I awoke early the next morning, checked out of my hostel, and caught a taxi to the bus terminal. The sun was still low on the horizon, but the Nicaraguan heat was already heavy in the humid air. The taxi driver dropped me off across the street from the bus terminal, which also happens to be one of Managua’s busiest central markets, Mercado Huembes. The place is always alive with chaos.
I paid my driver and got out of the cab, but before I could even haul my backpack out of the trunk, I was spotted by a bus worker who sprinted across the busy street, dodging traffic to be the first to get to me. A gringo with a backpack is a valuable commodity in these parts. There are probably hundreds of locals who work the area, looking for gringos. They help you find your bus, and they get a commission from the driver, and maybe even a tip from the gringo. I knew the hustle well. Many foreigners don’t trust these locals who take their bags and expect you to follow them as they sprint through the market – it can feel like they are trying to lose you and steal your stuff. But if you’re ready to roll with it, it actually is a helpful service.
“San Juan del Sur?” He barked. “La Playa? To the Beach, my friend?” He guessed at my destination so that he could help me get to the right bus. Most gringos were headed to the beach, but not me, not this time. I was heading straight for the border.
“No, amigo, para la fontera,” I said, “Penas Blancas.” I told him the name of the little border town on la frontera, the border with Costa Rica.
“Ah,” he said, thinking he had me figured out, “Vas a Isla Ometepe.”
“No,” I said.
The island of Ometepe was a popular tourist destination near the border. It is a beautiful volcanic island, full of unsullied nature: organic farms, jungle hikes, waterfalls, monkeys in the trees, and plenty of dreadlocked travelers who never were able to leave those pristine shores of Lake Nicaragua. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to stop there this trip.
“Necesito ir a la fontera, directo.” I clarified. I needed to go straight to the border, direct. He told me there wasn’t a direct bus to the border, but I could take the express to Rivas and change there. I knew Rivas well – it was only a 30 or 45 minute ride to the border from there, and buses were frequent.
I agreed with the destination, and he grabbed my backpack out of the trunk and darted across the street without another word. I had to sprint to catch up to him, and when I did, I held firmly to one of the straps that dangled off my pack, and tried to keep up as we slipped into the market. The narrow alleyways of Mercado Huembes are like a labyrinth. It’s easy to become disoriented. All the shops look like they were pieced together from the same pile of scrap wood, corrugated sheet metal, and bailing wire. Every little shack was the same, and the all stood crammed together in long, twisted rows that formed the winding alleyways and thoroughfares of the mercado. We passed by shops selling shoes, soaps and cleaning supplies, broken radios and fan parts, stalls with hooks in the ceiling that held swaying slabs of freshly slaughtered meat, stalls with huge bowls of rice and beans and spices, separated by color. There were stalls selling hand-made wooden toys for children, next door to stalls selling live chickens, next to stalls selling bootleg movies and pornographic DVDs.
As I was lead (practically drug) though the market by my helper, all these sights and sounds and smells whirred by my in a blur until finally we arrived at a row of buses. The man hurled my backpack into the underbelly of a bus and gestured for me to get on. I thanked him and dropped a couple Cordobas of change into his palm before he disappeared back into the crowd, on the hunt for his next gringo.
After a bit of waiting, and the standard parade of people boarding the bus to sell chips, bags of water, sodas, peanuts, and other snacks, the bus finally departed and I found myself sitting next to a nice Nicaraguan man from Esteli. He told me that he was opening a bakery in Costa Rica, and that he was heading down there to do some work. His name was Santiago, and we chatted in Spanish and became friends over the course of the journey.
The ride from Managua to Rivas took about 3 hours. Even though the bus was supposed to be an express, it still took a long and winding route out of the chaos of Managua’s city center, and it stopped often to let pick up passengers and their goods. I was lucky to have a seat. All around me, the bus slowly filled with people and their cargo. Boxes were stuffed into the overhead racks, burlap sacks of rice and beans were piled on the floor of the bus in front of my feet, and everywhere, sweaty humans were crammed into the open space until the bus was full. The term “full” is very relative, and in Nicaragua and Guatemala, especially, “full” goes far beyond anything an American could possibly imagine.
Santiago and I dozed in our seats as the scenery and the time slipped by.
It was about 1PM when Santiago elbowed me awake.
“Vamos, gringo,” he said with a smile. Let’s go.
I grabbed my bag from under the seat, hopped off the bus, and grabbed my backpack from the storage area under the bus. I was still in a groggy haze when the bus pulled away and Santiago and I were left standing on the side of the road in Rivas. The Nicaraguan sun hung hot and high in the sky.
Santiago told me that we should wait there for the bus to the border. The sun was unrelenting and there was no shade anywhere nearby, so I dropped my backpack in the dirt and sat on it, sipping water and wiping the sweat from my forehead.
After 20 minutes of idle chit chat with Santiago and a few others who had gathered, a bus pulled over. It was a classic Chicken Bus: An old school bus with a roof rack, piled high with bags and boxes. The windows on the side had letters painted on them: “En Dios Confiamos.” In God we trust. Across the windshield was scrawled, “Rivas – Penas Blancas.” This was our bus.
Cargo was piled high on the roof of the bus, and a man was riding up top, cinching up the spider web of ropes that held the precarious cargo in place. This was his job. Another man hopped out of the front door of the bus to hurl luggage and cargo up to him. He took my heavy backpack and flung it 15 feet skywards. The man on top of the bus caught it in the air and swung it down onto a pile of other backpacks, expertly looping the straps through a rope and pulling it tight. Without asking, the man on the ground grabbed my other bag and swung it by the strap toward the man on the roof. This bag had my laptop, camera, voice recorder, passport, and all my other important and expensive items in it, and I certainly didn’t want it riding on the roof of the overloaded bus, much less recklessly tossed 15 feet into the air. But there is was, spinning in slow motion as it left the thrower’s hand and sailed through the open air.
I reacted quickly and grabbed the strap in mid air, just as the thrower released it, and the bag came swinging back around towards me with such velocity that it almost tipped me over as it completed its swing. The thrower was shocked and looked at me with a “what the fuck” stare.
“Este bolsa queda conmigo.” I said, This bag stays with me.
He shook his head and tried to tell me there was no room, but I shrugged and took the bag with me as I boarded the bus.
I felt like I’d won some kind of battle, but as soon as I boarded the bus, I realized that the man was right. There was really no room. I’d been on some extraordinarily crowded buses in my life, and this one was certainly in the top 10.
The crowd on the bus surged backwards and forward, like a tide pool of humans, as the crowd pressed and compacted and filled all the open space. The driver saw me struggling with my bag and showed me an open space behind his seat where the bag would fit – it looked secure, and I was tired of struggling with it, so I passed the bag over the heads of several people to him so that he could wedge it into place.
As the crowd pushed further back, I was pushed along with it, but Santiago had been wedged into a space near the front and we became separate by about half the length of the bus. We smiled and shook our heads at the chaos on the crowded bus. Eventually, the engine rattled to a start, churned, and wheezed through its lower gears and we were on our way to the border.
I smiled to myself. I knew that this was the last bus of the journey. I’d have to take a few more buses in Costa Rica to get to my final destination, but the incredible journey through 5 countries in 5 days, taking only chicken buses and cheap local transportation, was finally coming to an end. This was the final bus. In about half an hour, I’d be at the border crossing, getting that final stamp in my passport and solving all my visa issues.
But I didn’t know that the next 30 minutes on that bus would be difficult, disgusting, emotional, and possibly even life changing.
Continued at Part 9: Vomit.