We’re in Bogotá now, having loaded Horus onto a moving truck and shipped him here from Cartagena, battered fly wheel and all, jangling under ropes and a wool blanket. Our lives are looking rather different than they did a month ago. We shower and launder regularly; we live in a perpetual climate of about 58 degrees; we no longer share outdoor bathrooms with endless parades of strangers. Our apartment came furnished with a microwave and rice cooker. Perhaps the most notable difference is that we have…drumroll please…wait for it…CITY-WIDE POTABLE TAP WATER! No more howler monkeys; no more sly little geckos creeping along our bedroom walls or along the finely-cracked surfaces of oil paintings hanging in art galleries; no more burros, machos, and vacas meandering across the road; no more vibrantly colored parrots screeching and cackling into the void. So far, Bogotá feels quite different from everywhere else we’ve been over the last six months, and perhaps, the most like home.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that Colombia is in any way devoid of the wild—we have a long list of beautiful, remote places outside of the big cities to visit, and our list grows longer after every taxi we hail with an app called “Tappsi". (Security concerns aside), taxis drivers in Bogotá must be the friendliest, most helpful group of people we’ve encountered on this trip. Even the Colombian Uber drivers want to hear about our travels, to know how Bogotá has treated us so far, and to recommend their favorite places for a road trip.
But as we sat under the manicured trees in Cartagena’s Plaza de Bolivar, after the sun had set, when one could comfortably sit outside without a fan, we didn't know that it would be the last of such moments for a while—that our next long-stop would have such little resemblance to Mexico and Central America. Now, when Nathan and I head out for “Colombian Lunch” in our little neighborhood of La Soledad, we could just as easily believe that we’re strolling around some bricky, overcast, sleepy little village in England or Scotland as we can believe that we are now officially in South America. But then, inevitably, we glimpse one thing or another that has become familiar to us over the last six months—a produce or arepa cart parked on a busy street corner; a mobile vendor chanting into a megaphone, Chatarra, chatarra, chatarra!, or Tinto, tinto, tinto!, or Arroz con leche, leche, leche!
So, now that we’re all tucked in and waiting for winter in Patagonia to pass, I suppose it’s high time I tell you the story of “Our Last Night in Nicaragua and the Pig”.
Our plan was to cross into Costa Rica the next day. We had taken a harrowing ferry journey across Lago de Nicaragua from Isla de Ometepe, during which waves splashed in through the windows and onto the broken, permanently-reclining seats of the upper passenger cabin. One of the other motorcycles loaded onto the back deck had already fallen over, and Horus was swaying precariously under poorly-tied lines. And we hadn’t exactly been getting along that day. For my part, I was again battling a stomach parasite and really didn’t want to spend the night without access to, ahem, facilities. Nevertheless, we had not abandoned our plan to spend our last night in Nicaragua on the beach. After passing up several pricey ecolodges and fincas, we arrived in the small town of Cardenas, close to the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, at about 4:30pm. We quickly found the edge of town and the shore. The strip of beach was narrow, and a harsh coastal wind lifted the coarse grains of sand and pelted it at us horizontally. A few small row boats and motor boats lay on the sand, but no one else but the two of us could be seen. We pulled up next to a house with the usual chickens milling about and pig tied to a tree, rooting in the scrubby grass. I called out to the man behind the fence and asked whether the beach was a public one or whether he would mind if we camped there. His response was pleasant, if not a bit confused—
Yes, you can camp here. He seemed not to say what he was really thinking, which was probably, But I don’t know why you would want to.
Is this area safe? I pressed.
Maybe it would be better over there, by the streetlamp, he answered, More eyes. More people. We thanked him and looked around. The wind whipped up the earth relentlessly. Nathan snapped a photo of me, my hair streaming wildly across my face. We looked down at the ground, looked around again, and waited to receive a sign that told us to stay here, not wanting to say anything that might add to the other’s frustrations.
Let’s find a hotel tonight, Nathan finally said. I shook my head yes.
I asked a woman behind the counter of a tiny corner store if Cardenas had a hotel. Over there, with the white roof, she said, and pointed to a house just past the town square with its brightly painted gazebo. That’s a hotel.
When we reached the hotel’s iron gates, I climbed off Horus and entered a dirt yard, where plumes of mosquitoes swirled among rustling mango and avocado trees, while Nathan stayed behind with the bike. Our usual practice. To my left was a shed filled with tools, auto parts, brooms, an antique stove, and a standing white bird cage with four green parrots. A smiling man of about sixty years poked his head out from inside it, and strode out to meet me. He informed me that la dueña, the owner of the hotel, was at church just now, but that she would be back soon and that he was sure there was room for us. He waved to Nathan still idling outside the gate and pointed emphatically to the ground next to his own Chinese "Rebar" motorcycle.
Eventually, la dueña came strolling back and welcomed us to our room. When we again ventured out to ask for a recommendation for dinner, she tilted her head and said, Why don't you eat here? She sat us down and served us gallo pinto, the red beans and rice mixture served at nearly every Nicaraguan meal, tortillas, cheese, eggs, and sweet tea. Simple fare with kind people; Latin American hospitality at its usual best. Soon after dark, having no internet access and nothing to read, we went to bed.
I don’t know what the time was. And to call it the squealing of a pig doesn’t quite do justice to the sound that woke me. It was the sound of an animal terrified for its life. It was the sound of mortal dread. A shrillness so unearthly that I questioned whether I was awake or dreaming. I turned to Nathan and asked if he could hear it too.
Yeah, he replied.
Is that…a pig?
I think so….I don’t know what could have upset it so much.
Oddly, I couldn't remember seeing any pigs on the property. The barking, braying cries continued, but somehow, in my parasite-induced fatigue, I drifted into sleep again.
I woke up again with a start; now the squealing seemed riddled with slashes and holes, as if, along with its voice, a dry wind was funneling out of its throat, rasping at the edges. I listened, my arms crossed over my chest in the dark. It was too warm for even a bed sheet. I shifted, trying to find a cooler patch on the pillow, listening as the pig’s cry seemed to shatter into a thousand different cries. A scene from Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, the first book I read on our journey south, came trickling back into to my mind. I saw a newly-married couple—sensitive Jude and coarse, voluptuous, Arabella—arguing bitterly in the snow behind their cottage. The pig they had received as a wedding gift is fat, more than ready to be slain, but the man they hired to slaughter it hasn’t shown up. In fact, the last of its fodder had run out days ago. So Arabella, the daughter of a pig butcher, insists that the couple kill the pig themselves. She knows that the animal must be bled slowly and thoroughly, to yield high-quality meat that won’t putrefy prematurely. The fatal cut to the jugular must not be too deep, she instructs Jude; the pig’s heart must remain pumping for as long as possible, and the blood allowed to trickle out slowly, slowly, the heart still beating, beating, beating, until it can beat no more. But Jude, knife in hand, can’t do it. So Arabella grabs the knife and, skillfully, just nicks the jugular. The pig screams and wails and poor, horrified Jude, who can’t bear it, stabs it fatally. The meat will be bloody and worthless. It is the final event of their ill-founded, quickly-unraveling marriage.
The sound was so foreign, so grotesque, so unearthly and yet, strangely, almost-human, that Nathan and I simply lay in silence. We barely said a word to each other. But I knew then what had upset it. God knows what time it was, or when the pig grew quiet. Later, while it was still dark, I woke again to what sounded like floors being sprayed with a hose.
Morning came and the kitchen radio blared with what sounded like children’s music. (Actually, this saccharine, gumdroppy music is intended for folks of all ages, and one commonly hears it in the streets, twinkling from passing cars, homes, and small businesses, on Nicaraguan mornings. We had come to expect it, and in many ways, to enjoy it.) Other guests were seated at the table, chatting amiably and drinking coffee. We joined them and our hostess busied herself with our breakfast, goading her parrots into conversation from the window overlooking the yard.
Alleluia! she’d crow.
No one said a word about the pig.
Alleluia! Alleluia! the parrots gargled back.