Nicaragua: On The Road
I wake up, as always, before dawn to the bright sounds of my barrio. This is the soundtrack to my morning, every day for two years in a village in northern Nicaragua: One neighbor’s hands slap-slap the morning’s tortillas into shape; across the puddle-potted dirt street, Eudelia’s teenage daughter turns on her boom box and sings along to a loud Mexican pop band; roosters and dogs chime in; then, the distant song of Doña Vicenta rises from the direction of the highway, shouting her wares which she balances in a wide, shallow basket on her head. “¡Llevo cebolla — zanahoria — ajo — cebollita!”
Fresh onion, carrot, garlic — to be fried in oil and tossed into scrambled eggs, which are eaten with a toasty corn tortilla in one hand and a mound of gallo pinto (rice and beans) to soak up the grease in your belly. Perhaps I’ll catch breakfast at the bus stop in San Isidro, I think, rising to begin a day of travel.
Standing barefoot on my tiled porch, a mug of strong backyard coffee in my hands, I watch several small, low clouds turn from pink to white. I savor this moment of post-dawn coolness, which will soon be gone.
This is the calm before the journey, and I savor that, too. If I’ve learned one thing living in Nicaragua, it is that all you have to do to find adventure is step out your front door.
So that’s what I do.
I take a final gritty gulp, dump the grounds in the garden, go inside for my daypack and guitar, and step into the street. I am going to Chinandega, a low-lying, sun-baked city about half a day’s travel to the west. I have several errands there and, if I have time (and in Nicaragua I always have time), some friends to visit.
I salute my neighbors as I pass with a wave and an “¡Adios!”
Seeing the pack on my shoulder, they all shout, “¡Que le vaya bien!” Go well!
At the highway, I raise my hand (no thumb necessary) and smile at the first vehicle that appears — a teetering white box of a truck crunches to a stop beside me. I climb in and shake the driver’s hand.
“Para servirle,” he says with a smile. At your service. He has short, thick hair and deep crow’s feet around his eyes.
The radio is blasting merengue, so we do not talk. We just admire the scenery together as we descend from the foothills of the Segovia Mountains into Sebaco Valley and the village of San Isidro. As he rolls slowly over a speed bump, I clap the back of my right hand into my left palm and nod toward the west. He understands and lets me down at the edge of town.
Within 10 minutes, a red pickup stops and I’m running to the window, licking greasy egg from my fingers and brushing bits of tortilla from my beard.
“¿Dame un ride?” I ask the driver. Give me a lift?
“¡Como no!” he says. Of course!
I hop over the tailgate, bang once on the side of the truck and we are off.
“Ride” is how Nicas refer to hitchhiking, taken from the English and pronounced similarly, except Nicas roll the “r” and barely pronounce the “d” at the end. They have thus made the word their own, as they’ve done with beisból and jonrón (baseball and homerun).
I sit facing backward, my back against the cab next to a man with a big cookie-sweeper mustache, a skinny neck and dark skin. He wears a battered red baseball cap with a political acronym across the front: PLN.
The wind is already warm. We shake hands and begin talking. He speaks quickly, not quite pronouncing the final syllable of each word, and I have to ask him to repeat himself more than once.
“Were you born in these hills?” I ask.
“No, man,” he says, “I’m from Rivas. After the war, I came to Estelí to play baseball.”
“And now you are pure norteño?” I ask, knowing how much Nicas love to discuss their regional prides and prejudices.
“Yes, man,” he smiles. “I’ve got my norteña now.”
“What position did you play?” I ask. His face brightens as he talks about it.
“Center field,” he says. “Sometimes catcher. You know we Nicas love baseball! And we love poetry, too. Rubén Darío! His greatest work is Prosas Profanas. Have you read it?”
Of course I’d heard of Darío, Nicaragua’s famous scribe and ambassador from the turn of the 20th century. Nearly every library, bookshop and cultural center in Nicaragua is named after him — but I had not, I tell him, read Prosas Profanas.
The ends of his mustache buoy upward as he prepares to enlighten me. I smile with him, swimming through yet another remarkable moment in this confounding country: A simple-looking, gap-toothed campesino whom I would have taken for illiterate is reciting poetry to me while the dry, crackling countryside blows by on all sides:
Juventud divino tesoro
Te vas para no volver,
Cuando quiero llorar no lloro,
Y a veces lloro sin querer.
Divine treasure of youth/ You leave to never return/ When I want to cry, I do not cry/ And sometimes I cry without wanting to.
As we talk, the truck carries us west, dropping into the hot, volcanic lowlands of Nicaragua’s Pacific north. The first smoking cone appears around noon, Volcán Telica, then the other peaks of the Maribio chain rise out of the dusty heat: Momotombo, San Cristóbal, Cerro Negro. We have pierced the ring of fire, and now the air is blast-furnace hot, especially as we slow down at the empalme(junction) for Chinandega.
I hop out, thank the driver and walk to the gas station as the pickup pulls away toward León. I wonder how long I will have to wait in this heat — and I wonder whom I will meet next. This seems to be at the heart of my time in Nicaragua, this dance between looking for excitement and waiting for it to find me.
On this day, I don’t wait long. A yellow school bus is parked at the sole gas pump. Arms droop from windows like wilted plants. As I approach the door, I ask the driver, “¿A donde van?”
“Chinandega,” says the man standing near the door. He is a towering black man, obviously from the Atlantic coast. He confirms my suspicion when he adds in perfect English, “Where are you going, man?”
He is — like everyone else on the bus, I realize — wearing a baseball uniform. “Matagalpa” is scripted across their chests. We shake hands as I climb aboard and the man introduces himself: “Marvin Benard.”
“No way!” I say.
At that time, there were only three Nicaraguan baseball players playing in the U.S. major leagues — I knew because the local newspapers followed their every move. Marvin Benard was one of them, the Bluefields-born outfielder for the San Francisco Giants.
I’d heard that some players from the United States spent their off-seasons in Nicaragua to stay in shape, and that’s what Marvin is doing. He turns around and booms in Creole-accented Spanish to his teammates, “Make room for the gringo; maybe he’ll play us some music!”
“Play a ranchera, you son of a b#*%@!” says one of the players in classic Nicaraguan form.
Northern Nicaraguans adore la música ranchera, a type of Mexican country song that is on a continuous loop at most bars in the region. I am ready; and as the bus pulls onto the road, the entire team is singing with me.
“Clavado en este rincón/ como tu clavaste a mi corazón” — a tear-in-your-beer waltz of lost love and desperate drunkenness. “Hammered in the corner of this bar,” goes the opening line, “just like you hammered my heart.”
It takes less than an hour to reach the stadium in Chinandega. My new buddies invite me to the game that evening. I thank them and wave goodbye as I wander off to find a taxi into town.
Info to Go
Augusto C. Sandino InternationalAairport (MGA) is located on the Pan-American Highway as it leaves Managua and heads north. You can catch a bus there to points north and into the interior. Head for the cigar-making city of Estelí to travel the country described here, about a two- to three-hour drive north of Managua.