Granada On Haphazard Guitar Strings
A night out on the town in Granada, Nicaragua, with a Canadian, a Rastafarian painter, and an ex-revolutionary. Does it get any better than this?
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, her destination as well as mine, I tore out my Lonely Planet “Central America on a Shoestring,” and together we looked at the budget hostel listings. According to guide, Hostel Oasis 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 into one of the hostel’s spacious dorm rooms.
So I arrived in Granada, Nicaragua, like I’d 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 am just lazy when it comes to advance planning, and whimsically making my way north across South and Central America was just easier.
Tired? Hungover? Sick? Diarrhea? 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.
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 an appropriate name based on his flowing beard and subdued manner. 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, Australians, Americans, a Canadian, a group of Swedish girls, and a British guy decades older than all of us — the usual haphazard hostel suspects. Probably all across the globe that night, groups of slapdash, youthful travelers were becoming each others’ temporary stand-in best friends, while drinking whatever happened to be 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 U.N. convention. World peace seemed suddenly as simple as that.
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 decided to enroll in Spanish classes. At 11 a.m. I walked to the Lonely Planet-recommended One-on-One Tutoring and had a class scheduled daily from 12 p.m. — 2p.m.
After my first day of class, I reluctantly said a farewell as the Argentinean girls walked out of the hostel as abruptly as they had walked into it. They were shipping off to Ometepe, a large volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Gary, my newfound-best-Canadian-friend, had been out with us on Karaoke night and was taking classes at the same 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.
By Wednesday night we were both exhausted from learning, drinking, dancing and oversleeping. Though the bars closed at 2 a.m., we picked up the bad habit of taking my guitar out into the street and singing Irish 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. Our table consisted of Sara, a beautiful blond NGO volunteer, Ramón, a hilarious Brit attempting Nicaraguan, Gary, and myself. After 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?”
“Yea,” 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 dashed off to make a drug deal.
“You should get your guitar Luke,” Gary said to me as John skipped off into the night. 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.
I stood up to see what else the night had to offer when a gray-haired man of about 70, sitting with a man a few decades younger, glared at me and said, “Young kids like you think they know everything. You are nothing. You 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 whiskey 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.
“Hi, I’m Luke,” I was trying to be jovial. The other man at the table, an America 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 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 this 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.
He seemed like he might die at the table. I thought about how these two had met here in their youth — travelers like myself. I softened, any resentment evaporating into the night air.
“Aheeeeee!” 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.
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 22 I really can’t say much about things I haven’t done yet. But I promise that 50 years from now, I am not going to tell people 50 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.
My playing 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.
Published on November 29, 2009