JC holds curled rinds of pork to my mouth and invites me to try, to taste, this is so good you will not believe. At first I recoil having remembered salty chicharrones from my childhood, and how I’d need to hose down my mouth with grape soda to extinguish the taste of fried pork. However, we’re in a market–a stopover because the crew has to pick up fresh tortillas, blood sausage and beef for the carne asadas–and I’m feeling frisky. I break off a small piece, just in case, just to be polite, and I’m shocked by how quickly I become addicted to the flavor. I purchase eight bags of rinds for myself and the crew and we make our way to Apoya. In halting Spanish I ask if anyone wants a bag because I’m copping. They laugh and a woman half my age hands me a warm tortilla and tells me that pork rinds always taste better wrapped in corn. I imagine infants swathed in baby blankets but I don’t say any of this out loud because it’s kind of weird and I forgot the Spanish for blanket.
New people frighten me. I don’t do well in crowds and I tend to recede in group situations. If given the choice I’d always prefer smaller groups, conversations with one other person, and last night I ate dinner with ten new people and I can’t even begin to explain the level of anxiety I experienced. But I was hungry, starving, since American Airlines doesn’t comprehend gluten-free, and I pushed food around my plate for about an hour while drunk Americans prattled on about how this thing here is unlike the thing they know back home. Always sizing up. Always comparing. Always believing that the thing we know, that which is familiar, is always, inherently, better. After a time I left and spent the better part of the evening chatting with JC, the owner of Hacienda del Puerto de Cielo, and we talk about travel, food, solitude and he understood everything. He told me that the whole of the hacienda will be free of tourists the following day and would I like to accompany him and his staff for a day trip to Apoya? Aside from the water, which has taken on a hue of blueish purple from volcanic eruptions–the color of certain bruises–I could kayak, swim, read, eat and be alone if I wanted to. Or not. Whichever you prefer, he says. I acquiesce, humbled and honored that he would invite a guest into such a private space.
In Nicaragua you can live in a grand house for $8,000. Driver’s licenses (licencias para conducir) cost $100 and a considerable amount of time to obtain, and when you’re working full-time to support your family how is it possible to take off work to learn how to drive? Fresh food is inexpensive and plentiful and to say that people here don’t work hard would be an understatement. JC tells me that the law mandates that employees who work for 12 months must be paid for 14, and after three months of nonstop bookings he thought it smart to treat his team for an outing.
JC is an architect, specifically of yachts for the elite. There are only 50 people in the world who do what he does, and often he competes for lucrative contracts. His work takes him to China, where business is good but not great, and forget Russia because the money isn’t what it used to be. And thank god the Americans have recovered and resume the task of spending their money again. He balances this heady work (he interrupts me while I’m writing this post to tell me that he is traveling to Granada tonight for his favorite pizza covered in chili oil before he leaves on Friday for a three-week rush job that would normally take two months, and do I want to come for pizza? I tell him no, the temptation is too great. I’ve barely survived breakfast without their luscious pancakes) with managing this hacienda, which, quite honestly, is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited.
For a while, in front of lake painted azure, we talk about work. I tell him about a job that made me sick from the inside out, yet it taught me that there’s no nobility in putting a price on one’s integrity. There is no value in making money simply to show it off (please look at the finery I’m sharing on social media because it tacitly tells you that I’m somehow better off than you because of what I acquire rather than how much of my heart I’m willing to give). There is no meaning in squandering time for someone else’s dream when you can work for your own. Did you know there’s a new term going around? Brown-out? And apparently it’s so much worse than the bulbs in your body flickering and then firing out. I tell him about a man from whom I learned so much (the good and the horrific), and how American companies have devolved into the equivalent of a puppy mill. Let’s churn out these purebreds until they can no longer walk. Until they limp home from the latest show.
JC nods, solemnly, and talks about the importance of rest and rejuvenation. He nurses a beer and I try not to tackle the bag of pork rinds I’ve got hidden under a collection of Chekhov’s early stories. This is what today is about, he offers. Taking care of the people who take care of you. I say that I admire him, wish more people valued respite as much as he did, saw that it only increased productivity, creativity, and loyalty.
As I sit here typing, I listen to young men trade stories. Rested men, men who only a few hours ago sang along to Spanish songs on the radio and traded chips like baseball cards. Men who practice their English while I respond in halting Spanish.
On the ride home, I tell JC about a dish I learned how to make when I was in Granada, Spain. Fried eggplant smothered in molasses (or honey, if you have it), and he invites me into his kitchen to show the very incredible women, women who have made the kind of tostones that would bring you to your knees, how to make this dish. I slice eggplant (berenjena in the Spanish) while Taylor Dayne’s “Tell it to My Heart” blasts on the radio, and, in exchange, the women teach me the words for flour (harina) and onions (cebellas)–all the while showing me how to make salsa. One of the women, the younger of the two, holds up fresh cilantro for me to smell. We agree that this, everything, is beautiful.
On the way back to my casita I looked up and noticed stars blanketing the sky. I paused, turned round and round. I haven’t seen stars in a long time.
This is what happens when you breathe, when you listen to the sound of your own breath.