Some people can live a lifetime in a single moment. These moments come sparingly, but when they do each tends to blow us away and loathing to return to our normal existence. When stringed together in succession, these moments have the potential to change our lives completely.  It seems in Nicaragua that miraculous events, especially in succession, happen more often than anywhere else on the planet.  One day, if you find yourself in the right place at the right time, can change everything.

There’s something magical about evening time in rural areas of Nicaragua. During the day, the pace is slow and unsurprising: unruly heat takes over, the streets are practically empty as people´s efforts are geared towards escaping the sun (except for those selling ice cream who are never given a moment’s rest), which leaves most of the action taking place under a canopy in some far off location of a remote village. For this reason, the sheltered marketplaces are ripe with activity during the day while everywhere else in town is desolate: They are covered areas, hidden from the afternoon sun, yet bustling with activity and hoards of interesting people that are driven to make a sale. But as the sun goes down, the temperature begins to cool, and shelter becomes a secondary preference to the great outdoors. Kids begin playing soccer in the street with ruthless slide tackles and fancy tricks to counteract their rugged gameplay, the only group of men over 5´10 are found on the dilapidated basketball court whose rims are originals from the 1970’s NBA All Star game and as crooked as the government, the center park becomes filled with elderly couples holding hands and passing by the beautifully colored flowers as the stars inch closer and closer into view. All of it is a sight to behold; a transition that occurs so subtly it could easily go unnoticed, but for those with watchful eyes the circle of daily life in Central America unfolds on the backdrop of a setting sun and bright, smiling faces.

Each place and each person you encounter on the road is different from the next. This is true in numerous capacities, but especially true when traveling about and experiencing a wide variety of lifestyles, personalities, and cultures over such a huge amount of land. For as similar as some cities may be or some people may act, if you dig deep enough you will find a characteristic that separates them from anything else that exists in the world:  Each person has their story, their hardship and similarly each place has their history, their turmoil. At times it appears to blend together to form a holistic tale of poverty, struggle, and endurance that encompasses the entire region, but always one stands apart from the next – leaving an impression so strong and profound on your mind that it cannot be replaced regardless of how great the similarities may appear to be.

A little bit of luck and a fortune landed me in a lovely village in the Northwest corner of Nicaragua, known as Somoto. A whimsical desire to do some exploring and the need to get my most valuable possession fixed (my camera) placed me inside a random electronic store in Leon chatting with a local about where I have been, my plans for the future (¨Ahhh, plans…..? I stopped making those a long time ago¨), and what else I was going to do in Nicaragua. As the young, enthusiastic kid riffled through my photos and was intrigued by what was on the memory card, he suggested that the absolute ¨best¨ place for photos in the country was in the Grand Canyon of Somoto and that I had to go there. It took all of 3 seconds to decide that I would, and over the next week I planned out how to go about arriving at a destination that I had never heard of nor knew anything about. Getting there wasn’t an a miraculous feat, the miracles occurred once I got there.

At first glance, Somoto was far from spectacular: a very small, inactive village that boasts a population of some 10 to 15,000 and streets that can be numbered on two hands. As with all the more northern areas of the country, it is notorious for farmland, ranches, cattle, and what would be a living replica of the ¨Wild West¨: cowboy hats, rancheros, denim, spurs attached to custom fitted leather boots, more leather products – the usual themes of a spaghetti Western. Also associated with northern parts of the country is excessive heat, which means that the town is not very active nor the people mobile during the day. So, when arriving off a bus amidst at high noon, the absence of commotion is the onely welcome one will receive aside from the blank stares of the locals scampering off into the city in search of shade. The place was dead, with the only movement being the wheels of the bus pulling out of town and the dirt it kicked up behind.

My initial doubts about  Somoto were quickly overtaken by the necessity to find accommodation. I scrambled around the town, looking down every alleyway and side street to locate the finest family establishment that was not overrun with tourists and would coincide with my ever dwindling budget. In my search, fortunately, I was not alone: There also happened to be a group of four Nicaraguan brothers that had traveled north from Granada to sell various car parts, who were also limited in their selection and on the prowl for something that could suit all of their interests. With our forces united, the party zealously scoured the streets until fate landed us in the arms of a lovely Grandmother whose house doubled as a hostel for Nicaraguans and others who may be passing through. An invaluable opportunity, one that could not go by without being seized, placed me in her family’s care for the next few nights in Somoto and on the streets playing futsol with her grandson as darkness was beginning to overpower the daylight.

Granted that my room was the size of a small closet, the impetus to venture out into town was stronger than ever and left no reason to remain in what could be equated to a windowless prison cell. It was nothing that I could not handle nor would it be out of the ordinary by this point, but this is not the type of place where one spends much time other than by force. Plus, a rumbling stomach and the need to quell its screams for food led me wondering about, asking the people who began to fill the streets about the best spots for local fare. And from here, the story begins.

I walk into a restaurant that hugs the side of the main highway, to be greeted by a large gentleman with a smirk on his face, booming voice, and a vivacious personality that extends a grand welcome to all who venture into his realm. To the individual who was not on the lookout or did not happen to be informed by some random, partially intoxicated man on the corner, the place could have been passed over without a second glance: A dimly lit shanty, held together by simple wood boards and a little bit of wire, all centered around a charcoal grill that fires out the “daily” specials, which appear to be chicken, beef, or pork regardless of the day. For as little as it may be, the restaurant has a homely feel and screams personality. It is the sort of place that you are drawn to by pure intrigue, glancing inside and catching the happy faces, hearty meals, and enthusiastic conversation that are all illuminated by candlelight, even though there isn’t much there aside from a few tables and chairs. The waving arms and wide brimmed smile of the makeshift doorman further enchant the onlooker, and soon one is moving from outside to inside with as if a gentle force is propelling him forward whether it be by desire, necessity, or force.

The lonely evening meal has become a staple in my daily routine. I’ve been traveling solo for some time now, some 4 or so months, and with each day I tend to move further away from the crowd rather than going with it. The experience is much more authentic, the interactions are genuine, and the conversations raw. This desire has placed me in various scenarios where I am the only foreigner amongst a plethora of natives, being questioned on a variety of topics that relate to foreign diplomacy, the “new” America and Barrack Obama, the struggles of the local businesses and farmers, widespread corruption amongst government officials, and many other heavily weighted subjects that could churn the weak of stomach. Even though I enter alone, I find myself surrounded by many individuals interested in my story and also willing to share theirs, which provides all the company one may need when attempting to expose himself to the true essence of life in South and Central America.

Sitting down with food on my mind, a signal was given by the man who lured me inside to check out the grill and see what was being served. The grill master, Juan, was awaiting my arrival and ambitious to demonstrate his mastery over fire, poultry, pig, and cow that he had acquired over the past few months since his older brother, Walton, needed some surgery that prevented him from work. It turns out the lively fellow from the door, now responsible for the cash box duties, is Walton. A few laughs between Juan and I erupted as some sides were meticulously selected to accompany the helping of slow grilled pork, then conversation began to flow freely between the two brothers as the pipping hot food was served. Walton began throwing out a few of the random English words he knew how to use, mostly profanities or introductory sentences that pertained to the restaurant business, asking for assistance in pronunciation and maybe even a few pieces of vocabulary that could expand his base further. Juan, or “Juancito” as his older and much larger brother called him, would interject ever so often with a criticism or sarcastic comment that would send his elder into a spiral of laughter and fury; eyes lighting up and a smile broadening that spoke volumes into the man’s gentle, personable nature and the compassionate love he had for his brother. The two appeared to be excited about something, something that I had not ascertained before I arrived, but that was slowly becoming more visible as they downed shots of rum: It was Friday night and, most importantly, there was a religious celebration that would last all weekend. This meant it was time for celebration, a celebration where everyone was welcome and needed to participate.

Against the grain which I had followed for so long, I decided to appease their demands and have a glass of rum on the house. Well, one drink turned to two or three over the course of a few hours, and their riotous interactions continued to provide thorough entertainment as the evening ebbed further into the dark night. Yet between the bubbling conversation and the alcohol that was being consumed, a picture of my companions became more clear: They were brothers, two of three, that worked in the restaurant that their mother started 10 years back and were now responsible for its welfare. Their tasks included everything, from rising early in the morning and preparing the food to staying late and closing up shop, and representative of a typical day for the hardworking individuals that fill Central America; starting before the sun rises and returning after it sets, enjoying every moment in between and being content with the little you are fortunate to have. It is hard not to be impressed with such individuals, Juan and Wilton being no exception, and to enjoy their company while it is around. One looses track of time and all superficial matters when surrounded by these special people, becoming fully engrossed in the moment and only cognizant of fact that it may never return again.

The reality is that the restaurant had to close at some time, the party had to end, and both of these were rapidly approaching. I lent the guys a hand closing up shop; placing boards to cover the windows, pulling out light bulbs that lit the doorways, counting the money that was earned throughout the day, hammering nails into the door to increase security, and stowing away the extra food that would be sold in the morning. The night had passed the climax, and although I was upset to see it go, the thought of sleep was growing more attractive as my eyes longed to rest. Apparently, Juan and Wilton did not share the same sentiments: Their night was just beginning, and I was obligated to participate with these pilgrims on their voyage into the the town’s square. So we embarked up the hill that led to the center of the village, where their mother had a smaller stand that was catering to the demands of people as they continued to celebrate, with a car full of supplies and a driver who in any more developed country would be arrested for drunk driving. Dangerous, surely, but the 3 minute journey cruising at 15mph ensured that we arrived at our destination safely.

The vacant streets that were suffocated by sunlight and heat were now filled with activity and the evening’s cooling air. The full moon and twinkling stars acted as a spot light for the show that was taking place down below, where hundreds of cowboys and their families were enjoying the night to the sweet lull of music playing in the background. Each person in attendance was absorbed by the moment, lost amongst the chatter, laughter, and dancing that was all around and had spread to every corner. The occasional howl would erupt from a group of gentlemen posted close by with a table of beers before them, whose main objective at present was to sway one of the younger ladies towards the table. Their attempts, it would seem, bore no fruit. In the meantime, Juan and Wilton led the way towards their mother’s tent, a place encircled by eager patrons looking for a wholesome meal and a comfortable place to rest their weary legs from a long day’s work or too much dance. Introductions with family members took place in rapid succession under the onrush of a famished customers, which placed the three amigos in a table placed effectively away from the commotion but in the nearby vicinity to watch the action. Then, the feast began: platter followed by platter of home cooked food being shipped over to our table, fresh off the grill, and a healthy mix of all the best Nicaraguan cuisine. Beverages were flowing just as freely, a combination of blends and juices that are more exotic than the fruit from which they were made, and that perfectly complimented the fresh food that was being served. Numerous family members came over to share a joke or a beer, before returning to their work station or into the crowd that had formed in the street. The group was in pairs, previously coupled off, and now slowly dancing with one another to the sound of a older man’s guitar as he strummed some gentle, latin rhythms. Their movement an achievement of harmony, albeit few pairs seemed more intoxicated or aggressive than others, like a field of hay that sways with the wind and completes the foreground of a beautiful, mountainous countryside.

Wilton was wearing out fast because his children had come by and were refusing to leave his side. Juan was distracted by text messages from his girlfriend about where he was going this evening. The conversation with the other locals in our company were becoming more and more vague, as their level of intoxication increased and mine was on the steady decline. It was time for bed. So I went off, saying goodbye to my companions and promising to stop by again tomorrow, and fell asleep sorting through memories of the night’s affairs.

The first twelve hours in Somoto passed by with a bang and were far greater than expected, with the only difficulty being the struggle to get up early and head into the Canyon at a reasonable hour the next day. The journey was simple enough: A bus ride ten miles out of town, then walk up a path into the canyon where trails would lead to various locations that would be easily accessible. Turns out that a school bus is responsible for carrying passengers to the Honduran boarder and also passes the entrance every hour for anyone willing to pay the $1 to get onboard. Done. A more substantial hindrance is something along the lines of a raging river that greets the individual who follows the footpath from the entrance to its end. This is no small creek or feeble tributary, we are talking about a water formation that has carved through rock over the past 10,000 years, filled with rapids and tumbling rocks, and crested with white caps. To access the Canyon one must cross this river, by foot with water resting chest high, until reaching the safety of land on the opposite side. Several families are sitting along the shoreline, cleaning clothes or bathing, all the while enjoying the spectacle that occurs right before them as those brave souls inch across the rugged terrain that is covered by three feet of rushing water. Some slip, others come close to falling, but all regain their balance quickly enough before the river whisks them off their feet entirely and shoots them downstream into rocks the size of small hills. This area represents a wider opening in the narrow slit of river that penetrates the valley, where the water moves at a slightly slower pace than it does further upstream and the grasp of the limestone cliffs has loosened a hundredfold. Slightly intimidating, but with an entourage of locals going in front and a few trailing behind, the journey across isn’t as difficult as it appeared to be on the sidelines. If it were done alone, however, by one with zero experience in high speed river crossings the tale may be much different than the story I am relating today. A slight misstep and a few broken bones may be the least of your problems.

With obstacle #1 accomplished, I head uphill to catch a glimpse of the Canyon from above. The only downside is that after hiking for around 30 minutes, the view from the top is unimpressive and does not counterbalance the effort it took getting there: The Grand Canyon of Somoto is not as “grand” as I had expected. There is beautiful green hillsides surrounding the steep cliffs and finely shaped rocks that cast shade over the foamy grey river, but I was led to believe it was something mind blowing. I quickly began to think that I must had erred in some way, that this could not be the splendid Canyon which was boasted by my friend in Leon, and concluded to question a nearby Nicaraguan as I fought a battle against disappointment. Fate, and a some luck, led me into a conversation with a local kid named Noel, who happened to be a native of the area and knew a bit more than most guides. Noel began to rifle off information about the Canyon, saying that the most astounding views required one to hike through some dense vegetation until arriving to an viewpoint where two rivers intersected. He described it as the best anyone could ask for, offering to show me the way for $5 and a place to store my bad in the meantime. I figured since I had made it all the way up here to see this “grand” Canyon, why not go a little further and see all it had to offer.

The decision to venture off with Noel was one whose greatness was comparable to that of entering Wilton and Juan’s family restaurant the night before. Chance placed me into the hands of an individual that could have been an ambassador for all of Central America: An astute, ambitious character that had so little by objective standards, doing a honest day’s work to support his family, but content with a life that contained more difficulty than an outsider could ever imagine. As we skipped stones across the river and discussed the course of action for the afternoon, our personalities began to mesh and he informed of how his day had been going so far. It turned out that Noel had been occupied in the morning with a couple of El Salvadorians, who needed some assistance in climbing to the previous viewpoint, and was now taking me along the hardest route in the entire Canyon. This back to back performance didn’t bother him in the slightest, for it was a trail that he had treaded many times with his relatives and was very close to where they all lived, and would be normal compared to his daily routine. In fact, after finishing our escapade through the mountains and down the river, he planned to return to the entrance and secure another oblivious foreigner that was passing through in order to bring some more money home for his family. Business in these parts is sporadic, meaning that sometimes it may be weeks before someone else comes along that needs a makeshift guide. Times are tight and whatever money was available he is eager to get it, with today being a standard day in the life of Noel.

Things started off interestingly when a decision needed to be made between either a tube or a lifejacket after arriving at his family’s home. Outside this humble dwelling, which appeared more like a makeshift shack than anything suitable for 7 people to live in, scattered about the dusty floor was a selection of floatable devices. In Noel’s hands were a brightly colored lifejacket suited for a child and an inner tube that was eerily similar to a tire from a 16 wheeler. He told me to choose. Baffled, and unaware for what purpose I would be using either of these objects, I decided that the lifejacket would be the most prudent. If we were going into a river, I could always fall off the tube and drown but the lifejacket was designed to keep me afloat no matter how dire the circumstances. With my logic being flawless and Noel eager to start up the hill, I grabbed the hot orange chest protection and followed after him.

A while back my shoes were stolen. I think it goes without saying that shoes are normally a requirement when you hike, and I could have really, really used them on this one. It’s tough walking up a slick, muddy hill with good foot gear in the first place, now imagine doing this with rubber flip flops of questionable quality from Bolivia on your feet. Not fun. Rainy season in Nicaragua ensures that it will downpour at least once every two days. It had been a monsoon exactly two days ago, which prevented my departure to Somoto by a day, and the remnants of this storm were still lingering.  The mud was so thick and heavy that I was slipping my way up hill, only to loose my footing and a sandal as I attempted to climb the steep, narrow path. With frustration boiling over, I took off the footwear only to step directly on a massive cacti-like needle that penetrated an inch deep into the tender flesh on the bottom of my foot. The pain that now accompanied every step did not make the trip any easier, but with no other option I pushed onward and upwards. We eventually reached the end of the road – the raging river and steep limestone cliff in the Canyon’s center – and took in the impressive view.

The white, limestone rock was lifted high above the rushing rapids and cut deep into the blue, cloudless sky. The water was moving incredibly fast, bubbling over the enormous rocks that obstructed its path and continuing downstream till it eventually reached the Atlantic. A force of nature that traverses the entire country of Nicaragua, an unforgiving power not to be underestimated, whose humble beginnings are a few miles up in the mountains that encircled the valley. Yet, in the calmer pools far off in the distance, the murky waters were peaceful. Set against the rugged cliffs that grew apart in various sections, these areas were inviting and looked no different than a hidden lagoon. The only difficultly was that in order to get there, one would have to brave the roaring river that ripped through the tighter portions of the canyon and where the water flowed most intensely. The contrast between tranquility and intensity was startling, yet only added to the majestic grandeur of the place. The shattering noise of water rushing combined with the cold wind that brushed its surface provided a chilling reminder of location, bringing whatever fantastical, existential thoughts back into cold, hard reality.

The thing about a canyon is that it is made of rock. I know that this is not new information or anything insightful, but when following a path to middle of a canyon and then having to follow its outline back to where you started far downstream, this becomes a problem. One thing in particular is that its hard to have a clearly defined path on coarse, unkempt stone that is meant to be used more for rock climbing than walking. It did not occur to me beforehand, but this was the reason for the lifejacket: Noel understood that situations would arise where we could not scale the side of the Canyon, thus we would be forced to jump in the water until a more easily maneuverable passage was reached. So, with bare feet and a pricker still lodged half an inch into my foot, we began hugging the limestone walls and shifting our weight to pass by the treacherous spots where walking was no longer possible. When things got real hairy and no other options were available, we jumped. Noel went first to show our course through the river and which side we attempt to aim our bodies, and then I plunged down the 10 t0 15 foot drop into the wild river with no clue as to where I would end up. If I followed Noel’s lead like planned, then everything would be fine. But if I deviated even the slightest bit off course, I could be sent pummeling downstream or get caught in some fast currents where survival would be tricky. This is no exaggeration, more so the cruel truth and a realization that ensured every detail would receive the focus necessary to prevent the worst from transpiring. Pushed underwater and swept away by the rapid pace of the undercurrent, the most difficult aspect is to fight against the initial phase of panic. Then, once in control, moving towards the designated safe side was a matter of wiggling the body into the right areas and moving with the flow of water rather than against it. A slight contortion made passage easy, landing one in the grasps of Noel and through a patch of rapids that would ruin the small child who my life vest was originally designed to fit. Although tight, it provided the buoyancy that was essential for survival and assisted in keeping my head above fast moving water. We did this around 5 times: Noel plunging in first, I followed his lead, then we both climbed out onto some larger rocks and began scaling the walls again. The last time, however, our tired bodies were shot into an opening of the canyon where the current came to a halt. The river’s movement had subsided, and we slowly drifted downstream as if caught in a lazy river at an amusement park. Instead, in the Grand Canyon of Somoto, one is surrounded by marvelous, shiny limestone cliffs that are cut in half by a narrow slit of pure blue sky that radiates sunlight. Penetrating the darkness the sun shines brightly, carrying with it the promise of a new day and the optimism that comes with an afternoon well spent. It appeared that I had finally found the view that the kid in Leon was talking about, except I could hardly imagine that this was the one he had in mind.

Noel and I inched closer and closer to where I initially crossed the river, on the very beginning of my journey, which was a sad sight to see after such an rewarding toil against mother nature. We exited a little higher up, then traversed back across the riverbed and made our way to the exit. After goodbyes were exchanged, I sat on the side of the road and waited for the bus to pick me up on its way back from the boarder. I glanced at my watch and noticed that it is precisely 12:30 PM. It had been exactly 24 hours since I had arrived in Somoto. What a day.

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