000 worth of livestock. As usual I was the only traveler with no checked baggage (he said smugly), so I was first to pass through the final exit, where they x-rayed my backpack to make sure it contained no cows.

I needed to get to Granada, Nicaragua, which is about an hour from Managua, or 36 minutes by the insane taxi driver who brought me here. The taxi, which was in a state of repair that I would describe as “dis,” was going about 70 miles per hour where the speed limit was 70 kilometers per hour. It was like watching someone play a Nintendo game, only I only have one life. I got several lessons in advanced physics going through traffic circles at high speed. I was also half asleep at this point, which was probably the only thing that kept me from having a full-fledged panic attack. Flying through the Nicaraguan countryside at night while Adele blares from the radio is very cinematic.

We arrived in Granada and got to the rental house, where the landlord (an American, who lives down here part of the year) gave me an hour-long tour, which included details such as:

  1. Don’t let anyone into the house.
  2. Seriously, don’t let anyone into the house.
  3. The house — don’t let anyone into it.

I think with some judicious editing the tour could have been reduced to about five minutes.

He also mentioned that the place had been fumigated that afternoon, so I “might wake up to a lot of dead bugs on the floor.” And there was a spot in the roof where bats roosted, so I “might wake up to some bat doots on the floor.” (I’m paraphrasing.) In reality, I woke up to goats at the front door, though presumably not $500,000 worth.

Eventually, after demonstrating how to operate the keys and the locks (remarkably similar to keys and locks in the USA, I’m happy to report) he left and I was able to get some sleep.

The view out my front door:

A mule (or equivalent) pulling a cart:

The most cheerful funeral home sign ever. A smiling guy in a tuxedo leaping out of a coffin. He’s either thrilled to be dead, or pulling one rockin’ practical joke on his family: