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.

The Only Woman Coffee Farmer..

We criss-cross the fields, then follow a footpath that skirts a row of mossy fence posts, strung with rusted barbed wire, and a row of tiny, white and yellow baby socks, freshly washed, and drying, in the wind.

Corrugated roof extends over a rough patio. La Doña, a sturdy and beautiful woman with sparkling dark eyes, in a pale green shirt and matching skirt, stands to welcome us when she sees Martina rounding the corner. Her grandson, a boy of 7 or 8, in a faded Mickey Mouse short-sleeved shirt runs from the house as hugs and laughter and introductions are passed around, with kisses on the cheek and more mucho gusto.

Martina whispers her excitement in seeing the clothes she’d collected and hauled over to Nicaragua, from the UK, put to good use.

The women pull up plastic chairs on the patio. And after happy chit-chat, the interview begins. La Dona is the only non-male coffee farmer in the area. In the world of prized mustaches and machismo, her survival and ability to support her family including her grandson, it’s no small achievement. Without flourish, she describes arriving in Miraflor, a woman in her twenties. With a shrug, she writes off the struggles of figuring it out, the hard work over the years. Her eyes are serious and her voice soft and yet strong, and I find myself admiring her. A Nicaraguan pioneer, breaking new ground for other women to follow, in a world where women walk, (never canter) horses.

Her grandson watches the interview and photography, intently. Smiling and curious. And when I step back to capture the scene, matriarch, grandson, Martina, sitting on the white-washed patio under a corrugated tin umbrella, a blond-orange kitten peeks over the roof above them all. A quick gasp. And the grandson’s eyes upon me. Not wishing to disturb the interview, I point up. Gato I silently mouth, Gato.

The grandson nods and smiles wider. I smile. Language is such a wonderful thing. So are kids.

As we wrap up the special interview, I wonder what he might think of his grandmother, the doña, now.

Cell-Phone Reception, Dinner & the Light of a Single Bulb

I join the girls for a hike, up the side of a mountain, in search of cell phone reception. It’s no small task as we carefully pick our way, in sandals, through loose rock and dried leaves, following a seemingly impassable steep whisper of a trail. A golden-green jungle sunset peeks between massive trees and far away emerald hillsides.

In the cooling, golden evening, they stand very still. Trying and failing to place a call. Then trying again. It takes nearly an hour. When we’re about to give up, Myra’s last call reaches the DJ of the local station, which broadcasts music and commentary throughout the jungle into the wood smoked kitchens of thousands, each with a little, black transistor radio. The cloud-forest lifeline.

We head home for dinner, triumphant. Back in the tiny kitchen with it’s perfectly aged walls, weathered grey wood, collection of 10 cups, a few plates. We sink back into the bench at the table, sitting on the dirt floor three feet lower than the rest of the room.  Shoulder to shoulder, we sit. Careful to alternate how many people move at any one time, in the small space. A tiny dog, named Flea, runs under foot and a tinier, flea-bitten kitten, named Mouse, is passed from lap to lap.

Conversation and jokes spill from rapid Spanish to slow English to rapid English and slow Spanish and back again. Waves of laughter roll through it all. We’re like family in no time, despite most of being relative strangers less than 12 hours ago.

There are a few slow minutes when the conversation stops as we cough out the wood smoke that shifts from heating dinner to our teary eyes.   Wood-fire warmed dinner is passed around. A simple and tasty blend of frijoles, rice, scrambled eggs and dried fish that spent the day smoking over a fire.

We clean dishes from a small bowl of precious water (hauled the half mile from the well, earlier in the day) then sit down for more laughing and talking.

Jackson, a mildly handicapped young man in the village who lived a difficult life until

Myra and Marlon took him in, put him to work (doing house chores and work) in exchange for food and family, taps me on the shoulder  hands me Mouse (the cat) with a gummy grin and mumbled, happy Spanish.  I think of the various kitchens I’ve sat in over the years. The spaciousness, the appliances, the perfectly lit atmosphere, perfectly timed laughter. I roll my toes across the uneven, dirt floor, and smile as Mouse  stretches, warm and happy, in my lap.

The talk turns to tomorrow. The horses we’ll take, Marlon’s concerns that Martina and I (as women) can’t go alone. He insists we go with Spencer (who knows zero of the landscape or horses compared to Martina’s mastery of both). When she teases we find out it’s a man thing and talk turns to machismo. The ornate beards around the town, the horse training, the clearly defined duties of women who retreat to the kitchen.

Marlon looks very seriously at Spencer, “Spencer….what would you rate your machismo?!!”

We erupt in laughter, Mouse lifts a lazy little head up, only to settle back down with a purr. Flea (the tiny puppy) yawns at my feet.

Tired beyond-belief from a long day of travel and interviews, we sit up, way past midnight under the slight light of a single electric bulb that runs off a tiny car battery generator, it spreads a dim light around our little circle, otherwise, absolute darkness of the Nicaraguan jungle.

I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

The Sound of a Single Coffee Bean

The afternoon flits by, as we walk slowly through the oven-like intense heat of Nicaragua-heading-into-dry-season. I let the others wander ahead, through fields of drying coffee, and linger behind.

Silent workers shuffle on top of the coffee, through the blasts of dry heat, baggy clothes rippling, the ground shimmering with silver-blue mirage, mirroring an omnipresent deeper-blue sky. In the absence of trees and the minutiae of their work, amassed at their feet,  the workers rise like giants. The only moving creatures on the horizon, against a sea of gold-green beans.

Her head is bent, wrapped in a red and white USA scarf that whips around the gray-brown baseball cap that covers her forehead. She pushes a crude wood rake through the drying beans. Back and forth. And again. (The soothing sound of a million little beans rattling into place.) She never looks up. She will not make eye contact, though I’m squatted only a few feet from her intently concentrating on coffee beans and trying to find some gesture or posture or Spanish word to make friends, to show my sincere interest in her work, her life, her. But she will not glance my way.

The two women huddled at the foot of the coffee bed won’t look at me either. Heads bent, calloused brown fingers pick individual gold beans from the dry, dull grass. I barely make out a staccato plink-plink. As each wayward bean is tossed back on the pile. One bean at a time. Plink-plink.

How much was that one bean actually worth? To me? It wasn’t even enough for a shot of espresso. To them? An afternoon, a livelihood, a paycheck that would aggregate the 1/1000 of a cent that one bean must be worth to someone, eventually.

Plink-plink. Plink-plink. Plink-plink.

And just when I think I’m starting to get it, the context, that I’m starting to find my way in to the connection to these women and the lives they lead and the photo that they might let me take if I can show them all of this in my smile or my eyes, or my own bowed head, studying the texture of a sun-warmed bean–a gong sounds.

It all stops. Immediately.

Rakes drop, beans abandoned. The women walk away from me. And I never get that photo. And only hope I come away with the words to make up for it.

Working Too Late and Paying the Price

Sitting in the low chairs of the Hilton lounge, I work late into the night on a caramel macchiato roll.

I look up frequently, thinking I’m starring off into the endless Ethiopian evening, conjuring up the right revenue model, the particular word with just the right nuance, the percentage of conversion for a highly-targeted email campaign…I yawn, absentmindedly smile, what an amazing place. It’s not until he gets up to leave the bar and waves to me  that I realize I was being watched. And to my surprise (since my uniform these days are jeans, T-shirt, not-quite-dry hair in a French braid and worn gray backpack), he returns, the German engineer, full of compliments and interest, suggesting we grab a drink later.

Thankfully, it’s late. Nearly 11pm and well past the hour I try to be home. So it’s easy to make excuses and leave.

It’s much harder getting around the massive, muscular guard, who eyes me nervously, like a mother hen, instructing me not to leave, but stay at the Hilton.

I blink. I laugh. It is late, but to play it safe with a night at the Hilton (at $250 a night) is worth more than five nights at my hotel. No.. I need to go to my hotel on Bole.

He shakes his head. When I insist, he sets out to find me a taxi. I think this will be easy, looking at the parking lot full of parked taxis.

But the guard interrogates with a barrage of questions and (with disgust) dismisses the first five.

I’m tired. I’ll be fine, I insist.

So he sticks his massive frame into the window of the next, yelling questions and a rate. He turns to me apologetically shaking his head, 50 birr to Bole. It is the late-night price. It is robbery. 

I want home. I’ll pay it. (I flip my ring onto my wedding finger. I quietly tighten down my backpack.)

There’s more arguing. Then the guard and the driver shake. Then more arguing.

Finally I’m in the cab, heading to Bole.  I realize instantly the roads that are well-traveled around 8PM and 9PM, are now nearly deserted. The few figures on the streets are not women. I’m on my guard. I watch his driving, looking for any sign of deviation from our route while he continues prying into my personal life: what is your age (32) and a husband (yes, married four years), where is he now (at the hotel, waiting up for me, I called him before I left the Hilton), children (no, but hopefully soon).

The driver is full of questions. First very friendly. (Where I’m from, what I’m doing in Ethiopia, what do I think of it so far, how have I learned so much Amharic?) When he finds out that I’m from Seattle (where he says his sister lives), he tells me that we are friends, like family now. And then it gets weird. (He asks me to have a drink with him, to which I respond with:  “I don’t drink.”)

He shakes his head. He tells me that it is sad. That were he my age, he would be married with children. He says that I must be very sad inside to have no children.

I try to change the subject, but he returns the topic of children. So I let him rant as I watch the road.

When we near the gravel road turn off, he stops. 200 birr, he tells me.

I stare at the dark road. No. That’s robbery. You promised 50 birr. (which is already 10X higher than what it usually costs in the day).

I promised the guard. I did not promise this to you. He tells me slyly. He then tells me that the gravel road will damage his car.

I snort laughter that going a half mile on gravel would do anything than knock some dust off his rust-chewed, heavily-used exterior.

You will pay it. Or I leave you. It’s a dangerous place. To be alone here. Maybe you are fine with one or two. But alone…as a woman you will be beaten and worse. You will be raped. 

His matter-of-fact tone and the violence he promises, after swearing friendship and family earlier, sends chills up my back. You will pay me 200 birr.  

My voice is hoarse, but I order him to take me to my hotel, fully ready to jump from the car, moving or not, (fingers already have the door latch released) at any moment. But figure the less I have to cover on-foot, the better.

The sound of gravel crunching between his slowly rolling tires, the pounding of my heart, as he continues to threaten me. You will pay me 200 birr.  Habesha men will find you and beat you and worse, because you are a woman. 

I’m shocked when I see the hotel come into view. The guards stand up. My first impulse is to turn this man over to the mercy of the guards. At the same time, it’s such a weird situation–I don’t want to bring a fight to the kind people here. For $10.

I reach into my bag and then fling birr notes at him, and yell, You are a horrible, evil man…and you are NOT my friend.

I am shaking when the guard jumps to my side, realizing this wasn’t a usual ride. But I call him off. It’s ok–let him go. I want no trouble.

They sit me down at the front desk and I tell them the story. They gasp in shock, appalled, and agree that he is bad and apologize for the experience and insist I tell the guards when I need assistance. I apologize for the trouble, but they tell me not to worry — I’m with friends.

Early Morning Race to the Airport

I’m up at 5am, power goes out. Then back on.

Still, for some unknown reason, they can’t charge it. I’m reading the instructions as we all give it a try. But no luck. I have a 300 birr bill, a flight leaving at 7am to Addis, and less than 50 birr in pocket (which I know I need in Addis for a taxi to the hotel)

With a gulp, upon my request, they call the manager at the unreasonably early hour. Not in the best of moods, he arrives in twenty minutes (as my airport shuttle leaves with the others from the hotel) and he will hardly talk to me, except to tell ask for my passport (to take a copy) and to not to worry about my flight.

I feel ridiculous and guilty and have to remind myself repeatedly that I’d done all I could do (stalked the ATM days before, confirmed twice that they could charge my credit card only days before) and staying in Gondar (airfare and hotel fees aside) but with no access to funds was not an option. I had to get to Addis. And I nervously insist that I make my flight, despite this hiccup.

The manager listens with a stern face. Then silently writes down the bank account number and wire instructions. And I try to show my sincerity when I promise to wire the money as soon as possible upon my return to Addis. (That is assuming I can actually find a working ATM and get more money upon my return to Addis…)

He picks up my bag and tosses it in the car, his car. It’s then that I realize he’s driving me. Oh great. This is going to be pleasant. 

Still without a word, we race through sleeping Gondar, my stomach full of nervous knots.

Early morning sun peeks between the hills to warm the terra-cotta and mud storefronts, the trees, the earth with gold-rose hues.

Still speeding widely, so that I’m clutching the arms of my seat, but dare not interrupt my intense driver, I realize I’ve been sleeping in too late. This is beautiful. Liquid gold pouring over burnt-gold and chartreuse green of meskel-in-bloom covered hillsides.

The city breaks into a spread of green field shadowed with pale-silver, slender eucalyptus trees. And between the intense-green sea, walk men and women, shrouded from head to toe in ethereal white netalahs, so that they almost float through the field towards the church. Singing, ancient hymns, quietly. It is like nothing else.

We pass the waking outskirts of town then, between the masses of moving people, donkeys and goats, the couple standing still, shoeless in the dirt, catch my eye. His arms around her.

How beautiful is this morning,

In my calm, I’m jerked to reality when I look up to see the flock of goats and villagers walking on the sides of the road that we’re hurtling towards, as the driver (instead of slamming on the brakes) slams on the gas to pass the military truck in the tiniest gap between an oncoming truck.

To the waitresses delight, I help myself to a pile of firfir and cups of buna at the airport.

When it’s nearing time to leave, I feel a tug at my sleeve: an airport worker. He personally informs me that my flight is getting ready to depart.We chit chat the rest of the way and I’m surprised how the mood has changed, from one of ultimate discomfort to friendship. (Perhaps he’d thought I was the angry one all the while I thought he hated me!)I suck in my breath in a deep gasp. As we miss smashing into theoncoming truck by mere feet. And I break into surprised laughter. My driver looks at me. Smiles in approval, as I continue laughing, until his laughter fills the car.

I reach for my totally blank boarding pass, which I know will get me to Addis one way or the other, and smile. I love this place.

Flying over patchwork of fields in all shades of green, and Axum rock, my thoughts to turn to this trip. To my surprise, it’s taught me about myself than anything in my life, thus far. What I’m capable of. Learning good and bad that I never knew.

Feel like after chaos of last couple years, suddenly, in the chaos, I’ve found comfort, I feel my life is my own again. Not a reaction to someone else.  This, my life, it is my own.

The Hottest Breakfast Ever and Fasilides Castle

The next morning starts like the last night ended: at The Coffee House with the British boys.

And while we say the words “not too spicy” to the waiter, as the senior Habesha men within hearing distance grin, my breakfast is one of the hottest on record (which is saying a lot, since I started my days in Addis with a tomato and pepper salad, drizzled with red-chili dressing). Served in a silver bowl too hot to touch (so they give me a clothespin to hold it steady while eating), the unkalal (egg) and quinche (bulgar wheat type food) soaked in chili-red berbere has my usually spice-resilient mouth on fire. I wash it down with hot coffee, and nod to the (now laughing) Ethiopian men, as I feel my forehead breaking into a vigorous, hilarious morning sweat.

We walk to the the massive wall in the center of town, where lies, in various stages of romantic ruin, Fasilides Castle.

The initial building built in 1630’s by the emperor Fasilides, then expanded (building by building) by subsequent rulers…while progress was freely interspersed with brutal sacking and destruction of various marauders…Today it covers and impressive 70K square meter complex. Carefully carved sandstone-colored walls radiate warmth, history and certain mystery of a colorful history. Given it’s colorful past, climbing the giant stairs (a generous foot in height) through half-destroyed courtyards, halls with grass stubble for floor and a blue sky as ceiling, it feels strangely quiet, sitting ghostly still in the bright morning sun, as busy Gondar bustles about its day beyond one of the castle’s 12 gates.

As if hoping I could somehow soak up the history and stories of this place through osmosis, I trace with my fingers, lovingly, along the old stone lining of half-underground walkways between compounds.

Then turn the corner where I can easily eavesdrop on the group of old, gray German tourists, as they wait for the Ethiopian tour guide recount stories of the castles previous glory, of rulers past (when Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia…) in English, for a German tour guide to them translate the Ethiopian’s English into German.

A handful of Ethiopian tourists pass by me. I see them look deplorably at the ferangis lounging in the ruins, disinterestedly fanning themselves in the hot morning as the tour rolls on. In particular, a middle-aged woman, hair in the half-braid half-wild curls of a traditional Tigrayan hairstyle, shakes her head in disapproval to her husband. With only six feet to spare in the narrow passageway, there’s no avoiding her disapproval which will undoubtedly be passed to me and my pale skin.

I find my best smile, and nod to her and her husband, Tenastali. (the traditional greeting of highest respect) Then, playfully, just to show that it was no accident, I finish with a good afternoon Deuna walu (with the special tense for greetings to one or more person).

Her shock takes the form of an audible gasp. As I turn the corner, I hear her debate with her husband in Amharic. I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. And continue my self-guided tour.

I see them at the next corner and she stops me. “You speak to me in my own language. Where did you learn? I have never heard anything like this from a ferangi. I would like to thank you for making my day more beautiful.”

She asks then for a picture, I think she wants me to take their picture. But no, she wants a picture with me. I gladly oblige on the condition she takes a picture with me. She’s too pleased.

Spanish, Sunset and Beer at the Goha Hotel

I head downstairs, when I spot the guard who bravely defended me from the crazy guy at the hotel gate two nights prior. I can only understand bits of his Amharic (“how are you” “friend” “it was no problem”) and I can only find bits of my Amharic suitable for the strange situation (“I’m am well, thanks to you my friend” and then just “thank you, thank you, thank you…”). Without a thought to gender roles, in my appreciation, I reach out and hug him. His gold-capped teeth gleam with a smile.

When I turn around, a man is listening to us. He stumbles through English. Stopping often. Frustrated. Then apologetic.

I cheer him on, “You’re doing great! English is not easy. Espanol?”

And then, while it’s not perfect, a summer of learning French-Turkish-Amharic has gotten me over my shyness of just trying. To my surprise and his delight, we’re somewhat conversing in Spanish, in Ethiopia. He’s had his camera stolen, he’s had a hard time getting around, he cannot believe I’ve made it this long unscathed and adds his compliments to the growing stack. You’re amazing to do this alone, as a woman. He admires it, and continues, I have only met one other woman, alone, here. But she, she was crazy.

I’m hearing the fear-mixed-with-admiration so often now, I do wonder about my sanity in undertaking the solo trip. I shrug my shoulders and laugh. It’s always possible?

He insists I am not crazy. Just brave.

After work that night, I meet the British boys, Rob and Jerome, on leave from university to teach a three month business class in the local school. We walk up a winding road out of town to the quiet, secluded Goha hotel. I’m more than a little relieved to find the guys (the epitome of youth and fitness) are winded by our ascent to the hotel, at 8K feet elevation.

The low-lying, single-story hotel buildings are perched on the highest hill, overlooking Gondar and some of the most spectacular views of the green, treed hillsides and higher plateaus that are all shades of pink-purple-gray-green with the distance and the  remains of a thrilling sunset.

Buzzing electric “Goha” sign to our back, we sit in plastic chairs at the edge of the cliff. The camaraderie and dry sarcasm of the UK guys is a welcomed break from my own internal dialogue. We talk about the idea of a “gap year” (generally lost on Americans) and what is “meaningful”. We trade stories of our “reasons for being here”: theirs (educating and interacting with children in need, while scraping by on a such a limited pension that they’re plotting ways to save money by saving up for a hotplate to cook at home, and substitute bread for a meal as much as possible) is altruistic and grand. Mine (analyzing data so companies in the US can sell more of something while traveling in relatively luxury with all my camera, laptop and kindle, yoga pants and a US income) feels ridiculously self-indulgent and removed from reality. At least, the reality here.

But to my surprise, while I’m stifling my jealousy for their life–they’re complimentary about mine. It’s brilliant what you’re able to do, to travel and see the world, while working. Instead of being trapped somewhere. People would kill for that.

I laugh more that night than I had in a long time. And I have to insist, multiple times, before the guys let me pay for our “fancy hotel” beers. They only accept my tiny token of friendship when I tell them to let me do this so they pay it forward (they can get me back in the years to come, when they’re “my age” and then run into cool kids going cool things and foot the beer bill).

On the walk home, we’re picked up by a man in older-model Range Rover who insists he’ll give us a free ride down. But only when we’re seated and halfway down the road that he changes his mind and threatens the stiffest rate. It’s a scam. And it takes the boys arguing and me nudging the door open as we move to change his mind back to our original deal of “free”. And while awkward, it’s a good reminder that scams and outrage happen to boys too. It’s not the result of me being female, or having done something wrong. It’s just how travel, life goes sometimes.

We end on a good note: at The Coffee House, for pasta and burgers. It’s a good way to end the day.