I left La Fortuna at 615am. Yes, that early. I took the bus from La Fortuna to Penas Blancas, a small frontier town along the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border. It was a slow bus ride, taking about six hours. I arrived in Penas Blancas about noon.
From La Fortuna down the mountains to Guanacaste the flora was a uniform, high canopy, interspersed with small farms of guayavas, papayas, carrots, onions, peppers and the like. But as I entered the flatlands, high semi-dry grasses proliferated. It was dryer too. Still lush by Texas standards, but the grasses had a golden edge to them and the trees looked windblown. The bus stopped frequently, crawling north between parallel mountain ranges. Cool highland breezes gave way to lowland humidity and stifling heat.
The people changed in the lowlands too. Where they had been more Spanish looking in the highlands and along the Pacific Coast, here their looks took a decisive turn to the indigenous. Lean body frames, thin noses, light eyes and wavy hair were replaced by by thick straight tresses of black hair, coal eyes, short globular frames and flat noses with flaring nostrils.
Where the Costa Rican side of the border was well organized, minimally bureaucratic and efficient–as borders go, that is–the Nicaraguan side was chaos, long lines of people wandering with little sign of purpose, hawkers and border officials stamping everything in triplicate. I managed to find the bank and exchange my Colones for Cordobas, walked out of Customs, naught but a shed with a corrugated iron roof into a classic Central American scene.
Dilapidated, small sheds sold unnameable foods at unspeakably expensive prices, better to gouge the few tourists around. The buses were at least thirty year old Lady Bird body-style models, painted in gaudy Latin American patterns and colors. A cacaphonous medley of Latin music blared away from three different boom boxes. It could have been East Austin or the barrio in San Antonio.
The ride from the border to Rivas, the local hub, sped mostly along the Lago De Nicaragua. Two extinct volcanoes hunched in the waters off shore forming the Isla de Ometepe. For one five mile stretch of road the wind swept fields were filled with thousands of swallows careening and caroming about in an amazing aerial symphony. The trees bent over by the persistent southerly winds where a $71 million wind farm churned out energy for this resource poor nation.
An African influence shows up int he faces of the Nicaraguans. Curly hair, bigger lips and notably darker skin relax in the bus seats all around me. And the fit prosperity of Costa Rica has given way to heavier frames, well worn teeth and broader smiles.
Why is it, I wonder, that those who live closer to the edge of life smile more? And those of us who have so much more to be grateful for have faces flawed with frown lines? Is it that those with less are more likely to be grateful for what they have versus those of us who are consumed with worry about what we could lose?
The road north goes on. I’m dropped off at the Rivas bus station, a ramshackle, ad hoc congregation of cinder block buildings, food sheds and vegetable stands. It’s poor here, but everyone is well fed. A buddy of mine suggested I check out the beach at Popoyo, north of San Juan del Sur. So, I hop aboard the bus to Salinas, pay $1 and sit.
Forty five minutes later down a dirt road, nestled between wind blown hills, small farmsteads filled with pigs, chickens and vegetable gardens I begin to see baseball fields. Children are playing ‘our’ game. I think back to the news yesterday, the Yankees have won the AL East. Will a Nicaraguan child be so lucky as to play for the world’s greatest baseball team?
The bus continues its twisting journey. Night begins to fall. I’m filthy, hungry and tired. The driver drops me at a junction, points down the road and says, “Popoyo is two kilometers that way.”
Five kilometers later it’s even darker. I’m dodging the halo of mud-puddles in the moonlight. The only sign of human life I see is an hacienda up the hill, a generator echoing like so many gunshots in the hot tropical night. A cow lows in the distance. A black shade approaches me in the night.
“Buenas noches,” he says.
“Buenas,” I reply, too tired and too pissed off to ask for directions.
Ten minutes late a car stops.
“Where you go?” comes an Italian accent from the window.
“Popoyo,” I answer.
“Get in,” he says.
He’s got slick-backed gray hair and a slight beer slur. We chit-chat for a few minutes in the black night.
“Not a good time to be out walking,” he says. “The electricity is off here tonight.”
“I’ll be sure to check out the electric tables when I get to my hotel,” I struggle NOT to say, instead, mumbling, “That explains a lot.”
He drops me a Cabinas Rest Tica #2. The owner, Alfonso, shows me my room by candlelight. It’s a good thing, too. In the light of day I’d probably have chosen the beach.
I sit on the veranda and eat Nicaraguan tamales by candlelight. Unlike any tamales I’ve ever had, they are like corned-beef and hash without the corned beef. A mushy pile of semi-boiled masa, with veggies. While I ponder the mystery meat in the tamales a troop of monkeys crash and howl in the branches behind me. Waves roar in front. Frogs croak in an unseen lagoon behind.
The cool beer goes straight to my head. It’s only 730pm and within minutes I am sound asleep.