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july 14, 2005 -> nicaraguan rendezvous

We decided to skip the beach resorts of Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula and headed straight for Nicaragua. We got out in Rivas, a tidy town with special lanes for bicycle rickshaws. After a long, hot search for a functioning ATM, we managed to catch a lift with an American real estate agent based in San Juan del Sur, a coastal town with great surf beaches nearby. The agent was opening a reggae bar that evening – predictably named the ‘Casa de Rasta' – and he invited us to the grand opening. 

After meddling in Nicaraguan politics for a hundred years, Americans were now busy selling the country – to other Americans. In San Juan del Sur and Granada, we saw real estate signs and offices for Re/Max, Coldwell Banker and Century 21. The ‘for sale' signs were all in English; the Spanish-speaking market – all Nicaraguans – was blithely ignored. Only a few, rich Nicaraguans could afford the prices that foreigners happily paid for beachfront property, and they probably spoke English anyway. New sugar-cube mansions were going up on the north side of San Juan del Sur's bay, and the best hotel in town was American-owned. The Sandinistas had won the battle against the US-funded Contras, but had lost the war to American ‘jubilados' – retirees.

Just around the corner from our little hotel was a mural depicting advancing soldiers. Towering behind them was the silhouette of a man's face beneath an enormous hat. “They Will Never Conquer Us!” the mural read. The dark visage belonged to Ernesto Sandino, a revolutionary hero of the 1930s. As Salman Rushdie observed in the opening chapter of “The Jaguar Smile,” Sandino was a “man who had turned into a hat.” His wide-brimmed farmer's hat and half-shaded face had become the symbol of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), who 11 years after the revolution of 1979 were defeated in democratic elections. The FSLN lost again in 1996 and 2001. Perhaps they had been conquered after all.

I had imagined three or four days surfing in San Juan del Sur while Nori relaxed on the beach or took Spanish lessons. But it was just too hot. It was unbearable to walk outside between seven and five – even the swarms of zealous, zit-faced US missionaries were sent scurrying to the ice cream stand for relief. I got in one great day of surfing and spent the other two days sweating and drinking rum and cokes made with Nicaragua's very tasty Flor de Caña rum. Granada was even hotter. Heavy rains fell each evening, but the streets were dry and swirling with dust by daybreak. We hadn't felt that kind of suffocating, oppressive heat since Uzbekistan. Granada was founded in 1524, and the colonial city still looked good despite being leveled by a volcano and torched by an oddball American “conqueror.” Unlike Antigua, Guatemala, Granada hadn't been bought out, remodeled and freshly painted. It was grittier, louder and less tourist-friendly. Where Antigua had a flourishing Spanish school industry, Granada had just a few. People spent weeks in Antigua, but just a few days in Granada. It had potential but a long way to go.

Nicaragua is an odd place to meet friends. Even stranger, we had two reunions. We met Sarah and Simon, an American couple, when we all lived in Sydney. Now married, MBA'd, and back at work in the States they were taking a long-delayed vacation. They chose Nicaragua at random, and later browsed our website and discovered that we would be in the country the same week. We met Ben, a young German, on our road trip through the altiplano of Bolivia. After his travels in South America, he had flown to Nicaragua to spend a few months volunteering with an organization that taught art and music to underprivileged kids in Granada.

Though the largest country in Central America, Nicaragua is smaller than the US state of New York. It is the least densely populated Central American nation and also the poorest. Roughly triangular, Nicaragua shares a long border with Honduras in the north, and short border with Costa Rica in the south. The most noteworthy feature of the country's geography is mammoth Lake Nicaragua in the southwest, which covers more than 10% of the country. Small islands pepper the northern and southern ends of the lake, but none rival Isla Ometepe, purportedly the largest lake island in the world. Comprised of two giant volcanoes linked by a narrow isthmus, Ometepe looks more South Pacific than Central America.

Sarah and Simon were waiting for us at the San Jorge ferry terminal, just across the water from Isla Ometepe. We hadn't seen them in three years. It was incredible to see friends in such a strange place. Sarah and Simon once backpacked around the world on a budget, so they acted a little embarrassed as they recounted their first days in Nicaragua. They had taken a private taxi from Granada to the Pacific coast, and had spent a few nights in a luxury beach resort. Far from being aghast, Nori and I understood completely. When you have a year to travel, spending hours on public transportation is no big deal. But when you have a week, you want to maximize your vacation time.

Sarah and Simon wanted to climb one of Ometepe's volcanoes and so did I. Nori was less enthusiastic, noting that she had already climbed several. We had two choices, the shorter, inactive Volcan Madera (1,394 meters), or the higher, steeper and still steaming Volcan Concepción (1,610 meters). Naturally, we chose the more difficult one. It took four hours to climb Concepción's bouldery, exposed slopes. At the top, noxious gases poured out of the crater, and a thick coat of clouds obscured our views. The ground was so hot that it burned our butts when we sat down. I cannot remember climbing anything that took as long to descend as to ascend. But scrambling down Concepción's sharp-edged lava rocks required more effort than climbing up. Dismayingly, the clouds cleared as we descended; if we had waited one more hour at the top we would have had views over all of Lake Nicaragua and one-third of the country.

Back in Granada, Ben took us around his temporary home – the Casa de Los Tres Mundos – a beautiful two-story colonial building with a grand courtyard. Ben wore a T-shirt with the now-familiar likeness of Sandino. Another German volunteer walked by. He was also wearing a Sandino shirt. As with so many revolutionaries – Lenin, Castro, Che, Mao and Ho Chi Minh – Sandino's image had become hip with foreign travelers, who imagined that it advertised their own revolutionary sympathies, or at least a sympathy for the local people.

“Does everyone in Nicaragua like Sandino?” I asked Ben. 

“Yes,” he said, “But there is a big difference between liking Sandino and liking the Sandinistas.” He had a point. Sandino – an uneducated farmer – led a guerrilla campaign in the 1930s that expulsed US troops that had occupied the country since 1910. A year later Sandino was dead, an assassination likely ordered by Anastasio Somoza, who would initiate a tyrannical dynasty that lasted until 1979 – when a new revolutionary movement taking Sandino's name forced the US-backed dictator out of power. Everyone respected Sandino as a campesino that stood up to Yankee imperialism and won. But the Sandinistas' Marxist diatribes and rampant internal corruption had soon turned many of its revolutionary supporters against it.

After a great dinner at a Mexican restaurant, we were walking home with Ben and his friend Alex. The American owner of Foxy's Bar had hung red, white and blue ribbons at the entrance. Only then did I realize that it was the 4th of July. Foxy, the owner's miniature collie ran excitedly back and forth across the bar, and Creedence Clearwater Revival was playing on the stereo. As we passed, I heard a group of Americans singing a familiar song. Later, I realized that it was the Marine Corps. Anthem. The irony was not lost on me. In both of Nicaragua's revolutions, US marines, weapons and money had been the enemy.