Central American Dreams

From the anthology Go Your Own Way:
Women Travel the World Solo

(Seal Press, 2007) 
Edited by Faith Conlon, Ingrid Emerick
& Christina Henry de Tessan
By Jennifer Bingham Hull
 
By the time I boarded the flight, I'd lost faith in everything except the power of dreams. I had a vision of living and reporting in Central America and was flying to Guatemala to attend language school. I'd traveled alone in the developing world before, yet suddenly the Spanish being spoken on the plane all around me sounded alien and intimidating. I felt conspicuous and unsure, the man in Manhattan with the marriage proposal and prospects still vivid. Surely it would have been easier to go his way, follow his dream.

It's one thing to have an epiphany, another to live it. When the sages say, "Jump and the bridge will appear," they don't mention the other bridges burned or that moment in midair. As we approached Guatemala City, I checked for my passport again, clutching my Spanish-English dictionary like a Bible. In that space between the familiar and the foreign, you feel like your spirit could blow away with the first wind.

I was relieved when Guatemala City's lights broke the darkness, but struck by how dim they seemed.

 

From the airport I took a taxi to Antigua, the town in Guatemala's central mountains where the language school was located. Nestled amidst volcanoes and full of old, ornate buildings from its years as Spain's colonial seat, Antigua was beautiful. In the following days, I walked for hours, taking in the warm sun and bright colors. At night I felt it most-that strange sensation of entering a dream. One evening a Guatemalan girl greeted me. "I know you! You've been here before!"

"No, I haven't," I insisted, unable to convince her.

Drilling verbs all day was boring. I cut my classes down to mornings and spent the rest of my time exploring the city. Late each afternoon, I studied Spanish in the park. One day I noticed a tall Latino fellow there, arms crossed, gazing at the fountain.

A woman traveling alone learns to read men's faces like maps. A sharp edge at the mouth, an indirect gaze, a hard chin-all put me off like hazard signs. From previous journeys, I'd learned to seek out men with more open features, the way you learn, as a woman, to cross the dark street and walk under the lamppost. This man's expression was direct, his coffee-colored eyes clear. Eager to speak Spanish, I said, "Hola."

"Hola," he responded, eyes widening.

With the help of my dictionary, I discerned the outlines of David's story. After five years in Nicaragua's Sandinista army, he had deserted, fleeing his country in the last days of the American-sponsored Contra War. He had $20 and planned to enter the United States via an underground evangelical railroad. A relative was to wire him money to pay a contact. However, so far neither the cash nor the contact had arrived. If they didn't materialize, David planned to buy a knife and enter the United States illegally. "Todo para todo," he explained. "You have to risk everything for everything."

I explained to David that I had a background in journalism and planned to report on Central America, selling stories to U.S. newspapers, once I got more Spanish under my belt. However, I spared him Joseph Campbell's line about "following your bliss."

Later, over dinner, all the dry verb tenses I'd studied sprang to life as David described his life. With thick black hair and a wide smile, the Nicaraguan was boyishly attractive and, at twenty-five, was six years younger than I. I didn't understand much of what he said. However, I connected better with him in broken Spanish than I had in perfect English with my man from New York. The lure of the foreign man is simple: He's so different. And for a gringa fleeing coldness, David provided an alluring warmth.

A few days after meeting David, an attractive American man invited me on a motorcycle ride in the mountains. The ride was thrilling, but I burned my leg on the motor. Within days the wound became infected. Relying on his first-aid training as a soldier, David cleaned the oozing puss from the burn and dressed it with one of my Kotex pads. The American waved as I limped around town. The Nicaraguan checked my injury daily for signs of infection. "He should have helped you with this," scowled David.

The former soldier was becoming hard to resist. When he wrapped his arms around me as we sat in the moonlight amidst Antigua's colonial ruins, I didn't try to. That night, David stayed in my room. A few days later, I quit language school and we moved into a $5-a-night pension room with rose-colored walls. David typed long, romantic poems into my laptop. "Look," he'd exclaim. "It just poured out of me!" Submerged in Spanish, I felt like a swimmer who had ventured from the pool's edge to its depths. Immersion is exhausting. Yet, with each language you do gain another soul. The soft, round syllables of Spanish opened my throat and something else that English, with its hard consonants, did not.

David spent his last few dollars not on a knife but on roses for me. After that, I paid. This was okay. My Spanish lessons were now free, and Guatemala was cheap, making the money I'd saved for the trip go far. But as compensation, David insisted on washing my socks. Soon he was cleaning our room and clipping newspapers for article ideas. We rented a motorcycle, and he drove me to interviews in Guatemala City. When the bike broke down, he took the vehicle apart, reassembled it, and drove us back to Antigua-all in the driving rain. Water pelting my face, I thought of the words of my mother, who'd just filed for divorce: "All a woman really needs is a handyman." And, I thought, in Central America, a gal could use a mechanic, too.

Weeks passed. I studied Spanish, visited Guatemala's tourist sites, and proposed a piece on the local political situation to U.S. newspapers. They weren't interested. In 1989, the big news in Central America was in Nicaragua and El Salvador, not Guatemala. To secure regular work, I'd need to move on. Meanwhile, neither the money nor the evangelist that David awaited arrived. "My dream is dead," my Nicaraguan lover  gloomily noted one day.

My heart went out to David. However, I also sensed an opportunity. In Antigua, it had occurred to me that I might travel in the style of a man, rather than in that of a woman. Male correspondents never traveled alone. Bright secretaries filed their stories; wives cooked them hot meals. The bachelors had local girlfriends who translated, or bilingual sweethearts who flew in to take notes. "Men have a way of making themselves comfortable," a female correspondent once told me. Like other women reporting abroad, she traveled alone. My New York man's response to my Central American dreams still rang in my ear: "Sorry honey, there's nothing for me to do there."

Yet, if a man can get support while traveling, why shouldn't a woman? Clearly the buddy system has its benefits, especially in a place where nothing works and people are armed. Watching David repair the motorcycle had been a revelation. He could fix anything, had eyes in the back of his head, and maneuvered slowly around the potholes. Having experienced a few harrowing drives in developing countries, the last quality impressed me most. When I bought a jeep in Guatemala City, I asked David to be my driver.

"Tus pasos son mis pasos," he wrote in my journal. "Donde tu vayas, yo iré"

"Your steps are my steps. Where you go, I go."

 

 
My steps were less certain than David realized. Sitting on our pension roof, pondering my next move, I considered how far I'd traveled-and still had to go. I'd wanted to be a foreign correspondent ever since reporting in the Middle East in graduate school. The clip of foreign accents, the exotic scents, the exhilaration of traveling independently-the experience had captivated me. I'd vowed to do it again.

But since then I'd reported in the United States, most recently for Time magazine in New York. Working long hours on deadline in an office wearing nylons and pumps, I'd burned out so badly that I'd taken a medical leave. At the time, I hadn't completely understood why I'd gotten so ill and depressed. Now, like the shimmering volcanoes thrusting against Guatemala's sky, my upheaval stood in relief, making perfect sense. Wrong man, wrong job, wrong city-ignore your dreams and life lines up falsely until an inner force finally rises in revolt. To resurrect my vision, I'd had to leave everything behind.

At last, my direction felt right. However, fear is insidious, making you balk at any situation even vaguely resembling a past threat. After New York, the thought of reentering journalism and writing on deadline terrified me. Like an actor who has developed stage fright, I dreaded performing-even though the scenery had completely changed.

To bolster myself, I pulled out index cards I'd inscribed with inspiring quotes. On the pension roof, watching the puffs of smoke rise from Antigua's Volcán de Fuego, I fingered each card like a talisman. "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it! For boldness has genius, power, and magic in it," read one. I didn't feel bold. But another said, "Act As If." My Spanish had improved. I had wheels and a driver. The next step was to find reporting opportunities elsewhere in the region. With David accompanying me, I decided to investigate San Salvador.

El Salvador was then in the midst of a bloody civil war, and the atmosphere was understandably tense. I loved to walk at night in Central America, free from the sun's harsh glare-not an easy thing to do as a woman. Yet, with David, I could walk for hours after dark through San Salvador-past the soldiers guarding barbed wire-laced military posts, past the bodyguards posted outside posh restaurants.

One night while we were walking, a man emerged from the shadows, and David quickly pulled me into a restaurant. "He was reaching for a gun," he said. After that, I examined men's hip pockets carefully.

El Salvador was fascinating but didn't suit me. And though David's street smarts proved valuable, on the road, the macho Latino and independent gringa clashed daily. "Nicaraguan women make better slaves," David huffed one day after I returned from an interview in San Salvador. "Caramba, you're both a man and woman at the same time," he asserted another. "Yes, sir," he answered when I asked him to change some money.

It was only after I gave him my wallet to pay a restaurant bill and he smiled that I understood. Though he wasn't really paying, it looked like he was, and to him appearances were critical. My handling the bill before had made David feel like a kept man.

A male traveler in the developing world can act as he pleases; men are expected to call the shots. A female visitor must negotiate the male ego. To remain allies, David and I needed to restructure our relationship. And so when we returned to Guatemala, I offered him a real job. Instead of footing the bill as we went along, I proposed paying David a salary to drive and assist me. He would move into his own room. We'd be partners, not lovers. He'd pay-with my money-at restaurants. David typed up a contract and we signed it, both relieved to be on firmer, if less rosy, footing.

It was the first job he'd ever had that didn't require carrying a gun.

 

 
Three weeks later, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro won Nicaragua's elections, ousting the Sandinistas and making it safe for David to return home. David was eager to see his family and show me Nicaragua. I wanted to get some leads on work from journalists there and investigate the country's political changes. After two long days on mountain roads, we arrived at his house in Managua.

My heart sank as we approached a dilapidated, gray cinderblock structure. From the humble home I could tell that the family was struggling to make ends meet. David's mother, Candida, greeted me warmly and led me to a room she'd prepared for my visit. A tattered cloth rose stood in a vase on the bureau. Candida usually slept in the room.  To give me privacy, she'd  moved into another shared by David's sister, brother-in-law, half brother and three nieces. I'd planned on finding a pension but held my tongue and agreed to stay for fear of insulting her. I did refuse to eat the iguana, however, explaining that the Guatemalans' food had left my stomach sensitive, a lie that delighted the Nicaraguans.

David's house provided an education and an endurance test. My bed sagged, so I moved the mattress to the floor and got a little sleep, but not much. At 5 A.M. I awoke to babies screaming, diesel trucks roaring, and the Sandinista radio station blaring, "Viva la revolución!" At night, relatives explained how war had made their lives more difficult. Candida was struggling to live on $20 a month as a nurse. David's twenty-three-year-old sister, Elizabeth, who lived in the house with her husband and three girls, shuffled about in a nightgown stained with baby spit. Each night she injected herself with a vitamin concotion for her anemia. "A million times better to have your career, without children, then to have this," she said.

Traveling tests a woman's limits. When a mouse scampered across my face one night, I finally moved into a pension. With just a bed, a fan, and a single bulb suspended from the ceiling, it was modest. But it felt good to have a break from David and his family. My room opened directly to the outdoors. The air coming through the door's wood slats was humid but soft. Stretching out in my underwear, I opened a book.

Then the door rattled, and I jumped up to see a man run away. How long had he been watching me through the door's narrow slats? Would he return? The room had no windows. Looking back through the slats, all I could see was darkness. It took me an hour to leave the room to talk to the pension owner, longer to fall asleep after he shrugged off my concern. No door has ever seemed so wobbly or thin. That night I vomited, prayed for deliverance, and slept with a can of Mace by my bed.

The next day, I met Carmen.

 

 
From Seville, Spain, Carmen spoke perfect English and rented rooms to journalists in an ample house in Managua. A spirited, voluptuous woman in her mid-thirties with long dark hair pulled high in a ponytail, eyes framed by black liner, and heavy, arching eyebrows, Carmen seemed connected to some powerful source of inspiration. Mornings she crooned to her green Chocoyero parrots. Afternoons she pumped iron. Evenings she charmed journalists with fiery displays of flamenco dancing, laughing in the darkness when the lights went out.

Carmen was so happy that I was shocked to hear her story. Just three years earlier, the journalist husband she'd accompanied to Nicaragua had abandoned her for another woman. Left with only a rusted-out car, Carmen had been devastated. "I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to survive," she explained. "But I stayed and confronted my fears, and now I'm a different person."

Carmen's confidence served us all. In the following weeks, David showed me around Nicaragua.  I began doing interviews to sort out its explosive political situation, banking material for stories I hoped to sell. Then, in the spring, David and I accompanied Carmen and a German TV crew to northern Nicaragua. We were entering a Contra camp when a rebel soldier approached us, fingering his revolver. Angrily shouting war slogans, the man proclaimed himself the "advisor for democracy." The atmosphere was tense when Carmen, who was translating for the TV crew, walked up to the fellow and squeezed his arm.

"You exercise a lot, don't you?" she remarked.

"What?" he replied, blinking hard.

"How many hours a day?" she asked, squeezing his skinny arm again.

The question was absurd. Nervously, we awaited his response.

The rebel stood silent, then suddenly straightened up. "Three or four," he declared, releasing his revolver.

"And I bet you don't miss a day!" Carmen cried, defusing the situation with a brilliant bit of flattery

We slept in the Contra camp that night, guests of the advisor for democracy.

 

 
Back in Managua a few days later, a departing correspondent gave me the contact information for The Christian Science Monitor's editor and recommended to the paper that I replace him as their Nicaragua contributor. Another reporter who was leaving provided additional  newspaper leads. Professional contacts finally secured, I now needed to commit to regularly covering one country and being a journalist whom editors could rely on for Nicaragua's news. I was in a good position to report from the troubled nation. After some initial struggle, I was finally making out the Nicaraguan accent. Managua lacked street signs. But being a native, David negotiated the city like the back of his hand. And the foreign journalists I'd met felt like old friends already.

Yet even amidst the magenta bougainvillea, I could not forget those cold Northern details: the stuffy air in that Manhattan office building, the antibiotics sitting by my keyboard, the ringing in my ear from phone interviews with distant people from different time zones whom I'd never meet. And while my view had changed, I could still see them: the men in the tower across the street, like bees in a hive in their dark suits and colored ties; the heavily harnessed carriage horses in Central Park blinkered to view only the narrow path ahead. You can travel very far and not loose a trace of the memories of fear and loathing.

I got press credentials. Carmen flicked her castanets and whispered, "Only you can give your power away." David hunted for gas one day, cornflakes another. Violeta Chamorro assumed office under a baking April sun. The rains came, carrying away the dust but none of the losers' bitterness. Then, on a hot July day, the Sandinistas called a strike.

A spark on a tinderbox, the protest quickly grew violent. Across Managua, leftist workers barricaded streets. Outside ministries, they pelted government supporters with rocks as the police fired back with tear gas. The Sandinistas shut down the ministries and the airport. Flexing further, they closed the borders, cut off international phone service, and turned off the lights.

People started shooting. I filed my first story for the Monitor. David negotiated barricades and burning tires to deliver a plate of rice, beans, and fried plantains. I did an interview with National Public Radio. Men fired machine guns outside my door all night. The cold Northern fear faded amidst the hot Latin tempers. The ground was shifting, but at least I could feel it under my feet. "You're crazy," David said, dropping me off at the right-wing radio station where fighting had broken out. "No, I'm not," I countered, feeling the confidence of a woman who is finally where she is supposed to be.

Amid the violence, I measured my steps carefully, retreating from the hail of stones, fleeing the barricade at the sound of gunfire. On the street outside the radio station, though, I got too close to the action. Steps from me, men masked with bandanas crouched, taking aim at passing vehicles. The only other journalists there were war photographers; it was time to leave. Yet every exit was blocked. "Quick, go that way," said one of the photographers, spotting an opening.

Back in the jeep, I agreed with David. "The radio station is too dangerous. Let's get out of here."

Eager to get home to his family by dark, David dropped me at Carmen's. I filed my story, then went to visit my friend Mark, a New York Times reporter. Mark invited me to check out the radio station with him.

I knew how dangerous the area was. I'd already filed my story and didn't need to go back. But I didn't think about that. For once, I didn't think at all. Mark was far more experienced as a foreign correspondent than I. His driver, Guillermo, had covered the Contra War, as had Raul, the photographer who had come along. His office manager, Warner, was irritable, but I was delighted to accompany the men from the Times. And Mark was such a gentleman, giving me the front seat as he sat behind with Raul and Warner.

"I don't like this," Warner grumbled as we drove off. "They shot at a car there last night. I'm too young to die. I've never even seen my grandchildren."

"That reminds me of an old country song," laughed Mark. "I'm too old to die young..."

BOOM! The blast shook my skull as bullets smashed the front windshield and whizzed by my right side. BOOM! I dropped to the floor trying desperately to move away from the stick shift so Guillermo could reverse the jeep.

"Move the car! shouted Mark.

"I'm trying! Guillermo shouted back, a sitting duck at the wheel.

"Oh my God," I muttered, crouching under the glove compartment, my shoulder suddenly burning.

Speeding into reverse, we encountered another barricade with more masked men. We were trapped.

"Get the car onto a lit street!" Mark shouted.

Lurching forward, then backward, Guillermo found an opening, and we sped around the barricade. Screeching down Managua's back streets, we finally emerged into the light.

"We're out of danger now," the driver sighed, pulling up to the Intercontinental Hotel.

Getting out, we surveyed the jeep. The windshield on the passenger side was smashed. Bullets had nicked my shoulder, grazed Mark's wrist, and whizzed through the back windshield. They'd apparently been fired from an AK-47 machine gun wielded by right-wing zealots who'd mistaken us for Sandinistas. Mark looked at me, amazed. Later, he said he'd imagined bringing my body back to the states.

The men gathered around the jeep. I stumbled toward a large hibiscus bush.

"Who was in the front passenger seat?" a journalist passing by asked.

"She was," said Warner, pointing to me.

"You're very lucky," said the fellow, shaking his head.

Nodding, I picked a pink hibiscus bloom and gave it to Raul. Being a photographer, I knew he'd appreciate its color too.
 
The Monitor's foreign editor wanted another story. I put him off, lay on my bed, and watched the light stream through the windows, amazed that I was alive to appreciate its luminous rays. David arrived and shook his head. "You could have been killed," he scolded.

Another editor called. I put him off too and took a shower, marveling at my previous concerns about deadlines and editors. Carmen was away, visiting Spain. In the garden, I whispered to her birds, hearing their bright song as if for the first time. The Monitor editor called again, desperate. Nicaragua was front-page news. "Well, okay," I said, examining the veins of green shooting through the palm leaves outside my window. But don't expect me to care about it, I thought, as much as I care about smoothing lotion on my skin after a shower.

It was easy after that: I no longer cared about pleasing editors. Proving myself and letting others determine my fate now seemed absurd. I continued to report on Nicaragua for two years. However, my stories served mainly as a vehicle for experience. Other matters struck me as more important than bylines-things like hearing roosters crow at dawn and smelling tortillas cooking on the corner.

Random acts of violence allow you to draw your own lessons. From the shooting, I determined that locals who've lost friends to war are better guides than those who report on casualties, that intuition suspended is power given away, and that the ground can shift under your feet but you can change too, leaving coldness for warmth and past fears for present appreciation. Digging bits of shrapnel from my right shoulder, I realized that writing is a gift, not a performance.

Thank god the masked man missed-and that he blew the timid woman with the First World fears away.

 


A year later, Mark left Nicaragua. I bought his horse. The boarding cost was so low that I couldn't refuse. As a girl, I'd taken riding lessons and dreamed of having a horse one day.

"What's the horse's name?" I asked the stable boy.

" No Alineado," he replied. Nonaligned-not a name a Nicaraguan would give his steed.

"What's his original name?" I asked.

"Candil," he said. "It means oil lamp."

"We'll call him Candil," I decided, thinking of how a small, flickering flame can illuminate a whole room.

Candil was a spirited stud and a quarter horse and-I quickly sensed-far too fast for me. Just trotting, I felt his untapped power. I'm a good rider, but no rodeo queen. I didn't dare admit it to the men around me, but I was afraid of my own steed.

Studs are not suited for "ladies," a male authority wrote.

"You're crazy," David remarked. "But don't worry. If Candil dies, we can eat him. Horse meat is good."

"What if you fall off and have to be hospitalized there?" cried my father over the phone.

What if, indeed.

Every few days I rode Candil, taking it slowly, unsure both of the horse and my surroundings. Farmers worked the fields near the stable, but there wasn't another foreigner in sight, much less a gringa in a white riding helmet. The men in the fields watched silently as we rode by. Finally, after a few outings, I waved. Smiling, they waved back.

I road near the stable for a while, then ventured farther into a village. One day, I discovered a valley and trotted Candil by its riverbeds. Back in the paddock, the stable boy scoffed, "This horse needs to be run."

"He will be," I said.

We cantered in the valley on the next outing, passing children on our return. "Gringo! Gringo!" they shouted.

Gringo? Did they think the horse was American? "Este caballo no es de los Estados Unidos. Este caballo es Nicaragüense!" I shouted back, making Candil's Nicaraguan origin clear.

Delighted, the children began chanting, "Este caballo es Nicaragüense! Este caballo es Nicaragüense!" Then the field workers joined in, and the refrain rang across the hills.

I felt at home in the neighborhood after that, though no less conspicuous.

 

 
The day arrived, warm but clear. Riding down to the valley, I hailed the field workers, then gripped the saddle as we approached the verdant, open expanse. "Okay, Candil. This is it. We can do it."

Candil trotted. I nudged him with my heel. He cantered. I clicked him on, and he broke into a gallop. Then, ever so slightly, I loosened the reins.

Flicking his head back, the stallion leapt forward. The wind whipped my face as we raced across the valley, leaving a trail of dust behind.