Riding on Top of the Bus, with Bags of Beans

With a generous blast of a horn, the brand-new bus, striped with brown and red paint, trundles down the gravel hill.

Martina motions up the back ladder, and we climb up and up. We nestle down amongst massive bags of frijoles and the journey home begins.

We crawl along the rutted, jungle road, laying flat to dodge branches along the way. Above me, all I see is a network of leafless tree branches against the immense, cloudless blue sky. For a minute it looks the branches are roots, dipping into a massive lake. It’s like a whole new world, opening up before me, as I sit on my back, swaying with bags of beans.

I’ve never felt more tired, or more alive. I could never imagined last year I’d be touring coffee farms in Nicaragua, racing horses, or riding with a couple kids on the top of a bus. I could hardly imagine leaving my Seattle home and traveling for five months to places I’d only dreamed of. Even just being friends with the landlord of my summer house in France. I grin at Martina.

Life is one crazy, amazing thing. Truly and really.

There were a lot of turmoil and challenges in the  last few years, that I could have never imagined. But without them, those difficult moments, I wondered if I’d appreciate this moment as much? If I’d even be here, at all, right now.

Staring at the blue sky, I wonder what comes next.

Parties and Pinatas

Hard to believe, it’s our last night in Miraflor.

A last ice-cold cup-shower, standing naked and shivering in the little cement room looking up at jungle trees and turquoise sky, as the dirt of the day washes from my body.

I have never felt more tired in my life. But follow Martina to Marlon’s parents home, across the street. They are incredibly well-off, by Miraflor standards, she tells me.

Martina has brought them a blue plastic water filter, and after kisses and greetings, sets up the terracotta filter and spigot.

Marlon’s mom takes me for a tour of her garden, piles of roses, and the freshly planted amaryllises that line the path to the outhouse.  She gives me the tour, speaking no English, and somehow my exhausted brain pumps out bits of Spanish in response with a series of tired smiles.

When we return Martina is resting in the hammock. She sits up, smiling, “There you are. I’m really impressed, one minute you’re snapping photos, the next minute in the garden I find you laughing and conversing in Spanish–I never have to worry about you. It’s so nice.”

She waves off my excuses that my Spanish is pathetic, “But you try, you’re learning. It’s means more than you think. To them, and to me.”

I appreciate the compliment more than she knows. It’s been so wonderful having Martina as a tour guide, knowing full well she has her hands full with her “day-job” that the last thing I would want to be is a burden.

As the sun sets we feast on a dinner of Myra’s amazing fried chicken with our frijoles and tortillas.

After dinner, fresh lemonade is spiced up with a little rum, the pinata in the shape of a red car, is pulled out and filled with candy, and hung from the living room. Everyone has a turn, blindfolded, spun around and then swinging. When it finally bursts, candy rains from the ceiling and adults and kids dive on the floor in one sweating, laughing mess.

Then the music is cranked up. We all get up and dance, sharing dance moves and goofing off, until we collapse on the living room bench. One happy, smiling heap.

I climb under the mosquito net, guarding my rock-hard bed, one last time. The pig settling down for the night grunts like a frog, being stepped on and sends Martina and I into fits of tired giggles. And, eventually, sleep.

Goodnight, Jungle…

We pile into Myra’s kitchen at dark, with a feels-like-home familiarity.

Dinner of frijoles and fish (caught fresh that morning, hung from the rafters to smoke all day over the kitchen fire).

We are careful to pick the bones clean, for Marlon’s approval.

Lingering extended family wander home with sleepy children.

Little Mauricio sits, whittling a stick of wood, with a machete the size of his leg.

Wine is brought out and Flea (the kitten) is passed around, from lap to lap, as we trade stories, languages and jokes. Hilarious, sometimes inappropriate, jokes. The kind that leave us holding our sides and gasping for air.

Finally, around midnight when the wine and late hour have cancelled out the dinner coffee, we close up the kitchen and move to our beds. Goodnights are sung through the rafters, and I lay awake for a minute longer, listening to the sounds of a Nicaraguan house falling to sleep, in the pitch-black night.

The soft movement of blankets. The rustle of trees. The grunt-snore of the pig. The white hen (with her brood of fluffy chicks huddled under her feathers) as they lazily peep in the corner of the living room, below the bench.

Cell-Phone Reception, Dinner & the Light of a Single Bulb

I join the girls for a hike, up the side of a mountain, in search of cell phone reception. It’s no small task as we carefully pick our way, in sandals, through loose rock and dried leaves, following a seemingly impassable steep whisper of a trail. A golden-green jungle sunset peeks between massive trees and far away emerald hillsides.

In the cooling, golden evening, they stand very still. Trying and failing to place a call. Then trying again. It takes nearly an hour. When we’re about to give up, Myra’s last call reaches the DJ of the local station, which broadcasts music and commentary throughout the jungle into the wood smoked kitchens of thousands, each with a little, black transistor radio. The cloud-forest lifeline.

We head home for dinner, triumphant. Back in the tiny kitchen with it’s perfectly aged walls, weathered grey wood, collection of 10 cups, a few plates. We sink back into the bench at the table, sitting on the dirt floor three feet lower than the rest of the room.  Shoulder to shoulder, we sit. Careful to alternate how many people move at any one time, in the small space. A tiny dog, named Flea, runs under foot and a tinier, flea-bitten kitten, named Mouse, is passed from lap to lap.

Conversation and jokes spill from rapid Spanish to slow English to rapid English and slow Spanish and back again. Waves of laughter roll through it all. We’re like family in no time, despite most of being relative strangers less than 12 hours ago.

There are a few slow minutes when the conversation stops as we cough out the wood smoke that shifts from heating dinner to our teary eyes.   Wood-fire warmed dinner is passed around. A simple and tasty blend of frijoles, rice, scrambled eggs and dried fish that spent the day smoking over a fire.

We clean dishes from a small bowl of precious water (hauled the half mile from the well, earlier in the day) then sit down for more laughing and talking.

Jackson, a mildly handicapped young man in the village who lived a difficult life until

Myra and Marlon took him in, put him to work (doing house chores and work) in exchange for food and family, taps me on the shoulder  hands me Mouse (the cat) with a gummy grin and mumbled, happy Spanish.  I think of the various kitchens I’ve sat in over the years. The spaciousness, the appliances, the perfectly lit atmosphere, perfectly timed laughter. I roll my toes across the uneven, dirt floor, and smile as Mouse  stretches, warm and happy, in my lap.

The talk turns to tomorrow. The horses we’ll take, Marlon’s concerns that Martina and I (as women) can’t go alone. He insists we go with Spencer (who knows zero of the landscape or horses compared to Martina’s mastery of both). When she teases we find out it’s a man thing and talk turns to machismo. The ornate beards around the town, the horse training, the clearly defined duties of women who retreat to the kitchen.

Marlon looks very seriously at Spencer, “Spencer….what would you rate your machismo?!!”

We erupt in laughter, Mouse lifts a lazy little head up, only to settle back down with a purr. Flea (the tiny puppy) yawns at my feet.

Tired beyond-belief from a long day of travel and interviews, we sit up, way past midnight under the slight light of a single electric bulb that runs off a tiny car battery generator, it spreads a dim light around our little circle, otherwise, absolute darkness of the Nicaraguan jungle.

I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.