Times haven’t changed that much.
I’ve had a few ideas in the past year or two for possible topics of books I want to write. I still want to travel the exterior of the U.S. and write on politics and life on the edge. My friend Tim has a great idea for a book that he has handed off to me to write (though he wants co-author credit, of course), and conveniently, it might be plotted to take place in Nicaragua. I’d like to write a semi-true/semi-fictionalized book about my first couple years practicing law in a reasonably small town in the South. While in Nicaragua, I got a pretty good idea for a screenplay.
And to add to all of those possible endeavors, I think I want to now travel around the world to various communities of expatriates, interview them, talk to locals about them, and write an “Expats in their Element” book. If the ones I’ve met in Nicaragua are any indication – there is plenty of amusing material out there. Of all my ideas, it might be the easiest one for good material.
And if any of you want to start harassing me on a good and consistent basis to move from conception to execution of any of these ideas – that would be welcomed also. Sometimes I think I need a good woman in my life, if only to have someone to kick me in the ass and get me moving forward.
Getting to San Juan del Sur was a tough road, literally, but once there, this place was…. interesting.
The husband and wife that own the little hotel that I was stayed at in Nicaragua were named Ralph and Brenda Sue. She went by ‘Renda. They were originally from Waxahachie, Texas. He liked to talk. A lot.
I arrived at about 5 p.m. on a Monday evening. Before I left the hotel at ten a.m. on Tuesday to go get breakfast, I think I’d gotten half of his life story. As I was planning on staying a full month there, I felt confident the other half was going to flow out of him long before I departed.
He had a number of different jobs over the years back home in the States, but “I was always the boss – never work for anyone when you can be in charge.” A sentiment I appreciated. He’d built some houses. Done some other types of construction. Though he wasn’t a lawyer, he was one of the first licenced mediators in Texas: “the judges loved me. I liked to separate the two groups into different rooms, turn to the lawyer in each room and tell him ‘this is between your client, the other side and me – you are only here to give your client legal advice – if you don’t like it, leave.’ I could settle anything.”
He had fourteen grandchildren. One of his kids ran a successful business in Dallas (there was a lot of success that seemed to naturally follow him). He and Brenda had been married for thirteen years. She was the most successful real estate agent back in Waxahachie County before they retired down in San Juan del Sur. “Now this one’s a lady – and strong-willed. I don’t think I’ve ever met a lady with as much backbone before. Now my children’s mother – that’s different story. Lady? Certainly not.”
Ralph had an opinion on most every topic and he was glad to share them with you. Not surprisingly, he quickly put his expertise to work in summing me up.
“You know what you should do when you get home? Real estate mediation. With the subprime collapse in the housing and banking market, there has got to be a way to mediate the disputes between the banks and the homeowners. The banks don’t want the real estate on their books and the people don’t want to lose their houses. Find the middle ground and you’ll make a killing.”
See. So simple. My new work life mapped out within 24 hours of meeting me. I wondered if he also wanted to make my mother deliriously happy and introduce me to my future wife also.
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a single conversation where someone offers an unsolicited “you know what you need to do?” I put off law school for about four years because everyone told me that was what I should do.
Most people I know have problems running their own lives – but they seem perfectly willing to tell you how to run yours. I’ve asked plenty of people in my life to give me advice on many things when I think I need it and am open to it, but frankly, if I don’t ask you – I probably don’t want to hear it. No offense.
So Ralph and Brenda invited me to a local expatriate party the second night I was in town. They said there were anywhere from five to fifteen
American and Canadian expats that got together every Tuesday night for food and some friendly poker. I’d promised myself that I was going to try to a much better job of meeting people on this trip that my previous solo travels, so I figured, why not?
As Ralph and Brenda and I were about to walk down from the second floor balcony of their hotel to their Range Rover, they turned to me and said, “the woman walking up now is B.J. She’s local color. Don’t ask about the monkey — She’ll never shut up about it.”
That’s just not a sentence you hear very often.
Up the road walked a woman that looks to be in her mid-60s. She was fully made up, like she was about to go out for a big night on the town in Dallas. She’d obviously spent a lot of time in the sun. And she had the crazy eyes.
When she walked up and introduced herself, I wanted so badly to say, “I’m Mike. Good to meet you. So tell me all about the monkey.” But I figured that I was staying here for a month and it might not be the best idea to completely annoy my hosts on day 2 of my trip.
Later I found out that the monkey in question was B.J.’s pet howler monkey, named Cindy. She regularly carried it around town on her shoulder. It wore a diaper – I’m assuming not by its’ choice.
I found all this out as I was eating dinner at a pizza place in town a few days after this party and B.J. and Cindy were eating at a table in front. I was talking to Bob, the very, very large Canadian guy (he had to be 6’6” and 250 pounds and was married to a local, Nica woman who can’t be 5 foot tall and will never see the other side of 100 pounds) that owns Jerry’s Pizza.
There is no Jerry. He moved years ago. Bob bought the place from Jerry and just never got around to renaming it and hanging a new sign. Life moves at a slightly different pace in warm weather locations.
Cindy was upset and howling away on B.J.’s shoulder. Bob said matter-of-factly, “B.J. really needs to get a to-go box for her food and take Cindy home. She’s obviously tired when she starts screeching like that.”
It was as if having taking a pet monkey to dinner was somehow normal and the only strange thing was that B.J. wasn’t tending properly to it.
I thought it was best not to question him on this point and so I asked him how long B.J. had owned the monkey. He said it had been less than a year. The monkey was orphaned when its mother was killed up in the hills. Someone found it and dropped it off at the local veterinarian’s office. She temporarily adopted it when the vet left it with her when he had to go back to the States temporarily for a few weeks. Now the vet was back in town, but she wouldn’t give Cindy up. As Bob said, “she really does need to give the monkey back, but we think its sort of a substitute for her pet squirrel that died a year or so ago. She really does have a good heart.”
What fucking alternative universe had I stumbled across?
In any case, back to the expat party. Joining us in the Land Rover were Christian and Wendy, a French couple that lived in San Juan for about half of the year. Christian was a lawyer of some sort in France. He spoke a bit of English, but his wife spoke about as little English as I spoke Spanish, which is none (yes, I know its silly to go somewhere a month when you don’t speak a lick of the language). Of the six of us in the truck, Christian was the only one that spoke any Spanish at all.
Ralph had lived in San Juan for about four years. He didn’t speak any Spanish at all. He was proud of it.
Within an hour of me meeting him the first night he said something along the lines of: “Look, there are a bunch of Americans and Canadians down here. We are bringing money into this community and those of us that are
running businesses here are trying to impart a sense of a real work ethic in this community. I doubt they’ve ever had that before. They ought to thank us for everything we are adding to this community. We are the ones doing all the development and boosting up the local economy. I send all my employees to school here to learn English on my dime, to help them get a leg up in the world.”
The implication of which population needed to learn which language was beyond clear.
The party was in a gated community about 20 minutes north of San Juan del Sur. The development was just off a road that the locals referred to as “El Chocolata,” because when it rained it just turned into a brown, muddy slush. Ralph and ‘Renda had just bought a lot in the development and they took us up to see it before we went to the party. It was “the best lot in the whole place. Look at the views of the three different bays from up on this height.”
The party was quite nice. About a dozen expats were there. Everyone brought some food. We ate buffet style and then played some rudimentary poker. Very rudimentary poker. We’d split into two tables and Ralph and ‘Renda had me sit at theirs, with another couple folks. Ralph had pulled me aside before we sat down and told me some of the players at the other table were really good, so I might just want to play and their table and have fun.
Given the incredible lack of skill by everyone at Ralph’s table, I feel pretty confident the other tables was far from scary. Suffice it to say that I would have been comfortable playing anyone in this room at any stakes they were willing. Anyone wanna bet their homes tonight?
We all bought in for the equivalent of $20 and played for a couple hours. Everyone was very nice and the game was obviously just for friendly entertainment. I got to listen to everyone’s local
stories – most of which feel in the category of “everyone moves so slowly here” with the occasional corruption story thrown in, broken up by how lazy and uninspired most of the Nica were (always followed up with a specific example of some particular Nica that broke the mold, just to make sure it was apparent they weren’t prejudiced against all Nicas).
During the course of the party, the skies had opened up and dumped a couple inches of rain. At about 11 pm or so, we all got back into the truck and started the ride home. The road was muddy and slick. As we rounded a corner and started up a part of the road that climbed up a small hill and was one lane wide, cut right out of the heavy forest, we saw a pickup truck near the top of the hill that wasn’t making any forward progress. There were four Nicas out of the truck trying to push it up the hill, out of the mud, while the driver repeatedly gunned the engine. The truck would go about 10 feet up the hill, stop and slide back to where they’d started. There was no way that we were going to be able to get by them, given how tight the road was at this point.
‘Renda turned to Ralph and asked whether we ought to turn back down the road, drive that way (directly away from San Juan del Sur) until we got to Rivas and then come beck to San Juan down the main road. Ralph said that would take about two hours. I’d driven the main road from Rivas on my way down. He was right.
Ralph kept complaining that the Nicas didn’t know how to drive, because most of them never had access to cars until recently, which was probably true given the lack of wealth in Nicaragua and the years of the Contra war and such. He kept saying, “if they would just keep the truck in 2nd gear and not gun the engine, they’d get some traction and make up the rest of that hill.” He was right about that also. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak any Spanish, so he couldn’t get out and tell them.
Ralph was trying to explain what the Nicas needed to do to Christian, so that Christian could tell them in Spanish. Unfortunately, Christian’s English wasn’t that good – I don’t think many of us have a chance to use phrases like “shifting gears” and “let the clutch out slowly” in a foreign language.
I am not a good enough writer to express in words how funny I found this whole experience. It was almost as if I was actually living out a bad B movie that would only play on Showtime in the late hours of the night or on a Saturday afternoon.
Chistian and Ralph eventually got out of the truck and tried to instruct the Nicas how to get the truck up the hill. I don’t know if it was their instruction or divine providence that finally managed to get that thing over the top of the hill, but eventually we managed to make it home.
A few meager days in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua and I got to experience all of that craziness? I’d thought originally before I came down that I was going to just use this town as a base and explore a lot of the country. Change of plans. I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.