Perils of Polly: Note to self: Always pack a flashlight

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2011

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Her perils continue in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Ana Katrina (front in dress) stands with her family in front of their home in Nicaragua. Polly Crawford helps support Ana through Compassion International.

I would not wish crossing the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border on my worst enemy.

Crossing the Costa Rica border itself wasn't too bad, except signs were few and far between, but I finally managed to get my passport stamped. Then began the real trial: a mile of no-man's land which consisted of a mud "road."

I certainly should not have had two carry-on bags on wheels. Suitcase wheels and mud and rocks don't mix. Every step I dragged these insipid bags had me reviling my decision to take them instead of a backpack. One of the bags did have backpack straps, so I hoisted it on my back and only had one to drag.

Maybe a little better, except now I was uneven.

I had heard there was some sort of cart which would carry people across the mile-long no-man's land, but I never did see it. Instead, my legs trudged on through the mud, sweat dripping everywhere.

While I was relieved to reach the Nicaraguan border, I was horrified to see lines of people snaking everywhere, in and out of different doorways. The land of confusion. Which door to enter? While I could figure out written Spanish, there were no signs. Then I was accosted by a crowd of young Nicaraguan men determined to relieve me of my American money for Nicaraguan cash, and to guide me through the labyrinth. I warded off nearly all of them except for one who was exceptionally persistent. I finally agreed to give him $5 to lead me to the front of the line. At least as close to the front as he could get me. It was worth it.

Finally armed with my stamped "pasaporte," I looked for the Budget car rental. I found it, and with my limited Spanish, and their non-existent English, we negotiated a contract. My Nicaraguan guide, hired by my missionary friend from Nikiski, caught up with me at the Budget car rental, I threw my wretched bags into the trunk, and away we drove.

Now I could relax, feel the breeze cool me off, experience Nicaragua, and even practice my Spanish on Omar, who didn't speak English. First thing I learned about driving in Nicaragua was that they have speed bumps in the strangest places, where the speed limit is 110 kph, and they are not marked! After catching air a couple of times, I became more wary.

Nicaraguan roads are better than Costa Rican roads, except they are shared by a wider variety of traffic, including horse carts and lots of livestock -- similar to Mongolia and Tibet. With my own wheels, I felt free again. Buses are for the birds -- except birds have wings and don't need them. I could pray for wings

In Alaska, we are used to driving long distances and having it take a long time. Nicaragua is tiny. In no time at all we were pulling into Leon, where I was to spend the night with a missionary who took in physically damaged, unwanted children and tried to get them their needed surgery. It is truly a labor of love. This woman was really making a difference.

The next day I was on my own, and drove back toward Managua to a village where I support a child through Compassion International. Ana was the same age as my oldest granddaughter, and lived in a concrete two-room house. Compassion International made sure she got an education, food, and a future. Her grandmother lived in a cardboard/tin house. I took the whole family out to eat in Managua at a fast-food chicken restaurant. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them, and I loved doing it.

I drove back to Leon, picked up Omar, and went to his house in Posoltega where he lives with his girlfriend. They, too, live in a two-room concrete house, but I chuckled to myself as they led me to the second room where there was a double bed for them and a single bed for me. It had a dirt floor. Both of Ana's rooms had concrete floors.

I marveled at the surroundings. People had a lot of land surrounding their little concrete houses, but none of it was producing anything--no garden, no crops, no fruit trees. I watched the women of the neighborhood bring out huge brooms and sweep large leaves off the streets. I attributed their priorities to their culture.

Dark came early, and soon I found myself having to use the outhouse before going to bed. One thing about traveling in tropical countries -- sweat removes most of the body's liquid waste. Omar's girlfriend took me by the arm and led me through the dark to the outhouse. There were no outdoor lights, no moon, and no flashlights. I was surrounded by total blackness.

She opened the curtain to the outhouse and I could see absolutely nothing. I had no idea if there was just a hole, if there was a seat, whatever. She walked away.

I pondered what to do. I knew this much. I would never travel to a third world country without a flashlight!

Check back next week for another installment of Polly's perils.

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