Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Writing Retreat

I need some peace and quiet, I decide. I need some time to write, some time to think, some time away from all the noise and the merciless heat of Granada. I need a room to myself, a quiet desk, maybe a view of the water, certainly a view of some trees. I think about going to Ometepe, that island that the Lonely Planet calls magical, but the four-hour ferry to get there, the thirty-minute cab ride, the huge array of eco-hostels and hippy hotels listed on Trip Advisor; it all leaves me exhausted, just thinking about it. I should go to Ometepe, I reason with myself, at least just to see it, but then I realize that, for now, I am tired of seeing things, tired of traipsing around with my heavy pack, getting off and on boats, in and out of taxis. So I choose El Paradiso, a little hostel thirty minutes from Granada on the shores of the Apoyo Lagoon. A German boy I meet in Granada tells me it's his favorite place in the world, and so the next morning I pack my bags, trusting him, and I go there.

And so this is my gift to myself: a room with slatted windows and a hard double bed and red-brick floors. A breeze that blows straight off the lake onto my body when I'm sleeping. A little desk and a faulty plug, a broken fan, a twenty-dollar price tag for each night I'm here. A small, open kitchen with free vegetable oil and salt and pepper and use of the stove and fridge. A shared bathroom with brick half-walls and a shower with water heated by the sun. The lake, which tastes a little salty because a river flows into it straight from the sea. When I am tired of writing, I put on my swimsuit and walk down the stone path to the shore; I drop my towel onto a chair and swim out, bobbing in the high waves, to the little dock two hundred feet out. This lake reminds me of camp, those summers so long ago when I was just a little girl. The water smells just the same, and the ladder is greasy with moss, just as it was back then. I climb up onto it and lie on the sun-bleached boards, look up into the cloudless sky, and in my peripheral vision I can see the trees around me and the little hills that rise up. This lake was formed by a volcano, and it's so deep now that I don't even want to think about it, lying here on its surface. From the shore, the maids watch me swim out, then pick my way back in along the rocky shore, wringing out my hair and wrapping my towel tight around me against the wind.

On the first day I am happy with the one conversation I have; I meet a couple, the man South African, the woman Irish, who have been traveling for two years already. They make my four months in Central America seem like child's play, even though of course they never say that out loud. They tell me about Burma, the way the people there never tried to sell them a thing, only wanted to learn about their culture and to look at their maps. They share their rum with me, pouring it into a pink plastic cup and adding Fanta, warning me jokingly never to tell anyone that I consumed it, since they brought it illicitly from Cuba. I finish my dinner of rice and broccoli and carrots cooked on the little stove, and the rum helps me to sleep deep and long in the hard bed, the wind pouring through my slatted window, all night long.

While I'm preparing my breakfast the next morning, the South African guy shows me the cantaloupe he found at the little tienda down the street. They have pineapple, too, he says, and splits open the prickly fruit to reveal its stringy white meat. He offers me some. This couple is kind, I say to myself, and the pineapple is sweet on my tongue. At lunchtime, I walk to the tienda myself, down the dusty dirt road that connects all the homes and hotels that ring the Apoyo Lagoon. They have run out of pineapple there, so I buy bananas and eggs and a can of beer instead, and when I walk home the only person I see is a guy on a motorbike who turns his head to look at me as he drives by, his lips pursued in a kiss.

By dinner I begin to miss talking. I crave conversation, and I wonder where that couple has gone to. I swim as the sun is setting; the waves have gotten higher, and the maids warn me to be careful. But the water is still so warm from the sun, and even when I emerge covered in goosebumps, I know that that deep, round lake is good for my soul. It's good for my mind. I drink the can of beer I bought at the tienda and I look out onto the water and into the sky, which is turning pink. I can see beehives high up in the trees.

For dinner, I fix more rice, more broccoli, more carrots; I boil potatoes, I heat a tortilla, I do without salt. I find myself thinking of home, thinking of that pale maple table in my mother's kitchen, and the way my father, my mother, my brother and I each sat in the same seat every night, years ago when we still all lived together. I realize I can't think about them, sitting there in that open, empty kitchen with my plate of rice before me, without feeling tears form in my eyes. I hear a cat crying from somewhere in the woods and I know I can't let myself think of my own cat, either, thousands of miles away in a big, fun house with a basement and a drafty garage to play in. (I know my parents let her in there, even though I told them before I left that it wasn't allowed.) I bite my lip, wash my plate, and take out my book to read, because it's the closest thing I feel like I have right now to a friend.

I wonder how people do it, two or three months at those writing retreats in Vermont or Maine or Colorado. I haven't felt this lonely for a while, even as the water in the lake, the trees that surround it, the smell of the water, all remind me so acutely of home. I am so close, and yet I'm so far away. I look over at my empty, unmade bed and I wish, ridiculously, that I were nine years old and vacationing in Nova Scotia with my parents again, sharing a drafty hotel room with my brother, my parents just across the hall. It's been so long since I've thought of that trip, those miles covered in the old minivan, the dog left for the week with the neighbors. It's been so long since I've thought of a lot of things: those summers at camp, Kendra's grandmother's dock in Maine, the way pine needles carpet the floor of an Adirondack woods, the view from my childhood bedroom in summer. I thought this would be my writing retreat, but more than anything it's served, so far, as a time of forced memories. The things that come into my head here are the ones that have been waiting, just waiting, for a stretch of time that only the sound of the wind and the waves might fill. Without the noise of cars, of friends, of chores, I have to look myself in the face, because there aren't any buffers here. I see the water, the table, the bed, and I think of a million things that, for so long, have kept themselves hidden. I think of those things, I write them down, I try not to blink, I try not to weep. And at the end of this day I am grateful, because God, I am lucky. After all, these memories, these sweet little moments that pour in through the cracks in the walls; they are the things that have built me a life, and here is this time to hold them in my hands again.


  1. When you get published your book from these times, I will be first in line to buy it.

  2. Thanks pals! Good to know my book will sell one copy at least. So, Donigan, do we have a white wine and ice cubes date when I get to BA?

  3. If I'm still here, and if it is summer. In winter we'll have Malbec. We will be in Buenos Aires about one more year. What's your travel schedule?

    Kate, you write so damn well.

  4. "I thought this would be my writing retreat, but more than anything it's served, so far, as a time of forced memories." Lovely, Kate, and so naked and true. I think you've got at least three copies sold here ... ;)

  5. your writing at it's absolute best, kate. it makes me ache, just to read it.....miss you :)