Three Years on the Road: Going Soft, Getting Mean

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Three Years on the Road: Going Soft, Getting Tough

We’ll start with the soft. I’ve seen lepers with no hands and dropped coins in their tins. I’ve given money to street kids, blind men, grizzled old widows and I always take my leftovers to go so I can share them with someone who actually needs them. The street kids in San Cristobal, Mexico now call me “Mr. Pizza!”.

I’m no hero, I’m just a fellow human on this weird blue marble trying to do what we all are: survive and (hopefully) grow and help when I can.

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

Going Soft

Three Years on the Road: Going Soft, Getting Mean

My favorite supermarket in Leon, Nicaragua was about eight blocks away and I always tried to go early in the morning, before the real heat set in. I’d made this trek a dozen times.

I’d become more than just an anonymous gringo. It felt good.

There was a sweet woman who runs a cheese/milk shop who I’d always greet and many others who recognized me.

On this day, I switched to the shaded side of the street and passed a very old woman struggling to get out of her plastic chair on the sidewalk. The look of amazement on her face as a large sweaty gringo offered her his hand will be with me forever. I took her hand and braced her elbow and helped her up. Her granddaughter rushed out to support her.

“Gracias” is just a word when it comes from the lips but it can be staggering when it comes from the eyes.

I walked into the supermarket, buoyed by this, loaded up on my goodies and left.

Heading home, I passed a bank I’d noticed before but had never entered. There was a security guard standing by the door, armed with a shotgun. I passed by, noticing a trike in front –one of hundreds you see everyday– but then I stopped and turned back.

This one was small and poorly-constructed. It had tires you’d expect to see on a lawnmower. It had a small wooden box bolted to the back that had gone grey from the sun, one plank hanging loose.

There were no pedals — it had a hand crank. It was a ride for an inválido, a cripple. A very poor inválido. People can’t afford wheelchairs here, powered or unpowered. I’ve found these trikes all over the world, but this was the roughest I’d ever seen.

I can only imagine how the owner made it into the bank, but I doubt it was pleasant or dignified.

I looked to the guard, who was watching me, nodded to the cart, and slipped a 50 cordoba note under the thin leather padding of the seat — leaving it out enough be be noticed. I pointed to it, then pointed to my eye and pointed back to guard, tilting my head.

Sign language: Will you watch this?

He nodded back and gave me a big smile.

It’s hard to read a man behind sunglasses. Sensing my concern he then gave me a second, slower nod and a thumbs-up. I’m pretty sure my unknown friend got his gift.

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

Getting Mean

Three Years on the Road: Going Soft, Going Hard

I put up with less now. I walk differently — slower and with a slightly stronger roll of the shoulders. Anyone who tries to stare me down receives the same treatment.

I smile at couples, families and older people. I step off the sidewalk to let them pass but to the random younger guys who sit in doorways staring and evaluating, I’m not so friendly. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is.

Nicaragua has been an odd experience. I felt safe in Guatemala, even much of Honduras (the current murder capitol of the world) and in southern Mexico.

But in Managua, when I started to leave the hotel with my backpack and the manager flipped out, pointing at a sign in English that said “Leave your valuables, credit cards and passports in your room”, well… I kind of realized I was in a different scene.

Three Years on the Road: Going Soft, Getting Mean

I didn’t dally there, moving to Granada, sharing a bus ride with an oddball I’d met named Mike. He was retired, on a two-month holiday and claimed to be an ex-reporter for a paper in Detroit. Strangely, all of his stories involved selling cars.

I’ll give more details in the next post, as it was he who introduced me to a modern day Don Quixote. But, yes, you’ll have to wait for that tale.

Mike was fun, at first. He was smart –smarter than me– and we had several good conversations, stretched and fed by beer and food. But like many people who know a lot, he tended to think he knew it all. We would be talking history and he’d interrupt me, saying “Pizarro didn’t invade the Incas in 1531, it was 1532!

After almost 500 years, I don’t think a single digit really matters. I was off by 0.2%. NASA has launched rockets with less precision than that.

I travel solo for a reason.

He also had a bad habit of finishing your jokes for you, jumping in with the punchline at the last minute. Charming.

We ended up at the Oasis Hostel in Granada, which he assured me was a great deal, as he’d heard about it from some guy and had a brochure. It, of course, turned out to be an over-priced party hostel.

We got separate rooms and I snuck out early the next morning to go shoot some photos (and to get away from him — he’d latched onto me like a leech).

Granada –at least the touristy, safe part– is not that large and he, of course, spotted me walking across the plaza and waved me over. He’d met a Swede who knew a place way over there that was half the price of the Oasis. Mike was going to go check it out. Yes, please do.

I told him I was busy shooting and moved on. He found me later, sitting at an outside cafe and enjoying a cold beer. He sat down and said “I got us a new place. It’s cool. No wifi but it’s clean and only $8 a night. The neighborhood looks a bit rough but it should be fine”.

Now, I was in the middle of a graphics gig for an important client and I absolutely needed reliable wifi. And, although it was over-priced, the only decent ‘desks’ to be found at the Oasis were right by the pool, where young German and Israeli women hung out in bikinis. As an office, it didn’t exactly suck.

“Dude, I’m sorry but I’m in the middle of a project and I need wifi. It’s not an option. And I really don’t want to wander the streets at night, waiting to be stabbed.”

“Well, you better show up — I had to put down a $4 deposit for your room!”

Did I marry this guy and not realize it? Now he’s making plans for both of us.

So I let it drop and we bullshitted as the beer flowed. After some now-forgotten exchange he bristled and noted, “I want you to realize that you’ve told me to ‘go fuck myself’ three times in the last couple of days. It’s starting to rub me the wrong way”.

And there it was: the opening I’d been waiting for. I try to avoid conflict but this was long overdue.

“Yes, I have. When are you going to take the fucking hint?”

He left in a huff, sticking me with the bill. I never saw him again.

Best money I ever spent.

53 comments on “Three Years on the Road: Going Soft, Getting Mean

  1. Solo travel.

    Full stop. No need to explain more to one that gets it.

    Fun post Wes. Glad you had to put up with the ass, instead of me, so you had the story to tell the rest of us. ;)
    Michael Hodson recently posted..A big day for someone and my serendipityMy Profile

  2. And the jackal didn’t even offer to buy you a marg at Guero’s. What an ass! I ran into a guy like this in Cuenca in March, when my wife and I were there. He wouldn’t shut up, knew all the answers, interrupted us every sentence and would not leave us alone. He followed us everywhere. I should have given him the answer you did, but my wife would have been pissed at me! Just kept sneaking out! What is it with these people? Be safe!
    Mike

  3. hmmm…seems like you’ve told me that a few times Wes…I think I just got my feelings hurt! :(
    Glenn Dixon recently posted..Dear Apple: Goodbye!My Profile

  4. Wow, I was just going to email you about how life is in Nic-a-rag-you-wa when I saw this post. Hm. Is it that bad in Leon? Robbing/stabbing country? Or is that just Managua – kind of like Detroit? Here’s your chance to guarantee we won’t leech onto you ;-)
    Dixie Dixon recently posted..Dear Apple: Goodbye!My Profile

    • Leon is easy — no worries here. Granada is dodgy at night if you get off the tourist path. Managua is a waste of time, imo.

      • Castor Chua on said:

        I travelled through south and central america in 2011.
        My ultimate conclusion on the region (undoubtedly heavily influenced by the fact that I didn’t move as slowly or as carefully as you, and every non-english interaction I experienced was funnelled through the spanish speaking woman I was involved with at the time) was that everything from Colombia to Mexico was pretty similar. Or at least, it gets repetitive… Antigua is pretty similar to Granada. San Blas is pretty similar to Bocas del Toro. I struggle to recall anything to differentiate San Jose from Leon or Tegucigalpa or San Salvador.
        If it wasn’t for the internet situation there (and your need for it) I would recommend going to Cuba and staying there. You have to visit anyway, because its incredible and it’ll be great for your blog, but try to find someone you CAN play nicely with :) Casas particulares go for about $25 per night and rarely deviate below that so you’ll want to be able to spilt a room with someone.

        • I agree fully with the above, Central American all blends into each other (Costa Rica differentiating itself only by the number of gringos and pricing – I’ve never gone anywhere where I’ve felt more ripped off). Cuba is fantastic if you can cope with humidity and, like Castor mentions, poor internet (and banking by the way). But the people are GREAT and the Spanish clear. Great opportunities to meet nice people. And Havana has to be seen. Also, I’m no expert on Mexico – but I went earlier this year and I was very impressed by Mexico City and some of the towns to the North (Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro).

          Frank recently posted..Falling for the Bangkok Gem ScamMy Profile

  5. I will never stop sharing your stories, Wes. So, so gratifying that told “Mike” off. Now, what to do with a landlady who doesn’t seem to understand when you tell her repeatedly you prefer to keep to yourself…
    Marsha recently posted..Smith Tower, Secrets, and SeattleMy Profile

    • Marsha, you have been so supportive and I thank you so much. Hope to meet you in the real world sometime soon. If there’s ever anything I can help with, please shout.

  6. Joanne Joseph on said:

    ““Gracias” is just a word when it comes from the lips but it can be staggering when it comes from the eyes.”

    Probably the best 22 words I have seen in print in a long, long time!

  7. Hehe, great story. I don’t really think that’s a case of being mean, just justified anger.
    Turner recently posted..Why I’m LuckyMy Profile

  8. Great story Wes, Solo Travel is the way to go…

  9. Haahaha! Love it!

    If you make it to Saun Jaun del Sur, my friend owns the Naked Tiger hostel. Check it out.
    Nomadic Matt recently posted..Interview with Tim LeffelMy Profile

  10. Love it. Believe it or not I experience many of the same things on the streets here in Turkey, but I’m sure Granada is special….
    James Denison recently posted..Orwell 1984: Under The Same SkyMy Profile

  11. Kiki on said:

    Hahaha, I can hear your voice every time I read your posts! and that’s the best part. Feels like you’re closer than you are. So X and i were wondering what you did when that manager wanted you to leave all your valuables in the hotel room? That Mike guy sounds like a piece of work! Kinda strange he was looking out for you so intently.. I mean its a nice gesture, but he’d also just met ya… Oh and i too loved that line about how you saw that woman’s gratitude in her eyes when you helped her relative. Very moving. You’re a keeper. Great of you to offer help and a little cash when you see an opportunity. I don’t know if many would do that. They might feel safer second-guessing their generosity, and sticking to themselves, so to speak.. Miss ya dude. xx Kiki

  12. I think your soft and slow outweighs your mean – especially since your mean isn’t malice.
    Maria recently posted..Party LightsMy Profile

  13. DonaKay on said:

    Wes, I think you need to get back on the reservation in south Texas. I love your sense of humor and your story telling keeps me smiling. Keep safe and happy.

  14. You had me laughing out load in my coffee shop. Great story, and I can definitely relate to the ‘leech’ that just won’t get the hint. I loved your soft moments as well. Very eloquently told. Looking forward to hearing about Don Quixote…
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted..From Tutus to Toilets: A Look into Taipei’s Theme RestaurantsMy Profile

  15. Utterly sterling. Every word. Every bold. Every italic. I can’t imagine where I’d even begin to start quoting.

    Seriously.

    Well o.k. – as a fellow die-hard, I guess I could start with:

    “I travel solo for a reason.”

    Indeed. Likewise my mantra.

    Thank you, she murmurs. Thanks ever so much for sharing.
    Daynne@TravelnLass recently posted..Expat “Culture Shock”? Nonsense!My Profile

  16. Uncle is looking like Indian, “Kaise ho chacha ?”
    John Martin recently posted..Hello world!My Profile

  17. I’d love to see this guy’s face if he reads your story here.. in fact, it’d be awesome if he’d commented too!
    Zara @ Backpack ME recently posted..Our harrowing journey with Zara’s India Visa (in realtime)My Profile

  18. Why are people so damn weird? It’s rarely the locals; typically the fellow travelers. The only thing Managua is good for (or was good for?) was a family churrasco place that operated out of the front of their house about a block from the Galgos bus station. My best eating memory in Central America not involving ceviche.

  19. One more thing: I am a little surprised about Guatemala. Felt safer? Haven’t been there since 2003 and have been getting steady reports of it getting worse and worse. Back then we just avoided the obvious and rarely took a bus at night. Now old friends tell me of muggings of mini-van buses in broad daylight in Xela. I hope that is exaggerated. Guate and Nica were my favorite two places in CA.
    Kevin Revolinski recently posted..Czech Loves You Philip Morris (and the Bone Church)My Profile

    • Fair point on Guatemala — I didn’t take night buses for the same reason. And, no, you can’t just wander off to take photos of that cool cemetery over there. But I still felt fairly safe wandering home at night. I didn’t worry about flashing my smartphone or camera as much. And if I took a wrong turn at night, ended up 4 blocks from home, and asked for directions, I didn’t have a pimp tell me “es muy peligroso”. (Hello, Granada). Just a different vibe… All subjective, of course…

  20. come get weird at the nakedtigerhostel when you get to San Juan Del Sur

  21. There’s such a vast difference between tourism, being an expatriate and being a nomad. The nomad develops a perspective over time that is uniquely open-minded but at the same time our realism can be confused with cynicism. NOT! As far as the solo bit…I travel solo about 50% of the time. It fits my personality type.

    • I totally agree with you. Also being an expatriate can have its own advantages though. As an expat you get to know the culture much deeper!
      Travel Musts recently posted..A Must Eat lunch in CreteMy Profile

      • Teresa Roberts on said:

        Not always…. Many expats recreate the home they left behind, drive change within the new community, never learn the language and largely hang out with other expats. Just saying….

        Teresa recently posted Where is Paradise?

        • Sad but true. I’ve found it everywhere. I once met an expat who had lived in Thailand for 10 years and barely knew how to say “thank you” in Thai.

      • Absolutely. But you have to make the effort ;)

  22. I so would of loved to be a the next table over hearing this! I can just imagine this guy, have meet them before! Love your personal stories, and you may be getting soft but it’s all for a good reason! Love you stories as always!
    Hannah @ Getting Stamped recently posted..#7 of 10 – Most Anticipated: FijiMy Profile

  23. Craziness! Seems there is always someone out there within whom there is no “there”. Yes, money well spent.
    Jonathan Look, Jr. recently posted..Incredible BangkokMy Profile

  24. I only travel with people that I know I won’t kill. That’s the only way to go. Mike, yup, I may have killed him. I can’t stand know-it-alls…. it’s only okay when I do it! Ha ha! – Great story! I love your tale of the trike.
    Wrabbit007 recently posted..Gran Bahia Principe Tulum – A Mexican Paradise in AkumalMy Profile

  25. 3 Years…Crazy! I often read online that during a couple of years of travel, you learn so much more than if you had spent – say 5-10 years living in one place. The people and the experiences you met and had must be incredible.

  26. haha, oh man. Some people need to hear it like that to understand though. But really though, putting a down payment on a room for someone you just met that you aren’t even traveling with lol. I wonder how many other similar situations he has been in.
    Gabriel – We Travel and Blog recently posted..Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Getting Travel InsuranceMy Profile

  27. We have been doing a house-sitting gig in Managua and have been around for a few months. So far we have not felt unsafe here, not even on our early jogging rounds before the dawn. Our first day here we got a quick tour around the flat and empty downtown area. It was so uninviting that have stayed in the suburbs.
    Global Nomads recently posted..House-sitting in Managua, NicaraguaMy Profile

  28. that’s even the reason why I don’t want to travel alone.. i always bring with me my travel buddy..someone i know that I can share with.
    john@discoverydiscovery recently posted..Things you can get up to in MarrakechMy Profile

  29. Great post, Wes! This is actually my first time on your site and this was the first post that I read…I think I might be hooked! I enjoyed reading all the comments too…funny how most people related to the “mean” side of the story…but the randomly nice gestures (especially in a foreign country) are a much more rare occurrence in today’s world! Look forward to keeping up with your post as I gear up for my first RTW journey! Cheers!
    Wade recently posted..Cultural Rules & Taboos Part 2: EuropeMy Profile

  30. michael on said:

    ha! perfect…

  31. I like your writing style.. will definitely read more!

  32. This story not only brought me to tears, but made me laugh. I applaud your efforts to help someone you know nothing about. We need more people like yourself in this world!
    Morgan recently posted..Gypsy Tales of a Filthy Rich Traveler: Neil Barnes – Backpacks & BunkbedsMy Profile

  33. Having lived in Leon for a year, I fell in love with the Nicas. So great to hear stories from there. Visited Managua frequently while there and had some pretty crazy experiences. Dogs trying to eat my toes because I was a crazy gringa who used scented nail polish, went off on a crooked cop who tried to keep my drivers license on a completely fake traffic infraction (it worked! Kept my DL and therefor no fine!) Had some adventures for sure…
    Laura Gorman “Nica Chick” recently posted..Traveling Tips for TechiesMy Profile

  34. Great write up! Obviously you learn when you travel right, but when you go solo thats when the real education starts and you respect so much more in the world. For me in these cases I find you can never be too soft, or too hard. For the simple fact that there is so much good you can do in the world and there too are so many people who will stand in your way, its in us to determine who is going to help and push away those who hinder. Once again, killer piece.
    Jaryd recently posted..2013 through the lensMy Profile

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