:: FALL 2017 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Carriers of bricks, upbeat sangfroid, disquietud, Flor de Caña, masquerading chiefs of police, the Sandinista, coffee plantations, Bedtime for Bonzo, poets, liberation, Harpo Marx hats, ambiguous mistresses, sticky seats, oysters, Ol’ Blue Eyes, reckless Spanish
& the Mickey Mouse Brigade.
The General stood tall and satisfied against the blue sky at the newly renovated El Velero beach resort. The General was young, as generals go, but old enough to have acquired a tough, weathered exterior, a lean decisiveness. Not only renovated—liberated. Once the exclusive seaside resort of the rich, now El Velero is priced within the means of the average pumper of gas, carrier of bricks or cutter of hair. That’s what Miriam, our pregnant interpreter, tells us. Open to all, no longer exclusive, is the idea.
The Nicaraguan people are proud of their new beach resort, only a short bus ride from the capital. Freshly painted vacation cabins face the Pacific Ocean, their neat rows of windows glittering in the midday sun. We saw the General promenading there on the sandy sidewalk by the holiday hotel with a young woman who seemed (because of the way her hair, her short dress) likely a girlfriend, not a wife. Sparkling waves foamed onto the generous expanse of beige beach and the people’s windows looked out onto the sand and sea.
We’d just finished a long lunch with Miriam and Ramon and Carlos under a thatched umbrella at a round table in the hot sand. Miriam, a no-nonsense young woman, pregnant with her first child, does most of the talking. We had Miriam, one of the best interpreters in Nicaragua, because of George being an honored guest of the Sandinista government. I came along because I’d told George, the dean of my art school, that I could speak Spanish. Miriam seems amused or surprised by many of the comments George asks her to translate, but she never misses a word. We are all glad to have Miriam with us.
It’s very hot in the square and the humidity hangs on skin and hair and eyelashes and clothing so that the edges of everything seem blurred. Calculated linear thought seems to veer out of focus and the slightest physical activity is a huge effort.
The thing about George most people remark upon is his uncanny resemblance to the late Frank Sinatra. Though not a singer, George has an artistic temperament and an Italian surname. His features and general demeanor resemble Frank’s. He dresses like him and has a similar haircut or hairline. He (George) drinks a great deal, possibly more than Frank. In fact, one of the many enticements G. remarked on before we left San Francisco was the exceptionally low cost of alcoholic refreshments in Central America. Be that as it may, George also possesses the suave worldliness, the understated insinuating charm, the upbeat sangfroid of his fellow Italo-NewJerseyite. George was born in Hoboken; he’s been married and divorced twice.
Ramon has pale circles under his eyes and long elegant hands: “My friends call me Lobo.” Owns the largest insurance company in Nicaragua, Miriam tells us, helping herself to another oyster, salty and delicious.
“Ponga las pilas,” Carlos says (he runs the literacy program), and that means “turn on the batteries,” which has something to do with sex. He means oysters as an aphrodisiac. We eat fresh fish and oysters and drink Flor de Caña in juice glasses. Best rum I’ve ever had, George and I agree. It is light and delicate but seductive; mixed with pineapple juice, it’s very refreshing. Miriam’s husband is an officer in the military; she complains that she doesn’t see him very often. She is well padded and sharp and matter-of-fact. “Have another round?” George suggests. Means flower of the cane, our expectant interpreter explains.
“Have you noticed how many pregnant women there are in Nicaragua?” she asks.
And in fact it has something to do with war and then when the war is over, the desire to create new people to replace all the ones who have died. To repopulate. Same thing happened in the US after World War II—a boom in babies. George notices very few old people. Why is that?
“They all died,” Miriam explains, no nonsense.
Once the exclusive seaside resort of the rich, now El Velero is priced within the means of the average pumper of gas, carrier of bricks or cutter of hair.
“Times were very hard,” Ramon tells us, swirling his iced rum. “First the earthquake in ’72, then the revolution when our president bombed his own people. Somoza, our ex-president—imagine! My father founded the company of assurances. What can I do?” Ramon shrugs eloquently. We hope for the best.
Carlos is calm and round-faced; he studied in Europe; he is the son of peasants. He speaks the languages of all the indigenous Indian tribes. The Pacific Ocean is a glare of sunlight just beyond our little circle of shade. Happy vacationers run into the warm water and children scoop sand. An invisible bird calls like a car horn. Carlos lost a brother in the war.
“Your eyes,” Ramon tells me, with unforeseen enthusiasm, “are exactly the color of the sea.” The iced rum is cool and flowery. We talk of disquietud on the border. A headline across the newspaper at the next table: Disquietud in thick black letters. George is a filmmaker and artist. While everyone smokes cigarettes, George sketches some of the faces.
The general exuded a tangible confidence, the confidence of a man who had won a very important battle—a crucial, decisive, dangerous battle. Such confidence makes even short men seem tall. I recall looking up at him. The general wasn’t grim or used up or world-weary. He was elegant but not arrogant in a clean pressed khaki uniform with red and gold braid. He looked like a slim, black-haired, healthy man who expected to have a very good time that day and probably that night as well. He had a flat stomach and a smiling girl by his side who was most likely not his wife. She smiled the same confident, pleased-to-be-here smile as the young general.
Penny says probably the room is bugged; some of the light fixtures look really strange. Bob goes on about how the CIA is everywhere down here and checks the phone like he could tell if it was tapped.
Miriam points him out to us. “There’s General Ramirez. He commanded the revolutionaries at the famous battle of Piedras Negras.”
George and I stop and turn to look. “I would like to meet him,” George requests in his new imperious way. Only two days into our visit, he understands what’s expected of him. Our entourage and that of the General converge and are introduced. At that moment, helpful Miriam is urgently needed elsewhere, so George calls upon me to translate.
“We are very happy to be in Nicaragua,” I begin confidently in Spanish.
“Welcome to our country.” The General and his pretty companion seem pleased to reciprocate our attempt at courtesy. They both smile in an amused, nonchalant, obliging manner. She might have been his wife—no way to tell. The sea is very beautiful and the gente son muy agreeable.
“Por favor no olvida usted los hornos y tambien los engineros de pajaros.”
Parrots? What was he saying? With the Flor de Caña sluicing through my veins, eloquence and brotherhood seem within easy reach. The General smiles graciously at us and looks at his girl and she looks up at him and giggles politely. We stand on the clean beach in the hot sunshine.
“Las nubes son miraculos como la pella de su novia.” I smile a pleased-to-be-a-guest-of-your-country smile. George is enjoying the conversation and the General seems to be in no hurry.
“I hope the smoke of sugar and Sandino catch fire in your mouth and turn your head.” I translate the general’s next remark to George. He nods and smiles appreciatively. My first official attempt at interpreting seems to be going well. “Pase usted un dia muy Jose Feliciano,” I say to the general.
The girl is smiling at the general. He is taller than everyone else but not at all fat. Possibly he just seems tall. “Bueno, entonces, mucho gusto, adios.”
“Tell him,” George stops, just as we are turning away to drive back to the city, “that we love his country and are much inspired by their struggle.”
Somoza rebuilt nothing. Miriam is talking as our minivan bounces over the potholed roads of the capital. He took the foreign disaster-relief money for himself. Fat Somoza who floated away from his country smoking a fat cigar on a fat yacht. And since Somoza the dictator left, there is no money to rebuild. No foreign money, no old people, no dogs.
In Nicaragua, my impression was that priests smoke during mass, dentists smoke while pulling teeth, brides smoke during weddings, mothers smoke while giving birth, etc.
George films the remains of an old colonial cathedral collapsed into rubble, blue sky showing through the high ruined arches and broken windows. In Managua’s center, we see modern office buildings now inhabited by pigeons and dust. Weeds grow in the cracks of abandoned concrete foundations.
Our rooms are on the third floor of the high-rise pyramid-shaped Intercontinental Hotel, one of the tallest buildings in the country. Its most famous former resident was Howard Hughes, who occupied the entire top floor there for years after he became reclusive and phobic. We learn that there are very few hotels in Managua. Whole blocks of the capital remain in rubble. Five years after the major earthquake, when thousands died, Somoza’s bombs destroyed even more of the city. Most of the people in Managua seem to know each other. In fact, to know all about each other, like a small town. When I asked Miriam where to send mail, she told me just the name and Managua is enough. Is she joking?
“I would like to call you later,” says Ramon. “What is your numero de telefono?”
George wants to film the people leaving Managua to go to work in coffee plantations near the northern border. The students from the city must volunteer to go to the mountains and help pick coffee beans because there aren’t enough workers and Nicaragua’s economic well-being depends on this crop. From the dusty shade of a tree in a main square of the city’s center, we watch hundreds of volunteers gathering for this excursion. An energetic young woman in tight pants and red lipstick is standing on the back of a flatbed truck giving a speech to the crowd. She speaks an emphatic reckless Spanish, ignoring consonants and boldly celebrating vowels. This turns out to be Rosario Murillo, the wife of the president. We see dozens of teenagers and one old man climbing onto dusty open trucks, and old busses filling with volunteers. It’s very hot in the square and the humidity hangs on skin and hair and eyelashes and clothing so that the edges of everything seem blurred. Calculated linear thought seems to veer out of focus and the slightest physical activity is a huge effort.
“I hope the smoke of sugar and Sandino catch fire in your mouth and turn your head.”
This is the coolest season of the year, Miriam tells us. In the summer it’s really unbearable. She looks like she might give birth in a month or two. Her Canadian mother, she tells us, is suffering from anorexia; she is unable to eat because she is so worried. But nothing worries or irritates or surprises Miriam; she is supremely competent at what she does, which is mainly talk and understand and explain.
Later, after a few beers at the Intercontinental bar (neocolonial palms and rattan), George says we should think of a name for our brigade. That’s what he calls it, like in the Spanish civil war: brigade. You know, when they fought against Franco. Bob and Penny are having a drink with us. They’re from Berkeley and they’re part of our delegation.
“Yeah, the communists. They had brigades.”
“We should call our group the Grandfather Brigade.”
“We should name it after that old man we saw getting on the truck to pick coffee today; he was a grandfather,” George explains. “He told me about himself; I liked that old man.”
“Yeah, but”—Penny looks pained—“we can’t call it that. Why fathers and not mothers? Are you not aware of how sexist that is?”
“It does sound patronizing,” I say, “like we’re grandfather—grandparents—and the Nicaraguan people are children or grandchildren or something.”
George gets irritated. “I want to name it after that old man I met getting on the truck to go pick coffee with the students. What’s wrong with that? I liked that guy; he wore an old round hat, a Harpo Marx hat. You saw him. He told me he was a grandfather.”
“But that leaves women out of it entirely, doesn’t it?” Penny won’t let it go. “Talk about paternalistic!”
The general wasn’t grim or used up or world-weary. He was elegant but not arrogant in a clean pressed khaki uniform with red and gold braid. He looked like a slim, black-haired, healthy man who expected to have a very good time that day and probably that night as well.
And I have to agree. Bob takes our side and George gets seriously angry; he doesn’t see the problem, but he’s outnumbered. The name is so obviously sexist. He keeps talking about this old man, how impressed he was with him. We try to come up with some alternative names, like the Bay Area Brigade or the Golden Gate Brigade or Artists Brigade, but they don’t sound right, not revolutionary enough.
“Why can’t we use a woman’s name?” Penny asks and we try to think of someone female and American.
“The Emily Dickinson Brigade?”
George hates that.
Somebody said, “Mickey Mouse Brigade.”
Later Bob mentions something about propaganda (we were back in George’s room by then) and we all agree that propaganda has a negative sound to it but it isn’t necessarily. Just means information, really. George is annoyed that we even call Nicaraguan information propaganda.
“We aren’t saying any particular statement is true or not true; it’s not about that. It’s just the word ‘propaganda’ has adverse connotations to us as Americans,” Bob explains, but George is still not convinced.
Penny says probably the room is bugged; some of the light fixtures look really strange. Bob goes on about how the CIA is everywhere down here and checks the phone like he could tell if it was tapped. Bob and Penny and finally George all agree that our conversation is most likely being recorded. Bob climbs up on a chair and starts feeling around some of the light fixtures to see if maybe there are microphones or something.
The school bus seat sticks like Vaseline to any bare flesh exposed to its surface, yet we all feel privileged and victorious and possibly virtuous.
On Saturday night we’re invited to an official party at the magnificent liberated palace of the ex-dictator. In Somoza’s ex-residence, the revolutionary government is giving the Rubén Darío award to Julio Cortázar, world-renowned writer and friend of the Sandinistas. Rubén Darío was a great Nicaraguan poet. It is a solemn but festive occasion. We leave from the Intercontinental Hotel in a bus full of well-dressed guests. The bus has scratched windows and hard plastic seats like a school bus (it is a school bus.) We’re thrilled to be attending a gala event in the Nicaraguan capital at night with all these hopeful, recently liberated people.
The guests come from many different countries, including Cuba, Argentina, Germany and Denmark. The European women wear simple white muslin dresses hand-embroidered with colorful red and blue and yellow flowers and large birds—the traditional festive attire of the peasant women hand-workers of the past, the ancestors of the peasants of today who wear faded T-shirts, polyester shorts and plastic sandals. No one wears diamonds. I wear a necklace of seeds I was given as a gift by the official welcoming committee. The school bus seat sticks like Vaseline to any bare flesh exposed to its surface, yet we all feel privileged and victorious and possibly virtuous.
George and I sit in the seat behind Claudia R. Her family owns a newspaper—actually, The Newspaper. She’s wearing a chic bustier of white piqué cut almost to her waist in back and a fashionably short chiffon skirt. You can’t help but notice her moist, perfect tan skin. Her bare arms, neck and back gleam as flawlessly smooth as new wood. The humidity remains constantly around ninety-eight percent, but the temperature is maybe five degrees cooler at night. If you move slowly you don’t really sweat that much. Claudia is animated and elegant, sitting on the hard seat of the school bus. Her makeup is perfect and her dark hair glistens in a casual loose style.
“I wish,” I remark to George, “that in our country, decorum was not so closely associated with prudishness.”
He agrees immediately: “Why is the sexually provocative inherently undignified?”
She speaks an emphatic reckless Spanish, ignoring consonants and boldly celebrating vowels.
When we arrive at the palace, we’re greeted by the wife of the president, whom we remember speaking so emphatically to the coffee pickers in the square. Rosario wears a filmy floor-length lavender flowered Indian cotton dress (Indian like Bombay). She has published several books of poems and has six children, though she looks barely thirty. George thinks she looks like Bianca Jagger. When some students with a video camera interview me, I try to make a statement about art, since we’re visiting artists.
“The cream always rises to the top,” I reply to a question about the future. “La crema, siempre…” Rosario tries to help, but nobody gets it. I can’t think of the verb and I begin to question what that expression even means.
When George is interviewed, I notice that he’s become adept at pausing at just the right moment after each English phrase for Miriam to translate into Spanish, and while she’s speaking he automatically adopts a fixed facial expression—sincere, confident, resolute but patient—and then, exactly on time, he says the next thing.
We’re seated on a wide outdoor terrace in rows of chairs facing a podium. In front of the audience, behind a microphone, all the important men of the government and the press and the military are seated, smoking. I believe that during wars and revolutions people tend to smoke a lot. In Nicaragua, my impression was that priests smoke during mass, dentists smoke while pulling teeth, brides smoke during weddings, mothers smoke while giving birth, etc.
Miriam (whose husband never did show up) points out all the leaders of the ruling Sandinista party on hand for the ceremony, including Tomás Borge, known for his bravery, modesty and irreverence. Though he holds the high rank of Commandante, Mr. B. appears at the party wearing the uniform of Chief of Managua Police. Many guests remark upon this amusing and ironic gesture, and we’re told Borge is known for his sense of the absurd.
“You can’t tell what uniform he might decide to wear. It amused him to be chief of police tonight,” Miriam told us—truly proud and supportive of her government. George and I were enormously impressed by this politician, so different from our own.
When I asked Miriam where to send mail, she told me just the name and Managua is enough. Is she joking?
But I most admire the Jesuit priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, author of Zero Hour, the long poem that tells the entire history of the Sandinista revolution. Miriam swore that Cardenal, or maybe the president, had specially imported the 1951 Hollywood film Bedtime for Bonzo, starring Ronald Reagan, to Nicaragua for the heads of government to watch in a private showing. George says something about surrealism and politics finally, in our lifetime, converging. “Inevitable,” I agree.
When Mr. Cortázar finally receives his award (a medal on a ribbon with the Sandinista colors), he gives a speech in which he says (among other things), “Talking about culture in the abstract doesn’t get us very far.”
After thundering heartfelt applause, a hundred or more guests begin to roam and mingle and drink Flor de Caña on the white stone terraces surrounding the ostentatious palace liberated from the ousted obese dictator.
Waiters in white aprons carry trays of tall glasses in two colors, orange and yellow, the flower of the cane mixed with tropical fruit juices. George prefers his straight. For this evening he is wearing a new short-sleeved white cotton shirt with multiple square pockets and tiny tucks down the front, the guayabera shirt indicated as being correct for formal occasions in this latitude. In the moist Central American night, guests from many countries mingle, happy and liberated. The Nicaraguan people suffered great losses during the seven years that the Sandinistas fought Somoza’s men and many died for this revolution. We run into Ramon again, and he’s telling us. Tonight, three years after Somoza’s fall, Managua is transformed with hospitality and hope.
He lopes across the marble floor with an uneven, circuitous gait, leaning forward, as though on rough unfamiliar terrain. He entirely lacks pretension or chitchat.
Miriam insists on introducing me to the poet and current Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal because I have asked about him so often. We go to look for him on the open-air terraces surrounded by bougainvillea, jasmine and happy guests talking in clean white shirts. At her inquiry, a man calls out loudly, “Hey, Poeta!” and points toward a doorway.
“Hey, Poeta!” Someone else takes up the cry, “Hey, Poeta!” in an irreverent but not disrespectful tone—a familiar, loving tone. Then, in the background, behind a flight of stairs, a man appears wearing a black beret over his thick white hair. “Hey, Poeta!” someone calls to him again, laughing, like it’s a family joke (his celebrity, his identity as official poet, his shyness?). “Hey, Poeta!”
And then he walks toward us: the most beloved poet in a country of poets. Several people turn to watch as Miriam makes the introduction. His words have been translated into so many languages, including mine. He is close to the ground, not tall. I don’t remember meeting his eyes. A memory of the way he moved remains distinct. His head and his arms seem too large for his body. He lopes across the marble floor with an uneven, circuitous gait, leaning forward, as though on rough unfamiliar terrain. He entirely lacks pretension or chitchat. He greets me with solemn courtesy and disappears as quietly and quickly as a cat. Mucho gusto. In California I have read your poems.
“Your hair,” Ramon said later, near a fragrant gardenia bush, “you remind me of that actress, Jean something. Perhaps we can meet tomorrow?”
Bob asks somebody what the line says and it’s something about the United States being an eagle preying on smaller birds or something like that. I don’t understand the translation exactly, but somehow I feel bad about singing along.
But the next day we are scheduled to meet the Mothers of the Heroes and Martyrs of the Revolution and we travel on the bus with a large group that includes an American woman activist who has lived in Mexico and Nicaragua for a long time and she’s a well-known poet also. Her poems are about injustice and the evils of imperialism. She has a health problem (her lungs?), which gives her very evil-smelling breath. She wears no makeup and her hair is very long and streaked with gray. She deliberately avoids speaking to George, probably because of the incident at the hotel bar late Saturday night, which was not entirely his fault and he apologized and everything. But she’s a friend of Rosario, who’s also on the bus, and I’m telling her about our goodwill gesture of bringing art supplies to the artists of Nicaragua and she has this smug, superior way of asking lots of questions as if she’s investigating our motives or our knowledge of history or something.
During the long bus ride, George gets out his little tape recorder and begins to play a patriotic song he recorded at an outdoor Sandinista rally we attended earlier. It sounds pretty good considering he recorded it in the middle of a huge political rally with hundreds of people singing. He turns up the volume and it echoes around the bus and some of our fellow passengers begin to sing along. Miriam tells George that there’s a line in the Sandinista anthem about crushing U.S. imperialism; this resulted in an official condemnation by the U.S. ambassador. We all like the rousing melody of the music and it is stirring to hear the people singing. Bob asks somebody what the line says and it’s something about the United States being an eagle preying on smaller birds or something like that. I don’t understand the translation exactly, but somehow I feel bad about singing along. Like we’re guilty of being disloyal and faithful at the same time, but only because of a stupid misunderstanding.
When we arrive at our destination, the mother of Daniel Ortega, president of the Sandinista government, is introduced to us. She stands on the cracked sidewalk in front of a one-room school building. A frail thin-boned woman, she is white haired and gentle, with clear intelligent eyes and erect posture. Two of her sons were killed, not long ago, in the revolution. She is my height and looks me straight in the eyes.
“We want peace,” she says. Later, I couldn’t remember if she spoke English or Spanish.
Susan Roether began writing as a newspaper journalist in Ohio, published poetry in small magazines in San Francisco, authored a book of essays published in letterpress by Black Stone Press in San Francisco and then moved to Hollywood, where she was involved with feature filmmaking, which took her to many foreign locations. Her novel Our Lady of West Hollywood was chosen among Best of the Indies by Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Big Sur and San Francisco, California.
Lead image: Alexandre Perotto