Can I just buy a stamp?

In the photo above, the Bahiha Hotel and Restaurant is on the right painted in pink.  This story is about the owner of this hotel and the (unnamed) owner of the hotel I was staying in.  When we arrived in Moyogalpa we immediately wanted to stay at the Bahiha as the owner was so friendly but he was all booked up.  This should have been an indication to us of the level of disparity between the service offered at different hotels.

We ended up at another hotel with rooms that were bare but at least the beds were comfortable.  There were no mosquito nets to be found and with no screens on the windows we were literally mosquito bait while sleeping.  I tried burning a mosquito coil in the room but the next morning we woke up green and probably had toxic poisoning.  After that experience, I always travel with a tiny “Defender” mosquito net; it weighs almost nothing and takes up about as much room as two pairs of socks.

Our hotel lobby area was an outside garden with hammocks, a restaurant and some plants.  It looked nice enough.  When we arrived at the desk to check in a portly man wearing only some boxer shorts, flip-flop sandals and a “wife-beater” t-shirt glanced up at us from his hammock with a look that showed his annoyance that we disturbed his nap.  He rolled out of the hammock (with great effort) and yawned as he walked up to us.  I noticed that he had a hole in his tank-top t-shirt right next to his belly button.  He stuck his finger in the hole and scratched, wiped the crust from his eyes and asked for our passports.  He filled out our registration with about as much attention as a dog resting on a porch on a hot day in Alabama.

He asked how many days we were staying and after we told him he quoted a price.  We paid and then watched as he dragged himself back to his hammock and began to lay down.  I asked him (in my broken Spanish) if there was somewhere that I could buy stamps for my postcards.  Without looking up as he adjusted the hammock he informed me that this hotel was the post office and he was the post master.  He never did look up but instead laid down on the hammock, closed his eyes and went right back to sleep.

Later, I learned that his name was Humberto.

Jeff and I dropped our bags in our room and returned to the Bahiha for lunch and a cold beer.  As we walked out of the hotel I was about to ask Humberto if I could buy some stamps but he was snoring away in his hammock so I left him alone.

When we came back to the hotel in the afternoon he was behind the counter tending to some hotel business.  I could see that behind the left side of the counter there were some mail slots, a postal scale and a separate cash register.  I walked up and asked Humberto if I could buy some stamps.  He let out an audible sigh, put away his papers and slid a few feet over to the “post office” side of the counter and then took out his official “postmaster” hat and put it on.  And then as though we hadn’t just spoken he said, “How can I help you?”

I thought he was joking but I played along, “I need to buy some stamps please.”  He asked me how many stamps I wanted and I said that I needed 3.  He said that the cost was 27 Cordobas.

I took 3 ten Cordoba notes from my pocket and handed them to him.  He punched a button on the “post office” cash register and when the drawer opened he announced that he did not have any change.

Me: Ok, can you give me change from the hotel register?

Humberto: No.

Me: Why not?

Humberto: That is hotel money, this is post office money, they can’t mix.

Me: That doesn’t make sense.

Humberto: That’s the rules.

Me: Ok, forget I’m buying stamps, as a hotel customer, as one of your customers, can I get change?

Humberto: No.

Argh!  You have to be kidding me!

I stepped away from the counter and stood there for a minute.  I watched as Humberto removed his postmaster cap and returned to his work on the “hotel side” of the counter.  I walked back up.

Me: Hola.  Can I get some change?

Humberto: No.

Me: Why not?

Humberto: Because you want to buy stamps, the hotel and post office money is separate.

Me: No, I don’t want to buy stamps, I just need change.

Humberto: No, I know you need stamps, I can’t give you change.

At this point I began to realize why Communism doesn’t work.  There is no motivation, no driving force that compels people to “get the job done,” to “think outside the box” or otherwise do anything logical that even closely aligns with customer service.  Humberto was clearly stuck in the Ortega Communist days and he wasn’t leaving any time soon.

I looked around his hotel lobby and restaurant.  Aside from the cat purring on the counter and Humberto’s Mom washing sheets in the back, it was empty.  Every guest of Humberto’s was over at the Bahiha having lunch.  Hmmm, go figure, the Bahiha owner is friendly and he gets all the business.

I went over to the Bahiha and asked for change to buy stamps, “Sure Amigo, coming right up.  Care for a cold beer or some food while you’re here?

Wow, what a difference.

I went back and watched Humberto mystically transform from slovenly hotel proprietor to officious public servant and then he dispensed my 3 stamps.

… at night in Moyogalpa, all the little critters come out…

That evening I actually wrote 6 post cards.  The next morning, while having breakfast at the Bahiha, I asked for change again.  I had my 27 Cordobas ready to buy my 3 extra stamps.  After I ate I went over to my hotel and found Humberto behind the counter.  I announced that I needed 3 more stamps and watched in near disbelief as he slid down the counter, put on his postmaster hat and then announced as though he hadn’t heard a word I had said.

Humberto: How can I help you?

Me: (thinking really?  are you kidding, ok, I’ll play along) I need three stamps.

Humberto:  I’m sorry, it is Sunday, the post office is closed.

Argh!!!

Are you kidding me?  Why didn’t he just tell me that before he put on his stupid hat?  What is wrong with this guy?  For the first time I was having second thoughts about Nicaragua.

Me: No, seriously, I need 3 stamps.  Look, I even have correct change.

Humberto: No, the post office is closed today.  You must come back tomorrow.

Me: What’s the point?  Just sell me the stamps!  I’m your customer!

Humberto: The post office is closed, there is nothing I can do.

Jeff stood nearby laughing and said, “Forget it dude, just buy the stamps tomorrow.”  I agreed and as we walked off I vented to him.  It made no sense at all.

… at a nearby lakeshore cafe this little fellow comes by to beg for snacks…

On our last day in Moyogalpa, we sat patiently in our hotel lobby.  We knew that the ferry would blow its horn when it was time to board.  We would sit in the shade of the garden-like hotel and then head into the sun and humidity only when the boat was boarding its passengers.

Humberto, who had never even glanced at us in days, now began a conversation.

Humberto: Where are you from?

Me: We are from America.

Humberto: How long are you traveling?

Me: I’m traveling for only a few months, Jeff has half a year.

Humberto: (shrugs) Oh.

He then looked back to his magazine as though we had never talked.  I seized the moment; this was my first “conversation” with him and I was quite curious to know a bit about him.  I thought of something to say to keep the conversation alive.

Me: How is business?

Humberto: Not good.

Me: (thinking – no kidding), “Why is that?”

Humberto: Him (he motioned with his head towards the Bahiha Restaurant and Hotel).

Me: What do you mean, how does he affect your business?

Humberto: He takes all the customers.

Oh, I see where this is going.  I felt like a cat about to snatch a mouse.  Jeff sat back with a big grin knowing what was about to transpire.

Me: Why do you think that is? (I tried to hide my sarcasm)

Humberto: Because he cheats.

This comment took me by surprise.  “He cheats?” I thought, “What does he mean?”

Me: Humberto, what do you mean he cheats?

Humberto: Look at him, how he is nice to those people, he doesn’t even know them.

Me: What’s wrong with being nice to someone?  Especially your customers?

Humberto: Why should you be nice to your customers?  So that they will buy from you?  This is dishonest.  He doesn’t like those people [his customers], he just pretends to like them so that they will buy from him.

Me: I don’t understand.  What is wrong with being nice to someone?  If you meet someone in the street are you rude to them or are you nice to them?

Humberto: That is different, someone in the street isn’t trying to buy from you.  When you are nice to a customer it is like offering them a bribe to buy from you.

Wow, it made absolutely no sense to me.  I tried to look at it through the eyes of a man who lived through a Communist dictatorship regime.  I suppose showing any form of “customer service” whether that be a smile, a friendly attitude or just good service was viewed as decadent capitalism and that was as good as a death sentence in some countries.  But that is over and this guy actually believes that being courteous to your customers is a form of social bribery.  It opened my mind quite a bit as to how some (former Communist) people think.  This kind of thinking runs completely contrary to what I view as “logical” and “normal.”  But, it was interesting to experience and it gave me quite a bit of insight – insight that would be invaluable in the coming months as I traveled to Eastern Europe.


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Moyogalpa

The ferry from Rivas/San Jorge stops only at the little town of Moyogalpa on the west coast of Ometepe Island.  The ferry ride is about 1 hour and is the quickest way to the island from the mainland; ferries that dock on the north side of the island that come from Granada take as long as 4 hours.  Walking from the boat docks into town (above) you’ll see that there isn’t much there: four hotels, two restaurants and a gas station.  Up the hill at the top of the street is a small convenience store.

At the time of this writing, the only “decent” service in town (hotel or restaurant) was dispensed at the Bahia Restaurant and Hotel (pink building in top photo).  The proprietor there was friendly and helpful (I’ll write more about him later).  Standing at about the dead “center” of town looking back towards the docks (photo below) you acn see Lake Nicaragua.

The town had quite Spartan accommodations and only one place offered internet service.  The internet was slow but the food at the Bahia was served with cold beer, a warm smile and generous portions.

The owner of Bahia came up and inquired if he could ask us a question and we agreed.  He called back to the cook who came running out.  The cook was wearing a t-shirt that said, “If you aren’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”  The owner said that he and the cook had pondered the meaning of this phrase for a while and couldn’t interpret the meaning.

I asked him if he was familiar with the sled dogs in Canada and Alaska and when he said yes, I explained that in every team of dogs the best and fastest dogs are at the front of the team.  He nodded (but still didn’t understand the implication).

“So, if you are the lead dog, you see snow and trees and mountains.  But, if you aren’t the lead dog you see…?”

At this point he started laughing uncontrollably and the cook waited with great anticipation for the punch line.  The owner quickly relayed my story in Spanish and then the cook started laughing.  We all started laughing.  As they both walked away, they were shaking their heads and laughing, no doubt thinking (in Spanish), “If you aren’t the lead dog, you’re looking at ass all day long.”

Each time I came out of our hotel I would see these three children and would say, “Hola,” and they would smile and reply in kind.  Their father worked at one of the businesses next door and they lived just across the street.  I asked if I could take their photo and was given approval.  I showed them their picture in the screen of my digital camera and they beamed smiles of approval.  Their father came over to see and asked if I would mail a copy to him.

Exploring around the town I walked up to the top of the street where it came to an end in a “T” intersection.  At this T was a convenience store where sodas, beer and snacks could be had.  I turned back and shot a photo down the main street towards the hotels and towards the lake; you can make out the blue water at the end of the road just above the tree line.  It seemed that wherever we went in town we could see the lake; the gentle hill that the town rested on ensured that almost everyone has a 5 star view.

Directly across the street from the convenience store I saw an interesting shop and I can’t say that anywhere in my life have I seen a shop that specializes in truck tires and coffins.  Jeff and I began to speculate that perhaps the garage owner was also the town undertaker.  Or, perhaps the garage mechanic’s wife ran the funeral home?  We weren’t sure but it surely was an odd sight.

There is quite a lot to do on Isle Ometepe; jungle hikes, volcano hikes, kayaking, horseback riding and all sorts of trekking.  And sadly, we didn’t do any of those activities.  We were really quite exhausted and just enjoyed the tranquil peace and quiet of Moyogalpa; lazy days in the hammock sipping cold beer, chatting with some other travelers that were coming and going.  We contemplated a mountain hike but frankly, we were just too tired.  We had been on the road for a few weeks and had been packing in a new destination every few days.  This is one of the biggest dilemmas a traveler can face: not enough time.  Probably the only equal dilemma is: not enough $.

And so, I learned a valuable lesson on this trip, don’t bite off more than you can chew; it is better to see fewer destinations and enjoy yourself than to see a lot of places and get too tired to enjoy them.  So, we decided to forgo some of the other activities on the island save for a day trip to the interior villages (below).  We took the local bus and got to chat with some of the local people coming and going.  It was quite interesting to see how the locals lived, what they wore and how they got from here to there.  It was a Saturday and an entire soccer team was on their way to a challenge.  All of the young players looked eager to get out and show their metal and score a goal for the home team.

We walked around some of the local villages between stops and it seemed that no matter where we went on the island, the volcano always had a cloud forming at its summit.  The jungle was thick everywhere that crops weren’t being planted and the volcano looked down on everyone like a big brother or a parent.  I was really beginning to enjoy Nicaragua; it is a beautiful country with warm people and a wonderful climate.  Since my visit there, I’ve always dreamed of returning.


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