(Apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez – again!)
I am in the world feeling my way to light ‘amid the encircling gloom.’
So I slept on it. I awoke in Nicaragua with no plan. In the tropics I love the early mornings. The coolest, and, apart from the cacophonous bird sound, most peaceful part of the day. I habitually rise with the sun and always venture forth for coffee.
Mission accomplished and on my way back to the hostel I was accosted by a couple of young men. They asked if I was Italian. Now then, you can accuse me of many things. But, Italian? Me with my red hair? You wanna see Italian check out the photo of my friend Gionny – he IS Italian and he even LOOKS like an Italian padrino. At this time Italy was at the epicentre of the pandemic and they naively assumed I was from there and, by extension I MUST be carrying the virus. I managed to convince them I was from the UK but they were quite malevolent and aggressive during the exchange. I was quite shaken, not by the physical encounter but realising the epidemic and resulting hysteria had found me. Bugger. Time to reassess.
Back at the hostel
Back at the hostel I studied news reports and analyses. I discovered the border to El Salvador had been closed to all foreigners; this was a huge disappointment as this had been high on my bucket list. This was quickly followed by Honduras. No worries, I could still cling to: ‘OK to be trapped in Nicaragua.’
I also managed to talk to some friends and family and the general consensus was I should return to the UK. However, being an obstinate bugger I started to play around with various other options; leap frog to Mexico and then into Cuba – which had always been my long-term destination on this particular jaunt. First I decided to travel up to Managua (capital and international airport).
On the two-hour bus ride to Managua I managed to get a seat with nobody sitting beside me, even though the aisle was full of standing passengers. At first I just put it down to good luck. Then I began to notice that people were making surreptitious glances at me. I then heard, for the first time in C. America, people making comments about gringoes. It gradually started to make for an uncomfortable bus ride. It also had a huge impact on the decision I was in denial about.
In Managua I got a hostel next to the airport. Here I discovered that the Nicaraguan government too was in denial about the virus, even to the extent of their dictatorial president encouraging rallies with thousands of his supporters. Now I started to worry. Worry, not about the virus, but about the potential for the breakdown of law and order in a country with an already precarious and dodgy police force. This, coupled with the two xenophobic incidents, albeit mild, I’d experienced made my decision to leave that much easier. Time to get out of Dodge.
Clever bugger that Gandhi chap, my opening quote of his was most prescient.
Civilisation and the land of the free.
There were no direct flights to the UK but I found an American Airlines one going via Miami and Madrid. I got a ticket relatively cheaply and easily on their website, it subsequently turned out, last flight out of Managua. The next morning I checked in early. As the flight was via the USA I had to use my ESTA visa waiver. A very amenable check in agent confirmed I was registered on the ESTA database BUT there was a red flag on my name. There was nothing he could do from his end as he could only input my data and get instructions from the USA. He advised me to keep checking every 5 minutes on the machine check-in. Literally just as they were closing the gate I got a green flag. Jeez, that was a close run thing.
Curiously, for the last flight out of there, the plane was only half full and I had a leisurely 4 hours sprawled across 3 seats. On arrival in Miami it was absolute chaos and mayhem. I saw some really classic best side of human nature incidents. NOT. It was the law of the jungle – to put it politely people were fucking animals. Because of the incredibly stupid system unique to the USA there is no transit system. You have to ‘enter’ the country and then ‘depart’ the country passing through security yet again. Sorry, I’m prepared to accept I’m missing the point with this system. But, nobody’s been able to explain it to me. Job creation? Bloody stupid. Luckily I had several hours in transit all of which I used just to get from one plane to another! The flight to Madrid left on time and was an uneventful trip.
Once in Madrid…
Madrid airport is huge and normally teeming with people. It was like a scene from a dystopian movie, completely empty. It was really surreal. Checking the departure boards I found my flight to London was on the opposite side of the airport. 30 minutes later, using the underground shuttle, I arrived at the new gate. The first thing I noticed was the absence of people. Both passengers and, more worryingly, airline staff. Normally there’s at least one staff person on duty at least an hour before boarding.
There were nada! Oh, also the lack of an aircraft outside was more than just a little disconcerting!! I found an information desk with 3 extremely harassed staff. Realising, for once in my life, I’d probably get more help by being calm and well behaved I waited patiently in the queue. Eventually I was told my flight had been changed but they hadn’t updated the departure boards! I was also told if there was nobody on the, now new, gate to return to the info desk. Umm, ominous. Umm, there wasn’t! Now, third time lucky, I’m told they’ve put all the flights to London into one plane as there were so few people travelling. Oh and that the, now consolidated, flight would leave from the terminal I’d originally arrived at. Another 30 min transit via the shuttle BACK across the airport.
Arriving at the gate I’m surrounded by the “consolidated” passengers – just 25 of us! And all of us clutching our boarding cards as though our lives depended on it. We had to board a bus, which then drove us through the tunnel BACK across the airport AGAIN. But at least this time we were deposited at the bottom of the steps to a REAL airplane.
Civilisation and the 51ststate!
A cloudless sunny sky saw the flight pass over the Channel Islands, the Isle of Wight and southern England with really stunning views. However, the icing on the cake was the approach to Heathrow. I’ve flown into Heathrow on dozens of occasions always on a slow glide path through low cloud. This time because of the scarcity of air traffic we did a steep banking turn left and low over central London and the vista was like looking down on a well crafted model of the city. Truly impressive. As we made the final approach I began to notice the absence of road traffic below. It was ominously eerie.
After landing I was confronted with the British “stiff upper lip” and typical understatement.
“Problem, what problem?”
The only things missing from my arrival were an escort of Spitfire fighters and a Dame Vera Lynne song on the PA!
Now I just had to await my hold luggage. After all the chaos and confusion during my 30-hour trip I was resigned to never seeing my main backpack again. I was still in shorts and sandals so I really was pleasantly surprised when my bag appeared. This was to turn out to be incredibly fortuitous as I emerged into the sunny but freezing late London afternoon.
For bizarre reasons, that I’m still trying to work out, I ended up in lockdown on the shores of Loch Ness. That’ll be one for the future after I’ve processed it.
Certainly not the scariest trip I’ve been on but definitely up there with weird and bizarre.
After I arrived back in the UK I learnt that hostels in Nicaragua were starting to close their doors to foreigners but the government still refused to install a lock down – phew, I got out just in time.