‘I ain’t got a drinking problem except when I can’t get a drink.’
Despite an affinity for the music of Tom Waits and the blues, I’d never spent much time sitting at a bar until I came to Granada, Nicaragua. There my miserable attempts to find work and an apartment led me back time and time again to drown my sorrows at The Fabrica, a bar run by a beautiful Danish woman called Heidi – she was sympathetic enough to let me fulfill the cliche of the hopeless drunk who pours out all his troubles to the bar tender.
She ran this groovy place in an old building with a foreboding stone doorway that perfectly fit the candle lit interior. She wouldn’t give me a job on the grounds that men caused too many problems.
“I only hire girls,” she explained, “Girls know how to sort their problems out at the end of the night once all the wok is done – guys need so much attention that they´ll argue it out while there’s still twenty people waiting to be served.”
The Englishman to my right nodded at the wisdom of this and whilst he considered his reply he poured his shot of sambuca into his mouth and then set it on fire with a lighter. His mouth became a blue flame and after he swallowed it he’d long forgotten what he had wanted to say.
I tried out for a night in the Hostel Central across town. However, although sympathetic enough, the owners were from Las Vegas and run such a tight ship that I felt like I was asphyxiating there on my first night. Every order was written down on three pieces of paper and I spent eight hours in panic of losing one of the receipts. My first day was also my last.
“There was no love in that place!” I told Heidi, seeking to justify myself. She smiled and gave me another beer.
Heidi was one of the few foreign entrepreneurs who actually understands the country she lives in and who has local friends. She’d been running a hugely successful bar in Antigua, Guatemala but the city became so dangerous that she felt obliged to sell and move out.
“We just didn’t know if we’d end up losing everything we had. Large scale rioting and violence is never far away in these kinds of countries.” Her pit bull jumped up on the counter and she lovingly pulled him back down again. “I didn’t feel even feel safe when I was walking at night with him any more. The last straw was when a friend of ours was shot and killed in the street. Some thug approached him and demanded the keys to his car – he’d let them behind in his friend’s apartment and while he tried to explain he got a bullet in the head for his trouble.”
Granada was still too sleepy a town to have it’s own newspaper and this the only form of announcements were the odd sticker or poster on shop notice boards. In my search for a place to live I took to asking the people who sat outside their houses to enjoy the evening, invariably this then resulted in an animated discussion amongst themselves with neighbours being called in for their opinions.
While I was checking out the possibility of a room at the back of an English school, the tutor grabbed me to come chat with his students. I guess he hadn’t done any preparation for that day’s class. The students didn’t seem exactly excited about the prospect and while I asked questions of one or two of them the rest started up conversations of their own. People wandered in late and others took cigarette breaks when they felt like it. The doors were open to the streets and every few minutes our words were drowned out by a passing car or truck. I wondered what my old Korean students would have thought about such relaxed chaos.
My failure as a teacher brought me back to Heidi’s bar. I arrived as she was busting an American guy for calling her ‘muneca’ (‘doll’).
“But it’s a compliment!” he protested.
“Look, honey,” she smiled, irritated, “I’ve been living in Central America for ten year and I’m telling you that it’s not. It’s demeaning.”
Women have to fight for respect in Latin countries and Heidi clearly knew how to look after herself. Above the bottles of Rum on the back shelf there’s a baseball bat with the name of the bar printed on it.
“Women have a bad deal here in Nicaragua,” she told me, “The number of single women here trying to make it alone is insane. But actually most of are better off alone – you know the cliche of the drunken husband who comes home only to steal all the household money for drink? Well here that’s pretty much the reality. Then for the whole of the next week she can’t buy food for the kids.”
Small wonder that so many Nicaraguan girls jumped at the chance to get a foreign boyfriend, no matter his age. Men here were still supposedly the ones responsible for bringing home the bread and so a boyfriend from a rich country was seen as something of a score. I just couldn’t get used to girls asking me to buy them drinks, however. Especially when I often only had the money for the beer I was drinking.
Lack of girlfriend, job and apartment aside, I wasn’t having much luck in settling down in Granada. It takes time to appreciate a place and I was beginning to think that things were a bit too sleepy here for me. Certain streets began to look a bit too familiar and the hours became harder and harder to fill.
I began to dream of Caribbean beaches and girls in bikinis dancing to samba. Granada has some beautiful old plaza gardens by ancient churches and they were beautiful places to sit and play guitar. But every kid in town seemed to have gotten painfully loud fire crackers for Christmas. More than one ballad came to an abrupt end as some kid would test the strength of my heart with an explosion a few metres behind me.
And the prospect of working for five dollars a day was less than thrilling. It wasn´t easy to find a place to live and I began to wonder what I had in common with the people of Granada anyhow.
But probably the real reason for moving on was that I kept finding myself washing up at Heidi’s bar and i was developing into a complaining drunk. When I told Heidi she might appear in the Tokyo Notice Board she gave me a scary look.
“You have to send me the article. You better be saying nice things…”