By Conor Sanchez
We had made it. We had reached Jinotega, the famed mountain town everyone had told us about since arriving in Nicaragua. The air was cool and brisk as a strong breeze swept through this fairly remote town nestled deep within the heart of Nicaragua’s coffee country. The late afternoon sun had taken on a strong slant turning our shadows into giants that stretched to the other side of the road.
We still had one more leg to go before we reached our final destination – San Rafael Del Norte, a small village located even deeper within the mountains of northern Nicaragua. Michaela and I stepped down from our bus and begin to look for our next ride, but there wasn’t a bus in sight.
We asked someone for directions and learned that the last bus for San Rafael left in five minutes on the other side of town. We searched for a cab but there was none, so we started to run. Hustling past fruit stands, open-air markets, and booths filled with pirated DVDs, we sprinted as fast as our heavy backpacks permitted us. Every now and then we asked someone if we were still heading in the right direction.
Finally, after about six blocks, we turned right and spotted our bus slowly rolling away from its station. We waved our arms, shouting at them to stop until the cobrador (a ticket collector) spotted us and whistled for the driver to hit the breaks. We headed to the front of the bus, expecting to be let on like normal people, but instead we were directed towards the emergency exit at the back. Someone opened the door and about a thousand pairs of legs stared me in the face.
“You want us to fit in there?” I asked.
“Of course! Lots of space!” he said in Spanish.
Before we could say anything else, our bags had been lifted off our backs and placed on top of the bus. With little choice but to climb on board, we somehow squeezed ourselves into the mass of Nicaraguans heading home for the day. We were relieved. We had barely made it. We were the last ones on the bus.
Or so I thought.
About five minutes into our ride the bus stopped to let four more people on. No way, I thought. The back of my head is against the window and my face is about two inches from someone’s ponytail. We were packed in so tight I could keep my hands at my side even on the world’s bumpiest road. Unless someone was ready to crowd surf, there was no way another person was getting on that bus.
But they did. And then another person got on. Then a family of four. Then three more. It’s actually quite amazing how capable I am of contorting my body to accommodate an additional foot between my legs or an arm over my shoulder. At one point I was convinced the Guinness Book of World Records had coordinated that ride just to see if the record could be broken.
The sad part is that this was not the worst bus ride I had ever been on in Nicaragua. That honor belongs to a 5-hour long journey from Managua to my site in which I had to stand the entire way because no seats were left. Unfortunately, a packed bus at rush hour was par for the course, and we should have known better.
We were on our way to San Rafael Del Norte to run a 10k with a group of other Peace Corps Volunteers. This being our first time traveling to the north on our own, we definitely underestimated the adventure ahead.
A week prior we traveled to the Caribbean Coast for an official meeting and assumed that since we could handle that, we could handle anything. And since that trip entailed a bus ride that left at 3:30 am, two rides on a boat highway called the Escondido River, and a night in Bluefields, I’d say that was mostly true. Nevertheless, we were pretty wiped once we actually reached San Rafael. Even then, we still had to hike up a hill in the rain to get to the Catholic Church that was hosting all of the runners for the night.
The good news is the run went really well. Sure, we got about two hours of sleep sharing a really uncomfortable twin-sized bed in freezing cold weather (for us that means, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), but at 5:00 am we were up and ready to go. We were all required to be down in the central park at 5:30 am to catch a bus that drove us exactly 10 kilometers outside of the city. They dropped us off in the middle of nowhere (a gorgeous, rolling green hills, type of “nowhere”) where we stood around shivering until 7:30 am, when a Catholic priest blessed us all with a splash of holy water, counted down from three, and we all ran back to town.
In Nueva Guinea, I’ve become accustomed to stares from people who must think I’m absolutely nuts for willingly going for a run, so it was great to see so many Nicaraguan runners competing for fun. As much as people think running is a solitary sport, I think it’s actually pretty communal. For some reason, a mass of people running in one direction is one of the most instinctual and human things I know so to see that feeling transcended over borders was pretty exhilarating. The hardest part is finding these races since so many of them are either local or word-of-mouth, but I’m determined to find more.
After the race we quickly boarded a bus since we had to make it to Granada by nightfall and despite the fact that Nicaragua is roughly the same geographic size as Arkansas, we knew better than to expect an easy voyage. It was another long day of travel and we really had no one else to blame but ourselves for the hair-brained idea of traveling north for one night.
Overall, I’d say it was worth the trouble since the race was such a great experience, but next time, I think we’ll treat traveling to another region as if we were traveling from one side of the United States to the other – since that’s about how long it takes.