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Poetry, Baseball & Ranchera Music

Joshua Berman spends a day hitchhiking around Nicaragua.

On this morning, I stand barefoot on my smooth, tiled porch—a mug of strong backyard coffee in my hands, as I watch the clouds turn from pink to white. I savor this moment of post-dawn coolness, which will soon be gone.

This is the calm before the journey, and I savor that too, because if I’ve learned one thing after living a year in Nicaragua, it’s that all you have to do to find adventure is step out your front door.

So that’s what I do.

I take a final gritty gulp, dump the grounds in the garden, go inside for my daypack and guitar and step into the street. I am going to Chinandega, a low-lying, sun-baked city about half a day’s travel to the west. I have several errands there and, if I have time (and in Nicaragua, I always have time), some friends to visit.

I salute my neighbors as I pass with a wave and an “¡Adiõs!”

Seeing the pack on my shoulder, they all shout, “¡Que le vaya bien!” That you go well!

At the highway, I raise my hand (no thumb necessary) and smile as the first vehicle that appears—a teetering, white truck with a raised cab—crunches to a stop beside me. I climb up and shake the driver’s hand.

Para servirle,” says the driver with a smile. At your service. He has short, thick hair and deep crow’s-feet.

The radio is blasting a loud merengue song, so we do not talk. We just admire the scenery together as we drop into Sébaco Valley and the village of San Isidro. At the next intersection, I clap the back of my right hand into my left palm and nod toward the west. He understands and lets me down at the edge of town. Within 10 minutes, a red pickup truck stops, and I’m running to the window.

“¿Dame un ride?” I ask the driver. Give me a lift?

“¡Cómo no!” he says. Of course!

I hop over the tailgate, bang once on the side of the truck, and we are off.

“Ride” is how Nicas refer to hitchhiking, taken from the English language and pronounced similarly, except Nicas roll the r and barely pronounce the d at the end. They have thus made the word their own, as they’ve done with béisbol and jonrón (baseball and homerun).

I sit facing backward, my back against the cab next to a man with a big cookie-sweeper moustache, a skinny neck and dark skin. He wears a battered, red baseball cap with a political acronym across the front: PLN.

We watch the road fly out from under us. We shake hands and begin talking. He speaks very quickly, not quite pronouncing the final syllable of each word, and I have to ask him to repeat himself more than once.

“Were you born in these hills?” I ask.

“No, man,” he says, “I am from Rivas. After the war, I came to Estelí to play baseball.”

“Really? What position?” I ask. The laugh lines by his eyes deepen.

“Center field,” he says. “Sometimes catcher. You know we Nicas love baseball! And we love poetry too. Rubén Darío! His greatest work is Prosas Profanas! Have you read it?”

Of course I’d heard of Darío, Nicaragua’s famous scribe and ambassador from the turn of the 20th century. Nearly every library, bookshop and cultural center in Nicaragua is named after him—but I had not read Prosas Profanas, I tell him.

The ends of his mustache buoy upward as he prepares to enlighten me. I smile with him, swimming through yet another remarkable moment in this confounding country: A simple-looking, gap-toothed campesino, who I would have taken for illiterate, is reciting poetry to me while the dry, crackling countryside blows by on all sides.

“Juventud, divino tesoro,
ya te vas para no volver.
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro,
y a veces lloro sin querer.”

“Divine treasure of youth,
you leave to never return.
When I want to cry, I do not cry,
and sometimes I cry without wanting to.”

When we reach the intersection for León and Chinandega, I hop out, thank the driver and walk to the gas station as the truck pulls away toward León. I wonder how long I will have to wait in this heat, and I wonder whom I will meet next. This seems to be at the heart of my time in Nicaragua, this dance between looking for excitement and waiting for it to find you.

On this day, I don’t wait long. A yellow school bus is parked at the sole gas pump. Arms droop from windows like wilted plants. As I approach the door, I ask the driver, “¿A dónde van?

“Chinandega,” says the man standing near the door. He is a towering black man, obviously from the Atlantic coast. He confirms my suspicion when he adds in perfect English, “Where are you going, man?”

He is—like everyone else in the bus, I realize—wearing a baseball uniform. “Matagalpa” is scripted across their chests. We shake hands as I climb aboard, and the man introduces himself: “Marvin Benard.”

“No way!” I say.

At that time, there were only three Nicaraguan baseball players playing in the U.S. major leagues—I knew because the local newspapers followed their every move. Marvin Benard was one of them, the Bluefields-born outfielder for the San Francisco Giants.

I’d heard that some players from the U.S. spent their off-seasons in Nicaragua to stay in shape, and that’s what Marvin is doing. He turns around and booms in Creole-accented Spanish to his teammates, “Make room for the gringo; maybe he’ll play us some music!”

“Play a ranchera, you son-of-a-bitch!” says one of the players, in classic Nicaraguan form.

Northern Nicaraguans adore la música ranchera, a type of Mexican country song that is on a continuous loop at most bars in the region. I am ready, and as the bus pulls onto the road, the entire team is singing with me:

Clavado en este rincón / como tu clavaste a mi Corazon,” a tear-in-your-beer waltz of lost love and desperate drunkenness. “Hammered in the corner of this bar,” goes the opening line, “just like you hammered my heart.”

It takes less than an hour to reach the stadium in Chinandega. My new buddies invite me to the game that evening. I thank them and wave goodbye as I wander off to find a taxi into town.

  • Mary Helen

    Thanks for sharing, Joshua!

  • J. Cyr

    Fun read; takes me back…glad you posted the link to this on twitter–Gracias, pue’…

  • Norm Schriever

    Very entertaining and endearing story – you definitely captured the heart of the country and its people! I just released a book about Costa Rica but the big secret is that I LOVE Nicaragua!