words + photos by Ellen Barone
Here's the truth: I want to tell you about Nicaragua and its wild, deserted Pacific beaches, active volcanoes, colonial cities, coffee plantations, and verdant mountains— but then again, I don't.
Writing about delicate cultures like Nicaragua, where complex political, geographical and economic realities have resulted in hardships on one hand - and a simpler, more grounded way of life on the other - always brings up mixed feelings in me.
I want tell you what is great about Nicaragua – a country where gracious women with colorful bundles perched atop their heads amble past colonial buildings painted in faded pastel colors; where green, cloud-fringed volcanoes tower over terra-cotta rooftops; where roadside stands overflow with a colorful bounty of tropical fruits and vegetables; where a quilt of fertile plots blankets the valleys and gentle sloping mountains – but I’m afraid you’ll go en masse and turn it into the Familiar.
While the United States has a shady legacy in Nicaragua, I, an obvious American, was welcomed there. More than a million Nicaraguans live in the United States, and just about everyone seems to know someone living in Florida, Texas or California. "The conflicts are in the past now," a taxi driver in Managua said gently. "We are, at heart, poets, not fighters.”
I experienced this gentle forgiveness and genial warmth often during my three trips to the country. Trusting, honest, and helpful, the Nicaraguan people are the real spirit and charm of the country. Ask for directions and Nicas, as they call themselves, are likely to set aside what they’re doing and lead you where you want to go. Poke your head in an open doorway and they invite you in. Ask to take their photograph and they reward you with a dazzling smile — spontaneous and heartfelt. Express interest in something they are doing, whether it’s weaving a basket or painting a pot and they’ll show you how it’s done. A simple “Como está?” (“How are you?”) and the floodgates open, releasing a charming torrent of Spanish. Their convivial and heart-felt responses are sprinkled with mimed expressions and gestures, as if they anticipate a foreigner’s language difficulties.