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Nicaragua And The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

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By the time we hit the mountains, the fog was rolling off the road in front of us like some sort of supernatural tumbleweed.

It was just minutes ago, that we were in the middle of Managua, hot and humid and flat and urban. But that’s one thing you learn quickly in Nicaragua: In the time it takes the sun to move one inch across the sky, dark clouds have gathered, dumping torrential rain and sparking violent lightning. In the time it takes for a song to play on the radio, you’ve climbed more than a thousand feet from the depths of Managua’s heat to the surreal landscape of a coffee-growing region.

Enrique Delgadillo Lacayo, a young Nicaraguan poet, had volunteered to take us to a concert in the small town of Diriamba. We were talking politics and about the sense that something is happening in Nicaragua, that after almost eight years of Daniel Ortega, something akin to discomfort was settling in. 

"Look," he tells me,"from what we understand so far, this area of Mesoamerica was transient; it was a bridge between the north and the south." People here are hardwired for sudden change. 

"That obviously translates into a national identity," Lacayo said. "And it translates into politics. I think there’s a great political promiscuity in this country. You move, you don’t take things too seriously. You might be very passionate, but it’s like The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

The big question we were attempting to answer during this reporting trip was, “Why has Nicaragua remained so peaceful, despite its poverty and despite the deep violence engulfing its northern neighbors?”

The first week or so, Nicaragua truly sounded like a great, hippie paradise with a kind of informal social compact that embraces peace above all else. 

Case in point: We were headed to a concert by Milly Majuc, a band known for its energetic ska. One of the cuts off the band’s new album is “Un Beso Por La Paz” (A Kiss For Peace). The refrain goes: “We are peace and love / we’d like to say no to violence and sadness / here we are, gathered to make more noise. /  All I want is a kiss for peace.” 

Right before the concert, Mario Ruiz, one of the band’s singers, stepped outside the bar to talk. I asked him what he thought about Nicaragua’s national mood.

He swayed a bit and put his hands in his pockets. 

"Brother, Nicaragua is a thorny subject," he said. "There’s people who think things are great, but the majority know that things aren’t going well. I tell you, things are changing. You feel it. I’d like to stay out of the political fray, but at some moment I’ll have to decide whether to stay on the sidelines, or be taken by the guardia like in the past.”

He said his music is coded to protect him from political reprisals. 

That surprised me a bit, because Milly Majuc’s music sounds worry free. It’s built on a base of jaunty beats, bright keyboards and horn lines just brimming with melody. The music feels happy, I told him. 

"No," he said, shaking his head. "We’re like the clown. The music contrasts against a great sadness.

"I’m sad. I spent five years trying to avoid making the music that comes to me naturally. And the truth is, that’s how I am. I have a sadness rooted deep inside that I’d like to rip out."

That night, Ruiz went on to play a show before a few dozen people. He laughed; the crowd danced. The night felt alive. 

By the time, we drove back to Managua, the rolling fog we encountered coming in had settled in and become dense. We slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move frame by frame. We saw a few couples standing along the side of the mountains, perhaps trying to catch a glimpse of the city’s glow. I’m pretty sure all they saw was a wall of white. 

We talked a little about that national sadness, that feeling that it’s not organized crime or the drug war that may plunge the country back into a violent spiral, but instead what’s always plagued Nicaragua’s history: politics. 

Lacayo said this country has already seen the movie that’s unfolding nationally. President Ortega, he said, is consolidating power, taken control of the airwaves and his government has already repressed political protests across the country.

Lacayo said he believed things could be different but then he saw what happened after the contested elections in 2011. 

"It was Nicaraguans beating up Nicaraguans," he said. "Some people watching the horror flick will say no, this time Jason doesn’t have a saw behind the armoire. Or worst, that Jason is having a good day. But the truth is, Jason does have the saw and he will kill you. He will kill you.” 

I tell him that despite all of that, I heard a lot of hope from Nicaraguans during my time here. 

He nods. Nicaragua, he said, is at zero. 

"It’s a country waiting to be made," he said. And that’s reason for hope. 

With that, I turn over the keys of the NPR On the Road Tumblr. Thanks for coming along. Hopefully, in the next month or so, I’ll string together some of the ideas I explored here into something more cogent. Look for the stories on the air and at npr.org. 

Photo: Mario Ruiz, of the band Milly Majuc, plays in the town of Diriamba, Nicaragua. Juan Carlos/NPR 

How did we end our last and long day of reporting in Bluefieds, Nicaragua? With a flan de coco and a cold Toña. The custard was spectacular because the coconut gives it some crunch and a texture that is more complex. 
I’m not a beer person, but Toña, one of the national beers here, is perfect for a night when the temperature never makes it below 80 degrees. 

How did we end our last and long day of reporting in Bluefieds, Nicaragua? With a flan de coco and a cold Toña. The custard was spectacular because the coconut gives it some crunch and a texture that is more complex. 

I’m not a beer person, but Toña, one of the national beers here, is perfect for a night when the temperature never makes it below 80 degrees. 

Lost In Pronunciation In Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast

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One of the most beautiful things about Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is its diversity. 

Six different ethnicities are smashed together into a small coastal community. Of course, there is tension, but for the most part the Rama, Miskito, Creole, Garifuna, Ulwas and the mestizos live in harmony.

And on the streets, that ethnic stew is on full display. Spanish mixes with English and all of that mixes with some of the native languages. But no where is that stew more evident than in the music. Of course, there’s the tropical music, you’d expect:

But as I walked the city, I heard reggae and reggaeton; I heard marimbas and clarinets; American ’80s pop and narco corridos from Mexico. But, perhaps, most surprisingly, I heard a lot of country music. 

The cries of the pedal steel seeped out of the houses and the bars and it was the classic stuff too: George Strait and George Jones and Waylon Jennings. 

One night under the rain, we were talking to a young police officer in front of a bar. Some Waylon Jennings song I didn’t recognize was playing. I asked him if young people listened to country music. He said they did. Another musician I talked to later said the influence came from their parents and grandparents who used to gather in their homes and dance to that foreign but hearty beat. 

I asked the police officer if there were any bands that I should listen to. He said, “Yeah. There’s a local band everyone likes called Caribbean Tex.” 

I was immediately enthralled — a local band that mixes the beats of the Caribbean with the downbeat attitude of old country, I thought. For the next couple of days, every time I saw someone selling CDs, I asked for one from Caribbean Tex. 

Everyone knew who they were. They nodded with approval at my excitement, but the CD was nowhere to be found. Eventually, I walked into the town radio station and asked some young guys there about the band. We talked about country music a bit and eventually I got a name and number. Dexter, they said, was one of the members of the band. 

I called Dex but he said he didn’t have any of his music on CD at the moment. I insisted. I told him I  really wanted to listen to it and I was on the next plane out first thing in the morning. 

"OK, I’ll make this happen," he said in a Jamaican drawl. I should call him at 6:00 a.m. to set up a place to meet to get the CD. 

The sun comes up; I walk down the street to catch a cab in the rain. I meet Dex in front of a church in one of the neighborhoods that overlooks the bay. 

"Here you are man," Dex tells me with a huge smile. "We are Caribbean Tex." I smile back, so proud that my reportorial insolence has landed me this rare musical hybrid. 

I get in the cab, I look down at the CD and it reads: “Caribbean Taste.” Taste or Tex, when you add the influence of the water and the sun and the British. In this jumble of languages and ethnicities, my American ear had added yet another dimension and sent me on an impossible mission. 

Caribbean Taste, by the way, plays pretty traditional reggae music. Even if it’s not the ground-breaking hybrid I was looking for, it’s enjoyable. And there’s a protest jam in the album I got. 

"How long shall we wait while you sit / pretending you’re on the poor people side," the song goes. "Autonomy is what we need / autonomy is what we need, indeed." 

Take a listen: 

We spent our day with fishermen and their families in Bluefields, Nicaragua, today. They’re from the Canal Neighborhood, a group of houses so close to the bay that many can take their small, wooden boats up a canal that backs onto their stilt houses.

Without mincing words, things here are grim: the poverty is suffocating; the living conditions are nearly inhumane. Before dawn everyday, however, the fishermen put on their ponchos and their rubber boots and take a chance on the sea.

The gamble is whether they can catch enough shrimp and fish to offset the cost of the gasoline it takes to get into the bay. Sometimes, it pays off, but most of the time, it doesn’t.

This morning, just as a set of dark clouds gathered overhead and the wind angered the sea, the fishermen we were with decided the shrimp were but a mirage.

They caught half a pound, nowhere near what they should have to pay for gas.

It was a long way back: the thin wooden boat was attacked by the waves; we could hear the roar of thunder in the distance and the fisherman did his best to keep the sea out of the boat.

It’s winter in Bluefields right now. There’s so much rain and the rivers flow so heavily that the bay is churned into a brown color. There’s so much rain that the sea water loses its salty taste.

As we approached his house, the fisherman took a deep breath.

"At least it’s not summer," he said. "When the water is salty, it stings your eyes."

A journalistic protest: La Prensa, which has a fairly stellar reputation for its journalism, points out that President Daniel Ortega has not held a press conference for 2,774 days. The newspaper prints that number every day.

A journalistic protest: La Prensa, which has a fairly stellar reputation for its journalism, points out that President Daniel Ortega has not held a press conference for 2,774 days. The newspaper prints that number every day.

Finding A Bit Of Mumbai In Diriomo, Nicaragua

When I was kid, I distinctly remember the sound of Latin America. I spent the first four years of my life in Nicaragua and the truth is I don’t remember much. 

But what I do remember about the country is the sounds of its central parks — the calls from the women selling cajeta and the sweet sound of the bells from the ice cream carts. 

I found that same sound a couple of days ago in the central park of the colonial city of Granada. Take a listen: 

But something has happened to that sound throughout the country. Over the past few years, the country has been inundated with rickshaws from India. Now, what used to be sleepy colonial towns whose days were punctuated by church bells have become bustling centers, buzzing with the sound of small motors chewing through fuel. 

That’s what I found in the town of Diriomo. It’s still charming: Its old cathedral framed by a giant volcano, its central park painted in bright pastels. 

But the dominant sound is that of the Torito, the three-wheel taxi made by Bajaj. It was like finding a bit of Mumbai in Nicaragua. 

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez looms large in Nicaragua — literally and figuratively. This is Avenida Bolivar in Managua.

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez looms large in Nicaragua — literally and figuratively. This is Avenida Bolivar in Managua.

A Glimpse Of A Post Imperial Latin America

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It was a very familiar display.

Different regiments of the Nicaraguan armed forces marched into the Plaza of the Revolution. They moved past an eternal flame, marking the grave of Tómas Borges, and glided past a giant portrait of a young Augusto César Sandino.

Borges was one of the young, student radicals who helped overthrow the U.S.-backed regime of Anastasio Somoza. Sandino, of course, is the symbol of the revolution, the rebel who helped lead a successful guerrilla war against an invading U.S. military starting in the late 1920s. 

There was pomp, there was circumstance. A band played and President Daniel Ortega stepped on stage, understated in a zip-up jacket and a baseball cap.  

Usually, revolutionary leaders like Ortega, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro step to the podium and decry the great evil to the north. They rail against the yanqui imperialista, their rhetoric bouncing across the plaza and sparking a populist fervor. 

But something different happened Wednesday night in that plaza.

"I want to recognize the effort of the United States, of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and the effort their military makes in our Caribbean," Ortega said. "We are contributing to detain the drug traffic headed into the United States market, which is headed to poison their people. We are contributing with that great nation, with those people. It’s an effort the Nicaraguan people do on principle, on principle. Even if the U.S. didn’t give us a single ship, we’d continue this effort as we’ve been doing it with all certainty. But we appreciate this gesture."

It might all be temporary; it might not mean much. But at the moment it felt like a display of a Latin America coming to terms with a post-Monroe Doctrine world, a Latin America that has stopped worrying about the outsized influence that the super power to the north has wielded in the region. 

Earlier in the week, I spoke to Jacinto Suárez, the foreign minister of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacíon Nacional. 

He said Nicaragua is willing to work with Russia and is willing to work with the United States. 

"This," he said, "is a new world." 

A Postcard From One Of Managua’s Most Dangerous Neighborhoods

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The walls around Barrio Jorge Dimitrov, one of the most dangerous in Managua, Nicaragua, are full of graffiti — but it’s not what you’d expect. The dove above says: “I am Nicaraguan. I am peace,” and “Without weapons. Without fear.” 

A Lesson In Politics In The (Second) Era Of Ortega

If you talk to the opposition in Nicaragua, you’ll hear the word “caudillo” a lot. We’re here to explore why Nicaragua has remained so peaceful, in such a tumultuous region, but no matter who you talk to, the conversation always turns to Daniel Ortega. 

Perhaps not unlike the political reality of the United States, this country is polarized. When I spoke with Eduardo Montealegre, a once presidential candidate and now the opposition leader, he put things in stark, dramatic terms. He said Ortega was “all powerful” and “all mighty.” And because he controls so many branches of the government and a good deal of the media, the opposition is in a perilous spot.  

Ortega, like Hugo Chávez, seems omnipresent in this country. Fuschia billboards featuring his smile are everywhere, extolling his party’s ability to “build a nation.” The radio stations play hymns dedicated to the comandante.

Monday night, he held a homecoming for a little league baseball team that had a tough journey in Florida. Public appearances from Ortega are rare, so the display of security around the old center of town was spectacular: Roads were closed and police and military men directed traffic. Buses full of young people — all of them wearing white shirts that said, “Yo hago patria!” (I build a nation!) —descended on the venue. 

It was deeply choreographed and really illuminated the kind of organizational prowess of the Frente Sandinista de la Liberación Nacional has in this country. When we approached a check point near the venue in our car, the police stopped us; we showed them our credentials and after consulting for several minutes, the verdict came down. 

"This event is for official media only," one of the policemen said. 

One of the things you learn quickly in Nicaragua is that everything from the media to the taxi drivers are on one side or the other. They’re the ones that think Ortega is quickly becoming one of the dictators he fought so hard to get rid off, or you’re one of the ones who believes he’s fighting for the poor people and upholding the ideals of the revolution. 

Again, perhaps, not unlike the partisan bickering that happens in United States. 

But Roberto Orozco, an independent security consultant in Nicaragua, said down here such polarization can be grave. Look at the country’s history, he said. Every period of bloodshed was preceded by intense political polarization. He told me all of the country’s violence has been driven by one thing: politics. 

Photo: People walk across a park, where President Daniel Ortega was expected to speak. Juan Carlos/NPR