"Hi, I'm Luke," I was trying to be jovial. The other man at the table, an American from California shook my hand while the older man just pushed it away.
"Was the guitar playing that bad?"
Apparently his distaste for me went deeper than that. "You stupid fucking kids think that you can come far away from home and it makes you something. I was your age once. Look at this, look!"
He lifted up his shirt and showed me a scar the size of a quarter; presumably a bullet had passed through that skin years ago, long before the wrinkles had appeared. "You don't fucking know anything. Look at this! I know you think you know, but you don't know. You don't know about the revolution and what it was like."
This man, to all outside appearances a miserable drunk, inspired both pity and respect. His table had not been far from ours and no doubt he had seen our group blissfully enjoying our youth, singing songs, while he and his friend had been gulping down whiskey sulking in a gloomy misery.
The younger man told me that they had met in Granada twenty years ago and had not seen each other since then. Upon their return, they had obviously found that the city and themselves were no longer the same. Santiago seemed to blame me for the change.
In an effort to win Santiago's approval, I abstractly began to describe my ideals and goals I thought were noble. He brushed off what I was saying with a wave of his hand "You see, you are trying to tell me that this makes you something. But you are trash. No one cares that you are traveling. So you have ideals? Big deal! Every fucking little kid has his stupid ideals. You don't know anything but you think you do…Aheeeee!"
There was more he wanted to say, but he suddenly began coughing uncontrollably. These were coughs of a man who had swallowed a grenade. "Aheeeeeaaa!" The cigarette in his mouth shot to the ground and even his friend began to look alarmed. "Aheeeee!" Tears appeared in his eyes as the hacking continued.
He seemed like he might die at the table. I thought about how these two had met here in their youth—idealists like myself. I softened, any resentment evaporating into the night air.
Hack, hack, the coughs kept coming. His face was covered in tears, not tears of sadness, but tears of struggle against his own betraying body. "Eh, ha." The gurgling of phlegm died down and there was a pause.
"Are you going to play that guitar…?"
The coughing seemed to have pacified him. "You were saying?" he asked instead of continuing with his condemnation.
"You know what," I said, "you might be right. I have ideals, yes. I am traveling across South and Central America, and sometimes I try to turn that into something more than it is. But I know that it's cliché. But what choice do I have? Should I just stay home? Drop out of the game because you might be right? No. You might be right, but I guess that's why I am doing this, I am going to try to prove you wrong. I guess at twenty–two I really can't say much about things I haven't done yet. But I promise that fifty years from now, I am not going to tell people fifty years younger than me that they are nothing."
I stopped speaking and our table went silent. "Ah the kid's alright," said his younger friend. He filled our glasses with whiskey and then Santiago looked at me and said in between lingering coughs, "So are you going to play that guitar or just wear it around your neck."
Never before had I played my guitar so truly. My fingers plucked the overdue strings and I wanted to really mean something. I was proving something to Santiago and something to myself in those notes.
Josh Ritter's Girl in the War could be heard in the streets of Granada, Nicaragua that night, brass strings plucked to build a three–minute moment where Santiago could escape from whatever had turned him so bitter.
How moments lead to moments will always astound me. Two Argentinean girls had talked to me on a bus and had led me to Granada, which had eventually led me to this table, with this company, with this guitar, with this song, on this night, singing to this old man. If they can't find a way to help her they can go to hell, the final verse ended and the last notes of the song dissipated sonorously into the cooling night air.
I looked up and I was not sure if the tears in Santiago's eyes were left over from his coughing fit, or if they were new. "Thank you," he said simply. And this was the kind of thanks a person is lucky to receive a half–dozen times in his lifetime.
Luke Maguire Armstrong grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota. After finishing degrees in philosophy and English in La Pontificia Universidad de Valparaíso, Chile, he did what any financially oblivious recent grad would do: took out a large student loan and planned on hitch hiking from Southern Chile to Alaska. He only made it halfway though, and started working as the director for the humanitarian aid organization Nuestros Ahijados in Antigua, Guatemala. He has lived there since April 2008.
Cuba's Port of Hope, on Hopeless Machinery by Luke Armstrong
Backpacker Caberet at the Jugglers Rest Youth Hostel by Leif Pettersen
Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives