Thursday, September 14, 2006

First Day in Managua

September 5, 2006

I didn’t have much opportunity to spend time on the street yesterday, but I did finally make it downtown and caught my first glimpses of the capital. What did I notice? A bright, colorful city under a hot, sunny, cloudless sky. Plenty of green, with tropical trees lining the median. Colorful ads, for deodorant, Fanta, Esso gas. Small, run-down buildings followed by nicer areas.

We passed a square where people seemed to live on hammocks strung from the trees and under flimsy tents made of black plastic. I asked a colleague, Kenia, why they were there.

“There was a banana company that used chemicals that caused mutations
in people. But because the company is no longer in Nicaragua and has been bought by another company, they don’t want to deal with the consequences. Those people live there in hopes that the government will support them.”

“How long have they been there?”

“A long time. Too long.”

A large bronze statue with a man holding a gun toward the sky, a red and black flag at the tip of the gun. “Only the workers and peasants will go to the end. FNT.” Lots of activity on the street. My companions told me to lock my door when we stopped at a stoplight.

“It’s dangerous,” they said, as a window washer approached, as well as vendors selling everything from tires to books to passing cars. A man sat on the median, making sit-upons out of plastic, a row of colorful two-part chairs hanging on the line.

They told me it is the safest country in Central America, perhaps in Latin America. However, they said some parts of the city are OK for walking, others not. Even my new neighborhood, which is considered one of the better areas, is apparently not safe to walk through after 7 p.m.

“That’s the barrio!”, the driver, Alfredo, said with emphasis as we passed an intersection that led to a row of common houses among the fancier neighbors. As if the barrio was populated by untouchables. It makes me feel separate, isolated from these people, most of whom are probably good.

Alfredo said there were too many people out of work there, the street was dark and isolated at night, and sometimes groups of men would stand out on the corner. I wish I had my bike. If I had wheels, I know I could outrun them.

I spent the day at the office, where several guards with guns stood at the door. Despite the scary-looking security, in the entire country, there was only one attack and that was five years ago.

I slowly, very slowly, began to dip back into my Spanish. My last opportunity to speak Spanish was the two weeks I spent in the Dominician Republic over two years ago. And before that, I had another hiatus of several years.

My ability to understand depends on who is speaking, but is somewhere in the 80 to 90% range. This is the only factor that prevents me from feeling like a complete idiot. Because my speaking is horrendous. When I arrived at the hotel, words came out slowly, individually, in little, hesitant shots. At the office, trying to talk about professional issues, it was even harder. At times, I had to give up and try English as I sat in silence, trying unsuccessfully to dig up the Spanish word from under the Russian and English.

My colleagues and boss are supportive. We spoke only Spanish during our lunch at an Italian restaurant, where I enjoyed fish from the sea, despite my significantly slowing down the conversation. And I’ll start Spanish lessons today, hopefully an hour a day.

Except for the little time I spend writing, I’ll be fully immersed in Spanish – with all dialogue and written materials in Spanish at work. At home I’m trying to limit myself to Spanish TV and Spanish books, at least until I improve. Russian has never seemed so easy and comforting as now!

At lunch, my boss, Carl, told me Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti. I asked what prevented it from developing. He named two reasons. One is the general lack of development in the country and the fact that Nicaragua doesn’t have a special hold in any of the agricultural products they produce – coffee, bananas. Second is the corruption among the elites. He said the former President was said to have stolen $300 million dollars. Nicaragua exports the equivalent of $600-700 million a year. So one person stole half of an entire year’s export income. There are powerful families who control much of the countries, establishing monopolies (for example, in sugar), and then controlling the associated industries.

I asked about the growth potential for small businesses not associated with these families. He said generally, the best they can hope for is stability, or diversification in sources of income, rather than strong, continued growth.

I live close to the office, so I can walk in the mornings. It’s an attractive little arrangement. Called an apartment, I have a bedroom, joint kitchen/dining room/living room, and bathroom. It’s simply, but nicely furnished and has basic kitchen equipment. There are eight such apartments, which are visited and cleaned daily by the staff.

A few things I noticed early on about the life and culture include: the importance of coffee (a tea with milk drinker here is considered strange), a love of air conditioning and the unfortunate presence of the large yellow arches with McDonalds hamburguesas. Best of all, I love the public schoolbuses, which the owners seemed to take great pride in. They paint them bright colors, hang strips of cloth from either side that flutter in the wind, and name them, such as Lobo de Aire – Wolf of the Air. Watching them move through the city is to me like seeing flowers move down the street.

In the evening, I went to a supermarket to pick up something for dinner. The long, bright rows glimmered with local and imported food, toiletries, even clothing. And it was packed. At least ten carts stood in line patiently to have their fruits and vegetables weighed. I liked the foreign feel among the modernness, the local fruits and vegetables, the huge bags of rice and beans, and the products I don’t see elsewhere, like guava jelly.

For less than 20 cents, I bought a package of six starfruit. Justified or not, I don’t know yet, but I don’t have the confidence in the quality of Nicaraguan produce and meats as I do in the Kyrgyz. The banana chemical protest scared me. And I have the sense that products are made cheaply when possible. My orange juice, which said it was from concentrate, had sugar in it. My ice cream, instead of cream, used skim milk and then added animal fat. In this strange city, where there don’t seem to be commercial centers, I haven’t yet been able to clearly identify where I can find food, other than at McDonalds or the supermarket. So it will be a process of exploration.

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