Some four years ago, while living in Nicaragua, I came to perceive my environment as a world of symbols and signs whose purpose was to tell me a dramatic and mystical story about myself and lead me through it. These symbols, which could present themselves as anything from a gust of wind to a building to a person to an event, were like the words of a hieroglyphic that had always existed but that I had suddenly been given the gift of interpreting.
Before I get to what brought me to Nicaragua, and to the hotel where this phenomenon reached its zenith, I want to say that my goal here is to translate to the reader, with whatever degree of faithfulness memory and ability permit, the experience of what I found to be a powerful and fascinating—if finally unproductive and evanescent—state of mind. I choose not to seek harbor from this labor of description by employing the reductive terminology of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and the psychiatric profession, where labels cast a single net over what are profoundly individual experiences and fail to address what I see as a spiritual dimension. If what I describe calls to the reader’s mind some particular condition or other, that is a diagnosis I will allow her to reach on her own.
In the summer of 2009, having floundered ever since my father’s suicide three years earlier, I decided to leave the United States and go to Nicaragua, the country he was born in, to stay with an uncle and try to find work. By this time I had been an alcoholic drinker for more than twenty years, something that made it difficult for me to hold jobs, stay in any one place for long, or establish an enduring relationship. While I eventually earned an advanced degree and began a profession as a journalist in my mid-30s, the standard expectations of adulthood had never quite been met; my reliance on alcohol as a salve for every discomfort had trapped me in a perpetual adolescence.
When my father died, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter in a small Southern city and relinquished any attempt to control the problem. In an existential panic, I proceeded to hurry from job to job and place to place as urgently as if these places and jobs were burning coals singeing the soles of my feet. I had spent time in Central America before, and its relaxed, anything-goes culture had always appealed to me as an antidote to the pressures of American society. My plan was to go to Guatemala and get sober, then proceed to Nicaragua, but I arrived drunk and wore out my welcome at my uncle’s place within a matter of weeks. Rather than change my ways, I left his house and holed up in a cheap hostel in the beach town of San Juan del Sur. My only glimpses of the sand and water and the mountain backdrop that made the town popular with tourists came during my daily walks to the store to replenish my beer supply. After a couple of weeks of this I had run out of money. I called my uncle and asked him to take me to Hodera, a rehab center for drug and alcohol addicts that I had learned about in researching an aborted magazine article on a Nicaraguan boxer who had sought treatment there.
I spent sixty days at Hodera, where I slept in a mosquito-infested dorm with sixteen other men, subsisted on a diet of rice and beans, performed labor therapy in the fields, and attended addiction-education classes. By the time I left, the Spanish I had struggled to master all my life was close to fluent, I was twenty-five pounds lighter, and I had put together more consecutive sober days than I ever had since the age of sixteen. The day I walked beyond the gate that divided Hodera from the rest of the world, with just enough money for bus fare, it was as if I was seeing everything—a baby, a horse, a woman—for the first time. When the bus dropped me off in Jinotepe, where my uncle lived, I spent nearly an hour on a bench in the central park watching the vendors and passers-by, nearly overwhelmed by the cinematic vividness of it all. I then walked to the office of my uncle’s non-profit. He was in Mexico on business, but one of his assistants, a distant cousin of mine, let me in.
My uncle’s wife had visited me a week or so before and told me that my uncle was going to help me get an apartment and find work, but when he called the office and found out that I had left Hodera before his return from Mexico (he had asked me to wait, but I was anxious and decided to leave at the end of the customary sixty-day term, not thinking that his help was contingent on my staying extra time), he e-mailed me and said that I was on my own.
I felt his displeasure was the result of a misunderstanding, but I accepted it. At some point at Hodera, in my effort to endure the rigors and drudgery of the place, I had developed a faith that I had never had before: There was no question that things would somehow turn out OK, even if I couldn’t know quite how that would happen. This faith carried me through the uncertain hours and days ahead. I had no money and no place to stay but I felt profoundly untroubled.
That day, a young cousin of mine took me out to lunch and told me that he had a friend with a hammock on his terrace who might let me stay with him for a few days. I went to the house, and the friend, who lived with his girlfriend, agreed. The following morning, the kid told me he also had a spare room he would rent to me for cheap. I contacted an uncle stateside and he sent me a small amount of money, enough to rent the room and buy rice and beans for a month. Rehab had conditioned me to spartan conditions, so the situation I found myself in felt like luxury. My room on the second floor of the house even had a balcony; upon awaking I would open the doors that led to it, allowing the mealy light and burning-cedar-scented air of the Nicaraguan dawn to enter the room. I would listen to the tortilla and coconut vendors pushing their carts down the sidewalk below and calling out to pitch their wares as I sat down to write about my recent experiences.
All my life I had wanted to write. I had indeed worked as a professional journalist penning news stories, but it wasn’t until I got out of Hodera that I began to be able to write about myself and my own ideas with any honesty or ease. Sobriety had cleared my mind, and my experiences had given me a subject matter to work with. It was the first time I had anything to say other than I want to be a writer, a sentiment which, regardless of how it’s presented, inevitably devolves into a solipsistic lament. In the past, writing had been a torturous experience. I would have an idea and write a paragraph on it, but rather than forge ahead to develop the idea, allowing the writing to activate my thinking, I would stop and go back over it, writing and rewriting it until the paragraph was whittled down to a single, painfully overwrought sentence. I would emerge exhausted and depressed from the effort, needing a drink to forget about what a failure I was. Those post-Hodera weeks were the first time I had had the experience of losing myself in the writing; I would bolt awake with an idea, sit down and begin typing. An hour later I would have a decent-sized essay I could then go back and smooth out in tranquility. The self-consciousness and censoring instinct that had previously impeded my writing had been obliterated.
For a month this was how I lived, sleeping no more than three or four hours a night, writing nearly every day and taking long, blissfully aimless walks on the ghostly streets of Jinotepe in the wee hours. When I did manage to sleep, my dreams were more intense than they ever had been. In one I recall, I was crying as I held my mother, a frail old woman in the dream, when she looked up at me and burst into dust in my arms. I would often realize during my dream that I was dreaming and struggle to wake up, but not be able to for what seemed like ten minutes or more, something that felt like drowning and terrified me. I began to look at sleep as a necessary evil. Rather than lie down at some given time at night, I would just stay awake until my body shut down and I crumpled onto my mattress.
In my waking hours, I was outlandishly sensitive to all stimuli; it was as if I had become a walking antenna. My awareness of time became hyper-keen as well. Before, a half hour or even an hour might have passed without my noticing, as I involved myself in something or just tuned out. Now I seemed destined to arrest and contemplate seconds as if they were as spacious as entire minutes. On one of my early morning walks, I passed a home with a gated door. Behind the door was a beautiful Alaskan Huskie with sky-blue eyes. I felt a strong desire to pet the dog, but didn’t know if it was friendly. Beginning some ten yards from the animal, I began to move toward it as incrementally as possible, beginning to raise my arm from my hip as I stepped forward, searching its eyes for signs of consent with every step. It must have taken me ten minutes to cover the distance that separated us, until I finally extended my fingers through a space in the gate as its head lifted slightly to meet my palm.
While the novel power of these experiences was pleasurable, being so attuned to every moment also translated into alienation from enthusiasms that I had previously relished, and which had connected me to the world outside my mind, a world my increasing self-involvement was beginning to eclipse. A cinephile for most of my adult life, now I couldn’t bear to watch more than five minutes of a movie before something in my surroundings or a sudden thought about something I wanted to write pulled me away. I stopped checking the news online; political and societal events had come to seem devoid of relevance. My surroundings had become like great shards of an enormous broken mirror in which I could regard different aspects of myself: If I passed an unfinished cathedral during one of my walks, it would no longer cause me to muse on when and why the project had been abandoned, an inquiry that might have led me to a deeper understanding of modern Nicaragua; rather it spoke to me as a metaphor for some piece of writing that I had not completed. Nor was I capable of getting enough distance from my perceptions to consider the bigger picture of my own life—the fragility of my living situation, what exactly I was going to do to make my way in a developing country—and set a course of some sort. Looking back on these days I cringe for my former self, in worry and with some embarrassment. But I also know that, had I not been operating out of this childlike obliviousness to what in retrospect loom as realities demanding action, I would never have arrived at the hotel that I will now tell you about.
As the end of the month approached, I had begun to see my shared living situation as untenable. The young couple I lived with, often at odds, had begun to fight more frequently and vigorously. This intensification of conflict in my environment dovetailed with a creeping tendency of my own to regard the people in my life as forces of liberation or oppression, with no gray area. Anyone who facilitated my ability to freely think and write was a liberator; whoever obstructed this ability in any way was an oppressor. I had explained my frustration with the situation to another relative in the U.S., and this relative offered to send me enough money to move out. The night before the money was to arrive, I was in my room with the balcony doors open when the girl, who had been giving me the silent treatment for some undisclosed offense, called up to me from the sidewalk and asked me to let her in; her boyfriend had never given her a set of keys. I decided that she could wait for him to get back, and didn’t respond to her appeals, which became increasingly nasty. Eventually she gave up and sat on the curb seething. About thirty minutes later, her boyfriend showed up and they came into the house, where they proceeded to hurl dishes and silverware at each other. As this was going on, I calmly began to pack up my clothes and gather my things, having decided that I would go to a hostel as soon as I had the money, and then look for more permanent lodging. The pharmacy where I was going to pick up the money didn’t open until eight, but once the fighting subsided and silence reigned in the house at about five in the morning, I slipped out with my things and headed for the park. After talking with an early-morning street sweeper for a while, a grave need to sleep overtook me; I hadn’t gotten a moment’s rest all night. I didn’t want to pass out on one of the cement benches in the park, so I picked up my duffel bag and computer case—all my worldly belongings—and began to wander away from the park.
Walking with heavy legs, no destination in mind, just trying to stay awake, I watched the owners of the small general stores that stood on nearly every block push aside their metal security gates as the dawn slowly burned through the darkness. Then I rounded a corner and came upon the hotel. I paused. This wasn’t the first time I had seen the hotel, but it was the first time I had really seen it. It stood three stories, broad, with a pale-yellow adobe facade and balconies with iron ballustrades. In a U.S. city it would have appeared quaint and charming, but in Jinotepe, with its long stretches of humble homes and dirt roads, it projected the opulence of a palace. The mustached guard sitting just outside the doors with a rifle strapped across his chest added a literal note to the building’s tacit impression of exclusivity. After thinking it over for a moment, I walked past the guard, who yawned and nodded to me in greeting, and went inside.
The hotel’s clerk, a light-skinned Nicaraguan in crisp shirt and tie, raised his head from a leatherbound book he had been reading as I walked across the empty lobby toward him. I explained that I hadn’t slept all night, and that I was waiting for some money to arrive in a couple of hours. I asked him if I could stay in a room and leave him my passport for collateral. He said he couldn’t do that, but he pointed to a leather sofa and told me I was welcome to rest there. I sat down, laid my head on the sofa’s back, and shut my eyes, falling asleep in several-minute intervals, awaking repeatedly to look at the clock above the clerk’s shoulder. When eight o’clock finally came, I left the hotel and walked to the pharmacy, several blocks away, to check for the money. The woman there told me the money hadn’t arrived yet, but that she could call me at the hotel when it was there. Discouraged, weighed down by the culmination of all the lost hours of sleep, I trudged back to the hotel, where the maids and other staff members had begun to file in. The gravity of my fatigue seemed at this point to be trying to drag me by the shoulders into a supine position, but some of the workers had begun looking at me curiously and I didn’t want to lie down on the couch and call even more attention to myself. Without any forewarning, tears came into my eyes and my shoulders began to tremble. It was the first time I had cried since my father’s death three years earlier, and I didn’t fight against it, as it seemed to release all the tension and emotion I hadn’t been aware I was holding. When it had run its course, I raised my head and saw a hand holding a glass of water. I took it and looked up at a black man with gray hair. Without asking me what was wrong, he told me that I should go upstairs and speak with the hotel’s manager, Glenn, who he said was a minister.
In his spacious office, with Christian worship music playing low on his computer speakers, Glenn, a bearish man with eager eyes and a New England accent, listened with interest to my story, asking me questions and encouraging me along. I told him I was a writer and gave him the address to the blog where I had been posting my writings since getting out of Hodera. He said he would take a look. He told me that if I left my computer with the desk clerk, I could go ahead and take a room and pay for it once my money arrived. He also said that I should talk with his wife, who co-managed the hotel with him and who would be arriving later in the day. I thanked him and went down to the lobby, where the clerk handed me a key to a corner room on the second floor. Entering the room, I immediately collapsed face down on the bed, falling into a deep and untroubled sleep for the first time in more than a month.
The telephone woke me up at around two; the afternoon clerk told me that the pharmacy had called and the money that I had been waiting for was there. I retrieved it and gladly paid the fifteen dollars for my room. Then I went across the lobby to the office of Glenn’s wife, Lynn, and knocked. She looked harried but waved me in nonetheless. Her desk was engulfed by mountains of bills and other papers on the verge of toppling. She said her husband had forwarded her the link to my blog and that she had read several entries, with which she was impressed. She told me that she and her husband ran a home for abused children, in the neighboring town of Diriamba, and that she was trying to put together a website and a blog to attract financing. She also needed someone to put together a grant proposal to fund an addition to the compound. She said that there was no money to pay me, but she had learned that I was between homes and perhaps I would be interested in staying in the hotel as payment? And, just like that, the problems to which I had not attended seemed solved, and I came to live in the hotel.
The impact of this agreement on my state of mind was profound, as I interpreted it as confirmation of what I had suspected but not quite been willing to believe since leaving Hodera—that I was being carried along by some force greater than myself, toward a bright destiny merited by my talents. The problem was that the very state of mind that this agreement so encouraged, the state of mind that had led me to the hotel in the first place, rendered me incapable of honoring my end of the agreement. But I will get to that shortly.
The hotel, I gradually came to discover, was a world within the world of Jinotepe—a “bubble,” as Lynn had described it to me. The rates of the rooms and the meals in the restaurant, modest for Americans and Europeans, priced out most locals, and Jinotepe, best known for its canyon winds and dust storms, an hour from the nearest beach, was not much of a destination for tourism. The Jinotepinos, given to the Nicaraguan passion for gossip and storytelling, spread conjectures and rumors that placed the hotel at an even greater distance. An aunt of mine, for example, believed that it was a Mormon redoubt whose walls concealed frantic polygamist activity. The truth of the matter was that the managers were Eastern seaboard American Jews by birth, who had converted to Evangelical Christianity. They invited church groups from the U.S. that were doing missionary work in the country to stay at the hotel at group rates, and also worked to attract medical and other volunteers. They felt they had been called to a mission to help troubled children and bring them to their faith. The hotel was a way of generating the revenue they needed in order to carry out and expand their mission.
Every morning, I would get up while it was still dark out and bring my laptop down to the lobby, sit on the sofa, have endless cups of sugar-laced coffee, and chat with the morning staff. The church people and the volunteers who emerged from their rooms and came down to the lobby for breakfast later in the morning impressed me as the most extraordinarily vital people I had ever met, as if they were beings on the cusp of an evolutionary advancement. There was one group of black church people from Maryland, physically beautiful human beings, whose profound self-containment seemed to grant them an extra portion of molecular weight as they sat reading their Bibles or talking over meals, and whose perfect equipoise appeared unshakable. By afternoon an exquisite breeze would periodically gust through the lobby, bending back the tips of the leaves of the potted plants scattered about and playing on my skin as I engaged in wide-ranging conversations with the guests on intellectual and spiritual topics. During these conversations, my mind felt more alive and agile than it ever had; I found myself coming up with words in Spanish I didn’t even know I had learned and retrieving historical facts about, say, India or Islam from some long buried and forgotten reservoir in my mind. I would often have a feeling that I knew exactly what the person I was talking to was going to say next, and how, and have my suspicion confirmed. Sometimes I could see a whole conversation play out in my head before it unfolded, as a point guard might view a basketball court. This phenomenon of anticipation eventually began to feel eerie to me, even unpleasant.
The sense that had been building in me before arriving at the hotel, that the material world apprehensible by the senses was mere integument that cloaked a much deeper significance, became yet more pronounced. Nothing could have a common-sense explanation any longer. On numerous occasions I would leave the lobby and go to my room and the television, which I never watched, would be on. Rather than assume that a maid had turned it on while cleaning and forgotten to turn it off, I saw it as a miracle, a spiritual riddle. What in retrospect seem like mundane connections between things felt freighted with importance, worthy of wonder. Once I was talking to a nurse from one of the medical volunteer teams. A member of a church group in a rocking chair across the way began to cough repeatedly as the nurse kept talking to me. I completely tuned out of our conversation, riveted by the fact that a nurse’s job was to help the sick and that the coughing woman was a sick person, and burst into laughter.
Late one night I was sitting in the lobby when I saw a dove lift off from one of the hallways railings and begin to glide low across the open atrium. As it did so, a sudden gust of wind shook a coconut loose from one of the trees. I watched it plummet toward the earth, striking the bird in the head and killing it. The next hour was for me a swooning meditation on the exquisite beauty and transient nature of life. One day, feeling overwhelmed by all this significance, I burst into Lynn’s office and said, “Every moment seems meaningful.” She paused, peered over her eyeglasses, and said, “It probably is,” and returned to her work.
And yes, there was work to be done. After giving me a week to catch up on sleep, Lynn brought me to the home for abused children in Diriamba to attend a church service and gather information for the website and blog. I sat in one of the pews and watched one of the young American female missionaries as she delivered her first sermon, after which the congregation began singing Christian songs to guitar and drum. Trying to focus but feeling anxious, I looked out a window and saw a Nicaraguan child, about six years old, in bare feet and tattered clothes. I got up and went outside and introduced myself. He took me around the grounds, pointing out where they ate and where he lived. I handed him my camera and demonstrated to him how to release the shutter, then showed him the pictures he had taken, which mesmerized him. Once back at the hotel, rather than spend time working on the blog or website, I downloaded the pictures the boy had taken, which I noticed had a uniformity of style, and spent hours making an album of them.
This was characteristic of the way I approached the work I was supposed to be doing, following my every impulse rather than defining and focusing on the job I had been given. Over the next two months, I would make periodic trips to the orphanage, where I would talk to the children and staff and take photographs. I enjoyed these times, and felt that I was doing preparatory work, but once back at the hotel I continued to spend my days having conversation with the guests, working on my own writing, and wondering at the world of the hotel, believing that I would get to my undone tasks when my intuition told me it was right.
Sometime in the third month of my stay, Lynn and Glenn took a fundraising trip to the U.S. While they were there, Lynn e-mailed me and asked me why she didn’t have the presentation I had said I would create, and which I had completely forgotten about in my distraction. We exchanged a few more e-mails that took on an increasingly testy tone. In the last one she said that she felt it was time for our agreement to end, that she would give me three days to find a new place to live.
I was able to rent a room briefly in a neighboring town. But my time in Nicaragua was quickly coming to an end. Soon, circumstances would lead me to Miami, where the imperatives of the material world would impose themselves, as if they had just been biding their time before they exacted payment for my season of enlightenment.