We were sitting in a small, local bar in Leon, Nicaragua. My Jamaican friend, Jason, and I were sharing the room with about a dozen other Nicas. He’d found this place and suggested we check it out. “I’ve only been a couple times, man, but the jukebox is top notch. One minute it’s Reggaeton, the next it’s Pink Floyd”.
The place itself was nothing more than a shotgun room built out of cinder blocks painted white, with a tiny alcove to the side that housed the refrigerators and a small rack of cheap rum.
No food, just booze — 1 liter Toña beers seemed most popular, shared by everyone at the table so it was still cold by the end. (No mean trick in 90+ temps). The owner was a stern-faced woman who –bless her heart– had the largest ass I’ve ever seen on an average-sized person. She looked like she was shoplifting a sofa.
He’s thin and didn’t need to but I think he did it just to make me feel better. If I sit in a single chair, odds are pretty good that I’ll end up on my ass when the cheap legs give way. In some places they charge you $5 for breaking the chair. It happens often with gringos.
But it was a nice scene. To our left was a table with a Nica woman who was wearing way too much makeup and seemed quite interested in making either of our acquaintances. When neither of us did more than smile and nod back, she gave up and went back to chatting with her buddy at the table.
He had a nasty habit of spitting on the floor and she would slap him on the arm and call him a pendejo each time. As Jason put it: “Even I understood that.”
It was nothing more than a varnished plywood box with a small pc screen, six sad LEDs and a slot for coins. Hidden somewhere inside was a cheap PC.
Because of the placement of the tables, it really wasn’t possible to browse the selection without standing with your ass in the woman’s face. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done laundry so I declined.
What happened instead, in this beautifully organic way, was that everyone decided she was the DJ and we all took turns handing her 5 cordoba coins (20¢ for 3 songs) and she queued up the music. And she rocked it.
Behind Jason sat a man who was jittery as hell and immediately set off my warning bells. His leg was shaking and he kept sneaking peeks at my friend (who, being born in Jamaica, doesn’t exactly blend in here. Better than me, certainly, but no one is going to mistake either of us for locals). I fully admit to being much more defensive and paranoid here than I was in Mexico or Guatemala. I feel that I need to be. I don’t like it but that’s how it is.
So, I pointed this out to Jason and he said “Yeah, I kinda picked up on that. Maybe he’s just had a shitty day”. Certainly more generous in spirit than I, but still he turned his chair to the wall to better keep an eye on our spastic friend. And in the end, he was right. After the guy got a good beer in him, he settled down and started joking with everyone else in the place and his tone completely changed.
We were only there for a couple of hours, sharing a total of 2 beers between us. We weren’t there to party, both simply wanting to soak up the atmosphere. He and I had hung out long enough before to have swapped our best stories and were comfortable just sitting quietly rather than sharing our B-grade material. Neither of us felt the need to chatter or make small talk.
We’d just called for the check when the Moment happened. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken of the Moment, but it’s the time when everything comes together and you really understand why you’re here at this place and at this time. It’s magic.
It may last a half-second or a half-hour. After three years on the road, I’ve finally learned that it is what I truly seek — not enlightenment, not understanding. I crave the Moment, when everything makes sense. Maybe that is enlightenment of a sort, but it’s just a taste.
Yet I can’t hunt it — I just have to place myself where it can happen. The Moment is a greased pig — you’ll never catch it. It’s a train that doesn’t run on tracks. It’s a ghost.
The next song kicked in and it was a love song (regardless of the language, you can always tell). Immediately, the entire bar became quiet. Then I noticed that everyone was mouthing the words to this tune under their breath. And I do mean everyone.
It wasn’t patriotic, it was a song of love (and I suspect, loss) and being there at that time really brought it all home to me and reminded me why I do what I do. I couldn’t understand the words, but I somehow knew. It was a wave of glory, love and hope filling a cinderblock room in the middle of a rundown barrio.
After it ended the next song came on, a jaunty tune filled with trumpets and an accordion, but everyone sat and stared into their beers for several long seconds without saying anything. In the corner, an old man knuckled away a tear.
That was the Moment. That was the magic. And that’s why I can’t go home.