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Cigarettes and Alcohol- A journey through south central america: Chapter 1

  • Submitted by: Darren Colgan, Ireland
  • Submission Date: 22nd Feb 2009

Do You Know The Way To San Jose?

A call of “Wake up!” followed by persistent nudging and side-poking by the girl sitting next to me brought me out of my slumber. I was on a flight from Newark to San Jose (San Jose Costa Rica that is) which was, I was now informed by the poker woman, detoured to Managua because of fog. My initial thought was that this was just the kind of luck I usually get when travelling, as Managua was my actual destination. But nudging woman stopped my dreams dead in their tracks when she pointed out the obvious fact that they wouldn’t let me off and that they would fly back to San Jose as soon as possible. So, realising that she woke me up for no reason other than what seemed to be to piss me off, I tried to float back to dreamland, unsuccessfully. I couldn’t help feeling a bit like the guy in that song by the Steve Miller Band. A clown to the left of me (in all honestly he could have passed for one) and a poker to the right. I decided that once the plane landed in Managua I would ask if I could get off and get a head start on my journey. I’d prove that poker girl wrong. “Sir, I thought you were flying to San Jose?” asked the confounded airhost. I tried to explain but it was all in vain. “I couldn’t get a ticket to Nicaragua so I bought a ticket to San Jose instead, but now that I’m in Managua I’d like to know if it’s possible to get off now?”, “But Sir, we’re in Nicaragua, not Costa Rica.” Of course, as soon as something out of the ordinary happens on an American airline the person responsible is obviously plotting against the USA. So, sensing growing suspicion among the cabin crew, I retreated, defeated, back to my seat. A sly ‘I told you so’ smile was imprinted on poker woman’s face for the rest of the trip.

On landing at San Jose International, my hope was to sleep at the airport to save some money early in the trip. Besides, it was 1AM in the morning after roughly 14 hours of flying I was due for a bit of sleep. San Jose airport is a fine place to take a nap for the night. It’s heavily guarded so there are no security issues, it’s not too uncomfortable, and there’s usually other travellers trying to catch a snooze alongside you. A great website for checking the safety and viability of sleeping in certain airports is It has comments and tips for sleeping in airports all around the world, and most are usually up to date. I planned to sleep until 6AM, when I would get a taxi to town to catch the 7AM bus to Managua. But waking up is not something I do well. Luckily, those wonderful security guards (some of whom speak English but don’t count on it), woke me for a security check at 5.30AM. While a security check in the U.S. means an hour of tough talk, and searching bags and crevices you didn’t know existed, a security check in Costa Rica is just a short questionnaire about your activities in the country.

My first taxi ride in Central America was not what I had expected. The young and innocent traveller that I was, I jumped into the taxi hoping for a broken English conversation with a laid back, typical Central American manaña type fellow. Nope. This guy was a man seriously under pressure and probably under the influence. He had no time for casual conversation and showed a scary amount of frustration when he couldn’t understand my ‘chelo’ accent. He eventually found the bus depot, a run down, quite threatening looking building. It looked more like a cocaine warehouse from the outside. The foolish chelo that I was, I forgot to ask him for a fare before we left, and was now being charged the price of a mortgage on a small country bungalow. Reluctantly I paid up and walked warily towards the depot. Inside was mayhem. People couldn’t move a limb for fear of hitting someone’s face or private parts (the latter I later found out was quite the norm in crowded places and after becoming accustomed to it, a crowd is never quite the same again without a man’s sweaty crotch being pressed against your face). I wormed my way through the crowd to the ticket desk and was greeted by a much more laissez-faire man playing computer games behind the counter accompanied by a friend. “Dondé el proximo autobus por Managua?” I asked in my chelo Spanish. “QUE?!” he replied, straining to hear me, probably due to the reggaeton music pumping out of his earphones. I motioned for the universal ‘take off your headphones’ and he diligently obliged. “Do you speak English? Hablas englais?” He countered with the typical Central American response of someone who doesn’t speak English- he tried to confuse me with his mastery of the Spanish language. Whether this is an innate response or an evil plan to wind up visitors on an international level I still don’t know to this day. My response was to look confused and once again attempt Spanish. “Por favor, dondé el proximo autobus por Managua?” This time he decided to understand and pointed to the clock. “A la doce” (at 12 midday). But that couldn’t be right. I try to explain to him that the website said that the bus was left at 7AM. “No, No, doce. Problemas con el autobus.” His vague answer appeased me and I asked to buy a ticket. “No amigo, el autobus es lleno.” Following much sign language, I learned that lleno meant full. I also learned that only half of these people were waiting the five and a half hours for the 12 o’clock bus. The rest were waiting for the half two bus. So, reluctantly I bought a ticket for the half two bus. As I turned to leave the depot and explore San Jose, the friend of the ticket clerk winked and shouted after me in broken English, “Come back in hour before the bus leaves, we never know for sure!”

San Jose was exactly what I had expected, but that still didn’t prepare me for the poverty I witnessed. Across the corner from the bus depot, trying not to stray too far in case I lost my way, I turned onto a street littered with the bodies of homeless men. Some lived in cardboard boxes, some were missing a limb or two, most were asleep but I couldn’t tell you if they were really asleep or dead. Carcasses of chickens and the odd dog were strewn around the road, along with the decaying remains of rotten fruit and vegetables. At once I had the feeling to turn back, but my legs wouldn’t let me. I was here to see Central America, the good, the bad and the ugly. I didn’t feel unsafe. But I wish I did. It would have been better than feeling like a ghost. Turning onto the next road I happened upon a shabby looking fruit market with equally shabby looking fruit. There seemed to be more fruit on the ground than in the stalls and more dogs at the market than people. Thinking the next turn couldn’t get any gloomier… I came upon the entrance to a graveyard. Now I’m not the type to find some hidden beauty in a graveyard, (I mean come on, it’s like a car park but for dead people) but considering my alternatives I opened the gate and walked inside. Not that I’ve been to many graveyards in my time, but this had to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Huge ugly tombs lined the grimy cobblestone walkways, litter clogged the gaps between the gravestones and there were more cigarette butts than flowers. But the view was just magnificent. The backdrop of the graveyard was completely dominated by the majestic and misty mountains which surround almost the whole of the city. Clouds tried to conquer the peaks but they couldn’t reach, the mountains were just too grand. I probably spent about an hour and a half walking the paths of the graveyard until I had to move on, the ‘maintenance’ man started to follow me everywhere. Some job he has. I bought a snack in a small supermercado and returned to the station. Only 5 more hours to wait. I sat down and tried to catch up on my sleep.

A familiar sensation roused me out of my sleep. I had another poker woman sitting next to me. Trying her best English she managed to ask me “You bus Managua?” I thanked her and ran to the outside to the bus. Now that I was on my way I could relax. I took out my mp3 player and books, laid them out in my OCD like manner and sat back to enjoy the ride. Just as the bus was about to leave, I think I hear someone shouting my name. I sit up, slightly bemused, and hear it again. I think to myself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if this was some long lost school friend who just so happened to be in the same country as me and somehow recognised me? Or better still, one of my childhood heroes who tracked me down to the ends of the earth to tell me I’ve won a million euro, an unlimited supply of beer and my very own chimpanzee…” But sadly, it was the poker woman again, apologising for putting me on the bus that goes to Panama, not Nicaragua. With slumped shoulders and staggered steps I walk back to the depot and collapse into one of its broken plastic chairs. “How could this get any worse?” I thought to myself.

Now, I was on the right bus, which left an hour late. I was well on my way to Managua by the time I realised that my mp3 and books were now being sold to a kid in Panama City for five euro and a pack of cigarettes.