<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Finding My Way Off the Gringo Trail
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Finding My Way Off the Gringo Trail

The sound of persistent Spanish tongues reciting the same sales pitches over and over created a buzz across the street. I was aware of all the action going on around me -- the buying and selling and bartering over a few cordobas -- but I didn't stop. I didn't have time.

Essay and Photographs by Brittany Boyd


Granada's central market was bustling with hordes of eager vendors competing to sell similar products to anyone who showed interest. Everything Nicaragua had to offer could be found right there in the country's famous revolutionary capitol. Fresh fruit, meat, herbs and spices, baskets, hammocks, and other crafts were all crammed along a few dusty city blocks.

The sound of persistent Spanish tongues reciting the same sales pitches over and over created a buzz across the street. I was aware of all the action going on around me -- the buying and selling and bartering over a few cordobas -- but I didn't stop. I didn't have time.

I was searching for a place to rest my heavy backpack and my head for a few nights. I had just arrived in Granada by bus from southern Nicaragua that early February afternoon. I met Yannick, my European travel partner, the week prior on an organic farm project in Costa Rica. He invited me to leave Costa Rica with him and then to slowly venture north through Nicaragua. Yannick wanted to find work on another farm and to see a few sights along the way. My plans were flexible so I agreed to join him.

It didn't take me long to realize that Yannick spoke Spanish and altogether traveled with far greater ease than myself. He was able to successfully blend in with the locals -- a gift I clearly did not have. The shorts and sandals I was comfortable in marked me as an obvious tourist, but I couldn't stand to wear long pants in the heat like everyone else. Also, my poor Spanish skills were reason enough for me to leave most of the negotiations to Yannick.

Yannick and I passed through Granada's busy downtown district looking for The Bearded Monkey, a backpacker's hostel recommended by our trusty guidebook. We relied heavily on that thick, tattered book to find restaurants, places to stay and many other destinations. We trusted it and we would have felt lost without it.

As we made our way through the thinning crowds just past the market, I noticed that we seemed to be the only foreigners around. Everyone else looked so comfortable and natural without any of the tourist trademarks -- backpacks, cameras, shorts, or sandals. It was unusual for me to be somewhere without seeing any other foreigners, especially after having traveled through Costa Rica for a month. One out of every four people in Costa Rica at any given time is a tourist. Nicaragua did not appear to have the same ratio.

I caught a few curious stares from people on the streets, but I didn't really mind. I liked the feeling of being somewhere distant and diverse, away from the English language and other things that kept me in my comfort zone. I liked the excitement of discovering something new, but that feeling didn't last long. The authentic and unrefined Nicaraguan culture that I was experiencing on the street ceased as soon as we spotted The Bearded Monkey.

The hostel was a large, brightly-colored building with vaulted ceilings located a few blocks from the central market. Inside were legions of loud tourists situated among the giant, green plants and overstuffed chairs. Most of them were chatting and laughing wildly in large circled clusters. Others were relaxing in hammocks, reading, smoking, or eating at the bar. It took a minute for my senses to adjust to this new and entirely different scene.

After several failed attempts at flagging someone down to ask about the rooms, the English-speaking owner told us they were all booked. Again, we consulted our guidebook to find some other cheap place to stay for the night. We hopped in a taxi and were eventually able to obtain lodging at the next hostel on the book's list. The $10-a-night room, which I considered expensive for Nicaragua, was much nicer than where I usually found myself. I relaxed for a minute and then took a look around the hostel.

There was a similar scene of enthusiastic young backpackers enjoying themselves as I had previously encountered at The Bearded Monkey. Around every corner was another bright, open-air common room full of travelers communing in chairs and hammocks. They were hanging out, talking and relaxing in the mid-afternoon.

The bar and restaurant area located near the hostel's entrance was packed, too, with foreigners drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. There, I heard people talking about home -- England, Australia, Germany, Canada, Sacramento. All different places, but all the same conversations. They discussed family, friends, weather, and other things they had in common, while the uncommon -- Nicaragua -- was left undiscovered. I looked outside onto the busy street and thought it was strange that so many people were inside in the middle of the day.

I remembered the market I had passed a few hours earlier, wondering where all of the tourists were. I had just found them. They, like myself, had been lead by their guidebooks to the same two locations in the city.

It wasn't that there were so few foreigners in Nicaragua, it was just that they were all inside, hanging out together. They weren't out on the streets, exploring the markets and mixing with the locals. And neither was I. I had already passed by the central market and by all of the curious faces I saw earlier that afternoon. I didn't have time to stop. I was in search of the place I now found myself standing, wondering what to do with the rest of the day.

I looked down at the guidebook I was still holding and reread the words printed in bold across the front cover: "Your ticket to affordable adventure." Adventure, I thought, was not found where this cherished little book had led me. Adventure was in the streets and in the markets -- the places that put me outside of my comfort zone. Real adventure would come when I could put the guidebook down and let other forces direct me.

Brittany Boyd earned her degree in journalism from the University of Colorado in Boulder last year. After taking time off to travel, she recently moved back to Paeonian Springs, a small town in northern Virginia. She currently writes from home.

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