First in a three-part series. Part I: Embarkations
Long after mankind manages to finally do itself in they say the planet will be populated by cockroaches and rats. I have no reason to doubt it. But surely a vast number of decrepit yellow school buses will have also managed to stick around. Those lumbering, inelegant beasts; Blue Bird buses that will probably endure the death of the species that created them aren’t about to give up without a fight. There may not be anyone to drive them or ride in them of but they will surely survive.
A recent bus trip from Managua to Pearl Lagoon brought back a flood of memories. One of the buses I rode on might have been the exact same one that I sat in during my trip to the Museum of Natural History in 1962 with Mrs. Grady’s third grade class. But instead of a never ending chorus of that loathsome ‘One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall’, we were treated to endless hours of high-volume Mariachi. I’m not really sure which is worse. Even as a school kid who happily sang along with the best of them I used to marvel at the Zen-like attitude of those tortured bus drivers. Now the tables were turned and at least one of them was getting even.
I finally decided that you really have to admire these relics of the transportation world. You may need to overlook their obvious shortcomings but they always seem to get the job done. By the end of the trip I also decided that any future appreciation on my part for the Blue Bird ride will best be done from a roadside vantage point; anything other than a first-hand perspective, thank you very much.
The road from Managua to El Rama is actually one of the best I’ve seen in the country so far and we kept up a blistering pace for much of the first leg of the trip. No complaints from me other than the fact that it probably generated a sense of false confidence early on for what lay ahead. I had never been to this part of Nicaragua before so I spent much of the time staring out at the beautiful landscape, watching it change from the sprawl of the capital to sparsely populated cattle country. As the hills grew in size the area became less arid and the foliage denser. There were small houses (a loosely applied term) built out of light wooden frames covered in black plastic tarps.
Further on we passed through a series of small settlements. Scattered groupings of the more familiar wooden shacks were surrounded by bare earth, laundry draped over wire fences and life in general was immersed in a smoky pall from chimney-less cooking fires. The hallmarks of rural subsistence living were obvious wherever you cared to look. Men and women rode on horseback along the side of the sparsely traveled road. Crude corrals used to load cattle onto trucks doubled as dusty soccer fields.
The bus made numerous stops along the way. As soon as we came to a halt a small army of women immediately descended upon us laden with mostly the same foods. They attacked on two fronts in tight formation, entering from both the front and rear of the bus simultaneously and they made their way in opposing directions in a pincer-like maneuver, hawking identical wares at maximum volume. It was an interesting technique which yielded paltry results every time but it was amusing to watch as the two groups tried to navigate past each other in the narrow aisle while balancing large plastic tubs filled with pollo frito or quesillos on heads or hips. This technique ensured that you had at least ten opportunities to purchase the same two or three items in the span of one minute or less.
As soon as they departed the bus rumbled off and the infomercials began. Inevitably someone would take to the aisle; an impromptu center stage, to begin hawking anything from toothbrushes and ballpoint pens to medicines of questionable origin and disposable safety razors. It Slices! It Dices! Every one of them had the familiar, rapid-fire, practiced patter of a carnival barker and business was often surprisingly brisk. I broke down and bought a bargain pack of AA batteries for my camera which had probably been dead since 1987.
As we worked our way through the fourth and fifth hour of our trip the musical program was beginning to take a heavy toll. The bench seat I was wedged into had a pronounced forward tilt and I had to brace myself with my knees tight against the seat in front of me. Several body parts were harmonizing in a medley of complaints I was doing my level best to ignore. I ached from head to toe but I kept reminding myself that a major portion of the trip was about to be behind us.
When taking long, excruciating bus rides you often find yourself engaging in this sort of self-delusional logic just to pass the time. My Blue Bird rides across India years ago sometimes lasted two or even three times as long so a trip to Pearl Lagoon should have been a cakewalk in comparison. There were mitigating factors to consider. At least in Nicaragua the wheels on the buses are round (and as the song goes, they go round and round…) whereas in India, based on the ride, I would have sworn they where closer to octagonal. I tried to look at the bright side with only partial success. Being 30 years older probably wasn’t helping any.
In El Rama we finally had a chance to stretch, enjoy a quick refreshment and determine what to do next. Instead of boarding the panga to Bluefields my friend and I opted to take a bus all the way to Pearl Lagoon since one was only minutes away from leaving. It was just too tempting to pass up since after a quick look around we had decided that El Rama wasn’t a place we cared to linger. If you count not flying to Bluefields in the first place this was our second huge mistake.
We set off at a snail’s pace. Once we had left the town our speed picked up to something approaching a lazy trot or maybe a really fast snail and we more or less held that speed for the next five and a half hours. As far as transportation goes I reasoned that the Blue Bird was really the modern day equivalent of traveling by ox cart and that was pretty much our pace for the rest of the trip. Which is to say the whole damn way.
During the last stretch the road worsened and the dips and swales became increasingly pronounced. The bus shook and rocked precariously from side to side and the sound of water could be heard as we forded stagnant pools. Night had fallen and we had been swallowed whole by an enormous plantation of coconut palms; miles upon miles of perfectly aligned rows of trees, dimly illuminated by the headlights of the bus.
The music blared away oblivious to our torpor and the interior of the darkened bus glowed faintly with a strange sort of bio-luminescence since so many of the passengers were staring sleepily into the screens of their cell phones.
What a strange and eery world it seemed with nothing but the ghostly palm fronds on either side of us for hours on end. The volume of the music was no match for my fatigue and I drifted in and out of a unsatisfying slumber with my head bobbing and dipping from side to side like one of those Chinese dragons in a parade.
Without warning a cluster of lights appeared in the distance like a beacon. It took a few moments before the sleep cleared from my mind and I could assign any meaning to this strange sight. Suddenly we were able to measure our progress toward a goal that seemed within our grasp and the anticipation of an imminent arrival grew as those lights came closer. The uncertainty of what was beginning to seem like a journey without end was nearly over now and relief was within sight.
Despite the darkness you could sense a broad expanse of open water lying out in the distance where the palms had finally given way. It was well into the night but we were about to arrive in Pearl Lagoon. The dome of the sky stuffed with stars helped to dispel at least a portion of the weariness that had seized us hours ago and I was already willing to forgive and forget all the varied and petty nuisances of traveling.
Next: part II: arriving in town.