Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Early views

I visited Nicaragua during the rainy season, though I didn’t see a drop of rain. And despite being “winter,” the temperatures remained in the 90s. It was strange to adapt to the tropical humidity, to the sweat gelling on my face, to feeling like a smushed pancake in an uncooled cafeteria, where diners moved about with sweat stains growing under their arms or against their backs.

One afternoon, I visited the Mercado Oriental, the largest market in Nicaragua, and supposedly in Central America. This market supplies the entire country. Vendors buy their products there, where rock bottom rates are offered, then resell them throughout Managua and the countryside.

The hustle and bustle of the market has given it an unsavory reputation and my guidebooks advised caution in going there. I went with Henry, a local known by many in the market. So I was able to walk around without much concern for security issues.

It was a fireworks show of colors, sounds, smells and activities, simultaneously beautiful and disgusting, one image alternating with another. I spoke to a woman who sold plastic bags, plastic utensils and shelf lining. Old sheets of corrugated metal hung in all directions, with strips of torn fabric underneath. A bare-chested man with a potbelly leaned against a chair nearby, sweat glistening on his shoulder. A little girl with stringy hair and unhealthy eyes, but a friendly smile and jump to her step, approached the table to buy some orange plastic bags.

I watched a mouse run nearby and I twitched nervously as I anticipated it approaching my foot. Among these dark, smelly, dirty surroundings, the woman selling plastic bags looked bright and hardworking.

Women sold items from the tops of their heads, including a large pink iced cake, sold by the slice. Vendors juiced fresh fruit into plastic bags and sold them with a straw. I saw mancha, a beautiful red and pink powder made from corn, used to made a drink, next to cocoa.

At a watermelon stand, I bought a small, round, light green melon for just over 50 cents. At the back of the stall, a toddler shit on a rock with his mother’s supervision. His mother picked up the feces with a plastic bag, as if a dog.

We walked through smoke, heat and oil, through dirt-cheap piles of bananas and limes. Men sold blue plastic rectangles of water, carried in a plastic bag of chilled water. Buyers bought these bags, that looked like water balloons, drunk half, dribbled the rest on their heads, then threw the plastic to the ground.

On another day I headed two hours south to the town of Rivas. The town itself was attractive, with a large cathedral and a newly painted central square with benches in the color of the rainbow. Yellow bicycle taxis, called pepanos, pedaled along the narrow streets. Children in navy blue uniforms lined up in front of the blue and white flag, singing the national song in preparation for the independence day holidays the next week.

Rivas’ proximity to Costa Rica leads to many locals migrating to Costa Rica for work. Despite the geographical nearness, Beatriz, an employee in Rivas, said the cultures are distinct.

“The Nicaraguan people are very hardworking,” she said, “especially the women. In Costa Rica, they don’t work as hard and the women are different.” She said the Costan Rican government invested in tourism and that the resources are divided more equally than in Nicaragua.

“In addition,” added my colleague Armando, “we spend 20% of our taxes on an army we don’t need. Costa Rica doesn’t have one.”

I caught a glimpse of Lake Cocibolca, the giant lake that fills up much of Nicaragua’s western space. It’s not often I see the form of a volcano, Mount Concepcion, rising up over lake waters, so that was a nice treat.

We drove through banana plantations, past guava and coconut trees, and among fields of sugar cane, on our way to visit a small banana and lime farmer. We passed a lot of home that displayed black and red (Sandinista) or red (Liberal) flags. There were many more black and red than red only.

“Those who have flags are fanatics for that party,” a Rivas resident, Jose, explained to me.

We drove down a hot dirt road, passing field workers riding bicycles with chemical tanks strapped to their backs. Local residents constructed their homes out of sheets of corrugated metal. One had a heart painted on it, “Unity, tranquility and peace” written within it. A wide guarumo tree trunk, whose large leaves are used to wrap cheese, was painted bright pink, the color of the Sandinistas. “Yo voy con Daniel 2 (I’m going with Daniel),” it read, referring to the Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega.

The roads were uniformly lush and green. But the standards of living were poor and I found the poverty sad, overwhelming and dirty. The woman we visited lived in two rooms with six others. The house was stifling hot, with mud floors and spiderwebs. Her 16-year-old son had dropped out of school and was working for $50 a month. Her younger children, including the little boy innocently sleeping in the hammock, seemed destined to follow the same fate.

Another day, I paid a visit to a farmer at the opposite end of the spectrum. This family owned a nice house and truck and exported their products – okra, squash, green beans, cantaloupe, watermelon and eggplant – to the U.S. They had an alter to the Virgin Mary, on which they’d placed a sample of their different veggies, to keep them always blessed. The large, fertile fields used modern irrigation and technology.

Not many miles separated these two families. But they moved in different worlds.

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