Getting in to Nicaragua is easy. After landing at the Airport in Managua, I got off the plane, handed my customs forms and passport to some uniformed guy in a booth and that was that. If my Spanish had been better at the time, I would have asked “are you sure? Is that it?” No questions about what I was doing in the country, no searching my bags, nothing. Just “Bienvenidos a Nicaragua.”
This is the exact opposite of my experiences reentering the United States. I have been a U.S. citizen my entire life. Despite that, some border patrol agent always has to interrogate me about why I was gone, what was I doing, etc.. They all talk in that same accusatory tone, too, glaring and trying to trip you up with their questions. It’s as if anyone who would dare leave the United States of America must be either smuggling drugs or engaged in terrorist activity.
Not the case in Nicaragua. The irony is that, as a U.S. citizen, I was coming from a country that had fairly recently been actively funding organizations engaged in terrorist activity (the CONTRAS, more than just a video game!) Much of that funding came from drug money and illegal weapons sales. Before the whole CONTRA scandal, the United States propped up one of the most hated, brutal dictators in the region. And before that, our country invaded and occupied their country for years.
This was part of the reason I’d decided to come to Nicaragua. I was curious how a country that had endured so much bullying was holding up. By 2014 the civil war was thirty-some years in the past. Now former Sandinista guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega ruled Nicaragua, promising a sort of Hugo Chavez-esque socialism.
I should also admit that a big part of the reason I came to Nicaragua was fear. Central America’s proximity and lower costs made it an obvious choice to come and study Spanish. But, at the time the reputation of other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, scared the shit out of me. I like to think I’m pretty street smart, but I still would not want to run into the MS13 in a dark alley somewhere. Nicaragua, however, was the safest country in Central America, despite being the second poorest in the hemisphere.
And so that’s where I ended up. I stayed in a lovely little hotel down a quiet residential street a short walk from the mercado/bus station. It was aptly named La Casa de Los Abuelos, Grandparent’s house. Run by a friendly old couple who did everything they could to welcome me to their country, including cooking delicious breakfast every morning. The room itself was only a little larger than the bed, but, the location was good. And the friendliness of the hosts more than made up for the small size of the room. Across the street a young woman sold cheap plates of grilled chicken with rice and beans. Every evening, just before dark, a taxi cruised by with words painted in bright green on the windshield: Jesus es me abogado. Jesus is my lawyer.
Managua is hot. Damn hot. Especially compared to March in Minnesota. I
found out later that I had timed my trip with an especially nasty heat wave. In addition to the heat, the city itself was not very walkable. When there were sidewalks, they were cracked and rugged. More than once I looked down from my sightseeing just in time to avoid stepping into a ragged hole that opened suddenly in the concrete. Bits of litter lined the roads and choked culverts and gutters, as in most of Nicaragua. The scent of burning garbage wafted up from backyards and alleyways.
In the morning I took a taxi up to La Loma de Tiscapa, where the massive silhouette of national hero, Augusto Sandino stands guard over the city. The driver didn’t speak much English, and my Spanish wasn’t too good at this point. After many shaken heads and hand gestures, we figured out that I wanted to get to the top of the hill, not just be dropped off at the bottom.
My taxi driver was a friendly guy, and we got along despite the language barrier. However, he, as well as every other taxista in Managua, was absolutely insane behind the wheel. He would speed, tailgate, and weave in and out of lanes without any apparent regard for the rules of the road. The cab itself was old and there was no seatbelt in the passenger seat. I gripped the handle above the window and gritted my teeth while politely nodding as he pointed out landmarks rather than paying attention to his driving. Eventually, I learned the trick with taxis in Managua is to choose the car with the fewest dents in the passenger door or crushed front bumpers. I made it up the hill fully intact.
There I stood at the feet of Augusto Sandino’s silhouette, staring out at the green tropical trees and low rise buildings of Managua. Sandino fought against U.S. marines during the 1930s, eventually forcing them to withdraw. He was betrayed and executed by the incoming dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. There is a museum on the hill, built from the remains of one of the dictator’s many homes. According to one of the plaques in the museum, there was a room in the house where Somoza would torture prisoners using his own personal lion.
I walked back down the hill, thinking about dictators and lions, toward what remained of downtown Managua. There isn’t much of a city center to speak of. No old Spanish colonial buildings that you might find in other Central American cities, nor any gleaming high rises or office towers. It was all destroyed during an earthquake in 1972. After the earthquake, Nicaragua received a large amount of international aid. Most of the aid was stolen by the dictator Somoza and his cronies.
I walked down Avenida Bolivar where downtown should have been. There
were a handful of buildings, some looking fairly new, others probably survivors of the quake, most seemed to be government offices of some sort. One rather unimpressive reddish rectangle towered over everything. Vacant lots of brown grass stretched out behind chainlink fences. There was no rubble. I saw a man leading a horse-drawn cart down one of the cities main roadways. People had put up shacks of tarpaper, wood, and zinc in some of the vacant lots.
Alongside the shores of Lago Xolotlán seemed nice, with a new park surrounding a malecón that curved around the side of the lake. The guidebook said something about a cathedral and a theater that had survived the quake, but the roads leading to them were closed off. The heat was getting to me at this point, so I took refuge in a shopping mall just outside of the Rotonda Hugo Chávez Frías. It felt like every other shopping mall I’d ever been to, but like every other shopping mall, they had air conditioning.
The last thing I should mention about Managua is the trees. Not the living, green tropical trees but the strange new metal yellow trees with strange curly branches that dominated most of the major intersections. I don’t know what they mean or why they were there. I never thought to ask either.
My last night in Managua I went to a bar in the mercado near my hotel and got a beer. I sat on a bench outside and watched as a pack of stray dogs ran through the marketplace, nipping playfully at each other. A few tables away from me, a middle-aged man with a shaved head was drinking and having a lively conversation with his friends. He wore a black shirt with bold white lettering that said, in English, “My record collection can beat up your record collection.” I really hope this is true.