I recently returned to Fort Myers, Florida. I went to the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve yesterday to take a walk. I sought refuge. I sought tranquility. I sought nature. I found one of the three. The egrets stalked the … Continue reading
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.
A tickle. My eyes remained closed. A familiar tiny sting, followed by a tingling sensation. I looked out between lashes, groggily coming to consciousness. Rain pattered on the tin roof and blooped on the pool. I rolled my head to the side towards conversation in accented English. German. Unmistakable. I turned back and closed my eyes again. I scratched at my ankle, then my bicep, my knee. I became increasingly aware of the multiple sources of tingling with each moment that passed.
Finally, I gave in and opened my eyes. I sat up in the hammock to survey the damage. I counted seven and acknowledged this battle lost. I made a mental note to resort to chemical warfare before future siestas and looked up to the gray sky. Nicaragua. I am in Nicaragua, I thought to myself. A smirk emerged with the thought.
“Buenos días”, the German voice announced.
“Buenos días, indeed.”
“I am sorry if we disturbed you.”
“Oh, no. It’s all good. No worries. I mean, está bien.”
The German voice belonged to a young woman, who sat in a red plastic chair against the wall. On the wooden picnic table sat the Australian man I passed upon my entrance. His shoulders drooped a bit, but he spoke eagerly with the woman.
“So, yeah, it’s official. I can leave Nicaragua! That’s why I tell people it makes a difference to work through a travel agency, and to get to know them. I am going to have send my girl some flowers or something!”
“Congratulations!” The woman responded with a smile.
I pulled myself out of the hammock and walked to the table. I plopped down and straddled the bench.
“I take it you have had quite an experience here?” I asked.
“You could say that, mate. I was supposed to leave Nicaragua about two weeks ago. I finally get to leave tomorrow.”
“Okay, this sounds like a good story. What happened?”
He sighed, then went on to tell the tale. It was a prime example of a traveling nightmare: Chicken bus. Stolen bag. Everything gone.
“Oh shit! Damn, man. That sucks. So why did you have to stay?” I inquired further.
“Well, I was supposed to travel through the States. But the new temporary passport I was issued via the Australian embassy in Mexico did not have the US Through Visa. I need that to pass through the States. Your country, no offense, is not the easiest to deal with when it comes to traveling. I asked if I could still enter to catch my connection and they wouldn’t talk to me about it. They said come back and see us in two weeks. They didn’t care that my flight was in a couple of days. They basically said, ‘It’s not our problem’. So I missed my original flight home. Since then, I’ve been back and forth with my travel agent to book me a new flight that doesn’t go through the U.S. I just found out they booked it for me. It has something like four layovers, and I don’t even want to think about how much it cost.”
He took a deep breath and chuckled.
“Well, you seem to be in fairly good spirits,” I noted.
“Yeah, mate. I really don’t care at this point. I’m just glad to be going home. When it happened, I wasn’t shocked or upset or angry. I was just a little annoyed at myself for allowing it to happen to me. But, I understand why it happened.”
“Well, I was on the Tica bus, you know the locals bus. I had my bag in the rack above my head. I was holding onto it. But then I started talking with the person next to me and dropped my arm. Two minutes later I put my hand back up and my bag was gone. Bam! Just like that…” He snapped his fingers.
“Wow. Damn.” I replied open-mouthed.
“But, I mean, it was merely opportunistic. In a country with this much poverty, I should have known better. And I’m not condoning stealing, but I also understand it.” He concluded.
He continued, “I think the worst part is going to be explaining to the guys back at work how I lost my badge.”
“Wait, you’re a police officer?!”
Laughter all around.
“Yes, yes I am a Federal Police Officer in Australia.” He admitted and hung his head with a smile. “I am sure I won’t hear the end of this for awhile.”
“So it goes…a humbling experience, no doubt.” I added.
“Now, I just have one big task left. In order for my insurance to accept my claim for my stolen items, I need to have an official police report. And I need to have it before I leave tomorrow. And I don’t speak any Spanish.” He said, and drew out the ‘and’ each time.
“Damn, well good luck with that!”
I laughed at the notion. I imagined this guy walking into a Managua police station without being able to speak the language. On top of that, he needed to have something done quickly. He laughed along with me.
“Yeah, I don’t have my hopes up too high. But, the guys at the front desk here said there should be at least one person at the station who speaks English. And it’s supposedly just a few blocks from here. So I am about to head out for that. Wish me luck.”
“Well, I speak a bit of Spanish. How about I join you? Maybe I can help with the translation. And I am curious to see how this saga comes to an end.” I offered.
“Yeah, mate. That would be great. You ready to head out now?”
“Yep, just lemme go change out of my board shorts and put my stuff away.”
As we walked out of the hostel, he extended his hand.
“Oh, yeah. By the way, my name is Anthony, or Ant.”
“Jameson, mucho gusto.”
This was my first adventure more than one block away from the hostel. I took in my surroundings.The sky still threatened to rain. We hung a right onto a smaller side street. Two men clambered to the top of a tree, machetes and handsaws in tow. They hacked and sawed furiously. The limbs and branches fell down into the street without warning. I walked through some of the debris, avoided a passing car by inches, and falling branches by a few feet. I laughed nervously and watched Ant walk below the men. We took another left at the next street. The sidewalk was under construction. An excavator moved mounds of dirt. Three men with pick axes dug away at the remaining concrete. I swung out into the street, around another pile of tree limb debris, stopped short and turned sideways to avoid a passing produce truck.
We rejoined where the sidewalk remained intact. We struck up the usual traveler conversation about current and past travels. Ant explained the current trip was a two week vacation, a “quick getaway or vacation as you Americans call it”.
He explained he had been traveling for 15 years. He had done a number of round-the-world trips lasting months on end. He had lost count of the number of countries he had visited. He told me about adventures of swimming with sharks and rays in Belize, playing with unchained tigers in Thailand, climbing the base camp of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, kiteboarding in Bali, volcano trekking in Nicaragua, and on and on. He also was deployed with the U.N. to conflict torn areas near Australia like East Timor. I asked if he had ever encountered anything like his current problem. He had not. This would be the first time he needed to use his traveler’s insurance. As we chatted, we approached a busy intersection. I noticed a squat building with faded light blue paint on the opposite side.
“I think that might be it.” I announced.
We stopped and watched traffic careen through the intersection. Staccato beeps of motos and deep bellows of truck horns filled the thick mid afternoon air. The cross traffic stopped. We began to cross. We stopped abruptly. Perpendicular traffic plunged into the intersection and veered off to the left. At each open interval of the turning traffic, the cross traffic advanced. We stood firm, rocks diverting the flow of water. I looked behind me, and then to the right, and made a run for it. I turned around to see all traffic stopped as the two women nudged their way across the street. Ant walked along with them, a huge grin on his face.
“I see you. Do as the locals do, eh?” I remarked.
We walked up to the smudge-streaked glass door covered in noticias and walked into a crowded waiting room. I felt the familiar, uncomfortable feeling of being the object on display. We approached the only desk in the room. A man in a plain short sleeve blue button down shirt sat at the desk. He spoke rapidly with a woman. Once the woman reluctantly took one of the few remaining available seats, it was our turn.
“Hola. I need to file a report,” Ant declared to the man.
His brow furrowed, well worn wrinkles spread across his forehead.
“Hola. Buenas tardes. Necesitamos una persona se habla inglés, por favor.” I interjected.
“No hablo inglés.” He shook his head slowly.
“Nadie aquí?” I persisted, despite the intuitive sense that he would not be eager to oblige us even if there were someone around who did speak English.
“No. Nadie. Todas días.” He shook his head with each response.
“Okay. Vamos a volver con una persona que habla mejor español.” I relented.
“What did he say?” Ant asked.
“He said he doesn’t speak English and that no one here speaks English. Not tomorrow, not ever. And I said we would come back with someone who speaks better Spanish.”
“Do you think you could try to speak to him in Spanish and try to get the report?” Ant hopefully inquired.
“No, man. My Spanish is rusty to begin with, and I don’t have the vocabulary for this specific context. And given how many people are here, I don’t think they are going to go to great lengths for some extranjeros who had their shit stolen, and cannot even speak their language fluently. I suggest we go back to the hostel and find someone who speaks fluently, maybe one of the guys working there, and have them come back with us to help with translation.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Okay. Let’s go.”
We picked up our conversation as we returned to the hostel. We talked about our families, life on the road, and the mutual passion for exploring unknown worlds and people. Upon our return, we considered who we could enlist to help us. After a few polite rejections, Ant’s face lit up.
“Oh, Rolando! The guy from Peru.”
“I have not met him. Who is he?” I replied.
“He is a great guy from what I know of him. But he does not speak much English, so that has made it kind of difficult for us to talk at length. Maybe we could talk to him and between your Spanish, and his English, explain the situation?”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
We found Rolando sitting in the first outdoor courtyard. He typed away at his laptop. He looked up when Ant said Hello. Ant explained his predicament in English.
“Entiendes?” I asked once Ant finished.
“Si, si, si. I will help. It is no problem,” Rolando responded.
“Really, mate? Are you sure? It’s okay if you don’t have time.” Ant replied.
“Claro. It is good that I help. Si te ayudo, vendrá de nuevo a mí. How do people say in inglés? Karma? Si? I finish my work. Then we go. Está bien?”
“When? How long?” Ant inquired.
“Porque la estación de policía cierra a las cuatro.” I added.
“Ah, si, si. En una hora y media? Está bien?” Rolando offered.
Ant looked at his watch.
“It is 2:00 right now. Could we maybe leave in an hour to make sure we have enough time? Is that okay?”
“Si, si. Está bien.” Rolando replied without hesitation.
We bid him goodbye and walked to the second outdoor courtyard. Ant found an open hammock and announced his intention to take a siesta. I thought of his plight. Despite all he had been through, he had remained upbeat. I recalled the first time I noticed him. I sought to distance myself from him. Why was that again? The phone call! He had been clearly frustrated. I had sensed that. Yet, since that point I had heard nothing but optimism, passion, and humility. His actions spoke loudly when you considered what he had been through these past few weeks. That positivity was palpable. I spent the next hour reading as the rain softly fell around me.
“Si, si, si. En cuantos minutos? Si, está bien.”
I looked to see Rolando on the phone as he entered the courtyard. He nodded at my wave. Ant slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Rolando, who now stood over him. Soon, he was off the phone.
“So, I talk…um…with a person I know. We will go meet him. He will help us.” Rolando explained.
“Okay, great. Right now? And where do we meet him?” Ant sat up.
“We go now to a different police station. I think, maybe a short cab ride. Está bien?”
“Yeah, of course. Está bien.”
We hailed a cab down the road from the hostel. Rolando spoke in rapid Spanish to the driver. The driver nodded his head. We hopped in. As we traveled cobble-stone and concrete streets in varying degrees of disrepair, we passed more barrios. Men stood outside on street corners. Their conversations paused to gaze at us as we passed. I peered through an iron bar fence that ran along the street. Children ran barefoot along dirt alleyways, with huge smiles attached to their faces. Our driver beeped intermittently at other traffic, pedestrians, and the occasional dog or pig that blocked our way. The steady beat of Reggaeton played quietly from the radio. We turned onto a wider street that teemed with pedestrians of all kinds. Each side of the road was lined with street vendors and stalls. I saw goods and foods of all types. The car slowed in order to snake its way through the river of humans, dogs, chickens, and pigs. Eyes peered in through the open windows at us. The car stopped. Directly ahead the road veered right away from a narrow walkway. A large sign hung over the walkway which I could not translate but interpreted as an entrance. Past the sign was nothing but tiny stalls, outside of some were different frutas y verduras.
“Mercado Orientale”, Rolando pointed ahead. “We are here.” He also announced.
Ant paid the driver the 60 cordobas and we got out. Rolando pointed to the left, towards an enclosed compound, replete with armed police. Beyond the barbed wire adorned gate and fence were several one story, drab buildings. Parked outside were a number of motorbikes, trucks, and police cars. Uniformed officers milled about the courtyard. As we walked towards the compound, a man waved to us. Rolando and the man embraced. They spoke with smiles on their faces.
“Anthony, Jameson, this is Mendoza.” Rolando led the introductions. After the formal greetings, Mendoza led us to the gate where an armed guard awaited us.
“Hola. Buenos días.” The guard extended a hand, shook firmly, and then closed the gate behind us. Heavy metal clanked together.
The police officers who stood inside the courtyard talked and laughed with one another. Their faces turned serious. They nodded their heads as we walked by. Once we entered the compound their conversation and laughter resumed. Mendoza approached an open office, knocked, and saluted the man at the desk. Following a brief conversation, he returned and spoke with Rolando. Rolando nodded, and said “Si, si.”
Then, Mendoza walked down the hall to another office. Again, he saluted. Officers strolled in and out of the offices. They greeted one another warmly each time. One officer entered, curtsied, and effeminately said “Hola jefe”, to a course of laughter from the others. I laughed quietly to myself.
Five minutes passed before Mendoza returned with another man. He introduced the man as the lieutenant that would take the report. We followed the man down the hall. The hall was dimly lit by the sunlight streaming in from the narrow windows that lined the top of each office. I peaked into each office as we passed.
The walls of the offices stopped two feet short of the ceiling. This gave a sense of openness. It also meant you could clearly hear each conversation. The second office to the left contained a man who pecked away at a typewriter with his index fingers at his desk. The next office housed a man in a white tank top undershirt, with jean shorts that drooped below his waistline. He flailed his arms as he spoke. The large female officer looked at him with raised eyebrows. She cut him off and told him to sit down. In yet another office, two female officers sat behind desks that were perpendicular to one another. One lazily watched a television in the corner of the room. The other folded items into a plastic bag as she listened to a third female, a civilian, wail on and on about her hijo.
We turned into the last office on the right side of the hall. Inside were two desks, one where the lieutenant took a seat facing a turn of the millennium IBM desktop computer, complete with a tower next to it. Sitting on the other desk was an antique typewriter turned up on its end in an apparent state of perpetual disrepair. Rolando stood next to the lieutenant, with Ant by his side. Mendoza and I stood next took one another near the door, all forming a half circle around the lieutenant.
“Pasaporte.” The lieutenant declared.
Rolando turned to Ant and asked for his passport. Ant handed his newly issued temporary passport over to Rolando, who handed it to the lieutenant. He opened it up, and pecked away the information on the keyboards with only his index fingers.
“Edad?” The lieutenant asked sharply.
“He wants to know your age.” Rolando explained to Ant.
“Thirty seven”, Ant responded.
“Treinta siete”, Rolando interpreted.
This process continued on for an hour. The lieutenant barked out questions, Rolando translated them in English, Ant answered, and Rolando interpreted them into Spanish. At times when Rolando struggled to translate the Spanish into English, I assisted. The room turned very somber when the questions turned to the items stolen.
“He needs to know each item that was stolen and how much it was worth.” Rolando explained to Ant.
“Okay. Olympus camera. Three hundred dollars.” He started.
Mendoza raised his eyebrows.
“Canon 7D with three lenses. Probably around $8,000.”
“Ochocientos?” The lieutenant asked for confirmation that we had said eight hundred dollars.”
“No, ocho-cero-cero-cero.” Rolando and I responded in unison.
“Qué tipo de cámara?!” Mendoza exclaimed.
“Cámara professional.” I explained. I grabbed my imaginary lens far out in front of me to mimic the size of the lens.
“Ohhhh. Cámara professional.” Mendoza gritted his teeth and sucked in air. He turned to the lieutenant and explained.
Ant continued to list the items. Wallet with $200 U.S. dollars. Passport. Driver’s license. Samsung Galaxy 4s. Police badge.
“Policia también?” Mendoza asked and pointed excitedly at Ant.
“Yes. Yes, policia.” Ant responded again with his head down, a smirk spread across his face.
Mendoza turned and chatted excitedly with the lieutenant. Both burst into another fit of laughter. Rolando and I both laughed at the entire scene.
“Mañana los titulares en el periódico: Oficial de la policía de Australia robaron en Nicaragua”, Mendoza exclaimed while he held his imaginary newspaper.
The lieutenant, Mendoza, Rolando, and I all laughed loudly. I clapped my hands and heaved forward in another round of laughter.
“What did he say?” Ant asked.
“He said tomorrow the newspaper headlines are going to read ‘Australian police officer robbed in Nicaragua’”, I explained to him.
“Yeah, I knew that I would never hear the end of this. I am glad everyone is having a good time with this. I am just doing my best to bring a little more joy to the world.” Ant replied with a smile.
The lieutenant asked Ant to look at the screen to confirm the details. Then the lieutenant spoke to Rolando and Mendoza.
“We are finished. It is printing in another office. Let’s go.” Rolando motioned towards the door.
We followed the lieutenant across the hallway into the office with the two female officers. One of the officers stood up to allow the lieutenant to sit at a desk with a printer. The printer hummed loudly and beeped as it printed, and then whizzed as it returned to the next line. The paper had perforated edges and was connected in one sheet, with perforations also separating the pages.
I remembered seeing these printers when I visited my father’s business as a kid. A bit of nostalgia washed over me. When the noise settled, the lieutenant ripped at the last perforation, and handed a copy to Ant. We shook hands with him and thanked him. Mendoza led us back outside into the courtyard and to the gate. The officers all solemnly nodded once again. The guard at the gate shook our hands once more. Mendoza told us to wait as he walked further down the street to get a cab for us.
“No es seguro aquí.” Rolando explained.
“Yo se. Yo se. I figured that.” I responded.
Mendoza walked up with a cab rolling along next to him. As we approached the cab, the driver said something to Mendoza, and then left. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned and whistled for the next cab he saw. It pulled up, he spoke with the driver.
“Okay.” Mendoza declared.
We shook hands with him and thanked him. We hopped in the cab, shut the doors, and weaved through the river of people and animals back to our hostel.
“So how do you feel?!” I asked Ant.
“Mate, I feel so good. So relieved. I never thought I’d actually be able to get this thing.” He said as he held up his report. “And I would have never been able to do it without the help from you guys and Mendoza. I owe you all big time. So thanks again.” He continued.
“No worries, man. Glad to help.” I responded.
“Of course. It is what makes the world go around, to help one another.” Rolando explained.
“Well, beers on me when we get back to the hostel.” Ant offered.
We all laughed.
“Sounds good to me. What do you think, Rolando?” I asked.
“Está bien. Todo está bien.”
Growing up about 100 miles south of Detroit, I regarded it with…well, I gave it little regard. There was the animosity for anything Michigan that is inculcated in many Ohioans due to a college football rivalry on par with the fervor of soccer rivalries worldwide (despite the irony that no one in my family had graduated from The Ohio State University or the University of Michigan). The grudge transcends sports and is a fabric of the culture, including influence on mundane daily activities. One way this was demonstrated to me was my father’s insistence on purchasing any gas or other necessities before crossing the Michigan state line on trips to the Detroit airport, so “those bastards don’t get any of our tax money”.
It was simple. Michigan sucked. Detroit was synonymous with Michigan. Ipso facto Detroit sucked, too. Outside of occasional flights out of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airport, we did not travel to Michigan. So I grew up indifferent to arguably the most intriguing and diverse city near me (granted, its competitors were Toledo and Cleveland, nonetheless…). Then, there was the protracted collapse of the industrial behemoth, punctuated by the implosion of the automotive industry in 2008, that left Detroit in shambles and perpetuated my childhood avoidance of the city and entire state. However, that all changed last summer.
I was living back home in Northern Ohio for the first time since I was 19 in order to spend an extended amount of time with my family. A friend from college was living in Detroit and invited me to visit him. I took him up on the offer and visited him in August. My burgeoning wanderlust has led to many changes in my life, including the erosion of prejudices, even silly ones rooted in my childhood. It took me 26 years to shake my disdain for anything and all things Michigan, the Buckeyes be damned, but I finally looked forward to a visit to That State Up North.
Though brief, I immensely enjoyed my visit. I found Detroit to be vibrant with earnestness, awash in persistence, and threaded with dignified blue collar charm. Art, music, food, and small businesses seemed be rising up out of the industrial collapse, creating a sense of a culture resurrected, one of redemption. There was a buzz about the city that was unlike any other place I had ever been. This exposure completely reversed my opinions of the city and the entire state. Amidst the urban decay, the city’s spirit was a dandelion growing out of concrete.
I was given the opportunity to experience the decay firsthand when Josh, a fellow amateur photographer, suggested we go check out a pair of abandoned city government buildings he had found. He explained:
“The buildings we’re going to used to be city hall for Highland Park, a city within Detroit. I have visited the building a few times before; it’s actually one of the first abandoned buildings I have explored while in Detroit. I came upon it innocently enough: it was visible from my commute to work. I made a mental note to investigate further, and the rest is history.
I did have one eerie experience there, however. During my explorations, my senses are always on high alert given the risks associated with venturing into abandoned buildings in Detroit. Once, I distinctly remember it was a particularly hot summer day, I was inside of the city hall building when I heard a noise. I thought it might be a squatter, so I froze, waiting to hear more. A few minutes later I spotted the source of the noise, a stray dog. The dog itself had a very knowing look, perhaps due to its life as a stray dog in Detroit. It was more scared than I was, however. After a few minutes of staring each other down, it scampered out the back door, and I never saw it again. It shook me enough that I left right after.”
I told him I was down without hesitating, my fears privately withheld. We packed our gear and drove to the spot. I caught myself sitting straight up and shifting in the seat. I forced myself to lean back and put my foot out the window. Less than 15 minutes later we crept passed the buildings, which were located on a main road about seven miles north of downtown. Josh made a U-turn in the middle of the four lane thoroughfare and pulled into a lot with unkempt shrubs and trees. Weeds grew up out of the concrete in an apparent act of reclamation. Josh aimed the car to the back of the lot and parked behind one of the trees. We exited the car, gently shut the doors, and walked up to the brick and mortar building.
We walked past debris, trash, an old tire, accidental decorations of neglect. It was nearly 80 degrees and partly sunny, yet I shivered as we walked up the steps into the open
doorway. I stopped at the entrance and took in the scene. The paint was peeling away from the walls, revealing the eras like sedimentary layers. Graffiti was peppered here and there. The floor was covered in dust, dirt, and debris. A desk sat haphazardly with one drawer slightly opened. With its functionality a thing of the past, it was now a mere prop in this scene. There were no sounds but the breeze and the gravely crunch of our footsteps. There were hallways leading to rooms to our right and left, with an exposed concrete spiral staircase directly ahead of us. I followed Josh into the room to the right. Light became sparse. My eyes adjusted. My senses heightened. I gripped my camera bag tightly.
“This is crazy. It’s absolutely stunning, depressing, and scary all at once. Thanks for bringing me here.” I whispered, out of as much a desire to break the silence as to express sincere appreciation.
Josh drifted off to an adjacent room while I stood in the center of the room, straining to see my surroundings. I turned on my flash and began snapping photos indiscriminately. The images began to haunt my preview screen; a room in shambles, with the light fixtures still dangling from the halfway exposed ceiling, the paint again peeling away. The floors were littered, a table laid on its side, doors to adjoining rooms were halfway open, menacing and beckoning, simultaneously. The scene could have appeared in the latest post-apocalyptic movie.
I walked back to the atrium and not coincidentally where the light spilled in from the main doorway and windows. I wandered down the left hallway and back into darkness. I squinted at an open door with something written on the glass facing me. I snapped a photo. Just as I thought it said: “POLICE”. I snickered as I entered the through the doorway.
Files were strewn about the floor and desk. I picked one up. It was a receipt for a $105 speeding ticket from 1981, complete with the violator’s name, address, birth date, and social security number. A desk in the middle of the room still had a coffee pot and mug. The mug showed a map of Hawai’i. I stood motionless and imagined its owner cooped up in this office during the Michigan winter daydreaming of another place, another time. I considered the daily grind of bureaucratic life he/she must have endured. I wondered if the mug was purchased on a trip to the islands, or perhaps bought locally. But that was all in another place, another time. What was once the symbol of a dream getaway was now another artifact left behind, a dream forgotten.
I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and exited the room. I decided it was time to explore upstairs. I wound my way up the rail-less staircase, which was partially illuminated by an opened backdoor on the ground floor and windows on the top floor. The top floor housed more offices, as well as the municipal courtroom that I decided I would save for last. Corridors to the left and right once again led to adjacent rooms. I went down the left hallway. The hall darkened, but light spilled in through each doorway from the windows of the exterior rooms. I approached the first room ahead of me, but its entrance was impassable, blocked by the door leaning off its hinges. I peeked inside and saw that the ceiling was partially collapsed with the ground steeped knee-high in fragments. I turned to my right and I entered the room directly next to it, which faced the parking lot. A modest office with two windows, one with the blinds halfway drawn, still contained a bookshelf. Though the floor was covered with trash and dirt up to a foot deep in some places, there was still a book remaining on the shelf (“Michigan’s Compiled Laws: Annotated Edition”). I left the book lay, continuing my Leave No Trace philosophy in this urban wilderness. As I peered around the room, I heard a sound, something like a shuffling of feet.
“Hey Josh. You up here?” I called out.
I hadn’t seen him since we parted ways on the first floor. We had not discussed a plan beforehand and had not communicated since. Recalling his story about the dog, I froze, listening intently. Hollow silence. I slowly began to move towards to the door when I heard the noise again. I paused, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I gave myself inner counsel, reminding myself of the many experiences where I had been frightened only to later find out it was for no real reason. I walked back into the hallway and towards the other side of the building, where the noise originated. I continued exploring the other offices while I kept my hearing attuned to any new disturbance. The doorways here were charred black. Upon further examination, the room was charred around the edges and soot covered the ground. I remembered reading somewhere that arson was most common in vacant buildings in urban centers. As I snapped photos, I once again heard the shuffling noise, though much louder, much closer. I moved quickly toward the sound and called out.
“Anyone in here? Hello? Josh? Anyone?”
I entered the courtroom through the left side door and stopped in my tracks.
“Whoa.” I muttered aloud to myself, to no one.
The room was mostly intact. The judge’s bench still presided over the room with an aura of authority. The chairs were still in tidy rows, bearing witness to the proceeding now taking place, the erosion of time, the preservation of a bygone era. Sharp graffiti art covered the exposed brick wall. Light poured in through the window openings, with the former windows now broken glass on the ground below them. One such opening still had blinds, but the right side was broken a quarter of the way down so that the remainder just dangled from the left side. A gust of wind swept through the room from the left to right and as it did so, it caused the dangling blinds to shudder against one another, revealing my ghost. I laughed.
While I was taking photos, I heard Josh approach. I confessed being spooked by the wind and broken blinds, which sparked another round of laughter. Then, we discussed the ruins as he set up his tripod.
“This place has a lot of energy about it. It feels alive. Like, I think about the lives that were lived day to day here, as well as the lives that were changed here in this courtroom. You can just imagine a case being heard, all the emotions bottled up inside all involved. I don’t really give much thought to or credence in ghosts, but a place like this…well, I just feel a lot of uncertainty.” I explained some of the private thoughts I had been chewing on throughout the adventure.
“Yeah, if only these walls…” Josh trailed off, as he finished his setup.
We continued to chat and shoot more photos, including some automated timer self-portraits to document our adventure. We left the municipal building and went next door the fire house. We snapped a few photos, but quickly left with our appetite for adventure satiated. I gazed back over my shoulder as Josh pulled the car out of the lot, with a hint of nostalgia, knowing I was leaving a place and time behind that would not be again.
It has been nearly a year since I was riding away from the Highland Park City municipal buildings in Josh’s Pontiac. Upon reflection, two themes stand out to me about the experience. The unknown always presents us with an anxious energy, part excitement, part fear. I was bubbling over with that energy. The former part would be most appropriately described as sheer childlike excitement. Two children venturing into the dark corners of the playground, beyond the watchful eyes of authority, to the forbidden, liberated. Just as true of my childhood, my imagination ran wild in that place. Daydreams, thoughtful repose, hallucinations, paranoia. I swung from end to end of my consciousness. As I looked over the courtroom that day, I viewed it through the eyes of a 10 year old for whom the entire world was magic, a huge mystery to unfold. I literally could not believe what my eyes were seeing because I did not know how to comprehend it. It was beyond what I knew. Instead of trying to box in that wonder, it was free to wander. Where has that wonder gone?
The second part of the experience that stood out was the fear. What exactly was I afraid of? I could pinpoint a few things: a squatter or opportunistic criminal, stray animal, a ceiling or floor collapse. But really, these fears were unsubstantiated, and highly unlikely to have any credibility, anyways. Too many horror movies, too much violence consumed through media growing up. I, like the vast majority of Americans, live with this insane conception of the world as a dangerous place and other people as dangerous creatures. Yes, there is danger in the world, yes dangerous people do exist. They exist at the fringes of statistical probability that you or me will experience it. But it does not lurk around every corner dressed in all black or with canine features. Our realest dangers are ones we welcome into our lives with open arms each and every day, cleverly disguised in the mundane.
“How could you have gone to that place?! You’re crazy.” was a common response when I told this story. It is similar to the all-too-familiar warnings from others about how dangerous it is “out there” when I tell them of my travels abroad. My response to this misguided advice is simple and consistent:
“Are you going to get into your car to drive home tonight? Do you eat fried foods often? Do you exercise regularly?”
I went to the abandoned buildings with an understood calculated risk. I do the same when I travel abroad (or anywhere, for that matter). So while the fears may masquerade as fears of a rabid dog or desperate bum, that cannot be truly, deeply what I was/am scared of. And I think my fear was revealed through the feelings the buildings evoked. Their state of ruin. They had been abandoned by all of the people who once beheld them as an important part of their lives, left to vacantly rot. These buildings’ lives, so to speak, had run their course, and were now close to their own death by wrecking ball.
All things pass. Time marches on just the same, with never ending change following right behind. Or actually, rather, they are one in the same. And it speaks the language of impermanence. Nothing lasts, not even the essential parts of an empire. No one could have imagined the buildings looking that way, being like that, when they were in their heyday. Just the same, none of us can imagine our own demise at the height of our youth (or ever?). But, just like the crumbling of the walls, the cracking of the foundation, and the eventual demolition of those places, we will go, too. We will be a thing of the past, and life will just continue on around our perished bodies. It is terrifying to consider, but also deeply humbling.
Miscellaneous (aka the stuff no one ever pays attention to) (but you should pay attention this time!)
- Josh’s photography can be experienced at http://www.weissj.tumblr.com/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/weissj/. Check it out. The boy’s got skills.
- More images of the urban decay in and throughout Detroit can be found at the website of two French photographers who made it a five year project to go around the city like Josh and me did for one evening. So if you thought any of my photos with my basic Nikon DLSR were good, you should definitely check out these guys. Unbelievable. (They even have a photo from the same buildings!) They even made a book out of it that apparently has sold many copies.
“Knowing what you want is the half the battle” seems like a good refrain opportune for the time being, being where I am, a being suspended seemingly in this time, which is a time that feels like any other, except I seem to have this sneaking suspicion it’s a time unlike any other, another cliché but as He once said, “all cliches are truisms and all truisms are true”. So where do I find my truth? In the cliché of today? So it seems. I’m left with all of this aimless wandering in my mind, my mind it wanders, and wonders, all of the time, and it seems it will continue to do so, for the time being.