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 is to walk out the front door, turn right and explore the city, getting back by simply retracing my steps. I have 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 is tempered by some clouds and, soon, a light 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 developing a routine for low cost, high efficiency travel writing.
I pay the bill and walk 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 smile and check him out. He is in jeans, worn tennis shoes, a threadbare blue T-shirt, and has an exuberant look on his face.
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME? WHERE YOU FROM? HOW LONG ARE YOU STAYING?”
He doesn’t seem drunk. Or hostile. So, I think, 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 loudly, and act aggressively, to change the dynamic of the moment. So, I raise my voice, spread my arms wide and address 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 our interventions in your beautiful country. 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 begins cheering as the the hotel security guys laugh. One, a short, muscular young man in a freshly pressed uniform, smiles and shouts,”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 introduce 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 ask 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 mention that 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 ask for directions to the lake. He points toward the our left, “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 shake his hand, thank him and tell him I prefer walking. Showing off my waterproof birthday gifts from LiAnne, a light blue Orvis T-shirt, green Ex Officio cargo shorts and REI daypack, I head for the lake, looking back and shouting, “It’s only water.”
I turn right 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. There are loads of plastic chairs and, across the street, a hundred yards away, a reviewing stand. “Is there some kind of parade going on?” 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 get closer to the reviewing stand, the density of police per square yard 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 walk past me, around me, alongside me. Police on foot, on bicycles, on motorbikes, in cars. With sidearms, automatic weapons. And right here, in the next hour, as night fell, would be the national leadership 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 group 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 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 Violetta Chamorro, the widow of Nicaragua’s martyred newspaper publisher. Then, amazingly, a re-election after some adjusting of election rules, and the new, improved, business-friendly presidente.
Williams’ tiny nephew Luca, is now crawling over me, arranging himself on my lap.
“Ortega is great!” beams Williams. I ask why.
“The economy is doing well. He bring people together. And he really cares about the poor people.”
Mindful of Ortega’s origins as a Marxist guerrilla, I ask if Ortega is a communist, a socialist or a capitalist.
“Oh, he’s a capitalist. He used to be communist, but that was a long time ago.”
I feed him a softball question. “And what do you think of the guy he overthrew, Somoza?”
“Oh, my grandma loved him. Somoza was a great president. There was very little crime in Managua back then. If someone was making trouble, the police would take them away and kill them and you would never see them again. My grandma says the economy was the best ever when he was president.”
So, to recap. He’s a big fan of both Ortega and the brutal dictator that Ortega overthrew. Thinking he would fit right in with the American electorate, I ask Williams if he has ever been to the United States.
“I love your country. I lived there with my grandma, in Daytona Beach, Florida. I was studying to be an accountant at FIU, Florida International University. But I was in my friend’s car when it was pulled over and the car was stolen, so I got kicked out. I can’t apply again for five years and I have someone working on the papers for me. When the papers are good, I want to go back.”
Williams has an earnest and pained look on his face as he points out his sixteen-year old niece. “I tell her. You’ve got to get an education. But she doesn’t listen to me. Without an education…” His voice trails off. “Hey, can you hook me up with a hundred dollars?”
“What? For what?”
“A hundred Nicaraguan dollars, cordobas. I need it for breakfast in the morning for me and my family.” There are twenty five cordobas to a dollar. Four dollars. Three thoughts go through my mind as I put my hand in my pocket. 1) Why in the world would I give you money? 2) Was this whole conversation a grift? 3) He needs the four bucks a whole lot more than I do.
The police are still marching and rehearsing and laughing and it’s raining and I don’t want to wait around the parade, having seen enough of it up close. I take my leave of Williams and his family and head off for the lake.
It’s only another ten minute walk to the puerto entrance. The restaurants are a mix of indoor and outdoor affairs, with the Nicaraguan version of international cuisine. Cuban. Mexican. Thai/ Asian. A steakhouse. I pick a table overlooking an exhibition area with a few hundred plastic chairs lined up in the light rain. I order a Nicaraguan Victoria Classico beer and fajitas de pollo. I have my daypack on my back and pull out my dog eared copy of “Blood of Brothers,” Stephen Kinzer’s authoritative classic on the Sandinista overthrow of Somoza and the ensuing contra war. I notice a large sign over the proceedings. It’s a drawing of deposed Chilean socialist president Salvador Allende, with a tag line loosely translated as “the president of dignity”. The restaurant enclave is called Puerto Salvador Allende. My hotel is off Salvador Allende Boulevard. I think they like this guy.
And, lo and behold, there’s a beauty pageant on stage. Each girl, draped, oddly enough in a sparkly red, white and blue outfit, comes forward when her town is called and vamps for the audience. The contestant then gives a short speech. If my Spanish was better, I would be able to tell you if the San Juan del Sur was saying, “Death to all imperialist Yankee pigs,” or “My dream is to marry a submissive, wealthy man and have a big refrigerator.”
Between segments led by a formally clad master of ceremonies, a group of percussionists in the back, right near my table, explode into a Frenzy of drumming that sounds like a cross between a Brazilian batucada troup and a New Orleans second line. I watch and read and write for an hour, then head back. The dirt road leading out of the puerto is now VERY dark and I walk briskly back to Simon Bolivar. At which point, it strikes me that my plan to retrace my steps is blocked by a heavily armed procession of one or two thousand police officers. At which point, it strikes me that the reason I was not able to get video of the batucada band was because my battery on my iPhone ran out.
Williams is delighted to see me return. I walk across and ask one of the police if there is any way I might be able to get through the phalanx of marchers and vehicles. He looks like he might shoot me, then smiles and shakes his head. I sit and watch for a while with Williams and his family. Now two little nephews and two little nieces are crawling over me, grabbing at my backpack, asking me questions. And then, a group of motorcycles and an open top official car approaches.
“That’s Daniel Ortega!” Williams exclaims. I wave along with him, though by that time the car makes a U-turn and is heading back to the reviewing stand. A woman is at his side, presumably First Lady poet and revolutionary Rosario Murillo.
Williams tries to hit me up for another hundred. Not this time. He introduces me to his aunt and boasts how he will be selling soft drinks at a heavy metal concert tomorrow. “I will make money AND hear great music! I have the best job!” I say goodbye to him and the kids, and start walking back to the puerto to catch a cab.
No one has ever heard of the Art Hotel, so I negotiate a fare and give my non English-speaking driver a jumble of directions and landmarks. We drive around, and surprisingly, get lost. We drive to the Crowne Plaza so I can at least get my bearings, and we consult with a gas station attendant (why, I’m not sure). Then, miraculously, I try to open my iPad and there is indeed three percent of power left. The Maps app shows where we are, five minutes from the hotel, whose rough location I can make out. I give the driver instructions which he repeatedly ignores, until we work out a communication system consisting of me leaning over his shoulder, jabbing my finger either straight ahead, to the left or to the right, and imploring him, “No, not that way, the other way.”
Finally, the hotel sign comes into view. I am so pleased with myself that I am offended when he tries to extort 5x the original fare. A 2x fare, amounting to $8, seems about right.
I walk in, order a beer from the receptionist cum cook cum bartender, and plug in my iPad.
There’s no place like home.