Of all the excuses I have ever given for being late (and there have been many), this had to be the best.
It had already been an eventful journey. We had let two slow rutiado busses go by in the hope that an express would come eventually, before getting worried that we would miss our connection and getting a rutiado anyway. The conductor had lied to get us on the bus, saying that we would be in plenty of time for the connection if we went with him - so why wait for the express? But everyone knows that conductors always say that, so why did we even bother asking the question?
My old flat-mate, Astrid, and her husband were waiting for us to spend the weekend with them in their new home high in the mountains of Nicaragua, not far from the border with Honduras. Only four buses a day go from the city of Somoto up to Las Savanas, so we had planned to get to Somoto in time for the early afternoon departure, but that had long been forgotten and by now we were just hoping we could make the last bus. Not that it would have been a huge drama to be stranded in Somoto. I was traveling with Astrid’s Nicaraguan mother- and brother-in-law, so I didn’t feel vulnerable, as you sometimes can in a strange town, where people just see your pale skin and blue eyes and don’t know that you’ve lived in Nicaragua for years and that you are no longer an outsider.
The bus was packed. In a land where busses are often packed, this one was really packed. As it filled up from the fount and the back, we became the filling in a hot and sweaty sandwich. At some point on the road to Somoto a poor old woman wanted to get on with a pig and a sack full of chickens. I didn’t see her get on - I could see very little other than the body in front of me. Olivia, the mother-in-law, told me later that the conductor hadn’t wanted to let her on as there was really no room, but she agreed to put the pig in a sack on the roof, so she - and the sack of chickens - were allowed on board. I didn’t notice her and I didn’t notice when we had to stop because some people had set a roadblock of rocks in the road and were throwing stones at the bus, but Olivia told me about that too. I was busy texting Astrid to warn her that we might not make the last bus to La Savanas. I complained about the lack of express busses to Somoto and about the lying bus conductor who had said we would be there by now. She would understand my frustration, but know that it wasn’t a serious falling out with Nicaragua.
When the pig fell of the roof, though, everyone noticed. We were going up a steep, curved section of road and it was really no place to stop, but suddenly the driver stood on the brakes and we swerved to a halt. The driver had spotted the pig flying off the roof in his rear-view mirror. The call “el chancho! el chancho!” spread down the bus and those of us that couldn’t see a thing waited for news from the passengers at the back, debating whether the pig would be alive or dead, or whether it would be recovered at all. Maybe it would be fine and run away, in which case we couldn’t wait while they hunted it down through the bush. Maybe it had fallen down the steep mountain slopes either side of the road, in which case there was no hope….Possibilities were debated amongst passengers who just moments ago were bumping along in miserable silence. It turned out that it hadn’t gone too far, as moments later news came down the bus that the pig was alive but injured. I glimpsed the woman out of the window, crying and holding the pig still (thankfully) in the sack. Public opinion was that it was worthless now. Some said she should be compensated, since it was the crazy driving that had flung the creature off the roof, but the conductor was having none of it. I felt a flash of anger when I saw the conductor grinning and joking about the whole thing, while the woman was clearly distressed. The fact that she was on the bus with her livestock in the first place probably meant that she was going to the nearest town to try and sell them to raise a bit of money, perhaps for a medical bill.
Once we reached her stop, the chickens decided to rebel also and squawked their heads out of the sack in all directions as she battled her way down the bus to get off. We left her by the side of the road, balancing the two sacks. I felt quite sad for her and wondered how people could be joking about it. But really it was a small pig, it wouldn’t be worth much yet. And I guess that’s just life: if you will transport your animals on the roof, every now and then one will come a cropper. In fact, perhaps it’s more of a wonder that I’ve never witnessed a person coming off the roof. Although I still prefer travelling up top to being cooped up inside, I certainly thought of the pig and held on that bit tighter the next time the let us up. Anyway, the rest of the journey went a lot quicker now we had something to debate up and down the bus. And of course, I had a wonderful excuse for being late.
This time last year, I was working for London Underground and a delay of just a few minutes during rush hour was a disaster. I’ve adapted quite quickly to the pace of life here, but knowing that if we missed this boat it would be almost a week for the next one was enough to make sure I jumped out of bed at 5am.
There exists an easier way to get to Corn Island. You can simply hop on a plane in Managua with a dozen or so other tourists, and you’ll be on the beach within the hour. So why did we decide to go on a seven-hour bus ride followed by a twelve-hour boat ride? Well, the practical reasons for my travelling companions were the cost and the fact that they wanted to transport, amongst other things, a motorbike. I was just a tag-along so my, more romantic, way of thinking was that this journey would be an end in itself; that after so long on the road, I would know my adopted country a little better; and that I would feel quite entitled to spend the next week alternating between beach and hammock, hammock and beach.
And so it came to pass. Yet it was not half as bad as it sounds, or as I had anticipated. The express bus leaves Managua for El Rama at 8:45am and, for the price of a bottle of Coke, there are plenty of men willing to help you out with your luggage. It's a long journey, but so long as you are mentally prepared for that, there’s not a lot else to worry about. The road to El Rama is paved the whole way, so it’s a very different story to the twenty or even thirty hour bus ride to Puerto Cabezas (which I’ll tell you about another day). There is even a very civilized toilet stop in Juilgalpa, which is exactly half way. The bus was, in typical Nica style, an old American school bus; but it was one of the more comfortable and less crowded ones.
What Nicaragua lacks in the way of services stations, it more than makes up for in the variety of hawkers, preachers, beggars (and even clowns this time) that make their way through the bus at each stop. You want for nothing. Vitamins, pens, cakes made with corn flour, a selection of seasonal fruits, boiled sweets, ‘purified’ water; the travel toothbrush was a big hit: “it folds away to stop cockroaches climbing on the bristles at night - they enjoy the feel of the bristles on their feet”. Who could say no?
And that was just the bus ride. The real adventure for me was going to be the boat. The Island Express II is a slow cargo boat that travels between El Rama and the Corn Islands, stopping en route in El Bluff. It creeps along so slowly that even once the island was in sight, I had to keep going away and taking a break before coming back in order to notice that we were getting any closer. But creep up on the island we did, without waking it from its natural dreamy state. Once the sun is up, they play some soft reggae music and you feel like you've left Nicaragua for another culture altogether. There are quicker boats leaving from Bluefields, which is the road more travelled, but the speed of the boats mean that the going is rough and all but the hardiest sea-dogs get sick. Add to that the journey by land to Bluefields, and I would rather let the Island Express rock me to sleep and wake me up to the smell of gallo pinto and coffee, the sound of Bob Marley and the sight of blue sea meeting white sand.
From when our bus pulled out of the bus station in Managua until we arrived on Corn Island, there was not another tourist in sight. Yet, counter intuitively, this most remote part of Nicaragua is actually one of the easiest to navigate since English is the default language. It may take a while to adapt your ear to the Caribbean accent but for many tourists the hardest part of the journey will be negotiating a taxi in Managua to get to the Mayoreo bus station.
Of course, the majority who come to Nicaragua for just a couple of weeks pass neither though Bluefields nor El Rama, but choose to fly. Perhaps if your timetable is limited, you won't realistically be able to wait a week for the boat. However, if you could even go one way by land and fly the other, you will add so much to your trip. You will save enough money to pay for a night in a decent hotel before or after; and by choosing the cheaper option, you will add so much to what could otherwise easily be a beach holiday anywhere in the Caribbean.