Saturday, May 30, 2009

Shopping with the Sandinistas.

Before today, everything I new about Nicaragua’s recent history was based on an old SNL skit from the 80s staring Jimmy Smits. All I remember is that every actor was deliberately over-pronouncing Hispanic words like Nicaragua much to Jimmy Smits’ chagrin. Oh and I remember that it was hilarious. Although the video isn’t on youtube, I did manage to find a transcript but it’s not the same as hearing Phil Hartman and Mike Meyer’s gargle while speaking Spanish. At the time of that skit, Nicaragua was in the news a lot, something to do with the Sandanistas, the Contras, and Ollie North. And today we were going to find out what all that meant.

First we needed to figure out our accommodation. Big Foot now had a double room available for $13 US but Adrian set off in search for something better. Big Foot definitely wasn’t the worst place we’ve stayed (not even close) but it was a typical backpackers place – a little dark, a little dingy – and we were hoping for something a bit better. Like private bathrooms. Yes, it was day 7 in the saga of our bad stomachs and we most likely needed some pharmaceutical and or medical intervention. Once we got settled it was on our to do list. But the news from Adrian’s reconnaissance mission wasn’t good. Two nicer places now had private rooms available but for the high prices of $29 and $31. We weighed our options and decided to stay put. The staff were incredibly nice and the cheap price meant we didn’t have to rush off. The mojitos may have figured into the equation, as well as, the pool table. But the free wifi was the deciding factor. So while Adrian played pool I blogged and attempted to close the huge gap between my last post and our current location and then we headed out into the city.

First stop? The usual, the central park. Gazebo? Check. Cathedral? Check. City Hall? Check? Street meat? Time for lunch. Now you’re probably thinking “street meat but your stomachs are bad.” Exactly, my friend. We really had nothing to lose. So we ordered up the Nicaraguan specialty, $1foot long hot dogs and 25¢ popsicles. The hot dogs were scrawny bright pink wieners in big fresh buns and topped with shredded cabbage (aka the Central American version of lettuce), pickles, ketchup and mayonnaise. And they were tasty. While we were eating, we did some people watching. The central park was a local hang out with vendors selling kids toys, balloons and ice cream and families attempting to pull their kids away from the vendors. Nicaragua was definitely less touristy than other towns we’d visited on the gringo trail.

We walked around the square to get a good look at the surrounding buildings. Besides the usual suspects there was the bishop’s palace, an old college and what looked like the remains of an abandoned building. We were going to walk buy it when a crusty old man beckoned us over.

“Museo?” was all he said as he waved us inside.

With nothing better to do we followed him inside. Mostly out of curiosity: what could this broken down building possibly contain? The man spoke no English and after we paid a 25C entrance fee began to give us a guided tour of the building which we discovered was the Museum of the Revolution owned and operated by Sandinista Veterans. The displays were a collection of yellowed newspaper clippings and faded photocopies loosely taped up on the pealing walls. I translated for Adrian as he traced the history of the revolution all the way up to the present. I did okay except for two times when I will admit I had no idea what he was talking about.

The man obviously he had no love for the US and from the way he told the story I could see why. As we traveled through Central America, we had learned about successive US government attempts to control these small countries in order to maintain their business profits in this part of the world. In fact, that's where the term banana republic comes from. Way back when United and Standard Fruit Company’s (now known as Dole and Del Monte) made huge investments in the these countries and to protect them puppet presidents backed by the US were installed to better serve American business interests. In Nicaragua, US involvement had also included an invasion. A guy named William Walker invaded the country, overthrew the government and elected himself president back in the 1850s. That lasted for 5 years until he was overthrown and executed. But that didn’t stop the US from continuing to install various presidents over the next 50 years until the 1920s when a guy named Sandino decided to do something about it. Get it? Sandino -> Sandinista.

Bet you had no clue that whole Sandinista thing was that old. Yet it wasn’t news until the 1980s. So what happened during those 60s years? Well, apparently it was a long back and forth struggle between those that opposed US involvement, like Sandino, and the conservatives led by a whole bunch of dictators named Somoza. Sandino was captured and killed in the 30s but others picked up where he let off leading to 50 years of civil war. In 1979, the Sandinistas finally over threw the last of the Somoza dictators and everyone was happy, even President Carter expressed his support for the new government and pledged a bunch of aid money to help Nicaragua rebuild after 50 years of civil war. However, in 1981 Carter was replaced by Regan, who wasn’t as enamoured with the leftist Sandinista government. He suspended all aid and then decided to send money to the counterrevolutionaries (or Contras) now hiding out in Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. Oh and it wasn’t just money. The UN or was it the War Crimes tribunal found the US guilty of planting mines in the waters of Nicaragua and attempting a few assassination attempts (I think, this is one of those times that I got a bit lost). To save face, the US government stopped all public funding for the Contras. But Regan and his cadre weren’t ready to stop. And that’s when Oliver North stepped in to help.

A secret deal was made with Iran. The US would sell them weapons and then use the proceeds to fund the Contras. And then everyone got caught. Although Nicaragua dropped out of the news afterwards. The US continued to fund the Contras and the civil war waged on. Not ending until 1999 with the help of the Costa Rican president, whose efforts won him the Nobel peace prize.

All that info was overwhelming. But it really helped to explain why Nicaragua was still relatively new on the tourist trail. It was only 10 years ago that things had died down. Surprisingly, all this hadn’t created an Anti-American sentiment in the country. The animosity was focused on corrupt governments and big business with the grafitti outside proclaiming Death to the Imperial Invaders (photo above). Although the way our guide said Norteamericano was definitely not a compliment, the people of Nicaragua reminded me a lot of those in Guatemala: they were happy to see tourists and eager to make a good impression. In fact, our crusty guide then offered to take us through the rest of the building which had been the old city hall before the revolution. It was really just a shell. But the grand staircase was still intact although now covered in FSLN (Sandinista party) banners. We followed him up the stairs all the way to the roof for a great view of the city. Then said our goodbyes but not before Adrian posed for his requisite thumbs up photo.

Yup, that’s what we got for our $2 entrance fee. And it was a lot so we decided to call it a day. Now it was time to counteract all that anti-imperialist and capitalist sentiment by going shopping. Apparently we weren’t the only ones in Nicaragua who felt that way. For the first time on our travels we discovered a grocery store that was packed with food and just as packed with families doing their weekly shopping. It appeared that Nicaraguans had learned to love some of that American influence, particularly when it came to shopping for big American brand names in a big American style supermarket. And we were quite happy because it meant shopping cost half what it had anywhere else.


Jennifer said...

That SNL skit is one of my favourites. I have been misprounouncing/over-enunciating Spanish words ever since I first saw it. The joke never grows old (for me at least, not sure about those who've heard me do it for the umpteenth time).

liz and adrian said...

Neeeee-Kaar-Hooog-Waaaa. I swear it's all I could hear in my head the entire time in the country.