Thursday, June 7, 2012

Trip to Granada, Nicaragua, May 14

This entry will be long, so be prepared.  As per the Lonely Planet advice, I took a taxi from Arenal to El Tanque to wait for the Tica bus, which is supposed to pass by a random corner, as it was.  I mean, it's the same corner all the time, but nothing about it suggests it's a bus stop, so thankfully everyone around knows where it is, so the taxi dropped me off there.  I was afraid no taxi was coming at all.  I stood outside the hostel around 6:18am and waited for my pre-arranged taxi that was supposed to arrive at 6:20.  No one appeared.  Thankfully, just after 6:30, a taxi pulled up to drop off one of the hostel's staff, so I hopped in an was on my way.  I was nervous because there's no set time for the bus to arrive; it comes sometime between 6:45am and 7:15am, so you want to get there in time just in case it arrives on the earlier side.  The taxi got me there at 6:45 on the dot.  And then I sat there for half an hour.  Still, better to wait than miss a bus that only comes once a day.  Better yet, while I was waiting, a hummingbird came right up to me and hovered in front of my face for a few seconds before flying off again.  It was the best encounter with a hummingbird I've ever had in my life!

The fact that I blend in as a local is very helpful.  Ticos seem naturally friendly and will start a conversation with anyone, so in my case they just start speaking in Spanish, and I learn a lot.  Like the fact that the frightening-looking bus that came round the corner was my bus, though it did not have Peñas Blancas written as one of its destinations.  This was no Tica bus, which is a luxury bus.  I don't know if I would have wanted to get on if the locals hadn't informed me that was the right bus.  He even seemed to know the bus driver as, when he found out I was waiting for that bus, he called the driver (it seemed), he informed me the bus was almost there.  A least the price was about 1/3 what the Tica bus cost, though it wasn't nearly as comfortable not having much leg room.

According to Google maps, it's only about a 2.5 to 3 hour drive to the border. According to my hostel staff, catching that bus would get me to the border by noon.  This meant there would be lots of stops, or maybe long but less frequent ones.  This meant there would be lots of stops, or maybe long but less frequent ones.  I would have hoped for the latter, but I know better than that.  While the lengthy drive takes you through a lot of farms and rural areas and is pretty, it really is the milk run.  People get on a off in the middle of nowhere.  I realised sometime later you can even ring the ding to let the driver know you want to get off at the next stop, some of which actually have benches and a covered shelter, but some of which look like they're just a random spot by a tree!

The ride was bearable when I have my seat to myself; buses is parts of the world where people are short never seem to have good leg room for the vertically unchallenged, so I could at least sit on a diagonal.  Unfortunately, I could not sustain this position when the bus started filling up, and eventually I had to sit straight with purse and backpack on my lap.  Did I mention the bus had no A/C?  This was acceptable when it was cloudy, but the sun came out during a stretch of road that was unpaved and very rocky, and we probably oscillated between 20-30km/h, which was not fast enough to generate any wind through the open windows. It took about an hour to get through that part.  The one good thing about open windows is being able to smell the outdoors, from the farm fresh manure on cattle farms (I love how it's the same smell back home) to orange blossoms on young trees in the fields of groves we drove past.  You can't get that enclosed in an A/C bus.

We finally reached the border.  At that point, I connected with an American traveller who had got connected with an American traveller who had got on in El Tanque as well.  You never know if he's done this before, so thought it would help to touch base.  It was his first time, too, but since it seems easier to talk to people in Spanish, we stuck by each other, and I helped us both to navigate.  There are a million touts trying to steer you this way and that, so after getting through them, we got to the CR immigration departure desk.  Then we had our 1km walk to the Nicaraguan side.  It's not unlike crossing to Pakistan from India, only that there are so many semis parked around here, you can't really see much, and I found it difficult to figure out where I needed to go.

We finally made it through and then had to find the shuttles to Rivas, where thre is apparently a big bus terminal with buses to many places.  Trying to find that shuttle was challenging.  Turns out it is behind a fence, hidden by semis.  People kept giving us directions, but we couldn't figure it out and finally one guy tried to con us by saying the only way to get there was by taxi.  At that point, I was sweaty and tired and out of patience for touts and cons, so I asked him why everyone else knows about the shuttles and is giving us directions, yet he's the only guy that seems to know they're wrong.  I told him no, thank, but we'll figure it out, which we did.

On the other side of the fence, a guy directed us onto the shuttle, which was also somewhat full--and very noisy. These guys kept yelling out stuff to the driver, the fare collector.  They were acting like hooligans.  Much different from the CR buses.  In any case, eventually we arrived at Rivas.  The guy that had helped put my luggage in the luggage rack above took it down and let me off at a gas station, not at the bus terminal.  I barely had time to tell him I was with someone (the American and I were going to the same place), and suddenly I was standing on the sidewalk dumbfounded and probably looked bewildered.  Thankfully Marty (the American) made them let him off, and we tried to figure out what to do.  An elderly man just sitting there on a motorbike asked us what we needed, and he told us there were two places we could catch the bus.  here were bicycle rickshaws on the sidewalk, and as the stops were not far, but far enough we didn't want to walk, we paid the $3 to be driven there.

The first stop looked like one of those middle-of-nowhere stops I had passed on my journey from Costa Rica, though it was full of people waiting for buses, but t also meant nowhere to sit while we waiting for a bus that would be showing up at an undetermined time.  So we opted for the terminal, where an old yellow bus to Granada was already waiting to depart at 3:30.  While we waiting, all manner of things to be sold were offered to us: pop, fried chicken with tortillas and their form of pico de gallo--made with cabbage, more like a sour coleslaw--or various fried snacks, pastries, fresh chocolate milk, water, jewellery, candies, and gum.  I don't think I've seen even that variety on a bus in India!  And talk about your milk run buses, it was filled with luggage and boxes and bags and bins of avocado, plantains, and I don't know what all else was concealed within all the containers.  I bought a juice punch because I was parched, and it really hit the spot. We'd been herded so much by this point that we hadn't any chance to stop for food or drink.  What a welcome sight to see drinks being brought to me instead of waiting until I arrived in Granada--where I still hadn't secured any lodging.

Being on a bus meant for children was just as uncomfortable as the last bus, and again, I was fine while I could stretch out, but eventually someone wanted my extra seat.  At least it was a little girl, so she didn't take up too much space.  And though the bus did indeed stop here and there, it wasn't too bad, and the driver really flew down the highway, generating lots of air to keep us cool.

Nicaragua's landscape was surprisingly drier, it seemed, that Costa Rica's.   There were a lot more brown, grassy areas and not as many vines or lush greenery.  I was also surprised to see huge wind turbines on either side of the road.

At one point, the little girl next to me started talking to me.  She saw my juice bottle and asked how much I paid for it.  I told her 10 colones, though I had noticed as she was turning the empty bottle that the price listed said 7 colones, and that made her giggle.  Then she wanted to know where I was from, asking me about my key chain with a beetle in it that was a gift from a friend from Malaysia, and which she could see through the mesh pocket of my backpack.  I asked her if she lived in Granada, which she confirmed she did and said she liked Granada when I proved with that question.  She was very sweet and smiley, having greased up her hands on fried chicken and getting it all over the baggies from which she sucked out pico de gallow and the cacao drink.  I wondered why she wasn't in school, but I thought it imprudent to ask.  I also would have loved a photo of her to share with my readers, but I know in Central America this is often not allowed because human trafficking it so prevalent, and kidnappers will take photos of kids in advance.  So I didn't ask.  But let me say that she sported braids of black hair on each side of her head, and had bright, dark eyes with a countenance of delight on her face, that look that only children seem to have, and her wide smile revealed a mouth missing some baby teeth and some new adult teeth growing in.  she was probably about 7.  When we arrived in Granada, she let me know as I told her it my first time to Nicaragua.  The bus station was really just a large gas station.  Marty and I made our way through the crowded market with narrow streets and finally found a place to lodge.  But perhaps more on that later as this entry is already sufficiently long.

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