An expanded version of this post,
Including Part Two, can be found at http://thevisionproject.com/101visions-blog/
Day One in Managua. I didn’t believe New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer’s claim that there are literally no addresses for most places here. But sure enough, my hotel has no address in the Expedia confirmation. I made it here from the bus station after midnight last night by having the cab driver call the office. Today’s strategy was to walk out the front door, turn right and explore the city, getting back by simply retracing my steps. I had the hotel phone number and the cross streets in my iPhone.
The hotel receptionist suggests that the lake is far off and I might want a taxi, but I need the exercise so I grab my day backpack and head off. My goals are to find a place to write and post, see the city, and ask people how Daniel Ortega 2.0 is doing since his extraordinary resurgence as president. That and find some cheap but colorful places to eat and drink.
Some things about Managua from street level. There are no crosswalks. There are no street signs. As in Guatemala, people mostly do not speak English. And it’s very hot, though today’s heat tempered by some clouds and, soon, rain.
I make it to the Crowne Plaza hotel after an unsuccessful attempt to find wifi and an AC outlet at the shopping mall. The Tender Mercies of travel: air conditioning, water, electricity, good wifi, a clean bathroom, a cheap but good meal. More water. This first leg of the global walkabout is about experimentation, process, testing early assumptions. And getting a routine for low cost, high efficiency travel writing in place.
I paid the bill and walked out the hotel front door, only to be accosted by a loud middle-aged gentleman speaking heavily-accented English. Was I being sold something, gently mugged, befriended? Three hotel employees in branded beige polo shirts approach us.
“I love your country. I love your city. Thanks for asking.” I smiled and checked him out. He was in jeans, worn tennis shoes, drenched in sweat from the afternoon heat, a threadbare T-shirt, an exuberant look on his face.
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME? WHERE YOU FROM? HOW LONG ARE YOU STAYING?”
He didn’t seem drunk. Or hostile. So, I thought, in my first encounter with the people of Managua after two centuries of U.S. invasions, overthrows, Marine assaults and installed dictators, I should set the record straight. Especially as an audience was gathering. I’m not sure if this is Brooklyn training, or personal style (sorry, LiAnne), but I find that a successful strategy in threatening or uncertain situations while traveling is to speak louder, and act aggressively to change the dynamics of the moment. So, I raised my voice, spread my arms and addressed the small group.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Brian Gruber, this is my first day in Managua and I am here to say that I LOVE your country and one more thing. On behalf of the people of the United States, we are SO SORRY for William Walker, for the Somoza family, for the contras, for all of the interventions in your beautiful country since your independence. Now, let’s start a new era of peace and love and prosperity! Thank you for welcoming me to your country!”
The not drunk but possibly insane fellow began applauding as the the hotel security guys laughed. One, a short, muscular young man in a cleaned pressed uniform, smiled and shouted,”We love America. Except Obama.”
My assumption was that Nicaraguans were keenly aware of some of the darker stretches of our shared history. But this well presented young man with fluent English had more current concerns.
We introduced ourselves. Alex says,”Obama deports too many people. He’s deported more of us than any American president. That’s why I don’t like him.”
I asked where he picked up his impeccable English. “I lived in LA, in La Puente. I had a great life there, a good business. And then I was arrested by the INS and deported.”
I mentioned I used to live in LA and worked for Charter Cable which serviced that area. I asked if I could record our conversation. “Nah. I gotta go. But now I can’t apply for a visa for ten years. And I blame Obama.”
I asked for directions to the lake. He pointed, “Just walk right down Simon Bolivar and there’s a bunch of restaurants and bars on the water. You’ll like it. I’ll get you a cab. It’s gonna rain and it’s a long walk.” I shook his hand, thanked him and told him I preferred walking. Showing off my waterproof light blue Orvis T shirt, green Ex Officio cargo shorts and REI daypack, I headed for the lake, looking back and shouting, “It’s only water.”
I turn left on Simon Bolivar, a broad boulevard and walk through a thickening line of street vendors. Within five minutes, the rain starts. It’s not the thoroughly soaking downpour I experienced during my first weekend in Guatemala City, but a friendly, almost feathery sprinkle. It feels refreshing and cuts the heat.
Passing the Hugo Chavez tribute in the roundabout, I begin to notice a lot of police. I think, how nice, tourists must feel well protected here. But then, no, there are A LOT of police here. Then loads of plastic chairs and across the street, in the distance, a reviewing stand. “Is there some kind of parade coming?” I ask a young, smartly uniformed policewoman. She knows no English and my Spanish is a sad, sad, thing, so no clear answer. Just smiles and an apologetic look.
As I got closer to the reviewing stand, the density of police intensifies as does the firepower of their weapons. I ask another police officer, and this time receive my answer. “The thirty-fifth anniversary of the Nicaraguan police.” The Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979. I am in the middle of final rehearsals for the event.
Columns of police walked past me, around me, alongside me. Police on foot, on bicycles, on motorbikes, in cars. With sidearms, automatic weapons. And right in front of me, in the next hour, as night fell, would be the national leadership and police brass reviewing Managua’s finest.
I think, briefly, of taking a seat in one of the plastic chairs and pretending that I belong there, but my dress is way out of place. The last time I did that was at an event celebrating the new school year at daughter Andrea’s Placer High. I was mingling with teachers and administrators on the gymnasium floor when the principal asked everyone to be seated. There were seats all around me, with many more up above. I sat down and soon realized I was sitting with the teachers. The principal started by honoring those in my seats and asking us to stand and wave for a round of applause. My daughter was horrified as her friends asked why her dad was standing with the teachers. One thing’s for sure. She’ll always remember that I was there.
The rain is now coming down in a steady, warm sprinkle. If it stays like this, no problem. I cross a heavily guarded street and a young guy tries to sell me a soft drink. I decline and wander through the street food vendors and begin to head toward the lake. Then, I realize, I have stumbled into an important political event. Why not enjoy it? I turn around and this time, accept the offer of a soft drink.
Williams, “like Robin Williams!”, dries off a chair for me and invites me to join him. “President Ortega is supposed to be here. But you can’t be sure. Security.”
I buy one drink for me and one for Williams. During my hour stay on the his corner, I will be one of only two customers. The drink, a sugary orange soda, is twenty-five cents.
“What do you think of Ortega?,” I ask. I am fascinated with Daniel Ortega’s story. Sandinista guerrilla. Captured and imprisoned. Freed during a daring Christmas party hostage taking. First president after the overthrow of the Somoza regime. A decade of increasingly repressive governing. Then a shocking electoral defeat by the widow of Nicaragua’s martyred newspaper publisher Violetta Chamorro.
Williams’ tiny nephew Luca, is now crawling over me, arranging himself on my lap.
Part Two to be posted later today. I’m going to the lake for the William Walker Day celebration. I’ll take plenty of pictures.