It was Sunday in Nicaragua, eleven-thirty, just after church let out. Evelyn, the cook at the Baptist Mission where I lived, had Sundays off, so meals weren’t served then. I hadn’t eaten since the plate of fried turtle and rice she prepared at six o’clock the evening before, so any advertisement promoting nourishment found me an easy target.
Leaving my temporary home at the mission, I wandered into town. Delicious scents drew me this way and that. Someone had scrawled HAY NACATAMALES on a poster at the first food stand in the small but crowded market. Like every other food stand, this one was squat and sturdy and lacked paint or decoration. Rusty nails held grainy, uneven boards together—a sign offering food topped the whole rough picture off, and behind it all stood a lady.
“Hay nacatamales?” I inquired.
She looked at the poster, smiled, and said that was all she had. I ordered two, one beef and one chicken. Nacatamales, the Nicaraguan version of a tamale, are succulent blends of rice and cornmeal dough, stuffed with your meat of choice, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed or boiled. For a dollar, you’ll get change, and one is enough to fill you up if you get it from that lady on the main drag down the street from Verbo Church (on the right, just before you get to the Pepsi distributor).
“Y un tenedor?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. Lo siento, pero no lo tengo.”
“Y una servilleta?”
“No. Lo siento.” She didn’t have a fork or a napkin. She offered only nacatamales and a 7 Up and that’s about it, but I didn’t care. I wandered half a block down the street to the concrete slab in front of the Sala de Belleza. There were six or eight housing units around back. This wouldn’t be the first time I would sit on some strangers’ front grounds eating with my hands, nor the last. I trimmed off the string and peeled open the banana leaves. I set the steaming leaves on the three-foot concrete wall and started stuffing my face. Strolling by on foot or bicycle, passersby twisted their heads to stare. Everyone. Curious where I went wrong in planning this meal, they couldn’t help but stare at a gringo eating a Nicaraguan treasure in such a manner. No one pointed, but two separate pairs of girls swiveled their heads back around, laughing, after they passed. One teenage boy stopped to question how I could possibly eat all of that food in one sitting, and then he appealed for a bite.
A young woman stepped out through the front gate and stopped. A thin black blouse draped over her torso and jeans.
“Necesitas un tenedor?” she offered, her eyes flickering from my face to the nacatamales and back again.
I really didn’t need a fork now, not with my hands already covered in warm dough, but I recognized that it would be rude to turn down her hospitality. “Okay, gracias,” I said.
“Y una servilleta?”
A napkin I did need. She returned inside and came out with both. She extended them toward me, then stopped. Her head tilted to the side as she invited me inside to sit down. Didn’t know me from a guy on the news wanted for kidnapping, but she loaded my lunch onto a chipped white plate and invited me to sit down at her dining room table. For fifteen minutes we chatted; she practiced her English, and I practiced my Spanish.
Her name was Marginee Callejas. “What are you doing here?” she wondered, since white people don’t pass through Puerto Cabezas often. When they do, they certainly don’t spend their time eating nacatamales on the street by the handful. “Yes, volunteer, but why Puerto Cabezas?”
She sat at the table with me now, leaning forward in her chair. The window to the street was open; a faint breeze slipped in and tugged at the ends of her dark hair. Outside, two dogs barked and snarled. I told the young woman my story. How I came to arrive in Nicaragua. How I sang karaoke. How much I enjoyed being in Honduras. How I met a girl, and I hoped to meet back up with her. How I fought bulls.
It is freeing, the nature of a one-time conversation.
She told me her story. She was a doctor working two blocks away at the public medical clinic. “And one day, I go to the United States,” she announced confidently, “to visit my cousins in Miami.” Despite being young for her career, at twenty-four, her maturity defied her age. Braces laced her teeth, and kids called her Doctor Callejas. She had her life planned out. To the United States it was.
With a proud note in her voice and a slightly upturned chin, she told me about her family in a distant village. Her father died six years prior, and her mom had assumed both parenting roles for her two brothers. Marginee was going to visit them for twenty days beginning on Tuesday. She said she was passionate about music. She said she was human and therefore as imperfect as everyone else. She said she didn’t like animal abuse.
We talked, as always, about the drug trade and the dangerous spots to avoid. “Do not swim at the sea,” she warned, “but there are places you go on the river.”
“Really?” I asked. “On that river right outside of town?”
“Yes,” she answered. “But this is not very clean. Maybe you do not go swimming.”
I couldn’t finish both nacatamales, just as the boy outside had predicted. I barely finished one despite how hopelessly hungry I was. She fed the leftovers to a couple of loitering stray dogs. She led me to the sink, where I washed my hands. She rinsed my plate and my fork. She took care of my little bag of trash.
She mentioned she had to go meet some friends. I had a far walk ahead of me to get to the supermarket.
“So, bye,” I said.
“Bye,” she said with a grin.
“You are welcome.”
I loaded my backpack onto my right shoulder and walked off toward the center of town.
I’m an optimist, sure, but not an eternal and unrealistic one. I know there is evil in this world; indeed, I’ve met plenty of awful people in my life. It’s different on the road, though, as the venomous side of existence rarely surfaces. Travelers are generally excited to chat, cordial at a minimum. Natives love to meet foreigners, and they often listen attentively to stories of life back home. Even the mean ones tolerate, with a slight smile, the smell and unkempt nature and mouthy behavior of the backpacker because, well, the backpacker’s money is just as good as everyone else’s. It doesn’t serve them to have a toxic attitude.
Mostly I turn away from the things I cannot change. Instead, I focus on what I can contribute to, even if its effect is pocket-size. The junior paupers of Honduras? I can work with a vacation activities program. Parasites in the water? I can help put in a rope-and-washer pump. Perpetually lazy or hostile people or the seemingly endless drug trade among Colombia, Central America, and the United States? Not much for me to offer in assistance.
So I acknowledge the evil in passing but don’t permit it to destruct my otherwise positive temperament. Then I pause to cherish the instances that I get to spend with wonderful people—an hour, a day, a month, a year. Travel teaches us to open ourselves up and allow total strangers into our lives. I sat with the delightful Marginee Callejas for fifteen minutes in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and I walked out of her house and onto a mucky street knowing that I’d never see her again in my life.