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

Tropical Thunder

The thing that really hits you when you arrive in the tropics isn’t the crazy sights and sounds so much as the feeling of the place. A warm damp blanket wraps itself around you the moment you step off the plane. The air is thicker; it sits heavy on your skin. There is a smell too: musky, humid, slightly rotten perhaps. It says that this is a place of fertility but also of decay. The very atmosphere is teeming with life, but it will sap you and make you lethargic. You move slowly here, you must fight your way through an environment laden with micro organisms, with heat and entropy. You must live out the dog days.

We are already dog tired when we arrive. The lead up to this trip has been a nightmare of logistics, planning and bureaucracy; skills that don’t come naturally to us. We flew from Madeira to Lisbon, holed up in an airport hotel for 48 hours, disgorged our life possessions into our budget family room. We made piles of things to come and things to leave and like shifting sand dunes they rose and fell by the hour.

We did bag-loads of laundry. We disposed of clothes, pots, pans, shoes, a spare surfboard, packs of pasta, half-full bottles of chilli sauce, olive oil, whiskey and aftershave. We struck a deal with a guy called Pablo to store our car for six months in a marine warehouse among the unsold speedboats. We conducted hushed phone conversations and tapped laptops late into the night while the kids slept beside us. We had a sudden panic when we realised Costa Rican immigration would require proof of onward travel and we only had a one-way tickets, so we spent frustrating hours on a badly designed website trying to purchase cheap coach tickets to Nicaragua. We spent more hours trying to upload insurance policies to a Costa Rican immigration portal, fill out covid declarations on a Spanish health portal, book our surfboards onto an Iberian travel portal.

Then came the trip itself. A 4AM rise for our first flight from Lisbon to Madrid. Then the layover – eight dull hours in a deserted airport where most of the shops were shut down. Arthur and I were carrying our skateboards in hand luggage so we amused ourselves by buying a Go-Pro camera and filming an epic skate video until we got busted by security and threatened with ejection from the airport. The twelve hours from Madrid to San Jose really dragged, we were stuffy under our masks, trapped on a decrepit Iberia plane that offered no hot food, alcohol or anything much really.
“No hay cerveza señor. Es por Covid” bored shrug. We heard that a lot. Es por Covid – a catch all term for anything unwilling or unwanted, anything you can’t do or can’t be bothered to do, a conversation killer.

But now we’re here: San José, Costa Rica. A rambling, unlovely, low-rise town that has all the energy, diversity and frenetic activity that you would expect from a Central American capital. Our hotel sits above Avenida Central and here we can see the region in microcosm. Most the business happens out on the street: there are lottery sellers with their talismans and lucky numbers; touts with bus tickets offering routes anywhere right up to Mexico City and beyond; street artists clowning around; clusters of mestizo women in traditional Guatemalan dress sitting with their textiles laid out in front of them on sheets. Old Indian men with creased faces squat down, trilling bird calls on ceramic pipes; sellers of plantains and pig hide stroll around shaking packets in our faces. Behind the action there are shady guys with missing teeth and prison tattoos who sit on doorsteps and stare at us.

The shops here are open-fronted and amazingly eclectic or amazingly specific – one store seems to specialise in a mix of flip-flops, car radios and push chairs, while another sells only watch straps. We go into a hunting shop to buy Arthur a bush knife and are offered tazers and pepper spray, ‘perhaps a machete for sir…’. Many shops have a DJ in the doorway, mic in hand, blasting out pop and static, shouting at ladies and crooning the high notes. Everything is loud here, everything is bright. People grab you by the elbow as you try to walk. There are butchers with tinsel entwined around cuts of meat. There are grocers with mad fruits that I have never seen before.

There is one thing that unifies this chaos: Christmas is coming to San Jose and it is a serious matter. From the nut seller with the dirty Santa hat to the giant inflatable elf above the auto store, everyone has made an effort. Garlands, streamers, tinsel, fairy lights, Santas and festive skeletons are out on display. While the decorations are varied and extreme, it seems that everyone agrees there is only one Christmas song that is worth playing, so one may as well put it on repeat. It is José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad, a catchy jingle approximately five minutes long and with a grand total of five different words. After a few minutes the kids are swaggering down Avenida Central belting it out. We have arrived.

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad…

Atlantic Highway Blues

After a month in Baleal it feels like autumn is closing in. We decide it is time to head south. The purpose of this year isn’t to live comfortably in a modern condo for months on end, it is to find adventure dammit. We are getting fat.

We spend a couple of nights in Azen Cool House, a chic guesthouse parked incongruously in the middle of a paintball and treetop climbing course. We lie by the pool while rifle shots and the screams of the wounded echo over the matting fence. I catch Arthur and Matilda sneaking onto the range in a commando crawl like a little pair of feral war orphans looting the battlefield. They are on a mission to collect intact paintballs which they will later fire at various (inappropriate) targets with Arthur’s catapult.

Arthur is below the minimum height to go climbing, but there is a slack line, archery and a giant basement rumpus room where he expends some of his considerable energy on the punch bag. I get the gloves on and spar with him for a while. He is getting worryingly strong now, all muscle and sinew, and I am feeling old today. My injured shoulder snags when I threw a left hook. I manage to land a couple of good blows anyway to give him a message then I slink off, feeling like the old grey alpha wolf who knows that his days at the top are numbered.

We eat a Sunday fish lunch in a quiet restaurant on the cliffs by Praia Magoito. I don’t have cash to pay the bill so the proprietor gives me a lift up the hill to the nearest bank. As we drive he tells me a sad tale of empty tables and rising costs; of fine sea bream thrown away uneaten. This place would have been packed on any Sunday last year he says, indicating the empty square. All his family members are working free shifts now to get the restaurant through the crisis. I think of all the melancholy restauranteurs up and down Europe at this very moment, standing in empty dining rooms, polishing glasses perhaps or twisting napkins in their hands as they look out on silent streets and forlorn town squares. Johnny Cash growls a soundtrack to my reverie: There’s nothing short of dying, that’s half as lonesome as the sound, of the sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning coming down…

Next day we move on to Costa Caparica and stay in a graffiti covered hostel where local kids come to smoke weed and play banging Detroit techno in the garage. It is in the sketchy end of town and we are advised to completely empty our car, which is a total ball-ache, particularly as we are only staying for one night.

We take our skateboards down to the boardwalk. It is a public holiday (Republic day!) and sunny. The world is out on promenade. There are Lego apartment blocks that loom over the esplanade and in the distance we can see the misty silhouette of abandoned fairground machinery. There are bars and restaurants made from shipping containers placed up and down the seafront, so we mooch for a couple of hours then try to get dinner, but everything mysteriously shuts down around seven. There is only one place left open and the waitress there is so incompetent that we give up and walk out after half an hour of trying to catch her attention. We find ourselves some dinner eventually and then get the kids hot churros as a treat. We go back to our shared room in the hostel and watch Twins, getting slightly stoned on recycled marijuana smoke.

At three in the morning Menna’s godfather dies after a long illness. For perhaps an hour she paces around our room, whispering to family members in the darkness. She spends most of the morning in tears.

Arthur and I go for a surf before breakfast and I have two collisions with the same girl. The first time I go left on an indifferent wave and she takes a right, so we meet in the middle. No harm is done but ten minutes later I am paddling out through the set and she wipes out right in front of me, gets rolled in the barrel and her board (a rather elegant wooden single-fin) comes flying at me. I roll to avoid it and it smashes down just where my head had been, and the fin sinks deep into my deck. She has about a second to make an apology before we both get hit by the next wave and then a few more after that. I am left with an ugly axe wound right in the centre of my brand new surfboard and have to grumpily paddle back to shore.

Menna is sad, I am grumpy and the kids take the brunt of it. I grill Arthur mercilessly on syntax in a café-based homeschool session and Menna and Matilda both end their lesson sobbing. We head back to the hostel to pack, parking our car outside on the narrow street so I can load it. Occasionally other cars arrive and they mount up onto the pavement to inch past, until the driver of a Citroen Picasso decides he doesn’t want to do this, and instead honks me to move. I haven’t got the surfboards strapped down yet and I gesture for him to squeeze past, but no, he really doesn’t fancy it. I point again and offer to direct. He refuses. We argue and I call him a shit driver. I hop in the car and reverse up in order to tuck in further and I end up hitting him. ‘Now who is the shit driver?’ he asks me as he rings his insurance company. He possesses a far better command of English than I had credited him for.

We catch up with an old friend in Melides for lunch. This means we have to put our calamities behind us and crank up the smiles.  Joe has a beautiful little house up in the hills and a brand new kitten that a local bartender left on his doorstep last night.  He plans to open up a yoga retreat soon on his land, or a standup-paddle rental bar in the local town. Or both. Once the bank comes through with the funding that is. Joe is an entrepreneurial type but it’s a tough time to be launching a small business in this environment. I remember that ghostly cohort of sad restauranteurs and wish him luck.

Down from the mountain

We left the mountain and went back to the normal world. Back to electricity and phone signals and running water. Back to the sea.

We strode down like heroes. Forged of iron, unwashed, streaked with warpaint of river mud, shins scabbed up and parasitic trophies lodged deep in our livers. We had been put to the test up there in the rocky scrublands, far away from civilisation. We had confronted our demons and reevaluated our guiding principles; a lonely company bound together, hiking upwards through rocky scrubland, sticks in hand, using stars and the lichen on treetrunks to find our true north. We had seen snail tracks meandering on river rocks and we had read something there of our own true nature. Our children had changed. Arthur could now slip silently into a muddy pool and emerge several minutes later with a crayfish squirming between his teeth. Matilda was a little less scared of spiders.

We missed the ocean and its breezes though and also, dare I say it, the convenience of modern digital life. It seemed as though driving back into Baleal was a kind of celebratory homecoming, even though we had only ever spent three days there. It was the first time on this trip that we had returned somewhere and this time we were going to stay put for a longer period. Throughout July and August we had spent no more than a week in any single location. It was time to halt the never ending packing and moving, arriving and departing, loading and unloading the bloody car. Perhaps the kids could even meet someone their own age. In a moment of zeal we tried to enroll them into a local Portuguese primary school but the bureaucracy was prohibitive.

So that is what we did throughout September. We stayed in a nice apartment full of gadgets that seemed like the height of luxury (a gas barbecue, hot showers, a dishwasher!). We walked through bamboo plantations to get to the sea. We met locals and surfed every day. Menna signed up to a yoga class and then pilates too. The September term started and brought with it an unwelcome new routine of homeschooling – the twin evils of discipline and structure. Matilda got a new bodyboard, I got a new surfboard. We skated up and down the empty road outside our front door. We visited the walled castle town of Óbidos and the misty island of Berlenga. Arthur learned to drop in on the quarterpipe skate ramp down at the nearby hostel. We did long walks across the cliffs northwards, or over the dunes to Peniche. We marked sunsets out of ten from our roof terrace.

In short we lived a fairly normal lifestyle, and of course we got bored. Before long Menna and I were right back in the realm of anguished late-night conversations about the purpose of this trip, the definition of adventure, the meaning of life, the pursuit of happiness. Dangerous destinations started to get thrown into the mix: Costa Rica, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, Morocco. Our dreams were of deserts and reef breaks and scarlet macaws.

It was time to head south.

The Desolation of Salinas

As we drove through the grim port streets of Avilés we were starting to feel really uneasy. This wasn’t how it was supposed to look. A rusted maze of industrial pipelines, graffitied warehouses, yellow smoke seeping from stained factory chimneys. The occasional pedestrian looked at our laden British car “Extranjeros?” they muttered to themselves menacingly, “Foreigners?”.

Menna is tense. She’s booked this one.

“I’m sure we’ll turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves in beautiful countryside.” I say comfortingly, but she’s hunched over Google Maps which tells a more precise story.
“We’re two minutes from our destination” she says.

And so it is. Salinas is linked to the industrial entrails of Avilés by a narrow sandy road that cuts through some scrublands. There is a screen of pine trees that blocks the worst of it, but it can’t hide the gantries and chimneystacks that loom high in our rear view mirror.

We haven’t researched this next leg very well. We have been nurturing an image of Salinas as a charming little surf town, telling others how quaint it is, but at some point in our journey today we have realised that this pipe-dream has absolutely no foundations. We got our first reality check when we scanned the surf report in Magic Seaweed and found a rather sniffy description:

Always crowded. Some localism. Ugly, urban setting with tower blocks and concrete walkways. Residential and stormwater pollution together with industrial pollution from the nearby factories of Avilés. Good beach facilities including a surfing school. Plenty of shops and bars nearby.

“Well, at least there are some shops and bars right honey?”

The seafront is indeed dominated by a row of imposing concrete towers and it turns out that our apartment is on the fifth floor in the last one of them. We’re met at the roadside by nervous masked Maite, who, with handbag under her arm, guides our car in an uncomfortable half-jog down into the subterranean carpark system. She tells us at length about a complex system of keys and the risk of getting imprisoned behind self-closing doors in a series of underground concrete corridors and steel storage vaults. We nod and smile exaggeratedly behind our masks, throughout her longwinded instructions, covering our internal dismay. In the meantime Arthur has exploded out of the car like a ferret out of a cage and wildly skateboards around the carpark, covering himself in soot and diesel. We shout at him.

The apartment is small and carefully decorated with black and white magazine pictures of film stars that have been cut out and glued directly to the wall. It faces not towards the sea, but back towards Avilés. There is a whole wall of homage to Brad Pitt, mainly taken from a single photo shoot which we date as of the mid-nineties, some point between Thelma and Louise and Twelve Monkeys. The place is immaculately clean and there is some heart there. The kids room is dark purple with a life-size mural of Spider-Man painted in a wild but enthusiastic hand, and they are immediately happy to be in there. The door closes and they start to rearrange the furniture.

Later we get a burger on the boardwalk and watch the waves, which are absolutely huge. The same swell that we saw in our last days at Dreamsea is still battering the coast. There are some great surfers out there and we get to watch a masterclass in big wave surfing.

The next morning we are up late and determined to find the best of Salinas. Architecture be damned, there is a hidden heart that beats in this city, we say, and we will seek it out.

Breakfast doesn’t start well. We can only find one nearby bar and all they will do for us is tostadas. ‘What is this?’ We ask stupidly. ‘It is toast’. Dry, white toast in fact that crumbles to powder. Four pieces piled up for us on a single plate with some hard butter that makes it disintegrate and apricot jam which we use to stick it back together again. The service is surly. The coffee is very good though we tell each other, aren’t we lucky. We must come back.

Arthur and I have brought out our skateboards, for there is a long smooth pedestrian promenade that runs along the sea front and it might well be the best thing about Salinas. We cruise along, feeling cool, weaving our way in and out of walkers (losers!). The girls meander behind. The sun is out, the waves look good and the day is yet ours.

Once we’ve checked out the boardwalk we peel off the seafront and head up into town to find a supermarket. On a bumpy towpath I do an exaggerated swerve round a couple of old ladies. As I smile gallantly at them, I hit a weird patch of tarry black grit that had no business at all being on the path, my board instantly sticks and I go properly flying. I hit the tarmac pretty hard and it hurts like hell. The old ladies come darting to help me and then they remember about Coronavirus and pull up, circling around me, clucking and twittering in Spanish, very agitated. Menna and Matilda run up and after a second or two I leap to my feet and tell everyone very loudly how fine I am. “Estoy bien, ningun problema! Un poco sangue, hahaha, nada màs!” I have a deep cuts on my elbow, both hands and my hip.

We limp off through a park, inspecting my injuries, and then we cut across the canal. In a surreal twist, I look down from the bridge and one of the old ladies is squatting right in the middle of a glade below us. She is peeing, her buttocks exposed like wrinkled white balloons. I look away shocked. “Don’t look down!” I mutter to Menna, all puritanical, but the kids overhear and immediately rush over giggling. We savagely whisper threats at them until they are back under control.

“What is wrong with this town?”  I ask no-one in particular.

I am still pretty shaken. Menna sits me on a bench and makes me eat dry croissants. We find our supermarket and load up on provisions for the week: fresh tuna steaks, salads, chorizo, olives, crisps, jamón, a really nice Rioja. We can still turn this situation around. Adventurers like us thrive on adversity.

I am gingerly skating home when I hear a primeval howl of frustration behind me. The zip has given way on our rucksack and Menna stands frozen in a pool of destruction. Our shopping is all over the pavement around her, ham glistens, tomatoes roll, olive oil seeps, shards of broken glass are glinting green in the sun. There are dark rivulets of Rioja running down into the gutter like blood. Matilda bursts out crying with the emotion of it all. A passerby tuts and shakes his head before hurrying on.

That evening I come down with a fever.