“Chinandega! Chinandega! Chinandega!”
The woman with the caramel colored skin and unnaturally tawny hair was yelling the destination of the minibus with a vigor I couldn’t help but admire as I stood in the center of the dusty market, chickens scratching at the ground by my feet and my backpack pressing into shoulders. Dazed and sleepless, I’d arrived at the Mercado Israel Lewites moments before, after a 3:45 am wake up call, a cab ride through empty Brooklyn streets, a flight to Miami, another flight to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, and a taxi ride through the city, passing horse drawn carts hugging the road’s meridian. I handed the driver a $20 bill while attempting to explain that I was looking for the microbus to Chinandega (which involved saying “microbus” and “Chinandega” in my best attempt at a Spanish accent and smiling). A flurry of Spanish, a wave of the hand and he was off, leaving me standing on the packed dirt road, succumbing to the midday heat.
That’s when I heard her high-pitched, slightly nasally cry. Balancing a plastic bag filled with ice and small pouches of water on her head, revealing gold capped teeth, it was all I could do not to hug this kind woman for screaming out my exact destination so clearly. I shuffled over, handed a stern looking driver $3, and climbed in, surrendering my pack to a man scrambling up the side of the van to strap luggage down with bungee cords. I leaned my head against the window, smiling at the long lashed, long legged little boy nestled half on his mother, half on me, as he drifted off to sleep for the 2 hour ride to the northern city of Chinandega. I was the only gringo in sight. Leaning against the sun-warmed window pane, I tried my best to avoid the temptation to follow the little boy’s example, instead watching the rolling yellow hills of arid northern Nicaragua slide past, “Final Countdown” playing on the radio.
After months of anticipation (read: starting the day they left San Francisco), I was making my way through Nicaragua to meet up with the boys of Saltbreaker, who would (hopefully) be arriving the next day after their longest passage to date. Our meeting point was Marina Puesta del Sol, a marina-resort hybrid on the northern coast of the country. My oversized camping backpack was half filled with essential supplies rushed to my apartment courtesy of Amazon.com: a manual for mechanical ship repairs, a book on clamming, a mariachi CD.
I had my apprehensions. Sure, I was excited to the point that I’d had trouble falling asleep for the days leading up to my departure, but I was going to be the first longish-term female passenger on their voyage. Maybe I’d interfere with their dude dynamic. Maybe I’d go crazy living in such close quarters with three (likely) smelly boys. And then, of course, there were the concerns they’d never understand. As girls go, I can be pretty low maintenance. I can go with the flow. But I have long hair. Hair I like to blow dry, and more importantly, to wash. Not to mention the (gulp) bathroom situation. And just how bad would they smell!?
Here’s the thing: none of it mattered. Perhaps it was because the perks of hanging with the Saltbreaker crew far outweigh small things like hygiene — the fresh fish, the sunsets, the near constant access to ocean swims. Or maybe it was the quality of the company, and the awesomeness of their adventure, that can make even a city-minded girl like me just fine with having her hair in a salt-slicked pony tail for almost three weeks straight.
And okay, for boat-bound guys, no one smelled that bad.
Even before, I think I knew deep down that this would be the case. At any rate, as I sat in my second taxi of the day for the final leg of my trip, bumping over an unpaved dirt road as my cab driver blasted “Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Ring My Bell,” it occurred to me that, if the current soundtrack was any indication, it was going to be a great trip.
Marina Puesta del Sol, our designated meeting place, seemed strange from the moment I arrived. Lack of sleep and 12 hours of travel may have contributed to such a first impression, but the feeling stuck and was confirmed by Saltbreaker upon their arrival (to be fair, it took me 12 hours to get from New York to Puesta; it took the boys 4 ½ months from San Francisco). A near-empty, decently nice hotel, it is situated on the lip of an estuary and immediately next to the town of Asseradores.
A gate manned by a couple of bored looking guards separates the Marina/restort comlex from the town, a jumbled collection of lean-tos walled with corrugated tin and black plastic garbage bags. Pigs nap in the dirt outside, and you can find restaurants run out of peoples’ kitchens serving up generous plates of rice, beans, meat, and fried plantains (plus cold Tona beers) for shockingly few cordobas. Inside the walls, the beer is twice as expensive and the rooms are air conditioned. Still, they do have an infinity pool that looks directly onto a small collection of slips, half filled with boats of varying sizes. It certainly would be easy to find Saltbreaker once they arrived.
I’d tried to imagine what it would be like to meet up with friends arriving by boat — would I spot their sails from a distance and greet them as they motored in? Would I jump in the water and begin swimming from excitement? Like most things one pictures, the reality was a touch less dramatic. After a morning by the pool, I was wandering off in search of lunch when I spotted a mast in the marina I was pretty sure hadn’t been there an hour before. I walked towards the dock, trying not to get my hopes up. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of Alex’s laugh — was he really here, or was it carrying from El Salvador? I heard it again and saw his head towering over a Nicaraguan marina worker. Yup, they’d made it.
I did my best not to run considering he was talking to someone who looked decently important, but couldn’t prevent myself from jumping and hugging him all at once. Nick and Dave Green were close behind, all three of them the same as when they left, if seriously tanned.
“God, you’re so DARK,” was maybe the second thing I said, following an excited “HI!”
Nick laughed. “You’re so…. PALE.”
Guess my morning by the pool hadn’t worked.
“You know, it is winter in some places,” I told them huffily.
They looked confused. “Seriously?”
4 ½ months at sea or not, some things never change.
While it took a few weeks for me to reach an acceptable darkness level, I adjusted to life on Saltbreaker fast. Considering our first trip down the coast would last for four days instead of two, this was a good thing. As we made our way to a spot recommended by a pair of surfers we’d met in Asseradores, Saltbreaker was hit with some of the strongest winds they had experienced on their trip thus far.
Fortunately for them, they had a hardy seawoman of a guest with ample amounts of sailing experience (read: none) on board. Well, I am quite good at staying out of the way, at least. After waking up at sunrise for our first ten-hour leg, ten miles short of our intended destination (the boys smartly responded to a radio call promising us a comfortable anchorage and cocktails), we huddled inside the cabin, soaking wet and to my surprise, shivering. Who knew you could be cold in Central America?
Here, I learned a couple of important truths. 1. Considering how tired I was after doing lots of work staying out of the way, the three people who had actually been sailing must be EXHAUSTED. 2. Would I rather be taking a shower or drinking an Irish coffee right now?
No question — Irish coffee.