The heat and humidity of Leon, Nicaragua was getting to me. I’m generally pretty even-keeled and well-mannered, but I’m not myself when I’m hangry, hot, and bothered. Seriously, it’s embarrassing how much I can relate to the Snickers ad campaign, “you’re not yourself when you’re hungry.” Thankfully, I have enough composure to internalize my disagreeable saltiness without affecting others (too much), but it’s unpleasant regardless. I figured whispering a few prayers and people-watching in Leon Cathedral would serve me well as I fended off my demons.
As I was people-watching, a young boy came over to my pew and introduced himself. Juan Carlos, a ten-year old Nicaraguan kid with an infectious smile and boundless energy, immediately lifted my spirits. We exchanged pleasantries, talked for a few minutes, and then his face lit up as he asked me if I wanted to climb to the top of the church with him. “Uh…sure.” Juan Carlos led me outside of the church to the entrance of the stairs that lead to the rooftop, but the attendant informed us that the rooftop was closed and would reopen in a few hours. Bummer. Oh well, maybe later. I told my new friend that I was going to explore the inside of the cathedral a little more, and he immediately jumped at the opportunity to be my tour guide. We walked around the perimeter of the cathedral and my tour guide would point at every single painting and say, “Jesus”. I thought to myself, “thanks Juan Carlos, I’ve heard of him.” But out of respect for his genuine effort as my guide, I simply nodded and acted as if he was providing new information.
After the informal tour concluded, he began a short soliloquy on wanting money for food, and I gave him a few dollars. I had suspected that he might ask for money at some point, and I was happy to contribute. Plus, I did my good deed for the day and could finally find some food now…and return to myself again. But I couldn’t shake the kid. He followed me out into the square and asked what I was doing next. “I think I’m going to get some food now, Juan Carlos.” No response, but he continued to follow me. I stopped by a juice bar and ordered a fruit smoothie. Juan Carlos sat down with me. He pointed to the “Free Wi-Fi ” sign, and suggested that we watch a sports video on my smart phone. I pulled up Lionel Messi highlights, which led to Juan Carlos shouting “GOOOOOOOOL” in my ear about thirty-five times in three minutes. About two-thirds of the way through my drink, I gave the rest to my friend, which triggered that award-winning smile again. I was Scrooge, and Juan Carlos was Tiny Tim. Slowly but surely, Juan Carlos (together with the heat) was chipping away at my frozen heart.
Juan Carlos, a natural tour guide, was fascinated by the Nicaraguan Revolution, fought between the Sandinistas and the Somozas. He showed me a mural in the park, depicting a scene from the war, and explained the source of the conflict. Soon after, I treated Juan Carlos to lunch at a local restaurant, and I could see the appreciation in his face. The lunch spot doubled as a pool hall, and Juan Carlos laughed at the seductive Janet Jackson poster on the wall. I shook my head and wished I had scoped out the place before taking him there. After lunch, Juan Carlos led me to one of the war museums. He was granted free entry as my “tour guide”, and showed me around old prison cells, tanks, and other war relics. I could sense the rich history of the city everywhere I went in Leon. The street art, museums, and even the faces of the older folks who had fought in the revolution, all told a story. Juan Carlos represents a new generation of Nicaraguans, who are thankfully not embroiled in a war.
Juan Carlos asked for the time and noted that the rooftop of the cathedral was opening in just a few minutes. He led me back up the street towards the cathedral. It must’ve been a funny scene watching the ten-year old local boy lead the Gringo around the city. It felt funny to me, at least. He was less than half my age, yet twice as competent navigating the city. Juan Carlos was street savvy. It was his neighborhood, but quite different than your suburban cul-de-sac.
We were the first two people to climb the stairs and make it to the rooftop. Juan Carlos was beaming with excitement and goofiness. He danced around the roof of the cathedral and reminded me of my silliness in my younger years. Oh, to be a kid again. After half an hour or so of exploring the rooftop and taking in the views, we descended to ground level, back to reality.
I was tired from the full-day tour and informed Juan Carlos that I was returning to my hostel to call my mom. “Well, what are you doing tomorrow?”, he asked. “I don’t know…maybe volcano boarding, attending a baseball game, maybe I’ll be back at the park.” “What time?”, he replied. “I’m not sure, buddy, I need to figure out my plans this afternoon. Just taking things one step at a time on my trip.” Though the reality is that, while I have been more present than usual, I am extremely aware of time, while Juan Carlos is constantly living in the moment. When I told him I was leaving, his million-dollar smile disappeared and he immediately looked dejected. I gave him a hug, which he didn’t reciprocate. I couldn’t handle it – I felt awful. Then, I decided to reward him with a few bucks for being an awesome guide. And a better friend. Just like that, his dejected look transformed into a smile from ear-to-ear. Juan Carlos returned my hug, and we smiled to each other as we went our separate ways.
The rest of the afternoon, I thought about Juan Carlos and the joy he exuded. A joy that was contagious and brought me great joy that day. We should all strive to live each day with child-like joy and spirit, just like my friend, Juan Carlos.