December 30, 2017 by Darren Clarke
Into my late thirties the furthest I’d traveled outside of Canada was to exotic Syracuse, New York. I wasn’t that worried about it. Much like being single, not being a worldly traveler just seemed to be my fate. I never felt that particularly robbed of experience anyways. Working at factories and call centers I was lucky enough to get to know about people from all over the world who were always happy to chat about where they were from.
Ed Segini educated me as to the fact that when you visited a friend’s home in his homeland of Togo you would expect to be offered a glass of water. He also let me know that New Brunswick French compared to Togo french didn’t much seem like French at all. My Polish friend Asia told me about how excited she would be as a child to get an orange for Christmas (and she will hate that I mentioned it), while Janusz, also from Poland, shared stories about wandering through the Polish forest, living off the land, of forced military service, of hating Russians and communism (responding to my flippant comment that I was going to vote communist in the next election with , “They say in heaven even the lion will eat grass.”) There was my Tasmanian friend in Montreal (who learned French by reading Archie comic books) telling me about the post-game rugby tradition of getting together with the opposing team for beers after the game. There was my Serbian co-worker unable to focus on work as she worried about her family during the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. There was my proud Russian friend(?) Tymor who got angry when people mentioned they would like to visit Russia.
I enjoyed this kind of vicarious travel. People sharing pieces of their lives with me. Telling me about things they loved, things they loathed, things they brought with them to Canada and things they left behind. Then, all of a sudden, I began to travel.
Beginning with Nicaragua in 2011.
The people of Nicaragua completely charmed me. Nicaragua itself completely overwhelmed me. I was sent to Nicaragua through work for two weeks to provide some technical support training for our common client (a small Canadian cellular company) at our sister site in Managua. I knew nothing about Nicaragua beyond the fact it was located in Central America and that it was the homeland of both my favourite boxer as a kid, Alexis Arguello and former Montreal Expo pitching great, “El Presidente,” Dennis Martinez.
I learned quickly at the hotel bar that my love of boxing and baseball would help me make friends and somewhat overcome the massive language barrier I often found myself presented with outside of the work site (I guess it would be better put to say, the massive language barrier the Nicaraguans were presented with dealing with me, it is their country after all). The hotel bartender and I, despite our mutually exclusive uni-lingual ways, hit it off after I mentioned Alexis Arguello, gestured towards where there was there was a statue of the legendary fighter across the street and mimed my appreciation for Arguello’s skills. On the few nights my friends from the call center didn’t take me out into the city the bartender and I would watch baseball, making happy, sad, disappointed, awed and surprised, faces, nodding at each other happily while I drank Tona and he intermittently served the few Americans that ambled in and out of the small bar.
My favourite part of the every day in Managua occurred each morning prior to my being picked up to go to the site. I would go out to wait for my ride in front of my hotel 30-45 minutes prior to the scheduled pick up time. There I would sit, smoke and watch traffic. It was awesome. It was like nothing I had ever seen.
Farmers on shambly carriages led by a donkey, pickup trucks everywhere each appearing to have about thirty people packed in the back, men weaving in and out of the slow moving, bumper to bumper (to rear donkey end), traffic selling all kinds of stuff, from food to clothes to car parts, kids jumping out at red lights to juggle for change, seemingly whole families seated on a motorcycle. It was constant, vividly coloured, eclectically designed, motion. And then there were the buses.
The buses deserve their own paragraph.
In and of themselves I could have watched the never ending stream of school type buses all day. Much like the pickup trucks they all seemed to have way too many people packed into (and seemingly out of) them but the main point of interest for me was the wildly unique aesthetic presented with each bus. Each bus seemed to be the Frankenstein monster like realization of thousands of pieced together, random, bus parts. Each wonky, piecemeal, creation further separated themselves from others of their kind in being enthusiastically painted one of the colours from a vast, at times nuclear, rainbow. The colour possibilities were astounding- from radiant lime green, to “paint the town red,” lipstick, to traffic vest orange, to sour candy, ocean, blue. The colours and patterns of these artistic creations left me in awe. But there was more. For the final touch, stickers were applied to give most every bus a name, a personality, a point of view. Biblical references, shoutouts to Jesus, threatening names like, “The Destroyer,” or simply a greeting. The buses had a lot to say.
Sitting there in front of the hotel drinking my tea, smoking Nicaraguan cigarettes, I was in awe. I was in love.
The people who took care of me, who drove me around, who shared a bit of their lives with me, were amazing. They were friendly, they were funny, they were generous, they were kind. The person who championed the social aspects of my trip was Abs, Abbedys. You can see Abs in a few pics here looking pretty much as I came to know him- photogenic, charismatic, engaging, enjoying a beer and displaying his soon to be eaten bar-b-qued fish. Abs was The Man.
I had just purchased my first real camera prior to this trip and Managua was a place I could have photographed all day. Juxtaposed to the, “and every town will look the same,” sameness that provided the physical context for my everyday life- cookie cutter places like Ikea, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, MacDonalds, etc. absolutely everything in Nicaragua appeared unique.
Abs managed to perfectly execute getting me from Point A to Point B while balancing allowing me to get some pictures and drink lots of Nicaragua’s great beer, Tona. That was my favourite part, drinking beer, talking shit, hanging out. We played cards at his house, we went to a neighborhood bar and ate and drank on the patio, we drove around town, we ate lobster on the beach.
The trip to Managua to train had many compelling social-political elements to it. From the philosophy and ethics attached to outsourcing, to how much our lives are defined by where and when we are born (versus how much they are not), to the different points in economic development our countries were at, to the rampant and overt corruption I was told of in Managua versus the more formalized, more discreet, corruption of North America. We talked about these things when I was there. Joe and Pia and Carlos and Abs and I. We talked about important stuff. But mostly we talked about our families, our hopes, our dreams. We smoked cigarettes, drank beer and toasted to what we believed in- Music, family, love, lust, talking shit to the wee hours of the night, rooting for the home team.
Like most things, six years later the trip has been reduced to a few stories I share every so often with friends. For instance there was the night we left the mariachi bar after filling an entire table with empty Tona bottles. I can’t remember the name of the Operations Manager that was with us that night but I remember him singing quite passionately along with the Mariachi musicians, waving his hands, putting an arm around a guitar player and joyously raising his voice for all to hear. All the while Abs translated the lyrics for me. The lyrics were great, “of the people, for the people, type lyrics. Again I felt honoured to have this shared with me. As were were leaving our waiter brought each of us a complimentary beer for the drive home. We popped the cans of Tona in the cup holder of the truck and away we went.
A few minutes later we hit a police stop. The driver didn’t have a licence and we of course had open beer in plain sight. 100 Cordobas ($4 and change US at the time) later we were on our way.
It was that easy.
There was the moment at a festival, a feast for a Saint I believe, when Abs waved over our waitress, saying to her, “You speak English really well. You should come by XXXX call center,” Her eyes lit up, “Really? Could I get a job there?” Abs handed her a card and told her to come by the next week. I watched the genuinely thrilled waitress walk away and shook my head in disbelief, “I wish you could see what would happen if I tried to do that in St. Catharines. I wish you could see.”
And there was riding in the back of a pickup truck. I had to. It was something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. Something you legally can’t do anymore in Canada. After seeing so many people in Managua doing it I had to.
And it was awesome.
Sitting in the back of Abs pickup truck with the warm night air hurtling around me, dusk deepening above the cars and traffic lights in the distance behind me.
I felt free.
Times like now I try to remember more, I try to flesh out the reality of the past so as to try and avoid it becoming a carnival attraction caricature of itself. The first thing I think of now is the initial flight into Nicaragua and my experience at the airport.
Flying into Nicaragua revealed the country as a largely rural, largely gorgeous, lush green, landscape. Something I would see little of while in Managua. Once I landed I followed the directions relayed to me prior to the trip, put $20 in my passport and handed it over. I was then lead past past lineups and crowded rooms to an empty, strangely lost in time, waiting area. There I sat across from what would turn out to be my driver to and from the site for the duration of my trip. My driver and I would pretty much never speak. I liked him, I think he liked me, we just couldn’t speak each others language and he was clearly not the miming type. I was provided a ginger ale by a server who appeared once to deliver it to me then disappeared forever. And then we sat there, the driver and I, in this entirely empty, entirely quiet, entirely salmon coloured, room, waiting.
I smoked a lot of cigarettes and smiled and nodded amicably quite a bit. About half an hour later someone came in and advised they were trying to find my luggage. Another half an hour later I was informed it would take a few days for my luggage to get to me.
I also remember Abs would follow me everywhere I went when I ventured off from the group to take pictures. I asked him once why he did that. He responded, “You know, mostly nothing is likely to happen but we’re being on the safe side. We have to be on the safe side with you.”
There is also the pictures I took from the trip. Looking at them now I mostly think that I really could have used a filter, a greater inclination to hold the camera horizontally and fewer shots taken out the window of Abs moving pickup truck. But I also notice that not all the faces in the pictures are smiling. That there are those who didn’t seem happy to be photographed.
I wonder what was beyond the city, what was beyond, “the safe side,” what was outside the center of the picture.
But of course making the periphery the center is as misleading as forgetting about the periphery altogether. And life beyond the safe side is always closer than we think no matter where we are. Nicaragua was vivid, it was friendly, it had a ton of joy. I met and got to know some fantastic, warm, wonderful, people, some of whom I would be lucky enough to raise a glass and break bread with at my home years later when they happened to be visiting our site. Nicaragua reminded me that there are people who open their homes and hearts easily and ask for little beyond sincerity in return. Nicaragua reminded me that it’s pretty damned awesome to ride in the back of a pickup truck.
Six years later myself and most of the people I met no longer work for the call center in question. The Canadian cellular provide no longer exists.
But the memories remain.
Thank you Abs. Wherever you are.
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