Granada, Nicaragua: Its Fall and Rise
By DAVID ALLAN CATES
I'll start with this disclaimer: I love Nicaragua. I love the poetry of its pace, ox carts slowing traffic, shoeless boys playing baseball in vacant lots, men riding their lovers double on bicycles and the silhouettes of women reposed in doorways. I love its rum and cigars, rice and beans and green volcanoes towering over red-tile roofs and blue lakes. I even like the smell of horse manure and diesel exhaust, an occasional waft from an open sewer and broken sidewalks that force me to watch my step.
But mostly I love Nicaragua because of people like Roger Xavier Arellano Arroliga, whom I met in a cafetin, a block off the Parque Colon in Granada. While a fumigation truck drove slowly past, filling the narrow street with a toxic cloud and sending diners and even sidewalk passers-by diving for cover into the tiny kitchen behind us, Roger remained seated and patiently drew directions to his home on a napkin.
A moment ago I was a stranger at the next table. Now Roger was inviting me to his house and offering to spend the evening helping me find what I was looking for: an old bodega where, 16 years earlier, during the bleak depths of the contra war, while playing a soldier in the Alex Cox film ''Walker,'' I'd been shot and killed in slow motion.
William Walker was an american filibuster who, with an American and native rebel force, invaded and captured Granada in 1855. He was briefly president of Nicaragua, but soon lost international support and was driven from the country, burning Granada to the ground before he left. The movie, a surreal evocation of Walker's invasion of Nicaragua, and his eventual defeat, was supported by the Sandinista government because it echoed the current fight against the contras, backed by the United States.
I walked to meet Roger in the early evening. On one side of the road, people jogged or strolled through the park, or stood at the sea wall and gazed at the waves breaking on the gray beach. A horse-drawn carriage with a family of tourists clip-clopped by, and, at the end of a long wharf, men stood in a line passing crates from a truck down onto a freighter.
I filled my pockets with mints I bought from a little girl in a red dress sitting behind a tray of candy and cigarettes. I waved at the wisecracking women leaning over the disco balcony, turned the corner and passed a man sitting on a wooden stool under a tree. He offered me a fresh coconut, the top chopped open and a pink straw inserted for the milk. I stepped around various spent green husks littering the street, and walked up the shady Calle la Calzada.
I veered toward the side of the street that smelled less of pigs, paused briefly to watch boys practicing baseball. Farther up, I lighted a cigar and waited for a parade of marching girls and drumming boys to make their way past the Iglesia de Guadalupe, where the real William Walker's retreating troops held out before fleeing the burning city in 1856.
Roger is a handsome, dark-eyed, dark-haired young man, with a degree in industrial engineering, but inclinations to go into business for himself. He was a boy when the film ''Walker'' was shot here in 1987, and, like many kids, he enthusiastically followed the filming of the various battle scenes around town.
I was bumming through the country at the time, and recruited out of a Managua bar to spend two weeks as an extra in Walker's army. I barely appeared in the finished movie.
We set out in Roger's car; he hadn't driven a block when he stopped to talk to an old man on a concrete stoop, who gave us the name of another man who actually worked on the film. We drove on, passing the towering blue facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco, connected to the Antiguo Convento de San Fransciso.
The convent's history mirrors the phoenixlike story of the city. Built in 1529, it was destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries by the likes of the pirate Henry Morgan, William Walker, the United States Marines in the 1920's and the United States Army engineers studying canal possibilities in the 1930's. It has recently been restored again with the help of the Swiss government.
Inside was a museum with exhibits on the lives of the indigenous Indians, displays of stone carvings and a courtyard with stately palms and stunning views of nearby Volcan Mombacho. But as long as nobody came along and sacked it again, I knew I'd see it all later. Roger and I were on a mission.
He stopped around the corner at the Plazuela de los Leones, where on Friday nights the city often puts on free concerts. The sky was quickly darkening to night, and the trees in the Parque Colon were alive with thousands of birds.
We went into the Casa de los Tres Mundos, a foundation and cultural center that houses an art, theater and music school, historical archive and concert hall, where Roger talked to a man named Dieter, who would direct us to somebody else.
We drove a dark street, then another and finally stopped where a woman sat on her sidewalk rocker in a pool of fluorescent light. A sleeping child lay on her lap. Roger got out and talked to her, then we drove on, around the corner. Suddenly there it was, an old white adobe building with a tile roof that sheltered a porch. The sign read ''Antiguedades El Palenque.''
We got out and knocked on the big wooden doors that I remembered spending a day kicking open for the cameras. A woman answered and let us in. I recognized the thick, whitewashed walls, the earth-colored ceramic tile floor, the dark wooden rafters. I recognized the darkened side room where Ed Harris, playing the deranged Walker, had paused in the heat of battle to sit down at a piano to play a hymn by candlelight.
During the contra war, I saw a phrase stenciled in red on every Granadian sidewalk and corner building: Aqui no se rinde nadie (''Here nobody surrenders''). I think it sums up the character of the city.
Since that dark time, unarmed, crisp-shirted policemen have replaced battle-weary soldiers patrolling the streets with AK-47's. Schoolboys march with drums instead of guns, and rather than army fatigues, teenage girls wear crisp white blouses and navy skirts and cluster at the playground to watch sweaty boys play basketball.
The war wounded, middle-aged now, still gather their wheelchairs in the park, but some also pass out colorful brochures offering kayak rentals or jungle canopy tours. Shiny taxis and new S.U.V.'s have replaced tanks and troop trucks.
The city still has its ragged edges, its broken neighborhoods and hungry street kids who gather in front of restaurants to point at their mouths. But for the traveler it also has hotels and hostels at every price, some good bars with good music and lots of places to buy ice cream. The streetlights work; the water runs; and instead of shutting their doors against a night charged with madness and dread, Granadians now pull their rockers out on the sidewalk and chat with neighbors.
Granada was founded in 1524 by the Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba on the shores of what the Indians called Cocibolca (Lago Nicaragua), a freshwater lake some 87 miles long, connected by the San Juan River to the Caribbean Sea. On our trip in July 2003, my wife, Rosalie, our three young daughters, Anna, Margi and Mary, and I had rooms at the Hotel El Maltese, on the lake, where you can hear the waves breaking on the beach and keep your eyes fixed on the blue horizon for approaching pirate ships. We also stayed at the dark and stately Hotel Alhambra, where guests sit in rockers on the front porch and observe the activity in the Parque Colon across the street. On our last night we were at the lovely Hospedaje Italiano. As afternoon ends and the shadow of Volcan Mombacho creeps over the city, you can relax on the front stoop, with a bowl of the best ice cream in Nicaragua and watch the streets flood with uniformed schoolkids.
We took excursions to the smoking crater of Volcan Masaya; we glided on cables between the crowns of giant ceiba trees over coffee shrubs on the skirt of Volcan Mombacho. We swam in the clear Laguna de Apoyo, ate good pizza at Tele Pizza, and, on the balcony of La Gran Francia Hotel, Rosalie and I discovered the joy of Flor de Cana Gran Reserva rum. We ate a potato-and-beef burrito in the Hotel Central and a beautiful filete de guapote en salsa de maracuya in El Zaguan, behind the Granada cathedral.
But the best part of Granada was the unexpected people we met and the places they took us. One morning, my daughters and I walked in the park along the lakefront. A man named Santos rode up on his bicycle and asked if we wanted a boat ride to explore Las Isletas, an archipelago of some 360 islands in Lake Nicaragua, just south of the city. We did, so he told us to follow his son, El Guapo (the handsome one), age 14, who led us along the empty beach past chickens and goats to a lone tree, where he instructed us to sit in the sand and wait while his father's boat made its way across the choppy bay to pick us up.
On board, we spent about an hour motoring slowly among the tiny islands. We circled one with monkeys that leaned out from the treetops to watch us. We passed white herons on rocks, and men in water to their knees throwing spread nets. We wound past yachts moored by fortress vacation homes, dugout canoes tied in front of stick shacks and tourists paddling yellow kayaks.
At lunchtime we docked at a little outdoor restaurant on an island called Corre Viento. While Santos and El Guapo napped in the boat, my daughters and I sat at one of the brightly painted tables listening to Spanish love songs on a boom box until a running boy tripped on the wire and disconnected the speaker. The sky was overcast, and the lake spread gray to the eastern horizon. We ate rice and beans and chicken, and drank cold soft drinks and beer.
We were the only diners, so the man who served us briefly joined us. He was in his 40's, I guessed, and all Nicaraguans in their 40's have a story that takes a turn because of the long civil war. I asked him his, and he told me that he was originally from Managua, but after his time in the army, he came to the islands for peace and serenity and never left. He married the daughter of the people who owned this restaurant, the Dona Justa, and he and his wife now had two sons. He pointed with his chin to the boy in the shorts who had met our boat.
I make jewelry, he said, and from his shirt pocket he pulled a tiny bamboo bracelet that fit around my youngest daughter's wrist.
She smiled and I offered to pay, but the man waved his hand. I don't make them for money, he said. It's something I do for love.
David Allan Cates is a short-story writer and author of a novel, ''Hunger
in America'' (Simon & Schuster).