Living in Nicaragua

San Juan de Oriente

New Correspondent Reece Guth writes:

“For me, it’s Gaugin’s Tahiti. It’s where I’d go when I finally have the guts to leave the rat race and the nerve to step outside my comfort zone. The girls have long black hair, the rum is good and cheap, and you’re too close to the Equator ever to see snow. It’s where 72 degrees Fahrenheit is ‘cold.’

“People ask me if it’s safe, and I reply truthfully to explain that the only danger is that you might not ever want to go back ‘home.’

“I’m speaking of Nicaragua, a country that is situated, almost poetically, on a ridge between two volcanoes, each dominating its own ecosphere. The Masaya Volcano, arid and lifeless, belches a pillar of sulphury steam that can be seen for miles around and that allows little to grow anywhere nearby. The second volcano, Vulcan Mombacho, is a verdant cloud forest shrouded in mist most of the year and home to monkeys, tree frogs, orchids, and a million other hidden things.

“Between these opposing giants to the north and south sits the village of San Juan de Oriente, perched about 1,000 feet above a crater lake. Rolling hills rise to the west, and two lakes lie to the east. The nearest of the two lakes, the Laguna Apoyo, was formed in the caldera of another volcano long past its prime. It is now heavily forested and filled with teal blue water 600 feet deep.

“Beyond that, farther east, is Central America’s largest lake, Lake Nicaragua, or Cocibolca (Koh-see-bowl-ka), as it is still known by its Indian name. This configuration of lowland lakes with a mountainous buffer creates a year-round breeze in the area, a respite from the tropical heat.

“But it’s not just the geography and the climate–the lakes, the mango trees, and the breezes–that have stuck this place so firmly in my imagination. It’s the lifestyle.

“San Juan de Oriente is a gem of a place created by the pressure of the dog-eat-dog world of commerce meeting head on the force of generations of creativity.

“I’ve been traveling to this town for about 10 years, and I’ve watched it change in many ways, as the country around it, too, as changed in the past decade. Yet, here in San Juan de Oriente, as everywhere in Nicaragua, there remains an undercurrent of a way of life so sweet you wonder how it can continue.

“This pueblo of several hundred sits within spitting distance of the Pan-American Highway, but it’s well isolated by its heritage. The people of San Juan de Oriente are descendants of the Native Americans who came here before the Mayans and who have migrated not at all from where their forefathers settled, atop acres of naturally occurring clay.

“Since before the Spanish Conquest, families were making pottery in this town. Mothers and fathers taught daughters and sons how to make and trade the clay pots and plates that were necessary household items, used daily for cooking, eating, and storage. More recently, they began to trade in replicas of the pre-Columbian pottery that was found in nearby graves.

“Then, in the 1980s, something interesting happened. Centuries of ancestral talent met with a desire to compete and to succeed in the marketplace, sparking a kind of artistic Darwinism, where one artist’s creativity spurs others to equal the feat and go one better.

“The modern pottery of San Juan de Oriente reaches back to its cultural roots and is also fine enough to be shown in any New York or London gallery. A handful of artists working here have won awards the world over and have influenced pottery in the neighboring countries and beyond.

“The streets of San Juan de Oriente are paved. They weren’t when I first started visiting. There’s an Internet café. (That’s a generous description, but you can sit with a 10-cent Coke and work on your e-mail as long as the electricity holds out.

“Meanwhile, outside, a few feet away, dogs bark, roosters crow, an ox cart delivers wood, and the basket-maker across the street splits bamboo…”

Kathleen Peddicord

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