My Yoga Vacation in Nicaragua

Gone are the politically turbulent days. Nicaragua has become an enticing retreat destination.

By Margot Dougherty
Photograph: Photo: Brown Cannon III

San Juan del Sur, it turns out, is a surfing mecca. The next day, five of us crammed into a beaten-down Toyota Land Cruiser with a FUCK WORK sticker (how appropriate) on the rear window and a rack of boards on the roof, and we bumped along a narrow dirt road to Remanso Beach (more advanced surfers go to Popoyo and Playa Maderas). Dwight, an American with crispy blond hair and a Dentyne smile, was our instructor. After we planted the boards in the sand, he took us through the basics: how to paddle, how to jump from our bellies to a crouch, where to direct our knees, shoulders and eyes. Then he attached our ankle straps, the tethers connecting surfer and board. I don’t want to look at this too deeply—­meaning, probably I should—but I’m not wild about being tethered to anything. Maybe it started with my older brother handcuffing me to a tree while he and his seven-year-old buddies set out on an expedition to the penny candy store. The concept of being “stuck” makes my breath go short and shallow. Immediately after a breakup, the sadness of losing a boyfriend is generally countered by the percolation of relief: I’m free! When I was let go from my job, the panic of not having a salary was ameliorated by the delight of reporting to no one. That said, I’m not a recluse, so the trick was to figure out how to retain a sense of independence without feeling isolated. Not just in work but in life. And right now, on a surfboard.

Despite living 10 minutes from the ocean in Los Angeles, I’ve never surfed. I tried to stay cool as we paddled out, and the ocean was embarrassingly calm. Nevertheless, at about waist deep, I had a change of heart. “You know what, Dwight?” I said. “I’m just going to watch from the beach.”

“No, you’re not,” he answered with that big white smile, as cool as a central casting surfing dude. Alrighty then. Dwight says there’s no turning back. Not a bad life lesson for the chapter I find myself in. Time to look forward. I continued to paddle, and when the right wave came, Dwight gave me a push. “Stand up!” he shouted. Lo and behold, I did. I was surfing! The second the realization hit, I fell—or did I leap?—and when I came up, the board was bobbing next to me like a Labrador retriever. That ankle strap was messing with my core belief; apparently attachment and freedom are not mutually exclusive. This may be obvious to all those enviably balanced women who don’t lose an iota of themselves within the construct of a relationship, but it came as an epiphany to me. The freelance thing may be ideal: I can get involved on a project-by-project basis, with interludes of freedom.

After a few days in San Juan del Sur, we’d seen the sights, eaten in a bistro owned by ex-Angelenos and taken a day cruise in pouring rain to a tiny private beach near the Costa Rican border. The yoga retreat was ending, but I wanted to explore more of the country. Amy was game, too, so after joining in a final om on the yoga deck, we hugged our beloved yoginis good-bye and gave a nod to Giant Jesus. Our gear strapped into a truck, we headed north with our driver, Cristobal. First stop: Jinotepe, for a date with a shaman named Eliseo.

Fields of corn, soybeans, watermelon and mangoes blurred past on Highway 1, a ribbon of macadam that runs from Guatemala to Mexico. So did signs for the ubiquitous “autohotels” where couples go to have sex with people they don’t want other people to know they’re having sex with. We passed through Rivas, a wooden-furniture-making hub. Tables, beds, dining and patio chairs lined the sidewalks, and men wearing wife beaters and sandals idled in majestic hand-carved rockers in packed dirt yards while chickens pecked for food at their feet. Eventually we turned into an unpaved driveway that opened onto a compound of sorts: a rambling home with a porch shading myriad plants and two fat pit bulls, a blue cement building with the look of a Third World medical clinic, and an enormous Buddha smiling from a tiered altar in a clearing.

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