Monday, July 17, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 6 - The Gauntlet

The drive from Managua was hair-raising and if it wasn't for Pam's calming influence, I'd still be sitting in the driveway of the hotel, white knuckles glued to the steering wheel. Pam was the one that saw an opening in the traffic, and I gunned the truck up onto the road, as much as a diesel truck can do such a thing. Be sure that this was not one of the turbo-diesel dually fancy trucks you see flying down the road, 20 minutes late for the Brad Paisley concert. This was a low geared truck that was happiest slowly getting up to 40 mph...only it actually seemed better than that because everything was in kilometers. At one point I was flying down the highway doing 80 kph!
I couldn't make the U-turn like Sam did, and I probably never will be able to do things like that, but I did drive about a mile down the road until Pam found what looked like a safe spot to turn. I made the turn easily, only evoking 4-5 beeps from the motorcycles flying all around me.
The motorcycles in Nicaragua, are not like what you are thinking: middle-aged dudes with tattoos, bandanas, leathers, and a big chain to smack your windshield if you piss them off. No, this is something very different. Everybody has motorcycles that looked like what we had when I was 15 years old: 150cc Kawasaki dirt bikes, except that there were many brands I'd never heard before, and some I couldn't pronounce. The drivers of these vehicles were teenagers, men, women, and sometimes there would be up to 5 people on one motorcycle. At one point, I saw a mother with a toddler and 3 other people on a dirt bike. The toddler had a full helmet on, one that matched the mother. It was difficult to believe, where did they find that helmet for that baby?
The dirt bike drivers were nice and polite, but they flowed around my truck like water. I basically drove as if there was always a motorcycle right next to me on each side.I was going as fast as I felt safe, without even wondering what the speedlimit was. I needed to find that white van, and tried as hard as I could not to even look at the overwhelming spectacle all around me. There were stake-bed trucks full of men, getting a ride to work somewhere, horses and oxen pulling carts. I passed one such cart and happened to notice a teenage boy holding the reins with one hand while checking his cellphone with the other...the irony didn't even hit me until I went to sleep that night.

I figured somewhere around the next bend there would be a cop standing in the road, waving me over to the side for a little 'mordida'.  I had done way too much googling and reading about the men with the longsleeve blue shirts and orange gloves and how you were supposed to slip them money with your license, while making sure their partner didn't notice so they'd have to share the loot.

At this point, I was about ready to just give them my wallet and get it over with, but for some strange reason that never happened. I guess a couple of old gringos in a white pickup with a paddleboard weren't worth the trouble. Of course, it helped quite a bit that Sam knew exactly where to obey the rules perfectly, and where the rules didn't matter so much. There were a few major 'Alto' signs where he came to a full stop before proceeding, and sure enough there would be a couple of police folks sitting in folding chairs under a tree, waiting for somebody to not quite make that stop sign.

Something that Sam did not warn me about was there actually were 2 traffic lights on the way. We came to a little village with a divided highway of 4 lanes, and nice new traffic signal. I actually relaxed for a second in the more familiar mode of driving for me, when something happened that makes those guys that stand in the median with a little sign asking for money look really lazy. About 50 people sprang from the side of the road, and they immediately recognized gringos that just arrived and probably had some money. Hordes of kids racing to be first to reach the truck, spraying their glasscleaner, or more likely dirty water, from 10 feet away, while many more were holding up bags of foodstuff, that I probably would like to buy, but I was just plain overwhelmed. I was waiting for them to work together, flip my truck over, and take everything we had and perhaps leave me with the SUP paddle.
Pam kept trying to talk to them in Spanish, but my thought now is that there is a different word for NO in Nicaragua.

Once we reached the countryside, I relaxed a bit, changing my worries to what cow, horse, dog, pig or chicken might decide to cross the road in front of me. There were less people around on the side of the road, but still way more than you would see in Florida anywhere but at the beach. One major surprise is how nicely dressed and clean cut the people seem. One image burned into my mind is of a middle-aged man in a freshly clean and ironed uniform, riding a bicycle down the road in the rain.
And by rain, I mean monsoon, and by road, I mean muddy, clay, jeep trail, with mud puddles of unknown depth.
How anyone got anywhere as clean as they started out was a mystery to me.

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