The sharp buzzing of my watch alarm sounds at 6am- as planned- and I aggressively mash the tiny buttons in an attempt to stop the incessant annoyance. My eyes feel like they weigh a ton and my body doesn’t feel like moving. The previous night’s festivities here at the Backpacker Inn turned out to be quite the enjoyable experience as the diverse group of travelers poked fun at one another’s cultures over a couple of handfuls of Toña cervesas. Slowly, I gain my consciousness and force my half asleep body to stumble towards the shower. After a life-saving cold shower and a good complimentary breakfast, I manage to make my way to the chaotic city bus station by 8am. The stop is teeming with people that analyze the uniquely decorated buses that zip in and out of the stop with only a number indicating their destination. For locals, it’s a simple system. For me, however, it’s a crap shoot. Who knows where these madhouses on wheels are heading? In this case, I find it easiest to ask the driver if he is heading in your direction; in this case Ciudad Sandino. After a couple of tries, I finally find a driver that gives me an enthusiastic nod that indicates “yes.”
Day 15 (Jun. 18):
During the drive out of the city the roads gradually get narrower and the streets more desolate as we approach the place that looks like Ciudad Sandino. Time to get off and find my way. The bus pulls away and I can hear the sound of the speakers being reduced to silence as the brightly colored bus rambles out of sight. Here I stand, alone in the middle of nowhere with the swirling dust from the bus settling at my feet. In Sandino, I am left to navigate the empty roads in search of a way to make it the final 10k to the Xiloa Laguna. I meander the streets looking into the distance for any crowd of people that might indicate the presence of a local shuttle of some sort. After a couple blind turns I find myself a bit turned around and my heart starts to race. I think I'm on the verge of being lost. My GPS is worthless here and every local that I pass turns their head to gawk at the odd gringo in the streets; this is always a sure sign that you’re off the beaten path. Eventually, I stop in a local park to regain my bearings and remind myself of a great mantra of an old friend of mine. “They’re just people.” As travelers, we have the tendency to view locals as some unapproachable object; another piece of the scenery. But, this trip has taught me that most people- no matter where you travel- are more than willing to lend you hand… People in general are good hearted. I bashfully stop at a pulperia and ask for directions to the Laguna and, with a smile, the two young women working the stand point towards the corner and tell me to flag down one of the Moto taxis. I leave them with a gracious “Thank you” and they respond with a slight giggle when I turn my back to walk towards the corner.
Within a few minutes I hear the sputtering of a Moto taxi coming around the corner. The driver is a large man who is forced to sit hunched over with his shoulders just about hanging out of the windows of the taxi. “50 Lempira to the Laguna”, he tells me. Two dollars? Sounds good, so I wedge myself into the tiny back seat of the rickshaw style taxi and we hobble towards the Laguna. The two of us create quite a scene for locals as we both barely fit into the taxi. Racing down the road at a blistering speed of about 10mph we blaze past farmers transporting goods in their horse-drawn carriages. We’re cruising…kind of. After a 20 minute joy ride, the driver drops me off outside of the entrance to the Xiloá Laguna. The park is quiet and the buildings have seen better days. To be honest, there doesn’t look like there a lot to do at the Laguna during this time of year. Swim and stop in to one of the dusty kiosks for a beer. That’s about it. But, the serene environment is refreshing and I accept the isolation with open arms. Stripping down to my bathing suit I basically have the park to myself. The only other visitors happen to be a group of Sandinista military men who are participating in hard core swimming drills. The voice of their trainer echoes through the valley while he yells out stern commands. In response, the soldiers dive into the water one by one and begin their long swim across the Laguna. With the Sandinistas at my side, I follow suit and jump in for good swim, but I have no intention to follow in their wake. In total, the environment is perfect. All quiet except for the sounds of the water peacefully slapping against the shores and the random calls of the tropical birds flying overhead. I slowly float out into the water until I can no longer reach the bottom and I simply turn belly-up and let my body soak in the sheer peacefulness.
Upon return to the city, it is still quite early in the day and there is plenty of time to squeeze in a second activity. How about a stroll through the historic downtown area? Why not? During the walk I get a good feel for the heart and soul of the city. The journey takes me through the endless markets, beautiful parks, and many historic buildings. As a U.S. citizen Managua has an eerie aura about it. Everywhere you look there are typical signs of American commercialism. I can spin in a circle and catch a glimpse of a McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Hilton Hotel, and a well-developed mall…and that is just on my block. But, the disparity of wealth here- as in many other cities in this region- is always a heart-wrenching sight for me. All of these grandiose, flashing signs of “progress”, while on the opposite side of the road sit series of shanties that are slapped together with scraps of wood and sheets of old, plastic advertisements that have been discarded by the nearby chain stores. The men lay sprawled out in the dust resting from their early morning labors while the women line the sidewalk selling odds and ends to the passers-by. There is irony here. It’s the idea that the standard marks of “progress” are only good to these people as crude tools that protect their families from the elements. It’s in the scraps of wood used to build the shanties and the outdated advertisements used to cover their roofs. Typically, the blazing speed of the city makes it easy to keep your head down and overlook these camouflaged houses; especially as a traveler. But, today I’m walking with my head up and I catch a glimpse of it. I see the look of despise in their eyes as they stare across the street at those signs of “progress” that have little meaning to them. Opposite sides of the road. So close in proximity. But, that four lane highway might as well be an ocean because there couldn’t be more distance between the two.
Continuing on my walk through the city, it’s difficult to miss the government ads plastered on every street corner, light post, and empty wall. “Con todos y por el bien de todos (With everyone and for the good of everyone).” Red and black flags with bold, white FSLNs printed across the middle flap in the wind all through the city. The Sandinistas have a strong presence here. Everywhere I turn, there they are. Flags, statues, military personnel stationed on random street corners. Even at the Laguna. The political history between the FSLN and the United States is complicated and heated, so it is naturally emotional to see these symbols so proudly displayed throughout the city. It’s not necessarily a positive or a negative feeling. It is just surreal to see these symbols in person.
The government is good to the people in Nicaragua and the people are proud of their government. This is what the overabundance of government advertisements suggest. But, talk to a few laborers and you might hear a different story. “The government isn’t good to everybody. It only provides for those who support ‘the party.’” This is a phrase that I've heard quite often through random conversations in the city…and it tells a much different story. The discontent rarely makes its way into the public eye, or at least this is the case for a traveler who only has two days to soak it all in. Scattered about town you find the discontent streaming out of the lips of locals as they chat over their morning coffee or wait for the city bus. Occasionally, you encounter it in the form of brief phrases scrawled on the walls of abandoned buildings. “Ortega venda patria (Ortega sells fatherland.” “FSLN fuera (FSLN out)!” The discontent exists, but it is difficult to find it through the beautiful array of government advertisements.