I arrived in Granada on a Saturday night. I made plans to hang out with three strangers I met online through Couchsurfing. The hospitality exchange network is used to connect travelers with potential hosts in cities and towns all over the world. My host, Alan, was a twenty something from Managua. He had invited me to join him and two friends for a night of partying in Granada. He seemed like a pretty cool guy. You know, based on his online profile and a few messages we had exchanged. That statement has probably prefaced some bad stories, but I thought “Sure, why not?”
I missed my ride with Alan, so I decided to catch a bus at the last minute. At the depot, ayudantes shouted instructions to passengers arriving in taxis and by foot. These were the right hand men of the bus drivers. They wrangled passengers at the depot and led them to the awaiting buses. The passengers were mostly locals. Weary eyed men and women, often dragging children along in tow, returning home from the city. There was the occasional extranjero, like me. The men knew where we wanted to go and obliged to assist.
“Granada, amigo! Vamos!” A young man with a black Boston Red Sox hat, and arms full of tattoos, led me to a shuttle bus.
I gazed at the line of old school buses, painted in vibrant blues, greens, reds, and yellows, that were jammed full of passengers. Ken Kesey and his gang could not have painted them more brilliantly. But, no, it would not be the chicken bus, tonight. Though, I had romanticized it in my mind. I had heard others talk with pride about taking the chicken bus, or how many times they had taken the chicken bus, or that they only took the chicken buses. It was a traveler’s trophy.
One guy in particular had told me at the hostel: “Yeah, I have been traveling for four months. I started in Mex City and have gotten this whole way only by taking the local buses, you know the chicken buses. It’s the only way you’ll know the locals…is to travel like one.”
The kind of guy whose speech pulls your eyes from one side of your head to the other. The kind of guy I find myself being from time to time. When I do realize I am being that guy, I fall away into a frantic self-conscious retreat. Every social decision becomes heavily calculated. I become overly sentimental and acommodating. I am a thirteen year old boy who just wants to be liked by everyone. I didn’t respond to the guy when he said this…about the chicken buses. I remained quiet and thought about 1999.
My bus, however, was something you would see on a university campus, or parking lot of a major US sports stadium or amusement park. A path down the middle of seats side by side, a small luggage rack overhead. I spotted several open seats at the back, because of course. My pack bumped into people as I tried to navigate the cramped aisle.
“Lo siento. Permiso. Con su permiso. Lo siento. Sí, yo sé…mi bolso grande. He-he-ha. Lo siento.”
I sat down in a heap. I put my small pack in between my legs, and my larger pack on my lap, and held it like child. I apologized to the young man next to me. He looked sideways, but did not remove his headphones. I felt like a typical backpacker. I was a typical backpacker. I took a deep breath and exhaled as I glanced around at my fellow passengers. I was the only extranjero on board.
Without announcement, the bus left the station (and station is being used loosely). The bus started up and departed from beneath the tin roofed lean-to under which it was parked, and rumbled through the mud puddle sewn dirt lot littered with plastic bottles and other garbage. We pulled out into the thick evening traffic without yielding. Our emergence onto the highway was met with a hail of horns. The taillights stretched ahead infinitely, and glowed a forlorn red in the purple, deep blue, and black that descended on the sky. At each intersection, headlights lit up the faces of the passengers, and bursted into the flow in front and behind us at any and all opportunities. The passengers looked straight ahead without talking, except for the teenage couple in front of me.
The girl leaned her head on his shoulder. He turned to whisper in her ear. She responded each time with a swift peck on the cheek. The occasional blue glow rose to a face for a few moments, and returned to a lap, or pocket, a new species of firefly born of this age. The man in the Red Sox cap remained standing near the open middle door, and leaned out at intervals to shout.
“Granada! Granada! Masaya! Masaya!”
The bus veered off to the side of the road. When it did so, passengers would climb aboard or step off. The passengers had barely boarded or departed when the bus accelerated and merged back into flow of traffic. There was Ska-like rhythm to this. When a passenger got on or off, I expected the bus to wait a moment, at least a quarter rest. But, that wasn’t the case. But that did not make it any less harmonious or beautiful.
The dome lights were turned off and we traveled in silence, save for the Nicaraguan radio and the helper’s shouts. Soon, the bus was packed. The sound of trumpets, trombones, and mariachi ballads filled the swollen air. The open road breeze blew in through the windows, God himself soothing these dirt-enveloped workers to sleep.
Thirty minutes into the trip, a woman and her two toddlers made their way to the only open seats, one beside me and one behind me. The smallest child promptly sat on his mother’s lap and softly whined. She lowered her t-shirt and offered. The child suckled and closed his eyes. The mother cradled her child in her right arm. Her left hand held up a small flip cell phone. She wrote a text message with her only free hand on the dial pad. She closed it, adjusted the child’s head, and turned back to her other son. She spoke to him. He sat down. She smiled and gazed ahead again.
A traveler can be a ghost passing through the lives of locals so long as you don’t insist on your ego taking up their space. Smile often, learn the language, mind your please’s and thank you’s, and you will be rewarded with little gifts of unassailable humanity so damn real it will bring tears to your eyes.
Streetlights, along with houses, stores, and restaurants lining the road meant we had approached the outskirts of town. We entered a narrow one way street. At a stop, half of the bus emptied. I waited.
“Probably should have researched the route, or the basic geography of the city, ya jackass.” I thought.
The next stop provided me with an answer. We approached a square. “Esperé!” I yelled to the man in the Sox cap. I gathered my bags and hopped off the bus. It sped away. I slung my large pack over my shoulders, and gripped the small pack by the top loop, and walked across the park.
Silhouettes of broad, leafy trees lined the perimeter with tall, impressive palm trees dotting the well lit center. Couples sat arm in arm, or necking, on the park benches. One old man slept straight up, his neck bent at a forty five degree angle, a position only accomplished by the elderly or the inebriated. I also spotted vendors selling food, clothing, and gifts underneath the trees along the cobblestone road.
I wandered in search of the hostel. Alan had only given me the name Hostal Amigos de la Casa Roja. I also needed Wifi to determine how we would meet up. Person after person on the street had not heard of the hostel. My pack stuck to my back.
“Probably should have looked up the location of the hostel before you left, huh.” I thought.
I overheard English being spoken as I passed a bar. I stopped, looked up and down the street. I relented and walked in. “Good evening.” A tall man spoke in a baritone voice that sounded North American*. “What can we do for you?”
(*Never assume this is the voice of an American. Canadians do not appreciate it when you are wrong.)
“I’m actually looking for Hostal Amigos de la Casa Roja. But no one on the streets seemed to know it. It should be nearby.” I responded. “I’ll also have a drink, while I’m at it.”
I peered at the menu, one that could have been found at any posh bar in the U.S., a gastropub right in the middle of Nicaragua. I ordered a margarita.
“I’m not familiar with it, but I’ll look it up.” He grabbed his Smartphone from the bar. “Okay, here it is. He thumbed upward. “Actually, it’s not too far from here.” He showed the screen.
“Oh, great. That’s good news. Thanks. I’m Jameson, by the way.”
“Jameson, like the whiskey?” He asked, with a chuckle.
“Yes, exactly like the whiskey.”
“Nice name. I’m Kevin. We’ve got some of your namesake, if you’re in the mood.”
He pointed to the Jameson, which sat next to Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Laphroig, and Balvenie. “We also have live music every night. We’re just setting up now and probably will start in ten or fifteen minutes.” He continued.
Why not? I thought. I spotted an impressive Tequila selection. I noted the prices, but thought again, Why not? It was Saturday and I had managed my first travel day. I ordered a shot of Mezcal. The young man giggled at the sight of the worm at the bottom of the bottle.
“Sí, sí! Que bueno!” I said and smiled.
The woman stood in front of me to pour me the shot. She grimaced as the amber liquid filled the glass. The worm floated up, and spun, suspended in its alcoholic grave. A noble resting place, I think. I can only hope my own demise will serve as a reminder for others to take the good with the bad, and always take it all with Mezcal, or some spirit, for chrissakes, and a smile. We’ll end up with the worms, one way or another, sooner or later. No greater dignity awaits us. But death will indeed provide you dignity if you have learned to live. So live while you are alive.
I sipped the shot, savored the smoky flavor, and the warming of my insides. I watched two men set up Fender speakers and microphones. Kevin joined them and unpacked a guitar from its case. He stared intently at the strings, plucked, tuned, plucked, tuned. The music lifted into the air, then dropped. The margarita lifted into the air, then dropped.
Life takes form and perpetuates through habit. With no plan and no goals, indecision can quickly became the de facto decision by way of the path of least resistance. True for any context of life, but especially on the road. I thought about the routine I had developed in Managua.
- Sit/Meditate/Do Nothing
- Emails/Social Media/Internet Browsing/Various Distractions/Occasionally Write
- Chat w/ Other Travelers
- Find Excuse to Leave Hostel (i.e. Dinner, Join Fellow Traveler on Errand)
- Go Out (Some Nights)
The normal social obligations and roles that provide the structure to daily life are stripped away when you travel. Within this formlessness, you are faced with the questions each day. Where to go, when to go, and with whom to share the journey. Each path contains its own fate. Time is limited, and everything is constantly in flux. So you choose. Over and over again. Each single moment, every single day. The liberation from the usual always carries with it a sense of accomplishment.
I downed my shot.
Soon, Kevin introduced himself and the bass guitarist, who sat on a stool to his right. They welcomed the seven or so patrons and then went right into Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. Two middle aged white guys from the States strumming and mumbling away a song about isolation in the middle of Central America was enough to make me laugh while I sang along and sipped my margarita. By the time the two had finished Clapton’s “Layla”, my glass was empty. I paid my tab, thanked Kevin, and continued my search.
I walked through the streets that were barely lit by the street lamps. Everything took on a tarnished metallic glow. I passed by a cathedral. The exterior was well worn with dirt in the crevices of the mortar, lending a pronounced texture to the facade. Young couples sat on the steps. They hugged, kissed, and watched me pass. A man said hello to me. I returned the hello and continued on. I stopped into another hostel to seek more insight for my search. The young man at the front desk spoke French-accented Spanish. His name was Axel. I promised to return for breakfast to say thank you for his help.
I retraced my steps and turned left at the church. I walked half a block, and took a right down a narrow alley. There, I saw it. A section of barn door red breaking the monotonous gray. I smiled as I approached the small sign overhead that bore the name. I stood outside the gate and spoke with the young night watchman.
“Mi amigo….como se dice…booked…un reservación aquí.”
“Tienes un reservación?” He responded.
“No, no. Mi amigo…Un hombre se llama Alan.”
“No te entiendo.” He explained he did not understand.
“Hablas inglés?” I asked.
He shook his head. I asked if I could step inside to use the Wifi. I planned to access my translation app on my iPhone to navigate the language barrier. He unlocked the gate to let me inside. After I entered, I attempted to connect to the internet. I was unsuccessful.
“No sé. No funciona.” I said and dropped my bags.
We stood looking at one another.
Every little decision…the creators of fate.
Earlier that day, I had chosen to go to lunch with Rolando despite knowing that I was supposed to be picked up by Alan within 45 minutes of Rolando’s invitation. My acceptance of said invitation was followed by a twenty minute taxi ride that should have been five if the driver had not forgotten how to get to the restaurant.
Similar to the taxi ride to the police station, I caught glimpses into the every day lives of Nicaraguans in a poor neighborhood I would not have dared to venture into on my own. There was a clear material deficit in the neighborhoods. Basic wooden shacks, dirt floors, and fires for kitchens. Yet, all the signs of humanity had been there. Women washing clothes by hand and hanging it to dry on a wire between the shacks. Old men sitting in plastic chairs, watching the world pass by. Middle aged men and women walking to and from the commercial part of the neighborhood. At one point, we had to stop to wait for a group of boys. They were playing baseball in the middle of the street. No gloves, no shoes, and a stick for a bat. And the biggest smiles I had seen. One laughed and waved when he saw me gazing out from the backseat of the taxi.
After our meal, I accompanied Rolando on a hunt for a pair of flip-flops through an open air market. A maze of shops and stalls, we walked the narrow aisles, and passed by goods and services of all types. Clothing, shoes, pets, cell phones, watch repair. A salon, a bar filled with patrons, a blacksmith and metal shop, and yet no flip-flops. Three circles later and we called it quits and took a taxi back to the hostel.
So I missed my ride with Alan. That led me to the bus, which led me to my arrival in the center of Granada, and to my search. It led me to where I was, at a standstill, not sure of what would happen next, or what I would do.
So I waited. I thought. I tried to connect to the internet. Again, unsuccessful. The young man looked my way, shaking his head in question. I nodded to confirm. He explained there were other places to stay nearby and again apologized that there were no available rooms. I again explained that I needed to find my friend who was staying here.
“Esperé. Tu amigo se queda aquí?” His eyes narrowed as he asked.
“Sí! Te dije…” I explained I had told him that. It must have gotten lost in translation.
“James? Tu eres James?” He lit up.
“Sí. Sí! Soy Jameson!”
He laughed and broke off a string of sentences in Spanish too rapid for me to understand. I only caught the end.
“Vamos!” He waved his arm as he led me back to a room. He explained Alan had told him about my late arrival and instructed him to show me to the room. He apologized as he opened the door to a room with nothing but a bunkbed and two fans. A small backpack sat on the lower bunk. He pointed to the top.
“Lo siento. Yo no sabía que eras tú.”
“Ah, está bien. No estoy preocupado! Gracias!” I responded.
We laughed and shook hands. He returned to the front desk. I showered, dressed, and prepared to go out. I finally accessed the wifi. Alan and the girls were out in a part of town called La Calzada. The young night watchmen enthusiastically gave me directions. He explained it was a street with many restaurants and bars near the park.
I easily found the Calzada. Restaurants, bars, and shops lined each side of the wide cobblestone avenue. Not coincidentally, it was concentrated with backpackers and tourists. Patios were filled with people who sat around simple wooden tables, drinking plenty of Toña and Victoria. I found the bar where I was to meet Alan and the girls. It was fairly full with the majority of the patrons being locals speaking Spanish. I had only seen a picture of him. So I grabbed a beer and sat at a table on the outskirts of the patio. Fifteen minutes later I had finished my beer, but had not spotted Alan. I took off to find wifi again. This time, I stopped inside Reilly’s, an Irish bar I learned of from a fellow traveler in Managua.
I sat on a stool at the dark wooden bar. The bartender approached and asked what I would like. He was English. I ordered a Victoria and asked for the Wifi password. He quickly provided both and chatted me up.
“What’s your name?” He inquired after a few minutes of idle conversation.
“Jameson? Are you kidding me? That is the most brilliant name I have heard in awhile. I’m Austen. And no, not like Austin Powers, like every cheeky person wants to say. But, I’m sure you understand with a name like yours.”
I explained my situation to Austen. He laughed. He carried on with his work, which was nothing more than serving the occasional beer to the three ex-pats sitting at the bar. A UFC fight was on the television. Austen explained his newfound interest in the bloodsport to the men.
“All right, let’s make this more interesting, shall we? Let’s place bets on the fight.” He chided each man into wagering 40 cordobas, not quite $1.50, on a fighter. They continued to stare at the screen, and lifted their drinks.I declined the invitation on account of my rendezvous. Alan and I exchanged messages. He explained he was still at the same bar. I asked for a description.
“O’sheas. We r right here at the corner. Come back. There’s five of us. Somewhat loud. Drunk. My friend is wearing bright yellow.” He responded.
I thanked Austen and left to continue my search. Upon my return to O’Sheas, I focused on the “bright yellow” part of the message. Without fail, I found the loud, drunk group of five. I soon found a liter of beer and a shot of tequila in front of me.
“Yeah, man. I’m so happy you were able to come and you found us.” Alan said as he delivered the drinks.
“Of course, man. Thanks again for the invite. I am glad to be here. And yeah, it was a bit of a journey with some twists, turns, and obstacles…but, it always works out one way or another.”
“Salud!” Alan lifted up his own shot.
We toasted to new friends and soon became a loud, drunk group of six.