We met him the night before in the dorms. He was a tall fellow from California, a young one. He’s traveling through Nicaragua for ten days solo because one of his best friends from home is Nicaraguan. Mr. Californian hadn’t tried gallo pinto yet, so we went on a mission searching for authentic Nicaraguan grub.
I let the Californian lead. I’ve gotten lost and found many, many times, so much so that the possibility of getting lost doesn’t cripple me with fear or anxiety or any of those unpleasant things its usually associated with. Getting lost has sharpened my internal compass, so its become challenging to find a place where I have no idea of where I am or how to get back. When I’m lost, I feel energized and grounded. Oftentimes, I go out for walks with the intention of getting lost so I can ride the adventure back of finding myself.
I usually travel alone, so I’m accustomed to making decisions with singular input. When I meet people, I like stepping back and following someone else. It gives me a chance to go a different way, see a new perspective, a new route that I might not have chosen myself. Besides, I love learning from how people react when they’re getting lost or don’t know where to go.
The three of us stepped outside the hostel – Californian, Chicagoan and myself. I stood quietly looking at the the other two. Chicagoan stood a little uncertain with a sly smile, Californian stood there wondering what he got himself into. He probably thought it was one of those weird inside jokes or something. He gave me a nervous look and flustered, “Where do you want to go?”
I said, “Where do you want to go? Pick a direction, we’ll follow you.”
Where we typically go straight, Californians took us left for the first time. We walked down the street, passing the closed market. It was Sunday; many things were already closed. We passed by a few eating locales, but nothing that looked remotely authentic.
I couldn’t help but notice how Matagalpa has scores of shops filled with slot machines and electronic gambling games. There’s not even any tables or anything for games like poker or blackjack, just the machines. I don’t understand why that’s fun?
Night was setting in on us and there weren’t many street lights. I walked quietly, feeling the tension rise. We entered into an area that most would describe as ‘sketchy,’ the places you’re not meant to go when its dark outside in a developing country. It was getting more residential and I figured there wouldn’t be any food there. I knew we had to go right to make it back to the main drag which would lead us to the park and maybe somewhere with authentic food. I sensed insecurity and fear rising, coming from California’s direction. At the next corner, I saw some promising lights down the road and broke the silence, “I wonder what’s over there?”
Chicagoan and California agreed, “Let’s turn right.” They were walking fast, like they were trying to get away from something subtly. I walked slow, maintaining my position as the trailing kaboose.
We walked down a block or two and, sure enough, we were on the main drag. I had a look around and realized where we were. We were in between the two parks and had to go left in order to make it by the second park where I hoped we’d be able to find some food.
California was convinced that the second park was towards the right, in the opposite direction. He assured us insecurely, “We’ve already passed the second park, we went too far. We’ve got to turn back now, we won’t find any food down the other way, probably.”
I knew this wasn’t true. How to convince someone whose nervous and thinks the opposite? I couldn’t tell him he’s wrong, that wouldn’t work. I calmly pointed out how the business signs in the direction California suggested we go were of banks and it didn’t look like there was food that way. In the other direction, I pointed to a Pepsi sign which is usually a pretty solid indicator of food. Every comedor in the country bears the logo of one of the industrial alcohol or carbonated drink distributors.
I had hope that if we just went a little further, we’d spot something. I wasn’t ready to abort our mission for authentic food. I proposed, “Why don’t we go up to that sign and check it out? It’s only a few blocks away. If that’s not it, then we can turn around.” Chicagoan was open, California followed reluctantly.
We went two more blocks and made it to the second park. Chicagoan and California were pleasantly relieved that we hadn’t gone too far. Everyone’s compass re-calibrated and tension subsided. We walked another half block past the park to the Pepsi sign to learn they didn’t serve food on Sundays. Bummer.
We came back out to the sidewalk and I started walking away from the park slowly. I said, “Let’s just finish rounding the corner and then we can go back.” I still had hope that we might see something, one more block. We walked up the left side of the road and reached the corner.
Chicago and I were looking left, while California was looking right. I felt his excitement before I heard it. Pointing to the right, he exclaimed, “I think there’s something over there!”
I turned my head and there it was. A crowd of people amassed on the sidewalk engulfed in smoke from a charcoal grill. No foreigners in sight. Our noses reeled us into the restaurant. We sat down and looked at one another valiantly. It was one of the best local meals I’ve had in Nicaragua. Mission accomplished.