Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How Returning Home Helped Me Rediscover Myself


“Whatever you think, be sure it is what you think; whatever you want, be sure that is what you want; whatever you feel, be sure that is what you feel.” “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T.S. Eliot

Last year was undoubtedly the most difficult of my relatively young life. In April, I discovered my aunt who is as much a mother as my own, was diagnosed with cancer.
I also decided to take a break from acting after years of working diligently without the return on investment I’d hoped for.
I lost whatever sense of identity I’d clung to for nearly 15 years.
And finally, my transition from New York back to Oakland after over a decade away, while looking for teaching work proved nearly as tough as show business itself.
Still, it was these moments that slowly shaped, or rather reshaped an identity I felt I’d lost.
Whether strolling around Lake Merritt or frequenting one of the many new coffee houses along the now trendy Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues, it slowly dawned on me that I was where I was supposed to be.
Of course, the city had changed almost has much as I had. The watering holes were different, the faces unfamiliar, and the demeanor had softened.
Who were these people? I thought to myself.
The Oakland I’d known in the 80s and 90s was equally paradoxical but perhaps in more extreme ways.
Tucked away in the Oakland Hills, the late night news reports of robberies and murders seemed as though they might have been in a far away land. I had everything a kid would want.
My school was less than a mile away from home, my best friend lived at the bottom of the street, and soccer games full of screaming parents each Saturday morning were as reliable as the morning paper.
As I got older I’d pick up on how people reacted when I told them I was from Oakland, or when someone asked me what my ethnicity was.
Those things mattered now. It seemed my identity was so intertwined with Oakland and its people that any attempt to veer away was futile.
Not only had Oakland influenced me in ways my younger self couldn’t fully grasp, but the added bonus of having a mother from Seoul, Korea and an Italian-American father from Brooklyn half convinced me the Bay Area was the only place where such a union could thrive.
When I finally did leave for the east coast I found myself gradually identifying more and more with being a New Yorker. I actually enjoyed the changing seasons, the breakneck pace of life, and the people who captured a part of my heart.
They were a little rougher around the edges, but embodied the same grit and integrity my father always had when I was growing up.
But when it came time to take inventory of my life and what I was doing with it, it slowly dawned on me there was more to being a son than a 10-minute phone call every Sunday.
Life was short and in the end my aunt’s ailment helped drive the message, and ultimately me home.
I spent hours each day looking for work as a teacher, reading, writing, and trying desperately to continue finding ways to leave my mark on the world, even if it might no longer be on a stage.
I still had so much to say I felt as though I might burst. But first, I had to find ways to cultivate relationships with my old community and in the process with myself.
Weekend BBQ’s with old friends, baby showers, and even trivia night at a popular hangout on College Avenue gradually made me feel like I’d made the right choice to be back in Oakland.
New York still crossed my mind as I convinced myself the plan was to get back once my aunt got better.
But over time, I got used to those home cooked meals — the dukkboki and kimchee she’d make for me each time I’d come home.
Even Benson, our family dog, supported the notion that New York would just have to suck it up. I wasn’t coming back if he had anything to do with it.
Eventually, my relationship to Oakland became one less of sentimentality but one of hope.
Yes, my friends now had “real jobs,” mortgages, and kids further indicating things would never be the same but I grew to appreciate those changes rather than resist them.
I was making new friends and slowly getting my footing in a community that had always been so good to me.
But what finally occurred to me was no matter where you live in the world two things are paramount:
— good people
— a sense of meaning.
If you don’t have either than where you hang your hat becomes arbitrary.
A beach house or swanky apartment overlooking the Manhattan skyline comes in a distant second to a more humbling abode filled with people who love you and support your belief that you were put here for a reason.
I don’t know what role being back will play for me in the future but I’m grateful for the childhood it allowed me to have and the revelations it continues to present with each passing day.
I suppose that’s enough for anyone to feel comfortable calling a place home.
                                                                ------

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How to Make Friends in Romania

One afternoon, I arrived at a drizzly Henri Coanda International Airport in Bucharest. My friend Anka spotted me as I made my way through customs into the arrivals hall. It’d been exactly a year since I’d last seen my Romanian friend.
Just a summer before we were in high spirits, sharing our thoughts on the future at a sidewalk restaurant somewhere on Columbus Ave.
Her brother Adrian was waiting for the two of us in a blue Jaguar in the parking lot. I instantly felt guilty he’d schlepped across town to pick up someone he didn’t even know.
I liked the man instantly and saw a similar temperament between the two. Both had sharp wits and a good sense of humor, Adrian’s undoubtedly a bit more of the self-deprecating variety.
I asked questions about buildings as we zipped through downtown Bucharest. I wanted to know their names, what historical significance they had, but mostly what made the people in this part of the world tick.
Both were patient as I sat in the backseat like a child pestering his parents on a long afternoon drive to grandma’s house.

After Adrian let us off at Anka’s apartment, I had a few minutes to drop my bags and freshen up before being whisked away to the Teatrul Odeon, one of Romania’s best known arts venues, and the reason Anka was back in the city where she spent her youth.

Anka, an absurdly talented costume and set designer, had her services called upon by Andrei Serban, one of Romania’s finest exports and a very famous theater director throughout the world.

He also happened to be my former teacher.

It had been 8 years since I’d seen him as I entered the 105 year-old building and saw his tall frame sporting a green button down shirt.

“Oh my God,” he said. “How are you?”

We exchanged pleasantries for a few moments and I complimented him on his appearance telling him he looked exactly the same, which he did as far as I could tell.

Even in his 70s, he was absolutely tireless in his approach to the work and commitment to creating theater that said something about the world, or at least held a mirror up to it.

You can imagine the influence he had on a wide-eyed and very earnest 25-year old actor back in New York.

I had questions.

SO many questions.

Only back then I wasn’t as comfortable as I am today not having the answers.

“You’re a pain in the ass,” he once told me.

Anka and I made our way into a beautiful but airless theater. I had been warned en route to the stage that because the theater was considered a shrine of sorts, the committee had refused to add air conditioning.

After a few moments in our balcony chairs I saw no honor in our martyrdom despite how good the play was. Even the Barrymore and Belasco theaters have AC, I thought.

The play was terrific. It was George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, or in Romanian, Soldatul De Ciocolata.

Of course, I didn’t understand a word but admired the commitment of the performers as well the communal experience it provided for the audience. At times I felt more like I was at a small Baptist church than a play.

I smiled as I remembered many of Andrei’s signature moves as a director. Whatever world he created on stage it was always bold.

Afterwards, Anka and I took a little stroll and grabbed a bite to eat at Caru cu bere, a restaurant in a beautiful gothic revival building that opened in 1879 just down the street.

We talked about the play and how surreal it was that I was actually in Romania, her country, a place we’d talked about meeting for years.

The atmosphere and company also compelled me to thank Anka for her friendship.

“I just wanted to say how grateful I am that we’ve become such close friends,” I said. “When we started hanging out about 8 years ago you were there for me at a very difficult time in my life. Thank you for that.”

She paused before sharing a shorter but similar sentiment.

“I don’t make friends easily,” she said in her heavy accent. “But you’re like a brother to me.”

I smiled at my all around good fortune. Here I was in this strange but beautiful city having dinner with my big sister.

                                                                ------

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Adventures in Aqaba

Aqaba is HOT. Very hot. The temperature in this Jordanian port flirted with 110 degrees for nearly my entire stay.
There was once a time where I’d take my chances with a merciless sun over say, a long Central New York winter, but those days have long passed. If given the choice, I’d rather throw on a scarf than a pair of flip flops.
Funny how what you’re willing to tolerate evolves over time.
The day before arriving in Aqaba, I was invited to join some of the men who worked for the hotel back in Petra for a meal. I passed on dinner but pulled up a chair as the five of them wolfed downed a communal bowl of chicken and pasta during the tail end of Ramadan.
The men were cordial and far less interested in me than the orecchiette on their forks. Two were from Jordan and the others from Egypt.
“Can you ask them if it’s safe to go to Cairo now?” I asked. “I’d really like to go.”
The gentleman, who I gathered was the unofficial leader of the crew, promptly vetoed my request telling me,“My friend it is very safe. But very hot.”
I wonder if he’s ever been to Aqaba.
The ride from Petra was mostly uneventful, which is not always a bad thing. I waited an hour and half for the bus to leave but in fairness was forewarned departures in this town had no set schedule.
“It just leaves when it is full of people,” the concierge had told me.
When the muddy Toyota Coaster was finally en route I was jolted several minutes into the journey when a woman sitting behind me began screaming at a man seated across from us. I knew almost instantly she was uncomfortable with his constant ogling because even I’d felt the heat of his eyes more than once.
He looked to be in his mid-30s, sat lazily, the same way a bully might on some yellow school bus in middle America where everything shuts down to watch a little pigskin. I saw in my periphery as he used his touchscreen as a front to take inventory of the crowded bus.
The woman managed to put him in his place but at the cost of making the rest of the ride rather awkward, if not tense.
Of course, there was a brief respite when we were stopped by a Jordanian military officer who took the ID’s of all the men on board. I was calm even as the whereabouts of my passport remained a brief mystery, allowing me time to theorize why we were being stopped in the first place.
As the bus pushed off, I remembered how the night before I’d missed the deadline for a reputable film festival I wanted to submit two of my short films to. I was kicking myself well into my sleep as the melodic sounds of “Allah Akbar,” echoed as an improvisational score just beyond my window.
When we finally arrived I decided to take a stroll through Aqaba. Practically seconds after my feet touched the scorching pavement I started reflecting on virtually everything about my life, particularly my shortcomings.
I thought a great deal about my failures as a son, a brother, which is to say as a man.
For some reason as I sat underneath a canopy facing the Red Sea, regret after regret seemed to pile up like a stack of unpaid bills.
I felt indebted, but to who or what remained as foreign as the street signs written in Arabic.
Still, I figured whatever fictional mess my mind had suggested I ruminate on would likely be gone the next day.
Sadly, I couldn’t say the same about the heat.
                                                                 -------
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Sunday, February 18, 2018

How One Man Changed My Life Through the Art of Listening

The summer after my first year of drama school I mustered up the courage to dial one of the most prominent regional theaters in the country. I remember the nervous tension I felt as I rehearsed my inquiry moments before a woman on the other end picked up.
“Hi,” I said. “Uh, I’m calling about the Guthrie Theater’s training program. I think it’s called A Summer Experience for Actors in Training?”
“You’re calling wayyyyyyyyy to early,” she told me. “The program isn’t until next year.”
“Oh,” was all I could think to say. She wished me good luck and hung up the phone in one swift motion.
For the next 10 months I practiced monologues in a drab black box theater in the basement of a dormitory.
I later discovered no matter how prestigious the drama program, wealthy the school, or famous the alumni when you’re in the performing arts you somehow always end up in some newly excavated opening far below the departments of science, engineering, and law.
Thankfully I was far too young to appreciate the irony of playing a starving artist quite literally below where those very students lay their heads at night dreaming of steady paychecks.
I’d arrive at 5:30 am and usually tiptoe past a sleeping guard to avoid an argument of why I needed to be anywhere, let alone the theater at such an ungodly hour.
I’d then make my way down the stairs as if walking a tight rope before flipping on the lights to a makeshift theater waiting patiently for someone’s words to bring it to life.
Nearly 3 hours would pass and I’d still be stumbling through words put to paper by men named Shakespeare, Brecht, and Beckett.
These monologues need to be perfect, I convinced myself.
The auditions finally arrived one spring afternoon as a seemingly endless winter began to surrender to summer’s all too brief warm-up act. As the trees began to bloom so did my confidence as an actor.
As the elevator doors slowly scraped open on the 16th floor of that old Riverside Church I saw a few classmates rehearsing in the corridor. I smiled, or at least tried to, before making my way to the bathroom in an effort to not overhear the audition just beyond the heavy metal doors.
When it was finally my turn to perform I stepped into the room where I’d end up spending nearly 3 years of my young life learning about the breath, the voice, but mostly how vulnerability was a sign of courage. Not weakness.
The room overlooked the Hudson River and the cold hardwood floors succeeded each morning in waking me from the daze 5-hours of sleep invariably leaves in its wake.
I’d often stare out the window looking towards New Jersey as a cool breeze washed over me. Like my dreams, the shores beyond the river seemed so far and yet somehow within reach.
Sitting behind a folding table was a man who looked to be in his early 60s with soft features and a warm smile. He had the temperament of someone who’d undoubtedly give up his seat on the train to someone who needed it more.
His movements were slow, or maybe just calculated. It was hard to tell. But his gaze was steady, his presence undeniable, and when he finally spoke it was with a pitch far higher than I’d imagined.
For the next 20 minutes I rummaged through my bag of tricks, pulling out monologues I’d spent nearly a year preparing. After each piece he’d look to his notes before peering up and casually asking, “What else do you have?”
By the time I left that afternoon I’d performed 7 monologues. I was exhausted.
He thanked me for my time before I made my way home unsure if I’d ever see him again, or find a reason to visit Minnesota on my own.
A few weeks later I received a call informing me I’d been accepted to the program. The same one that selected just 12 actors from across the country offering a chance to spend 9 weeks eating, sleeping, and discussing theater in one of the most progressive little pockets of the midwest.
At the time it all seemed as integral a part of life as breath itself. I didn’t want the opportunity as much as I needed it.
Within minutes of arriving at the Minneapolis Airport I was whisked away to the Guthrie Theater, a tabernacle I’d only seen in pictures and my imagination. To finally see it up close was something else completely.
It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever laid eyes on.
To a young man who wanted nothing more than to tell stories for the rest of his life it was no different than ambling through the Sistine Chapel or gazing up at the Mausoleum in Petra.
It was as religious an experience as any I’d ever known.
I met up with the 11 other actors on the top floor of the theater, which proudly overlooked the Mississippi River. There were actors from places like Rutgers, Yale, NYU, Cal Arts, and Brown all equally anxious to show the world what they could do on a stage.
As I made my way to the bar I ran into the same man who’d tested my stamina, my desire, and who ultimately granted my wish. He greeted me with his trademark smile. I asked how he was which was about the extent of our interaction that evening.
A few days later 12 actors sat in a circle as if huddled around a campfire waiting for the embers of enlightenment to illuminate us all. That same man sat quietly without judgement, listening to a dozen 20-somethings ramble on about what they knew, or thought they did about the theater and what little life they’d lived.
This went on for weeks as we steadily became more comfortable sharing our frailties, our failures, and how we hoped one or the other would make us better actors, but more importantly better people.
I finally mustered up the courage to speak with that man alone when time allowed. And as he had in those morning circles he opted to listen rather than speak. And not because he didn’t have anything to say but because his curiosity far eclipsed his desire to prove how much he knew.
He listened as if his life depended on it which it may have in some small way. When you sat across from him you felt heard in a way that made you question all the interactions in your life to that point. I thought about how seldom even I listened with a desire to understand rather than add or discount a point.
Never had someone taken in my words in a way that showed a reverence for my presence — that reassured me what I had to say mattered.
That man’s name was Ken Washington and in just one summer he completely changed my life.

Ken’s greatest attributes were his humility, kindness, patience, emotional agility, and capacity to think flexibly in any environment. He also mastered the ability to be generous without sacrificing a sense of rigor.

When you stepped out of line he let you know.

During a project where each actor was asked to perform a speech from a well-known public or political figure I chose President Kennedy’s 1961 speech at Rice University where he first spoke of man’s need to go to the moon. My performance gradually receded into a caricature with Secret Service Agents in tow.

“I thought it started off well,” he said. “But you sacrificed the integrity of the speech and importance of that moment by how you delivered it,” he told me.

I felt ashamed and made sure it never happened again.

Even after the program ended Ken kept in touch with his students. Whenever he was in New York, a city he loved deeply, he’d reach out and ask us to join him for a drink. He loved actors but mostly admired their beautiful struggle.

It’s been nearly 4 years since Ken passed away and though I didn’t know him as well as some I still feel his influence in profound ways.

In those fleeting moments where I doubt stepping on a stage still matters I think about how Ken believed stories were an integral part of being human; how at their best they could inform us of who we are but more importantly who we could still become.

He taught me we tell stories not because of our loneliness, self-doubt, or neurosis but despite them.

But mostly Ken taught me the craft of listening and how all forms of meaningful connection stem from the desire to listen to another human being without allowing the need to be right override the need to find the truth.
                                                                --------

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

What a Trip Through Eastern Europe Taught me About Resilience

While waiting for a train that would eventually take me from Slovakia to Poland I decided to check a few emails. I tapped on my shiny touchscreen and saw I had a message from a film festival I’d submitted my work to a few months earlier.

Dear Nicholas Maccarone,
Of all the emails we send each year, this one is the most difficult to write. With fewer available slots and an increased number of total submissions, we regret to inform you that Communication will not be included in the 2016 Portland Film Festival.

This could get bad, I thought.

I’d submitted my short film to over 30 festivals around the world and was quickly becoming more dispirited by the film’s prospects of being seen.

As the number of commuters began to steadily grow on the platform, I also started to think about the number of literary agents who’d passed on a book I’d been writing for nearly a year.

And though I managed to grab the attention of one agent, our paths were crossing just as life was testing her resolve. She was wrestling with far more urgent matters than some nondescript manuscript, not the least of which was the fading health and eventual loss of her mother.

With my two projects sidelined I considered how challenging and sometimes futile it feels to try and get your voice heard in a progressively noisy world.

Yet, each time I felt a wave of discouragement wash over me I thought about the people I’d met during my travels across Eastern Europe.

The people in this part of the world inspire me with their grit and no-frills commitment to simply carrying on.

On my final night in Bratislava I went to Zichy Restaurant, which was once the property of the former Zichy Palace situated on the corner of Venturska and Prepost Street. The building was constructed between 1770 and 1780 where three medieval townhouses once stood.

I took a table inside and sat with my back to the window. The place was completely empty, which is never a good sign.

Still, I decided to stay and was greeted by a kind waiter who seemed to appear out of nowhere. I ordered a pasta dish, while glancing at the highlighted passages of a book I’d picked up a few hours before.

“Slow tonight,” I said.
“Yes. You know, Monday and Tuesday is sometimes quiet difficult but Friday and Saturday are busy.”

What struck me about this man was his even-keel demeanor, one that I’d grown accustomed to in much of my travels. He didn’t seem worked up or discouraged by the slow business. Instead, he took it all in stride while emanating a sense of decency and effortless joy.

I could learn from this guy, I thought.

He asked me questions about New York, Brooklyn specifically, as we talked about its diversity and how he’d like to visit one day.

Before paying the bill, I mentioned how I’d grown up in California, which seemed to pique his interest even more.

“If you go to Los Angeles, say hi to Charlie Sheen for me,” he said.

It was undoubtedly the most bizarre but earnest request I’d ever received.
“I sure will,” I told him.

As I look back on my journey through Eastern Europe I marvel at how the people fiercely cling to a sense of resiliency despite having dealt with war, poverty, and a degree of adversity I could only write up in a screenplay.

Yet, they maintain a stride, a grit, and a backbone I find uplifting.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful I read that email in Slovakia of all places. When I think about the setbacks to my creative endeavors, the films, books, and words I so desperately want to share with the world it’s often a challenge not to take such failures personally.

But it also lends itself to a heightened awareness about the world and understanding, if not an appreciation, that it ain’t all about you.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to look for perspective on the bigger picture.

It was already all around me.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Musings During an Afternoon in Belgrade

I spent the afternoon with my new friend Magdalena, a waitress from a café I had breakfast at a few days earlier. We met at Costa Coffee next to her restaurant and nabbed a corner booth.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked.

“I don’t mind,” I replied not sure how much of a choice I had.

We decided to took a stroll on the promenade running along side the Danube. Being outside not only allowed for more room to maneuver but some how dissipated any formality the two of us had sitting across from each other in a stuffy restaurant.

We exchanged ideas with a rare vulnerability as she suddenly listened with a heightened interest in what I had to say. We hung on each other’s words as if our lives depended on it.

We talked about relationships, plutonic and romantic, long-term goals, and life in Belgrade.
“If I could leave tomorrow I would,” she told me.

She was a young woman with lofty goals. The way goals should be, I thought.

She told me her dream was to move to Spain and continue working as a make-up artist for television and theater. I told her it was possible as long as she had a solid plan but she deflected my rah-rah speech promptly naming all the reasons it couldn’t happen; a lack of money being the main culprit.
We decide to have lunch after our Danube stroll at a nearby deli just a few minutes before she needed to head off to work. 

The cashier asked if I was half Korean and half Italian, Magdalena explained.

“There’s absolutely no way she guessed that!” I exclaimed.

“Well,” she said. She figured you’re not Chinese or Japanese because you’re not short. So you must be Korean. And she can tell you are Italian by the way you dress,” referencing my blue blazer and scarf.”

We sat eating together as if we’d known each other for a lifetime, or two. She seemed to emanate a sense of knowing and understanding about the world well beyond her years. I thought back on my early 20s and reminisced about that sense of angst and longing I had for the world to open its arms and offer a sign that everything would somehow work out.

“I know how you feel. It’s like you’re so young but you’re running out of time,” I remember a friend saying to me one New Year’s eve.

I wondered if that was how Magdalena felt.

As we finished our sandwiches and gazed off towards speeding buses and busy shoppers the clouds began to roll in.

“I told you,” she said. “It’s going to rain.”

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

It's All So Fleeting

We sat mostly in silence during our 40-minute drive from Playa del Coco to Liberia. Don Luis had picked me up just two days before in the parking lot of a strip mall after I’d arrived from San Juan del Sur. 

I felt the heaviness of my eyes take hold before a car horn, or funny turn jolted me from a pending slumber. There was a somberness to my departure I hadn’t expected. I was saying goodbye to this little stretch of paradise but mostly I knew I’d never see this very kind old man again. 

“God bless you,” he said after hugging me goodbye.

How often do we consider how fleeting our exchanges with the people we meet and places we see truly are? That we may never cross paths with either again? I often think about an interview actor Brandon Lee gave while filming, The Crow. Quoting Paul Bowles he said, “Because we do not know when we will die we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times – and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood? An afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it. Perhaps 4 or 5 times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” 

Days later he was gone.

An hour later I was once again at the Costa Rican / Nicaraguan border. There were 4 of us in the shuttle this time: two Americans and two girls from Holland. No one uttered a word until there were questions about what nebulous fees we needed to pay, who needed to check our passports, and how long it would take to get to San Juan del Sur. They all soon discovered I’d made the trek before as I became the conditional expert on the matter. 

“Are you from Nicaragua?” one of the girls from Holland asked. 

“No,” I smiled. That’s a first, I thought.

Eventually we all hopped back in the car trading names, stories, and reasons for visiting Central America. The two girls were dropped off at a hostel not far from town as Matt and I continued on to the city center. 

“I’ll show you where I stayed two days ago,” I told him. Matt was proudly sporting a Texas Longhorns hat, and like me, not so subtly wheeling around a roll bag on the crowded sidewalks of this popular beach town.

After a few brief pit stops he decided the hostel I’d suggested and a handful of others weren’t for him. “A good common area is really key to the social scene,” he told me. I admired his Goldilocks approach to finding just the right place to hang his hat.

Not long after we decided to grab lunch at a cafe called, Simon Says -- the type of place that would invariably be full of hipsters wearing ironic t-shirt if it were back in the states. We both ordered the same smoothie and salad as Matt told me about his work as an energy trader. He was kind, thoughtful, and very smart. I enjoyed our time together. 

As we made our way out the restaurant I could see a school bus off in the distance. That's got to be my ride to Managua, I thought. "Hey Matt! Let me run and just see if that's me." I sprinted up the street with my bulky bag in tow. "Managua?!" I asked, out of breath. "Si," said the driver. I turned and could see Matt still casually making his way up the road.

"Hey Matt! This is me man! I gotta run." I mimed running my fingers across a keyboard, which I guess meant I'd email him. Looking back it must have looked like a drunken game of charades. Luckily, he got the point and waved goodbye as I boarded the bus.

A few seconds later I was gone.