Impressions of Bangkok

 

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Food Glorious Food?

On their first morning in Bangkok, L & D make their way down to the hotel breakfast room.

L: But I’m not very hungry.

D: I’m not surprised. It’s two o’clock in the morning in England. Your appetite’s probably still fast asleep.

From the breakfast buffet come powerful wafts of prawn curry, and a group of Asian guests enthusiastically load up their plates. L looks queasy, and retreats to the furthest corner with a bowl of fruit and some coffee.

Later they walk through Chinatown’s maze of bustling and aromatic market alleys. Tiny shops, some no larger than booths, line both sides, selling clothing, jewellery, toys, household goods and a variety of surprisingly unrecognisable food. The crowds are thick, slow moving, and they shuffle with the flow, under awnings which meet overhead and shut out the light. The stalls each have their own odour – fishy or pungent or sweet or spicy or earthy. Fruit is stacked high, large and small, prickly and knobbly and smooth, yellow and orange and pink and purple and green and brown. Most of it they cannot put a name to – little of it is to be found in Sainsbury’s.   Raw fish and meat is laid out on tabletops. Plastic bags of liquid contain indecipherable delicacies. There are sacks of spices, and bags of dried mushrooms, dried shrimp, dried fruit. D grimaces.  p1040291

D: Pig face.

L: Charming.

D: Not you. I just saw one.

L: A pig face?

D: Yes.

L: On a pig?

D: No. On its own. Spread out flat and cooked.

L: Oh.

L looks dubiously at a butcher’s counter.

L: D’you think they have Food Hygiene Certificates?

D: Don’t be ridiculous. Anyway, it’s fine. The meat’s all butchered and sold so fast that it doesn’t have time to go off. Same goes for street food. It’s a well known fact that you’re far more likely to get ill from a hotel buffet than from anything off a busy street cart, where the food’s fresh, thoroughly cooked and doesn’t sit around long enough to do any harm.

L: OK then. Now all we have to do is learn to recognise what we might actually be eating.

D: We’ll just ask.

L: In our fluent Thai. Or maybe Mandarin.

D: Ah. Good point. We’ll read the signs and ask Google Translate then.

L: Everything’s written in squiggles.

D: Um. So it is.

L: Trial and error then?

D: Trial and error. When shall we start?

L: Maybe tomorrow.

D: You said that yesterday.

L: In the meantime, can I have some crisps?

D: As long as none of them are octopus flavoured.

L: Of course not. Which would you prefer – seaweed, cuttlefish or lasagne?

 

Bangkok’s Waterways Three Ways

The Chao Phraya River meanders its way along the southern and western edges of the city and provides a useful transportation alternative to Bangkok’s busy streets. The wide expanse of puddle coloured water is busy with passenger ferries, tourist boats and great commercial barge-trains: four vessels strung together nose to tail.   Scraps of polystyrene and wisps of plastic bob on the surface, mingling with water hyacinths, and an egret drifts by, long legs wobbling to balance on its own tiny plywood island.

They join the tail end of a patient crowd standing on a floating platform waiting to catch a ferry. From a loudspeaker above their heads comes an assault of hysterical-sounding shouting. They listen obediently, but in puzzlement, as it is all in Thai. A ferry arrives and the loudspeaker’s tone cranks up a notch. Some people shuffle forward, some stand still, and others create a faster moving bypass along one edge of the pontoon.

L: Shall we go, shuffle or stay where we are, do you think?

D has the advantage of being taller than the crowd and peers over the sea of heads.

D: That’s not our boat, it’s pointing downstream.

The ferry departs and an upstream one arrives. The amplified voice reaches new heights of excitement and apparent fury without pausing for breath. They join the bypass queue, leaving the noise behind, to be greeted by a bellowing operative hustling them impatiently onto the boat, and another on board shouting wearily at people to move along. The pair continue to yell and berate the passengers until the boat is full to bursting. D & L are thoroughly scolded for not having the correct change for their tickets, and again for standing in the way of the safety rope, which is eventually slung across the gangway as the ferry gets going.

D: (grinning from ear to ear) This is great, isn’t it?

L:  (squashed between a ladder, two Korean tourists and D’s back) Take a photo.

***

 

They book a short trip on a long-tail boat to explore the canals.

Many of the smaller boats on the Chao Phraya are traditional Thai long-tails. These narrow wooden vessels have high curving bows and brightly painted rainbow striped topsides. Designed for fishing or moving goods and people along Asia’s coastline and rivers, today they are mostly filled with up to a dozen tourists, perched on wooden bench seats and shaded by a canopy overhead. Propulsion is provided by an immense pivoting truck engine mounted near the stern, with super-long tiller and drive shaft protruding fore and aft.  p1040394

The man in the booth takes their money and ushers them to a bench overlooking the river. The sun is shining and families are strolling the waterfront, stopping to photograph each other next to a large smiling pink plastic elephant at the entrance to the jetty.

Man: 5 minutes.

He gets out his mobile phone and makes a call. Then another. And a third. He smiles at them and rushes off to the end of the jetty where he taps his phone some more and looks eagerly up and down the river.  After a while he rushes back.

Man: 5 minutes. Sit.

They are already sitting, so they carry on. The man scampers back to the jetty, energetically making more phone calls and peering keenly at the river. Eventually he returns, looking tremendously pleased with himself.

Man: 5 minutes. Yes!

A battered longtail arrives, its faded rainbow topsides flaking, and they embark, admiring the immense rusted hulk of engine and its matching skipper, both past their prime since the 1950s.  They are the only passengers. The engine chokes unwillingly to life and they are off.

The boat is fast and the river is choppy. L grins as the spray splashes her.

D: Try not to get too much river water in your mouth. It may not be very clean.

L: Oh. Will I get typhoid?

D: Probably not. Only if you drink it.

L inspects the damage.

L: I’ve got some on my arm. Might I get arm typhoid?

D: Err…no.

L: What about foot typhoid?

D: Not even.

L: I’ll probably be alright then.

D: You probably will.

***

Back on dry land, they head for their next stretch of water. A narrow canal – the Klong Saen Saeb – runs east-west through the centre of the city. To reach it they find themselves strolling the famous Kao San Road. Around their base in Chinatown they hardly see another Western face, but now they are in Bangkok’s Backpacker Land. The street is wall to wall bars and restaurants and tour operators and B&Bs and massage parlours and souvenir shops. There is Western food and drink and music and signs all written in English. They spot a tattooed youth asleep on a pub table, and further on another one out cold in a car seat on the pavement. It is nearly lunchtime but it is also the first of January and some people have clearly been celebrating hard. L pauses to buy a pair of thin cotton trousers patterned with elephants – as comfortable cover-up clothing for visiting temples. (She later discovers that every backpacker in Asia has a pair of these trousers, probably purchased right here.) They walk on, feeling intrepid that they have chosen not to be based here surrounded by the familiar, and conveniently forgetting that their own slice of Bangkok authenticity comes with a bewildering inability to communicate and a fear of all things edible.

***

Despite the fact that the canal water-bus shuttles to and fro between some of the city’s most famous sites – from the Golden Mount viewpoint, to the historic Jim Thompson House, the shopping streets of Sukhumvit and the sex on tap on Soi 3 – almost all the passengers are locals. They step down into the boat.p1040443

L: Great, there’s masses of room.

They pick a spot. More people get on. They move to the far side of the boat, out of the way. More people get on. They budge up. More people get on. They shuffle closer.   More people get on. Once the boat is sufficiently bulging and no-one aboard can move, they set off. The narrow stretch of water is faced with ramshackle homes built of tin and wood and breezeblocks. A young man skips nimbly around the outside rim of the boat, holding on to a rope and reaching in to collect fares from outstretched hands.

L: Why’s he wearing a climbing helmet?

D: I have no idea.

The fare collector continues his circuit of the boat, his back to the direction of travel, as the waterbus rumbles along the narrow channel. He reaches them and leans in to hand them a ticket. Without warning, he suddenly ducks, and they are all thrown into darkness. The boat plunges under a low bridge, and he avoids decapitation at the last second purely by instinct and the skin of his teeth, as he must do dozens of times a day, without looking.

D: That’ll be why he’s wearing a hard hat.

 

All Buddhas Great and Small

Waves of sightseers ripple through the grounds and courtyards of Wat Pho, below the ornately decorated bell-shaped temple spires, or stupas, brightening a flat grey sky with their golden tiles and pastel mosaics seemingly crafted from fistfuls of sugared almonds.   Through a doorway, past a towering demon-like guardian statue, they enter a silent gallery of lifesized golden Buddhas, seated in contemplation on pedestals of brightly coloured jewels.p1040307

L: There’s something very calming about them, isn’t there? Look at the body language – how relaxed their shoulders are, and their beautiful hands.

D: Hold on – why are they so thin? I thought Buddha was a jolly fat fellow.

L: Wrong! They’re two different people. The laughing fat one isn’t the founder of Buddhism at all. He’s a chap called Budei, a kindly Chinese Buddhist monk who has become a symbol of luck and wealth. He was known as a sort of year-round Santa Claus figure, protecting children and handing out presents. His laughing shows contentment, and his belly, abundance. He’s revered as a holy man, and is often called the Laughing Buddha, but he’s not THE Buddha.

D: Right. So do all proper Buddhas look like these ones, then?

L: Not quite. He has a few different postures, all of which mean something.

D: Like what?

L: So – all these ones are seated cross legged with the right hand pointing down to touch the earth and the left hand palm upwards in the lap, showing Buddha’s moment of enlightenment.p1040320

They continue into an elaborately decorated lofty temple. To their left is a long wall of gold.

L: (squeaking) He’s ENORMOUS!

D: (tapping at his phone) He’s 46 metres long and 15 metres high, to be precise.

They crane their necks to admire the famous and serenely Reclining Buddha, leaning on one elbow and looking relaxed, his body stretching away down the length of the temple.

L: He’s amazing – take a photo.

D: (grumbling) He’s much too big. I can only fit small bits of him into the camera.

L: He’s very beautiful.

D: So what does his reclining posture mean?

L: He’s ready to go into Nirvana, or Heaven, having finished all his cycles of birth and death and reincarnation. What’s that noise?

D: What noise?

L: That rhythmic chinking sound.

D: Builders? Dripping water? Pigeons? Music?

They look around, hunting the source.

L: Found it!

On the other side of the temple is a long line of copper bowls. 108 of them. People are working their way along the line carefully dropping a coin into each one.

L: What are they?

D: Alms bowls. For monks. It’s both giving charity and earning merit, or good karma. And 108 seems to be a lucky number.

On their way out, they admire the magnificent soles of the Reclining Buddha’s feet, decorated with 108 exquisite panels of inlaid mother-of-pearl, many of which are temporarily shrouded behind canvas and scaffolding for restoration.

D: Right, come on. Let’s go and find the Emerald Buddha. Follow me.

As they walk towards the Grand Palace, the streets fill with people dressed in black, all heading the same way. The country is in mourning. There is a road block ahead and a long trailing queue, many thousands of people standing quietly in line, holding photographs. There are traffic closures, security searches, appropriate clothing checks and free water points for the mourners.  p1040332

All over Bangkok, every public building and many private ones display black and white ribbons, memorials, banners and billboards with the image of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has died after reigning for 70 years. He is resting in the Grand Palace, where people are flocking to pay their respects.

They part company from the crowds, heading for a discreet corner of the palace where a tourist entrance allows access to the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

D: This Buddha’s seen as the country’s protector and has been revered for nearly 600 years. It’s probably Thailand’s most important Buddha image.

L: Where exactly is it?

D: Not sure. There’ll be signs. Start looking.

They roam around a compound dotted with buildings and temples and milling with tourists waving selfie-sticks. They join a queue off to one side, but all that happens is that security staff tie a ribbon to their day-pack. They keep searching.

L: Is it actually emerald?

D: No, but it is green. Jade or jasper I think.

The crowds are heading in all directions, offering no clues. They come across a ticket office, away to one side, but all that happens is that they are sold a ticket and waved away again. Any signs to be found are written in squiggles. They find however that they have inadvertently been swept into a current of people all moving the same way.

D: (confidently) It must be along here.

They are funnelled through a ticket checkpoint and disgorged into an inner compound. There are no signs and the crowd start once more unhelpfully milling about taking photos of themselves.

L: Come and see these fantastic frescoes! What’s going on?

The walls of the compound are decorated in finely painted images of vivid landscapes, ornate temples, golden warriors and a fierce looking army of demons or monkeys.

D: (tapping his phone) It’s the story of the Ramayana.p1040335

L: Which is….?

D: I haven’t got the faintest idea.   Hold on a sec.

L admires the delicately gilded chariots and dragons and eight-armed archers, against a background of forests and rocky cliffs and threatening skies.

D:   Here we are. It’s a massively long and ancient epic Hindu poem with 24,000 verses.

L: Blimey. What’s it about? The extremely very short version.

D: Right. A prince, banished by his father, travelling across India with his wife and brother. Wife gets kidnapped by demon king, lots of fighting to get her back, and they return home where he becomes king. Happy ending.

L: But why is it in the temple?

D: The story’s full of philosophy and ethics and portrays ideals in behaviour – ideal father, brother, wife, king etc, and ideal goals in life. Apparently we’ll come across it all over South East Asia and India.

The frescoes lead them around the cloisters, away from the tour groups and self-portrait photographers who swirl around the centre. Temples are dotted around the compound, stunningly decorated in golden and jewel coloured mosaics, most of them closed. The sheer acreage of gold leaf is staggering.p1040343

L: So where’s the Emerald Buddha?

They drift past the front of a temple. Thirty people stand at the foot of some steps leading up to a doorway.   They hold their cameras over their heads, pointed through the door. Not only is entrance forbidden, but so is access up the steps. A blank-faced guard eyes them all suspiciously. The interior of the temple is in darkness but at the back, glowing out of the gloom is a seated figure on an altar. It is the Emerald Buddha.

L: (squeaking) But he’s TINY!

D: (tapping at his phone). He’s 66 centimetres high and 48 centimetres wide, to be precise.

L: Oh.

D: And he’s meditating.

L: Oh.

D: And he has three outfits, which he wears depending on the season. And only the King can change them for him.

L brightens.

L: That’s very fashionable of him. Which one’s he wearing now?

D: I can’t tell. He’s too small and far away.

L: Oh. Have we got any crisps?

 

No Sex Please, We’re British

L: So have we seen Bangkok?

D:   Some. Of course there’s lots more we could do.

L: Like what?

D: Well, your sister recommended a ping pong show.

L:   Did she indeed? Um, I think she might have been joking.

D: But I can’t find it in the guidebook. I don’t know what one is.

L: No. You clearly don’t.

D: I’ll Google it, shall I?

L: You do that.

D: (tapping his phone) Oh. Right. Err… No.

L: No?

D: No.

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Bangkok Bound: From Here to There

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Chapter 1 – The Grand Plan

L has spent months reading guide books to Thailand, to Vietnam, to Laos and Cambodia, cross checking information with websites and making colour coded lists on Excel. She has bought travel insurance and booked appointments with doctors and dentists. She has signed up for Motorcycle Compulsory Basic Training (or How to Ride a Moped without Killing Yourself), and stood in long Christmas post-office queues to obtain International Driving Permits. She has also bought sufficient quantities of toiletries for every eventuality, to last the full three months, in case there are no shops in South East Asia.

D: So how do the visas work?

L: To which country?

D: All of them. Any of them.

L: Umm… I can’t remember.

D: Will we need malaria tablets?

L: Err… I’m not sure.

D: Will my mobile phone work?

L: Where?

D: Over there.

L: I don’t know.

D: Do we need local currency or can we use dollars? What shape are the plug sockets? Will there be ice-cream?

L: I’d better check.

D: How hot will it be? Shall I pack a jumper?

L: It depends.

D: On what?

L: On where we go. There are four whole countries, with cities and beaches and mountains and rivers and plains.

D: Oh.

L: Yes.

D: So where are we going?

L: When?

D: When we go. For the three months. Where will we be?

L: Every day?

D: (generously) Well, not every day of course. Just in general. Most days.

L: I don’t know.

D: Oh. But we’re going next week.

L: I know. But there’s quite a lot of it, and I’ve read so much that I’ve forgotten most of it.

D: Ah.

L: Yes.

D: What’s that enormous pile of stuff?

L: That’s just going in our wash-bag. Actually into five wash-bags. For travelling and living and spares. And sun protection. And first aid.

D: Great. Umm…. So who’s going to be carrying all that?

L: Oh, there should be plenty of room in your rucksack.

D: Right. Is it time?

L: Time?

D: Time I showed an interest and got involved a bit?

L: Yes. I think maybe it’s time.

 

Chapter 2 – Just Like Business Class

L: I can’t believe you’re so mean. It’s a twelve hour flight!

D: Very funny. Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that we don’t win the lottery this week, you must agree that we are possibly – just possibly – better off not spending £2,000 on a Business Class upgrade just so that you can lie down for a few hours. Anyway, I don’t need to sleep – my time is too valuable – I’ve got to watch all the films.

***

L: Right. Done. I should get a good night’s kip.

D: Done? What have you done? How much have you spent?

L: Not much.

D: How much?

L: Sixty quid.

D: Each?

L: Between us.

D: On what?

L: A double bed in our own en-suite room.

D: On the plane?

L: For sixty quid? Hardly. In Abu Dhabi. I’ve booked flights with a nine hour overnight stop-over to break up the journey half way through. We’ll get a blissful 7 hours sleep in an airport hotel. It’ll be just like travelling Business Class!

D: Just like.

***

L: (At Heathrow Airport) Our flight is a bit delayed. As we’ve got time, I might just pop into Boots and buy some more shampoo. And body lotion. And mouthwash.

D: No. Just no. If you buy it, you carry it, everywhere we go, for the next three months.

L: Oh. That seems highly unreasonable, doesn’t it?

D: Does it?

L: Doesn’t it?

D: Does it.

L: Maybe we can manage without.

***

L: (At Abu Dhabi Airport) That didn’t go quite as planned, but we had a tremendously comfortable two hours sleep, didn’t we?

D: (Yawning) Tremendous.

L: I thought you didn’t need to sleep? Isn’t your time too valuable?

D: I’ve changed my mind. And two hours is worse than not sleeping at all. I need coffee. It’s an emergency.

 

Chapter 3 – Bangkok Bewilderment

D: (tapping his phone) Nice temperature. 27 degrees at 9pm.

L: Bangkok’s so clean!

D: We’ve only seen the airport.

L: And the metro.

They are standing on a gleaming underground platform. A train arrives. They are organised into lines by ferocious female station guards blowing whistles. The train doors open. The guards look threateningly at their neatly formed queues, daring anyone to move. Everyone obediently stands still. The guards check all the carriages for abandoned bags and other security threats, before once more launching into loud whistle blowing and impatient arm waving to herd the politely waiting passengers onto the train.

At the other end of the journey they walk for 15 p1040381minutes through the darkened city to their hotel. Traffic is light and the streets feel safe. A lurid pink golf-buggy with an enormous chrome exhaust pulls up beside them.

Driver: Tuk-tuk?

They shake their heads, declining, not knowing yet how these things work. They walk on to the hotel and leave their bags before heading out for something to eat.

Yaowarat Street is one of Bangkok’s main thoroughfares through Chinatown, and is busy and brightly lit with a profusion of neon signs. Taxis, buses and tuk-tuks trundle by, and mopeds weave amongst them. Street food carts block pavements and overflow into the street, and pedestrians stroll calmly, perusing the choices and effortlessly side-stepping the moving traffic.

p1040384D: Here’s your chance.

L: For what?

D: To try the street food. You’ve been telling everyone for months how much you were looking forward to it.

L: Yum! Absolutely!

They join the throngs, past the unfamiliar stench of the durian fruit displays, the pungent aromas of fermented fish, the stalls cooking up shrimp and fish and squid, the pots of steaming curry and soup bobbing with unidentifiable chunks of meat and vegetables, the unrefrigerated raw pork and chicken threaded onto skewers and cooked over hot flames, the clusters of child sized plastic tables and chairs, the buckets on the ground brimming with greasy water and used plates, the bags of food waste leaning up against lamp-posts, the litter and puddles in the gutter, the mingled smells of barbecues and diesel and fish-sauce and burnt sugar and drains and spices and hot rice and incense. It is their first hour in Asia. It is all a bit overwhelming.

L: Umm. Would you mind awfully if we did street food tomorrow instead?

They head meekly to a mini-market where they buy beer, and crisps, and shame-facedly, Pot Noodles, and return to their room.   D opens two beers.

D: Crap.

L: What?

D: Chuck me a towel, can you? I’ve just knocked a full glass of beer onto the carpet.

L: Never mind. Have some crisps. Ha ha – look at the picture – maybe they’re octopus flavoured!

D: Hilarious. That’s the brand.

L: Right.

D: Crap.

L: What?

D: They’re octopus flavoured.

L stirs the Pot Noodles. A powerful waft of curry fills the room. They tuck in.

D: Blimey. That’s spicy!

L: Are you crying?

p1040392D: No! Of course not. Maybe just a little bit. Is it hot in here?

L: I’ll open the window.

L: (after a lot of fiddling and rattling) It’s locked shut so we can’t fall out. We’re on the 11th floor.

Far below, the river of lights and traffic and people still surges through Chinatown, as they give in to bewilderment, jetlag and lack of sleep , and go to bed, wrapped in a miasma of curry, octopus and beer-soaked pub carpets.

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The Neighbour – Samara, Costa Rica

 

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D: There’s something in our hammock.

L: Like what?

L is in the bathroom, rinsing sand and salt and tangles from her hair. D is looking apprehensively out of the living room window.

D: Not sure. It’s wriggling.

L: Is it an animal? Or a bird?

D: No, more of a small human.

L: Like a child?

D: Yes, there’s a child in our hammock.

L: Well I didn’t put it there. What sort of child?

D: A short one. With yellow hair. And no clothes on.

L: Oh. I expect that’s alright. It’s hardly going to catch cold. What’s it doing?

D: Swinging.

L:   Does it look lost? Or miserable?

D: No. It’s singing. In French.

L: Well in that case, you’ll have to deal with it. I don’t speak French.

D reluctantly heads outdoors to investigate.

They have been in the house for five weeks.   They took a risk – booking it, and paying the rent in advance, before seeing the place, but it suits them well. They had been looking for somewhere to live and work for a couple of months, in the sun, away from the gloomy British winter. And on Google Earth, the village of Samara, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, looked just right. Not too big and not too small, with a huge safe swimming beach.

And so it has proved. They run along the beach in the early mornings. It is only a short walk back from the supermarket, laden with pineapples, melons and beer. The five minute stroll to the sea takes them past the bakery, a concrete footbridge guarded by four sunbathing iguanas, and the best steakhouse in town.

The house itself is hidden from the road by a thick hibiscus hedge, at which a hummingbird feeds at breakfast. The single storey building, red roofed and yellow painted, is divided into two small apartments, sharing a tiled front terrace and a gravelled back yard. Tall slender trees growing on the steeply rising slope behind the house provide afternoon shade in the yard, and are a popular meeting place for howler monkeys at four in the morning.   It’s not perfect – the bank and the trees and the hedge also shelter the house from any breezes. It is very hot. Right after moving in, they shared the outdoor space for a few days with a Canadian couple, who couldn’t take the heat and fled to Spain. Since then, they have had the place to themselves.   Until now.

D returns and reports his findings through the bathroom door.

D: It belongs next door.

L: Good.

D: But it’s bored.

L: Right.

D: And hot.

L: Yes. Where is it now?

D: In our fridge.

L: What d’you mean, in our fridge?

D: It likes the cool air. I haven’t shut the door or anything. It just sort of climbed in.

L: Oh.

D: It’s fine. Except for the dirty footprints. And I think it stood on the ham.

●●●●

It is morning. D chats with the neighbours while L chops melon, banana and pineapple into two bowls. She brings them out onto the terrace. D joins her and they eat their breakfast. The neighbours are also having breakfast. The child leaves its family and wanders over, sitting contentedly on the floor at their feet, eating bread and chocolate spread. There is chocolate on its cheek. And on its elbow.

D: It wants to go to the beach.

L: With us?

D: Its mother suggested it.

L: But we could be anybody.

D: But we’re not. We’re us.

L: Yes, but how does she know?

D: She can tell. She’s that sort of person.

L: OK. But what if we break it?

D: She says it’s good in the sea. It likes diving through waves.

L: That’s alright then. Can it swim?

D: I assume so.

L: Let’s check.

D: It looks like a swimmer.

L: Let’s check.

D: I bet it swims like a fish.

L: Let’s check.

D goes next door to ask, and returns.

L: All OK? It can swim?

D: Um, no. No, it can’t.

L:   Right. We’d better remember that.

●●●●

It is evening. They are preparing to sit out on the terrace, with beer and peanuts. Appetising cooking smells are coming from next door. The child runs between the two terraces, waving a stainless steel pole.

Child: Shlack!

L: What’s that pole?

D: It’s not a pole. It’s a light sabre.

Child: Shlack!

D: Could you bring me a drink?

Child: Shlack, shlack!

D: I would get it myself, but it’s chopped off my legs.

L: I see.

●●●●

It is morning. They are sitting on the terrace with their bowls of fruit and mugs of coffee. The child spots them. Today it is clutching a slice of cheese on toast.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: Qu’est ce que tu fais?

D: Eating my breakfast.

Child: Et après?

D: Then I’m going to drink my coffee.

Child: Et après?

D: Brush my teeth.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some work.

Child: Et après?

D: Have lunch.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some more work.

Child: Et après?

D: Go to the beach.

Child: Can I come to the beach?

●●●●

It is evening. They are on the terrace with beer and peanuts. The neighbours are playing a guitar rather beautifully, but the child is unappreciative and trots over to join them.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: How do you say hello in Arabic?

D: I don’t know.

Child: But maman says you’re a translator.

D: I am, but not in Arabic.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Japanese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Chinese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Russian?

D: I don’t know. I don’t translate ALL languages.

Child: Oh. Why not?

●●●●

It is morning. L is chopping the fruit, D is on the terrace drinking coffee.   The child is running laps of the building and timing itself on an ipad. It dashes past and stops, panting.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Maman: Breakfast!

Child: Oh. I’m just going to have my breakfast.

D: Right.

Child: I’ll be back.

D: Right.

Child: En 1 heure.

D: OK.

Child: Actually, en 1 seconde.

D: Fine.

Child: No, en 5 minutes.

D: Good.

Child: En 30 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 10 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 minutes.

D: OK.

Child: En 5 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 secondes.

D: See you later.

Later…..

Child: Salut. I’m back, can we go to the beach?

●●●●

It is evening. On the terrace. There is beer and peanuts. There is no sign of the child.

D: They’re leaving tomorrow.

L: Oh. I’m going to miss our little friend.

D: Yes. Except for the light sabre.

L:   Careful with your big feet kicking the table – you’re spilling our drinks.

D: It’s not me. It’s our little friend. It’s under the table.

L: Oh. What’s it doing?

D: I think it’s stuck.

L: Should we do something?

D: I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem to mind.

Child: Shlack!

P1030165-2 (2)

On Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 2 - first

L: Poor things! They’re entirely covered in bandages!

D: Not entirely – only the right hand half of them.

L: They must be SO sore.

L and D are drinking beer, their feet in the hotel pool, watching the sun sink into Lake Nicaragua and paint the horizon gold. Nearby, a couple have arrived, limping slowly to a pair of loungers and easing very gingerly into them. Once settled, they explain to their friends that they don’t think they’ll be quite up to the horse-riding booked for the following morning. They can hardly move.

L: Perhaps Ometepe’s not the place to learn to ride a scooter after all.

D: Perhaps not.

L: Maybe the ditches and speed bumps and potholes and pedestrians and hens and dogs and cows and horses and pigs and bicycles make things tricky.

D: Maybe.

L: Shall we get taxis instead?

D: Let’s.

The following morning….

A 4WD utility vehicle arrives. The driver greets them cheerfully, introduces himself, and ushers them into the car.

L: (whispering) How romantic – he’s called Byron!

D: I heard.

L: (whispering) And he called me chica!

D: I heard that too.

They set off along the island’s one road, paralleling the lake. The surface is stony and ridged, making for a bumpy ride, and progress is slow. A woman at the roadside waves, and they stop. Two small children clamber up into the open back of the vehicle. They remain standing, holding on tight, the little boy protected from the bumps and lurches by the encircling body of his big sister. They stop again, to let the children off at their auntie’s house.

Byron points out monkeys in the trees and answers their questions.

Byron: The brick to build the houses is made here on the island. With mud from the lake.

Ometepe 2 - boat by lakeL: Does everyone get their drinking water from the lake?

Byron: No, the lake’s not used for drinking, though it could be.   On this side, water comes from a crater lake high up on Volcan Maderas, and over by Concepción there are wells.

L: And is there always enough water?

Byron: Yes, though 2014 was very dry. The rainy season didn’t really happen. The government told us to stop keeping chickens for food, as they use a lot of water. They told us to eat iguanas instead.

L: And did you?

Byron: Si, iguana meat is good. But there’s always plenty to eat on the island. The soil is so fertile – it’s the volcanic ash.

D: Is it a problem when Concepción erupts?

Byron: No. Every five years or so, up it goes, and the government tells us all to evacuate the island.

L: Blimey. And do you?

Byron:   No. Nobody takes any notice.

Byron drops them off at the foot of the hill. It is still early, just after 8am. They want to be the first. They follow a farm track, then a footpath for about 3km, through pastures and forest, ascending a flank of Volcan Maderas. They pass a rock painted with an arrow and the words “1 km”. There are caupuchin and howler monkeys in the trees. Magpie jays chatter overhead and a brilliant blue morpho butterfly flits by. They see no-one, but there’s no time to waste. The path ends at a dry river bed, strewn with boulders and enclosed by tall cliffs.Ometepe 2 - to San Ramon

L: Oh. We’ve done about 1km since the rock. Where is it?

D: Just along here. Follow me.

They pick their way up the stream bed, over gravel and rocks and around boulders and small trees. Until it becomes impassable.

L: Are we lost?

D: No. It’s just along here.

They climb out of the stream bed and follow a steep, rocky footpath winding through the woods. And on.

L: This is the world’s longest kilometre. Or we’re lost.

D: We’re not lost. It’s just along here.

L:   You keep saying that. I’ll just stay here. Can I have a biscuit?

D: But I can hear it.

L: Oh.

Ometepe 2 - San RamonJust around the next corner they arrive. The San Ramon Waterfall cascades down the mountain from 40 metres above, ending in a shallow pool. It is so tall and so sheer that they have to tilt their heads backwards, further and further, necks cricking, just to see the top. Moss and tiny ferns line the cliff wall and wet rock glistens in the sunlight. They have the place entirely to themselves, like one big awesome secret. They stand under the waterfall happily, wade in the pool and admire. They sit on a rock, drying off and eating biscuits. Soon a woman arrives with her son, aged about ten. The secret’s out. It’s time to leave.

On the steep scramble down, they meet four people.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 10 minutes.

In the river bed they meet two more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 20 minutes.

On the path through the forest they meet more, and more, and more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 25 minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes.

They come across a clump of tethered horses. They meet a school group of girls taking selfies. Back on the track, people are parking, getting out of cars. Motorbikes arrive. In all they count 57 people heading to the waterfall. A long way down, a red faced man is wrestling his way up the uneven surface on a scooter. He stops, sweating.

Man: Is it much further? Will I make it on this?

D: Ummm….maybe. There are other cars and motorbikes up there. Not sure about scooters. You can drive to within a kilometre of the falls.

L: (under her breath) The world’s longest kilometre.

L worries for the rest of the day that the man will skid and fall and end up covered in bandages.

D: He’ll be fine. He’d only hurt himself on one side anyway.

Later….

Ometepe 2 - laundry in lakeThey are kayaking along the lakeshore. Women stand in the shallows doing their laundry on rock platforms built for the purpose. Toddlers play on the shore. A fisherman sits on the gunwale of his boat, mending nets. From time to time a rustic wooden dwelling is visible amongst a clump of palm trees at the water’s edge. But mostly the shore is given over to forest and pastures. They spot herons, kingfishers, egrets and ospreys.

The River Istiam is at its lowest. They find the narrow mouth, almost hidden in reeds at the edge of the lake, and glide silently along the shallow muddy stream.   Their guide is a young islander, and he knows his stuff. He reels off the names of the birds as they pass, spotting the invisible, time and again.

Ometepe 2 - great egretGuide: Look, a great egret, and next to him a great blue heron.

D fumbles for the camera.

Guide: There, a green heron.

L: Take a photo!

D: Missed it.

Guide: Look, turtles.

L: Where?

He points. A cluster of sharp little noses poke above the surface and disappear. He scoops up a turtle on the end of his paddle to show them.

Ometepe 2 - kayakingL: Take a photo!

D: Damn, missed it.

Guide: Look, caiman.

D: Where?

But it is gone. They look in vain for the caimans that they know are there, lurking out of sight.

Guide: Look, iguana.

D: Where?

L: There, stupid. It’s enormous! Even I can see that one. Right above your head on that branch.

Guide: In the reeds there. A little blue heron.

Ometepe 2 - kayakGuide: On the bank. Black necked stilt birds.

They watch them pick their long-legged way through the mud.

L: Take a photo!

D: Crap, missed them.

Guide: Green kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

The area is bursting with water birds. They can’t look in all directions at once. They drift past water lilies, duck under overhanging trees and around the spreading roots of mangroves. They pass just one other kayak – other than that the river is empty. And apart from the occasional lap of water against paddle, and the noise of the birds around them, it is completely silent.Ometepe 2 - cows

On their return, they pull their kayak up the beach. A herd of cows ambles past them and down to the shore, all amongst the boats, and into the lake for a drink.

They walk back to the hotel.

L: There’s the man! Oh, I’m so happy!

D: What man?

L: The man on the scooter. He’s still in one piece.

The next morning….

Byron is back, and he’s on a mission. He collects them at 4.45am. They need to make their way across the island to catch the first ferry at 6am. The journey takes a good hour in the daylight.   But at this hour it is still pitch dark. They hurtle along the unpaved, stony, rutted road, accelerating at every opportunity and breaking hard at the drainage ditches, the speedbumps, and the potholes. Every so often, objects loom suddenly into view, without warning, lit up by the car’s headlights. At considerable speed they swerve to avoid a cow, two pigs, a horse, several dogs, a cat, two cows, more dogs, another horse, a bicycle without lights, more dogs, pedestrians without lights, another dog, another bicycle without lights, a horse, a man sleeping by the roadside, a dog, a bicycle without lights, a motorbike without rear lights, pedestrians, a dog, two more motorbikes without rear lights.

They arrive at 5.55am. Byron is triumphant. L is a wreck. D is carsick. They are really sorry to leave.

Ometepe 2 - last

 

A Scorpion in the Promised Land – Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 1 - first

L: Why have we stopped?

Ometepe 1 - driveThe minibus is full. Every seat is taken and the roof is piled high with rucksacks and surfboards. It is heading south from the city of Leon, through flat dry landscapes reminiscent of Australian outback, towards Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific surfing town of San Juan del Sur.

The driver gets out and crosses the road to a ramshackle food-stall. He returns with his lunch and sets off again, the bus now filling with mouth-watering wafts of hot barbecued meat. Fifteen bellies growl with hunger. There are hours of this journey left yet.

The roads are straight and paved. Every so often they pass a flat-bed wooden cart drawn by a skinny pony. Rural dwellings are scattered along the roadside, with walls of wooden planks and roofs of tin, each with their separate outhouse a few metres away – wood-framed and sheathed in tarpaulin or corrugated iron. Hens peck in the dust and livestock stands in the shade.

When they reach the dock, the ferry is loading. Half a dozen vehicles squeeze on to the tiny aft deck. The rest of the space is for foot passengers. They find a spot at the railing on the upper deck, next to a tall gringo. 20 kilometres across Lake Nicaragua rise the perfect twin cones of Volcanoes Concepción and Maderas, on the island of Ometepe.

The American: It’s something, isn’t it?

D: Yes. It certainly is.

Ometepe 1 - ferryThe American: She can get lively from time to time.

D: Which one? Concepción?

They look at the taller of the two volcanoes.

The American: Yeah. She grumbles and smokes and spits ash every coupla years. She’s about due now. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American cracks open a can and drinks deeply.

The American: Been here 18 months, and that view still gets me, every time.

D: Is it a good place to be?

The American: The best. Got two Nica kids in the local school system – getting a good education, and it’s free. And you know what? No uniform, so no poverty barrier – all the kids get to go. Island feels like a real community – everyone’s proud of where they live, and they care, you know? That it’s safe and clean and friendly, so it stays that way. Best place on earth.

D: I heard a Chinese company’s about build a canal here bigger than the Panama Canal – going right across the lake and past the island. Are people worried about that?

The American: Nah. Personally, don’t think it’ll ever happen. The guy just lost all his money in the stock market crash. But if it does? Sure there’d be plenty of short term disruption. And sure it could change life completely for the islanders. But in the grand scheme of things – would that be a bad thing? Don’t think so. It’s progress. Opportunity.   Across a region where opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

D: But the environmental impact….?

The American: Sure. There’s that. Don’t have much time for the tree huggers myself. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American opens another can.

D: Nicaragua seems to have a thing about becoming bigger and better than Costa Rica. I suppose the canal would help with that.

The American: Lived in both countries over the last 20 years. Nicaragua’s too Nicaraguan, man!

D: What d’you mean?

The American: Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing. In some ways, Costa Rica’s sorta lost its cultural identity. Sorta sold out to the US. Nica’ll never do that. Way too much national identity. Sure, the country’s getting more stable, the infrastructure’s getting better, the tourist bucks’re getting bigger, inward investment’s getting stronger. But, if you ask me, Nica’ll never be CR, man. Being a Tico (Costa Rican) is about attitude and way of life. Being a Nica is about blood and history and hard-won freedom. Goes deep.Ometepe 1 - croc

The ferry is approaching the island. The American picks up his bag.

The American: Nice meeting you, man. Big croc – see him?

He points at a huge log floating in the harbour, which blinks and disappears.

D: Gosh – is that really….?

The American has gone.

Ometepe 1 - ConcepcionThey disembark and find a taxi. The driver gives them a map of the island. There is one road, shaped like a pair of spectacles, circling the foot of the two volcanoes and joining up in the middle. Two thirds of it is unpaved. The landscape is stunning – the volcanic soil rich and fertile. Lush green pastures, woods and plantain groves spread like skirts around the bare cone of Volcan Concepción, whilst lower Volcan Maderas rises as a thickly wooded clump of peaks and ridges and gullies. Along the road, vivid splashes of bougainvillea tumble over garden fences. Ometepe 1 - beachHouses are of brightly painted breezeblock, or brick, or wood, with corrugated iron roofs. Sun glints off the clean waters of the lake whose shores include long swathes of sandy beach. The taxi slows frequently, easing across drainage ditches and speed bumps. The traffic is heavy – there are mopeds and bicycles, there are pedestrians, families, children, and men carrying huge tree branches home for fuel. There are chickens, and dogs, and cows, and horses and pigs. There are almost no other cars.

They visit the Ojo de Agua – a local favourite. The spring-fed swimming pools are surrounded by forest. Ometepe 1 - Ojo de AquaThe water is cool, clear and blue. Families sit around the edge, in or out of the water, picnicking and drinking pipa fria through straws – cold coconut water straight from the shell. A few swim solemn lengths. At one end is a tightrope – teenagers wobble and flail for seconds before crashing headlong into the water. At the other end is a rope swing. Fathers and sons climb into a tree, launch themselves out over the pool and let go. The boys flip and somersault to cheers and applause, the men hit the water heavily, swamping those at the edge who squeal in delighted protest.

Later, they walk through the gardens and orchards of the hilltop Ecolodge Porvenir, hunting for petroglyphs.

L: Some of these rock carvings are over a thousand years old, maybe even older. No-one really knows. There’s more than 1700 of them across the island, and they’re still being discovered. The ones here are still pretty much where they were found.

They study the soft swirls and circles, spirals and doodles, carved into boulders.

L: That pair of spirals could be the island.

D: Who did them?

L: Possibly the Nicaraos. Or the Nahuas from Mexico before that. No-one really knows. But “Ometepe” means “two hills” in Nahua. It was seen as a sort of promised land, and you can see why, with all this sunshine and fresh water and fertile soil. This half of the island, under the peaks of Maderas, was the place of the sun, whilst Concepción was brother of the moon.

Ometepe 1 - man with hairThey walk on, distracted from their search by trees dangling breadfruit, gourds, cocoa pods and other exotic mysteries. D looks sceptically at a lively looking fellow with his stone-carved hair on end and a monkey at his side.

D: Are you sure the dates are right? He’s excellent but he looks a bit frivolous to me.

L: Mmm…he does, but some of the carvings might be serious and symbolic whilst others could be more like graffiti, like your friend here. No-one really knows.

Ometepe 1 - petroglyphD: Humph. Oh, come over here. This’s more like it!

They stop at a huge boulder. It is elaborately decorated with depictions of a monkey, a fish and other symbols – maybe a bird, a river, a snake.

D: What does it all actually mean? Does anyone really know?

L: Err, no. Memories. Stories recorded for future generations. All the way down the line to us, standing here now. Makes you feel connected, doesn’t it? Part of the place somehow.

D: Makes me feel a bit thirsty.

L: Oh. OK.

On the way out, they pass a couple earnestly discussing the importance of fertility symbols and phallic engravings left by ancient civilisations, as they study a nearby rock.

L: (whispering) That’s not phallic. That’s a crocodile.

D: (whispering) Is it though? It’s all open to interpretation. No-one really knows.

L: (loudly) It’s got teeth.

 

Their hotel is small, with beautiful hillside gardens looking west across the lake. There is a magnificent sunset to be seen from the infinity pool and a gigantic brown scorpion in their room. L waves at a housekeeper who is emerging from a nearby building.Ometepe 1 - scorpion

L: Ummm… disculpe, està un scorpione muy grande en el habitacion.

The housekeeper looks baffled, and comes to take a look.

Housekeeper: Ay, un alacran!

L: Es peligroso? Is it dangerous?

Housekeeper: Si.

The creature is in the top corner, where wall meets ceiling. Its body is close to 3 inches long, its tail at least that again. The three of them look up at it doubtfully. The housekeeper fetches her broom. As the tallest, D takes it and prepares to brush the scorpion off the wall. The housekeeper shakes her head.

Housekeeper: No, no!

She turns the broom around, so the handle is pointing upwards, makes vicious beating motions, and hands it back to him. D understands that she requires the scorpion to be killed and him to do it.   He gamely reaches up and pins it to the wall with the broom handle. It thrashes energetically, waving its full length of tail. D applies more pressure. The scorpion thrashes harder. This goes on for some time. On the far side of the room, L flaps her hands and climbs onto a chair. D and the scorpion continue to wrestle on opposite ends of the broom handle. The scorpion wins, wriggles free and drops to the floor. L shrieks helpfully. The housekeeper picks up a shoe and hands it to D. He hits the scorpion, repeatedly, and squashes it. The housekeeper is pleased and impressed. D is a bit queasy. They inspect the remnants.

Housekeeper: Ay, muy grande!

She picks it up in a paper napkin and disposes of it. D and the housekeeper smile at each other and shake hands triumphantly. L climbs down off her chair.

L: Beer?

D: Definitely.

Ometepe 1 - last

Four Tales of Folklore – Leon, Nicaragua

Leon folk - first

D: What the hell is that?

L: What?

D: What d’you mean what? That!

L: That what?

D: That 30 foot tall woman with the huge chest and the top hat!

L: Where?

D: Now you’re just being annoying.

L: Oh. OK. She’s called La Gigantona. The Giantess.

Leon folk - GigantonaThey are crossing Leon’s central plaza, where the figure, in her rainbow striped dress, stands the full height of the two storey municipal building running along one side of the square.

L: Where’s her little friend?

D: What little friend?

L: Usually she has a tiny fellow with her, with a really big head. He’s called Pepe Cabezon.

D: No sign of him. Anyway, who are they?

L: She’s the tall, white, rich Spanish woman who arrived with the conquistadors in the 16th century. He’s the Nicaraguan – short, dark, poor but very intelligent – hence the enormous head. It’s about class struggles and Spanish oppression of indigenous Nicaraguans, and about making fun of the Spanish colonialists. They have a drummer with them. And they dance.

D: Don’t be ridiculous – she’s no dancer. Have you seen the size of her?

L: Maybe not her. But other versions of her. Normally she’d be smaller – about 3 metres high. And he’d be less than half that. So the drummer drums, and they dance and whirl. The drummer controls the dance, making La Gigantona start and stop as he plays, showing that although the Spanish might appear to be bigger and taller, they’re not the ones in charge.

D: Right.

L: Also, I think poor Pepe Cabezon might have a massive crush on La Gigantona but she doesn’t love him back.

D: Didn’t we see them dancing in the street in Granada?

L: Yes! Pepe Cabezon was tiny – he was being danced by a child. There’re street performances of La Gigantona all over the country. Nicaragua loves its folklore and legends.

They sit on the cathedral steps, from where they can see her in all her glory, six times life-sized, peering down at them over her formidable bosom.

D: Right – it should be open now.

Behind them is a doorway, in which sits a man in uniform.

D: Buenas dias, señor. Two tickets for the cathedral roof please.

He shakes his head. They are in the wrong place. He explains and gives directions. They thank him. They walk the full length of the cathedral’s outside wall, to the rear, where there is a hobbit sized door. It’s locked. They walk all the way back to the man in the doorway. He tells them it should be open now, but to come back if it’s not. They walk all the way back to the hobbit door. It’s open. They buy two tickets, and look for the onward route.

D: Disculpe, how do we actually get on to the roof?

They are directed all the way back round the building, to the man in the doorway.

Man: Ah, there you are. This way.

He asks for their tickets, tears them in half and points them up a stairway in the alcove behind him.

L: We’ve walked so far already, I might be too tired to get up the stairs.

At the top, a second man takes the other half of their tickets. It is not clear what could happen between the bottom and the top of the stairs, to warrant ticket checks at both ends. They are in a bell tower with views over the plaza. A small side door displays a sign. “Remove your shoes”.

L: Really? Curiouser and curiouser. What with the giant woman and the hobbit door and the ticket men, today’s beginning to feel a bit Alice in Wonderland.

The man looks sternly at their feet. The sign is serious. They remove their shoes and step outside.

L: Oh my goodness. It’s so beautiful! It’s just SO beautiful. Isn’t it beautiful? Look how beautiful it is.

D: Yes. It’s beautiful.Leon folk - roof and Momotombo

The roof is beautiful. They are in a pristine white world, walking barefoot on a smooth whitewashed surface, under a perfectly cloudless blue sky. They have access to the whole of the top of the building, with its white domes and balustrades and pinnacles and views on all sides.

L: It’s just so beautiful.

D: I think you’ve said that already.

L: Look, come and look at this. It’s beautiful.

D: Yes. It is.

The whole of the city is visible, from edge to edge, and silhouetted on the western horizon are the outlines of several volcanoes.

D: You know Leon started out somewhere different.

L: What d’you mean?

D: Leon was Nicaragua’s first capital city, built by the Spanish over there by Lake Managua, near the volcanoes. But in the late 1500s it was shaken up by several earthquakes, and then in 1610, Volcan Momotombo, which is the pointy one on the right, blew up big time and buried the entire town under ash.

L: Blimey. Like Pompeii.

D: Yup. So the Spanish moved a safe distance and built another town here instead. Now this is Leon, and that’s Leon Viejo – Old Leon.

L: What’s it like now?

D: They lost it, completely, for 300 years. It was only found again in 1967, and they’ve been excavating it ever since.

L: Wow. We should visit. But not today. It’s so beautiful up here, I could stay all day.

D: Actually you couldn’t. You’re burning. Your nose is pink.

L: Damn – quick, let’s find some shade. Where next? Can it be something completely different? otherwise it’ll be disappointing after this. Oh, and it’d better be indoors.

D: There’s a folklore museum. In a prison. It sounds a bit eccentric. The woman who founded it made a collection of weird papier-maché figures of various Nicaraguan legends.

L: Sounds perfect. Very Wonderland-esque. Maybe we’ll meet a White Rabbit. Or a Cheshire Cat. Vamonos!

They take a hot walk south down the Avenue Central. Vendors sit in shaded doorways selling melons and limes from baskets on the pavement. They find the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones in a fortress turned prison turned museum, opposite a bombed-out church – a victim and reminder of the revolution in 1979.

A walkway runs along the top of tall stone walls, and there are murals depicting horrendous tortures inflicted on the prisoners by Somoza’s National Guard in the ‘70s. In startling contrast, in the courtyards and cells, the splendid Señora Toruña has arranged an eclectic collection of home-made life-sized figures of Nicaraguan legend, and around the walls of a pretty enclosed garden are a series of mosaics illustrating the country’s myths and folklore. The combination is disturbing. And eccentric. And fantastic. Alice would be quite at home.  Leon folk - Pepe Cabezon

L: I’ve found him!

D: Who? Oh yes – La Gigantona’s sidekick, Pepe Cabezon.

L: There’s a man throwing a hand grenade at him.

D: He’s a revolutionary. I think he’s just throwing the grenade generally.

L: Oh. That’s all right then.

They recognise the two figures again, in mosaic form on the wall, The Giantess with long blonde hair and her tiny companion wearing revolutionary khaki uniform.

They explore the cells.

L: Who’s this fine fellow on a dear little pony?

Leon folk - ArrachevalaD: Let me check. Oh – he’s not a fine fellow. He’s called Arrechavala and he was vile. Now he’s a ghost. You should be looking a bit more terrified.

L: OK. It’s difficult though – his horse has such a sweet face. Look at its lovely eyelashes. Anyway, tell me the story.

D: Right – let’s see. Arrechavala was an extremely unpleasant Spanish Colonel who hated Nicaraguans and used to beat them as he galloped around through town. He was also seriously corrupt, and made a deal with the devil, who made him exceedingly rich in return for being given the souls of virgins and unbaptised children.

L: Nice.

D: Now Arrechavala’s ghost can’t rest until he finds one of his descendants, so he can pass on where he’s hidden his fortune. But Nicaraguans have decided he doesn’t deserve to rest in peace. They’ve vowed never to tell him where to find his relatives, so he‘s likely to haunt the city for ever.

L: Seems a bit unfair on the adorable horse – condemned to ghost-hood for eternity just because his owner was so beastly.

She pats the pony on the nose, and they continue.

Leon folk - cart of deathL: Yikes – is this the Grim Reaper? This one does look terrifying – quite nightmarish. What’s going on?

D: It’s La Carreta Nagua – The Cart of Death. It dates back to when Spanish caravans used to ride through the country capturing Nicaraguans for slaves.

L: Have you noticed that all the legends we’ve come across are connected to the Spanish conquistadors?

D: It makes sense, I suppose. If you think about it, folklore is a sort of cultural reaction to the important stuff. Once the Spanish turned up here, things would have been pretty traumatic.

L: Yes, and for a very long time. Carry on.

D: What was I saying?

L: The Cart of Death.

D: Right. So here it’s being driven by Death and pulled by two dead oxen.  Apparently if you’re ill or dying, you can hear the wooden boards of the cart banging as it makes its way through the streets at night, collecting the souls of the dead.

L: Don’t worry – we’ve got no chance of hearing the cart over the din of our air-conditioning. We’ll be fine.

D: Hold on, there’s more. Curiously the cart can’t cross intersections – it just disappears before it reaches a junction.

L: Oh. That’s handy to know I suppose. So junctions are safe zones. From the Cart of Death.

They leave the cells and return to sit in the walled garden, watching the shadows lengthen.

L: It’s so peaceful. It’s hard to imagine all the unpleasantness that must have gone on while it was a prison and during the revolution.

D: Except for the murals.

L: Yes.

D: And the tank over there.

L: Yes.

D: And the fellow with the grenade.

L: Yes. Shut up.

D: Right.

They inspect the colourful mosaic panels on the opposite wall.

L: Who’s the fellow with no head?

D: Errr….just a minute….He’s El Padre Sin Cabeza – The Headless Priest.

L: I can see that. But what happened to him?Leon folk - headless priest

D: I’m getting to it. He was a much loved archbishop in Old Leon – the original Leon by the lake. One day some men came into his church, chopped off his head at the altar, and walked around the city, chucking his head around between them until they somehow lost it. This made God so cross that He made the Momotombo Volcano erupt and wipe out the city.

L: So that’s why it happened!

D: Apparently so. Anyway, the headless priest is still seen over there, praying and looking for his head.

L: Poor man.

D: On Thursdays and Fridays.

L: What?

D: Those are the days when he looks for his head.

L: Oh. Right. Well hopefully they’ll find it for him in the excavations.

Leon folk - last

Viva La Revolución! – Nicaragua

Leon rev - first

L: Good graffiti. Look – about the revolution.

They are walking through the Nicaraguan city of Leon, after supper.   They have crossed the central plaza, past the wide white façade of the cathedral, and the Christmas tree all lit up in January, and the strollers and the step-sitters and the snack-sellers, and the bar spraying mist at its entrance to keep its well-heeled patrons cool, and the group of dreadlocked dudes and jewellery makers sitting in that spray on the curb.

They look up at the huge figure painted on the wall.

Leon rev - graffitiL: D’you know what it all means?

D: Some. But there’s a hundred years of history in that picture.

L: Oh. Sounds rather indigestible. Can’t you just tell me a little bit?

D: Which little bit?

L: How about…..his leg. Just one leg. There – why does it say “US Out Now” on his shin? What were the US doing in Nicaragua?

D: They were worried about the canal.

L: What canal?

D: The Panama Canal.

L: Which is in Panama, not Nicaragua. So what crazy shit are you talking, man?

D: How much wine did you have at supper?

L: One wine. Carry on.

D: What does one wine even mean? Never mind. Are you listening? Once upon a time, over 100 years ago, a Nicaraguan general from the Partido Liberal deposed the country’s president. Which America wouldn’t have cared about, except that once he’d become Nicaragua’s dictator, the general started talking about building a cross-country canal.

L: So what?

D: America were busy building the Panama Canal at the time. They absolutely didn’t want another canal just up the road. So they encouraged Nicaragua’s other main party, the Partido Conservador, to rebel, which would incidentally put a stop to the general’s fiendish canal scheming.

L: Did it work?

D: Yes, but the Liberals killed a couple of US mercenaries that were helping out the Conservatives. Which made America quite cross. So they sent in 2,500 marines.

L: Blimey. Then what?

D: The US stayed in Nicaragua for the next two decades, supporting presidents that it liked and getting rid of ones it didn’t.

L:   Oh. That can’t have been very popular.

D: No, it wasn’t.

L: Tell me a bit more.

D: OK. Which bit?

L: His tummy. Who’s Sandino? It says “Sandino Vive” across his belly.

D: Right. As you said, some people, specifically the Liberals, didn’t much like all the US involvement and the Conservative regime. Augusto Sandino was the leader of a Liberal rebel group that grew up as a result.

L: But you said the Americans left after two decades. Wasn’t everything OK after that?

D: No – they left in the 1930s, but only after training up a Conservative National Guard – a military force led by a fellow called Somoza – to put down Sandino and his rebels.

L: And did they?

D: Yes. In 1934 Somoza invited Sandino to some peace talks and then had him assassinated. Shortly after which Somoza became Nicaragua’s new dictator.

L: Oh. So if Somoza killed Sandino, why does it say he lives – Sandino Vive?

D: Ah. It’s his revolutionary spirit that lives.

The following day….

Leon rev - streetLeon’s streets are alive. There are bursts of colour wherever they look. Long vistas down cable-crossed streets, to crumbling churches with Baroque pillars and portals, glowing cream and golden and pink, and the dark peaks of volcanoes against the sharp blue sky.   Dazzling bougainvillea overflows walls, and ripe fruit, for sale on the street, overflows baskets and crates: pineapples, persimmon, plums, apples, bananas, melons and limes.

There is movement and noise wherever they turn, from cars and vans and open back trucks, from canvas-clad lorries carrying goods and people, from motorbikes, bicycles, bike-carts and hand-carts.

Leon rev - bougainvilleaIn a quiet, sleepy side street, an ivy-walled courtyard hosts a medical clinic. And, humbly, in one corner, is the understated Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs. Here are displayed 300 small portraits, photographs of earnest-faced teenagers killed in 1978 and 79, resistance fighters for the revolution. The museum is free, and was set up their mothers. On the wall is a quote:

“The Sandinista has the hands to work alongside others on the land, the wide eyes to see the horizon, and the ready courage to be a martyr.”

L: They were so young. Just boys. Why did the revolution happen?

D: After Augusto Sandino was killed, the Somoza family were in power here for over 40 years. By the 1960s, a lot of people had had enough – the Somozas were running the country into the ground and building themselves a vast personal fortune in the process. A rebel guerrilla force known as the Sandinistas, named after Sandino, started steadily gaining support. But what really pushed things over the edge was the earthquake.

L: What earthquake?

D: In 1972, a massive earthquake flattened Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. Something like 6,000 people died and 300,000 were left homeless. As you might expect, international aid poured in, but it was promptly embezzled by the Somozas.

L: No wonder people were ready for a revolution.

D: Yes. Anyway, things escalated through the 70s with kidnaps, assassinations, strikes, street violence, uprisings in towns all over the country, guerrilla warfare, and shelling by Somoza’s National Guard. It was a real mess.

L: From the dates here, it looks as though it all came to a head in 1978-79, when these poor boys died.

D: Yes, in 1979 the Sandinistas launched a final push, taking city after city through Nicaragua, supported by thousands of civilians. Leon had a tough time of it – there was a lot of fighting here. You can still spot bullet holes in some of the buildings around town. Somoza even had the air force bomb the city.

L: But the Sandinistas won?

D: Yes, and Somoza fled the country. That was the end of the dictatorship.

L: Viva la revolución!

D: It wasn’t much of a fairy-tale ending.   The Sandinistas inherited a country struggling with terrible poverty, homelessness, illiteracy and inadequate healthcare. 150,000 people had lost their homes during the revolution, and 50,000 had died.

L: And presumably the new government had no money.

D: No. But America helped out – providing them with aid to help rebuild the country. That was Jimmy Carter.

Later that day….

They have spent the afternoon in the remarkable Ortiz-Guardian Art Museum, which is lauded as the finest contemporary art museum in Central America. The art is spread between two rambling single storey colonial buildings, with creaking wood floors and beautiful enclosed courtyards. There are some European big names on display, but it is the extensive Latin American collection which captivates. They leave as the day begins to finally cool.

L: I loved that, but I’ve got art fatigue.

D: I’ve got museum back.

L: Let’s go back to our room and lie down.

D: Just one more.

L: Just one more what? Picture? Museum?

D: Yes.

L: You’ve got to be joking. No way!

D: Yes way. Just one picture.   It’s interesting. I promise.

L: How interesting can it be? My feet hurt.

D: it’s not far. Follow me.

10 minutes later….

L: How bizarre! Come and look at this. It’s a picture of….

D: That’s the one.

Leon rev - ReaganL: ….. Ronald Reagan sitting on someone’s head. What’s going on?

D: You’re right. It is Ronald Reagan. Squashing the downtrodden Nicaraguan.

L: Why? What did he do?

D: He took over from Jimmy Carter as US President in 1981. By then the Sandinista government was getting a lot of help from the Soviets and Cubans, which made Reagan nervous, so he stopped the US aid to Nicaragua.

L: That was mean.

D: Remember this was the 80s. The Soviet Union was still threatening to take over the world and turn everybody Communist. Everyone had nuclear weapons pointed at everyone else to stop it happening. It was all a bit fraught.

L: OK.

D: Anyway, Reagan was so worried about the involvement of communist countries in Nicaragua that he started funding counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras, to destabilize the Sandinista government. Many of the Contra leaders had been in Somoza’s Guardia Nacional, which had been Conservative and US-friendly.

L: What did the Sandinistas do?

D: They built a massive army, and got lots more military and economic help from Russia and Cuba.

L: So what did Reagan do?

D: Imposed trade embargoes on Nicaragua, and encouraged other countries to do the same.

L: This is going nowhere good.

D: In the mid-80s, US Congress decided to stop interfering and stopped military aid to the Contras.

L: So did the Contras fizzle out?

D: No, because Reagan’s administration just kept on going – only in secret. They were a bit embarrassed when the US media found a Contras training manual written by the CIA, encouraging Sandinista assassinations.

L: They must have been.

D: And then they had their wrists slapped when a CIA scheme to mine Nicaragua’s harbours was deemed to be against international law.

L: I should think so.

D: But their most uncomfortable moment was probably when it was discovered they were still funding the Contras through the CIA by illegally selling arms to Iran and diverting the proceeds to the Contras.

L: Are you sure you’re not making this up now?

D: Truly not. It was known as the Iran-Contra affair. You can look it up. I just did.

L: I will. So then what?

D: In the late 80s it all settled down and peace agreements were put in place. But although the Sandinistas had dramatically improved literacy and healthcare since the revolution, Nicaragua still had huge economic problems, and they lost the election in 1989 to Violetta Chamorro, who was supported by the US.

L: She’s the one who sold the trains. And the sharks.

D: Yes. And once she was in charge, the trade embargo was lifted and international aid poured in. Things have been improving since then.

L: And now?

D: The Sandinista’s Daniel Ortega has been back in power since 2006. He’s managed not to fall out with the US, and continues to rebuild the country’s economy, healthcare and education. The country is on the way up.

L: Good.

D: Good.

L: Now can we go back and lie down?

D: Yes. I think we need to.

Leon rev - last