The Tica bus departed Tapachula, Mexico, at 7 am—right on time.
Along with the other 11 passengers, I’d cleared the unguarded security checkpoint to find my seat aboard the 48 passenger bus. Without fanfare then, the driver teased the behemoth from its berth and we were rolling toward Guatemala.
I’m seventy-one now, 20 years self-exiled in Chiapas, Mexico; the single father of a seven-year-old half-Maya girl: Nich-ha’, by name. That means I’d spent the last seven—mostly harried—years schooling and nursing, cooking and cleaning for a dark-skinned half-caste girl in one of the west’s most sexist and racist cultures.
And then, during her last week of the second grade, Nich, home from school, took to barking orders at herself while goose-stepping around the backyard—looking like nothing so much as a cut from a forties newsreel of some strutting fascista.
“What’s up?” I had to ask.
“Color guard,” she explained with a proud grin. “They picked me for our graduation color guard.”
In an instant, a half century of life’s crust was torn open as great roiling waves of mierda splattered inside my skull. Mumbling something to her, I stumbled off.
I’d ducked out of gringolandia—wouldn’t change; indeed, couldn’t change—twenty years ago. Mexico was nearby, with a government so fraudulent, an underclass so bludgeoned—you get the drift here?—that a revolution was already decades overdue. And I wanted to be there for it—that simple. Conveniently, if vaguely eerily, that’s when the Zapatistas (EZLN) went off (’94)… quick as I could then, having tossed some dog-eared pieces of my then-50+ years aboard an old Dodge van, I was highballing south.
I’ve since written hundreds of thousands of words about those subsequent years, and they’re all out there waiting for the curious—so for now, then, suffice it to note that while the Zaps were refreshingly revolutionary, and are maybe even still somewhat relevant, they’ve been cordoned into virtual reservations, where they grow great coffee and provide photo-ops for daring couples sporting quaint bumper stickers and Bermuda shorts. You get the idea: the Zaps as latter day Native American Snake Dancers.
All that time waiting for Mexico to toss its traces—to fight back, really fight—against government fraud, corruption, the outrageous impunity of repeatedly stolen elections, the normalized acceptance of Diebold-designated toadies, the fascist kissy-sucky coddling of US mega-corporations—and on and on—all that time waiting … and meanwhile, all that time being incrementally buggered by Mexico’s Big Boys. You get it: copycat Mexico as USofA-lite….
And now, in our own house, mi nene preciosa, blood relative to fallen Zaps … as … as Snake Dancer…? Shit….
A week of wheedling and dickering, and my baby had a good home for the summer and—if necessary—the following school year as well. And days later I was moving.
Tica bus to Panama, a boat to Cartagena, thence terra firma-bound to leftylandia: Venezuela, Uruguay … maybe Bolivia … house-hunting … life-hunting … hunting options for my baby….
That, anyway, was the plan….
“Destination?” wondered the guy in the ticket window.
“Panama Ci….” I stared off. Buses are bearable … possibly even ok … for folks 5-10 and under … I’m 6-2 … 220 … and worse … at 71, I’m increasingly disposed to bogarting the nearest john … like bi-hourly … forever….
“Panama City, then…?” The ticket guy was patient.
“Halfway,” I said finally. “Set me down more or less halfway for a few days.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “Managua.”
Within a half minute, having fumble-footed from the terminal, I was staring at my ticket: MGA NICA. Senior moments became minutes before I got it sorted: Managua; capital of Nicaragua: Sandinista turf: root of the Iran/Contra affair: the CIA selling illegal arms to Iran to bankroll the illegal arming of the CIA-invented Contras to crush an immensely popular revolutionary government….
Guatemala can occasionally be nice on the eyes, but it’s always gruesomely cruel to its Maya, who comprise 60 percent of its population. It’s a country uncannily full of fat bible-thumping white guys flogging oversized SUVs, daring, always daring, an indio, any indio, to be in their way … even almost would be damned gratifying….
I’ve economically boycotted Guatemala for more than twenty years now, so even with a three hour layover in the capital, I cleared the country with a payout of 10 quetzales—like a buck-twenty: the requisite passport stamps.
Uptown San Salvador is fancy: its incredibly wide boulevards, its tony boutiques, its sculptures and manicured parks. But after that, it’s all downhill—way way downhill … figuratively … literally.…
The Tica bus terminal sits at the bottom of a concrete bottomland in a decidedly decayed San Salvador barrio.
Wake-up call was five am. Twenty minutes later, knapsack stowed in the belly of the Tica beast, I boarded to find that the window seat next to mine was—for the first time—occupied: a woman, mestiza, maybe forty.
Well, seems we both scored: neither of us had the tiniest desire to engage the other.
Much farther along, through El Salvador and Honduras now, and maybe three hours into Nicaragua, some police agency flagged the bus into a pullout. Within moments, heavily armed cops were prowling the bus aisle. This sort of thing happens—minimally—every third hour when travelling the highways of police-state Mexico; but—excepting the usual cops-stops in Mexico—this was the first time we’d been rousted during the transit of the following four countries. I reacted as I normally do: stared into a book with all the neutrality-of-attitude that I could muster.
During the third aisle-patrol by as many different cops, I glommed onto their focus: me. Not so unusual: long-haired, Levied, a nose permanently bent-outta-shape….
The fourth cop to enter was female and—dare I say it?—pure pork. She advanced to alongside my seat, then demanded of the woman at my side: “You with him?”
“Stand up!” she grunted, and an instant later those ham hands were under the woman’s blouse—fore and aft. I was already a half-second on the road to rage, still smoking rubber, when this grubbing oinker stuffed both those hams-to-the-hocks into the woman’s pants—again to root around fore and aft.
Given another half hour, I couldn’t have worked a pastel shade into my rage. It was obvious; I truly didn’t care if it was obvious. Thus, within seconds, a pair of goons had me marched outside, thence to the starboard luggage hold.
It was raining … pouring, actually … a tropical torrent. I liked it, the way it cooled … soothed my overheated skull … and the cops hated it … so things were looking up….
One of the fuzz—top-cop, I reckoned—demanded that I find and hand over my suitcase.
“Knapsack,” I corrected.
Top-cop’s face flamed. “Gimme your fucking knapsack, asshole!”
By now the bus driver was involved; additionally, my passport was being passed between a half-dozen younger cops. I spent so much time apparently trying to find that knapsack that the driver suggested maybe it was stowed on the other side. Great idea, I enthused, and led the entire posse to the highway-side of the bus, where I emceed another fruitless five minute luggage dig. By this time, top-cop had confirmed with the driver that I did indeed have checked luggage; well into a red-faced rage now, my baggage chit in hand, he was tossing through everybody’s everything. A minute more and I found the knapsack.
Top-cop stuffed a hand into the pack and came out with a fistful of reading glasses. He held them out to me, expression questioning.
“I regularly lose them,” I offered.
He was suspicious. “Why?”
“That’s what old guys do,” I explained. “It’s like a job: we lose our glasses.”
A couple of the young cops let loose explosive guffaws, with one, far back of the others, hollering out: “Hey, are you really seventy-one…?”
“Hey, yourself,” I hollered back. “How about a ‘Welcome to Nicaragua.’?”
In a stagy whisper, someone nearby offered, “Bienvenidos.” Welcome.
Golly … thanks….
Eyes promising eternal hatred, top-cop sent me down the road, while our driver gave me a little wink and nod.
My window-seated compañera, Elsa, dual citizen of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, indicated that she and the other bus passengers had watched the knapsack episode from the starboard windows. Finally, she asked, “Weren’t you worried that they’d beat you?”
I pointed out that throughout the ordeal, the bus driver had been at my side, and from there we followed the cues of the other to trade snippets of our lives.
A single mother of a 23 year old daughter, she’d been to Mexico to visit a boyfriend and, though born in Nicaragua, she was now on her way home to Costa Rica.
We pulled into the Managua terminal an hour after dark. By then, we’d sort of tickled around with the idea of sharing a hotel room … but the notion, after hovering a bit, had gone ethereal.
She had a big bag in the overhead; electronics, she explained. Finally wrestled loose, I handed it over. She nodded her thanks; then, after eyeing me a long moment: “How did you feel about Hugo Chavez?”
I almost fell over. Nobody talked about Chavez in Mexico, unless it was to parrot the official government bullshit—commie, chipmunk, dictator—as dogmatized by guv’s twin bottom-boys, Televisa and TV Azteca. It was impossible not to wonder if she was goading me. “He was an historic character … a heroic figure.” I burned her with my eyes and ’tude. “And he was my hero. I miss him every day.”
She gave me a tiny smile. “Let’s get that room.”
A block away and thirty minutes later we were back on the street chasing down dinner. We stumbled into a two-seat comedor with some portions of this and that showing. While the owners went about fixing our plates, I paced the facing street, working on two days of Tica bus kinks. Then from behind:
“Yo, dude! Man, you gotta be an old biker…!”
American English. Indeed, California-toned English. I turned to find a big dark smiling guy with finely chiseled features, his hand extended. “California, right?” I guessed, clutching his hand, smiling back.
“Sorta,” he said with a great laugh. “Orange County. Thirty years in Orange County.”
Howard is 39, a Nica by birth. When he was eight, with CIA bombs falling all around, his father sought work and safety for the family in the US. When he was thirty-eight, an employed college grad, he was deported for DUI. That’s it: deported—with only what he could carry, no job, no money, no family, only rudimentarily recalled native language skills….
It took a half hour or so to milk him for his story, then he said: “¡Ya basta! No more about me. How do you like Nicaragua so far?”
I exploded in a near-incoherent rant.
When finally I’d wound down, Harold put a hand on my arm; with eyes cloaking his own core-deep torment, he said:
“On behalf of the people of Nicaragua, I want to apologize. Pigs will always find a way to be pigs, no matter where they are—it’s their nature. But those punks aren’t Nicaragua. Nicaragua is beautiful. Nicaraguans are beautiful. Please accept my apologies on behalf of the people of Nicaragua.”
* * *
Far into the night, using the hotel’s free Wi-Fi, I crammed all I could of Nicaragua.
A fascinating land—brimming over with inspired philosopher-revolutionaries, armed intellectuals, uncountable heroes and martyrs, free-thinkers, writers, poets, artists—and always important to fathers of girls: all categories well-populated with women; strong women’s rights laws; codified LBGT protection—and all this tempered and finely honed by an unrelenting flow of bottom-feeding US-sanctioned-and-abetted reactionaries … William Walker, gringo, two-bit popinjay, with an army of 56, invaded and made himself president of Nicaragua, his government instantly recognized by good ol democracy-loving USofA … four decades of Somozas, US darlings all … the innumerable invasions by US Marines … the sadistic bullying of US-mandated embargoes and economic sanctions….
We woke around seven. After a truly terrible breakfast—a request for salsa brought a bottle of catsup—Elsa dickered with a cabbie for a mini-tour of Managua.
Our viewed slice of immense Lago Nicaragua was through a sturdy chain-link fence sporting signs advising that the water was seriously contaminated; we watched the morning rollout of what appeared to be hundreds of cops whose function was to circle Managua’s most dangerous barrio, essentially keeping the baddies bottled during daylight hours … you know, like US color lines; there’s the Hugo Chavez Museum and Memorial; there’s Salvador Allende’s name on everything from tee-shirts to store fronts to bars; there’re malls that look like takes on … on Orange bleepin County (I couldn’t help recalling that Howard had expressed an aversion to downtown).
And finally we topped Loma de Tiscapa, which provides a panoptic of Managua. A huge silhouette of Augusto Sandino—the inspirational namesake of the Sandinistas—is anchored there, a city landmark.
In ’27, the US forced a treaty on Nicaragua that was opposed solely by Sandino, a Nica Army General. Fading into the mountains then, Sandino and his followers fought the US Marines for five years (1927-1933). … until they’d had enough and went home….
Subsequently, in ’34, Sandino, now immensely popular, was assassinated by the first Somoza, an essential paving stone of the four decade dynasty that was to follow.
Off to one side, on what appears an artificial mound of grass-covered earth, is a tracked mini-tank; now a rusted hulk, it’d been gifted in 1937 to the first Somoza by Mussolini—yeah, that Mussolini: an armored and heavily weaponized bad boy to keep the plebs in line. I couldn’t help wondering how many bloody outrages it’d figured in….
Some shy of noon—when Elsa’s bus was to depart for CR—we arrived at the terminal. Mixed with goodbyes, she gave me a look. “León,” she said. “I think you’d fit nicely in León.”
I always carry a small scribble pad. I pulled it from my pocket to show her what I’d written there the previous night: LEÓN—UCA TERMINAL.
The rest of the day and well into the evening, was spent yukking it up with Harold. The following day, an hour before dawn, after watching a live news feed from Venezuela for much of the night, I taxied to the UCA Terminal. Ten minutes more and the 15 passenger vehicle was loaded and moving. The entire trip was backgrounded by a lefty news—probing, informative—radio station: this couldn’t happen in Mexico, where the guvs charter was to render stillborn all societal/intellectual curiosity … to dumb-down, as they say … to propagandize folks into acting contrary to their interests. Sound familiar…?
Then, with two hours more for two dollars less, I was in León.
There were a pair of waiting taxis, both slicked and polished, both sporting drivers who were just a little too slicked and polished as well.
While the sun was up, it wasn’t yet hot. So, following an internet map more or less memorized, I took out walking toward downtown.
Within two minutes, a bony youngster, clothes threadbare, hair spiked, pulled alongside peddling a canopied passenger-capable tricicleta; the vehicle was a rusted hulk, wired and string-tied together, its canopy a crumpled piece of road sign. “40 cordobas,” he offered, showing a chipped incisor. Like a buck-sixty.
Thanks anyway, but I felt like walking.
“30….” A buck-twenty.
Pointing out that I probably outweighed him by a factor of three, he retorted with a grin:
“25….” A dollar even.
What the hell. “Chilli’s,” I told him and wedged into the seat. Howard had touted Chilli’s … seven dollar rooms with bath….
Some twenty minutes later, when we got there, Pedro, the pedal car kid, 14 years, number three of 7, was drenched in sweat; his fragile legs quaking. I asked him how long he expected to live, peddling 100 kilo passengers here and there…? in the usual ninety degree heat…? for a dollar…? I gave him 50 cordobas—two bucks even. A bargain.
Chilli’s was a colossal turd. The seven buck rooms had morphed into 25. The back patio held a half-dozen 20-something gringos, all smoking dope, all a little too glib, all a little too buzzed on their own self-esteem. I paid a day, tossed my pack in the room, and was instantly back on the street, already trolling for another flop.
Two blocks later I came upon Pedro. He’d stopped to buy a soda and some cookies. I asked him about other hoteles, hosteles, posadas….
He shared a couple cookies, then invited me aboard again, said he’d take me around. After I’d begged off, he offered his time for two bucks an hour—not entirely a bargain, but then I can still see those toothpick legs….
Like most Colonial cities, León ’s notably narrow avenidas and calles are predominately one way. Pedro’s vehicle being subject to the rules and conventions of the road, we thus had to overshoot our goals when not on the street we transited, then make double lefts or rights to get on target. I liked that; before we’d found a place to my liking, Pedro had taught me more about León than any other two and a half hour walking tour ever could. Six bucks paid my tab, plus bought me rights to where I could find him again.
Crack of dawn the morning following, I was eight blocks away, on the doorstep of a great hostel (El Albergue: half the price of Chilli’s, with maybe 5 percent of the gringos’ gilded exceptionalism).
Two hours later, having checked in and eaten, I was headed downtown, to the Parque Central. Along the way is a disabled vets home, called Comandante Che Guevara.
You can tell most of what you need to know about most any country by how it treats its damaged vets. I entered. There were four guys talking in the main hallway, all missing limbs; each greeted me with nods, friendly smiles. Those smiles were already hammering me when a guy rolled in with a wheelchair … and what a machine!… I’d never seen anything like it. All stainless and chrome, weighty, appearing incredibly well-built, it was rendered mobile and very maneuverable by hand-operated pedals that were used to steer as well. Its operator gave me a great smile, asked how I was doing.
I gotta tell it straight: I’m a fully-seasoned guy—been there, done that—maybe even a tad over-seasoned … still I lost it … completely lost it. Choking on the questions I could not now ask, choking on the moment, choking on moments past, I hightailed for the door and out.
With the Vietnam slaughter over, I’d had occasion to visit VA hospitals in the states. Entering those wards of the permanently maimed was like being set down in tough ghettos or barrios: the inhabitants instantly circling the wagons, all defensively hostile, all prepared to repel the invader, the outsider. Their eyes told the whole story: they’d learned that they’d been egregiously lied to; they’d learned that they’d been cruelly gamed for their dreams, their body parts, their futures; they’d wakened to the terrible realization that they’d been forever fucked by a government that flat didn’t give a shit; and finally, that most fearsome rage: they knew they couldn’t be unfucked, not ever….
And you wonder why your guv considers all vets to be potential terrorists…? Visit a VA hospital.
There was no sense of this righteous rage in León’s Comandante Che Guevara, refuge for disabled vets. None! I’m telling you: none!
Minutes more and I’d found Parque Central. Claiming the middle of a vacant shaded bench, I worked for awhile on my composure.
A bit later, a dozen pigeons had gathered to peck at my shoes, each vying for a little attention.
In Mexico, the park pigeons are too nervous to engage people, many of whom snatch up those birds to eat….
for all its riches, then, why are almost half of Mexico’s people always hungry…? why ’re pigeons so tame in a poor country like Nicaragua, yet always so defensively hyper in wealthy Mexico…?
Pondering those pigeons prompted a review of my notes on Nicaragua:
Free health care for citizens; ditto schooling, kindergarten through university. Nothing is free in Mexico, not even 800 phone numbers.
No running dogs/dog shit. Semi-feral dogs, their shit ubiquitous, mostly own Mexico.
Everybody seems to have work. Forty-percent+ unemployment in Mexico.
No topes or potholes on the excellent highways. Other than the outrageously costly toll roads, Mexico’s highways are vehicle-and-human body torture devices.
Plenty of bookstores/folks reading everywhere. Bookstores…? Folks reading…? In
Mexico…? Seriously…? Am I on Candid Camera…?
Had yet to encounter a single beggar. Mexico’s broken people are legion.
Toilet seats on virtually all toilets. The only toilet seat usually found in Mexico is the one in your house.
There was a lot more … another full page … but—
I could feel my always-tenuous Mexico-roots stretching … tearing. It wouldn’t take much … not much at all….
That’s when I glanced off to the left—westerly, past the trees there. Across the street is an imposingly massive cream-colored building; it is two stories of weathered masonry with the first floor’s half-dozen arched windows being 3 yards tall; into the building’s lower façade had been chiseled—crudely, deeply—18 inch tall letters that, translated, read: BUSH GENOCIDE ENEMY OF HUMANITY.
That got my attention: 1) Bush is old news; 2) that chisel-scarring could have been repaired with ten bucks of cement and a half hour’s work; ergo, 3) whomever didn’t mind that screamed sentiment etched into the front of their very downtown building had seemingly been okay with the idea for quite awhile—all of which, summed, made them okay with me. I crossed the street.
The huge arched entry portal was open. A sign across the portal read REVOLUTIONARY WAR MUSEUM. To the left was a Nicaraguan flag; to the right, a Sandinista battle flag.
Sitting behind a table in the building’s antechamber was the museum’s curator, fiftyish, graying, fit. Having glanced my way, he put down whatever he was doing, then stood to give me a great smile, a smile without barriers: warm and wide open.
Only later, after repeatedly replaying the whole scene, could I begin to make any sense of that encounter—but it went more or less like this:
It was as if I’d been caught up in the transporting aura of an ancient shaman, a Zen Master maybe, some high priest of peace. From a primal depth, my mind dredged an unattributed and surely-paraphrased quote: you can’t trust a pacifist who wasn’t first a warrior. For I knew viscerally that here was a man once as dedicated to winning at war as he was now a man of peace. Then, with no sense of actually walking, I’d crossed the antechamber; next I was shaking his hand—nothing I normally initiate.
“Salvador,” he offered.
Responding in kind, I then wondered if it was cool to take some pictures.
Still with that no-barriers smile, he said, “Whatever you wish,” then wondered if I’d like a guide, which I declined:
“I’d prefer to wander….”
Opening the massive door to the southerly room, he bade me enter.
Against the lower back wall is an open display of sundry military accoutrements—helmets, a bazooka, artillery rounds, grenades—all the latter obviously deactivated. On the walls are many newspaper articles long and short; photos of Somoza and the “amiable dunce,” Reagan; many scores of black and white photos of Sandinistas young and old; other personal mementos. I could feel Salvador, still at my side; he was in his shrine, his Holy Place—this I knew more than sensed. Most of the arms-bearing boy- and girl-bodied warriors depicted on those walls appeared 15-16 years old. Emotions were swarming up from everywhere, all clogging in my throat, when a pair of chattering gringos entered the room.
Late thirties, paunchy, both were sporting cool-dude shades, flowered surfer shorts, tennies. They headed straight to the back wall and donned those military helmets. Then, taking turns, with the other working a camera, they shouldered the bazooka and mock-fired it toward the horizon … complete with sound-effects….
Less than two minutes later they were gone, leaving only the deafening silence of a bomb crater.
Salvador and I shared strained expressions before I had to stare at my feet, aching to shrink into my shoes: there’re times when being a gringo suffocates me with a terrible shame….
Some days later, as I was preparing to head back to Mexico, Salvador handed me an email address. I hadn’t asked; I didn’t need to: we both knew I heard Nicaragua calling….
See you in December … Salvador … Howard … Nicaragua….
Frank Hilaire is a writer living in Chiapas. His books include “Thanatos,” “Traficante” and “A Faraway Country Along a Mayan Highway.“