Every country is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in its own way. Some emerging markets in particular are struggling with the challenges created by the biggest global health crisis in 100 years.
A friend from Nicaragua wrote last week to update us on the situation in that country.
I visited Nicaragua for the first time about 30 years ago. Imagine the incredulity I faced when I told my family and friends back then that I was traveling alone… as a young woman… to Nicaragua.
Arriving on the scene all those years ago, I discovered a country not too far down the road from civil war. Barbed wire wound around the outside of every building, and men and boys walked the streets dressed in army fatigues and carrying automatic weapons. Managua was in shambles. The city had not been restored in any real way following the earthquake of 1972. After the earthquake came the civil war.
As I explored beyond the capital, though, I connected with this country as I have with only a short list of other places around the world.
Nicaragua appeals to the romantic. It is a land of pirates and martyrs, heroes, warriors, and poets, fighting each in his way for what he believes.
Geographically, Nicaragua is blessed, with two long coastlines and two big lakes, plus volcanoes, highlands, rainforest, and rivers. In this regard, it’s got everything Costa Rica’s got, all less discovered and developed and available for the adventurer and eco-traveler at bargain rates… especially right now.
Architecturally, too, Nicaragua is notable. Its two sister colonial cities, Granada and León, vie for the title of oldest city in the continental Americas. Whichever story you believe—that the Spanish conquistadores settled first on the shores of Lake Nicaragua at Granada or, perhaps, a few months earlier in Old León—Nicaragua is the big winner, with two cities full of impressive colonial-era churches, public buildings, and parks to her credit.
Nicaragua is a colorful land, from its red clay-tiled roofs to its powder blue church steeples… from the yellow, green, red, and blue façades of its centuries-old haciendas to the pink and purple bougainvillea that cascades down its inland hillsides.
Perhaps, though, what struck me most that first visit 30 years ago and what has continued to draw me back to this country all these years since is the spirit of the Nicaraguan people.
My first visit, I met a young Nicaraguan, 20 or 22 years old.
“When I was very small,” this young man told me one afternoon, “the soldiers came for my family. It was the middle of the night. We were all asleep inside. The soldiers were in a pick-up truck. They stopped out front and came to the door. They woke us all up and told us that our house was needed for the revolution. In the name of the revolution, they told us, we had to get out.
“We all climbed into the back of their pick-up truck, and the soldiers drove us into the mountains. They left us there, my whole family. We had nothing with us. But my father made us a place to live… and we survived…
“That is our past,” the young man told me in perfect English. “But it is not our future.”
He had taught himself to speak English by watching American television… “mostly MTV,” he told me…
Fast-forward to today, and, unfortunately, this country that has suffered through more than a century of one struggle after another is once again struggling. Ghosts from its civil war era have retaken control and, with it, the spotlight. Stories we hear from friends on the ground, both expat and Nicaraguan, are troubling.
We worry about Nicaragua today. We stay in touch and do what we can to try to help in very small ways.
More on this in a minute.
Nicaragua is a land of potential, thanks to its abundant natural treasures and, mostly, its tested, battle-weary population. As the young Nicaraguan I remember from decades ago showed me, Nicaraguans are survivors… who, more than anything, want a chance for a better future.
During times like this, it can help to shift your perspective. Rather than seeing only the troubles Nicaragua faces right now, I remind myself of the beauty, the history, the charms, and the fundamental appeals of this land I continue to count among my favorite places in the world.
Nicaragua may be best known for its crashing coast and its killer surf breaks, but my fondest Nicaraguan memories are of Granada. León is the larger of the country’s two Spanish-colonial cities, but Granada is cozier, cooler (thanks to the breezes off its lake), and, in my experience, more welcoming.
When I’m in Granada, you’ll most often find me settled back in one of the wicker rocking chairs on the front porch of the Alhambra Hotel. Over the years, I’ve spent hours… days… in these chairs… rocking slowly back and forth while answering emails, preparing dispatches for dear readers, and watching the scene before me.
From the porch of the Alhambra you have a full view of Granada’s big central square. The heart of the city, the square comes to life at dawn and is busy past dusk… with children passing through on their way to school… their elders hurrying by on their way to work…
You see ice cream vendors and souvenir hawkers positioned throughout the square and in the streets that feed off it… plus shops and cafés with tables and chairs out front. At the end of one stone-paved pedestrian thoroughfare is freshwater Lake Nicaragua.
Step out onto any street of this town, any time of day, and something interesting is going on… you have something pleasing to look at… something tempting you to linger and investigate. This is a city made for walking. Why would you want to drive here? You’d miss the chance to be part of the street scene.
At sunset the whole of the city is bathed in a rosy light. Each time I witness sunset in Granada I’m struck by the simple, timeless beauty of this place with its centuries-old church steeples and bell towers stretching up into the inky sky.
Granada is lovely without peer in these parts.
I was reminded of all I enjoy and appreciate about Nicaragua as I read the letter from my friend Kara Westermann last week. A dozen years ago, Kara began a group she calls Beauty For Ashes that supports homeless children living in the country’s garbage dumps. Kara’s team helps to feed and clothe them and enroll them in school.
“In Nicaragua, we experience deadly viruses every year,” she wrote last week. “Last year it was a deadly strain of dengue fever that was killing children and seniors. So the reaction to coronavirus for the people of Nicaragua is different than it is for people from First World nations.
“In the trash dump communities where we work and live, how does one respond to something like coronavirus?” Kara continued. “Most people don’t have soap to wash their hands. There’s no sanitizer or face masks. Many people live together in small homes that are on top of each other. Social distancing would be impossible.
“And many people live hand to mouth. They can’t stock up on food, and they can’t stay home. If they did, they’d have nothing to eat.”
Kara’s team continues to operate, delivering food and helping the children they support and the children’s families as they can.
Lief and I sponsor two of Kara’s kids. If you’d like to know more about her program, you can take a look here.