Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Managua

April 8th to 14th

As we approach the capital, the landscape becomes all too depressingly affected by man's inability to solve the problem of waste....


After the neatness of the highlands of Nicaragua, it's an even sadder sight, the trees stunted and denuded under the weight of suffocating plastic.

The ride through the streets of Managua is similarly disturbing as city parks are given over to rows of board and tarpaulin built shanty houses....


Managua is a city of extremes as executive cars whisk their cargoes of high powered business men past the ranks of tumbledown hovels. The main plaza swarms with bare-footed urchins begging from well dressed urbanites under the shadow of grand old buildings. All major cities tussle with these kind of issues but here it is very much in your face, like an open sore that cannot be ignored.

Next day we ride our bikes down to the immigration office on the edge of town to extend our stretched visas. We are fully laden in case bureaucracy defeats us and we are left with just 36 hours to reach Costa Rica. The 'office' turns out to be a huge area more akin to an airport lounge with long glass barriers separating uniformed officials from the milling crowd of applicants, all clutching their documents, forms and hopeful expressions. An incoherent babble fills the air as snaking lines of people fill the gaping space, indolent fans pushing hot sticky air to and fro.

The process turns out to be a five minute formality, unfortunately punctuated by two and a half hours spent in five separate queues. Queue to get receipt for form, line up to pay for form, queue to exchange receipt for form, once more to pay for visa and once again to hand over passport for stamping. It's a test of both my patience and my Spanish as I strain to hear, and be heard against a backdrop of a thousand identical conversations. All in all though, relatively painless and we head back to the centre 30 days richer and just 20 dollars poorer.

Managua, in it's heyday, must have looked like one of the world's great cities! Relatively new, this former fishing village was only established as the nation's capital in 1857 to prevent the constant in-fighting for the title between rival cities Leon and Granada. In 1972 a huge earthquake devastated much of the city centre, and today, like the cathedral many of the formerly impressive buildings stand damaged and decaying....


Walking round the 'Area Monumental' is like being on a post apocalyptic film set like 'I am Legend' or '28 Days Later'. It really is a bit creepy seeing urban decay on this scale in the complete absence of other human beings. Wide boulevards are totally deserted and the only sounds are the bird calls set against the background of an inhuman insect murmur. It sends a tingle down the spine.

The cracks from the earthquake's fury are still evident as the second wave of nature's demolition team moves in in the form of plant roots....


The risk of future quakes has meant this once beautiful centre has been abandoned for good and the city now sprawls with squat, widely spaced buildings spreading for some 25 miles along the southern lake shore. It's like no other major city I have seen with tropical greenery rather than man made high-rise dominating the scene. Down below, streets are largely free from congestion and there is space to breath as overcrowding has flattened and spread out....


The national theatre is hosting a classical concert that evening and not knowing quite what to expect we buy tickets for the princely sum of $2.50.
Walking in Managua is like playing Russian roulette with your safety, so we take a taxi to the venue and, in stark contrast to the feeble huts that line the streets on-route, we enter an auditorium of polished marble hung with dazzling chandeliers dripping opulence. Under the somber gaze of national hero Ruben Dario we hear, with respectful formality an exquisite reproduction of Mozart and Beethoven. Nicaragua's gentry, dressed in their finery greet us, and each other with warm handshakes and radiant smiles and the city's inequalities and problems are forgotten for a while....


Sightseeing here is conducted at a rather pedestrian pace out of respect for temperatures in the high 30's Centigrade or 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Early morning activity is followed by afternoons sweltering back at the hotel taking turns under the fan or cold shower.

A sweaty climb takes us to the top of 'Loma de Tiscapa' a hill overlooking a volcanic crater lake and the old Presidential palace that sits above a notorious prison. This close proximity allowed the dictator to oversee his political prisoners incarcerated until the earthquake that devastated his city cracked the walls. Rising monolithically above it all is the giant steel silhouette of 'Augusto Cesar Sandino'; revolutionary leader and national hero who's legacy is the infamous Sandinista movement....


Conflicts between the Sandinista party and the dictatorial Somoza government were largely responsible for filling the prison before Somoza was overthrown and later assassinated. Now there is a museum here documenting the Sandinista achievements whilst in government as they attempted to educate and provide employment for the people. Nicaragua's turbulent political history does not make for happy reading even before American involvement during and after the 1980's.

Less controversial are a set of ancient footprints left by a group of our ancestors as they migrated along the lake-shore 6000 years ago. One set of tiny prints suddenly peters out and disappears as the larger set next to it deepens - the parent having lifted their exhausted child and carried them along with the other walkers. They were uncovered as building foundations were being dug in 1874....


The next day we visit the National Museum, with it's collection of pre-Hispanic pottery and exhibits on the geological forces that shaped the nation in ancient times, plus the food that has shaped it more recently. It's all interesting stuff, but it's just as nice to while away a morning in the fine and more importantly cool surroundings provided by high ceilings and marble floors.

With visas renewed and with time to kill, we change course tomorrow and head back West away from Costa Rica. 93kms in the wrong direction takes us to the former capital and the 16th century colonial splendour of old Leon reputed to be one of Nicaragua's jewels....

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