5/20/19 – 5/27/19
“She’s all yours if you want her.”
“What’s mine is yours, you know”
“We’re just cooking breakfast.”
“Alright my man, scramble those eggs.”
Derek was from Chicago. He had a small house in Granada with an extra room for rent. I’d met him at a bar and mentioned I was bored of the hostel scene and he said I could crash for a few nights. This was 2013. He was a generous guy. He paid for my drinks and gave me a tour of town. He didn’t mention that he was into prostitutes.
He went back into his room with the young woman. I sat in the kitchen with the other. He’d brought them over that morning and initially introduced them as friends. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on. It was a bit like getting a sweater with a giant owl knitted on the front of it for Christmas. You appreciate the gesture, but you don’t want to wear it.
I took the opportunity to work on my Spanish. We went into the kitchen and began to construct a tall stack of pancakes and some scrambled eggs mixed with chorizo and onions. With every tool and ingredient I would ask her for the word in Spanish.
“Como se dice en espanol?”
Occasionally Derek would appear and take a pancake. After about two hours my belly was full and I was content with the expansion of my vocabulary. The young woman seemed happy to have an easy day at the office. I returned to the hostel that afternoon.
Nicaragua is hard to describe. It was the first country in Central America that I had ever visited. My cousin John owned a small business making fly fishing tackle. Nobody in the family had ever seen it and speculated that it was some kind of front for nefarious activities. He picked me up from the airport and took me to his production space. Hoping to have familial ties to some kind of international tomfoolery, I was disappointed to find seven or eight Nicaraguan women conversing with one another while tying colorful little flies which would ultimately be sold to the great outdoorsmen of America.
John helped me get my feet wet in Central America and after a week he flew back to the states. I spent the next two months on my own. I was told that I needed a book called “Lonely Planet” because this would tell me where all the off the beaten path sort of places were. After a week or two of hopping around from town to town I quickly realized that everyone was reading the same book, hitting the same towns, staying at the same hostels, and getting drunk at the same bars. I would see people over and over again in Granada, Leon, and San Juan del Sur.
I was sitting on a bus heading for a beach town called La Boquita when Alfredo approached me. He spoke a bit of English and asked if he could sit. Being an North American in Central America, my assumption was that he was looking to rob me and so I moved my bag to where it wasn’t between us. We talked for an hour and as the bus parked he invited me to his Grandma’s house for dinner. I still didn’t trust him, but being bored with the traveler scene I decided to give it a go. I dropped my things off at the little shack I’d rented and walked a mile or so to the house he had described to me.
His grandma lived in a cinder block shack with a tin roof, an outhouse, and an exterior kitchen that consisted of a wood fired grill and a concrete sink. It was situated on a cliff one hundred feet above the Pacific. There were a few chickens shifting around in the dirt for bugs. My memory is fuzzy, but from what I recall, I was subjected to about three days of seafood and rum with intermittent naps in hammocks that seemed to be slung from every wobbly post that supported the roof.
Alfredo was on break from school and told me about all the places I should visit in Nica. I thought about it for a few and realized it would cost me an extra ten bucks a day to drag him around as a guide/interpreter. We went to Isla de Ometepe, Granada, Masachapa, and a handful of other places. Where he didn’t have family that could host us he was usually able to find a local that was willing to put us up for the night. We’ve stayed in contact ever since and my hope was that we could cross paths while Soph and I were passing through.
For me, Nicaragua is about the people, beautiful scenery, stupidly low prices, very few tourists, and primitive infrastructure mixed with a convoluted bureaucracy which makes commonplace tasks a bit more adventurous. Unfortunately, in 2018, the government doubled the social security tax and simultaneously cut benefits in half. The people responded by protesting and the president responded with violence. Several hundred protestors were killed and hundreds more imprisoned. Many of the few large companies left for more stable conditions and the little bit of tourism the country saw came to a screeching halt. As we passed through the northern towns of Esteli, Matagalpa, and Jinotega we would often have to try three or four hotels before we could find one that was open. We’ve become so accustomed to bargaining for every room in Latin America, but this began to feel wrong as we started to hear stories of people that had shut their hotels down for nine months to find work in other countries and return as conditions improved.
The twenty first was a day of national strikes in remembrance of last year’s protests. Such things are hard to notice in the countryside though. Northern roadsides dotted with house sized red brick kilns which self-replicate more bricks as little brown people feed them little blocks of clay. Farmers ride bare back horses in middle of road as if there’s no expectation of cars to pass through. Donkeys seem to wander freely. Pigs the size of a small sofa roll in the mud. Rainy season green. Man riding mule with a leaf blower strapped to his back like a jetpack. Smell of strange fruits. Everyone waves and smiles. Machetes thumping against trees, vultures dismember flattened carcasses, and all the roads are made of hexagonal interlocking brick pavers because asphalt just doesn’t have the same look and certainly won’t offer that same patina after a few years of southern sun. Little mud huts with naked kids wandering out front looking at us as if they’d never seen a gringo on a two thousand dollar bike loaded with four grand in top notch camping gear, mid-grade moisture wicking apparel, and more tech than is reasonable for a farm kid with no pants to even be aware of its existence.
The rainy season was now in full swing. I arrived in Jinotega an hour after Soph because I decided to follow a dirt road. My GPS failed to recognize that it eventually turned into a horse trail over a mountain. That was near San Marcos. It took me a while to figure out why everyone was staring at me with such curiosity as I pushed my bike up what I hoped would be a short section of baby heads at a forty percent grade. After a mile I asked a rancher about the route. He flashed a toothless grin and said “Es para los caballos.”
I backtracked, got stuck in the rain, took shelter under the tin porch of a tienda where a little girl asked me for a dollar to which I initially replied no but she kept staring at me with sweet little girl eyes and introduced me to her puppy and then I was helpless. I got moving and then a woman stopped me to chat and wanted to know why I didn’t have kids, where my wife was, and if I wanted to know her daughter. I met Soph in Jintega and we got a cheap but nice hotel, got stuck in a downpour, had cheap and terrible pizza, and then slept surrounded by the white noise of the rain and ceiling fan on full blast to dry our clothes with occasionally violent interruptions of grapefruits falling from trees and putting dents in the corrugated roof.
We stopped in Matagalpa for a couple days and toured a coffee plantation called Salva Negra. The day offered numerous lessons. I learned that there are two distinct types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. That coffee was brought to Nicaragua by an escaped Hatian slave in 1797. I also learned that the most expensive coffee beans are fed to cats and then picked out of their shit before being roasted and shipped to Best Coast tech entrepreneurs to fill in the gaps between micro doses of acid and oxycontin. The whole fruit picked from a coffee plant is referred to as a cherry. You have to pick one hundred pounds of cherries to get twenty five pounds of wet beans. You can take the bacteria from a cow’s stomach and add it to the cherry pulp after the beans have been removed and this will create methane which you can then use as gas for stoves and hot water heaters in the homes of the two hundred and fifty families that live full time on your coffee plantation. Beans are hand sorted for quality. Europe has higher quality standards than the US but it is superfluous aesthetics as even the barista with the most crooked neck from sticking her nose up can’t tell the difference in flavor.
Most places in Nicaragua price their goods in dollars but only accept the local currency, cordobas. This is because since 1991 the government has used a crawling peg scheme in which it devalues the Cordoba against the dollar by five percent per annum. They adjust the rate on a monthly basis. Because costs are always increasing in cordobas, businesses benchmark in dollars so prices don’t have to be changed each month. Wages don’t keep up with inflation.
Despite the political and economic issues, Nicaragua felt remarkably calm. Before last year’s violence, they had prided themselves on being the safest Central American country despite being the second poorest country in the western hemisphere behind Haiti. I felt a strange sense of self restraint in everyone, but couldn’t tell if it was just me.
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