When I was in the shower in the morning, the phone was ringing too many times. As I depend on phone calls for a living, I always welcome the sound and jump for the phone. Yet whenever it seems there are too many calls, I take it as a signal that I ought to take a small walk.
When I came out of the shower, I looked out the windows. I live in a second-floor apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan, and the bedroom has three large windows, the one on my right looking out at the mid-town buildings that pierced, on this day, a cold midwinter sky, the other two windows looking straight out at the bare trees of Central Park.
When I looked to the right, the buildings suddenly caused me to hear the subway rushing underneath the street, heels clicking rapidly on pavement, the rustle and murmur of crowds, horns sounding, trucks coughing and sirens, always sirens, in the city. Usually, when I throw on clothes to go to work for my newspaper, I look out this window. Big city, get going.
But now I looked out the other two windows. As they are level with the trees across the street, you get the sensation of living in the woods.
I looked out at the trees and I called to my wife, who was in the other room, "Do you want to go someplace?"
"After the dentist?"
"Forget the dentist. Let's go someplace right now."
"Where?" she called.
I looked at the trees. "Nicaragua."
She laughed. "Why there?"
"Because I've never been there."
I took the phone off the hook and grabbed shirts out of a drawer. My idea was to be packed and out of the room in 15 minutes. The few vacations I ever had started like this. One rush of nerves, get a suitcase and walk rapidly out of the room, out of the house, out of the city and go anywhere. If I have to pause for more than a moment to worry about where and how, I sit down and don't go. I know that all pleasure and health depends on surprises. I have been in newspapers for more than 30 years and know that it is the surprises you receive while covering the day's news that cause the body to tingle to the point that it excludes almost everything except excitement.
I consider a vacation trip to be the same as looking for a story. Leave right now, and go someplace you don't know much about. That way, even the airport is a surprise. Of course, I have a wife who loves to pore over maps and travel guides. Which makes us some match. In the last 20 years we have been practically nowhere. And right now, as I was packing, she was in the next room and thinking that the Nicaragua business was just foolish talk of a morning.
But this time, when she walked into the bedroom and saw that I was actually packing, there was at first the shrieks and near-tears, and suddenly, simply because it had been so long that we had been anyplace, she said she would risk all.
"Here, I'll even plan this one carefully, just for you," I said.
I made a phone call to my friend Kevin Cahill. He is a doctor who cared for Nora Astorga, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations, until she went home to Managua to die.
"You go to Costa Rica and then drive to Managua," he said. "It's the most beautiful drive I've ever been on. Don't fly to Managua. It's just another plane flight. Take the drive. It's about five hours and you'll love it."
When I hung up, I said to my wife, "There! I got all the directions." I reached into my top drawer and grabbed my passport. It was under a pile of papers. I never use the thing.
We bought tickets at the airport and flew to Miami for an evening flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. At Miami, my wife took our passports and tickets and waited in line at the counter while I went to get newspapers. When I came back she was in despair. "Your passport expired," she said.
"So what? It has my name on it."
"They won't let you on the plane if she sees your passport is old.
I grabbed the passports and tickets from my wife and went up to the airline's woman and waved the passports at her. "Here you go." I stuffed the passports into my pocket. She gave me the boarding cards, and I walked away. We got on the plane to Costa Rica.
"We'll just have to turn around and come back," my wife said on the flight down. "They won't let us in."
"Don't worry about it."
"Your passport expired two years ago. Why didn't you ever get a new one?"
"Because I hate passports," I said. I do. I never have understood what they are for, other than keeping a lot of customs and immigration agents working at airports all over the world. The first passports were letters from Roman emperors carried by couriers who used them to commandeer horses when they were in distant cities.