While living out the cliché of a beer–swilling young backpacker with a guitar in Nicaragua, Luke Armstrong confronts the clash between carefree, idealistic youth and the melancholy of a fading revolutionary.
España was beautiful, young, Argentinean and when she came up to talk to me on a bus heading towards the Costa Rican–Nicaraguan border to ask if I knew of any cheap lodging places in Granada. I tore out my Lonely Planet Central America on a Shoestring and together we looked at the budget hostel listings. Hostel Oasis in had a pool, free Internet and a lush courtyard. At $6 a night, the cockroaches that would later accost me in my sleep were tolerable. España and her travel companion María checked in with me the next day to one of the hostel's spacious dorm rooms.
So I arrived in Granada, Nicaragua like I had been arriving everyplace since my starting point of Valparaiso, Chile—hitchhiking and haphazardly hopping northbound buses. Each day involved a new unknown with new people.
I envisioned that this intrepid trekking from city to city, country to country and culture to culture coincided with some Bohemian ideal of ruthless adventure. But mostly, I was just lazy when it comes to advance planning and whimsically making my way north across South and Central America was just easier.
Tired? Hung over? Sick? No problem, just camp out in this hostel bed for three days reading. So you've made a drunken fool out of yourself last night? No problem, just move on to the next city where you are a tabula rosa. Someone looked at you funny? Fine, leave the country and never come back. Tally Ho!
As I lounged on my bed and strummed my Baby Taylor guitar in the dorm room, "Alaska" Peter came in to invite me out with "a few people" who were going to a karaoke bar. Were he an action figure, Hippy Jesus, would have been a likely name. Puberty had come for him but had withheld razors. Not for the first time, I thanked my guitar for making my friends for me.
The group of a few people ended up being our entire hostel guest list: Germans, a Canadian, Swedish girls, Australians, a British guy decades older than all of us, more Australians, and some Americans—the usual haphazard hostel suspects.
Likely all across the globe that night groups of slapdash, youthful travelers were becoming each other's temporary–stand–in–best–friends, while drinking whatever was on special.
Dinner, drinks, karaoke and more drinks. The sort of karaoke where the whole bar sings (read: shouts) your song with you. Where one expresses his/her partiality to a song by rushing up to the stage, throwing an arm around you, and singing that song with you while spilling their drink on you—a sign of deep respect and affection. Our table looked like a UN convention. World peace seemed suddenly as simple as a song that anyone can slur his way through.
The next morning, with hangover in head, I decided to make Granada my home for a week or two (a lifetime for a Central American backpacker). To make my stay seem more than just debauchery, I enrolled in Spanish classes. At 11 a.m. I walked into One–on–One Tutoring and had a class scheduled daily from 12pm–2pm.
Gary, my newfound–best–friend had been out with us on Karaoke night and was taking classes at the same Spanish school as me. Since we were both staying in the town for the week, it became our job (read: objective moral imperative) to show the new arrivals of our hostel where the drinks were cheap and the music loud.
Just a Few Beers
By Wednesday night we were both exhausted from learning, drinking, dancing and oversleeping. Though the bars closed at 2 am, we picked up the bad habit of taking my guitar out into the street and singing drinking songs until the rising sun shamed us to bed.
Craving rest, we decided to only go out for a couple beers on Calle La Calzada and then call it a night. After the four at our table were into our second drink, John Oliver, a dreaded (the locks, not the sentiment) Rastafarian appeared in the street and began reciting impromptu political poetry.
He spoke fluent Bob Marley English in verse and rhyme. Conversations stopped as tables took in the spontaneous soliloquy he was giving to anyone who would listen:
"All the people who want more war, I say, we need no more! I will speak the truth, and speak it from the roof, I will ask you time again, when mahn will all this fighting end?"
The waiters just rolled their eyes; John was up to his antics again. Enthralled, our table invited John to sit down after his rant. Gary ordered him a beer.
He took out a set of paints from his bag and began painting us different pictures of the same seaside sunset. "And how bout you mahn? You want a paintin' too, mahn?"
"Yeah," I said, "but no sunsets. I want you to paint your mind." I was on my third Cuba Libre, and was trying to make the moment and the painting more compelling than it really was. "Ta paint mah mind? Now dat is sometin'! You are a makin' me tink man. Dat is good. I gonna have ta tink about dat one." Apparently he did not have that much time to invest in thought. After some contemplative stares, John ran or dashed off to make a drug deal.
"You should get your guitar Luke," Gary said to me as John skipped off into the night (it was less like skipping and more like walking like a grasshopper would try to work were he imitating a man). Gary was one of the few people I had met who seemed to enjoy my guitar playing more than I did.
I reappeared with my guitar and began strumming. After an hour of homemade Irish drinking songs impressive only to people under the influence, everyone but me was ready to call it a night. I was on my fifth drink and was ready to climb mountains, but everyone else seemed pretty tired—apparently they weren't as Irish as me.
Santiago and the Bullet Hole
I stood up to see what else the night had to offer as a gray haired man of about seventy sitting with a man a few decades younger, glared at me and said, "Young kids like you think they know everything. You are nothing. Your are nothing and you don't even know that."
Excuse me? His accent indicated Spain, his slurring that he had played a crucial role in emptying the whisky bottle in front of him. An entirely sober me might have walked away. Instead, I pulled up a stool to the table and sat down.