The bus from Rivas to the border was so crowded that no one could move. We were all sweaty and contorted. A certain level of discomfort wasn’t altogether uncommon on a Nicaraguan bus, but this one was certainly more crowded than most. Despite the complete lack of space, the driver pulled over for a group of school children. Boys and girls, all about 7 or 8 years old. There was literally no room left on the bus, the but it seemed like they had an obligation to pick these kids up. The man working the door shouted to everyone to move further back and squeeze in.
“No hay espacio!” Croaked an old lady from somewhere in the back. There’s no space!
The man looked around for open space on the overcrowded bus, and started picking the children up, one by one, and placing them individually wherever they would fit. He passed a child across the bus to a seated couple, who let her sit across their lap. He placed one on top of the pile of cargo near the door, and placed another standing in between the legs of a seated passenger in the front row. The children were squeezed in all over the bus, and everyone chuckled at the absurdity of it all. We were all very uncomfortable in that cramped and sweaty bus, and it was nice to be able to forget about it for a moment and laugh at the situation.
When we reached a small village a couple miles down the road, they were all off-loaded in an equally absurd manner and we continued our journey towards the border.
I noticed that there was a woman in the seat directly to my left who was slumped over into the isle. She had a child in her lap who was sleeping. The woman’s head dipped and swayed as the bus rolled over potholes. The man standing in front of me had noticed her too – and we exchanged a look as if agreeing: There was something wrong with this lady.
“Está bien?” I asked the man standing near me. Is she okay?
He shrugged, “Drogas? O tal vez borracha?” He thought she might be on drugs, or a drunk.
As if to answer the question, the woman lurched forward into the isle and vomited all over the floor. And in the process, all over my feet. I was wearing sandals and I could feel the wet chunks of sick run down my ankles and settle in between my toes. I couldn’t even see my feet, but I could feel every splash and drip. It was horrible. The patrons of the bus pressed back away from the woman in disgust, forming a small circle of space around the soiled area. Moments ago, there hadn’t been room for a few cute schoolchildren, but with the introduction of vomit into the equation, we suddenly found room enough to distance ourselves from the sick. That is: they distanced themselves. I, on the other hand, was covered in it.
I couldn’t believe what had just happened. This woman had just thrown up all over my bare feet. I was beyond grossed-out. And I had to express my anger and grossed-out-ness to her and to the crowed, especially to my new friend Santiago, and the others at the ends of the bus who probably felt the commotion, but didn’t know what happened.
“Vomisaste en mis pies!” I said to her, loud enough that everyone on the bus could hear it. You vomited on my feet!
She just kept her head down, drooling onto the floor of the bus, and croaked, “Agua!”
She wanted water, and I had an extra bottle, so I handed it to her and told her to drink.
I looked at my friend Santiago, who was laughing at my expense and shaking his head in disbelief, and I looked around at everyone else on the bus. They were all watching me and the woman, waiting to see what would happen next.
I was a little angry, but I could see the hilarity of the situation, and I couldn’t help but take advantage of the fact that everyone was waiting for me to react.
Again, loud enough for the whole bus to hear, I said in Spanish. “Hey lady, do you think you can apologize to the gringo who you just threw up on? Or maybe say “thank you” to the gringo who gave you a bottle of water? hmm?”
I said it as much to her as to the whole crowd, and I said it was a smile, and a dash of incredulous anger.
The bus was made for 40 passengers, but there were probably 100 people on board. It was hot and crowded and we were all on edge, and when I finished my little rant, the whole bus erupted into laughter. Toothless old women bared their gums and chuckled out loud, workers with gnarled hands and stoic, wrinkled faces grinned from ear to ear, bashful young women blushed and hid their smiles behind their hands, and everyone enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of the smiling gringo who was covered in old lady vomit.
As the wave of laughter subsided, the reality of the situation settled in. We had another 15 minutes to go before we’d be at the border, and my feet were covered in puke.
Also, the woman was still slumped over in her seat, only semi-responsive. She had drank half the bottle of water, spit much of it onto the ground and on my feet, and now held the bottle loosely in her hand, the cap, long since discarded. Her small child, a girl, maybe 1 year old, was still sleeping on her lap. The child had some of the woman’s vomit on her clothes, but the woman made no effort to clean it off. She just sat there, head and shoulders bobbing and swaying with every bump in the road.
The child was still sleeping, and she didn’t know any better. It seemed very obvious that the woman wasn’t just sick; she was, indeed, either a drunk or a drug addict. I’d seen similarly comatose kids in Granada, huffing the fumes of spray paint out of empty Coke bottles and slurring garbled sentences to passersby. This woman was on something, and that meant the child had presumably been subjected to the same chemicals through the breast milk she drank. The girl was lethargic. I could see her breathing slow and deep, but she never cried or shifted positions. She never moved, even with all the chaos of the bus.
I felt suddenly very connected with this child. We had both been, very unwillingly, subjected to this woman’s sickness. I’d been marked physically by it, the disgusting chunks of my brush with her addiction still clung to my feet. But that was nothing a little soap and water couldn’t fix. I worried that the sweet, innocent little girl had been marked more deeply than I. It looked as though she was sleeping in blissful ignorance of the current situation, but I knew that growing up with a drug addled mother would do irreparable damage to her psyche. It was very likely that she had already been marked emotionally by her mother’s sickness.
I worried about her. I could see her growing up on the streets, becoming a drug addict herself, probably turning to prostitution, and eventually she could end up being sick on a bus herself some day, half caring for some lethargic, damaged child of her own. An all too common cycle.
In that moment, I felt an intense paternal obligation to this child. I felt like I could see her future and that I had to help her. I wanted to call Child Protective Services (if such a thing exists in Nicaragua). I wanted to adopt her and make a better life for her. I seriously thought about just taking the girl from her barely-lucid mother right then and there, and worrying about the details later. I’d never thought very seriously about having kids of my own before that moment. But looking at that drooling, comatose woman, and her vomit on my feet, I knew that there was very little chance that I could fuck up parenthood as much as she already had.
I suddenly felt ready to be a father. I wanted to save that little girl.
But I knew there was nothing I could do.
The bus pulled into the border crossing, and everyone started to disembark. The woman remained seated with the little girl still sleeping on her lap. As I grabbed my bag from the front of the emptying bus, I looked back them.
You can’t take a child away from her mother on a bus and adopt her at a border town, no matter how fucked up you know that poor child’s life will be.
I got off the bus, collected my bag from the man on the roof, and Santiago and I walked to a nearby restaurant where I could wash my feet, and we could get some lunch before crossing the border.