New Orleans My father, much missed, used to ask me whenever I returned from a country “new” to both of us not to tell him so much about what I had done, but what I had seen that would surprise or interest him. In many ways, Nicaragua surprised all of us from the Organizers’ Forum. We knew we were going to Central America and one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and we had read the Lonely Planet notions of the country well enough to know that Managua was not going to be something that classified as a tourist destination, but none of that was really adequate preparation.
In fact all of us found ourselves surprised and impressed with the urban infrastructure of Managua. The buildings may have not been the tall towers of other Latin American capitols in the rebuilding from a revolution, boycott, and earthquake disasters, but it was solid. The airport was amazingly efficient. I have never been through customs and baggage pickup more quickly anywhere in the world, including the USA. The airport was modern without being ostentatious, and clean as a whistle, so I had better add this on the front end of these notes, that I cannot remember a cleaner country from the city to the countryside than Nicaragua. The bustle of Leon, when we visited there, and some trash on the side streets almost came as a relief, that these were people of our same species!
There aren’t that many main thoroughfares in Managua but they were smoothly paved with frequent roundabouts that kept traffic moving briskly even when we were navigating rush hours. Visiting the barrio of Tipitapa, a lower income, working areas, where we might have expected more rutted and dirt roads, the streets were paved and many were curbed. Without saying so, many of us were thinking, “if this is a slum, this is better than many of our neighborhoods!” There were issues, but it was decent. Our ACORN Honduras organizers marveled continually, as we all did, at the security of the centro and the barrios. There was one guard at the hotel, but this was not a country where security was everywhere, armed and ready. Government worked here at that very fundamental, and critical, level.
We were there during a multi-day Independence Day celebration. Revolutionary Square though was relatively empty on the Sunday we went by, especially compared to the amusement and food area along the lake. Government was ubiquitous, but not as suffocating as we found in Vietnam for example. Though the President Daniel Ortega’s government is currently often labeled a kleptocracy, the party, the FSLN, is more prominently at the forefront than a cult of personality for the president. They wisely embrace Augusto Sandino and his struggle predating the Sandinistas as their iconic image.
The food was standard fare, dominated by rice, beans, and plantains, though the pitahaya fruit, which is also called dragon fruit in Nicaragua, and grows from a cactus was a revelation, producing a rich purple drink that was simply delicious. Excuse me, while I go get an importing license for ACORN International!
Throughout the neighborhoods pedicabs were everywhere, rivaling Indian bicycle rickshaws, but with a totally different design, less a frontloading basket design, than an efficient box with seating, which was very interesting and practical. And, of course taxis were numerous as well as the kind of repurposed school bus designs called collectivos in Argentina.
Grenada and Leon were not the colonial cities we expected after Antigua, Guatemala or San Miguel del Allende, Mexico, but on the plus side, none of these were the ex-patriot, tourist centers creating English-speaking islands in those countries. In fact interestingly, the only major signs of mass foreign tourism we saw were the surf boarders coming and going from the airport.
My grandfather’s name was Erdman, which means “man of the soil” in German, and that had been our family heritage forever in Germany and even in the United States until my father, so what would have interested my father the most would have been our visits to the farms or fincas outside of Matagalpa. The lemon and orange trees would have reminded him of California, along with the chickens and roosters running in yard, which I remember well from my grandfather’s place in Orange County on our infrequent visits as well. The rich, wet soil and the rows of well-tended coffee plants interspersed between fences of hibiscus or tall and straight cactus and the huge pride of the cooperative farmers, optimistic even in the grip of the roya epidemic, would have had my dad wondering if it were time to see about buying a hectare for himself, just as I have often debated every time I’ve walked under the shade of tall trees and held the green coffee plants in my hands, while adjusting my feet to the steep incline.