Gandhi and the jam session.
I’m a musician….
Says Gandhi with a smile. He’s playing tonight at the hostel ‘jam session’ and wonders if I’ll be there. I’d not imagined an invite to an open mic by Gandhi before but I suppose anything is possible. His linen shirt is blindingly white and he won’t let go of my hand. We shook a few minutes ago, me from the slightly ludicrous recline of a saggy hammock and him standing over me smiling. He wonders where I am from and raises his eyebrows, repeating what I have said. Ah England….. Most people don’t really know what to do with the information once they have asked. Ah England…very far…..er…is it cold? Ah….England….that’s far. Is it as foggy as I have heard? And one time just, David Beckham! said a great volume.
Mostly though, people just say, Ah…England, and nod knowingly as Gandhi has just done and look at me. Where is he from? I wonder aloud. He is from here, from Costa Rica. Ah….from here. He still hasn’t let go of my hand and I begin to realise that his casual stroll past me in my hammock to look at a stone was a dirty, rotten ruse to hold my hand longer than was strictly necessary.
I promise him I will attend the jam session this evening and he holds my hand for a little longer for good measure, twinkles at me a little and adds,
Costan Ricans can’t help themselves from adding this jaunty little phrase to everything they say. Pure life. It’s rather nice but I don’t really know what kind of purity they are after. Should we be recycling more in Costa Rica? Should we be breathing better air? Or is it a subtle reference to naughtiness? Perhaps the Catholic church has had something to do with it, a cheery admonishment for all our sins.
Gandhi leaves the phrase floating in the warm, steamy air and wafts away, finally letting my hand drop from his intense grasp. I struggle inelegantly out of the hammock and lock myself in our room to avoid being clasped again. I tell Jamie about the encounter and he laughs and looks at me like I might have a lo fever but later, as we leave the hostel to go in to town, I point out my linen shirted schmoozer and Jamie’s eyes widen.
Bloody hell, it is Gandhi!
He says and I wonder if we had better let India know we have found their ex leader leading jam sessions at a backpackers hostel on the wrong continent. They really ought to know.
Costa Rica looks like Nicaragua if the Government had shaken the contents of capitalism all over it. The same beautiful, lushly grassed hills, the palm trees and volcanoes, the rice and beans, beans and rice. But cleaner, richer, shinier. Someone has replaced all the charming, hand painted signs that speckle Latin America with plastic ones printed professionally in English and back lit. The houses gleam with glass and fresh paint, there are flowers in the gardens. Suddenly, shockingly, there are shopping centres, industrial developments and hotel complexes. Everywhere there are billboards depicting gatherings of healthy, wholesome white people with big smiles and promises of condominiums by the ocean with prices starting at $65,000. People stop turning to stare at the motorbike, been there, seen a couple of foreigners on a heavily loaded Suzuki DL650 in full bike gear in the 30 degree heat, done that. It is quite bizarre, after three months of exhibitionism, to suddenly be invisible again.
We haven’t really noticed the money disappearing from the landscape. It must have slowly dwindled from leaving the United States, through Mexico, leaking out of the vista like sand through the cracks. I feel a strange concern that one of the reasons I don’t like Nicaragua so much was because my brain, sloppy and fat on a constant supply shiny, new stuff to buy and discard, refuses to be entertained without it. I shake the feeling though, remembering that we were entranced by plenty of places without shopping opportunities on the journey so far. It’s really just that there just isn’t much to do in your average Nicaraguan city or towns.
We make the decision to head straight in to Nicaragua instead of stopping once more in El Salvador, in increments. Luis, our gracious Salvadoreño host has filled us with Salvadorian hot chocolate and pupusas before we leave Santa Ana. We are concerned we may never feel hunger again after the three delicious but all encompassing fat disks of stuffed corn dough hit our stomachs. Stuffed with an elastic cheese and refried beans, fried until golden and served with tangy, crunchy pickled cabbage, they are irresistible and we eat them quickly with our hands. The hot chocolate is sweet and buttery, sharp and flavoursome. Unlike hot chocolate in the UK, it is made with crumbly disks of sugar enriched Salvadorian cocoa and boiling water. Unlike the milky slurp so often served in the UK, this is luxurious but somehow refreshing too despite the heat of the morning already gathering around us in the indecently early hour at which we have risen. So, pupusas pouched in our mouths and sugar highs jangling, that’s one less reason to stop along the way.
The breakfast and subsequent lack of food stops mean the journey to Santa Rosa de Lima, just before the Honduran border, goes pretty quickly. We follow the Pan American Highway through the pretty countryside remarking, as usual, on the unexpected tininess of such an important road. In places, the famous road, which stretches all the way from Pruhdoe Bay in Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina is a crackly, narrow slip of dusty tarmac squeezing through towns and villages, littered with sleeping dogs and market produce. Meager though it is, the quality of the road is much better than we had been led to believe and we realise it’s still early, time is on our side. Perhaps if we just nip over in to Honduras then find a place to stay somewhere a few miles in? There are plenty of auto-hotels; anonymous, walled compounds with a garage assigned to each room, so accomodation shouldn’t be a problem. In this most Catholic of continents, they are the places favoured by young couples sneaking off for a romantic ‘three hours for $10’ out of the watchful gaze of their parents. Where most people remain at home until they are married and sex before marriage is frowned on, these hotels represent one of the few opportunities for privacy that unmarried couples can have. We have driven past many that look like totally normal hotels but many more with names like ‘Sweet Love’ and ‘Passion Villa’ and have read hilarious reviews from baffled overlanders about romantic muzak that cannot be shut off and vibrating beds. I secretly hope we get to stay in a place with a heart shaped bed and sexy pictures of nudes on the wall, where we can eat pizza and watch crap films in Spanish but Jamie, bafflingly, isn’t as convinced.
We get through the border without a hitch, leaving reams of paperwork and puzzled children clasping sweets in their fists and find ourselves suddenly in Honduras. We cruise through the border and are stopped only by two monumentally bored police officers who ask where we are from and leaf slowly through Jamie’s international driving licence asking which language each page is in.
What’s this one? Chinese? Why is your driving license Chinese? Where are you from?
Impatiently but obediently we explain which one is the Russian page, the Chinese and which is the Portuguese. We are forced to explain three or four times where we are from and finally, just as I begin to worry that I am going to have a stampy fit, we are free to begin our search for Hotel Passion.
The major problem in my plan is that, in general, Jamie doesn’t really like stopping very much. It is a running joke of ours that if you put him in a vehicle and say go, he will take you at your word. He has threatened more than once that I will have to jump off the back while he spends the night driving in circles in a carpark. Hotels whip by but Jamie shows no signs of slowing down. We’ll find somewhere a bit further on I suppose, it’s best to get away from the border zone. Hotel Paradise zips past, a carefully painted sign with wonky love hearts adorning the front.
It is only when we leave the towns behind and the countryside swallows us up that I realise my quest for cheesy love hotel souvenirs has failed.
We could just carry on?
Says Jamie innocently through the intercom and I sigh. What about the piped musak? But if I’m totally honest, I have to agree with him. The landscape has turned bone dry and hot as an oven, brown and scratchy in all directions and strewn with litter. There is rubbish just everywhere, in the trees, caught in the brittle grasses, blowing along the verge. Piles of tins and plastic bags, squashed drinks cartons and milk bottles. Reams of dirty grey plastic everywhere you look and sometimes, you have to put your heart shaped dreams to one side and use your head shaped head.
I am tired and hot though and the disappointment makes me grouchy.
How can you have respect for a country that just chucks all their rubbish out the backdoor straight in to the garden?
I grumble moodily and then feel even grumpier when I realise I feel guilty for making blind assumptions about Hondurans having seen only a thirty mile stretch of their country. After all, they do have some rather large fish to fry, namely, soaring murder rates and gang violence. Still though, the place ain’t pretty and it’s not hard to make the decision to zoom on to the Nicaraguan border and leave Honduras behind.
We finally reach Chinandega, a small town 70km from the border as the sun is getting low in the sky. Long shadows stream across the road in front of us and the beautiful, verdurous fields glow in the dying light. Huge, conical San Cristobal volcano towers over us smoking ever so lightly and we stare at it, unable to fathom quite what we are looking at. Green on one side but grey and slurred on the other, it looks to have erupted not so long ago and I find myself watching the top for signs of imminent apocalypse. Nothing happens though and we pull in to the driveway of our hotel to be surprised by a jungley garden and beautiful swimming pool. We didn’t expect the place to be so fancy having booked it for so cheap but the place is spotless, hung with painted teracotta bells and garlanded in vines and flowers. We manage to swap our reservation which was made in the belief that we would still be in El Salvador and are shown to an apartment which is bigger than our flat in London. Granted, the walls are bare breeze blocks painted in the sort of vicious orange and tart green made popular in the 90’s by Changing Rooms and the sink is made of cement but we like it. We like it (and the price) so much, we decide to stay an extra day and pass the hours reading in the hammocks outside and flustering the chickens.
The garden is like a small zoo and a menagerie of animals make mayhem everywhere we look. A bird chases small, electric green iguanas out of the trees, hopping in rage when he lands as they dive straight into the swimming pool, swim to the deep end and escape over the edge out of it’s beaky reach. Cicadas squeal magnificently all around us and a large, idiotic rooster crows periodically throughout the day. He only has half a crow as if someone is repeatedly interrupting his hourly announcements. Cockadoodl! Cockadoodl! rings in the hot air well in to the evening when we start to consider coq au vin for dinner. Realising we don’t have a hob to cook him on, we ask at the front desk and are directed, sensibly, to a bar over the road for dinner instead.
The dark falls quickly here and there are no street lights so we shuffle a little nervously out of the drive and into the glare of the traffic on the main road then run across the other side where a large, open air bar lit with green LED rope lights awaits us. Several of the tables are full of jovial Nicaraguans laughing uproariously and the atmosphere is rather festive. My Pavlovian response to bars now is to order a margarita and, happily, the waiter returns after a few minutes with a bottle of beer for Jamie so cold it has ice floating in it and a resplendent tequila based beverage for me. We order some dinner; steak, chips, rice and beans for Jamie and ox heart, plantain chips, rice and beans for me and make a toast.
We chime together, smiling in the humming, green gloom. We are excited about the next two weeks, there are $6 lobsters here, there’s volcano boarding, colonial cities, beautiful beaches, icey cold beers and cheap margaritas. We are going exploring! We are going swimming! We’ll feast! We’ll toast some more! In the humid air, the pockets of darkness and ringing laughter, it seems wonderful and invigorating to be here. Somewhere new where margaritas are only £2! Somewhere with a whole new array of gelatin based desserts! Lava to poke with a stick!
Alas though, it is not to be. There will be no lobster dinners and we won’t break a single limb careering down Volcan San Cristobal. We won’t even dip a toe n the ocean. But we don’t know that yet and it seems a shame to spoil it for us. Doesn’t it?
Pupusas with cheese and beans
If you went to enormous effort to make the tamales from a few posts ago, you may still have some masa flour left! Yay! If not, buy some Maseca brand corn flour from the Mexican Grocer or any Latin American shop you can find nearby.
To make the dough use 2 parts flour to 1 part warm water. Mix the two together and whammy, you have your corn dough.
Next fry a diced onion in sunflower oil until translucent and golden. Whack in a tin of red kidney beans, black beans or pinto beans and a mug of chicken stock (or veg if you must) with a good pinch of chilli powder or fresh chilli. Stir it all together and then pop in a blender, whizz until you reached your desired consistency for refried beans and then scoop back in to the pan. Add extra stock if it looks too thick. Cook until the beans darken in colour and thicken to the consistency of instant mashed potato. (I actually stir in butter and bake the beans, I think it makes a better taste and consistency but its up to you)
Next fry one green or red pepper with some fresh chilli. Once they are cooked, shred a ball of mozzarella (or better yet, Oaxaca cheese which I have just discovered on sale at www.themexgrocer.co.uk and should also be used in the Cubana sandwich) and stir in the peppers and chilli.
Get your masa dough which should be smooth, not sticky; adjust water or flour if it is sticky or too dry). Take an egg size ball of dough in your hand (it helps rubs a tiny bit of oil on your hands before doing this) and press the dough out in one hand into a disc the size of your palm. Place about a tablespoon of cheese down onto the disc, then a tsp of beans. Pull the sides of the disc up around the beans and cheese and roll it into a ball. Next, flatten it a tiny bit with your palms to form a thick disc.
Repeat until you have as many as you like! Fry on both sides in oil until they are golden, crisp around the edges and oozing cheese. Serve with pickled cabbage. Recipe for that coming up next.