The country of Nicaragua has been negatively portrayed. Most people of my generation think of the Contras when Nicaragua comes to mind, or they see drugs, corruption – something synonymous with the negative. So, as my Costa Rican Tica bus steadily headed north, I felt a bit of trepidation. I had just spent several weeks studying Spanish in Costa Rica. I was ready to leave. My best friend, Mikey, had flown down to meet me. We hopped on the next bus north, to Nicaragua.
Costa Rica is considered the Jewel of Central America, but I found it to be the opposite. It is true, there are many beautiful, even gem-like qualities about it, but I was disheartened by the filthy cities with their ugly architecture. I was tired of being treated like a tourist, viewed only as someone with money to spend, rather than a welcomed guest. I hoped that Nicaragua would be different, something I had never experienced before. Within a few seconds, I found out.
Of the many different experiences ingrained in my mind, one of the few that sticks out was walking out of that bus at the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border to go through border formalities. Crowded around Mikey and I, was a group of thirty-plus children, with dirty faces, tattered clothes and the saddest eyes I'd ever seen, flocking us, begging for money.
In Costa Rica people begged too, but it was because they wanted it. But here – they needed it! One look was all we needed to make this distinction.
It was like something out of a movie, surreal. I've had poor people/kids ask for money many times. Not like this. This was real. When I read Paul Theroux's, Pillars of Hercules, what struck me the most was when he entered Durres, Albania. "My first sight, as I walked off the ship, was a mob of ragged people, half of them beggars, the rest of them tearful relatives of passengers, all of them howling." It was absolute hysteria, the kind of scene that one would never even begin to imagine, much less ever see.
"Por favor senior. Una Cordoba." "Please sir. One dollar."
It was rough, very rough.
Mikey and I quickly made our way through the crowd, pushing so we could get our exit stamps. On the way back to the bus, we exchanged some money, got ripped off in the process, then headed to the next checkpoint.
Here our bus company did all the work for us. We handed them our passports and waited – for quite some time in the blistering heat. Eventually they came back and handed us our passports.
The scenery was breathtaking. To our right was Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest lakes in the world, and the only freshwater lake inhabited by sharks. In the middle of the lake is Isla Ometepe, an island made up of two volcanoes, one still somewhat active. To our left we saw lush, green landscapes, sprinkled with colorful flowers and occasional roadside cafes.
We were about twenty minutes down the road from the border when Mikey, whose passport pages were relatively empty, mentioned that he didn't have a Nicaraguan stamp. Clearly he didn't know what he was talking about and I snatched away his passport to prove him wrong. To my disbelief, I found out that he was right, and that they had forgotten to give him his stamp.
We quickly alerted the bus attendant who became equally alarmed. I assumed the only logical thing to do was to turn the bus around and take us back, since it was their fault this happened. My assumption proved wrong. After a fair amount of arguing, we found ourselves on the side of the road, backpacks in hand, as our bus drove away.
What a predicatment – stuck on the side of the road, in a third world country, without an official passport stamp – not a state ranked high on a list of states to be thrushed into.
We didn't know what to do. We saw a structure that looked like it might have been a bar at one point in time. We headed for it. It provided shade, no other reason. We sat there for about half an hour, wondering what to do. We hoped a car would come by, and we could hitchhike back to the border, but this didn't happen.
Oddly enough, we were calm even though we were in the middle of nowhere in a country that felt like the middle of nowhere. Life was so laid back where we were; we felt no concern. We knew that somehow, somewhere, help would come and when it did, we would work things out. In Costa Rica I never felt that way, I was always on my toes, like I had to watch my back. Here, it felt more simple.
Eventually a fellow approached, asked us about our situation. I explained it. Within a few minutes he had a car and a driver, a rather hefty fellow, who was willing to take us to the border. We haggled over a price for a little while, and also let him know that we were trying to get to San Juan del Sur. We agreed on a price.
The driver kept his end of the bargain and took us to the border. He even accompanied Mikey to the border check, helped him explain everything, while I waited outside a local restaurant, drinking a Fresca. Mikey got into the car beaming. We headed off to San Juan.
The drive to San Juan del Sur was pleasant. The scenery was unparalleled and so was the conversation. Both Mikey and I were amazed that our cab driver didn't go on and on, boasting about his country. Instead, he told us how grateful he was that we were visiting. I told him what I thought about Ticas and he responded, saying that he felt that Nicas were a bit more humble. He also said that Nica women were more attractive. We all laughed.
Half an hour later we pulled into San Juan – Mikey and I were speechless. The cobblestone streets were dusty. The brightly painted colonial homes had cracks reaching up to each rooftop, and there was plaster showing where luminescent paint used to be. Children played in cathedral courtyards and women in tiny little cafes cooked fresh fish.
Our driver dropped us off at the oceanfront. We paid him and thanked him, making sure to tip him well. We got out, put on our bags and stood still for a minute. In front of us was a stunning beach nestled into a horseshoe bay, back dropped by towering palm trees and squawking gulls. We were in paradise and when one truly enters paradise, it really takes a minute or two to soak it all in.