Yesterday, my host mom and grandma took my host aunt (who is in town visiting from San Diego) and myself to Managua. We took another less traveled route to Managua, which is about 40 minutes away. On the way, we passed a town called La Concha, where my host family used to own a movie theater. We passed pineapple fields that reminded me of Mexico’s agave fields, except that the pineapples were in the jungle and their spikes stuck out of the undulating hills. We stopped by a roadside fruit stand to buy some pineapple. The woman sold me coconut, calling it a “coco helado”. She hacked the top off with a machete and stuck a straw inside of it. The juice was lukewarm but refreshing nonetheless, and for just 60 cents. I wish I’d had a spoon to carve out the delicious meat with. Or, better yet, some lime and chile to douse it in. I always want to add these ingredients to the food here. Nicaraguan food is a tamer, virginal version of Mexican food. It’s too bad that the rest of Latin America didn’t jump on the spicy food train!
I gave the coconut shell back to the vendor, and we stuck the pineapple in the trunk. I was the “skinniest” AKA youngest person in the group, so I squeezed myself back into the middle backseat, and we pressed on. On the outsirts of Managua, we passed by a Pizza Hut, which advertised a $22 meal deal complete with a rectangular pepperoni pizza and cheese sticks. I turned my head as my eyes fixated themselves on this glorious advertisement. A part of me was holding out hope that somehow, my family would be overcome by the sudden urge to buy this greasy, overpriced pizza for their American host daughter to indulge in. Nope. Managua was waiting, and it was only 3 PM.
Managua is not Nicaragua’s prettiest city. It’s definitely more business-oriented and less tourism-driven than other cities in the country. With this in mind, I had few expectations for this trip. We headed for the Plaza Salvador Allende, which was named after Chile’s former socialist president who was ousted by none other than President Nixon and replaced by a fascist dictator. We would also be seeing a miniature model of Managua before the Earthquake of 1972 destroyed the city’s center. We passed by a large roundabout, where a colorful screen print figure of Cesar Chavez (Venezuela’s former president) greeted us. “Not Chavez”, my aunt said. “Couldn’t they put one up of Sandino instead?” she added. Ortega’s government really does venerate Chavez. It reminded me of the postage stamp I had bought a few weeks ago with his face on it.
We parked the car and spilled out of it to be met by young girls dressed in folkloric dresses who danced in the park. Steel drums were beating along and the weather was starting to get cloudy. I munched on a bag of peanuts with chile on them as my mom showed us to the President’s House and the Palacio National. In between the two stood Managua’s famous grey-colored Cathedral. My aunt approached me to point out to the Cathedral’s clocks. “See the clocks, Charleen? They stopped when the Earthquake destroyed the city. You can still see the time that the Earthquake happened: 12:35. No one goes inside anymore.” We tried entering the museum of the Palacio Nacional, but unsurprisingly, it would be closing early. Large, pro-FLN (The Sandinista party) banners hung from the front of the Palace. This regime really does its best to promote itself. We walked back to the park and strolled past two symbolic torches to commemorate the fallen Sandinistas of the Revolution. Suddenly, the wind picked up and dust blew everywhere. I tasted a peanut that had gone bad and decided to throw them away. I took a picture next to the Rubén Darío statue. He was a famous poet whose poetry is musical, I’ve heard. This statue reminded me of the Danté statue in Florence, only Rubén looked like he wanted to be there. We then jaywalked across the street, and my grandma jokingly slapped my aunt’s arm for being rushed so quickly past incoming cars that where no where near hitting us.
We stood under a pavilion and watched more folkloric dancing. The stage was split between girls in their bright red dresses and the boys in their black cowboy hats. The rain couldn’t stay away much longer, and it began sprinkling (brizando, as they say here). We rushed to find cover from the rain, and the dancers continued as the rain pattered harder and harder on them. I munched on some elote (roasted corn on the cob) while wondering how long they would keep dancing for. They waited for the entire song to end, and at this point they were drenched. I threw away the rest of my elote, which was too tough for me to finish. We piled back into the car and headed down the boulevard toward Lake Managua.
We drove past the Teatro Ruben Dario and waited in line to enter the parking lot. I paid 12 cents to enter the park. We strolled through the miniature model of Managua before the 1972 Earthquake. I noticed several American-based companies like Pan Am airlines had made their home here. Now most of the American-based companies I’ve seen so far are Burger King and Pizza hut. Seeing this miniature city made me wonder what life was like during the Samoza regime. After taking to people here, I’ve had the impression that the economy was “stable” and that things were okay as long as you didn’t contradict the government. The other side of the story argues that the Samoza regime embezzled millions of dollars of Earquake relief funds, and even the elite classes wanted to replace his regime at this point because of such extreme corruption. Managua’s city center is still evidently not what it once was, and the Earthquake happened over 40 years ago.
The park also boasted a Boeing 737 which was decked out in the FLN’s slogan: “Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria!”. I stood in line at the bottom of the stairs to enter the plane while anticipating an interior that would be pimped out in a Sandinista theme. Maybe I would see Ortega’s mustache embroidered onto the seats? Unfortunately, the inside was pretty plane. Fans blew air down the aisle of grey seats. We were only allowed to look into the cockpit, which reminded me of a field trip I’d taken to the Moses Lake airport as a kid. A pilot in my hometown had told 8-year-old Char that she could learn how to fly an airplane in 10 minutes and that I shouldn’t be discouraged by the amount of buttons and screens. After walking through this Nica plane, I couldn’t help but notice how much fun people were having inside of the plane. Girls were on their phones tagging pictures of each other on facebook, and mothers took selfies with their babies. Being inside of a plane is a novelty for those who haven’t had the privilege of flying.
We then sat by the waterfront, where families were dressed in their best and enjoyed their Sunday outing. The size of Lake Managua was impressive. It felt as if we were by the beach. In the distance sat two volcanoes, which I’m pretty sure are San Cristóbal (the country’s tallest) and Cristobalito (the baby volcano). The water was brown and murky and crashed along the rocks. There was no beach, as the water continues to be too contaminated for people to swim in…or so I thought. I examined the water for signs of life, and I spotted a fisherman near the rocks. He bobbed up and down in the water like an otter, and cast his net to catch a fish or two. I wonder how clean the lake must have been 200 years ago. I had read that Lake Managua, or Lake Xolotlan (pronounced Solotlan) was contaminated by a U.S. company that had mercilessly dumped mercury into it. My coworker had joked that it used to be called “Solo Caca” because of how dirty it was. Now, he added, a Japanese company has led an effort to clean the water. Thanks for cleaning up after our mess, Japan. It’s upsetting that Nicaragua, a country as small as New York State, has been so environmentally contaminated by U.S. corporate interests. It’s such a beautiful country, yet it’s so polluted. Yes, people litter here just like anywhere else in the world, but sometimes I wonder how companies can just dump their junk anywhere they please.
As I sat with my family, finishing up my grapefruit soda, a young man with long hair, a hooked nose and a top hat approached us on his roller skates. He announced that in just 5 minutes, his show would be starting, and that we shouldn’t miss it because spider man would be making an appearance. He rallied up the rest of his would-be audience members and we moved to the steps. I went to go use the restroom, and ended up waiting in line for about 20 minutes. At least the restroom was clean, though. This made it into a hot commodity-people were lined up to use it. Forget about having free toilet paper and soap. These are luxuries you can only find in restaurants and nice supermarkets. Now I’m used to carrying a bit of toilet paper with me in my bag wherever I go. It’s going to be strange to go back to the U.S. and to always be treated to free toilet paper, and, best of all, to be able to flush it down the toilet and into oblivion.
On my way back, I was impressed by how clean and new the park benches and tiki huts were. This was the place to be on a Sunday afternoon. Children ran and played on the brand spankin’ new Transformers-themed playgrounds, even while it drizzled. People are obsessed with the transformers logo here. Even the mototaxis have the robotic transformer head engraved on their license plates. My family had had enough of the rain, so we headed for the mall. It was an underwhelming mall by U.S. standards, but the sights of the McDonald’s frozen treat stall and the piano-shaped staircases overwhelmed me. After living in a small town with only one large grocery store, I found myself just stopping and starting at everyone and everything. I was quickly distracted by the fact that there was a fancy La Colonia SUPERMARKET in the distance. This meant one thing: peanut butter! This is what my adulthood has come to: getting excited about supermarkets.
Like a moth zooming toward a flashlight, I sped for the yogurt section to see how many varieties of yogurt there were. Maybe they would even have the sugar free kind! Yes, there were more than 3 different brands of yogurt. I really am in a big city, I thought. Then I went to see if there was Ben & Jerry’s but not this time. I’ve heard that it does make an appearance once in a while. The fruit section boasted tropical fruits and even apples, which cost $3 each. I went to the baking goods section to examine the peanut butter selection, and they had about 4 different brands! Peanut butter and Nutella cost about $6 a jar, which is a lot for my $12 a week salary. I was tempted to get a jar, though. I settled for a bag of m&ms and Trident gum. When in Nicaragua, if one doesn’t want to refrigerate their gum to keep it from melting, one should buy the hard “chiclet” style. I’d learned this the hard way. No one wants to chew on melted gum.
I followed my family to the “Dollar Store” which was only named that way because they priced their clothing items and makeup in dollars instead of in cordobas. Dollar store employees stood at every corner and at almost every aisle of the store to keep potential thieves from even thinking about it. I stopped by a sporting goods store to gawk at the Nike shoes that rang in at about 3,000 cordobas. I would probably have to have friends or family bring me my special Merrel running shoes from the states. They’re only “special” because they allow my toes to spread out in order to eliminate running pain that I’ve had for so long. I haven’t seen this style here. I wish I’d brought an extra pair.
An hour later, we headed out for dinner. My mom told me we’d be stopping to get “quesillo”. She made it sound like a quesadilla. We made it to the outskirts of Managua and parked the car at “El Pipe”, a restaurant with bright pink walls and a plain menu. The bottom of the menu explained that each order takes 15 minutes because the tortillas are made right when you order. No problem. After ordering my “sencillo”, or “simple” quesillo for $3, I examined the other diners’ plates. All I could see were large open-faced tortillas covered in cheese and cream. Lactose intolerants, beware! Before I knew it, my cream-drenched quesadilla arrived. I wish I’d had a piece of bread to soak up the cream. Tortilla isn’t the most absorbent food out there. Our waiter handed us a tiny bowl of green chile, which looked more like hot dog relish. I sprinkled it onto my plate and went to work with my fork and knife. The cheese tasted just like mozzarella. It would taste great on a pizza. In between bites, I explained more of my role as a Peace Corps volunteer to my host aunt. She couldn’t seem to get over the fact that I had left my friends and family to be here for 2 years. I couldn’t get over the fact that it seemed counterintuitive to eat an open-faced tortilla. Hadn’t anyone’s mother taught them since childhood that you need to keep a quesadilla closed so that it doesn’t get cold? Mine did, and I felt as if I were going against my upbringing. It was worth it to have some mozzarella-like cheese, though.
We paid the bill, and I hopped into the middle seat of the car for the last time. I tore into my m&ms and offered some to my grandma, but she said she couldn’t because her daughter was watching her health. I gave her two pieces anyway because I knew how much she loves chocolate. My host mom entertained us by playing music videos like “Danza Kuduro” on her iphone. She showed us one of Jennifer Lopez’s newest video with Iggy Azalea about big booties. It was horrid, and I thought I wasn’t missing much from U.S. Pop Culture. “Se está haciendo propaganda a sus propias nalgas” (She’s advertising her own rear end), my aunt rightfully exclaimed. Then we watched Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” video, which actually kept me entertained. The special effects were impressive for the time period during which it came out. All in all, it was nice to get out with the family and to share laughs with them.