You can learn a lot from travel. Always negotiate, hide some money in your shoe in case you get robbed and never trust an American hippie in a Hawaiian shirt walking a three-legged dog.
I met the hippie a half an hour after I reached the island. I was looking for a hostel and he was looking for a chat. Or so it seemed anyway.
“Hey there. Where’re you from?” He asked as I bent to pet the three-legged black dog bouncing along the path next to him.
“Hawaii originally…But I’ve kind of lived all over the place.”
“When did you get here?” He seemed unnaturally eager to talk to me but I figured it was just because he was lonely for some English conversation. That and Central American expats tend to be a kooky cast of characters anyway.
“Just now…I’m actually looking for a hotel or hostel. Do you know any that you can recommend?”
As a matter of fact he did. He owned a hostel and had a private room he could rent me for just five bucks a night. “It’s the best deal in town,” he promised with a smile. Why not? I thought. No harm in looking. I was also testing out my new resolve to be friendlier to strangers. So instead of stammering an excuse to escape the conversation like I normally would have, I agreed to see the room.
While we walked, he told me that he also ran a volunteer organization that helped rehabilitate street dogs. Which is how he’d ended up with the three-legged dog, Chico. He also revealed that he used to live in Guatemala and Hawaii as well.
Apparently we had quite a few things in common.
When we reached his hostel / volunteer organization, he quickly showed me my room and introduced me to his to
his dogs, a rottweiler and a sand-colored mutt. The room was simple but a good deal for just five dollars.
“Okay, well I guess I’ll take it…” dropping my bag onto the bed and then following him out of the room. That’s when I noticed that he hadn’t given me a key.
“Um, so I need a key? For the room?”
“Oh well…there isn’t one. The door doesn’t actually close.” I attempted to shut and could see that he was right. “It’s Nicaraguan style,” he said casually. As if this explained everything.
“Oh, okay.” I said leaving the room reluctantly. Not only did I have a laptop in there but I had a 350 dollar digital camera and two hundred dollars worth of Guatemalan, Nicaraguan and American currency. I didn’t want to haul all of that around with me when it was 90 degrees outside, but I didn’t want to leave it in an unlocked room in the unlocked house of an American hippie from Arizona, either.
As I followed him through the courtyard to the kitchen, he motioned to the row of carefully-groomed, foot-tall marijuana plants. “My garden,” he explained. “You know, California style.”
That explained a lot. Like how he could afford to live in Nicaragua with no job besides running an apparently empty hostel.
“So how many people are staying here?” I asked, only seeing two rooms; mine and the one next to mine, which judging by the boxes of clothing inside, belonged to him.
“Just you and me,” he said, edgy.
“Oh.” Suddenly I wasn’t too sure that this was such a good deal. As he prepared himself lunch in the kitchen, he told me how Chico the dog had lost his leg. Apparently Chico had gotten hit by a car and he’d been forced to amputate hie leg. With a machete.
“You amputated his leg? By yourself? Woah.” Despite my shock, I was kind of impressed. How many people would be able to chop off their own dog’s leg?
He then explained that he was quite the amateur veterinarian. When the yellow mutt had gotten cancer, he hadn’t bothered with a hospital and instead, had administered the chemo via an IV drip all on his own. But he wasn’t a vet, he explained. Just cheap and resourceful.
“Oh.” I said again, not sure what to say. I looked around the house then and noticed the hammock in the corner. It was ratty looking, stretched to the point of breaking. There were tiny holes and rips on it and a long, brown-colored stain across the middle. As if someone had spilled beer on it. Or blood. That’s when I noticed the handcuffs hanging on the wall near the kitchen counter.
Why would he have handcuffs? I wondered, trying to think of a reasonable explanation but coming up with nothing. And in his kitchen?
“Do you watch golf?” he asked suddenly. “Cause you can watch it with me later if you want.”
“No…but my dad does,” hoping that by the bringing up my father he’d get the hint. The guy looked to be about 55.
“Well do you cook? We could cook dinner later.”
“Um…yeah, maybe. But I’m hoping that I’ll be able to find my friend. She’s on this island somewhere and we’re supposed to meet up.” That wasn’t a lie. My German roommate from Guatemala had been the one that told me about the island to begin with. She was staying in a hotel in a village nearby but I hadn’t checked my email to find out which one. “How does it work, by the way, with food? Do I pay for water and stuff as I go or do you keep a tab and then I pay at the end?” I was still trying to hold onto the hope that this was a real hostel and not just a sham.
He shrugged. “We can figure that out later…” And then he told me about how the last girl that had stayed there had only meant to stay for one night but liked it so much she’d stayed for six months. “She woke up every morning at 5:30 and cleaned the whole house and then made me breakfast.”
Huh. Why was he telling me this? Was he hoping I’d do the same?
“Well I better go see if I can find my friend…” I was extremely uncomfortable with the direction this conversation was headed. Run! My thoughts screamed. As I stopped to look at myself in the hallway mirror, he noticed.
“You look fine.”
“I’m a mess…” I said, pulling my sweaty hair out of my face.
“No, you look like a tousled Julia Roberts,” he looked at me admiringly.
“And you”, I was tempted to add “Look like a creepy, old man.”
That last comment cinched it for me. Perhaps this guy was just a quirky dealer who’d lived on an island too long but I wasn’t gonna risk getting hacked with a machete and turned into pot plant fertilizer to find out. Besides, the ‘hostel’ had no internet connection and no other guests. Even if his only fault was that he was socially awkward, it would be a long, boring and uncomfortable next few days if I stayed.
So after I’d left his house, I emailed my friend and booked a room at another hostel. When I came back an hour later to retrieve my things, I found him in the kitchen again.
“I made us lunch,” he said proudly showing me the macaroni salad he’d made. Oh, boy.
“Well I actually found another hostel…” I told him and then lied and said I’d found my friend and we’d decided to stay in the dorms at the hostel down the street.
He didn’t say anything and looked like he was grinding his teeth. He glared at the macaroni salad, tense.
“But I made us lunch…” He said it in this little boy voice, like he was going to cry.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go. I’m sorry,” I said again and then walked to the door as quickly as possible.
You can learn a lot from travel.