I was sitting on the Che Guevara ferry, which was bouncing over choppy waters in Lake Cocibolca on the way back from Ometepe island in Nicaragua, when I heard a sweet melody drifting slowly through the humid night air like a message in a bottle floating in the lake. I peaked around the corner of the boat to investigate and stopped dead in my tracks to listen to a young man and his grandmother singing a beautiful, melancholy Christian song.
They were holding hands as the boat swayed backed and forth and I was struck by how unselfconscious the young man was. One could ride planes, trains, boats and buses for a lifetime in the United States and not come across a young man holding hands with his grandmother and singing an impromptu song for no reason other than fun, but here they were.
I listened to their song and then introduced myself. The young man’s name was Janier Mairena. He was 25 and from a town called Altagracia on Ometepe. His grandmother’s name was Maria Auxiliadova Mairena. After chatting with them, I went back to sit with my family and realized that those kind of moments of serendipitous bliss, bordering on rapture, are why I love to travel. I knew I’d never forget them or their sad song but I wanted to share it with others, so I went back over to them and asked them how they’d feel about singing the song again, this time while I filmed them (see video).
“I’m going to put it on YouTube,” I told them. “Give me your email address, Janier, and I’ll send it to you.”
But Janier had no email address and wasn’t familiar with YouTube. Ometepe is a beautiful, but poor and undeveloped island that is about to get an airport. I wondered if in five or ten year’s time any young people on the island will still be without email and unfamiliar with YouTube. Janier gave me the address of his church on Ometepe, saying it was all he had, and then he and his grandma happily sang the song again, just because I asked for the encore.
A few weeks before traveling to Nicaragua, I interviewed Amber Dobrzensky, the author of the “Moon Guide to Nicaragua,” and she mentioned that one of the things she loves about the country is its unpredictability. After visiting the country in late February for the first time, I now know exactly what she meant. These were a few moments of unexpected delight that I’d like to share.
One of the pleasures of visiting a country like Nicaragua is that you see things that you’d never see in the U.S. I could drive around Chicago from now until doomsday but I don’t think I’d ever see a man with a nice, big round belly getting an outdoor haircut with his shirt off. So when I saw just that by the side of the road in Ometepe, I asked our cab driver to pull over so I could meet and photograph the guy.
The big man, his barber and the bystanders had every right to wonder who the hell I was and I’m not sure I would have agreed to a photo if I was in this guy’s situation, but he didn’t hesitate to give his consent. I was greeted as a welcome curiosity on an otherwise dull Monday morning rather than an annoyance.
The man was sitting outside a humble home next to a huge pile of freshly picked plantains and when his neighbors got wind of what was going on, a few came out of their humble homes to tease him.
My Spanish is pretty rusty but I recognized that they were calling him gordo (fat). I think that one woman said something on the lines of, “The tourist wants to take a picture of you because you are so fat.” But instead of taking offense, the man started laughing and then I started laughing uncontrollably and everyone shared in the fun.
And on my last night in Granada, I stumbled across two very different musical talents that surprised and delighted me. The first was a group of guys breakdancing on the street. When I first saw them, from a distance, I was surprised – breakdancing? People are still doing that? But when I stopped to watch these kids I was amazed.
They were unbelievably good and the show just kept going on and on and I couldn’t fathom how they weren’t collapsing in exhaustion. I had the feeling that if these kids were in the U.S., they’d probably have their own show on MTV or, at the least, would be invited to perform at big time venues and on TV, but here, all they could do was pass the hat, and since Nicaragua is a poor country, very few people dug deep to recognize their talents.
My last meal in the country was at a place called El Camello and the food was good but the live music was even better. They had a singer/guitarist who had a great voice but whose passion and fire were even more impressive. I felt that if he lived in L.A., he’d probably already have a recording contract and groupies. He was putting every ounce of his soul into the music and when he stopped by our table during a break to ask for tips, I understood why.
His name was Luis Rolando Casamalhuapa and he was extremely grateful for the tip we gave him.
“I hate having to go around basically begging for money, but I really need to unfortunately,” he said.
He explained that he got into a terrible car accident in his native El Salvador that left him in a coma for more than three months.
“I was really lucky I didn’t die,” he said. “But my teeth were totally smashed out and I need all kinds of dental work.”
Luis said that he came to Nicaragua because the extensive dental work he needed was cheaper there but he was still a bit short and was playing in restaurants and teaching English in order to try to earn the rest of the money he needed. When I’m in the U.S., and someone approaches me with a sad story in need of money, the cynic in me often doubts if they are telling the truth, but in this case I believed every word, even though I couldn’t give Luis the $600 he needed to get his dental work done (nor did he ask for it).
All of the people described in this story touched me in some way – because of their sincerity, their sense of humor, their talent, or their resilience in the face of disaster. And the moments I shared with them, as our paths crossed, are what I’ll treasure most about my visit to Nicaragua. Go to Nicaragua and experience it for yourself. They’ll sing for you; they’ll breakdance for you; hell, they’ll even let you take their photo while they’re getting haircuts with their shirts off.
[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]