The twin volcanoes of Ometepe and windmills, as seen from our bus to Rivas.
Before I start telling you about our day, I want you all to know that I was ready for the Peñas Blancas border crossing. I mean, I was ready, man. I read up extensively on the procedures, the order you follow from building to building, the street kids who will grab the forms for you and guide you through the process for a buck or two, the cab drivers who will hound you for a ride, the importance of having all your papers in order before you reach the Nicaragua check point or you might as well turn around and go back to San Jose. You will be in line at this checkpoint, I was told, anywhere from one to four hours.
I studied for this exam, people. I read up on how the U.S. was looking at making this a bottleneck on the overland drug trade, which made the process more difficult and more labyrinthine. I read up on the things to look out for, the importance of having your forms done before you reach the window, and the importance of being aggressive when you reach the window so you don’t lose your place in line. I watched Youtube videos of this border crossing, and I wrote down all the advice in my notebook.
Then I get to the bus terminal in San Jose this morning and begin my day by utterly failing at the task of going to the bathroom.
Now, in fairness to me, the bathroom at the Deldu bus station has procedures. I did not know this at the time. I was under the impression that, should you need to go to the bathroom, it was best to walk into the bathroom and go. So I walk in and the doors are locked from the outside, which I find odd. Then a woman comes in and begins telling me something in very rapid Spanish. I informed her that I couldn’t understand her, and she repeated what she said the time before, only faster and louder, and I froze. The words just wouldn’t come. I knew what I wanted to say, and I think I had enough Spanish and sign language to make myself understood, but when I walked out of the bathroom, she began to get more upset, and begins pointing and using the word “electronica.”
At this point, I realize that there is an electronic gate around the entrance to the bathroom, and I have just passed through it twice, which means I have to pay for going to the bathroom twice. I think. I’m still not sure what happened, or what I did wrong, but I did pay a dollar for not going to the bathroom, which is cool. I’ve not gone to the bathroom before for free, so this was kind of new. I was then directed to a bank of sinks, and shown a hand washing motion, to which, in my jarred state of “I’m a dumb gringo” makes me think I am supposed to wash my hands before going to the bathroom. “Ah ha!” I think. “It all makes sense!” Which it did, at the time. And I begin to wash my hands.
Boy, did that go over bad.
At this point, the woman became highly exacerbated with my stupidity. Which I can understand, because to say my brain was functioning at a first grade level at this point would be an insult to first graders. I was clearly making the situation worse, so I finally apologized for my actions and made an exit, boarded the bus, and kept my legs crossed until lunch.
Some traveler I turn out to be. I make all the preparations in the world, and then I need someone to tell me how to go to the bathroom.
Six and a half hours later, we pull into Peñas Blancas, and I am ready for my date with destiny. I’ve studied, watched the videos, and after my morning fiasco with the bathroom, I am prepared to redeem myself. I’m ready for the four hour line, the pushing and shoving, all of it.
This is more or less what I was expecting.
Then we get off the bus and there is nobody there. Not a single person in line. There are trucks, border guards, and that’s it. I walk into the Costa Rica office to get my exit stamp, and there are three bored-looking attendants at the windows. When we got to the Nicaragua side, there were three bored-looking attendants at the windows. Nobody in line over there either.
All the horror stories of the place; the heat, the lines, the chaos. We breezed through in less than thirty minutes, and the bulk of that was the quarter mile walk across the border. The weather was extremely pleasant, and the people at each point—from the guards to the immigration officials to the money changers—couldn’t have been nicer. Even the cab drivers who we turned down directed us to the bus we were looking for. And everyone—this was the real weird part—everyone was smiling.
My actual experience.
Okay, fine. I get it universe. I worry too much. The point is we got into Nicaragua, and we boarded a “chicken bus” for Rivas, and took a beautiful ride by windswept Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua) into the small town of Rivas, which is the economic center of southern Nicaragua.
The busses in Central America, as noted previously, are primarily old American school busses that have been painted garish colors. I really wish I had a photo of this one for all of you, because it was incredible. The bus is so packed that even the aisle is full, children are on their parents’ laps, and the people in back are sitting on bags. When the bus stops, it doesn’t quite stop, it just goes really slow so you don’t kill yourself getting off. A man somehow manages to weave through the aisle and score everyone’s money without ever dropping a coin, then weaves his way back to the front, while the bus slows and stops and starts again, everyone moving about in a way that makes this all seem perfectly logical.
Corrinne and I had stashed our bags in the back, so when our stop came, we ran to the back and jumped out. The guy int he back swung the emergency door open (you remember those drills from elementary school?) and starts whistling, which indicates to the driver that people are bailing out. The driver stops long enough for Corrinne to jump out and for me to hand her bag to her, then starts to pull away. The guy at the back of the bus whistling while I grab my bag and the bus starts to pick up speed and I jump out of the back of the moving bus as it starts to pull away and land on my feet while the guy in back swings the emergency door shut, the bus starts for Managua, and I stand in the middle of the street with my bag on my shoulder feeling like Lee Marvin.
This is exactly what I looked like when I got off the bus.
We really need some of these busses back in the States.
So here we are in Rivas, which is a great little town. As we rolled in there was a high school marching band practicing in front of the baseball stadium, and there are still Christmas lights up in the square around the old church. The people in Nicaragua, so far, are exceedingly friendly, and the overwhelming feeling we’ve had is one of welcome.
We’re staying in Rivas for the night, and will be off to Isla de Ometepe tomorrow. I’m high on Nicaragua so far. Details to follow.