I was standing with a stranger by the side of the road. Or maybe it was the other way round; maybe she was the one standing with the stranger.
The bus drove off and the road was quiet. The Nicaraguan sky was losing its blue, turning darker as the sun set. I followed the stranger up a track to what looked like an old barn with trees on all sides.
The stranger’s name was Maria. She was a 16 year old with long hair tied back. She was rescuing a lost gringa who’d taken the wrong bus and had gotten lost with nowhere to stay.
A woman sat at a wooden table in front of the wooden building; she was large and wearing a loose black dress, thin straps slightly falling off her shoulders, her hair flicked with grey. She squinted at me as Maria introduced us. Then she offered me a plastic tub of small red fruit called jocote.
“Thank you.” I said, taking the fruit.
I bit into the jocote, finding it softer than I remembered, sweeter. I decided it tasted like a plum, even though really, it was a flavour I didn’t know, and might not taste again.
Once it was dark, the only light was a single bulb inside. I sat on a plastic chair. There were a few piles of paper and books on the table; the floor was dirt; the walls were pieces of wood nailed together, not reaching the ceiling, material hung in place of doors – one was a blanket with a Disney Cinderella.
The mother asked, “Do you mind if I sleep here?” gesturing to a denim hammock behind me.
“Of course not.” I said, trying to figure out why I would mind.
Maria’s sister came out from one of the rooms, with a round face and shoulder length hair tied up. No one wore their hair down. On her hip was a small girl with unbrushed hair, dirt on her cheeks, and wide brown eyes. Cristina smiled at me and brought me a metal cup full of cold Coca-Cola.
Maria brought plates of rice and beans with chicken and bread rolls. We took them outside and ate in the dark, their dogs waiting at our feet. After we’d eaten, me and Maria sat in string hammocks and looked at stars like white Sacuanjoche flowers in the sky, their scent most powerful at night.
“Do you always want to live in Nicaragua?” I asked.
“I would like to travel. Most of my brothers and sisters left.”
“Where are they?”
“I have a brother in the US, a sister in Panama and another in Costa Rica. Cristina is the only one here.”
I got out my camera and showed her photos of Costa Rica, feeling like my stories were a small return for her kindness. She asked me about England, and I asked her about Nicaragua; both of us got glimpses.
Maria had school the next day, so we went back inside. She showed me where I was sleeping – a double bed in my own room. I thanked her, as I slipped past her mother in the hammock. Was I taking her bed?
I lifted the wool blankets over me. I woke up a few times, looking for the strange wailing sound I’d heard, only to see puppies jumping on the bed.
When I woke up at around 6:30, everyone was awake. Maria was brushing her dark wet curls in front of the mirror on a cupboard. She was wearing a red dress and had feather earrings, my elegant saviour.
The mother gestured for me to go outside, where she had a plate of scrambled eggs, kidney beans, fried plantain, some stewed jocote with honey and a drink made from oats. It almost made me feel guilty how generous she was being, but guilt wasn’t what she wanted me to feel. So I let her know the food was delicious and tried to take the dishes when I’d finished, but she wouldn’t let me.
Maria and her mother said I could stay longer, but I wanted to make it to a small town called Potosí, where I was planning on taking a boat to El Salvador. So I went back into my room, and packed my bag, thinking about how much I had even in this small rucksack that they didn’t. There had to be something I could leave, and money seemed too crude.
Walking back out with my bag on my back, I said goodbye to the mother, to Cristina, to the little girl with big eyes, and to Maria, thanking them all, hugging them one by one. Maria walked back down the track with me and stopped the bus – an old American school bus with ripped seats that stuck to sweaty legs. I got on.
Today I would leave Nicaragua, after 5 months in the country. The bus went slowly over the dry, stony roads, bachata playing, as I hoped that Maria had found the note and bracelet I’d left on the bed.
I would soon discover that there were no boats to El Salvador that day, and I would have to turn back to go by land, through Honduras. It’s hard to tell where your path is leading sometimes, but I was glad mine had taken me by that small house at the side of the road.
The landscape looked dry and golden. We passed a tree with strange green leaves and I remembered what a trekking guide had told me – that because of the shape of the leaves, they called it the ears of God. But as I sat on the bus looking at that tree, it wasn’t God that I wanted to hear me.
“Thank you.” I whispered, thinking of Maria, and would say again to countless other people who helped, who heard me even when I wasn’t asking. “Thank you for opening your door.”
Rosa Lia has written for Huffington Post, National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel and Matador Network. She plans on hitting the road again soon and dreams of one day being a sailor… or a captain.