Moments of Serendipitous Travel Bliss In Nicaragua

fat man getting haircut outdoors in nicaragua ometepeI 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).

At first, they just laughed and seemed confused by my request.

“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.

ometepe outdoor haircutOne 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.

breakdancing in nicaraguaAnd 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]

A Fresh Air Fiend’s Moments of Travel Bliss

child drives a train in italyFreedom. That’s the whole point of travel, right? Travel is about untethering yourself from your comfort zone to satisfy your curiosity about what’s around the corner, or around the world. Done right, it can be incredibly liberating. But in the U.S., and increasingly around the world, risk adverse corporations, trigger happy lawyers and Big Brother can sometimes take all the freedom and liberty out of our travel experiences.

In May, I had two experiences on FSE, a small regional train line in Italy that reminded me how joyful travel can be when you have the wind in your hair and there are seemingly no rules. The first blissful ride was a short trip from Lecce to Otranto, in Italy’s heel.
FSE trains are shorter and narrower than full size ones, so you have the feeling of being on a mini-train. On this day, there were only a few other passengers on board the three- or four-car train and we had an entire car to ourselves. It was a warm afternoon, and we were passing through a lovely landscape dotted with olive groves, palm trees and tiny little train stations where bored young men used hand crank machinery to shift tracks for passing trains.There were ten windows and I went through the car and opened every one of them as far as I could. I wandered about the empty car, reveling in the life-affirming breeze, which was blowing the train curtains to and fro. I occasionally popped my head out the window, just for the hell of it and because no one was there to tell me not to.

Italians hate open windows on a train, so I was well aware that someone might board the train and end my party at any moment. But it never happened, a few others joined us, but they left the windows open. I enjoyed the ride immensely; in fact, I didn’t really want it to end. But it also reminded me of how rare a commodity fresh air is in hotels, buses, trains and even some ferries these days.

Paul Theroux named one of his books “Fresh Air Fiend” and he could have been writing about me. Unless the weather is brutally hot, I love to be outside and I always want the windows open. But in the U.S., and other countries, it’s getting harder and harder to control one’s access to fresh air. Some hotels don’t let you open the window at all, and others let you open it just a crack.

child on a trainThis spring, I stayed at a Marriott in Zurich and our room had a dramatic view of the city with snow capped mountains as a backdrop. I called down to the front desk to ask them if I could have just one little photo op with the window open, but they wouldn’t budge.

“It’s for liability purposes,” the English speaker at the front desk said.

“But I won’t get that close to the open window,” I pleaded. “Look, you can even have someone hold my hands if you like.”

But it was no use – they refused to let me open the window, even to take a photo. At least in hotel rooms though, one can usually exert some measure of control over the room temperature, imperfect though those systems often are. On a sealed-shut train or bus with no ability to open the window, you are at the mercy of whatever the room temperature is. I’m always warm and my wife is usually cold.

The main reason I don’t like flying is the claustrophobia – there is limited space to move about and you obviously can’t open the windows to get some fresh air. But newer trains and buses are also becoming like flying coffins, where we are sealed shut and protected from both the elements and ourselves. In our cars, we can still put the windows down, at least for now, but the newer ones will squawk at you should you have the nerve to unbuckle your seatbelt, even for a moment.

You can almost always get some fresh air on a ferry ride, but even there you can occasionally be forced inside a sealed coffin. I was on a small ferry in very rough seas en route to the Greek island of Syros in June and the crew forced those of us who were on the deck to go inside when the going got particularly rough. I didn’t feel seasick on deck but inside the cabin with nothing but stagnant, warm air, my stomach started to churn.

And while the fresh air issue isn’t just a U.S. problem, we do seem to have more rules and regulations – many of them inspired by our lawsuit happy culture – that can make travel feel less spontaneous and fun.

I’m not a big drinker but when I visited the ancient Italian college town of Perugia this spring and saw all of the young and not-so-young people enjoying adult beverages in the squares, I wondered why we couldn’t allow the same here. We’re strict about public consumption of alcohol but our college students engage in more binge drinking than the Italians, who are free to drink from an earlier age and in public.

My second moment of travel bliss came on the same train, this time heading to Gallipoli. FSE conductors wear no uniforms, which gives the whole experience a rather casual vibe, and one of them invited my sons to come into his control room to blow the train whistle (see video).

My sons, ages 2 and 4, loved having an opportunity to push the button to blow the whistle and the conductor let them do it over and over again. But after they got bored with that, he actually let my 4-year-old take over the controls of the train for a minute or two (see video below). Now, he was obviously standing right there and could have taken over at any point if an emergency arose, but I just sat back laughing, thinking that there’s no chance that Amtrak would allow such fun and frivolity.

So here’s three cheers for hotels, trains and buses with windows that open, drinking in public and allowing 4-year-olds to drive trains. After all, these are the things that travel is all about.

Bliss spas discounting for college students

When I was in college, relaxation came from the best six-pack of beer I could find for under $5. But, it looks like times are changing. The W’s Bliss spa chain is kicking in 20 percent discounts on spa treatments for college kids this year. With fewer business travelers on the road, it looks like Bliss wants to get at least some cash from someone.

For Bliss, targeting the coed demographic is a first. The 21-location spa has typically stayed with a target market that can afford its luxury offering.

So, what’s it take to get your 20 percent discount? Well, you’ll be expected to bring your student ID with you. Wearing sweatpants and smelling like you haven’t showered in three days doesn’t constitute evidence of being a student … though it probably should.

[Photo by Design Packaging via Flickr]