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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.