As we cross the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas the raindrops begin to fall. We pass a solid queue of trucks with their engines turned off, drivers sleeping in the back. The lack of a pedestrian footpath means that we have to walk in and out of the cars and their fumes, the surface underfoot muddy and slippery in the freshly falling rain. Our flip flips speckle dirt up the backs of our legs and a couple of taxi drivers and money changers tow behind, eager for our business.
In a few short moments we would be entering Nicaragua – it had been more than ten years since I set foot in what was then a poverty stricken country. The scars were still raw from years of internal conflict and civil war; the economy crippled by a US trade embargo and refusal to recognize the democratically elected left-wing Sandinista government.
Throughout the cities, there was a feeling of sadness. The shop windows were dull, the beautiful colonial churches and courtyards neglected or overgrown; tree roots bursting through the pavements; garbage lining the gutters; paint peeling off the walls. Although the same mystic wisps of cloud descended on the pastures at night and the bright sun shone in the sky every morning, there was a prevailing sense of listlessness.
I had never seen so many people in one place with appendages missing – amputated because of disease, a lack of access to appropriate medical care, rights in the work place, or the wounds of war. I never forgot watching one broken man as he hopped painfully up and down a street heavy with traffic. He had just one leg and one fully functioning arm, from which he balanced his crutch and dented tin cup that he rattled, tapping against car windows, pleading for help.
We had learned quickly from the better-off people in the region the need to develop a callus around our hearts and look the other way, stare sternly back in their faces, or simply glide on by. My heart though, still lurched with a mixture of compassion and guilt in the face of so much human misery, and the sense of desperation that weighed heavily on the air.
There was a little boy in ragged shorts and a filthy T-Shirt huddled under the roof of a shop. He asked me for some change and I gave him the cold shoulder. I heard him burst into tears behind me and turned to see him slump against the wall; it was too much for me to bear, he couldn’t have been more than six or seven.
None of the loose change in my pockets or time spent trying to console him would ever make up for his pain and the harrowing impotency that washed over me in that moment and stays with me to this day. How could I possibly tell him that everything would be alright as he stood before me painfully thin and barefoot in the street, any chance of a childhood playing football in the park or acting out at school stolen from him forever?
If I think too much about it the weight of the world hangs heavy on me and I find it hard to breathe; the faces of the little boy, the one-legged man, and the countless other poor souls I’ve exchanged a brief moment with along the road are still fresh in my mind.
But eleven years is enough time for the world to change just a little. In 2001 I didn’t even own a digital camera – the rolls of film in a Ziploc bag took up valuable space in my heavy pack and I had to wait for four months to see if the photos I took came out. The Nicaragua I knew was a few weeks before 9/11 and the horrific terrorist attacks that would dominate global foreign policy and separate the West further from the East. A black man got elected to the White House and an earthquake almost devastated Japan. The internet has gone from being superfluous to my life to the very thread by which it hangs; how I communicate with my family and friends and earn my living.
The wind of change now blows here and Nicaragua breathes a little easier than it did before. Fewer illegal immigrants smuggle across the border over the river into Costa Rica and today – on this particular day at least, despite the gathering clouds – the fields look greener than they did in my memory and the crops grow higher than before. As we cross the first few miles past the border, the land is filled with giant white wind turbines, soaring majestically out of the earth, sustaining it with clean energy; this is a country investing in its future.
The flatter terrain gives a feeling of space that you don’t find in Costa Rica, between the rampant jungle and luscious hills, real estate developments, and hotel blocks. We pass all the typical scenes of ox and plough, herds of cattle in the road, chickens squawking across the path and wizened old ladies rocking in armchairs on their porches – all the little nuances of Central America that bring a smile to my face. There are stands offering sandia (water melon) by the side of the road and quioscos selling fast food; the smell of sizzling meat fills the air.
When we reach Granada, it’s just as it was before, only different somehow. My heart jumps at the site of the yellow church I remember taking photos of and the lake front where I had sat in the grass with my best friend, contemplating the meaning of life – so young, so unaware of all that would pass between then and now.
Today, Granada is a city alive with commerce; buzzing with shops, hotels, and bars. This particular weekend the people are in full on preparation for carneval and some local celebratory fiestas, the streets teeming with garish mannequins at every turn. As we sit outside on the patio of one of the many restaurants that now line the cobbled pedestrian area where cars used to pass, loud drums are banging, people dancing and the energy of youth and excitement electric in the air.
Wherever we walk there is something else more interesting to see – a primary school with smiley faces painted on the wall, intricate roofing of the delicate buildings; provocative political street art, and brightly painted old US school buses (or “chicken buses” as they are familiarly known) that we had traveled on before, almost meeting our deaths while teetering on the edge of a Guatemalan mountain pass; an exploded tire catapulting us off the road.
The horses pulling cheerful carriages giving tourists a city tour aren’t as thin as they were before and their clip-clopping on the cobbles as they pass fills my ears. Leafy trees line the sidewalks bursting full of mangoes, dropping to the floor with their weight and children pass by giggling and playing in the afternoon sun. Spiky, florescent pink fruits – picaya – are on offer from a wooden cart with two bright green budgerigars atop, plumping up their feathers.
Artists, musicians and students fill the brightly-lit plaza, now safe to cross in the evening, and the bars overflow with customers laughing and drinking long into the night.
Stray just a little from the main streets and you see a different side to this booming city. The poorer districts hang their washing on the lines and their humble homes are not as robust or polished as the tourist attractions which, although beautifully painted at the main entrance, are graying and in need of maintenance on the side roads.
Stray dogs roam about the streets, especially towards the poorer end, and every time we leave our hotel we adopt one for the day, faithfully following us around for a few pats on the head and a ruffling of the ears. Clearly, steel is a commodity on sale on the black market here, for almost none of the manholes are covered and if you don’t watch where you step at all times there is nothing preventing you from breaking a leg or disappearing underneath entirely.
We go into the market, just to look around. I had also promised my Nicaraguan maid that I would get her some sandals, seeing as they were so beautiful here. The tacky plastic shoes on offer were not really to my taste but I knew that they would make Janet happy and, as we move up and down the different rows of the small but well-stocked market, we also pick up some homemade hot sauce for me and a bag of cacao for drinking chocolate.
The fresh produce section is as it always is in a Latin American market – pigs’ heads stacked up on a table top, dripping with blood, huge blocks of sweating white cheese covered in flies and a small comedor filled with workmen feasting on impossibly large plates of rice and beans and an indistinguishable kind of meat. A fat lady wipes her hands on her apron, leaving a dark hand print; a mixture of animal blood and human sweat.
As we emerge from the market and set foot in the street again the rain comes quickly and without warning, turning the uneven street with gaping manholes into a river in minutes. I shriek as the plastic canopy of a shop fills and dumps cold water down the back of my dress. We fall about with laughter as we try to dodge the chasms in the street and share an umbrella blowing inside out in the extreme conditions.
The next day dawns bright and clear and at 8 am the sun is too strong to sit in as we breakfast outside in the courtyard of our hotel, next to the swimming pool and under the shade of a banana tree. Eleven years ago, on a desperately tight budget, we had slept in converted prisons, rooms with no lock on the door and blood stains up the wall, “bathrooms” where the shower was a bucket, mattresses crawling with lice, and hens pecking outside, visible through the cracks in the wall. I smile as I’m served an enormous bowl of fruit and muesli, natural yogurt and fresh ground coffee – back then we lived on bread rolls and avocados.
We take a boat on the lake of Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca) to see some of the 400 or so islands sprinkled about these waters. They once belonged to the indigenous people but somehow in the march towards progress have fallen into the hands of nifty real estate firms and mostly sold off to wealthy foreigners, like the rest of Central America.
We pass one island where local fishermen and their wives still live. It is shabbier than the others and crammed full of wooden constructions that look something like homes. They smile as we pass.
Our “guide” – the skinny youth in charge of the boat – doesn’t know any pertinent facts about the lake, such as its size, or depth, or status among other fresh water lakes in the world, but he does know who is who in island real estate. He enthusiastically points to a luxurious island belonging to the owners of the main Nicaraguan brewing company, another of a Texan and one, rather kitsch-looking, reddish-pink house with stained glass windows and a miniature stone iglesia (church) owned by a couple of playos (homosexuals), he giggles as he says this.
I let my fingers dangle into the water and feel the sun on my face pleasant afternoon breeze. Nicaragua, it’s good to be back.