Thursday, September 24, 2009

San Jose to Palacaguina and Beyond

There are a lot of memories that still come back effortlessly. I’ll see or hear something that will trip some deep subconscious recollection and I’ll spend the next few minutes in a reflective trance reliving, smelling, tasting, or feeling a specific moment from my service. And most of the memories are still surprisingly clear: the sulfur like taste that always preceded the parasites; the humid, slightly warm earthen smell of my backyard after a rain; the trapped, clingy feeling of a pair of blue jeans on the hottest days. I’ll hear a song and think of a town dance, or I’ll see a school bus and think of my “commute” to a rural school. These memories come quickly, and sometimes unexpectedly, but they are mostly fleeting thoughts, no longer than a few minutes. As effortlessly as I retrieve them, my brain quickly re-files these subconscious notes when I’m done reminiscing and I simply continue with my day. But there are still memories and thoughts that I think about more regularly; thoughts, feelings, and memories that wait for me to fully process, sitting in my more immediate conscious as they wait to be properly filed. Where do I put a memory that I revisit everyday as I get on the #22 bus to go to work?

I was in San Jose, Costa Rica, finished with a week long vacation trekking around the country with two friends from home. My friends were flying home that afternoon, and I was making the long haul back to Palacaguina alone. I left the hostel very early, just as the sun was breaking, and flagged down a cab to take me to the bus station. There was a time, early in my service, that a solo cab ride was a deeply frightening chore, but I had more than a year’s worth of experience at this point, and compared to the unruly streets of Managua, where I cut my chops, San Jose was child’s play. The red cab was a newer model Toyota Yaris and actually had a meter, something you’d never get in Managua, and I confidently told the driver where I was headed. It was a long trip across the city, and the driver, as most drivers in San Jose and Managua were prone to do, struck up a conversation. He asked all of the standard questions and I answered with all of my standard replies, replies so well rehearsed that, when finished, the driver observed “your Spanish is very good,” and asked me where I learned. When I told him that I lived in Nicaragua, he started to make fun of the Nicaraguan culture and people. There was a common mistrust and, at times, soft hatred between the Ticos and Nicas, and since I considered myself more Nica than Tico, I defended my people and friends by cutting the driver off midsentence and using some classic Nicaraguan phrases. He laughed and was impressed with how well I knew the country. After he dropped me off at the bus station, I was pretty impressed myself. Not with just how well I knew Nicaragua, but with the simplicity of the trip across Costa Rica’s capital city. Flagging the cab, giving directions, conversing, joking, defending, all done as if I was in my hometown. It had been so easy. I got on the bus thinking about how impossible this all would have been just a few months prior.

The uneventful bus ride was a welcomed rest before reaching the routine chaos of the border. The bus pulled up and parked among five to ten other busses. I had to get through customs and then, on the Nicaraguan side, catch a different bus to Managua. The border, like the day’s heat, was reaching it’s peak hour and though I had passed through on my way to Costa Rica, the border was still confusing. There were no signs or directions about where to wait in line or what window to visit first, and as I tried to sort out the disorder, I was persistently hounded by bus exhaust, offers to change my money, and calls of the next bus departure. When I finally found the right line and started to wait, a guy approached offering to get me through customs in five minutes. He flashed an absurdly fake, homemade badge and tried to convince me that he officially worked at the border; his Indianapolis Colts tshirt said otherwise, but the line was long, the sun was hot, and I was still 10 hours away from my home, so I was a little more willing to hear him out. I quickly sized him up as he was convincing me and decided to take a shot. I bargained him down from $10 to $5 to shepherd me through the whole process, and when I agreed he took me up to the front of the line and we waited to the side. He folded up the $5 bill and slipped it into my passport. When he took both from my hands and walked away towards the customs window I was ready to chase after and tackle him the second he took one step in any direction not towards the window. But my initial judgment proved legitimate and I watched him walk straight to the window and slip my passport into the hands of the customs agent. The customs agent put it to the side and tended to a few more folks from the line. As I waited, still curious as to how this all might go down, I was cautiously optimistic, and when I saw the agent stamp my passport and quickly pass it back to my partner in crime, I was downright ecstatic. I had shaved off 2 hours of waiting in the midday sun. I did feel a tinge of guilt for supporting such overtly illegal behavior, but I convinced myself that I deserved the break. I had been beaten down and taken advantage of so much over the last several months that it was about time I notched a point in my column. I had beaten the system this time, and though I had to cheat to do it, it felt good. I strutted through the long border area and officially into the country I called home. The Nicaraguan, 1980s yellow school busses with “Jesus Christ is Lord” decals across the windshield waited in an unorganized, trash filled, dirt parking lot. Welcome back.

The four hour bus ride into Managua was uncomfortably warm and crowded. Driving through the southern, Pacific Coast part of the country, with its unforgiving heat and endless fields of sugar cane, always made me appreciate the cooler air and lush mountain landscapes I was used to in the north. I turned on my iPod to discourage any would be talkers and watched the country pass by, imagining I was on an air conditioned Grey Hound. My imagination had gotten good at these games and I found them to be one of my favorite defense mechanisms. No shower was too cold, no parasite too painful, no ray of sun too hot, when I could mentally checkout of the present and check-in to a Ritz Carlton. So I sat there, on a school bus with no shocks, and pretended for four hours I was sitting in first class, riding on air.

When we got into Managua, I knew I had under two hours to make it to Mayoreo to catch the last express bus up north. I knew the express bus schedule by heart and had learned the hard way what it meant if I didn’t make it there on time: a three hour trip standing in the aisle salivating for a seat or a five hour trip on a bus that picked up any man, woman, child, or chicken that needed a ride. I wanted neither, so I grabbed my bag a little tighter, slipped my wallet into my front pocket, and stepped off the bus, into Nicaragua’s overwhelming capital.

Immediately, I had four cabbies surrounding me and grabbing my arm and bag. This wasn’t always the case in Managua, but this bus station was particularly bad and the cabbies were more aggressive than normal. Because there were no meters in the taxis, you always had to negotiate your price before getting into a cab. If you looked like a tourist, you were given outrageously high prices in American dollars. If you were a tourist, you happily paid this price because it was still cheap compared to the States. If you were a Peace Corps volunteer, you knew the Nicaraguan prices you should pay and let the cabbies know you weren’t some rookie. Turning them down and sneering at their high prices was always rewarding, and I relished the opportunity to brush off the four cabbies grabbing me. I scoffed at their high prices and as I was walking out to the street to flag down a different cab, I mentally raised two middle fingers and swung them in the direction of my aggressors. I got in a cab that offered me the standard fare, C$40. $2.

On our way to the Mayoreo bus station, I had the taxi take me to a “take-out” restaurant I knew of. For another C$35 I wolfed down a piece of fried chicken, a plate of rice and beans, and two tortillas. I ate this quickly, in the cab, without utensils. There was a time, in my first year, that this would have horrified me, eating from a roadside stand, in a taxi, with my bare hands. But time and experience had softened many fears, and my rules for sanitary conditions no longer applied.

We pulled into the station right on time, and I didn’t waste any time making it to the ticket window. Ten minutes later I boarded the bus and was headed north. The hardest part of my journey, the border crossing and navigating Managua, was complete, and as the bus got just north of Ciudad Dario, I felt the humid air of the lowlands turn into the fresh, mountain air of the north. I knew this bus ride like the back of my hand, and the enjoyable scenery always made it a relaxing three hour ride. I got off at “La Shell,” the stop along the Panamerican Highway where a side road took you six kilometers into Palacaguina. “La Shell” used to be in reference to an old Shell gas station. It no longer existed, but those names had a tendency to stick and if you asked why they didn’t just start calling the stop Palacaguina, you’d get a look that suggested you were the crazy one. It was best to leave some things alone.

There were two taxis waiting at “La Shell,” and I rode into town with Don Alberto. When I had to catch early morning buses to Managua, Don Alberto was always the guy that gave me a ride out to the highway. He was often the guy that gave me a ride back into town upon my return too, so it wasn’t rare for Don Alberto to play the role of last goodbye and first hello in Palacaguina. And he played the role very well, always offering me a warm welcome back to my town. He’d ask how my trip was and where I went. He’d joke, calling me a “vago,” or drifter, but then retract and acknowledge the importance of getting away and travelling, even if he couldn’t do much travelling himself. Don Alberto, though I only knew him in the short five minute rides in and out of town, had a unique ability to always make me feel like I was missed during my time away. After my long trip back from Costa Rica, it was especially nice to spend the final five minutes of my 13 hour trip with a guy that seemed like an old friend.

When I finally got into my house, I threw my bags down, unpacked, and cleaned up a bit before slipping into bed. In that moment, safe and sound in my own home, such pride and confidence! I had started my morning in San Jose; 13 hours, three buses, three cabs, two capitals, one border, and one bribe later I was safely home. And I did it, the trip, the negotiations, the talking, the directing, all with surprising ease, with the grace of an old veteran. Central America was no longer the intimidating, ass kicking force it had been for more than a year. It was home and I knew it intimately. Swearing with the most foul mouthed Nicas and joking with the most common phrases, I knew the language, and the prices of taxis and schedules of buses were all conveniently memorized for quick recollection when I needed them most. I knew how to eat the food and how to navigate chaotic borders and the confusing streets of Managua . I knew that after a long trip from San Jose to Palacaguina, Don Alberto would patiently wait at "La Shell," greeting me warmly to welcome me HOME. Covered safely by a mosquito net, I lay in my bed thinking about all of this, and with these thoughts, came an exciting feeling of the world's possibility. I could go anywhere and do anything, learn and understand a country or region, and build a home and a sense of place in cities and countries very foreign to my own. The world felt bigger...large and hopeful.

And I revisit this thought as I board the #22 bus on my way to work. My commute is easy, nicely labeled with maps and signs directing the passengers, and it's convenience and routine can dangerously start to feel like boredom, a boredom that can very quickly make the world seem small. So I keep the memory of that day and that feeling of confidence, that sense of place, earned the hard way after conquering a foreign land, and that hopeful thought of a large world safely lodged in my immediate conscious. I do not want to file it away, to place it in a subconscious purgatory that begins to fade my recollection. I recall it on my way to work, fighting the boredom of my comfortable routine, and the world again begins to expand, beyond the calm borders of Chicago. I’m ready to explore.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Flint Town!

It's funny how an article, in its first sentence, can remind you of a 27% unemployment rate, yet still leave you feeling inspired. Thanks for the link, Matt.