Saturday, January 26, 2008


For the most part, it’s quite simple……traveling that is. I stay flexible, I make sure I’m PLENTY early for the buses (the schedules seem to be a bit relative), and when I don’t know what’s happening, I just subscribe to the way of the cow….I follow the herd. This herd mentality seems to be especially effective at the various border crossings, where the general procedure seems to be as follows:

>While on the bus, fill out the immigration forms (one to two for BOTH countries).

>Give completed forms to bus attendant (he’s like the bus copilot), along with “exit fee” for departure country and passport.

>Upon arriving at the border, get off the bus and stand around for about an hour while the paperwork is sorted out for all passengers.

>After hearing your name called, collect passport and get back on the bus.

>Drive approximately 100 yards to other side of the border.

>Get off bus again and wait in line get to the window to see the official who has the authority to grant permission to enter new country.

>After passport is stamped, find new location of bus (again, the way of the cow works pretty effectively for this one).

>Once bus has been located, retrieve bags from under the bus and place them in designated “inspection area”…….usually a folding table next to the road.

>After standing with your bags for another hour or so, the boarder official waves everyone through, usually without inspecting a single bag.

I know it sounds a little ridiculous, and in reality it probably is. BUT I keep the expectations low, I avoid having a schedule, and I follow the herd.

COSTA RICA MEETS PANAMA: Everything was going according to plan. I had obtained all things necessary to leave Costa Rica, and I was on the final step to enter Panama…..the dreaded “meeting with the boarder official”. Wanting to make sure I was following the majority and not just one or two stray cows, I had positioned myself towards the back of the herd. After all, I figured the bus couldn’t leave until EVERYONE was through customs, so there was no rush right? Anyway, after pretty much EVERYONE else was back on the bus waiting for the stragglers, I finally made it to the window. It was at THAT time that the following exchange took place.

J (this is me by the way)—Hello sir.

BO (BO here is referring to the “boarder official”….NOT the potentially lethal combination of too much humidity and too few showers)—Passport please!

BO (after inspecting the passport)—departure ticket!

J—Not understanding exactly what he means, I hand him the stub for my bus ticket.

BO (tossing bus ticket into the air)—What is THIS? I need your DEPARTURE ticket! THIS ticket is USELESS!

J—You want a “departure” ticket from Panama?

BO—YES! Departure ticket! You have to have a DEPARTURE TICKET!

J—Departure ticket? But I haven’t even made it “INTO” the country…..why would I need a ticket “to leave”?

BO—Because you do!!!! (he’s now pointing to a sign on the glass that until this moment made NO sense to me). If you don’t have a departure ticket, you CANNOT COME IN!!!

J—But I don’t HAVE a departure ticket, because I didn’t know when and how (plane vs. bus) I was going to leave. Don’t worry sir, I really do plan to leave.

Now, at this point, I should say that throughout this entire exchange, the BO had been growing increasingly irritated…… AS WERE the people standing behind me in the seemingly endless line. It was also at this point that the BO was, in MY mind, beginning to look and sound eerily similar to a famous character from an old Seinfeld episode, namelyTHE SOUP NAZI!

BO—NEXT!!!!!! (again, he’s now becoming more and more animated).

J—So you aren’t going to allow me to enter the country? After all, I’m sorry about all of this, but where in the world am I going to buy a ticket HERE? The bus is waiting.

BO—NEXT! (and while waving me off again)..Go talk to the chief! (he points to another guy in another window)……………..or………as I heard it……….NO SOUP FOR YOU!!!! YOU COME BACK…….ONE YEAR!!!!!!

Well, after a brief chat with the “chief” that yielded absolutely NO results, I headed back to the bus to seek council from the bus driver.

BD—Oh, you don’t have a ticket to exit? NO problem……here you go……..that will be $25.

The next thing I know, I have a bus ticket to leave the country on an unspecified date and I’m now back in the same line to see my new friend behind the window (apparently I wasn’t the first person to make this mistake). After another long wait in the line……….

J—Hello again, sir. I now have a ticket to leave your great nation. Here it is.

BO—Where’s the other form!

J—other form?

BO—Yes! Where’s the other form for the visa?!

J—You mean the immigration form? I gave it to THAT guy along with everyone else (again….following the herd).

BO—NO, I don’t mean the immigration form! I mean the form for your VISA!!!!!!

J—I need ANOTHER form?

At this point, the guy from the bus overhears the exchange and decides to intervene (thankfully). After all, the ENTIRE BUS had been waiting FOR ME for quite some time now (yep, you guessed it…..only gringo on the bus) and HE was also growing impatient.
The next thing I know, I’m taken across to a DIFFERENT office to a DIFFERENT window to find a DIRRERENT official to get ANOTHER form. Oh, and of course, this office is empty and nobody seems to know where the required official is. “OH boy…this really isn’t going well”. I just kept wondering how long the bus was actually going to wait for me. I also started to question the odds of me surviving the rest of the trip unscathed (Jason vs. the rest of the passengers) even if the bus DID wait. I mean between my pleasant interactions with my new friend and my increasing proficiency with “line standing”, this was REALLY taking some time.

Finally though, the official showed up from her dinner break, and I exchanged $5 for a visa form. Upon running behind the guy from the bus back to the original line and being taken, this time, to the FRONT of the line (whatever you do Jason, just do NOT look behind you), I found myself standing in a very familiar place.

J—Hello sir…..remember me? And before we go any further, can I just say that that shirt really looks great on you. And have you lost weight?

BO—Without saying a word, he took the new form, stamped my passport, and waved me on.

J—Again sir, I want to thank you for granting me permission to enter your great land. I look forward to my upcoming experience with your people and your culture, and I just want to say that…………..


So in the end, as always, everything worked out perfectly. The bus DID wait, the other passengers exercised a great amount of patience with the stupid gringo, and I arrived in Boquete a few hours later.
Como siempre……..good times.

Monday, January 21, 2008


TERRIFIC NEWS! Remember the great hotel where I was staying in Nicaragua? Well, besides the wireless internet and world (OK…neighborhood) famous pancakes, I found another asset to add to the plus column. That is, they’re located within walking distance (i.e. two blocks) of the Ticabus terminal! Ticabus? What’s that you may ask? The Ticabus (named after the slang word for Costa Ricans) is how I planned to get to Costa Rica. So on Wednesday morning, without a hitch, I rose with the sun, said my final goodbye’s to the Cisnero family, and rolled my belongings down the pothole laden street to Terminal Ticabus. Within an hour, I was on the road. Within another 13, I was stumbling off the bus into yet another TB terminal…….this time, San Jose style.
Since my ultimate destination was Panama, and I had to go right through Costa Rica to get there, I thought “why not see San Jose for a few days?” Besides, I’d never been to SJ, and there was the added bonus of being able to visit an old friend who is living there for a few months. On top of that, who wants to ride the bus for TWO full days in a row? So with that logic on the brain, I checked into Casa Ridgeway (more on that later) and opened up the Lonely Planet: Costa Rica to chapter two…….San Jose. Ultimately, I was able to spend five days in the city. Below are a few thoughts/experiences I thought you (or ME, if I’m the only one reading these things) might enjoy.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Remember the struggling city that I described Managua to be? Well, everything that Managua is NOT, San Jose IS. All in all, it’s a modern metropolis in every sense of the word. There are highways, sky scrapers, hotels, parks, museums, shopping malls, statues, pedestrian malls, and PLENTY of culture to go around. The parks were green, and the buses were new. To say the least, I was nothing but impressed.

CHIQUI CHIQU MONKEY: Although I rode the bus or walked most of the time, I did have the pleasure of riding in several taxis along the way. My favorite BY FAR was the one that had a large TV screen mounted to the dashboard for the passengers to watch. I think it’s fair to say that a TV screen in a taxi is a treat under any circumstances. What made this one so great though was what was ON the TV. A bit of background…….remember the 80’s in America? The decade of Reagan, mall rats, parachute pants, swatches, and some truly horrific hair styles? Although this decade was known for many great things, music was certainly NOT one of them. So if you can imagine the absolute WORST music from the 80’s and then record it in Spanish (no, I’m not talking about Menudo), you have a style called Chiqui Chiqui…………. Now, if you were to record this music and then film a bunch of people lip syncing to it while clad in the WORST of 80’s fashion and dancing on a playground, you have a Chiqui Chiqui music video. Finally, if you take ALL of these things and then record the off-key background vocals of a random taxi driver from San Jose, you will have EXACTLY what I experienced on that fateful night……..the perfect storm. Que Horrible!!!!!!!!
And speaking of taxis, I was also able to use them as a barometer for my success in the city. Here’s what I mean. When I arrived in San Jose on the bus from Nicaragua, I paid $7 for a ride from the Ticabus terminal to Casa Ridgeway (yes, I do hear the collective gasp going out across the internet). Four days later, when I traveled the SAME route on my way BACK to the terminal, I only paid $2. AAAHHH….the sweet smell of success.

SUMMONING THE QUAKER WITHIN: I mentioned before that while in San Jose, I stayed at a place called Casa Ridgeway. Casa Ridgeway is a nice little hostel located very centrally in San Jose. What I didn’t realize initially though was that it was a QUAKER hostel. Now, like me, I’m sure you are asking the question of “what exactly IS a Quaker?” Also like me, you may be thinking that the answer to that question involves something with bonnets, clothes from the 1800’s, and a diet unusually high in oatmeal. But as I stayed at the hostel and started to read the various pieces of Quaker propaganda handing on the walls, I started to realize that I MIGHT BE A QUAKER!!!!!! AND I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW IT!!!!!!!! OK, so maybe I’m not actually a Quaker, but I really did enjoy hearing more about their ideas, and I certainly found myself agreeing with pretty much everything they stand for. In fact, connected to the hostel was their “friends for peace” center, where they regularly hosted various gatherings in the name of world (and local) peace. Pretty cool stuff.
Perhaps my favorite exposure to the Quaker lifestyle though came in the form of a Quaker party. “What? You were only in SJ for four days, and you were already invited to a party?” Hey, that’s exactly what I thought. But, even though it was really through my friend Connie (who had been there for a while), I still took it as a good sign and put on my best party clothes for the special occasion. When we got there, it was pretty much just the three of us (me, Connie, and the host), so I happily pitched in with the preparation of the shish kabobs that were on the night’s menu. As the guests started to arrive though, I couldn’t help notice that something was amiss. And although it took me a few minutes to figure out what that “something” was…….. well, let me just explain it like this. Being the young (yea yea I know….just humor me on that one) single guy that I am, I’m always finding myself “looking around” a bit at the various parties I attend. The Quaker party was no exception. So as the guests started to arrive, I found that the ODDS were REALLY in my favor! I mean this party had a GREAT female to male ratio! In fact, after a few moments, I found myself noticing a certain young lady from across the room. Not long after that, I found that in addition to her attractive outer appearance, she had some other things going for her. She had lived in CR for a while, she had a good job, she had a car, and a pretty nice personality. But as I began to listen to her conversation with the other guests, I started to lose a bit of interest. More specifically, when I overheard her discussing her concern over her post-menopausal estrogen/progesterone levels with another guest, I started to think that we may not have much in common. And with that, maybe I should mention that this young lady, who happened to be the YOUNGEST of the arriving guests, was 64! Now I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone out there who happens to be carrying an AARP card in their wallet. It’s just that after being at this party for a while, it finally dawned on me as to why we had such a great party “ratio”. All the Quaker MEN had died!!!!
Oh well, the night wasn’t a TOTAL bust. In addition to learning ALL KINDS of things about the early to mid 20th century, I was also well rested for the next day.

I AM……4 YEAR OLD: Another experience I had in SJ was seeing a movie. Like I mentioned before, SJ has a number of movie theaters, and all of them appeared to rival any theater we have in the states. Not wanting to miss out on this aspect of the CR culture, I headed over to the local Cineplex to take in a product of my great country. The movie on that night’s agenda was I AM LEGEND with Will Smith. The movie was OK, but I couldn’t figure out why everyone in the theater seemed to be discussing the movie while it was in progress. Seriously, it was apparently completely acceptable to have a running commentary in your “outside voice” about what was happening on the screen. Oh well. At least it was an action movie, so much of the conversation was drowned out by the stereo sound.
My favorite moment of the evening though was when I decided to head to the concession stand to sample a bit of “palomitas Latinas”…..or Latin popcorn. You see, sometimes I begin to feel pretty good with the Spanish. Maybe I’ll have a nice conversation with someone in Spanish…….or maybe I’ll understand the lyrics to a song…..or maybe I’ll find myself being able to read something without getting out the ol’ diccionario…….Whatever… can take on many forms, and when these things take place, I find myself experiencing a bit of much needed confidence with my language skills. Unfortunately though, things can also go the other way. My popcorn experience would certainly fall into the category of the latter.
So there I was, standing in the concession line, practicing my upcoming speech. Palomitas……palomitas……palomitas…….the Spanish word for popcorn. I was SO excited because I LOVE popcorn, and I had just learned the Spanish word for this great delicacy. So there I stood, practicing over and over…….palomitas……palomitas. Finally, the moment came. It was MY turn to order las palomitas. The initial request actually went pretty well. “Small popcorn please?” “Hey, that went pretty well”. “Nice job, Spanish Jason” But as the girl behind the counter began to ask me “something”, I just couldn’t get it. “What?” “What?” Another……”What?” Uh oh...things were getting tense. It was as if some internal culture alarm was beginning to sound in the far reaches of my brain. Before long, all I could think of was “ABORT! ABORT! ABORT! NO PALOMITAS! NO PALOMITAS! GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN!!!!! But I couldn’t do ANYTHING! And before I knew what had happened, I found myself standing there at the counter, uttering PALOMITAS over and over again. It was all I could say! PALOMITAS! BUT to make matters worse, I couldn’t understand how much it was going to cost! So was in this horrible place I found myself, uttering the word PALOMITAS over and over again, while dumping more and more change on the counter. I was suddenly reduced to the four year old standing at the counter in the candy shop with empty pockets and a bag of change dumped on the counter. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if the girl at the counter had asked my how old I was at that very moment, I would have responded by holding up the appropriate number of fingers along with a well timed “this many”.
The good news was that like all things, this too did pass. Ultimately, I dumped enough money onto the counter and, and in exchange, was given a bucket of popcorn. This icing on the cake? The bucket that overflowed the CARAMEL corn. I HATE CARAMEL CORN!!!!!!!
AAAHHHH….good times. You have to love the learning curve associated with a new language. I’ll tell you this though…..after a few days in recovery, I’m ready to get back on the horse! Bring on the palomitas!!!!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

La Chureca.....True Confessions Of A Coke Bottle

La Chureca....hmmmm....what to say about La Chureca. La Chu-WHAT you may ask? La Chureca. It's the name of the city dump in Managua. More specifically, it's the name of the "community" of people living and working in the dump in Managua. It's also the place where I plan to spend a fair amount of my time this year. As I mentioned before, Mangau itself doesn't exactly ooze affluance. To borrow from a previous Blog entry, it's poor......really poor. Not unlike any other society though, there are certainly differing levels of affluance.....or in this case, lack thereof. In THIS struggling city, the "bottom of the barrel" would certainly be found in La Chureca. The dump itself is really quite large, and believe it or not, is located on the shores of Lake Managua (think ocean front property in Prince William Sounds....cirque 1989). There is a vast open area where the trash is dumped, and then there is an adjacent residential area where the people live. Now, when I say adjacent, I mean "pretty much IN". Anyway, the system is that.........the trucks collect the garbage from the city......the truck drivers take out anything that looks salvageable.......the truck drivers then drive to La Chureca and dump the trash wherever they find the motivation (middle of the road? On someone's residence? NO PROBLEM).........the people then start manually sifting through the trash looking for ANYTHING that can be recycled, sold, worn, reused, or eaten.......the people eat or use what they can and then sell the rest to the local "dealers" at the entrance of La Chureca (middle men).......from there, I'm not exactly sure where it goes, but the "collectors" are paid a small sum. From what I could tell, THAT is pretty much the thriving economic system within the least officially. Unofficially, the economy involves selling of drugs (mainly crack and small bottles of sniffable glue) and prostitution (yep, this is where the kids come in).

THE WORK.........To be quite honest with you, I didn't find the working conditions to be THAT horrible. I mean it's certainly difficult and filthy manual labor. But all in all, after becoming accustomed to the smell, it really didn't seem that bad (yea yea...I know....that's easy for me to say....I wasn't the one DOING it). Despite my lack of repulsion though, I did see a couple of problems. First of all, there's the smoke. Oh, did I fail to mention this before? Yea, there's a lot of smoke. And like the old adage says, where there's smoke, there's fire. In this case, the trash is burning.......ALWAYS. Some of the fire is from spontaneous combustion deep within the layers of trash. Other fires are just on the surface....on the side of the the middle of the road.....EVERYWHERE.....or as they say in this part of the world, "on all sides".Another problem is that the children are forced to work in the trash. Apparently, some of them do attend school (more on the school later) to some degree, but they also have a very strong presence in the trash.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD.........Like I said, I didn't find the working conditions to be terribly horrific. The living conditions are another story. The structures are very simple and would probably best be described as "shanty" type structures. They seem to be constructed from whatever wood or metal that happens to be lying around, and as you can imagine, the "furniture is simple". The good news is that to my surprise, most of them did have running water and electiicity from the city's grid (i.e. ONE bulb and ONE spicket). In fact, one of the ways the city has turned a blind eye to such an atrocity within its borders is by claiming the benevolence of allowing the "thievery" of its water and electricity. Anyway, it wasn't the simplicity of the conditions that I found to be so offensive. Rather, it was the filth. I mean it's one thing to follow up a hard (and dirty) day's work in the dump with a nice shower in a relatively clean living environment. It's entirely another when you continue to live IN the same filth. AND, since the trucks are consistently driving by all day, the dirt, trash, etc. (again....filth) is EVERYWHERE. And you have to keep in mind that you can't just close the window when the trucks drive by:) So without belaboring the point, I'll just say again that the home life is less than desirable.

LIFE AMONGST THE TRASH........As you can imagine, if you were to live under such harsh conditions, you might look for some type of escape. Well, this is where the drugs come in. The glue that I mentioned before seems to be the most prevalent. It's sold in small baby food jars, and I believe a jar will generally last for about three days. Apparently, in addition to providing a minor sense of euphoria, it acts as a great appetite suppressor (not a bad thing when there's no money for food). The prostitution is just another way to make a buck. Starting at an early (7 or 8), young girls can make a little extra money for the family by offering their services to the truck drivers. Again, for the folks on the giving end of this service, it all comes down to survival.

AND FINALLY.......A RAY OF SUNLIGHT..........Believe it or not, despite the prevailing darkness within the community, there is also a beauty to be found. Although the kids around there don't have large piles of leaves to jump in like I did growing up, they DO have piles of paper. Although I didn't come across any new PS3's or WII's, they seemed to take great pleasure from a myriad of simple "toys". Within the people themselves, there IS a sense of community. And as confusing as the family structures are at times, they are families nonetheless. I look forward to exploring this side of things in the coming months.
To learn more about La Chureca, check out

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bienvenido a Managua

On Friday night, after enjoying a perfectly uneventful day in the skies, I arrived in Managua. Because I was arriving after dark, I didn't get much of an aerial view on the approach. But, I DID see a LOT of lights, so at least there's electricity right?
Anyway, after navigating the baggage claim and multiple customs stations, I finally found my way to the doors marked EXIT. No surprisingly, along with incredibly high humidity (see "Jason and the magic afro" from last year's Panama Blog) and increasingly familiar smell seemingly common to this part of the world, I found myself in the chaotic melee of screaming taxi drivers. The GOOD news was that after only a few short NO's, I heard a familiar name......namely, uh, mine. Brad, Daniel, and Bismark helped me load up my bags into the car and off we went to the hotel.

Hotel Cisneros........This was the name of the hotel in which I spent my first five night. It was a nice little place behind their house (they being the Cisneros family) that consisted of about 10 small apartments and rooms. The rooms were simple but nice, and the breakfast pancakes were EXCELLENT (the phrase "best pancakes in Managua" came up more than once). As for the BEST surprise? Well, the wireless internet of course!!!!!!

My time in Managua.......I spent a total of four days in Managua, mostly driving from one end of the city to the other in an attempt to meet "someone" or accomplish "something" in a BIG hurry. We met with poor people (visiting with various residents of the dump), we met with rich people (dignitaries and people from the Italian embassy), we met with local people, and we met with LOTS of gringos (other people working in the area, representing a number of different organizations). For me, in addition to getting an excellent orientation of the city and all of it's "goings on", it was GREAT to meet the numerous aid workers in the area. I heard about ALL KINDS OF THINGS happening down there, from healthcare to schools to coffee cooperatives. Everyone seemed to have more work than they could handle, and everyone seemed eager to have me help them out. Although I don't know "exactly" what I'm going to do when I get back from language school, there's certainly ample opportunity to get involved in pretty much any area I want. I was also able to meet with a nurse from the clinic in the garbage dump, and she too seemed happy to have me help out around there (apparently they get a fair number of "machete wounds").

Managua.....I've visited a number of cities in Latin America, and they all tend to look the same to me. There are always the very poor areas, but there are also the more "developed" parts of town with the big American hotels, large casinos, plenty of KFC joints, and at least one or two GSOUS's......or grocery stores of unusual size (that was for you Princess Bride fans). As I drove around Managua though, I kept asking "so where is the nice part of town"? In other words, where is the commerce.....where are the buildings.....where are the hotels and casinos......where do the rich people live and shop? Interestingly enough, on the night of my fifth and final night in the city of....well, broken concrete..... I finally found it. Upon driving to a small gathering to celebrate a gringo-girl's bday, I noticed something incredibly strange. "Hey, why are there decorative street lights out here, and is that unusual glow in the distance what I think it is"? Beyond that, why do I suddenly feel as though we're riding on air? Why have we stopped dodging the potholes? Well, as for the lights that I found to be so intensely mesmerizing, they were decoration for the NEW ROAD!! The NEW ROAD also explained the strange sensation of floating. The Glow? Yep, you guessed it. It was the glow of NEON.....lights that is. Before I could say "delapidation", I suddently found myself in the middle of the "high end part of town". And although I didn't remember seeing a train, we had apparently crossed to the other side of the tracks.
OK OK....I'm kidding about all of this, of course. But, in all seriousness, Managua is unlike any other city I've been in. And the reality of it all is really quite simple......It's poor......really poor. No modern or upscale shops or restautants (minus the two blocks that I just described) coffee public art (unless you count the new lamp posts) public works......not much of anything........just a lot of dirt, trash, and broken concrete. Fortunately for Managua though, a city can never be judged by the beauty (or lack thereof) of its exterior. Rather, a city must always be judged by the spirit of its people. And as I made an increasingly number of friendships over my short stay there, it became increasingly clear that Managua is a truly beautiful place.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Going....Going.....well, not quite gone

OK...... first of all, in my defense, I need to say this.....things have been a little hectic lately.

So there I am. It's Thursday morning. I'm enjoying a leisurely morning around the breakfast table at my brother Jeremy's house. The pancakes are fantastic (complete with REAL maple syrup), the coffee is excellent (organic, or course), and the company is perfectly enjoyable.'s so nice to just take a few deep breaths after the chaos of "preparing to leave the country for a year". I had finally gotten eveything packed up and in the POD the night before. The plan was to spend a bit of family time in Colorado Springs before driving back to DIA to catch my flight to Managua.

"You know, I think I should make sure my flight is still on time for 3:30", I say, as I pull up my eticket on the computer. hmmmm....that's strange......apparently my 3:30 flight has suddenly....spontaneously...eratically....without warming.....unexpectedly and without my knowledge changed from 3:30 to 11:30.....AM! in one hour from right then!!!!!!!! WHAT???!!!!! (wait a minute, let me try that again in the spirit of heading South) QUE????!!!!!! Well, let's see. I was never a math major or anyting, but if I am supposed to be at the airport 2 hours ahead of the flight, and the airport is about 2 hours away, and I have one hour until the flight leaves......well......I didn't make it.

Yea yea....I know. I know. I apparently got a little scatter-brained at the end there. BUT, all is well! In fact, it couldn't have worked out better. I was able to just relax for a day, get a few more things done, hang with the family, and then fly out of Colorado Springs (i.e. short drive) this AM!

Right now, on FRIDAY afternoon, I'm sitting in the Houston airport typing this (my first) BLOG entry. I feel great, I'm rested and relaxed, and I'm looking forward to my much anticipated arrival in Managua just a few short hours from now. I mean sure, I'm 24 hours behind schedule, but if you think of it, I'm moving to Central America. I'm ONLY 24 hours late:)