If it hasn’t happened to you, I don’t know how I could explain it. It was 12:30 am when I first looked at the clock, 1:30 by the time I gave in and got out of bed. My mind was “racing,” as the saying goes – it had just had an idea of something I could do–an unmet need others were asking for–and it was creating, planning, visualizing, and going through all the potential challenges and the problems, even reciting the sales pitches and the conversations. I couldn’t get it to go away, didn’t really want it to go away, so I left the room to write down my thoughts.
This has happened to me many times before, it’s part of who I am – I have an idea about something I could do and then I imagine it in detail, living in that potential world for a moment. In that half-sleep half-awake area when your brain is free to go wherever it wants, these dreams are even more potent, our ability to imagine much stronger. I stayed out in the hallway of our hotel in Managua for two hours. I woke up again at 7:10 am and started again, writing out the things that led up to that moment of daydreaming energy.
But there I go getting ahead of myself again – I need to catch you up. You’re still in Ometepe, having just purchased a bike for a girl with polio, and I’m in Managua. There’s a city to visit in-between.
San Juan del Sur
We left Ometepe by ferry on Sunday morning, this time on a much larger boat that didn’t seem to tip with its cargo, and, once we landed, shared a taxi with another American couple, taking us the 40 minutes to San Juan del Sur. If you want to talk to a Nicaraguan (assuming that you can speak Spanish) a simple question usually does the trick: “Do you play baseball?” If the answer is anything but an excited “Yes!” you can move on to another topic, but most of the time you don’t have to. On Sunday mornings you can find baseball games all over the countryside, the dusty roads and small houses in contrast with nicely pressed, bright-colored jerseys. Our taxi driver was very excited to talk about baseball. While Britney and our new American friends talked in English in the back of the car, he and I chatted excitedly about the sport, the recent tournaments, and then about his family, how much he pays to be a part of the taxi cooperative he works with, the girl we bought a bike for, and the other beaches he could take us to (he had to go for an up-sale, of course. Who could blame him?).
San Juan del Sur is a mix between two worlds, the foreign slowly taking over the center and the Nicaraguan moving to the outside. Walking down the streets you see everything in two languages, English and Spanish, and I’m reminded of the many Americans I’ve heard complain about the Spanish that shows up in their home towns; they usually say something like “You live in ‘Merica, you should speak ‘Merican!” We talked with three people from Salt Lake City, Utah, stayed at a hostel with an Italian, an Australian, and a Frenchman. Canadians are known to come in literal boatloads every January. Locals have moved to the outsides of town because rising land-value means rising taxes, and foreigners are more able to pay. Within a few years beach resorts will occupy all the plots on the beach, the prices will all be as high as American prices, and eventually the roads will all be paved. For now there are still a few vacant beach lots, a few questionable restaurants, and a few dingy hostels.
I only left Britney six times on our trip. Three of those times were in San Juan del Sur. I’m a perpetually morbid-minded person: I think of the worst possible outcome to every situation, visualize it, and worry about it. If I’m doing something risky I comfort others with phrases like, “Oh, it’s going to be just fine”, but when others are doing something I worry and take as many precautions as I can. I didn’t like leaving her, but in a public place in the middle of the day we were fine. There are plenty of travelers around, and she didn’t have valuables with her, so I tried to put my gringo to rest and not worry myself too much.
- Unready for tourist prices, I had $4 with me when we went to the beach, which would usually be enough to buy 4 or 5 drinks. We ordered frozen piña coladas, sat under a leaf umbrella, and sipped for awhile until the waiter handed me an $8 tab. I told him I’d leave Britney there while I went and grabbed the extra cash. The hostel was only a two minute walk away, after all, so I’d be back pretty quickly. Or so I thought. On the way to the hostel I saw an old lady–she looked70 but was probably only 50–sorting through trash to find cans and glass bottles. I’ve seen people who do this in every State I’ve lived in, shuffling around with their bulging bags. If you’ve ever passed a homeless person and wondered what their story is–the real one–then you understand why I was curious about this woman. I wanted to know where she came from, how many kids she had, how much she made from recycling cans, and what she did with her spare time. She was nice and willing to talk, so I took the opportunity to find out about this profession I’d been quietly wondering about for years. Her name is Dominga, her family isn’t from around here, she lives on the outskirts of town and uses a walker to get around, and a pound of cans sells for 9 Córdobas (37.5 cents), she usually collects 3 to 9 pounds a day ($1.125 to 3.375). As usual I wanted to hear more, so I offered to buy her dinner if she would meet us at 5:00. I was planning on using donations to buy her $25 worth of general goods as well as giving her a nice fancy meal, but she didn’t show up. I don’t blame her, I’m sure it was too much of a risk: if I didn’t come and she had waited, she’d have to make the long trip home in the dark, which could be disastrous for her. She stuck to her routine, skeptical that I’d follow through, and walked home at her normal time. In the meantime two waiters had come up to Britney asking her questions she didn’t understand. With a mix of hand motions and three Spanish words she tried to tell them I was on my way: she said “El hombre, dinero,” rubbed her fingers together when she said dinero, made a walking motion with her index and middle fingers, and pointed at the empty chair. I’m not sure if they got the point, but I tipped the waiter for his patience anyway and we left to play in the Ocean.
- Travel agencies and tourist locations like to glorify things. Surfing had seemed like a great idea, but the truth is it’s painful, difficult, and extremely tiring. After about five minutes of trying to get out past the break, Britney decided it wasn’t for her and headed in. The waves were too big, there were a lot of other surfers, and I wasn’t the best teacher – there was a real risk that she’d get hurt or let go of her board and hurt someone else. I should have taught her in a different way, but I’ve only been surfing once myself, so I didn’t know how. I went and played until the ocean had sufficiently beat me up and then we waited for the truck to take us back to town.
- The truck ride had been almost romantic on the way to the beach. On the way back it was just painful: wooden benches, potholed back-roads, and salt and sand grinding into sunburned skin. Britney lobbied for taking a shower right when we got back but I wanted to visit Juan Antonio Cabrera, one of the people I used donations for on my first trip, and only had a little bit of time left to do it, so we split up again and I visited him myself. Juan Antonio was happy as ever. We had a casual, friendly, and easy conversation about a bunch of little things: how the Braves did this season, that our mutual friend Alejandro’s team was just eliminated from their baseball tournament yesterday, in fact eliminated by a team Juan’s cousin plays for, my family, my engagement on Ometepe a few days previously, and a few other things. He loves the bed we gave him. When I asked him about it he answered in an energetic and happy tone as if still shocked at how much better it is from his previous bed. It was so great to see that. Juan Antonio is a guy I would love hanging out with any time, I think. His accident, falling out of a tree at age 11, is something that could happen to any playful little boy, and it is something that did happen to me when I was 9. The dice were rolled, I was born in the US and didn’t have a paralyzing fall, he was born in Nicaragua and did. Yet he’s positive, happy, and grateful. I’m sure he’s not positive all the time, though. It would be a terrible thing to see him depressed. I don’t know how I’d react. You want to do something, but in his case you can’t. You can make him more comfortable, give him friendship, and put something good on TV. If I lived there I’d take him around in his wheelchair often, as I think his family does every once in awhile. My list of favorite Nicaraguans is growing fast, but he’s definitely still at the top.
“Get out of that city as soon as you can.”
Once we were done in San Juan del Sur, we caught a bus to Rivas and then an express bus to Managua. Our bus to Rivas was apparently late – we barely caught the express bus. In fact, we had to run and jump onto the back of the bus while it moved, Britney almost falling off when it first jolted forward. She was held on by someone who would become a new friend, Lázaro. We settled into seats at the middle of the bus and Lázaro came up to us once there was a free spot next to us.
He spoke English, and though I first responded in Spanish, thinking it’d be easier for us all, he kept responding in English, quickly telling me that he loves to practice with foreigners. I went along with it and we had a great conversation. He seems as curious about the world as I am – an almost naive excitement to learn new things from new people. We exchanged facts about ourselves, both of us asking a lot of questions, but in a casual way.
Whenever someone finds out I’m traveling to another country, one of their first concerns is safety. As a six-foot two-inch white boy I tend to stand out. Literally, I’m about a foot above everyone else and 10 shades more white. I might as well have a sign above my head that says “I’m probably confused, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t speak your language very well, and I have some expensive stuff on me. FYI.” But Nicaragua is the safest of all Latin American countries, and much more safe than many of our own US cities.
When someone finds out I’m going to Managua, though, the common advice is to “Get out of that city as soon as you can.” On my first trip to Nicaragua I heeded the advice and left the night after I flew in. This time, though, I couldn’t, nor did I really want to; we were to be working in Managua for a few days and, truth be told, I wanted to experience the city. Ten taxi rides, two buses, a few restaurants, a couple of book stores, and one shopping mall later, and I have a basic sense of the city, honestly only enough to know if my taxi driver is taking me in the right general direction, but it feels like progress.
Managua is the cite of a few tragic events that haven’t been fully repaired: a massive earthquake in 1972 that left over 250,000 people without homes, years of revolutionary war in 1978 that split the city into a two-sided war zone, and hurricane-caused flooding in ’98 that displaced 368,300 people. Years of slow economic recovery and oppressive government policies have left the city even more chaotic and confusing to outsiders than most highly populated cities in a developing country’s capital.
Taxi drivers are always looking for a way to get more business. The taxi driver that flagged us down at the bus station when we arrived in Managua started with casual conversation, happy, I’m sure, that I spoke Spanish well enough to solicit. We talked about our trip, the bus ride, and what we would be doing in Managua, and he asked us where we would be staying. “El Europeo,” I said. The name sounded like it’d be an expensive hotel, but I didn’t know Managua well enough to trust a random place and wanted to make sure we’d be safe. He responded, “Oh, that hotel’s very expensive. I know of one that’s in the same area that’s only $30 or so, it’s very nice. We can stop by on the way if you’d like, they’re really close to each other.”
I agreed and we resumed the rest of our conversation. He wasn’t the typical taxi driver, doing a great job at appealing to my tourism, and kept giving me little facts about the areas we were passing: “Lake Managua is right down there, and there’s a lookout up on that ridge where you can see over the whole city.” He told me how early they had started putting up Christmas lights, a few things we could do while we were in town, and then made sure to give me his card and say he’d take us to “La Chureca” for cheap in the morning, if we wanted. “Five dollars, that’s all. I could take you on a tour through the town after, if you want. I do that for a lot of people.”
We pulled up to his suggested hotel and he introduced me to the attendant who showed me a room and explained the pricing. Maybe it was the dim lighting or the feeling I was being sold on something, but I said no and asked the taxi to take me to the European instead. I’ve stayed in places I wasn’t sure about before, the first that comes to mind was in Río Blanco on my first trip to Nicaragua. It was a hellish night of arachnophobia: after an eight hour bus-ride into the jungle I arrived after dark with no clue what the city was really like. All I knew about it so far was that the view from the bus window was a sheer wall of vegetation and I could hear the chirp of thousands of insects, my friend had told me not to sleep on the floor, and my hotel room was dirty and unkempt. I had read a lot about bed bugs and other things in hostels, the bed was sunken, the floor had a half-eaten piece of fruit on it, and the light in the bathroom didn’t work. I sweated out the night inside a bivy on top of the bed (basically a one-man tent). *Yes, I’m a pansy.
In Managua, a city I had been warned about from every single person who had ever been to it, and since I was traveling with Britney, who swells four times as much as I do from bug bites, I decided to pay a few more dollars and stay at the European.
As we pulled up to the hotel our driver yelled out his window at the security guard, “Tip? Do you guys give a tip?” I had known there must be some tip system the taxi had set up with that other hotel and it was now confirmed by him trying to get money from the place I was going to go to anyway. Later in the week, I asked another taxi driver about it. At first he played it off, “It’s voluntary, sometimes they give 50 Córdobas, sometimes 60.” After some more prodding about fixed deals with certain hotels he finally said, “Yeah, the one I was suggesting for you tips me $10. You would save $30 and I’d make $10 – everybody wins!”
Instead of looking like a spoiled tourist wimp I blamed it on Britney each time a taxi tried to convince me, using a line I’ve heard from married people my whole life: “Yeah, well, you know . . . when she’s happy, I’m happy.” They’d nod their heads and laugh knowingly, glance in the rear-view mirror at Britney, smile, and then change the subject, the pressure to stay at another hotel gone. Britney, of course, never knew I was using her to preserve my dignity as a traveler and as a man. I enjoyed the air conditioning, clean sheets, supportive beds, and good food as much as she did. Oh, and free coffee. Let’s not forget about that.
The next morning was one of the most influential and defining of my life, and from it would come ideas for three donation projects and the founding of my first nonprofit organization which I alluded to at the beginning of this post. You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happened
This is part of my mini travel memoir, read from the beginning if you liked it!