No trip to Nicaragua would be complete without going into the mountain interior. The problem is the bus system. Buses leave to Rio Blanco every four hours, they’re packed, and if you’re late you might have to stand for the whole ride. The solution is to bribe a taxi to break a bunch of laws so you can get to the bus station on time. Oh, what $4 can buy . . .
Now, this probably wouldn’t be a problem for you at all; you’re a responsible traveler, no doubt, and would know when your bus was going to leave weeks before your trip started. I am not. I think travel, like life, is best when not stuck to a strict plan.
Since I didn’t know when our bus would leave and no one could tell me, and since I didn’t want to stand for our five-hour ride if we got there late, I took a taxi to the station by myself, early in the morning, so I could find out. The ride to the station and back took about an hour with the taxi driver stopping and picking up other passengers along the way, and by the time I got back to the hotel Britney and I didn’t have much time. We grabbed all of our stuff, got out the door as quickly as we could, and then I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do, but have never have wanted to pay for.
After hailing a taxi I asked the driver how much it would cost for a ride to the bus station. “50 Córdobas.” “Great, our bus arrives in 30 minutes. If you get us there before then I’ll give you . . . a $100-Córdobas tip.” That’s $4.
It was the most impressive city driving I’ve seen, rivaled only by my experience with New York taxis, but with more broken laws. He went as fast as his little car could take us at every chance he had, took detours through neighborhoods to avoid slow parts of the road, and ran red lights whenever he could get away with it. When we came to a red light and had about 15 cars between us and the intersection, he simply drove on the shoulder of the road until he had passed all the cars, then turned in front of them to wait until the light turned green. We got a seat on the bus and he got his tip.
Into the mountains
The ride to Rio Blanco is long, the bus is cramped, and the road is pot-holed, which makes it hard to do anything except pop a pain pill and think. As an 6-foot 2-inch adult, I’m not designed for the school buses I rode as an elementary student. My tail bone lands firmly on the iron bar of the bench, so I’m forced to slouch or sit with my feet in the aisle, which isn’t an option because of all the merchants and passengers walking past. Britney could have laid her head back, except for how well the bus’s old shocks transferred every bump through the whole metal structure into every passenger, bouncing and jostling with every hole and turn.
With the jewelry cooperative and La Chureca on my mind–still day-dreaming about the possibilities–I looked around at the other people on the bus, a mask of boredom worn by most of them just like it was worn by me. I wondered what they were daydreaming about and how their culture influences their secret ambitions.
Outside the bus everything became a shade of blue, green, brown, and white. The city was behind us, along with its cement and smog, storefronts and graffiti, advertisements and FSLN propaganda, and now it was just mountain and sky, a loud engine, wind coming through the bus window, and my thoughts.
We arrived at María’s on time and prepared a few things so we could leave at four the following morning. We were glad to have a trusted bed and a bed net – we were now far enough inside the country that malaria and dengue fever were a risk.
The morning came and we started what has become my favorite bus-ride of all time – three hours up into the mountains to the community called Naranjo, which I’ve done on both trips to Nicaragua. As an outsider, most people act differently around you. In Nicaragua, especially, everyone is seen as a potential customer. In the mountains, that stops. From the darkness before sunrise to the heat of mid-morning, Britney and I were flies on the wall – strangers in a foreign country observing the daily routine of Nicaragua’s humble farmers. These are cowboys returning after selling milk or livestock in town; young students going to school for the day; families going home with a baby in their arms and a toddler on their lap; and elderly men returning from the city after trying to buy a new horse, but finding out it had a gimp leg.
There was a boy in the front-right seat who had a space available next to him that he wouldn’t give up, even to elderly passengers, until a cute girl got on the bus. I had talked with a young guy on my first trip, on this same bus-ride into the mountains, who had asked me how many girlfriends I had.
“Uh . . . one,” I said.
“Only one?” he asked. “I have a girlfriend in every town!”
I’m sure he was just boasting, but as I looked at the two young people in the front-right seat of the bus I wondered how much of this was a daily routine and whether or not she was happy about it. Were they dating? Did she like that he saved her a seat, or was this just something he did to pick up on cute girls? His family owned the bus, so he stayed on it all day going back and forth into the mountains – were there other girls along the route that he saves that seat for? Naturally, as a camera-happy American, I took a picture so I could journal about it later. I’ve been watching chick-flicks and reading love stories my whole life, but they’re all depicted in American settings. I was thinking about the love story of the future, as America no longer dominates culture and as Nicaragua and other poor countries find their own two feet. This could be the setting for a chick-flick in Nicaragua – two young people flirting on their morning ride into the mountain-farms above Río Blanco.
Since the ride is long and the bus drivers do this route all day, every day, we stop halfway in a little town called Wánawá. Here there is a café with no sign, but known by everyone anyway, to which bus passengers quietly shuffle to eat whatever is cooking: usually fried chicken, hand-made tortillas, slow-cooked beans, and fresh cheese, along with your choice of a few different “frescos.” The smoke rises slowly towards the windows and gaps in the roof, which creates soft rays of light as the sun passes through. The walls are decorated with newspapers and framed photographs of graduations and weddings that are placed on backgrounds of Disney Land or palaces, never against the natural scenery around them.
Our cultures continue to interact in ways I don’t fully understand. Americans take as many pictures with natural scenery behind them as possible – it’s our proof that we were there, with our faces stamped into the photograph in front of the Eiffel tower or mountain scenery to prove it. These Nicaraguans like to place themselves artificially in American or European destinations. They wear American clothing and watch American movies dubbed over in Spanish. The fantasy is an American one, not Nicaraguan. Though certainly they’re proud of their country–they all know how beautiful it is–I wonder when little things like the backgrounds for pictures on the wall will change, when their culture’s appeal will be stronger to them than America’s.
It’s early, but it’s the weekend and it’s Nicaragua – there’s work to be done. Plus, sleeping in isn’t really an option when you’re surrounded by roosters, not to mention to insects and birds of the jungle. Here, farmers talk in the foreground and kids play soccer in the background. A Claro dish can be seen at the top of almost every one of the houses in this little square. Cellphones are new to the area and people need to refill their minutes often. Someone started selling them first, it went well, and everyone else copied. Now you can get your refill anywhere you’d like.
After our little break in Wánawá, it was another hour or so until we arrived in Naranjo. We were there to help give a survey (the director of the program, Tab Barker, wants to start collecting data so he can to measure how much a good school and access to clean water affects education) and we were there for María to meet with the adults of the community so she could coordinate the rest of the work that needed to be done to finish the school. We were also there to dance, to laugh, to eat, and to learn.
To laugh, to eat, and to learn
There were two surveys, one of which was for the kids. Britney stayed with María in one of the houses by the school and Manuel and I walked from home to home to asked our questions. Each time the whole family would come around, bring us a drink and something to eat (again, some of my favorite food – hand-made tortillas and a fresh white cheese called guajada), and we’d chat. One of the questions was meant to determine what the kids liked to do, and Manuel always asked it in a way that made it fun: “I’m going to give you a list of things you could do, and I want you to tell me which things you like to do the most, OK? Do you like to work, go to school, go to church, or play the most? Work?! Well, this one’s going to be a hard worker, isn’t he?! OK, so out of the rest of the three, which do you like to do the most – go to school, go to church, or play? Church?! Well, he’s a serious boy!” I got the feeling that many of these kids were answering with what they thought their parents would like to hear rather than what they’d actually do if they had the choice – some parents even answered for their kids.
Other questions were meant for the adults, to determine their level of income and to survey how many children they have, etc. Tab wanted me to help get these surveys started and report back to him, and I was very interested in helping; this was a good excuse to ask questions I was already extremely curious to know about anyway. It also made me feel like a pampered fool for complaining about my job.
Take this field for example, which has been cleared and is almost ready to plant. First, the trees were cut down; then, organic beans were planted to choke out the rest of the vegetation; and then a man came through with a machete, stooped low so he could reach, and cut everything down as it is seen in this picture. That man was paid 100 Córdobas a day by the other farmer who owns the land, which is $4, something I make in less 15 minutes of sitting down in an air-conditioned room, often googling pictures of cats or complaining that my work isn’t meaningful. My grandma could barely get me to mow her lawn for $35 when I was a kid even though all I’d have to do is walk behind a lawn-mower that moved itself, turn it when I got to the end of a row, and listen to music. It took about three hours to mow that lawn, so I made $11.67 an hour. Then my brother and I would complain about how strict she was when she’d take us around the lawn and point out all the spots we missed and ask us to finish it up or grab the gas-powered leaf blower to blow the grass off the sidewalk. A pampered American, indeed . . . .
Britney’s secret mission
In Nicaragua, dogs are there for the same reason they came around us to begin with – they stay because we have food and we let them because they’re useful. They keep away the snakes, rodents, and everything else that creeps around in the jungle, and warn us if anyone else is coming close. But if they eat the chicken or get in our way, whack. They get pretty good at staying a few feet away but still begging, and they don’t like to get very close.
Britney, with her feminine sensibilities (*bracing for a slap), and being the American that she is, made it her goal to gain the trust of the little dog you see in this picture. She slowly came closer and closer, and Britney would hold on to the food until she came as close as she would, and eventually she even ate right out of her hand. It was quick, though, quick enough to be hard to catch on camera, and this was the only picture I got when she was close. Britney had a friend and the dog had a new source of food, and both felt pretty good about the whole arrangement.
When I feed my dog at home, he, also being a pampered American, lets it sits in his dish until he feels like eating. With three or four other dogs around, as well as pigs and chickens competing for the scraps, these dogs on the farm don’t hesitate and they don’t chew. I tossed them some grilled meat I couldn’t finish (having been fed about eight times that day) and it was gone in a second, the dogs swallowing as quickly as possible so they’d have room in case anything was left, and then looking up at me with their round eyes to see if I had anything else to give. I suspect that having round eyes and eyebrows is one of the gifts of evolution that have kept dogs fed for millenia.
Things go at their own pace in the mountains; clocks don’t dictate what a person does or send them anxiously running so they can be “on time.” We had told every family to meet us at 4:00 in the school for a community meeting and we had showed up a little early. 4:00 came and went, and people straggled in and chatted or watched the movie someone had started on the TV, and no one did anything. 5:00 came and went and I got nervous about wasting people’s time. I didn’t want them to be upset about missing out on the work they needed to do because we had told them to come to a meeting. I asked Maria and she smiled at me and said, “Oh, that’s what we call mountain time. We say 4:00, but people come when they come. When everyone is here we’ll start.” I wonder if I could convince my boss of this philosophy the next time I’m written up for being late.
TV is amazing when you haven’t watched it for awhile. Its pull is almost unavoidable, even if it’s a kid’s program that’s on. When I was a Mormon missionary and I hadn’t watched TV for over a year, I had a companion who was completely useless if a TV was playing in the house – his eyes would be pulled towards it and there was no way to get him back, so I’d have to go on without him. So it was with Britney, and, I suppose, with these people who had only recently obtained electricity and probably hadn’t watched more than a few hours of programming in their entire lives. The movie was Kungfu Futbol and I highly recommend it – after a few weeks of not watching TV it’ll become one of your favorite movies of all time. Britney’s zombie TV-watching face can attest to that.
Everyone finally having arrived, the meeting began. María is an excellent community connector and she’s also pretty blunt when things aren’t being done as they should be. In this community, there were still some things that hadn’t been take care of (the name hadn’t been painted on the school and the floor hadn’t had a second layer of protective coating placed over it) and María did what she does best and called a few people out on it. The response was good. Everyone came to agreement, some plans were set, and the meeting was done after about an hour.
The day’s tasks done, this trip was complete. The next morning we were to travel back to Rio Blanco early in the morning and then catch a bus from there to Managua – eight hours of bus travel in total, before sleeping in a hotel and then leaving by airplane back to the States. We had one night left here in the mountains, away from commerce, away from everything we had to do and that we wanted to become, a night to take a shower outside as the sun set, to chat in the dark with no natural or artificial light to distract us from where we were, and to enjoy Nicaragua.
Without any city lights around for a hundred miles, it gets very dark and the stars all come out. As we chatted outside the home we were to sleep in, María, Manuel, Britney and I, along with a couple of the farmers, darkness fell, but our conversation continued. It was fun, talking and laughing with friends you can no longer see. I think it always is. It reminds me of having sleep-overs when I was a kid and has that mischievous energy we used to get when we did something we weren’t supposed to (“Turn out the lights and go to sleep!”). With people of a different culture, and while speaking a different language, some of the obvious differences between us were taken away with the setting of the sun. We couldn’t see skin color, clothing, or even the mountains and the huts around us. We could have been anywhere and anyone. We were just friends and acquaintances sitting on our back porch and talking.
As the sun set, the fireflies came out. They were larger than any I’ve seen before. Britney had never seen fireflies at all and was completely enamored with them. We went into the large clearing next to the home and tried to catch some of the fireflies with our hands. After failing for a few minutes, Manuel came to help us. Smiling, as he often is, he showed us that the bugs were attracted by light. That’s why they lit up in the first place, he said – to attract mates. He used my cell phone’s flashlight app to get a few to come near and, sure enough, caught a couple for Britney to see.
I felt, for a moment, as if we were in some enchanted forest, the kind we read about when we were kids, and imagined that these were some sort of magical creatures around us, fairies or something else. I grabbed Britney’s hand and placed my other hand on her waste, and told her I loved her. We rocked and turned, laughed and sighed, and smiled against each others’ faces.
In the middle of Nicaragua, a recently engaged couple danced in the darkness, a shifting blanket of fireflies below and around them, stars above.
The long road home
We woke first to the sounds of the mountain farm (roosters, dogs, insects, birds) and then, finally, to the light of the sun. It was cold, and fog had settled in the low points of every part of the mountains, making for beautiful scenery. I snuck back to my cot before the others woke up (it gets really cold at night and Britney and I both had only one thin blanket). We packed our things, Manuel grabbed the desk from the school, and we headed out to the place on the road where the bus would pass and pick us up.
One thing Britney had not yet done, because for some reason the buses we had ridden so far wouldn’t allow it, was to ride on top. When we got to Wánawá, the driver told us it would be OK and we joined four of five other passengers for the hour and a half of the ride we had back to Rio Blanco. This is, I think, the best way to travel, as long as you make sure to duck under the power lines and tree branches.
The sky was cloudless and the sun was warm. We were in that perfect place where the wind from the bus’s movement took away the sting of the heat, but the sun kept us from getting cold. A group of 20-year-old kids were on top of the bus with us, sitting on a spare tire, a chicken inside a bag placed in the tire’s hole. One of them picked up old cocoa beans that had collected in the grooves of the bus’s metal roof, unzipped his friend’s bookbag, and put them in without him knowing. Then he looked back at us and laughed.
We were tired. This was the end of our trip. We lied back on the bags of cocoa beans and alternated between napping and looking up at the trees and clouds passing over head.
The world looks very different when it’s upside down and moving past you, and when you aren’t looking ahead to see what turns you’re about to make. It’s nice just to live in that moment and enjoy it, thinking of how glad you are to be there.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to read from the beginning, here’s the intro.
I’d love to hear what you think – if you have any feedback, let me know! Or if you’ve gone on a similar trip and want to reminisce about it, I’m all ears.
Also – if you need any help with traveling to Nicaragua, or if you know of any great nonprofits down there that I haven’t talked about, let me know.
Happy travels, friends.