Montage

Many other things happened in Nicaragua but it’s late now and I am weary. I’m peering back at distant memories. The stories here have lagged some months and thousands of miles behind the present moment: a sweaty armchair on a veranda, the equatorial humidity of Brazil, a worried and trapped family right in the Coronavirus epicentre.

What we need now is a cinematic montage to wind up the Nicaragua chapter, a happy mashup of the highlights and magic moments of those last three weeks, set to a uplifting electro-pop soundtrack. Something with meaningless lyrics that would fit almost any situation. Empire of the Sun perhaps.

We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it
Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it

First is a soft-focus arrival shot in the city of Granada: A small taxi draws up, comically overloaded: surfboards tied to the roof with string, a boot which will not shut over a pile of luggage. The Nicholls spill out, hot and sweaty after a two hour drive without air-con and with many of their bags on their laps. The camera sweeps back to reveal the colonial majesty of the town square as they unload their belonging into Selina Hostel, a baroque villa dosshouse, all hipster graffiti and leafy inner courtyards.

Then we go aerial to take in the whole of this beautiful city, shining white and crumbling gently in the tropical heat. Pillared facades, walled gardens, old cathedrals, balustraded walkways, covered markets, tree-lined squares. Then higher still, a majestic sweeping shot: the backdrop of mountains and volcanos, the endless lake to the east.

There is a time-lapse sequence of the Nicholls attacking the city of Granada like Pac-Man chasing eggs around a maze. They traverse the streets from the port area to the mountain side, scuttle up the bell tower, disappear into no less than three museums. We see them marching back and forth, occasionally finding themselves in dangerous areas and doubling back again to safety. They stop to refuel – papaya smoothies, green tea, cinnamon buns.

A meal sequence next: breakfast plates of waffles dissolve into pittas loaded with falafels for lunch, tacos al pastor, quesadillas. Now they are cramming in burgers, cakes, more smoothies, then a steak restaurant! Chins glistening with grease, tomato stained shirts. Have these guys not eaten for a week? Fade to black, music swells.

On and on and on we are calling out, out again
Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me

Another comical taxi ride! We’re bumping through the countryside past huge smoking volcanos, Mombacho to the left, Massaya on the horizon. There are roadblocks. Money is demanded for no apparent reason. A new arrival – and where are we? Laguna de Apoyo! A cerulean crater-lake some 10km wide. As the camera pans slowly across, the otherworldly colours shimmer and we see prismatic light effects on the water that then blur into white. Casa Marimba comes into focus, a terracotta hostel nestled on the slopes of the lagoon amid wood-groved terraces full of hammocks and loveseats. The light is dappled through a venerable old tree in the courtyard (is it a ceiba?), the movement of monkeys and mot-mot birds brings the canopy alive.

There is a floating platform out on the lagoon and our heroes swim out there for a slapstick sequence of dives and bellyflops, near-drownings, kayaks borrowed, left untethered then lost in the fierce wind. There is laughter. There are tears. We see Will and Menna on a sunset run around the lake (way too cheesy – cut!).

A long walk around the lake and a montage of rainbow bird sightings: an oropendola de Montezuma, parakeets, trogons, an osprey, lots of motmots – the national bird of Nicaragua -, various types of large kingfisher. The music dips and we hear Arthur’s reedy little voice solemnly listing them out: Great collared! Amazonian! Rufous!

Now it’s changing all the time
Living in a rhythm where the minute’s working overtime

That taxi sequence again – a sped up two hour cross-country dash, ending in a dusty one-road fishing village that looks like it hasn’t seen any development since the forties. Suspicious locals peer out from dark doorways. The taxi pulls off the Nicholls look worried. But surprise! The bare walls of the Miramar surf hostel are unprepossessing from the street but look inside: there is a skate park, racks of surfboards, a yoga platform, sun decks, swimming pool, flags. Everything is made from local timber, palm fronds, bamboo. A perfect wave breaks on the reef just in front.

The place is run by some a crew of charismatic Brazilians and each is frozen for a moment on screen with their caption: Sergio, ‘the Comedian’; Rafael, ‘Spear-Fisher’; Leandro, ‘Skateboard Guru’; Eduardo, ‘the Philosopher’. We have a party shot – wives and children, beers, music, a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. There are no other actual guests in the camp, but the hosts are larger than life and the the Nicholls are pulled into their extended crew. We see shots of surfing, yoga, fishing, Arthur gutting a barracuda to make ceviche, Will surfing right into the rocks, wrecking his board and his feet. There is a birthday party, a boat expedition, a spear fishing trip. Ten days of sunshine and great waves.

Don’t stop, just keep going on
I’m your shoulder, lean upon
So come on, deliver from inside
All we got is tonight, that is right ’til first light

The final taxi sequence takes us into the sprawling urban grit of Managua. A grey filter is subtly introduced and it bleaches the colour out of the scene. The music winds down into the final repeated lines of the track. The Nicholls are holed up in a shady motel in the slum area of Managua – fussing and packing, discarding excess weight, piling up bags. The room is bare. A small fan rotates noisily in the corner. They will get up at 4am to catch their flight the next morning

And here the montage finally fades to black. There is long and arduous travel ahead, at the end of which the family will find themselves in Mexico. And that of course is a totally new episode.

Final refrain and credits:

We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it’s
Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it
On and on and on we are calling out, out again
Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me

Shadow of the Volcano

We are on the island of Ometepe to climb a volcano. Though the kids are still small and the volcano is big, we have decided that it is one of those elemental experiences that we should go through at some point in our travels. Unknown to Matilda we have been training her up for just this moment. Those long cliff top walks, that 15,000 daily step target, the steep forest trails. We have chosen Volcán Maderas, the smaller and more dormant of the two volcanos on the island. It is going to be a ten hour round hike with an elevation of around 1400 meters.

When we awake on the big day we find ourselves enveloped in a blanket of cloud. It isn’t quite raining but it certainly isn’t dry either. Our guide Abel waits for us in reception. He is clearly a man of the mountain, slight, weatherbeaten, his eyes dark portals to another dimension.

Breakfast in the lodge comes slowly and perhaps we are not as organised as we should be, so we leave an hour later than planned. I sense Abel’s disapproval at the delays and the many rounds of pancakes we have eaten, but we laugh it off. By eight o clock we have shouldered our packs and we set off into the gloom.

The trails are overgrown and we are barely out of the gates when Abel already has to pull out his machete and hack a path through vines and shrubbery, much to Arthur’s delight. We march through a densely wooded valley and then up through coffee fields and abandoned cocoa plantations on the shoulder of the mountain. Then the climb starts to steepen.

There are various microclimates stacked at different altitudes up the mountain. All of them involve varying levels of moisture and low visibility. I imagine we are working our way up inside different cloud banks: first the nebulous mists of the low stratus layer, then into the dim white glow of cumulus. Higher up it is humid and dense as I imagine cumulonimbus to be. Then we hit a new kind of rain with a sharp wind that chills our sweat, and I figure we must have found cirrus, as this is the last kind of cloud I can remember.

The terrain underfoot changes from grass to dirt tracks and fallen leaves, to ferny vegetation, then mud, then rolling rocks and scree. For an hour Abel leads us up a stream in full flow, hopping stone to stone, splashing through muddy pools, crawling through rock tunnels, ducking under snatching branches. Matilda is the only member of the team who has proper hiking boots, the rest of us push on in wet trainers.

Abel turns out to be a guide in the minimalist sense: someone who is simply there to indicate the path to a destination. He is not a tour guide, we do not learn about the history of the island, the eco-system, local traditions. If anything he is like a silent spirit guide, floating in and out of the mist ahead of us, leading us along some metaphorical inward journey. He shows no signs of tiredness, he never stumbles. He slips away to scout the path ahead and some minutes later we round a corner to find him squatting immobile on a rock, face raised, communing silently with the ancestors. He pushes a fast pace.

I am using behavioural psychology tricks picked up over some years in sales management to motivate my poor daughter. We have anchored past successes (remember that time you climbed the cliff in Madeira with hardly a moan). We have engaged a sense of competition (and you got there before Arthur…). We’ve visualised the route ahead, we’ve established intrinsic motivators, we’ve set goals and we’ve quantified rewards (gummy bear every half hour, bar of chocolate at lunch, two puddings tonight). Now she is powering up the mountain, bouncing along chattering away to Abel who doesn’t say much back. She has found a ski pole in the lodge and she fiercely stabs it into the mud with every step. In fact it’s uber-fit Menna, who runs twenty five kilometres without fail every week, who is the first to start struggling. She is sliding around and lagging behind the group, sweating and frowning fiercely.

Arthur’s style of movement is not slow or steady. He jumps and bounces, slips and crashes, tries to make difficult jumps, falls a lot, wastes energy. He is always in danger of turning an ankle. He cycles through emotions from elation to dejection and offers a constant running commentary on his progress. He is the next to crash.

When it is my turn to hit the wall, it is intense. We’ve been climbing solidly for about three hours, I am wet through and I have a dull percussive ache in my quads which flares every time I have to lunge up another thigh-high rock. My backpack contains eight litres of water, it digs into my shoulders and catches on tree branches as we squeeze through gaps. My breath is short, my heart is hammering, my feet squelch. I am very glad when Abel calls a halt and I wolf down half a pack of peanuts and a secret handful of gummy bears.

We make summit just after one pm. There are no life-changing views or blinding moments of self-revelation, my spirit animal fails to materialise. Instead Abel indicates a point of cloud-covered rock like many others and tells us that this is the highest point. We nod and puff, then wind our way between various smokey outcroppings before sliding over the other side, through a series of steep and slippery faces, down into the crater.

An hour later we have reached our destination. We stand around uncertainly at the edge of the crater lake which stretches away into the mist like a grey shroud. A few stakes reach up ominously out of the water. Abel won’t confirm that they were used for ritualistic sacrifices, but one has an old skull on it, an oxen I think. We half-heartedly throw a in few stones, which land with muffled plunks and stir up some sullen ripples. We have literally no idea how large the crater is, how high the walls that surround us. How deep are the netherworlds that lie beneath that lifeless surface? We stand in a cold wet marshland with the silhouettes of mossy trees and bromeliads above us.

I was expecting Abel to light a fire at this point, start chanting and brew up the ayahuasca, but he just stands around wordlessly. It is too wet to sit so Menna and I crouch down and make sandwiches on a tree stump, then we all stand around in a circle stuffing in ham and cream cheese, chorizo, mango, oranges, chocolate. Abel doesn’t seem to have any food with him. No doubt he was intending to lunch on dew and wild berries, or perhaps just to chew on hallucinogenic tree bark. We feed him a sandwich or two, then he transmogrifies into a bat and flies away to the spirit world for ten minutes while we digest.

We haven’t managed to sit down at all, so our trembly tired legs are hardly rested when we have to shoulder our packs and turn back for home. Abel clearly thinks we have energy to spare so he takes us on a longer, more perilous route out of the crater that involves a long stretch of hand to hand climbing up a mudslide. We complain but he no longer hears us, he is tuned into the low rumblings of the volcano, drawing energy from magnetic fields deep beneath us. He floats across the slippery mud face, each touch gentle and tender. We lumber after him, stumbling, sliding, occasionally screaming, making a chain with our hands so none of us slip into the abyss.

Then we are over the summit and back into the cirrocumulus landscape. The return journey is not the gentle downhill ramble we had hoped for, but a slippery losing fight against gravity where each downward step places stiff demands upon tired knees, the falls multiply, the chatter dries up.

I have nothing much to say about those three nightmarish hours. Arthur spots an armadillo, Matilda doesn’t once moan and Abel himself slips over a couple of kilometres from home, which cheers us all up immensely and gives us the psychological boost we need to complete the trip.

The next morning we are greeted by the manager of our lodge in a state of high excitement. He tells us that as far as he is aware, Matilda is the youngest person ever to make it up to the crater lake and return alive.

He asks for a picture for the hotel notice board.

Lakes Apart

To get to the island of Ometepe we have to take a ferry from Rivas, a dangerous and ugly port town all sprawled out and gently cooking on the lakeside. After a long and bumpy ride along country roads, our taxi drops us right in the danger zone – that is bang in the middle of the docks – and we are instantly swarmed while at our most vulnerable: sweaty, disoriented in the midday sun, a huge pile of bags and surfboards anchoring us down, unable to move, unsure where to go.

Tour sellers and porters pluck at my arm, men compete to sell us cheap ferry tickets, people edge forward and pick up our bags – presumably they are porters, though who knows? Money-changers wave rolls of bank notes at us. Somehow, unasked, we acquire a fixer. He hauls away our baggage into a kiosk, shoos off the beggars, marches me up to a window to buy tickets, procures us a table for lunch and paints a picture of various breathtaking excursions that he alone can organise on the island. I manage to escape without booking any expensive tours, but he extracts a $5 tip and a promise that when we return from the island he will arrange our taxi transportation onwards.

The café on the dockside looks rough and not particularly hygienic but the chicken, beans and rice they serve taste great and the tough old proprietress dusts off a cracked smile for Matilda. We pile our luggage around our table so it feels we are bunkered down in a foxhole. Occasionally an arm appears over our barricade, hand outstretched. The children judge how needy the supplicant looks, and hand over an appropriate amount of coins from a small pile that we have accumulated.

And then action! We all load up with as much luggage as each can carry and jostle our way onto the Che Guevara ferry, winding our way between hooting pickups and revving motorbikes, floating amid a sea of brown faces, jostled by old ladies with live chickens, making space for toothless men with enormous sacks of grain on their backs. We stash our surfboards and skateboards on the car deck and heave everything else up to the top floor, and there we sit triumphantly in high winds and fierce sunlight.

The passage is rough. Wind-swell rocks the ferry, white horses race us as we plough across the lake. I am seated by a huge open barrel of water that is being transported to the island and I get periodically sprayed as the boat lurches.

Lago de Nicaragua is huge – it has about the same surface area as Cyprus. It is inhabited by one of the only fresh water colonies of bull sharks in the world. These were once prolific and such savage predators that for years the lakeside inhabitants refused to learn how to swim. Now of course the sharks have been overfished to near extinction. Chinese demand for shark fins led to a booming trade back in the sixties when a hundred or so boats competed on the waters here and delivered their catch to a dedicated shark processing plant in nearby Granada. The fins went to China, the skin was used for leather, shark liver got made into supplements and the meat became dog food.

As the stock depleted this became a game of diminishing returns and the whole operation was eventually shut down after the revolution. Sharks were finally protected by law but by then over 20,000 had been killed. Nowadays there are whispers of illicit nighttime shark fishing trips, big game hunters on high speed launches – Chinese and others; corrupt officials bribed to turn a blind eye. And so it goes.

We don’t see any sharks on our journey, but there are some elegant storks that fly across our bow. We have dosed Matilda with sea sickness tablets and she flops around drowsily in the sun. The crossing lasts for forty minutes and then we are on the volcanic island of Ometepe. A pickup truck sits waiting for us at the dockside and once we have loaded the baggage, and our son, into the rear, we roll slowly across the island, down roads lined with lush shiny-green foliage, into little rural villages, through coffee plantations and up steep hills. Then at last the day’s journey is complete and we are at Tenorio Lodge.

We rest. Tomorrow we climb the volcano.

Sting Ray

Humankind has depleted the oceans and destroyed coral reefs. We have hunted, fished, polluted, driven many marine species to extinction. But sometimes the fish fight back.

Today was such a day.

The normal way of things has been inverted: a human has been hooked by a fish. More specifically a small girl has been pierced by the barb of a sting ray.

I am listening to a podcast on the beach, not quite asleep, not quite awake, digesting my lunch in the sunshine. Menna, Matilda and Arthur are somewhere out in the waves. Then somewhere in my half-dream, screams of pain intrude, jarring with the mellifluous but self-righteous tones of Sam Harris.

And now I am awake, up and running towards the sound. Menna is first on the scene and gathers Matilda up out of the waves. As I approach I can see her left leg stuck out rigidly, the thick trickle of blood glistening on her heel. I awkwardly receive her from Menna and carry her back up the beach. She screams and sobs and a crowd gathers. Everyone wants to give advice and practice their English or just be part of this exciting event.

“What happened?”
”¿Qué pasó con la muchacha?
“Was it a barracuda?”
“A sting ray no?”
“¿Una raia dices?”
“You have to take her to Emergencias right now.” says a lady with diamanté earrings and a no-nonsense voice. “I’ve seen this before.”

This is not a great option for us. We are a couple of hours from the nearest hospital, which will probably be riddled with Covid, and we don’t have a car. This doesn’t feel like the kind of injury that justifies an ambulance. “No problem guys. Is fine. My husband can drive you.” She cranes her neck and looks around, but husband has slipped off.
“Our buddy Josh got hit by a sting ray in Costa Rica” I said. “He was ok after a short while. I think he peed on it or something.” I’m aware that it sounds like I don’t care much about my daughter’s wellbeing, like I’m just trying to avoid the hassle. I catch Menna’s eye and am relieved to see she is thinking the same.

‘You must put her foot in hot water’ says another woman in a yellow swimming costume, a wealthy Managuan lady down for the weekend I think. “Like real hot. It’s going to hurt, sure, but you gotta stop the acid. Is it hurting now honey?”. Matilda howls and nods.
“That’s it. Hot water! No pee needed. That’s what we’ll do,” I’m liking this scenario more and I give a thumbs up and an encouraging smile to Yellow Costume.
There are three or four kids watching the scene, chattering away in Spanish, laughing. A huge muscled American surfer with a tiny head wanders over.
“Hey man, was that a sting ray? Nooo! I got stung by like five of them last year. That shit hurts so bad! You got to dig out the spine. Hey, look at this” hopping in a circle to show us all a scar on his sole. “Got one went right through my foot here.”
“Take her up to the bar, they’ll have hot water,” says Yellow Costume waving a well manicured finger. We all troop up to the beach bar.

“The barb snapped off inside me so they had to dig it right out with a knife. I was just sitting there, like crying and hollering and drinking rum. Man! So bad!” says Muscles.
“It’s early for sting rays. They only come when the water is colder.” Diamanté is seeing her authority diminish. “Was there blood? Perhaps it’s a scorpion fish, or a jellyfish. How do we know? She should go to a doctor. Don’t you worry sweetie, my husband’s gonna to take you. It’s gonna be ok. Where is he now?” More urgent head swivels but husband is still lying low. “Was there blood?” she repeats.
“I don’t think it’s too early for rays,” says Muscles. “the hurricanes messed up all the currents so it’s running colder than usual. You should go down to Marbella beach, there’s always loads of sting rays there. They like to, you know…”, he mentally tests out options, “…breed, in the bay.”
We assure Diamanté that there was indeed blood. She looks a little sour like we’ve conspired against her. “She still should go to a doctor in case there’s an allergic reaction. No se sabe! We gotta truck, it’s big. My husband gonna fit you all in.”
We are English, we specialise in polite but firm. “It’s alright thanks, my wife is a doctor. Maybe if we just sit her down for a bit.”

We put Matilda down on a sun lounger at the beach bar. She sobs, hides her face away behind the crook of the elbow, embarrassed about the attention. Menna inspects the wound for snapped-off barbs but Matilda is jerking her leg around wildly.
“There was another time I landed on this piece of coral,” says Muscles. “Sliced open my calf through here, under the tattoo. You know that coral can grow inside you? I saw it happen once to this guy. He was like a human cactus! I didn’t know if I was gonna wake up one day with like stalactites growing out my skin.”

The waitress from the bar come up with a bowl of hot water. She’s seen this drama play out before. We put Matilda’s heal into the water and she screams and jerks it out. The waitress gives a little smile, like ‘they always do this…’
Yellow Costume is in the ascendency. Diamanté has faded back to the second ring of onlookers.
“It’s got to be as hot as she can bear,” she says, “that’s the only way to neutralise the acid”. She makes the waitress add further boiling water to the pot.
“Or are they stalagmites? Which ones are the ones that go upwards? Though I guess they would have grown straight outwards really, so could be either. Like a dinosaur!” says Muscles enigmatically.

Matilda will not submerge her heel in the water and is converting her pain into rage. She howls and spits like a little wildcat, tenses her leg upwards, kicks out. I test the water temperature, it is really very hot. But probably bearable I think. She can do this.
“Come on sweetheart,” I say, “let’s just give this a go. The hot water will take the venom away. It’s hurting right?”
“Go away!” Matilda screams at me, “You’re hurting me!”
“I’m not touching you darling but you do need to put your foot in that water. Otherwise we’re going to have to take you all the way to Granada to a hospital there,” I say, really working on my calm tone.

Morwenna does her doctor thing.
“Let me explain from a medical point of view why we need to do this Missy,” she says in a soothing but matter-of-fact voice, “you’ve been injected with a venom that is irritating your skin and working it’s way up through your blood.” Matilda screams again. “We need to flush out the venom with hot water. It will take away the sting and reduce the risk of infection.” Menna gently pushes Matilda’s foot into the water.
“I don’t care! I don’t care about venom in my skin.I’m not putting my foot in that water,” says Matilda kicking her leg high into the air.
“You see your nervous system is getting agitated by the toxins,” Menna continues.
”And we’re getting agitated by your screaming,” I add. “It can’t hurt that much surely.”
“It gotta to be real hot honey or it don’t work,” cuts in Muscles, “they actually poured water from the kettle onto my foot when I got stung. I got blisters all over afterwards, but hell, even the burns were better than the stinging.”
“I bet it won’t hurt anyway. I’ve checked the water and it’s fine. Look! I’m putting my finger in now. Hardly hurts. This is a great chance for you to practice being brave!” I say with a smile. I try to hold her hand.
“Shut UP Daddy! You’re making it worse! You don’t know what it is like!” screams Matilda through clenched teeth, snatching her hand away. “You’ve never even been stung by a sting ray.”
“No you’re making it worse.” I snap, calm voice lost, “You’re making such a fuss. And we’re all going to have to drive all the way to Granada and hang out at a bloody hospital if you don’t put your foot in that water. We’ve all spent enough time in hospitals already. Come on!”

Yellow can see that I’ve lost control of this situation. She squats down next to Matilda and grabs her hand.
“Look at me girl. Your foot needs to go in that water to get rid of the stinging. It’s gotta happen. I don’t care if you shout. Shouting’s fine. You shout at me all you like, but you get your foot in there at the same time. This is for your own good.”
Matilda has never experienced a complete stranger ordering her around in a tough-but-warm-hearted American-Nicaraguan accent and is unsure how to respond. She’s taken aback and stops screaming for a second.
“That’s right girl. Now put that foot in the water. You look at me. You look into my eyes. You’ve got this honey.”

“Yeah. That’s what I said. Good stuff!” I murmur, feeling kind of displaced. Matilda lowers her foot into the now-cooler water. She jerks it out again theatrically, and then allows Yellow Costume to gently push it back down again. She writhes and makes some extraordinary grimaces but keeps it in there.

Yellow costume has prevailed. She owns this situation now.
“You gotta watch out for an allergic reaction, like if she gets bumps or something,” says Diamanté quietly. It is a last gesture, she knows she is defeated. “Come on honey, we got to go find Daddy.” A shape detaches itself from behind her and we see she has a girl with her, about Matilda’s age, who has been literally hovering in her shadow. “Hope you get better now,” she says to Matilda and they walk off down the beach.
“I broke my leg one time,” I say to Muscles, “snapped the femur clean in half!”
“What, surfing?” he says.
“Nah, on a scooter. Crashed into a lorry.”
“No way!” he says.

We huddle around the invalid for the next twenty minutes. Some people drift off . The amused Nicaraguan waitress periodically tops up the tub with hot water, Matilda groans and writhes, puts a weak hand upon her brow. We bring her fries and ketchup and horrifically sweet cherryade. People put damp towels on her head and shield her from the sun. Yellow Costume talks to her the whole time in a low monotone, murmuring encouragement and words of wisdom. Menna hugs Matilda tight and whispers in her ear. At some point Arthur wanders up with his surfboard under his arm to see what all the fuss is about. He’s impressed with the injury but he’s made a friend in the waves and after a minute or so he runs off to play with him.

After a while I see that my presence isn’t required and I go back and finish off my podcast.

Limping home.

Hog Tide

Arthur and I are going fishing today with our buddy Josh. All the charter fishing companies in San Juan del Sur have terrible reviews – but they are cheap! – so we have chosen one that seems a little less terrible than the others, or perhaps a little cheaper. It is called Hog-Tide Fishing. The logo features a pig in eye-liner winking.

We have a 5am rendezvous in town, which means an early taxi for Arthur and I. It’s one of those annoying meetings where everyone is late and then you do a lot of aimless hanging around anyway, grumpily calculating how many extra minutes after your 4:30am alarm you could actually have got up.  Arthur does not say a single word for two hours, which I suppose is a kind of silver lining.  

The three of us are joined on this expedition by Jason the boat owner, a scrawny surfer called Simon with lots of facial hair, and Candy who is together with one of the two guys, though I’m not sure which. It looks like Josh and I are bankrolling this expedition and the others are on a freebie. Lastly there is Capitán – real name not given, definite article not required. A silent, competent local who is there to do the work.

The owner Jason has been described in many of the Trip Advisor reviews – sometimes admiringly, more often not – as a real ‘character’. He is certainly larger than life, with a lumbering swagger, a range of eye-opening opinions and a good southern drawl. He has a beloved pet pig back home in the States it turns out, hence the shop name. I think about the bondage reference, the sexy pig logo, and various questions bubble up – but it is too early in the morning.

Jason hits us up for the payment straight away – cash only please – and we have to fumble across a large pile of notes. He then asks for another $50 as a tip for Capitán, his paw thrust out insistently. He’ll make sure Capitán gets it later, he assures us. I would prefer to give him a tip directly, but Jason is very firm on this point. The fifty dollar bill disappears into his pocket.

As we finally set off to sea, there is dark line stretched across the horizon. Arthur and I have barely seen a cloud since we’ve been in Nicaragua, but now we watch the front advancing towards us with a sense of inevitability. The rain is cold and insistent when it hits and instantly brings a nostalgic memory of wet days mackerel fishing on Plymouth Sounds. I have only brought a t-shirt and I’m soon soaked through, so for warmth I pull Arthur into a bear hug and refuse to release him.

This has been billed as a day of sport fishing and surfing. We will catch big fish then catch big waves, anchoring at hidden reef breaks that are only accessible by boat. It soon turns out though that we are not going big game fishing in the true sense, more coastal trawling. We potter backwards and forwards along the shoreline in our stubby little vessel, a couple of lures strung out behind us, eventually hooking a bonito which Josh pulls in. We all pose for pictures with it.

We nose up to a couple of beaches and reefs up and down the coast but the surf is flat and blown out and our boards stay in their bags. Jason suggests a swim, but none of us wants to get in the water. We stay on the boat, sliding around on deck, telling stories to warm ourselves up.

Simon is a real character. He alternates between moments of stillness and sudden uncoiling position shifts. To chat with him you must be light on your feet, spinning and twisting to follow his moves.
“I fast every Sunday, it makes you feel great. Complete digestive flush.” he tells us from a lotus position on a locker, “but Monday, it’s like Disneyland” – squatting on the cabin roof – “I’ll eat just about anything! Ice cream, burgers, shrimp you name it.” Big hoot of laughter as he twists around a stanchion. “For the rest of the week I’m vegan.” The scion of a rich Armenian family, he has bought land in Ecuador and built a yoga and surf retreat that is also a cultural collective, a local community centre and various other things. He has a ski lodge in Colorado, he is negotiating a land deal up the coast here in Nicaragua. Soon he is talking about potential investments we might consider together.

At one point we stop the boat and drop handheld lines. It’s like crabbing off the pier. Jason catches a baby grouper which he conscientiously throws back in, only to see it flap weakly for a while on the surface before being snatched up by a gull, which is in turn attacked by other gulls, so the rescued fish is literally pulled apart in mid-air above us. Scales and fins rain down onto the deck.

I haul in a red snapper. “That’s a nice catch” Says Jason, “That’s one of the best fish you can find round here.”

There is a lull when none of us catches anything for half an hour and Jason suggests cutting up the Bonito. He makes some rudimentary gestures at Capitan, who silently guts the fish, cleans and filets it with precise knife-work, then adds soy, lime and chilli. We crowd around and eat it with our fingers, directly out of a plastic tub, stuffing spicy raw fish into our mouths. It is eight in the morning and it tastes fantastic. We look like savages, huddled around in sodden clothes, chomping away silently with soy stained mouths.

Jason comes to life after the first couple of fistfuls of bonito sashimi.
“I first came down here for a bachelor party – that was some event I can tell you. You met the girls here?” He gives us a leer and a wink that for a moment replicates uncannily the winking pig logo he’s got embroidered on his chest. “It was so good I went home and sold up. Hauled my ass back down here and got me a boat. And since then… Good times.” He indicates the ocean expansively.

Arthur catches a large grouper with his handheld line, pulling it in himself. His grin is enormous and the sun comes out at the same time. The mood on the boat improves.

“It must have been hard getting a business up and running in this environment” I say to Jason.
“Oh yeah. No shit. No tourists means no trips. It’s been drier than a bone in a box round here last couple of years. I had to sell my car!” He says. “But you know, you can live pretty cheap round these parts.’ I guess it hasn’t all been good times then.

Jason is off and running. He outlines various contentious views about the government here, the females, the intelligence of the locals. “Don’t worry about him” he indicates Captain, “he don’t understand a damn lick of English. Most of em don’t. Me n him, we got our own sign language we use.”
“He does speak English” Arthur whispers to me. “He was teaching me how to gut the fish earlier.” Jason offers us a beer.

Capitan reels in a macarela.
“That’s the jackpot that is.” says Jason. “Tastiest fish in the sea. You guys got lucky!” We all pose for pictures with it.

After a three hours on the boat we have caught five fish and we are ready to go home. “You guys can keep all the fish.” Jason tells us “And hey listen, y’all should drop around to the shop some night, I do fish fry-ups in the evenings sometime. Bring along some beer and join in the fun. I do like free fishing trips too, just for my friends. You’d just have to pay the gas. And a tip for Capitán. It would be pretty cool” I think Jason is lonely.

Back on shore I ask Arthur how it was. I feel the trip hasn’t lived up to expectations, that it wasn’t the sun-soaked marlin chase in deep seas that I had described. Arthur looks up at me, soggy and tangle-haired, splashes of soy sauce on his cheeks.
“It was brilliant Dad! We’ve got to hang out with Jason more. Can we go out with him again?” I think back on the other fishing trips we’ve been on – rainy mackerel hunts in Plymouth, casting lines from various jetties in Spain, trawling from a boat in Greece, crabbing in Norfolk. We’ve never actually caught anything before. Well, nothing we could eat anyway.

The bag of grouper and snapper feels heavy in my hand. We will go back, throw it down on the table. Arthur will gut it. The girls will cook. There will be a feast. We set out for the high seas at dawn like real men, and now we will return home, wet and salty, laden with our catch.

I hope Capitán got my tip.

Frigate Birds

We are sitting on the beach of Majugual watching frigate birds gliding far overhead. Their silhouette is unmistakeable: a long crucifix shape, wings raked back to a point. They are motionless as they circle the thermals, but when they dive then their tail opens like a swallow’s, so they can fine-tune their trajectory, finding the optimal angle to hit the water and seize the fish beneath.

We’re not the only ones watching the birds. Every time they leave their distant circuit and start their long dives, an old man emerges from a patch of shade above the beach. Fishing rod in hand he bounds down the scorching sand. He is surely some way into his sixth decade but he still has an impressive turn of pace. He charges straight into the water, wading out to where the waves are breaking and starts casting lures into the area that the birds have indicated. He reels them in furiously and casts again, and the again, until he is rewarded.

We’ve watched three ventures so far and each time he’s landed at least one fat fish – they look like bass from where I’m sitting. He then runs back up above the water line and buries the still-flapping fish in the sand, before returning to the breakers. On this cue, a little old lady comes trotting down in her apron (they are all so energetic!). She digs up the catch and whisks it back up to the little taverna tucked up in the tree line, the simply, but appropriately, named Foods-Drinks. Sometimes there’s a man with a net who jogs down too if the shoal looks abundant, but he’s a less urgent runner and always seems to arrive too late.

This is quite a show and I sit there watching for a while. There is a mildly slapstick element to the sprint down the dunes, the fully-clothed plunge into the sea, the frantic speed of it all. Over time it becomes apparent that this is serious work though and smiles give way to admiration. The silent crouch under the palm tree reading the frigate birds, the sudden explosion of energy in the midday heat. This is a family team, I decide, they have fished these shores all their lives. They use the wisdom of their ancestors, following the birds to find the shoals, grilling their fresh catch on charcoal fires with wild garlic and lime. This interplay between man and nature feels primordial, maybe it has beeen passed down generational lines over hundreds of years. I can imagine indigenous tribesmen, squatting high up in the meagre shade centuries ago, squinting into the blue, twining nets between their fingers, ready for the abrupt shift from stillness into motion. The sparse landscape around them would be exactly the same as it is now.

I try to talk to the fisherman as he trudges back up after one foray, but he is taciturn and unwilling to talk through his ancestral history with a random gringo in the heat. In any case the birds are falling again, right at the other end of the beach, and he’s got a long run to do.

We decide that we must go and eat some of that fresh fish at Foods-Drinks. When we sit down for lunch however we discover we have made an unfortunate misunderstanding about who was supposed to bring the bankroll (Menna for sure), and of course they don’t take credit cards. We managed to stump up about four dollars in change and so the family ends up sharing a quesadilla and some patacones for lunch. We cannot participate in the fish-to-plate ritual. We must remain voyeurs, observing the ancient tradition from the outside, uninitiated, reduced to writing about it in blogs. I saw little old lady delivering a plate of fresh sea bass to a nearby table though and it looked really good.

Tarantula

He is sitting on our doorstep, waiting.

We have been tucking up the kids and Menna slips outside first. She immediately bounces back into the room, all twitchy and wide-eyed, jerking her head like a marionette. She’s got some kind of palsy, I think.

As I step out I immediately see him on our doorstep, waiting. There’s something primal that grips me then. A pattern recognition that fires up some ancestral protocol deep in the medulla and my leg muscles spasm before I even know what it is I’ve seen. I leap high. Then I land and the prefrontal cortex takes over: I laugh nervously; act nonchalant.

It’s the biggest fucking tarantula I’ve ever seen, there on our doorstep, waiting.  

It is not one of those short-legged stripy tarantulas with the hairy abdomen that they call pica-caballo here. No, this is a much larger, better-proportioned arachnid with long muscular-looking legs. He is entirely black and sits motionless, coiled like some clockwork contraption that has been wound-up tight and is now ready to explode. Lit up by a single overhead light, each of his legs casts a stark shadow so it seems that there are sixteen of them.

Menna and I regroup a few meters away for a whispered conference. Through one of the two doors in front of us, our children are drifting off to sleep. Matilda is a committed arachnophobe, and to even suspect the existence of such a spider as this would catapult her to hitherto unseen levels of hysteria. She must never know of this nighttime visitor who sits on our doorstep, waiting.

What to do? I have a lifelong rule never to kill animals unnecessarily, except for flies and mosquitos (and occasionally fish which I intend to eat later). Furthermore this tarantula is – despite that visceral first reaction – a truly majestic specimen. He has mesmerised us and now we can’t take our eyes off him. He crouches there with a malevolent calm, an ancient predator from an older time: ageless, impassive, alert. We are in his thrall. His legs are long and elegant, his low centre of gravity speaks of power and agility. He holds some legs flexed on the floor while others rest on the perpendicular stone in front to provide torque as he leaps. My vertical frame feels ungainly as I sway in front of him. I am too slow and clumsy on my single pair of legs.

To kill such a creature would be petty and mean-spirited. I could shoo him away of course, but I have heard that tarantulas are territorial. He would come back again later, and next time we might not see him there on the doorstep, waiting. Matilda might step on him with her little bare foot as she comes wandering through to our room to talk about some vivid dream at three a.m.

In the end I go down to reception to ask for help. There is no one there but I manage to find Silvio, the old cook, who we have befriended. He is a solid chap, sparing with words, face lined with unknown worries. A dependable choice for this task, I think. He doesn’t quite roll his eyes when I tell him that there I have a spider problem, and he manages not to snort derisively when I tell him that my preference is not to have this spider killed, merely removed to a good safe distance.

Silvio has clearly had a long day but nonetheless he will come and help. He wearily picks up a tub and a broom. We head back over to our cabin and find Menna still transfixed, eyes locked on the tarantula who stares back at her from our doorstep, waiting.

“Pero sí ¡Es grande!” Says Silvio and I feel vindicated.

Then we get to see how a local Nicaraguan deals with an oversize spider. Silvio bends down and in one gesture he sweeps the tarantula smoothly up into the ice cream tub that he is holding. Job done! He stands up and smiles at me. Young soft European lad, his eyes say, you still have much to learn.

I cannot help feeling that Silvio has committed a fairly basic oversight here, but I am not sure how to articulate it. Before I can say anything though, the tarantula simply runs out of the open ice cream tub and up his arm.

Silvio does a kind of reflex jump that is not so different from the one that I myself performed ten minutes earlier. When he returns to land the tarantula is no longer on his arm but is on his leg instead, all eight limbs locked tightly into the fuzz of his well-muscled calf. Silvio slaps at his leg and knocks the tarantula to the floor. Menna and I both leap back in perfect synchronicity. The tarantula runs. Silvio sweeps wildly with his broom. On his second or third attempt he catches the skittering creature and sends it scudding across our porch and into a bush.

We all take a couple of breaths and wait for our hearts to slow down. Silvio rubs a hand over his bald head and makes a kind of shrugging gesture. We thank him profusely and he potters off into the night. It feels to me that both he and the tarantula have been somehow robbed of their dignity in the exchange. Silvio’s native competence has been called into question. A lord of the ancient world has been humiliated.

I worry too that we haven’t really dealt with the problem. Somewhere in that dark bush an angry tarantula sits, biding its time, right by our doorstep, waiting.

The Nicaraguan Problem

We are staying in a hostel near San Juan del Sur, a beach town on the southern Pacific coast. It is a basic place and there is a certain simple harmony between its construction and the natural backdrop: open-sided wood structures, winding pebble paths, leafy vegetation, palm-frond thatching, wigwams, trees, the sea. A ring of surrounding hills funnel cool wind through the site. Loud marimba music plays at all hours of the day.

It is a semi-rural area in which we find ourselves, somewhere that is neither village nor countryside. Outside the hostel gates, there is a series of corrugated iron and wood cabins strung out along a muddy road, smallholdings mainly, where chickens and pigs scratch away at the bare earth. Eagles circle overhead and small ragged children peer out from the shadows.

We plan to stay here for two weeks and we are not going to rent a car, so our world shrinks down to the limits of where we can walk to (or rather, where Matilda will walk to), a few kilometres of road leading to Maderas beach in one direction and the Machete Bar in the other.

Improbably we have a buddy here. Manu is a cosmopolitan Chilean who runs a couple of surf camps under the Dreamsea franchise. We stayed at his camp in Cantabria, northern Spain, a lifetime ago (last July) and I went surfing with him on a memorable occasion. He is now out here in his Nicaraguan camp only a klick or two up the road from us. We go to see him a few days into our stay.

Manu take us on a tour around his elegant – and empty – surf boutique. We peek into tents on teak wood platforms, where Balinese carvings gather dust on antique chests. We admire the huge central palm-thatch tower, walk up the spiral staircase to the surf theory classroom and stare out from the lookout platform over the jungle canopy to the far off sea. Arthur enviously eyes up the gleaming racks of surfboards.

We can envisage this place in its heyday: warm nights with mojitos, Soul Wax beats and candlelight, laughter at the poolside, beautiful people floating around in swimwear – basically a Vogue advert. But now the pool is covered in old leaves, the bar is untended, the bongos are unbeaten.

“We have only been open for two years” says Manu, “One good summer, then we got hit by the political crisis and all our bookings cancelled. Then it seemed like things were getting better, but… Covid! After that Hurricane Eta hit us pretty hard. Lots of roofs off! Then came Hurricane Iota…” He smiles and gestures in an inshallah kind of way. “We managed to find a corporate booking for new year – so at least I was able to pay the staff a Christmas bonus.” Another grin, “But not so many came in the end, so we lost out on the bar. Though now I have a lot of tequila!” We are doing dry January, I explain hastily, a midday tequila doesn’t appeal.

Although the worst is over now, Nicaragua’s reputation remains sketchy and this keeps people away. “This country is totally safe” Manu insists, “You don’t see real crime here, only opportunistic stuff. You go to Costa Rica and you get proper planned crime, especially in the surf resorts. Theft, mugging, kidnap. All the gangs and cartels are there. Here in Nicaragua there is only one cartel in town, and that’s Ortega and his government. And he doesn’t want to fuck with the tourists!”

He has a theory too about the competition for tourism, a narrative strand that will get repeated throughout our stay. “The Costa Ricans have been watching Nicaraguan tourism grow, and they don’t like it. It’s like how they were during the boom years, but now they’re flatlining and Nicaragua is taking more market share. So they’ve used the excuse of Covid to shut the border. San Jose is the international hub, all the flights from US and Europe land there. Then the tourists travel overland up to Nicaragua and back. Now of course they can’t get back again, so they don’t come…”

After an hour or two of chatting we leave Manu in his camp and head out into the bright daylight for lunch. He is a bright and vivacious guy, full of traveller stories, but even he cannot shrug off an air of gloom about the current situation. We leave him tapping away at his MacBook in the shadows of his empty bar, writing business plans, building projects for when the guests come back.

We make more friends here over time: we meet Tim and Melissa on the beach and have dinner at their place, they introduce us to various other members of the Canadian diaspora. We talk to a Dutch family who have lived here a decade already. Our long-suffering friends Josh and Meg cross the border to come and join us. Again and again in conversation, we hear the same narrative of stunted growth and sinister powers, of Nicaragua’s great potential nipped in the bud.

Over the next week Arthur and I surf with Manu a couple of times. One Sunday he picks us up early and takes us off on a jolting ride across the countryside, down jungle tracks, to Yankees – a legendary remote break. There we watch Manu drop into barrel after barrel while Arthur, Josh and I misjudge our takeoffs and get pounded by the fast heavy wave.

It is a place that encapsulates all the glory of Nicaragua – a world class hollow wave, white sand beach stretching out to the horizon, lush jungle backdrop and not a soul for miles around. It is named after a covert CIA landing spot during the Contra War, so there is a bona fide revolutionary connection too. It is what the Canadians call legit.

I understand why everyone is desperate for the tourism to return, but myself, I quite like it like this.

Borderlines

Peñas Blancas is the formidable border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We once spent over eight hours here trying unsuccessfully to export a pickup truck that turned out to be material evidence in a manslaughter case. Today though it doesn’t live up to its fearsome reputation. ‘It used to be such a zoo!’ I mutter to the kids wistfully. Now it is a graveyard. There is only one-way traffic – you may enter into Nicaragua, but the gates back into Costa Rica are firmly shut. And it seems that not many people want to enter Nicaragua.

The touts and plantain sellers, the guides and fixers are still here, lurking along the chain fence like clouds of mosquitos, but their number is somewhat reduced and they seem more lethargic than normal, despite the fact we offer rare tourist blood for them to feed off. A few half-hearted cat calls, a little beckoning, a tug or two at my sleeve. ‘Is this all you’ve got?’ I want to ask them.

We are worried because we have overstayed our Costa Rican travel visa by two weeks. We had heard on the traveller grapevine that the Dirección General de Migración has issued some blanket extension of visa terms to all tourists, though as we step up to the emigration desk we are painfully aware that we never seen this officially confirmed. Perhaps we will get arrested as illegal immigrants and put in a detention centre! The stern woman at the counter chooses to ignore the exit dates in our passports though, and focuses instead on the fact that we haven’t printed out our covid test certificates.
“Están solamente en tu teléfono?” Incredulous shake of the head, “¡No está bien!”

Once this infraction has been resolved with plenty of sighing, tongue clicking and muttered conferences with her superiors, we get our exit stamps and then we are dismissed.  We are free to leave the country, which we must do by walking across the 500 meters of dusty no-mans-land between the border lines.

We have carefully gone over all of our luggage and tried to shed whatever kilos we could for this exact eventuality. Gone are our packs of flour and lentils, my bottles of chilli sauce; the laptops and tablets that we had stolen remain unreplaced; Arthur’s old trainers are now on some Tico street kid’s feet; many of our books sit in a hostel in San José. Even so we are still not exactly travelling light. We have three large backpacks, five bulging day-packs, a camera bag, a handbag, two surfboards, two skateboards, a football, a pillow. It’s quite a load.

As we sweat out that half-kilometre in the noonday heat, I drown out the kids’ moans by thinking about other historical walks to freedom. I can only come up with Nelson Mandela, Mao Tse Tung and the Navajo people, though of course their long walk ended in suffering and imprisonment.

They seem genuinely pleased to see us on the Nicaraguan side. “Your covid test certificate is on your mobile sir?  No problem! What a novel idea.” A friendly fixer appears at my elbow offering unsolicited advice. The immigration officer tries to rip us off for a nominal amount over the border taxes (‘4x $12 does NOT equal $58!’ Arthur tells hims sternly), but it is a half-hearted extortion and when he smiles broadly I am tempted to overpay anyway, just for old times sake. “In the old days,” I reminisce with the kids, “You each needed to have a crisp $20 bill tucked away in your passport for the official if you didn’t want hours of delays…”  

Then we are through the border. There is a ramp and Arthur explodes into Nicaragua on his skateboard. A group of porters applaud him and one of them sees an opportunity for a dollar and takes our bags.

And just like that we are in a new world, or perhaps rather, an older world, bouncing along a semi-paved road in a worn minibus. We look out through the dust and haze at bareback cowboys trotting along on the verge and oxen carts rumbling along in the middle of the highway. There are ancient military jeeps sitting up on breeze blocks by the roadside: monuments to the Sandinista revolution, or the Contra war, or one of the many recent uprisings. Graffiti, statues, flags and slogans – everything here points back to a revolutionary history that never seems to have quite ended.

Our driver is weary of it all – the current protests and uprisings are yet another escalation in a series of attempts to unseat the government that have been going on since 2013, he says. Presidente Ortega was once a hero and a revolutionary it is true, but he has lost his way, as do all those who cling to power for too long. Too much torture. Too much murder. Pero bueno, it is best for everyone if the protests die down now, Nicaragua needs stability. The country cannot take much more. After all the catastrophes they have had – two bad hurricanes, the uprisings and now the pandemic – the only thing that will help is if everything goes back to normal. That is to say, business returns and tourism resumes. Watch out, he finishes quietly. People are desperate here. Times have been tough. They have nothing.

I see our driver’s glance sliding off the piles of bags and boards that are strewn around us. I look at our kids, all blonde floppy hair, white teeth, shiny eyes, accessorised with sunglasses, necklaces and surf t-shirts. We joke sometimes about how we have gone native after months on the road, but in reality we are very far from native. How we will stand out in this dark skinny country.

I never really got to where I was going, never reached my destination. Perhaps the code of the road is as simple as that. You never do get there. There is just the road, and what it reveals along the way.

Charles Nicholl – Borderlines

Dwarves and Goblins

We part company with our friends for our last two nights on the Caribbean. Josh and Meg stay in Puerto Viejo with a vague plan to head onwards to Mexico. The Nicholls retreat to an ecolodge in the jungle to ponder next steps. For us it is complicated. We had intended to make our way south through Panama and then on to find friends in Colombia, but both countries are now implementing pretty severe government restrictions of the sort that we don’t want to get wrapped up in. Mexico is a hotbed of Covid. Peru and Chile are no longer open to travellers.

Now we are not with our friends, all of our dwarves and goblins can come back out to play, those secret travelling companions of ours. Menna lives with friction drag – a dragon who wakes whenever she hasn’t eaten for four hours – and we must all tread carefully if we are not to get scorched in her devastating fires. Matilda has a host of little dwarves that travel with her – Grumpy, Sleepy, Lazy and Unhelpful are the ones we meet most days, though Disgusted often comes around at dinnertime.

Arthur gets possessed by a leprechaun if he doesn’t get exercised regularly; that is to say he goes all hyper and annoying, sings tuneless songs, asks a million questions, irritates his sister, breaks things.

I myself have wailing spirits trapped deep inside the bones of my battered body: broken shoulders that moan, the rebuilt femur that hums when the weather changes, a neck that won’t turn properly. There is the djinn of apathy too that rises in me in the early afternoon hours.

It is the money goblin though that has become the most insistent recently. He travels around most places with us now and has started to insinuate himself into our conversations in a most unwelcome way. ‘Everything is over budget here in Costa Rica’ he whispers as I drift in the afternoon haze. We had originally planned to eke out our money in various low-cost African, Indian and Asian destinations. Then Covid trapped us in expensive Europe for several months and now we are finding that Costa Rica is hardly the cheap developing economy we remembered. Last time we were here Menna and I would rent a house for $250 a month, but now we are spending that in three nights. We’re not good at tracking to a budget but we have a feeling that if we were, we would be looking at some worrying red numbers right now.

Once the money goblin is riding on your shoulder, he makes everything uncomfortable. ‘Does Matilda really need another set of goggles?’ He is outraged! ‘She has lost six pairs already.’ The kids are hungry and Menna’s dragon is starting to smoulder. ‘We can’t afford that nice restaurant on the beach though’ he wheedles, ‘Let’s head over to the backstreets and find a local kiosk where we can eat cheap. We’ve all got pretty tough stomachs now’. The little ecocabin in the trees where we are staying is lovely, ‘but there is a sweaty little concrete hostel in town where the rooms are half the price and they throw in the cockroaches for free’ he pleads ‘let’s move in there!’.

We have various late night conversations, Menna (safely fed), the goblin and I. And eventually we hatch a plan to get our spending under control. There is a place we know where there is some pretty heavy civil unrest and that is keeping tourism away. Furthermore they have recently been battered by two destructive hurricanes that have destroyed a lot of the infrastructure. You can only enter by land and it’s strictly a one-way deal, the borders back into Costa Rica are shut. Most of the commercial airlines have suspended their flights there. It’s one of the poorest countries in Latin America – in the world even! But the surf is great if you can get to the breaks, and it’s a place we know and love.

Everyone has warned us against it, but at this point that just deepens the appeal. We’ll go to Nicaragua.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
No.
Give them me. Give them me.
No.
Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them

Harold Monro, Overheard on a Salt Marsh