After nearly two months down here, we finally ventured into Managua. In order to assure a safe and pleasant trip, Edwin came along with us, and we stayed at his oldest brother's house. But more about that in a minute. To get there—and bear in mind, it's only about 75 miles away—we had to rent a car because Edwin's truck is leaking oil and Sam's was unavailable. The car we rented, or rather, that Edwin rented, turned out to be the exact same one Sam rented for me my first trip down here, a '92 Nissan Sentra complete with spoiler and bullet hole decals, and still missing its passenger side window and seatbelts. (Well, they were technically there; the problem was there was nothing to attach them to…) But hey, for $25/day it was a bargain. The drive itself takes close to two hours due to extremely poor road conditions for over half the trip. You get going at a decent speed, up to 55mph, but after about half an hour the potholes begin and it's all over. Maybe you can hit 30mph for 100 feet…but then remember you're playing the flesh and blood video game called "driving in Nicaragua" in which every conceivable life form attempts to hurl itself into your path. Pedestrians, sober and drunk alike; bicyclists, ditto; farm animals, many of whom also appear to be drunk, particularly the cows; slow mowing horse-drawn carts; pickups loaded down with every imaginable thing from papaya to sugar cane to live chickens to farm workers; and a fairly constant stream of plastic bags blowing across the windshield. Oh, and if you do want to actually get anywhere within the calendar year, you really must master passing any and all of the above. At high speeds. While continuing to avoid the potholes.
And yet we made it to the big city unscathed, and Edwin found his way to Reinaldo's house, tucked into a small quiet neighborhood a few blocks behind the massive, sprawling Parmalat plant. (The local equivalent of Lucerne.) After nearly 30 years in Managua, Reinaldo knows his way around like a taxi driver in London, so he took over as tour guide. Our main objective was to find a new arc welding unit for Edwin as his ancient contraption had finally delivered its last spark. So began a whirlwind spin around Managua dashing from hardware store to hardware store trying to find the best machine for the best price, all before noon when everything closed. At 11:45, we found it, along with a slew of other useful odds and ends—including a pruner on a pole for Reinaldo Sr. after watching him balancing precariously on a rickety ladder last week. Back to the house to store everything safely (for Managua is a city of bandits and thieves), enjoy a delivered lunch of Nica-style fried chicken (comes with beans, rice, and spicy coleslaw), and to leave Pat with Cristofer, Reinaldo's 14 year old son, so they could watch the Barcelona vs. Real Madrid fútbol match while the rest of us: Reinaldo, Edwin, Rosario (Reinaldo's wife), Roxana (10 y.o. daughter), and the mother-in-law could all go into the city to help me find cotton sheets and pillows. Reinaldo drives a smallish pickup truck, so while the mother-in-law and I were given the places of honor, in the cab, everyone else hopped in the back. After about three minutes of being squished between the M-i-L and the door, in the heat, I started figuring out how I could join the others in the back.
They took me to a huge modern mall-like complex, comprised of hundreds upon hundreds of shops, all connected by sidewalks and pathways. There were Payless Shoestores next to microscopic kiosks selling every conceivable shade of nail polish. We did eventually find sheets, in a very odd sort of place. At first glance, it was a normal bed & bath shop, but lined up down the center of the store were several large tables piled with second hand linens. They were more or less strewn about according to size, so with the saleswoman's assistance, I eventually located top and bottom sheets and two pillow cases. While nothing matches, it all kind of works, and more importantly, they are good quality 100% cotton sheets, something I'd given up on finding in Rivas. Oh, then they weigh everything and charge you per pound. My pile came to about $15, far less than the $25 they wanted for the brightly colored 50-50 poly crap.
We then went to PriceMart, the local version of Costco (who owns them) and I got a membership card ($24/year). The place was mobbed, and I knew Pat wouldn't want to miss out, so we headed back home. After a nap and a shower, we were ready to hit the town. I'd heard about a fairly new sushi restaurant that had gotten decent reviews. While there's not too much I miss down here, sushi is definitely on the list. We piled back into the truck and set out to find it. Apparently at some point we entered Miami, because the mall in which the restaurant was located could not have felt less like Nicaragua. Beginning with a full scale parking garage (complete with strolling armed guards), and working its way up several levels of flash shops, marble stairs, fountains, sculptures, and high-end restaurants, I finally asked Reinaldo if we were still in Managua. He just laughed and said piece by piece, Nicaragua was catching up. We located the sushi place, done in the popular retro-futuristic look, and overflowing with other foreigners. Everyone made a valid attempt at figuring out the menu before ceding the job of ordering to me. Since no one had ever actually had raw fish before, and since after passing the actual sushi bar and having a look at their wares, I went easy on the traditional nigiri and focused instead on other dishes, plus a few creative rolls. The guys tried the new official cocktail of Nicaragua, the name of which I cannot recall, but which is made from Flor de Caña rum, orange juice, guajava (not to be confused with guava—it's much tarter), soda and lime. Dangerously delicious. We had sake with the meal, which aside from the very lame fish, was surprisingly tasty. Everyone learned to use chopsticks in record time, and in the end, agreed it had been the most interesting and sophisticated meal they'd ever had.
After dinner, stuffed to the gills (oh, for the five of us, including the cocktails, sake, and too much food, the bill was $78. A fortune to them, but roughly what it costs Pat and me to have a sushi splurge in Anchorage, minus the alcohol….), they took us to a huge outdoor dance place, with a vast stage and a live band playing salsa, meringue, and my personal favorite, cumbia. We ordered cold beers and took turns dancing with one another until the wee hours. The place was on the upper edge of a deep lagoon, created from a long past volcanic eruption. Across the lagoon, perched even higher, were the remains of Somoza's palatial estate, destroyed by the Sandinistas during the revolution. The next morning Reinaldo took us to see it, and it really would have been a remarkable location—atop the highest hill in Managua, with Lake Managua spanning out to the East, and the rest of city ringing the other three sides. All that remained was the concrete pad and some mangled rebar, under the shadow of an immense steel silhouette of Sandino. (See Leon blog for more on him and a picture of famed silhouette.)
After the tour, we did get to PriceMart, and it was very surreal. Edwin pushed the cart through the massive aisles as Pat and I tossed in such wonders as crunchy peanut butter, granola bars, cheddar cheese, and pistachio nuts. Best of all, I found real pillows and have been sleeping like a princess ever since.
Friday night we briefly left Nicaragua to enter a sort of Fellini-meets –David Lynchian world under the big top. Correct: we went to the circus. It's a traveling deal, covering all of Mexico and Central America, with performers from nearly every country along the way. The fliers said it started at 7, so we arrived at 7:45 and got our first glimpse of the ringmaster at 8:53. It was a traditional big top, with 10-row bleachers around the outside and VIP plastic chair seating around the ring. This is where we were, courtesy of Edwin, and at first, we actually were in the front row but then they sold about 200 more tickets and brought in as many more chairs and we wound up about four rows back. Which was ok, really, because they had this very distressed lioness who seemed entirely capable of going postal and sampling the audience.
The ringleader was about 70, with something resembling a very tired marmot on his head, and a surprising capacity for generating enthusiasm by repeating the word "Marvilloso!" over and over. In addition to the usual circus acts, the trapeze (just the one girl), the tightrope (one of the roadies branching out), the jugglers (they were quite good, although the stench of gasoline from their flying torches lingered for ages), and the contortionist (see: trapeze), we were also treated to clowns abusing actual ducks (you don't want to know, but it involved the ducks spending a lot of time in the clowns' trousers), a dancing Barney (aaaugh), and then the true star of the show, a tuxedo-clad man lip-synching to passionate Latino love songs in the manner of an absolutely brilliant drag queen. Really. He flounced about the stage, cooing and moueing and winking at all the men, waving his handkerchief at them, working the crowd into a frenzy. He got an encore. He sat on one man's knee, completely devastating the wife, clearly a 'good Christian woman', causing her to grab the baby and flee. (The man seemed rather to enjoy it however…) Then came the ostrich. One of the lovely circus girls led it twice around the ring to a lyric-less jazz version of "Whiter Shade of Pale", and then back to its spot in the corner. While it didn't garner the raves of the previous performer, the audience seemed very pleased at the opportunity to observe it first hand. Pat and I were a bit perplexed until Edwin explained there were no ostriches in Nicaragua, so the novelty factor was high.
The show ended with, I wish I were making this up, dancing Teletubbies. Children were invited into the ring to shake their fuzzy paws and the tent resounded with what I can only assume was the official Teletubbie theme song. It was very perky. Then it was all over and we went back to Edwin's to contemplate the experience over cold beers.
We have officially entered the period of saint worshipping, the weeks that lead up to Easter. The primary form of worship appears to be setting off insanely loud firecrackers ("bombas") day and night, and schoolchildren parading through the streets lugging statues of, in the case of Buenos Aires, San Jose (or St. Joe as we call him) followed by very small brass bands, heavy on the tuba. This happens roughly twice a day, at 5:30 am and 4:30 pm. Sunday was the big day of festivities, however, including an "hipica", a demonstration of dressage horses from all over SW Nicaragua. The park was mobbed, as somewhere between 30-40 beautiful horses clopped elegantly past the judges' table and around the square. Many of the riders appeared to be foreigners, but were in fact so-called "White Nicas", aka, the folks with money. A knowledgeable friend told us some of the horses were valued at up to $50K, which kind of makes you think as they trotted past the dirt floor wooden shacks along the parade route… but the square was a jubilant place all afternoon, with several of the aforementioned brass bands competing to rule the sound waves, only to be drowned out by the massive bank of speakers set up for the evening's festivities and already blasting reggaeton at top volume. When we couldn't take the noise anymore, we headed back to Edwin's to relax until the dance began. This, too, turned out to be a bit surreal, especially to Pat. The area for the dance had been cordoned off with chickenwire fencing, and there were bleachers set up inside, a stage (for the live band), and the Toña rep. with enough beer for half the city. However, the vast majority of Buenos Aireans were not inside the fence; they were perched all around the outside, watching. Inside, there were two couples, a drunk guy in white, and a handful of bored employees. And us, six of us, feeling like birds in a gilded cage. Pat, as I mentioned, found the whole thing so bizarre, the idea of paying money to be on the inside of the fence, that he eventually went and sat outside with the rest of the town, looking in. That left the five of us, and the drunk guy, to dance by ourselves, and so we did. Eventually a few more people started coming in, and by 11 when we left, the place was actually filling up. Just another night that, as some other foreigners have taken to saying, was NQR: not quite right. But as NQR has come to embody nearly every aspect of life down here for us, we've decided that it is us that must adapt, and that for all its many quirks and seeming oddities, Nicaragua is….Nicaragua.