Leaving Nicaragua

Suddenly, it’s over.

Martina and I climb from the bus, and wave to Spencer, Marlon, and Myra. A quick, light lunch of fruit and orange-carrot juice and walk in the light rain to Martina’s Esteli boarding house. In a sleep-deprived trance I pack my bag, update my facebook status, shoot an email to the only guy who seems to not take my perpetual absence personally (“Nicaragua was just amazing, can’t wait to tell you about it! Dinner in two weeks, when I get back from Colombia?”), and we flag a taxi in the spitting rain.

I can’t think about leaving or imaging my mornings without Martina or our shared adventures, so I don’t. Or I’ll cry. So Martina and I chit-chat like it’s nothing. But our faces are tense.

And when we pull into the station, the bus is unexpectedly already loaded and ready to go. It’s a cruelly quick kiss on the cheek and last hugs, and I’m onboard the bus, in the seat behind the driver so he can keep an eye on me and flag me when we arrive at my Managua stop.

The city bus is surprisingly plush, and I sit back in cushioned luxury. Laughing with the driver and his assistant, as I watch us barely cheat imminent death, time and again, through the massive windows. We stop once, for the driver’s assistant to hop from the front to pick up two cups of coconut ice cream from a roadside station, as passengers sit and wait, indifferent.

Mountains, countryside and life, accented with Sandinista-era murals of children loading automatic weapons, swirl by.

A pastel rainbow of thousands of plastic bags float along side us. They pile up along barbed wire fences and the corners of tiny houses. And despite myself (and the environmental damage I know it represents), glittering in the setting sun, the colorful garbage takes on a new, strange, beautiful glow.

It’s the first quiet moment I’ve had in days. And I can’t think of much more than the sound of my own breathe, exhausted and happy, in every sense of the word.

Hours flit by. We trundle into the baking streets of Managua, and I  hop off the bus at the yellow-stucco Best Western strategically located across the street from the airport, so I’ll only have to roll from bed and cross the street to catch my early morning flight.

When I see my tanned, dusty face and greasy hair and not-so-clean sundress in the open-air lobby mirror, I smile back at the stranger. Every bit a back-packer now. Well, somewhat — the laptop and fancy camera in my pack would say otherwise. So much has changed.

It’s hard to remember the girl I had once been, who had put her head down and worked so diligently at the 9 – 5 (often more) from a carpeted cubicle ensconced in florescent light, dreaming of someday, living some kind of different life…

My simple, over-priced double-room feels like a museum, so quiet, massive and perfectly laid out.

A cool swim, a shower and quiet dinner alone, as I pour over photos and memories, between little conversations in much-more-fluent Spanish, with my waiter…as sun-burnt families and tour groups grow louder and louder, with every round of drinks. I decide I’m quite happily alone. And I fall into bed, asleep by 8PM.

The next morning, I walk through the sunlight and across the four lanes of traffic, to the barbed wire encased airport. I wait for my connection to Panama City, and then, finally, Colombia.

Riding on Top of the Bus, with Bags of Beans

With a generous blast of a horn, the brand-new bus, striped with brown and red paint, trundles down the gravel hill.

Martina motions up the back ladder, and we climb up and up. We nestle down amongst massive bags of frijoles and the journey home begins.

We crawl along the rutted, jungle road, laying flat to dodge branches along the way. Above me, all I see is a network of leafless tree branches against the immense, cloudless blue sky. For a minute it looks the branches are roots, dipping into a massive lake. It’s like a whole new world, opening up before me, as I sit on my back, swaying with bags of beans.

I’ve never felt more tired, or more alive. I could never imagined last year I’d be touring coffee farms in Nicaragua, racing horses, or riding with a couple kids on the top of a bus. I could hardly imagine leaving my Seattle home and traveling for five months to places I’d only dreamed of. Even just being friends with the landlord of my summer house in France. I grin at Martina.

Life is one crazy, amazing thing. Truly and really.

There were a lot of turmoil and challenges in the  last few years, that I could have never imagined. But without them, those difficult moments, I wondered if I’d appreciate this moment as much? If I’d even be here, at all, right now.

Staring at the blue sky, I wonder what comes next.

The Long Flight Home

After a 5 hour midnight flight from Addis to Frankfurt, I stumble (sleep-deprived, silent and shocked) through the shades of early-morning airport-gray. I try to keep up with the sterile, fast-moving, screaming, electric world around me, but fail.

I fall into my middle seat in the back of a brutal, excessively long non-stop flight to Seattle. I instantly fall asleep.

When I nod awake, I pull out my laptop and try to keep my elbows from nudging my neighbors as I delete one bad photo after another photo. There are a lot of bad photos. Chaotic, busy…and not in a good, artistic way.

Even with my memory freshly imprinted with the stories, with my love of the place and people — I can’t stop seeing the reasons and ways they are all wrong. How they failed to capture the magic that was there, that I felt in person.

Tired shoulders sag as I slump forward in my seat. Stomach churning. I feel like I failed.

I flew all the way to Africa, my very first time, in the place I have dreamed of, for years. (After only settling upon Ethiopia as a starting point because of a photo I once saw, while hammering together a photo show of my own…) And looking at the photos I worked so hard to collect, that I’d hoped would capture the amazing, magic of it all…

Instead all I feel is a disappointment so personal and intense, I can feel it burning its way up from the core of my heart to my blood-shot eyes as I fight back bursting into tears. I take a deep breath.

Are you a National Geographic photographer, then? the passenger to my right asks me. His English is accented with German.

Um, me? No… Weak smile, he must be trying to be nice. But thank you. That’s generous of you to say….

Your photos are really very amazing. The sincerity, the timing — it stops me. What are they for? he asks.

And so I tell him, the elderly man in 28F, about my month in Ethiopia. But it leads to more questions. So then I tell him more. I tell him that I quit my corporate job a few years ago, I started freelancing and traveling (working my way around the world, one amazing place at a time) building a business, in the meantime. When he asks, I tell him I’ve been traveling for 5 months now, ending in Ethiopia, finally making it to Africa. He’s impressed.

And the man in 28E, on the other side of me starts to listen in. Then chimes in. He’d lived in Addis Ababa, years ago, as an archaeologist before the famine, before the Derg fell from power. We compare notes and stories. And then, over a horrible-over-mircrowaved airplane egg breakfast  I’m telling the stories of arriving on Ethiopian New Years, of coffee ceremonies, of dancing, of learning Amharic, of traveling to the stone churches of Lalibela, massive crumbling castles, of smoking crosses at Meskel and being hoisted on the shoulders of men as hundreds of thousands chant with me abeba, abeba, abeba... of working through power-outages, internet-outages, ATM-outages, of sipping avocado shakes and rich, blueberry-cherry coffee and listening to the boisterous, chaotic, pentatonic sounds of life in Ethiopia…

When I catch my breath, even in my everything-in-me-screams-with-beyond-tired-pain in between spasms of an overwhelming sadness for the place and people I’m leaving further and further behind, I am overwhelmed with waves of amazement. Incredible gratitude to have just experienced. This just happened. This is my life...

Maybe I didn’t get it perfect. Maybe I won’t have just the right shot. But this was never the point.

Neither can get over that I went it alone. That in and of itself is pretty amazing. Incredible. You realize that?

I shake my head, and smile. How will I ever adjust living in Seattle again, blends-in-the-crowd, not-so-perfect Joya, now? How will I ever be able to sit through an average day again? What is the next thing, where is the next place? Will I ever want to stop? How do I keep this going…

Will you go back? They both want to know.

I’ll do a few things differently, I’ve learned a lot. I failed a lot, too. I suppose it’s all part of the process, part of life. And so I don’t hesitate, Yes.