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A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 4)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up starting with part 1,  part 2 and part 3, then conclude with part 5.

My time in paradise had come to a close. After arriving at Lago de Apoyo, Nicaragua from Costa Rica on a 12+ hour odyssey any place would have been good to sleep. What I found was a great hostel by a tranquil lake with great people and a hot sun.  My friend and I hopped in the taxi and headed to the airport to meet a larger group of friends.

Every year some colleagues, friends and I head to Nicaragua to do humanitarian work for a week. We join up with a group called Amigos for Christ who work alongside some of the world’s bottom billion, helping to remove them from that statistical designation. Teaming up with communities to get fresh water, improve sanitation and reduce the burden to the locals pulling themselves out of poverty. It’s good work done well.

But that part is boring to write about and to read about so we’ll skip it. Got to the airport to drop everybody else off and caught a taxi to the bus station. I was heading back through Costa Rica to go home. At the bus station they took care of me and spoke slowly. Made me first in line and printed out my flight itinerary for the Costa Rican border folks. This bus was full this time so not much sleep.

At the border there was a British lady complaining about getting a 60 day rather than a 90 day visa stamp. They gave me a 90 day visa – maybe just to piss her off. I have the feeling she was trying to circumvent the intent of the law. She also had fruit in her bag and complained that they took it. This isn’t the EU, lady. They ask you on the customs form if you have any fruits and veggies and I’m guessing you said you didn’t. Still, the process for her went much easier and the people were more friendly than the treatment the UK Border Authority gives.

I was planning on going to the area around another volcanic lake with hot springs for a couple of days. I’d read online that there was a daily shuttle at 2pm from the Liberia airport there. So I arrived after about 6 hours on the bus, grabbed some cash from the ATM in what I now knew to be the real local currency, US Dollars. Grabbed a taxi to the airport and got ready for the shuttle. 

But the Internet lied to me. There was no 2pm shuttle. I was stranded.

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A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 3)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up starting with part 1 and part 2, then continue to part 4 and conclude with part 5.

After taking a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua, then having myself an authentic Nicaraguan taxi experience I was happy to meet up with my friend. We caught up briefly then packed into the car taking us to our hostel for the next couple of days, Hostel Paraiso on Laguna de Apoyo. We arrived in the dark so didn’t get much of a chance to see the place. The kitchen was closed but they opened it up again to make us some crepes. They let us know the bar was going to close in about 2 hours but that the beer fridge was 24/7 – just write down what we’d drank and we’d settle up at the end.  Paradise Hostel? If not it’s damn close.

We hit the sack early so we could get a fresh start. Rumor had it swimming at dawn was not to be missed. In spite of my hatred of mornings I determined to do that. It was worth it in the chilly water and watching the sun come up over the rim of the extinct volcano in which we were swimming. Grabbed some breakfast to start the day. After an appropriate period of rest and caffeinating we grabbed some sunscreen and a couple of kayaks to paddle around.

After half hour the sun and exercise had us feeling warm but the water was cooling us down and helping us stay strong. So I challenged us to paddle around the whole lake. I figured it’d take another 1-2 hours and we’d be back in time for some rest and a shower before lunch. It wasn’t until halfway across the lagoon, a couple of hours in that I began to realize my sunscreen apparently hadn’t worked, and in the tropical sun on the water I was very exposed. We got back 3 hours after we’d left and my skin was already starting to look like a sunset in patches. Ah well, it’s the price of a good day’s exercise.

The rest of that day and the next I took it easy, just relaxing by the water’s edge in the shade. The bar/cafe area was perfect for that, attracting a stream of hostel guests, lake visitors and expats living on the shore. It was a great place to be and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My skin responded to the harsh treatment predictably, but the cool of the shade and the good times helped to soothe the pain. The aloe helped as well.

All things end, and so too my time at this lake paradise. The next week would see me reuniting with, working alongside and saying goodbye to old friends and colleagues. Doing humanitarian work in Nicaragua, helping to bring fresh water and sanitation to those who don’t have it. Humbling and inspiring work.

How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

Ripoffs in Armenia are like mullets: business up front, party in the back. That is, they’ll either try to hit you up for a large amount before the transaction or ask you for more just before you’re done. If up front they’ll walk away from the deal if you say no. If on the back-end they’ll back down and play by the agreement. And this is a pretty standard tactic around the world – I’ve written about the back end ripoff in India.

Armenia in General

Now I want to make myself clear up front – I think Armenians are generally a very honest bunch. But it’s hard making a living here. There’s nearly no room for profit and what you do get is usually eaten up by some random thing that comes up like official bribes, injury or having your flower shop run over. So I don’t blame Armenians – or any honest business scammer for that matter – from trying to make an easy Dram or Drachma. But that doesn’t mean I have to just give it up. I refuse to be a stereotypical sucker.

Business Up Front

For a certain segment of the ripoff artists out there, they’re willing to risk a low profit for a huge one. Some taxi drivers, for example, when they see you with bags in a touristy part of town will refuse you the standard fare and will only quote you an exorbitant one. Even if they know there’s only a 50% chance you’ll go with them. If they can make in 30 minutes what they’d normally make in 5 hours they’ll take the chance.

And when you stand up for yourself and refuse to pay that, the up front ripoffs tend to dissolve. They’ll usually let you walk away but will back down and pay your price. If they pay your price then you’re probably still getting ripped off, just not as bad.

There’s a large segment of the population who calculate how much to charge by adding a percentage to the cost. That’s what Marx and Engels argued was the true value of anything. It’s easy to see why they felt that way. But there are several faulty assumptions there, such as assuming no value for time not worked (ie. either infinite time or full time employment), taking risks (ie. someone might pay more for a car than a horse-drawn carriage) and other factors. Thus is the folly of supply-side economics.

Party in the Back

The other typical ripoff is when someone asks you for more just before you’re done. The reason given is usually something like you used more resources than you were supposed to, it took extra long or somehow otherwise you owe extra. Sometimes they will argue about what you agreed on or just simply say they want more. In taxis they might make the excuse that you had bags to put in the trunk, or it is night, or the airport cost is more, or they may just drive around in circles hoping you’ll think it was a long way away. At restaurants they may add extra items to your bill or round up when giving you change.

Not all of these tactics are outright fraud, many are just the custom. If your bill is 10.78 and there are no pennies in the country it may be expected that you’ll pay 10.80 instead. And in some countries there is a higher fare for taxis at night. But these are the exceptions. And if you’ve already negotiated a price, or if the meter is running just pay what you should.

Avoiding Ripoffs

When negotiating up front, don’t feel like you have to buy from a particular vendor. If you don’t know the price of something it’s OK to just ask casually and walk away. Odds are there’s a nicer one of whatever you’re eyeing at a shop a couple of doors down. If you get to the point of negotiating without knowing some relative costs you’re already at a disadvantage. Also know what you’ll pay up front, don’t let them decide that for you. That’s true for services as well as for products.

Don’t back down when asked for more at the end. Agree on a price and stick to it. Show the price written down on your phone’s calculator or similar. Some of these people are just bullies – if you stand up to them they quickly shrink away, but if you let them take advantage of you they’ll keep doing it. And don’t feel like you have to stay engaged, sometimes just walking away will make them stop asking. That’s especially true for taxis where, once you’ve paid the fair fare there isn’t any need to stick around. The taxi driver might call after you a time or two but he’s not going to follow you.

And keep in mind that some people will try both approaches. They’ll beat you up on the front end and at the end they’ll ask for more at the end. I’ve found that typically if you compromise on your price up front they’ll more frequently try to get money at the end. But if you stick to your price they’ll judge you as unlikely to pay.

In some places there are certain signals to make or avoid making. For example in Armenia the travelers who are ethnically Armenian but from a wealthy country tend to speak a different dialect. Locals pick up on that and will try to take advantage of their long-lost cousins. At markets in China the sellers and buyers use hand signals to signify quantity – if you know the hand signals you’re saying that you’ve done this all before and won’t be fooled. And negotiation has its rule of thumb in different places. In some you cut the price in half and offer that; in others you drop a zero or two from the asking price. And it’s always important to know how to check the authenticity of what you’re buying as compared to the knock-offs. For example, silk threads will burn separately, whereas the imitation synthetic materials melt together. You can search for how to spot a fake on the Internet and you’ll be informed when you buy. Often when you show this knowledge the shop keeper will go into the back or reach under the counter for the real stuff, smile at you and treat you with more respect.

Getting ripped off is a part of traveling. When you find out you’ve been rooked, laugh about it. It probably wasn’t for very much and use it as a chance to learn a lesson for next time. Applaud the savvy shopkeeper who can spot a sucker who has more money than sense…even if sometimes that sucker is you.

A Departure Delayed in Paris

The first time I visited Paris was my first real trip abroad unchaperoned and fully in control of my own destiny. That journey helped start me on the path to who I am today. I have a lot of great memories of that trip. Now I’m back for a few days and I’ll try to find out what’s changed – both here and within myself – and rediscover my younger self in the process. This is part of a series of my reminiscences of Paris.

After the night of reminiscing in my old Paris neighborhood I woke up relaxed. I lazed around a bit and ran a couple of errands before heading out to the airport. Life was good and I was in no hurry. But my last errand took a bit longer than I’d planned. Not too bad and I’d still have plenty of time, just not enough to take the Metro and train. I’d have to grab a cab instead.

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Welcome To Skopje

In between Belgrade and Athens is the country of Macedonia, and its capital Skopje. I could either go straight through to Greece or stop over for a while. Guidebook says nothing about it so that’s where I want to go.

I took the night train from Belgrade. It was supposed to take less than 9 hours, but this being Eastern European rail, I knew it’d be more. More than 10 hours later we arrived. I walked down the platform and was greeted by the familiar “taxi” call of the drivers. I ignored them. I changed some money and went to look for some info.

The window marked “information” had no information about the city. Nor did they know where I could get any. Train info only I suppose. So I asked around the shops for a map of the city. Nothing. But one shop keeper figured that “maybe  guy over there have map. He open at 8:30.” 30 minutes to kill.

I went for breakfast and noticed the universal ‘i’ meaning “information”. Walked over to the place and it was empty inside. No desks, no chairs, no people, no maps. “Closed for lack of interest” it might as well have said. At 8:45 the map guy was still closed. I learned quickly that in Macedonia, signs mean little. Which is fine since there are so few of them.

Actually, people seemed to try to spite them. Nobody waits for the “walk” signal, but risks death as often as possible. Some wait for the “don’t walk” sign to pop up before scampering across the street. Same thing with sidewalks. They’re not just for walking, but also for parking and driving! Even at the train station, some people line up on the wrong side to wait for the train, even if there’s room on the platform!

And things get more upside-down, still. I was at a restaurant and was surrounded by flies as I sat there wondering what to order. I was preparing to defend my bounty from them, but when it arrived they went away. Twice a fly approached and was easily shooed away. The third time I didn’t try to shoo him, but he turned away anyways. After that I didn’t fear them trying to share with me again.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, trying to find any kind of tourist information I could. Well I’d seen a map of the city and I kind of knew where some things were. I knew where a hostel was and where the center was, roughly, compared to each other. As luck would have it I found a sign for the hostel so I followed it. Until it came to a dead-end with no indication which way to go.

I walked one way for a while and then another and felt like I was close, but not close enough to risk getting lost. I knew what street the hostel was on, but none of the streets are marked so that’s a crap shoot. If Belgrade was difficult to navigate even with a map, Skopje would be impossible without one.

OK, time to seek out some fresh Internet. And some coffee. I hoofed it toward where I thought the center was and ran across a park. Free Internet. Nice, but no coffee. Fortunately there was a mall just up the road where I found both.

I pulled down a map of Skopje to my phone and checked out some things to do on my laptop. (Google really let me down. According to their map, it’s only a highway with a dot beside it. Actually I just checked and they’ve added a bit more detail in the last day or so, but still not much.) I also found a great travel site with information about Skopje.

Then I set off toward a hostel to check in and drop off some of my stuff. I got settled into the place – very reminiscent of the Communist-style housing I was accustomed to by now – and headed back out to explore the city. But first, I was given a photocopy of a tourist map and had some of the places pointed out to me there. Finally.

The main sites I wanted to hit were the Old Market, Kale Castle, some of the mosques, the Stone Bridge and others. There wasn’t anything particularly spectacular about the places except that they were not at all touristic. The castle was undergoing reconstruction, but the rest of the places seemed to have remained the same for decades or centuries. But more on that later.

This only scratches the surface of a place like Skopje. And it puts it in a bad light, but this is the first impression I got. I’m happy to say that impression was not the whole story.