Antarctica Calling – Day 1
Road to Nicaragua
When 14 hours have passed since leaving your accommodation in the capital, and four since the sun has set, you find yourself preparing to sleep in your suitcase on the roadside, you know that six months living in a semi-isolated rural community is sure to be an adventure…
Nicaragua is a piece of land sandwiched between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, dwarfed by the US and Northern American continent above and the Southern American giants of Brazil and Argentina below. One single bus journey from the Capital, Managua in the South, up to and above the northern province of Esteli (my home until April 2016) put much into perspective.
Nicaragua, a nation destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in ’98, is a land loaded with volcanoes, flooded with forest and hills and one wrapped in love and warmth. It’s also a country visibly scarred by climate change and natural disaster. Won’t you join me on this journey, to my new home in Nicaragua…
As we climb into the rather antique looking minibus the driver informs my translator that the breaks are playing up so he needs to find a garage. This hunt for a mechanic adds an extra three hours on to a journey which should only last four overall. The minibus is the sort of vehicle you know will fail it’s next MOT test: The engine refuses to start on several occasions, when I stand on the bubbling rusty bumper to take the beds off the roof in Condega (the village where we would drop off the other Team Leader) it feels like the bumper will snap off, and the door handle, well, only the driver can figure out how to wiggle the wire-of-a-door-handle to open the door.
En route, we pull off at a roadside service station, alongside a lorry full of live cows. In an open hut / the main eatery a man chops up a carcass and hangs it in pieces on a line, ready for the lady next to him to cook as it’s ordered. A stew with rice is on the menu. I, rather sheepishly, order only a Fanta.
Later on, whilst passing through a larger town, we call into a fancy supermarket – one which stands out against the back drop of the more traditional houses which have been converted into small shops. You’d think the imported treats would be top on our priority list but it is in fact the toilet facilities – the western supermarkets offer proper toilets for their customers. Much appreciated at this early stage of our experience.
As we drift further from the towns and deeper up into the mountains the roads turn into dirt tracks. They are the sort which u have to crawl along at 10/15 mph to minimise the risk of sliding off the edge and rolling down the mountainside… (Or, at best, destroying the vehicle’s suspension or chipping the paint work with the stones). If a storm hits i’d be scared of being washed away.
The wildlife is stunning; only trees and mountains from our window to the horizon – I don’t think I’ve seen so many shades of green pass my eyes in all my life.
On one side of our bus we are driving at the same height as the top of ageing trees. On the other side, sweeping mountains littered with more trees. The entire scene resembling images from Jurassic Park; completely untouched natural beauty.
As we pass through a tiny village I make out a shadow running the length of a garden through the trees and shrubs. It looks like a dog running to the front gate to scare off an intruder. Instead, a small brown haired boy emerges wearing bright red shorts and a smile stretching his face. He stands at the front with his arm awkwardly reaching up to lean on the post like his father might do as he returns home from school each day; he does it with such normality and confidence that it’s clearly become a habit.
As we meander up and down and round the village, we waddle towards a group of kids, one with a fairly smart looking basket ball glove in his hand. Where, in parts of the U.K, you might prepare for a handful of gravel to be lobbed at the mini bus here only inquisition and warmth is thrown our way. Horseback is used more frequently than cars in these villages.
On the side of the track in places lie large concrete tubes awaiting their burial. Given the nature of the country’s climate I assume this is for managing rains during the tropical storms; a much needed flood prevention method. One hopes that, in time, the same will be planted again for sanitation, to provide these people with toilet systems to eradicate contamination from their own faeces.
As we pass through village upon village, we get an honest insight into peoples’ homes; their habits, their routines. Families eat at kitchen tables, fathers eat outside on the front, kids play with sticks in the gardens, toddlers lie asleep in their mothers’ arms, mattresses lean up against the walls – ready to transform lounge areas into bedrooms, the occasional motorbike is parked in living quarters, hammocks, trophies, old fashioned picture frames all hang on the walls, sporadically. Glass windows don’t seem to be a thing; only open doors and square holes in the walls with wooden shutters.
My translator points out some of the remnants of hurricane Mitch: new smaller rivers, stemming from the original which has since been thrown off course, many damaged bridges which make travel difficult and thus isolate these communities further, entire villages relocated due to being completely wiped out… The village of Parcila, my destination, is no more than 17 years old – established to house a nearby community who lost everything thanks to Mitch.
As dusk fell, the occasional fire / electric light can be seen in the distance. By occasional I mean half a dozen within a 50 mile radius perhaps? Darkness engulfs the land.
Fireflies (which I always thought were a figment of Disney’s imagination) – take me back to Africa. (I always doubted whether I actually saw them back in the day) Now I had it confirmed; they do exist. Shooting stars also… (Though by this time it had been 4-5 hours since I last ate, plus, body clock wise it was 2am …)
The highlight of the journey was watching the stars come out and then, about two hours later, seeing the moon make an appearance. It was nothing short of magical witnessing the hazy white mist cover the sky; the sporadic sheets of light, the clusters of stars stretching across the heavens (the type you see in science books – and always felt you’d need to be in space to actually witness). Rural Nicaraguan people are so lucky / anyone who lives in such secluded areas, where the entire horizon is in darkness, is lucky. I had my memory foam pillow as neck support with my legs stretched across the width of the vehicle; I could have hung my head out the side of that minibus all night! After nearly an hour in this position and on hearing the driver talk angrily on his mobile phone (whilst meandering around the bends) my health and safety hat came on and I couldn’t rid the thought of my head being decapitated by the window frame in the event of a crash or sudden stop.
After what seemed like hours of gazing, admiring and day dreaming (but, in realtime was about 40 minutes) I resigned myself to sitting upright in the 80s-inspired rust bucket of an oven.
More phone calls were made by the driver and the person responsible for me started smoking out the window instead of pulling over for breaks. It had long gone dark; tensions were clearly running high.
The next couple of hours were spent lost after trying to take a short cut. I didn’t mind at all. In fact. I was in heaven.
The romance comes crashing down when we pull up to a river we apparently weren’t aware existed. It doesn’t come with a bridge and is blocking access to our village. My translator informs me that the taxi driver is refusing to drive through and wants to leave us at the road side. Still high from taking in such stunning scenery I start mentally preparing myself for sleeping in the field. ‘It’s all part of the experience’, I tell myself, ‘I can wrap myself up in all my clothes for one night…’
My translator explains to me how the situation has arisen, ‘Since the hurricane, when storms hit, the water no longer runs into where the river once was; they form new rivers…’
Thankfully (or maybe not?) I didn’t need to sleep under the stars on this occasion as the lady responsible for me lived in a nearby town. We instead went back to hers and returned the next day – equipped with a truck willing to take on the elements.
Literally, three minutes after crossing I reached my new home, and made my self comfortable in the shed I will call my living quarters for the next six months.