Early in my trip to Nicaragua last spring, I lost my bank card. I had a large sum of money in the bank, but no access.
After frantic calls from a phone booth as claustrophobic as a confessional, I got through to the bank. As I waited anxiously UPS to deliver a new card, two friends helped me with loans.
Thanks to my friend in Montenegro and his friend in the western Nicaraguan city of Granada, I had about $200 dollars while I navigated an obstacle course of overwhelming heat, traffic jams and bad vibes.
But gratitude can be fleeting. There are times when the bus ride is long, you are dehydrated and underwhelmed by nausea and lack of personal space. Elbows grow sharp, goodwill fades, and self-preservation dominates.
I was in the cranky category when I arrived in Nicaragua’s surf mecca, San Juan del Sur. I checked into one of the cheaper dorm rooms — seven dollars a night at the Corcks’ (sic) Beach Irish Pub and Hostel.
There was nothing Irish about it except the flag on the sign, but the beer was cheap and it was easy to find in the dark.
There were small wooden boxes to lock up your things. You could see where the latches had been broken, vandalized and repaired, but tried not to think about that.
The beach and world class surf waves were only 100 feet away across the street.
I shared the dorm with four strangers: Larry, a lighthearted, recently-retired American; Oliver, a young, good-natured Spaniard; Sebastian, a student athlete from Mexico City; and Kathy, a lithe 20-something from the British upper classes.
Things had quickly gone south for Larry. Within minutes of his arrival he fell into the clutches of a woman of the night. They were on the beach when she lifted his money, passport and credit cards.
“I was stupid. I deserved it,” he reflected. A rookie mistake for sure.
Although he’d only known Larry for a few hours, Oliver offered him $300 dollars for a trip to Managua, the capital city, to apply for an emergency passport, request new bank and VISA cards and organize a Western Union loan from a friend.
Oliver’s generosity drew the group together.
When Larry returned from Managua, great mirth ensued. His emergency loan had been wired and his passport and cards were on their way. He toasted his new friends. Beer was flowing, songs were singing, high fives were fiving.
Then the wheels came off, along with the clothes.
Around 11 p.m., the younger three sprinted from the hostel bar towards the ocean waves 100 feet away. They ditched their clothes on the sand, skinny-dipping into the midnight hour.
Then the constabulary arrived.
At 12:20 Kathy bust into the dorm, where Larry and I were on the verge of sleep. She was hysterical: “We have to call the embassy! They re in jail!”
According to Kathy, the two officers yelled at the nudists and Sebastian responded rudely. With her weak Spanish, Kathy didn’t know exactly what was said, but watched helplessly as the boys were whisked off to jail.
At this point, I barely knew this foursome that had become quite close. Although they were a likeable lot, I was in a private mood and had my walls up after some close calls in Granada with crime and cash flow.
I tried to snooze through the conversation as Larry agonized about the fate of his guardian angel, Oliver. I asked if I could help with anything, but probably didn’t really mean it.
Confident this must be a common Spring Break gringo episode, I figured there must be a home-grown remedy.
In the morning, I told Kathy I would ask the crew of expats I had met the previous day at Big Wave Dave’s Surf Bar about it.
Big Dave is one of many Canadians who have opened up businesses in the community. His bar has a Cheers sort of atmosphere, more for expats than fine-dining tourists. You get the feeling Dave likes it that way.
When I outlined the scenario, Dave’s advice was to the point: “Pay the first guy as quickly as possible, whatever he asks for.”
The others quickly chimed in. A retiree from Detroit said if you don’t pay the first guy, there’s a second, so the price has just doubled. If you don’t pay the second guy, the next day the supervisor comes in and the price is triple.
If you don’t pay the supervisor, he went on, you have to wait for a court date and you’re %#@*ed. It could take months.
I began to sense the gravity of the situation, but there was no way I was going to go down to the police station or chip in cash. After my recent experience in Granada, I was more vigilant than normal about money and access to it.
Besides, I had begun to mistrust my fellow hostellers in general, and the police in particular.