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Panama Canal, Curry in Costa Rica and the King of Nicaragua

1 September, 14

We left our vehicle at the Indian Embassy in Bogota and flew back to India to get our visas for Central and North America.

Forrest was safely parked in Bogota and after getting our visas and managing to raise enough money to fund the next leg of our journey, we flew back to Colombia. The time in between continents when we return home is always filled with mixed emotions. We are absolutely delighted to be going back home for a few weeks but at the same time, we have to use that time to somehow arrange for enough money to fund the next leg. Borrow from friends and family, go from one bank to another, try to sell our tours or try to sell some asset. It is always a mixture of all of the above. A lot of people ask us, “how are you funding this journey?” Well, the answer is hidden in the above lines. No gimmicks, no 6 figure cheques from big companies, it’s all blood, sweat and tears! And our tears I think helped us convince Air France to give us free tickets and also to upgrade us to Business Class.
“Tushar, I saw a light in your eyes when you were telling me about your world trip and just for that reason, we will give you free tickets” Said Hicham, country head of KLM India.

We landed at Bogota Airport where a car from the Indian Embassy was waiting for us. “Hmm, The Embassy car has come to pick us up, we must be doing something right!” Sanjay laughed. The Embassy had organized another get together to welcome us back to Bogota. We reached the Embassy, met the Ambassador and Mr Ravindra, the First Secretary.
“Welcome back boys, we ran a contest on your journey and a few girls from Colombia who won the contest will be coming to meet you in sometime. They are your fans, please spend some time with them” he said to us
“Fans? We have Colombian girls as fans?”
People started gathering in the Embassy and when it was time, we entered the conference hall amidst an applause. Sanjay, Prasad and I gave a speech on our experiences and then got chatting with the people who had come to meet us.
“You are my hero!” one of the girls who had won the contest said to me with a big smile.
Ümm, what? ok, thank you so much, umm, that is very sweet of you to say.” how do you react to a comment like this? I was embarrassed!

We bid goodbye to everyone and finally went down to the parking lot where Forrest was still parked in the same place where we had left him. We loaded the car, started the ignition and slowly pulled out of the parking lot. After an 18 hour flight from Delhi to Bogota, a function at the Embassy, we didn’t waste any time before starting our 1100 km drive towards Cartagena. We were in a rush to reach Cartagena because we had to put our car on a ship for Panama. Even though Colombia is connected to Panama by land, but an 80 km area known as the ‘Darien Gap’ is inaccessible by road. It is the only break in the 24000 km long Pan American Highway because of which anyone wishing to drive from South America to Central America has to ship the car over the Atlantic Ocean from Colombia to Panama.

We managed to reach Cartagena just in the time to book our car on a Panama bound ship and decided to spend a couple of

The famous Panama Hats hanging from a ceiling
The famous Panama Hats hanging from a ceiling

days looking around Cartagena before flying to Panama to take delivery of Forrest from the port. Cartagena is a historic colonial town where you can see the old Spanish architecture in the form of museums, theatres and churches. It is also a beach town where you can go for a dip in the gorgeous blue waters of the Atlantic ocean. While walking along the beach front, we met some very friendly Colombian people who were having a leisurely evening with their girlfriends.
“Hey guys? How you doing? Come join us” one of the guys said to us. We walked up to his group of 2 guys and 2 gorgeous Colombian women.
“We are just enjoying the weekend with our girlfriends. But…our wives are in another town. In Colombia, it is common, we have wives and we also have girlfriends” he laughed and told me.
Ümm, ok, so what did you tell your wife? I asked him curiously
“That I am going for an important conference for a few days!” he replied happily. Not knowing how to react, I simply smiled and he continued doing most of the talking. He kept taking pictures with us and when we finally realised that he was absoutely drunk, we excused ourselves and went to take a dip in the ocean. It was one of those rare days when we were not driving and had some leisure time. We also got to spend a couple of nights at the Hilton, one of the most expensive hotels in Cartagena courtesy of a call made by the Indian Embassy to the General Manager of The Hilton, an Indian guy!

We flew to Panama after a couple of days and as expected, the vehicle delivery was delayed by a few days. Not wanting to waste any time, we took a city tour of Panama and were amazed to see the tall skyscrapers all around in the city.
“All these buildings have come up in the last 10 years. Panama is thriving and business is good.” A local tour guide told us. He also took us to visit the most important landmark of Panama, i.e. the Panama Canal. Nothing, just nothing can come even close to the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal. The canal is the only route between Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific ocean. The Americans build it over a 100 years ago by cutting through the narrowest stretch of Panama which has Pacific Ocean in the South and Atlantic ocean in the North. It was a treat to watch the massive cargo ships being lifted to the level of the canal by simply raising the level of water and then carefully manoeuvre through the narrow stretch of the canal to cross over from one ocean to another. We saw 106 feet wide ship pass through the 110 feet wide canal, that requires a massive amount of skill!
“It is amazing the places we get to see during this journey, people make long plans to come visit the Panama Canal, and we came here just like that…just because we happen to have a free day while the car is being prepared for delivery!” I said to Sanjay

With Mrs Shamma Jain, Indian Ambassador to Panama
With Mrs Shamma Jain, Indian Ambassador to Panama

The car was still not ready and we decided to go say hello to Mrs Shamma Jain, the Indian Ambassador of Panama.
“It is a pleasure to meet you guys and I must say you are making us all very proud. Ok listen, I am in a rush and have to go to this Indian Womens’ meet right away, why don’t you boys come with me and meet them?” she smiled and said to us when we went to see her at the Embassy
“Umm, sure, why not?” We had no clue what this meet was about, but there was no way we were going to turn down an invite from the Indian Ambassador! In the next few minutes, we were sitting in a luxury Diplomatic Chauffer driven Mercedez Benz that belonged to the Ambassador and were driving with her towards the venue of the meet.
“Why don’t you wait in the lobby while I go and tell the organizers about you. Someone will come and get you from here” she said and walked inside the banquet.
A few minutes later, 2 ladies came smiling and asked us to follow them inside. As we walked inside, a room full of around 200 women stood up and started clapping. We had no clue what to do. We were standing and smiling and feeling a bit embarrassed.
“Umm, what do we do?” I whispered to Prasad. A lady came to us and asked us go to the podium and start talking. One by one, Sanjay, Prasad and I started sharing our experiences with a room full of women where we were the only 3 guys. “Are you all married?” “What do you do about your laundry?” “Don’t you fight with each other?” were some of the questions that we were asked. After we were done, the ladies’ walked up to us for pictures. Since there were so many of them and all of them wanted pictures clicked, it was a great feeling to see that they were actually waiting and had almost formed a queue to get clicked with us! I think we are living a dream life, moments like these are not easy to get.

We sometimes go hungry, we sleep in cheap motels with shared bathrooms, we don’t bathe for days and drive overnight to avoid spending money on hotels, but when we meet people, it all seems worth it. The look in the eyes of those ladies and of everyone else who we talk to about our journey, is full of awe and admiration and even pride. That look keeps us going and no matter how many times we are asked to talk about our journey or explain the route or tell people what was the best and the worst experience so far, we do it happily because we know that it is the only time that we will get to talk to all these people in various countries during our journey.

After spending a few days in Panama, we went to the port in Colon and finally saw Forrest being driven out of the

At the Indian Women's meet in Panama
At the Indian Women’s meet in Panama

container. Every time we see Forrest come out of a port, it gives us a feeling of completeness. Without him, we feel handicapped, lost and low on energy too.
“We feel we are doing the world trip, only when Forrest is with us” Sanjay had commented. He was absolutely right. Our journey is all about seeing the world through our windscreen.

We took the car from the port, gave it a nice scrub, loaded up our bags and finally started driving from Panama towards Costa Rica. Leg 5 of the Great Indian World Trip began! Countries in Central America are fairly small in size and it is easy to drive through each one of those in a matter of days…sometimes, even a matter of hours. We hit the highway and were carefully heading north towards the Costa Rica border. We had planned to drive overnight from Panama to Costa Rica but once we reached the border around 11 PM, the barriers were closed.
“Sorry, you are late, please come back at 7 AM to go to Costa Rica” the border guard told us. We spent the night in a small hotel near the border and were back at the border at exactly 7 AM the following morning. The border crossing was chaotic and volunteers were sending us from one window to another. For a moment, I felt they were just having fun playing ‘human football’ with us. “Human Football!” Did I just say that? I have no clue if that even makes sense!

A ship crossing the Panama Canal
A ship crossing the Panama Canal

After a couple of hours of ‘window walking’, keeping a smiling face, and keeping our cool, we crossed the border and entered Costa Rica. No visa was needed because we had a US tourist visa. My first reaction on seeing Costa Rica was its gorgeous landscape. Mountains, lakes, ocean and beaches; Costa Rica is all about outdoors. We continued driving swiftly towards San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. Someone had put us in touch with Kapil, owner of an Indian restaurant called “Naans and Curriess” Finding the restaurant was easy, we used our “sense of smell” and followed the aroma of the spicy Indian curries in the restaurant! Naah, we were given regular instructions on the phone by Kapil. The restaurant was tastefully decorated and looked expensive. Correction. It cant be expensive if it is free, can it?’Kapil had invited us hungry souls to feed us some Indian food which we were craving for.
“What would you like to eat?” he asked. Sanjay, Prasad and I looked at each other and smiled at the question. “Umm, anything” I replied
“OK, let’s start with some kebabs followed by rogan josh, butter chicken, dal makhani, garlic naan and mutton biryani. Will that be ok?”. Kapil smiled and said.
We didn’t have to respond to that question! Burrrp. After eating 3 times my normal diet, all of us had to put in all the effort to stand up and walk with Kapil to meet with the staff of the restaurant.
“So tell me something strange about Costa Rica”, I asked Jose, the bar tender
“”Homes in Costa Rica don’t have addresses” Jose said casually.
“What? What do you mean? I mean, if you don’t have address, how can your receive your mails or bills?”I asked
“We have to always explain the directions on how to get to our homes”he replied
“I don’t understand, ok, so I wish to write a letter to you, what address should I put on the envelope?” I asked
“Something like this…go to street number 5, you will see a red building, take the first left from that building, go 100 metres, turn right, it is the 3rd house on the left” he replied seriously
“And that is the address that I will have to put on the letter?” i asked in disbelief.
“Yes, it is” he replied casually
“Honestly, will the letter reach you” I ask so many questions
“Umm, it may, it may not. There is no guarantee”
Öf course, there is not guarantee, what happens when they decide to paint the red building in blue color?” I laughed

After lunch and chit chatting, Kapil took us for a quick round of the city and then guided us to the highway that we would need to take towards Nicaragua, our next country. We thanked him for the food, for the hospitality and for simply making us feel so welcome in Costa Rica. Another country, another act of kindness.

We spend the night near the border and the following morning, crossed the border and entered Nicaragua. “Be careful and never let your guard down when you visit Nicaragua” was a warning that was given to us by many people in Panama and Costa Rica. What was about to happen to us was not something anyone had warned us about. We landed in the “Lap of Luxury”. Let me explain how!

Mrs Shamma Jain, the Indian Ambassador to Panama? Who took us for the Womens’ meet? She called the Consulate General

Climbing up Cerro Negro for Volcano Boarding
Climbing up Cerro Negro for Volcano Boarding

of India in Nicaragua and requested him to give us any support we required when we drive through Nicaragua. She set the ball rolling. Mr Silvio Pellas, The Consulate General of India in Nicaragua is a billionaire. I don’t know if she was aware of that, we certainly were not. Before we reached Nicaragua, I received an email from Mr Pellas’ office welcoming us to their country and asking us what we needed. I had replied saying that we wanted accommodation for 1 night and also wanted to experience ‘Volcano Boarding’, a unique sport where you climb to the top of a volcano and then slide down on a sand board. This sport is unique to Nicaragua which is home to 52 volcanoes! The very next day, I received a reply from Mr Pellas’ office saying that they will be happy to arrange a hotel for us and also organise Volcano Boarding. Great. We still had no clue who Mr Pellas really is. We crossed the border and drove for a few hours’ to a point where we were going to meet with the ‘team’ of Mr Pellas’ office that would take us for Volcano Boarding. 3 guys wearing ‘Çasa Pellas’, the company jackets were waiting for us.
“Welcome to Nicaragua. You all are special guests of Mr Pellas and we will make sure you have a wonderful time here” replied Lester, the senior member and a loyal employee working for Mr Pellas from the last 14 years. They took us for volcano boarding to a mountain called “Cerro Negro”which stands for Black Hill. An instructor was already waiting with the sand boards. So 4 people were on standby to take us for volcano boarding. We climbed up the completely black burnt volcano which had last erupted in 1999. I had never seen a volcano so up close and personal before. The 1 hour climb to the volcano was tough but very exciting. Holding our sand boards, all of us climbed up the Cerro Negro volcano.
“The volcano once erupted in the 60s and the lava and the rocks from the volcano were so hot, that they kept burning for 30 years till the early 90s”, Lester told us. As we reached the summit, the wind became extremely strong. It was so strong that I had to plant every step very firmly in the ground fearing that otherwise, the wind may just push me off the volcano. The instructor gave Sanjay and I overall suits, protective glasses, gloves and then he positioned me on the sandboard, gave me instructions on where to keep my hands and legs during the slide, and then he pushed. I started sliding down, slowly at first, but in a few seconds, the sand board picked up speed and before I knew, I was sliding down an active volcano at a speed fast enough for me to be able to keep a control on myself. All I remember is that the burnt mud was flying on my face, in my hair, inside my overalls too and for a few seconds I thought that I will topple. After 30 seconds or so, I kind of got the hang of it and I started enjoying the momentum of the sand board speeding down from the volcano. I was screaming, I was laughing, my heart was beating fast with the adrenalin rush and I didn’t want the slide to end. Halt. Within 2 minutes, I was at the bottom of the volcano which had taken us 1 hour to climb. Sanjay followed behind soon and he too like me, was screaming and laughing with excitement.
“We hope you enjoyed the experience. Let’s get to the hotel, you can freshen up and then we will take you for dinner” Lester said.
The hotel was no ordinary hotel. All 3 of us were given separate rooms (a massive luxury in our world) in the most

With Lester (extreme lft), tasting Fora de Cana Rum
With Lester (extreme lft), tasting Fora de Cana Rum

luxurious hotel of the town. After cleaning up, we were taken to the fine dining restaurant of the same hotel where Lester made us taste an 18 year old ‘rum called ‘Flor de Cana’.
“This rum also belongs to Mr Pellas’company, it is also the most consumed rum in Nicaragua” Lester said proudly.
“You have to experience this rum using all your senses. First see the beautiful color of this rum, then smell it, then just swirl it around in your glass and see how it sticks to the glass while sliding down. “he continued. Then he made us do something unusual. He made us pour a few drops of the rum in the palm of our hands and rub it in both hands like a moisturiser.
“See? It’s not sticky at all. Doesnt it feel smooth and soft in your hands?”Lester was very proud of the rum and we did enjoy this unusual experience. Oh yes, finally we did get to drink the rum too!
You may be wondering where was Mr Pellas in all this? He was out of town. We had never met him, we had not even spoken to him. We were 3 strangers who were being treating like VIPs by him simply because he was made aware of our arrival in Nicaragua. “Lester, I would like to speak to Mr Pellas and thank him for his hospitality” I said
“Mr Pellas is a very busy man, but I have his hotline number. Let me message him and then he will tell me a good time to call” Lester replied. He messaged Mr Pellas and within a minute got a reply to call him back. I was put on the phone.”I thanked Mr Pellas for everything he had done for us and told him how grateful all of us were. His reply was very simple.
“Tushar, I am proud of what you young guys are doing. Don’t thank me, who knows, some day I may need your help? If I do something nice today, you will do something nice for me someday when I am in need, wouldn’t you? Always help strangers Tushar.” Is all he replied. He further told me that his company will also give us a full tank of fuel and that we should not hesitate in asking for anything else that we require. And we didn’t. Sanjay and I joked that the tyres of our car were last changed before we started the world trip. They had done 50000 km and had to be changed very soon.
“Should we ask Lester if they can give us new tyres”? Sanjay said
“I guess we can, I mean, worst thing is that he will say no” I replied
“Ok, let me talk to the boss about it”Lester said and called Mr Pellas. He put the phone down in 1 minute.
“Done, Mr Pellas would like to gift you 4 brand new tyres and also fully service your vehicle tomorrow morning before you leave for El Salvador” Lester replied smiling

Rooftop of Basilica Cathedral in Nicaragua
Rooftop of Basilica Cathedral in Nicaragua

I smiled and thought about the several warnings we had received before coming here, “Be careful when you go to Nicaragua, anything can happen there”. You bet.

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