4th May. David, Panama.
Many messages of support and good wishes had arrived during the previous day, evening and overnight. With the engine running so sweetly, hopes were running high and we tackled the outstanding items with renewed enthusiasm.
My repaired tyre had gone down again, so once more Stan and I removed the cover and found that I had pinched the tube putting it in. Now well-practised at getting the tyre on and off with minimum effort, I used a bar of the hotels best ‘Yardley’s lavender
soap’ and fitted our last new inner tube. Amanda took the two punctured tubes to a tyre-repair shop and within 15 minutes was back with the tubes sporting patches for the princely sum of $US 1.07 for the two!
Meanwhile Feisty’s starter motor had been fitted with a new Bendix spring assembly that David Williams had repaired and sent to River when he was home in the States. However one of the starter fixing bolts on Feisty was proving reluctant to hold. This had been an issue in Lima
and Javier had managed to cobble it together there. Now it really needed a thread insert but that would require taking the engine out again. After trying various combinations of washers and bolt lengths, I suddenly remembered that I had packed a particular item, just in case, having seen it used by Vince on Rusty on the Peking to Paris trip. Now was its big moment. Diana fetched it from under the driver’s seat in Bertie and within a few minutes we had fitted a ratchet cargo strap around the starter motor and bell housing and it was snugged down tight. With confidence we pushed the starter button and grins all round told the story of a successful bodge accomplished.
A quick shower and bag-pack, and we were ready to go by 11.30. By now it was warm and initially the temperature in the cars was extreme, but as we cautiously worked up to a gentle speed, the breeze through the open windscreen,
door windows and sunshine roof reduced the temperature to bearable. The chummy was apparently pulling well, no nasty noises and in particular no oil haze in the cabin.
Soon afterwards, we were at the border into Costa Rica. Driving across the rutted and broken concrete of the approach road, we passed long lines of parked trucks, seemingly permanent features, before we saw the border-post buildings of Panama.
This state of affairs exists at almost every border crossing we have made on this journey. Amanda and I wondered at the thoughts of governments who provide such an impression of a broken country with this lack of pride in first appearances.
When crossing borders, the first step is always to obtain an exit stamp for ourselves and then an exit stamp for the cars. The passport is usually not a problem, as long as one has not lost the small slip of paper, torn from the bottom of one’s entry declaration and harboured carefully across the country and several roadside checks. In Panama, this was simplified by endorsing the entry stamp at the the point of exit. The temporary entry paperwork for the car is also usually straightforward. One copy or more are issued and stamped on entry, examined at police check points en route, they are then offered for inspection on leaving the country. The car is dealt with as a personal possession of the title holder. A check might be made of the chassis number, once, so far, the engine number and always the registration number. We have on occassion been asked for a copy of the form before the process can begin which presumably could have been done at the point of entry, however one is then obliged to trek to a local copy shop or hotel, obtain a copy and trail back again.
There might then be a customs inspection of the vehicle and/or its contents, depending on the energy level of the officials. Once through this hurdle the car is driven across the nominal border or sometimes through a town centre to the border post in the next country. Fill in the entry forms for the people, queue to have them stamped, pay the tourist tax and then on to customs for vehicle entry. Produce enough copies of all documents (we now have at least 10 copies of all relevant items in case needed at each crossing). Have the vehicle examined for numbers, go on to where the compulsory insurance can be obtained (sometimes a supermarket in the next town, sometimes an anonymous office a few kilometers on). Get the entry form stamped, go through customs inspection, fumigation and perhaps finally on the road.
A few crossings have conveniently combined most of these functions in one building, others are separated by considerable distances. At none of them are there clear signs or lists of instructions in several languages which inevitably leads to the infestation of these crossings by money changers and runners, as well of course as the hawkers and vendors. Recently we were, within seconds of arriving at a crossing, offered a hammock, a large white china elephant, bangles, necklaces and lottery tickets. None of these items were remotely what I had imagined vital to the business of crossing a border. Filling in entry forms, there will be at least two people leaning over your shoulder to read your name and start calling you in a familiar way by your christian name, frequently with hilarious results, I have recently been re-christened Duncow!
This crossing was little different to the others. Copies required included two of the V5, pne of the passport (all pages including blanks) and the page with the stamp acquired two minutes ago, driving licence for all drivers and a copy of the insurance document also two minutes old. The Panama/Costa Rica crossing was good, being just under two hours.
The change was startling, another country and immediately the architecture, road signs and landscape had a different appearance, and from the dry tropical north Panama we passed into the lush green humid tropics of Costa Rica. Soon after there were cloud-shrouded hills with thick tropical vegetation masking their contours. The people we saw on the road and verges would willingly wave back and give a friendly smile as they saw us pass.
We passed huge plantations of palms, grown for oil, bananas and cane and houses, generally neat, the gardens well tended. We crossed many bridges over stoney river beds, dry now, awaiting the coming rainy season to replenish their sources. Crossing the border we had had to alter our watches, Costa Rica being an hour behind Panama and so dusk came earlier as we were approaching our destination Palmar Norte. Between Palmar sur and and norte, we crossed the River Terrab, filled up with fuel and sought the hotel Brunka Lodge, actually a group of cabinas, where we stopped for the night.
5th May. Palmar Norte, Costa Rica.
The restaurant we had dined in the previous evening, despite being advertised as open at 07.00, remained obstinately closed and so we sought breakfast elsewhere with success. Fresh juice, scrambled eggs and coffee set us up for another busy day.
The countryside changed after Palmar, the road, previously almost flat, began to rise and fall fairly gently, the Pacific occasionally visible to our left. Now the road ran through wooded countryside, the trees shading the road and affording us much protection from the roasting sun. We particularly noticed the strength of the sun when we paused for petrol and without airflow the cars were suddenly subjected to its full force. River found a local shop which made fresh fruit
and iced yogurt smoothies. Delicious and refreshing, they kept us going for many miles. Our destination tonight was Puntarenas on a peninsula about 10 kms long and from 100 to 600 metres wide. This rather tired and bedraggled town was nothing much to write home about. Being a Sunday and our
arrival at about 17.30, almost everything was shut.
Stan had suffered a puncture during the day the day and we launched into fixing that before looking for supper.
As we finished it began to rain heavily and for about 40 minutes, it poured down, while empty cardboard boxes floated down the street past the hotel’s open front door. Confined to our bedrooms we had time to examine the decor: white ceramic tiles from floor to
ceiling, white polystyrene tiles on the ceiling and mottled ceramics on the floor. It was a little like sleeping in a morgue, but sparkling clean and the (white) sheets and towels were spotless. As the rain stopped we assembled in the lobby and were told by the proprietor that, regrettably, everywhere was shut, it being an out-of-season Sunday night. Even the the pizza delivery service was closed and in desperation we walked through the puddled streets to the local supermarket, opposite which we discovered a Chinese restaurant, and it was open! We enjoyed a curious interpretation of Chinese food, Costa Rican style, some good beer, and straggled home through the now dry but still deserted streets of Puntarenas.
6th May. Puntarenas, Costa Rica
We retraced our steps along the peninsula and turned north when we met the coastal road, soon turning inland for the border with Nicaragu.
The broken dusty road, the lines of trucks baking in the sun, were all familiar as we made our way through to the border post and the began to process the cars. Fortune smiled on us again and we made excellent time getting through. On this occasion one office contained, customs, insurance, road tax and import paperwork which made life very simple and speedy.
We were making for Granada on lake Nicaragua and before long we saw the lake
to our left and the dim but unmistakeable shape of volcanic peeks that surround the lake and form two of its islands. To my surprise we also passed through an enormous wind farm. I counted more than 30 turbines. There was no indication of their provenance I shall attempt to find out if they are part of an outside agency support package. Later I found that the installed capacity is 40 Mw and has made the rolling blackouts in the country a thing of the past.
The differences were again instantly noticeable, from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. In what is obviously a poor country, the house style changed to deeply overhanging roofs and little more than palm leaf lattice walls. The surroundings were clean and tidy however and there were lots of horse-drawn vehicles in use for agriculture and town deliveries.
At last we made our way into Granada, a Spanish colonial city, sacked in 1850, and now slowly rebuilding its former and faded glory. The formal grid pattern of its streets, lined with rather severe building facades, within which the cool shady courtyards are a delight to glimpse when passing. In the late afternoon and evening families move outside to the pavements to enjoy whatever breeze is available.
We stopped at the Dutch-owned Hotel Con Corazon, which is run largely by local staff and whose profits support a number of local educational projects. It was clean, comfortable and had spacious cool verandas and courtyards. Over supper we looked again at the plan for the next few days and found that we could extend our planned half-day stop to a full day and then travel further on the following day, as we now had a better idea of the time it would take us to cross borders.
7th May. Granada, Nicaragua.
The chummy having completed nearly 500 miles since replacing the rings, today had the head tightened down and Diana took it to a local garage who changed the oil. We took advantage of the hotel’s laundry facilities then Stan, Amanda and I went to enjoy one of the
lovely courtyard cafes, while River worked on reports. Stan and I visited the old railway station and Amanda went to two museums of pre-Colombian archaeology.
8th May. Granada, Nicaragua
The hotel had kindly prepared an early breakfast and the night porter made coffee so we were away shortly before 07.00.
Our road took us to Managua and some skillfull map reading by Diana enabled us to skirt the capital and avoid the worst of the morning rush hour. The traffic was fairly calm, our worst fears were not realised, Managua having an appalling reputation for manic traffic problems.
By 09.30 we were south of Lake Managua and heading towards La Paz Centro and Leon when I noticed a police motor cycle turn and follow us which was obviously a precursor to stopping us. I told Amanda what I had seen and we watched as the motor cycle with its two riders sped to overtake and indicate that we should stop on the hard shoulder. They were obviously after the three of us, so I slowed but waited for them to pass Stan and then River so that we would all stop together. Another motor cycle joined the chase for River and Diana who were still ahead, while the first one pulled Stan and me over. They first spoke to Stan and he produced his paperwork, then Amanda and I were subjected to a steely glare and my driving licence and the car’s documents were asked for. A cursory inspection was followed by a demand that we turn back, as we had apparently infringed a law by using this particular road which was reserved for laden trucks. We would have to pay a fine at a bank in Managua and take the more northerly route out next time. Amanda had been answering all this time in Spanish, saying that, although she understood what we were being told, she did not understand precisely what we had done wrong, as there were plenty of other private vehicles using the road as well, and just then the second motorcycle and two policemen returned and joined in the fray.
We were told that we must have missed the sign to the ‘other’ road, which did not incidentally appear on our map, that we had to turn back and there was still a fine to pay. I asked for and had my licence and passport returned, but one of the policemen who seemed to be in charge was adamant that we could not continue in this direction. Now it was becoming clear that despite my asking them to write us a ticket or to show us their identity card or to call their Inspector, they had no intention of doing any of that. I had read of the police scams prevalent in Nicaragua, Stan was certainly dubious of their intent and so we stuck to our guns. The alternative road they insisted we should have taken to the north, would have been underwater since Lake Managua was less than 500 metres away. Keeping calm but refusing to comply we asked again for a ticket to cover the offence.
Things were getting quite heated by the time River and Diana returned in the chummy and pulled up. River asked what we had done wrong and the same explanation was given and the same proof was asked for. Now the cop began to get very angry, saying that I was obstructing a police officer in the course of his duty. He demanded my licence and without further word crossed the road and mounted the back of the motor cycle. I followed him and asked very politely for my licence to be returned to me. I was waved aside and I realised that I was about to see the last of the licence and him.
Diana had, on arrival with River, run off down the road, to where I did not know, but this was about to become pivotal. I had been assessing the situation and felt pretty sure that the stop was a scam to squeeze money. He would not call his superior, he had not written a ticket, he showed me his civilian ID but would not produce a police ID. Then I noticed that under his black waistcoat garment on which is written ‘POLICE’ in flourescent letters, he had a numbered badge. I called out to Amanda, who was across the road, “I have his ID Number, write it down”. I also noticed that he was holding my International licence between two fingers and decided it was time to retrieve it. River on the other side of the bike was now saying to him, in Spanish, we have your number and recited it, this distracted him for a moment and I pulled the licence from between his fingers and walked back across the road.
As he started to follow me back, he received a phone call and took it while crossing the road. By the time he reached us his demeanour had changed a little and he asked River to translate into English what he was going to say to me. What followed was a lecture on how he was only trying to protect us, as the road was very dangerous for little cars, many people had been killed and his advice was to stay away. I had shown great ingratitude and a lack of courtesy and should be aware that rudeness in a foreign country was not the correct way to behave. I was somewhat mystified by the sudden change but he offered his hand and we shook. One of the motorcycles had already gone and now he mounted the pillion of the second and rode off. Quickly we agreed to talk about it later, River wanted to collect Diana from further up the road.
Later we unravelled the story and put the strands back together. River and Diana had not been stopped by the chasing motorcycle, but by two officers on foot in a lay-by further on. Their papers having been examined politely and found to be in order, they were invited to go on their way. They had been keeping an eye on our situation and turned back because we were all still outside our cars. On arrival, they quickly understood the situation and Diana ran back towards the two officers they had been stopped by. When she reached them, she indicated, using her legendary international sign language, that her friends had been stopped and were being asked for money. The more senior officer was adamant that this should not be happening and immediately called his superior officer. We think that this resulted in the call our policeman received and his change of tack.
J’accuse. Police Officer 12036, you are a disgrace to your Nation of Nicaragua, to the police force and to the uniform. You are a liar and a thief. I name and shame you. J’accuse!
We stopped briefly by the two policemen in the layby to collect Diana and for River to say we were alright but shocked by the action of their colleagues, this was no way to welcome visitors to Nicaragua.
We were followed by the chief on his solo motorcycle until we reached the next town where he peeled off. Feeling relieved to have got away with my rather bold action and very glad to be on our way Amanda and I talked about the incident as we looked to our right to see the peak of a distant volcano over Lake Managua.
Due to an incident with the chummy which broke the screen uprights and needed repairs to the door fixings, we all returned to Nagarote at this point, about 5 miles back the way we had come and while the chummy was being repaired we have been rather stuck in the town. River returned to the States to complete some work and the rest of us kicked our heels while glass was sourced for the windscreen and new uprights fabricated.
We are poised to make our way into Honduras and the through El Salvador, in the space of two days and then a Guatamala, three borders, three countries all in less than 300 miles.
I want to thank the very many people who have helped and advised us on our stop-go journey through Central America so far. In no particular order Ricardo and Dora Suarez Fiat, Edison and Gladys Henriquez Quintero and family, Hugo Suarez Fiat, George Blau, Jorge Katin, Jaime Claramunt, Lester Rodriguez, Diego Rodrigeuz, Mona in David, Javier Garaycochea in Lima and others whose names I was not able to gather. If I have missed anyone from this list, I apologise, it is an oversight and your help was certainly very much appreciated. You all have a our sincere and heartfelt thanks, we could not havee got through without you kindness.