Nicaraguan Reflections – Two
David R. Weiss, February 1, 2015
Okay, this round of reflections has to be a bit less reflective or I won’t get enough sleep, but I want to capture a few of our activities while they’re still fresh.
Thursday I arrived in Managua a bit after noon—2400 miles by air from St. Paul, and about ten hours after leaving home at a far too early 2 a.m. A weary wait of 45 minutes to get through the passport, customs, and baggage claim, but was happy to see Margaret’s beaming smile waiting for me just beyond the glass. Probably two hundred people waiting to greet incoming arrivals, but my wife is front and center—and just behind her Meredith and John.
They’ve come 2 hours by taxi to collect me and bring me back to León. Our taxi is driven by a friend of Meredith’s; a man with a law degree who drives taxi in his dad’s business because he can’t make ends meet as a lawyer. He is pleased to learn I am a college professor who drives a delivery van to help make ends meet. Solidarity is my first Nicaraguan moment.
Our bed and breakfast is beautiful. Simple elegance. Indoor garden that opens to the sky. Rooms with overhead fans but no air conditioning (at least not until it gets really hot). Bed and nightstand, but no chair in our room. Comfy sofa and easy chair just outside to be shared by any of the guests. Breakfast served to order at the time of our choice. The proprietors speak only a bit of English—as in greetings and the menu options for breakfast, but their smiles speak welcome in a multitude of languages.
Thursday evening, Friday evening, Saturday evening (and I’m betting Sunday evening, too) our evening is spent on a leisurely stroll around the city center. With us here is a mini-tour down different streets each night. Were we not here, it would be Meredith and Will’s time to review their day, greet assorted friends, and hope to tucker John out so he’s ready for bed when they get home. It is such a neat ritual because it daily binds them and their days to one another, but always weaves them nightly into the fabric of their community.
León is a city of about 100,000 and not all of them are out in the evenings, but the streets are filled with people like us meandering the sidewalks, or sitting on front stoops, or gathered in the small parks that are in front of nearly every church, or in the central plaza. The city’s energy simmers long into the evening.
Nicaragua is hardly perfect, but it is largely peaceful. (Managua may be a slight exception only because its size lends itself to many big-city problems.) I am struck in León by the vast array of community art—statues and murals especially—that commemorates the revolutionary movements in its past. Sandino, revered for leading a small band of guerillas against U.S. Marines in the 1920’s is everywhere (including on my new Nicaraguan t-shirt). But tributes to students protestors in the 50’s and to the Sandinistas in the 70’s are equally present.
Friday included a trip to one of the three main farm markets. Think the St. Paul Farmers’ Market—scratch and sniff version. Set up in an abandoned train depot, the assortment of vegetables is striking because some are familiar and some are not. Sizes run large. Colors are vivid. Owing to the heat, odors are pungent—sometimes pleasantly so … sometimes not. We but small onions, roma tomatoes, carrots the size of large cucumbers, radishes the size of golf balls, and papaya so sweet that I will forever after imagine Adam & Eve surreptitiously dining on papaya and not blaming them one bit.
We spent the afternoon on Friday at a community pool, a very neat central city oasis that is a cooperative venture including a small café and a tiny little organic/natural foods shop. This was my first real breakthrough moment with baby John. He still hasn’t seen enough of me to be quite sure of my place in his world, but by the end of our pool time he knew that my beard was fuzzy and that he would not sink in my arms. Both good life lessons.
On our way home from the pool we did our souvenir shopping at a little artisan store where Meredith knows and trusts the shopkeeper—and appreciates that every item is priced. The market requires haggling over the cost of each purchase; souvenir shopping shouldn’t have to. We find something for everyone. A good day.
Thursday and Friday, aside from delicious fresh fruit for breakfast at the B & B and a shared appetizer of fried potato cubes at the pool, we have dined in at Meredith’s. Pasta with oh-so-fresh sauce & veggies. Fresh salad that was probably in the garden yesterday. A freelance version of a traditional Nicaraguan egg scramble including yucca, onion, tomatoes, garlic. And rice and red beans that are a simple staple—but wholly deserving of that status if you ask me: not sure I’ve ever tasted red beans that knew my name before, but these certainly did.
This morning (Saturday) we were up early to meet our personal tour guide, Jesus, who would lead us up and down Cerro Negro (“Black Hill”), Nicaragua’s youngest and most active volcano. A gorgeous hike. W I N D Y! Warm. But beautiful. We enjoyed Jesus’ company. Unlike the vast majority of tourists whose thrill is to hike to the rim and then whiz down on a “volcano board,” our guide led us to the rim, then down into the crater where we walked right above the (since 1947) sleeping inferno, though we passed right through two spots where the craters breathes and endless exhale of sulfur. Almost surreal. Then up the other side to the far rim and over to peer down into the freshest crater, still hot from its 1999 eruption. Seriously: kneeling in the sand to get a steady picture—I couldn’t hold myself steady on my feet due to the strong winds—my knee felt burnt after just thirty seconds pressed into sand kept more than hot to touch but sun above and fire below.
Finally we walked over to the southwest rim, watched a handful of folks zip up in full body suits, cover the faces with bandanas and goggles, and launch themselves like fools down this black ash. A few flew down, most lurched awkwardly down in an anti-climatic finish to what must have been a harrowing walk along the rim holding onto a board that had suddenly converted into a sail thanks to the wind. We walked down. Big steps sinking as deep into the ash as you would into a sand dune. (But at more than 500 meters tall, Cerro Negro is over ten times the height of Mount Baldy in the Indiana Dunes.)
I told Jesus as we drove back into León that NOW I felt like I had arrived in Nicaragua. A full day to acclimate and catch up on my sleep. A long morning of hard work going up the volcano, plus the wind and the sulfur and the heat. I stepped off the plane on Thursday afternoon, but I stepped fully into Nicaragua on Saturday morning. (okay, it helped, no doubt that before we started the hike my bowels finally “set foot” here, too).
Saturday afternoon was well-earned quiet time, typing up my first reflections. Saturday evening we dined at El Bodegon, a local tiny restaurant (maybe six tables in the entire slender little place) run by a Cuban man. Non-alcoholic mint daiquiris for all of us (John imbibed with gusto too!). Fish tostadas for me and Margaret. OMG delicious. A meal to savor. Then a slow stroll back to our B & B.
By now it’s high time for lights out. Tomorrow we ride “the bus of death” out to meet Will’s mom, sister, and three nephews. Then off to the beach (Pacific coast) for the afternoon until sun set.
What I miss most of my North American conveniences is easy access to COLD beverages. Meredith’s tiny fridge does make ice cubes, but never quickly. And the water out of the tap is not much more than cool, so a glass of ice water quickly becomes a glass of cold water, cool water, just water. Oh well. I suppose I also miss having hot water to shower in, because cold showers are no one’s best friend. But the showers aren’t quite cold, just decidedly cool. You can’t savor them, but you can endure them, and after today’s hike the cool almost felt good. But that cold glass of ice water … that’s a real luxury down here.
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