Nicaragua: Turning Thirty-Three
Sunday, May 5, 2013: It was my birthday; the thirty-third anniversary of my birth. Thirty-three trips around the sun had led me from a small farm in Upstate New York to the Pacific beaches of Nicaragua. The cascading waterfall of sunrises and sunsets having gradually changed me from a child into a man and having led me far from home and far from anyone with whom I had previously shared this personal holiday.
Yet as I looked out from under the canopy that protected me from the harsh mid-day sun at the waves that crashed upon the sandy shores of Maderas beach, outside of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, I felt content. I was fourteen days into my Nicaragua stay and I had five new friends sitting around me–Danny, Acey, Tim, Jose and Hanne. I had a beautiful beach in front of me, a surf competition taking place out in the ocean and a cooler full of drinks and food. Moreover, unlike most birthdays, I was sharing this celebration, as Hanne was turning twenty-four on the same day. Indeed that was one of the reasons I found myself in San Juan del Sur on May 5th instead of some location much further north.
When I had arrived in San Juan two weeks prior, I had thought I would stay three days–maybe do a little surfing, go out to a couple of parties and then move on. Instead I remained eight full days and had to force myself to leave, but not before promising my new crew of friends that I would return for Hanne’s and my birthday weekend in four days.
Along the way, there had been no conscious decision to extend my stay. One day passed to the next and my desire to remain continued. I had found a comfortable place to call home. And after so many months on the road, I wanted to enjoy the feeling. I believe San Juan has a way of doing this to people. It’s a tiny city of no more than 20,000 nestled on the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua. Moreover, the center of town, which faces out upon a large bay of calm water, is significantly smaller than 20,000 and has the feeling of a village or a town. Its main square sits in front of an old nondescript church and the ten or twelve blocks surrounding it are easily walkable. It also has the beauty of being equal parts tourist and local. There is no way for one group to escape the other. They constantly interact in the street, on the beach, at the store, during meals, or at the bars.
After a couple of days walking these streets and seeing these people you start to feel like you know everyone. And I knew many. There were Acey, Danny, Emil and Jose–a group of twenty-somethings from Russia, the U.S., Denmark and Colombia, who worked at the hostel where I stayed. We would hang at the rooftop bar and play cards, go to the beach to surf, head out for a night on the town, or stay in and share delicious meals cooked by Jose. And Hanne was a part of this group too. She was Jose’s Norwegian girlfriend. They had met the year before in Latin America and she was back visiting. Her and Jose made a beautiful yet odd couple. Both classically attractive, yet Jose, short, skinny and brown with a wispy mustache and Hanne, tall, full, and pale with short blonde hair of that fair shade that only Scandinavians know how.
There was Tim, a German eighteen-year old who had become my little brother. We met on my first full day in San Juan on a surfing trip. We had hung out ever since. Tim and I had even traveled to Granada together before returning to San Juan together for the birthday celebrations.
There was also the Dutch couple I took my surf lesson with. We shared a bond of learning to surf together under the tutelage of a sixty-something Brazilian with long thin hair, leather-brown skin and a penchant to get anyone surfing on the first day. We would continually bump into one another over our time in San Juan.
There was Zane and Joseph, two Americans, one thirty-two and bald from Georgia, the other nineteen with a full beard from California. They had met in Panama working at a restaurant. After a short time, disliking their verbally abusive boss, they quit before heading to San Juan, where they had rented an apartment for the month. They would visit us at the hostel rooftop bar to steal internet, but would remain for hours, even venturing out with us to watch live music. And, of course, we bumped into one another in the streets, often.
There was Russel, a young Aussie surfer I met at the beach one day. He was living in San Juan while he completed law school online. His nights were filled with studying, exams and papers, his days with surfing and sun. A couple of times he skipped his school duties to head out into the fun San Juan evenings with the rest of us.
There were the four American women, I forget their names, but only remember that three of the four ended with an ‘ey” sound. As I walked the beach my first afternoon, they called me over in terrible Spanish, asking if I would take a picture. I answered in English that I would be glad to, before sitting with them and talking about my life and travels for the next hour. We would later bump into one another at morning Yoga.
There were the bartenders at the Surfing Donkey hostel. One from Austin and one from Canada, so many people from Canada in Central America by the way. I would visit them a couple of times at the hostel and, of course, see them in the streets throughout my stay.
There were the many employees at the small Taco Stop restaurant in the middle of the main drag. Tim, me and the hostel crew ate there nearly once a day, ordering quesadillas or burritos for lunch, dinner or late night snacks. Whenever I would arrive, the look of recognition would shine in the eyes of whichever employee was working.
And, most shocking of all, there was Babs. My old friend from Cartagena, Colombia. Gone were Pien and Anna, both having returned to Holland, but Babs traveled on. We had bumped into one another in Panama and went our separate ways in Costa Rica. Then, nearly a month later, on my second night in San Juan, I walk into a bar at 12:00 midnight and saw her dancing. We shared a large hug and disbelieving smiles. We would hang out most nights during our remaining time there, celebrating Queen’s Day by wearing orange and painting Dutch flags on our arms and going out to dinner to celebrate Babs’s last night before flying back to Holland.
In addition to the many people who made San Juan home for me, it was also the life style that kept me there. The small town with its sparsely filled roads and closeness to a large bay provided the perfect area to jog. And so I ran for the first time in weeks. San Juan, like many small beach communities, had its now blossoming yoga scene. I had not done Yoga in over a year, since Jenny and I attended a Black Swan practice in Austin in early May. And so I did yoga, attending the early morning class on five different occasions. San Juan also had a small gym in the upper level of an old factory, where travelers worked out next to locals lifting old free weights, hitting old boxing bags and stretching on old pads. And so I lifted weights twice; once for free and once for two dollars. Further, San Juan was surrounded by beautiful beaches to its north and south; beaches that are famed for their surfing. And so I surfed. At first as a lesson and then as a beginner out there with my own rented board, looking to catch a real wave. There were many failures along the way, including breaking the board of a local, which set me back $60 in repairs, but there were also lots of successes, too.
With such a great setup it is not difficult to understand why it was so hard for me to leave after that eighth day. But I knew there were other things I still wanted to do and see in Nicaragua. So, with Tim in tow, I said goodbye to the friends I had made and told them I’d be back for the weekend. Knowing I planned to return made the exit easier.
Thus it was that Tim and I spent four days in Granada. Four sweltering hot days without the comfort of San Juan’s nearby ocean to cool us. It was a simple existence. Save one day that we spent out at Lake Apoyo, swimming in its tepid water and lounging on beach chairs, we would mostly meander around Granada’s city center and rest in one of her many cafes or restaurants for food and drink, before returning to the hostel where we would spend our nights in fitful, sweat-drenched sleep. And on the conclusion of our fourth day of trying to escape Granada’s unbearable heat, I rented a car and we made our literal escape back to San Juan. It was the day before my birthday. Before we left the hostel, we picked up two fellow travelers, Heidi from Canada and Roien from Israel, who were making the same trip. We connected Tim’s mp3 player to the radio and rocked out to American pop music for the one hour drive back to San Juan (as an aside, this same trip by bus took Tim and I over four hours on the way to Granada).
Thus we were back in San Juan with our old-new friends who greeted us with smiles and hugs and how are yous. It was nice to be back in the comfort of San Juan. Tim and I hung out with Acey and Danny, Jose and Hanne, eating at our favorite restaurant–Taco Stop–and hanging out at the hostel in anticipation of the following day’s festivities.
On the morning of my thirty-third birthday, I awoke early and went to yoga class, while Tim prepared lunch, Hanne relaxed, enjoying the morning of her twenty-fourth year, and Jose, Acey and Danny caught an early shuttle out to Maderas beach. When Yoga was complete, Tim, Hanne and I loaded up the rental car with the cooler of drinks and food and headed out to meet the other’s who were patiently awaiting our arrival. The twenty-minute drive would not go as planned.
A few minutes into the drive, we pulled up to a police checkpoint. The officer approached the driver-side door and requested my documents. In that instant, I knew I was in a precarious situation; my license was back at the hostel. I handed him the rental car registration and insurance and tried to convince myself he may just hand them back and let me go. He then asked for my license. I feigned a short search, before informing him that I had left it back in my room. “Esta es un problema,” he said sternly. Tim now leaned over from the passenger’s seat and began speaking with the officer in Spanish, translating for me. “He says he is going to keep your car’s documents and write you a ticket. When you come to the station tomorrow to pay the ticket, you can get the documents back,” Tim told me. “Tell him that’s not possible,” I said to Tim, “I need the documents to drive the car. What happens if I get pulled over next time without any documents?” Tim tried to explain this to the officer. He would have none of it. I grew frustrated and began to try to explain to the man, in broken Spanish, that he could not keep my documents.
Then it happened. The moment we all knew was coming, but had delayed up until now. “Quizas no quieren un billete,” (Maybe you don’t want a ticket). Tim looked confused, “He asked what if we don’t want a ticket.” “Just ask him how much, Tim,” I answered. The officer conveniently pulled a pen out of his pocket, leaned in toward the car window and wrote a number on his hand–600 Cordoba ($24). My mind wandered for a moment. Hanne spoke up from the back seat, “Let’s just pay it.” I wanted to bargain with this guy, but I also just wanted to be on the beach celebrating my birthday. A further moment of hesitation passed before the bribe was paid and we were heading back to the hostel to get my license.
We arrived at the beach thirty minutes later. My day was not off to the best start. It doesn’t feel good to lose $24 on your birthday especially in Nicaragua where that money could be your total budget for two days. But with each passing cheers to Hanne’s and my birthday the frustration with the situation gave way to laughter. We had begun our birthday by bribing a police officer. I finally got my Latin American bribe-a-cop story. Now that is a birthday gift.
And so I sat under the canopy that protected me from the harsh sun above, enjoying my company as we celebrated “Cinqo de Hanne” and “Cinqo de Radney” while drinking and eating and watching the sun slowly fall toward the horizon. The day was fun. We watched the surf competition until it ended. Then Danny headed off for some surfing of his own while the rest of us took turns cooling off with intermittent swim breaks before finding cover under our canopy. Eventually, as late afternoon settled in, the beach began to clear. Everything was calm and content. Until we lost Tim.
As we sat under the canopy, Hanne turned to me at one point and asked, “Where is Tim?” The same thought had crossed my mind a few minutes earlier. An hour before, Tim had gotten up from his seat under the canopy and proclaimed he was off for a swim. “I don’t know,” I responded. “I saw him in the water when I was surfing, but that was like forty-five minutes ago,” Danny added. That was a long time to be in the water, I thought. With no leads on Tim’s whereabouts, Hanne and I got up and began our search. We began walking the beach, occasionally calling out Tim’s name. A tinge of fear flashed through my mind at the thought of something bad having happened to Tim. I ignored this irrational feeling and walked toward the western edge of the beach. I had been traveling with Tim for two weeks now and had seen him walk this way on at least two previous instances. He must be over this way, I told myself.
The walk to the western side of the beach appears to come to an end at the edge of a large sand hill. But Tim had told me that the beach bends at that point and what looks like an impassable edge really reveals a long stretch of sparsely populated beach. So I walked in that direction, hoping to find Tim on the other side of the bend. The walk was long and at times the thought that something had happened to Tim would return. Each time I would push it away, “He said he wanted to sleep on the beach today. He probably fell asleep somewhere,” I reassured myself.
Approaching the bend, I looked back to see if Hanne had discovered Tim. From this far vantage point, she was barely distinguishable from the few other people still on the beach, but I could tell she was alone and was still marching up and down the beach. No Tim.
I was not yet around the bend, but the nervousness of not finding Tim on the other side came back. “How had I not kept tabs on him?” I thought. I chastised myself, “I should have been more aware.” I was worried about my young companion. He was my closest friend in Nicaragua and I felt a measure of responsibility over him. Eight days of fun and hanging on beaches in San Juan had made us travel partners. Four days of Granada began to make us friends. We were an unlikely pair–I an American lawyer now thirty-three and Tim a recent high school graduate from Germany and still eighteen. But I enjoyed the kid’s company and the time and space that had separated our realities was gone, traded for the simplicity of traveling Nicaragua.
Tim was tall and skinny with light brown hair that he wore in that trendy messy fashion of today. He was handsome in a boy-band kind of way with high cheek bones and rosy cheeks. I would often reference this quality when calling out to him, “Hey One Direction let’s go,” or “Bieber, are you ready yet?” He was extremely smart and spoke English with only the tiniest hint of a German accent; a fact which made him immensely proud. Indeed Tim spoke English with such a regularity and with such a command of its grammar and vocabulary that he had decided to write his travel journal in English as well. At one point, after speaking with some German travelers in our hostel, Tim confided in me that at times he would forget the German word he wanted to say, the more readily available English word taking its place in his mind.
Tim was smart, but he was eighteen, which meant he constantly sought to fulfill that teenage desire to fill empty spaces with words, often telling the same story multiple times. And the stories were, more often than not, those of junior high drunkenness or prom night drama, or high school love hookup triangles. I had heard these type of stories before, but it had been well over a decade. But in the same way that lawsuits, expensive dinners and rugby games had filled my previous days as a lawyer in Austin, Tim’s high school years were filled with the stories he shared. I listened. At times I grew tired of his perpetual talking and would have to remind myself that this was who Tim was. I never grew to like his constant chatter, but did come to expect it and accept it as a part of my young friend.
In Granada, Tim and I would wander through the city for hours each day, admiring its colonial architecture before seeking shelter from the oppressive heat. Tim was fluent in Spanish thanks to a month of classes in Costa Rica and constantly used this skill to navigate us around the City’s interior and to find us the cheapest lunches and dinners possible. It was during these many walks and meals that Tim and I began to bond. One evening meal at our favorite three-dollar dinner restaurant, Tim discussed the difficulty he had with his father. Tim’s dad was a successful business man who had provided a comfortable life for Tim his brother and mother, but in the process was absent for much of Tim’s life. As a result, Tim carried an underlying resentment that strained his relationship with his father. In addition to family, our many conversations extended to love and politics, economics and friendships.
One particularly memorable conversation occurred as we walked the main pedestrian strip in Granada toward Lake Nicaragua. While we passed small cafes, restaurants and artisan shops, we spoke of our travel writings. Soon we had both pulled out our journals and took turns reading passages from our entries as we strolled to and from the old dirty dock that sits at the end of the pedestrian path. Tim was an excellent writer. He shared a piece with me about love that used the metaphor of building a home in your partner’s heart. In this work, Tim contemplates what happens when one builds a room in another’s heart, but, then fearing the inability to fill the room, walks away, leaving the room empty. The empty space pains the holder of the heart, who soon decides that in the future he or she will no longer allow such large rooms to be built-in his or her heart. The underlying questions: should we build such rooms, if we can never fill them? should we let such rooms be built, even though we know they may one day be vacant? I found Tim’s words powerful.
But back on the beach, I had still not found Tim. Eventually, I made it to the large bend on the western edge of the beach. Hanne had now been joined by Jose as they searched for Tim on the eastern side. I slowly turned the corner. A large smile spread across my face. Not more than thirty yards from me laid a young German on a small hill of soft yellow sand. He was on his stomach, his face turned away from me, but I knew it was Tim. I approached my sleeping friend and sat down next to him, allowing him to continue his slumber. I quietly laughed at the scene. His fake black Raybans laid a few feet above his head, partially buried in the sand, the strap of his wool satchel draped across his right arm and a lone water bottle with a few sips of hot water remaining was recklessly laid by his right foot.
I stared out at the beautiful ocean and listened to the waves crashing against the nearby rocks. I could see why Tim had picked this place to sleep. It was secluded and quiet, save for the sound of the ocean, which provided an endless series of methodic splashes–the perfect rhythm to fall asleep to. I sat next to Tim as he continued to sleep. Ten minutes passed before he slowly awoke and turned his head to find me by his side, “Radney,” he sleepily uttered. I was happy my friend was well and laying next to me. “We gotta go, Tim. The others are all looking for you,” I informed him. “Give me a few more minutes,” he asked before rolling over and laying back down. I nodded. The others could wait. Tim was fine and that was all that mattered. I stared out at the ocean and smiled. It had been a good birthday.
And yet the festivities were not yet over. After the beach, we made our way to a pool party at the Naked Tiger hostel. Jose had bought a cake for Hanne’s birthday and wanted me to share in the celebration. We dressed the cake in HAPPY BIRTHDAY shaped candles, lit them and began to loudly sing to Hanne as we entered the large pool area that was crowded with a couple hundred people. Hanne heard the singing and approached the entering cake, which Jose and I held together. Much of the party had turned to look at the commotion. Hanne and I blew out the candles together. It was now time to eat the cake. Yet we had no utensils. This did little to deter Hanne and I. We each took a handful of cake, paused for a moment and then proceeded to smear it in each others faces before doing the same to Jose, who continued to hold the cake. Soon we had found Danny, Acey and Tim and handfuls of cake quickly made its way onto their faces as well.
The entire party watched on as the six of us started a full on cake fight. We wore our cake masks with pride and took every opportunity to add to the masks of those around us. Random passersby got involved and the entire party looked on as a large birthday cake fell to pieces on the faces and bodies of all those within striking distance. It was a second grader’s dream birthday party. And the perfect way to celebrate my thirty-third year–to be a child for a day. I had my whole life to be a man.
Celebrating Queen’s Day with the Dutchies