Snapshot: How a trip to Nicaragua un-taught me how to live

I went on a yoga retreat in Nicaragua last November where we were served two breakfasts, lunch, and dinner each day in what was referred to as “the restaurant.”

And it was, technically, actually, a restaurant in that food was prepared in a proper kitchen out of site, plated beautifully and served to us, myself and the other guests, at a long, shiny wooden table.

It was also an open air concept meaning it had no windows or doors or walls. Just a ceiling made from palm leaves, a smooth concrete floor that was never clean and never dirty, and the beautiful, glossy, knotty beams that separated the two. It even had a bar and an occasional bartender. But for whatever reason, I still can’t call it “the restaurant” without making air quotes with my fingers.

“The restaurant” overlooked the ocean and modest jungle foliage and a handful of cabanas where we slept. These, I called huts. Not because they were shabby, they weren’t, but because Cabana was the name of a non-air-quote restaurant back in Nashville where my friend Rachel had worked for several years. I’d often sit at her bar and get drunk before going out and getting hammered.

Along one wall at Cabana was a series of half-circle booths where customers could scootch in and then draw a white curtain closed, concealing themselves in their own little world. I’d watch as servers would disappear inside to take orders then reappear leaving the patrons to do whatever it is college girls do at a restaurant their parents’ credit card allowed them to not be seen at. I want to think they were being ironic, hiding in plain sight. But really I knew they didn’t get it. They were just in their own little world talking about sorority girl stuff and deciding who was going to ask the waiter to take their duck-face group picture before the food arrived because, you know, they don’t want to look like pigs.

In another life I would have been jealous of them or would have been one of them but those Cabana days were years ago. I hadn’t been back since Rachel quit under what we decided were bullshit circumstances and have since reclassified as “for the best” with a footnote *long time coming.

That world was a thousand miles away, and I wanted to keep it there.

– – –

So I came to know these cabanas as “huts” and I embraced “the restaurant” with its incandescent lighting and the fully-stocked beer cooler inside. Two hands were required to pull open its glass door, one to break the rubber seal and the other to stop it from wobbling off the table where it sat, lazily dripping water into a pan below it.

In a different setting I would have thought the squat refrigerator was vintage, but here its neighbors were a short bookcase filled to capacity with bloated paperbacks that had been enjoyed repeatedly in the humidity of this place, and a line of big red ants that fidgeted across the floor, between the long bar and a grouping of hammocks lounging in the breeze, carrying leaves and other supplies to whereabouts unknown. Cats and dogs sunbathed here and there.

Here it seemed perfectly modern. It was all perfectly perfect.

No fuss. Unfettered. All of us, free to go on with our lives, whatever that meant.

The beer cooler was stocked with two kinds of Nicaraguan bottled beer, a pitcher of sangria, bottles of carbonated water, Pepsi and orange soda made with cane sugar. Fresh juices made each morning and came in vibrant shade of passion fruit and mango, all of it so real that it looked fake. I pulled a brown bottle from the cold and tilted it under the metal opener attached to the wall. I’d come to fall in love with this process, the cadence of “clank hiss chink” as the bottle cap let go and landed in a bucket of his brothers below.

On the bar, there was a clipboard holding a sheet of paper where we, the guests, kept score of our alcoholism. I had arrived after everyone else the night before and was already behind, trailing someone named Holly by a mile.

I hadn’t met her yet but I knew we’d get along fine. Or too well? I decided I’d approach that one with caution. The alternative being I get tanked on sangria and come in for an emergency landing, exit slides out, inflated and ready to party.

I put a tick mark by my name and kissed the bottle’s cold mouth. The crisp fizz chilled my teeth and landed in my belly, still cold. It made me realize how hot the air was, how the humidity hugged me. I felt like a fetus.

On the other side of table where we’d share our meals, there was a perfect little salt water pool nestled almost out of sight between a wall of shrubs and bushes that birth flowers like the ones you’d see on a beach towel.

On my way to it, I realized I was about to bring a glass bottle into the pool area and I froze. Here I was, day one, carrying glass to the pool like a reckless madman. I looked around expecting a sign to be looking me in the face. No glass by the pool! No diving! No running! No lifeguard on duty! But there wasn’t one. Not even a passive aggressive “OOL” sign with “no pee in it.”

I thought for a second that this must be a test. Just as soon as I got my feet in the water and nestled my ass cheeks onto the hot ground, I’d hear a whistle. I’d be in trouble.

“What do you think you’re doing, guy?” our host, Earl, would say, clipboard in hand writing me up. Taking away my drinking privileges with a Sharpie, one bold black line through my name and across the page. No beer! No wine! No fun!

I stood there in the shade playing out the scenario in my mind. Weighing my options. Like a crazy person. Risk it? Chug it? Screw it.

“Okay if I take this by the pool,” I asked Earl, raising the beer like a loaded gun I’d never seen before. Scanning the premises for a stack of plastic cups should he say no.

“Oh yeah! Of course,” he said. “Really, get comfortable. This is your home.” I decided he was an adorable, Disney version of a man. A white Aladdin.

And I was like an orphan arriving at its new home, the ban on fun lifted. Seeing a mattress for the first time and asking You mean I can sleep on this? All night?

– – –

If you break a glass behind the bar, it’s a big fucking deal.

Especially if it gets anywhere near the ice bin. Even in a crappy restaurant you can’t risk serving people chilled glass water or a dirty martini garnished with the stem of a wine glass. At a fine establishment like Cabana, should a bartender make such a misstep she might as well fire herself. Or kill herself. I know this because it happened to Rachel one particularly busy night and she weighed her options.

The restaurant was slammed. Servers feverishly punched in orders for wine and cumbersome mixed drinks and then hovered at the end of the bar, waiting not patiently for Rachel to see the ticket pop up and then mix the poisons for them to cart off to their table.

She was behind the bar with too other hot shot bartenders frenetically shaking and spraying and shuffling drinks and food and credit cards to a sea of people who were packed tightly in their seats for the duration and paying no mind to the arms reaching over them from behind, waving for attention, begging for a drink, claiming to be parched.

That’s when it happened. She caught a wine glass with her elbow and sent it toward the ground. She grabbed for it but only after it shattered on the sink. What she managed to catch ended up deep in the palm of her hand. Worse, the pieces she didn’t catch landed in the ice bin, or so they assumed since it’s almost impossible to see thin shards of glass amid the frosty shadows of these deep coolers. The only way to be sure is to melt it and drain it and search it. And then refill it. And then, and only then, resume with tending your bar.

It wasn’t like in school when someone drops their lunch tray and everyone claps and laughs mockingly (for whatever reason). This night, nobody was amused. Horrified servers averted their eyes and scattered from where they had been moments before whining Can I get this drink for table 15 already? The other bartenders stopped only momentarily to offer steely glances and no help before returning to their customers, shaking their heads. Don’t worry Don, you’ve got a professional serving you tonight.

Without pause, Rachel grabbed a bottle of Grenadine and poured it over the ice as protocol dictates, indicating that the ice had been compromised. And as she stood there with a steady stream of red goo coming from each hand, she realized that she had been compromised, too.

– – –

I did as Earl said and made myself at home in that pool with my beer that day, but I did so with caution and respect, careful not to ruin the fun for everyone on my first day.

Fearful I’d get drunk on this new found freedom and take it too far, too soon. Envisioning myself draining the water from the pool to collect bits of brown glass from the bottom, my hand bandaged, everyone standing with their arms on their hips looking down on me and just sweating. Panting. What have you done?

I figured it was exactly that string of events which had caused this ‘no glass’ rule to be created some hundreds of years ago, consequently opening the door for the ‘No swimming until 30 minutes after eating’ nonsense.

But those rules didn’t apply here. We were on the honors system.

I eased into the water with another beer or two that day, without incident, and by the end of the week I found myself at home.

On the last day, I returned to the clipboard one last time to tally my number. I pushed my finger across the page counting the tick marks like braille and re-living the story they told.

Nothing bad happened.
The end.

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