Reveille is at 4 dark o’clock whether you like it or not. The ‘˜new and improved’ Tica bus hotel, within the bus station itself has one good thing in their favor: proximity and price ($22USD). The rooms are spartan and the baths/showers are down the hall, just like being back in the service or any hostel. With a 5am departure time for El Salvador looming, all passengers dressed and packed, the tiny gift/snack shop below was doing a steady stream of business. Why they served instant Nescafe in a country with superb coffee is a mystery other than the possibility of ease and profit.
Once ticketed, luggage tagged and stored, it was all aboard and the massive Mercedes-Benz bus rumbled through the still darkened streets of Managua and out of the depressive depths of the Barrio Martha Quezada. By the time that the sun began to turn the eastern sky purple and then rose-colored, we were in the open country headed north on the Pan-American Highway. The land is semi-arid, with more scrub bushes than grass, dotted here and there with a few hardy cattle. The air conditioning, as always, was set on High and those without sweaters or jackets silently grumbled. Some of us tried to sleep, with the blue cotton window curtains pulled close, if not for warmth than to screen out the sun, which by now was above the horizon and shining directly on the right side of the double-decker Buss-Car. The fairly good-sized town of Sebaco lay ahead, and after that the slow climb into the green mountains, towards San Isidro, EstelÃ and the Honduras border.
The air conditioning unit shut off suddenly. Was there an unusual concern for the passenger’s welfare? The bus bounded along the two lane highway, passing the occasional dusty pick-up filled with people going somewhere else, perhaps to market. On a clear open section of road, the bus pulled over and stopped on what was a small gravel shoulder, between the highway and the barbed-wire fenced scrublands to the east. A small boy on a three quarter size Nicaraguan pony rode by, proudly wearing a boy-size machete as he watched the gringos stuck by the side of the road. He had somewhere to go and we weren’t. The bus carries a driver and a mechanic, of which I was unaware, but after the driver opened the interior ceiling vents and the mechanic opened the back of the bus, we knew that something out of the ordinary had occurred. One doesn’t expect nearly new Mercedes-Benz vehicles to break down, but I’d had a similar experience in Mexico a year before. This time we were on our own, miles away from any semblance of a garage or repair facility.
Four or five of us got off, to stand in the warmth of the early morning sun, watch the nearly full moon off to the west slowly set and keep a wary eye on the mechanic. A fan belt: a long serpentine strip of black rubber, now in less than a perfect circle, was the culprit. The driver, younger than the mechanic, brought a box of spares. He looked familiar: yes, it was the same driver who brought us down from El Salvador, a week or ten days before, the one with the wife and child riding along. The child who screamed a lot and the wife with the streaked blonde/brunette locks. After several starts and shut-offs of the huge diesel engine, the mechanic had the belt installed and tightened to his satisfaction (as well as the nervous onlookers) With a round of applause from the road side gallery, he wiped his greasy hands with a piece of cloth and we re-boarded: on the road again, to Esteli and the high mountain border crossing into Honduras.