Thursday, December 27, 2007


I've been to a few countries in the developing world at this point. Many of them have had beaches, rivers, etc in which to chill out.

However, up until Corn Island (as I understand it, mainland Nicaragua is not like this) - the local women have always dressed conservatively. In Laos, the women would bathe in the rivers wearing dresses that went from their ankles to their necks. No excess flesh was shown to us foreigners. The same in India, where holidaying big city women would run into the ocean wearing a full sari, even while their husbands got to wear underpants and t-shirts.

Corn island is not the same. The ladies here, be they latina or carribean, all tend to wear tiny tiny shorts and equally tiny tops. This was quite shocking for me at first, as it's usually the tourists who are the ones dressing like harlets.

Post Xmas

The weather has been rather crappy here. Christmas eve and Xmas day were both essentially write-offs, with non-stop wind, rain, etc. I spent both days in my room reading books - not so exciting really.

However, most of the other days have been fine, and so I've settled into a nice rhythm.

I try and wake as soon as possible (which for me, is later than 9), and shift from lying in bed to lying in my hammock outside. From the hammock, I have a great view of the ocean in front of me, and my neighbor's spider money, which is tied by a rope to a treehouse less than 2 meters from the hammock.

After a while, I'll put on my snorkel, fins, etc and go for a swim. Less than 10 meters from the beach in front of my home is a huge rock/coral structure with a bunch of fish.

If the perpetually drunken maintence guy has visited, I might be able to open a coconut or two. Otherwise, i'll relax, have a drink, and wait for the sunset.

I'm down to 2 unread books, with just 9 days to go.

Oh - and once I get back to the US - I'm not going to eat beans, rice or plaintain for months. No buts, no doubts. Lentils, perhaps, but no red beans.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


In hindsight, I should have brought a portable/camping kerosene stove, and a bunch of different spices. That would have saved me from the boredom of beans and rice every day. However, I didn't. I didn't even think to..

Even getting beans and rice in a reliable manner is proving to be somewhat difficult.

My landlady has the best beans and rice I've had yet, and at $1 for a plate including fried plantains, it's a steal. However, at random times, she'll decide that she won't make it. The price of beans has gone up, beans have run out, or some other bastard tourist has shown up before I get up (i.e. before 11AM), and eaten my food.

In an effort to avoid this, I prepaid. 100 cordobas ($5), for 5 meals worth. Given the ease of location, and quality when it's available, I asked her to do it twice a day.

It turns out that even when I prepay, it's still not reliable. Sunday night, no food, because everyone was drunk. Given that most of the people on the Island seem to drink every evening, I'm still not sure why sunday was any different.

However, I manage. My next door neighbor sharpened my machettee for me, to the point that I can now throw a coconut in the air, and chop it in half before it hits the ground. Ninja Skills!

I've got 3 weeks left here, and by the end of it, I don't know if I'm ever going to want to look at beans and rice for quite some time.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Good, The Good Enough, and the Youth Hostel/Betamax Connection

Fans (geeks) of tech history will remember that at one point, a war was waged bertween Betamax and VHS - two competing video tape standards. Betamax, a superior standard, lost out.. simply because VHS was cheaper, and had a better selection of movie titles (well, that, and the fact that all the ahem, adult content was on VHS).

The VHS/Betamax war is a good way, I suppose, to introduce the idea of the network effect, and to a lesser extent, the first mover advantage.

Essentially, a fax machine is useless when you are the only person that owns it. Facebook sucked when it had 10 people. However, when 20,000 businesses have a fax, it suddently becomes a useful device.

Hostels aimed at the youth/backpacker market are somewhat similar.

Ideally, you want a nice hostel, clean rooms, cheap.. but more importantly, you want to be where the other backpackers are. This gives you access to travel info from people who've recently been there, people to chat, flirt, drink, etc with. Books to exchange, chess partners, and people with whom you can split the cost of large expenditures (i.e. taxis).

Often times, the place that gets the backpacker crowd is not the nicest or cheapest hostel on the island. It's the one that the lonely planet or rough guide (travel books) recommend. And once a place has the backpacker crowd, it's very very tough for another hostel to steal them - even if that other hostel is cheaper, cleaner, or has a swimming pool.

Which is sorta where I find myself now. The lonely planet recommends that backpackers head to "little corn", a smaller island 70km away, where for $10 per day, I can have an unlocked bamboo hut on the beach, where each meal cost at least $7-10, and where I have to shower and shit into a bucket (not the same one, of course).

I've found myself a kickass spot on the beach, $10 per day, two huge beds, a fan, electricity, a cheap supply of beer and a reasonably reliable supply of beans and rice, coconuts, and even some bannanas on occasion. However, I have no other backpackers nearby.

My neighbors are, on one side, a fairly nice American 35 year old man here for 10 days, and on the other side, a 30 something totally crazy/borderline psychopathic English scuba-instructor and his israeli girlfriend, whom he seems to jealously suspect that every other male on the island is after. Thats it. No other foreigners.

As my supply of 8 books (3 read in one week) shrinks, I'm sorta wishing I had a few people my own age, who are sane, and preferably, play chess nearby.

I really don't want to have to lose my place, and move to a bucket toilet just to find someone to chat with.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Death of A Thousand Cuts (or bites, actually)

I'd been doing really well. DEET-thick cream applied to my feet, arms and other exposed bits well before nightfall, and again before bed. Vitamin B tablets (which are supposed to make you stink to the mosquitoes). However, the allure of my vegetarian, organic, and free range flesh proved to be too much - and so bit by bit, I've been getting attacked.

It's been slow so far, but day by day, I seem to be acquiring a new bite every morning. The little bastards are targetting the blood vessels on my ankles/feet, which prove to be insanely itchy. It's taking all the willpower I have not to scratch them, and the anti-itch stuff I brought with me is useless against their evil bites.

The foot situation has gotten better, much better.

My next door neighbors, a spanish-speaking couple with two adorable young daughters, sell home-made tamales - with just corn, no meat, or anything else. I can't do their flavor justice in attempting to describe it here.. but it is fantastic. My landlady does a killer fried rice and beans for breakfast, as well as sweet plantain chips. Another woman nearby bakes coconut bread and pumpkin cake every few days - it's hardly variety, with few veggies, but I won't starve at least.

The rum is very nice too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reggae Skills

For a while as an undergrad, I had a roots reggae show on the college radio station. Much to the amusement of my friends and listeners, I'd often put on a fake jamaican accent when speaking on the air. Years later, the ability to parse and emulate thick patois is finally coming in handy.

The english speakers here actually converse in a dense form of creole. The many evenings I spent carefully trying to figure out what the hell people were saying in my favourite reggae songs is paying off - in that I can usually understand what people are saying. Best of all, I can respond back in my silly faux accent without anyone giving me a second look.

Things are settling in nicely now. I've finished one of my eight books, thanks to several hard hours spent relaxing in my hammock. My laundry line is currently heavy with dripping, freshly washed clothes, and I'm starting to acquire machette skills - I ate 4 coconuts in the space of about 30 mins, all chopped open/mauled with my own hands.

I think I'm finally catching up on the sleep I missed last week (4 days with barely a wink during exam week). I slept 14 hours last night!

I'll be taking it super easy from now on. Just reading, swimming, and relaxin.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Feelin Irie on the Corn Islands

A few general thoughts....

This place is not at all setup for tourism. The woman who's renting me my huge room had n't rented it out in a year. She doesn't advertise, and the guys who told me about her themselves had to essnetially go door-to-door to find out about the place.

I can't for the life of me get anyone to sell me coconuts or bannanas. There are coconut palm trees everywhere, and loads of bananas in the bush behind my house - but even with offers of cash, I can't get anyone to actually go and pick them for me. It's quite strange.

I was expecting an island paradise with bountiful fruits, but so far, it's been rather crappy in that area. There seems to be one citrus-type fruit that grows on the island, and depending on how big the fruit is, they either call it a lime, a lemon or an orange. In any case, it's very very bitter, and the locals drink their orange juice with lots of sugar.

In order to get my daily fruit, I went to the market today and bought a machette. Walking home, some of the more shady locals who usually eye me up (how much money vs. how easy to rob) seemed to be a bit more hesitant to eye my money belt. Such is the case when you're holding a foot long weapon.

I'm slowly learning a bit about the culture, or rather, the mix of cultures.

The latino/spanish men seem to treat all women like crap - pinching asses on the bus, whistling/shouting at women as they walk by, etc. The latina women seem to take it, or at least are too scared to shout back. The carribean/black women, on the other hand, will have none of it - and shout at any man who shows them disrespect. I've had to stop myself from smiling a few times when a woman started hitting a disrespectful man on the bus.

I went to town today, got my machettee, a bucket for laundry, etc. I've got all the required bits now for a reasonable life. Food is crappy, for the most part. Rice and Beans every meal, and fried plantain when I want a change. A place down the road does do a fantastic vegetable soup, but they charge through the nose for it... We'll see how often I'm willing to pay 80 cordoba (4 USD), or 5x the price of rice and beans for it...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Slowly Settling

Corn Island is very very chilled out. Like the rest of the atlantic coast in Nicaragua, it's majority population are black, and speak an english/creole. This is opposed to the spanish-heritage people in the rest of the country who speak spanish.

For years, I've wanted to go to Jamaica, but wouldn't go because it was too dangerous. Somehow, I ended up here instead...

The speakers out of every home, business, and the bus which slowly makes it way around the island blast a nice mix of salsa, reggaeton, reggae, and country. I'm not so sure how country managed to make its way into the mix, but no one seems to skip a beat and stop dancing when the genre changes.

My fist night, I stayed at casa blanca, a nice enough guest house not far off the main strip, yet still with a beach view. My tiny room, not more than 2 meter x 3 meters cost me $8 per night, included a fan, a light, a mosquito net, and use of a shared cold water shower/sit down toilet.

The main strip is ok enough, although it seems fairly sketchy at night. While eating dinner with a pair of american college kids, we noticed 2-3 different gentlmen going for their evening strolls carrying baseball bats.

After making the walk home from dinner last night fearing for my life and seriously beginning to regret coming here, I decided that I'd need to make a switch of location - if at least to be happy, but also to potentially save my life.

The plan was to wake up at 8AM this morning, change money at the bank, and catch the boat to little corn island.....

Problem 1: I slept in till 10AM (the same time as the morning boat), and
Problem 2: Changing cash at the bank took 1.5 hours in line.

However, two bits of good news happened:

1. I found out that the bank will do cash advances on a visa card at 2.5% comission. My guide book didn't mention this, and so I was seriously stressing about what I was going to do when the 300USD cash that I brought ran out.

2. I met an Israeli/Welsh couple in the street, who'd been staying here for a month. They advised me that my current guest house was crap and had a reputation for theft. I mentioned my interest in switching to little corn - to which they replied that i'd pay the same price, but be showering with a bucket and sleeping in a bamboo hut.

Most importantly, they told me that things were much nicer on the other side of the island, away from the sketchy "town center". If I was willing to haggle, I was told I could get a bargain deal.

30 mins later, I was standing at the home of Mrs. Victoria, who rents out huge apartments (2 beds, private indoor shower, etc) less than 20 meters from the beach. The snorkeling is top notch on this side of the island, and to top it all - since I agreed to pay for 2 weeks in advance, she gave me the place for $10 USD per night. It's a total steal, is at least 4x as big as my previous room, and I don't have to fear for my life or property at night.

I strung up a hammock this afternoon, I've got a bottle of 7-year old dark rum, a few limes, a stack of books, and i'm now determined to chill out and relax.

Internet is not too pricy here ($2USD per hour), but I need to take a bus to town to use it. I may stop by every few days, but don't expect it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Journey to Nicaragua

I left Bloomington at 8AM after sleeping perhaps an hour or two - about average for the past week. My journey to DC (bus, flight, flight, metro, bus) was approximately 9 hours traveling to fly to Washington DC (it woulda been faster to drive). I stayed with two fantastic friends, who wined and dined me. They let me sleep in, my first real opportunity to doze for more than 3 hours in one stretch for over a week.

The next morning, we went to Minerva, in Northern Virginia, for a totally fantastic and belt-destroying south-indian buffet. I got to say goodbye to civilization by eating idli, my favourite breakfast food in the world.. mmmm

That evening, I flew to Florida, hung out at the airport for 3 hours, and then caught a late night flight to Managua, Nicaragua, arriving at 12:30AM.

My flight to Corn Island didn't leave until 6:30AM, and so I had time to kill. A taxi to the town was $10 USD each way, and a hotel would run me at least $20. The five-star holiday inn (hah) at the airport wanted $100 per night.

I'd previously checked out, which gave Managua airport a pretty decent recommendation. It seems as though things have changed since then, as it was made perfectly clear that the security guards keeping the rif raff out also would not less me sleep. I could sit as long as I want, as long as my eyes didn't shut.

In the end, the hours went by, I caught my early morning flight on a 40+ year old propeller airplane (on which I was almost certain I would die), and landed on Corn Island.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pre Nicaragua Malarial Meds

I leave for Nicaragua in just a few days. Between now and then, I have a mountain of schoolwork to get through. And unfortunately, I had to spend a few hours this week trying to sort out medication - time that would be much better spent writing papers.

I'm going to be on the Corn Islands off the coast of Nicaragua for an entire month. According to the Interwebs, I'm visiting a malaria zone.

There are essentially three malaria drugs on the market:
Larium = which gives you psychotic nightmares and has lead to suicide in a few travelers.
Doxycycline = a mild antibiotic which makes you highly sensitive to the sun.
Malarone = a newish-drug with few if any side effects, except for the fact that it'll cripple your wallet, at $6-10 per pill.

I live in the US, and so, I have to use private health insurance, which totally sucks, and refuses to cover anti-malarial drugs unless I'm already sick. They'll only pay for the meds if I've got a fever and am facing death. Lovely.

The purpose of this blog post is to document the steps I took this week to find my drugs on the cheap...

I don't want to have psychotic nightmares, and since I'm going to an island to sit on the beach, being sensitive to the sun is a really bad idea. That left me with Malarone, which for a 30 day trip + 8 days you're required to take the pill afterwards, would have cost me $190.

Glaxo, the drug company that makes Malarone, has a program to provide free/cheap drugs to people on a low income. As an underpaid graduate student, I instantly qualified. Using this program, I was able to get Glaxo to give me a 30 day supply of the meds for the cost of a $10 co-pay, and a $20 office visit to get the university's travel nurse to write me an rx, and call up Glaxo to register me.

Glaxo only lets you get 30 pills per year, which meant that I'd have to pay for 8 pills out of pocket.

To get the last 8, I called around to all the pharmacies in town, and found out that SAMS Club/Target would sell me the 8 pills for approx $46.

A bit of googling, and I found that CVS pharmacy will give customers a $25 gift card when they come in with a new prescription. It didn't take me more than 10 minutes of searching online to find a coupon that I had to print out and bring with me.

Even better than that, the pharmacies all seem to pricematch each other. CVS seemed to be quite willing to pricematch the SAMS Club price.

So, in the end, I paid:

$20 for the doctor's office visit.
$10 co-pay for the 30 pills which Glaxo gave me.
$46 for the 8 pills purchased at CVS, which matched SAMS Club
-$25 a gift card that CVS gave me.

Total price = $51
Price of not getting Malarial fever on holiday = priceless.