Showing posts with label honeymoon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label honeymoon. Show all posts

Saturday, January 19, 2013

This Country For Old Men

I would say you'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard some inklings of the gun control debate currently raging - quite rightly - in the USA. But then if you lived in a cave in America, you would probably own a few guns (that's not to say that all gun owners live in caves). Even non-Americans would have gotten some news of this debate: I know my students certainly have.

Brendan has an interesting view of things that is worth a read - someone really needs to hire him as an advisor to something - but I want to go in a different direction as I explore the merits of gun control here, from an expat in Taiwan perspective.

The Setting

Most of my friends are hippie liberal East Coast Ivory Tower elitist feminist godless socialists, but I have a few Facebook friends who are not: people I knew in high school, mostly. And a few friends-of-friends or people on subscribed feeds with different views. Their perspectives come from being Americans who value the Second Amendment and feel that the right granted to them in this amendment to bear arms is of the utmost importance - right up there with freedom of speech, religion, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (personally, I think universal health care, including paid sick days and maternity leave, falls in with "the pursuit of happiness", but that's a different debate). That this right should be considered before any other discussion of gun control legislation or restriction. Most, if not all, of these people are "responsible gun owners": the ones who own a few guns for hunting or marksmanship, who keep them locked up, have learned how to operate them safely, and who treat them with care. Even as a liberal hippie leftist East Coast Ivory Tower elitist feminist godless socialist Communist, I actually think that's, well, it's OK. I am not entirely against their right to own those guns.

Responsible Ownership: The Other Side of the Story

My own father owns a few guns - for hunting and for skeet shooting. He rarely engages in those activities now, but he used to. I remember as a child that he'd go hunting with his best friend from his hometown, and while I am generally not interested in hunting and have strongly considered going vegetarian, I never had any strong feelings of opposition to this. He knows how to operate a gun, knows how to own them safely (they were always locked away when we were children, disabled, with the ammunition and some other essential part - I'm no expert - locked away in different places).

I never looked for the keys, never tried to break into the gun cabinet. But then I was generally a good kid, although a bit rebellious and mouthy. I was never systematically bad. I was also terrified of those guns, and Dad was very careful to make sure we never knew where the key was (I still don't know). I can imagine a scenario in which  a kid not terrified but fascinated, with a parent less detailed in his efforts to make them unobtainable, successfully tries to get their hands on "locked away" guns.

That's where my very small sympathetic bent comes from, anyway.

But It Really Is Safer!

Now, I live in Taiwan - a country where guns are illegal for all but certain authorities (think government security, law enforcement, the military). I have to say that, as much as I understand the mindset of "responsible gun owners", I feel so much safer in a country where guns are banned. Just plain, outright, done-and-done banned. I do prefer it. I do not feel as though I have lost an essential right. I do not feel that my American right to bear arms compares with my rights to freedom of speech and religion. I feel that peoples' right to "life and liberty" - the "liberty" being something I have not had to obtain at gunpoint, and probably never will - supercede the rights of others to own guns. Guns are a machine designed to take away life, and an area with a lot of guns is not one that I feel at liberty to walk freely in. Just ask how many times I went to the worst parts of Washington DC (answer: I used to do literacy tutoring in Shaw, and on U Street before it gentrified, and while I've skirted worse areas, I have never felt I had the liberty to walk in them). In Taiwan I feel this right to life and liberty has been reasonably granted me.

I simply prefer things this way - because for as much as people say "guns don't kill people, people kill people", the fact is that with far fewer guns on the street, far fewer people are killed. This can't just be a cultural difference, and it can't be that countries who enjoy microscopically low rates of gun violence, who have banned guns, would continue to enjoy that if they allowed guns and "taught people to use them responsibly". Any quick survey of common sense would show that to be ludicrous: if Taiwan had more guns, including legal guns, gun violence would go up. It's not just a matter of culture, it's also a matter of, well...guns.

I Don't Fear Imaginary Hitler

And, I dunno 'bout you, but I prefer that it stay down. I am willing to give up my right to own a gun in order to keep it down. I do not fear that I will have to arm myself against a fascist government (another argument used). Honestly, if such a government were to arise, people would find ways of fighting back. Taiwan managed to go from dictatorship to democracy without an armed populace - in fact, many countries have made the transition to democracy without a bullets-to-bullets war. The ones that have done so the most successfully are the ones where the people faced the guns of their oppressors and, yes, some of them died, but rather than shoot back, they refused to stand down. I'll take a Gandhian overthrow of a government, or the slightly messier but otherwise successful democratic reforms in Taiwan over a messy revolution (from 18th and 19th century France to the Civil War to the failed Tamil Tigers to Syria today) that leads to, well, chaos and a continued bloody aftermath.


Besides, banning guns does not mean that all the Bad Guys will just get them illegally, either (another thing I heard on Facebook, and have come across elsewhere). My experience in Asia is that some bad guys obtain guns illegally - certainly illegal firearms exist in Taiwan - but those bad guys seem mostly to be Really Big Boss types, and aren't generally concerned with mowing down civilians (instead they mow down each other).

The gunfights that do occur in Taiwan tend to be personal or gang feuds, and these days don't really seem to be something that affects unrelated people (the occasional politician being the exception). I did do some Googling to see if I could find any news of non-gang related shootings in Taiwan, and can't find much at all - nothing dating from after 2004.  (I also found this, but the data is old, and it's not clear who these "unintentionally shot" people were).

What this seems to breed, then, is a country were gangsters have illegally obtained guns, but people not involved in that world are unlikely to be unaffected by it. You are about as likely to get hit by a stray bullet anywhere in Taiwan as you are to, I dunno, catch malaria here (I know, I really should actually do the math on that before I say it...lazy, lazy blogger - all I can say is the last case of locally contracted malaria that I can find in search results dates from 2003). You, as a non-gangster, are almost certain not to be the victim of or involved in gun violence. Home robbery does happen - I can't find much online in terms of statistics of home robbery in involving guns and home robbery without guns in Taiwan - but anecdotal evidence from asking around seems to be that robbers generally carry knives, but your chances of getting killed by a robber with a knife are less than that of a robber with a gun.

It's the guys who might otherwise participate in drive-bys, or try to take out a post office or elementary school, or mug or rob you, who can obtain guns legally in America, can't in Taiwan, and probably won't obtain them illegally here. Those are the guys I'm afraid of - those are the ones most likely to affect me. Restricting gun access keeps guns out of their hands in the way that it doesn't in the USA, and I'm all for that.

In short, "but bad guys will just get guns illegally" is not really a valid argument. Some will, but not the ones likely to kill you, unless you owe Boss Huang a particularly large gambling debt. If you do, good luck t'ya.

(Don't get me wrong, I'd like to see gang violence decrease, too, but I'm more concerned about innocent civilian deaths).

Finally, the lunatics who shoot up schools and kill children?  In countries where guns are banned, they tend not to attack with guns. There are still assaults in schools, but the body counts are much lower.  Contrary to the pro-gun "but they'll just get guns anyway" line, well, no, they won't. That's something.

Put all this together, and I feel safer in Taiwan. I am happier not having the right to own a gun here, and in return feeling safer. I can walk through "dodgy" neighborhoods: I don't fear for my life in down-at-heel Wanlong, or scruffy, gangster-infested Sanchong, or even olde-tyme gangster haven Wanhua/Longshan Temple. Even late at night, those places do not scare me. I would never walk through similar areas at night in major American cities. I would not feel safe.

"But Hitler and Stalin Took Away Guns! And Look What Happened!"

Yes, they did. China has done the same, and China's certainly not free.

But you know who else took away guns? Modern, safe, democratic Germany, not to mention Japan, the UK (in fact, most of Europe), Australia...and those are the safest countries in the world. "They took our guns!" does NOT automatically equal "They're the next Hitler!"

Quite the opposite, in fact. Those countries tend to be free, democratic, developed and safe. Countries I would be proud and happy to live in. Countries where I would feel free, not like my sacred rights are being taken away.

No Really, Guns Help People Kill People

And you know, countries with fairly liberal gun policies, such as most of Central America (but not all - you can do a search by country here. I've set it to Honduras, where firearms are fairly easy to obtain, because it's consistently ranked as one of the more dangerous countries in terms of gun violence)...tend to be the most dangerous.

I have never felt anything other than safe in Japan, Taiwan and Europe. When we went to Central America, we saw lots of guns (like, really lots of guns, guys, as in, armed guards outside ice cream parlors) and didn't feel particularly safe. In fact, we took great care. In the Philippines, where gun ownership is supposedly restrictive, but in fact are quite common. I didn't feel entirely unsafe, but I didn't feel entirely safe, either. The pistol packed by the kindly old man at the front desk of our hotel in Cebu didn't really assuage my anxiety.

As a good friend has said, guns are designed to kill, or at least to injure or instill fear. They are "fine pieces of machinery" too, but the purpose of that machinery really is to kill. Sure, you can use them for marksmanship, but you can also use blanks, BB guns and do archery for that. So I would just re-name them "killing machines", because that's what they are. That's what they're designed for. That's why you can't compare a lunatic with a gun to a drunk driver and say "should we just take away everyone's cars, too?" - a car is not designed to kill. A gun is. Not comparable.

Then, instead of saying "you're just unreasonably afraid" as a response to "I fear guns", nobody would have much to say to "I fear killing machines". Because who wouldn't?

In Summary...

As someone who lives abroad in a country where it is illegal for civilians to possess firearms, I don't feel as though my rights have been taken away. In fact, I look at my home country, and I am sad for them. I wish the USA could find a way to be as safe, as generally peaceful in day-to-day life, as Taiwan. Where kids really can go to school without fear, where I can walk wherever I like at any time,  where even the majority of bad guys don't have guns, and those who do aren't interested in me. I have no emotional attachment to my Second Amendment rights as an American. I don't put it on the same level as my right to certain freedoms, and I think most people in the world would agree: you'd get a lot of people defending the right to free speech and religion (and some detractors, but there are always people like that), and very few outside the USA defending the right to own a gun as equal to those rights above. And I'm with them.

I'd rather feel safe than have that right, and I live in a country where I feel safe. That country is not the USA. I live in a country that is free, that is democratic, that gives its citizens liberty and a voice in government like the USA, but one that is markedly less violent. That's not just a cultural difference, it's a difference in how many guns there are. There are gangs in Taiwan, there are violent people. The two cultures are very different but in this way, not so much. The difference here truly does lie in guns. Not education, not people, not media (between Hong Kong action films, bloody adult anime and Apple Daily gory cartoon depictions of murder scenes, that's just plainly not true), and it's not exactly a God-fearing country in the way Americans would think of one. Also, mental health care isn't that great (there are good doctors but a lot of social stigma and a dearth of treatment facilities, so a lot of people with mental illnesses go untreated). Guns. Not other things. Guns. Fewer guns =  fewer deaths, and you can dispute that 'till your ass turns blue (because that's where those arguments come from), but it's just plain true.

Living here has allowed me to observe, to watch the news more carefully and with more personal interest, of what goes on around the world vis-a-vis guns vs. what goes on in the USA (or Central America). It has allowed me to see firsthand how a lot of the myths gun proponents tell themselves are simply not true. It has allowed me to see just how right Jon Stewart is (watch the whole show, I say. It's worth it).

Would I vote "yes" on a repeal of the 2nd Amendment? Yes, I probably would. My desire for fewer guns is greater than my respect for the Second Amendment (another amendment was repealed when it was found not to be working - it's not taboo, in my book, to consider it). Is that likely to ever happen? No. Gun owners need not fear that. Would I be also OK with stricter licensing, broader powers for the ATF (including a true national database) and a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons so that responsible gun owners could keep their guns, and crazies could be kept from the bazookas, and gangsters as away as possible from the sawed-offs? Yes. I'd prefer fewer guns overall. It is not my strongest opinion - those are reserved for civil, gay and women's rights - but I won't fight for another's right to own a gun, as much as they feel they have that right. I won't stand behind them.

So, for this and other reasons, Taiwan is where I'm staying. America can't seem to grow the fuck up on this issue, and I feel sorry for them.


And Now For Something Completely Different: Dihua Street Gets Fresh Lease On Life

I wanted to share it because it's a lovely article, and exhort everyone to spend some time on Dihua Street. I go there often (all my tailoring is done and DIY supplies are bought there, and the food is great) - it's worth the trip to the west end of Taipei.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Honeymoon Redux V: Panama!

And now we come, at last, to the beginning of our trip!

Exhausted, with me getting over a nasty cold picked up in New York (I think it was wedding stress finally come to a head - I also spent the first week of our honeymoon annoyed at the angry red line of zits marching across my jaw, a sure sign of burnout), we arrived in Panama City at about 11pm. Panama City is the safest and most developed of the urban centers of Central America, which is why we chose to start there. Regardless, it's not a place where you want to land at 11pm - although a friend of mine who not long ago landed in Manila at 3am had it much worse.

We caught a taxi into town, all of the collectivos being done for the night. Driving through the red light district that rings the old city at midnight, Brendan said, "Why do I have the sinking feeling that this looks like some of the nicest parts of cities we're going to see later?"

I grimaced, because I knew he was probably right. He probably was, but we miraculously managed to avoid spending a night in any of the other major cities save Tegucigalpa, and there we got ourselves to a decent hotel before you could say "thugs with guns are going through our luggage".

We stayed in the Hospedaje Casco Viejo ("hospedaje" being Latin American Spanish for "crazy cheap place that foreign backpackers stay in") which was pretty nice. Great location, safe enough inside Casco Viejo, with bare-minimum rooms that are fine for US $20 a night, good tourist info and free Internet and wifi. The bed felt like it was basically a square of styrofoam three feet deep, but hey.

We took our breakfasts in Cafe Coca Cola which, despite this guy bagging on it, has exactly what you think it has: cheap, filling breakfasts that deliver exactly what they promise and really good orange juice.

We spent the first day, still exhausted, wandering Casco Viejo, visiting crumbling churches and old colonial buildings. A bunch of children in a gazebo near the Cathedral of Panama were crunching on these things - I forget the name - so we got some too.

It was like Taiwanese shaved ice, only VERY VERY PINK, and it tasted as pink as it looked. Ask me what the "flavor" of it was, and I'll answer "Pink. Pink with sugar".

Brendan in the old city - yes, I posed him like that and he's such a good sport that he actually did it.

We never made it to downtown Panama City - I got the feeling it would look close up much like it does from a distance:

Whereas charming (and slightly grimy) Casco Viejo has a lot of back street charm.

...but isn't always all that nice:

It's advised not to wander too much at night, though as a pair we felt OK in this part of the old city. We enjoyed the Cathedral of Panama by twilight before heading out to dinner.

The next day we walked straight up the pedestrian shopping street leading out of Casco Viejo to Plaza Cinco de Mayo. Every other way out of Casco Viejo is, to be frank, a slum - this is the only reasonably safe way out on foot (which is why a lot of people who stay in Casco Viejo take taxis).

From Plaza Cinco de Mayo, you can catch a bus to a terminal way out in some urban offshoot, from where you can catch yet another bus to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. It's touristy, but totally worth it (and a bit of a long walk from the road).

Even today, it's still a technological marvel, and yes, the sailors on the cargo ships get a kick out of waving to people as they go through.

And yet, people still hang laundry from the sign.

The next day we caught a bus to David and transferred to a minibus to Boquete. We stayed at the Pension Marilos - a bit out of town but highly recommended. They have two friendly dogs and a parrot named Ricky (Me: "What's your name?" Ricky: "RICKY!" Me: "Are you a good bird?" Ricky: "RICKY!") and comfortable digs. Reserving in advance is a good idea.

Boquete is cooler, and in the hills. In the rainy season you get dewy, cool mornings and overcast, rainy afternoons every day. On our first day we trekked up to Cafe Ruiz past several homes owned by wealthy American retirees - it's not a myth: Boquete really is a major retirement hub. On the upside, it helps the economy. The downside? Areas that were once coffee farms are now gated communities for rich, old folks and the locals can't afford to live on their own land - a similar problem is cropping up in Costa Rica.

We took two tours with Cafe Ruiz - the coffee tasting, in which we drank a lot of coffee and discussed flavor profiles and such 'n such (I'm a total sucker for that stuff if it means I get to drink coffee), and then a coffee plantation tour.

We learned about coffee growing at Cafe Ruiz from beans... drying and roasting.

We were given free coffee beans as souvenirs (their signature light roast which is delish) and I also bought some Panama Guessha/Geisha coffee - $10 US for a bag that would make one pot - which is one of the rarest and most expensive varietals in the world.

I had my buddy at Drop Coffee (滴咖啡) brew it for us (he did it for free - the "fee" was that he got to drink some, too) and I will say it was...basically...the best coffee I've ever had. Sorry, none for you!
Friendly dog at Pension Marilos - he matches the parquet

The next day we went zip line touring with Boquete Tree Trek, which was loads of fun. One of the guides brought along his five-year old, who's been doing this since he was about three (so it's perfectly safe):

Aww, isn't he just Mr. Happy?

...riding with his dad, of course.

Boquete has one of the longest zip lines in the world, with one stretch of line that is several hundred meters long and thoroughly exhilarating.

It's also exhausting, and my arms, legs and chest (chest?) ached for days afterwards, long after we arrived in Costa Rica.

Brendan recovered more quickly.

The next day we grabbed a bus back to David (a small city near the Costa Rican border which inexplicably has a TGI Friday's) and were at the Costa Rican border by noon - more on how we wandered into a band competition in my previous post.

I do wish we'd spent more time in Panama, and would definitely go back to explore everything we missed. The Golfo de Chiriqui, the Parque Internacional la Amistad, the San Blas Islands...maybe not Bocas del Toro, though. Or maybe just for a weekend.

It's not a commonly considered vacation destination in its own right, the way Costa Rica and Guatemala are, but I would say in many ways that Panama was as rewarding as either of those countries and worth a visit in its own right.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Honeymoon Redux IV: Costa Rica

A toucan spotted on our hike near the Rio Piru

Of all our destinations, I'd say that Costa Rica was the most rewarding in terms of wildlife. We spent the majority of our time on the Osa Peninsula, near Corcovado National Park. Being the wet season, it was too hard to hike into Corcovado itself, but the hike we did do came close to the park boundaries and involved lots of wildlife sightings. Even in the wet season, Osa is a great place to see the birds, monkeys, insects and other animals of Central America.

Arriving in Costa Rica from David, Panama fairly early in the day (we made good time from Boquete and got to the border at around 11am), we got a bit lost at the lax border control, where it was clear how to exit Panama but absolutely not clear how to enter Costa Rica. We followed a crowd of people, only to find ourselves in the middle of a junior high school marching band competition. It was an international meet with teams from both countries, so it made the most sense to avoid border hassles on both sides and hold it in the border zone. Leaving that, I asked a security officer how to get into Costa Rica.

"You're in Costa Rica," he said.

Uh oh. How'd we do that? Was it really that easy to just not go through border control?

Sensing that it was a very bad idea indeed not to enter properly, I explained in broken Spanish that nos pasaportes no hay STAMP para entrar Costa Rica while making a stamping motion with my hand. He laughed and directed us to the border, where we found out that Brendan's passport had not been correctly stamped upon leaving Panama. He had to go back to the Panamanian office, get the stamp and return as I watched our bags and sucked on coconut juice from the shell, opened with a machete by a weathered old vendor.

We finally got through and boarded a bus to Golfito, stopping in a few towns along the way where I picked up some platanitos (fried plantain chips) and jugo de tamarindo (tamarind juice) to sate us. I'm a huge fan of both. It was great to be able to call out to vendors on and near the bus and get provisions handed over for a few coins - it reminded me of India and SE Asia (even Laos, where one enterprising bus stop vendor stuck an entire kebab stick of giant fried roaches in my face, thinking I might buy the ungodly thing).

In Golfito, we caught a tiny launch headed for Puerto Jimenez across the gulf. It was easily the most uncomfortable boat ride of my life, with the top and windows closed to keep out drizzly weather and wave splashes, making it unbearably stuffy inside. My insides roiling and legs nearly disfigured under the too-small seat, I was thankful mostly that it was a short ride. It was about a third as long and yet twice as uncomfortable as the dodgy ferry from Danao to the Camotes in the Philippines.

We stayed at Iguana Lodge, which I highly recommend (it's high-end/expensive, though, not for backpackers on a budget). Iguana Lodge is eco-friendly, with buildings that mesh with the oceanside jungle rather than cutting into it, and with eco-friendly policies about energy usage and waste. They hire locals and pay them a living wage to not only work at the resort but also as guides for the various activities on offer.

Iguana Lodge is an eco-friendly alternative if you want to enjoy a high-end vacation in Costa Rica.

What I loved about the place was that we could sit on the balcony of our cabin and watch squirrel monkeys playing in the trees (at one point while showering I looked out the window that opened onto the jungle canopy to see a tiny squirrel monkey peering in...errr...that was unsettling!). You can watch vultures, toucans and pairs of macaws flying overhead and see all manner of things while hiking and kayaking.

This is not the Peeping Tom monkey, but it gives you a good idea of what I saw when I looked over at him (you can see the monkey, right? He's rather small).

I also liked that as one walked between the main house, the cabin, the beach and the restaurant/bar that it really was in the jungle. There were tea lights set out at night and the paths were mostly clear (land crabs came out at night though, and threatened to pinch your toes), but surrounded by connected patches of uncut jungle. Because of this, we could see all sorts of insects, butterflies and tropical plants just walking to and from different parts of the resort.

Our first activity was a day of kayaking. Crocodiles (alligators? The guide told us and I forgot, and Wikipedia seems to think they both live in Central America) swam in the mangrove estuary, and we could occasionally see their eyes popping above the water before they made a hasty retreat. They're very dangerous if provoked, but generally shy otherwise and will give kayaks a wide berth.

We could see babies clamoring around the river edge (look on the log, halfway between land and water).

...and found a nest (the guide said that nest was full of dead eggs and therefore abandoned. After checking, she confirmed that this egg was not viable, which is why we could pick it up).

We then stopped at the shore for some pineapple, stuck on this piece of driftwood for cutting, as the afternoon rains began to drizzle their way in.

While boating we also learned about mangroves and how they are formed, and saw capuchin monkeys playing in the trees above:

The next day we took a hike around the Rio Piru (about 2 hours by car from Iguana Lodge) with the understanding that the river was quite high, so if it started to rain we'd have to head back before it became unfordable, even in the Jeep.

We saw howler monkeys:

A three-toed sloth, sleeping as usual:

Spider monkeys (with baby)!

...unlike these guys (surfers who live locally, we think), our Jeep made it across the river. We did help them by pulling their car out of the mud with the Jeep, or rather, our guide Sidnor did. Thanks to these guys, who apparently think that a family sedan can ford a river in the jungle (???!!), we had to wait an hour or so before we could ford it ourselves. They were still there trying to get the stuff under the hood to dry out when we returned.

As you can see, hiking, even on a hill above the river, does not provide a respite from mud. Surprisingly, these shoes are still (kind of) useable, though I now have much nicer LL Bean hiking boots. I *heart* LL Bean.

We also saw lots of bugs. Some evidence of leafcutter ant activity:

...and this little guy, who is quite poisonous. Don't pick him up; he can kill you.

The bus from Puerto Jimenez in Osa to San Jose leaves at 5am and takes 9 hours on horrendous roads, made worse in the rainy season.

We flew!

...although that sign did not imbue me with a great deal of confidence. The plane was terrifyingly small, easily the smallest I've ever been in - you can see it above. Fortunately, the flight only took about a half hour. How's that for value for money?

We didn't linger in the bad-reputation city of San Jose, and instead boarded a bus for Liberia in the north, up around Guanacaste.

Liberia is not a beautiful town (I don't have any pictures), and there's little to see beyond a small town square and neglected, tiny historical corner. It did, however, boast some advantages. First was that everyone we met was friendly, hospitable and honest. No fighting with the taxi drivers, no bargaining down crazy prices, no attempted scams or feelings of danger. It was a quiet, relaxed town to spend an evening in, which is something of a rarity in tourist-overrun Costa Rica. Being more touristed and developed, Costa Rica is relatively safe for foreigners in terms of major crime (you probably won't get murdered or held for ransom, for example, or get your hand chopped off if you end up in the wrong place during a drug lord shootout), but scams, phony tours, price gouging, touts and pickpockets - some of the most masterful in the world - ply the tourist towns and bus routes, especially around San Jose, parts of the Caribbean coast, Arenal and Monteverde.

It was nice to be able to avoid that, and to be able to easily catch a bus to the Nicaraguan border (what happened once we reached Nicaragua and couldn't figure out how to get the bus to Rivas is another story).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Honeymoon Redux III: Nicaragua

Nicaragua was one of my "surprise" favorite destinations - I was the most excited about Panama after getting ardent recommendations, Costa Rica as it's famous and Guatemala, and was a bit worried that Nicaragua and Honduras would be too dangerous, too sketchy, too overwhelming to really appreciate.

I was, fortunately, wrong.

I enjoyed every moment of relaxed, laid back Nicaragua even though we only made two stops, on Isla de Ometepe and Granada (Granada, Nicaragua is a namesake of Granada, Spain). I found it to be friendly, affordable and enjoyable, with a world-class historic city and lovely natural scenery (although it did rain a lot while we were there).

We took the bus across the border from Liberia, Costa Rica - a refreshingly easy to deal with town in a country so teeming with tourists that its reputation for scams and con-artistry are nearly as legendary as Egypt's and India's. More on that in Part IV.

It was immediately apparent that we were now in the less developed part of Central America - Panama and Costa Rica are both relatively wealthy (by regional standards) and had better infrastructure and a seemingly higher standard of living than I'd expected.

Once we crossed the border to Nicaragua, it was clear how little Nicaragua has in comparison - I've never crossed a border with that much of a striking difference on both sides: India/Bangladesh and Laos/Thailand, not to mention China/Laos - borders where I'd expect to see a huge difference in development on both sides, looked relatively equal on both sides (generally due to border towns on the more developed side being scruffier than the rest of the country they were in). Crossing into Nicaragua, I could almost draw a line with a marker where Costa Rica stopped and much poorer Nicaragua began.

When we arrived we took a Managua-bound bus that would stop in Rivas, a mid-size town up the road from San Jorge, where the ferry left. Just trying to figure out in broken Spanish if the bus to Managua did in fact go to Rivas without a transfer was a huge ordeal, but once on the bus it all worked out. If you cross this border, you will be bombarded by taxi drivers wanting to leech your money away, "helpers" who have forms and lend you pens for immigration and then demand a $1 tip (sadly, I fell for this, and I should know better, but it was $1 and my life will go on. I feel worse about reinforcing and enabling such behavior).

Our first stop was Isla de Ometepe - Ometepetl meaning "two hills" in the local indigenous language - made up of two volcanoes on the massive Lago de Nicaragua.

Lake Nicaragua is less than 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but is connected by a river to the Caribbean. As a result, it was a contender for what eventually became the Panama Canal. Panama was chosen only because it "proved" that its earthquakes were less severe than those of Nicaragua.

Of the twin volcanoes - Volcan Maderas and Volcan Concepcion - Maderas (right) is the lower and easier of the two to climb, whereas more conical Concepcion is a tough hike, an active volcano, and its surrounding land is where most of the development (and the only paved road) on Ometepe is.

And if you're wondering how big the lake is, well, it's big enough to hold an island that hosts two large volcanoes!

The guidebooks praised Charco Verde, a rural area out past the main town of Moyogalpa with good walking trails, natural scenery and gentle, lapping waters. We headed out that way in a taxi - we took the bus at later times but with luggage we figured a taxi was an easier choice - and checked into the Hotel Charco Verde Inn, which was quite nice at a good low season price.

What we hadn't counted on was the rainy season - the walking trails were all washed out, the "beach" was completely flooded, and in the evening tiny white gnats swarmed everywhere.

The sunsets were great though.

I'd happily stay out there the dry season!

To get around we generally took the rickety old bus - buses in much of Nicaragua are mostly decommissioned American school buses painted bright colors and stuck all over with shiny religious stickers and fake BMW logos - and Ometepe seems to get the worst of those (the worst of buses that were considered no longer fit to carry schoolchildren back in the USA).

The room between seats was often so tight that Brendan noted that if the ride to town had been any longer, he might have been permanently disfigured.

One thing that Ometepe does have is an abundance of picturesque little churches.

...and here, like in the rest of the country, people take their freedom of speech very seriously. Most blank spaces were covered with political graffiti - pro-Ortega as this one below, pro-Sandinista but anti-Ortega, and anti-Sandinista.

Someone thinks they should re-elect Daniel Ortega in 2011.

Coca-Cola is everywhere in Nicaragua - it's almost a bit too much.

To get to our hotel on Charco Verde, we would get off the bus at the turnoff and then walk for 10 minutes down a dirt road between farms. At one point this idiotic dalmatian (he really was a moron) that had been following us decided to sniff a cow's butt. The cow was not pleased.

On the second day, we climbed halfway up Volcan Maderas (the easier of the two climbs) to the cloudline. Due to trees and constant cloud cover there's rarely a view from the top, so we were happy with stopping at the cloud line - plus the final 2 hours of the hike gets very steep, damp and slippery. I can do it, but I'm not gonna do it for no view!

From here you can see Concepcion, also covered in clouds as usual. It's like the clouds are attracted to the peaks.

I do recommend hiring a guide to take you on the hike if you go here - it's not expensive, you can book it easily in Moyogalpa (transportation is a bit expensive though) and the trails are a bit hard to follow in places - it'll be good to have someone who knows their way. I would, however, make sure that you read your guidebook on good tour agencies that will arrange a guide and you choose one yourself - don't hire a guide who seeks you out.

The views, as above, are amazing, you are likely to see all sorts of interesting animals, from insects to monkeys. It was not that cloudy (at least below the cloud line - derr) or muddy the day we hiked but I absolutely believe that once you cross the cloudline, it gets extremely muddy and wet.

If you want to save money on the climb and don't mind being out of the way, you can stay at the farm at the base of the volcano - it's quite lovely with amazing views of Concepcion from the open air eating area, though it's probably not cheap.
When waiting for the rickety old schoolbus (once per hour) to go back to town or just leave Charco Verde, we waited in the shade at this little cantina in the tiny settlement of Las Cruces.

When we returned, our ferry left before the Che Guevara ferry.

Only in Latin America is this not hilariously fauxronic (fauxronic = faux+ironic).

The ferry arrived back in San Jorge, we took a taxi to Rivas for $1, and hopped a bus to Granada after fending off more taxi driver touts who insisted the next bus to Granada wasn't for several hours (despite the presence of a bus with a painted sign saying "Granada" right there). The bus left 30 minutes later. I snapped this photo from the open door.

Whatever you do, do NOT, NOT NOT NOT try the red soda. I have ingested many terrible things in my life, from chicken rectum to duck tongue to asparagus juice, and this was absolutely the most horrific thing I have ever allowed to touch my tastebuds. I didn't know that they actually made a soda flavor called "Chemical Red" (or at least that's what they should call it), tempered with five pounds of sugar.

The bus duly arrived in Granada, not via Managua as the taxi touts said it would (never listen to a taxi driver in Nicaragua, ever), and we settled up in a room at Hostal Esfinge, across from the market and not far from the Parque Central. In a restored colonial building with a friendly but watchful owner, it was a fantastic value for money in an atmospheric space.

Granada is gorgeous, restored to grand colonial beauty in some areas:

Still "under construction" in others, but still quite grand nonetheless, such as at the Iglesia San Francisco, below:

...and has a gorgeous Parque Central with the lovely yellow and white Cathedral de Granada at one end and a string of high-end hotels at the other (I recommend not staying there unless you want a little luxury, but definitely going there for some well-mixed cocktails when the backpacker bars down by Iglesia Virgen de Guadelupe get old). There is great coffee to be had at an upscale coffeeshop on the verandah of one of these hotels if you get sick of Euro Bagel (which also has good coffee) on the other side of the square.

Parque Central, Granada

...and some places are in desperate need of a little care. This shot was taken at dusk - I do not recommend traveling alone at dusk on foot in Granada. If you are in a group, fine, but not alone.

The market area is not as well-renovated as the Parque Central and has a lot of dirt and scratches around the edges.

...but also has brighter colors and more vibrant street life going on. The Parque Central is manicured and lovely, but all you see are tourists, horse-drawn carriages and touts selling necklaces.

Near the market in the early morning. These tiny stands all line up and repair watches, shoes or other small items.

What I loved in Granada was the use of bright colors - different buildings and houses were painted a panoply of brilliant shades.

...and yet Granada is still a lived-in city. It's not like Antigua which seems like one giant (but lovely) museum - it's a working city with real people in it, and part of that city is not so nice - ask your hotel owner where it's safe to go. This shot was taken in a middle class residential area.

The government is still working on getting the funds to restore the old hospital (Hospital Viejo) as you can see by this antiqued photo.

Kids playing in Granada.

Bright colors in Granada.
Granada has no shortage of gorgeous doorways - there are even posters and postcards titled "the doorways of Granada"! This is the entrance to the Iglesia Xalteva, across the street from a pretty little brick-laned park (Parque Xalteva).

Granada also has a lot of the wonderful, whimsical door knockers seen all over Antigua.

More Granada doorways.

It is worth the walk to Iglesia de la Merced, a lovely old church with an elegantly paint-peeled steeple. You can climb the bell tower for $1 and get a fantastic view of the Cathedrale de Granada, in orange/yellow and white, in the distance, over old red tile roofs that remind me somewhat of Chinese roof shingles.

Different brightly-painted buildings as seen from the bell tower.

People can and do socialize in the public space just outside churches in Nicaragua - they perform a similar function to temples in Taiwan, where old folks and kids crowd around the court and banyan trees outside.

The lovely old Iglesia de la Merced.

The nightlife scene is definitely down past the Parque Central, on the way to Iglesia Virgen de Guadelupe (below) - here you can get sandwiches and Italian food as well as Mexican and local fare (don't bother with the local fare, eat that in Los Bocaditos - and make sure to try the salty local cheese - it's a nice change from rice and beans as usual), hamburgers, pizzas, ceviche (YUM!), and the usual selection of local beers and Corona.

On our second day we took a day trip to Masaya to check out the market. I wasn't terribly impressed, to be honest, though the main local market was fun. It didn't help that it was pouring and we got soaked - I had to buy a new t-shirt and change into it in a repulsive public restroom.

It rained so hard that the streets actually flooded and we had to wade a bit as cars stopped in the riverine streets to get back to the bus after visiting the "artisan's market" (ahem, tourist market). The artisan's market in Masaya is worth a trip only if you want to buy some souvenirs without much hassle - it's not worth it just to see.

On the way down, I stepped on a loose sidewalk stone and filthy, rancorous black water spewed up and covered my left foot.

A few days later, in Semuc Champey, that foot began to swell. I didn't think it was a big deal until I got medical attention for it back in Taiwan, but the doctor said it wasn't just too much stress from walking on cobbled streets - there was an infection under the skin. EW!

Lesson? Be careful where you step on a rainy day in Nicaragua.

One thing you can see in Masaya are these giant idol-like parade dolls that remind me of the tall gods that parade around in Taiwanese temple fairs (called "dua sen" in Taiwanese, usually recognized as being 七爺 and 八爺).

We did have decent coffee and tres leches (I love tres leches) in the tourist market, and we met a young boy with a pet spider monkey (let's leave aside the probable cruelty of this). He let me pet the monkey, and as he - being a young boy - was generally more playful and not gentle with it, but I was gentle and stroking his neck and side, he decided I was his mother. He crawled on my back and did not want to leave - it took the restaurant owner to pry him off me as the boy couldn't get him to move.

(The picture is at the top).

From Granada we boarded a bus headed straight for Tegucigalpa (well, with a transfer in Jicaro Galan). The heavy rains all the way up through Nicaragua brought people out to stare at swollen rivers and farms that had turned into lakes.

We did stop in Managua briefly, but we never left the highly-secured bus station area. I got the feeling that it was a city of sprawl, though we never did make it to whatever town center it may have (the old town center was destroyed in an earthquake and the government simply can't afford to rebuild it).

One thing I kept noticing were signs by several bridges on the Interamericana that said "Taiwan-Nicaragua Cooperative" (in Spanish) - as diplomatic allies, Taiwan provided much of the funding for the bridges that Nicaragua so desperately needed but couldn't afford.

Tip - change your money before you cross the border. We didn't get the chance at the border and were having an awful time exchanging cordoba in Honduras (some friendly foreigners heading that way did it for us). Do it before you get on the bus, because cross-border buses won't stop for you.

All in all, enjoy Nicaragua!