You'll never know unless you just go...to Nicaragua!
"Just go." That's my friend Brian's motto. He is traveling Central America for four months, backpacking and living it up at some of the best surf breaks in the world. The day before he flew down to Managua, he called me to tell me the news and invited me to meet him down there at some point. I had five days off of work the next week, so I went.
Some people told me that's crazy. I'm not sure which part, visiting a Third World country like Nicaragua or up and leaving the country on a whim. Both seem like no-brainers to me, but most Americans don't even have a passport. We have jobs and responsibilities, it's hard to "just go."
I had no idea where I was going in Nicaragua when I booked my plane ticket to Managua. I only knew my friend would be there to meet me. We'd find a surf spot and live it up tranquilo on the beach.
We ended up in Popoyo, a rural beach known for epic surf. You can only get to Popoyo by dirt roads with hopes that standing water will let you pass. It is the dry season, so we only had to drive through a couple of small pools of water. We did get to share the road with cows and chickens along the way.
The surf in Popoyo was a bit too epic for my novice abilities. The restaurant where we stayed in Popoyo is adorned with plenty of broken surfboards cleverly repurposed as signage or light fixtures. I left the overhead barrels to Brian. But we went on long walks and climbed around on lava rocks checking out the views. We napped in hammocks. We also met up with my friends Dawn and Roberto who live in Popoyo half of the year. Dawn does mission work teaching art to the local kids. I brought her a donation of art supplies and valentines for the kids.
For five days, it was all about nature. I packed a backpack with a few clothes, but I wore nothing but a bikini, donning my Third World look of touseled waves, no makeup and covered head-to-toe in dust and sand. We endured and enjoyed every minute of a dirty hostel, cold showers, power outages, and our bare feet sizzling on hot sand and sharp rocks. The payoff: waves, sunsets, stars and tranquility. It doesn't get any better than that.
Visiting an underdeveloped country is not for everyone. You have to be prepared to see the poverty and do without the comforts you take for granted when you are at home. You have to be savvy and prepared to stand out as a tourist with what might as well be a dollar sign tattooed on your forehead. Add to that how public transportation logistics are daunting in Nicaragua. If you are not well traveled, you will experience culture shock. But if you have only ever visited a Hilton in a foreign land, you're missing out on the opportunity to see so much more of the world, the opportunity to better understand different cultures and experience a different standard of living.
What I noticed about Nicaragua, and have experienced on trips to other places, is that the people live in shack-like houses ornamented with satellite dishes. It seems TV is their window to the world and their escape. They may not have shoes on their feet, but they have access to wifi. I never tire of experiencing these juxtapositions during my travels. I can only imagine what these people might find interesting about our American way of life when they watch it on TV.
The people in Nicaragua are heavily worked and worn out. Honestly, they don't seem too happy. Where we were in Popoyo, I saw very few smiles except when the locals were surfing. I got the impression they know they live a hard life. I hope the growing tourism industry in Nicaragua can bring them prosperity without jeopardizing the beauty of its remote places.
Visiting a place like Popoyo makes me feel grateful for the economic and educational opportunities I have in the U.S., but also grateful that I live a simple enough life here that I can find enjoyment vacationing in rough conditions. While my last trip was to a 5-star hotel in Las Vegas for a conference, I would take a simple day at the beach in Popoyo with only a towel and a warm bottle of water any day over resting in a chair attended by wait staff next to the overcrowded pool on the concrete roof of the Luxor Hotel and Casino. There's something blissful about connecting with nature and different cultures and being able to have these life experiences that take you so far from your own way of life.
With the right attitude, you might just find yourself on a beach in Nicaragua. Sure, we could all live by our excuses. I could have said I have my job, my dogs and a house to take care of. Or that I don't really have the money for a plane ticket. All true. But I find if you want something, you can make it happen. Maybe not the very next week like I had the good fortune of doing, but you can make it happen if you "just go."