Lake NIcaragua is the largest sweet water lake in the whole wide world that has no borders, and you can totally tell by looking at the itsy bitsy strip of nation along the southern coastline that they had much fiercer representation than the Costa Ricans did when the Empire was breaking up. It also has sharks, which is important, and 10,000* islands with monkeys. Our historian friend Walter Lenin from the horse cart took us on a boat tour of the islands for the morning, and for lunch we drover up an extinct caldera to Catarina for the most amazing fried fish and salt lemonade, although no matter how good the fish was it will always be fried cheese that defines Nicaraguan food to my memory.
*ASIDE: Not literally. This is a hyperbolic device by the tourism board to denote “more than you have the patience to count”. This is always true for things described as 10,000, such as the number of lakes in Minnesota or the number of Buddhas in Mendocino, and the only exception is in Chinese, where for whatever reason the Confucians never invented exponents and 10,000 is defined as infinity.
Anyway! Eventually we had to go home, and made the mistake of acceding to the bribe request from the first policeman to whistle us down (for an “improper turn”) on the way out of Tipitapa, so he radioed ahead, and then magically every few miles we were being pulled over for “speeding” and “suspicious behavior”, at a cost of US$20 per stop. Oh well. As an experienced traveler I always have a line item in the vacation budget for bribes, but this was too coordinated to be funny any more. Good bye, Nicas. Hello, catrachos.
Today we started at the Masaya volcano and bat caves. The San Pedro and Nindiri craters are very active and there is sulphurous smoke in the parking lot at all times, and instructions about what kind of seismic activity signifies a higher probability of explosive eruption. The bat caves off the shield have both serpents and witches and you have to wear a hard hat and tie your hair back to enter.
After a few hours of sunburning the white girl (me!) we stopped in town for the Masaya market to learn about Macho Raton, a smiling horse mask the old Nicaraguans would wear when they used to put on plays for the Spanish and were planning something especially treacherous, so it signifies smiling in the day and slitting throats at night. Then we carried on to Granada, the old colonial capital where the official occupation from 5pm every single day is sitting in a rocking chair on your sidewalk with the door to your Arabic atrium open and it is exactly like nineteenth century New Orleans. I had the best steak of probably a decade at the meat place behind the cathedral and we had a horsecart ride with a real historian and little kids jumping on an off the back every block. Hotel Ruben Dario (natch) has a courtyard with great piña coladas and balconies overlooking the sunset in one direction and the ruined Our Lady of Guadalupe in the other direction. Very beautiful.
Managua, Nicaragua is a heavenly place, at least according to the hit song, but getting there could be easier, honestly, and not being robbed at the first traffic light would certainly be nice. Let me start at the beginning.
Lupita packed us a cooler full of provisions (Zambos plantain chips and coke zero) and the Córdoba army of grandmother, mother, sister, Danny, and me squeezed into the Nissan. Even getting out of Tegu meant braving rock slides and lanes missing over the sides of cliffs (really), but then we got to the land border, officially departed Honduras, and drove over the no-sandinista zone. A club DJ had the full electricity of three townships playing Lady Gaga over the speakers and we were promptly and cheerfully denied entry based on a theoretically expired car registration and failure to pay an adequate bribe. Abort, retry, ignore? Retry. So! back to Honduras for an ATM, back across the border without a single case of rape or violence, and back on the much nicer highways through the banana fields, dodging jaywalking ducks and pigs with Juan Luis Guerra singing to us about Fukuoka. Superb.
On to Managua! But first let’s stop at this traffic light like n00bs and have our headlights stolen, only to be offered back a dozen blocks later by a smiling man at another traffic stop. Once in Managua, it’s on to the Intercontinental Hotel! Or maybe the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which is where the Intercontinental *used* to be? No. Maybe the Intercontinental Plaza Mall? No. Finally we found the hotel anyway, right next to the *koff* “New Italian Style” *koff, koff, koff* cathedral that was either decorated with video game bombs or heavily stylized concrete grapes. All very tiring days should end with hotel dinners and clowns on Latin TV, and this one did.
Catholic mass is always my favorite, especially when it is the priest’s last day before going on a mission to Costa Rica (or to Venezuela and he was from Costa Rica, I’m not sure) so he is punchy. Some of this one’s punchiness came out when presenting a new baby to the congregation, for example, and included (I paraphrase) “God bless this infant, here is his mother, isn’t she lovely, and who even knows where the father is? But that’s okay” and “God bless us all heterosexual families, not the gays but let’s not worry about them because they don’t lessen us normal people”. On some level, I acknowledge this as pretty progressive, right, because not damning the gays and only condemning them to not being worried about is actually a big step, but still kind of douchey on an absolute scale.
In the afternoon we went to Valle de Angeles, a tourist village where parking the car involved the obstacles of horses, ATVs, minibuses, a man buying cotton candy, and a baby carriage. We ate pupusas to a soundtrack of Macchu Picchu R.E.M while Maria and the cousinas checked their Blackberries and demanded more identical photos of themselves with a precise 23.7 degree chin tilt and subtle smile. Tragedy struck later, when we went to a lawyer friend’s house to notarize the paperwork for the car we are borrowing to go to Nicaragua tomorrow when the alarm on the grandfather’s badass diesel Mercedes went off and we had to drive across half of Tegucigalpa, including past the security guards at Helen’s compound, in order to drop it off and flee. Luckily (?) nobody thought we were stealing it at any time, because nobody steals Mercedes (the replacement parts are too expensive for your average gangster).
Medium cousin Jan played saxophone solos for the American School of Central America’s orchestra performance, broadcast on channel 10 on Christmas Day and viewed by all waking members of the extended Córdoba horde. A smaller selection then went to the older grandfather’s factory complex, with the houses where the squatters don’t live and the hillsides where the planes have fallen, and we got to see shoemaking machines stamping out next season’s Timberlands. Traffic was calmer today, although the speedbumps helpfully warned by stop signs marked !ALTO! could still herniate a yoga teacher and the exuberant school buses in place of Filipino Jeepneys are still out for blood and tar.
We failed to go to a movie with some extended girl cousins so we were stuck in a Mexican restaurant in the mall, laughing and watching Pitbull videos while the slutty Latinas (not the cousins) paraded around with visible unmentionables and prominent unthinkables. My favorite feature of the mall was the fountain in the middle where it is concretely proven how devalued the currency is because people have been “wishing” not with coins but with plastic bills.
Christmas Eve! Lesbia and Lupita magically transformed the sitting room to a Christmas fairyland and sorted out the tape and colored paper for the wrapping party and just as magically melted quesillo on ten second old tortillas and served them hot just as everyone was hungry. We left Danny’s granddads playing dominos in order to meet his mom at the airport, but returned to both granddads napping and the TV on loud.
The actual party was very restrained despite the million partial relatives. There was dinner and talking and wine, and the lesser cousin Jens was Santa at midnight (I got earrings and gave Swarovski ornaments), but as soon as the more distant relatives left we took off our amazing shoes and had a dance party to someone’s Puerto Rican CD.
Danny and I left Alex in charge of the Pandalair and jetted to Tegucigalpa at midnight, arriving refreshed via Houston and several lucky upgrades at noon the following day. His uncle’s driver met us for immigration proceedings (and a disappointing passport stamp) and we drove home to the grandparents’ house across the street to be met by a parrot in the papaya tree in the front yard and the lady who gives manicures. I say “across the street” and I mean it, not only literally but with the fascinating addition of “the street” being a section of strip mall with both a Filipino style police station and a Little Caesar’s advertising Triple Carne Pizza Especial.
In Tegu as in all cities where the average value of a car and the average legally compensatable value of a human life are both less than about a thousand US dollars, traffic lanes and highway merges are merely death defying guidelines. We soldiered over in the 4runner to the hill district where Danny’s tía Helen lives to have dinner, plan the family trip to Antigua Guatemala (very colonial), and play Call of Duty on the Xbox. Helen’s house is full of native orchids and local art and her dessert is longan sherbet from their tree, so I was all kinds of jealous. Moreover, she goes to New Acropolis on Saturdays and knows the feng shui of the Hong Kong’s banks and is starting a business putting solar panels in the apartments of Roatán–a busy bee of many interests!