And lo, on the first night in Paradise, a Nicaraguan covers band did slaughter Alanis Morissette’s “You Ought To Know” at 1 am.
And we did despair.
2015 has been, by far, the most stressful year of my life, packed with packing, planning, shedding belongings, leaving jobs, saying goodbye. I have sat quaking in a embassy waiting room, filled out indecipherable documents, jumped through hoops, and done all the myriad things it takes to heave the leaver that moved the train of my life from one track on to another.
For Ben, it has been a year of constant forward-motion, barely being in one place for long enough to get his bearings. Before I joined him in September he had spent weeks alone in various US states on tour with his show. He has produced music videos and written tracks and worked hard on an almost-completed studio album. He has supported me and tried his best to keep me positive when I was crying, hand-wringing, or shaking with rage. All this and eight shows a week.
We stated fantasising about a holiday back in March, when it became obvious how huge and all-consuming the visa process would be (I realise I still haven’t written about that. It makes a good story. One day I’ll tell it). Ben liked to say that I had “never been to a proper beach before”, since his idea of a beach is palm trees and white sand, whilst mine is stormy skies and Hebridean seas. So after much deliberation, we chose the southwest coast of Nicaragua, and a yoga “wellness” resort.
Firstly I need to say how much I hate the word “wellness”, which I refuse to type in any way other than enclosed by quotation marks, since my sniffy Britishness can’t help but scoff and wonder if it’s actually a real word and why can’t we just use the word wellbeing like civilised people but we’re in America now so I guess not right yes sorry.
Landing in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, the humid air hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane. We were greeted by a (perhaps overly, here’s my sniffy Britishness again) enthusiastic driver named Edwin, who would take us the 2.5 hour journey to the resort, aggressively pointing out the sights as we went (“Look, there. Look. See. The volcano. Look. LOOK.“).
The roads were bumpy – even the famous Pan-American highway – littered with tuk-tuks and brightly coloured buses so stuffed with passengers there were bodies smooshed against windows and piled high on the roof. There were people on bikes everywhere, push and motor both, huge lorries belching fumes and emaciated horses pulling carts. The air smelled of woodsmoke, the heavy underlying sweetness of the rainforest. On the sides of the roads were pigs and dogs, skin-and-bones cattle, horses tethered with thin string to saplings and fenceposts, loitering children and small un-tended fires, stalls selling plantain chips and things I’d never heard or seen the likes of before.
It was by far the most foreign place I have ever been. Its otherness shocked me, the one-room tin-shack poverty, the piles of rubbish at the sides of the road.
Have I been so terribly sheltered? Most family holidays were spent in Scotland. The European countries I have been to since a child (France, Spain, Italy) are not so far from England, both geographically or culturally. In the back of my mind I always knew how easy it would be to get home, if I needed to, how I could understand the language if only a little bit. Iceland is the most welcoming place I’ve been to, and possibly one of the most civilised, despite it’s sparse population and wildness of landscape and weather. New Zealand was thousands of miles away but it felt familiar because parts of it looked so much like the UK – albeit the UK on steroids. The US is very different to Britain, but even the things I don’t understand are usually known to me through film or television or pop culture of some kind or other.
Nicaragua was something entirely different, I got that from just the car drive to the resort. Ben insisted on stopping to joyously partake of every street-food stand along the way. I was given a polystyrene cup of a thick white milky substance made from corn, and sickly sweet. I drank a bit but my still-airborn stomach was not particularly happy, so I mimed drinking and tried to toss the cup in a bin on one of our sight-seeing stops while Edwin the driver wasn’t looking, thereby hugely offending Edwin the driver who it turned out absolutely was looking.
We arrived at the resort as the sun was setting, the curve of the beach and the waves visible through the boughs from our tree-top suite. We were warned to be careful of leaving doors open as the monkeys liked to drink from the plunge pool outside our room early in the mornings.
After a meal at the beach-front restaurant we crashed into bed early, twelve hours of travel and a year of work leaving us exhausted at sundown.
About half an hour later the music started – Nicaragua’s Best/Worst wedding band began playing to the party celebrating nuptials at the resort that night. It started with what sounded like terrible mic-checking, a monstrous blowing into an empty beer bottle. Ben grumbled. It can’t last long, I said.
Four hours and three increasingly irritated calls to reception later, the band stopped playing. As the female singer’s voice had become more hoarse the song choices were increasingly surreal, ending with a Central American accented take on Alanis Morrisette and the Cranberries. Our mood went past irritation into anger, to despair and on to hilarity, before circling back round to start all over again as each pregnant and hopeful pause in the music ended with the commencement of another opening riff.
A few hours later we were woken by the chorus of howler monkeys sitting by our plunge pool.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a howler monkey. I think howl is probably the wrong word. A dog howls. A howler monkey opens a portal to hell through its mouth.
When looking at reviews of the resort one negative one caught my eye, with the guest moaning that the monkeys had ransacked their kitchen during the night, which had ruined their entire trip, apparently.
Ben and I awoke to find a trail of muddy little monkey footprints into the kitchen which we had – whoops – left open. The trail lead to the kitchen surfaces where the monkeys had tore through packets of sugar and made a valiant attempt at eating a chai teabag before giving it up for a lost cause. Perhaps they’re coffee drinkers.
Anyway, rather than ruining our whole trip, it brightened our mood considerably. You see, it turns out the best thing about Nicaragua is Nicaragua itself, not the little details like accommodations or plunge pools or whether they’d left clean towels for us in our rooms (they hadn’t).
It meant that it didn’t matter that the yoga classes were held by the guests, since the resort’s instructors never turned up. It meant that ordering a grilled fish sandwich with lettuce, tomato and hollandaise sauce that turned out to be a rapidly cooling piece of fish with a shrivelled slice of tomato between two slices of equally stale bread didn’t become annoying until the end of the holiday.
Or rather, half-way through. We were supposed to stay for eleven days, but after four we decided that making it a week long holiday would probably be just about enough.
“Oh look, it’s sunny again.”
“Another day in fucking paradise.”
“Can I have some sugar for my tea please?” (every morning)
“But…but we gave you honey.” (every morning)
“I know, but I’d like sugar.” (every morning)
My urticaria was also protesting loudly at the heat and the humidity. I began to fantasise about being clean of sunscreen and sand, godforsaken sand everywhere. We had already read three huge novels each. The waves on the beach started to get “a bit drowny”, in Ben’s words.
Yes, it was time to go home.
Due to Ben’s ongoing feud with management and that they were probably sick of the sight and sound of us, they agreed to refund us for the days we would no longer be staying. (“That means…we owe you money…?). And despite the hugely delayed return due to a huge storm-system in Miami knocking out our connecting flight, we were so overjoyed to be back in New York it was vaguely hilarious.
Despite it all, it was a wonderful holiday. I lay in hammocks reading books. We were rocked to sleep by the crash and draw of waves on the sand each night (except the first, of course). We watched the sunset from the beach, with cold beers in our hands, or once from sea-level as we swam in the ocean. Frigate-birds and pelicans and hummingbirds busied the skies and seas and treetops. One evening at dusk a group of fifteen or twenty monkeys passed by and around and through our tree-house deck. One night we watched as a tiny baby monkey ventured from its mother’s back to practice climbing the skinniest limbs of the tree in front of our room. Butterflies of every shape and size and colour surrounded us, every moment of every day.
And this is what we’ll remember in years to come. Not the Nicaraguan cover band’s take on Alanis Morissette.
In Nicaragua Ben and I realised that, perhaps in a similar vein as the wisdom of food shopping when hungry, you should never book a holiday while stressed. We thought we wanted sun and sand and nothing at all to do – but what we really wanted, in contrast to our transient lives right now, was to be at home, in New York, beginning to build our lives together on solid ground.