Flight is completely different when you’re in the aisle seat. Last time I flew into Nicaragua I looked out of the window for almost the whole flight. The sun was setting by the time I was over the ocean, slowly dimming until there was only blackness below. Once over land, darkness was punctuated by sporadic cities visible by their pulsing lights. Mountainous horizons and faraway storms gave the cities perspective, and my imagination filled in everything unknown with whatever it wanted, feared, or hoped for.
Adventure. Danger. Need. A million secret lives below with secret ambitions and untold stories. Nicaragua lurked below me, ominously heralded by lightning and turbulence.
This time, though, I was stuck in the aisle seat of a packed airplane and missed out on the deep thought that comes from being high above the earth. Instead Britney and I read our own books and alternated naps, biding time until we arrived – a much less dramatic arrival.
The airport in Managua, compared to everything I’ve seen in the States, is very small. We made our way down a narrow hallway until reaching a common room for customs and immigration, paid $10, picked up luggage, had it scanned for illicit materials, and were ready to leave, all quickly and over little distance. The easy pace found in the airport is forgotten when approaching the double glass doors that open to the outside world. Dozens of people press close to the glass: taxi drivers, waiting parties, and family. We set our packs down before leaving the peace of the airport, put a little cash in our pockets, made sure our mace was easily accessible, and went out into the hurried noise of Managua.
Tourism raises prices in developing countries like Nicaragua, and places like the airport attract a lot of businesses who want to make an easier dollar – visitors to their country exit the airport willing to pay American prices for Nicaraguan services. We heard, “Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?” as we passed through the crowd, until finally a driver caught our attention. The most assertive drivers get the most business – the rule of small business in Nicaragua is to ask loudly and ask often. The man who had won our business passed us off to a coworker named Esteban, who charged us $20 to take us to a hotel. American prices, but he had a polo shirt on – he was part of a cooperative and could be trusted. With all of our bags and at the very beginning of our trip, $20 was a bargain for peace of mind.
We told him which hotel to take us to, one that was suggested by a friend. It was nice, but also expensive. We had air conditioning, a pool, good beds, and clean sheets – hardly the kind of thing that could be bragged about to friends. Britney was having a soft introduction to what was supposed to be a rugged trip.
One of my favorite compliments to hear from a Nicaraguan is in question form: “Are you from Spain?” or “Do you live here in Nicaragua?” I heard that at breakfast after opening a light conversation with the people next to me, Nicaraguans from outside of Managua here for work. I try to use every opportunity I can to get advice from locals who aren’t going to receive any money based on the decisions I make, so I asked them questions about Ometepe, Rio San Juan, Estelí, and other areas. Locals like to brag about their country, so advice is easy to obtain.
We decided to go to Ometepe that morning and try to hike some of the volcano before dark. It took us about five hours to get there, by express bus to Rivas, a taxi to the ferry, and a ferry across Lake Nicaragua to the volcanic island. In Latin American countries there’s a special tax for white people. I’ve heard other travelers call it the “gringo tax.” We were asked to pay it often. Sometimes we did.
When we arrived at the bus station our taxi pulled up next to a few guys in polos who “helped” us get onto the right bus. Their business is probably solely funded by tourists – I couldn’t imagine that a native Nicaraguan would fall for it, though certainly they must. It’s based on the psychological tendency we all have to feel obligated to do something in return for a kindness. Three of the men in polos grabbed our bags for us (which is always comforting), opened our doors, directed us to the right bus, and even helped us find a seat.
“Propina, propina,” one of them said, repeating it until I gave in. I handed them a 100 Córdobas bill and hesitated for a fraction of a second too long to ask for change. One of them quickly said, “That’s good, that’s good,” and with that they walked away. As I sat down I heard the man next to me chuckling with the passenger in front of him: “He just gave that guy five bucks!”
Determined to not be a typical gringo traveler–lost and easy to dupe–I donned my skeptical face and got ready to challenge the next person who asked me to give them money. We arrived in Rivas after a few hours of napping and reading on the bus, and Britney scrambled off of the bus first, surrounded instantly by five taxi drivers who were asking her where she wanted to go and giving her unsolicited prices. Later she’d start responding to these types of people by saying “El hombre!” and pointing to me, but for a few seconds she was left to fend for herself, looking very annoyed and frustrated by the time I got off behind her. I walked away from the taxi-drivers, scowling, but they still followed us and started directing their petitions at me instead.
I said, “We’re going to Ometepe and just need a ride to the ferry.” If I hadn’t been in this town before I might have accepted his next offer, not realizing how close the ferry was.
“Five bucks,” he said. “Five bucks each and I’ll take you right there.”
“Ten dollars?” I asked in an unbelieving tone. “No.” We walked away, set down our bags and packed in the books we had been reading on the bus. About a minute later a smaller guy came up to us and said, “60 Córdobas.” It was probably still 20 Córdobas too much, but my traveler’s pride was satisfied – I had talked them down from $10 to less than $3. We accepted his offer and he took us the mile and a half to the ferry. I gave him a dollar more as a tip, partly because he was a cool guy and partly because I wanted him to tell his friends back at the bus stop.
Across the lake
If I’ve learned one thing in Nicaragua, it’s an appreciation for the comforts of traveling at home. I’m amazed at the the patience and pain-tolerance of people in Nicaragua, at how spoiled we are in the States. Take an American and stick him on transportation of any sort in Nicaragua without telling him where he was and he’d be outraged. Spurts of “I want to speak to your manager!” would sputter out from behind the clenched teeth of accomplished men, harumphs of “Well this is ridiculous!” would follow exasperated intakes of air from indignant middle-aged ladies. It wouldn’t be pretty, but there is little I wouldn’t give to see it.
We boarded the ferry by walking across a wooden plank that bridged the dock to the shifting deck of our boat and stumbled to a place where we could sit by a guardrail. Unfortunately we chose a spot on the back-half of the boat – we’d soon be breathing in fumes from the exhaust pipe located conveniently in the center. They used the same shifting plank to board two motorcycles, and backed a truck as close as they could and somehow unloaded an engine without losing a man or dropping it 25 feet below into the water.
Lack of comfort is part of the magic of traveling in a third-world country. Sitting on the deck, laying back on someone else’s luggage, right behind a motorcycle, we rode for an hour and a half to the island. Our butts may have been sore, we may have been breathing fumes, but we were smiling. Rugged, painful trekking makes for good memories and better stories.
About half-way across the lake I realized I had absolutely no clue what to expect on the other side. I had been trying to get a hold of someone a friend had introduced to me by email, too late due to my perpetual procrastination, but hadn’t received a response. The extent of my knowledge of the island was pathetic, actually. I had talked with a lady from Ometepe on my last trip, I knew there was an annual race for charity there, and I knew that in order to hike up the volcano you needed to hire a guide. I also knew it would make a great spot to propose to Britney. That was about it. I struck up a conversation with some other Americans to see if they had suggestions of where to stay and what to do, but they were as novice as I was. My rule of getting advice from people with no monetary interest in my decision wasn’t going to work this time – I would have to ask a local once we landed. I donned my skeptical face again and prepared to haggle.
It turns out I didn’t need to. We were greeted by a friendly English-speaking taxi driver. “Do you need a ride?” he said. “No,” I said, “Solo vamos a explorar por un rato,” responding in Spanish as I usually do. “Would you like any information about the island, then?” Britney, unable to speak with many people so far in the trip, took the opportunity and asked some questions about the island and for a suggestion of a cheap place to stay.
“Well, you can talk with this guy if you’d like. He runs a good little hostel.” He pointed to a guy standing in a doorway, but didn’t stop with that suggestion: he was a taxi driver and wouldn’t make any money if we stayed in this town. He went on, “But, there isn’t much to do here. If you want, I’ll take you across the island to a better city. Otherwise, this guy can help you.” We thanked him and went up to the guy he had pointed to, and that was that.
If you’ve ever traveled to Ometepe, you’ve probably met the guy we talked to next – Robinson. If you talk with anyone else who has traveled there recently, they’ve probably stayed at his hostel. He is a funny guy who spoke good English and offered to give us a ride to his hostel so we could check it out. I rode on the back of his motorcycle and Britney rode with his sister, and we chatted for a couple of minutes while he drove. By the time we arrived we were friends – I couldn’t have said no even if his hostel was a dive. Luckily the beds were new, the sheets were clean, there was a pure water filter, and the common area looked like a really fun place to hang out. Almost more importantly, we now had an English-speaking friend who could give us unmotivated tips about the island. We chatted about our plans until he had to go greet a new shipment of ferry passengers, and I began to see how good Robinson’s setup was on the island.
A few years ago Robinson convinced his dad to buy a motorcycle so he could rent it out in the day. Robinson had a girlfriend on the other side of the island; if his dad bought the bike he could make good money in the daytime and ride across the island to visit her more often. Since then he’s done very well, using savings and loans to build up his business to 15 or 20 motorcycles, a few 4-wheelers, and even some bicycles. He used some of the profit to buy this hostel a few months ago; his empire of tourism continues to expand.
He rented us motorcycles for a couple of days at a great price, connected me with his friend, Cory, who does some nonprofit work on the island, and would have connected us with tour guides for the volcano if we had the time. Our stay in Ometepe was twice as good because of his help, and many other travelers have found the same thing. I hope he does well and Ometepe doesn’t develop too quickly – large developers and heavy-pocketed investors could make Ometepe unoriginal within the decade. For now, though, if I ever go to Ometepe I’ll stay at Yogi’s in Moyolgalpa, Robinson’s hostel.
Finding the right spot
The night was coming on quickly and I had to get to a place with a good view quickly so I could “pop the question.” I wanted to ask Robinson for a suggestion, but since he was speaking English fluently I couldn’t do anything without potentially tipping Britney off. Luckily, Robinson didn’t come to the bike shop when we were renting motorcycles and his sisters don’t speak English as well as he does. I made sure to speak in a good accent so his sisters would keep the conversation in Spanish instead of their halted English, and about halfway through I tried to slip in the question.
“Ok, tengo una pregunta” I said.
I hesitated, stumbling over a few words as I tried to figure out how to phrase the question without using any words that sounded like their English counterparts – Spanish and English share Latin roots, so a lot of words are similar. The break in fluid conversation lasted about 30 seconds – it was too awkward, too obvious, and I tried to back out, deciding that I could bring it up later when Britney wasn’t focusing on me.
“Oh, no es nada. Está bien,” I said.
Robinson’s sisters wouldn’t have it. They and Britney, luckily, just thought I was tripping up in my Spanish, unable to translate my thoughts. Britney laughed and said, “They’re all laughing at you” and Robinson’s sister tried to be helpful by saying, “You can say it in English.” I knew they wouldn’t drop it, so I spoke quickly and in a thick accent: “Pues, es un secreto, pero voy a perdirla a casarme. ¿Donde sugiere que vayamos?” (“Well, it’s a secret, but I’m going to ask her to marry me. Where do you suggest we go?”)
The older sister reacted well, understanding not to show any reaction, and showed me Charco Verde on a map. That is where we had been planning on going anyway, so we headed out of the shop with no incident. Later, Britney would comment about Robinson’s younger sister, “Yeah, I thought they were just really happy or something – she was smiling huge and waving excitedly as we left.”
There are a few types of proposals that make great cocktail-party stories and ensure “Ooohs” and “Awwes” from friends and family. There’s the Big Surprise, where the girl’s emotions move from shocked to melted in a few seconds, caught on camera to make the story better. There’s the Creative Ring Drop, where the ring shows up in some random place – the girl is eating a piece of cake and bites down on something hard, cleans off the object with a napkin and slowly realizes what it is. Then there’s the Embarrassing Speech, where the guy makes a public, verbose, drawn-out speech and everyone knows what’s happening from the second he picks up the microphone all the way through the three minutes until he finally asks the question.
Those are all great options, but I was in another country, didn’t know anyone else, and couldn’t get someone to record the proposal. If I had to choose between the three I would probably choose the embarrassing speech, but clarity and poeticism don’t always grace me with their presence – the speech could have been cut short with unimportant re-utterances of “I love you so much. Um. I love you. From the second I saw you” and other clichés. Or my body may have betrayed me half-way through: when I get emotional my mouth turns grotesquely down at the edges, as uncontrollable as it is strange, and my throat grows lumps until I sound like a post-pubescent Kermit the frog. If I had been worried about saying something important or meaningful for my proposal–something that would rival The Notebook for dramatic delivery–it could have worked or it could have failed depending on my mood at the time.
Instead I went with the Such An Amazing Place It Doesn’t Matter What You Say Or Do option. Here are the ingredients, in case you’d like to try it.
- Take a romantic motorcycle ride through a foreign countryside. When you’re in a foreign country almost everything has a hue of romance for the first week or so (after that fatigue starts to set in, the “new” becomes the “normal,” and you’re less doughy-eyed while traveling and more bored). We rode for 12 kilometers before reaching the beach, passing through quaint little towns, saying no to a group of kids who wanted us to play volleyball, and seeing a beautiful countryside as evening approached. The angled sunlight of evening makes for great views and good conversation.
- Get into the middle of the water while the sun is setting. The only thing that makes a sunset better is when it’s reflected around you as well, especially if that reflection is moving and glimmering. When we arrived at Charco Verde (Green Lake), I approached the restaurant and asked them for a bottle of wine and a few glasses, which they lent to us, trusting we’d bring them back afterwards. We rented a double kayak, which proved to be an awkward choice – we were both facing the same direction (forward) and it was very unstable.
- Add volcanic Islands. Ometepe is an island formed from two volcanoes, impressively tall, vibrantly colored, and almost always shrouded in cloud at the top.
After getting out into the water Britney managed to turn herself around without tipping us over and we made a toast to our trip and our life together. I casually brought up our relationship and how unlikely it was. We had met two months before I moved to Texas and I was not looking for a relationship. Previously I had been very “afraid of commitment,” as the cliché goes, and relationships hadn’t lasted for longer than three or six months. I wasn’t ready for anything serious, apparently not having met the right girl for me. The conversation was natural, she was speaking as much as I was, I was just calmly directing the conversation the way I wanted it to go. She couldn’t have expected that anything was coming – this is a conversation we’ve had many times before.
I brought up my reservations about marriage – how I only wanted to be married once, how I had seen divorce personally and with many friends and didn’t want the same thing to happen, how I was afraid of that and wanted to be certain before I got married. She agreed.
I said, “I’m over that fear with you,” and she asked me what I meant. I pulled out the ring box and asked her to marry me. The ring was handmade by my sister from hemp and turquoise – a temporary place-holder for the real thing and a perfect hippie ring for our trip. The sun was setting behind her, a golden yellow reflecting on the clouds above and the waves below, she said “Of course,” and we bent forward in our unstable double-kayak and kissed, chatting until dark.
I rowed back to the island, which took a lot longer than I hoped–the wind had picked up in the middle of our conversation and pushed us out a long way–and chatted some more while I hoped I wouldn’t accidentally hit her in the head with my oar and ruin this story forever. When we got to shore the barkeep who had sold us the wine and rented the kayak greeted us. He had been closed-off before–just a guy doing his job–but when we told him about our engagement he became as excited as an old friend. He told us he had been married on this beach last December, I asked him how it was going, and he said “¡Super bién!” If you want to compliment a foreigner, get engaged while in their country. For the rest of the trip if we wanted to open someone up to conversation I’d tell them we had gotten engaged a few days ago on Ometepe, point to Britney’s ring, and watch them smile.
The ride back to town was even better than the ride out. Night had fallen completely, the air was warm, the wind cooling, and we talked excitedly about random things. She held on close and I could feel the warmth and pressure of her hand on my stomach, her head leaned against my shoulders. When we weren’t talking we were smiling.
In a faraway country on a brick road, a recently-engaged couple rode slowly on their motorcycle, blanketed by darkness, unknown to all the locals, smiling and talking, hugging and thinking deep thoughts.