The teenage girl across the aisle from me got quietly sick onto the floor of the bus. I quickly picked up my feet and put them on a fellow passenger's bags of rice, startling the chickens that had been resting there. It was Nicaraguan disco that blared from the bus speakers as we careered through the mountainous countryside, but the music could have been Thai, Kenyan or Indian for all it mattered. I had been on bus rides just like this in many different countries. In the past, the chickens, the ear-shattering music, the small seats that forced my knees up to my chest--it all would have given me a rush. Now I just wanted to get off the bus and fly home, first-class.
It was the spring of 1999, and my wife and I were riding on an old American school bus north of Managua to the jungle mountain town of Jinotega. We arrived in evening drizzle and walked the empty streets with our heavy backpacks looking for food and shelter.
I was used to roughing it in out-of-the-way towns. For a year during college I studied in Vishakhapatnam, a large steel town in southeast India. When I tell Indians this now, they are at a loss for words. Nobody goes there voluntarily. When I was in my late 20s and just out of law school, I got my first job as a human-rights lawyer in Prei Veng, a Cambodian town near the Vietnamese border. Culture in Prei Veng consists of watching Chinese fight flicks and porn videos simultaneously on two screens while eating at the local restaurant.
In the four years I had been with my wife we had lived in three different countries and visited many more. Our last move had been to Lima, Peru, where I'd been working as a freelance journalist in the months before our trip to Jinotega. All this traveling weighed on me as we trudged through the town--wet, hungry and tired.
Our brief stay was markedly lackluster. The next morning my wife and I went for a hike, which ended quickly because of a downpour. I sloshed down the trail, becoming grumpier each time I slipped on the incline. We wandered the streets, past market stalls full of Nike knockoffs and fly-infested meats. We clambered back aboard the bus to Managua after just 18 hours.
A few years earlier Jinotega would have fascinated me. How did the people live? What did they eat? Would they be friendly? On our ride back, I tried to figure out why these questions no longer interested me. …