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!”
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.
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.