In Which a Carton of Orange Juice Makes Me Cry Like a Baby

41 comments

A Carton of Orange Juice Makes Me Cry Like a Baby, Leon Nicaragua

After a few weeks in Grenada, I’ve landed in Leon, Nicaragua. I’m tired and dehydrated and when the shuttle stops at the Bigfoot Hostel where the guy I’m sitting next to has a reservation, I decide to join him (friendships on the road are built on very little at times).

I stay there two nights. Once because I’m rolling in at 2pm, exhausted, and the other places on the street are full (I try four hotels — no luck) and all I want to do is sleep. I’m not used to traveling at high season — I’ve always been dumb enough to visit a place when it’s 100+ degrees and/or pouring rain. It’s worked well for me so far.

But this is high season here in Nicaragua.

I wake up the next morning at 10:30 which, with an 11am checkout, makes it a little tough to find something new. This place is –to put it kindly– a shithole. For $20 a night I get a wooden box and a fan. They have a ‘pool’ but it only has about six inches of water in it — hardly enough for the ladies to justify putting on swimwear, which to my male mind is half the reason to have a damned pool in the first place.

There’s a window in my room with no glass or bars — leave it open at night and it won’t exactly take Jackie Chan to climb in and steal your goods. Bob Barker could do it if Steven Hawking gave him a boost and remembered to unplug his mike. And I’d never even hear the old fart enter because of the trance music blasting from the bar.

There are three toilets in the place, two for men and one for the ladies. There’s also a room with three urinals. You can do the math. Ladies get the short end of the stick, as usual (I swear that’s ten inches, honest!).

Of the two rooms for men, one doesn’t have a toilet seat and the only thing worse than sitting on a seat that someone has peed on is sitting on the actual toilet that everyone has peed on.

The toilet in the other bathroom doesn’t flush, requiring me to fill a bucket with water from outside to force my leavings down the hole. Most of the clientele can’t be bothered with this. (But the cleaning ladies love me for making the effort).

Pet peeve number 23 is the fact that they won’t allow you to bring your own beer or drink — they want you to pay for beer and such at their over-priced bar. If I wanted to pay triple for my drinks and shit in a bag, I’d sign up for a cruise. At least I’d get to play shuffleboard and –ya know– maybe meet a hot Sugar Mama… (call me, Gertrude!)

The next morning, one of the employees wanders back and forth yelling “Cock fights! Cock fights! Bus leaving for cock fights in 10 minutes. Cheap!”

I’m done.

So on day three I find the delightful Hostel Italian. I don’t think anyone there has actually ever met an Italian but it’s clean, cool and quiet.

They want $25 a night which is out of my budget but after some friendly negotiation (and me making the point that the place appears to be entirely empty), the owner drops it to $20 a night if I’ll pay for three days up front. Sold — not sustainable for me but it’s the same price I was paying for a cock-fighting shithole with no toilet seat.

I have a queen-sized bed, cable tv in the room and my very own bathroom with the cleanest shower I’ve seen in months. At $20 a night it’s still outside my budget so I’ll only end up staying the three nights while I search for an apartment.

They have 24-hour security — two men who both work 12-hour shifts. The day guy’s name I immediately forget (if I can’t spell a word or ‘see’ it in my head, it’s gone — that’s just how I’m wired).

But he’s a kind soul, in his late thirties I’d guess, maybe forty. We’ll call him Alejandro because that just feels right (and also because I never use someone’s real name without their permission).

The wifi is best (and the temperature coolest) in the main living room so I tend to work there, chatting off on and on with Alejandro about his life — he has a wife and two young boys in school. He works 12 hour days here, seven days a week. His English is as good as my Spanish and we help each other struggle through.

He has an easy smile but when you see him move you know he’s dangerous — he’s ex-military or police. In a fight, I’d want him at my back. And I certainly wouldn’t want to piss him off.

So on day two, while shopping at the local fancy supermarket, I decide to buy a couple extra pint cartons of orange juice — one for him and one for the cleaning lady who is also a sweetheart.

They both accept them with a smile, a nod and a “gracia” (if the last letter in a word here is an “s”, it’s silent. Sometimes. It drives me absolutely nuts).

Next day I do the same. A carton of juice here is less than 40¢ — chump change. Your couch owns more than that. The cleaning lady isn’t around this time so I drink hers as well as mine (Sorry, darlin’). He puts his in the fridge and goes back to his post by the door.

About an hour later, as I’m editing photos, he pulls a plastic bag out of the fridge and the juice. In the bag, there’s a huge sandwich with leafy greens, tomatoes and I don’t know what else.

I watch him out of the corner of my eye, not wanting to intrude. He eats slowly and methodically with the practice of someone who’s known true hunger. He doesn’t wolf it down, he chews slowly to extract the maximum calories and nutrients and to give his brain time to catch up to his stomach. As far as I know, it’s all he’ll eat today.

Then he takes a sip of juice and smiles. There’s a pause for a moment, then he takes another, much deeper drink. And that simple look of satisfaction is something I’ll never forget.

My eyes well up and at that moment I don’t understand why. But I literally run from the table and into my room where I can let gravity and tears do what they’re meant to do without anyone seeing me.

And in that process I begin to piece it together. Water doesn’t turn into ice in a gradual way. At 33F, it’s water. At 32, it’s ice. It’s a state change. And that’s what this moment is for me. A switch has flipped.

It wasn’t great juice. It wasn’t fresh-squeezed or hand-wrung by virgins — it was the cheapest I could find.

But it was something that he doesn’t allow himself because 40¢ a day is better spent clothing and feeding his family. And when that realization crystalized in my head, I just fucking fell apart.

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

I’ve moved now, to an apartment about ten blocks away. There’s a supermarket that’s closer here but it doesn’t have as good of a selection as my old haunt. So every two to three days I make the trek to load up on goodies and I always buy an extra carton of juice.

I drop it off –he’s always at the door– and we smile and laugh and punch each other in the shoulder, acting out the macho games that boys play. Then I leave, carrying my bags home.

And I still don’t know his name.

41 comments on “In Which a Carton of Orange Juice Makes Me Cry Like a Baby

  1. weetreebonsai on said:

    It is hell to the human spirit to see just how cheap life is to those that have never known true hunger and to witness the total joy in a free cheap to you drink but a luxury they can never afford. I am proud to know it rocked your soul and created a human…

  2. Foolishsailor on said:

    Real.

    So clear from this post that you have immersed yourself in central american culture.

    Spent many years down there, it is a lovely place filled with lovely people, provided your lens of view has been cleared of the fear that infects most americans leaving home.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. This is a simply marvelous story, well and simply told. Thank you, thank you. Maybe I got choked up a bit myself reading it. Maybe. I’m teetering on the verge of going nomad myself, my plans suddenly precipitated by several months. I’ve been nervous and overwhelmed, trying to pull everything together before this coming Friday.
    Thanks for the timely reminder that, as swamped as I feel now, it’s just not all about the logistics.

  4. I don’t know what else to say, amigo, except that this is quite possibly the best piece of prose you’ve ever dropped onto the interwebs. I laughed, I cried (well, almost).

    Miss seeing you on the street every day, compadre! Hope we can reunite soon.

  5. Christina on said:

    This story is as much about you as it is about Nicaragua and Alejandro. It doesn’t surprise me at all that you’re going out of your way to bring a bit of joy to a person’s life.

    Also, the line about the “cock-fighting shithole with no toilet seat” is perfection.

    Wish I could be there and share a cerveza or three!

  6. Beautifully written, hilarious and a reminder of how our hearts are opened in these kinds of moments. Many thanks for this!

  7. A simple moment, but brilliantly lived and written. Thanks for the read!

  8. Beautiful….I laughed then I cried. It’s nice to be able to stop for a moment and ‘feel’ once in a while. It’s people (and experiences) like Alejandro that make traveling worth while.

  9. Sue Haelle on said:

    I really wish Americans could understand the concept of being thankful for what they have. I really liked what you wrote. It brought a tear to my eyes. I know glen and Dixie well and that’s how I was able to read your blog. Thanks, Sue

    • Thanks you Sue and you’re absolutely right: we have no idea how good we have it. I dare anyone to spend a few months in the developing world, then complain at home because there’s too much foam in their latte.

  10. Thanks Wes always love reading your posts.

  11. Great story about human kindness! really shows the world is a good place after all

  12. Rachel on said:

    I loved reading this piece of yours. Heck, I love reading everything on your blog. I actually did a Bolaven Plateau motorbike trip in Laos because I read it here.

    Take care whilst on the road, I’ll definitely keep on reading.
    Cheers!

    • Really?! Thanks so much. How’d the trip go? Did you make it to Champasak? Loved that place….

      • Rachel on said:

        We sure did! There was a new road/bridge up by the time I went so I didn’t have to get on a boat.

        Thanks for asking. Keep on writing! :)

        • Oh, the ferry was AWESOME. Three large metal boats welded together and covered in thick planks. They somehow managed to fit 6-8 trucks on it, plus our scooters. And just to make you feel really safe, it was driven by a 9 year old kid. ;)

          Glad you had a fun trip — loved that area.

  13. First post I’ve seen from you in a while and well worth the wait – Wow!
    I love this story of Mr. OJ.
    Raw, touching and a fantastic souvenir to take with you.

  14. When I saw the title, I assumed that you had experienced some accident/disaster with orange juice i.e. a carton exploded into your eyes. Glad that was not the case. Excellent piece of writing, Wes, and a very entertaining and moving story.

  15. bernie on said:

    yeah a great story!! and just shows its the little things like that that make a great trip!!

  16. And this, quite simply, is why I travel.

  17. Gah! What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.
    And toilets without seats are the WORST. I have too many such stories for one lifetime…

  18. Love this, Wes. Great story that made me emotional. I’ve had some encounters like these and I know what you mean about that kind of hunger. I love that you buy that extra carton of OJ. :)

  19. Thank you for sharing such a great story, I love what you did. Well, if I’m not at work right now, I’d be crying too, my heart is heavy.

  20. Such a great and touching story, and I agree that it really is moments like this that make travel worthwhile. Thanks so much for this uplifting post, you really have an amazing way with words.

  21. Joanne Joseph on said:

    This post made my day and one of the best I have read in a while. This is exactly the kind of travel experience I hope to create (the orange juice part, not the seatless toilet). Thank you for reinforcing why I am about to take off on an endless adventure of traveling the world.

  22. Whoa – I’m blown away. Awesome story, almost teared up myself. Way to put me in my place :)
    Christina Gmyr recently posted..Best Busker in BostonMy Profile

  23. Wes, You are absolutely amazing and living my dream! Thank you for sharing your stories!

  24. Wes you are so fantastic at telling your travel stories. I almost cried reading it! Bravo :)
    Bethany recently posted..Luggage Buying Guide For 2013My Profile

  25. Wes, I have said it before, but I will say it again and again you are one of the best story tellers. Great stuff, we just left Nicaragua a few weeks ago, awesome place with very good people.
    Adam @ GettingStamped recently posted..Damn Antigua, You Are Beautiful > In PhotosMy Profile

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