Thursday, May 23, 2013

Nicaragua Part One: The Setting

When I flew to Managua, Nicaragua for a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip, I had no idea that the city I was flying into, for all extents and purposes, no longer exists.

The center of Managua, the city it began as, was all but destroyed in a 1972 earthquake. This is not all that surprising. What did surprise me was that this Managua was never rebuilt. Part of it still stands, most strikingly a beautiful, empty, ruined Cathedral in the old and empty part of town. But instead of rebuilding the city from the center out, Managua rebuilt itself in neighborhoods, groupings of homes or businesses clustered village style around a steep rise in the middle of the sprawl.

I had no idea about any of this, because the reality is I knew very little about Nicaragua. That's part of the reason I chose it for my second Habitat trip. My first Habitat trip was to Malawi, Africa, a country I knew even less about. And that nation now lies so deeply embedded in my heart that it's hard to believe I could have so easily lived my whole life without it. I felt like I discovered a secret, a little gem that most of the world rushed past. Nicaragua is nowhere near as remote or as quiet a corner as Malawi, but it still intrigued me precisely because of my ignorance.

There's something terrifying and thrilling about flying off to a country that doesn't really exist in your head. Even if we haven't been to a place like Rome or Athens, those cities exist in everyone's conscious. We all have an idea of what they are like, images and feelings, whether that idea is accurate or not.

Nicaragua didn't really exist for me, not except for a few fragmented pieces from history classes and cursory Google and Wikipedia searches. It was uncharted territory until the moment our plane touched down.

Due to a last minute change of plans, our Habitat build took place in Managua. Originally we were supposed to build in a little community close to the Pacific Ocean. However the need changed, and so our build location changed. On our first day after we landed, we had some extra time so we drove the hour to the ocean to swim or dip our toes in (surprisingly enough this was the first time I touched the Pacific Ocean, I've flown over it, swam in seas and gulfs fed by it, but I had never actually stood beside it until that moment our first day in Nicaragua).

While we were at the ocean, we saw the hotel we would have stayed in, an adorable little beach resort complete with a pool, full bar, and only a handful of feet from the sand. And of course, there was that moment of "really?" as we loaded back up to drive back to our actual hotel in Managua. We could have had a week of sand and surf. I could have been sipping margaritas in the pool for 7 days.

But now that the week is done, I am so happy that our plans changed and we stayed in Managua the entire week. Because I got to know a city that I don't think many tourists ever do. Managua is like a lot of Central American capitals, a place you fly into and then get the hell out of on your way to an island or beach or rainforest. Like I said before, there's no center except for a creepily empty square surrounded by damaged buildings.

The old center of Managua, completely vacant and never rebuilt after the '72 earthquake

The only other capital city I've spent time in in this part of the world was Port au Prince in Haiti. I had that city (which hurt on a visceral level to spend time in) in my mind along with some guidebook warnings about Managua as well as what some people who had been to Nicaragua already had told me. I didn't have much in the way of optimism about what the city would be, and I was fine with that because I wasn't there as a tourist. I was there to serve and build houses.

I was ready for Managua to be sad or hectic or over crowded. I was ready for begging at every street corner and dirt. But the thing about Managua is that, at least in the parts of the city we saw, it didn't seem to get the memo about its less then sterling reputation. The traffic is a little insane (but nowhere near the levels of some cities I've visited). There's a good amount of trash on the sides of roads. There are a lot of houses that look inadequate. There's not much in the way of grand boulevards or quaint historic districts.

But for a city that literally crumbled 40 years ago, Managua felt surprisingly solid to me. And safe. It felt like a place people lived and worked, like a place where families raised children, and people went to school. Sometimes when you travel you go to these places that feel almost like Disney World. Everyone and everything there seems to exist to serve tourism. Everything is in English. You can't cross a street without seeing a hotel or internet cafe. Everything seems a little too shiny and rehearsed.

Managua felt like a real place. It's not a city that stuns you or overwhelms you (either with beauty or sadness). It feels like a city that simply is itself, take it or leave it. And I love it for that.

We stayed at the Hotel Colonnade, a cute little hotel tucked away on a quiet road near the main financial district. The hotel was small but clean and nice with lovely and helpful staff. The rooms were spacious and air conditioned and led out onto a cute central courtyard with a handful of tables and chairs and a little pool. It may not have had sea views, but from my second floor room you did catch a little glimpse of Lake Managua and the volcanic hills around it.

Not taken from the hotel, but same view, only a little farther away

The hotel was perfect for our group, because we were practically the only guests there except for a few random tourists who spent some nights there. We spent every evening and night hanging out in the courtyard, enjoying a Victoria cerveza or two (or three) and talking. 

Besides the build (which will have its on post), we ventured out a lot more than I expected. On our Malawi trip we mostly stayed at the hotel, because there wasn't really anywhere else to go. In Managua we had several outings, aided by our wonderful driver, Nelson, who was ready with his van 24/7. There was a little Mexican/Nicaraguan restaurant two doors down that had the best corn tortillas and chorizo sausage I have ever tasted. We took a tour of the city on Sunday and stopped at a baseball game (apparently baseball is HUGE in Nicaragua, even more popular than soccer).

We were there for the first game of a double header, and while the crowd was small, they more than made up for it with noise. A lot of the people there had those noise makers, vuvuzelas (remember at the World Cup when they had to ban them because they were just that annoying?) and they used them when their team (the Boers) did something good, when the other team did something bad, hell when literally anything happened. There were drummers who sat about two rows behind us. There were touts who walked around selling the Nicaraguan version of baseball food. No hot dogs or nachos, but instead giant pork rinds with slaw on top, ice cones topped with thick, syrupy liquid, and lots of other delicious and weird looking snacks that we were warned not to eat. A television reporter interviewed Mary Catherine about what we were doing in Nicaragua on camera, and so somewhere in the vaults of Nicaragua television is footage of me sitting next to her, grinning like an idiot, with a wall of noise behind me. My favorite part of the game was an older man behind us who was dressed head to toe in baseball getup. He shouted the entire time, more than likely crude and shocking obscenities aimed at the other team. But my Spanish comprehension doesn't go that far, so it was delightful. The home team won after a late in the game rally so go Boers!

After the game we toured more of the city, including the old Managua I mentioned before. The old Cathedral is gorgeous even in ruin.

Our Habitat coordinator Salem (more on him later), was the perfect guide, filling us in on Nicaragua's crazy, tumultuous political history as well as its geographical history. Apparently it's not all that strange that Managua was destroyed by an earthquake in the 70s, because Nicaragua is not just one of the most seismically active places on earth, but one of the most disaster prone in general (seriously name a natural disaster and it has happened in the past, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, VOLCANO eruption). His advice to us in case of an earthquake (apparently little ones happen here almost constantly) was to not panic. My plan for almost any natural disaster is to do exactly that, and panic my head off, because it is one of the few occasions in life where panic is warranted and you might as well run around in circles screaming right?

We went to the very top of the city, where you can see the clusters of neighborhoods that make up Managua as well as the lake and mountains surrounding it. On the top of the hill is also a giant statue figure of Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary hero famous for resisting the bad guys, aka US military occupation (awkward right?). His name also was the inspiration for the Sandinista group, who led a revolution in the late 70s and are the current political party in power.

His silhouette is all over the city, along with lots and lots of political posters of the current President Daniel Ortega (apparently his current presidency is unconstitutional because it is his second consecutive term and third term total, which the constitution says is not okay, ummm, so minor problem that a country's president is actively and openly breaking the constitution right?)

Aside from touring, we also got out a few times for little jaunts during the week. There was a McDonald's a few blocks away from our hotel on the main road, and let's just say a few of us got a little obsessed with the idea, enough to convince Salem to let us walk there( walking anywhere at night in Managua being the one thing Habitat generally tried to avoid us doing). The good news, I, nor any of my companions, did not die in pursuit of a McFlurry. We were propositioned by "ladies of the night" and nearly run over by buses, but we made it there (and probably gave Salem a minor heart attack). And that McFlurry was so worth the risk of bodily harm. In Nicaragua, they put caramel in their McFlurries. McDonald's of the US, get on this.

We went to a local market in the middle of the week, which was the less expensive, less touristy version of the craft market we had planned for our weekend R&R. This market reminded me a little of some Asian markets I've been to, in the sense that you could find almost anything there, no matter how crazy or random it is. There were new shoes, colorful hammocks (one of Nicaragua's famous products), pinatas, pinata candy, electronics, clothes, a vast section of produce and meat (including eyeballs! just eyeballs hanging out on a table, no idea what animal they belonged to nor do I want to know), pottery, jewelry, kitchen goods. We left there with like 10 hammocks between us (I did not get one sadly, because the only place I have for it right now is my bedroom, and I don't need another temptation for napping in my room).

There were also a few restaurant outings and grocery store runs. It was nice to be able to get out into the city a little, because my last Habitat trip didn't really allow for that. The restaurants were almost across the board great (except for one slightly disastrous night where half of us (who wanted to share) ordered a boatload of food, half of us (the non-sharers) didn't get their food until our side of the table was literally sagging under the weight of all the plates, a few of us ate chicken that turned out to be raw inside, and one of us got locked in the bathroom for 10 minutes while the confused, non-English Nicaraguan staff tried and failed to get the door open). Shockingly I was not the one who got locked in the bathroom, even though normally that would be me 9 times out of 10. 

Other than that things in Managua went smoothly. Maybe it was naiveté or the fact that I wasn't allowed to go anywhere alone without being followed by our anxious and protective coordinator, but I felt safe in Managua. I also didn't feel like a space alien, which is how I've felt in some other non-touristy towns or cities I've been to. People were friendly and helpful but they weren't all that fascinated by us. They spoke to us in Spanish, because we were in a Spanish speaking country. They handed us Spanish menus. They passed us without much notice on their way to work or school. 

If you are a tourist, it's true there is not a lot in Managua to keep you. And if I had gone to Nicaragua as a tourist, without a group and without the support of an organization like Habitat, I'm not sure I would have lingered there either. I think that's one of the things I love so much about Habitat, is that it allows you to travel to a place that is, to use such an overused phrase, "off the beaten path." Managua is not going to show up in travel magazines. It's not going to attract the jet setters and the fabulous.

And maybe that's one of the things I loved most about it. It didn't feel like somewhere you visit. It felt like somewhere you live, an imperfect, flawed city, with its share of problems, but with the calm and nonchalance that maybe comes from being passed over or dismissed by the outside world. To put it crudely, I don't think Managua really gives a shit about what the outside world thinks of it. Can you blame it? It's been leveled by an earthquake, shaken by hurricanes, threatened by volcanoes, and gripped by decades of political violence and unrest. 

There must be a kind of weary honesty that comes after all that, a lack of concern about vanity and the surface of things. 

 I've been to a lot of beautiful places where I've wondered where everyone lives, the people who own the restaurants or serve the drinks or man the front desk. That authentic, lived-in world is so separate that you can't even see it. And that hurts those places, because even though they are so gorgeous and lovely, there's an emptiness that you can't really shake. Managua isn't like that. I feel like I saw the people there. It's may not be the most beautiful city on earth or the most glamorous, but it doesn't feel like it's missing something. It feels whole. 

And so that is the setting for my week, Managua, the kind of city people don't usually stop in, the kind of place I'm so happy that we did. 

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