Folks say that, when you move to a foreign country, you’ll have a defining experience: one so intense, so filled with emotion, that it’s the point when you decide if you want to stay in your new place or move on.
The day I had my “defining moment” will be imprinted on my memory forever. It was a beautifully sunny morning, with a light sea breeze keeping the heat at bay. I had only been in my new home for a month. I didn’t have any friends yet, but San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua‘s Pacific coast, had spoken to me, and I was confident things would work out.
This, despite the fact that, the day before, the ATM machine had swallowed my debit card, leaving me without access to cash.
Not long after arriving, I’d bought a big lug of a car, a Toyota Forerunner Turbo that I called “Bruiser.” It clinked, razzed, burped, and generally sounded like a mobile hardware store in a blender. The CD player didn’t work, the four-wheel drive was broken, the radiator overheated after 15 minutes, and the security alarm went off indiscriminately. But it was my car, and it took me where I needed to go.
On that particular morning, I was driving on the narrow dirt road that leads from my house to town. Suddenly, Bruiser took a nose dive…the entire front end of the car dropped to the ground! Upon inspection, I found that both front wheels had fallen off and something underneath had snapped; the car looked seriously broken. I wasn’t too worried, though, because vehicles started lining up on both sides of me, unable to pass. Help was on its way!
Much to my dismay, rather than getting out of their cars to help, a group of North American tourists started honking, yelling at me to get the car out of the road. OK, I understood. Traffic could not get by. People were angry. But did these compatriots of mine get out of their fancy Hiluxes and land cruisers to ask if I needed help? If I needed a ride to town?
No. Instead, a lone Nicaraguan man came walking down the road to see the commotion. Noting the problem and without saying a word, he disappeared and returned with 12 Nicaraguan men. They surrounded my car, lifted it up, broken parts and all, moved it to one side of the road so that traffic could pass, and left—but not before giving me the phone number of a mechanic in town. Elated, I figured now someone would stop to help me. But the cars started driving by me, one after another… I was left once again, standing in the road by myself.
I called the mechanic whose information was written on the little piece of paper I’d been given. Agustín didn’t own a car, yet he was at my side about 10 minutes later. He took a look at poor Bruiser and shook his head. Not a good sign.
But he came up with a plan. He’d call a taxi driver to take the broken ball joints and front suspension to town and solder the pieces together. Then he would put them back on the car and drive it (very slowly, since the ball joints wouldn’t be able to rotate) back to his house. There we would leave it until we got the new parts and he could fix the car. What other choice did we have? I certainly knew nothing about cars. So Agustín called Melvin, a local taxi driver.
Agustín and Melvin stuck by my side for about 12 hours that day. We got the car to Agustín’s, and then drove in Melvin’s taxi to the town of Rivas, about 40 minutes away. We went to the parts store, where Agustín convinced the manager that he should give me Agustín’s 15% mechanic’s discount, because I was having a very bad day. The manager agreed. The parts arrived within a few hours and we drove back to San Juan del Sur.
Agustín then told me to give him a few hours to fix the car. I had told him and Melvin that I had no cash. Both said, “No problem, Bonnie.” Melvin even offered to loan me money if I needed it. I declined. Instead, I took Melvin out to dinner (with my credit card) while we waited. Agustín called about three hours later and said the car was ready, so I picked it up and off I went. Happy, and with a total bill (parts and labor) of only $400. Back in California, the repairs would have been too expensive; I would have had no choice but to scrap Bruiser.
Several days passed before I solved my ATM card dilemma and had cash for Agustín and Melvin. I couldn’t even begin to express my thanks to these two men, who had never met me before; to the 12 Nicaraguans who moved the car out of the way; and to the Nicaraguan auto-parts manager who gave me a break on the price of the parts. None of these people spoke English. My Spanish was minimal at the time. From car parts to situational jokes to heart-felt feelings and explanations about my predicament, my Spanish vocabulary increased tenfold.
When I got home that night, I sat on my patio and gazed up at gazillions of stars. At that moment I felt sheer joy, as I realized I had chosen the most wonderful place to live, among the nicest people.
So my defining experience was the day Bruiser fell apart on an isolated road. It was the day I learned that I had chosen a country where crazy inconveniences and frustrations happen, but the welcoming Nicaraguans will always be there to help me.
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