I sit in the passenger seat of an old, dilapidated taxi cab swerving down the barren road, acutely aware that my life is about to end before my journey has even begun. My driver, a thin, dark-skinned man who talks a mile a minute, assumes I understand what he is saying because I foolishly nodded my head when he asked if I spoke Spanish. Unfortunately, five months spent in Guadalajara a half-dozen years ago didn’t prepare me for his distinctive vernacular.
Had I stuck to the original plan, right now I’d be lying on the beach in Mexico, sipping amargaritas with fancy little umbrellas perched on the side, conjugating verbs with some newfound amigos. Instead, I took the advice of a virtual stranger — a travel blogger commenting on a forum thread — who claimed that Nicaragua was not only a more economical destination, but also that the experience would change my preconceived notion of the country as being little more than a nation controlled by drugs and violence.
“I’ve studied all over Latin America,” he wrote, in response to a fellow traveler seeking advice on Spanish classes abroad, “and Nicaragua is hands down my favorite. Beautiful beaches, amazing scenery, cheap as hell… and you’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier group of locals than those who call that country home.”
My desire to travel as cheaply as possible outweighed any reservations I had about ending up in a potential hotbed of shady activity. After weeks of online research, I finally settled on Granada as my home base. Booking a flight into neighboring Costa Rica, I figured the money I’d save would make up for the two additional bus rides and border crossing I’d be forced to endure. Just a minor inconvenience, that’s all.
I vaguely recall collapsing under the weight of my backpack less than one hundred meters from the border office. The next thing I remember is looking up at a tall uniformed man, a crossing guard, beads of sweat forming on his furrowed brow.
Bending over, he asked in broken English if I was all right. When I finally nodded yes, he gently lifted me by the arm, helping me to regain my footing. Hoisting my pack over his shoulders, he then led me to the office, and, using his authority to separate the crowd, ushered me to the front of a line of people anxiously awaiting their passport stamps.
Paperwork complete, he escorted me through the gates to where a group of cab drivers stood in eager anticipation of the new arrivals. Remembering the travel blogger’s warning, I mumbled something about how I wasn’t going to pay fifty dollars for a cab when it would cost me only two for the bus.
The guard looked at me, then turned to address one of the drivers, their words too heavily accented and my head in too much pain to comprehend. After exchanging a few words, the cab driver nodded. “Veinticinco para ti,” he said. Too exhausted to argue, I nodded. Besides, twenty-five dollars was a good deal, considering the drive was over an hour long.
After handing the guard a tip and shoving my pack into the backseat, I jumped in.
“De donde eres?” Carlos asks, as I sit uncomfortably beside him, my right side leaning against the passenger door. I say I’m from Canada, and a big smile appears across his face. He has family in Canada, he says. They live in Vancouver. Or maybe it’s Toronto? The two cities are close to each other, right?
“Um, no,” I reply, pausing a moment to mentally translate. “They’re on opposite sides of the country.”
“Well,” he says, “Canada can’t be that big, can it?” He laughs, and I do too.
As he chats with me and my rusty Mexican-accented Spanish, I cautiously take in my surroundings, looking through the dirty, cracked window at the view of countryside. I have to agree with the travel blogger; it really is beautiful here.
Just as I begin to relax, Carlos asks if I’d mind him making a quick pit-stop. Thinking I must have misunderstood, I turn my head. “Que?” I say. Seemingly unconcerned, he repeats himself, and still oblivious, yet not wanting to be perceived that way, I nod hesitantly. Immediately he makes a sharp right turn, leading us down a narrow dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
Almost instinctively, I take a deep breath and remind myself to calm down. I recognize that thanks to my decade-long fascination with true crime novels and America’s Most Wanted, I tend to be overly suspicious of everything.
Still, I decide it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye out for land markers, rationalizing to myself that it’s not Carlos I’m worried about, but rather his car.
The further he drives on this narrow road, the more anxious I get. It doesn’t help that Carlos is no longer chatting away, but rather staring straight ahead, seemingly deep in thought, both hands gripping the wheel tightly.
“Quanto tiempo mas?” I ask, trying to sound as light-hearted as possible.
He doesn’t answer me. And that’s when I start to panic.
Using my peripheral vision I look for something, anything, that I could use to defend myself. Besides a couple of empty soda cans and a Bible sitting on the dashboard in front of him, there is nothing.
How long will it take before my family and friends notice I’m missing? Will they ever find my body? Did I remember to put on a decent pair of underwear?
My thoughts are interrupted by the sight of a rundown shed, awkwardly positioned on a dirt hill alongside the ditch. There is a makeshift awning in front, a bright blue color, and we get closer, I notice a young woman. She’s bending over a bucket, scrubbing something by hand. When she sees the cab coming, she stands up.
Carlos pulls over, and, after assuring me he’ll only be a minute, jumps out of the car. He runs over to where she is standing, then, taking her face into his hands, leans down and kisses her lips. Feeling a little like a voyeur, I turn my head to give them some privacy.
A minute later he’s back in the car, and before I know it he’s pulling a U-turn, driving back toward the highway.
“Es mi novia,” he says, that same huge grin once again lighting his face.
Carlos, no longer preoccupied and speaking slowly so I can keep up, tells me about the love he has for his country as he drives toward my chosen destination.
Four weeks and three sunburns later, I sit in the Managua airport, waiting for the plane that will bring me back home.
I pull out my journal, the same journal that I promised myself I would use every day, but instead was just left sitting in the bottom of my carry-on.
I begin to write, but it soon becomes clear that my thoughts are too convoluted to organize on paper. So for now, I decide to focus on what I know for sure.
Nicaragua is a country where you can buy lethal, non-government regulated fireworks in the same place you get your rosary beads and bakery products. It’s a place that doesn’t see false advertising as crime, but rather a clever marketing tactic, and just because something is on sale doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s on sale for you. A country where many people who can’t afford the luxury of basic footwear wouldn’t be caught dead without a cell phone, a ten o’clock am bus departure only means it definitely won’t be leaving before then, and people who don’t understand a word of English know the lyrics to every Michael Jackson song ever recorded.
Closing my journal, I think about all of these things that I find so contradictory about this strange and beautiful country. I also think about how close I came to missing out on this life-changing experience, to spending these last four weeks lying on some tourist-laden beach in Mexico, sipping on watered-down margaritas. And finally, I think about Carlos.
And that’s when it suddenly hits me, that just like him, I too am in love with Nicaragua.