Friday, January 8, 2016

How To Survive in Nicaragua Without Clothes

Chapter One – Houston

The trouble started some thirty thousand feet in the air above the Oklahoma panhandle. “Uh, folks, we’re going to be put in a holding pattern above Houston. They’re, uh, having some weather trouble there.”

Our connecting flight to Managua was scheduled to leave a mere 45 minutes after our arrival in Houston, so my mother and I looked at each other doubtfully. We had already advised my brother and his girlfriend to proceed without us should we fail to make the connection. Enjoy Managua without us, brother! We’ll be living it up in beautiful Houston, Texas.

“Maybe the flight to Managua will be delayed,” Mom suggested. I conceded that it may well be, but as travel makes me, not quite morose, but at the least a little jaded, my hopes were not high.

Some minutes of circling later the captain returned to his mouthpiece: “Looks like they’ve re-opened the airport. We’ve got a radar vector in to Houston, so we’re going to take it.” This news was met with excitement. The airport is open! We didn’t know it was closed, but OK! And a radar vector! Whatever the hell that is! Let’s go! Left unsaid, “this is going to be a bumpy ride.”

It was a bumpy ride. There was lightning to the left of us, lightning to the right of us, lightning in front of us, volleyed and thundered. Yet we stormed forward through the stormwinds and stormrains and stormclouds and electro-charged storm death beams and made it successfully to the ground. Taxiing down the Houston tarmac we could see thousands of fish-eyed travelers, noses to the windows and gates of every terminal. “It’s a trap,” I said in my best Akbar, not for the last time that evening.

Once safely into the trap, we confirmed the delay of our Managua flight, and could not locate James and Jane. Their own flight, it seemed, had not made it to Houston. Their plane was already several hours late, as they were meant to arrive well before us. We prepared to mourn the loss of a young man – a loyal brother and son – and his young love, but a text message cut short our grief.

“You can’t text from the plane!!” I said, incredulous to the tone of two exclamation points (but not three).

“I’m pretty sure it would crash if you did,” my mom agreed.

Me: “They must have crashed already.”

The Mothership: “Can ghosts send text messages?”

The text: “We’re on the tarmac in San Antonio.” Followed by, “It might be some time. The pilot says he doesn’t know when we’ll be cleared to leave.”

“They’re not going to make it,” I offered, helpfully, as I glanced at the current flight status for our Managua departure. The Jays – James and Jane – had an hour to make it from San Antonio to Houston, disembark, and reembark on another plane. “Unless their plane is the plane to Managua,” I suggested, again helpfully.

We consulted an arrivals screen. It said their plane had landed 15 minutes ago. I let James know the good news that he was, actually, already here. “Ha ha very funny,” he said. I don’t think he actually laughed, though. Airplanes make him cranky.

We asked the Manauga gate lady. She looked tired. I looked around. They all did. Every single United employee – roughly five or six in total – working at the Houston George Bush Oversized Metaphor for Questionable International Diplomatic Policy looked positively harangued. The airport had been closed down for hours, it turned out, and the line at the United customer service desk was already filling to comedic lengths. It snaked left, then right, then around a corner. There were people sitting in chairs. There were people standing on chairs. There were couples meeting, falling in love, raising families, growing old together, and being replaced by future generations. The line was, I tell you, slow. And, in their infinite wisdom and the security that near monopoly and a blatant disregard for anti-trust law – because, really, who enforces that shit anymore? – grants, United had elected not to call in any additional employees. Why pay overtime when you can make people wait in an obscenely long line?

The Managua gate lady looked positively chipper compared to the poor solitary soul manning – or Sisyphus-ing – the customer service line. She informed us first that my brother’s plane was in Austin – in stark contradiction to his text message – and that the plane for Managua had not yet arrived, meaning that our scheduled departure in 40 minutes was extremely unlikely, if not entirely impossible.

“It’s the same plane,” I offered again. The gate lady shook her head and smiled.

“Let’s get food,” Mom suggested.

My Mom and I, after a thorough scouting of the available eateries, settled on Rubies, because, hey, I hadn’t been home in California for a few days and everything else was terrifying. A goodish burger and a goodish beer sounded goodish enough for a lost evening in the proverbial Bush.

While drinking my unexpectedly gooder than goodish beer, our flight was further delayed. In classic airline fashion, it was not canceled. It was delayed thirty minutes at a time. “Nueve, nueve y media, diez, diez y media, once, once y media.” I figured I’d better practice my Spanish numbers, what with Nicaragua on the (increasingly distant) horizon and all.

Fortunately, the delays meant the Jays might just reach us. “Nope, we’re still in San Antonio, on the tarmac,” James contradicted via text. I vaguely recalled some law about not keeping passengers on the tarmac for more than an hour – it had been nearly four – but figured, once again, that United had basically said “to hell with laws” years ago.

Having eaten, The Mothership and I returned to besiege our gate. That there was nothing on the other end to besiege – no plane, no people, no precious gems or noble titles – mattered little. We would besiege it nonetheless. And so, not unlike like a catapult-man ready to let loose a flaming boulder, I took out a book and began to read quietly.

Later, much later, my brother’s plane landed in Houston. “I’ll find your gate,” I texted him. “Ha! We don’t have one,” he replied. He was right. I went to his assigned gate and there was another plane there. I spent the next hour or so darting around the airport, holding conversations with other travelers in my pitiful Spanish – because, it turns out, a lot of people in George Bush’s airport speak more Spanish than English – and riding the tram back and forth between the C and D terminals.

At some point in all of this the flight to Managua was officially and shockingly canceled. United emailed us right away with a message that said, in so many words, “Suckers! Good luck finding another flight to Managua! The next three are all already booked!” Despairing at the length of the real customer service line, my mom got into the virtual line of United’s customer service call center. Because she’s from Hawaii and therefore has to fly anytime she wants to do anything other than lay on the beach she’s in United’s fancy Premier club or whatever they call it, so she only had to wait on hold for two hours.

During those two hours, my brother’s plane finally found a gate. A mere 10 hours after taking off from Newark, he had arrived with his (very cranky) Jane in Houston. “Hey brother,” I said, “Our flight to Managua’s been canceled!” He was happy to see me, too.

We reunited with The Mothership, who had, by now, memorized the gripping United hold muzak. She was in the process of composing a new harmonization for the main theme when she finally reached a human and started finding new flights for us the next day. They put the Jays on a flight to El Salvador, and Mom and I on a flight to Belize, both with mysterious Central American airlines we’d never heard of. From these foreign ports, we were assured, we would arrive in Managua at some point the following day.

It was getting near midnight at this point, so we made our way to a hotel near the airport. James contracted Houston’s least competent and, not coincidentally, most stoned Uber driver – we’ll call him Scooby – to pick us up at the baggage claim. He had a hard time finding the baggage claim, so we spent a good fifteen minutes running from one side of the airport to the other looking for him once he finally made it to the airport. While we waited for Scooby, Mom and I asked the baggage people about our baggage. For the first of approximately ten times in the next twenty four hours we were told a very specific lie: “It will be on your new flight.”

Once aboard Scooby’s station-wagon, our erstwhile driver executed a stunning series of wrong turns, demonstrating along the way that three rights make a left, and got us to the hotel. I decided it would be smart, before checking in for the night, to check on our flight to Belize. It turned out it had already been delayed, meaning we were going to miss our connection to Managua. As fun as being stranded in Belize sounded, Mom and I decided to give customer service another try. The hold music wafted through our hotel room as I hatched a plan to visit Alaska by myself for as long as possible, as soon as possible. I even booked a cabin outside a small town six hours north of Fairbanks. It seemed the only sensible thing to do given the circumstances.

Eventually, finally, at roughly three in the morning, United transferred us to an American Airlines flight to Miami, leaving at way-too-soon o’clock. Foolishly, we hustled out of our hotel room, got into a cab, and made our way back to the airport. As it came into view I felt a pang of nostalgia. It had been far too long since I had seen George Bush International.

Leaving the cab, Mom and I strode to the American Airlines check in, maintaining our poise even as we passed a tragically closed Starbucks and the half-dozen or so souls who stood simply gazing at it with a look of utter defeat in their eyes. We were not the only sleep-deprived would-be travelers in Houston that day. We entered our new flight information. We navigated the labyrinthine and unfamiliar user interface (because, really, who flies American?). We pressed the buttons and punched the keys! We saw that our flight to Miami, originally scheduled for 5:30 in the morning, was delayed until 12:30, and that our flight to Managua left Miami at 12:00 sharp.

“I think we’ll miss the Managua connection,” I said, helpfully returning to the original theme of the journey.

“I guess we have to call United again,” my mom replied with a surprising lack of excitement. She dialed the phone. The muzak played once more.

“I’ll call the hotel. You think United will pay for all these cab rides?”

“Shh, I’m working on a second tenor harmony.”

I explained to Yvette – the front desk lady at the hotel and perhaps the only competent person working in the whole of the greater Houston area that fine evening, or morning, or whatever you call it at 4 AM when you haven’t slept – that we were coming back.

“I saved your room and still have your keys,” she replied. “I had a feeling you’d be back.”

“You’re miraculous. Why don’t you work for United?”

“Do I really have to answer that?”

“I guess not,” I said, realizing how wrong it would be to send an angel into the pits of hell.

Despite our third cab driver’s Scooby-like confusion about how to get there, we arrived back at the Holiday Inn shortly, and Yvette handed us our keys. At least, I thought, I can sleep.

“No you can’t,” my mom said, reading my thoughts because she’s a witch, “We’re on the 9 AM to Managua.”

“But that one was booked?” I was puzzled. That one was booked. I was sure. They told us so, multiple times. They even taunted us about it. It was booked, I tell you! “Nothing makes sense anymore! When do I leave for Alaska? When can I go to sleep?”

“Let’s get back to the airport.”

It was late enough that the Holiday Inn’s airport shuttle service had started, so we avoided yet another cab ride. As we walked past the front desk and turned in our keys, Yvette smiled. “Enjoy Nicaragua,” She said.

Chapter Two – Jicaro

Your bags will be on your new flight. Your bags will be on your new flight. Your bags will be on your new flight.

Dear reader, you will never guess where our bags were when Mom and I arrived in Managua, or more pointedly, where they were not.

“They’re not here,” I observed.

“Seems that way,” Mom agreed.

We went to talk to the United baggage representative.

Now, there are a few things you need to know about Managua, Nicaragua at this point. First, it is the third largest city in Central America. Second, its airport has only six gates. Third, we had flown over an erupting volcano during our descent. Ok, you don’t really need to know the third one, but it was pretty cool. “This makes it all worth while,” Mom said at the time. I wouldn’t go that far, myself, but it was pretty cool.

Anyway, important things one and two are important because they tell you something about Managua; it’s not exactly technologically advanced. Consider: the airport at the third biggest city in the US has, well, I’m not sure how many gates, but it’s at least seven.

The United baggage representative in Managua, therefore, had access to the following tools:
  1) A pen.
  2) A stack of delayed baggage forms.
  3) A desk with a huge crack in the surface.
The man in front of us, who also could not locate his bags, asked the rep, “Can you just check on a computer to see where my bags are?”

“Sir,” the bag rep said with a smile, “I don’t have a computer.”

Indeed, she did not. But she happily filled out a few lines of the delayed baggage form – and I really do mean a few; most of the form she left blank – and gave us a phone number to call before sending us on our merry way through customs.

“Will we ever see our bags again?” I pondered wistfully.

I thought back to the flight that morning. We had been delayed – surprise! – because, as the pilot said, “there are a few bags from last night’s flight that we have to load.” I was certain, certain, that he was talking about my orange duffle and mom’s green roller. I was certain that, all those times they told us that our bags would be on our new flight they were telling us the truth. I was certain that I would have my toiletries and my underwear and my precious Hawaiian shirts.

“You put your toiletries in your checked bag?” James would later ask reproachfully. Shut up, James.

Anyway, without checked bags we burst through customs and into the hot Nicaraguan sun. My jeans – which I would be wearing for quite some time to come – were not ideal in the 90 plus degree heat and rabid, rainforesty humidity of Central America in December, but, hey, I couldn’t change without my bags.

James: “Why did you even check bags in the first place?” I said shut up.

“No, seriously, why did you check a bag, Paul?”

Ugh. I only answer this question, at this point, because it is so essential to the rest of this journey that it cannot be avoided. Though I risk detouring into other stories – including some that are not even my own – I fear a diversion cannot be avoided. The short answer to why I checked a bag to Nicaragua is that I spent the week prior in Denver with my Aunt, my mother’s sister. It turns out that the weather in Nicaragua in December and the weather in Denver in December have little in common. Two climates over 11 days makes is hard to fit into one carry on and one personal item, especially if you, like me, tend to bring a library’s worth of books on any trip.

“Wait, how many books did you bring with you?” I don’t want to talk about it.

The longer answer for why I checked a bag is that there were a lot of things I wanted to bring with me to Denver and Managua. For example, the board game Dixit. I’ve played it with lots of kids – I’m a middle school teacher – and while they enjoy it, they’re uniformly terrible at coming up with clever phrases to match the pictures on the cards each player is dealt. Where an adult might say, “misery loves company” to describe a picture with a solitary mime crying a solitary tear, or “where’s my swiss army knife?” for a picture with a pockmarked, cheesy-looking moon in the corner, a ten-year-old will instead say, “green!” because the card has a lot of green on it. I really wanted to play with my mom – who has a PhD – and my brother’s girlfriend – who is also an English teacher – and my brother – who’s a pretty bright guy, too, I guess.

“Hey, at least I didn’t put my toothbrush in a checked bag.” Yeah, yeah. I get it.

Of course, I also anticipated playing with my eight-year-old cousin in Denver. Ethan has adored every game my mother or I have ever brought with us and taught him to play. Dixit proved to be no exception. We even ended up getting him a copy for Christmas.

All of which is to say, I had to bring Dixit, ok? And I needed my purple shorts, and I needed to bring my present to the Jays – a book, because I’m a nerd – and various shoes, including hiking boots, flip-flops, and something semi-formal for any New Years festivities, and, and, and… not to mention sweaters and cold-weather stuff for Colorado.

And yet, here I was, in Managua, getting into a car, about to drive an hour south to Jicaro, a world famous ecolodge on an island in the massive Lake Nicaragua, without any of the things I was convinced I needed for the trip. I had no clothes, even, besides the increasingly rank shirt – already approaching 72 hours of service – on my back, the underwear – 48 hours – under my jeans, the jeans themselves – well over 100 hours – and the shoes and socks on my feet.

“You mean you didn’t even put a single change of clothes in your carry on?” Damn it, James.

How does one survive in Nicaragua without clothes? I pondered on the car ride south.

Looking out at the people of Nicaragua, it was clear that many were living answers to my question. They said, in the way of all tropical peoples, “you survive just fine without clothes.” That’s not entirely fair, though. Though scantily clad, the people of Nicaragua were, nevertheless, clad, especially in the city of Managua, the metropolitan hub of the Central part of Central America. Indeed, it bemused me to note that, in front of sheet-metal shacks sat men and women in distinctively American clothing, affixed to American cell-phones, surrounded by American advertising. I was almost, but not quite, shocked to see that almost all of the billboards had pictures of white people on them. Manifest Destiny never dies, I guess, my own presence in Managua a case in point.

Arriving at the lake after an hour of awkward semi-conversation with our driver, who spoke only minimal English, and whom I was much too tired to try to engage in my own paltry Spanish, Mom and I boarded a boat to Jicaro. Yes, you have to ride a boat to the ecolodge. I sat in a back row seat, placing my computer bag – my carry on – at my feet. The water beside me was precariously close to the edge of the boat. I thought about the massive stack of student essays I had in my bag, wondering how, if I lost them, I would ever finish my semester’s grading.

“You brought your students’ essays to Nicaragua in your carry-on instead of an extra shirt or toothpaste?” Sigh.

“An A for everybody,” I announced to no one in particular as the boat motor revved into action, already anticipating that, having lost my checked bags, the Universe would find a way to confiscate my other bags as well. I swear that I did not secretly wish to be rid of those papers. I swear it.

When, some minutes later, we made it to the dock and my papers had somehow, disappointingly, not ended up at the bottom of the lake, I drank a generously proffered and mysteriously sweet drink from the hands of the bartender I would later learn was named Marlon (after Brando, yes), vaguely paid attention through a brief tour of the island, hustled myself to my hotel room and fell asleep. “Welcome to Jicaro,” I dreamt, “where, hopefully, clothes are discouraged, or at least optional.”

Chapter Three – El Lago

That evening, Mom and I found ourselves once again waiting for James and Jane to arrive. We sat at the Jicaro bar, a good sight better than an airport Rubies, granted, with Marlon – who, I now noticed, had striking blue eyes despite being otherwise clearly and wholly Nicaraguan – and Eduardo, a skinny man in his mid thirties who could easily pass for 22. Driving through Managua and its surrounding suburbs, if you can call them suburbs, had given me a general impression of the country. Specifically, my general impression was that it was poor. That evening, Marlon and Eduardo – self-proclaimed members of the middle class – gave me and my mother a more precise impression of their homeland.

Neither man could afford to live in Granada, the closest city to Jicaro, and, it seemed, the wealthiest city in the country. They both commuted roughly an hour to their job servicing mostly American tourists at a resort which was simultaneously low-key and wildly luxurious, complete with hippy-pleasing amenities like fresh local food prepared daily, recycling bins in each “casita” – yes, it was the kind of place where each room is actually a little house – tap water purified on site, and a swanky salt-water swimming pool. Chlorine bad! The absence of televisions and the limited, at best, internet on the island made it feel almost rustic, but the steak served at dinner was a reminder that Jicaro was, in fact, a resort.

Sitting at the bar in my jeans – rolled up to my knees so I looked like a hobbit – drinking whatever Marlon felt like mixing, I could not help but feel pulled in two distinct and uncomfortably contradictory directions. On the one hand, I felt a real, human connection to these two Nicaraguan men. Eduardo, for example, had two children, and was new to Jicaro. He had studied tourism and spoke excellent English. He worked hard, clearly, and spoke eloquently about his country and his aspirations for her, about his love of his kids and his wife, about his respect for his colleagues, including the manager, Regina, the woman who ran Jicaro. He was a man doing a job, and spoke to me and my mother not like we were tourists, but rather like we were his friends.

Marlon, meanwhile, was more reserved, but demonstrated his pride in his family by producing a picture on his phone of his own young children, as well as one of himself back when he used to have long hair like mine. He worked each day at Jicaro from 2 pm to 10 pm, slept on the island until roughly 4 am, then took the first boat back to the mainland so he could drive an hour to his home and spend the morning with his wife and kids, seeing the latter off to school and relaxing with the former for a few scant hours, before returning to work. He was a tall man, and clearly quite strong, but also a bit shy. His English was less refined than Eduardo’s, but, in contrast to his more vociferous colleague, he wore a genuine smile on his face at, in my brief time knowing him, all times. Both men were, however much distance and language and cultural difference separated us, men not so unlike me or my brother.

On the other hand, I could not help but feel alien to their world. I live in Huntington Beach, California, in an apartment that, at 500 square feet, is small by California standards, even for a man living alone, but enormous to the point of excess by Nicaraguan standards. At over $1300 a month, my rent is roughly what the average Nicaraguan makes in an entire year. It is not unusual for me to spend more than $15 on a meal, a preposterous sum in Nicaragua. Of course, most preposterous of all is visiting a place like Jicaro, a literal island, sure, but also a figurative one: an island of American wealth and privilege in El Lago de Pobrezo Nicaraguense.

Poverty is not sadness, however, and Nicaragua never, from the first to the last, struck me as an unhappy place. Marlon and Eduardo were well-educated, intelligent, and happy men, as were so many of the men and women we met on our journey. Eduardo was, too, a self-proclaimed modern man. He shared household chores with his wife, taking his turn at the laundry and the dishes, cooking meals and helping to raise his children. He dreamt of making a difference, someday, becoming a teacher and passing on his own hard-won knowledge, of English, of how the world works, of how the world could maybe work a little bit better.

I do not doubt that Eduardo, were he an American, would have attended a Cal-Berkley or some such, probably on scholarship, and penned essays on systemic injustice, institutional racism, and gender equality. As he was, however, he need not theorize. Instead, he lived it in a way no American – even the most privilege-conscious – ever could. He lived it because he had to, and because he believed in a better life for himself and his children, and a better world, or at least a better Nicaragua. He was not a revolutionary, or an idealist. He was simply a man who understood that making the best of and for himself meant making everything around him a little better than it was before he got there. If that meant washing his family’s clothes – to the ire of most of the men and even many of the women in his neighborhood – he would do it.

Men like Eduardo and Marlon are rarely famous. For one, they are not white or rich. For another, they are not politicians or political agitators. For yet another, they are Nicaraguan, not Cuban or Mexican or Costa Rican or Venezuelan or Dominican. Nicaragua is one of the world’s forgotten countries, its six million people just a blip next to Mexico City’s twenty-two million. And yet, it is such men as Eduardo, as Marlon, that the world is actually made of. For a moment, talking with Eduardo, I imagined myself in his eventual shoes, teaching not my well-off Fountain Valley private-school students, but a mixed-age class of forty or so Nicaraguan children. I thought, I know more about teaching than Eduardo ever will, sure, but he knows a lot more about life. I thought, I’m glad he wants to teach. He’ll be good. Damn good. He already is.

Marlon and Eduardo both stayed well past their usual departure times waiting for James and Jane to make it to Jicaro. When the Jays finally did arrive, we went out to the dock with all of the staff who hadn’t turned in for the night to greet them. It was charming and almost, but not quite, ceremonious. Then, after a quick hello, everyone went their separate ways, the staff disappeared, and the weary travelers soon made their way to bed.

Before bed, though, James had an important duty to perform. His arrival was auspicious for me. Although he, like us, had not been able to locate our bags in the Managua airport upon his own arrival – it turned out they were in Houston, still, and would be there for days to come – he is not so much taller than I that I could at least borrow some of his clothes. I didn’t have to ask, even. He just threw some shorts, an extra swimsuit, a change of underwear, and a t-shirt at me once he had been shown his own casita. While it wasn’t quite the array I had in my own bag, it was an improvement over what I was, and had been, and feared I would always henceforth be, wearing.

Chapter Four – Idyllism

The next day, our first proper day in Nicaragua, was punctuated by three particular episodes. First, Jane was stung by a monstrous hornet. Second, The Mothership and I attempted – not unsuccessfully, but neither triumphantly – to go shopping for clothes and basic necessities in Granada. Third, we kayaked around the lake at sunset.

I say the hornet was monstrous, but I don’t know that anyone actually saw it. Jane was asleep when it stung her, twice – which, really, is a pretty dick move for a hornet – and by the time she had transitioned from “Ow, this dream sucks,” to “Ow, this isn’t a dream” to “Ow, I’ve been assaulted!” the culprit was long gone, his aerial invasion complete save for the paperwork back at base.

So the hornet was huge. Not even a hornet, really. More of a monster hornet, with bat-like fangs and humming-bird wings. It must have been.

The welt that quickly formed on Jane’s arm was in that ambiguous place between “ice it and it should get better; don’t be such a crybaby” and “we better get to the ER before this lady dies.” Since no one saw the suspect commit his particular crime, no one was quite sure what kind of weapon he wielded, and whether its poison was of the deadly variety. Then again, leaving the island would be so inconvenient. And it’s kind of an unspoken rule of travelling in third (or second, or whatever) world countries that you should probably avoid availing yourself of the local healthcare unless you absolutely can’t help it.

At the risk of losing our translator – and therefore the most important member of our expedition – we elected to let the sting be (get it? be?) for the time be-ing (ok I’ll stop). For the remainder of the trip the welt maintained a healthy status quo of not-quite-bad-enough to make us panic. Said Jane, often, “Ow” and “My arm itches.”

It was soon time for The Mothership and I to venture into Granada to attain at least some of the things that our wayward luggage’s waywardness had deprived us of. Without out our wounded translator, my own Spanish would have to do. We presumed that the Jicaro people had conveyed adequately to the car people what it was we were trying to accomplish.

Shopping in a foreign country, if you’ve never done so, is weird. Really weird. It’s amazing how many assumptions we have about basic things like how stores are laid out, what they contain, what everything costs, how to interact with salespeople, and generally how to go from “I need this” to “I now have what I need.” Overtly there’s not a huge difference between a supermarket in Granada and a supermarket in California. But in oh so many subtle ways they’re oh so different that only my seven years of Spanish back in middle and high school saved me from no less than three disasters in the hour or so of shopping my Mom and I did.

Disaster one nearly occurred while my mom shopped at what seemed like a boutique clothing shop next to a grocery store. That the prices were listed in dollars was a dead giveaway that this was not a shopping hotspot for your average local. Much of the merchandise was clearly geared towards rich 20-something Nicaraguan women and young tourists, so my mom’s progress through the selection was slow, especially since the store keeper’s English vocabulary consisted primarily of the word “beautiful,” used to describe pretty much anything and everything in her store.

After a half an hour the driver and I were getting antsy. We exchanged knowing and meaningful glances. He asked me if we needed to get clothes for me, too. Looking down at my distressingly and increasingly dirty jeans I said, yes, that would be a good idea. He began to escort me elsewhere while my mom finished her adventure. This was where disaster nearly occurred. First off, I’m not sure how my mom would have found me had I gone elsewhere. Secondly, I needed her credit card.

United, though villainous in most regards throughout this tale, at least does have a policy where, if you use your special United credit card to buy stuff that they lost when they lost your luggage, they’ll reimburse you. My mom, therefore, needed to buy anything we wanted to buy with her card. It’s not that I couldn’t have paid for my own clothes, but on principle I really wanted United to pay for this one, you know? I explained all this in a flawless Spanish sentence, and the driver sullenly returned me to the boutique. Shortly thereafter he called for back up and left us in the hands of a different driver. He made a big show like he was sorry to go and had some other appointment, but I think he was just tired of waiting.

The irony of all this is that my mom’s United card was rejected when she tried to pay with it. Checkmate, United. Well played.

The second narrowly averted disaster occurred when we finally left the boutique and arrived at the grocery store, which had a small clothing section. Fortunately, it wasn’t all women’s clothes. Unfortunately, it was only women’s and children’s clothes. I forgot that everyone else in the world uses the metric system and missed the memo about kids’ clothes, so I nearly bought a bunch of way-too-small underwear before putting dos and dos together to get quatro. I also nearly bought some girl’s shirts that probably would have looked great on me, but may have sent the wrong message.

Recalibrating my expectations, I surrendered my hope of truly restocking. Instead I found a shirt, a pair of underwear for a monster-kid, and a pair of flip flops. It was something. Elsewhere in the store there were plenty of toiletries and other necessities, so while I had to resign myself to being even less fashionable than usual, I at least wouldn’t have to lose my teeth.

Shopping amidst the toiletries, I came across a package of what looked like underwear, and thought for a minute that I was saved. I picked up the package. I considered it. I tried to parse the label and the small print. I thought. I looked around the aisle. I made awkward eye contact with another shopper. I thought some more. I realized that I was holding a package of adult diapers, some decade-old Spanish from Sra. Planck’s class flooding back into my mind. I put the package down, averting a third disaster.

So, while the shopping trip did not go swimmingly, I did manage to improve – very slightly – my clothing situation. Now, instead of two shirts, I had three. Instead of one pair of my brother’s underwear, I also had a pair of my own that hopefully might fit. I had floss and toothpaste. I had a pair of flip flops, so I could stop running around Jicaro without any shoes. I had failed to find any shorts or pants, but, hey, my jeans didn’t smell so bad that anyone had complained yet. Meanwhile my Mom had found a strange new assortment of overpriced pseudo-designer clothes from a fancy upscale shop. So that was a win?

Neither of us was particularly happy with the results, or with the time it took, or with United Airlines. But, hey, surviving without clothes in a foreign country isn’t about everything working perfectly; it’s about surviving.

As for the kayaking that followed, some hours later, it was the strange mix of cynically touristy and innocently idyllic I was coming to expect from Nicaragua. We admired the sun setting over the mountain as we strained against the lily ponds and dark lake water, trying to remember where, exactly, Jicaro was. We were astounded by the sounds of howler monkeys on the shores of some islands, and we were gustily barked at by guard dogs on others. We learned to identify which islands were owned by rich individuals, which others were owned by resorts, and which few were retained by the locals.

The strange geography of Lake Nicaragua was such that a private mansion might sit only a few hundred feet from a small, half-dozen hut shanty town. Somewhere on the lake there was an abandoned resort, with ruined statuettes sticking menacingly from the nearby water. Elsewhere there were Jicaro’s active competitors, with their own swanky swimming pools and, presumably, their own unique ways of attracting the almighty American Dollar. Elsewhere still there was a school that Jicaro supported, which means that they raised money and built cutting edge educational technologies like bathrooms with running water.

Like the night before, talking with Marlon and Eduardo, kayaking around this small corner of Lake Nicaragua was an exercise in colliding worlds. This time, though, it wasn’t just my world running into the Nicaraguan one. Instead, we paddled in the interstices between worlds, the lake serving as border, highway, neutral ground, and observation post. Easy as it was to discern which islands belonged to which kinds of people, it was much less clear how and why the divisions were what they were. It wasn’t just a matter of size, or the levelness of the terrain, near as I could tell. Most likely each island had its own complicated political and social history, spanning back through generations of ownership, squattership, salesmanship, and, heck, perhaps even armed conflict. It was not hard to imagine, while kayaking around the lake, some small naval skirmish erupting in Hatfield v. McCoy fashion.

Of course, while kayaking, my thoughts weren’t nearly so philosophical. They mainly consisted in exhortations to keep paddling, we’re almost there. Our guide was Jicaro’s longest tenured employee, and in the grand tradition of tenure he didn’t give a shit. He made fun of us from the start, joking that he would be leaving us halfway through the tour and seeing if we could find our way back to Jicaro. His delivery was so serious that I nearly believed him, and his demeanor so matter-of-fact that I didn’t even feel upset about it. I thought, more or less, “Oh, ok, that’s fine. The guy who knows his way around will abandon us somewhere on the lake as the sun goes down and we’ll have to find our way back without him in the dark. Sounds good.”

On the trip itself, he kept asking us where Jicaro was, then laughing at us when we pointed in the wrong direction. It was never quite clear whether his teasing was entirely good natured. I was, in fact, mildly surprised when he didn’t abandon us in the middle of the lake.

Now, throughout this long, wonderful, odd first day in Nicaragua, I was cultivating my identity as a man of few clothes. The kayaking trip aided me significantly in this venture, as it utterly ruined one of my three shirts – a new one I had only just acquired the night before from my brother. Lakes, while beautiful, are filled with fresh water, and fresh water is filled with living organisms, and living organisms are filled with interesting smells.

Kayaking, by its very nature, tends to moisten whatever clothing you’re wearing at the time, and so a whole third of my wardrobe returned to Jicaro soggy, teaming with microscopic sea life, ready to bloom, pungently, in the coming hours and days. Indeed, one of the plastic bags from the shopping trip soon became my repository for smelly things, like my too-well-worn jeans. I may, in some desperate moment later in the trip, have considered actually wearing clothes from this terrifying plastic bag, but I preserved my dignity and the olfactory systems of my fellow travelers by refraining.


Chapter Five – El Jardin

Our stint at Jicaro was meant to be longer, but our delayed flight meant we departed after only one full day on the island. We were off, the following morning, for El Jardin. This was one of the last hotels available over New Years in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua’s closest thing to a party town. Why we were going to a party town for New Years escaped me, as none of the four of us are what I’d call partiers, but we went barreling south with yet another contracted driver all the same.

Like many of our drivers heretofore, this one had no idea where he was going. He had the name of the hotel, but was unable to locate it when he got to San Juan Del Sur. Visions of Scooby flashed in my mind. This Nicaraguan version of Scooby became quite frustrated with us for not being able to tell him where our hotel was, though I don’t know why he expected a bunch of Americans to be able to locate a mysterious hotel in a city we’d never been to (or, I must admit in my case, heard of) before. Eventually all became clear as we learned that the hotel was not actually in San Juan Del Sur, but was rather outside the city, past where the paved road ends, up a precariously steep hill, overlooking a bay on the other side of the ridge from which a giant statue of Jesus looks down upon Nicaragua’s party capital in disapproval and, presumably, forgiveness.

Being outside of the city, El Jardin was home to a great many bugs, insects, and other small-scale wildlife. Plus two Labrador retrievers and an odd assortment of Belgians who owned and ran the place. This hotel, while charming, was quite different from Jicaro. For example, the menu at the “restaurant” (read: a handful of tables and a tiny bar) was hilariously European, featuring spaghetti with pesto, beef stroganoff, and lasagna. Ambient conversation was as likely to be in French as in Spanish, and the swimming pool definitely had chlorine, a fact that did not dissuade the dogs, Cosima and Pandora, from drinking from it incessantly.

The manager at El Jardin was a gorgeous, twenty-something Belgian girl named Rose. I say she was gorgeous, but it’s hard to tell whether she actually was, or whether she only seemed that way because of her youth and her proclivity – apparent when we first met her by her non-managerial outfit of a loose, mostly backless t-shirt with no bra – to wear very few clothes. As a man of very few clothes – albeit in a less voluntary sense – I felt a natural kinship with Rose. She clearly knew how to survive in Nicaragua without clothes.

Additional complications, in determining Rose’s true attractiveness, included her Yvettian competency at her job – an underrated aphrodisiac – and my increasing sense of general desperation, owing to three things in particular: first, my lack of clean clothing; second, my need for a place to do my ever-looming grading (which had once again somehow managed to not fall into the lake on the boat leaving Jicaro); and third, a vague but perennial fear I’ve been cultivating for the past two years since my divorce that I’ll never fall in love again.

James sensed all of this right away, of course, and with a younger brother’s shark-like nose for weakness assigned me the preposterous “tarjeta” of seducing Miss Rose. Seduction is not, sadly, one of my talents, so I had no doubt that I would fail the assignment. To be honest, I didn’t particularly try. And, anyway, I rationalized, I don’t want to seduce anyone. That’s not me. I’m a relationship guy, not a fling guy. Plus, I further rationalized, the Universe is just messing with me. I already know a substantially more beautiful Rose back home. La Rosa Del Jardin was just an ambiguous cosmic metaphor for that Rose, the Rose.

I trained my skills as literary analyst on this metaphor, but the Universe remains a fickle and hard-to-decipher author, so I made little headway. In the tried and true tradition of resigning before the impossibility of an impossible crush, I decided that this Nicaraguan Rose was merely a microcosmic blossom sent by the Universe to taunt me with her name.

Absorbed in such thoughts, I went to dinner at the hotel restaurant with my family, a nest of wasps from the table next to ours, and a giant spider who was clearly failing in wasp cleanup duty. As Jane was still, at this point, afflicted with an angry red welt, the wasps were a source of much consternation. It matters little how delicious one’s pesto is when one is pestered by the aerial terror of a giant, dangly-legged, Central American monster. I treated these wasps with indifference, but James has always feared bees, and Jane’s traumatic recent past conspired to push us to tables further and further from the source of the wasps. In so doing we found ourselves closer and closer to the window through which the wasps were leaving to go about their waspy business, so ultimately the meal turned into a hokey-pokey affair, what with the jumping up and down and turning ourselves around. In truth, no table was safe.

In retribution, albeit scant, for my preposterous and existentially troubling tarjeta, I was quick to point out whenever the spider disappeared from view, as this too was a source of some anxiety for my urbanite brother and his urbanite girlfriend. I would subsequently wonder where it went, and speculate that maybe it was somewhere near the legs of our table and chairs. When it was visible, I would approach it and examine it closely, reaching my hand out as if to poke and thereby agitate it, reveling in the aghast question, “you’re not going to touch it, are you?”

I may be single, but at least I’m not afraid of spiders. Compelling, I know.

Chapter Six – New Years

The following morning Rose was even more beautiful than she had been the night before. As we ate breakfast – outside this time, away from the insectile menagerie of the restaurant proper – she came by wearing these awesomely geeky glasses, her expression less severe than it had been upon our arrival, her bearing generally more friendly, her outfit similarly sparse. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I learned that this new Rose wasn’t Rose at all, but rather was her friend Moana. Fortunately, I don’t know any other Moanas, so I was safe from over-interpreting the Universe’s intentions this time.

It was New Years Eve, and our car ride through San Juan Del Sur the day before had convinced us that the best way to spend the day would be going to a beach far from the city proper. San Juan Del Sur is like an extremely poor-man’s version of Newport Beach or some other Southern California surf town. It was chock full of what can only be described as “bros.” As they geared up for their New Years revelries, we fashioned an itinerary that would end up being as close to perfect as could be imagined.

The beach we went to after breakfast looked like something out of an advertisement. It was pristine, marred only by some touristy food shacks playing competing American music (one hip hop, one classic rock). The water was warm, the waves were clean, and the surfers were, mostly, beginners. I felt an itch that I haven’t felt pretty much the whole two years I’ve lived in Southern California. I felt an itch to surf.

I should explain that I used to surf quite often. I lived in Hawaii, and surfing – I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit – was actually a part of my first real adult job. So maybe it wasn’t really a real adult job. Anyway I was never a great surfer, but I was passable. Over time, though, and when I left Hawaii, I gave it up. I always loved surfing, but I could never really stand surfers. So many places that I’ve surfed I’ve found the other surfers in the water to be not exactly unfriendly, but vaguely wary and territorial. But here, thousands of miles away from my home, in foreign waters, surrounded by rank beginners being pushed into waves by Nicaraguan surf instructors, I felt I could – nay, needed – to get back onto a board.

Like an idiot, I thought I would be fine on a board much like the one I used to ride in Hawaii. At 7’6”, my board was not a short board, but was about as short as a longboard can be while still retaining the name. As a result of my ambitious board choice, I spent the first half hour of my surf experience remembering how tiring it is to paddle constantly and how easy it is to wipe out when you don’t make the drop into a wave. Eventually I managed to catch a couple of waves – I wasn’t about to give up – but the experience was a stark reminder that I’m not 23 anymore.

Lest my surfing sound like a failure, I hasten to clarify that it was, to me, an unmitigated success. I may not have surfed well, but I did surf. With sand in my hair, water in my ears, and with the pleasant soreness that comes after such exertion – plus the existential calm of being at a beach, where my lack of clothes was well out of mind – I relaxed with my compatriots eating a quesadilla and drinking a mediocre Nicaraguan beer in one of the touristy shacks near the beach. Surrounded by other Americans and awash in endorphins, I almost forgot where I was. Which, maybe, is what travel is all about. It’s not just about going somewhere cool or interesting or different, it’s about going somewhere where the where doesn’t matter, where you can just forget and put aside all the stupid reasons you have for doing certain things or not doing others, where you can just be.

Hmm, that sounds dangerously like a California surfer bro.

The last day of 2015 was young, yet, as we returned to El Jardin only to be whisked away for a horseback riding tour shortly thereafter. The chariot upon which we departed, this time, was a truck with room for two in the front seat. My brother and I, therefore, stood in the back, in the truck bed, and raced along the dirt road back towards the beach we had just departed – albeit this time I was clothed in, you guessed it, my trusty jeans. I don’t know how dangerous it was in the back of the truck, but I am certain that we would have gotten pulled over had we been in the US.

I don’t know that horseback riding is, as the kids say, “a thing” in Nicaragua. It is, however, a thing for my brother. He has always loved animals, and has always been obsessed with cars. Jane, in an inspired moment, explained to James that if you combine the two you get, basically, a horse. So on one of their many trips together they went horseback riding, and now my brother is hooked. Also, it turns out that horseback riding in Nicaragua is absurdly cheap.

Our tour took us up a mountain and down to a beach. No words can do justice to the preposterously Hollywoodish feeling of emerging from a back alley onto a secluded beach on horseback, trotting along the edge of the waves, and scaring the shit out of a turtle that was hanging out on the beach until you showed up on your giant neighing, pooping, monster. Our guides admonished us for scaring the turtle, even though they were as much to blame as we were.

As we made our way from beach to beach, we were photographed by locals and tourists alike. Our lead guide – who mostly road at the back – hardly seemed to care, but our other guide, younger and vainer, made a bit of a show of it. He would slow up then go cantering along stretches of open sand. He would wield and flourish his crop. He would smile and wink. He was, it must also be said, sullen and brooding for much of the tour, regularly assaulting nearby plants with his crop and avoiding all conversation even with the entirely fluent Jane. He probably had a Rose of his own he was preoccupied with.

Upon our return to El Jardin we ate a delicious New Years dinner and fell asleep. James failed to arise before midnight, but Jane, Mom, and I celebrated the admittedly arbitrary holiday by narrowly avoiding getting stung by a scorpion near the pool. This prompted my mom to relate her famous story of saving her colleague Anna from almost certain death in Costa Rica after a scorpion sting. Anna was rendered increasingly and rapidly paralyzed by the sting, as the responsible species is capable of killing in roughly an hour. As my Mom and Anna were roughly an hour from the nearest hospital at the time, it took some fancy driving to get Anna to medical care in time.

The moral of the story, as my Mom tells it, is to check your luggage and shake out your clothes. Anna was stung not by a scorpion from the area where they were working, but by a scorpion from elsewhere in Costa Rica that had been hiding in her luggage for days.

Jane was mortified. She looked at the itchy welt on her arm. She looked back to where the scorpion had disappeared over the wall around the pool. She looked towards the restaurant with the wasps and the spiders. She wished us happy new year one last time and announced that she was ready for bed.

For my part, I did not fear finding scorpions in my bags or my clothes, as I had none in which they could hide. The next morning, however, Jane and James found a scorpion in their baggage. It was time to leave El Jardin.

Chapter Seven – Managua

Have I mentioned that my Mom is a witch?

We call her “The Mothership,” which sounds very technological and fancy, but it’s all a ruse. She’s actually a witch. She’s descended from witches, after all. Her mother was a professional astrologer – borderline psychic – and her mother’s mother was the village “streganona” back in Italy. That is, she was, in short, the official village witch. It runs in the family.

The Mothership knew to warn Jane of the scorpion in James’s bags, or else she put the scorpion there. Cause and effect can get confusing in cases of witchcraft. Heck, I wasn’t quite ready to ascribe the presence of Rose at El Jardin to the vagaries of a fickle Universe. The source of such conjurations may have been much closer.

When we arrived at our final hotel – a strange modern affair called “Contempo” in Managua proper – for a final night ‘ere our departure my mom became convinced that she should go to the airport to look for our bags. The phone number we had received way back upon our arrival from the baggage rep had not worked for days; it just rang and rang with no answer. It seemed certain that our bags were lost, perhaps forever. There was some scant hope that they might make it back to Hawaii eventually, but I had given up hope.

But when a witch insists that she absolutely has to go to the airport to find the bags, well, you let her go. My brother wasn’t happy about it. He interpreted the whole thing as much more of a crisis than it really was, and worried that our decidedly monolingual mother would not be able to make it to the airport and back unaided. The Mothership, however, brooked no reproach. She was on a mission, as only one with supernatural insight can be, and so she departed in a cab, leaving the rest of us to lounge by yet another pool, or else in our chic hotel rooms, while she pursued the seemingly impossible.

Contempo’s rooms are all named. Mom and I were in a room called “cafe,” complete with a bowl of coffee beans, a very odd pit of wood chips, and a set of bamboo rods in one corner of the room. James and Jane were in a room called “poesia,” or poetry, which had a massive red couch that looked like it had been cobbled together from upscale British sitting-room chairs. Their room also had a throne because, hey, why not? All in all, I felt that wood chips were a less striking amenity than a throne, and wasn’t sure that all rooms in Contempo were equal. What Contempo had that none of our previous habitations had quite managed was functioning internet and desk space. So while Mom was off on her mission I got down to the important business of grading. Just kidding, I played Hearthstone. That is, until it was time for the massage.

Now I know what you’re thinking. A super cheap massage at a Central American hotel with thrones in the guest rooms and piles of wood chips (perfect for hiding scorpions, I’ll note) in random corners … Sounds shady, right? Hey, I didn’t book this stuff.

Even so, I wasn’t about to wear a swimsuit or, worse, any of my hopelessly dirty clothes during a massage, especially after the masseuse eyed me judgmentally when it looked like I might not fully disrobe. I don’t know the proper etiquette for these things – I don’t exactly get massages often – but I figured, hey, I’ve survived this long in Nicaragua without clothes metaphorically, I guess it’s time to make the metaphor literal.

The masseuse was all business, even if the massage was mediocre and the music was shockingly bad (elevator music covers of 70s and 80s rock songs like Rockin’ the Casbah). It was a surreal experience that was not easy to take seriously, a sentiment echoed by my fellow travelers when they each had their turn.

What stood out for me, however, was that right in the middle of the massage my Mom returned from the airport. She poked her head into the massage room, much to the consternation of the masseuse. “Success,” she said. “I got them.”

“What?” I asked.

“Our bags. I got them.”

She left, the massage eventually finished, and I returned to the hotel room to find my duffle waiting. I put on clean underwear and my purple shorts and a t-shirt that wasn’t filthy. I was happy. Although I had come to terms with my lack of clothing and had accepted that my bags were gone, I also never doubted that The Mothership’s witchy intuition was right, and that she would find our bags. James was more surprised, “No shit?” he said.

Later, at dinner, Mom explained that she found our luggage in a room filled with lost bags. There was a solitary man calling all over the United States, trying to find the owners of this wayward luggage. He was one man saddled with the lost and delayed bags – mostly from Houston – trying to figure out where to send all of it. He was, we heard, quite happy to be rid of two bags, even if it left only a small dent in the work he had to do. He was but one man doing the work of many, after all, and any assistance was welcome. Apparently United doesn’t like to pay overtime in Central America either.

Later still, after dinner, I changed into a new outfit – because, hey, why not? – and we played Dixit. Better late than never.

Epilogue – Returning Home

When I made it home to Los Angeles I had a moment of fear. The LAX baggage claim looks more than vaguely like a third world nightmare. After nearly a week without my baggage, I feared that, now, back home, I’d undergo a similar separation from my basic necessities. Missing a toothbrush would be much less of a problem in California, where the stores were familiar and se habla Ingles, and of course I have other clothes at home, but I’d just as soon rather not navigate United’s byzantine customer service.

Fortunately, this time my bags arrived without incident, so I said farewell to my Mom and, on my way home, reflected on my largely clothesless journey through Nicaragua. I rode in a shuttle, listening to my fellow ride-sharers – a father, his wife, and his teenage daughters – complain about how far out of the way Huntington Beach is from Irvine (it’s really not), and I couldn’t help but notice how different their journey was from mine, how different everyone’s journey is, and how little we notice.

For all the time I was in Nicaragua, the absence of my baggage was, if not at the forefront of my mind, a constant pin prick. Almost no one I interacted with, however, would have had the slightest idea of that. Similarly, I’m sure that Jane’s hornet sting was hard for her not to notice, even if it was easy for me to forget except when she reminded us by, for example, harvesting aloe vera from a plant at El Jardin.

I don’t consider myself much of a traveler, really, not like the new-place-each-weekend Jays, but I do see what people mean when they say that traveling builds empathy. It’s not that being without my clothes in Nicaragua forced me to put myself in the shoes of the people I met so much as it forced me to take myself – literally and metaphorically – out of my own shoes. We may never be able to truly see things from a perspective other than our own, but at least, sometimes, we can be reminded that our own perspectives are limited.