Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
We got the van out of Honduras last week, and I have to say we didn’t even give it a cursory backwards glance as we gleefully skipped southwards over the border. We’ve since been busy loving Nicaragua – the gorgeous camping spots, volcanoes and lakes galore, and the (mostly) blissfully smooth roads. Yes, now that we are sad little petrol-heads, things like smooth roads get us very, very excited.
We are, frankly, relieved to be here. We had a bit of a rocky relationship with Honduras and gladly decided to go our separate ways. It was for the best.
It didn’t help that our ‘back-on-the-road’ celebrations earlier this month were somewhat marred by a couple of things.
We picked up the van on a Friday afternoon, and took it back to the hostel we were staying at in San Pedro Sula which – we may have mentioned before – is a very dangerous city. The murder capital of the world, in fact. For this reason we did not go out after dark on any of the previous 10 nights we’d stayed there. But this night Honduras were playing Panama in a World Cup qualifier, so we arranged to go to the game and the co-owner came along with some of her friends, leaving her sister in charge.
We were having an amazing night. Tens of thousands of people stood to sing the national anthem, the beers were flowing, everyone was really up. The guy sitting behind us had just returned to Honduras for the first time in 20 years, after living in the US, and was beside himself with excitement. We both said later that it was one of those moments – and there have been a few, despite everything – where we thought, ‘aw, Honduras is lovely, Hondurans are lovely people, maybe it ain’t so bad after all’…
Then at half time that all came crashing down. We got a call to say there was an armed robbery at our hostel. Two men with guns had ambushed six backpackers as they arrived, burst inside and robbed them and another guy already inside. Some of them were left with nothing but the clothes they stood up in – passports, money, cards, whole backpacks, everything gone. Thankfully no one was killed or injured. As the locals reminded us later, not all robberies in San Pedro end the same way.
As we were driving back there from the game we were really terrified. The phonecalls from the hostel were increasingly frantic and confused and at one point it sounded like we might be returned to a siege, with the gunmen still inside. But when we arrived they had gone, and the police were there. Jeremy and I had spent the intervening half an hour trying to face up to the possibility that we might have lost all our stuff too – as all our valuables and car keys were upstairs in a bedroom and we didn’t know if the whole place had been ransacked.
It hadn’t, and our stuff was still where we’d left it. The van was safely parked behind a solid gate next door. More importantly, we realised how lucky we had been to pick that one night to go out.
No one blamed the hostel, who handled the situation brilliantly. Sadly it’s not unheard of for tourists to be followed to their hotels, or jumped when they arrive somewhere. Often the taxi drivers are directly involved or tip people off. Most hotels – as this one does – use taxi drivers they know, but in this case the travellers had turned up on spec.
No one got much sleep that night. In the morning we helped the people that had been robbed as much as we could, with spare clothes and use of our Skype account etc, before heading off to Lago de Yojoa, south of San Pedro. Two of the victims – young Danish backpackers – decided to come with us as they couldn’t replace their passports until after the weekend. We bundled them into the van with what was left of their belongings. They were still shocked after what had happened, but remarkably philosophical.
As we drove along one of them said: “We’re so glad we met you. Proper grown-ups who are responsible and know what they are doing.”
We just looked at each-other, silently thinking: “Holy shit! What makes them think we are grown up and responsible?!..”. We felt so old, but then realised we were actually old enough to be their parents.
We were absolutely desperate to get them there safely, and pulled into the lake hostel a couple of hours later, very relieved.
However, on the way, we’d heard a disturbing new noise coming from the van. It didn’t sound healthy at all, although the new transmission seemed to be performing fine. We pushed it out of our minds temporarily and set about enjoying our first night camping in months.
We slept in a beautiful coffee finca, teeming with birds and amazing bugs, and so tranquil and dark at night. We’d missed the van so much – every little task, no matter how mundane, felt exciting. It was just brilliant to be independent again.
While there we talked to a Honduran woman, from San Pedro, about our feelings for the country. She had just returned after spending five years in Italy, and was shocked to see how violent her city had become. People hide in their cars, behind high walls and razor-wire fences or in soulless shopping malls. Many use drive-thru shops and banks instead of walking around and there are armed guards everywhere, even on some residential streets. There are many people who will try to defend it as an okay place to live, but to us this is not an acceptable way of life.
We told her: “One minute we warm to Honduras, we see its good side, and then the next we are really scared.”
She said: “I’m from here, and I feel exactly the same.”
We’ve tried hard not to be too negative. We wanted to love the country, not least because we had bad memories of a previous visit 10 years ago, when Jeremy was very ill there. This time we met lots of wonderful people in Honduras, and saw a tonne of natural beauty that is hard to beat. We tried to recognise that being stranded somewhere can give it a sinister feel that is partly imagined, because you feel trapped and are no longer staying out of choice.
After a couple of nights at the finca we decided to drive-test the van, to try to work out how serious the noise was. We drove up and down the nearby hills – scratch, scrape, scrape. It was still there. Much as it was truly the last thing we wanted to do, we reluctantly accepted we’d need to head back to the mechanic in San Pedro Sula to get it checked out.
We pulled in that afternoon. I’m sure he was as depressed to see us as we were to be there. Even the security guard had a face that said: ‘oh hello, back again (sigh).’
After much thought we decided to go back to the same hostel – what happened was not their fault, we still felt safe there and we wanted to support them. And it turned out others had made the same decision and gone back too, which speaks volumes for the wonderful owners, who helped us beyond measure during our many stays there.
The mechanic said he’d found a damaged wheel bearing, which might be the source of the noise. But he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get the right part to replace it in Honduras. I stopped listening then as I was too busy hyperventilating into a paper bag.
The upshot was, we were stuck in San Pedro for another, very very long five days. Thankfully a new wheel bearing was found and ordered, and arrived the next day. But the noise was still there. The mechanic wondered aloud if there might be a problem with the new transmission. Our hearts sank again. Finally, another problem with the brake calipers was found as a possible source. They thought they’d sorted it, but the noise remained.
On the final day, when we went to collect it, our mechanic – usually a sharp, clean-shaven, tidy kind of guy – had a five o’clock shadow and tousled hair. We felt partially responsible. Had we broken him too?
He trudged out to the reception area and said: “There’s nothing more we can do. We’ve fixed everything but the noise is still there sometimes,” and concluded that it was nothing serious, that we could safely drive it like that and just live with it. Of course, we haven’t heard the noise since.
We drove off, happy and excited again. Nicaragua awaited! We headed south and looked for somewhere to camp near the border. We pulled into what we thought was a church with lots of land and asked if we could camp there. The man very kindly phoned to ask his boss, and then gently told Jeremy that the answer was no – it was a youth rehabilitation centre and they didn’t think it would be appropriate. Oops. Now that would have been a weird last night in Honduras.
We eventually camped up in a basic little deserted turicentre, with rooms and a slimy swimming pool. The owners, an old couple, had their house in the grounds and we parked up under a tree in front of it. She cleaned up a toilet especially for us but said there would be no access to it after midnight. We told her we’d be leaving early for the border.
Next morning she got up early and shuffled out to our van in her nightdress. She said she’d opened the side door to their home and we were welcome to go inside, wash and use the loo. For about the millionth time on this trip, we wondered if we’d find such hospitality and trust in our own part of the world.
Other than border officials, that old lady was the last person we saw in Honduras, and for that we are very glad.
Things we now know to be true: There’s a fine line between love and hate.