Nicaragua And The Unbearable Lightness Of Being
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