Colorful Contrasts in Nicaragua

My host in Masaya, Nicaragua, is a young man named Bernardo. He is interested in politics and wacky conspiracy theories and eating pizza washed down with beers after midnight, so we get along great.

Airbnb once again provided me with an excellent opportunity to spend time with a local family as I hopped off the Gringo Trail for three days.

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Masaya is a bigger city than Granada. Thankfully, Bernardo’s house is in the center and is easily walkable to two of the city’s signature attractions: Mercado Viejo and Mercado Municipal.

The two markets could not be more different. The first is an artisanal market featuring Nicaraguan made products ranging from hammocks to woodworking to all types of clothing. It is well organized, confined, and in the shade. The vendors calmly solicit with smiles and proudly present their products. Walking through is a colorful and relaxing experience.

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A mural adorning one of the walls of the Mercado Viejo

I had read that prices tend to be cheaper and haggling easier at my next stop, so despite many tempting items, I resist buying anything.

After perusing for an hour or so, I walk about 7 blocks to get to the much larger, crazier Mercado Municipal.

Switching between the markets is like climbing out of a jacuzzi and jumping into the ocean during a storm. The Mercado Municipal is seemingly acres upon acres of stalls, tented stores, and people selling things on the ground. Here you’ll find a bevy of fresh (and not-so-fresh) foods, handmade garments, live animals for sale, toys and clothes and other stuff imported from China. Vendors are seemingly either making items with their hands, preparing food, sleeping, playing with their children, or shouting at me. Some are kind and mean well, others are too aggressive and grab me by the arm, beckoning me into their shop.

Despite invasions of my personal space, I found this market to be an absolute delight. A hot, loud, dusty, smelly, unorganized, slightly maddening delight.

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Shoemakers who love getting their picture taken.

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The vast medley of products is matched by a spectrum of characters. This little girl’s sweet mother sold me six bananas for 10 cents and let me take a picture of her adorable daughter.
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…and then there’s guys like this.

Getting yelled at constantly gets tiresome (“Oye chele! “Gringo!”), as does the constant smell of fish, but walking around the endless array of stalls was incredibly fun. I haggle my way to a $3 Toña Cerveza t-shirt before making my leave.

This contrast in commerce between the two markets is perhaps representative of Nicaragua as a whole. Beautiful yet dysfunctional. Equally rich in culture and poor in upward mobility.

That evening I join Bernardo back at the Mercado Viejo for “Night of the Reveries”, featuring marimba performances and colorful folkloric dances. Bernardo and I sip on beers while admiring the upbeat music and evocative dancing.

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Bernardo is an aspiring architect with dreams of designing houses. He proudly shows me the 3D designs he crafted on his computer. One day he hopes to study in the United States; he’s currently in the process of applying for scholarships. I pick his brain on the “Trees of Life” in Managua that I wrote about in my last post. This sends us into a whirlwind of discussion around politics, corruption, and the state of Nicaraguan society.

Bernardo tells me that they mowed down many real trees to make way for the metallic Trees of Life. This symbolic irony, he explains, is typical of the Nicaraguan government. Destruction of nature in favor of industry. Valuing material production over natural and human development.

First lady Rosario Murillo spearheaded the Trees of Life project. A poet, artist, and speaker of five languages, she is seen by many as the brains behind her husband’s administration. Murillo fought in the Sandinista revolution in 1979 alongside her husband, President Daniel Ortega. Despite Ortega garnering heroism during the revolution, it is his wife who is more beloved and well regarded in Nicaraguan society.

During public appearances by her husband’s side, Murillo wears colorful attire that matches her colorful disposition. Her soft, soothing voice is often heard projected throughout the streets of Nicaragua’s bigger cities. Murillo is an eloquent speaker who often evokes the words of their revolutionary hero, Augusto César Sandino, touting the redistribution of power back to the people in effort to curry favor with the common man and woman.

These are just words, says Bernardo. He elaborates that, under Ortega’s current reign since 2007 (he also served from 1985-1990), the ideals that spurred the revolution have been lost in favor of a concentration of power for the wealthy elite and his family, alongside other forms of governmental corruption. Socialist programs under Ortega are red herrings, as they, in Bernardo’s words, have merely “given a man a fish but have not not taught him how to fish”. For example…

“Education is free but nothing of value is taught”

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As we continue to sip beer and watch the dancing, Bernardo continues to open up. He says that, more than anything, he fears dynastic politics and nepotism.

In 2009, Ortega successfully brought a case to the Supreme Court allowing him to run indefinitely.  Bernardo tells me the decision essentially made him a dictator for life. In Nicaragua’s election last year, Ortega won in a landslide, riding a wave of lower class voters, and Murillo ran alongside her husband. She was sworn in as Vice President on January 10th of this year.

He posits that the candidates that ran against Ortega were “puppet candidates”, while those capable of challenging him were likely bribed into staying on the sidelines. What’s more, given Ortega’s supposed failing health, he has now positioned his wife to be next in line to the presidency should he pass. Such “House of Cards”-esque nepotism is seen across the government, one of Ortega’s sons is in charge of constructing a $50 billion canal across Nicaragua’s midsection.

These government projects led by the Ortega family members evoke images of the heavy-handed, four-decade Somoza dictatorship, the very regime that the Sandinista revolution toppled, one that is remembered for its nepotism and elitism.

Will the proposed canal be an impressive undertaking? Yes. Are the Trees of Life beautiful? Sure. But will either serve the needs of the common man? Doubtful. The former will likely further concentrate power in the hands of business magnates, the latter is just an aesthetic and serves no purpose except to uproot the actual trees that stood on the very same ground. Such government projects are questionable, at best, given the state of Nicaraguan society.

According to Forbes, as of December 2013, Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the entire Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

Bernardo predicts that the people will eventually wake up from from their spell. Eventually they will see past the current administration’s elitism and nepotism, under the guise of socialism and championing for the poor class, fueled by farcical lip service to Sandinista ideals that no longer align with the government’s policies. Eventually their love affair with Murillo will end and the specter of a dynastic regime will become too much to bear.

He predicts there will be another revolution in 10 to 20 years.

Such a dire and bleak outlook sharply contrasts with the happy, upbeat, colorful performances taking place in front of us.

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Eventually the conversation shifts to lighter fare. After the performance is over, Bernardo and I leave with a happy buzz and enjoy late night pizza in the central park of Masaya.

The next day I walk to that same park in the daylight. It is an awesome, lively place filled with food stalls, a playground, gathering points, and it’s even home to some wildlife.

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This cool dude saw my camera, flagged me down, and pointed out some turtles in the pond surrounding the gazebo.

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Ayyy tortuga.

Per Bernardo, I kept an eye out for the park’s resident sloth. Eventually I find her balled up high in the trees. I watch her for several minutes but she doesn’t do much. Must be nice being a sloth.

Then I remember that Bernardo told me there were once dozens of sloths in the central park, that they were driven out over the years due to depletion of the trees. Now she is alone. All my envious thoughts from before melt away as I gaze up at her.

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Just another casualty in governmental development.

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