Leon, Nicaragua is a tall one-story city. The roofs of the high buildings stretch out over the sidewalk so that when it rains the water is escorted directly to the street instead of on the heads of the walkers down below. The blocks are whole solid entities, and their walls climb 20 feet into the air to meet the roof’s rain-catching precipice. They make the strolling pedestrians look small and slow.
Leon has a wide cathedral. It is not tall, relative to it’s width. Rather, it looks like a strangely deformed construction, as though it was built tall and thin but then scrunched from above until it’s present shape, a story akin to how Stewie Griffin got a head like a football. The cathedral, in all it’s oddness, is nonetheless a romantic landmark in the city, uncorrupted by fancy fences or unrealistic restoration work. In front of the cathedral sprawls the humble lines of the central plaza. When the rains are not falling in thunderous torrents, the sounds of the square are dominated by the beckoning bells of dozens of ice cream vendors with their glossy white pushcarts. Schoolchildren dot the scene in their clean uniforms, the girls whispering secrets while the boys drag on coffee-paper cigarillos. I sat on a bench, thinking that I ought to buy some ice cream. Ice cream has always had a special place in my so-called budget, but recently I’ve been able to resist the cold temptation. I think the delicious cheese-strawberry ice cream that the Luises gave me in Tocoa Honduras set me straight for a little while. I was able to sit on that wood bench without pulling out any cordobas.
I am content with arriving to a new city, finding a bench, and sitting to watch. And that for hours is not uncommon for me. There are things that you find in every plaza in every city. There are of course the food vendors, or the toy vendors, constantly stalking the children and their walleted parents. There are the couples cozying up on other benches. There are always pigeons, and the males are always courting the females in a cooing dance of seduction. Children are always interrupting by chasing them all into the air.
I was quick to learn the cheap eats in this new country. I headed to the mercado central behind the cathedral to search out gallo pinto, which means painted rooster but refers to rice and beans. I was walking under the tall precipice, past open doorways with closed iron gates, with old men in rocking chairs people-watching from the other side. I walked past aproned women selling roasted corn cobs, their babies standing and falling in a crib on the sidewalk. In the market finally, I marked the differences between here and Mexico. The stalls were small, short enough that I could see the whole expanse of the inside of the building. The prices of the vegetables were surprisingly higher than every market I knew in Mexico, and here Nicaragua is the poorest country in the region. The sheet metal roof rang with the drops of rain. I navigated to the back and found a comedor, where I ate gallo pinto, ensalada, tortilla and fried plantain. Here, the plantain and banana are staples, as is gallo pinto. Because of that, they are the cheap eats.
After my one dollar meal I found my way back to Idriss’ house, my Swiss Frenchman friend who is giving me shelter while Im here. He lives on the ‘corner of the dead man.’ I’m told that most Nicaraguan cities do not have street names. Leon does; however, most know their way around the city by strange names of corners. To complicate things, west is ‘abajo’ and east is ‘arriba.’ ‘Down’ and ‘up’ refer not to the hilly geography, indeed, Leon is flat, but to the tendency of the sun to rise in the east and set in the west.
Idriss is thoughtful and serious. His way of communicating is almost painfully to the point, but unlike so many with likewise personalities, he is no social recluse, as made clear by the spontaneous laughs or longer outbursts we’ve shared in our meaningful conversations (which are a true mix between French and Spanish) and dedicated movie-watching. His place is something out of a fairy tale. An entrepreneur looking to establish a new hotel would have trouble controlling his imagination in a place like this. It opens to a breathtakingly large room with ceilings so high that the room seems to betray its true height. Through a thick wooden door one finds a courtyard with an encircling walkway protected by an awning. The rooms themselves are separate from one another, as is the kitchen, bathroom, and shower. In the middle of the courtyard grows a fantastic orange tree and various species of tropical plants with torso- sized leafs. When the rain falls, it falls with fervor and creates a small lake in the open courtyard.
I sit at a table and write, a week having gone by in this dazzling city. I have home fried plantains all sugared up to my left, and my little notebook where I write everything down to my right. It feels as though Ive had this notebook for years. Well, it is the same French brand of all the notebooks I’ve had in the past 3 years, anyway. That’s Clairefontaine, to be precise, a sturdy wallet-sized pack of lined paper, pink on the outside and fantastic on the inside. I thumb through the pages remembering some of the places Ive been in the past 6 months. San Marcos, a small village on the shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan where I camped with some spiritual healers at a picturesque and gutted concrete shack. Veracruz, hot and sticky in more ways than one. Mexico City, that sprawling megalopolis that seemed to put me in plenty of drunken states with drunken drivers. Morelia, oh Morelia, where two weeks past like hours, where there was romance and frisbee, and hidden whispers of staying some time longer. Puerto Angel, that hidden away retreat for my retiree friend Frank, whose hilltop home was want of a Malibu-style makeover. God knows the bay view would fit! Sultry Oaxaca, the dusty city of so much stardom but where I seemed to only find dogs who wanted to kill me (thank you, trusty umbrella).
And Tegucigalpa, a terrific relaxing stay with Raquel and her family. My, that was only a week ago. And what a treat it was, as they invited me to so many things. The very first night I arrived there, Raquel treated me to a movie. Raquel is studying law, going to France to teach Spanish, and is very pretty. The movie we saw was called Inception, a film with Di Caprio about going into someone’s mind to plant an idea. The movie itself planted plenty of ideas in our heads for conversation for the rest of the night. It was a treat indeed, a little taste of home. I would not have gone to a film if it was not for meeting Raquel, because the budget I give myself does not allow it. My budget is not so much of a budget as it is a weight of words, those words being: “spend as little as possible.”
On this journey I’ve continually been discovering that ‘little as possible’ can actually be less, and less. So, it is not very often that I find myself among the bright and shining storefronts of a modern mall. The only other time was in Baja California, when my friend JC and I, finished with work we were doing on an urban farm in San Jose del Cabo, also where we were staying, decided to hitch to Cabo San Lucas late one night. There, we ate shitty hot dogs, smoked seedy weed, saw Avatar in 3D, and I threw up out of all my facial orifices. But that’s another story.
Raquel’s mom was also a sweetheart, and she treated me like a son. At first I was skeptical of the bandaged nose and green eyebrows, but she grew on me (the bandage was from a glass door at the French embassy). In our conversations, my role was to listen, mostly. She had a particular way of talking, but I was comfortable. She always said “es problema,” which, I’m pretty sure would be the ungrammatical equivalent to “it’s problem”. We talked about problems, especially the problem of poverty in Honduras. Raquel’s family is upper class in a society where almost everyone is “poor.” I quote the word because it can be misused in so many ways. For instance, if I had no money and people asked me if I were poor, which they never would here, I would respond, “Im not poor, I just don’t have any money.” I won’t go into an explanation because it should be clear why that is. So, Raquel’s mom’s theory about why poverty is so stubborn in Honduras is because girls have a rosy romantic view of life, a dream that is translated into reality through sleeping with boys and having babies. However, says Raquel’s mom, the machismo here in Honduras is something extraordinary (something I experienced when police chief dad, who has never cooked a meal, grunted and snorted as he downed the wine in one swig and devoured my special-sauced spaghetti to which he had added a mountain of mustard). Most men don’t stick around, so here you have a young single woman without work, without a home, and without a husband to help. The baby is given to the grandmom or greatgrandmom to look after as the young woman looks for work and sleeps with other boys, that stubborn dream always in her immediate thoughts. Personally, I know that there are more factors to consider; however, it seems reasonable to posit that young single mothers with one or more children are likely going to be stuck in the category of “poor”. And that is true for most countries in the world.
We discussed these things as the car wound up the hilly surrounds of Tegucigalpa, toward to a town called the Valley of Angels. I loved the setting of the capital, but it is a dangerous one. The streets are steep like San Franciscan avenues, but the constructions lack the security of pylons driven deep into the earth. And the blatant deforestation of the hills means a lack of surface area for rainwater to be caught, meaning the torrents soak the earth and weaken it’s grasp on itself. Landslides will eventually destroy this city. Already we’d driven by a gaping hole in the main road, and a collapsed wall that destroyed a parking lot of cars. Now, though, we were curving up and out of the city, into the forested surrounds.
The Valle de Angeles was visibly labeled “Ciudad Turistica,” “Turistic City”. I wouldn’t want my town to be labeled like that! Despite the ridiculous title, my time there was lovely. Raquel’s mom took me to meet an old Nicaraguan couple. The old man was 88, but his bright blue eyes and childish flat-brimmed cap suggested otherwise. His wife also wore a flat-brimmed cap, “I heart Jesus”. The house was filled with knitted decorations and copied paintings of rural life. There were banana trees out back, of course, and we ate some too. We also ate a delicious salty soup with strange vegetables, marmalade, and coke to drink. Later, we meandered on down the road to the house of their 60 year old son. He had a rumbling voice, a large belly, and a flat-brimmed hat like dad, who for some reason introduced me to one of the little kids running around as “General Graham”. There are always lots of people around Latino family homes. There was the beautiful grand-daughter chasing after the kids, some people spying on me from the kitchen, a Siberian Shepard tied up in the front. The attention they gave me reminded me of Lenin’s family in Mexico.
Lenin was a trucker who gave me a long ride. The first night I slept on the floor of the cab, which he had washed for me while I’d gone to the bathroom, and the second night I stayed in his family home in Ciudad Neza in Mexico City. The following day I probably met 20 relatives, and at one point all the aunts uncles and cousins were gathered around me as I spoke English into a computer to their boy who was living in New Jersey. Fast-forward to the family in Honduras, and I’m listening to the story about how my stomach is being problematic, as told by Raquel’s mom. I’d heard her tell this story several times already, about my visits to the bathroom, her purchasing me some pills, and my ill discipline in sticking to the schedule. The 60 year old was also a doctor, it turns out, and before I knew it he was sticking a thermometer in my armpit and pills down my throat. Besides the family visit, we saw a national park space, where, like every ‘national park’ in mesoamerica, there are dozens of covered spaces with outdoor grills, and we also talked with some roadside vendors about how annoying it is that vendors in the city taint their corn mush with milk.
My popular sickness kept me in for a night, but I managed to spend the next day with Raquel and two friends on a trip to a nature reserve called “La Tigra”. Raquel travels with an armed guard, and the nature reserve walk was no exception. Conveniently, the guard’s name is Jimmy, like every mobster thug in every movie ever made on the subject. He has a gun. At one point I asked him to shoot the loud kids who were following us into the reserve, but he wouldn’t do it. I had to pay 10 dollars to get into the reserve, that is, 10 times more than the Hondurans pay. When I have more motivation I’ll explain why I hate separate prices, but for now it should suffice to say that Honduras seems to be copying Costa Rica, who charges foreigners far more. The only difference being that Costa Rica secured its reputation as a successful tourism locale before deciding to charge foreigners more.
He could have shot those kids. in mud and rain through dripping green growth to and from a stringy waterfall. It would have been something worth the trip if there hadn’t been hordes of adolescents running about screaming “pollo” (no idea why Jimmy couldn’t just pop ‘em all). The way back to Tegucigalpa included and hour of heavily butt crunching cavernous rutted dirt roads. The highlight of the return trip was the U.S. Ambassador’s home, which might be the size of the Vatican.
My time in Tegucigalpa is a perfect example of how our opinions of places depend entirely on the experiences had in them. I like Tegucigalpa, not because it is a ‘cool’ city (I didn’t even see the center until driving through it quickly when I was getting a ride to the southern highway), but because Raquel and her mom are kick-ass hosts. Mrs. Fuentes cooked some incredible things, and I did my best to match. The morning I left I had an omelet and a delicious papaya smoothie safely stored in my bodily food bank.
Raquel’s mom, Jimmy, a new armed guard and I piled into the tinted-window pick-up, and they drove me well beyond the southern limits of the city, for which I am direly grateful because the outskirts of big Central American capitals are not pleasant. I had a bag filled with chips and dried bananas, and before the truck left, Mrs. Fuentes put another bag of coffee dandies into my sack, and shoved a bill into my hand. With that they were gone. I looked down into my palm to find not a 5 dollar bill like I’d figured, for a bus she so greatly wanted me to take, but a 20.
Fast-forward again, and here I am in Leon writing, now, to the sound of rain falling in the courtyard and the booms of thunder that linger until your ears can no longer pick up their fading frequency. I’ve eaten all of my fried plantains, but I’ve still more to tell, so I will stay the urge to cook curry chicken in order to divulge the week’s exploits in as little as several paragraphs.
Idriss has a motorbike, but one helmet. When anyone has ever told me to be careful, I don’t think they’re talking about the same kind of precautions that I might take up north. The kinds of things they mean to say are: “don’t steal from cocaine dealers,” “don’t get lost in a shanty town at night with tattooed 15 year olds,” or maybe “choose your prostitutes wisely.” I don’t think a helmet is reason enough to pass up a trip to an otherwise inaccessible place by my means of transport. I thought hey, I’ll just let karma be the Man for now.
So we sped through the city on the high voiced dirt bike, I on the back with the constant sensation that I was going to fall backward. But I wasn’t. Being on the bike took me back to other times. Once, 7 years ago, I drove a scooter on Cozumel in Mexico. A few months back in time I hitched on a motorbike between the Guatemalan and Mexican immigration posts. And once more in Guatemala I got a goodwill ride to the other side of a small town on the back of a rusty Harley.
We drove fast on the highway. Flies slapped my arms, so hard in fact that they were difficult to peel off, their blood crusted to my skin. The wind eventually fucked up my sight, like the part in Fight Club where you see Brad Pitt staring into the camera saying “We are your all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world”.
When we stopped, we were in front of the Lago de Managua, a medium-sized lake on the shores of which, naturally, you can find the Nicaraguan capital. I don’t think I’m going to spend any time in that big city, I hear there’s no center. But here we were, looking for Leon Viejo and finding a lake instead. Well, eventually we found the old ruins of the first Leon. It was destroyed by earthquakes centuries before, when the habitants relocated to where Leon presently sits, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that this first site was rediscovered. For a UNESCO World Heritage site, Idriss and I were not very impressed. It was less than interesting, but more than neat. The most interesting thing, in fact, was a strange fruit that grew on the wood of it’s tree like warts. Later, we asked one of the guards to tell us about them, and he opened one up. It was black inside and smelled like death, I couldn’t bring myself to follow in the guy’s footsteps and eat one of the seeds.
The volcano on whose slopes the old Leon is located is called Momotombo, and we wanted to go climb it. We bumped along a dirt road for a spell until we came to a fancy gate with some bored-looking shotgun- toting guards. They told us we couldn’t pass because it was the private property of the company who runs the geothermal plant and we needed permission from Managua. We discussed what we were going to do in French, and I kept slipping into Spanish, giving away what we were secretly plotting, which amounted to nothing. I asked the guard if there was another way to enter. His previous speech about safety and liability was made lull and void by his offer, “200 cordobas and you can enter”.
Cheap as we are we continued on our way. It was another hour of bumpy and soaked dirt roads until we reached a town where Idriss works. We ate pasta salad and watched some local kids play soccer. The sky was growling; it sounded like huge boxes weighing tons shifting on the floor upstairs. We got back on the road, with a stop- over at Yellowstone-esque thermal pools. The air was like pure sulfur, and the clouds of steam obstructed the view of the volcano. There were suggestive tapes strung up around some of the boiling pools, keyword being suggestive. The pools looked like chocolate from Willy’s factory. I wanted to jump in. It looked like some local kids were about to as they gathered some of the hot mud in plastic bags, to be used to make little trinkets to sell to the tourists. We took off, and went back to Leon, where we cooked and watched movies, righteously.
Another day, another motorbike ride, and we were at the coast of the big blue. Although, the water here was gray. Unlike Salvador, the sand is lighter here, but still dark enough to dull the spirits of a tourist looking for Caribbean-style beaches. Here is where I did something that I haven’t done for a long time. I dished out for a fish dish. It was also, righteous. Idriss and I sat and enjoyed our atmosphere of fishy odors and biting heat. Later we splashed in the swells, but not too far. As the day wore on, suddenly we were the only ones swimming, and decided that the others know best, so it was best to also quit the surf, but not before I acted like a kid again, toppling the sand walls at the mouth of the nearby river.
Many more dead bugs on my arms and legs later, we were back in the tall one-story city. Back in the comfortable confines, behind the iron-barred gates, hidden from the street traffic and next to the calming courtyard, watching movies. Sherlock Holmes. From Paris With Love. Killing Me Softly. Shrek 4. BBC World News…South Park in Spanish…Sleepless in Seattle…The History Channel…Willie Nelson… “On the road again, going places that I’ve never been, seeing things that I may never see again, and I just can’t wait to get on the road again…”