By Glenn Baja
The school bus (a.k.a. chicken bus) stopped and the doors opened. All I could see from street-side was a curtain of people spilling and overflowing out the aisle way. Not only did we have ourselves and the daypacks on our backs but also an overnight duffle and a bag from our day’s excursion at the market.
The ticket master bellowed out instructions in Spanish for everyone to move towards the back. A subtle shift of movement and shuffling of feet was all I saw. Not nearly enough to accommodate the two new boarders.
A hand reached out to Lezlie helping her up the bus stairs while taking her bag. I followed, raising my duffel ahead of me. This too was quickly grabbed and placed on the bus drivers overgrown dash next to the other. I crept up the stairs sensing what I needed to do to create additional space in the burgeoning aisle way.
The young man at the front, refusing to relinquish his hard earned position, turned sideways to let me pass. I moved by, grabbing the hand rail running the length of the bus to the side. Unable to turn or maneuver without stepping on feet or knocking the seated rider beside me with my daypack to their head, I carefully aligned my body to fit.
I was a new piece in the ever changing puzzle.
Ninety-minutes lie ahead.
I experienced what a conveyer-belt roller must feel like when those behind needed to exit. Pushing, pulling, and bulldozing their way towards the doors, bullying their way past any standing obstacles, I found rotating 360 degrees to be the easiest way to adapt as they passed.
To those accustomed to such experiences it was just another day on the bus.
To me, it was another life experience, learning firsthand what it was like to ride the “chicken-bus” (yes, some people really do bring chickens on board), the tico’s and budget-minded tourist’s most common and economical way to travel Nicaragua. The cost? Fifty cordobas, the US equivalent of $2.00 to travel from Granada to San Juan Del Sur, a 96 kilometer trip taking approximately 3 hours.
Babies, hippies, gringos, seniors, youngsters…
all traveling to their next stop in life.
I’d never been there but knew I needed to go. Upon research I found that Granada is located on the northwest shores of Lake Nicaragua. This lake holds the distinction of being the 20th largest fresh water lake in the world and the only one containing fresh water sharks!
Granada is both beautiful, romantic, and intriguing. It features rich colonial architecture, internationally acclaimed culinary cuisine, romantic horse and carriage tours for the bargain price of $20.00, all accented by a backdrop of the now dormant Mombacho volcano.
This led to another interesting fact: The last time Mombacho erupted it violently blew over 700 meters off it’s top creating 365 Islands (Isletas de Granada) in Lake Nicaragua. Today many of these islands, featuring monkeys, a plethora of birds and other wildlife, are privately owned by the wealthy and feature extravagant custom made homes, a sight in themselves to see. Boat sight-seeing tours to the islands are popular tourist attractions and a good business opportunity for industrious Nicaraguan entrepreneurs ($25.00 – $40.00 pp for 2 hour tour).
After landing at the bus station it was a 10 minute walk to the town square. The walk in itself is a test of self-preservation. Narrow, busy, vendor occupied sidewalks makes walking in the streets a necessary means of travel. Double parked cars and delivery trucks make single-file walking mandatory.
The simple task of peeking around a vehicle for clearance can be dangerous and unsafe. Locals who walk and drive these busy streets are used to the minimal clearances between man and auto, an entirely unnerving and stressful experience for newcomers. The commotion at street-side businesses and constant movement of people, chickens, dogs, and honking horns can be totally confusing, distracting, and nerve-racking. Combined, they all make travel by foot on busy Granada streets a function requiring careful attention and concentration.
The town center, an area rich in hotels, restaurants, open markets and parkways, reflects the dynamic heritage of the city. Cathedrals abound in the city, many dating back hundreds of years, all with rich historical stories to share. Central Park, the core of downtown, is a popular tourist destination populated during the day with local crafts people selling handmade wares and goods. Here’s also where you can take a 90 minute horse and carriage ride for the bargain price of $20.00, a 90-minute guided tour that takes you throughout the city revealing lesser known parts and buildings most tourist never see.
A favorite activity towards dusk is to head out for food and drink along Granada’s famous Calle Calzada, a walk-only street lined with restaurants and shops leading from the city’s center. It’s the best place to go in Granada during the evenings, especially for drinks and people watching. This is the city social center for travelers, tourist, street vendors, musicians, prostitutes and hippies.
Here, we made a friend from Germany, bought cashews from a young persistent 13 year old professional salesman, laughed with a fellow traveler from New Hampshire, watched talented acrobats perform on the street, and enjoyed being serenaded at our table by charming smooth-talking musicians.
Another “must do” is taking an excursion to Masaya, a five-hour tour ($75.00 pp) which includes four stops, one being a trip to the Masaya Volcano, an active shield volcano in Nicaragua’s first and largest national park.
Masaya continually emits large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the air quite often causing certain walk and hiking pathways to be closed for health reasons when winds shift directions. Commonly very safe, the national park road leads you to the top of the volcano overlook where you can conveniently get a close view inside the smoking caldera.
The next stop is Catarina, a popular vista point overlooking a pristine lake-filled caldera of an ancient volcano below. Named Apoyo Lagoon, there really isn’t anything “lagoonish” about it. It’s nothing short of a huge lake that fills the super-sized caldera of the volcano. The geologic fact is that this observation vista that’s so popular is atop one of the walls of the caldera looking far down upon the distant lake. The view encompasses all of the lagoon as well as a large portion of Lake Nicaragua behind, with the speck-sized town of Granada sitting upon it’s banks. Off to the side the prominent Mombacho volcano rises to attention.
As with most tourist sites in Nicaragua, these areas attract local salespeople and musicians who try their best to sell you a pair of sunglasses, bags of cashews, handcrafted jewelry, and various local food items. If you sit down to have a meal it’s only a matter of time before a trio of musicians with marimba, guitar, and hand percussion greet and start singing at your table. Over time, one learns to say “no gracias” quite quickly once learning that to listen means an obligation to pay for the entertainment.
Once you pay every vendor in the area comes over to your table with the same hopes..
Next, our taxi took us to the town of Masaya, the third largest town in Nicaragua, the very heart of handmade Nicaraguan handicrafts. A shoppers heaven, the market in Masaya features unique Nicaraguan products such as hand woven hammocks, embroidered blouses, wood carvings, ceramics, festival masks, and hemp weavings. From hardware and beauty supplies to produce, electronics and clothing from the surrounding area, everything you desire is available at the market.
The last stop is the ceramic factory in Masaya with shelves of overflowing vases, bottles, bowls, cups, and nicknacks. Many of these smaller ceramics were commonly sold by street vendors and businesses throughout the area. Occupied by no more than 5 people in a large workshop at the back living quarters of a home, a middle age man in his early fifties was hunched in his seat over a 5 gallon bucket. Filled with a murky brown blend of clay colored dye, he dipped the raw pot held in hand into the mix with cheese-cloth draped between the two, filtering out any chunky residue that might adhere.
Next to him were 3 young teens who tediously used fine toothed hand tools to create the unique designs on the exteriors. With music playing from their radio, each was bent over focused upon the task at hand. Only then were we aware that the many pots we had seen throughout the city, thought to be mass produced, were hand-made by artisans made in this village. Many eye-catching pieces were multi-colored with incredibly complex designs…reflections of the precision, creativity, and time that went into each vessel.
The rhythmic sounds and feel of the Pacific…moving waves interacting with the shore, the feel of the pull-and-tug of the ocean waves interacting upon my body, built-up wave energy suddenly released…is clearly heard and felt from my San Juan Del Sur balcony. Chirps, squacks, and trills of the birds and critters of the night fill the air.
Dawn is beginning to show her waking light in the eastern sky. The last stars of night still shine above as the faint glow of the night’s full moon still lingers in the west.
One nights ending…a new day’s beginning.
I sit and reflect upon my journey to Granada. Yet again, my soul has been exposed to another page in the great book of life.
New customs, new beliefs, and everyday habits so very different from the head records I have on file. I was surprised, challenged, curious, compassionate, and urged to grow a bit more. I felt feelings I normally don’t experience frequently back home. There was new smells, sounds, and taste I hadn’t experienced before. There were new things to see…new things to touch. It made me grateful to be who I am, yet at the same time made me realize how much I don’t know and truly understand about other people on earth.
It’s about living life. And we all do it differently.
Travel expands the heart & opens the mind…
It feeds the soul & expands understanding…
and makes you feel grateful to be alive.
Now, it’s your turn…
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