Post Utila Syndrome and its Costa Rican Cure / Yaniv Singer

It took us a long while to get off the island, even once we decided to do so. Because of the pricing involved, I joined Erika in her Advanced Open Water course, rather than go on individual dives. I think our best dive was the night dive (night dive is the right dive, with my baby and I). At some points we would turn off our flash lights and gaze into the reef and see what could only be described like a distant galaxy in outer space—thousands of light sources, some staring right at us, and some just doing their thing. We could also see corals feed by shining the light on them and waiting for all of the underwater bugs and worms to come by and be pulled into the hungry mouths of the individual polyps. Finally we also met an octopus. He was curious by us, and was attracted to shiny things. Watching him move on the reef was amazing, as his body would extend in eight different directions to engulf an entire brain coral, and change colors as he was doing it.

From more utila

feeling good after a beautiful dive

From more utila

little buddies

From more utila

And then the weather turned and northerly winds started to blow, bringing with them gushes of rain, and high surf. The boat rides to dive site became violent, and we always anticipated going underwater where things were calm again. At the end of each dive we were able to look up, and see the waves and the rain drops breaking the serenity of the surface that we were do used to. The winds also meant that the ferry going back to the mainland twice a day kept being canceled, on account of the port of La Ceiba being closed. In these days Zorro, a local fisherman, kept coming to our dock. We would buy two of whatever he had. He would cut open the fish on his boat and throw the guts into the water where they were promptly grabbed by barracudas. An hour later we would have lunch. The fish never saw the inside of an icebox (not that they would if they were in once anyway).

From more utila

Perhaps on the same subject, one night a local dive shop screened the movie The Cove. It is a documentary feature (that won the academy award for best doc) about a Japanese village whose “industry” is catching dolphins, selling the good ones to dolphinariums and aquariums around the world, and driving the rest to a secret cove where they slaughter them. They kill roughly 23,000 dolphins a year. The main character in the movie is Ric O’Barry, who was the dolphin trainer for the TV show Flipper, and who has since then devoted his life for dolphins in danger around the world. The film is unbelievable, and I highly recommend watching it. I mention it hear in an effort to increase awareness to the issue, so that eventually this could be stopped. The reason why it is senseless to kill these dolphins (even for people who believe that eating animals is okay) has to do with Mercury poisoning. Being on the top of their food chain, dolphin meat has dangerous levels of Mercury. In fact, because of these high levels of the chemical, the meat that comes off the island is often labeled as something else in the markets. One of the issues discussed by the movie is today’s lack of people who devote their lives to environmental and other social equality issues. I agree, and I can expound. In 2006 I volunteered as the head of the “public transportation campaign” for an environmental organization in Israel. We were trying to divert public money from projects that favor private vehicles to ones that favor public transportation. After a year of hard work and zero progress I quit. To fight against the interest of multimillion dollar companies and their cronies in public office seemed hopeless to me. It still does, which is why I’m travelling the world now instead of trying to help it. THAT SAID, Margaret Mead said once “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” and with this I totally agree as well. Indeed, for the time being I am torn between the two views, the one says I am totally insignificant, the other that I can change the world. Maybe this trip is about resolving the two, though personally I doubt it.

From more utila
From more utila
From more utila

We finally got off the island, and returned to our over-priced hotel where our bikes were waiting in their much-deserved and surely-appreciated underground parking. For the second time in La Ceiba we dined at Pizza Hut. In the morning we went to KFC. We normally eat street food. It is cheap, fast, and different from place to place. In Honduras, however, we could not find any street food. Instead we saw American fast food, everywhere, any kind, and in huge numbers. They were also the cheapest we’ve seen them (eg. a Wendy’s burger-fries-coke combo for less than two dollars). Later we understood why. A corrupt yet legal agreement between the government of Honduras and the company that brings American fast food guarantees that these restaurants will not have to pay income tax for 25 years (15 more years to go). It also allows them to have all of their workers on part-time status, and therefore not grant them any benefits. This is why they are so cheap. Ten years into this law the majority of street food vendors simply went out of business. One could guess what will happen in 15 years.

It was hard to leave Utila and return to the mainland. The reason has to do with value differences. Utila is so dependent on Westerners and is so full of them that it retained some of their value. People don’t throw trash in the street, it’s relatively quiet, people don’t pester you, etc. This could also be the effect of the abundance of money on the island. As soon as we arrived in La Ceiba, taxi drivers began to holler at us ‘taxi taxi taxi’ as if we didn’t hear them the first time, or as if, if you wanted a taxi, you wouldn’t hail one. Sometimes it seems they think they can convince you to enter their cab if they say the word ‘taxi’ enough. When you further pay attention, it is apparent that they can’t help it. Saying taxi to a westerner is like a verbal tick to them. You notice this when cabs pass you by at high speeds, and still the cabbie yells taxi in your direction. If if he did manage to convince you, he’s going to fast to hear your reply. Another interesting thing is when you pass a line of cabbies by foot, they will each say taxitaxitaxi to you, as if completely unaware that you declined the guy who’s standing right next to them.

Of course, yelling taxi is just an example. One thing we noticed sitting in cafes in lake Atitlan is the kids walking into the cafes and trying to sell you stuff. They are happy with their buddies outside, laughing, making noise, being kids, but as soon as they approach your table they put on a sad puppy face, begging you to buy from them. At some point you say no enough times and they go away, but 20 minutes later, they are back, as if nothing happened, trying to convince you again. This can happen three or four times, until you leave the restaurant.

Another thing that also got to us in La Ceiba was the garabage everywhere on the street, and the honking of trucks, and the general lack of anything that was intended to be beautiful in the city. Before Utila, we slowly got used to these things, but now it was a shock all over again. It gave both of us a distinct feeling that we wanted to go home.

Part of travelling is learning about other values, and the general thing to do when you encounter them, is not judge them. What do you know, after all. For most values, this is a wise approach. If you take food for example, it will be foolish of you to judge people for liking tacos more than hamburgers. I reserve the right, however, to cast some judgment. I could say with confidence, for example, that clean roads are better than dirty roads. It is therefore okay for me to judge people who throw diapers and soda cans out of their car windows. For some, this goes without saying. For me, I need to justify it, because of the general code of traveling that calls to respect the locals, no matter what. Perhaps I’m just a judgmental person.

We decided to press on and readapt ourselves to the loud and dirty environment. The next day we managed our first supra 200 mile day, and reached Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, by rush hour traffic. As we were congratulating our sense of timing, a fellow BMW rider stopped next to us and asked if we needed help. We asked him where could we find a cheap hotel, and followed him to one. They didn’t have parking, which gave me the excuse to ask him what I wanted to in the first place, if he had a back-yard, and if we could pitch our tent on it. This is the question to ask if you want to be exposed to local culture (and if you want to save on hotels). He didn’t have a back-yard, which is surprising for a BMW owner in Honduras.

new friends

From leaving honduras and entering nicaragua

But his friend did. We therefore waited with the BMW guy and a buddy of his in a café for two hours until their home-owner friend finished his Kung-Fu class. It is sometimes alarming how nice people can be. I don’t use the word as a figure of speech, but as an accurate description of reality. All of our life we are taught to look out for people who are too nice, for they surely want something from us. I received a traveler’s pamphlet from the state department of Israel. Supposedly, I should be very careful from interacting with locals and I should try to hide my Israeli/Jewish identity whenever possible. By no means should I go into a stranger’s car, or follow him to his house. I know Americans are brought up in a similar way. This encouragement of fear is not limited to the travel industry, it is one of the tools governments use to rally citizens behind political causes and military operations. It is very unfortunate, and it is something that if you want to be free of, you must unlearn. Our unlearning process is in full steam—we were following a black man with dreadlocks and a chopper up the dark alleys of Tegucigalpa. So it goes.

Alfonso is a biologist and a psychologist who due to recent developments in the local economy is now cleaning restaurants. He is a Buddhist, and an extremely positive person. He’s the one who told us why KFC is so cheap. He also explained to us what happened in Honduras in summer of 2009, when the president was kidnapped and exiled to San Jose, Costa Rica by the army because he wanted to make a poll asking people if they favor a change in the constitution. Over the past year he has been working in a radio station that was stormed twice by the army for speaking negatively about the government. He also told us several other stories that demonstrate the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in Honduras. In the morning he made us bread and his mom made me coffee. Try to get that from a night at a hotel room.

alfonzo and his mom

In the morning we left for Nicaragua. It took us a while to cross the border, but it was nothing in comparison to what was to follow. We stayed the night in Ocotal. Thankfully, we were back in the land of beer that is sold in one-liter bottles for cheap. We didn’t see that since Mexico. The next day we rode 220 miles to Rivas, in the southern Edge of Nicaragua.
A word about flying through an entire country in one day. A quick word. It is only fitting. I’ve come to see traveling as the art of knowing what to miss. Ignoring mountain and ravines, any country you may visit is undeniably two dimensional. If all goes well on a motorcycle ride, and if the road is not slippery, the route it tends to make is one dimensional, though curved. It can therefore easily be proven that mathematically, even if time were not an issue, there is no way you can see everything. Throw in time considerations, and you will find your route to be a thin slice of whatever a country has to offer. Furthermore, I believe that thinking in terms of countries is misleading. After all, one wants to see different aspects of individual cultures, landscapes, geologies, climates, etc. That being the case, when planning where to make your one dimensional incision you should ask yourself where are the best places in the region to pass. The US and Mexico should be seen as two units, whereas in my mind, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are one and the same unit. If the border wasn’t there, you wouldn’t know you’re in a different country. Of course, I’m sure we missed a lot by flying through Nicaragua on one day. This will allow us to spend more times in other places. The art of knowing what to miss.

From leaving honduras and entering nicaragua

Momotombo Volcano on the coast of Lago De nicaragua

From leaving honduras and entering nicaragua

hopefully the last picture of the beard

We woke up in Rivas early in the morning, and go to the border at 10 am. Though I never had to wait on line with people, it still took us 4 hours to enter Costa Rica. In Nicaragua you pay municipal tax, then urged to make photocopies that you will never us. Then a guard inspects your motorcycle papers. He signs it with a squiggle. You then have to find a place where another police man signs the paper. Then you must go stamp your passport, which costs two dollars. Then you must go and show your stamped passport at another office. This woman also stamps your permit. Then you need to go to another police office. They want to stamp your permit as well. When you leave Nicaragua you hand in your permit, full with five different illegible signatures, to a 18 kid at a gate. He inspects all signatures with the unbelievable skill of knowing whose are they, takes your papers, and you can leave. Air Conditioning was never involved at any stop.
A few meters later you enter Costa Rica. They spray your bike. The sprayer tells you to pay two dollars per bike, but the cashier tells you to get lost. You then get your passport stamped. You then go to the customs office. You are told you need copies, and where to go to get them. Of what? They’ll tell you there. The copy guy is clueless. You guess what you need. You go back to the office, where the agent yells at you for not having the right copies. He mumbles something about what you do need while updating his status on facebook to “Why do people always come to me with the wrong papers?” you go back to the copy room, where you are told you need to buy insurance. Luckily you read about this in the guide book, which is why you put US dollars aside. Of course, you cannot use US dollars, even though every where else on the continent they are glad to receive them. You find a bank and get money. You buy the insurance, make some more copies, and proudly walk back to the customs agent. He is gone. You wait 10 minutes till he comes back into the office to check if anybody commented on his status. He yells at you that he doesn’t need to original insurance. You want to explode at him, to tell him why doesn’t he get his own copy machine, or at least let the copy kid know what he wants. But then you remember reading the report of another rider, who did explode, and was rewarded by a form containing the wrong information, so when he tried to leave Costa Rica he couldn’t. So you explode on the inside, and go make more copies of the insurance. They are small, and the copy kid puts them both on one page. Five minutes later, this enrages the customs agent, who brbs his friends on chat and goes with you to the copy room. They fight for five minutes, arguing about photocopying ethics. You get some satisfaction and try to hide your smile. The custom agent wins. You pay for more copies, and return his office. He hands you a piece of paper, and now you have to copy all of the information from the title of the bike on to it. Your passport information too. He staples everything together with a small piece of paper on top. He signs it. You think you are done, but you are not. You are sent to another office. The women there are busy talking and exchanging pirated DVDs. You get her attention and she decides to do you a solid and take the pieces of papers from you. She copies everything you wrote into her computer, prints it out, and gives it back to you. Lastly, there is a guard that inspects this piece of paper, and opens the gate to Costa Rica.

Through all of this I couldn’t help but feel offended and embarrassed as a human being. Surely a designed system for the trafficking of humans can do a better job. I can understand wanting to control the traffic of people between countries. Though this is what border crossing were meant for, this one completely failed at that (nobody ever saw Erika, who was watching the bikes all along. I just stamped two passports wherever I went. Nobody had a problem with that), and instead mutated into a bureaucrat’s wet dream. Nobody wants the crossing to be this way, not the people working there, and especially not the people going through it, and yet, nobody has any control over it. The monster became too powerful for anyone to slain. Later I found out that we were lucky, because usually there are hundreds of people there and much hotter weather. Four hours, I was assured by locals in Costa Rica, is quick.
These last few days have been hard. We were slowly readjusting to Central American values. We were traveling from morning to night, crossing border where we had to, staying in cheap and dirty hotels, and somehow always ending up eating fried chicken. All of that was going to change.
Half an hour into Costa Rica we met a German couple on a Yamaha Tenere that they shipped from Germany to San Jose. They were going up to Mexico. Both of us were excited enough to turn around and chat a bit. They told us of a German Bakery in Nuevo Arenal, on lake Arenal (the old Arenal is in the lake), and we decided to head there.

From Nuevo Arenal

lake Arenal as seen from Nuevo Arenal (the old one is in the lake)

The first thing you notice about Costa Rica is that the roads are clean. It felt strange after 3 month of travelling by constant rubbish, occasionally on fire. When we got to the lake Arenal area, it stopped feeling like central America altogether. We felt like we were in Italy of France: beautiful roads, in good condition, cutting through stunning landscape with fat cows grazing. We arrived at the bakery and within five minutes Tom, the baker, the owner, told us we were welcome to stay with him. He gave us the room where he used to live, with a stunning view of the lake.

From Nuevo Arenal

squirrel likes the money

After our first hot shower in a long time, we joined Tom for dinner. Nuevo Arenal has a lively community of westerners who decided to settle down here and open businesses. They find that doing it here is way easier than back home due to lack of regulations, building codes, etc. We went to the restaurant of Eyal, a 40 year old Israeli chef who left Israel ten years ago, and built his dream restaurant. Lonely Planet voted it the best in Costa Rica, and for good reason. The food was superb. We dines like we hadn’t in months, and paid a price that we would never imagine dishing out in Central America for food. It was worth it. For weeks now we were skimping on food and lodging. Tonight we lived like kings and queens. We even had the most amazing cheesecake we’ve ever tasted for desert. Contrast makes life tastier. Tri Tip steak is even tastier after you make your own avocado sandwiches on the curb of gas stations. This morning the party continued. After all, we’re in a German bakery, and we have a German host.

From Nuevo Arenal
From Nuevo Arenal
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