An American Abroad

Audio Interview With Yours Truly

Odyssey Master and fellow travel blogger Jay of Jay’s Odyssey conducted an audio interview me earlier this week about my travels and tribulations. It was a fun — even outrageous — conversation. We covered the pitfalls of eating spicy food in Bangladesh and then using a urinal, as well as the perils of being interrogated by the Tunisian police on suspicion of fornication. You can listen to it here.

Jay is a serious bicyclist who is about nine days away from embarking on an epic trip through Mexico and points south in just nine days. It’s a trip that’s been delayed twice, most recently because his bicycle was stolen. Now that he has wheels again, I look forward to following him on his journey. He’ll be Tweeting about his travels @jays_odyssey.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 1

Literature and travel are tightly linked with me. Back when I graduated from college, bought a Eurail Pass, and backpacked through western Europe, I learned to love the racks of Penguin and Pelican paperbacks that seemed to be stationed in every convenience store. I read my way through train rides, solo meals, and rainy days. The books I bought added noticeably to the weight of my pack, until I finally, reluctantly, and for the first time in my life began leaving books behind after reading them.

Later in life, I was a founding member of a book group that reads only literature in translation. Our group traveled the world through literature. We also made a point to serve the food and spirits native to the country that produced whatever book we were reading. Through that, I learned to appreciate the literature of the non-English speaking world and added a number of must-sees to my travel list.

Still later, when I was going through a difficult emotional time, one fraught with many losses, I turned to travel books to enable my imagination to roam the world and to help me forget my woes. During one six-month period, I brought a book — usually a travel book — to a biker/bikini bar four or five nights a week, camped out on a barstool, and read while chaos roared behind me.

More recently, books have been an essential part of my expat life. As wonderful as living in another culture can be, it also has its share of lonely stretches. Reading gets me through those. After weeks and months of immersion in another language, it’s a delight to become reacquainted with English.

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The books I enjoyed most were those about travel adventure. “Adventure,” though, is a much-overused word. Many folks apply it to some mildly exciting trip that goes according to plan. Not me. I think of adventure as what happens when things don’t go according to plan. Ziplining in Mexico? Not an adventure. Being interrogated by the police in Tunisia on suspicion of fornication? Definitely an adventure.

Then there are other books that aren’t specifically about travel, but take place in foreign locations and/or involve expatriates. Graham Greene is the gold standard here; I learned about much of the world through his stories of weary British expats living in the developing world.

Here, then, is the first installment of the forty books that made me a traveler. You can read Part 2 here or visit my buy page. I’ll put up a new installment every week or so. Each of these books is hyperlinked to Amazon. Buying a book through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy exploring this literature — and please let me know what you think of my selections.

The Quiet American
Graham Greene
I had a prejudice against this book for a long time after I read it due to its title. The titular American isn't any quieter than any other character. At one point, Greene simply tells us that he was, as if that settles things. But that cavil aside, this is a fine -- perhaps definitive -- portrait of expat life during the 1950s. It warns against the hubris of ideologically-driven westerners who come to tropical lands full of theories to test on the natives. On a more powerfully emotional level, though, this is a book about the strange and unequal relationships between expats and their native lovers, the way they romanticize each other, and the grief they often come to.
The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas
Paul Theroux
Veteran travel writer Paul Theroux took a train trip from Boston to Patagonia. He loved putting his hand on the Red Line tracks in Boston and being connected to Argentina by a ribbon of steel. It wasn't literally true, of course, but the image stayed with me and made me a fan of train travel throughout the world. And the fact that I read substantial portions of it while actually riding the Red Line made adventure travel seem all the more possible. He took books with him as he traveled, like I do, and blended what he was reading at the time with what he was seeing as he rode the rails.
South: The Story of Shackleton's 1914-1917 Expedition
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
My favorite definition of "adventure" is what happens when things don't go according to plan. By that standard, Shackleton and his crew had adventures up the wazoo. Heading for Antarctica, they were shipwrecked and then made a daring, if not crazy, journey across the southern ocean in an open boat to reach an island where they might stand some hope of being rescued. There's a lot of technical, nautical and meteorological data to wade through, but Shackleton's leadership skills shine through the jargon. And the bravery and stalwartness of his crew convinced me that he couldn't have chosen a finer posse to accompany him to the ends of the earth. The fact that every last man survived the ordeal is an incredible testament to human strength and perseverance in the face of the most daunting odds.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Robert Pirsig
I first read this classic when I was in my teens and it didn't do much for me. Almost four decades later, though, I reread it and it made a great deal more sense. Pirsig was brilliant yet mentally ill and went to pieces in a way that destroyed his marriage and terrified his young son. The motorcycle trip he took from Minnesota to California was his attempt to reassemble his very self. It's also about his obsession with the metaphysics of quality, a theory he developed to connect the objective with the subjective. When I became a motorcyclist myself, I identified completely with the contemplative states Pirsig entered into while rolling through Montana. This is a book that satisfies dramatically, intellectually, and spiritually. I was surprised and gratified earlier this year when I spotted two twenty-something women reading it at a hostel in Sri Lanka. The book has stood the test of time.
The Royal Road to Romance
Richard Halliburton
This is a -- no, the -- classic wanderlust book. In the 1920s, Richard Halliburton, a small-town merchant's son from Tennessee, was more famous than Amelia Earhart. The Royal Road to Romance, an account of his travels from the Alps to Andorra to India to Panama, served as the basis for his profitable work on the American lecture circuit. He continued to travel and have adventures all over the world until he was lost at sea in 1939 while attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk. He traveled with a insouciant attitude toward money, convention, and officialdom. This led to him being jailed as a spy in Gibraltar, spending the night at the Taj Mahal, evading fares on various trains, and climbing the Matterhorn despite being utterly ignorant of mountain climbing and woefully under-equipped. Though they may not know it, every backpacker who has set off for a foreign land with a light wallet and no firm plans is following in Halliburton's footsteps.

Detroit: Chaos at The Eastern Market

The art in the gallery-like ruins at Brush and Baltimore is controlled. Mannered. Almost formal. So when I went directly from there to Detroit’s Eastern Market, I wasn’t prepared for visual chaos. My initial reaction was confusion bordering on distaste. It took me a good fifteen minutes to adjust my expectations and to appreciate a different but fine example of unauthorized public art.

The streets around the market were almost deserted on a Friday mid-afternoon, like so many others in Detroit. Since the wholesale food market there is still functioning, there were some pretty putrid smells in these back alleys, to be sure, but nothing worse.

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On one street, there was a sad reminder of how some people live in America today. Much as I like prowling the mean streets in search of the beautiful, it’s important to be reminded that real, vulnerable people sleep in places like this. This bower was someone’s home; I didn’t disturb it.

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Works like the one below definitely show the Juxtapoz aesthetic, which I grow weary of in large quantities but appreciate in isolation.

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Some of the other murals picked up on the historic function of the Eastern Market.

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The mural below has stood on this wall for over three years now and is, amazingly, almost untouched by other taggers. Maybe it’s the proposal and the “She said yes x1000” that makes people refrain from defacing it. People like to see people in love get together.

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Detroit: The Museum at Brush & Baltimore

I was thinking about why people make art when I came across a desolate intersection in Detroit. In the post-apocalyptic environs of Brush and Baltimore Streets, there are dozens of vacant lots where houses and stores once stood. Most of the remaining buildings have been stripped of everything burnable and salable; they stand like monuments to some undefinable slow-moving catastrophe. I shot a few photos of the ruins’ exteriors.

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Then a Chrysler drove up. The driver’s window slid down. I tensed a little, in spite of myself. Usually when something like that happens to me in neighborhoods like this, there’s someone who wants something from me that I don’t particularly want to give.

“Hey!” the driver said. “You should go in there.” He pointed to a burned-out shell of a building across the street. “All kinds of art in there. Wild stuff. Beautiful stuff.”

I was still a little on guard. “Just walk in?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the driver. “We go in there sometimes, party, look at art. Some of it’s done by the people from the gallery there.” He pointed to a windowless building across the street that was painted completely black.

I must have looked a little doubtful, because the driver smiled and said, “It’s cool.”

What the hell. If I’ve learned anything from two years of traveling, it’s that some of the best things happen when you say yes to things you don’t understand. So I walked up to the building the driver had indicated. Plastic bags stuffed with moldy, smelly bread were strewn around the porch. Flies buzzed around them. A cinder block was propped against the front door. I toed it aside, pulled the door open, and beheld an amazing art collection.

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The building I had entered had no roof, no windows, and no finished walls. It did have something much better: stunning portraits of ballerinas painted by Everett Dyson. Some of the them seemed to be dancing their way out of the shackles that once bound them.

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Elsewhere were palimpsests of tags, notes, and images, reflecting unintentional collaborations that are still in progress.

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As I photographed the artwork, a freight train rumbled by twenty yards away. Nearly every car on the train had been tagged extensively. Watching them pass was like watching a filmstrip on the tagging aesthetic. I wandered through the back door and found several other small buildings in the same bombed-out condition. The whole complex was a museum with different galleries. I continued to explore.

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Some of the works were text-heavy, illuminated manuscripts inscribed on cinder block.

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As I made my way back to the street, I again wondered what motivates people to make art. The question seemed especially poignant in this environment. Everything in the “museum” I had visited spoke of the transitory and the ephemeral. The murals that artists spent hours and hours meticulously painting will not long survive the elements or human depredation. In that respect, they are more like performances than fine art, dances that, once completed, live on only in memory. Unlike a “real” museum, the complex at Brush and Baltimore is subject to time, decay, and dissolution. Heraclitus, who famously said you can’t put your foot into the same river twice, would have understood. Perhaps the artists who worked here needed to lay down an I-was-here marker in the river of time more than they needed to occupy a static space.

Detroit: The Hipsters Move to Corktown

There are signs of an artist/hipster presence in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Near Michigan Central Station, some abandoned buildings have been painted up and turned into giant urban canvases.

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Other buildings show signs of being brought back to life, albeit slowly.

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There’s a cool bicycle shop and several new bars and cafes near the station, as well as a redeveloped commercial district designed to appeal to the lovers of vintage watering holes.

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And then there are some businesses that look like they’ve been there for decades.

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It’s easy — chic, even — to deride the hipsters who have settled in Detroit in the last six years. But it’s almost always a cheap shot and seems more aimed at their sartorial and tonsorial choices than at their values. Their critics also tend toward stereotype; not every dude in a pork-pie hat, horn-rims, and a goatee drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon is a pretentious jerk. Yes, hipster disposable income and insistence on certain amenities drive local rents up and may displace longtime residents. But if the alternative is keeping rents low while the neighborhood crumbles and dies, then I’ll give at least two cheers for a hipster influx.

Detroit: We Did It to Ourselves

Detroit’s Michigan Central Station is now an American icon, a metaphor for the ruination of American industry and the hollowing out of once-vital American cities. Its very existence is commentary on our current inability to construct buildings that are grand, beautiful, or even functional. In his essay “Detroitism,” John Patrick Leary wrote:

The station is the Eiffel Tower of ruin photography and probably Detroit’s most recognizable modern monument other than the downtown Renaissance Center complex, as shown by the hobbyist and professional photographers who descend upon it on every sunny day. An imposing, neoclassical behemoth even in life, the windowless station has become a melancholy symbol of the city’s transformation in death.

The first view I got of it yesterday was from an elevated highway. From that vantage, I could see through the building from front to back. Light streamed through the ruin unimpeded by office furniture, walls, or workers. One might have thought it was a Potemkin building, a grand edifice thrown up to impress visiting dignitaries as they drive by in air conditioned comfort. But as I stood on the street directly in front of the station, it became clear that this was no two-dimensional facade, but a very real place where real people had worked, a place of heft and substance that had been allowed to fall into ruin.

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The placement of a new American flag in front of the station puzzled me. Was it supposed to instill pride? To symbolize determination in the face of adversity? Or, as Leary might suggest, to commemorate America’s new national monument?

As I looked at my photo, I recalled another photo, one I did not take:


That image of the American flag planted amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, backed by strong vertical lines, always seemed to me to be an expression of perseverance, national unity, and determination to wreak vengeance on the men who destroyed the twin towers.

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But here, the men who eviscerated American industry and gutted our cities were not foreign terrorists. Pace Walt Kelly, we did this to ourselves.

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Inside the shell of the building, a handful of workers were engaged in labor whose purpose was obscure to me. It didn’t seem to be restoration or renovation. Perhaps they were securing the structure against trespassers. For their own safety, of course.

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Roosevelt Park sprawls in front of the ruins. A group of elementary-age kids sat in a semicircle under a tree, presumably getting instruction of some kind. The scene was almost pastoral. And it called to mind yet another image, Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting of Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins:


I didn’t get close enough to hear what was being preached to the children in the shadow of the derelict Michigan Central Station. I think I was afraid to listen.

Using Divvy Bikes to See Chicago

One of the cool things about Chicago is its network of 476 24/7 bicycle rental stations spread out across the city. Divvy Bikes are purpose-built, durable, three-speed machines. No one is going to confuse them with speedy road bikes, but they are serviceable and well-maintained.

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Their special bike racks feature a small solar panel tower, a credit card reader, and a small touch screen to set up your bicycle rental.

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I used Divvy Bikes to ride from Hyde Park along a zig-zaggy route north to the Adler Planetarium, a distance of about eight miles. I wasn’t in a particular hurry and hopped off the bike from time to time to admire the lakefront view and take photos.

While it was great to have a bicycle to tool around on in Chicago, Divvy’s fee structure makes their bikes a less than optimal choice for someone like me who wants to take his time to see the city from a bicycle seat. The headline rental price is just $7 a day for unlimited use, but there is a BIG catch. You have to check your bike into a Divvy station every 30 minutes. You can check it in and take it right out again (though this is something of a hassle), but if you ride for longer than 30 minutes without returning it to a station, 1) you get charged additional fees of at least $3, and 2) you have your 24 hour usage rights cancelled, which means you have to pony up another $7. For a traveler like me without a set route, it was annoying to check a bike out, meander for 15 minutes, and then spend the next 15 minutes frantically trying to reach another Divvy station so as to avoid extra charges. For commuters with regular routes, this wouldn’t be a big factor, but for me it was. I felt rushed and anxious.

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All this being said, Divvy Bikes can be a good way for a traveler to get around Chicago, but only if you plan your route carefully before setting out and stay cognizant of the time elapsed between stations. For people with a daily commute, though, Divvy Bikes are a very viable alternative to public transit and private vehicles.

Nicaragua 2008: Down the Rio San Juan from San Carlos to El Castillo

Following our miserable night on the Lake Nicaragua ferry, we arrived in San Carlos, a town our guidebook charitably described as “scummy.” Situated on the southeastern tip of the lake not far from the Costa Rican border, San Carlos indeed seemed to have nothing whatsoever to recommend it, except for its being situated at the source of the Rio San Juan.

As I shivered in the pre-dawn light and made inquiries about a boat heading downriver to El Castillo, Spencer set off in search of coffee. He brought back two small paper cups of watery lukewarm Nescafé into which had been poured several heaping tablespoons of sugar. It was vile, but I drank it anyway. It did nothing for my chilled, sleep-depraved state.

We found out that we could get passage aboard a riverboat that would leave in several hours. With nothing to recommend San Carlos to us, we made for the nearest hostelry we could find in hopes of getting a morning nap.

I don’t know the name of the place we stayed. I don’t know if it had a name. But it was as scummy as the rest of the town, complete with damp dirty beds, insects, and river-rot. It was built up on stilts over a filthy stagnant stream that slithered into the river at some point.

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It was actually colorful and cheerful-looking, so long as you didn’t peer too closely. Of course, we arrived on wash day; the clothes hanging everywhere hid things that I’d just as soon not see.

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Our room had a Sandanista slogan painted on its door.

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I slept fitfully, occasionally wondering what I had gotten myself and my son into.

We were here:

Near noon, we checked out and went back to the docks. Along with a couple dozen other passengers, 300 cases of beer, sacks of mail, some chickens, sheep, and a goat, we boarded the riverboat.

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At the appointed time, we shoved off and headed down the river and into the jungle.

We passed by jungle hamlets here and there, places marked by a dock and a few wooden buildings, but without roads. At some of them, we stopped to drop off a passenger or two, some beer, and a sack of mail.

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The day turned to night and we continued on, more slowly though. The boat’s searchlights cut a sliver of visibility down the river, but otherwise everything was black on both banks.

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It grew late. Finally, after about fifty miles, our destination was announced: El Castillo. The boat docked and we stepped out onto a dock shrouded in darkness. We could see no artificial lights anywhere. We struggled to get our luggage together in total blackness. We were here:

We wandered around until we heard the thrum of a generator and saw a few gleams of light coming from a two-story building with porches up and down on the front. It seemed to be a guesthouse of some sort, so we knocked. A middle-aged woman answered and answered yes to our question about beds for the night. We were delighted. She then led us up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and out to the porch, where two hammocks hung from the porch beams.

Spencer and I looked at each other, unsure and disappointed. But then the woman let loose a deep laugh — just kidding! — and led us back into the hallway and into a dorm-style room with real beds. Maybe showing us the hammocks first was just clever product positioning on her part, because by the time we got into our spare but clean bedroom, I was incredibly grateful just to have a mattress under my body, a comforter draped over me, and a roof over my head.

I fell asleep almost immediately, wondering what the jungle would have in store for us come the morning.

Nicaragua 2008: A Most Uncomfortable Night

After three days at the luxurious Hotel Colonial in comfortable Granada, it was time for us to begin the second phase of our journey. Our plan was to get a ferry across Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos. There I would walk around the docks til we found a boat going down the Rio San Juan, talk or bribe ourselves aboard, and head out to the jungle settlement of El Castillo. This required a leap of faith on my part. I didn’t know for sure whether we could find a river boat — do you just hail them like taxis? — but I told myself that the last thing I wanted was a Cook’s tour where everything was precisely planned.

Little did I know that finding a boat going to El Castillo would be easy, but that passage aboard the ferry crossing the lake would be a very uncomfortable affair.

We found the lake dock in Granada from which the ferry departed and bought our tickets. I’d read that it was advisable to pay a little extra to get a spot on the upper deck of the ferry and to string a hammock there. I had no problem paying for a place on the upper deck, but in a fit of senseless economizing, I bought only ONE hammock.

What was I thinking?

I guess I figured that I would find a place to sit or lie somewhere on the ferry and that I would let my son luxuriate in the hammock. There had to be chairs, right? And probably an enclosed cabin to escape the elements in?

But no. There were no chairs, benches, or other accommodations. No cabins. Just steel deck-plating. We tied our lone hammock between a mast and a wall cleat and began the overnight lake crossing.

At first, it was pretty nice. We were thrilled to pass within sight of Concepción, the world’s most perfectly formed volcano, on the Isla de Ometepe.

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The afternoon sun still warmed our bones. Spencer read Heart of Darkness as he swayed in the hammock. We looked down — literally, that is — at all the people on the lower deck trying to find a place to sit where they would be sheltered from the sea spray amid the bicycles, motorcycles, and other cargo.

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We congratulated ourselves on the decision to buy upper-deck tickets. We saw people on our deck laying down and it really didn’t look so bad.

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Many of our deck-mates strung up hammocks and looked quite comfortable in them.

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Others on our deck found places to sit: not chairs, of course, but better than the metal deck plate.

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The sunset on the lake was so beautiful that at first I didn’t feel the approaching evening chill.

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Ah, novice-traveler hubris. By the time darkness fell, we were both getting cold. The steel deck seemed to suck the heat right out of my body. Although we weren’t getting drenched, we shivered in the mist thrown up by the boat as it plowed through the waves. By midnight I felt chilled to the bone, damp, tired, and miserable. I did take turns with my son in our one hammock, which gave some respite, but I felt so guilty about making him sleep on the deck plate that I took most of the time there.

From this wretched, sleepless night, I learned that you can never be too hot out on the deck of a boat at night. The lesson etched itself deeply into my mental library of travel wisdom. In later experiences with nighttime boat rides — for instance, my trip up the Ganges River in Bangladesh aboard a paddlewheel ferry — I made sure to pack warmer clothes.

And if I ever travel across a body of water with a companion, I will be sure to buy two hammocks.

Nicaragua 2008: The Perfection of Granada

Granada is located along the coast of the Lake Nicaragua, the world’s twentieth largest lake. It was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and claims to be the first European city on mainland America. In the first centuries after its founding, the city was witness to and victim of many of the battles with English, French and Dutch pirates for control of Nicaragua.

In more recent times, though, Granada avoided most of the violence of the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution in the 1970s and ’80s. Back in 2008, I found a city that had managed to preserve and restore much of its Spanish colonial architecture and its pleasing public streets and squares. I’m not alone in this observation. The story is told that when Pope John Paul II visited Granada, he was so charmed by the town that he told the people not to change a thing.

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When we first encountered this bandstand in a public park, it was empty as you see it here.

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But the next time we happened by, it was mobbed with people. A band played. Different couples took turns dancing in front of the crowd, not so much to show off hot dance moves as to have their time in the limelight. The audience approved.

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We headed down to Lake Nicaragua, not so much because we wanted to beach it, but because we wanted to scope out where we would be catching the ferry across the lake. It being a holiday weekend, many people were heading out for some sun and swimming.

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