I have hinted on FaceBook and in comments that our Christmas family vacation did not go well and that is the truth. I am usually sanguine about travel challenges; willing to look back and laugh. In this case I am having a hard time getting to the humor of the situation. I think the difference is: usually I travel for adventure and I am willing to let events unfold as they may. This time, I had a vision of a relaxing time with family at the beach. My vision did not materialize and I grieved.
Steve and I arrived in Granada, Nicaragua a week before the kids and stayed at a lovely condominium hotel where the staff was charming, the pool inviting, the rooms clean and comfortable. We found the town of Granada to be interesting, walk-able and surprisingly full of Americans. For more about my impressions of Granada, see this post.
The kids arrived a week later and we left the next day for the surfing/beach town of San Juan del Sur. Our intention was to stay put for two weeks, walking the beach, practicing our Spanish while shopping for fresh food in the market, and enjoying each other’s company.
Alas, That Vision was Not to Be
We arrived at our “luxury” accommodations late in the afternoon only to find the place was uninhabitable: dirty, broken, smelly and not as advertised in so many ways.
I think it is important to point out here that the owner, Lee, was not a man from an unfamiliar Latin culture where misunderstandings might be expected. He was a white guy from Falls Church, Virginia; practically a neighbor. He came recommended by two different sources I had reason to trust. We had spoken on the phone and through email several times. In all that was about to happen we were not talking across cultures. Still, for reasons I can’t explain, the owner and I looked at the same things but saw totally different realties.
Seeing the Sea
My confusion and doubt dawned slowly but was already growing before I ever walked in the door of our “high end vacation setting”. We had been driving around the cliffs over the bay of San Juan for 30 minutes already looking for the house. Every house the driver stopped at I dismissed saying,
No es. Es posible ver el mar desde la casa. No podemos ver el mar aqui.
This isn’t it. It is possible to see the sea from the house. We can’t see the sea from here.
When we finally reached the owner by phone, he came to lead us to his “unique and innovative casa”. A place described as “perfect”; a place charging top rents and promising 24 hour security, a business center, catered meals, yoga on the roof top and a fabulous view of the sea.
As we pulled into the driveway, this is what I saw.
Getting out of the car, I said to the owner, “I thought we could see the sea.”
“You can… from the 4th floor deck”, was his reply.
What follows over the next 30 minutes is a study in alternate realities.
The drivers, Steve and the kids proceed to quickly unload our considerable luggage: two suitcases each and food for the night including two rotisserie chickens, two six packs of beer and various other loosely packed groceries – we were planning to stay awhile.
I am hanging back, struggling to reconcile my first impressions with my expectations. As a result, I am the last one to climb the stairs to the third floor main room. I am not even in the door when, looking through the view windows, still trying to find the sea, I exclaim, but not too loudly since I am not yet in the door and I don’t want to jump to conclusions,” It is dirty”.
My first reaction was to the windows that were nearly opaque with dirt.
The next few minutes are a series of shocks, confusion, my mental efforts to make sense of what I am seeing and the non sequitur responses from the owner that repeatedly escalate my confusion.
From the windows I turn my gaze to the room we are standing in. The dirt that blackens the windows is consistent throughout.
“It was cleaned four days ago”, says the owner.
My brow wrinkles in confusion. How much dust can one place accumulate in four days?
“Are you doing work?”, I ask, seeking an explanation
“Some painting”, he says doubtfully.
I run my finger again through the thick dust on the counter between us, “Are you sanding?”
“Some”, he says. His tone betrays his dawning understanding that I am not happy.
I walk into the kitchen. It is filthy: there are crumbs and grease, there are dishes stacked by the sink that have not been put away. There is the husk of a wasp caught in the cobwebs on the faucet handle.
“There are bugs,” I state as the empty wasp husk falls into the dirty sink.
I look pointedly at the stove top, filthy with grease and crumbs.
“They usually cover that with foil,” says the proprietor.
My next stop is the bathroom, I don’t even go in. From the door I can see mismatched beach towels hanging over the shower door and toothpaste stains on the mirror.
I am gaining the strength of my convictions.
“Lee,” I say, “This place is dirty.”
Lee is following me as I make my inspection. I don’t know if he sees what I see. I think not because he repeats,” It was cleaned four days ago”.
The bedroom, promised on the internet to be bright yellow, well furnished with a desk and a television is, in reality, prison grey. The sheets are damp and wrinkled. There is no furniture beyond a bed and a mattress on the dirty floor.
I stop talking now and head to the rest of the rooms. Lee has stopped following me. I think maybe one of the kids suggested he might want to make himself scarce for a while.
The stairs to the deck, where, according to the owner, I will find the promised view of the sea, are mildewed and slimy from an overhead leak. Water drops into my hair as I climb.
The deck itself has standing water. Has it rained? I think not.
There is no good explanation for the water, especially since we have already established that there are insects in Nicaragua and, I know, one of those insects is mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are not “perfect”. Mosquitoes are insects that breed in standing water and spread dengue fever and other diseases. The water also creates mildew and buckling. And still no fabulous view of the sea.
“The hot tub is broken”, I say.
“It will be fixed tomorrow.” says Lee.
“There is water leaking on the stairs”, I say.
“That is the solar hot water heater”, says Lee
He is defiantly getting defensive now. His tone implies that I am just not “green” if I think the stairs should be dry.
“Lee”, I say in dismay, “you said this would be high end”.
“This is high end for Nicaragua.” he insists.
I can tell, to Lee this is becoming my problem not his. To him I am a privileged, demanding, rich, white woman from America. (Guilty as charged. Still his place was dirty and I was paying him for clean and comfortable. That was the deal.)
We are back in the main room of the house in front of this line of furniture.
Of his many animals, Lee says, ”I know it seems like a lot but the cats keep the scorpions down and the dogs provide security”.
“Is this the TV room?”, I ask, looking at this horizontal line of broken, dirty furniture.
“The TV swivels”, says Lee enthusiastically, reaching up to demonstrate. I laugh.
With that laugh I move out of the denial stage and into acceptance and when I do, panic sets in.
We can’t stay. One look at that bed and I know I am not crawling in there for even one night.
It is late in the afternoon, soon to be dark. Our driver has left. We are four foreigners with a lot of luggage, (we are standing holding our two rotisserie chickens to protect them from the cats) in a strange town, in an unfamiliar country where we don’t speak the language and it is three days before Christmas.
We Have A Problem
There was a moment, an uncomfortably long moment, when I really didn’t know what to do.
Then I did the only thing I could think of. I called back to the hotel we had just left, told my story and asked if we could come back.
When traveling there are always angels; Fatima, the evening receptionist at the Hotel Xalteva, was our angel. She seemed surprised but said, of course we could come back. However, we were two hours away, it was late, we had let our driver go. Fatima offered to make some calls.
Lee, who is beginning to realize we are about to bolt, insists we will not find a place available in town and offers, too little too late, to have someone come in to clean.
Fatima calls back in 15 minutes. She has found a room for the night and arranged for a driver to pick us up.
The room Fatima found was exceedingly small, but clean and it had a lovely, close up view of the sea.
We rose the next morning with our problem still before us and less than 24 hours to Christmas eve. We spread out to explore the town and get some help.
With the help of the internet, Rose found an agent who eventually, reluctantly and with poor grace allowed us to stay in a lovely condo on the beach until after Christmas day. We would have happily stayed until the New Year but the agent made it abundantly clear we would be unwelcomed after Dec 26. She also assured us we were unlikely to find alternative accommodations in San Juan del Sur.
We tried to prove her wrong but failed. We could not find any place to stay. The day after Christmas, we packed up again and, taking Fatima at her word, we return to the Hotel Xalteva in Granada where the staff welcomed us like family.
It Was Fine
It was not the vacation of my vision. Once back it the city relaxing was replaced by activity.
We planned excursions: hiking the Mombacho Volcano, bird watching, learning the Mayan tradition of making chocolate.
New Years eve we ate lake fish at a traditional restaurant and the kids walked into town to experience the traditional New Year’s celebration, which includes hundreds of unregulated fireworks, the exploding of paper stuffed effigies of old men and, presumably, quantities of the delicious local rum, Flor de Cana.
The last two days we discovered Laguna Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake, 20 minutes from town where we could finally sit in the shade and relax. Personally, I could have spent another week lounging in that shady hammock but, alas, our time was up.
This is my story of how things didn’t go right. Now that I have written it and given Lee a scathing review, I will let go of my anger and disappointment and begin to look forward.
The upside of our ruined plans is: we can always go back next year. There is so much more to do and see in Nicaragua. And Steve really wants to try living there.