Just realised that my award-winning article has finally disappeared from the Bradt website and been replaced with newer winners, so thought I'd better preserve it here for posterity...
THE ART OF STILLNESS
My best friend’s choice of husband was a strange one, but at least it was a choice. My early twenties had turned to my early thirties and I was still no clearer on what this ‘something’ was that I needed to do with my life.
The main advantage I could see about the husband was that we now had a man to accompany us on all those journeys around Nicaragua that we had previously avoided doing on our own, precisely because of Nicaraguan men.
So, not for the first time since their wedding, I found myself back in our village in the mountains, ready to set off on another adventure though Central America. This time we were staying officially within Nicaragua. Our route was through the autonomous region to the east of the country, which is much more foreign and inaccessible to the rest of Nicaragua than say Honduras or El Salvador. The first eight hours were overland to El Rama, so far, so normal. Even as we boarded the boat for overnight trip down the Río Escondido and out into the Caribbean Sea, it seemed like we were taking the safe option as there were other boats in port bound for Venezuela and beyond. I asked about boarding one and although I was told they were strictly taking cargo and crew only, all things here are flexible when you know how. Sadly, things like foreign visas for Nicaraguans are not. So, the husband turned out not to be so useful after all.
As the boat pulled out, I felt that familiar sense of contentment that mine was more than an ordinary life. I had been born in the western world and I had learned very young to appreciate what that meant. If I worked hard in between trips, I could go anywhere on this earth, experience anything. Here on the boat with us, every other person was here because they couldn’t afford the airfare. And in the air above us, tourists were flying in to the Caribbean because they couldn’t afford the time. We are all poor in one way or another.
The ironically named Island Express normally takes twelve hours from El Rama to Corn Island, which is quite a feat considering it is less than a hundred miles away. This time it took twenty. There was no drama, no panic. The engine cut out and that was that. The crew wandered below deck to the engine room and didn’t emerge until hours later when the engine began chugging away again. In the meantime, we had slowly drifted back downstream, but that was about all that had happened. Those that were sleeping continued to sleep. Those that were awake continued to be awake. There was nothing to say, we would arrive later than planned, but there was no mobile phone signal to oblige people to call ahead. I finished reading my novel, carefully chosen about a girl called María. I rechecked my guidebook and noted even more mistakes; I don’t know why I always have to buy the latest edition, just to prove to myself that I could have done a better job. I flicked through the photos I had taken on my digital camera, deleted a few. The sun was getting hot now, so I put on some sunscreen. In between distractions, I meditated on my life, where I was going. I found all kinds of metaphors in the boat and the river but no revelations. For once, I admired the Nicaraguan art of doing nothing.
It was one of the first things I had noticed on arriving in the country. The national pastime is doing nothing. It is an art I have never really mastered. I can do it for about five minutes at most. But try as I might, the westerner in me just can’t do nothing. I can daydream, I can sleep, I can plan my next trip, I can even watch the world go by, but I can rarely manage to do nothing.
We had arrived here together, a couple of idealistic westerners wanting to ‘do something’ with our lives. But that was ten years ago, and while I had got bored after a few years and moved on to something else, my friend had turned native, married a local and seemed settled. Unlike me, she had mastered the art of stillness.