Central American bus terminals are never easy. The word “terminal” is usually an overstatement: a dirt lot packed with people and stands selling fruits and cell phones and loose AA batteries, all crammed with buses pulling in and out and collecting people even as they leave. There are no schedules, no timetables, no assigned parking spaces, just a sea of rainbow-painted school buses lurching and stopping.
That’s Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I’d just spent a week in the mountains to the north with a small non-profit, interviewing the coffee growers and pickers who make their living at the agricultural end of a latte. After a week of hiking hillsides and asking questions on health, hunger and human impacts, the team was headed to the airport to fly home.
But not me. I like to take advantage of airplane tickets when I have them, so I had an extra few days to head to the Pacific Coast. I was bound for a few days of sand and surf.
“There is a direct bus from Managua every afternoon,” my friend Rich told me. “The bus goes to Las Salinas. Just get off at Calle Popoyo.”
Popoyo is the kind of place people dream about: a dirt road to a quiet stretch of beach, the slow thunder of crashing waves, a handful of scattered surfers, water the temperature of forgotten tea and a few cheap places to stay with hammocks hanging in the shade. No stoplights, no horns and few tourists, only a soft breeze off the ocean. They’re planning to pave the road soon, Rich told me, so it’s going to change, but for now it’s paradise.
After a week of riding in truck beds and trudging through jungle, paradise sounded good. So I rode to Managua and headed to the bus terminal.
Unloading into utter chaos, I looked around. There were no indicators in the dust and dirt and hot sun what bus went where. The best I could do was walk up to one of the barkers standing near a bus and ask for direction.
“Las Salinas?” I said to the first one I came to.
“No,” he said, “alla,” pointing to a bus a few rows over.
I hustled over to the bus in question, dragging my luggage behind me. The barker saw me coming.
“Las Salinas?” I shouted over the din.
“Si,” he said, taking my bag, “Salinas.” He followed me inside and shoved my bag into the overhead rack. I slumped into the seat, ready for a few hours on bumpy roads.
Now, I’ve never set up a country. But if I did and there was a town called Salinas and another called Las Salinas, I’d make sure they were nowhere near each other. Maybe I’d pair them with some other identifier (like an associated state name, for example) to mark one as different from the other. Nicaragua, however, doesn’t. They leave it to a guy manning the door of a technicolor school bus to differentiate between Salinas and Las Salinas.
On Saturday, however, he was asleep at the switch. And so was I. I said Las Salinas, he said Salinas, and together we hopped aboard. Moments later the bus pulled out, collecting more passengers even as it left, and was on its way.
It wasn’t until we were an hour out, when the street signs started announcing Leon, Nicaragua’s famous colonial city far to the northwest, that I realized I was headed the wrong direction. I walked to the front of the bus, where the barker had become the ticket checker.
“Excuse me,” I said in imperfect Spanish, “but did that sign say Leon? I’m going to Las Salinas, which is way south of Leon.”
“No no,” he said, “Salinas is just outside of Leon.”
The man driving the bus looked over at us.
“Las Salinas?” he said. “Small town near the beach? That’s in the opposite direction.”
The barker and I looked at each other. He shook his head. So did I. “Crap,” I said.
Paradise was going to have to wait.
International travel is like that. In places like Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, infrastructure is limited, and mishaps occur. But even in places like U.K., where we ought to be able to find our way, we get turned around.
But such errors aren’t errors; they are the point of going. Adventure isn’t the result of well-laid plans working out smoothly, it’s the outcome borne from a misunderstanding and a 100-mile trip in the wrong direction, or some other similar twist of fate.
When I embedded in Iraq I missed my flight home because my U.S. military escorts weren’t used to accessing the civilian part of the Kuwait City airport. The final days I spent with the soldier were some of the best.
On two separate occasions in Peru, I’ve wound up sleeping as a guest with a local family after finding myself far from anyplace offering a hotel room. Those nights each wound up being the highlight of the trip.
It’s hard to remember sometimes when you’re tired, hot and have been sitting on school buses all day, but these are the moments we leave home for. They serve as reminders of how chaotic the world can be, and how lucky we are to live in a place where appointments occur on time, where buses have schedules and potable water flows from every tap. Paradise isn’t just a secluded beach; it’s also a bus station with cushioned seats and a printed timetable.
This column appeared in this week’s Conway Daily Sun.