I woke up early in my prison cell of a hotel room. The sun was shining brightly and it was already hot. A thin, worn piece of fabric had been hung in front of the window as a shade, but it didn’t block much light. The room was fully illuminated in all of its spartan, concrete glory. I was tired, but I had to get up and get moving. I had to make it to Managua, Nicaragua today, and to Costa Rica tomorrow. I got ready quickly, repacked my bag, and headed out.
Just around the corner from the hotel there was a little shaded area that functioned as a bus stop. There were a couple chicken buses parked in the dirt lot, and a smaller shuttle bus. I asked about the buses to the border of Nicaragua and I was told that the town I needed to get to was called Guasaule, and that there were two options. The shuttle bus went straight Guasaule, and took just over 2 hours. The Chicken Buses stopped in every town along the way and took about 5 hours. It was early, and I had all day to get to Nicaragua, so I didn’t mind taking the slower bus. But the only problem was that it was Sunday. And on Sundays in Central America, it sometimes feels like the whole world world is either at church or on a day-long siesta (in fact, many locals take their siesta in the church pews). Many shops are closed, and public transportation can slow to a crawl. I soon discovered that in this out-of-the-way border town, traveling on a Sunday was a near impossibility.
I sat with a small group of travelers who had gathered under the makeshift shade of the bus stop near the border. They were Hondurans, Salvadorians, and Nicaraguans – I was the only gringo for miles. Luggage was piled in the dirt near the small shuttle bus. Duffle bags, cardboard boxes tied with twine, and brightly colored woven plastic bags, bulging and bursting at the seams. A chicken pecked and scratched at the dirt around the luggage, looking anything to eat.
The shuttle driver was leaning against the front of the shuttle with his shirt off. His fat, proud, belly dripping with sweat in the morning heat. I asked when the bus was leaving. He continued to stare towards the border and hardly regarded me at all. “When it’s full.” he said, and spat into the dusty ground.
An hour passed and I counted the seats. There was room for 13 people on the shuttle, not including the driver. We were a group of only 6 and there weren’t many people crossing the border on that Sunday morning. Eventually a small family arrived with a man carrying their luggage piled on a bicycle that had been turned into a rickshaw. A mom, a dad, and 3 young children brought our total to 11 people.
Still, we waited.
A boy came over to the group with a box of jewelry, watches, and cellphone cases for sale. He asked everyone if they wanted to buy anything, but none of us needed a knockoff watch with a fake gold band or a case for an out of date blackberry cellphone. I struck up a conversation with the boy. He was amiable and happy to chat with me to pass the time. He asked about work in America, and wanted to know if he could sell things at the bus stops in California like he did here in Honduras. I told him I thought it was technically illegal, but that lots of people set up stalls or lay out blankets on the streets to sell things like that in the city.
We watched as a young man on crutches slowly made his way from the border to the bus, one swinging, off-balance step at a time. One leg hung crooked and never touched the ground – the other was stiff and used only for balance as he hurled himself forward with the strength of his arms and the aid of his crutches. He wore a military jacket and a Che Guevara style hat. We all crowded together to make room for him to sit on the bench and he thanked us quietly and sat with his headphones in. I could see a large scar on the side of his face, stretching from below his ear, through his hair and continuing under his cap.
The sun rose in the sky and the morning gave way to afternoon. Eventually, a couple other passengers arrived and we were finally told to board the bus as our luggage was tied to the roof. It was well into the afternoon before we finally set off on our journey to the border.
The drive across that part of Honduras is hot and desolate. There just isn’t much to see. The paved road probably only exists for people crossing from El Salvador to Nicaragua. It seems to wind aimlessly through the dry countryside from one border to the other, and it’s strewn with potholes that the driver was constantly swerving to avoid. We probably spent half the journey on the wrong side of the road. After passing through the towns of San Lorenzo and Choluteca, we made it to the border at Guasaule.
I pushed my way through the touts and pedicab bikes surrounding the bus stop and made my way to the border. After getting stamped out of Honduras, I had to make the trek from one immigration office to the next. There was a long stretch of asphalt highway that spanned that no-man’s-land between Honduras and Nicaragua. There was no sidewalk, so I walked alongside the line of semi trucks waiting for their border inspection; the diesel smoke of idling semis on my left, a field, covered in trash on my right. The level of littering in this part of the world never ceases to amaze me. Here at the border, it seemed, no one wanted to claim responsibility for cleaning up the trash.
I got stamped into Nicaragua with no trouble, but after crossing the border on foot, I realized I was still in the middle of nowhere. I asked a few people about a bus to Managua, and I kept getting the same answer: I dismissive wave, pointing me down the street. The road went from concrete to dirt, and I kept walking past the line of semi trucks waiting to cross into Honduras, and past a mechanic with a small comedor. I asked again, and they just waved me further down the street.
Finally I arrived at a crossroads. My feet toes in my sandals were caked with a mix of dirt and sweat, and my shirt was soaked through with sweat under my backpack. To the left, was a turnout with another mechanic’s shop, and in front of it stood a chicken bus. The driver had the hood propped up with a stick and was poking around the engine compartment – always a good sign. He saw me coming and shouted “Managua!” and waved me over.
As I boarded the bus, I asked if it made any other stops. It was already late in the afternoon, and I knew I was about 4 hours from Managua – not the best city to arrive in after dark. He told me the bus also stopped at the turnout for Leon, and I considered getting off there instead.
There was no roof rack, so I tossed my backpack into the window seat and I took the isle seat. The bus fired up right away and started down the road to Managua. When the money taker came around, I asked him how long it was to Leon.
“Managua,” he said, staring me straight in the eye and holding out his hand for my money, apparently for a ticket to Managua. He was a very large man. He had broad shoulders and giant biceps that stretched the fabric of his polo shirt at the sleeves. He wore his curly hair tied up in a messy bun, and his nose as wide – he didn’t look at all like your typical Nicaraguan. He definitely did look like someone you don’t mess with. Still, I wanted to avoid getting in to Managua at night, so I pressed the issue.
“The driver told me you also stop near Leon,” I said in Spanish.
“Managua,” He replied again. I waited for more of a response, but there was nothing.
“So you don’t go to Leon?”
“Managua?” I repeated, a little dumbfounded by our strange exchange.
“Managua,” He confirmed.
“Okay, then I guess I’m going to Managau.”
I handed him the money, he gave me my change and my ticket. 3 hours later, the bus pulled over, the driver shouted, “Leon!” and half the bus disembarked.
“Fucking Managua”, I said under my breath, and shot a glance at the money taker, standing like a statue at the door, staring straight ahead.
It was about 8 o’clock at night when the bus pulled up the the Mercado Huembes bus stop in Managua, Nicaragua. Managua is hectic and disconcerting during the day — and at night, the danger is palpable.
The market was empty, the sellers had long since shut their stalls. But there were lots of people milling around the bus stop, many of them eyeing the lone gringo that just stepped off the long-haul bus with a large backpack over his shoulder. I knew I needed to get a cab and get out of there quick. I asked the first nice looking person who got off the bus if he knew where a hostel was, and how much it should cost in a cab.
I was lucky – he was in town for business and was heading to a hotel where there was a hostel nearby. We shared a cab, and he directed the driver to a great little hostel where I booked a private room for about $18 and collapsed onto the bed. It had been another very long day of travel, but I was finally back in Nicaragua. All I had to do was make it to the Costa Rican Border before nightfall and my visa issues would finally be over.