Tuesday, February 09, 2016

These are the streets I know: A commuter's journey from Los Robles to the far side of Bolonia

    Join me on my one-hour walk/bus to work in Managua through these 19 photos of the people and sights that I see most days as I walk along. It was a fun exercise collecting the pictures, as I'd never asked people's names before when I passed. Using the excuse that I was doing a "project" for my friends and acquaintances back home also made me feel more confident about just boldly asking people to pose, or letting me take a photo of their watch-goose.
    As seen on Facebook. But hey, not everybody's on Facebook.

This is Ricardo, one of the two security guys who work the gate outside our little complex of four houses. Ricardo alternates 24-hour shifts with Guillermo. Security work pays really poorly, so Ricardo has two other jobs.

The billiard hall next to our house, Pool Ocho. Our landlord told us it was a well-run, non-noisy place with no disturbances, and she was right. It's super-popular and every cabbie in the city knows Pool Ocho, but we never hear one bit of noise or trouble coming from the place.

Three of the many delivery guys who do pharmacy deliveries at the general store and pharmacy near our house. There's always so many of them hanging around that I presume they get paid at least a little just for showing up, as well as additional for each delivery.

The quirky stoplight where I now know that the best time to walk is when the little red man says I shouldn't, or wait until the little green man has counted down from 80 seconds to 35 seconds. Otherwise, you're in danger of being run over by cars turning left. 

Cuban restaurant Mojitos, which cooks its meats under the hood of this old shell of a car. It looks a little better when it's open and there are tables out, but not much. We're going to go there one Friday night, when they do a whole roast pig.

Escarlet, the woman who sells me baked goods, usually on my way home. One of my faves are the "encarceladas," which are thin squares of pineapple jam spread on a cookie pastry and covered in lattice pastry (the name means "imprisoned.)

Watch goose at a photocopy store with the owner's house in behind. The owner cautioned me that the goose might bite, but then invited me to open the gate for a better shot. I did get one, but I thought Mr. Goose looked more engrossed in his role as watch goose in this one.

The equivalent of Elections Canada, and the bain of my existence every Wednesday morning, when there is a standing protest against the government outside that is now met by a vast force of riot-ready police. I can't pass through this street on Wednesday to get to my bus because the police won't let anyone through. The protesters contend Nicaraguan elections aren't free and open.

Overpass across the busy street where the buses come and go. I feel slightly vulnerable on overpasses, but it is damn hard to cross the four lanes of busy traffic otherwise

Veronica, who makes the best and most gigantic sugar doughnuts to sell at the bus stop. She charges 11 cordobas each, about 50 cents

The usual scene at my bus stop, where a bunch of us await the arrival of whichever buses we're bound for. My walk to get here is about 30 minutes, then maybe 20 minutes on the bus before I get out for one last 4-block walk. 

And now I'm on the bus, heading toward my office. A good day today - seats for all.

I get off the bus here for the four-block walk to my office. This is a fast-food chicken place, and they are always washing the parking lot and the restaurant floor, including sometimes pulling booths out onto the street for a big washing.

Man and dog recovering from a rough night. While I don't always see this specific guy, or dog, sleeping at this specific place, it does seem that the four-block stretch to my work is home to enough serious drinkers that I will always run across at least one man passed out cold. Sleeping on the street here isn't about homelessness, it's about alcoholism

Jovani, who is an odd duck with a drinking problem who greets me enthusiastically as I go to and from work, pretty much every day. First we said hi,. then we shook hands, now he has taken to hugging, which I'm not too fond of. But hey, so it goes.

Carmen, the cart lady who I help out from time to time. Just before we left the country last year, I gave her $35 for new wheels for her cart. Recently I bought her some basic groceries - rice, beans, oil, salt, coffee. She walks a crazy amount with her cart, collecting bottles and anything else she might be able to sell for a few cordobas or salvage. She has a husband, kids and grandkids - sometimes she has her 5 year old grandson with her.

My office. As is the case with many, many offices in Managua, it used to be a house. There's been a middle/upper-class flight out of Managua's centre to flashier outlying neighbourhoods, and many of the older 'hoods have been converted into office space for NGOs, embassies and the like.

Inside my office. That's Rosita on the right, who is kind of the Jill of all trades for our organization and does everything from staffing the reception desk to making us lunch, maintaining files, running work errands, etc. And that's Ericka the accountant in red.

Can you imagine walking past cages of puppies every single day and not being able to buy at least one to take home? If I didn't know first-hand how difficult and expensive it is to export a dog from Central America to Canada, I'd be tempted. There are three or four dog sellers who sell on one of the streets that I walk home on. They claim the dogs are purebred and sell them for $100 US each. That and another $1000 or so Canadian to get all the permissions, vet papers, and ridiculously expensive flight costs will let you bring one of these sweet little guys home

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The wheels on the bus: Sometimes they roll, sometimes they squeal, sometimes they throw you from side to side

Photo by fellow bus veteran Paul Willcocks
This morning I took the city bus that makes a loud thump somewhere around the rear axle every time it stops. Yesterday I rode home on the one that has three seat backs broken off, which I’m fond of because nobody but me takes those spots and it means I always get a seat.

Spend more than an hour on Nicaraguan city buses every work day and you start to get familiar with their idiosyncrasies. Their personalities emerge. They drive up to your stop looking the same, but then the door clatters open and you realize it’s this one or that one, each offering their own distinct experience.

There’s the one with padded, comfy seats that must be a retired long-distance bus; I’ve only been on that one once, but its cheerful yellow and black seats come to mind often when I’m being bashed around on one of the more typical molded-plastic ones.

Then there’s the bus that always has good tunes playing, and usually a girl curled up on the engine cover near the driver. (A lot of the drivers like to bring their girlfriends along, and I sense a certain status comes from being the woman who gets to sit where no other passengers are allowed.)

I’ve learned to avoid the bus that has had a bunch of seats taken out to create more standing room, because it doesn’t have enough handholds for a rider to stay stable as the driver rockets around corners and lurches to sudden stops. But I’m always pleased to board the one with dark-grey, military-feeling seats- old army bus, maybe? - which are sturdy, fitted, and wide enough that you rarely feel your fellow passenger’s meaty thigh pressed into yours, as is the case on every other bus.

Bus to San Carlos
If I time my commute right, I miss the peak of the rush and get a seat, or at least get a standing spot ample enough to take a wide stance and keep my balance. On the worst days, we are crushed three deep in the aisle, and I am helpless against unpleasantness turns of event like a tall man’s sweaty butt pressed into the small of my back, or a short woman’s head prickling under the arm I’ve got raised overhead to clutch the metal support bar.

(Even seated, you'll likely endure some uncomfortable moments when travelling by bus in Nicaragua. One of my grandsons had a woman’s very ample, bare belly pressed into his cheek for a good while on our trip to San Carlos.)

Everyone puts their bus face on during transit times, and I’ve come to do the same. It’s a kind of checked-out state of being – not blank, exactly, but not really there.  It lets you survive the various indignities of bus rides at peak hours without, for instance, saying something rude to the woman who just tore your shirt by squeezing past you with her giant, bejewelled purse, or going all Peter Finch on the pushing, roiling mob that is fighting to get on and off the bus at each stop. When you’re wearing your bus face, it’s like you’re plankton in the ocean, uncomplaining and accepting as the waves buffet you here and there.

The rules for giving up your seat are obviously more complicated here than in Honduras, where any woman getting on a bus will always find a man willing to jump up to offer her his seat. Here, the only ones guaranteed to be offered a seat are women with babies in arms, or super-old and rickety people. Personally, I really feel for short people, who don’t have the arm length to grab the overhead bar and hold on for dear life, and thus get knocked around more than most if they don’t get seats.

But while the scene can be a bit chaotic on Managua’s city buses, the system itself is smooth as glass. There are loads of buses covering dozens of routes, so you can get yourself pretty much anywhere within five or 10 minutes of arriving at your bus stop, presuming you can figure out the rather busy bus map. The system uses cards that can be preloaded at any big bus stop; I throw $5 on mine from time to time and then just tap it on a machine as I enter the bus to deduct that trip’s fare.

And what a deal: You can ride any route from one end to the other for 2.5 córdobas - about 12 cents. My walk/bus combination trip to work every day costs me $5 for an entire month, which is what I would pay in just one day if I went by cab.

So for those kinds of savings, I guess I can handle a stranger’s hot butt plastered into my back once in a while. I can live with having my breasts crush into the ear of a seated passenger while I'm being squeezed airless by an unruly stream of people working their way to the back door of the bus. I can stifle the scream when I see a vendor with a teetery platter of sticky coconut sweets cram onto a packed bus and push their way through the sea of people, selling as they go.

I’ll just put my bus face on and roll with it.