Eeks! Suicide Showers

One of the most fascinating parts of our recent trip to Central America was the daily shower.  We had been warned about cold showers which are OK in a tropical climate but certainly not in 60 or 70 degree weather.  Here’s a little information about our “shower” experience.  Before I complain too much, this was in large part an outcome of our decision to stay in hostels or small inexpensive hotels.

Cold Showers

As a person who loves a very warm shower, I never thought it was humanly possible to enjoy a cold shower.  When I say “cold”, I mean that the water is the temperature of the public water system or whatever type of storage or holding tank is the source for the water, but for me that’s still a “cold shower”.  In Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Cartagena, there were no tears shed at shower time because it was 95 degrees outside – even I will admit that a cooler shower felt good.  To sum it up, we traveled for a full month without a warm shower.  I am still in disbelief that I survived it.

The Alternative Shower

We had so many experiences which are incredibly innovative – often out of need – I think there are quite a few lessons we N. Americans could learn if we could get over the thinking that environmentally conscious solutions would take us a step backward.  For example, when it comes to warm showers, there is an alternative to water heaters which run constantly and burn gas or electricity.  A “suicide shower” is a solution we could adopt.  In fact, here’s a photo of some of the options:

Intrigued and want to learn more?

 Often called “suicide showers” by travelers, these showers have a single cold water line coming into the device (in fact, most homes didnn’t have a hot water line, even in the kitchen).  As you can see, the “super ducha’s” are available in a variety of sizes and shapes – some have a wider shower head (but none of them have a Holiday Inn style smart spray!)  A small pea-can sized heater within the shower head warms the water immediately when the faucet is turned on.  There is one caveat – with a small stream of water, the temperature is nice and warm however a higher velocity resulted in cooler water.  On average, the water was warm.

So why the name?  The first time we encountered one of these strange-looking devices, I turned on the water and sparks flew.  It didn’t take an electrical engineer to figure out that I shouldn’t step in.  Instead, I notified the hotel staff and soon a workman came to rewire the shower, which looked something the one below but with more dangling wires.  As we met more travelers, we learned that my experience was quite common.

In one of our homestays, we showered under this modern beauty:

Last of all I want to mention that these showers are no reason to stay away from Central America as a travel destination, in fact it’s one of the dozens of experiences that make it a wonderful travel destination.

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Where Central America Shops..

 …for Discarded American Clothing

Early on in our travel in Central America and other developing countries, one of my observations was the number of children and adults who wear clothing with American logos or slogans.  At first it wasn´t so striking however t-shirts from fun runs, athletic teams or corporate events are regularly seen on children and adults in Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.   As I began to observe the shops and markets, it became clear to me that discarded US clothing is a major source of clothing for people in the Central American countries.  What follows is what I´ve learned to date.

PACA Stores or Tiendas

Clothing from donation programs such as Goowwill Industries, packs clothing into large bales or ¨Pacas¨.   The bales are shipped and a wholesaler in the Central American country who in turn sells the bales to local people.  For example in Coban, Guatemala, bales could be purchased for 100, 500, 800 or 1000 Quetzales (7.7 Quetzales/dollar).  The purchaser may have a small storefront or tienda which then is essentially an American style ¨second-hand store¨ where clothing is sold for several dollars per garment.  In Coban, where this photo was taken, there were probably 20 or 30 stores within an area of 6-7 square blocks. 

PACA store in Coban, Guatemala

Public Markets

Another option for selling used clothing is in the public markets, which is where the majority of people shop anyway, whether for fruits and vegetables, household goods or new clothing.  You can always see when a new pack of clothing comes in because women are elbowing for a good spot from which to look through the clothing, just like an US ¨after-Christmas¨ sale.  As you can imagine, this is quite a feat as the clothing isn´t sorted by size or type.  Nevertheless, for people who don´t have the resources to purchase new clothing, getting an early look at a new shipment is probably a pretty good shopping day.

Public Market in Granada, Nicaragua

In several cities, and again in public markets, we saw pick up trucks of shoes only or as in the following photo, a large tarp was laid out with a huge pile of clothing dumped on the ground.  Any piece of clothing could be purchased for $0.50.

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala: Shopping in the Hot Sun

 In the US, I´ve heard and read about the controversy –  if you donate to places to Goodwill or other similar donations services, the goods might be ¨sold overseas¨ and won´t get to the people who need the goods.   I can´t say that I understood why this is controversial, possibly I don´t understand the whole story. However after seeing that the vast majority of people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua benefit directly from this phenomenon, it is apparent to me that the clothing that we discard is getting into the hands of people who appreciate and value what we eagerly discard as no longer useful.

If any of you have more information to help me understand this phenomenon from another viewpoint, I´d love to hear your thoughts.  Until then I stand firm – having discarded US clothing available for resale is working for the people.

More Drama at the Nicaragua Border

(photos will be posted later)

OK, this one will be short – if you´re going to listen to me complain about the Nicaragua borders, I owe you some information about the beauty that lives between the borders.  Will save that one for the next time.

We dreaded the thought but the only way to leave Nicaragua is to go through the border patrol.  OK, there is another option.  A couple of people tried it and you have never seen border patrol agents run as fast as these guys.  It´s hard to believe that someone would try.

When we left the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur via Chicken Bus, we transferred buses and then headed for the border.  When we got to about 5 miles from the border, we passed hundreds of semi trucks who were lined up nose to tail, waiting to go through the border into Costa Rica.  I´m not sure if it´s always so busy but we did hear that the reason is that it was the start of Semana Santa or Holy Week.  This means a week of vacation for Central Americans, not a week of going to church as I did when I was a kid.  Many Costa Ricans head north to the Nicaragua beaches and vice versa.

So after our first experience with a ¨guide¨ as we navigated his crazy border, we were committed to making it through on our own.  After all if we can navigate Chicken Buses, we can make it through Immigration and Customs. Little did we know that the guy who sat behind us on the bus was our personal guide!  As soon as we got off the bus he walked us to the back door of the Immigration office but the guard wouldn´t allow him to get in.  He then told us we needed to get in line with everyone else.  Now this was a line about as long as a football field and 2 or 3 people wide;  in the 100 degree mid-day sun.

Soon our self-appointed guide found us in line.  For $10.00 per person, he could get us to the head of the line and we wouldn´t need to wait.  We declined several times until he gave up.

We were in line behind 2 gringos who are teaching in Costa Rica.  While it was nice to meet several fine young people, this also made us look like an American family.  Soon, 4 men aggressively (like just about knocked us over) butted into the line, right next to the 4 of us.  Immediately Kevin´s instincts took over as he recalled the pushing and shoving of pickpockets in Greece last year.  We moved away from the guys as others in the line tried to stop their line jumping.  The 4 guys stood their ground as we must have seemed like good targets.   We held our bags tight and watched every move but were sure they still wanted to try something.  About 15 minutes later, as we entered the actual immigration office, Kevin saw one of the 4 guys trying to put his hand in the pocket of the young teacher.  His action was quickly averted.  Isn´t this the classic pickpocket story?

While this was occurring, a bunch of people ran through our line, chasing down someone else who had her wallet stolen buy someone.  I guess if you are going to wait in the crazy lines, it´s a great place for petty thieves to prey on unsuspecting travelers.

After the immigration office there were about 3 or 4 more stops before we were legally in Costa Rica.  Still complicated but at least we did it alone this time!

Nicaragua Border: Helped or Hustled?

In my last post I mentioned that we unexpectedly stayed an extra night in Honduras because we couldn’t make it to the border in time to pass through during daylight hours. We had heard and read that the Nicaraguan border is difficult to navigate and since we weren’t on a tour bus or an international bus, passing through the border in the light of day seemed like a sensible decision even though the Guasale entry point is open 24 hours. In retrospect, our decision was absolutely the right one.

Given our dislike of early morning for anything, we were pretty pleased to be walking to the bus by 7am. This bus was an old 20 seat shuttle (of course this meant there were about 30 people on board) with torn and broken seats but it got us to our destination without incident. On the way to the bus station we didn’t pass any restaurants or bakeries, so we trusted the locals to supply food for our ride, and they did. Soon after we boarded a young woman was one of many who came on the bus. A bag of 10 of yesterday’s bananas for 25 cents was just right for the trip with a few left over – we left them on a park bench.

The early morning air was pleasant, possibly even cool, for the one hour ride to “La Frontera” or the border. Before the bus came to a stop at it’s endpoint, a guy pushed open my bus window, popped his head in and scared the $x!t out of me. He and about 5 or 6 other “guides” were poking their heads in the window telling me how well they speak English and how they could help Kevin and me cross the border without problems. They each showed their picture ID so we would know they were legitimate – whatever that means. We kindly told them we would walk through with our backpacks. “Oh no, señor. It is 3 km.” Before we were off the bus one of the guys had already spotted Kevin’s backpack, taken it from the bus and tucked it under the seat of his pedicab. He was sealing the deal to be our personal guide and he wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. After all we were the only “Gringos” on this bus and there were dozens of other guides in the waiting. “There is no charge for the guide service, we just work for a tip.” We had signed on by nature of the fact that by now both of our backpacks were in the pedicab. We hopped in for the ride, not really knowing what had just occurred. And by now our guide’s buddy had joined him so we each had our own pedicab.

I need to divert for a minute to comment on the 3 km border. Having gone through a good number of immigration points in my life, it seemed illogical, maybe not true. Usually one needs to stop at the patrol for the departing country and then go to another building within eyesight to gain approval to be allowed admission to the arrival country.

Honduras Departure:

The pedicab trip began by riding past dozens and dozens of semi trucks and some cars in a very long line, waiting to pass through the border, while being approached by men with huge wads of money who wanted to “help” us by exchanging money for us. The claim was that their rate was “better” than the money changers on the Nicaraguan side. Refuting their claims, our guides said they would tell us when we met up with the money changers who were legitimate (i.e. their buddies) and would give us a good rate.

There were no directional signs to tell us where to go. Our guides wove in, out and around the semi’s and finally got us to the Honduras departure line where dozens of locals were completing paperwork. The guides watched our luggage while we were approved for departure. The process took only a few minutes.

Arrival in Nicaragua:

We hopped back into our pedicabs and rode about another km, again there were no signs or directions. On the way our guides said that the entry fee would be $12 US. This was good to know since our tour book said $7 and there was no posting as in most countries. The posting of entry fees may not be necessary but it certainly makes one feel like the assessment is legitimate. We will never know if $12 was the real number or if the money just lined the pockets of the border patrol. In recent days we talked to two guys who paid $15, so maybe we got the blue light special.

When we got to the Nicaragua border patrol, one of the guides again watched our bags and the other took us in through what seemed to be a back door. He stayed right with us and seemed to keep an eye on how much cash we had. Since we hadn’t been using US currency we had to dig to get it and we had a side discussion before pooling our remaining dollars to come up with $24 for the border tax. What we didn’t know is that our guide watched carefully to see how much money we had – interestingly that in about 10 minutes, that was the amount he would strongly suggest for a tip.

We again got into the pedicabs for the third leg of the journey, passing through one more checkpoint, Our guides smiled at and greeted the patrol who waved us through. Finally we were in Nicaragua. The guides waved down a bus to Leon. As we were trying to get on the bus the guides were continuing to negotiate for a larger tip, even specifying that I had eight more dollars in my change purse.

We got in the bus rode away, reflecting on this surreal experience. It was 9:30 am and we were exhausted from being helped and hustled; and more than ready to move on.

There’s no Starving on a Bus Ride in Honduras

By American standards, driving 120 Km north in order to go 50 Km east seems a little crazy.  However with the short supply of good roads coupled with the mountains (I guess there is probably a relationship between these two factors), that is just how it is in Central America and specifcally Honduras.

Essentially our plan was to only visit Copan to see the ruins, however it is on the western border, and in order to get to Nicaragua, there really is no direct or easy route.  So we took the long road, which got a little longer than we anticipated.  This was also the trip where we made the transition from ¨traveler¨ style buses to local buses, because in Honduras there is an option besides using Chicken Buses.

We thought our trip from Copan to San Pedro Sula in N. Honduras would be a quick ride as it was only 125 Km.  In fact this last traveler bus was pretty posh with lay back seats and airplane-style service.  They checked and recorded our passports and even took our photos before boarding the bus.  For a trip of about 80 miles, I was sure we would make it in 2 hours on our executive style bus.  Oops, I forgot about the mountains.  Three and a half hours we rolled into a bus mall in San Pedro Sula where we made our first mistake.

We searched for a bus to go south toward Lake Jogua (on the road to the capitol city of Tegucigulpa) before going to an ATM to get some cash.  OK, so maybe we forgot.  At any rate we found out where the bus was loading to go south and a nice gentleman whisked us on the mini-bus (like the type of bus which shuttles you from an airport to the parking lot) which soon took off.  The temperature is above 95 and this bus is from about 1970 which means the air has not worked since 1973.  We were never so happy as to start moving so the hot air could blow in our faces.

We were starved as we only had a little travel food like crackers and cookies, but the good news is that you will never starve on a bus in Honduras or Nicaragua.  From the time passengers started loading on the bus and until we arrived at our destination, there was a steady stream of entrepreneurs with food or drink in hand.  They hop on the bus at one stop, sell their wares and get off at the next stop.  During our 2 hour ride, I am sure that no less than 30 venders got on the bus, selling everything from small bags of ice cold water, soda, cookies, coconut milk or cut fruit in small bags, plums, tomatoes, home-made cookies, sandwiches, chiclets, candy suckers, donuts, fried pork rind, coconut nests (i.e. cookies)  and probably some items I don’t yet know the name of.

Since this was a public bus, we weren’t quite sure of where to stop near Lake Jogua, however several very kind Hondurans were eager to help us and it seemed that they were looking out for us.  One woman struggled to tell us where to get off as there was a hotel right at the stop.  Decision made.  We got off at the stop right next to Chalet de Laguna, which is on the very pretty Lake Jogua.  This hotel, however is part of what looks like a resort and convention center – not exactly the type of place we have been bedding down.  This was a resort only with no town within about 5 Km and for sure no taxi service.

The woman at the reception desk showed us a beautiful room for $80.  Very nice, but we asked for something less expensive.  She then showed us a cabin for $40.  We agreed to take it and when we went to pay, we remembered that we hadn’t gone to an ATM.   When we asked her for the location of the nearest one, her expression was priceless.  This wasn’t ATM country. In fact the nearest one was probably 80 Km away in San Pedro Sula.  Oh, yes, the VISA card, which we haven’t used to date but it worked for the night.

The next morning we stood at the side of the road in front of the Chalet and got on a public bus to Tegucigulpa and on south.  This one was an old tour bus with tired seat coverings and much more, but it got us there.  The stream of vendors continued, even though the bus made a mid-trip food stop.

Tegucigulpa to the Nicaraguan Border

Once in the capital city, we quickly found a bus that would take us to the Nicaraguan Border however there was a little time to transfer which meant no time for an ATM but the buses are cheap.  Our goal was to get to Choluteca which is about 45 minutes from the border.  There we would need to get another bus.  However about 15 minutes into the ride with another old tour bus packed with passengers,  we stopped at a gas station and the driver disappeared.  About 30 minutes later he reappeared with grease up to his elbows.  There was no explanation but we needed to wait for the next bus which meant we had to stay in Choluteca, Honduras and we missed the opportunity to cross the border.  Oh, and there was an ATM in Choluteca!