Lost in Nicaragua… sort of…

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is the second part in a series I’m writing based off of my wife’s and my recent adventures in Nicaragua.  It is unnecessary to read the previous segment in order to read this one since, outside of geographic location, all events are, for the most part, unrelated.

For context to some of my following inner monologues and emotions, just know that we were involved first-hand in a mugging during our initial evening in Nicaragua and it has thrown a bit of a dark flurry over our journey, leaving us suspicious of everyone.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***


My wife and I are standing in the lobby of the Hotel Naranja, the place we’d bunked the night previous.  We were just checking out and getting ready to – thankfully – leave the dangerous and violent city of Managua behind for higher grounds on Isla de Ometepe or The Island of Ometepe; a textbook paradise located just 90 minutes by ferry off the shores of Nicaragua.

The woman behind the desk hangs up the phone and says, “I’ve just called you a taxi.  He’ll pick you up out front and drop you off at the bus station.  Take the Rivas Express.  Rivas is a port city.  The ferry from Rivas will take you to the island.”  I nod and she says, “Rivas Express,” and I nod again and she says, “EXPRESS.”

The taxi driver arrives in an unmarked minivan and pushes both my wife and I into the backseat where the cushions are ripped and springs and yellow stuffing are jutting out at odd and painful angles.  The man speaks nada English and drives like a Latino Jeff Gordon.  He blazes through the city, swerving, honking, skirting around bicyclists and pedestrians.  He cuts corner and takes shortcuts, driving with the finesse of a paramedic.

The city flies past us in a frenetic buzz, the buildings and homes broken, vandalized and decimated.


ABOVE: A completely operational business.

The taxi driver turns into a buzzing market place and stomps on his brakes in the middle of the street, slams his car into PARK and exits the vehicle as a group of strange men (also in unmarked clothes) begin to descend upon us.  Jade squeezes my hand and says, “What’s happening?  What’s happening?”  I square myself off against my wife, blocking her from our assailants as they slide open the door and tell us to exit the vehicle into a crescent they’re forming with their bodies.

Jade echoes herself, “What’s happening?” and I, powerless against them, slowly exit the minivan, preparing myself for the worst and snapping my pack to me so it can’t be stolen.  Jade hesitantly exits, staying near to me while the men begin to bump into us and shout words I can’t understand.  Noises come from every direction.  People are everywhere.  Buses and cars fly by.  Information and stimuli are pouring in from every angle and I’m trying to look for knives and thieves.  My personal bubble is being infiltrated and molested by a variety of strangers and I don’t know how to answer any of them.

A large school looking bus pulls up next to us and I suddenly hear a word that makes sense to me.  One of the large men shouts, “RIVAS!  RIVAS!” and points to the bus.  I say, “Rivas?” and he says, “Si!  Si!”  I push through the men towards the bus and onto the steps leading inside.  My wife shouts, “Johnny!” and I turn around, anticipating her to be following me but instead seeing her through the bus window, still standing on the concrete, surrounded by strangers.  I shout, “Come.  ON.” and wave my arm through the air.

She says, “Are you sure this is the right bus?” and I say, “Rivas?  Rivas?” and the group of men, whose roles in this I still don’t understand, all nod and say, “Rivas!  Si!  Rivas!”  I wave my hand through the air again and say, “JADE.  Come on!”  The bus driver and all of its patrons stare at me as I hold up the show; the bus not being at a stop but at an actual stop SIGN, just getting ready to pull into traffic when I hijacked it.



Jade says, “Is this the Express?” and one of the men shakes his head and says, “No,” and Jade says, “It’s not the Express!” and I say, “It’s Rivas!  We have to get on!  Come on!” and Jade, finally bending under the pressure, gets on the bus and we both take a seat together halfway down the aisle as the bus turns into oncoming traffic, swerves, and picks up speed.

I turn to Jade and say, “That was intense,” and she says, “Yeah.  Who were those guys?” and I shrug.  The bus stops and some people get on.  Others get off.  The city passes and then falls away.  The bus stops.  People get on.  People get off.  The country engulfs us; acres and acres and acres and acres of wild life as far as the eye can see.  Everything is overgrown and lush and green.  The bus stops and people get off and people get on.

Jade says, “How far to Rivas?” and I say, “I don’t know.”  I nudge the woman in front of me and say, “How far to Rivas?” and she says, “Rivas?” and I say, “Yes.  Uh, si,” and she says, “Si,” and points forward.  I have no way to communicate the simplest thoughts to anyone and this is both frustrating, exhilarating, challenging and also a bit scary.


ABOVE: JB & JB ridin’ dirty on the bus to Rivas… like, literally filthy.  Everything is sweaty and caked in dust.

I reach into my bag and pull out our Nicaraguan Traveler’s Guide and flip to the translator in the back which gives you general phrases like, “What time is it?” and “That is too expensive,” and, “How far to…”

I nudge the woman again and say, “Cuanto kilometers… Rivas?” which I assume translates roughly to, “What is the quantity of kilometers to Rivas?”  The woman blurts out a few words and my wife and I turn back to our book, trying to figure out what noventa means.  We cross reference every ten digits until we come to ninety and sigh with relief.

We’re definitely on the right bus and we’re definitely heading the right direction.  90 kilometers.  The woman tells us two hours.  The bus stops, people get off, people get on.  To our left, a bus filled with white people passes us.  Jade says, “I think that’s the Express to Rivas.”  Our bus stops again.  More people get on.  More people get off.  The Express Bus never stops.  The Express Bus disappears into the distance.  The Express Bus is gone.

A woman selling snacks from a basket gets on and begins to walk up and down the aisle, chanting her inventory at all the passengers.  The woman in front of  us purchases some candy for a handful of shiny coins.  The merchant gets off at the next stop and more food distributors get on.  They sell bread, drinks and snacks.  People come and go.  The bus never breaks forty miles per hour.  I turn to Jade and say, “Do you think that Express bus just goes from the station in Managua to Rivas?” and she nods and I say, “This bus is way better,” and she nods again.


ABOVE: Sack o’ Fanta… that I bet the regular ol’ Express Bus didn’t get to try out!

The woman in front of us turns around and offers us some candy.  She holds it out in the palm of her hand and says, “Esposa?” and I take the candy and say, “Que?” and she repeats herself.  She holds up her hand and points to her ring finger.  “Esposa,” and I say, “Oh!  Spouse.  Wife.  Husband.  Yes!” and I lift my hand and show her my pure gold wedding ring but quickly drop my hand, afraid somebody will try to steal it from me (both my ring as well as my finger).

The woman says, “Ninos?” and Jade says, “Tre.  Uno nino.  Dose nina.” or,”Three.  One boy.  Two girls.”  This is how total immersion into a foreign language works; you take the little you know and you begin to incorporate.  Over the next week we’ll add a few words to our vocabulary every day until we’re able to function as tourists on a relatively socially acceptable basis.

The bus stops and the driver shouts, “Rivas!  Rivas!” and I say, “Rivas!  Let’s go!” and The Candy Woman says, “No!” and we sit down.  The man repeats it and I realize he’d said, “Arriba!“, which I believe means “Hurry up.”

The bus enters another city and Jade says, “Is this Rivas?” and I say, “I have no idea.”  I look for signage but can’t find any and, the boards I do find, I can’t seem to read.  At one point I see the word Rivas with an arrow but no numbers or mileage / kilometers next to it.  It’s at this point that the thought crosses my mind that we could actually miss Rivas.  We could actually slide right through it, right past it.  We could end up in an even more foreign land and have no idea how to contact anyone.  The internet doesn’t work on our phones so we couldn’t YELP a taxi cab.  We could enter a business and hope to translate “lost” and “taxi” and “help” and… the sun crosses it’s peak point in the sky and I imagine being stuck in a small village at night…

I ask the woman in front of us where she’s heading and she says, “Costa Rica,” and I nod and say, “If we hit Costa Rica, we’ve gone too far.”  Jade exhales and takes a picture of something with her phone.


ABOVE: Our Bus Buddies.

Every ten minutes, every fifteen minutes, the bus stops and passengers are traded.  I say to Jade, “What are these places?  Where are they going?” and she says, “I don’t know.”  I look at the bus stops and they’re nothing more than benches in the middle of nowhere.  A random hut or trailer stands all alone in the distance, completely disconnected to any sort of civilization for miles and miles and miles around.  Getting off at one of these places was completely out of the question.

If we passed Rivas, we’d be onto the next city… whatever it was.

I imagine where The Rivas Express could be right now.  I imagine all those tourists hopping on a ferry and laughing and smiling.  I wonder if this is how the entire trip will play out; us trying to do something and failing miserably; us trying to do The Tourist Thing and instead doing The Nicaraguan Thing; us trying to dip our toes in the pool and instead falling in completely.

I honestly can’t say it’s a terrible way to experience a new culture but there is a fear involved in it that coincides with the excitement.  This is more than hitchhiking to Denver.  This is more than going for a stroll through Strange New York.  This is more than taking a road trip detour through Salt Lake City.

This is complete isolation from your culture, from a way of life, from standard and safety.


When we typically travel we like to Give In To The Process and let happen what may; let the journey bring things to us and carry us through and allow it to live on its own, to be alive but this process and this journey was completely different.  This wasn’t Giving In to the art of acupuncture and letting the weirdness wash over you; this was someone asking to do acupuncture with machetes.  It was the complete unknown with no guidelines, roads or basis of comparison.  We had no contact to any one to ask for advice and the contacts we had, we couldn’t speak frankly to.

I turn my head and look out the window, watching more countryside roll by; more broken homes, houses and yards, wondering how much further.  How much further?  How much is ninety kilometers?  How much is one kilometer?  A half mile?  Two-thirds of a mile?  Everything is foreign.  Even distance is strange.  I can’t even get a grasp on time.

We wait, completely at the whim of Fate and Travel and Journey.


Suddenly, The Candy Woman turns around and, choking on her excitement for us, says, “Rivas!” just moments before the bus driver shouts it.  We stand up and I say, “Gracias!  Gracias!” and walk off the bus, having no idea how to get a taxi, how to call one, how to get to the ferry from the bus station, how far it is, how expensive it is, how, exactly, the translation from U.S. dollars to Nicarguan cordobas works.  Everything is Grey Zone.  Everything is Unknown.  And I’m jumping off the bus directly into it.

I step down into the dirt and a heavy set man in a red polo approaches me and says, “Ferry?  Ometepe?” and I say, “Si,” and he says, “Taxi,” and points to himself.  I say, “Si.  Cuanto costa?” and he says, “Ocho,” and I say, “U.S.?” and he says, “Si,” and I say to Jade, “Eight bucks to the ferry?” and she says, “Sure.”

We hop in and he blasts Hispanic techno music while driving with his knees and texting on his old-fashioned-Motorola-Razor-looking phone… and I’m positive he’s texting his Boss, telling him he’s got two Gringos in the backseat that are prime meat for the Sex Shop.  I’m sure he’s thinking to himself, “Score!  The first one has beautiful features, soft hands and a delicate voice… and his wife ain’t bad neither!”

He sways into on-coming traffic, over corrects and begins to veer towards the sidewalks, corrects again, evens out, puts down the phone and turns up the music.  He turns onto narrow streets populated by abandoned homes, dark garages and people that look like they’re capable of bad things.  I mindlessly reach for my right pocket where I always keep my pocket knife before finding it gone, realizing too late that I’d left it at home to avoid the TSA from confiscating it from me.


ABOVE: The airport exiting Nicaragua works on the honor system.  “Dear Passenger, please deposit any prohibited items into case.”  No further inspection required.

The man turns down the music, turns to me and asks something in elongated Spanish.  I say, “Hahah, poco espaniol,” or “Hahah, small Spanish.”  I hold up my forefinger a half inch from my thumb, indicating just how poco.  The man laughs and says, “Ah… Ometepe, si?” and I say, “Si,” and he says, “Cuanto dias?” and there’s that cuanto word again!  I know this one!  I learned it on the bus!  He’s asking how many, how many, how many something.  Dias.  I know that.  It’s familiar.  What is it?  Buenos dias.  Good Day.  Day.  DAY.  Cuanto Dias.  Quantity of days.  He’s asking how long I’m staying.  I cracked the code!  And that’s how it feels every time you figure out what someone has said to you – it feels like you’ve just decrypted a super secret real life code and the message is out and it’s yours.

I, counting silently in my head while staring at my fingers say, “Cinco?” and he says, “Cinco, si, si,” and then we drive in silence until he stops at a tall fence blocking a huge body of water.  In the distance I see the two volcanoes that make up Ometepe.  They are majestic and…. other adjectives will just poison them.  They are truly majestic.  I nudge Jade and say, “Loooooook…”


ABOVE: Ometepe from the ferry.  On the left is Volcan Concepcion and on the right is Volcan Maderas.  The second is dead, the first just sleeping.

I pay the taxi driver ocho dollars and he gives me his name and phone number so I can call him in cinco dias.  (See, you’re picking it up too!  It’s fun, right?!)

Jade and I walk through the gate, find a poco restaurante and purchase lunch; a single plate of over easy eggs, rice and black beans that we share and jointly chase down with two beers; a Victoria and a Tona, the two major beer brands of Nicaragua.  We don’t know it, but this is what most of our meals will consist of.

The rice and beans are unlike any I’ve ever had.  While I find most rice and beans to be completely bland and underwhelming, this combo was delicious and we would intentionally go out of our way to find some.  I suppose that when it’s your major crop and food source, you find ways to make it more palatable.


Next to the restaurant is a dirt… road?  Path?  Trail?  Running along… houses?  A school?  Businesses?  Everything is very vague and nebulous; unlabeled but obviously operational.  Buildings.  People.  I’m not sure what they’re doing.  Stray dogs run rampant along with herds of cows and several chickens.  Everything passes right by us, at our table, careless to our presence.

Everything is so different here, even the animals are strange.

We pay our tab; an unheard of three U.S. dollars for both of the beers and lunch and make our way to the ferry; a beat up sea coaster that’s made this journey innumerable times.  We find seats on the very top and gaze down on the land as we slowly pull away from the mainland, pushing out into the body of water, feeling the gentle rocking pushing from beneath us and the vicious sun beating down on us from above.


We move on and on but Ometepe seems to become no closer.  Jade falls asleep.  I fall asleep.  I wake up.  Jade wakes up.  We take pictures.  We see birds.  A woman sitting next to us drops her digital camera in the water.  Her boyfriends laughs at her.  A bird sits on the rail of our boat, allowing himself to be tugged to the island as well.  Maybe he knows there is better fish over there.

We both fall back to sleep and when we wake up, we are in spitting distance… and everything is amazing and stunning and beautiful and unlike everything we’ve seen so far; it is a land all its own, completely separate in every way from both Managua and Rivas.  It is stunning.


The steel plank drops.  The engine is killed.  The boat is tied off.

We have arrived safely at Ometepe.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Next week our adventure continues.  We still have a gypsy circus, The Beach at the End of the World and a man named Urine to discuss.


ABOVE: First photo taken at the port of Ometepe.


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