Following FCO advice, we took a bus through Honduras to Nicaragua (the twice weekly boat across the bay that avoids Nicaragua was fully booked “maybe 2 weeks”). It’s true, better safe than sorry, but I was sorry: I love to ride across a border, it’s usually over a bridge, and simple on a bike. Once in Honduras I was pleased not to ride, arid and empty, no sign of the recent riots and roadblocks, but we would have struggled to find accommodation. It took two long and frustrating hours to exit Honduras, queing in a mosquito infected departure hall repeating the entry procedure, fingerprints, thumbprints, photograph, stamps (no border crossing compliment this time: the entry official took my picture and said “You are very beautiful” – here my blue eyes attract comment but this took me by surprise!!).
By the time we entered Nicaragua we knew our bus crew intimately! One Belgian woman, our age, suffered cerebral malaria two years ago, the one that doesn’t reoccur if you survive! She had been on a trip to Australia, no malaria there, but her doctor considered her symptoms and decided to test for malaria, perhaps saving her life. And the mosquito bite? It could only have happened during her 3 hour stopover in Jakarta airport. I know that when I open my bag to pack two or three mosquitoes usually fly out, they love dark corners. There is a British woman with malaria who has never left UK, but she lives near Heathrow…
Malaria is not a problem where we will visit in Nicaragua, but mosquitoes here cause chikungunya and Zika, and dengue fever is endemic. I think mosquitoes cause more misery and loss of human life than any other organism (except other humans), they are whining unlovely insects and I hate them, but they are too important for wildlife – birds, bats, frogs- to destroy completely. Not That Charles won’t try..
So here we are in university town Leon with its beautiful contemporary art gallery and sixteen churches. Saturday night is party night, buzzing with music and laughter. We sit at a taco van as two teenage boys prepare our snack. Gold watch, medallion, skin tight jeans, and Peaky Blinders hair, long on top, shaved into patterns at the sides, often bleached but instead of blond the result is a dull orange. The boys are busy cooking, but not one girl passes without them commenting, flirting. Girls and women wear impossible heels and short tight skirts and dresses, but their hair remains traditionally long straight black and beautiful. The teenagers are not drinking beer but twice we witness cocaine consumption, men in their late 20s.
This is a misogynist society. I am irritated by whistles and catcalls from vehicles as I ride. Grrrrr. I am old enough to be your mother (grandmother out here). Piss off.
New year’s Eve and New year’s Day are completely different to Saturday’s ‘Tertulia Leónesa’ (gathering). Now the teenagers are with their families, everyone strolling in their ‘Sunday best’, pressed shirts and chinos, party frocks, ribbons and bows. Charles’ crumpled look raises eyebrows. Flashing light roller blades are the must have Christmas present. It’s festive with food stalls and a kiddies’ funfair, but the church dominates, bringing an enormous altar out into the square, huge silver candlesticks, and twenty speakers! Basilica Catedral de Leon is the largest Cathedral in Central America, massive and white and crumbling. Midnight was celebrated with firecrackers galore, and impressive firework displays in every direction (I watched from the hostel roof, the best view, as the only tall buildings here are church towers). On the stroke of midnight a deafening air raid siren sounded, a bit sinister, but it occurs daily in Leon at 7am and noon. Why? My Spanish doesn’t stretch that far. Originally for plantation workers???
On New year’s Day we tried to reach a volcano but the road deteriorated to dust, so we backtracked and cycled to the beach instead. What a laugh! The black sand beach shelves steeply into the sea so the waves happen suddenly. We watch as three adults are swept off their feet in ankle deep water. We sat on the beach and were swept in and out, ridiculous and hilarious, everyone grabbing each other, legs braced for the next one. No-one is completely swept away. It was fun and friendly.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere after Haiti – 46% living below the poverty line, 20% children suffering from malnutrition, while the moneyed elite live like, well, us! President Ortaga’s third re-election provides stability after a turbulent history but it’s not without accusations of corruption. The majority of the population are mestizo, of mixed descent; Indigenous, Spanish, German, Garifuna, throw in a few pirates! All in all an uncommonly good looking people.
But history has not been kind. Spanish conquistadors slaughtered with abandon and the coastal tribes were decimated, 700,000 to 35,000 in 25 years, that’s 2,216 per month for 25 years!!!!
Recent history is dominated by USA intervention. In 1893 a liberal dictator antagonised the USA by seeking a canal deal with German and Japanese support (funny, it’s now being constructed) to compete with the US backed Panama canal. A coup led to a conservative regime and a US trained Guardia National to squash any resistance, led by Somozo Garcia. Somozo engineered the assassination of the main rebel leader Sandino after a peace conference, and set himself up as President, amassing huge wealth, and founding a family dynasty that lasted for forty years!!
The Sandinista rebels gained most support after an earthquake in 1972. International aid flooded in, straight into the Somozo family pockets! By 1979 the Sandinista rebels were victorious. But they inherited a shambolic state of extreme poverty. At first, under Carter, the USA sent in aid, but Reagan was suspicious of their links to Cuba and USSR so the aid was suspended. By 1981 US military were supporting the Contras, a counter-revolutionary military group of guess who? ex-soldiers of Somozo’s Guardia Nacional. Remember Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair? Weapons to Iran via Israel with profits fed to the Contras. Meantime USSR and Cuba free the Sandinistas.
In 1990 a democratic election replaced Ortego and the Sandinistas with a coalition government. President Chamorro was backed by US who lifted the trade embargo and donated hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid. After losing three successive elections, Ortego returned to power in 2006. Persistent!