Our trip to Nicaragua was like a less contrived version of one of those adult scavenger-adventure hunt games. The ones with tasks like “serenade a random person in the park” or “run through this central plaza in your underwear” that push shy people into doing outlandish shit they would’ve never otherwise done, for no reason other than “I’ve already committed to this scavenger hunt, I can’t pussy out now.”
By buying our plane tickets to Nicaragua, by physically relocating ourselves to a foreign country three thousand miles away, we had committed to some kind of unstructured challenge. And unless we were going to burn money on hundred dollar shuttles between cities, shitty double-decker bus tours, and expensive hotels, some boundary pushing would be necessary. One of my goals in life is to become indifferent to comfort, to be one of those brave souls who can sleep on cockroach-ridden busses rattling through fucked-up backcountry “roads”, wake up a few hours later to go on a ten mile mountain trek, and return home to a shack, not giving a shit about whether the shower has hot water or not. Once you’re free from the clutches of comfort, a lot of smelly, broken, doors open up, all leading to a previously impossible adventures. Someone who needs a butler to stay sane is a lot more tied down than someone who can subsist solely on kidney beans for a month. I thought a perk of going to Nicaragua would be a step towards accomplishing this goal. Unfortunately, the trip mostly just revealed how pampered I am in my daily life and how utterly unprepared I am for any degree of “roughing it”. Baby steps, though.
Some of our hostels had outdoor bathrooms, many without working electricity. At first, this didn’t bother me– getting some fresh air on the way to the bathroom sounded kind of nice. But, slowly, as we sprung for cheaper and cheaper hostels, it became clear why the first world bathroom is a fortified fixture, with the same anti-creature defenses as the rest of the house. It started subtly– you hear some scuttles and scrapes at night and start peeing a little faster, or maybe your arm brushes a spider web on the way out, and you shiver a bit, but all of it could be easily rationalized as “nothing to worry about”.
That is, until, January 3rd, 2018– a day that still haunts my dreams, a day that has instilled, deep inside me, a poop-based paranoia I will never be able to expel.
Our taxi driver dropped us off at our hostel (which I will avoid naming so this doesn’t turn into a TripAdvisor review) on the island of Ometepe. We heard about it from a fratty backpacker in Rivas who guaranteed it to be a “wild time”. Our driver was confused.
“Este hostal es muy feo. ¿Por qué ir aquí?”
The hostel featured an in-house restaurant and bar, tattered mosquito nets half the length of the bed, salamanders and baby frogs in our room’s sink, and, of course, an outdoor bathroom with lights that frequently went out. Confident in our ability to brave minor discomforts, we booked it anyway.
The night we arrived, I waddled to the outhouse to take a shit. This was during my burgeoning stages of food poisoning, so it was a rapidly escalating emergency– I skipped my usual pre-shit spider examination and lunged straight for the seat. Relieved, and committed to wiping for at least a few minutes, I turned on my phone flashlight and conducted a less tactical post-shit spider search. I panned the light in front of me and right away saw the biggest fucking spider I had ever seen in my entire life slowly creeping towards me. Legs bent, it was still at least the size of my palm. Frantically wiping sweat and shit with one hand, I waved the flashlight around with the other like an air traffic controller trying to direct the spider to get the fuck away from my feet. In the arcs of light, I revealed two other, less enormous, but still menacing spiders on both edges of the door frame, like guards blocking my one exit from Aragog’s chamber or lookouts making sure there were no witnesses while I was murdered by the larger spider. Thankfully, the original monster, like a comic-book villain that spends too long toying with the good guy, meandered a bit too much, giving me enough time to finish a loosely acceptable cleaning job and high-knee it out of there.
The experience, though only harrowing in a first-world way, did make me a bit braver. Having come in close contact with that gargantuan arachnid while on the toilet in that dark bathroom while barren and defenseless, and escaping unscathed, I’m now pretty nonchalant about his normal sized relatives, usually opting to ignore them instead of stressing out (unless, of course, it can jump). It also made me more comfortable with the amphibian crew chilling in our sink– I thanked them for only having four legs.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Karthik, you’re still complaining about a few harmless spiders you saw seven months ago, you clearly gained nothing in the way of ‘learning to rough it’ from your experience in Nicaragua. In fact, you probably lost some future flexibility, considering you’ll never shit outside for the rest of your life”, and you’d be mostly right, but not completely, because being in this constant state of discomfort, not even able to take refuge in the bathroom, “the last bastion of American freedom”, while nauseous and sweaty and gurgling, made me much more resilient. I’m very hard pressed to do things if I’m not “feeling like it”, and I rarely ever feel like it. I’ll put off doing homework if I’m slightly hungry, too warm, too cold, or have been sitting for too long. I’ll skip the gym or class if I’m more tired than usual. I won’t write unless I’m feeling particularly inspired and I’m in the perfect setting. The trip helped fix this, as there were times where I felt incredibly shitty, physically, but had to persevere to avoid the guilt that would come with wasting what limited time I had in such an interesting country. I threw up, still feverish, weak, and queasy from lingering remains of food poisoning, about 30 minutes before I lugged a wooden plank up a volcano and sled down it. I spent a few minutes before the ride to the volcano deliberating on whether to go or not, worried about shitting myself on the hike up, miles away from a bathroom, or throwing up mid-sled and having the vomit hit me in the face, or worse, having it hit pushed back into my throat, choking and dying.
“Oh my god, how did Karthik die??”
“Sledding down a volcano.”
“Oh that’s kind of bad-ass. Was he going really fast or something? Did the volcano erupt? Was he in a high speed chase with some mountain bandits?”
“Nah, it was part of a tour. He was going kinda slow but threw up anyway and choked on it.”
As a last minute decision, I forced all the nausea I could into the trash can, hopped into the truck, and can say it was totally worth the slight risk of life-ending embarrassment.
Possibly more stressful than volcano sledding was the chicken bus, the cheapest form of transportation in Nicaragua. Chicken busses are public school busses that travel long distances for a cheap fair. The majority of our experiences with chicken busses weren’t too bad. They were sometimes over-crowded, but not more than a New York City subway in rush hour is. The exception was the bus from Granada to Rivas– our first experience.
We planned to take the “11:00 a.m” bus to Rivas, but upon boarding, we realized the times were only a suggestion. We arrived at 10:40 a.m, nice and punctual, but were informed that the bus would leave when it was full, and “full” was up to heavy interpretation. At around half-capacity, all the seats were taken, most of the aisle was full, and I was already drenched in sweat. At full-capacity, it felt like being in the center of a crowded concert, when a large group pushes past you, displacing everyone in their path, causing a ripple that squeezes you into an even tighter mass of bodies. The only difference was, crowds in open spaces usually self-correct and you’ll usually end up with a bit of personal space. This bus was like an endless group squeezing past you, an unwavering contraction.
The narrow school bus seats were not a respected enclave like they are in America, protecting against the push of the crowd, but meaningless obstacles to dangle over, press against, and wipe your hands on. At one point I squeezed into my girlfriend a bit to peer out the window, exposing a sliver of bus seat a few inches in width. As soon as the slice of blue vinyl was visible, it disappeared again, annexed by a mother and her two kids. Her soaked back pressed hard into my arm, my own sweat mixing with hers, the children hovering around my shins. I couldn’t blame her– it must be rough regularly riding these buses with a family of four. I squeezed harder into my girlfriend, in a desperate attempt to carve out some space between my arm and the mother’s increasingly hot back, but every centimeter I scooted away, she scooted closer, keeping up the steady pressure.
Even with someone else’s sweat dripping down my forearm, rides like this were one of the few chances I had to record memories of previous days before they were forgotten. So, I took out my phone, and, soaking, literally, in the hilarity of the situation, far from “feeling like it” in any way, started the post you’re reading now. As I wrote, surprisingly absorbed, my discomfort dissolving as I ignored the lack of physical enclave, creating my own psychological one, I thought of the hours I had wasted in America searching for the perfect work-space: the second floor of a quaint cafe with a window to a lush, mountainous backdrop begging contemplation, my perfectly brewed single-origin coffee next to my leather moleskin, the temperature an optimal 73.4 degrees fahrenheit, the ideal setting in which to bang out a shitty sentence or two and then scroll through GIFs of elephant seals for the next hour and a half.
Upon returning from Central America, I kissed my bug-free toilet seat, took my first warm shower in weeks, and burrowed into my plush mattress and fluffy comforters for fourteen hours straight. Though I eagerly rebounded right back into privileged comforts, a bit of the grime, nausea, and spiders stayed with me, etched into the areas of my brain responsible for annoyance and tension. Now on those suffocating rush hours subways, ass-to-ass with some behemoth with sound-leaking earbuds who’s trying to rap all of God’s Plan but who only knows a quarter of the lyrics, it’s as if my subconscious speaks to me, saying “stop being so fucking high-maintenance and focus on your dumb Wired article”, and since the only other option is silently seething about what is really nothing, I step into my mind-made enclave and go back to reading.