Stalking Nucky Thompson.
Leon is hot. Blindingly so. Soupily, poundingly, head swimmingly hot. Google informs us that the day is a crispy 38 degrees but ‘feels like 44’. How can a day feel six degrees hotter than it is? Shouldn’t it be illegal, weather like this? I wonder how they can get anyone to go to work here without including ‘bath of icecubes’ in the list of perks. It is simply unholy and we sweat and slip and slide through the three days in the city, mainly concentrating our efforts around sitting still by the fan in our room with wet bandanas on our heads.
When we do make it out of our steamy little room, we plug slowly up to the main square and stare at the cathedral for a bit. It is the biggest in Central America and a much needed repaint is going on under scaffolding round the side in blinding white. Once it is finished it will be hard to look at in the sunshine, such is the way the light bounces off it. I think I rather like it as it is which is streaked and blackened from the local volcanic eruptions. It lends the building an air of grand decreptitude, like an old lion, resplendent mane in tangles and huge arthritic paws swiping at the flies. The full name of the cathedral is the Real & Illustrious Basilica Cathedral Of The Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary, a name the place quite lives up to. It makes me think of an icecream cart we drove past in Mexico called Benediction Of God Icecreams. They are a truly commited bunch, these Latinos, and we both wonder what on earth it would be like here if the Spanish had been questing for haggis or something instead of gold. Would I have had to learn Nahautl instead? Which God would have bestowed his best wishes on my iced desserts and what would we have looked at in all these towns? I would surely mourn the loss of the statues of Jesus in a glass box in each church whose expression and stance ranges from sad boredom to positively coquettish. It would be an entirely different adventure, that much is sure.
Opposite the cathedral are a few lacklustre souvenir stands selling the kind of things you only buy if you have had a minor concussion and beyond that, the opportunites for consumerism are extremely limited outside of alcohol and food sales. We wander about the dusty, slightly abandoned feeling streets with an increasing feeling that three days here may have been over optimistic. Eventually, for lack of anything else to look at or do, we slip in to an oversized restaurant and wait fifty minutes for a black clam ceviche and some fried plantains. The ceviche, when it finally arrives, is served in a martini glass with jewelly dice of yellow peppers and tomatoes sitting in a murky, black sauce (or tiger’s milk, let’s get our terminology right). It is sharp and limey, crunchy and refreshing but the clams work unpleasantly on my subconscious until I am quite sure I am eating babies ears such is the yielding but oddly cartilaginous texture. I finish the glass because I am brave and not to be cowed by the underhand way my brain likes to work, but the tostones or fried plantains are a welcome retreat from such sensual oddities. Green plantains are fried in slices then crushed together in little cakes and refried to make delicious, starchy, salty snacks speared on a tooth pick with a big lump of wobbly white cheese. They are just about everywhere in Nicaragua and help vastly with my appreciation of the place.
When the waiter is finally persuaded to bring the bill, we have no choice but to roll back to the hostel and lie down more or less on the fan which is where we stay reading about the unpleasant meddling of the Tory government in the UK’s public services until it is dark. Indignant with the injustice of it all, we stride back in to town to eat some barbequed meats at a busy street food spot tucked away by the market and cringe at the small explosives being let off around us. Central and South Americans have a major preoccupation with ‘petardos’ or extremely noisy firecrackers. They let them off at all times of day in the smallest of hamlets and the biggest of cities. The owners of a bar I once stayed near in Colombia seemed to rise especially at six in the morning just to set firecrackers off to wake up the whole valley. Here in Leon they are setting them off right in the square next to us and nobody but us is batting an eyelid such is the extraordinary tolerance of the people in this part of the world to both noise and other people. We try to relax, look cool and local but flinch with every bang. Jamie points out that you would think that a country so recently entrenched in a violent civil war would be a little jumpy of explosives too but perhaps it means they are just used to it.
The Nicaraguan Revolution was played out, in large part, right here on the streets of Leon by ordinary citizens pushing against an unhappy dictatorship regime run by President Somoza. He was murdered in Paraguay having fled there after being overthrown by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a historic moment pointed out by a short, gnarly looking veteran at the Museum Of The Revolution in Leon’s central square. The veteran has unbuttoned the front of his shirt to show off his scars and holds a stick to illustrate points, he really means business.
Welcome to the Museum of the Revolution.
He says seriously.
Do you speak Spanish? Does he? You will have to translate!
He commands upon finding out that Jamie only speaks basic Spanish. He looks at me sternly and it is clear I have been given an important task. He leads us around a room of tattered, yellowing photographs and newspaper clippings, stopping once to foist a bazooka in to Jamie’s arms, load it with a shell and command a photograph. Jamie looks a little desperate and asks me quietly not to put the photo online, worried about the ever increasing inquisitions based on daft social media entries.
Our stern veteran speaks slowly and clearly for me and gives me time to explain to Jamie that the man in the grainy black and white photograph throwing a Molotov is in fact him. We stare at the photograph and then at the older, colour version in front of us and nod vigorously. He smacks each photo with his stick as he explains his cupful of history and we wonder if there are copies of them or whether the last images of the revolution will be slowly thwacked to bits by a group old ageing but sincere veterans in a quest for backpacker enlightenment.
The story is fascinating. He points out Somoza and shouts MUERTE! DEAD! then repeats the sentiment with unconcealed delight for each member of the Somoza family. He shows us the face of the man who assassinated the exiled president; a young man who pretended to be a guard in order to slip in to the building Somoza was in and shoot him. He tells us about Sandino, the man who gave his name the discontent simmering in the nation, a man like Bolivar, Guevara or Castro who each wanted a liberated Latin America and led an uprising in many corners of the continent. We are patiently told that the ‘guererros’, the Sandinista guerillas, had no formal weaponry, unlike the military who were decked out with arms donated by the United States. The Sandinistas made their own, Molotov cocktails and strange bombs wrapped in newspaper that our veteran casually kicks back in to place after one rolls loose from its display. Later, the Sandinistas were properly armed by Fidel Castro but until that point, homemade weapons had to do. The gnarly veteran points to a picture of Che Guevara and says,
Great man. A great man. Much sadness in my family when he was killed….
And mimes tears streaming down his face. There are ranks of black and white faces, women and men, who fought fiercely for their cause and the stick is tapped sharply on many to point out which were friends; lots, and who is still alive ; not many.
Finally, after a thorough stick thwacking, bomb kicking, Jamie arming tour, we are indeed, much enlightened. Perhaps sensing this and rewarding our earnest nodding, he asks us if we want to go upstairs. Always one to jump at a chance to explore a semi derelict building, I nod enthusiastically. Before we are led through a door with a ‘no entry’ sign on it, he shows us a photo of the main square packed to the gills with thousands of people. It is so full that people are hanging off the niches in the cathedral and leaking out the edges in to the surrounding streets. This is the victory of the FSLN, we are told. This gathering represents what a people can do if they stand up and say no. My mind flicks to David Cameron and I imagine Whitehall stuffed with people clutching Molotovs made from Stella bottles before we are beckoned through the door into an extraordinary stairwell.
The paint is peeling from the walls and the steps are dusty and gloomy. There is no glass left in the windows and as we follow our veteran up the grand stone staircase, he tells us about a ghostly lady in white who climbs to the first floor window and stands looking out every day. He continues a little creakily up the stairs and casually points out the bullet holes still peppering the walls of a small room overlooking the street, then shows us in to a large room brightly painted in peeling pink paint. On a small balcony overlooking the square he points to the cathedral and explains something too fast for me to understand, but I imagine he was saying, you silly tourist, you’re far too young and stupid to understand, but here it all was, right here in front of you and we did it and we won too!
We hand him a wodge of well earned notes as we leave and shake his hand and say thank you a lot. He loses interest in us and returns to chat with other leathery veterans and we range about in the streets catching up on misunderstandings and pieces of lost history until slowly we realise we have run out of thing to do again. Now that Nicaragua is at peace, the place is drowsy and perhaps more preoccupied with lunch rather than fighting the oppressor. So we head back to drape ourselves limply in the hot air circulating our room and are delighted to find that our UK biker friends Bev and John will be catching up with us and arriving in Leon the next day.
In a celebratory mood, we spend too much money in a Cuban restaurant where we meet Etienne from Canada who is backpacking around the world and shares many tales of couch surfing with us. He knows York well, having stayed with a Polish dentist who lives above the Jorvik Centre and tells us about sending one host into a flying rage by innocently consuming one of her yogurts. We chat for a long time over soursop daiquiris about the ins and outs of travelling through Latin America. Before we finally leave, I enquire after the providence of the owner, is he actually from Cuba? I am greeted with a big smile and an extremely speedy Cuba inflected rundown of current affairs in Cuba. Should we go? We all wonder. Yes we should go but……and then we all lose the plot, such is the rapidity of his Spanish. It seems though that despite his heroic status here in Leon, Castro couldn’t keep everyone happy in Cuba.
Etienne leaves in the morning, entrusting his email address with the hostel manager and I add him on Facebook watching his progress as he travels through Honduras and Guatemala. Meanwhile an email from John arrives instructing us to meet them at six in town and we spend a languid day flopping sweatily through an empty art gallery full of uninspiring works of contemporary art by ludicrously famous artists or lying on our beds sweating. We are grumpy, hot and bickery by the time half five rolls around and argue fractiously all the way in to town until we see Bev and John smiling at us.
Hi!! How are you?
We grin and hug as if we weren’t pissed off with each other and somehow, in pretending, we aren’t anymore and John and Bev’s stories of the last few weeks perk us up yet more. We eat some good food in a cockroachy restaurant in town where they tell us about places they have tracked down their favourite food, quiche and the trouble with Belize. I drink a luminous pink pineapple soda and recount tales of road blocks Chiapas and narrowly avoiding dragging children on strings down the road with us. John is surprised and envious at our adventuring they didn’t encounter anything like it. Bev seems non committal in joining his envy and instead tells us about a small dog they saw run over. We all moan about the intense heat and decide there is nothing for it but to finish the evening drinking cold beers in the courtyard at their hostel and working out where will see them next. Jamie’s brother has been charged with a consignment of Yorkshire teabags of which a percentage is owed to Bev and John for teabag services rendered in Mexico so it is important we find each other as all good tea drinkers will understand.
They are staying a week in Leon to learn Spanish and panic through a home stay and we are headed to Granada in the south of the country so we bid them farewell with the vaguest of plans to see them somewhere in Costa Rica and wish them buen suerte with the Spanish. It feels like a little fragment of normality seeing them and perhaps they feel the same because later Jamie tells me that John invited us up to Cumbria to go biking with them when we all get home.
Home, where it rains and pours. Where it blusters and blows. Imagine! We are practically drooling just thinking about it and decide we can hack the heat no more and book a treat in Granada for ourselves; air conditioning! Ah and what bliss it is. Such heaven to sit in a fleece feeling a little chilly. We barely move in the six days we have booked there. The heat outside is just as intense and even the little swimming pool tucked in to the courtyard can’t cool us like the beloved a/c winking its darling LED numbers at us in the dark.
Granada is the tourist jewel in Nicaragua’s crown with a pretty central square decked with bird filled trees and lined with horse drawn carriages. On the first day we enthusiastically walk through the chaotic central market where you can seemingly buy ANYTHING as long as it’s stuff you don’t know what to do with and circle the charming colonial buildings edging the square. We drink a margarita in the restaurant strewn tourist street behind the cathedral and slurp down a chia seed and tamarind drink in a cafe. We look at the town’s two museums wanly; a chocolate museum or a building filled with 6000, yes six thousand pieces of Central American pottery. We have already seen a rather enormous quantity of ceramics thus far and simply can’t motivate ourselves to see more and the cafe at the chocolate museums’s menu does not have a convincing enough preoccupation with chocolate based foodstuffs to entice us to part with the entrance fee. So we discover that, actually, we have sort of run out of stuff to do in Granada by the first day. Outside of the main square there are really only eateries and bars, nothing more to see or do so we elect to follow the most sensible course of action, stay inside and finish every last episode ever made of Boardwalk Empire.
We promise ourselves we will visit the local volcano and take a boat out in to Lake Nicaragua, besides which Granada stands after we have finished season three. However, we soon find out that the boat tour is simply an excuse to stare at mansions owned by rich Americans built on islands in the huge lake and to overfeed unsuitable things to five obese monkeys planted on one of the islands. It doesn’t hurt too much to agree to watch series four and go instead to visit the volcano the next day. We repeat this conversation each day until suddenly our ill advised six days in Granada is coming to an end. The heat and Steve Buscemi have got the better of us. We are a little ashamed, but not much.
The time, you see, is not entirely wasted. We meet a lovely Australian couple who have sold everything to travel the world and who share our disillusionment with Nicaragua. We get talking by telling them about the obese monkeys and it goes from there. We share stories about political crappiness across the globe and some rapidly warming beers one evening by the swimming pool as bats flit around our heads. They too are languishing in the puddle of bliss under the air conditioner and are dreaming of colder places. They decide to book a flight to Panama and disappear the next day to Boquete in the Panamanian mountains and hike in the deliciously chilly high altitude air. That leaves us to coo over the tiny Ruddy Pigeon who lives in the courtyard and who has been rescued by the owner after a fall from his nest. He is brown and ruffled with a long beak and curious bobbing walk. Each time we go near him, he sits down and goes motionless with fear, staring up at us with glassy eyes and I decide we must own a Ruddy Pigeon the moment we get home regardless of its suitability to UK weather. We name him Nucky Thompson after the lead character in Boardwalk Empire and I take to stalking him around the pool. He gives me concerned looks and pecks at seeds. I feel the relationship blossoming.
On the fourth day though, Nucky Thompson is gone, much to my dismay. He has either flown away or been eaten by the cat, we will never know which. The heart rather goes out of our stay in Granada with the loss of our petrified little friend and I mourn him while standing in the swimming pool in the rain. What the staff at the hotel must think of us we don’t know. Who are this couple who spend all their time in their room or following a pigeon? Don’t they have a motorbike to go away on?
We wonder if perhaps we shouldn’t have just got out into the Nicaraguan countryside and seen the country that way instead. Since we couldn’t even make it to a volcano 30km away, it doesn’t seem likely we would have motivated ourselves, so we content ourselves with the coming two days we have booked in San Juan Del Sur. This little, tourist heavy town is one of the few places you can stay on the coast in Nicaragua and still remain in civilisation. Since we haven’t realised any of our plans for our time in the country at all, we figure we can at least eat a lobster in San Juan before we leave for Costa Rica. Beyond Nicaragua, the price rise pushes us out of crustaceon eating territory and thus, it is an important task. We finish the final episode of Boardwalk Empire where, satisfyingly, everyone dies and sigh happily. Jamie turns to the tablet and goes quiet for a while and I read a novel about a marriage dissolving slowly. After a while, Jamie looks up and says,
Er, I’m going to cancel our hostel in San Juan….
The place sounds like a hole. Robberies and muggings in town, sewage on the beach, nightclubs and drunken backpackers. I agree solemnly and stare in to the middle distance for some time. Jamie enquires after my welfare and I turn my serious gaze to him.
But what about my lobster?
I ask piteously and Jamie shrugs. I suppose that’s Nicaragua done then.