We spent the afternoon in Teguc, a fairly large city of modern office buildings and slums (mostly slums), not to our taste, and the following day we took off for Managua, Nicaragua. From there we caught a local minibus to Granada, an hour away. Granada, another colonial city, is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America. The city is larger than Antigua, but manageable, and we found our hostel, Oasis, without much trouble. It did indeed feel like an oasis with an inner courtyard, complete with hammocks, rather interesting murals on the walls, as well as a small swimming pool and restaurant.
Oasis is an international place, and we could hear English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish being spoken within a few minutes of checking in. It was quite hot, and we dropped our packs in our room and plunged into the pool before going to explore. It was apparent that the city is in the midst of a relative boom. For years the overall Nicaraguan economy has been in the doldrums, and following the latest civil war and years of corruption, it remains the second poorest in the hemisphere, preceded only by Haiti. Here in Granada, many of the old, beautiful buildings are being renovated, mostly by Europeans or North Americans.
The largest are being turned into hotels, at least in the center, and are fairly expensive by Central American standards. Others are being turned into restaurants or private villas. We passed a Century 21 office, with photos of houses for sale and captions in English. It was obvious that the great Norteamericano land and property grab is on here in earnest, despite the shaky economy and still unstable political situation.
North Americans have been grabbing land in Nicaragua since the days of William Walker. Walker was a Tennessean journalist and adventurer, who saw an opportunity to take over Mexico and Central America, and create his own empire based on slave labor. In 1855, he had the perfect chance when the Liberal party in Nicaragua recruited him to fight against the Conservatives, in exchange for 20,000 acres of land. With 58 mercenaries, he stole one of Vanderbuilt's steamboats, and attacked Granada, the primary site of Conservative power. He executed and held captive many prominent people, and named himself commander of the Nicaraguan armed forces. Within a few years, he rigged the election to become president, legalized slavery, and even declared English to be the official language. The first foreign government to recognize him as the legitimate ruler of the country was of course, the United States, where Walker was considered a hero. There was even a Broadway musical, in 1856, which was based on his life. Eventually he challenged Vanderbilt's transportation business in Nicaragua, and Vanderbilt joined with the British, who were already active on the Caribbean coast, in financing a rebel force in Costa Rica. This combined force defeated Walker in 1857. He tried twice more to retake the country, but was captured by the British in Honduras, where he was turned over to local authorities and executed.
The US marines were involved in Nicaraguan politics on several different occasions, sometimes at the invitation of government officials in that country. With help from US Secretary of War, Stimson, a national guard was formed to help keep order. However a Liberal general, Augusto Sandino, opposed this arrangement and fought a guerrilla war for six years. Ironically, Sandino had become familiar with more radical union politics in Mexico,[i] while working for an American oil company. During this time, with full backing from the US government, General Anastasio Somoza became head of the national guard. Although Sandino had made peace, Somoza wanted power and had his soldiers trick and then assassinate him along with 300 of his men. Somoza then proceeded to amass a huge personal fortune and essentially run the Nicaraguan government, which was powerless to stop him. He was assassinated in 1956, but was smart enough to maintain ties to various US administrations, so that it was easy for his son, also known as Anastasio, and a graduate of West Point, to take over. He was easily as corrupt as his father, and continued his father's policies of close connections and support from the United States
In the early 60's another rebel movement arose which called itself the Sandinista Liberation Front , and came to be led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega. Initially very small, and without much popular support, it was given a large boost from the earthquake of 1972, which destroyed much of Managua. During this time Somoza wasted millions of dollars of international aide, much of which went to line his own pockets, and this set the business community against him.In 1979, the Sandinistas took over with little opposition, and Daniel Ortega became president. Gradually they tried to create a state run economy, and aligned themselves even more so with the Soviet block and Cuba. With encouragement from Fidel,they also became involved with the revolution in El Salvador.
In response, US President Reagan, aligned with the Argentine military to establish the Contras. Although badly mismanaged, the Contras gradually gained some popular support as the Sandinistas lost it, because of their disastrous economic policies. Despite the Boland Amendment,which expressly forbid it, the Reagan administration continued to supply and train the Contras. This eventually led to the Iran-Contra scandal and in part because of this, Oscar Arias the President of Costa Rica, was able to put together a peace agreement over Reagan's opposition. The Sandinstas were later defeated in a democratic election by Violetta Chamorro who, in an attempt to create a unity government, appointed Humberto Ortega as army chief of staff. Although this ended the war with the Contras, economic recovery was slow in coming and the Sadinistas remained a powerful force. In 1996 however, they were again defeated, this time by the center right PLC candidate, Aleman. An investigation later revealed that he had embezzled millions of dollars while mayor of Managua. Politics as usual in Nicaragua. In one of the strangest and most cynical political twists in a country full of them, Daniel Ortega, whose step daughter had accused him of sexual abuse, formed a pact with Aleman. Under this pact, he and Aleman, as well as all other outgoing presidents, were awarded lifetime seats in the Assembly, thus guaranteeing that each of them would have immunity from prosecution. Recently Daniel Ortega has, once again, become president.
Despite these political machinations, Granada remains a delightful city. It has a beautiful central square, surrounded by mango trees, brightly painted colonial buildings and a church.
Nearby there is the cobblestone and wide Plaza de la Independencia, with little traffic, a catedral, several outdoor cafes, and a cooperative art gallery and studio.
From the Art Gallery
On one of our morning walks we stopped into a small hotel, just in the process of opening. A young woman, Susan, was at the desk and we talked with her in Spanish about the hotel and what seemed to be happening in the town. She told us that a lot of North- Americans had moved up from Costa Rica in the last few years, where things had gotten expensive, and bought places for a song in southern Nicaragua. Prices were still cheaper than there, but going up fast. She explained that the person who was opening the hotel was an American woman who had been involved with the international relief movement in various countries, and had decided to settle here. Susan said that she had initially come down to Nicaragua as part of a graduate program in international studies, but that she liked Granada and planned to stay on for a while. “Oh which one?” we said in English. “The School for International Development in Brattleboro Vermont.” “Really,” we said in unison. “You didn't happen to know Arpita?” And of course, she knew her well. Arpita is one of our daughters best friends, who she met in Costa Rica a few years earlier while they were both in World Teach. Ah yes, the proverbial six degrees of separation. Susan said she was the manager of the new hotel, which had just opened that week. “In a few more years, this place will be the next Antigua,” and we could certainly see what she was talking about. “Do you have any plans for Thanksgiving?” which was coming up in a couple of days. “No.” "Well then you must come here. The owner is giving a big party , but its kind of a pot luck thing. Can you bring a dish of some kind?” We didn't have a kitchen we explained. “Just bring some fruit or something then, it doesn't really matter, but you'll get to meet the whole community.” “ We'll be there.”
Rooftops at Sunset
Most of the next day we spent with an interesting German couple that we met at Oasis. She was about 40, with a Greek father and German mother, very chatty and boisterous. She told us she was going to spend six weeks volunteering as a physician in a hospital in Managua, and also mentioned there was an interesting volunteer project in Granada. Started and funded by a rich, expat Dutchman, who was still involved, it ran for about two hours a day for kids of all ages. They put on a kind of homespun talent show every night and fed them dinner. The purpose was to keep them out of street gangs, teach basic values about the importance of helping each other, and to make sure they had at least one decent meal a day. “We should go to one of the shows," she said. Just make sure you get there on time at 5 or, they won't let you in.” Her boyfriend, Stefan, who was younger and more serious, was going back to Germany after their week in Grenada. He was quieter and his heavily accented English was difficult for us to understand. When she heard that we were therapists, and that I specialized in work with couples, she pumped us for information about what we did and made it clear that she had a number of relationship issues . German men were often threatened by her, she said. Sometimes her Greek background made her feel different, and she often picked men who were not especially good for her. At times, talking to her felt like doing therapy. We later heard she was bitten by a scorpion in Managua and had a difficult time.
The project she told us about was in a run down part of town, close to the lake. The night we visited, there we were no outsiders, and several of the kids, more than 200 in all, made a fuss over us. " Why were we here" they wanted to know? Where were we from. What were we doing in Granada? The place was frenetic with kids banging on the tables and screaming to their friends. After about 15 minutes, the show began with singing and dancing. What was especially touching was that the older one's helped the little one's, and while the quality of was not the best, just like most talent shows, the energy was infectious, the kids wanted to be there, and were having a great time. After it was over, we helped to distribute the food and talked with the Dutchman who had come in just before the show started. He said he had started the program to give the kids a good meal, show them they could have a good time without drugs, and emphasize the importance of being kind and respectful to others. It was obviously a great success. Very simple and very effective.
Catedral with Lago Nicaragua in the Background
The next day was Thanksgiving. We bought a couple of pineapples and some cashews and headed over to the hotel for the party. Susan greeted us, and introduced us to several other people including the hotel owner.
Terry was a fascinating woman about our age, who had been in war zones around the world, helping to bring in food and supplies. She had saved a bit of money, and bought the hotel a few years earlier so that she could “retire.” It had been an interesting project so far she said . She had more or less renovated the building from scratch and it took far longer than expected. We wanted to talk with her more, especially about her other career, but she was whisked off by another friend. A large contingent of the expat community was at the party. A lot of Norteamericanos certainly, but a few Dutch, French, English and Australians as well. There were also several locals, some hotel guests, and a few other travelers like us. It was an interesting assortment of people. There were a number of ex-peace corps types as well the other relief workers who knew Terry. There were also more typical retirees who saw Grenada as a nice place to spend their retirement years in a style that would be difficult for them to afford in the states. There were several investor types, including a couple of “contractors,” who saw dollar signs, and the potential to make good money as the town continued to prosper. There were hotel owners , restauranteurs and gift shop entrepreneurs. What they all seemed to have in common was a willingness to take some risks and a desire to live in a more relaxed way than they thought possible in the US. Everyone of course, knew everyone else in this small community, but they were very friendly toward us and the other mochilleros (backpackers).
The bar was open with wine and beer and a huge spread was put out on a buffet table, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Just like home. It had been prepared by the kitchen staff who apparently had never made a Thanksgiving dinner before, understandably enough, and needed instruction from the owner. We sat next to to an unlikely American couple in their mid 40's. They ran an auto-detailing business in the mid-west. About a year ago, Lily announced she was moving down here following a visit to her daughter who had spent some time volunteering in the hills outside of Granada. Lily had enough of the rat race, and her husband could come or not, that was up to him. After about 6 months he closed the business and followed her down, and a few months ago they bought a house on Lago de Apoyo and opened up a B and B. "You must come for visit while you're here. It's only about 40 minutes away. You even need a sweater at night," Lily said, as the sweat dripped down my neck. Now that did sound appealing.