Best Meal Ever Week: Suyapa by the Sea
It used to happen on occasion that, during the rainy season in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, the sewage would spill over into the freshwater supply.
“How’s your Spanish?” the boss man asked.
“Not very good,” I said. “I’d need a solid—”
“Great! That’s just great. You’re going to Nicaragua in two weeks.”
“Never mind all that, our usual man came down with cancer or some such and he can’t go. Listen, it’s an all-expenses paid trip to a tropical paradise.”
“My wife is seven-months pregnant.”
“You’ll be back in plenty of time to see the birth!”
“She’s been ordered to bed for the last month or so.”
“Are you going to play team ball or what?”
“We don’t have any family nearby, and we’ve only been living here for a few months, so we don’t really know anyone, and I’ll be leaving her alone with the toddler, and…”
“You’re going. That’s final.”
Down I went, in late June of that year, and landed in Managua in a downpour. I waited around in the airport for an hour or so, parrying various taxicab drivers soliciting for a fare, until my driver/executive director should arrive. He didn’t, so I had to suppress a rising panic and employ my horrible Spanish to ask for directions to the Hotel Las Mercedes. I imagine the fear in my eyes was more intelligible to the government official I implored. Also, at that moment I had begun to realize that the immigration control agent previously had grifted me out of $50, which stoked anxiety all the more. She pointed. I breathed a sigh of relief. The hotel was actually only a short walk away from the entrance, invisible during the downpour, but here manifested, only for a moment, guided by the pointing finger of this military uniformed angel to safety. She didn’t even have to look up from her magazine to provide this divine guidance.
Hotel Las Mercedes is quite nice.
The executive director found me the next morning, apologized profusely because wires had gotten crossed, or some such, and he began to help me with my Spanish pronunciation and also my ear for Nicaraguan Spanish, whereupon we began to drive, winding on roads in disrepair and through regularly occurring downpours. His presence was comforting, and I was amazed at how quickly my Spanish improved as I relaxed and began to laugh at my predicament. It became good enough fast enough that I could hear the interpreter taking shortcuts in translating my lectures, so I would pause and explain to him what I was trying to communicate (both of us being novices), and we developed an understanding and an enduring friendship.
I was lecturing at an old Sandinista compound in the northern mountain town of Matagalpa; the propaganda from the 80s and 90s was still posted everywhere there, here in the early Aughts of the new millennium. The owners of the compound had just chopped down the jungle within the walls, and in the two weeks I was there, the jungle grew back, watered daily by gallons and gallons of rain, which nonetheless could not drown the mosquitoes, and all my repellant kept washing off, causing my mind to wander to the instructions on the anti-malarial medicine that I should begin a course of it three weeks before exposure but had only had one week of preparation, once all the papers had been drawn up, and I was longing for some sort of food that wasn’t fried and rice and beans and very tough beef strips, so I ate some lettuce and tomatoes. “I’ll get by with it.”
I did not get by with it.
It is a diarrhea like no other.
There is no movement associated with it, nor any gastrointestinal pain; just a constant bubble, shall we say, always about to burst downward. I developed a mental map of the compound with the quickest routes from any point to the nearest toilet, and alternate routes should that toilet be occupado. In addition, one becomes dehydrated, and the constant attempts to rehydrate oneself puts an anxiety on the renal system, inciting more trips to the toilet while also straining the limited supply of bottled water (possibly purificada) within the confines of the compound. The jungle laughs.
That’s when the sewer overflowed into the freshwater supply, which precluded showers. I assure you, with a constant flow of trips to the toilet, a shower at the front end of the day after a warm, moist, mildewy sleep—oh, another memory: my sleeping quarter was immediately adjacent, via open windows, to the kitchen, where, well before dawn, the cooks began making corn tortillas, which involves some sort of jackhammer on a free-standing aluminum table. I did fall in love with those tortillas, served with eggs, black beans, rice, and a salty, crumbly farmer’s cheese.
At any rate, my bed was damp and mildewy, and I could only manage a few minutes of sleep, and I felt so horribly filthy that I was compelled to take a shower every morning, but the water was shut off. In place of a shower was a bucket, a large bucket, with a smaller bucket in it, filled with rainwater. In my condition, I was loth to squat over a bucket in order to bathe, but the toilet was near at hand, and so I did, shivering, cleaning off filth.
On Friday, I heard a whisper that lectures ended at noon instead of at five o’clock. I also heard a whisper that lecturers would be whisked away to the Pacific Ocean. “To be thrown in and abandoned, I hope,” I muttered.
The ocean town León is not far from Matagalpa, as the crow flies, about 75 miles. As the car drives, switching back and forth on a two-lane mountain road that may or may not be maintained during this annual deluge, León is a thousand miles away, and the hotel is another eternity west, after driving through the city center. I wrestled with the diarrheal flow the entire way, jostled back and forth by the mountains before being jostled up and down by innumerable potholes in the road along the ocean plain, trying in vain to keep up with the conversation with the other lecturer and the executive director. The pulsating spasms made their way up from my lower intestines into my cerebral cortex, overwhelming all intelligent thought. Nevertheless, some sort of herculean strength welled up within me to overcome the welling up of soft stool within my colon, and I stumbled into my hotel room and made straight for the toilet. It functioned properly.
The sun came out. A tropical bird called. The Pacific Ocean roared. I lay in bed for hours, awake, just listening, drinking water and visiting the toilet over and over again. I tell you the truth: I felt relieved.
Relief also came in waves simply because I needed no more mental map: I was mere feet away from the porcelain god. I didn’t need to deliver any lectures. I didn’t need to think in two languages. There was an endless supply of bottled water, purificada. The air was actually dry. There were no mosquitoes.
I ventured forth after dark and had a bite of something I don’t remember, but it wasn’t fried: not rice, not beans, not stringy beef. The other lecturer recommended a glass of ron, a marvelous concoction derived from the flower of the sugar cane (so the label said), which gets bastardized for import into common rum.
Midday was at hand, and I was hungry. The other lecturer had departed to tour some of the natural features created by a volcano a few decades back, so I found myself at table with someone who said he toured extensively with Santana. He kept calling out to girls on the beach, pointing at his crotch and shouting, “Santana!” After a while of futile efforts in this vein, he turned to me and we made small talk. I asked him what was good, and he said, “Try the suyapa.”
I was in no mood to try something I didn’t recognize. I wanted to hear, “hamburger,” or “macaroni and cheese,” or even “Spam,” but because he was so ebullient, I did as he commanded, and I ordered the suyapa. After all, the hotel had taken its name from the suyapa.
After a while, the proprietor brought out a huge plate, upon which was balanced an even larger fish, broiled, bedecked with all the tropical fruits in season, which had given up their juices, in which the fish now swam. I buried my fork in its flesh, and it came loose in one large white chunk after another. I quickly learned to dunk each forkful into the fruit juices before savoring it while it melted away in my mouth. One bite led to ecstasy, and the next bite built more ecstasy upon it. I finished and leaned back, patting my belly.
“What’s wrong with you?” Santana-man demanded. “You sick or something?”
“As a matter of fact—”
“Turn it over.”
There was another side? There was another side! The other side of the suyapa had caramelized in those tropical fruit juices, and every fiber of my being screamed with pleasure when I laid eyes on the syrupy nectar oozing into the many clefts within this exquisitely prepared fish. Not only had I been satiated, but now I was being fed, stuffed, packed, gorged, as must happen in heaven.
After I finally exhausted myself with eating, the Pacific Ocean drew near, lapping at the retaining wall of the restaurant, my host departed after some girls he saw in the distance, the proprietor kept my glass of ron filled, and the world was just fine. I missed my wife.