Quixote: How I Met Charlie


It was Mike who introduced me to Charlie. Mike turned out to be a bit of a pain and we would eventually have a fiery falling out in Granada but, in retrospect, it was all worth it.

“If you’re going through Hell, keep going.” — Churchill

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

I was having a typical Nicaraguan breakfast in a Managuan cafe — scrambled eggs, pinto gallo (black beans and rice) and fried plantains. An older man sat across from me reading a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. It was 10:30AM and there were two empty beer bottles on his table.

Ok, my kind of guy.

We nodded and shared some generic banter across the room and he asked if he could join me at my table. His name was Mike and we ended up drinking beer for several hours and had a great conversation. He claimed to re-read Ulysses at least once every couple of years — kind of a slow-rolling literary hiccup, I suppose.

I’d planned on leaving town that day but soon realized that this was not going to happen — we’d already killed too much time and I hate arriving in a town after dark.

As we paid our tabs and left, he said “You have to come check out my hotel and meet Ivan. He’s from Bulgaria. He’s only got one leg.”

Exactly why I should meet some anonymous one-legged Bulgarian I really didn’t understand but I did want to see the hotel. Mike was paying less than I was and didn’t have have to shout at the owner to get off the couch and unlock the front gate every time he wanted to come home.

But the place was full — no rooms available. Regardless, I got to meet Ivan who was probably the palest human being I’ve ever seen. He was well past 60, with a shaved head and blurry tattoos on his arms that hinted of gangs or prison or both. And, yes, he had an prosthetic leg from his knee down.

Ivan and I shook hands after the requisite introductions and then just kind of stared at each other. Where do we go from here?

He was chatting with a Nica woman half his age and I understood the situation pretty quickly. He was a little busy.

“Nice to meet you.
Adios,” I said.
Show over.

And the show really was over. None of us knew it at that moment, but Ivan would die of a massive heart attack just three hours later. It took the ambulance an hour to arrive, which was about 58 minutes too late.

I was the last stranger he ever met. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

The next day Mike and I had agreed to meet up for lunch at a cafe called the “Three Sisters”. Ironically, it was owned by three sisters. The food was good and cheap and we could sit outside on the sidewalk, in the tattered shade of some ragged trees.

Charlie came walking down the street, bow-legged and thin, thick hair gone white, looking older than God but carrying a smile surrounded by a scruffy beard.

Mike waved him over
and introduced us.

I have this bad habit of teasing people who I like and I immediately liked Charlie. He was a self-described ‘coon-ass’ from Louisiana and could give hell as well as he took it. We were both Southerners. We knew the game.

Quixote: How I Met CharlieHe was 75 and had made his living as a professional diver in the oil field. He was retired now but could easily outrun me around the block, possibly beat me in arm-wresting and certainly climb a steep hill faster than I. If I make it to 75, I hope that I’m in half the shape he is, bow-legged or not.

So I jumped in with little bits of sarcasm or pure flat-out asshattery at times. Charlie took it all with a grin, in the spirit it was intended. Then he got up to go visit the bathroom.

“I’m enjoying seeing you give Charlie a little shit,” Mike said “I go easy. He’s told me that the ’embolisms’ have caught up with him. He’s gone too deep and come up fast too many times. It’s messed with his brain. He loses his train of thought and sometimes gets angry for no reason”.

Okay, now I feel like a complete asshole.

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

He returned but I laid
off the teasing.

As he walked up I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: a black and white speckled composition notebook that he carried stuffed down the back of his pants. It stuck out about halfway above his belt. I never once saw him open it and it appeared to be in pristine condition.

He then laid out his plan. Howard Hughes had spent some serious time in the Intercontinental Hotel here in Managua, renting out two entire floors during his hermit years. Charlie had discovered that the maid who cleaned his room was still alive and might be willing to speak with him.

This was –somehow– his Big Break. At 75. It’s never too late, I suppose.

I think, at his age, he didn’t realize that maybe half of the American public actually knew who Howard Hughes was and half of those thought he was Leonardo DiCaprio.

The world had moved on. Charlie hadn’t.

And what gems of knowledge he hoped to mine from the woman who emptied the Big Man’s trash and scrubbed his toilet just escaped me. But Charlie was on the hunt. He had the scent and like a bloodhound, he was running it down.

He only ordered a Coke but snuck shots of vodka from a Sprite bottle when the sisters weren’t looking. Again, my kind of guy.

Quixote: How I Met CharlieMike and I had been talking about moving on to Omotepe, an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua and we had talked Charlie into joining us. He was reluctant but I had already started to realize that Mike would be a handful and it’d be nice to have Charlie around so I worked hard –selfishly– to convince him to join us.

Around sunset, we agreed to meet up at Mike’s place at 9am the next morning, thinking we’d stop in Granada for a day or two before hitting the island — it was on the way. Mike was becoming increasingly incoherent so I gave the whole operation a 50/50 chance of success. I was overly-optimistic.

The next morning, I packed my bags but left them in my room and headed to Mike’s hotel, just a few blocks away. Charlie was sitting in the foyer, downstairs. “Mike’s a wreck,” he said. “He can hardly stand. I’m heading to the cafe. Come on down — I gotta show you something”.

Checking in with Mike,
he was indeed a wreck.

His room was the sort of scene that a hurricane would step into and say “What the hell happened here?!” He kind of wandered in circles, mumbling and moving stuff from one pile to the other but getting nothing done.

Ok, we’re not going to Granada today. This was fine as I had plenty work to do and my hotel had pretty fast wifi. I walked down to the Three Sisters and found Charlie in a very agitated state.

“I just got this email from the manager of the Intercontinental,” he said, waving a sheet of paper. “The lady at the hotel desk printed it out for me.”

He dug in his pockets, seeking his reading glasses, pulling out the usual coins and bills and bits of detritus that we all carry. Finally, he found them in his shirt pocket and scanned the text again before he handed it over. His hand trembled as he did this.

“Dear Sir,” it read, “I am still in touch with the woman you are referring to and she has agreed to meet you and answer any questions you may have about Mr. Hughes. Please get in touch and I can make the arrangements.”

“I can’t go to Granada — this is my big chance! And to be honest, I don’t really like Mike anyway — he’s too goddamned pushy“.

About this time, Mike staggered over and joined us, shirt mis-buttoned by an order of two, ordering eggs and a beer. We filled him in on the situation.

“My only problem,” said Charlie, “is that I don’t speak Spanish that well. I’m not sure how I’m going to do this.”

“Charlie, talk to the lady at your hotel desk and I’ll bet you anything she can fix you up with someone who’ll translate for a couple of hours for ten bucks or less.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “That’s a damned good idea.”

And without another word, he stood up and walked away, the letter clutched in his hand like a shield, with the notebook sticking out of the back of his pants, in search of his own personal windmill. It was the last time I’d ever see him.

The sight of the notebook triggered something in my memory and it nagged at me until it finally surfaced.

I remembered watching him dig through his pockets and I chuckled as the realization hit.

“Just what the hell is so funny?!” Mike asked gruffly, hungover and certainly not in the mood for this kind of nonsense.

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

“I don’t think he owns a pen.”

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve June 13, 2013 at 9:17 am

haha nice story! managua sounds like a crazy place indeed. i only passed thru managua on the bus so i missed out on the craziness. hope you enjoy granada and ometepe! if you’re into chess i know one of the best players in nica and he lives in granada.


Michael June 13, 2013 at 10:13 am

great story wes!


Mo Draj June 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Always amazing me with your writing skills, Wes… Great story!


Richard June 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Wes, what a engaging story. Wonder what Mike is up to these days, surely not cleaning his room :)


Jeremy Branham June 14, 2013 at 8:10 am

Beautiful story Wes! Love the way you write and tell these stories. I hope Charlie found a pen.


Jonathan Look, Jr. June 14, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Funny how many of these people like Charlie you meet while “out there”. Got to have a hobby, even if you don’t engage in it I guess!


Maria June 17, 2013 at 6:15 am

Love your posts for the great story telling and rich photos – that first one stopped me in my tracks long enough for my coffee to cool. Hate your posts for the great story telling and rich photos – I’ve now spent fart too much time Wes, just daydreaming of Managua because I felt as though I was there, next to you through out this tale and have missed the first bus to work. :-D

May I have some more please?


wes June 17, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Thanks. More coming — I met some real characters in Managua and Grenada.


Laura Gorman "Nica Chick" December 31, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Great story! I really hope, tho, that you made it to Omotepe after all. I had a memorable week there, staying at Hotel Paraiso. Monkeys clambering on my tin roof all night… But seriously an absolutely beautiful place and the best food I’ve ever had in my whole life. Grilled steak con salsa de jalapeños y tostones. I’d go back just for the food!