“Listen,” Dustin says, leaning across the wooden picnic table and speaking in a low voice. “The best part about it is, if you get some chick pregnant, you don’t have to worry about it. You can just disappear.”
I know he’s joking. But after a few weeks in Nicaragua, I will think back on this statement and wonder about some of the people I’d met since that might have prompted him to make it.
A few friends and family have come together to wish me farewell on this latest adventure. We’re sitting around a long table on the patio at a local brewery, drinking imperial gallons of the local brew and watching the sun go down and the daily marine layer of fog roll in up the river valley from the ocean. I’ve been back home for a few weeks after a disastrous year or so in the Midwest, Chicago and Minneapolis, and it’s been great to see everyone again. It’s spring, the weather is warm in northern California, and I have a whole new country, hell, a whole new continent to look forward to. Everything’s coming up aces.
A few weeks later, I will be standing under a palm frond thatched overhang, huddled close with about fifty of my newest friends for protection from the sudden tropical downpour that has decided to unload itself over the midday heat of the industrial city of Chinandega in northwest Nicaragua. The rainy season has just begun, and the storms arrive daily like clockwork. They announce themselves out of variable skies which change in minutes from bright and sunny to dark and threatening with powerful crashes of thunder and lightning that shake the ground and sound like they’re coming from the next street over. The rains are very welcome in a climate that alternates from six months of arid heat to six months of blazing sunshine and intense humidity. After the storms pass the world feels a great deal fresher, cleansed, as the cool wind which follows the rain rushes in after it.
Of course, the sudden downpours can also be disastrous. Flash floods, mudslides, roads washing away and streets flooding waist-deep with backwash from the ancient and barely adequate sewers. In León, the colonial-era city where I lived for my first few months in Nicaragua, streets would transform into raging rivers and then wide, dirty lagoons after rains which fell sometimes for minutes, sometimes hours. Power outages were a frequent occurrence, and one which lasted more than a day was thanks to the local power station flooding and the generator shorting out from sitting in a pool of water half a meter deep.
Power outages in the tropics are special experiences. Fans and air conditioners, almost a requirement for daily survival, sputter and die. The air stops moving and a sense of doom settles over the world. The constant buzz and hum of ventilators and spinning fan blades is like the soothing voice of a lover in the midday heat or the dark, humid night. If the power fails while you are sleeping, it won’t be long before you wake up soaked in sweat, wondering why it’s so quiet.
The reason I’m in Chinandega, a town without much to recommend it and full of what passes for commerce and industry in the tiny, impoverished country of Nicaragua, is that I’m on my way to visit Bodhi, an old friend from my hometown. Bodhi and Dustin, he of the pregnancy remark, are good friends and dedicated surfers and came to Central America together some fifteen or so years ago, chasing the best waves and the biggest parties. They found both in Nicaragua. Bodhi ended up marrying a local woman and now lives on the coast near Jiquilillo, outside Chinandega, with his wife and pair of half-Nica, half-gringo progeny. Every fall he returns home to California with his family to work for a few months, but not too much or too hard. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti, and the gringo dollar goes a long way.
I was told it would only take a few hours to reach Jiquilillo, but several hours later I’m still in Chinandega and cursing the people I was foolish enough to ask for directions. One of the joys of living in Latin America is that if people don’t know the answer to a question, for example, what time does the bus leave from Chinandega for Jiquilillo, they will lie to you instead of shamefully admitting that they don’t know. The result is that if you need directions somewhere, the best policy is to ask three or four different people and then attempt to triangulate the correct location from the three or four wildly different answers you will receive.
So I’m stuck waiting outside the mercadito in Chinandega, the second, smaller street market from which buses for the coast depart. Most small Latin towns tend to combine the bus station and market into one, so if you need to take a trip somewhere, just follow the sounds and smells of commerce. They are quite pungent and easy to locate.
After determining that there was indeed a bus going my way around 1:00pm, two hours later than I expected, I sat down to wait, chewing on a banana and drinking pineapple juice from a plastic bag. Most drinks on the street here come in plastic bags, since bottles and cans are expensive and in many cases outlawed by cities and municipalities. Coca-cola is especially popular, and if you ask for one then the woman (usually a woman, men don’t often serve food here; most traditional jobs like serving food, doing laundry or cleaning the house are strictly divided along ancient gender lines) will, if you’re lucky, plop a couple of ice cubes in to a plastic sandwich bag, pour in some coke from a liter bottle, drop in a straw and deftly tie the bag shut around it. Drinking from the bag is its own special talent. It took me several tries to figure out to hold the straw and not the bag to avoid pushing the precious cool sweet liquid up and out the top. One of the easiest ways to identify a newly arrived foreigner is to watch how they handle the ubiquitous drink bags when they are handed one, watch the surprise grow on their face as they assess the strange experience they have just been given.
“El bus, el bus! El bus viene!” come the shouts from all around me. There are only a couple of buses to Jiquilillo from here every day, and I missed the last one after being misinformed about its departure time. There is a considerable crowd waiting for this one, an old yellow American school bus converted to inter-city service here in the poor, disenfranchised Latin south.
There is a sort of trickle-down effect which occurs between Latin America and the more prosperous north. Old clothes, electronics, vehicles, tools, children’s toys and even packaged food that doesn’t get sold or gets thrown out or donated in the United States and Canada often makes its way down to Mexico, Central and South America. This results in a thousand stores in every city all advertising the latest in American clothing, fashion and accessories. Of course they are usually a few years out of date, the trends having long since passed from even the most low-rent of department stores in the US, but just the same there is a fascination here with goods from the Great White North. Many places receive whole shipping containers or pallet loads of clothing and stuff and just unload it on big tables for people to come pick through and pay pennies on the dollar for what some white anglo-saxon protestant may have paid for it a year or three earlier in the US.
The story is the same with the school buses. It is somewhat disassociative to climb onto one and see some old stenciled logo for “Lincoln City Elementary Schools” or “South Rochester Unified District.” Of course when they served the middle school students of the United States, the buses were never adorned with such a vast array of colorful flashing lights, massive window paintings or stickers of the Virgin del Carmén, the Sagrado Corazón, or Señor Jesucrísto himself. Equipped with airhorns that play La Cucaracha. Backup signals that sound like car alarms or police sirens. Brightly colored tassels and fabric wrappings all around the driver’s area. The seats will still be original though. Old steel frames covered in faded vinyl and packed with ancient flattened yellow foam that creeps out from cracks andworms its way into your pockets and bags.
And let’s not forget the driver. That murderous lunatic who shouldn’t even be allowed inside a bus, let alone driving one on public roads filled to bursting with passengers that have a need to reach their destination alive. I’m sure there is an official Latin driver’s licensing manual somewhere that says all commercial drivers must be certified insane to drive buses, taxis, or any form of public transport. Climbing onto one of these is often akin to taking your life in your hands. The driver will take you hurtling down city streets, highways and country roads alike at breakneck speeds, barely missing other vehicles and pedestrians, making wild turns and lane changes that will leave you holding your breath and gripping the seat in front of you or the overhead bars for dear life.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been aboard one of these rolling deathtraps with a psychopath at the wheel and looked over to see some local taking a moment to cross themselves, across the heart and the forehead, then quickly reaching out for a handhold again. Perhaps this is why the drivers handle their vehicles the way they do. They have a kind of undisputed sacred protection that they know will get them through anything. The Virgin or Jesus or some saint or other is on their side, watching out for them. After all, they are surrounded by their icons. Latin catholicism is merely a thin veneer over older, more pagan religions that many people here carry potent memories of in their very bones whether they realize it or not. The maniacal drivers have nothing to fear as long as they lit a candle and said a prayer and maybe attended mass once or twice last month.
They’re on a mission from God.
When the big whitewashed bus with “JIQUILILLO” painted across the top of the windshield in gothic block letters pulls into the mercadito with airhorn blaring to announce its arrival, something happens that I mistake at first for mass panic. All around me people start running and shouting and making for the bus as fast as they can. They hurl their bags, often large sacks of potatoes, corn, grain or various other merchandise to the bus manager (another unique position in Latin America, more on him later) who tosses them onto the roof rack or stuffs them under seats in the back.
As soon as I realize what’s happening I make for the bus in a dead run, to avoid getting squeezed out. A woman tries to shove past me but I push her out of the way and leap into the back door of the bus. “Puta!” she yells, but I’m already aboard. The seats are all taken already so I stake out a spot in the aisle where I can get a good grip on the overhead railing. This turns out to be unnecessary because the bus is packed so tight that we’re all wedged in against each other anyway, me and my new friends. Packed tight for cushioning and protection from the inevitable roller coaster ride that is about to commence. I’m taller than most people in Nicaragua, and standing on buses is always a challenge for me. My head tends to brush the roof and I often have to bend over to accommodate myself, a back-breaking, nech-aching affair.
The bus fills up fast and the manager whistles that impossibly loud and expressive whistle that Latin men all seem to master at a very young age and shouts to the driver, “Adelante!” Forward! The driver gives a couple of quick blasts on the airhorn and rolls out, swaying back and forth with its precipitous load. The original plaque at the front of the bus says something like Maximum Capacity: 40, but I’m sure there at least twice that many aboard. We are underway.
The bus rolls up the highway at a speed which this time is surprising in its slowness, stopping here and there to let people off or on, usually done at a rolling pace that never quite reaches a full stop. Old women and children are handed down to the street in motion and bags are tossed to them from above. Sometimes I look up to see the manager swing open the back door of the bus while moving at full speed, leap out and clamber onto the narrow ladder in the back to reach something or other up top. These daredevils are just as unhinged as the drivers and not to be trifled with.
After the bus has traveled some distance, the manager will typically move up and down the aisle collecting fares from the passengers and taking requests for stops to let people off. I have never been unable to pay, but one look into the dead eyes of the average bus manager tells me I wouldn’t care to be the party aboard without sufficient funds. A paleface like me would likely be tossed out the back while moving.
One of the rare delights of traveling on buses in Latin America is that you can always buy snacks along the way. Vendors will come up alongside making sales through the narrow windows, or climb on board and work their way through the crowded bus unloading bags of potato chips, fried plantain crisps, sometimes little baked goods, and water, soda or juice to drink. Most people here consume an astounding quantity of soda and other sweet, sugary things. The rate of diabetes is nothing less than shocking.
I ask to be let off at the road which splits off to Aposentillo, the small community adjacent to Jiquilillo where Bodhi and his family live. Bodhi maintains a number of small rental houses on the beach in Jiquilillo, but keeps his own home elsewhere. There are a couple of small empty concrete structures next to the bus stop, and a man selling plates of rice and fried chicken out of one points me in the right direction. I start down the road to Aposentillo, paved with the hexagonal concrete bricks that cover most of the better-developed roads here.
After walking for a while, I realize that Aposentillo is perhaps much farther than I thought. Bodhi gave me some loose directions (by the gas station, across the street from the school), which I repeat to myself like a mantra. These little country pueblos can be so small that directions to something like a particular store or building or landmark will get you where you’re going. I’m not worried. Yet. The sky is heavy with dark gray clouds and the threat of rain, but so far I am dry. I pass a man and his young son walking down the road carrying fishing rods and tackle, no doubt headed for the marina at Aposentillo.
“Buenas tardes,” I say to them.
“Oye, chele,” says the man. Chele is the Nicaraguan word for gringo.
Cheles are becoming a more and more common sight in Nicaragua these days. As the memories of the brutal civil war, fought between the ruling Marxist Sandinistas and CIA-funded Contra rebels, begin to fade, Nicaragua is gaining a reputation for being a cheap and (relatively) safe place to vacation. Forget Costa Rica, you might as well vacation in Florida, for all the good your money will do you.
But why Nicaragua? The tiny country, underdeveloped and often lacking basic services, is hardly a luxury destination. There are a few high-walled and barbed-wire-fenced upscale beach resorts for rich Nicaraguans and the few wealthier people who choose to make Nicaragua their place to vacation, but aside from that the country is largely a cement-block and corrugated-aluminum-roof sprawl of dirt, open sewage, mountains of uncollected garbage, wandering livestock, naked children and brutal, brutal heat.
In the dry season no rain falls for six months. Huge dust storms come rolling up the highway from the recently-harvested peanut and sugarcane fields around León and Chinandega, choking the whole region and covering everything in a thick layer of grime. Considering the inside-outside nature of most dwellings in the country, the dust makes its way into everything and must be constantly managed. In 2015, when Volcán Mombacho erupted outside León, most people in the city at first took it for the usual barrage of fireworks that the populace enjoys exploding on an almost constant basis, hurling bombs and launching rockets that send sparks flying onto dry, exposed rooftops everywhere. After everyone realized what was happening, they resolved themselves to endure what was coming. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common affairs on the isthmus. Soon, inches of abrasive ash began collecting on every exposed surface, making its way into kitchens and bedrooms and car radiators. Those who didn’t know better wiped the dry ash off with rags, only to find that its silicate, glass-like consistency cut deep streaks into everything it touched. Better to dump a bucket of water over it and then clean off the gray sludge as best you could.
The environment is punishing and unstable. Comforts few. Infrastructure and services lagging far behind a better-developed country.
And yet they come.
Especially the young ones. The surfers. The party crowd. Understandable when you run the numbers and realize that for a fraction of what it might cost in a similar coastal region, for example, Costa Rica, Panamá or México, in Nicaragua you can have your cake and eat it too. During my stay in León, I rented a sizable room with a private bathroom in a clean and well-maintained guest house for around $100 USD a month. I dare you to find anything comparable in your average western industrialized nation.
The Pacific coast is a huge draw. The miles and miles of undeveloped and semi-developed coastline leave ample opportunity for renting one of the ubiquitous bungalows along the shore, kicking back and forgetting that the rest of the world exists. Even a young broke university graduate will find a hammock on the beach somewhere they can afford. Toña, the local brew, can be purchased in liters for less than two dollars. Pull up a plastic chair at any beachside restaurant, order a liter and a few glasses and watch the sun move across the sky.
And there is the Latin experience. Lax rules about trifles like safety, sanitation and the age of consent make a country like Nicaragua a destination of choice for those who want to experience life a bit more on the unpredictable side. The locals continue to be astounded by the constant flood of pale white cheles that arrive by the planeload and quickly turn a bright, crispy pink in the unmitigated tropical sun. If we have it so good where we are, they think, if we are so rich and well off in every conceivable way, why in the hell would we want to come here?
And why did I come? For me, the answer is multi-faceted and not really very interesting. A nasty breakup. A desire to travel. Ambition to do something different and better with my life. Maybe improve the lives of a few others along the way. That last motivation is something you will find applies to many a wannabe do-gooder come to the Global South to make a difference in the world. Scratch the surface and you will find someone who was desperate for a change, like I was. Tired of their workaday lives in the land of milk and honey and wanting to experience something different, something more passionate, more alive. Or perhaps, also like me, they were trying to leave behind something they would rather forget. Many a young man has gone to war after being jilted by a lover, and many a disillusioned gringo has headed south in search of a more interesting life. The great thing about Latin America is that interesting, however you might define it, is never far away or difficult to find.
On the road outside Chinandega, I keep walking. After twenty or thirty minutes the landscape hasn’t changed. Wide, flat pastures with small wandering herds of brahman cattle, dotted by the ubiquitous trees of the Central American coastal region, thin spindly things with high branches and big green leaves that shimmer in the brilliant sunlight, when the sky isn’t heavy with thunder clouds. I can hear the distant surf pounding on the coast but it doesn’t sound any closer than before.
I try to thumb a ride from a few passing cars and trucks. Nobody stops. The sight of a wandering chele and his black canvas backpack must be an unusual sight out here. The few other gringos who do come here tend to arrive in shiny new cars loaded down with surfboards. The coast here is notorious for spectacular waves. Bodhi has promised to take me out with them in the morning to somewhere called River Mouth with him and his local surfer cohorts.
I top a small rise in the road and come face to face with thirty or forty eggshell-white cows. They plod forward, their humped backs rising and falling in time with their steps, their long rabbit lop-ears flopping alongside their heads. The hardy brahman, bred from Indian zebu cattle imported to the United States sometime in the late 19th century, have found their way down to Central American and thrived here. The climate agrees with them.
Docile as they may be, cattle can be jumpy beasts, so I hop across the small culvert on the right side of the road to let them pass. Two young shirtless boys follow the herd on a pair of ragged ponies. One wears a Mexican-style cowboy hat, the other a baseball hat with a wide, flat tongue and the word FUCK emblazoned across the front in big silvery plastic letters. They direct open stares in my direction. I wave. They don’t. One says something to the other I can’t make out and the second wrinkles his nose at me, a gesture which here can mean either, “I don’t understand,” or “guácala” (yuck!).
The sputtering buzz of an offroad motorbike comes up the road from the direction I came, a man wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flop sandals (chanclas) driving. He weaves through the cattle with ease, the cows stepping aside to let him pass with the odd flick of an ear. They must see a lot of motorcycles. Not surprising, considering how common the small transports are on the roads of Latin America. The man stops alongside where I’m standing and looks at me, idling his engine. He flicks his head toward the bike.
“Vamos,” he says.
“Seguro? No tengo mucha plata,” I say. I spent most of my cash getting here, the rest is tucked away in my pack in large bills and I don’t want this guy to know it.
“Ni importa. A bordo.”
“Bueno,” I say, and hop back across the culvert. I ask him if he knows a gringo named Bodhi and his wife Sarita. I’m not surprised when he says yes. We are far from the nearest city here, and even in Chinandega gringos are uncommon. In small communities like this, everyone will know who the local foreigners are, where they live, and exactly what they’re up to. Most people don’t have much else to do out here than chismosear, or gossip the days away.
I climb onto the back of the motorbike behind the man, shifting my backpack forward, flailing my feet around until I find the meager footholds, then put a deathgrip on the narrow handlebars welded onto the back of the seat, praying that they will hold. My prayers are well-founded, because the man guns the throttle and we take off like a cannonball through the last of the brahman herd and up the road, towards the ocean.
We pass a school and a gas station and I shout over the sound of the wind and the engine that don’t Bodhi and Sarita live by a gas station and a school? Si, he shouts back, pero otras. I’m surprised that there is more than one gas station and school out in this boondock. I haven’t even seen a house since I left the main road.
After several hair-raising bends in the road and some turns which seem random we leave the cement for gravel roads and head into an area where the trees and brush starts to grow thicker. Houses appear. I realize my luck in finding this guy, whoever he is. I never would have found this on my own. Provided that he is indeed taking me to Bodhi’s house. For all I know he could pull up in front of his cousin’s house to find three dead-eyed killers holding machetes waiting for me. Would they rob me? Kidnap me? Demand ransom? Or just hack me to death and relieve my corpse of its few worldly possessions?
These are questions on which one must not linger overlong. The stress can be overwhelming. Most gringos, when they’ve been here long enough, become heavy drinkers. Fear and paranoia are not the only reasons. My suspicion is that the tropical sun boils their brains inside their skulls and they all go mad with the heat and the fear and the madness of the locals and trying to do business with any of the goddamned sneaky little pirates.
That’s what the paranoia will say anyway. After long enough dealing with the ways and means of Latin America, everyone gets a little paranoid. At the very least, one becomes suspicious of everyone and everything. Trust but verify is a good policy where even the little old ladies might try and cheat you.
At last I see a sign for Joe’s Place, which is the other landmark Bodhi told me to look out for. Who Joe is or what he does at his Place will forever remain a mystery to me. But just beyond the sign, the man stops his motorcycle in front of a little roadside tienda with a larger house behind it. Many people here run small stores and restaurants and provide other services out of the front of their house. Often they will have several other jobs as well. The state of the economy in countries like Nicaragua is such that one job is rarely enough, unless one is very, very lucky.
I almost fall off the back of the bike, my head spinning from the lunatic ride. I’ve come to accept that every ride in a car, bus, motorcycle, back of a truck, anything here will never be anything less than a psychotic race against death. Staggering to the counter and grabbing the bars over the opening, I call out to the house. “Buenas!”
For a minute nothing happens. I call again. Then I hear the slap of flip-flop chanclas from inside, and a shirtless, round-bellied Bodhi appears. His skin is tanned golden brown from years under the Central American sun, and he is covered with smears of un-absorbed sunblock from that morning’s surf.
“Oh hey, what’s up, brah!” he says in his slow surfer drawl. “Dude, I was crashed out from this morning. It’s been UP.” By up he means the waves. I’ve learned to speak surfer after growing up between northern and southern California. I’m not much of one myself, but I can usually get up on a longboard for a few seconds without falling. The short board is beyond me.
When Bodhi says it’s been up, he means it. A typhoon spinning somewhere out in the Pacific has stirred up the ocean and sent vast unseen currents hurtling toward the western coast of Mexico and Central America. Vagabond surfers the region over have been packing into old beaten up Volkswagen vans and making haste for the coast to take advantage of what is a somewhat rare event this time of year. Huge swells of eight to twelve feet coming in from an unusual direction and creating unique surfing conditions is something that every surfer lives for. Bodhi has other visitors coming to see him this weekend. He will be taking his guests to River Mouth, a hidden spot about which he will offer few details, and has admonished me not to mention to anyone else that he knows about. Surfers can be fiercely jealous of their territory. Fights often break out on the shore. Sometimes car windows are smashed or bronzed muscular young men sent to the hospital with broken ribs or shattered jaws over turf battles.
“Come on in,” he says to me then, “I see you met Eduardo.”
I turn to the man still sitting on the motorcycle, who nods his cap to me.
“Mucho gusto,” I say to Eduardo, and thank him for bringing me. I have to admit I was a little bit lost, but I don’t say that to either of them. This is Latin America after all. A guy has to keep his masculinity intact.
Bodhi whispers something to Eduardo and passes him a small object. I can’t see what it is, and in truth it could be anything, illicit or otherwise. Something to do with that odd job lifestyle that everyone lives here.
“Let’s go,” he wraps a thickly muscled arm around my shoulder, “you hungry? I’ll have one of the girls make you something.”
The girls, I think? Ah yes, who else would be doing the cooking. He takes me inside the dimly-lit concrete house under a low ceiling and tells the two young women there, one very much pregnant, to make me plate of food.
“Qué quieres?” asks the non-pregnant one with a bored tone and an exhausted look in her eyes.
“Nada mucho,” I say, not much, whatever they have ready. I don’t want to be a bother.
“No no,” says Bodhi, “don’t be too soft with them. They work for me. Tell ’em what you want and make it good.”
Later I will notice his string of security cameras around the place. When I comment on them he tells me that he has been robbed more than once by his own employees and takes no chances now.
“Now I hire them from two families who hate each other,” he says. “That way they’re always watching each other and they tell me if the other one tries to put one over on me.”
I order a plate of chicken and rice and salad and whatever else the girls have warming on the stove, now late in the day, well past the lunch hour. But this is Latin America, and every aspect of daily life revolves around food. Not to have food available or ready for someone who should be eating, especially a man (“Es hombre,” they say, “necesita comer!”) would be unthinkable. Men here take pride in the quantity of food they can consume and the number of sittings they can endure each day.
As I eat, Bodhi and I discuss his life here. This is the first time I’ve been to his place in the ten or fifteen-plus years he’s lived here, and we have a lot to catch up on. He runs a moderately succesful string of rental houses on the beach nearby, rents horses, takes guests on rides and hikes and kayak rides through the mangrove swamps. He has built a school for the town, helped pay for some local infrastructure, and is well-known by everyone who lives around here as someone they can go to if they have a problem or need money. A tanned, shirtless godfather who drinks too much, smokes marijuana constantly and goes out surfing every chance he gets.
“You’re getting the buddy deal,” he tells me as he leads me out to a string of small rooms behind the main house. “This is normally my smoking room.” He takes me inside one of the rooms where, yes, I can see a large glass bong and a few scattered wooden and glass pipes around.
“I have to keep it out here, otherwise Sarita complains.” Sarita, his wife, is inside the house watching novelas with the girls who work in the tienda/kitchen out front. “We’ll just leave them alone for now. Never interrupt women when they’re watching their novelas.”
The ubiquitous Latin American soap opera is a constant source of entertainment and gossip for women the continent over. Never for men. Another very clear gender dividing line that’s hard to ignore in Latin society. Most women in Nicaragua spend their afternoons in rocking chairs parked in front of the television, watching Pasión de la Pasión or some such trashy soap, gossiping about the characters, complaining about their own husbands or boyfriends, talking about anything and everything that pops into their heads.
People love to talk here. It’s one of their defining characteristics. The silence must be filled at all times by conversation, television, music, anything that makes noise. The louder and more of it the better. Years of living here and I’m still not used to it. Sometimes I go a little crazy, desperate for just a few minutes of blessed silence. But finding it is well-night impossible anywhere that there are other people around, which is just about everywhere.
Bodhi packs a bong-load of the brown, leafy stuff filled with stems and seeds that passes for weed here and passes it to me. I take a long toke on the stuff, feeling the harsh burn, and hand the bong back to him. I know what’s about to happen. I’m going to feel a bit light-headed for maybe half an hour and then the headache will set in. It’s the reason I usually don’t smoke here. Coming from northern California, long-time pot capital of the United States, I’m a little bit spoiled when it comes to quality.
“Listen,” he says, “tonight we’re gonna crash out early and then we’ll head out to River Mouth in the morning. Before sunrise, you feel me? Gotta catch that early morning break.”
No problem, I say. My head is still spinning from the wild motorcycle ride, the arrival in this unusual place, and the lung-full of dirty pot smoke that is now creeping its way into my veins like bloodworms.
That night we play a board game called Blockus in the kitchen with Sarita and a kid who lives nearby, friend to Bodhi’s son, who is occupied in the other room playing a war game on his Playstation. Sarita wins over and over again, cackling her delight at defeating her husband, his strange chele friend and the young boy from next door. Eventually I wander back to the little room behind the house and pass out in the hard mattress under ragged old blankets.
The next day is a blur. Wild rides down long dirt roads in Bodhi’s aging SUV. Liter after liter after liter of Toña and Victoria, the second-choice beer of Nicaragua. Poor palm-thatched country houses and dimly lit restaurants serving whatever happens to be available that day. Massive plates of chicken, shrimp, fish and rice, not a green vegetable to be seen. Strange isolated country dwellings where other gringos live in relative style and comfort, but are only reached by the most rudimentary of roads and electrical lines.
It also happens to be Nicaragua’s Liberation Day, July 19th, anniversary of the day that soldiers from the Marxist FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, named after their hero and one of Nicaragua’s original freedom fighters, Augusto César Sandino) toppled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979 and kicked off more than ten years of civil war when the US government decided that having a leftist government in charge of little Nicaragua, however poor, inept and isolated they might be, simply could not be tolerated. I have only vague memories from my childhood, but I remember Reagan playing up the menace of the Sandinistas (commie bastards!) in order to justify further CIA support to the Contra rebels fighting against the young government from the borders of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. The Sandinistas eventually prevailed, due to a combination of loss of public support in the US and sheer stubborn persistence on their part, but not after a decade of bloodshed, misery and deprivation.
Now, the FSLN rules the country, and one of its original leaders, Daniel Ortega, has become the new de facto dictator, although for the time being a relatively benign one, of Nicaragua. The party regained power after a series of democratically elected presidents in the 1990’s, and now has solidified its hold on the country’s legislative and judicial system and vested power almost solely in the hands of the presidency and the national police. But for all its flaws, backwardness and poverty, two things stand out about Nicaragua as phenomenal achievements, given the many years of conflict and scarce resources that the country has had to endure: near-universal literacy, and an almost complete lack of gang violence.
Considering the ugly and deteriorating situation in Honduras and El Salvador to the north, with rampant street crime and a skyrocketing murder rate, the relative peace and tranquility of Nicaragua is an incredible feat. The government simply does not tolerate gangs. For years they have embarked on a unique program of intervention in cases and places where gangs might arise or seek to infiltrate the country, redirecting their citizens who might see no other choice than form or join gangs and fostering education, agriculture and other pursuits. As meager as their resources might be, with a visibly corrupt government and stark separation of the social classes, and as many other political and economic problems they may have caused over the years, the Marxist ideals of the FSLN have done much good in encouraging social welfare.
Nobody is thinking much about social welfare today in Jiquilillo. It’s a national holiday, and most people are busy getting roaring drunk, blasting thumping reggaeton beats from their stereos, eating massive amounts of food and generally getting crazy. It starts early. I can already hear the party gearing up around seven A.M. when we pull up to Bodhi’s friend Darren’s beachfront cabaña-and-homemade-ice-cream facility in Jiquilillo. Somewhere back in the palm and acacia trees I can hear the pounding basslines, like some throbbing jungle heartbeat out of a Joseph Conrad novel. No mystery about this sound, though. If I went to investigate I would surely find some Nica family sitting around outside their cinder-block hut in hammocks and plastic chairs, already a couple of rounds deep. The father and his round beer belly under a dirty tanktop swaying in the canvas hammock. Grandma passed out in the rocking chair with a half-empty bottle of Flor de Caña, the local rum, in one hand and a lit cigar in the other. Naked children playing in the dirt with the thin, ragged chickens while an oblivious mother plays on her cell phone nearby. They might not have enough for everyone to eat today, but by God they still have Facebook!
I wait for Bodhi and a few other surfers who have gathered at the spot this morning to get themselves together, then head out in a small fiberglass lancha to find River Mouth, which apparently is a spot by an offshore sand bar which scoops up waves as they come in and greatly amplifies them. I stay behind to read my guidebook and chat with Darren, my surfing skill not being anywhere near sufficient to handle those waves and not wanting to sit rocking in the little boat under the unbroken sun for the next two or three hours. Darren tells me about the local goings-on, including how he has to keep paying someone to reconnect the electric line he’s hijacking from a nearby power pole because Dissur-Disnorte, the Spanish-owned national electric company, keeps coming out and cutting the line.
The state of the electrical grid in Nicaragua is rather dire. Aside from frequent outages, more than a third of the population has limited or no access to electricity, and many are forced to run illegal lines because the infrastructure simply does not exist, let alone the ability to pay for it. The country experienced an energy crisis in 2006 from which it has still not fully recovered, and the two main power plants in the country are both oil-fired. Other distribution lines come in from Honduras and Costa Rica but experience frequent service interruptions. There is a small amount of hydroelectric and geothermal generation, and plans to expand that capacity, but accomplishing infrastructure projects on that scale are hit-and-miss in Nicaragua. Everything from lack of funds to political willpower to engineering capability and even deliberate sabotage plays a role.
Today, the power lines in Jiquilillo are humming. The beer and ice cream is cold, the fans are humming and the lights will (probably) be on later. The government needs people to be happy and enjoy themselves today, it’s the Sandinistas’ big day after all. Buses have been dispatched all over the country to bring in university students (who are legally obliged to attend) and whoever else they can gather up for a massive rally on the shores of Lake Managua (Xolotlán in the local indigenous tongue) in Managua, the capital. Everything has been decorated with the red and black party colors. Flags will be waved. Songs will be sung. All along the main avenues of Managua, the giant multicolored aluminum Dr. Seuss-like “Trees of Life” instigated by Rosario Murillo, the equally multicolored and flamboyant first lady, will be draped with decorations and brightly lit for the celebration.
Later in the day, I will sit on a shredded recliner next to an old man swinging in a string hammock who will explain to me the significance of the event as we watch the sweeping overhead shots of the crowd and the speech of Daniel Ortega on an old, fuzzy color TV set in front of a ramshackle house/restaurant in Jiquilillo. Bodhi and Darren are over at the nearby tables eating greasy chicken and talking business of some kind, scheming a way to cheat more tourists out of their money, all of us several hours deep in drink.
Before coming here, we had found ourselves immersed waist deep in the warm, clear waters of a saltwater estuary formed off the nearby mangrove swamp of Reserva Natural Padre Ramos. An improvised wooden bench under a small tree served as our picnic table where we kept our liter bottles and cigarette packs while we floated in the water, smoking and drinking out of plastic cups. Across the road was a bar and covered billards parlor where we would periodically venture to replenish the beer. Besides Darren, we had picked up another local gringo expat, a kid named Jeremy who lived nearby and rented dirtbikes to tourists who wanted to explore the backroads or the nearby volcano, Cosigüina, which also featured a stunning lagoon inside its ancient cone. Horseback riding, camping, and kayaking in the mangroves was also to be had, courtesy of Bodhi and his ragtag band of entrepreneurs. All of them conspired together to bring people here, rent them lodgings, send them out on tours and get them as drunk and stoned as it took to make sure everyone had a great time.
The circumstances which brought both Darren and Jeremy to Nicaragua were as confusing and unremarkable as my own. All of us had been leading unsatisfactory lives and been drawn to this place by one pursuit or another. For them it was the good life, living on the beach in a warm place, drinking constantly and enjoying the attentions of the local women, being foreign and exotic and with fat wallets (by Nicaraguan standards) to boot. In the end, it always comes down to economics with people like us. We simply couldn’t hack it in our native economies, or found the pace too stressful or the cost of living too high, and fled south to find somewhere that life was cheaper, but yet also richer at the same time. Adam Smith eat your heart out.
After the estuary we passed by the house of an older Canadian man who had built a house on the beach and was overseeing the construction of further accommodations for paying guests when we arrived. He was lamenting the loss of his latest girlfriend when Bodhi, burning joint in hand, pointed out it probably wasn’t a good idea having sixteen-year-old girls coming by to see him while she was around.
Who are these people? I was thinking to myself by this point. Where the hell did they come from? How can they live like this? More to the point, how are they not in prison? One just had to look around to find the answer to that. Nicaragua is the land of anything goes. Anything and everything was going in full swing around here. Many things that would be considered felonies in the Great White North were perfectly acceptable here. Pura vida, as the Costa Rican saying goes.
After watching the FSLN Day proceedings, Bodhi got a phone call from a group of people who wanted to rent one of his houses, so we took off at a wild speed, racing up and down the bumpy roads, to round up a couple of local girls to clean the house in the next hour before the people arrived, with Bodhi shouting at his caretaker on the phone that he needed, “Diez caballos, tal vez doce pero al menos diez para mañana!” His guests, it seemed, wanted to ride horses on the volcano tomorrow and Bodhi was arranging things in his usual manner, at the last minute, horribly drunk and stoned and still shrewdly narrowing every deal down to the last dollar.
Bodhi, I decide, has gone native.
There will be an odd moment later, after the guests have been seen to and the sun has gone down, where all of us gringos are sitting around a plastic table at a beachfront bar with the two cleaning girls sitting across from us, awkward smiles on their faces and whispering to each other between sips of their Coca-colas. By now we are on the fifteenth or twentieth liter between us since the morning and my stomach is feeling rotten and about to explode. One of the girls keeps leaning towards me and almost rubbing my face in the tops of her breasts, about to pop out of the tight orange top she’s wearing. Jeremy leans over to me.
“Hey man,” he says, “why don’t you take her down by the beach? It’s dark down there, nobody will see. I’ll totally cover for you.”
I don’t want anything to do with this girl or Jeremy’s lewd proposition, since I would just as soon throw up all over her as do anything else. Besides, who knows what surprises might be waiting down there in the dark by the ocean. Perhaps under her dress. Perhaps hiding in the trees just out of the light with knives up their sleeves.
I push away the beer in front of me and stagger to my feet, swaying over to Bodhi’s car to find my water bottle and drain it, then wait for them to conclude whatever perverse business they have in store for the cleaning girls. As Bodhi tells me later, the girls were only sticking around to see what they could get from me. Darren and Jeremy and him are all known well by reputation around the area, but I was an unknown quantity. Just as well that I left. There were all sorts of unsavory ways this night could have ended up otherwise. I was having a hard time seeing, let alone thinking or speaking. An easy target if left to my own devices.
We finish the night at perhaps the most surprising place I have seen in a day full of unusual and surprising things: an upscale resort near the marina in Aposentillo. Bodhi and I say farewell to a very drunk Darren and Jeremy at the bar on the beach and drive back towards his place, but before I realize we’ve changed directions he is driving through an intimidating security gate and waving to the guard who waves back in a familiar way. It seems that he is known here. We pull up in front of a huge, new, well-finished building that serves as the lobby, gathering place and restaurant for the property, which turns out to be subdivided into private lots and small bungalows with every amenity provided. A massive sign out front advertises, in English: “Century 21 Realty, bringing the best to paradise and paradise to you!”
Inside the lobby, a group of well-dressed foreigners with a dizzying array of accents are seated around a long table eating and drinking and telling stories about spending money. The owner, a muscled, tattooed Costa Rican who, he tells me, splits his time between Nicaragua and Miami and New York, greets Bodhi with a big hug and me with a warm handshake. I look around in a daze. After the last two days spent in the dirt and dust and pigshit I am, entirely without warning, standing in a gilded hall surrounded by the finest luxury furnishings, a gourmet menu and a pack of rich foreigners to boot.
I look over at Bodhi and he’s grinning at me like an idiot. A drunken idiot with a heavy glaze over his eyes.
“Not what you expected, huh?” he says.
“No, definitely not.”
I have to go to the bathroom so I walk down the stone path with inset lighting past a gurgling fountain surrounded by landscaped flowers and into a brand new shining porcelain and marble restroom. It smells faintly of vanilla.
It seems that besides the backpacking, gap-year-ing, tourist/escapee/adventurist crowd, there is a market for the super-rich globetrotting jetsetter here as well. The group around the table proves this. There is an Australian couple who was surfing with Bodhi that morning who are also real estate developers and have invested heavily in the place. There is a Dutch man wearing a necklace of large wooden beads who tells us he has just bought one of the bungalows on the property. The chef, who the owner shanghaied from New York to come work here, comes out and tells us about the fine ingredients he’s had flown in just for our (their) dining pleasure.
On the edge of the table and the edge of alcohol poisioning, I watch Bodhi gladhand it with these people, many of whom he seems to know well, wondering what strange boundary I have crossed. What unknown dimension I have wandered into. Outside, beyond the sconce lighting and polished stone bar, I gaze into the darkness beneath the trees. Here and there I see a speck of light winking out in the distance, a single solitary lightbulb illuminating a family of ten or twelve as they sit around in the dirt or sand in plastic chairs, drinking, playing loud music, talking about nothing.
What must they think, looking back through the trees at the shiny new resort on the hillside? When they see the Toyota Prados and Land Rovers pull in with their surfboards and people dressed in flowing white linen like Egyptian pharaohs stepping out? Sitting around polished mahogany tables, eating Maine lobster and Kobe beef while they, the family, are reheating yesterday’s chicken and rice and beans for dinner?
The same thing they’ve always thought. They are poor. They will take what they can, when they can from these rich, clueless gringos, and then carry on with their lives as they always have. There is little enough to go around. The power may not last the night. But the hot humid air is softened by the cool breeze off the ocean. There are friends and family nearby to pass the time. There is enough to eat, however poor the fare. There is music. And laughter. And life.
That night as I go back to my room at Bodhi’s house a tarantula drops out of a tree in front of me and I scream like a girl and squash it with my sandal. It explodes in a messy splatter of guts and bug juices with a great satisfying crunch. I look around at all the insects swarming in the light from the single bulb outside, the sounds of them calling from the trees and bushes and the night air. It’s too late for mosquitos now but earlier I was swatting them by the millions. The breeze has died down and the air is still and hot. I feel a terrible emptiness and sharp pain in my guts from a day spent drinking beer and little else. I realize that I can’t wait to get back to León and my room with clean sheets and good water pressure and TV with two hundred channels of entertainment beamed in by satellite from space.
I recognize my privilege.
And I recognize how great it is to have.
I go inside and shut the door, then pass out in a heap on top of the aged bedsprings, head spinning, stomach throbbing, dreaming of the soft pillows which await me.
In the morning, Bodhi drops me on the side of the highway where I can catch the bus back into Chinandega. He walks away to barter a dozen huge melons from a man selling them next to the road in a great mountain of pale green fruit.
“What are you gonna do with all that,” I yell out to him when I see what he’s doing.
“Just what I always do,” he says. “Pass it out to the neighbors.”
I’m left staring at him, wondering what to make of this sudden generosity, when I realize there’s nothing sudden about it at all. He might be here taking tourists for all they’re worth, renting them expensive houses and overcharging for kayak trips and horse riding. But in his years here, he and his family have built a school in their little community. They dug and installed a new water main for the people there. Hard-drinking pot-smoking tourist-cheating godfather he may be, but with a heart big enough to encompass everyone around him.
An old yellow bus that once carried little white children with Spider-man lunch boxes and Barbie backpacks off to elementary school in some Midwestern state, now with “El Señor es mi Guía” painted across the top of the windshield and a sign in the window for Chinandega goes by, slowing to a crawl but not stopping all the way, and I jump in through the front door, like a hobo jumping a freight train, grabbing onto a metal rail and hauling myself inside.