Nicaraguans may not agree on where their revolution is headed, but they have no dispute on how to get there: They will take the bus.
By breakfast time of any given day, half of the population is already on the hopelessly overloaded fleet of buses, and the other half is at the next stop, jostling for position to board.
I learned these verities while undertaking to see the Sandinistas up close. I wanted to stay in the more historic Leo'n instead of the patchwork Managua and, when moving on to Honduras, to travel by land as close as prudence permits to the zone contested by the U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries.
Eastern Airlines offered me yet another incentive. It charges $165 for a Managua-Tegucigalpa ticket, which I bought for protection, just in case the war closed the land border -- as happens from time to time. Yet the distance is less than from Washington to New York.
By bus, the Leo'n-Tegucigalpa fare turned out to be about $15, including inter-city taxis. Through a venturesome misadventure, the journey took me two days. This gave me a look at the Nicaragua little seen by tourists. Rightly not, in terms of physical attractions: It was mostly farmlands and crossroads. But then, Nicaragua was never a tourists' mecca. Its attractions are its volcanic mountains and its much calmer people, and I saw plenty of them -- on the buses.
I spent that extra night in Esteli', on the edge of the war zone, in a pleasant hotel called the Hotel Moderno; the bill was $10 -- including dinner.
You can afford Nicaragua. But it's not for everyone.
A note on the dollar exchange is in order, because the economy is not.
None of the several official rates is realistic. The government attempts to control exchange in Managua and, failing, requires payment of hotel bills in dollars. But in the countryside, the dollar goes a long way.
By bus, a dollar will take you farther than you may care to go. Even for Nicaraguans, paid in cordobas, the fares are so low that I wonder if they are worth collecting. Drivers of in-city buses relentlessly receive and dispense coins and wads of bills, extracting fares in the range of 1 1/2 cents.
These transactions typically occur in a vintage version of the classic school bus, in which three adults and maybe a child or two occupy each double seat. If the design includes single seats, they hold two adults. The seats are hard. Those in the other two-thirds of the load stand in the aisle.
As the buses give up, exhausted, and replacement imports are not forthcoming, the fares for the buses still running actually go down as a result of the intense inflation. Nicaraguans clearly have concluded that they cannot afford to stay home.
A Managua cab driver talked me out of taking the bus for the first leg of my journey, a 60-mile ride from Managua to Leo'n. He asked $20. I said that sounded reasonable but I really wanted to go by bus. He offered a pungent description of how crowded the buses run, and asked $15. By then, we were almost at the terminal and he played the only dirty trick I encountered on the road in Nicaragua: "Hold onto that suitcase," he said, "and put your wallet where you can protect it. They can be pretty rough."
In all my considerable busing to follow, I never encountered anyone even impolite -- if we lay aside the execrable bus-side manners of line crashers -- let alone inclined to pilfer. No teen-ager tried to sneak a ride without paying. There were no blaring radios. The Nicaraguans seem to have concluded that if they must ride cheek to cheek, they had best be civil about it.
But the cabby needed a customer and knew how to fetch him. When we saw the line waiting for the bus to Leo'n, I was hooked. It was so long that three mango vendors couldn't quench the demand for that favored fruit of queuers. In my innocence, I assumed that so many people would require three of the buses, which depart half-hourly. I now have no doubt they all boarded the next to come along.
The road to Leo'n runs along the shore of Lake Managua, which together with Lake Nicaragua just to the south provides the otherwise dry country with a veritable inland sea -- often against a backdrop of volcanic peaks. En route in the cabby's aging Volkswagen, we talked mostly about what it takes to keep a vehicle going in revolutionary Nicaragua, with parts as scarce as dollars. His doughty car made it to my hotel in Leo'n and expired. I paid him and pushed him. The cab coughed into commission and away he went.
Leo'n, with glorious colonial churches, could be a Spanish Williamsburg. Of the city's 23 churches, half a dozen date from the colonial epoch. Their styles are diverse and, lamentably, two or three have survived only in the fac,ades. Humdrum tin-roofed halls are tucked in behind.
If these were normal times, wealthy U.S. Catholics might well be rushing to Leo'n to help restore the landmarks. The Sandinistas haven't money or inclination for such tasks at this stage of their revolution. Leo'n's other attraction, its Indian community in suburban Subtiaba, was collectively startled when I showed up -- the first foreign tourist in months. The museum is forgettable and the delightful colonial church in Subtiaba looks to me as though it may soon collapse.
The architecture is Leo'n's attraction; the heat is the price you pay. It is infernally hot, except for the several air-conditioned rooms at the Hotel Europa.
This little hotel with a big breakfast is an unadvertised bargain. Its owner is determined to take care of his guests. They in turn send him all the business he can handle.
As I made my rounds of church and state in Leo'n, a city of 100,000, I asked about the bus service to Honduras. In the 1960s, before wars came to Central America, big, comfortable buses, especially those of the Costa Rican line called Tica Bus, were making the region into a travelers' common market from Panama to Mexico.
No more. But most Leo'nians agreed that passage was possible, even probable, by taking a bus north to the Pan American Highway and thence to Somoto, near the border. Once through customs, the passenger could expect a Honduran bus ready to whisk him to Tegucigalpa. While the contras had destroyed the frontier village of El Espino there in September 1983, the fighters these days stayed away from the road.
A few Leo'nians contended that another, more challenging route was still passable through Somotillo (little Somoto) to the west. Others said that crossing had not reopened since the contras destroyed the bridge there three years ago.
In any case, one has to choose one's route in Leo'n. There are no connector roads between the two routes once they make their separate ways to the border.
A voluble spokesman in the office of a bus company tipped me toward Somotillo, assuring me of unhindered passage and telling me on which corner of the market square to catch the bus. Caution lights were flashing. I noted that while other bus lines in Leo'n had vehicles but no office, this man had an office but no visible buses.
Then the region's most illustrious Sandinista, Cmdr. Gladys Baez -- a hero of the revolution and now a high official of the region extending to the border -- told me I could make it through Somotillo. She gave me a note to her comrades in the party there, asking them to be of assistance.
At 5:30 a.m., I was on the square awaiting the day's first bus to Chinandega, a way station to Somotillo. "There won't be a crowd at that hour," the bus man had said. And it would be a big bus. We rode off, in a small bus, absolutely full.
Along the 25 miles to Chinandega, we must have stopped 20 times, effecting nearly complete exchanges of riders every third or fourth crossroads. Most seemed to be farm wives en route to markets down the line. The bus boy helped stash their thatched baskets of produce on the roof.
For a small city, Chinandega offered a large challenge to us long-distance travelers. Our bus ride terminated there, but nowhere near the point of departure for the next stage, the bus to Somotillo. The Nicaraguans' answer, of course, was to take a linking city bus. I again swallowed my proletarian zeal and crossed town in a cab, which cost less than half of Washington's lowest bus fare.
Chinandega, like Leo'n, is a city dedicated to farming. Sadly, it lacks that added dignity that comes with Leo'n's fondly remembered role as the colonial capital. The market, then, is the main attraction.
The next bus in my odyssey was smaller but just as popular as the last. By now we were near the border, crossing broken, barely inhabited land that might hide marauding contras but could hardly sustain them. Two soldiers at a roadblock searched us and the bus thoroughly as we ate slices of watermelon sold by a camp follower. One soldier predicted I would be able to cross the border; the other disagreed.
The bus stayed full to the end of the line in Somotillo. Our arrival may have doubled the population of that town. None of a dozen streets was paved nor was a two-story structure to be seen. The crowd that emptied from the bus seemed to evaporate beneath an angry sun, and only the dust and I were out in the open. The 75-mile ride from Leo'n had taken 5 1/2 hours.
Trying to look confident, I presented my card from Cmdr. Baez at the party headquarters. This caused considerable consternation, consultation by the staff of two and, at last, the (nearly) definitive word on whether the border could be crossed. It could not.
"I apologize for this inconvenience," said the local party chief, who wore olive-drab fatigues and seemed far more military than the handful of soldiers we had seen en route. "It is reprehensible that the people in Leo'n are still sending people over here to cross a border that shut three years ago," he said.
The party chief explained that after the contras had destroyed the border bridge, Honduras and Nicaragua could not agree on where to rebuild. There was a real possibility of each side beginning at its preferred site, with no hope of the spans meeting in the middle.
My face must have betrayed my reaction to the prospect of retracing my bus ride. The party chief set about to help me hitch a ride with a vehicle bound for Chinandega. As I idled, a young soldier, or perhaps party official, took me aside. "It is true," he said, "that a little contraband does cross the border. You could probably arrange to go along, but it's risky."
If my sole recourse had been the bus, I might have tried the wade into Honduras. But the thought of arriving there illegally was almost as daunting.
In one more effort to be helpful, the fellow took me by Somotillo's immigration office. The officer there, also in pressed fatigues, looked surprised to see me, busied himself briefly with some paperwork, and asked for my passport.
He added his outrage at the ignorance of the officials in Leo'n and also affirmed that no one had crossed the border in three years. What then was the point of having an immigration office? He thought a bit, and replied: "That's the way it is."
My ignoble retreat to Leo'n began in the back of a pickup truck. In Chinandega the driver turned me over to the wiles of the route taxi -- a service no one in Leo'n had mentioned. A rusty band of '60s Ford and Chevy sedans, some with windshields but none with mufflers, go to and fro -- collecting seven passengers each from an endless line of customers too wealthy or too hurried for the Leo'n-Chinandega buses.
We who stood and waited ate lunch from the grills of two crones. When my car came in and the driver put in my suitcase, the trunk floor almost gave way. The route is flat, which is just as well, for the only gear left in this Ford was third. We made it to Leo'n.
Now the challenge was to reach Esteli', on the Pan American Highway, by nightfall, thus positioned for an assault on the permeable border the next day. Buses that ply the Pan American take on airs. Perhaps to discourage farmers from boarding with their produce, the crews charge extra for luggage. The bus boy weighs the bag -- by holding it with a stout arm extended -- and charges accordingly.
It was thus that I paid more for my bag's passage than my own. The two fares together came to less than a dollar, so I could scarcely complain. Still, it was a matter of self-esteem. I am thin, and was getting thinner riding the buses, but I do weigh more than the bag. I harbored a suspicion of being cheated. But successive bus boys found the bag worth more than me.
The night in Esteli''s Moderno -- where the food was good and the beer cold -- revived my spirits, as did the assurances there that the bus I would take to the border was a rapido.
I just missed the first rapido, as did a huge soldier, whose luggage was a semiautomatic. We formed the line for the next bus and chatted, with me steering the conversation to the etiquette of queues.
In a commanding voice, the soldier assured me, and those forming up behind us, that proper lines were the custom in Esteli'. But when the bus was due, sappers started inching up from the flanks. An extended family rushed to join a grandmother, in front of us, who had been acting as if she were lost. In an encircling movement perfected by years of practice, those behind us became a point squad, reestablishing the line well into the stall supposedly reserved for the bus.
A murmur in the crowd became a roar as the rapido slowly approached. The soldier tucked his rifle under his arm and surrendered to the mayhem. When we drove off, slow and overladen, I had a spot on the rear bench, the soldier was in an aisle seat and my bag, paying a premium, rode up front with the driver. I was learning.
At Somoto, the bus terminal was a couple miles short of the border, requiring yet another bus. A Nicaraguan returning to his job in Honduras suggested that we share a cab so as to reach the immigration office before it shut for an hour at noon. A cabby said he needed a permit and went to a desk for it. After a 10-minute wait, or, better said, a two-day wait, I was growing impatient. I found the cabby bemused as a man at the desk labored with pencil and ruler, drawing up a proper permit.
When I told him emphatically that I needed to cross that border before noon, he hustled through the drafting and we soon were in motion. But the cabby looked worried. The permit turned out to be a requirement of the Sandinista party, an added layer of border vigilance that for the most part had become routine.
This time, though, when the cabby stopped up the road at the party office to turn in the permit, out came a satrap to search my bag, scowl a lot and question me at length. It was nearly noon. He wanted to know how I happened to appear there at the border. An image of busing back to Managua airport began to oppress me. "Didn't you talk to anyone in the party?" he asked.
After so many queues, at last a cue. Out came my card from Cmdr. Baez.
When we again were safely under way, the cabby explained that the scriber of permits at the terminal, alarmed by this anxious gringo, had phoned ahead his suspicions.
As we reached the border, the gate shut for lunch.
The highway is desolate there in the dust. The women vending from the requisite roadside grills provided a thatch umbrella, the only shade. A half-dozen trailer trucks and one private car waited for the gate to lift and the immigration office to open.
At 1, the truckers and our disparate band of travelers mounted plank stairs, as if to a gallows, to approach a now open window of the trailer that houses the immigration office. After a further wait, a disembodied hand emerged from beneath a lace curtain that shrouded the window. The hand accepted the documents of the first traveler. Time passed, we heard the welcome swat of stamp upon passport.
And so it went, through a final inspection of luggage, then into a last Nicaraguan bus -- this one a truck really -- for a ride through a mile or so of buffer zone that was the village of El Espino before the contras came. For this last run of the obstacle course, the Nicaraguan and I had taken up the bags of a woman in her eighties who apparently was smuggling out lead.
I secretly wished she'd be caught, but the customs people must have been in on the scam.
The last 500 yards out of Nicaragua and into Honduras are uphill and perforce on foot. I have wondered since how that woman ever expected to make it with her three leaden bags, and, more poignantly, whatever happened to those fellow travelers who at every turn had taken the bus.
The Honduran immigration officials performed to international standards for superciliousness at land border crossings, thus missing an opportunity to win hands down the war for the hearts and minds of a dozen beaten-down travelers. But just a short cab ride away was the bus I had been waiting for -- high and wide, with padded seats to accommodate everyone bearing a ticket. We rode through miles of mountains, and while the night was still young, we arrived in Tegucigalpa.