On Christmas night, 2011, I flew out of SFO and arrived in Granada, Nicaragua the following afternoon. During the first two days that followed, I dutifully updated my Facebook page with both photographs and obligatory liberal guilt about the USA role in the Contra War. Then the updates stopped, leaving no online record of the events leading up to the night of December 29.
Twilight does not last long in the tropics. Toward the poles, the sun lingers near the horizon for hours, unsure whether it should be day or night. The closer you get to the equator, the less patient nightfall becomes.
That’s what happens when you live on a big, spinning ball. Every place on it completes a rotation in the same amount of time, but some places have to travel a much greater distance. Of course, it doesn’t seem that way because you think you’re perfectly still and it is the sun that is acting crazy.
I could have continued down this mental rabbit hole, but that would have required some logical thinking and maybe some math. I was in no mood to think logically and my math skills are subpar. Instead, I was happy to relax at my sidewalk table and let the tropical night come quickly as the sun did its nosedive in the west.
The waiter would soon be back with my dinner. I had ordered a marinated beef dish served with vegetables and the ubiquitous gallo pinto. The sangria had arrived. With the sun down and temperature dropping into the low 80s, I could enjoy something other than bottled water and Toña, the ultra-pale local beer.
It was my last night in Granada. Tomorrow the shuttle would pick me up and take me to a hotel across the street from the airport in Managua so I could catch a flight early the following morning. The hotel there was affiliated with Best Western and from the pictures on the website, was as sterile and soulless as any of its stateside counterparts. By the time I got there, the vacation would de facto be over.
I came to Granada on the advice of a bartender friend in SF, who had spent much of her adult life backpacking all over hell and gone. “Personally, I would go to…” she said and named another town in Nicaragua with half the population and a fourth of the amenities. “I think Granada is good for you though.” Globetrotter snobbery aside, I thought this was sound advice. While I had no desire to spend my vacation in some all-inclusive resort, I also knew I would fare better with Central America pitched to me underhand.
The sun had gone down. I breathed in the warm night air and sipped my sangria. You have to pace yourself with that stuff. It isn’t that strong, but you can’t taste the alcohol so it can sneak up on you. I’ve heard it hits you faster if you eat the fruit. Perhaps, but I figure if you’ve got your fingers digging for orange wedges in the glass or decanter, you are already well on your way.
“Me llamo El Pú,” I said audibly, but not loud enough for people to look up from their meals.
The Spanish language can be a serendipitous thing. Uttering an English equivalent, “I am El Pú,” would be an invitation for someone to say I was no such thing. Even worse would be “My name is El Pú,” which could be proven false simply by looking at my passport. However, the literal translation of what I said is “I call myself El Pú.” It’s like screaming that you’re screaming. There was no argument that can be made against it.
Becoming El Pú is something I’d been thinking about for the past couple of days. It began during a boat tour of the islets that surround a peninsula that pokes into Lake Nicaragua. Following the directions in my Lonely Planet guide, I set out shortly after breakfast and made the two-mile hike, staying in the shade of trees whenever possible.
It was quiet down by where the boats were, perhaps because it was the middle of the week. I was the only tourist and there was just one person, a man named Roberto, offering boat tours. In English, he gave a list of durations and prices for me to choose from. None of them were expensive and I had nothing else planned that day, so I picked the longest tour.
We got into Roberto’s brightly painted motorboat and headed out toward the islets. When we set off, he asked me if I wanted the tour done in Spanish or English. I admitted that I only spoke some Spanish. He offered to do it Spanish and switch to English if there was something I didn’t understand.
That turned out to be good choice. There were times when an English translation was needed, but I was able to follow along for the most part. Of course, a lot of the credit went to Roberto’s willingness to slow it down and dumb it down for my benefit.
There are hundreds of islets and we had nowhere near enough time have a close look at all of them. Instead, Robert concentrated on the more interesting ones: those with houses built on them or with the lushest vegetation. We also visited a small outcropping that had a single tree and was home to a couple of spider monkeys. He fed them oranges, but what I thought they really wanted was a boat ride back to the mainland.
I learned from Roberto that Nicaraguans are informally known as Nicos. He also said the nickname for Costa Ricans was Ticos. I was pretty sure this was a nickname and not a slur because he didn’t seem to have an unkind word for anybody.
He even went so far as to refer to two of the biggest swine in Nicaraguan history as “General Somoza” and “General Walker.” It seemed odd that he gave these guys any respect at all. I didn’t ask Roberto about his politics so who knows? Maybe he was fed up with Daniel Ortega and longed for the pre-Sandinista salad days of Anastasio Somoza.
William Walker, regardless of one’s political leanings, was harder to view with anything other than contempt and not just because he was the subject of a really bad Alex Cox movie. In the 1850s, he took over the country and set about reinstating slavery. When the tide turned against him, he burned Granada to the ground as a parting gift before hauling ass back to the States.
History can provide powerful teaching moments. For some, the takeaway of Walker’s legacy is Never again. For me, it’s I’m not that bad.
That evening back in my hotel room, my thoughts turned in earnest to my relative moral superiority. I was not just better than William Walker, but also United Fruit and every corporate raider who saw Latin America as an easy target for exploitation. I knew I lacked the ambition to want to exploit anybody. Sure, I was reaping the benefits of the local prices of food, drink, and lodging, but I took no unfair advantage. I also tipped well.
I started kicking around the idea of moving down here someday. I had no real plans on what to do when I retired other than to do it somewhere cheap. Back in the States, that meant some cesspit like Mississippi. Here in Nicaragua, the prospects were much better.
The thought of buying an islet and living there intrigued me. Taking up residence in Granada would be OK, but it lacked the Bond-villain appeal of having a private island as my lair.
I continued thinking about this the next day and the day after that. Which islets would be for sale and of those, which ones would I be able to afford? Some had mini mansions built on them and even at Nicaraguan prices, they were way beyond my budget. On the other hand, I was sure I could do better than having to share a tree with the spider monkeys.
Where exactly I would live was secondary. What excited me most was being able to cultivate my mystique. Back home, I was a pretty much a nobody. I was born into a middle-class existence and that’s where I’ve stayed with neither great achievements nor felony convictions to spice up my legacy. Here I could be the hottest shit since Christa McAuliffe crapped herself on the Challenger.
The Bond-villain thing aside, I had no desire to be a bad guy and certainly not evil. I did not even wish because spending my golden years in Nicaragua would be far more reward if it were done outside of a jail cell.
To give myself an air of distinction, I needed a better name. David simply would not do. In one of my earliest Spanish classes, we learned what our names translated to. William was Guillermo. Elizabeth was Isabel. David was David, same exact spelling but pronounced differently. I needed something new.
That’s when El Pú came to me. It was a perfect name for someone as obsessed with scatological humor as me. In Germany where such jokes are commonplace, I would stand out no more than would a hausfrau in leather pants. I was banking on Nicaraguans being far less disgusting. It didn’t matter that it was not proper Spanish. Mierda, the actual word for shit, is a feminine noun and I figured I needed some hypermasculinity to offset my wuss-ass nature.
I knew that becoming El Pú would be something be something I would have to earn. This could be accomplished by periodic visits from my island that would quickly into a drinking bender. After anointing myself with a pant load, I’d wander the streets screaming “¡Mi culo es un canon, putos!“
Bad plan. The people here have been both gracious and tolerant of this bumbling Gringo, but you can only push things so far. Just look at William Walker. After his debacle in Nicaragua, he made another trip south to pull the same crap in Honduras and ended up in front of a firing squad for his trouble.
Also, it wasn’t my style. Perhaps it would be if I were still a 20-year old frat boy being cheered on by a half dozen fellow drunken idiots, but I would be older, even older than my then 49. Most importantly, I would be alone. I am a pretty decent guy when I am all by my lonesome and often think about how exemplary my life might have been if I never felt the need to impress anybody.
No, I would have to earn the name without being repulsive. A few strategically placed shit jokes during my weekly visits to shop for provisions would be a fine start, but evolving into El Pú needed more than merely being a crap-happy comedian. It would require real change and change begins at home.
Up to now, I hadn’t thought much about what islet living would be like. I knew I’d have a lot of time on my hands to drink nonstop and make intermittent revisions to some unpublishable manuscript. The main thing though was honing my personal branding. When Roberto or another guide puttered by in a boat full of tourists, I wanted him to point and say, “Esto es la isleta de El Pú.”
To achieve this, I knew I the first thing I needed was a dietary regimen that produced a huge amount of excrement. I already did that so I moved onto the second and most important item: the presentation.
As I said before, I did not wish to incur the wrath of my neighbors. This meant no building a catapult to launch my excrement at passing boats or nearby islets. Even hanging my buttocks off the boat landing and dropping one into the lake would be considered bad form. Decorum required that I shit in a toilet like a civilized human being.
Therein lay the rub. What was the point of taking an epic dump if no one was going to see it? I could have uploaded pictures of them to Facebook until my friend list dwindled to zero, but that would do nothing for my local notoriety. I needed a witness to my handiwork.
This would not be a problem. Since I am a slob, I figured I would be hiring a cleaner anyway. She would come by every couple of weeks to keep my dwelling, which would give me plenty of time to plug the toilet most impressively.
“Lo siento,” I would say and point in the direction of the bathroom. I’d then step aside and let her get to it. From my study, I would hear her sing the old Sandinista song “¡Aquí, allá, el Yanqui morirá!“as she plunged away at the toilet, gradually growing her arms to shot-putter proportions.
That was my plan. The fame of El Pú would continue to grow until I either keeled over from cirrhosis of the liver or my buffed empleada got fed up and snapped my neck like a twig.
I put a lot of thought into this, so much so that paid far less attention to the world around me. I was used to having no situational awareness back home, but it’s a lot harder when I’m trying to understand a language I’m not fluent in. To be competent in Spanish, I need to be listening to what people say when they start to say it. If I only catch the last part and have to respond, I’m on a par with Peggy Hill.
To make matters worse, the one thing in Spanish I would not stop saying was “Me llamo El Pú.” I’m sure it was within earshot of at least one person on most occasions. In my defense, it was probably just gibberish to most Spanish speakers. Also, history has given Nicaraguans plenty of reasons to dislike Americans. One more was not going to make much difference.
By the time my last evening in Granada rolled around, I had withdrawn almost entirely, my mind in a Nicaragua that did not yet exist and probably never would. When I ordered my dinner, I had to rely on the same point-and-grunt that kept me from starving while traveling in Eastern Europe.
I probably would not have responded to the female voice addressing me except that she spoke in English.
“Do you want some company?” she asked. She was about 14 years old.
I shook my head and turned away. She soon left and continued her quest to find someone who had more cash than compunction.
That was depressing. Was I really the target market for hookers who were still in the ninth grade? I tried to convince myself that this was part of a sting operation to nab skeezy gringos, a test I passed with flying colors. No, I knew poverty and desperation when I saw it. We have a lot of that back home as well.
I drank more sangria and tried to forget about her. There was really nothing I could do here. Besides, I had other stuff to think about, important things like how there was a legend in these parts that and his name was El Pú.