Leaving Nicaragua

Suddenly, it’s over.

Martina and I climb from the bus, and wave to Spencer, Marlon, and Myra. A quick, light lunch of fruit and orange-carrot juice and walk in the light rain to Martina’s Esteli boarding house. In a sleep-deprived trance I pack my bag, update my facebook status, shoot an email to the only guy who seems to not take my perpetual absence personally (“Nicaragua was just amazing, can’t wait to tell you about it! Dinner in two weeks, when I get back from Colombia?”), and we flag a taxi in the spitting rain.

I can’t think about leaving or imaging my mornings without Martina or our shared adventures, so I don’t. Or I’ll cry. So Martina and I chit-chat like it’s nothing. But our faces are tense.

And when we pull into the station, the bus is unexpectedly already loaded and ready to go. It’s a cruelly quick kiss on the cheek and last hugs, and I’m onboard the bus, in the seat behind the driver so he can keep an eye on me and flag me when we arrive at my Managua stop.

The city bus is surprisingly plush, and I sit back in cushioned luxury. Laughing with the driver and his assistant, as I watch us barely cheat imminent death, time and again, through the massive windows. We stop once, for the driver’s assistant to hop from the front to pick up two cups of coconut ice cream from a roadside station, as passengers sit and wait, indifferent.

Mountains, countryside and life, accented with Sandinista-era murals of children loading automatic weapons, swirl by.

A pastel rainbow of thousands of plastic bags float along side us. They pile up along barbed wire fences and the corners of tiny houses. And despite myself (and the environmental damage I know it represents), glittering in the setting sun, the colorful garbage takes on a new, strange, beautiful glow.

It’s the first quiet moment I’ve had in days. And I can’t think of much more than the sound of my own breathe, exhausted and happy, in every sense of the word.

Hours flit by. We trundle into the baking streets of Managua, and I  hop off the bus at the yellow-stucco Best Western strategically located across the street from the airport, so I’ll only have to roll from bed and cross the street to catch my early morning flight.

When I see my tanned, dusty face and greasy hair and not-so-clean sundress in the open-air lobby mirror, I smile back at the stranger. Every bit a back-packer now. Well, somewhat — the laptop and fancy camera in my pack would say otherwise. So much has changed.

It’s hard to remember the girl I had once been, who had put her head down and worked so diligently at the 9 – 5 (often more) from a carpeted cubicle ensconced in florescent light, dreaming of someday, living some kind of different life…

My simple, over-priced double-room feels like a museum, so quiet, massive and perfectly laid out.

A cool swim, a shower and quiet dinner alone, as I pour over photos and memories, between little conversations in much-more-fluent Spanish, with my waiter…as sun-burnt families and tour groups grow louder and louder, with every round of drinks. I decide I’m quite happily alone. And I fall into bed, asleep by 8PM.

The next morning, I walk through the sunlight and across the four lanes of traffic, to the barbed wire encased airport. I wait for my connection to Panama City, and then, finally, Colombia.

Riding in the Back of a Truck

We walk slowly to the store, through a maze of narrow alleys and along an old cemetery, filling each step with more stories and details of the lives we’ve lived in the last six months, as men in cowboy hats wait on horses lazily grazing the green grass along the river and the sun spreads gold and rose arms across the sky.

Back at Carmen Maria’s, a simple dinner of hot pasta in front of the TV feels like five star luxury. Then to bed.

I lay for a few minutes. Savoring my own stillness, as the little Nicaraguan town around me continues to move. Shadows flit across glazed windows, the rattle of Spanish spoken way to quickly for my ears to comprehend. The bark of a dog. A motorcycle kicks off. A girl laughs.

I wake up with sunlight streaking through the window. Martina’s already made pancakes — delicate, buttery, dripped in honey — with hot, dark coffee. A thank you and a smile. Each bite tastes like the best breakfast ever. More than anything, after months traveling solo more accustomed to having my guard up than taking a breath, I can’t get over the sweetness of being cared for. We sit amongst Carmen’s collection of china figurines, for a moment in the handful of quiet minutes, until there’s a hollow rap on the massive metal door.

Smiles and a deep breath, and we’re off again.

Gustav, a heavyset man with requisite cowboy hat and mustache, uses gnarled hands to carefully sweep the bed of his old green pickup truck–our seats for the next stint of the trip. We climb in and hang onto the black, wrought-iron rails as we drive into town. The warm wind (in the dead of my winter) and the freedom of traveling however we please feels like a treat, and I feel like two kids in a parade. Passersby glance, then again. Two white girls riding in a pick up truck in a swirl of dust and sun.

We make stop after stop. Piling stacks of notebooks, paper, groceries and one red pinata into the bed of the truck until it’s nearly full. Then settle carefully between bags and sun-scorched metal for the long ride. Outside Esteli, tiny towns flit by between long expanses of absolutely nothing but dry jungle trees. My hair whips out of it’s french braid into a snarled halo around my head as we speed along. Trucks speed up within feet of the back bumper, lights flashing, as we wave off would-be admirers.

“We’re one hour late.” Martina worries.

“Sounds like we’re right on time!” I figure Nicaraguan’s must have a concept of Nicaraguan time that’s similar to Mexican, Indonesian, and Ethiopian time.

Bus Ride to Esteli

One last, hurried dip in the cool lake. Howler monkeys groan, to each other, across the jungle. I put my hands on my ears to try to stop their uncomfortable, grating sound as I hike up the hill to my hostel bed. I throw sun clothes and laptop back into my pack, and off we go.

The taxi putters up the steep walls of the old crater, then tumbles downhill, winding it’s way through tiny towns until we stumble into the bus station.

Exhaust and ranchera music blow from the behemoth machines, coming and going, and all painted like a garish rainbow. Exuberant calls of bus staff, announcing departures and arrivals and who-knows-what rise above the steady hum of everyday conversations of people lounging in the hot shade of the station. Everywhere is someone sitting, selling, moving.  We stand, waiting with our bags, saying nothing yet grabbing more attention than the drivers calling out routes. I’m tall and Seattle-winter-pale. Martina is typical-adorable. No man in sight and we couldn’t attract more attention.

Martina looks around nervously, then pulls out her microphone as I dig out my massive camera. We’d talked about how wonderful the atmosphere and background noises of the station would be for a radio program, but in front of the staring masses, it’s not so easy calling more attention to yourself.

“Look,” she says, her hands are shaking. She looks at me, dark eyes unusually serious and full of worry.

I’ve never known Martina to scared. (I’ve heard her tell stories of it, but never seen it.) I try to laugh it off, I try to use my height to create a human-screen, anything to put her at ease. But it’s pretty hopeless, as Martina records, but eventually, a line of vendors swing to my right to crowd around us. Forget business as usual, we’ve become the attention vortex of the small bus station.

We board a disappointingly traditional yellow bus (I’d secretly hoped for one of the buses with the crazy colors and a Spanish name). But it’s not to be. Instead, our bags are tossed in a Tetris-style pile, that reaches the bus ceiling, against the emergency door at the back. We fall into the stiff school bus seats with #34 and #33 have been spray painted on the green, faux-leather seats.

The bus rattles through busy Managua, baking in the sun. We’re lugged uphill and race through Nicaraguan countryside, small towns and clusters of shacks lining the road. Ragged dogs and children run through the sunshine. Men in dirt-covered shoes peddle flats of fruit and juice on rusted bikes. Towns give way to fields of green grass, then dry grass that’s burning in slow procession (compared to our Nicaraguan-bus-race-against-time that I swear is better and cheaper than any rollercoaster ride).  Where the deep black earth and flicker of fire ends, herds of sleek cows graze along the road. And the bus lurches on, speed past slower-moving cars and buses, around corners and uphills — wherever it finds them — escaping imminent death, time and again, like it were nothing.

Martina and I pull out headphones and pretend to dose, in an effort to block out the endless questions from our all male counterparts.

The bus slows to a stop. Martina shakes her head — No, we’re not there yet.

Instead the ticket collector hops off the bus, picks up a couple watermelon (sandia! I remember). Grocery shopping completed, we’re off, again. Withered trees create skeleton-silhouettes against the orange-red sun, sinking lower in the sky. Steep mountains rise from the valley floor. Plastic shopping bags, pink, green, blue, white, striped, swirl in the afternoon light, collecting in droves around the occasional fence post. An uncomfortable rainbow of consumer color as we speed towards the jungle.

We never actually sleep, despite the early morning, and stumble off the bus in the dusty parking lot of a gas station in Esteli. A cabbie navigates through a series of roads, and low, concrete slab houses, painted gorgeous turquoise, yellow, and red and bright blue, and set nearly on top of each other. We arrive at Carmen Maria’s (after a stop for the cabbie to chat with a friend and pick up another fare) and black, iron doors open to a soft pink interior of a nearly open air house where only the rented rooms have doors.

Martina hugs and kisses Francis, the teenage caretaker with cherubic round face and careful smile who seems to simultaneously watch us and ignore us. At least me. I can’t help but feel completely embarrassed when she frowns at my rough Spanish, mixed with bits of inadvertent (but strangely habitual) Amharic and Turkish. Can’t I at least do one language justice in this lifetime? And I resolve to do better.