Current Location: Second Floor Patio, Iguana Bar/Restaurant, San Juan Beach, San Juan Del Sur, Pacific Coast of Nicaragua
Price of a beer in a bar: I’m in a beach front tourist bar that’s advertising $1 beers, which probably means closer to US$1.20 or so because 1) the exchange rate they use is probably tuned to their advantage and 2) the posted price doesn’t include a tourism tax that is, I think, 15%. Pay in greenbacks if you can, especially if you order a lot of them. I’m drinking a US$0.40 cup of coffee, but they should start a 9am happy hour.
Song currently stuck in my head: Yellow Bird (Chris Isaak)
I’m sitting in (Henry’s) Iguana, on the upper patio section, of course. If you arrive early, while the sun’s still entering the water at low angles, you can mistake the beach for Caribbean. I’m enjoying a consistent breeze while I watch the wobble of boats mored in the harbor, the waves crashing the rocks on the outer edge of the bay and the bar tender occasionally crack his newspaper back into shape.
God I love it. But let me tell you how I got here.
In my last report I was killing time in Leon, waiting for my afternoon shuttle. Travel around here always has even odds of being terrible and there’s very little you can do about it. You can throw money at the problem, but that makes the lows so much lower. When I travel on the cheap my expectations are generally too low for anyone to fall short of them, but when I pay extra I can actually get disappointed. This time I paid extra and got disappointed. I booked my shuttle from a small office a few doors down from Via Via; it might have been called Nica Time. I waited out the final hour until my scheduled departure in their office/storefront and I realized the place was owned by the infamous Bigfoot Hostel. I try to avoid doing business with Bigfoot as they have a pretty rough reputation for enforcing a strict “No Nicaraguans” policy in their bar/restaurant which has earned them no small amount of derision from Nicas and local volunteers. But they already had my money and my dislike is based on rumor and online reviews (no first hand experience), so I carried on with the plan. Plus this is the only direct bus to SJDS from Leon (and vice versa), as far as I can tell, and that’s pretty persuasive talk to me.
Some Gringa who seemed to be in charge let me know that my departure would be delayed by about 30 minutes due to mechanical trouble with a connecting bus and I was more impressed than disappointed. This is not the kind of thing you usually get advance notice of around here. My bus ended up leaving a little over an hour and a half late, but not because of the connecting vehicle. I’m still not really sure why we left an hour late, but we were all there by 3:30 so it wasn’t because we were waiting on people to arrive. I learned along the ride that some enterprising girls got together a group of 11 and booked this bus for this run. They were given the impression that is was, more or less, a charter bus ride and would leave when they wanted, stop where they wanted and generally cater to their whims; that it was their bus. I still have no idea who actually owns/operates the bus (people bought tickets from several outlets, the bus its self bore no insignia), but the operators decided to sell off the extra seats without mentioning any of this. Fair enough, I’d have still bought in, though some notice would have been nice.
It turns out one of the people they sold an extra seat to wasn’t going to SJDS, she was going to Granada… and now so are the rest of us.
So that adds some time. Plus leaving 90 minutes late puts us in Managua during rush hour, and that also adds some time. I hear a lot of conflicting reports about how long that trip should take, but 4 hours (or something) seems to be the consensus. It took us 7.5. There was some traffic, but the vast majority of that time was just senseless “not bothering to keep moving while complaining about how long this is taking.” We were originally scheduled for 3, ready around 3:30 and left just before 4:30. We stopped for food *twice* on what was supposed to be a 4 hour trip, the first time before even leaving Leon, when we sat in a gas station parking lot for 25 minutes while some girls stood around outside eating hotdogs. I have no idea why we weren’t moving. This scene repeated its self twice, the most frustrating being near the end of the night, about 30 minutes outside of SJDS, when we spent well over a half hour watching fellow passengers eat ramen noodles in another gas station. I don’t know if waiting 30 minutes was just too tall of an order or if they just really enjoy Nicaraguan gas station food. On all of these occasions we lingered until everyone climbed onto the bus; the customary “We leave in 15 minutes” situation (normally managed by the driver) was not observed because this was, in some sense, a charter. So people just stood around outside going “I guess we’re not ready yet” while people sat in the bus going “why aren’t they ready yet.”
I’m pretty sure the driver got lost in Managua. I know he got lost in Granada, where everyone else vacated the bus even though we were only discharging one passenger, this was the first replay of the gas station scenario and one girl insisted that she should go full on GROCERY SHOPPING a few blocks away while we waited. The driver seemed to be lost in SJDS as well, but at that point I spoke up and requested he stop and let me out. We’d made a circle in town and were now heading away from my destination; I wasn’t going down with that ship. The bus stopped and I did that thing that friends from the military mention where they immediately take stock of how they’d exit a room. I’m not sure why, I have no military training nor did I feel threatened, but I was so close and I didn’t want anything new to impede me. The girl to my right was more than happy to clear the way, but the guy by the door hesitated in a way that surprised me for an instant and then concerned me greatly. As I feared, he started dithering and arguing with me. He didn’t want me to get off of the bus. I’d barely spoke at all on this trip and never to this guy, so there was no existing issue between us. I had done nothing to cultivate an air of tension on this trip, though plenty of people had been vocal about their dissatisfaction. But there’s this weird thing that happens with groups of people when no one takes the lead; they become personally attached to the indecision and when someone begins taking action, even action without wider repercussions, it disrupts the established (lack of) order and they get… edgy. People hate change, even on a micro level. When you single one of them out, like I had to in order to get this guy to open the door and clear the way, they dig their heels in.
Honestly, for a solid chunk of seconds, I foresaw this whole thing was headed sideways and moving toward violence. I didn’t foresee fighting the guy, so much as having to force my way physically through him to exit. And every second he wasn’t reaching for the door I felt this likelihood increasing. At first he was just acting confused, like he didn’t understand that I was leaving. Then he started arguing about how it would take too long to retrieve my bag from the roof so I shouldn’t leave until we all got where we were going. The crowd had already made it clear that their destination was not getting decided anytime soon. I think they probably ended up outside of town, far away from there I headed, and nothing could compel me to come along. We were in SJDS, a tiny town of a few blocks, and they couldn’t figure out where they wanted to go and god knows they hadn’t decided when they made their arrangement nor during the seven and a half preceding hours.
They didn’t *disagree* about where to go. That would have required at least 2 opinions and they hadn’t mustered half of that. I would not be the least bit surprised to find out it was another hour and a half before they unloaded; they had reached a kind of standstill where something had to decided and that was definitely not their strong suite.
I explained to this guy that I had my bags and they wouldn’t have to wait while we untied my bags from all of the rest. I used as few words as possible, giving him a simple mantra to concentrate on.
“…because all of the bags are on the roof..”
“Not mine. Open the door.”
“Open the door. Literally open the door. It’s that simple.”
“Let me out.”
This asshole shrugs and sighs, like I just can’t be reasoned with. He reaches over and slides the door open, but I’ve seen enough terminally ineffective people to know I’m not out of bus yet. I can’t possibly make it around this guy politely, he’s blocking my path in it’s entirety. He needs to step out and when I alert him of this (in as simple of terms as possible) I receive another prolonged shrug and sigh and I have my last pang of anger about to be made audible. I struggled to maintain, knowing anything I said would work against my exit; especially what I had chambered, which was a terse “LISTEN. TO ME, YOU. PIECE. OF. SHIT. I SAT. IN. a GAS STATION. PARKING. LOT. and WATCHED YOU. EAT NOODLES. for TWENTY FIVE. FUCKING. MINUTES. I don’t WANT. to HEAR. a. FUCKING. WORD. OUT of YOU. ABOUT DELAY. YOU. are HOLDING. US. UP. RIGHT NOW.
I suppressed the urge, a point of minor pride since it’s a habit that few would consider “well developed” in me. I stepped off the bus, checked my pockets, bid farewell to that rudderless clusterfuck and 15 minutes later I was moved into my guest house and out enjoying fritanga fare against the faint sound of rolling surf from two blocks away.
I’d do it again; the only thing worse than that journey was the irritation that’s promised by traveling that particular route via local buses (or, possibly, traveling by regional bus in The US). Plus I’d have a better idea what to expect.
Now where was I?
Oh yeah, reasonably close to paradise.
Price of a beer in a bar: US$0.86
Song currently stuck in my head: Barrytown (Steely Dan)
I’m sitting in Via Via, having an overpriced traveler breakfast. It’s almost exactly double what it would cost a few blocks away, which still only comes out to US$3.14. I’m on a ~6 hour layover in Leon, having caught a 6am bus out of Matagalpa (US$2.90 for a 2+ hour ride in a chicken bus) and having found the 10am shuttle to San Juan Del Sur (which I also intended to overpay for) full. The next shuttle runs at 3pm, which is a pleasant surprise. They have a dependable daily schedule for the 10am bus but everything else seems experimental. They’re trying an early bus on Sundays to arrive in time for “Sunday Funday”, a super successful bar crawl that draws backpackers southward, out of their post-vocanoboarding Leonese languor, pickles them in the lightly chlorinated waters of several SJDS swimming pools and infuses them with as much booze as they’re willing to pay double for. For US$20 you get a “free” shirt and a few drinks; you see the shirts everywhere.
Via Via feels a long way away from that, even though, physically, it’s across the street from one of that scene’s epicenters. But here at a courtyard table, sipping damn good coffee, I’m remembering how much I really appreciate the decor. It’s bent toward invigorating wary travelers, but the colonial motif is fashioned directly from raw materials, reminiscent of everything I didn’t hate about Guatemala. They’ve simply stretched a light layer of “Travelers Welcome” over the pre-exiting Spanish Colonial Grandeur of the property. It’s a favorite and I’ll take any excuse to overpay for food here. This morning’s excuse is my 6 hour layover; I have my everything on me and have already walked as far as I care to in the Leon heat, so I’m locked in a tight orbit around my shuttle pickup at 3. It’s getting hotter, I’m not getting better rested and Via Via was only a few doors down. I’m considering getting drunk; ordering a succession of well timed beers over the next several hours would be an affordable way to justify my ongoing presence here, plugged in to their power and linked up to their wifi. But I’m more likely to hike it down to Rosita, have a cappuccino or two and play it from there. Maybe I’ll come back for a late lunch. I know a worldly El Salvadorian who drinks here most afternoons and if I catch him before he gets too far in the bag he makes pretty good conversation.
In a few hours I’m paying US$25 for a shuttle to take me directly from Leon to San Juan Del Sur, about a 4.5 hour drive most days, though this seems extremely contentious. If I wanted to do this the hard way it would probably cost me about half that, but there are some big variables being rounded into that math. From here to Managua is ~US$2 and from Managua to the Southern Border, which SJDS is just shy of, is ~US$5. If the tea leaves/coffee grounds/chicken bones/wrinkles on my hand/sky spirit/dice worked in my favor and I managed to get from Managua to SJDS on one bus (and not end up routed through Rivas and/or Granada and/or some shit), which is entirely possible, then that just leaves a taxi ride between the Managua bus station I get dropped off at (“UCA”, pronounced “You-kah”) and the one I need to leave from (“Mayorea”, I think, but I’m off line and you really shouldn’t take my word for it anyway; I’m speculating and repeating what I’ve been told, not telling you what I’ve done). That might cost… well… money. I don’t know. I might get robbed, figuratively or literally. I hate urban cabbies and I don’t think Managua has a flat rate. I think it could cost around US$6, which brings us up to half what I’m paying. But leg room gets to be an issue after a few hours and I started the day with 2.25 hours crammed into a child’s seat. Going by (chicken) bus means going by US school bus with the original seating (though mercifully reupholstered). Not only are the seats close together (since they were built to accommodate children), but they’re also low (since they were MADE to ACCOMMODATE CHILDREN). Nica women sure aren’t going to notice a problem and neither will the vast majority of the men, but with 34 inches of gringo inseam I tower over most of these people. Have you ever, as an adult, tried to sit at a child’s desk? I know, I know, but think about it. Maybe you were at a parent/teacher conference. Maybe you were role playing in the bedroom. Maybe you were filming a cover video to “Hot For Teacher”… whatever, I don’t judge. If you have this experience, imagine doing it for several hours at a time with your neighbor crammed next to you about as snug as those padded harnesses on roller coasters. Yeah, I’m opting for the US$3/hour premium.
South American buses are nothing like this, by the way. I assume the Darrien Gap makes importing them too expensive to be favorable. Their buses are wonderful. So are select bus lines here, but your destination options are limited to major cities (usually just capitals) and while I’m headed to a major tourist destination, it’s one that still clings to the fiction of being a small fishing village.
Pictured here: an example of a steep incline in Matagalpa and a “Walker: Texas Ranger” themed truck. The trucks and buses down here are often decorated around a theme, everything from a certain Disney character to God to, well, Walker: Texas Ranger. This isn’t a particularly ornate example, but I love it. I can’t wait to board a bus decked out with “La Ley Y El Orden” iconography.