The miracle of life is strange and complex, often a complete paradox. For example, one of the more exhilarating and meaningful moments of my life aroused from and as a consequence of one of my lowest periods. It was New Year’s Eve, the day before my twenty seventh birthday, and I was all alone.
Sunken far into the depths of a psychological abyss, I felt hopelessly isolated, lonely, desperate, beyond help.
This cataclysmic mindset contributed greatly to my New Year’s Eve night-time stroll through the streets of Managua, one of the most notoriously dangerous cities in the Western Hemisphere.
Having a birthday on New Year’s Day can be both a blessing and a curse. Some of the many positives are easy to identify. I’ve never had to work or attend school on my birthday. It’s a big, wild celebration; the whole world celebrates my birthday. However, when I’m alone on New Year’s, the isolation can kindle very negative emotions. Sometimes it feels the whole world is celebrating my birthday, only I’m not invited. My loneliness is always intensified, tenfold or more, on lonely birthdays.
On this particular birthday, I was consumed by the negative feelings to the extent that it proved to cloud my ability to execute basic common sense. As the sun went down over the expansive slums of Nicaragua’s capitol, the pops and cracks of fireworks were already exploding all around. Excitement was palpable in the air, I wasn’t in on any of it, and it was driving me crazy. I brooded in the lobby of my ramshackle hotel for a long while, chain-smoking and hoping another of the few fellow tourists who were inhabiting the place would invite me along for their revelry. It never happened. Several Gringos passed me, but wouldn’t even make eye contact. I was truly on my own.
My ongoing bouts of self-pity continued over several lonely rounds of beer, which only further emboldened my resolve to do something tonight, my final night as a 26-year old. With few attractive options on the table, I finally resolved to take a long walk and see if I could find some fun and excitement.
It was fully dark when I set out, only a few hours until the clock struck midnight and the new year began.
I knew the dangers of walking alone in Managua, especially in the evening. Only a few days earlier I’d been robbed in broad daylight by a pair of young boys who couldn’t have been much older than ten. They’d recklessly brandished knives and ordered me to empty the contents of my pockets. Luckily, I’d just left the hotel minutes earlier and by dumb chance, had at the last minute decided to leave my camera in my room. All the boys got from me was about 3 US dollars worth of the local currency. As they began strutting away, however, I’d been furious and began yelling and screaming at them, trying to get the attention of a neighbor a half block away who’d been out doing yard work. My efforts only caused the boys to hurl rocks at me, which I’d been lucky enough do duck out of the way of unscathed. This fiasco had happened near my hotel, in one of the more secure areas of the city.
My walk took me directly past countless ghettos and shantytowns, filled with the slummiest, filthiest shacks I’d seen in the city. I was hoping to win the attention of someone. Perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d manage to encounter a local girl of the non-prostitute variety. The only people who gave me notice, however, were cheap and sleazy street hookers or street vagrants, many of which mad-dogged me or mumbled insults.
Nothing positive except the fact I hadn’t been robbed or worse yet.
I passed a few lively casinos, clubs, groups of people preoccupied in loud New Year’s revelry, crowds lighting off fireworks in the streets. None paid me any positive attention at all so I continued my lonely stroll. Midnight grew closer and I thought of venturing inside a bar or a club, but couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. I felt I didn’t deserve the treat, in the pathetic state I was in.
Midnight neared and I began slowly making my way through more unfamiliar barrios, back in the general direction of my hotel. Passing by one of the shacks, its’ porch area was fully occupied by around a dozen youngsters who were dressed like third-world versions of American gangstas; baggy jeans, cheap rip-offs of sports jerseys and sneakers, hats on sideways. As I neared, they began to viciously hurl insults at me. Although my Spanish wasn’t perfect, I’d learned enough to understand most of their trash talk; none of their verbal offerings were of the positive variety.
With as much false confidence as I could muster, I passed the group with my head held high.
The insults continued.
Although the group made no move to physically confront me, I was teetering on the edge of my sanity. I had passed the group by and seemed to be home free, but something inside of me refused to let myself out of the pickle so easily. “Fuck it”, I thought, then turned around and approached the group of young wannabe gangstas. I put what I hoped looked like a fearless scowl on my face as I drew near.
“You got a fucking problem?”, I barked at the group as a whole, to nobody in particular.
The atmosphere immediately became ghostly silent as I felt two dozen eyes carefully analyzing me. I was being observed by looks of pure amusement. They were even more bewildered at my reckless actions than I was.
“That’s what I thought, motherfuckers.”, I snarled.
I stood there facing them for an extra few seconds, to further get my point across. Then I cautiously turned around, heart pounding, consumed by adrenaline, in high anticipation of their next move.
Looking back on that fateful moment, a lot of people would assume I was completely insane.
Some would even say I was suicidal. I wouldn’t take issue with the first label, but with the second one I’d definitely disagree. I’d simply had it up to here with the shit. It was my birthday, after all, and these youngsters were not going to disrespect me. I was quite clearly lacking all semblance of common sense, but I didn’t care at the moment. My frustration got the best of me.
What happened next was shocking and unexpected.
I was expecting a beating, or worse. I realize I very easily could have been killed. A lot of dumb-asses have undoubtedly been killed for less. I began to walk away, expecting a thwack over the head at any moment. Instead, I was summoned over to the porch.
The kid I assumed was the leader spoke. He asked where I was from and I boldly answered I was an American, another crazy act in that region. The young thugs actually began to laugh! Then, inexplicably, they invited me to sit down and poured me a drink. Rum mixed with coke, about half and half, very strong. Suddenly, these brazen young delinquents took the role of hospitable hosts. I spent the next several hours on their porch, communicating as best I could in Spanish, accepting their generous offers of alcohol, smoking several joints with them. Midnight eventually arrived and fireworks exploded around us. We celebrated together, the most incomprehensible pairing imaginable.
Finally, I relayed to my new friends that it was time for me to go home.
Amazingly, nobody asked for any money for the alcohol and snacks I’d consumed. In fact, the only money I gave to them that night was in exchange for a sack of weed, sold at a very reasonable price. The youngsters told me the walk back to my hotel was too dangerous, and insisted on chaperoning me back. As we said our goodbyes, they invited me to return to their slum the following afternoon, suggesting we could play basketball and they could give me a tour.
I spent nearly a week in Managua, venturing into their slum every day. Joselito, their leader, was a wiry young kid with a collection of home-made tattoos cluttering his arms. He claimed he was eighteen, but looked several years younger than that. They took me to a park to play basketball several times, one of which I was confronted by a different local gang, only to be protected by my Joselito and his crew. I spent long hours in the youth’s family home, hanging out with his mother and siblings. He even had his cousin over, who I gave free English lessons to in the front yard.
During my visit at Joselito’s the first day I returned, he introduced me to two girls, Mimi and Ruth. They were young and beautiful locals, dressed in miniskirts and high heels. I figured they had to be hookers. When they were out of earshot, I asked Joselito, but my impressions turned out to be false. He told me they were just local neighborhood girls, trying hard to impress him and his friends. I conversed with the girls for awhile, they proved to be unexpectedly kindhearted and down-to-earth. Awhile later, they began preparations to leave. A conversation with Joselito ensued, in Spanish too rapid for me to follow.
“They are going to President’s house. You can go too.”, the young gangsta said to me.
Eager to become further acquainted with the local beauties, I happily accepted. I thought absolutely nothing of Joselito’s declaration they were going to the President’s house. How could two simple barrio girls, no matter how hot they were, be allowed to such a place?
After about a ten-minute walk, we approached a gated subdivision of attractive villas. To my surprise, the guards manning the gate allowed me and the girls to pass right through, without checking any of us for identification. They led me to the doors of a very nice two-story villa, where we were allowed in by a few well-dressed young gentlemen who wore formal business suits and ties.
The interior of the place looked like a regular upper-class house, with a fully furnished kitchen, living room with comfortable sofas and big-screen TV, several bedrooms upstairs, a pleasant and well-maintained garden in the gated backyard. The only difference was that the place was filled with banners, fliers, and business cards. ‘Jose Alvarado’, they all said, with the colors of Nicaragua taking up the backgrounds. I later found out that Alvarado, one of the founders of the PLC political party, was running for President of Nicaragua in the upcoming election. This house was apparently his political headquarters, the young men in suits his underlings.
Initially oblivious to the girls’ role in this strange set-up, I quickly discovered Mimi was the girlfriend of one of Mr. Presidents’ minions. The three of us were welcomed warmly, alcoholic beverages were served, and within a half hour, Mimi and her boyfriend disappeared upstairs. I figured Ruth was the other guy’s girlfriend, and was therefore astonished when she soon began openly making out with me, right there on Future President Jose Alvarado’s campaign sofa. As excited as I was about this, I was uneasy, figuring the other campaign man would become jealous. But he seemed undeterred, and left us in peace.
The many surprises Managua had to offer continued!
As fun as I had in Ruth’s company, my most prominent memories of Managua involved Joselito himself. He was deceptively friendly, mature beyond his years, unfathomably different from what he appeared on the surface. Joselito was much more than a common third-world street thug. He took me in and treated me as a brother. Hell, he might have saved my life. Perhaps his less personable gangsta friends had wanted to beat me after my initial outburst, after all. As much of a blur as that New Year’s night turned out to be, I clearly remember it was Joselito who stepped in, it was him who invited me to the porch, poured me my first drink. The others simply followed his lead. It was Joselito who invited me back to his home, introduced me to his family and other friends, set up the makeshift Spanish lessons with his cousin. It was him who insured my safety when he had absolutely no obligation to do so.
I realize the odds were undoubtedly against the young Nicaraguan, but he possessed an unexpectedly high level of both intelligence and compassion. I can only hope he made something of himself and escaped those slums. And I’ll never forget how the fearless youngster made my 27th birthday one of my most unforgettable!