After I wrote my first book four years ago, ABC called and asked me to do an interview on 20/20. I sat across from John Stossel as he fired off a series of questions about living among the homeless and working from the bottom up to achieve the American Dream.
“So, Adam,” he asked. “After this unique experience you’ve had, my question is this: Which education do you value more? Your college education or the education you received on the streets?”
In an effort not to upset anyone back at my college, I rendered some diplomatic answer about the value of both educations. “You know, John,” I responded, “it’s really not fair to value one over the other. They’re both important.” But when the camera stopped rolling, I confided that I could survive without my college education. In such a fast-paced, winner-take-all world, however, I wasn’t so sure how I could manage without the street sense I’d accumulated along the way.
Fast-forward. My days of digging had finished. I was in Managua, Nicaragua, having just flown an hour from Puerto Cabezas. The next day I was heading to Costa Rica for two days and then on to New Zealand.
But first I had to get to Granada for a very important rendezvous. With Ivana. Somehow, inexplicably, my scrappy pursuit had worked. The doing of the dishes, the handwritten notes, the late-night talks and long walks, the early-morning bike rides, the emails, the Skyping. I enjoyed every minute with this girl, and she had finally said, “Okay, I would like to go with you.” If all went as planned, I would meet Ivana in Granada and we would travel together, happily ever after, to Costa Rica and then to New Zealand. I hoped all would go as planned.
Outside the Managua airport, I approached the first taxi. Two hundred córdobas. He can suck a fat one. Another driver approached me, and I offered a hundred. Always investigate your price with the first guy and negotiate with the second. Street smarts.
“To go to Tica Bus?” the second taxi driver asked me, our entire conversation in Spanish.
“Yes. I know it’s on the other side, but that is what I paid to get from that side before.”
He raised his bushy eyebrows at me, hesitant and skeptical, but it looked as if he needed the business. “Okay,” he said.
He led me to his cab, around farmers and families and businessmen and tourists clutching their belongings. He already had one passenger sitting directly behind him. The driver tossed my bags in the vacant seat in the back, and I sat in front. We all started chatting. The guy in the back remarked that he’d just arrived from Puerto Cabezas, as well, and I told him how much I enjoyed his hometown. He asked whether I took any photos.
“Yeah, a few,” I said passively. I was thinking about Ivana. “The pier. I liked the pier very much.” I can’t wait to see her. I should get flowers. Maybe bring her some food. No. Just flowers.
“Can we see them?”
“My camera is buried in my pack,” I lied. “It would take too long to dig it out.”
They assured me that they had time, that they’d love to see my photos.
“No. Maybe later.” I brought a polite smile to my face and glanced out the front window, waiting for the driver to take the hint and start driving.
“We have time,” the driver insisted. “We would love to see your photos. Get your camera. I am sure you have some great photos.”
“No. Maybe later.” Their adamant pursuit of my pictures started to make me a feel a bit awkward.
A tense silence hung in the air for thirty seconds. Peppy tunes filtered out of a radio set in the dashboard.
“What about your computer?” the driver asked. “Do you have a computer with your pictures?”
“No. No computer.” What was going on? Was this guy playing a game with me?
“Hey,” said the guy in the backseat, thick mustache twitching with the word. He raised his eyebrows and perked the glasses set on the bridge of his nose. “I am in town from Port just so I can buy a motor for my boat. I have to change two thousand dollars into córdobas. Do you mind if we stop to do that?”
I hesitated, glancing at my watch. “Really, I’ve got to get to my hostel.” Get to the hostel, drop my stuff off, go meet Ivana. Is she as excited as I am? She must be! She could’ve said no, but she said yes. She must be excited.
“No problem,” he replied but continued his argument. “It will just take three minutes. Three minutes out of your way. And I will pay your taxi fare.”
Well, I’ll tell you what: that man had me at, “I will pay your taxi fare.”
So we pulled up to the curb down the street from the place to change money. The driver told me that I should get out—the lady at the exchange didn’t like gringos—and they would be right back to pick me up. “You can leave your bags in the car,” the driver told me. “We’ll be back in a minute.”
Right. This guy had me mixed up with some green and gullible American tourist. I climbed out at the corner and grabbed both of my bags. They circled the block.
“Closed,” they said, the passenger smacking his forehead like he was so dumb for forgetting. “The money place is closed on Sundays.”
So I reentered the taxi to finish the route to my hostel near the Tica Bus station.
“Yeah, closed on Sundays.”
“No good,” I said, attempting courtesy. I really wasn’t paying attention. What if she doesn’t show up in Granada? That could happen. My goodness, what if she changed her mind?
The driver cast a sideways glance at me as he pulled away from the curb. “How long are you in town? I can give you a tour of the city.”
“No, thank you.” I wished he would stop talking so much.
“Do you need to stop and get money? We can stop if you would like. I know where to get the best rates.” He glanced away to honk at a guy crossing the street slowly in front of us.
“No.” Okay, calm down. Of course she’s coming. No worries.
The driver showed me his Nicaraguan driver’s license and asked whether we had the same one in the States.
“No, pretty different,” I observed. But what if the spark isn’t there? What if it’s different when it’s just the two of us? What if our relationship starts to wither under the harsh and constant light of traveling by ourselves?
I reached to the backseat for my bag, fished out my wallet. Trying to match their tone, I excitedly showed them my license, complete with an explanation about what the little plastic card would allow me to do. “Class C. I can drive cars and small trucks, but I can’t drive a motorcycle or a big truck.” Excitedly, I tell you. Mostly, I was really impressed with the fluidity of my Spanish at that point, and I was showing off. Pride before the fall.
I put my wallet—my wallet with the $216 in Nicaraguan bills brimming from its seams—back into my pack. I tossed my pack in the backseat next to the passenger and turned back around. My pops enjoyed that. I can’t remember exactly what he said when I related that part of the story to him, but it was something about, “Jesus Christ, honey. If you had your checkbook with you, would you have written the sons ’a bitches a check, too?”
Then, the regular questions.
“Where else have you visited while you’ve been in Central America?”
“Oh, really? That sounds like fun. Do you think you’ll come back to do it again?”
“Where are you headed next?”
The driver pointed off to the right to show me some houses that Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, had given to the poor.
“He just gave them houses?” I asked leaning toward the window to catch a better view of the concrete-block walls and small windows that made up said houses. Okay. What’s my first move when I see her? Go straight in for the kiss? Stick with a hug at the start? Should I be goofy and shake her hand?
“Yes. Just gave houses to the people.”
“They don’t have to do anything for them?”
Up to that point, I hadn’t paid any attention to the driver’s incessant chatter. But now I found myself interested. I wanted to know more about Ortega’s generosity. I turned to face the driver again. “But if they are just given something like that, how can they appreciate it? If they don’t have to earn it or pay for it, where is the incentive for them to go out and work?”
The driver pointed off to the right again and ranted for thirty seconds about how some have their own little businesses—“right over there, in that corner, see?”—while others maintain jobs with the city. The recipients of these houses were asked to paint them in their spare time. Indeed, fresh coats of paint, mostly white, but a few pale greens or grays, covered each one of those houses. I had just read in the New York Times—not forty-eight hours prior—that the mayor of Nogales, Mexico, had initiated a program supplying free paint to anyone in his town wishing to spruce up their home.
All this made sense. The red flags—how the driver had approached me at the airport, the questions about my camera and my computer, the whole two-thousand-dollar story, the way he reached back to tuck in my bag next to his other passenger, his enthusiasm to share random vignettes—didn’t surface until my second rum and Coke that night.
I was curious, even a little upset, about Ortega just giving these houses away. “For nothing?” I asked again. And the driver was thrilled to answer my questions. But it was all a ruse, of course. I was getting robbed, and I didn’t discover the truth until six minutes later when I stepped out of their cab: while I was pondering houses and paint and social systems, the backseat passenger fingered the zipper, reached into my pack, and snagged my wallet. I had been watching his right hand during the whole ride, but while I spent so much time peering out the window and listening to the driver babble on about Ortega’s almsgiving, the mustachioed gentleman in the backseat was digging into my pack.
The backseat driver had offered to pay my fare, so there was no need for me to pull out my wallet. He got me. They got me. Those boys had spotted me as soon as I exited the terminal. Indeed, they’d known they were going to rob my sweet gringo ass a week earlier while I was still 484 kilometers away capping that last water well.
In Puerto Cabezas, the night before, Loyd’s brother, Franklin, had cooked an amazing meal for my departure. He sent me off with a bagful of johnnycakes.
I specifically recall thinking that afternoon in that cab in Managua, as the driver gave me a guided tour of his fair city, while he and his partner were ripping me off, Man, I love Nicaragua. These people are great.
At the same time, the two gentlemen in the cab must have been thinking, Man, I love Americans. These people are a bunch of schmucks.
It could have been much worse, though I’ll spare you the silver-lining spiel. Yeah, I prefer the okeydoke to a knife in the gut, but the fact is that I returned from volunteering in Puerto Cabezas, landed in Managua, and was promptly relieved of my ATM card, my driver’s license, and my entire bankroll. That sucks.
I called my bank, cancelled my ATM card, and used the emergency credit card hidden in my pack to draw enough cash to float me. I called my pops, who spent a full five minutes laughing at me.
After that, I crammed into a one-hour shuttle from Managua to Granada. Ivana wasn’t there. I waited. She didn’t show. I walked up and down every tourist-riddled street in town, scanning the crowds. I inquired at five hostels. I couldn’t find her. As I sat with an outside view at O’Shea’s on Calle La Calzada, I said to the waiter, “If you spot the girl in this picture, I will give you fifteen dollars.”
But she never showed. I walked back to the dorm room. I was confused. Dispirited. She said she’d be there. She was excited. I know she was. What happened? Did I misread this entire scenario? Is she just late? Border crossings can be a nightmare in Central America, so maybe she just got held up.
I went to bed. I woke up the next morning. I ran. I showered. I stuffed my pack. I checked out of my hostel. I walked the mile to the bus station.
And there, in a chair across the station in Granada, with her back to me, sat the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. I walked up behind her. I touched her shoulder. She turned. And her face, with the warmest smile you could ever imagine, betrayed my same level of excitement. All my doubts had been silly.
We kissed. We filled out forms. And we walked hand in hand toward the bus, ready to travel to the other side of the world.