It’s the end of a weekend trip; something I do every couple of weeks to run to the bank, go grocery shopping and basically take a mental break from the predictable routine of my site. Sometimes I go far: 3.5 hours in bus to Managua, or perhaps to a closer city like Estelí. I can usually buy some luxuries like a smoothie, yogurt, wheat bread and Diet Coke when I take these mini-vacations, which makes the hot and crowded bus ride worthwhile. I’ll describe to you what a normal traveling experience is like in Nicaragua; it’s something that terrifies many tourists (and myself as well when I first arrived here), but is also a truly unique and far-from-boring way of travel.
I wait on the side of the road, keeping my eyes peeled for a colorful bus to come careening down the cobblestone road. Old school buses from North America are used here for public transportation. The names of the school district are either covered-up or spray-painted out, but sometimes you can still see “Springfield School District” or a similar phrase on the side. The buses are as colorful as the birds here, painted in a rainbow of colors. Stripes, ocean scenes, sunsets, and women’s half-naked bodies decorate the sides. Tassels hang from every piece of equipment inside: the steering wheel, shift stick, rearview mirror… Stickers depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Lord’s Prayer adorn the walls inside. “Only God knows if I will return” is a popular phrase to see above the driver’s seat.
I see a bus approaching. Squinting my eyes to see the painted letters announcing the destination on the front windows, I see that this is my bus. There is no real set schedule to the buses (though some might tell you there is), but they are so frequent, you usually just have to wait on the road a half hour or so and one will pass. I put my hand out, palm down and hit my fingers against my open palm, making the Nicaraguan “pull over” gesture. This simple movement is all the cobrador or “bus attendant” needs to see. He is hanging out of the open swinging door on the bus, practically falling out at sharp corners, keeping his eagle eyes out for possible customers waiting on the road. The bus signals its impending arrival with a few tweets of the horn, letting all the people they are passing know what is coming. They can be pretty insistent with the horn sometimes, seeming to say with their repeated beeps, “Are you sure you don’t want to get on?! Come on! We’re going your way!” The cobrador puts his free hand out in a “What’s it going to be?” gesture as he passes people – if they confirm with the downward-palm movement, the bus immediately decelerates. It doesn’t even stop – just barely slows enough for the person to be rushed onto the bus while it’s still moving.
I’ve made it on the bus and am immediately met with a jumble of scents. The overpowering smell of perfumed women going to work in offices as secretaries or bank tellers, fried enchiladas, tacos and potato chips being sold by vendors, hung-over men who carry the stench of last night’s alcohol binge, the fresh smell of soap of small children dressed in uniforms on their way to school, and the unmistakable whiff of chickens that people bundle under their arms like babies – on their way to someone’s stew pot.
There are no available seats, of course. The aisle is crowded with the other unlucky souls who also have to stand. I am pushed to the back of the bus by the cobrador who serves partly as a herder, shoving us around like cattle and calling out “Move back! It’s empty back there!” It’s a good thing I’m not a claustrophobic person because I am instantly enveloped in a ball of humans; plump mothers, young children practically being suffocated since they are too short to reach the open air, men wearing cowboy hats – right off their farm. I catch a glimpse of an old plaque remaining from this bus’s old days as a school bus in the United States: “Maximum capacity: 55” it reads. Hah! There is probably double that amount in that bus at the moment, and more people are constantly shuffling on and off. The bus stops every few minutes to let on or off a different person. There are no set bus stops; it is the cobrador’s job to tell the driver when to pick-up or drop-off people. As a rider, you have to stay alert and make your way to the front when it’s your turn to get off.
I hold on for dear life to the bars above my head (also adorned in colorful tassels) avoiding pushing into my neighbors too much. The cobrador weaves through the crowd with amazing agility as we zoom along, collecting money from the passengers and making change. He shifts himself between bottoms, hips, elbows, heads, breasts and stomachs being careful to say “excuse me” or “sorry” when necessary. I am always impressed by how the cobrador can remember so many things at once. He has to keep track of who has paid and who hasn’t, keep an eye out for people on the road flagging the bus down, and load large boxes and bags of fruits and vegetables (and the occasional dog) on the roof of the bus. Yes, that’s right – dogs. I have seen a bus that had a dog riding on the roof – standing up!
There are official prices for certain distances and they are supposed to be posted in a visible place on the bus, but it’s often forgotten. I ask a fellow rider what the price is to my destination and am informed that for this hour and a half ride they charge $1. I am careful about being over-charged since I am an American. I have turned into a pretty cheap person since joining Peace Corps – but when you’re only living on $200/month, every cent counts.
As the cobrador approaches me, he asks my destination and struggles to hear my answer above the noise of the pounding music. The radio is blaring, providing another layer of chaos to the ride. “¡Celos de tus ojos cuando mires otra chica, tengo celos! ¡Celos!” declares the singing woman. The songs are usually reggaetón, salsa, bachata, cumbia… declaring lost love, betrayal, or describing the perfect woman.
I get lucky: a seat opens up and I collapse gratefully. My hands have gone numb from being above my head clutching the rail for so long. I stare out the window at the rolling green hills. Rainy season is about to end and soon they will turn from vibrant to dry and dusty. Numerous buses pass us going the other way and our driver honks and throws a hand out in greeting. There is a strong camaraderie between these drivers and cobradors that reminds me of fishing captains and their deckhands back home in Alaska. Ignoring the solid yellow line in the highway, we pass other cars, buses, and donkey carts with a speed that surprises me – these buses are far from new and often break-down, but today this bus seems to be doing okay.
Today my ride is rather pleasant, but these buses can be nightmares when you’re sick. Every Peace Corps volunteer seems to have a story to share about a time when they had a bacterial infection or parasite and they had to take a 5-12 hour bus ride to get to the nearest laboratory, praying that their diarrhea would wait until they got to their destination. There are no restroom breaks on Nicaraguan buses. Being vomited on by a small child is also common.
Today however, I do not suffer from loose bowels and there are no infants in my immediate area. Just as I start to relax, a booming voice penetrates the air from the front of the bus. I crane my neck and see that there is a man selling vitamins, anti-fungal lotion and parasite medicine. These traveling salesmen frequent rural buses and are actually quite entertaining. They have excellent oratory and persuasive skills. As I listen to his little speech I find myself wondering, “Hmm, do I really need some anti-fungal lotion?? You never know…”
As we pass through a small town, we stop at the bus terminal for a few minutes and people push on and off the bus. Along with new passengers, several food vendors mount the bus, holding their wares high and in a sing-song shout, announce their products. The vendors are usually middle-aged women with generous panzas (bellies), and they all sport a frilly apron with pockets for napkins, straws and plastic bags. All foods are served in plastic bags - including drinks. The women compete to be heard above the din of the bus: “Chicken and tortilla!” “Juice, soda, water! Cold juice, soda and water!” “Hot enchiladas!” “Corn on the cob!” “Taco, my love? Delicious tacos!” I usually avoid bus food since most of it sits out in the hot sun for hours before it reaches your mouth.
The bus charges on and my destination coming into view. I get to my feet and my seat is instantly snatched up by a standing person. Struggling to the front of the bus I avoid stepping on feet as well as I can. I reach the cobrador who is counting money at the front of the bus and tell him where my stop is. As the bus slows, he grabs my bag and my hand (what a gentleman!) and helps me jump-off. No sooner do my feet hit the pavement than the bus lurches away in a cloud of dust, as the cobrador runs to catch up and jumps in the open door at the back of the bus. “¡Gracias!” I say, my words being lost in the puff of smoke they leave behind.
I orient myself and set-off to run my errands, looking forward to the Diet Coke that awaits me in the grocery store. Here in Nicaragua both the destination and the journey are exciting.