Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Finding Solace in Nicaragua: Part 1

First stop, León, the ex-capital city and Nicaragua’s center of education, culture and liberalism. We were pleasantly surprised by the temperature, not too hot, not too humid; quite different than the inferno we believed awaited us. It was the first of many things that would pleasantly surprise us about both León and Nicaragua. We spent our two days there taking in the grinding urban vibe of the city of around 200,000 residents. It had a lovely colonial atmosphere with brightly painted and well-maintained buildings, complemented by ornate churches on every other corner. We reveled in the dust-free paved streets, watching “buses” fly by that were little more than a covered truck bed lined with poles and seats with travelers hopping on and off like a San Francisco street car. The city hub was of course the central park, bordered on one side by the magnificent cathedral, the largest in Central America and second largest in Latin America. The other three sides were the municipal office, a seminary and the old president’s residence, varying in styles from gaudy gothic to austere art deco. The park was abuzz with artisan vendors, snack kiosks and cell phone hawkers.

Cathedral from the top of the old president's residence
Nicaraguan "buses" - hop on if you can
We visited all the key museums in town, learning a great deal about Leon’s defining people and events. First was the home of famed Nicaraguan poet and dignitary, Ruben Darío, who was raised by an aunt-like figure in the late 1800’s and died young of stomach ailments. We read amusing poems in his own hand, and gazed over his clothing and deathbed. In addition to writing some of the most nationalistic poetry in homage to his homeland, he also was an ambassador to several countries, garnering him respect and wealth that have lived on to this day. You can scarcely walk two blocks without seeing a street, building, school, statue, mural, or event named in his honor. One block from Darío’s home was a wonderful art museum housed in two separate haciendas across the street from each other. The museum, which only cost $1 to enter,  had everything from European religious art to some Picasso and Braque etchings plus tons of more modern art from artists in Central America. Our favorite was a long painting showing the geography of the area from León to Granada with the city grids marked out in opalescent squares next to bright blue lakes and rivers.

Tomb of Darío guarded by a lion, symbol of León
Next, we visited the museum of the revolution in the old presidential mansion, where a veteran guided us through a series of moving photographs, telling us the story of his country’s harrowing history. Nicaraguans, led by a caballero named Sandino, were some of the first to challenge the U.S. imperialistic intervention in Latin America leading to battles in the early 1900’s. From there, the U.S. imposed a dictator who ruled for decades before being assassinated in León, setting off several more decades of guerilla style warfare in the streets pitting revolutionaries (the FSLN) against the national army. Our veteran guide had joined the revolutionaries as a 14 year old boy, and luckily lived to see the end of fighting as the liberals gained control of the country. The fighting though left many in León with physical and emotional scars, but instilled a very strong sense of pride in their region, city and liberal party, which still is largely based in León today. To end our tour, our guide led us up a creaky staircase to the roof of the building so that we could see out over the central park and cathedral and beyond to the circle of volcanoes that surround the city in the distance, a truly beautiful sight. Our lasting image of the museum was a postcard of a young woman revolutionary marching with an assault rifle slung over her shoulder, simultaneously breastfeeding a child in her arms – this is what the people of León are like.

We then headed to a museum of folklore and tradition housed in an old prison. There, we read interesting short stories about the ghouls and ghosts of Nicaraguan culture. There is the witch pig, a representation of the angry or cheated woman who turns into a pig and attacks men; the cryer, a woman who cries constantly for the loss of her child; the high heeled woman who tracks down abusive men and embarrasses them in public; the headless priest, roaming the streets at night and other such creatures used to scare children into an early bedtime. The prison itself was painted with torture scenes to recreate the horrors that occurred there, but actually the place was quite tranquil with a fountain, mosaic murals and lovely drooping mango trees.

Mosaic depicting a death carriage march
León is home to the oldest university in the country, which is still functioning today, glowing at night with colored lights. The city is famous for its murals depicting local history and happenings such as the army fighting students in the streets and martyrs who died in the revolutionary cause. Another thing we noticed that was strikingly different from Honduras was the nighttime social culture. Around sunset, people pulled rocking chairs from their living rooms onto their front stoops and slowly rocked, chatted and watched the street life late into the night, the heat driving them outdoors.

Mural of the army attacking students during the revolution
Nolan modelling chicha morada (a fermented purple corn drink) 
Perhaps the best thing we did was attend a baseball game at the local stadium. Nicaraguans love baseball and have four teams across the country that compete in the national league from September to January. At just $3 for a home plate seat with a view right down the third base line, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to get a real sense of the baseball culture. The stadium was small, but packed by the time the first inning was underway. The lights shone brightly on the field as the smell of beer and hot dogs wafted around us in the pleasantly cool evening. To be watching baseball in January was a treat, and it felt so familiar to us; families with kids, old men, guys out with their friends, all enjoying their team, which unfortunately is last in the league. We couldn’t understand the announcer or most of the jeers, but a few we caught that sounded the same, “Batter, you need glasses!” “He was out!” They use an interesting mix of Spanish and English terms, strike and out in English, but run is correo and ball is bola. The ball boy was actually a 40 year old man, and the balls were obviously reused unlike in the U.S. Balls hit foul over the seats were tracked down outside the stadium by another guy and brought back into the game. There was no 7th inning stretch and singing. León ended up losing the game 3-2, but we had a great time anyway.

Juego de beisbol
Our other fun outing was a tour to León Viejo, the old city originally founded by the Spanish in 1524 about 45 minutes from the current location. They had selected the original locale for its proximity to a lake, but it was also next to a major volcano, Momotombo, so after a few tremors and flooding devastated the settlers and their resources ran out, they moved the city in 1610. All that remains are some building foundations of houses and the churches and convents, but the views are tremendous and our guide was very good at recreating the scene. Of course the story is the same as many conquistadors, bloody confrontations with the natives whom they enslaved, harsh rule of Spanish commanders and lack of local knowledge made life tough. During the tour we stopped at a small restaurant to try some local fare, quesillo. Quesillo normally refers to a soft, bland mozzarella-esque cheese common in Central America, but in Nicaragua it also refers to a snack, a corn tortilla covered with a round sheet of quesillo cheese, topped with salt, creamy whey, and pickled onions rolled up and stuck in a bag. It sounds really strange and honestly looks really strange, but it tastes pretty darn good. Even Nolan ate it! We washed it down with a local drink, semilla con leche, ground up dried seeds of the jicaro tree mixed with milk and ice that sort of tastes like chocolate milk with some spices. Tasty!

View from León Viejo of Volcán Momotombo
Making quesillo
Jicaro tree
Our very intelligent guide shared some great information with us about Nica. They grow things like cotton, wheat and peanuts around León because they have the open farmland and to avoid importing such items. They also grow copious amounts of sugar cane, caña, to make the famous rum Flor de Caña, named for the flower of the plant.  Although people from León may have felt a little gypped at having the capital stripped from them and moved to Managua, our guide seemed to think it was for the best since the unbridled growth and industry in Managua has caused nothing but environmental and social problems while León has kept is character intact.

Our guide stressed that relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica are not so great. He claimed that Costa Ricans didn’t like Nicaraguans or other Central Americans and often hassled people at customs. There is also a big conflict going on where the Costa Ricans are supporting construction of a road along the border that is causing environmental degradation while Nicaraguans oppose the reckless construction methods. Ironic since Costa Rica portrays itself as the ultimate eco-destination. Our guide explained he was disenchanted with the lifestyle of the U.S. where work was the primary focus and life was not as tranquil as in Nica. He said that we as PC volunteers were living the true American dream, having the opportunity to travel the world, but always be able to go back home to the U.S. Our other tour companions, a French teacher from Mexico and a Dutch computer chip manufacturer seemed to agree that their lives with ample vacation were more desirable than the American way of life. It was interesting to hear all these perspectives, both regarding Nicaragua and their ideas about the U.S.

It seemed like around every corner in Leon we found more interesting tidbits about its history and character and encountered friendly, intelligent and warm people who were willing to open up to us about their culture. Perhaps because the pace of this vacation was a little slower, we were able to more fully enjoy what we were seeing and reflect on the significance of subtle details. After two long days, we headed out of León for Granada, imagining what other simple pleasures we might find there.

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