L: What if I need the loo?
D: Then go. There’s one at the back of the bus.
L: But lots of men have already used it while we’ve been swerving round corners. It’ll be vile by now.
D: Do you actually need to go?
L: No. But what if I do? Would you go and clean it for me first?
D: I most certainly would not.
L: Oh. But what if I need it?
D: But you don’t. Anyway, we’re nearly at the border.
The bus they are on is travelling from Panama through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to eventually arrive in Mexico three days later. Their journey, however, is only a small segment of this, a mere 8 hours from Costa Rica’s capital, San José, to Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.
The bus stops at dusk. An announcement is made over the tannoy.
L: Did you get that? What did they say?
D: No idea. We’d better copy everyone else.
They disembark at Peñas Blancas, on the Costa Rican border, clutching passports, completed immigration forms, and receipts for exit taxes collected from all passengers – the tariffs many times higher for tourists than residents. An orderly queue forms, stretching in through the door of a new glass and concrete building.
L: Blimey – how long is this going to take? Some people seem to have been here for days!
Next to the building is a cluster of tents, people dozing on benches, children milling about, and women hanging out laundry on washing lines.
D: That’s the Cubans.
L: What Cubans?
D: Cubans trying to get into the US.
L: So what are they doing here?
D: Nicaragua won’t let them through. They’re stuck.
L: But Cuba’s next door to the US. About 1000 miles north of here. Why on earth are they all the way down here?
D: Lots of Cubans fly to Ecuador and then travel 5000 miles overland back up through South and Central America, rather than risk the incredibly dangerous 90 mile crossing of the shark infested Florida Straits on an overloaded homemade raft.
D: And there’s the wet foot-dry foot policy.
L: The what?
D: The US have an extraordinary policy – if a Cuban can get into the country, they can stay. But only if they have dry feet – if they arrive overland. If they come by boat, the US can still turn them away in US waters, before they get ashore.
L: OK……. But why go all the way down to Ecuador?
D: Direct flights from Havana and no visas needed. It’s hellishly difficult though. First most of them get robbed of their life savings in Colombia. Then they pay through the nose to get into Panama in one piece – seeing as most of the land on the border is full of impenetrable jungles and swamps and gangs with machine guns that are best avoided. And now they’re stuck here.
L: Why won’t Nicaragua let them through?
D: It’s political. They’re generally a bit touchy about their borders with Costa Rica, and Nicaragua also has a lot of Communist history with Cuba. I found an interesting article about it. You should read it. Here.
L: Thanks. I will. What makes them leave Cuba in the first place? To make all this worthwhile?
D: Poverty. Lack of opportunity. Temptation of all things golden just across the water in Miami. Following family. Read the article.
L: I will. So what’s going to happen to these people? They’re not even half way.
D: All the countries between here and the US, except Nicaragua, are rallying round to get them moving again. They won’t be here for ever, but it’ll take some time. There’s 8,000 of them waiting. Read the article!
L: I will! But not now – look, our turn next.
The queue moves, they reach the front and, unlike the beleaguered Cubans, have their passports swiftly stamped, and get back on the bus.
The bus drives on. For 500 metres. And then stops again. An announcement is made over the tannoy.
L: Did you get that? What did they say?
D: No idea. Just copy everyone else. This must be the Nicaraguan border.
They hand over entry taxes to their bus driver, along with their passports. He disappears. This time everyone removes all their hand luggage from the bus, and their suitcases from the hold. They stand around in a hot dusty car park. It gets properly dark. A man tries to sell them a hammock. They stand some more. Money-changers circulate, fanning 4-inch thick wads of cash.
L: Are you excited?
D: About getting back on the bus?
L: About being in Nicaragua.
D: What’s everyone waiting for?
L: It’s got 28 volcanoes.
D: Good. I might ask someone.
L: And the largest lake in Central America.
D: Great. I can’t see anyone to ask.
Eventually a couple of officials are spotted wearing blue T-shirts and carrying clipboards. The crowd drifts towards the officials, dragging their bags until they are all standing on a large raised platform, as though waiting for a train. Lollipop sellers weave through the melee, men with baskets on their heads brimming with cigarettes, women selling leather goods: belts and wallets. There are no counters, no instructions, no clues. They stand around. The T-shirts with clipboards are passing randomly from one traveller to the next.
L: And there’s wonderful Spanish architecture, dating back to the 16th century.
D: I want to join a queue.
L: There isn’t one. And they had a revolution.
D: What, in the 16th century?
L: No, in the 1970s. Which ended a 40 year dictatorship but left the country massively in debt.
D: I’m miserable. Don’t they understand the British are only happy when queuing?
L: It’s the poorest country in the Americas.
D: Right. Shall I start a queue? Stand behind me.
L: But they’re on the up. They reckon they’re about half way through a 50 year economic recovery. You’re not actually listening, are you?
They spot a Clipboard riffling through a suitcase on a wooden workbench, and shuffle towards him. Another Clipboard approaches from behind. He gives D’s rucksack a brief squeeze.
He inclines his head, suggesting that they are now free to leave the platform. They haul their luggage back to the bus, which is locked. They stand around. They buy lollipops. They wait. The bus driver opens the hold and the passengers surge forward. He is impatient.
Some passengers are waved forward, others have their luggage rejected. They wait.
D: Granada – that’s us. He’s shouting the destinations and grouping the bags together.
They hand over their backpacks. At the bus door, the crowd regroups, and a uniformed female calls out names. People push through, take the proffered passport and board the bus. They wait. D’s name is called. He claims his passport and returns to L. They wait. The woman is cross. She waves a passport.
Woman: Honey. Honey?
No-one steps forward.
L: Maybe that’s me.
D: That sounds nothing whatsoever like you. Why would she call you honey?
L: Maybe she’s saying “Jane”. In Spanish. My middle name.
D: That’s really quite a big stretch. But we can go and check.
L steps forward and reclaims her passport. The woman gives her a long, weary look, for being stupid, and foreign.
Two hours after disembarking, they get back on the bus.
D: Well, that was all fairly straightforward, wasn’t it?
They see nothing of Nicaragua beyond the windows of the bus, until they pass through the small town of Rivas. An important baseball game has just been won. Everyone is out in the streets, thronging both sides of the main road. Hundreds of vuvuzelas are crowing triumphantly and scooters and motorbikes buzz to and fro, carrying pairs of youths or whole families, bare-legged children wedged between parents. Bicycles weave through the crowd, with passengers perched on crossbars or handlebars, some with toddlers tucked under one arm.
In Granada they are left in a dark scruffy side street. No other tourists get off.
L: We need a taxi. A proper licensed one. The fare should be two dollars, but they’ll ask for five. Let me do the talking.
They approach a battered looking vehicle. It’s the only taxi in sight.
L: How much to the city centre?
Driver: Ten dollars.
L: Oh. How about five?
Driver: (looking resigned): OK.
D: Neatly done. I am impressed. You really told him.
L: Shut up.
They are driven through a grid of deserted streets. The buildings are low, just one or two storeys, colonial in style, all peeling ochre paint and wrought iron window grills.
L: We’re staying right in the centre so that we can walk everywhere easily. Accommodation in Nicaragua’s a lot cheaper than Costa Rica.
D: Great – so we’re saving some money.
L: Err…no. I just spent the same amount as I would in Costa Rica, but got a much nicer hotel.
They are dropped outside a large and pretty colonial building on a pedestrian street. Inside, beyond the reception desk, terracotta roofs enclose a beautiful central courtyard, with porticos, greenery and a fountain. They walk up creaking highly polished wooden stairs to a wide open balcony overlooking the courtyard, off which open several pairs of immense double doors.
L: Here we are.
Their room is high ceilinged with parquet flooring, and a large bathroom. At the far end of the room is another set of double doors.
L: I booked one with a balcony. Apparently it’s got a volcano view.
She throws open the doors and steps out, leaning over the stone balustrade. D comes out of the bathroom, looking alarmed.
D: What the hell is going on?
A great wave of noise washes into the room. Below them is the pedestrian street. It is lively. A dozen restaurants have outdoor seating, crowded with diners, all talking and laughing. A cacophony of music drifts out from the interiors, mixing not altogether harmoniously in the street. Directly opposite their window is the proud green sign of an “Irish Pub”, music and drinkers overflowing out of the door. Street vendors sell jewellery, drinks and snacks, lottery tickets, and song-stones of painted birds, all shouting out their wares. A pair of traditional dancers performs to the beat of a drum, whirling and clapping, before moving on. Pedestrians and cyclists amble up and down, chatting and eating ice creams. Children run shrieking, chasing a puppy. A group of acrobatic breakdancing kids set up, beatbox booming, spinning on their heads and contorting impressively. A mariachi band pass by, a trumpet solo soaring up to their balcony.
L: I’m afraid I might have booked the noisiest room in town.
D: You think?
L: But it’s fantastic for people watching. It’s all happening, right here, under our balcony.
D: Yes. It certainly is.
L: Are you awake?
L: I wonder how soon it’ll quieten down?
D: Go to sleep.
D: Why don’t you shut the windows?
L: They are shut.
D: I hate mariachi. Go and tell them to leave me alone.
L: You do it.
D: I can’t. I’m asleep.
Much, much later….
D: That bloody trumpet! What time is it?