Esteli, Nicaragua

The 3.5 hour bus ride between Jinotega and Esteli was even more beautiful than the one between Matagalpa and Jinotega.  Ranchlands, distant mountains, stone fences running in lines up and down.  I contemplated the time and effort it must have taken to make those fences, gathering, transporting and placing each rock.  It was hard to conceive the pace of life, the patience. They would be there, in practical terms, forever though, unlike the wood post barbed wire fences that would rust and decay.

Google maps said the road between Matagalpa and Esteli was 34 kilometers, or about 20.5 miles. It could be driven in 33 minutes, yet here I was on a bus, going slowly uphill in a low gear, no more than 10 mph, stopping whenever someone needed to get off or wanted to get on, which was often.  I could’ve walked the distance in roughly twice the time it took the bus.

What was if like to have to walk or bike everywhere, or ride an interminable bus? I get impatient waiting fifteen minutes for the subway to show up.  If I walked seventeen  miles down a road between to towns in America, as I had on Ometepe Island, I can’t imagine what the people in passing cars would think of me.  Here, I imagine they thought nothing.  Sure, seventeen miles was probably a bit far even for a Nicaraguan, but the sight of someone walking on a rural road was nothing to look twice at.  When I was visiting Mac in Guatemala, we walked from his village to the department capital on our way to Lago de Atitlan, and distance of about twelve miles, I think.  When we passed Guatemalans, and we told them where we were going, they expressed shock; not that we were walking, but that we were gringos walking. They figured we’d have enough money to take the bus or a collectivo van.

Speed is a luxury of the first world, and I’m not complaining.  It is nice though, to have the time to go slowly, which is its own luxury.  Time is money. Slowness gives me a better sense of the distance between things, the bigness of the world. 20.5 miles doesn’t mean the same thing in a car going 65pmh on a highway as it does on a bus going 10mph or on foot going 3mph.

I took a 50 cent taxi from the bus station in Esteli to my hotel.  They only had a room for that night, the next night I’d have to find someplace else.  I was warned that in Esteli, the water and power could go out with no notice, so shower when I could, so I did.

Esteli is a university town, and it felt like it.  In the cafe across the street, where I drank my cafe negro gratis, two young men played Bob Dylan and Beatles songs, one on the guitar, the other banging out rhthym on the tabletop, chain smoking cigarettes. In the central park, someone rented out those kid-sized battery operated montster trucks and VW Beetles.  Murals decorated much of the available public wall space.

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I tried fruitlessly to find the Tica Bus office, to buy my ticket to El Salvador for Sunday morning.  They don’t do street addresses in Nicaragua, they use landmarks.  Usually, they’ll use something significant, like a park, or a cathedral.  My hotel was one block north of Parque Central, one block west.

The Tica Bus address on their website was 1/2 block north of Farmacia Esteli.  Okay.  Where is Farmacia Esteli?  I did some more googling, and found that Tica Bus was also supposed to be on Avenida Central, which ran along the western edge of the park.  So I walked up and down Avenida Central, finally seeing Farmacia Esteli.  I turned around and walked  a block north, slowly, eyes wide open.  There was no sign. I looked in every shop along the way.  I went back to Farmacia Esteli, and went south, east and west.  Still no Tica Bus.

I went back to my hotel and asked there.  The woman seemed unsure, but gave me directions that aligned with what I already knew.  I decided to put it off till tomorrow.  I went to the tour agency associated with my hostel to book a tour to the cooperatively owned  Miraflor reserve outside Esteli for a hike.  I was handed a binder in English with my options, and after, went through my options in Spanish with one of the volunteers.  I was to meet my guide, Luis, and the La Rampla bus stop Saturday morning at 7:45am.  The bus from Esteli left at 6am.  I’d have breakfast and lunch with a local family and return on the 4pm bus.

I had dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and after walked by the cathedral and park and watched skateboarders and bmxers do tricks in the street.  Families rode by on motorcycles, toddlers squeezed in between mother and father. After that, I went back to the cafe, where a group of men were having an impromptou concert, so I sat at the bar sipping a beer.  Later I fell asleep to the sounds of November Rain emanating from the sports bar next door.

Friday, I found a new hotel, another hostel three blocks away.  They had a room, but I’d have to change rooms Saturday.  I explained that I was going to be gone on a tour from 5:30am to 6pm, and they told me that was no problem, they’d put my bag in a storage closet and I could get it when I returned.

I renewed my efforts to find the Tica Bus office.  I had asked on a travel forum for advice, and got a quick response saying it was actually just west of the Farmacia Esteli.  I had walked that way, but perhaps I had missed it. It still wasn’t there.  I went back to my hostel, and asked for directions, which I should’ve done in the first place.  Confirm, confirm.  The woman at the desk gave me directions, saying the office had moved.  It was right across the street northwest corner of the park.

I walked into the office, followed by a little girl in a pink dress, maybe ten years old, missing two front teeth. She asked me what I needed, and I told her I needed to buy a ticket for Sunday. I expected her to get one of her parents, but she instructed me to sit down at the desk.  She went around and sat down at the computer and opened the TicaBus website, looking at me side-eyed.  Was she actually going to sell me the ticket?  I wasn’t completely comfortable with that, but why not?  My nephews are younger, and they can work a computer just fine.  She asked me my name and when I was travelling.  I went along.  Her hand hovered over the mouse, looking at me like she was getting away with something.  She opened a youtube page that played a kids song, and burst out laughing, and I laughed with her.  She had gotten one over on me.  She ran into the back to get her father, who sold me the ticket.  The bus left from the last gas station in town, and I was to be there at 6:30am. I wasn’t looking forward to two consecutive early mornings.

I had been coming down with a cold for the last couple days, and now I just felt unwell.  I went into the supermarket and walked out with cold pills and a half-pint of ice cream.  Back at my hostel, where I just wanted to sleep, there was a book club going on, with dramatic readings, following by loud soul music, sung along to by a pleasant  tattooed girl who really enjoyed the sound of her own voice.

Walking to dinner that night, a man crossed the street to avoid me. It must be the beard. I had the best cuban sandwich and curly fries that I’ve had just about anywhere at a place called Cuban Vieja, and retired early for the 5am wake-up.

My guide was supposed to be waiting for me at the La Rampla bus stop. I had a handdrawn map, with the bus stop circled, the name of the guide, the time of the bus, and the estimated time of my arrival.  I asked the ayudante to tell me when we arrived.  The bus was crowded and the music playing through the bus stereo system competed with the Nicaraguan rap music blasting from the I-Speakers of the teenagers sitting right behind me.  Central Americans seem to detest silence.  We ascended to ranchland, the fields lit gold by the morning sun, but I could barely keep my eyes open, probably due to the codiene in the cold pills.

We arrived at La Rampla 1.5 hours later.  No one was waiting for me, so I sat down on the bench to wait.

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A woman was waiting as well, and she asked me what I was waiting for.  I explained to her in halting Spanish that I was waiting for my guide, Luis Romero. She said she knew Luis, he lived a couple houses away from her. She was waiting for the bus to Esteli, but the morning bus showed up early and she missed it.  Now she was deciding whether or not to wait for the 11am bus, or walk home, 45 minutes away.  We went through the usual questions; Where are you from? How long have you been in Nicaragua? Where have you been? How do you like it? Where are you going? El Salvador is dangerous. How is the economy in New York?  She asked me how to say a couple things in English, so I pulled out my phrasebook and handed it to her, and she wrote some things down to practice for her English class.

She told me a joke she read off the inside of her candy wrapper.  Something about an elephant stepping on a chicken.  I understood the words but didn’t get it.  Of course an elephant stomping on a chicken is inherently funny, but the punchline was lost in translation.

7:45am became 8:00 became 8:15 with no sign of Luis.  Mina, her name was, told me there was a restaurant a half-kilometer away if I was hungry. She would tell Luis to wait if he showed up while I was gone.  I told her I hadn’t brought much money, since my breakfast and lunch were paid for in advance, and I showed her my receipts.She knew the family I was eating with as well, they lived just a little further away.

She asked me if I just wanted to walk. We could go by the house of Luis.  Maybe he had forgotten, she said, or maybe he didn’t know.  I was leaning towards he didn’t know, and regretting not going in yesterday to reconfirm my reservation. The idea of walking, as long as I was already here, appealed.  It was still almost three hours to the bus.

After about 100 meters, Mina flagged down a passing pickup, so we hopped in the back with some propane tanks.  He dropped us about ten minutes down the road, and we went on walking.  Not five minutes later, Mina stopped in front of a house, and said, “Casa Palmeras.”  It didn’t register with me.  She said “Desayuno.” Breakfast.  This was the house where I was supposed to eat breakfast.  Senora Palmeras came down to greet us, and I showed her my receipt.  She didn’t know I was coming, and didn’t know about Luis, but ushered me to her side porch and sat me down.  She said she would start breakfast and call Luis.  Mina waved and went on her way.

I didn’t look inside the house, as I wasn’t invited, but from the outside, it could’ve been a shabby, in need of some upkeep cottage in Berkeley.

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Roosters pecked through the undergrowth in the yard.  One of her daughters swept the porch. Her son picked at the strings of an out of tune guitar inside. A toddler came out and called me a cowboy, and his sister told me that it was because of my beard.

Breakfast was scrambled eggs, beans, crumbled cheese and a tortilla with a thermos of sugary coffee.  Luis showed up as I was finishing.  He said the office had never called him, and he was at church when Senora Palmeras called.  Off we went.

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Luis didn’t speak English. I knew this going in.  He asked me about myself. How old I was, was I married, what did I do for a living.  He poked gentle fun at my soft hands when I told him I worked in an office, and showed me his calloused hands that spent all day swinging a machete or gripping a shovel.  We went down a road, crossed through a barb-wired gate, passed cows, and eventually came to a waterfall with a swimming hole.  It was on private land, so I paid 50 cents to enter.  Luis said he was going swimming, so, having worn my bathing suit under my pants just in case, I jumped in as well.

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The water was freezing, but refreshing. I hadn’t bothered to shower that morning. We swam for half an hour, then continued on our way.  Luis did his best to explain to me in child spanish what we were seeing and a little about the communities of Miraflor, which totalled about 4000 people spread over 250 square kilometers.  They ranched, grew coffee, tomatos, beans, corn, and these tours and homestays were also a part of their income. He explained the life cycle of a coffee plant. Up and down we went, along the road and following trails I couldn’t even tell were trails.

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I couldn’t imagine knowing a landscape the way Luis did.  I move around too much, I have no roots anywhere.  It reminded me of my guide, Jose, in Corcovado, who moved from San Jose to the Osa Peninsula and never planned to leave.  I’ve had a lot of homes, but these people have chosen one.

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After five hours of trekking, we were on the road back to Casa Palmeras.  As we were walking, I heard a young boy said “Mira. Es su companero Jim!” I thought I misheard.  But Luis pointed, and said it was Mina’s house, and she waved to me from the porch.  I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t missed her bus.

I sat down for lunch.

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After, Luis told me to take a nap in one fo the hammocks strung in the yard for twenty minutes, so I did.  At 3pm, he told me it was time for me to walk back to the bus stop to catch the 4:15pm bus, so we shook hands and I went on my way.

The bus showed up late, about 4:30pm, and I took a standing place toward the back.  It was hot, and we never got going fast enough to get much of a breeze through the open windows.  We stopped after half an hour, and I saw two men hog-tying a hog.

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They were going to hoist it on top of the bus.  Even the Nicaraguans on the bus were fascinated by the process.  The hog screamed and fought, but eventually lost and had it’s feet tied together.  Grabbing it by its ears and tail, they lifted and hauled it onto the roof by rope as it screamed.  I watched it go slowly by the window in front of me, and heard it tossing and kicking right above my head. When we arrived back in Esteli, I watched the whole process in reverse.

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It made me uncomfortable, but didn’t stop me from ordering another Cuban sandwich for dinner that night.

Tomorrow,  three weeks after I entered Nicaragua,  I was leaving for El Salvador.

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