My Latin American initiation was shockingly similar to that of Asia. I was forgotten at the airport. Again. In the middle of the night. Again. Apparently this is an epidemic that spans continents.
After leaving Hong Kong I stopped home in LA to eat Mexican food, pack some new clothes, gobble down a few insanely delicious home-cooked meals, scare the bejesus out of a friend by showing up at a restaurant when he thought I was still in Asia, drink wine, have an In-N-Out burger and eat more Mexican food. Then back to LAX I went, on my way to Nicaragua with a 15-hour layover in Fort Lauderdale. I had never been to Miami, so I decided to rent a car and explore the city for the day. I was happily upgraded to a convertible, and headed straight for South Beach where I ate a Cuban sandwich, sat on the beach, had a humongous mojito at a bar on Ocean Drive and savored a salad with fresh conch. Little did I know these comforts would have to sustain me for the next 24 hours.
Precisely because I was arriving in Managua during the wee hours of the morning, I arranged for airport pick-up through my guesthouse. As I exited customs, I scanned the little paper signs with names scrawled on them, but none of them had mine. I made another round- no dice. Damn, was this really happening to me again? Since I just arrived, I didn’t have a local SIM card in order to call the guesthouse and ask where they were, so I scanned the crowd and spotted two young foreign-looking people. The girl was blonde and they were clearly awaiting someone’s arrival, so I thought the odds of them speaking English and living in Managua were pretty high.
“Excuse me, do you live here?” I asked the girl. “Yes, we do.” My powers of observation were spot on. “Do you have a phone I could use, by chance? My guesthouse was supposed to pick me up, but no one is here.” “Oh sure,” the guy chimed in, handing me his archaic cell phone. I dialed the number and a man answered, “Hola?”
“Oh, hello, hola. Yes, estoy en el aeropuerto. No one esta aqui. Necesito airport pick up.” Shockingly the guy didn’t understand my eloquent Spanglish. Since it was 1am, I figured it was the night shift guy who would have no reason to speak English, and likely had no knowledge of this agreement. After several frustrating attempts at communicating my predicament, I conceded defeat and hung up the phone. I thanked the couple, who I learned were Christian missionaries from Georgia (the state, not the country), and said I would just take a cab. “Oh, we can take you,” the guy said. “Where is your hotel?” I showed him the address, which really isn’t an address at all. They don’t use building numbers and street names because that’s too sensible. Rather, they use landmarks with directions from that landmark. My hotel address looked like this:
Hotel Seminole 1 cuadra al oeste
4 1/2 cuadras al sur
Translation: My hotel (Backpackers Manahuac) is one block west and 4 ½ blocks south of the Hotel Seminole. Brian, the guy who offered me a ride, knew where the Hotel Seminole was, so he was pretty confident he could find it. “Wow, that’s very sweet of you, but I can just take a cab,” I politely told him, hoping he would insist. “It’s no problem, really. It’s not too far.” “Oh, thank you so much,” I replied in relief. We waited for Brian’s aunt and uncle to arrive, then he broke the news to them that they picked up a stray and had to deliver me to my hotel. Luckily Brian had an SUV so he was able to fit all five of us and our luggage in the car. Unfortunately it was practically held together with duct tape. One of the back doors didn’t open and the driver’s window wouldn’t close.
20 minutes later we arrived at the Hotel Seminole, so Brian drove in the direction he thought was correct and started counting blocks. No Backpackers Manahuac. Ok, back to the Hotel Seminole to try again. No Backpackers Manahuac. I suggested we ask the people at the Hotel Seminole, so we returned once again and went inside. The guy at the desk pointed and explained in Spanish, which Amanda (Brian’s wife) seemed to kind of understand. We got back in the car to try again. No Backpackers Manahuac.
I started feeling REALLY bad and suggested they just drop me off at the nearby Hilton so I could take a cab from there. Brian refused, then continued driving and saw someone in the road he thought might be able offer directions. As we got closer he realized the prospective direction-giver was the Policia. Unfortunately it was too late to turn around as the cop was motioning us towards him. He asked for Brian’s identification and then told him to step out of the car. Lovely, I had now gotten these sweet church missionaries into a mess with the feds. Several meters back, Brian and the cop chatted for at least 10 minutes as we speculated what was happening. Amanda offered, “I don’t think we need to worry. They’re short-sleeved cops.” “Excuse me?” I inquired, needing a little more information. She explained that, according to some highly reliable source, cops with short-sleeved uniforms didn’t have any power. They just stood around collecting a government paycheck. The long-sleeved cops, however, could haul your ass to jail if you looked at them crosswise. “Yes, I’m sure it will be fine,” she reassured us. “They have short sleeves”. I was in no position to question this solid reasoning.
A few minutes later Brian returned to the car, quiet and looking a bit defeated. “What did you have to pay them?” Amanda asked. He muttered something under his breath and started the car. I asked Amanda how much the bribe was, and she told me it was the equivalent of about $10. I pulled out a $10 bill from my wallet and handed it to her. “No, it’s fine,” she said. I insisted, knowing my conscience wouldn’t allow me to let this go. She refused the money, so I tucked it between the middle console and the passenger’s seat, making sure she saw me.
At this point Brian was content to drop me off at the Hilton, so we pulled up and asked the woman at the front desk if a taxi could take me to the guesthouse. “No good deed goes unpunished,” I said to Amanda, trying to make light of this ridiculous situation I’d put them in. “It’s ok, I believe good karma will come back me,” she replied with a half smile. The hotel woman advised it wasn’t safe for me to take a taxi alone at that time of night, so she called the guesthouse to ask for directions. She drew us a map, explaining in detail in English. Five minutes later we approached a man standing in the middle of the street next to a sign that read, “Backpackers Manahuac”. After a million apologies and thank yous on my end, the four of them sped off and the guy, who was clearly waiting for us, showed me to my room.
The next morning I went downstairs and complained to the woman that no one was at the airport to pick me up. “Yes, I heard,” she replied unsympathetically. “The driver forgot.”
Welcome to Nicaragua.