Sunday, March 31, 2013

James Bond and the Rich Coast

The modern, angular architecture of the Costa Rican immigration building towered above 007’s head as he proceeded to his customary interrogation. The atmosphere was chill and dry, and the office was impeccably clean; a long shot from the grit from previous crossings. The patrolwoman raised her eyebrows and took his passport.

–“Name, sir?”
–“Bond, James Bond” –retorted without taking his eyes off hers.

–“Film producer, madam.”
–“To take these two lovely ladies to La Fortuna’s thermal baths. Purpose is strictly confidential. What are my code words, at all this?”
–“Pura vida, double-o seven. Once your mission is complete, Agent Soto will meet you in the remote village of Moravia, in the mountains of Turrialba. It’s harsh terrain, so be wary.”
–“Not a problem”.

The Aston Martin is officially released by a ship of the Royal Navy...

Agent 007 stepped up on his DB5 and continued the route in the good company of his two Dutch guests. They descended Highway One until the town of Cañas, where they took a less transited road not to awaken suspicion. For the following hour and a half, they meandered at the shores of Laguna Arenas, an area so green and mountainous it brought Bond memories of his native Scotland. In the later afternoon, just before sunset, they received their lodging assignment at agent Gringo Pete’s facilities and had a delightful, well-deserved supper. The next day the mission was complete in the thermals baths at Los Laureles, and Bond continued with a new assignment: to head for the mountains in the East to the secret enclave of the Hacienda Moravia.

Due to the lack of pictures, we had to hire a local artist to render the triumphant mission at La Fortuna.
Dramatic high-speed pursuit heading on to Turrialba.
Cartago, right in the way of this unique mission to the remote mountains of Costa Rica.
Arrival to the quasi-Amazonian town of Turrialba. Now, time for some offroading!

Thanks to the advance satellite guidance system in the Aston Martin, Bond did not take a single wrong turn and reached the end of the paved road at the village of La Suiza. He proceeded without fear, as the Q Branch had made sure the automobile, despite its fine appearance, would be completely off-road capable. What followed was a rough, snaking path crowded with rocks, rubble and sand, sometimes steep enough to make the car’s wheel spin, sometimes uneven enough to make Bond hit his head on the ceiling. All in all, 007 arrived in one piece to Hacienda Moravia, where he was given a tour of the facilities. The farm sat in close to a thousand acres, and offered everything from milking quarters to secret airstrip, several ponds and a church in the heart of the valley. Surrounding the Soto’s facilities, groups of cultivate indigenous people –the Cabecar– assured the safety in the perimeter of the property from any incursion with the most modern weaponry available, while keeping appearances as a traditional tribe.

Security escort in armored, four-by-four vehicles.
Sign reads "Roads in poor condition". Geez, thanks for the warning!
Courageous river crossing, a good rest from the rocky road at both sides.

Morning fog at the Moravia headquarters.
Don't be fooled by the scenery! These are motion-sensor-activated, acid-spitting death-traps!

Command center, alias C.H.U.R.C.H.
Enemy operative, refusing interrogation.
 Soto’s father welcomed bond to the secret base and complimented the car repeatedly.
–“You made it here! I trust the facilities will be of your liking.” –He said with calm confidence– “Anything to drink, Mr. Bond? Our barista is world-class, and certainly has heard of your strong preference for Martinis. Shaken, not stirred, I presume?” 

–“Some water will be fine, thank you” –Bond replied, noticing the slow outset of a small, dehydration-related headache.

Agent Soto arrived with utmost punctuality. He was a man in his late 20’s, extremely dexterous with mechanical systems. As a day job, he worked as an engineering supervisor for the Toyota Corporation, testing materials and vehicles left and right; only at night he could take part in more “tactical” matters as a secret operative.

Agent Soto has a deep appreciation for fine cars as well!

–“Pura Vida, double-o seven! Glad you made it here!”
–“No need for four wheel drive” –said Bond pointing at the mud-covered DB5.
–”I have something for you. It’s a very special setup from the Toyota Corporation: two very special vehicles, a “Model 86” and one I am sure you have seen before, a 2000GT.”
–“I do recall that car fondly” –uttered Bond, thinking of his loving companion in Japan.

The following days were spent amongst fast automobiles, glamorous women, great friends, delightful meals and resounding live music. Bond settled for a week in a cottage at agent Soto’s quarters, overlooking all of San José, and reported the spotless facilities of the Toyota Corporation as one of the most organized and best equipped he had ever seen since Blofeld’s hollow volcano. It was also during this time that some items were mended and modified in the Aston Martin, to proceed with the crossing to Panama and the rest of the continent, to defeat the ills of elevation and neglect.

Heavy modifications to a Toyota 86 for future use by "00" agents.
Luxury tactical vehicles. Complete refinement!
And here's something that needs no introduction: a real, legitimate Toyota 2000GT.
Morning view from the temporary Bond cottage!
Very happy with this $1 fix for these broken lenses... the Q Division could not think of anything better!

On Bond’s last day in Costa Rica, both agents drove South and had a simple breakfast overlooking the mountains. A photographer, sent by His Majesty, took this last picture to report the encounter of both men of the Secret Service, who parted ways shortly thereafter.
Undisclosed location on Route 2.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jim Carrey writes back!

Breaking news! Remember the mass mailing that I sent from Kansas in order to gather the blessings and support of several inspiring figures in Hollywood and beyond? We got a letter from the King of Spain, and autograph by Ewan McGregor and an email from Peter Jackson... and now, several months later, one of the unarguable kings of American comedy has sent an autographed photo!

Spank you too, Jim!

Special thanks to Tyler for sharing this photo on Facebook... he was puzzled to say the least!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reasons I Like Nicaragua

A few pearls of cold, tense sweat rolled down my temples as the border with Honduras was left in my rearview mirror, the smell of fumigant still fresh in the air. I had made it to Nicaragua, but still had about an hour’s journey to my destination, a charming little town named after my birthplace. On this stretch of the PanAmerican the car glade over the smooth asphalt, passing many a cowboy on horseback, trucks laden with plantains, and landscapes that resemble part of the African savannah, with lush trees standing alone in the plains, and the majestic San Cristobal volcano towering in the distance.

Sent this photo to Mercedes-Benz... they may make a small feature on the trip.

While the original town of León was founded by the infamous Conquistador Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba in the mid-1500’s, the current one –18 miles from its predecessor– is a calm, grid-shaped 19th Century settlement in the style of Mérida, in Mexico. Its cathedral is a massive plaster basilica with minute details and orderly construction, a far cry from the usual Spanish Baroque in the Colonies. Right next to it is the town’s market, where $3 will buy a most delicious meal, often including Gallo Pinto (rice and beans) and grilled bananas. The town is a charm to walk in, and refreshingly safe compared to its northern neighbors. Getting out of it is a whole different story: in my stubbornness, I decided to stick to the original PanAmericana, and ended up driving over a minefield.
Utter redundancy: a Leonese hits the streets of León!
Much like in my original town, a religious seminar for the training of ministers.
The Cathedral in question, built in the early 1800's.
An interior resembling the Vatican more than any traditional colonial building.
Said minefield led to León’s long-time rival: Granada, the country’s most touristic spot. Still, I managed to find two redeeming qualities in town: their main temple –a rare Spanish Renaissance church– and the best yogurt ice cream I have had in years. Moving on, I drove on to the town of Rivas to open a whole new chapter within this chapter: Ometepe Island.

Where we are going, we don't need no roads!
The colorful streets of Granada, much like Antigua Guatemala... but paved with asphalt.
The Granada Cathedral, dating from the 1500's. Doesn't it remind you of the one in Florence?
If you look closely enough, you will see why I took a photo of this monument.
View from my room, a beautiful clay-tiled rooftop!
The Guadalupe Church was originally conceived as a fortified temple, hence its appearance.

Ometepe is amazing. Actually, it is beyond amazing: it is Paradise, with a capital “P”. I had heard of the island via Life Remotely, but I could only wrap my head around its wonders by setting foot (and rubber) on its volcanic shores. In the rickety ferry there I met a chap named Luke, who discouraged me from camping at Finca Magdalena, insisting on the steep grade of the ground. As an alternative, he suggested me to visit a place called Little Morgan’s, owned by a friendly Irish expat.

Waiting for the ferry, I decided to take a nap in the back, overlooking the lake.
Full speed ahead, Cap'n! On to Ometepe!
Definitively the first time that Livingstone rides a boat! Exciting or what?

Livingstone the 300TD rolled down a narrow path on to a hut in the middle of the dense jungle, inching as slowly as the boat in Apocalyspe Now. As soon as the driveway ended, the ground became uneven, with plants crowding the wilderness and swarms of midges plaguing the air.  Colonel Kurtz solemnly approached me, and shook my hand with assurance. He was holding a cold beer in his hand. I looked around me, and I was relieved not to see any chopped heads or body parts littering ancient Siamese temples, or any worshipping war photographers for that matter… Instead, I saw a neat complex of hand-built wooden huts, with a tall tower overlooking the rocky coast. I was in awe; then Morgan, without any of Colonel Kurtz’s stern tone, started talking: “Man, I love your car. These Germans… when I traveled in the US, I bought a BMW 750iL for $1,800. F*cking eighteen-hundred bucks, man. I was awesome and f*cking fast. A BMW for EIGHTEEN-HUNDRED dollars”. I really did not know where I had ended up, but I was staring to like it.

My camping spot at General Kurtz's headquarters.
Straight out of a postcard! I had the entire beach to myself...
...until a local shepherd took his cows to drink at the shoe of the lake. Magical!

For the following week I resolved to do more exercise, given that driving is not all that physically taxing. I met another Irishman named Michael, and together we walked the entire length of the island. The next day I hiked to a nearby cape, stopping to talk to a shepherd who frowned on the new culture that the Gringos were introducing in the island. And I could not blame him, honestly: it is truly infuriating to see many of the island’s visitors make the effort of traveling to a whole new country, a whole new culture, to get what they get at home and let loose in their behavior. However, when I was not busy tearing my legs apart or quietly judging the scantily-clad Gringas and Hippie jugglers, I bathed in the volcanic waters with the locals, marveled at the feeling of having a beach entirely to myself and rediscovered the simple joy of well-cooked chicken and real bread. Such happiness cannot be put into words!

The end of my stay arrived way too soon; but it arrived with the company of two Dutch ladies heading to Costa Rica. We sealed a deal in the warmth of wood oven pizza and amaranth tea in vintage Coca-Cola bottles: in exchange for my fuel costs, they would ride with me down to some hot springs in the North.

For the next few days, adventure was served.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Eastbound and Down

As I write today's entry, I am enjoying a plentiful plate of freshly-picked, fried bananas with a cup of beans and a tall glass of flavorful juice. A slim wooden shade covers the panoramic view of Lake Nicaragua, filtering the sound of the waves crashing on the volcanic sand. I have really struck paradise, yet something is quite not right within the bottom half of my stomach. No, I am not talking about Moctezuma's revenge tearing my intestines apart; I am talking about self-disappointment. But why would I experience that in such a setting?

I left Antigua very early, anticipating some heavy traffic on the way to the capital. I drove through the financial district on to a wealthy gated community where the Galileo University happened to be, and as soon as I got in, I asked about the location for the GMAT test. I was led to a tiny office with a very friendly gentleman, who explained the process and went over the examination protocol. Once sure of the test's precise location, I spent close to hour and a half lying in my car with my laptop on my stomach, studying quantitative and grammar exercises I had reviewed a thousand times back in Antigua. As soon as it was time, I stepped confidently into the test room and locked myself up for the following three hours with the utmost sense of concentration. As soon as I was done, the computer displayed the product of two months of study: a meager 510 out of 800. I was demolished. This score would not only prevent me from getting into any single reputable business school, but the test itself had cost an astronomical –and, at this point in the trip, irreplaceable- $250 to take. With my own share of frustrations, I had studied anywhere from two to six hours ever day for the last two months, bumping my practice tests results from a mediocre 540 to a solid 610. I was beyond disappointed on the amount of time and money invested, and the huge price –right here, in the middle of the expedition– that it would cost to prepare again and retake it.

Downtown Guatemala City, a monumental and peaceful district that rivals in cleanliness to most US cities!

Tormented by the sudden closing of the MBA route for my USA return, I drove on to an enclosed parking lot and lied in the back of the car, thinking strategically about the remaining options after the end of this expedition and convincing myself that six years of mathematics cannot be brought back to life in two months. The next day I stopped by the Mercedes-Benz dealership to take some photos and say goodbye, ready to push on to San Salvador that same day.

On the steep climb from Guatemala City, I found out the coolant flush in the car had done its job!
The Great PanAmerican Highway, or Highway One, is a seamless, well-paved stretch of road that connects Guatemala City to San Salvador. Once in Calzada Roosevelt (yes, there's a big avenue dedicated to the US president), it just became a matter of continuing on track through steep hills, iron bridges, fun mountainside curves and long, flat stretches of asphalt crowded with Chicken buses. Part of the route was down for maintenance, and that delayed the trip close to hour and a half. Since I was not in any hurry, I talked to my neighbor and enjoyed the view of the valley, where some road workers were moving out large areas of rocks they had dynamited earlier. I arrived to San Salvador at 7pm, a little after sunset, to find a surprise.

Somewhere, in the South of Guatemala...
The land where "right of way" is something out of a fairytale book.
Traffic jam somewhere in the mountains of Guatemala. We all turned off our engines and talked to each other!

The hostel was at full occupation. However, I triple checked that the neighborhood was safe and saved myself some money by camping right outside the hostel door in one of the fanciest neighborhood in San Salvador. The town is not half as scary as people depict it, and comparatively speaking, it is a little white lamb compared to Guatemala City.

Colonia Escalón, with plenty of police watching the streets. Proof that you can safely sleep in your car in this country!

The rest of the drive through San Salvador was pleasant. People often imagine this country as one of the most dangerous in the world, but in recent years the authorities have made a huge effort to attract foreign capital and clean up the streets in most major towns. As you cruise its two-lane highways, you will find many signs urging drivers to be courteous, as well as any brand-new gas stations and markets owned by foreign firms. Things seem promising in this little nation!

Ladies and gentlemen, those ARE bullet holes in the back of that Honduran eighteen-wheeler.

Things were soon to change. The border with Honduras was announced by a long row of stationed trucks, followed by many "facilitators" for your paperwork. At the border, many curious –envious– eyes glanced at the shiny Mercedes, as a troop of kids followed the car into the parking lot. With all banks closed on Sunday and the customs building running on generator power, I decided to stick with one of the facilitators and for $4 extra –and a few biscuits I gave away– I was out of that place in 45 minutes. For 2/3 of the way, road condition was pretty good, so I sped up to 80mph through the vast nothingness of Central America's most dangerous nation. Along the way I plowed through a forest fire out of control, and saw many an example of misery that the Western World had considered to be part of the past. I did see a family living in a small hut, surrounded by all kinds of possible garbage that careless drivers had dumped in their property, with some of it burning in a small bonfire right next to a group of kids. One feels lucky to be in a position of privilege –to live in a healthy environment, to pursue one's passions–, with the boiling anger of seeing these people being forsaken by their governments and their neighbors. Ironically, just a few miles away, hoards oblivious tourists flock to the beach to –wastefully– re-enact the same things they do at home... cheaper, with better weather and more alcohol. Honduras is, no doubt, the poorest country in Central America; it is a place of desperation and worthlessness for human life. Very unfortunately, politicians do not read travelogues, and so, I swiftly conclude this frustration-drenched, Human Rights rant.

Hooray for seat-belt laws! This bridge is right next to Choluteca.
In just a jiffy I stopped at the peak of danger in this route: the über-sketchy Honduras-to-Nicaragua border at Gaussale. This time people were not only glancing with greed, but physically touching the car and running along with it in such dangerous –and foolish– fashion I could actually have hit or run over someone! This frontier is one of these places where your intuition will scream for you to get out of there, but to top it all, I arrived fashionably in a nice, complete, well-preserved and freshly-washed Mercedes. I paid a little kid to watch the car, as I dodged the border touts and got my passport stamped. At the other side of immigration, in a rather uninspired concrete shell administered by an equally uninspired lady, I got my customs import permit canceled and got back to the car, circling it a couple times to double-check, to find that my license plate screws had been loosened... Still, the kid showed up a minute later to claim his reward for his "attentive" vigilance.

GORGEOUS Volcán de San Cristóbal, a few miles down the border with Honduras.

I crossed Nicaragua with a sigh of relief. The difference between the two countries is like night and day; my "sixth sense" went back to normal and the road became smooth all the way to the town of León. There is not doubt in my mind that this has been the most dangerous portion of the trip so far, and I keep my fingers crossed for the Panama crossing and Perú, where a few fellow overlanders have had problems. Still, my car and I happily report in one piece, with all our belongings intact.

Even a week later, right in the beautiful shores of Ometepe, I still feel a mild sense of disappointment about the GMAT; however, remembering the extreme poverty I have seen, I must relegate this worry as a first world problem. I have myself, and I have my courage, with the talent to get back to the United States through the Big Door once again... and triumph.

But first, let's not get ahead of ourselves and enjoy this expedition, shall we?