Our trip to Nicaragua was a less contrived version 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". Tasks that get shy people to push their boundaries, that get them to do outlandish shit they'd never do, for no reason other than "I've already committed to this scavenger hunt, I can't bitch out now."
By flying to a foreign country three thousand miles away, we had unknowingly committed to a similar, but unstructured challenge. And unless we were going to burn our savings on hundred dollar private shuttles, shitty double-decker bus tours, and expensive hotels, some boundary pushing was required.
One of my goals in life is to become indifferent to comfort.
I want to be one of those brave souls who sleep on cockroach-ridden busses rattling across fucked-up backcountry "roads", wake up a few hours later to go on a ten mile trek, and return to a shack, not giving a shit about the freezing shower water.
Once you’re free from the clutches of comfort, a lot of doors-- rank, broken, doors-- open up, leading to previously impossible adventures. Someone who needs a butler to stay sane is a lot more restricted than someone who can subsist on kidney beans for every meal.
I thought the trip would help me get to that point.
Unfortunately, it mostly just revealed how pampered I am in my daily life, how utterly unprepared I am for any degree of "roughing it".
Baby steps, though.
Some of our hostels had outdoor bathrooms.
This sounded nice at first, getting some fresh air on the way to pee. But as we went for cheaper and cheaper accommodations, it became clear why the first world bathroom is indoors.
First, outdoor bathrooms rarely have working electricity.
Second, outdoor bathrooms are teeming with bugs.
This is a one-two combo that made for some stressful nights.
It started subtly. You hear some scuttling 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 this could be easily dismissed 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 may never be able to expel.
Our taxi driver dropped us off at a new hostel that afternoon on the island of Ometepe. We heard about it from a fratty backpacker in Rivas who said it was a “wild time”. In retrospect, that could've meant a lot of things.
Our driver was confused.
“Este hostal es muy feo. ¿Por qué fuiste aquí?”
The hostel featured an in-house restaurant and bar, a family of translucent red salamanders in our sink, and, of course, an outdoor bathroom with broken lights. But, confident in our growing ability to withstand minor discomfort, 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 examination.
Left side, clear.
Right side, clear.
But as I panned the light in directly, in front of me I saw the biggest fucking spider I had ever seen in my entire life. Legs bent, it was still at least the size of my palm. You could see all eight of it's eyes. I never thought I'd see a monstrosity like that outside of Planet Earth.
And it was slowly crawling towards me.
I frantically wiped sweat and shit with one hand and waved my flashlight around with the other, like an air traffic controller trying to direct the spider to get the fuck away from my feet.
The wild arcs of light revealed two more mega-spiders on both edges of the door frame, like guards blocking my one exit from Aragog's chamber. Or maybe lookouts, ensuring no one would witness the murder that was about to take place.
Thankfully, the approaching spider, like a comic-book villain that spends too long on his soliloquy before killing the seemingly defeated hero, meandered a bit too much, giving me just enough time to finish a loosely acceptable cleaning job and high-knee it out of there.
The experience, while embarrassing, made me a bit braver.
I sat on that toilet in that dark bathroom, pants around my ankles, barren and defenseless as a gargantuan arachnid slowly encircled me, but escaped completely unscathed. Because of that I'm now pretty nonchalant about normal sized spiders. I ignore them instead of stressing out (unless they can jump, which is still seriously fucked up).
It also made me more amenable to the amphibious family living in the sink. I thanked them for only four legs.
At this point, you may be thinking, "Karthik, you’re still complaining about spiders you saw seven months ago. You clearly gained nothing in the way of ‘learning to rough it’ from your time in Nicaragua. Actually, you probably lost flexibility, considering you’ll never shit outside for the rest of your life."
You're kinda right, but I did learn something else.
I didn't tell you the spider story to talk about how I overcame a fear of spiders and how that's made me a better person. I told it because I want to describe, in vivid detail, the kind of low-grade day to day discomfort I experienced in Nicaragua. And because I thought it was funny.
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 a little hungry, too hot, too cold, or have been sitting for too long. I'll skip the gym or class if my nose is a little stuffy. I won't write unless I'm feeling particularly inspired and the sun is shining and I have the perfect pen and the perfect cup of coffee.
Consequently, I barely do anything productive.
The trip helped me internalize that you always have the strength, creativity, attention to do anything at any time, regardless of what environment you're in.
You don't need an $8 cup of coffee to start writing. You just need to write.
You're body won't break down because you hit the gym on four hours of sleep. You'll probably feel better after.
There were many times where I felt terrible 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, 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 any bathroom, or throwing up mid-sled and having the vomit hit me in the face or maybe it'd get pushed back into my throat and I'd choke and die.
"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."
At the last minute, I threw up whatever I could, hopped on the truck, and can say the experience was totally worth the risk of life-ending embarrassment.
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 cheap. The majority of our experiences with chicken busses weren't too bad. They could get crowded, but not more than an NYC subway during rush hour.
The one exception was the chicken bus from Granada to Rivas.
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 one point, all the seats were taken, most of the aisle was full, and I was already drenched in sweat. We were informed that this was "half-capacity".
At full-capacity, it felt like being in the center of a crowded concert when a mosh pit opens up a few rows in front of you, forcing everyone back into a smaller space, squeezing you into pressed mass of sweaty bodies. At the concert, you know it's ok, because crowds in open spaces self-correct and you'll eventually end up with a bit of personal space, but the bus is a very much closed space and did not self-correct. It was like an endless stream of larger and larger mosh pits opening up, and you're pressed between the borders of all of them.
The narrow school bus seats were not a respected enclave like they are in America, 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 as it must be rough regularly riding these buses with a family of four. All I could do was squeeze harder into my girlfriend in a desperate attempt to carve out some space between my arm and the mother's increasingly hot back, but inch centimeter I created she immediately took, keeping up the pressure.
Even with someone else's sweat dripping down my forearm, long 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 dissolved. I ignored the lack of physical enclave and created 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 because I was getting hungry and it was impeding my creativity-- only to be twice as productive typing on my dying phone on this sardine tin bus while teetering the verge of heat stroke.
When I returned to California, 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 jumped right back into privileged comforts, a bit of the sweat, 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:
“stop caring about that shit. stop being so fucking high-maintenance and keep typing into your phone. if you did it in Nicaragua you can do it here."
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 writing.