Herald Staff Writer
MANAGUA -- Uh oh, another victim riding to certain doom. Clear across the
shopping mall, you can see the terror in her eyes, a middle-aged woman frozen on
the metal stairs as they glide upward, upward -- and now, with the end near, she
leaps! Skidding across the floor of the food court, she knocks over a large metal
ashtray, spilling sand everywhere, before coming safely (sort of) to rest against a
Bystanders, pursing their lips, nod appreciatively. One more brave Nicaraguan
survived her first trip on an escalator.
With the rest of the world poised to enter the 21st Century, Nicaragua
is getting its
first exhilarating, terrifying look at some mid-20th Century technology. The
country's only escalators went into operation in December when a pair of enclosed
shopping malls opened in Managua.
The shopping centers themselves are major novelties -- Nicaragua has never
malls before -- but that word doesn't begin to describe the delirious mixture of
dread and adventure that the escalators have generated.
In a city generally built low to the ground because of the danger of earthquakes,
few buildings need even staircases. Managua's two public elevators are regarded
as suspiciously newfangled. (When President Arnoldo Aleman visited New York
in 1997 and his hotel elevator plummeted several floors before an emergency
brake stopped it, his aides nervously decided to keep it secret. ``Nobody likes to
talk about elevators,'' said one person with knowledge of the incident.)
So the new escalators have been an absolute sensation. Thrill-seeking kids
around the landings on the upper floors at the Metrocentro and Plaza Inter malls,
daring one another to bolt down the rising stairs. Panicky older people beg their
adult children not to set foot on the sinister devices. And clusters of ghoulish
spectators stand back a safe distance, anticipating a gruesome accident.
``I'm hoping people will get used to it soon,'' sighed Irene Lei, general
the four-story Plaza Inter. ``We knew the escalator would cause excitement, but I
didn't think it would go on this long.''
Helpers little help
When the Plaza Inter opened Dec. 16, Lei -- anticipating problems -- had
or so young attendants dressed up as Santa's elves and children's storybook
characters to put shoppers at ease with the ``electric stairs,'' as they're called here.
But the attendants were even more scared of the escalators than the customers
were. (And the attendant in the Barney costume was mobbed by dozens of
adoring preschoolers and had to lock himself in a bathroom, but that's another
Meanwhile, those shoppers who braved passage on the escalators were so
frenzied with delight that they often jumped up and down, which triggered sensors
designed to shut the machinery down in case of an accident. The escalators lay
silent for most of the mall's first two shopping days.
``Finally, we brought the attendants in an hour early and had them ride
down, up and down, between 10 and 11 a.m.,'' Lei said. ``Once they were used
to it, we placed them strategically where they would screen the sensors and keep
the escalators from shutting down.''
Even so, the attendants have had only limited success in educating Nicaraguans
about the intricacies of escalator travel. ``Just the other day, I heard about a
woman who took an hour to travel from the basement to the fourth floor,'' Lei
said. ``She kept getting confused at every floor and trying to go the wrong way.''
A Darwinian approach
Over at Metrocentro, managers took a more Darwinian approach, leaving
shoppers to figure the escalators out themselves or die trying. The results haven't
been much better. ``What's going to keep me from being sucked into the ground
down at the bottom of this thing?'' demanded 59-year-old housekeeper Bertilda
Cruz indignantly to two younger companions trying to convince her to use the
escalator one recent afternoon.
Later, after braving the trip down, Cruz confessed that she knew the chances
escalator would turn on her were pretty minimal. ``The truth is that I've ridden
them before, 30 years ago,'' she said. ``But I'm not as young as I used to be. All
that moving around makes me seasick.''
Her previous experience came at the Carlos Cardenal Department Store, which
between 1949 and 1972 was the Neiman-Marcus of Managua. In 1952, always
seeking new ways to maintain the store's reputation as the most urbane shopping
venue in Central America, owner Carlos Cardenal installed a single escalator to
allow shoppers to go from the first to the second floor of his three-story building.
``It was 13 yards long, 18 inches wide,'' said his namesake son last week,
to recite the precise dimensions of the amazing contraption all these years later. ``I
remember it took two days to install, and the city had to close Roosevelt Avenue,
which was the major shopping street in Managua.''
Other businessmen scorned Cardenal for installing what they regarded as
insanely expensive white elephant. (Family legend has it that the escalator cost
$50,000, though the younger Cardenal has his doubts: ``I just read a book that
said Richard Nixon bought a house in 1949 for $7,000. Could an escalator really
have cost seven times as much as a house?'')
Not a good deal
Cardenal's son agrees that the escalator, all things considered, probably
good deal. ``It brought in some customers, no question about that, people who
just had to see the moving stairs,'' he said.
``But it also brought in big groups of little schoolchildren who wanted
to play on it.
They wanted to go down the stairs that were moving up. My father got so fed up
with that situation that he put an employee with a belt on the first floor to spank
anybody who was caught coming down the wrong way.''
Nicaraguans who remember the Carlos Cardenal escalator still get a little
when they remember its demise. On the night of Dec. 22, 1972, in the middle of a
busy Christmas sale, it stopped dead for no apparent reason. The store's
perplexed engineers still hadn't found out what was wrong two hours later when a
killer earthquake pounded downtown Managua to bits.
The Plaza Inter's Irene Lei dismisses any suggestion of an omen in that
she looked morose when a reporter told her about the employee standing at the
bottom of the escalator administering spankings.
``Oh, man,'' she said in a wistful voice. ``I wish I could do that.''
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald