Nicaragua: About those “Nicaragua Shoes”…



"Nicaragua Shoes" by Bernard Gordillo

Fifteen years ago I went to Israel for about ten days. At the time, I accepted an invitation (and scholarship) to attend the Jerusalem Early Music Workshop, mostly spent at the Hebrew Union College playing Baroque music or listening to colleagues do likewise. Luckily, we had a little time off every day when we could explore the city, which was, frankly, the best part of the trip and what forms the core of my fond memories of Jerusalem.

After a very intense ten days of study, and a bit of city exploration, the last night proved to be the most interesting.

At around three in morning, I woke up and walked a few blocks with some friends to one of the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, where we were picked up by sketchy-looking van, then headed for the outskirts of town. We stopped at a security checkpoint along the way in order to enter the West Bank, a none-too-subtle reminder of the state of relations between Israel and Palestine back then.

I don’t remember anything dramatic happening, except for the lights inside the van coming on, most likely to confirm that we were all, indeed, foreign tourists. I was delirious, at this point, from sleep deprivation and could barely keep my eyes open, having had a total of about two hours sleep that night. Once past the checkpoint, we were on our way.

The driver, hell-bent on staying awake, turned up the radio as loud as it would go, then sped into the night towards the Dead Sea. I was on a trip billed as a sunrise tour of Masada, the historic plateau on the edge of the Judean Desert that overlooks the Dead Sea, on which the ruins of a once-mighty fortress once stood, where nearly 1000 Jews–men, women, children–once committed suicide in a symbolic act against the Roman Empire.

We arrived at the parking lot at the foot of Masada while it was still night. Our driver pointed into the darkness and articulated one of the few words we’d hear from him the entire trip, “Ma-sa-da.” That was our cue to get out.

Fortunately, Masada was set up to receive visitors, undoubtedly a good thing for the regional economy. The very same parking lot also had a tourist center with an impressive cable car that takes you up to the plateau. Unfortunately, it was too early for the center to be open, or the cable car to be running, so we were forced to walk the famous Snake Trail that slowly winds its way to the top. The hike takes about two hours, beginning in total darkness and ending with a hint of daylight.

Once up there, the views were amazing, as was the size of the plateau, the state of the ruins (really old!), and the highly-anticipated sunrise that gave the tour its name, which came up above the mountainous horizon past the Dead Sea.

I lost track of time once the sun had come up, and before I knew it, there was exactly one hour left to hike back down the mountain and get back in the van. A few of us from the tour came to the realization at the same time.

I spent the next hour running down Masada’s perilous Snake Trail—or at least, that’s how I remember it—making it to the van just in time, completely drenched in sweat and exhausted.

Fortunately, the rest of the tour was uneventful: a bit of floating the in the Dead Sea, a quick visit to Jericho, and a peculiar stop along the way to Jerusalem in which our driver pauses, points to the horizon, and says, “Dead. Sea. Scrolls.” Apparently, he was pointing towards some mountains that were supposedly the location of the caves where the scrolls were discovered.

I finished the rest of the day back in Jerusalem, then I repeated the early wake-up call, and headed to the airport for the flight back home. I won’t go into how it took me nearly an hour to convince airport customs officials, two twenty-something women, that I was a musician who played the harpsichord. They understood the musician part early on, but they had no idea what a harpsichord was until I accidentally used the Hebrew word for the instrument, which is, in fact, not Hebrew but Italian, and a word appropriated a long time ago by the Germans: cembalo.

I was reminded of the Masada experience  almost immediately after the trip, once I was back in Bloomington, Indiana.

At some point during the following week, I ran into a colleague, someone I’d known for a while who took her Jewish faith quite seriously. She asked about my trip and wanted to know all the details of my adventure. At some point in our conversation, she looked down at my shoes and wondered out loud why they were so dusty. I told her that I hadn’t bothered to clean them up since climbing Masada.

And in a single gesture, she kissed her hand, and with it, bent down to touch one of my shoes. It was a spiritual moment for her, and one which gave me a deeper appreciation of my trip.

That moment has stayed with me ever since, even though the shoes I wore to Israel are now long gone.

Yet a more recent experience of having lived in Nicaragua for a year has brought home the significance of the pair of shoes I wore throughout the time I became reacquainted with my native country.

Pictured above are the shoes in question, now nearly unwearable from overuse, and not exactly smelling of roses. I had intended on throwing them away a while back, once I took a picture of them, but I’ve hesitated to do it, as if by doing so I’d throw away the memories of that profound, seminal experience. It’s silly, I know, but the pilgrimage I undertook to the country where I was born, after a thirty-year absence, has transformed those old, worn-out shoes into nearly sacred relics that accompanied me all over the eastern part of Nicaragua—up and down mountains, across many blistering streets, over rivers and lakes, in and out of torrential rains. Those shoes were a part of me and I’m reluctant to discard them as if they were just any other item of deteriorated clothing.

And in spite of not having worn them in over a year and a half, they will continue to sit in a box for some time until I get comfortable with the idea of separating the memories they represent from the old, stinky pair of shoes they’ve become.

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