Thursday, April 18, 2013

City of Trees

Our first week in Managua, we were taken around on a tour of the city by one of La Misión's pastors who drives a taxi. One stop was the lookout point at the Laguna de Tiscapa, which gives a panoramic view of the city. I remember saying to our friend, ¡Qué verde! (How green it is!). He replied that yes, Managua was a very green city, especially in the rainy season (although it gets pretty amarillo in the summer).
Downtown Managua
When viewed from on high, Managua doesn't much look like a city of almost 2 million people. It looks like a small residential town or a federation of small neighborhoods. Here and there a few tall, modern buildings poke through the canopy of greenery and low tin roofs, but they are the exception. This state of affairs has a lot to do with Managua's unusual history and its distinct lack of central planning. Many Managua neighborhoods began as informal encampments in the years following the earthquake and the revolution and the lean war years. As Stephen Kinzer noted during the 1980s:
"...since the 1972 earthquake Managua had ceased to be a real urban area. Exotic animals like iguanas and bats and hummingbirds were common there, and farm animals roamed freely. Most Managuans were only a generation or two removed from the farm, if that, and when food became expensive and scarce, they thought nothing of keeping livestock in the vacant lots that surrounded their homes. The animals were not penned or tethered, and could often be seen moseying along main streets and standing in public plazas, as if they were waiting for the remaining humans to leave so they could have Managua for themselves." (Blood of Brothers, p. 169).
Managua hasn't yet returned to the state of nature, but it does turn out that people love trees -- they give shade and fruit -- and prefer to keep them around given the opportunity. Although people love trees, developers don't. Trees complicate electrical cables and water lines and cut into the profit margin, which is why housing developments in the U.S. always seem to scrape the land bare before they start building. When we visited San Salvador, that city also seemed to be a concrete jungle, clearly more developed and wealthier than Managua, but much less green.

That first week, we were also amused to find out that the street we live on was divided in two by an enormous mango tree, planted right smack dab in the middle of the road, preventing any through traffic.  (The other entrance to our street is blocked by a memorial to a local kid who died fighting in the revolution.) Cars and motorcycles do come down the street, but it isn't easy. Here too, history is important. Our neighborhood was built back in the '60s, and originally the narrow streets were designed as pedestrian alleys or walking spaces. Many residents used the common space for trees or gardens or public sitting areas. As cars have become more common, many of these andenes have been paved over, little by little with a patchwork of varieties of hand-mixed concrete. All so people can park their car right next to their house. A friend who lived here years before us told me a story about the civil disobedience carried out by some of the neighborhood abuelitas when the decision was made to pave over their gardens.

We also have two mango trees in our backyard, which provide us with shade, hammock space and a seasonal deluge of thumps on the roof. There are two varieties of mango (Mangifera indica) here and ours is the type that doesn't usually get sold in the markets. But it is still pretty delicious, and once they ripen, every chavalo in the neighborhood seems to be climbing trees (or throwing rocks) to bring down the harvest. The peak comes in March, and usually comes too fast for us to consume all the bounty. In fact, there are weeks where we are mostly concerned with carting sacks of rotting mangos out to the trash pickup. I never would have thought I could get sick of eating mangos, but the smell of rotting fruit can do that to you.

A few months after our arrival, our neighbor had their mango tree trimmed. And when I say trimmed I mean violently hacked down to a mere stump about the height of a person. At first I was shocked and a little heartbroken. It was a lovely tree and shaded part of our porch. Why cut it down? I was reassured that it would grow back, but I had my doubts. In California where I grew up, you can't cut a tree down to a stump like that and expect it to survive. There was a sad incident where an oak tree in my grandmother's backyard was cut down to a stump due to a miscommunication with the tree trimmers. And it never grew back.

Of course, California is a desert; things work differently in the tropics, where water is abundant and bursting fecundity is the rule. And sure enough the neighbor's palo grew back in no time. This past week the grand-daddy mango in the center of the street came due for a haircut. The trimmers came and cut it back to a stump the shape of a gnarled fist (at right). We also gave our two mangos a bit of a trim, although not as drastic. Right now there is hardly any shade on our house and we can feel the difference. So once again we're hoping that the rains come soon and the trees re-sprout, putting forth shady, leafy green once more.

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