Travel is transformative. It doesn’t matter if you are traveling to Milwaukee or Melbourne; the act of leaving home is cathartic. The further away you get from your comfort zones, the more profound the adventure of learning becomes. And I am talking travel, not touring: no condo in Gulf Shores, no Señor Frog’s, no hair braiding or henna tattoos on the beach.
When I am home in Minnesota I am soft; I don’t take risks. I like to sit on my couch. I love my remote control. I come home from the office, I drop the dry cleaning, I make dinner, and I hang out with my wife and son. I sleep. This is not a place for learning or personal growth. Waiting for a rickety bus in Managua, Nicaragua, sure as hell is. But let me back up. Nicaragua is a nation rebuilding, where people and cultures constantly reinvent and reimagine themselves to overcome the hardships and disasters that have shaped the country for decades. No one I have ever met says, “Hey honey, it’s vacation time, let’s go to Nicaragua!” But they should.
Nicaragua is called “the land of lakes and volcanoes” for its stunning geography, but the people and the food are what I love most. On the Caribbean side of the country are some of the most beautiful islands you will ever visit, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg to experience them. If you like a beach vacation, fly into Bluefields and then on to the Corn Islands, and you will be amazed. Take in a pro baseball game in Managua one evening. Spend the day at the Laguna de Tiscapa canopy tour rocketing over a crater on three cable-connected zipline platforms. The broad panoramas will startle you.
On the northeast side of Laguna de Tiscapa is the site of the old U.S. Embassy, leveled during the earthquake that wiped out Managua three decades ago. Wander out to Masaya, about a 30-minute drive from Managua, and check out the Tiangue, a unique food collective built around the ancient cathedral in the center of the town. About three dozen stands line the square, there’s live music, and the food offerings are all prepared by Nica grandmas who are happy to let you taste fare ranging from morcilla blood sausage to grilled fish, from roasted chicken to roasted iguana.
Back to the bus ride. One morning I got up early to see the Mayoreo Market, about 10 minutes from the airport. What I found was a bus terminal that fed routes all across the country. I picked up some sublime roasted pork chicharones in little greasy plastic bags and did what I would never, ever do at home: I hopped a random bus which headed north on the Pan-American Highway to Matagalpa. My driver was 15, he had paid someone the $10 for a license, and I trusted that he knew how to drive this bus, which had clearly been built when Roosevelt was still in the White House. Seats were sold for the stiff benches and for the standing room in the aisles. Everyone was sharing food and drink. I had no idea where Matagalpa was, but I knew it was only three hours away and that I could return at nightfall. The hills were rising with the landscape, and at every stop vendors swarmed the bus selling common foods with uncommon twists, like cabbage salad with fried pork skin, chiles, and lime. We stopped at Don Juan Papaya’s for a 10-minute break (I think the driver needed to pee), and I had pumpkin soup. I asked questions on the bus in my attempted Spanish; I took risks because I had to, not because I wanted to. I ended up hanging out for a few days in Matagalpa. I went up to the cloud forest and saw the Selva Negra coffee plantation, staying in the rooms there, small stone and wood cabins with fireplaces. I cupped at Solcafe’s coffeehouse and hopped the next bus back to Managua. I was alive.
For me, that’s how I grow, that’s how I change, and that’s when I challenge myself. I like the “me” on the road more than I like the “me” at home. My salvation is that, little by little, the things I learn and do when traveling change my spoiled and childish attitudes and, by extension, change my world around me. The road makes me more aware and more patient with others, as so many were patient with my floundering on that bus. Regular travel transforms us into a more tolerant and understanding version of ourselves.
The bad news? That experience is a traveler’s blessing. You don’t get it from a cruise ship hanging out at the buffet line at night trying to figure out what package you’re going on the next day when the boat docks for a few hours. Trinket shopping or snorkeling? Fun for sure, but go a step further and journey out into the real world and transform your life. That’s where the best rewards are, I promise you.