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.

Leaving Miraflor

The morning is a blur of activity. Breakfast and coffee, hurried packing, long hugs goodbye, last trips to the loo.

Then waiting. The bus (that makes a twice daily circuit to Esteli and back) is late. And people begin to gather at the stop outside Myra and Marlon’s. From my short time and interviews, I can recognize new friends.

It’s hard to think of leaving. So I don’t. In the months of travel over the summer, I’ve gotten good at it. And I think of how amazing my time has been. But I can’t look at Martina for too long, or I feel tears start to rise to my eyes.

Myra sneaks up and hugs me and smiles, softly singing my name. Earlier, when I was still waiting for my coffee to kick in, Martina pulled me aside. Marlon and Myra were so touched when they found out I had paid for the groceries we’d brought on arrival. It was too much. They thought of me as family and wanted to return the favor. They wouldn’t charge me for my stay.

The kindness brought instant tears to my eyes. Of course I wanted to contribute to  my stay, to Martina’s project, to the people who were making my time in Miraflor so amazing. Then to have them turn around and give back, even more than the amazing time in their home, the dinners, the laughter, the horse-rides, all of it. For a second I appreciate the kindness. Then reach in my pocket for the money I’d planned to pay for my stay. I don’t even know the words so Martina (after triple checking, are you sure?) helps in Spanish, thanking them profusely, but firmly explaining I cannot accept the kindness as I wanted to share the groceries as a gift, and not paying for my lodging, would cancel out my gift. Instead I would insist on paying.

The tears in Myra’s eyes as she listened and then hugged me firmly. Since that morning, she stayed close to my side, Joyita, you are like our family, she whispers.

I honestly couldn’t think of any better use of my money.

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.

Clearing Scorpions from Rock-Piles to Build a School

I sneak off to an empty hammock, and carefully, carefully lower my aching backside into a semi-comfortable position. I hug my laptop to my chest and hope for sleep. Just 15 minute refresher. Anything to lessen the cracked-out, tireder-than-anything, living-by-coffee feel.

But it’s not to be. Jackson and Marciela alternate visits, Jackson showing me things or dropping Flea in my  lap. Marciela leaning into my hammock curious about the photos on my computer.

A tired yawn and resignation. An awkward launch from the hammock, as Spencer, Martina and I head back to the school, now strangely deserted and quiet with the children gone for the day.The men were to leave their wheelbarrow, but there’s nothing, no tools. So we do it the old-fashioned way.

With bare hands, one at a time, we root through the weeds and drag out massive cement blocks from the pile (the remnants of a dilapidated building to be recycled into  foundation filler for the new building.)

Every rock we kick and turn over gingerly before picking up–waiting a minute, to give the scorpions a chance to run and find a new hiding place.

Every rock we lug saves Martina that much in fresh cement costs. So we work all afternoon, in the hot sun, coughing in the dust, our hands covered in cuts, until the pile is reduced to a clearing and the only rocks left are so massive we couldn’t move them, even with all of us trying.

Martina is beside herself with appreciation.

We sit on the stoop of the school, in the afternoon sun, sipping water and catching our breath. She tells of the children who have helped her, lugging baskets of rocks on their recess.

She points to the row of coleus, bravely sprouting, from rusted tins–“I don’t believe it, those are the paint cans we brought up to paint the school last time….nothing is wasted. Nothing.”

A Morning at School

After a night of tossing and turning, I wake up in the gray-gold light of dawn to a chorus of roosters and people.

I am sore beyond belief. Every little muscle screams pain, and now that I’m awake, there’s no more sleep. After breakfast, Martina and I hike to the school with the mural.

The children are outside, on recess, playing. Boys throw homemade baseballs that they hit with bat-sized sticks and antiquated gear. Girls kick a soccer ball across the rubble filled cement pad, lined with rusted out tin and rocks.

The teachers sit on a block of cement, planning the rest of the day, while a couple women work in a shed-like kitchen, preparing a watery soup for lunch. On the ground sit thirty or so jugs filled with water, which the children bring each day.

In the midst of it all, three men work on smoothing grout between cinderblocks of a waist-high new building. This is building Martina’s fundraising efforts has helped construct, and she inspects it carefully.

Then it’s time for a little fun. Martina gathers up the children and delivers a speech, encouraging them to do well in their studies and listen to their teachers, and let’s them know with the help of her UK donors (also schoolchildren), they’ll have a new play ground in the months to come.

Excitement and candy is passed around the little crowd. As a complete outsider, who is even more on the outside as I walk around the group with my snapping camera, I see clearly how they hang on her every word. How, long after the sugary treats are passed around, they linger at her side. The girls smile shyly. Even the “tough” boys give up their baseball to sit at her side.

Then we’re walking home with Santos, the lead builder. He delivers the bad news. The bid has increased. Significantly.

“Of course I want doors and a roof, for a school in the jungle!” Martina laughs tensely, “I thought that was included in the bid!!”

Santos smiles, looks at his feet as he unwraps the sucker she’d given him and each of his men, as he shakes his head, it was not.

He lets the filmy, plastic wrapper slip from his fingers, it floats to the side of the road. (I roll my eyes. The litter is atrocious in the lowlands, not here too.)

But Martina stops him. “Pick it up!” He looks at her, smiling, but un-moving. “You think I’m kidding, pick it up. This isn’t a garbage bin, this is your home!”

Santos, still smiling, stoops to pick up the refuse. (I mentally add “jungle ecosystem defender” to Martina’s growing list of titles.)

That afternoon, they sit in Myra’s empty kitchen. Papers and bids spread across the table. Martina, looks up, “How could he have not included a roof or doors.” Her hand on her head, as they run through the numbers again, and she murmurs,”I don’t know where I am to get the money.”

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.

The Downside of Horses & Jungle Showers

The horses, apparently just as eager to return home after a long day, set off racing home. It’s such a mad dash, as the horses know the path home, and egg each other on. It’s borders out-of-control and scary, but thrilling. To understand my horse enough to know it’s responding to something else. Then to try to exert some control over the locomotive.

We actually end up taking turns running the horses, putting space between us, so the horses aren’t as influenced by the thunder of another horse. Sunshine on my face, arms in the air, the jungle spinning by me.

We slow for a curve, a steep section. Occasionally, I catch the looks from children, and housewives. Though, more often, I hear the kids cheering and whooping, as they hang from windows and lean over fence rails to watch as we race by. Martina explains that in all her years in Miraflor, she’s never seen a Nicaraguan woman do more than walk a horse. Maybe my Jane Austen comparison wasn’t so off-base. Maybe we are breaking a few customs and social norms. Today, as I race after Martina. This will be the day they will see two women gallop.

It’s not until the last stretch that it starts to hurt. Really hurt. Not the aches of earlier, but cutting raw pain on my backside. I squirm in the saddle as we bolt for home.

Finally, I’m checking off my familiar landmarks: the little blue and white school with the vibrant mural, the shiny tin outhouses, Myra’s garden.

Spencer steps from his horse, Martina and I gasp, then heartlessly laugh at the seat of his pants with a soggy, blood-red eight inch circle.

I walk to my room, dislodge the hen that’s made a nest for the day on my blankets, and change from my dirt-covered clothes. To my horror, I realize what had been causing so much pain that last bit. On the seat of my pants is a matching, bloody circle.

I hobble to the kitchen, for sympathy and coffee. But it’s laughter and jokes (and hot, life-giving, coffee) as we tease each-other in between quick turns at the shower, before the sunsets and mountain temperatures dip precipitously.

In the cinderblock room, with the jungle trees and blue sky as the only ceiling and a rug hung across the doorway, I ladle careful cupfuls of ice-cold water over my head and tired body. It seeps into my saddle sores, with a yelp! Marlon and Spenser laugh from their hammocks.

And though I hobble around like an old person (or the dreaded “city-slicker” from the movies) and can’t sit back that night at dinner (or the rest of the trip) and discover a whole new level of difficulty in using the outhouse grow accustomed to the embarrassing perpetual dampness on the seat of my pants (that screams “not used to riding horses, much!!”), early-start to bloody-finish, I could not have imagined a better day.

Killing a Chicken, for Lunch

Martina smile is tense. From the side of her mouth, she says, “They just killed this chicken…for our lunch…”

As the don and his son motion for us to sit, his wife hurries around the room, the gracious hostess, and waves her hand at the table, covered in a brilliantly white, fine linen. Matching plates for each of us are set out with hot corn tortillas, heaps of steaming rice, steamed potatoes and strips of chilies, and piles of tender meat. Apparently, fresh.

We pull up plastic chairs, and sit in the gray-brown shadows.  They insist we eat. And we savor every spicy, delicious bite. Martina continues, as no one else speaks English, “…they have nothing, absolutely nothing….they hardly have enough food for themselves — and they did this…they killed one of their chickens…for us…”

No lights. No electricity. Bright paper cut-outs of angels and flowers and a single picture, in a worn frame, decorate the otherwise gray-brown walls.