Today I went to the nearby city of Estelí, “The Diamond” of the north of Nicaragua. It’s one of my favorite cities in Nicaragua. There are a few nice restaurants that serve some good gringo treats like wheat bread, homemade yogurt, and my personal favorite; a cucumber and celery juice drink (it’s amazing!) I was running the usual errands – going to the bank, getting my hair cut, shopping at the market, etc. when I ran into some neighbors from my site – Don Silvio and his wife Doña Yelva. They too were running errands. Their family owns a successful restaurant/pool business and they also have a fritanga where they sell fried food like tacos, enchiladas and plantain chips every night. They go to Estelí weekly and fill their pick-up truck to the brim with groceries to supply their little business. People who own vehicles in Nicaragua are rare, at least outside of Managua. There are not too many cars and trucks in my site and everyone knows who owns one. Most people who own a vehicle have a family member who works in the U.S. and sends money back, which is the case with Yelva and Silvio. They’re wonderful people to have as neighbors, always giving me free tortillas and juice. I sometimes watch telenovelas with one of the younger daughters in the evening, getting my fill of Spanish soap opera drama.
I chatted with my neighbors a bit on the street in Estelí– it was mid-morning and they were just beginning their errands, as was I. I was tickled that I actually recognize some people on the street. I’m realizing that I recognize more and more people now as I walk around town, in the classrooms when I give classes… I guess it’s a sign that I’ve been in my site almost a year. Don Silvio and his Doña Yelva offered to give me a ride back to town that afternoon in the back of their truck. I agreed wholeheartedly. Anything is better than riding in the crowded, sweaty, and slow old school buses that we use here for transportation (you may recall a previous blog about it).
At 3 pm I met up with Silvio and Yelva again. By this time their weathered but cared for pick-up was weighted down with large sacks of potatoes, tomatoes, melons, mangoes, onions, cucumbers, watermelon, papaya, pineapple, ground meat, chicken filets, paper towel, straws, paper plates, and eight 5-gallon buckets full of cooking oil. I wasn’t sure there was going to be room for me in the back of their truck with all their loot, but they managed to squeeze in a plastic chair for me to sit on. As we started down the road, I felt like I was in a county fair parade – sitting high atop all of these fruits and vegetables as we slowly passed people staring at me in the street (no matter what I do in Nicaragua, I’m stared at).
Travel in the back of pick-up trucks is very common here. I’m pretty sure that Peace Corps doesn’t allow volunteers to officially do it, but that doesn’t stop anyone. If you didn’t ride in the back of a pick-up, you simply wouldn’t get anywhere. Ironically, for my work at the Health Center here, that is our main mode of transportation. When we go on visits out to the remote villages, up to 15 nurses will cram in the back of the poor old Ministry of Health pick-up, hanging on for dear life as we jolt up and down over rocky roads and through rivers.
I’ve really grown to enjoy rides in the back of pick-ups, and it’s been a while since I’ve had “the pleasure.” As I settled in for the 45 minute ride back to town, I took a bite of the sweet mandarin orange that Doña Yelva tossed me as we took off. She’s a nice motherly type – constantly in the kitchen cooking with an apron on. She always has a smile for me and is always game to try whatever I’ve tried my hand at cooking or baking. She especially liked the banana bread I made a couple weeks ago. She and her family have built a mini food empire in our little town and make most food for meetings, luncheons and social events.
The wind is refreshing due to recent rains, which is odd since it’s the middle of the dry season. Nevertheless, everyone has been enjoying the temporary fresh feeling in the air and the lack of dust. The weather is cool, probably in the low 70s in the shade. I tied my hair up tight in a bun to avoid the agony of combing it out later after a thorough brushing by the wind, and stuck my sunglasses on to protect my eyes. Bugs were flying into my cheeks like torpedoes.
The wind was strong and carried back to me the scents of the cargo we were carrying. I caught whiffs of pineapple and mango. The cooking oil next to me started to slosh back and forth and through a leak, some oil found its way onto my shoes. Darn it. Hand washing clothes is one thing, but I hate hand-washing shoes.
As we moved farther away from the city and into the mountains, I shifted my gaze outward. In a crowded bus, you don’t have the luxury of a view, so some of the landscape looked foreign although I had passed it uncountable times before. Because of the lack of rain, the small mountains were dry and dusty. Shades of brown speckled the scenery, the monotony being broken at times by a lush green tobacco farm. The north of Nicaragua is known for many crops: coffee, corn, beans, and tobacco. Tobacco farms are some of the most luxurious – the big bucks the crop pulls in allows the owners to have vast plantations and pretty buildings. The large green tobacco leafs looked out of place among the dry expanse of dust.
As we sped along the Pan-American Highway going north, more smells came to me. Manure from cows, the smell of burning trash, burning plastic, burning firewood, burning leaves… My nose for burning materials has grown rather keen in Nicaragua. We drove through the smells of pigs, horses, and truck exhaust. As soon as I smelled one thing, it disappeared only to be replaced by another. We curved around the sinuous highway, winding our way up into the mountains.
Many other trucks passed us with passengers in them like me, hitching rides in the back. Their heads were covered with towels or scarves and they tucked down into the bed of the truck. When we passed through a shaded area of the highway, the temperature did drop quite a bit. Wait a second, were those goose bumps on my arms?? No, false alarm. It’s not that cold in Nicaragua. I stuck on my sweatshirt anyway to cut down on the wind.
As we neared our town I began to see all the usual landmarks; restaurants, bus stops, and churches that lined the highway. We had to slow down or swerve to avoid missing dogs who wandered onto the road or the occasional cow. Finally, we reached the turn-off for town. As we drove the few kilometers to reach the house, Silvio and Yelva started to recognize people. Honks of greeting were exchanged as were yells of “¡Adios!” We pulled up to our street and I hopped out. Safe and sound, and in record time. “Did you watch all the food?” Don Silvio asked jokingly. “Don’t worry,” I replied, “nothing flew out.” I didn’t mention that just as we had taken off, a large bag of fried pig skin had been picked up by the wind and smacked me in the face. A small price to pay for a scenic ride through the mountains.