We woke early at the Urbina’s house, as the water only worked from around midnight to mid-morning, so activities involving the wash began at dawn. Two cages of talkative parrots also began early, so by the time the sun rose, the house was in full motion. After being treated to a delicious breakfast of Gallo Pinto by Maria Dolores, we organized a day-pack and left to catch a bus to the old city of León.
León is a new old city, the first having been leveled by an earthquake in 1610. Afterwards León was relocated some distance Northwest, near the Indian village of Subtiava. The ruins of the first León were uncovered in 1967, but were consequently further destroyed by another earthquake. The new León had been a hotbed of Sandinista activity during the revolution giving the Somoza government an excuse to bomb it. Between Nicaragua’s seismic violence and the less rational human sort it is a wonder León exists at all. Nearby, we’d been told, was a beautiful beach. After our scorching tour of Managua it sounded like a delicious place to visit.
We waited for the bus outside of the Urbina’s neighborhood. A crowd was standing in the driveway of a car mechanic’s, the only indication that it was a bus stop at all. Several buses passed, packed full of Managuans on their way to work. They were so crammed with bodies that passengers often ran around to the driver’s window, paid him there, and then sprinted back in order to squeeze into the rear door. In our time standing there we didn’t see a single person cheat the fare. Managua has instituted an electronic swipe card, but while we were in town the system had crashed, leaving everyone who’d optimistically bought a card (hoping it would improve the entire system) frothing with anger.
After watching two full buses pass and waiting a half an hour, we hailed a taxi to take us to the bus station. The taxi driver asked us where we were from and gave a surprising first pump when we told him. He seemed to have been waiting for a chance to vent to some Americans his understandable grievances with his country.
He pointed to the buses clogging the streets, “In America, these buses would be fined. Because there are laws.”
His next unfavorable comparison surprised us.
“Have you been to Costa Rica? Why does Costa Rica have so many tourists? Because there are laws against littering!” He waved at the drifts of plastic lining the curb which indeed are mostly absent in Costa Rica.
As we drove we watched a few more plastic bags drift out of bus windows. We later wondered why the well spoken taxi driver, who seemed to have genuine concern and a grasp on the problems of his country wasn’t a more active player in trying to change the Nicaraguan reality. In the end we chalked it up to the politics of a developing country: ostensibly a democracy, ostensibly a socialist (people’s) republic, Nicaragua has been ruled by a small, exclusive group of people, from the right or the left, for a very long time.
The bus to León skimmed along the western shore of Lake Managua and passed beneath the conical mass of Volcan Momotombo, smoldering a thin trail of steam across the clear sky. It was the iconic volcano, straight from a child’s drawing, just missing the circling pterytactiles.
Beginning from the bus station on the gritty edge of town we explored the streets of León. It was a living colonial city, not a reconstructed set for the sake of visitors. Merchants hawked layers of goods from crooked wooden doorways painted in primary reds and blues. The sidewalks were an ever ascending and descending course of stairs and other obstacles. Most pedestrians chose to walk in the streets along with school buses, taxis and pedicabs which resembled bicycle chain driven benches. We were following Google maps on our iPhone, keeping the device low to our bodies. It was leading us in the most direct way towards the center of town, but not necessarily the safest.
Like in all big Central American cities it seemed both like anything could happen at any time and also perfectly secure; people going about their daily lives as they do anywhere else. But here in León there were a few groups of young men who made no effort to avoid staring at tourists like us.
As we passed a group, one of them yelled, “Hey buddy!”
We didn’t answer, hoping to bore him with silence.
“Hey buddy!!” He yelled again, louder.
I looked his way, smiled and nodded gamely.
“America!” He shouted, and all his friend laughed.
We gave him thumbs up, and the whole group smiled and waved.
Leon’s main plaza is a standard colonial square, lined with handsome two story buildings and dominated on one side by a huge cathedral. We’d been told León was hotter than Managua and it seemed to be true. We were sizzling again beneath the morning sun. After stopping at a corner cafe for a (delicious) iced tea, we began making our way towards Barrio de Subtiava, the remnants of the Indian village León was re-established next to. On the way we passed an open door where a wiry little wood carver was chiseling into a long beam suspended on sawhorses. He gave us a hearty wave as we walked by, so we turned around to talk to him.
We approached in Spanish but he replied in English. It turned out he’d taught himself English by buying a tape recorder and practicing with it. We admired his craft, which was recreating the 17th century carvings that adorned the church interior. After talking for a while, he invited us inside to look at his work in place. Above us in the ceiling was both the original embellishments and the wood carver’s. When stained to match, his work looked identical. He wondered out loud how he might someday earn enough money to visit the U.S., and we told him that certain North Americans might pay good money for his beautiful work. Magda took his portrait and a picture of his national I.D. card with his address so we could send him a copy of the photo and any gringos we thought might be interested in his work.
We visited Subtiavo, and the stump of an old tree the leader of the village had been hanged from by the Spanish. The houses looked modern, but the people of the area looked distinctly more indigenous than other parts of Nicaragua. They also seemed a little cool to our presence though we were obviously interested in their history. The old tamarind tree didn’t have much left of it except stone colored wood, bleached gray by the relentless sun, but a little plaque told the story of the chief’s resistance and murder. Not for the first time in Latin America did I wonder at the prevalence of Spanish in a culture long beaten down by Spaniards. Not for the first time I considered our own native population in North America and their own uneasy relationship with the colonists.
We took a bus to the beach, a slow moving refurbished Blu-bird school bus, familiar to all American school kids. Behind the overly large green bench chairs where mid-western children probably once hatched pre-pubescent plots, we waited first for the bus to leave and then for it to gradually make its way across the countryside to the beach. We were in a bit of a rush, as usual. The last bus to Managua reportedly left at 6:30, so our beach time was being chipped away at every time the bus pulled over to let on and off passengers or vendors selling plastic bags full of cheese, water, juice or ice cream.
We finally arrived in a dusty little beach town lined by open air restaurants. Hopping off we walked to a little inlet, a natural harbor protected by a sturdy sand-bar. The last of the high tide occasionally sent streams of seawater across the smooth sandbar, making it difficult to sit anywhere without danger of a sudden flood. But as time passed, the smooth beach became dry and calm, the perfect place to sit and swim in the little bay. The surrounding thick green foliage was dotted by the red tiled rooftops of a smattering of hotels. It occurred to us it would be a great place to stay for a while.
The current in the inlet was strong and flowed towards its mouth with the force of a slow moving river. Swimming at full strength it was only just possible to stay even with our beach towels. Once, a large uprooted bush floated by, then rolled dramatically out to sea as it hit the cross currents.
At a certain point I started getting nervous about our return bus. If we didn’t make the right one, we’d miss the buses headed back to Managua, and the bus station in Leon didn’t really look like a place we wanted to be after dark. In an unusual reversal of roles, Magda told me to relax while she repeatedly floated past on the inlet’s current. But while we were drying off, we heard the unmistakable sound of a schoolbus, 15 minutes ahead of schedule, blowing a classic “shave and a haircut” on its horn. We started to hurry off of the beach, but a large puff of exhaust rose up over the wall and we could tell the bus had left.
We settled down in a little restaurant overlooking the water, and chose the one table overlooking the road. According to the proprietress, the next bus would be in 40 minutes, so we ordered some food and waited. After an hour had passed, we got nervous. It was 5:15 and we were running out of time. A group of teenagers had gathered for the bus as well, and they, like us, looked antsy as the bus was nowhere to be seen. From where we sat we watched as a picked roared up. One of the kids talked to the driver and then they all began piling into the flatbed. We grabbed our bags and ran as fast as flip-flops allowed, waving at the back of the truck. He saw us, and allowed us to jump in a moment before the pickup sprayed gravel and started off down the road.
And that was how we returned to León. Under a darkening sky, kissed in the west by streaks of orange and crimson, the wind blowing in our salt matted hair, we spread out in the back while the teenagers laughed and talked and sat on the sides of the bed. The air had ceased to be hot, it was warm and fresh with sea breeze. The asphalt was new and flat so the pickup made incredible time, slowing only once to let a pair of cyclists draft off of the back. One of the recreational cyclists dug deep and his knees were a blur as he positioned himself directly behind the truck. He was breathing hard, and sweat dripped off of his nose almost into the truck. We tried to encourage him but he was working too hard for words. When we went over a speed bump and his water bottle fell out, he broke off with a wave and returned to go get it.
We made the bus, the driver of the pickup drove us right into the bus station. We shook his hand, thanked him and waved goodbye – to him and to León, as we boarded one of the last Managua bound mini-vans.