Saturday, October 30, 2010
If you read any guidebook on Nicaragua they paint a pretty fearsome picture of Managua, the capital city and our new home. They toss around phrases like "difficult," "little-loved" and "disturbing," and suggest that you leave immediately from the airport for more tourist-friendly places like Granada. Do not pass go, do not spend a night in Managua.
(Although, I recently picked up a copy of the Rough Guide to California and found that my hometown of Fresno was described as "almost classic in its ugliness." So... thanks a lot, jerks! I think we can conclude that guidebook authors are generally snobs and shills for the tourism industry.)
I will say that I did find Managua a little intimidating for the first week or so that we were here. It is strange to remember that time because so much that struck me as strange now seems normal. Such is culture shock, I guess.
It is true that Managua is a difficult city to visit. It sprawls like L.A. so you can't really rely on walking to get around. Unlike most tourist meccas, it utterly lacks a quaint city center, since old downtown Managua was leveled by a catastrophic earthquake in 1972 and never really rebuilt. In the difficult years following the earthquake, the city spilled outward in a flood of barrios, streets and rotundas, bound only by the lake to the north. There have been several attempts to manufacture shiny new city centers with hotels and shopping malls, now strung like pearls along the road to Masaya. Useful places, but they don't exactly give the city much flavor.
To add to the initial visitor's confusion, the city is almost completely lacking in street names, street signs and house numbers. This has given rise to a Cartesian system for giving directions that actually works quite smoothly once you're oriented. Addresses for houses and business will be relative to some well-known landmark (or, in some cases, former landmark), then e.g. two blocks abajo (meaning west toward the setting sun), one block al lago (meaning north to the lake).
Virtually all of the houses here present a closed face to street -- windows with bars and walls topped with barbed wire. Partly this is a response to crime (although in terms of violent crime, Nicaragua is currently the safest country in C.A.) and partly architectural style. This can seem closed-off and unwelcoming, until you realize that virtually everyone is out on the street anyway.
All of which is to say, we're not here because Managua is a tropical vacation paradise. Managua is a beautiful city because of the amazing people we've met. And really, the greatness of a city like New York (for example) goes far beyond the handful of tourist attractions in Manhattan. Managua is a little like that -- its bulk and energy and history are what makes it impressive.
And there are definitely specific aspects of the city that are growing on me. For example, I love how mixed-use the neighborhoods are. Two doors down from our house we have a pulperia (a small grocery store run out of a family's home) and we're a short walk from a natural medicine center, dentists, cyber-cafes, schools, restaurants, pharmacies. To say nothing of the vendors who come down our street daily with fresh fruit and tortillas.
Anyway, that's our brief tour and initial impressions of our new city.