Semana Santa in Bluefields

“How much longer?” my dad asks next to me, his voice sounding slightly pained.

I look over at him, wondering if he is talking in his sleep or just resting his eyes. He is jammed up against the window of the bus, trying, I suppose, to get some relief from the overwhelming humid heat inside the bus, made worse by the dozens of people crammed into the isles, overflowing onto the seats around them. I feel pity for him; after 2 days of non-stop traveling and a red-eye flight to Managua he has been crammed on this old American School Bus for the last 8 hours. He keeps on asking me, apparently confounded by my answer, if this bus that stops what seems every 20 minutes, really is the “express” bus. I always shrug- it is, theoretically. Practically though it is the last bus of the evening the week before Semana Santa, the biggest holiday here. This is the only bus going this far east down one of the only two highways that connect the pacific with the atlantic coast in Nicaragua. So the bus driver will stop when he feels like it to make a few bucks, knowing that noone will really complain or take a different bus next time. He effectively runs a bus-monopoly.

I duck under a rogue arm and backpack dangling in front of my face and ask the women on the next isle when we will arrive at El Rama.

“Now,” she says, gesturing to pitch black darkness outside the bus, “we just arrived on the outskirts”.

My dad enjoying the pleasant temperature of El Rama
My dad enjoying the pleasant temperature of El Rama at 7am in the morning.

The ride to Bluefields from Managua via land is an arderous journey, almost crossing the entire isthma of Nicaragua. There is a highway there which takes slightly more than 12 hours but we chose the 8 hour bus ride to the river port town of El Rama and a 2 hour panga ride down the river to Bluefields. Bluefields, a city which during the height of the banana trade and rubber rush of the early 20th century made its mark on the map, “with steamships departing daily to London and New Orleans”, shows little more than a skeleton of its former glory and is now a rather run-down, sketchy port town increasingly based around “White lobster”- cocain which is frequently thrown overboard by smugglers when their boats are raided and subsequently found by local fishermen. In fact so much of it is found that many fishermen have almost abandoned fishing altogether to forage for washed up cocain packets.

The wealth, and disparity, is obvious while touring the streets of bluefield.

“Check out that one,” my dad says, pointing to a gawdy-looking, completely white house with faux-romanan pillars in the entryway and two porches parked in the garage.

“Yeah, and check out the gardner,” I answer, pointing at the semi-automatic rifle slung over the gardener’s shoulder, alongside his hose.

Watching a procession on the streets of Semana Santa on Good Friday eve
Watching a procession on the streets of Semana Santa on Good Friday eve

Coming to Bluefields during Good Friday in Semana Santa was in many ways a curse and a blessing. Good Friday is kinda like the equivilant of Christmas day.The town was completely empty, which given the general sketchy nature of Bluefields was a probably a good thing– no people hassling you, no people trying to rob you or sell you cocaine or sketch you out with their general sketichiness but it also meant that nothing was open: no restaurants, no bars, no banks, no taxis. It appeared that almost everyone had decided to go to El Bluff – the only swimmable streach of beach, a 30 minute panga ride away from the city of Bluefields. So we crammed into one of the many boats and headed there ourselves.

A panga, a speedboat for 12-20 passengers, is the main mode of transportation on the Atlantic coast
A panga, a speedboat for 12-20 passengers, is the main mode of transportation on the Atlantic coast

To nobodys surprise, the beach was exactly as I had imagened it – a long sandy expanse of beach with what seemed like the entire population of Bluefields congregated around the few dozen shacks selling fried fish and beer.

This is one of those cultural things that still continues to bafle me completely in Latin America. Although they have expanses of untouched sandy beaches on all sides, people will inevitably congregate on one tiny area of the beach, packing it to the point that relaxation is imposible with footballs flying around your face and toddlers screaming and people drinking and passing out on the sand all around you.

So me and my Dad start walking, stepping over drunks laying in the sand, avoiding screaming girls running into the waves and  active beach-football games. I look at my dad, he seems to be struggling with our ingrained cultural desire for peace and seclusion. I see him look at the glaring sun, the jungle of feet and children and bottles still in front of us. I see him mentally weigh the pros and cons of trecking through this to the untouched sandy beach beyond. I see him look up at one of the shacks. And then I see that wonderful thing happen. That paradigm shift, that “aha” moment, that second of acceptance, or perhaps rather that moment of resignation.

“You want a beer?” he asks. I look at his watch. It is 1pm on Good Friday on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. I let that image of myself on a tranquil, secluded beach slide and embrace the festivities and general feeling of relaxation around me. It is an excellent time to have a beer.

Watching the sun rise in the port of Bluefields
Watching the sun rise in the port of Bluefields

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