“Day 38 Six hours, two buses, one ferry–and we’re almost at Finca Mystica in Ometepe Island.”
Those were the overconfident lines I wrote from an Internet cafe at around 4 pm, in Altagracia. It was probably around the same time, as we would later learn, that the last bus of the day was pulling away for Merida, leaving us stranded.
The day had started auspiciously. We had left Granada that morning on a chicken bus, bound for Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. We had arranged to have a cab from the organic tree farm, Finca Mystica, pick us up. Considering most cab rides have been a dollar or two, it felt kind of crazy to spend $30 for the ride, but as it was the first day the kids and I would be traveling on our own, Jorge encouraged us to take the cab as it would erase any of the uncertainty from taking the local buses.
That first bus to Rivas went smoothly. It was full of tourists. It was odd as I had never seen so many tourists on a chicken bus. Probably a good fifth or maybe even a quarter were hauling backpacks. I breathed an internal sigh of relief, confident this would be an easy trip to Ometepe since everyone was heading the same direction. We arrived in San Jorge and had a $3 cab ride to the ferry. Rough ride on the ‘new’ (circa 1970) ferry, but knowing that our pre-arranged driver would be waiting was a great relief.
As soon as we got off the ferry, we were accosted by the usual “taxi! taxi!” I looked for my guy with a sign, as I had imagined our driver would have a handwritten paper announcing “Herrada” as if hailing our successful first morning of travel as a threesome.
But he wasn’t there.
Many drivers offered to take us to Finca Mystica, but I was worried that our driver would come and find us gone. So we waited, eventually concluding that he wasn’t coming. And then I saw the chicken bus. Considering this option, I’d not only save $28, but I’d also prove what unflappable adventurers we were–savvy, frugal travelers who can handle just about anything thrown our way. Right or wrong, I needed that validation, a vote of confidence that first day.
We clambered on the old school bus, local style, through the back emergency exit. The bus sat, waiting to fill. We were soon hot and questioning if this was the best choice. We got off. We weren’t giving up, just exploring our options, as Jorge would have done. We talked to the local guys lingering around the bus. The bus wasn’t leaving for a half an hour. One said to take this bus. The other said wait for the next bus. Many said to just take a cab.
We were wilting quickly so we stepped into a patio restaurant with Wifi for a drink so we could check our email and see if the hotel was sending a ride. That’s when I realized that when I had intended to reply to the hotel this morning to arrange our driver, I had replied only to Jorge’s forwarded message. Ryan, the owner, had not received our email. My dream of a waiting chauffeur was gone.
Undeterred, I seized the chance to prove what good travelers the kids and I were. Chicken bus all the way….
Off the tourist route on this bus, it was a crowded ride to Altagracia, where we stopped for lunch and to wait for the next bus on the last leg of our journey, departing at 4:30 to get us to Merida.
We looked for an internet cafe to confirm our change of plans with Ryan, the owner of Finca Mystica, as we’d need them to pick us up at the last town to drive is to the farm. It was then that we stumbled on what we thought must be Altagracia’s claim to fame: a model of Ometepe Island made of two large volcano structures set in a fountain. Though perhaps ‘claim to fame’ is a bit strong, there were turtles in the water and a few even climbing around on the island statue’s ring road. Nice. Kids were duly impressed. Looking back, I wonder if the turtle on the ring road wasn’t an omen for our day. Of course, had Jorge been there, we would have known to stop in at the church see the petroglyphs.
At the Internet cafe, we were sure to let Jorge know about our facility navigating chicken buses without him. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were gloating, but perhaps a bit prideful.
We had lunch, bought some snacks to take with us, and crossed the park to where the bus would come.
But the bus had already left, about a half hour ago. We had been told the wrong time.
Absolutely undeterred, I marched the children down the center of the road in the direction out of town. I announce in no uncertain terms that we’d be hitch hiking. We’d just jump in the back of a pick up and get to Merida. We were an intrepid threesome and nothing could stop us. This was just another chance to prove that.
But we didn’t see any pickups. A collectivo finally passed, turning a corner and heading in the right direction. I yelled and flagged my arms. I was sure that this must be our ticket out of town. But they were already too far away to see us.
Then a man with a cloth and a bottle of polish, lovingly detailing his motorcycle, and most likely waiting his entire life for this moment, jumped on his bike and raced down the street to catch the collectivo for us, which by this point was well out of sight.
And short of him saying he would take us on his motorcycle himself, this heroic act of kindness would have been a great way to resolve this travel dilemma. Collectivo flagged down. They’d say that of course they were heading to Merida. We’d get in, exhausted and relieved. Problem solved. What an adventure.
But, though our machismo motorcycle man did catch them, the collectivo wasn’t going to Merida. And our speeding hero didn’t offer to have us hop on, backpack straps flapping in the wind as he took us to Merida himself.
So we were stuck again, not just in Merida, but in my stymied pride. Having just spent over three hours getting to this point from the ferry, I was not going to bail out now and take a cab, which would cost the same exact price as a cab from the ferry.
Honestly, I had something to prove to myself and the kids. I had to show them that we could do this and that we’d be alright alone for the next four weeks. If we totally failed the first day, how would that bode for the rest of the trip?
And finally, the truth was, and still is tonight as I write this, that I’m tired and scared. I feel like this whole trip was just too much to take on alone. I wanted to be home where I had nail polish remover and perpetually clean laundry and huge containers of organic baby spinach. I wanted really hot water and a day where I didn’t have to apply DEET insect repellent like lotion while carrying burdensome worries that one of my kids is going to get dengue or a tropical parasite.
But home felt like an elusive dream at that moment. Hot and tired, knowing that we had less than two hours of daylight, we kept trying. Dylan flagged down the occasional collectivo that passed and we asked if they were heading to Merida. Abigail suggested we just go to the grocery store and check if they had ice cream to keep up our energy.
No luck on either front. I was beginning to wonder where Merida was and why no one was going there.
So I gave up. When a second tourist cab finally stopped, we got in. Paid $30. The road to Merida was a bumpy ride on something more aptly called a rock scramble, not really even a trail and definitely not like any road I’ve ever been on. People walked and a few biked, but we didn’t pass any other cars.
As we jolted along the road, I shared with the kids I’d felt like I’d failed. Dylan flatly agreed. Without malice, Abigail said it wouldn’t have happened if Papa had been here. My eyes burned. Tears I had refused to shed that morning as we said goodbye to Jorge were forming a hard knot in my throat. I was frustrated that the day had been so long and angry at myself for making the wrong call.
I tried to put a good spin on it and point out the highlights. Think of what an adventure today was, I told the kids. There were the cute turtles in the funky volcano fountain, the great lunch in Altagracia, and the vision of our motorcycle hero speeding off down the road to catch our ride.
I couldn’t get any takers at my reframing attempts.
Then our van slowed and turned off the road. The sign said, “Finca Mystica.”
The little houses along the road that were so cute on their website were shacks. There was a bag’o bones horse roped to a tree. Abigail was near to tears when she declared that it was nothing like the pictures online that she’d been poring over for the last few months.
Thankfully, the road didn’t end there. We kept driving and were let out at the most amazing yurt-like cabanas–sustainably, artistically, and lovingly set out on a field near a covered lodge and dining area connected with winding stone paths and dotted with over 100 species of fruit trees and nut trees organically grown. Ryan and Angela ensconced us in a warm welcome. The kids were thrilled. Dinner was coconut Thai soup for Abigail and burritos for Dylan.
And all was solved, at least for the evening. But there were still many days ahead of us and the reality was that it wasn’t just a few overpriced cabs and missed buses that could undermine this trip. Instead, it was the wrestling within my own psyche, an uneasy confidence battle, feeling like I had bombed out on the first day and couldn’t do this alone. And quite honestly, I was a bit angry at myself for becoming so dependent on someone and needing Jorge so much.
But maybe my expectations were just set too high. It seems appropriate to remember Jorge’s mantra when I go out of town and leave him with the kids– “My goal is to just keep ’em alive.” He doesn’t try to make fancy dinners or keep the house clean or chaperone the kids’ field trips. He doesn’t try to replace me; just mitigate the damage of my absence. So I’m giving up pretending to be a great adventure traveler who can do this on my own and doesn’t need Jorge. I shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that when he’s with us, we’re a good team. Without him, there will be more wrong turns, lost socks, missed buses and miscalculated finances. But, as we have no other choice for the next month, maybe I just need to see the good side of this mayhem.
After all, life’s journey isn’t really about arriving at the destination in a straight line free of detours or wrong turns. Since no one can avoid the proverbial ‘end of the road’ anyway, why take the highway to get there when you could take a colorful chicken bus, stopping along the way in little towns with quirky turtle-volcano fountains and spontaneous heroes on motorcycles.
And when I do return home it’s more than just organic spinach and endless piles of clean laundry that I’ll appreciate. It’s the acute awareness that Jorge and I are a great team. Being married to Jorge is definitely not taking the highway. It’s simply finding a colorful yet carefully planned route to visit the amazing, connect with the quirky and linger with the unforgettable–together.