1986. The last proxy conflict of the Cold War is taking place in Nicaragua, a small, poor country in the cord of land that ties together North and South America.
Many left-leaning people across the world saw the 1979 ‘Sandinista’ revolution—so called in memory of Augusto César Sandino, who had led a rebellion against United States occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s—as a beacon of hope for small, poor countries everywhere.
People of other persuasions deplored it as a communist dictatorship in the making.
The US government was now funding a counter-revolutionary insurgency against the elected, Sandinista government from military camps across the northern border in Honduras
My wife and I, newlyweds at the time, lived in Barrio la Quebrada, a working class neighbourhood in the small town of Boaco, from January 1986 until September 1988 (when we moved to the capital, Managua, staying there for a further eighteen months.) Kate was employed by the UK-based Catholic Institute for International Relations, on a starting salary of $30 per month, to work with the water and sewage ministry on a rural drinking water project sponsored by Oxfam, CAFOD and Christian Aid. I spent a year learning Spanish, building a balcony and writing an execrable novel. Then I went to work in Managua, initially as a ‘Class B’ translator in the Department of Agitation and Propaganda of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, earning approximately $19 per month. (That year, in which I threw my small weight behind the Sandinista cause, the US Congress voted an extra $100 million for the ‘contra’ insurgency, and more was on the way illegally through an ‘Iran-Contragate’ deal.)
I later joined a regional, Spanish language (and Jesuit-run) news magazine, Pensamiento Propio, as a staff writer, and also contributed to international publications. My coverage of the 1990 general elections for Gemini News Service and The Scotsman was relatively unusual in showing sympathetic understanding of the Sandinista case and predicament yet also recognising that the National Opposition Union might win—as indeed they did; closing, in my view, rather than opening, a small window of idealistic hope.
It was Barrio la Quebrada that had shown me how small the window was. It was not quite the place that I had wanted to find, not quite the story I had wanted to tell. But it was the real thing.
The following account was written in 1990, shortly after we left the country. A Postscript describes a return trip to the barrio in 2007.
Sobeida was our first visitor. She came round the night we moved into the house, bringing a plastic dish of buñuelos, tiny doughnuts in syrup. They were the first of many titbits that people in the street would bring us to sample during the next three years and quite possibly the tastiest. Only staunch insistence upon our vegetarianism prevented the arrival of stomach-churning bowls of mondongo, tripe soup, Nicaragua’s remedy for a hangover; but against tortillas, cold and leathery, we were defenceless. Atol, a kind of semolina, proved edible; rice pudding with cinnamon and rum very acceptable. In due course we reciprocated with home-made marmalade and mango chutney which raised many an eyebrow and perhaps turned many a stomach.
Where cultures meet, food is an almost endless source of fascination. During those first weeks, when the children from the barrio grew bold enough to progress beyond the vantage point of our front door, their curiosity was amply rewarded by the kitchen. Hardly a bean or a grain of rice in sight. And no meat of cow or meat of pig despite the opulence displayed by so much crockery. And what the devil is that, demanded Orlando, a six year old thug, pointing at an aubergine bought in Managua, the capital city. My Spanish was still so bad I could find no answer. But it didn’t matter because more fascinating than the aubergine itself was the sight of a man chopping it up.
In the second week two men came from the health ministry to inspect the house for mosquito breeding grounds. That was the kind of ‘revolutionary task’ I approved of and, moreover, they addressed me as compañero—the Latin American equivalent of ‘comrade’ but with a more relaxed feel: literally, something like ‘one who shares experience with me.’ And that made me feel good. I was mopping the floor. On the way out, after poking round our patio—a tiny back yard with the toilet and shower in an outhouse, a patch of grey mud and an orange tree bearing the green fruit that we used for the marmalade—they paused to remark that in Nicaragua mopping the floor is women’s work. Again, my Spanish let me down.
Sobeida was in her early thirties and lived next door. In the same house lived one of her brothers, Jorge Eduardo, two older sisters, Inés and Esperanza, and Esperanza’s four-year-old daughter, Agladia. The matriarch and patriarch of the household were Doña Afortunata and don José Pérez, both in their seventies. Doña Afortunata had ‘given the light’ to thirteen children. In addition to those four who continued to live under her roof (unmarried, save Esperanza, who was ‘abandoned’) these included: one son living in the United States; one son living in another barrio in Boaco; one son, don Milán, and four daughters—Ana, Tomasa, Sara and Francisca, the first two now widows—living with their own families in different houses in the same barrio, less than a hundred yards away.
I forget the whereabouts of the other two. It took several months to work out the kinship network of just the people living in the street. It turned out, for example, that the last member of doña Afortunata’s household, Aracel, a blushing eleven year old already well past puberty, was in fact doña Afortunata’s great granddaughter. Her mother, Marta, was the eldest daughter of doña Afortunata’s eldest daughter, Ana, who lived three doors up. Marta, another ‘abandoned’ woman, had little time for Aracel and was living in Managua, the first step for her in a long journey to the United States. She completed that journey in 1989, having first moved to Guatemala where, God knows how, she got together the $1,500 necessary to pay a coyote to sneak her into the States. In fact, Marta had to pay twice because the first time she was caught in Mexico and put in jail for a week. A more favoured daughter, Mariela, spent her tenth birthday with Marta in jail.
Aracel, fetching and carrying in great granny’s house and constantly scolded for the clumsiness that had driven her mother wild, might well have chosen to change places with Mariela. In the years before they finally got to the States, Marta and Mariela used to come to Boaco in July, along with anyone else who had anything to do with the town, for the week-long Boaco fiesta. Amidst all the drunkenness and feasting, Aracel’s distress was something to behold.
We met Marta in Guatemala just before her second, successful bid for illegal entry to the States; indeed, we took her $40 scraped together by the family to assist that bid. She was affecting a Guatemalan accent, and had the metropolitan airs of a woman who looked with indulgent superiority upon the naiveties of a life left behind.
Another example of the complexity of kinship in our street: don Jaime. A large, amiable yet reserved man, he is a tailor and cock fighter. Like most Nicaraguan men he occasionally becomes stupendously drunk but, unlike most, drunkenness does not make him overbearing. He is the only man I ever saw in Nicaragua wearing an immaculately tailored, grey suit. That was a Saturday, and he was about to set off, with a cock under each arm, in the direction of the cock pit. On Monday mornings, the surviving cocks can be seen outside his house, tethered by the leg to the remnants of clapped-out Singer sewing machines. What is more, don Jaime can sometimes be seen sitting outside taking needle and thread to his wounded champions, sewing them back into fighting order. Jaime is married to Francisca, daughter of doña Afortunata. Jaime’s father is don Pedro, who lives around the corner and has a small, general store. Don Pedro is elderly, has lost a leg to diabetes and with it his spirit. He spends his time in his wheelchair in the open shop front looking out, weak-eyed, for visitors who, if they ever come, he greets with heartbreaking enthusiasm. He is married—a second marriage—to doña Sara, another daughter of doña Afortunata and the older sister of Francisca. This means that Pedro’s son by Sara, Alejandro, who had just begun his Patriotic Military Service when we knew him, is both nephew and half-brother to Jaime.
With a population of some 18,000, Boaco straddles the chain of hills that runs down the centre of the country, dividing the sparsely inhabited tropical rain forest of the Atlantic Coast from the fertile and much more populous volcanic soils of the Pacific. In the early days of colonisation, the town was at the frontier of Spanish dominions in Nicaragua, which were administered from Guatemala. The conquistadors did not venture further east in Nicaragua, put off by the impenetrable forest and the vestiges of Indian resistance: for although the population of the area was reduced from 600,000 to 20,000 in the first forty years of Spanish rule there were some who never gave up.
Among these was Yarrince, a local chieftain who, it is said, had his eyes put out by the Spanish as an example of what happened to agitators. Yarrince allegedly fought on, however, and died a free but unhappy man in the Atlantic jungle. The population of his native Boaco is now entirely mestizo: Spanish blood mixed with that of the Indian women who didn’t get away. The only monument to the old, blind chief is the Yarrince cinema, which serves the citizenry with a diet of Mexican horror films and spaghetti westerns.
Westerns were apposite; for Boaco was a cowboy town with all the trappings of horses, mules, boots, spurs, hats, elaborately worked saddles and martingales. (This came as a surprise to me. I had grown up with Hollywood westerns that presented an Anglophone version of cowboy culture. It had never occurred to me that ‘ranch,’ ‘corral,’ ‘rodeo’ and ‘lasso’ were borrowed from the Spanish.) In the streets mounts of every kind were to be seen: from stunted mules ridden by peasants whose feet nearly drag the ground as they make their weekly trip into town to don Jeremiah’s magnificent stallion. Jeremiah was a ganadero, a cattle rancher with a town house in Boaco, several ranches in the district and legs withered by polio. The withered legs did not prevent him cutting a fine figure on horseback, with shoulder length hair, black of course, and knee high boots; and his equilibrium, when drunk, was extraordinary.
Don Jeremiah was among the last of his kind. Boaco’s bigger ganaderos did not think much of the 1979 revolution and soon started heading north for the States. Perhaps they over-reacted. Sandinista agricultural reform—although nominally committed to unravelling the typical, Latin American oligarchy of wealthy landowners surrounded by a mass of landless peasants—involved confiscation and redistribution only of lands that were ‘not being used for production.’ But there was a catch in this. The ganaderos were unwilling to invest in their ranches while the future looked uncertain, with the government run by a bunch of scruffy, quasi Marxist ex-guerrillas. So they quietly decapitalised instead, turning whatever they could into dollars to stow away in Miami or Panama bank accounts. This counted as not using the land for production, so there were confiscations. And that helped fuel the counter-revolutionary war against the elected government of the Frente Sandinista. To me it seemed supremely ironic that the main patron and sponsor of the contra, the counter-revolutionaries camped across the border in Honduras, should be none other than cowboy B movie actor, President Ronald Reagan.
Cowboys have perhaps always been a conservative breed. Certainly, Boaco was always a conservative town; or, more precisely, Liberal, which in Nicaraguan terms was some way to the right of the Conservatives. The privilege and patronage of the large landowners was deeply embedded and the mass movements of dissent which ran through the country in 1978 and 1979 did not shake Boaco so profoundly. Consequently, the dictator Anastasio Somoza did not find it necessary to send his air force to bomb the town in the way that he punished other towns in the last months of his decline; and revolutionary fervour in Boaco was rather more measured than elsewhere after his fall.
By 1986, when we arrived, shopkeepers would openly comment as they grudgingly handed over the goods that things were cheaper in Somoza’s day. Rene Guerrero, the local lawyer who did the paperwork for us to move into our little house, related wild stories (as we neared the end of a celebratory bottle of rum) about Sandinista soldiers cutting out peasants’ tongues. They were preposterous tales but depressing, particularly for my wife, Kate, who had come to work for the government or, rather, for the peasants, in a rural water quality programme—organising communities to create drinking water committees to repair, protect, maintain and chlorinate their hand-dug wells. Depressing for me too, who had come to write a novel no-one would ever read. Some revolutionary zeal would have made good background, but we seemed to have ended up in the wrong town.
But it was an attractive town, ringed by lumpy hills with plunging, ragged mountains beyond. For eight months of the year the hills were a beguiling green, softening the harshness of a land that, in the dry months, withered to scorched, brown rock and dust. The centre of town itself sits on a small hill. Along the half dozen streets, laid out in a grid, the low, thick-walled townhouses and associated businesses of the ganaderos showed their neglected age, paintwork bleached and plaster dribbling away under the ubiquitous slogans of the Sandinista Youth. You had to peer into the gloom of these houses to see wealth lying low in the interior; and that too seemed on the defensive, waiting for better times: the cane rocking chairs and gleaming, tiled floors, the photographs of émigré relatives and, beyond, cool courtyards filled with plants and shade. To the outside world however, these once affluent homes presented a complaisant and crumbling face, written over with the scraggly legends of revolution. All arms against the aggression! Sandino lives! The initials of the Independent Liberal Party were also scattered about, but that organisation seemed to lack either paint or imagination to indulge in more fulsome expression.
In the tiny, central park, the better-off people still gathered at dusk to pasear—to stroll about in their best clothes, enjoying the relative cool. By day, half a dozen malinche trees, which produce a blaze of red flowers out of April’s desiccation, provided shade for a gaggle of snot nosed, barefoot shoeshine boys who plied a languid trade among the remaining ganaderos and the town’s higher ranking Sandinista cadres and soldiers. On one side the church, solid, white-stuccoed but unimpressive, looked on with an aloofness unspoiled by the slogan painters. Opposite, the decrepit health centre usually had a banner strung across the heads of peasants queuing for medicines, to remind them that community health is a revolutionary task. Oil drums of rubbish, mostly mango stones from the fruit vendors in the park, gently overflowed onto the health centre steps. Occasionally they were emptied by prisoners on corrective work programmes. More often they provided an interesting diversion for the snouting pigs who roamed everywhere, even up here, arriba (‘above’), in the posh part of town.
Three roads wound down to the town’s main entrances. At other points of the grid the central streets abruptly gave way to flights of concrete steps or, in most cases, rocky paths descending some two hundred feet to the lower barrios; but for the purposes of town planning this precipitous topography had been ignored and the guiding principle of the grid preserved. Our address was given on our residency permits as ‘Five hundred metres east of the Sandinista Police’ who occupied a building on the corner of the central park. The cobbled street from the police station led three hundred metres due east, stopped at the top of a precipice, and resumed its course, uncobbled, over shelving rock at the bottom.
Most of the town consisted of ‘lower barrios’ like ours, collectively identified as abajo (‘below’). They rambled and hiccupped away over smaller hillocks in a pleasant, organic jumble of tin-roofed houses. There were, of course, many kinds and quality of house abajo, but they all represented degrees of humility, degrees of not having, degrees of not being arriba. And the crusty faced peasants, the campesinos, who came into town through Barrio la Quebrada from the outlying village of San Nicolás and beyond, driving pack mules laden with firewood, had a last, steep climb before they got on a level with the church and the ricochones, the rich folk, before they really arrived in town to celebrate their day’s business by drinking a Coca Cola out of a glass bottle.
Our next door neighbours were none too revolutionary. Sobeida, soon a frequent visitor, enjoyed lecturing us on how much better life was before the Sandinistas took over, on how the money was now worthless and there was nothing to buy; and she also had her tales of Sandinista rapes, drunken soldiers on the rampage, which she would relate with eyes that grew wider and blacker in the telling. It was impossible to tell how much of this might have a factual basis, how much she was extrapolating from the stories of others and how much came from her own imagination. We strove to steer the conversation towards more comfortable, domestic terrain. On which we provided ample targets for her wit and ridicule. The seeds I planted in the yard, she gleefully informed me, would be eaten by the hens; and they were. The flowerbed I made would become a puddle in the rains; and it did. The balcony I proposed to build, on which to write my novel, would fall down. Happily, it did not.
This makes Sobeida sound spiteful. She wasn’t. Not very, anyway. I think she just wanted to pull us down a peg or two, to puncture our foreign power. We were quite clearly, after all, naïve, privileged interlopers; and for all that we might stand in line with the rest of the barrio for our monthly ration of beans, the Toyota Land Cruiser parked outside (assigned to Kate’s project) was like a tell-tale spaceship, proving that we had just dropped in for a while from another planet to which, sooner or later, we would return. All basically true. So why not have a bit of fun with us meanwhile?
Enjoying the discomfiture of others seemed, besides, a well-established past-time in this place. In Africa my experience was that if you stumbled and tripped in public passers-by would promptly chorus: ‘Sorry!’ In Nicaragua, most people would titter openly or, if the fall were particularly inelegant, guffaw with laughter. This was disconcerting; perhaps especially so for people from Britain where the tendency is to commiserate in public and smirk afterwards in private. It was equally disconcerting (although also entertaining) to hear Nicaraguans, on the slenderest acquaintance, begin to address each other as ‘fatty,’ ‘whitey,’ ‘darkie’ or any other casually pejorative term that fitted their interlocutor’s appearance. Manners, in short, were somewhat blunt and combative—reflecting, perhaps, a sharply divided history that had seen civil wars of one kind or another simmer and flare through most of the 160 years since independence. (And that, I came to think, was probably habit-forming. Becoming familiar with the way that people talked up their complaints, starting from a small grievance and steadily escalating in scale and temper until the heights of the frankly incredible were scaled, it was easy to visualise how disgruntlement would soon escalate into staunch opposition; and staunch opposition seemed in Nicaragua only a rather short step away from taking to the hills and fighting. )
Sobeida, however, showed early signs of being able to take as much as she gave. In the Holy Week of Easter she took us to the annual passion play, performed at the Cine Yarrince, arriba. This three-hour drama rested its claims to artistic merit on faithfulness to the original and on the costumes, lovingly copied from paintings of the Twelve Stations of the Cross around the walls of the church. There was no pretence at acting. The protagonists—‘Oh look! There’s don Rodrigo dressed up as Pontius Pilate!’—stood centre-stage and intoned their lines expressionlessly to a packed house. To help the weaker hearted and softer spoken, stage hands in blue jeans ran from actor to actor with microphones; and this was, indeed, a necessary anachronism because the audience chatted, exchanged greetings, ate and strolled about the whole way through the performance, drowning out most of the dialogue. As the climax approached, however, people became more attentive. Three enormous crosses were raised to a perilous vertical by a complex system of ropes, with Romans in togas and stage hands in blue jeans working shoulder to shoulder, and a microphone on a stick was raised to Christ’s lips. His deadpan enquiry as to why God had forsaken him was drowned in thunderous applause and cheering.
Sobeida appeared to understand, or at least not to resent, our amusement. Her older sister Inés would have been outraged. Inés lived for the church. She worked as a secretary to Monseñor Obregón, the parish priest of the church arriba. There was a second church abajo and its priest, Padre Juan, was not averse to sharing platforms with Sandinista officials, opening cooperatives and telling the peasants that Christ was a poor man like them, and that the land was His gift. Monseñor Obregón was of an older school, where poor men stay at the gate of rich men’s gardens. Fifty years service in the diocese of Granada had left him with a mane of grey hair, a massive watch that hung from a chain round his neck over his soutane, and a cane. Given the chance, he liked to tell incomprehensible jokes in English. These he learnt from his sister in San Francisco, where he took a month’s leave every year.
Inés’ conversation ran towards The Word of God as surely as water runs towards the sea. Her arguments were not complex but she showed considerable skill in finding occasions and reasons to deploy them. The most everyday conversation could turn into an account of how someone in Matagalpa killed children to chop up and make into nacatamales and that is wrong because it is murder and murder is a sin because Christ said so and it is written in the Holy Book. A discussion about how to keep down the domestic spider population would turn into a careful explanation that snakes are evil and must therefore be killed because of what their unfortunate progenitor said to Eve.
When Bishop Vegas of Juigalpa was rebuked and effectively exiled by the government for referring to the contra as ‘my people’ and lobbying for further US funding for them, Inés caught a cold and went into a decline from which she seemed unlikely to recover. She aged several years and made frequent reference to the end of the world. She treated herself with lemon juice and massive doses of penicillin bought from the pharmacy and injected four times daily. Despite this she did recover and soon in addition to her long hours in Monseñor’s office she was once again bringing his robes home to wash. Soutanes are large items to dry so they ended up hanging on barbed wire in front of the Pérez household instead of in the little back yard where the family’s own washing hung.
Inés was less good humoured than Sobeida. She only ever appeared really happy during the religious festivals and saints’ days that, fortunately, were plentiful. Every other week, it seemed, there was some plaster saint or virgin making the rounds of the town. Some of these spent a night in a score of houses across the town and then there was a barely concealed competition to see which house could attract most visitors to the morning and evening prayer sessions, where Ave Maria was sung over and over. But mostly the statues just spent one day in each barrio and, when it was our turn, they always stood in the street outside the Pérez house in a bower made of flowers and greenery. Bunting was strung across the street—yellow and white for the Catholic church, blue and white for Nicaragua—and all morning people would mill about while coffee and snacks were dispensed from the Pérez kitchen. A little band of chicheros playing trombone, trumpet and drums valiantly competed with firecrackers let off by children. Nothing much else happened on these occasions but they were universally reckoned to be very alegre, happy. Inés, at least, was as happy and excited as a first world child at Christmas, particularly when Monseñor was driven down the rocky street to admire the decorations and drink a cup of coffee. The next morning the saint or virgin would be borne off to 6 a.m. mass in a procession led by Monseñor accompanied by Inés, with a loud hailer and shining eyes, shouting ‘Long live Catholic Boaco!’
I found it odd how the jaunty brass band and the firecrackers were integrated into the religious festivals. They seemed more in keeping with the spirit of a bullfight. But during the week-long July festival of the town’s patron saint, Santiago, bullfighting and prayer came together in a curious blend of bravado, mud, drunkenness and piety.
Santiago was not St. James the Apostle but a Spanish knight who distinguished himself on the battlefield in the service of colonising Catholicism. Portraits have him on rearing horseback with a raised sword, not unlike Britain’s dragon-slaying George. The fiesta patronal in his honour celebrates conquest, martial courage and horsemanship.
For a week, evening masses in the church are followed by ‘pyrotechnic games’ in the little park outside. Firecrackers are tied to a rudimentary wire frame in the rough shape of a bull’s head, which is then grasped by an eager young man. The fireworks are lit and the young man charges into the crowd in a shower of burning, lithium sparks. People scream and run and fall over and trample each other and generally seem to reckon this jolly good fun.
Real bullfighting takes place every afternoon of the fiesta in a wooden ring on the outskirts of town. The object of the fight is not to kill but merely to humiliate the bull, after exciting it to anger as a foil for the display of manly valour. This is not always easy as the local breed of Brahmin crosses have peaceful tendencies that need to be overcome by serious goading. The first step to achieving this, a task left to young boys, is to lean through the palings of the corral where the beasts are herded together and stab at them with six inch nails fastened to sticks. A bull is then selected and channelled through a narrow passageway where more boys hit out at it and where a rope is tied around its neck. Roped, it is led into the ring and tethered with its head tight up against a post. Further nooses are tied to its legs so that it can be pulled to the ground, where one man yanks and twists its tail, while another climbs onto its back. Then the animal is loosed from its moorings, although the rope around the horns remains, with a man on horseback dancing at the other end. The bull staggers to its feet, and plunges around the ring for a few seconds, bucking and slithering in the mud (for the fiesta falls right in the middle of the rainy season.) The brass band beats up a frantically jolly tune, the bull heaves and tosses and charges, the man on its back hangs grimly on and the crowd shrieks with laughter and delight. Half a dozen ganaderos dressed in their best embroidered shirts, mud spattered and swaying tipsily in the saddles of fine, high, nervous horses, meanwhile trot around with studied insouciance, making their mounts execute jerky little dance steps in front of the bull. And yet drunker men in humbler and even muddier clothes slither about on foot, running at the bull with rags or, too blind drunk even to see it, just totter gloriously around in the centre of the ring.
Bulls seldom suffer lasting injury from this sport. Men frequently did. Their deaths or maiming were reported with due decorum in the newspapers but from the lips of townspeople you got the clear impression that in fact the casualties were evidence of the alegría of the whole occasion, the way a hangover is often held to testify to what a good time was had last night.
Less dangerous to men but necessarily fatal to ducks was another gruesome entertainment with which many of the villages surrounding Boaco celebrated their own fiestas patronales. A live duck would be suspended upside down from a wire strung across a road, so that the writhing neck was about ten feet above the ground. Peasants on horseback would then gallop in pairs full tilt towards the duck, standing in the stirrups as they passed underneath it. The object of the game was to reach up and wrench off the duck’s head. When the head was eventually worked loose it would often fall to the ground, whereupon a whooping charge of peasants would descend, men leaping from their mules to scrabble and snatch for the prize—much like children scrabbling for sweets in the birthday party game of piñata. He who carried off the head won the duck for his supper.
Throughout the week of Boaco’s fiesta small boys wandered the streets letting off firecrackers when and where they pleased. They were simple devices that produced nothing more than a bang; but that was entertainment enough. Naturally, most boys sought to enhance the fun by catching people unawares, throwing the fireworks at the feet of passers by or trying to startle horses with them. Almost no-one seemed to consider this a public nuisance. The more noise the better: it was all a sign that everyone was having fun. And wherever a bower was made to provide an overnight resting place for the two-foot plaster icon of Santiago, men would dutifully let off rockets all day, carefully eking out their supply since, as everyone kept saying, there was not so much gunpowder around as in Somoza’s day. The usual method of letting off a rocket was to light the touch-paper and hold on to the stick until, drenched with sparks, you could hold on no longer. Improvised mortars of steel pipes made an even louder bang. All week the smell of cordite hung over the town. You fell asleep and woke again to the popping of gunpowder and when eventually the whole business was over for another year you woke to a town where everyone felt flat with the monotony of daily life resumed.
Within days of our arrival in Boaco, the Pérez sisters began to tell us tales of the fiesta patronal and the delights it had in store. It was, for the whole town, the focus of more elaborate preparation and anticipation than either Easter, which brought its own round of masses and processions but was much more solemn, or Christmas, in honour of which Sobeida used to decorate her house with cardboard pictures of Santa Claus and reindeer sent from her brother in Ohio, but which was celebrated only half-heartedly. The feast of Santiago was central, the way that Christmas is in Europe and the States or Spring Festival in China. Boacans who had moved away always returned at this time of year if at no other, including some émigré ganaderos who brought their families back from the States for the week. Pigs were fattened and money put by to prepare special treats and snacks. Goodwill overflowed. Normally sober men became drunk; and normally drunk men became so stupendously drunk that, just walking the five hundred metres arriba, it would be no surprise to see half a dozen utterly unconscious bodies face down in the ditch, often with a mule standing by patiently cropping the grass and waiting for a beating when its master finally came round. Tolerance of drunkenness, always great, became boundless. Even Inés, who never touched alcohol and came as close to any Nicaraguan could to blanket disapproval of it, would during the fiesta allow any drunk to wander in off the streets and, rather than eject him, would offer him a glass of chicha, a lightly fermented maize drink.
The fiesta was a more collective and inclusive festival than first-world Christmas. Everyone joined in the revelry. The week of parades and entertainments culminated in an ‘equestrian procession’ of the faithful, bearing aloft the icon of the warring saint in a circuitous traipse abajo and arriba taking in every barrio at least once. The whole town turned out to participate, to watch, to mill about, each according to his means, on a dumpy mule or high stepping stallion, dressed up as conquistadores and indios or just in workaday clothes, letting off firecrackers or just jumping out of their way, walking along beside Monseñor and carrying a Santiago banner or just tagging along somewhere at the end. The events and entertainments of the week were rather small things in themselves, what mattered was the commotion that they caused, the comings and goings of people of all ranks and stations who, if they agreed on nothing else, agreed that the fiesta was not to be missed.
For Inés, the secular entertainments, the drunkenness, the joys of being in a crowd, the pleasures of a sudden influx of new people and, with them, material for speculation and gossip, were all made permissible by the religious connection. All Boacans took as much pride as pleasure in the fiesta. It was the one time of the year when the town was special, when it seemed a place that could attract outsiders; and for local people it was a reaffirmation of their belonging to the place. For Inés, this pride had to be mediated through the mother church.
We once deeply and almost irreparably offended her by failing to appreciate the specialness not of the fiesta patronal but of some lesser event, the visit of a plaster virgin whose credentials and local significance we had not bothered to establish. The virgin in question had already spent a day in our barrio and we had gone around in the morning to pay our respects, admire the floral decorations and wash down maize cakes with cups of sticky coffee in the Peréz house. Mosnseñor had told us the one about the San Francisco traffic lights and had wheezed with laughter while we smiled with polite incomprehension. It evidently didn’t bother him at all that he never saw us in church and he treated us, with utmost courtesy, as a different species from his flock, although it was unclear why this sense of difference should arouse the comedian manqué in him.
It transpired the next day that the virgin had been moved to Barrio el Muñeco where a brother of the Pérez sisters lived and where, therefore, the sisters took charge of catering for the day. Inés came round to invite us to go up there to see the virgin in her new bower. Wishing neither to give offence nor to spend another morning admiring the statue we compromised by saying that we might go later. And didn’t. That night, Inés marched furiously into our house and gave us a verbal lashing for absenteeism. ‘You’re proud!’ she shouted at us, ‘That’s all you foreigners are, you’re proud!’
Pride was a frequently traded accusation in our barrio, and used to account for all manner of behaviour. In this case it was not the word that was shocking but the vehemence with which it was used. Inés was deeply hurt. What hurt her, we could only suppose, was the suspicion that everything she took most seriously was, to us, rather amusing or second rate. The element of truth in this made us feel guilty: the spoiled children of a richer culture. Yet we were also indignant because it seemed to us that it was Inés’ own pride that had been hurt. So we made no apology; and for several weeks she didn’t talk to us. Oddly, this little quarrel was indicative of greater integration into the community than we had yet achieved; for life in la Quebrada was regularly punctuated by just such resentments and breakdowns.
Less sharp than Sobeida, less pious than Inés and less capable of malice than either was their sister Esperanza, the domestic workhorse. When at 34, having helped to raise the children of older sisters, she took up with a man (who we never met) her parents disapproved her choice. The man left her even quicker than they usually do and so when she returned to the parental home with her baby, Agladia, it was to the ignominy of having been told so. While Inés worked for Monseñor and Sobeida as a secretary in the local government education department Esperanza stayed at home looking after the hens, the pig, the washing, the cooking and to make sweets and chupetas—frozen maize drinks in plastic bags—to sell at the door for a couple of pesos apiece to her nieces and nephews.
The Pérez family purse was also supplemented by the occasional earnings of the unlikely patriarch, don José, retired carpenter, who knocked up doors and tables in his lean-to workshop, where the pig slept at night. A small, wiry and indestructibly healthy man, don José did not seem much like a founder of a dynasty and grandfather of fifty or more nietos. He was a polite, quiet and rather ignorable fellow, perhaps overwhelmed by so many women. He pottered in his shed and once a year, during the fiesta patronal, became quietly drunk for several days, popping round to profess undying love for Kate during one such lapse. For the rest of the year, though, he was a model of sobriety and courtesy; maybe held in check by doña Afortunata, but quietly so since she, white haired and kindly, was large but not very formidable.
Jorge Eduardo, their youngest son, had just been demobilised from military service when we moved in next door. He had no job and, being a man, did nothing in the house except comb his hair, but he had the Pérez upright streak and was not much given to strong liquor or bad language. We never knew him well because soon, amidst much unnecessary mystery and more hair combing than usual, he departed—legally, as far as we knew—for Miami. They asked us for a lift to the airport, but in those days we were rather stuffy about people fleeing and said no.
Jorge, however, had done his two years in the hills, without pay, squelching through the mud and sleeping in a hammock under incessant rain, suffering the insufferable food although rarely seeing action because the contra didn’t engage the army much, waging ‘low intensity warfare’ instead, in accordance with the CIA manuals, by tactics such as mining public roads to blow up busloads of peasants. Still, he had done his bit for the country and now his country had little to offer him. ‘Patria Libre o Morir!’ was Sandino’s slogan: ‘Free fatherland or death!’ By now a lot of people were saying ‘Patria Libre o Miami!’
In Miami, Jorge Eduardo got a job as a housepainter and married a Nicaraguan girl. They sent back dollars to mend the fridge that Esperanza used to freeze her chupetas, along with photographs of yet more grandchildren.
Were there, then, no Sandinistas in Barrio la Quebrada? Indeed there were. There was Dimas, a great bear of a man with ragged teeth and palms like gravel, who had been five years a volunteer in the army, kept disappearing for further stints as a reservist, and enjoyed taking time to explain to us—because, I eventually felt, there were few other, sympathetic ears—how the problems of shortages all stemmed from ‘the war of aggression.’ There was Agostso, a rather vacant man with an East Asian looking face who spent his days sitting, gun in lap, guarding the bank arriba, and who left the thinking to his much less vacant wife, Catalina, who was always away somewhere in meetings or on courses planning strategies for community development. There was Catalina’s brother, Ronaldo, doing his military service in the local base, which people said was a fix, since other local boys were sent far from home, whereas he was favoured for his connections. This was not entirely true: other lads from the barrio went off to the service amidst tearful farewells only to return a couple of weeks later and then at reasonable regular intervals afterwards, being attached to training camps nearby. Alejandro, (son of peg-leg don Pedro, grandson of doña Afortunata) and his cousin Lester, (son of doña Tomasa, grandson of doña Afortunata) eventually volunteered for the service rather than waiting to be called, and were thus able to choose to be attached to a large camp in Managua where they worked and received training as accountants while staying in the house of relatives.
I first met Ronaldo shortly after we had arrived, when I was driving through the centre of town and he ran out of the House for Support of the Combatants to flag me down. There was, he told me, an urgent errand to be run for a dead compañero. Would I put myself at his disposal for half an hour? As we drove up to the military base at San Juan he explained to me, in some detail, and apropos of nothing in particular, that the tactic of the United States in Nicaragua was ‘to create another Vietnam’ by fomenting regional instability and civil war so as to discredit any advance made by a popular socialist regime. It was exactly what the morning’s papers had said but he had clearly mastered the arguments and they sounded more impressive coming from a cheerful, smooth cheeked youngster in uniform. When we got to the base, it turned out that the mission was to collect a large bag of sugar to take back to the dead comrade’s house where people were beginning to arrive for the vigil and there was nothing to sweeten the coffee.
I next came across Ronaldo a year later, when I went to pick coffee for a fortnight on a farm some eight miles to the north. Groups of foreigners would come each year on coffee-picking ‘brigades’ from all over Europe and the United States, paying quite large sums to be billeted on state farms and cooperatives to help support the revolution by gathering in the harvest, and receiving a ‘political tour’ at the end. This was a relatively efficiently run operation, and most brigadistas reported positive experiences, although—or perhaps because—they were usually grouped together and developed their own esprit de corps. But when I went to offer my services at the agriculture ministry offices in Boaco, where brigadistas had never before been sent (more ‘revolutionary’ Estelí or Matagalpa being the destinations of choice), no-one could decide how or where to place me. So eventually, as the harvest neared its end, I despaired of using the proper channels. We drove out into the countryside one Sunday, chose a state farm high in the hills with a particularly fine view, and I asked the foreman for a job. Why not, he shrugged; come back tomorrow at 5 a.m.
La Floridita was formerly owned by a colonel in Somoza’s National Guard, who fled the country a few months before the dictatorship finally fell. Without wages or management, the peasants who worked the farm kept on tending the coffee plants, not knowing what else to do, until the Frente Sandinista sent round a man to start organizing things. Now the ranch-house had grown ramshackle, housing several families, storerooms, a communal dining room and a litter of piglets scrutting about the veranda. The foreman-manager was Santos, a diffident peasant with rubber boots, a worried expression and a mule.
Labour for the harvest was provided almost exclusively by local women and children and by me. In pre-dawn gloom the pickers trooped up from their huts in the valley, each with a plastic bag for the breakfast of cold rice and beans doled out from the dining room. We mustered outside until Santos appeared, swinging his machete, to lead a straggling procession a couple of kilometres across rough pasture to the plantation which had been chosen for the day’s assault. Below us a perfectly rounded hillock shouldered out of the mist that yawned and slid along the valley.
From inside, the coffee plantation appeared to the uninitiated more like virgin jungle. The bushes were about eight feet high and closely planted but with plenty of incidental vegetation in between. They stretched away up gradients that soon reduced all but the most experienced pickers to a hands-and-knees scramble.
Santos allotted us rows; the plastic bags were opened and breakfast swallowed, and then the pickers plunged into the undergrowth. Straw baskets, tied around their waists with strips of bark, filled with berries at puzzling speed, but baskets and pickers alike soon disappeared from view. Communication was thereafter achieved through a series of whistles which two weeks proved insufficient to decipher. On my first morning I slithered about, quite lost, unable to find any berries to pick since I had strayed from my row and was working round bushes which had already been stripped. Then I found a virgin plant, laden with ripe berries. Not pausing to think why it had been left alone, I set to with enthusiasm. Only to discover a curious, black lump stuck to the central stem. At the very moment that I realized what it was, dozens of wasps flew out into my face. My entire morning’s labour was scattered everywhere as I desperately smacked and punched at my own cheeks. By lunchtime one eye had shut altogether and my lips were too swollen to speak. This painful encounter had a useful side effect as it occasioned not only much glee but also a little sympathy amongst a group of eleven year old boys who, thereafter, took me into their care, coming every now and then to check up on me and showing me where to find a cattle trough if I was thirsty. By the end of the fortnight I was able to pick almost as much as they could, earning an average of 40 cents a day, which at that time could buy two Coca Colas.
I had been led to expect a fourteen hour working day. So I had been told by everyone I had spoken to in Boaco, by anyone who had ever picked coffee (as most Nicaraguans at some time have) and even by the workers themselves at La Floridita. But it was a myth. By midday, most of the workforce was more interested in lunch than production targets. An hour was spent sorting the berries: a pile of ripe, red ones for the export market, and the unripe, green rubbish for the instant coffee factory and the domestic market. The little boys threw berries at each other, to Santos’ annoyance, and seemed to expect me to join in, which I eventually did, causing the foreman some embarrassment as he didn’t know whether, or how, to tell me off. Then everyone scarpered to the dining room, and afterwards went straight home.
My intention had been to sleep in the farm’s bunkhouse alongside don Joaquin, an old fellow who lived there permanently, and four seasonal labourers: a young man, a young woman, and two teenage boys. Sleep proved impossible. After lights-out at around 8 pm, there was an hour of baiting don Joaquin and giggling, during which the teenage boys punched each other and the young man and woman, in separate bunks, leaned out to punch each other too in some kind of courtship ritual. I had no-one to hit, and my face throbbed violently. Then the others fell asleep, but I hadn’t the knack of dozing off to their snuffling and snores, and every time sleep approached it was chased away by Joaquin’s consumptive cough. He kept waking and turning to spit on the floor between the cots.
During the afternoon I had loitered with don Joaquin by the drying stalls, where his job was to turn the beans occasionally, pulling off the husks. He asked me if we grew coffee in England. No, I told him. What do you grow then? I thought hard, but couldn’t remember the word for wheat, so I said ‘Apples.’ Saying it made me suddenly nostalgic and at the same time hungry for something tastier than the beans and rice of La Floridita’s kitchen. Don Joaquin threw me a queer glance. Apples are seldom seen in Nicaragua, where the word manzana is more often used to denote a parcel of land slightly larger than an acre. ‘They grow coffee in Costa Rica’ he informed me. ‘They’re all right the Costa Ricans; not like Hondurans.’ I never got to find out what was wrong with the Hondurans because he lost interest in me after that, doubtless deeming me rather foolish.
Eventually that night I got up and went outside to try and read by moonlight. It was then that I came across Ronaldo who, it turned out, had been posted alone in the adjoining guardhouse for the night, to protect us from possible attack. Delightedly, he showed me round the tiny arsenal in his shack. He took apart and reassembled his AK47 for me, and then a machine gun, inviting me to lie on the floor behind the tripod and aim into the hills. And, of course, he told me about all the contra attacks in the area in the last three years. I was concerned that his unaccompanied presence on the farm might make it a ‘military’ target without actually providing much defensive capability. ‘But you should see this thing shoot!’ he blithely replied; ‘And there are normally four of us anyway.’
Noticing my book, Ronaldo expressed an interest in literature and brought out his own library: a Cuban boxing magazine; a pop magazine with a front cover of Madonna in lacy underwear, and a copy of Lenin’s ‘The State and Revolution,’ of which the first three pages had been repeatedly thumbed. He insisted on lending this to me. I would have preferred the Madonna fanzine but I guess he was reluctant to part with that.
After two days I decided to brave Sobeida’s predictable hilarity at my still-swollen face and hitched a lift home on the ENCAFE truck that came in the afternoons to carry the filled sacks away. Thereafter I walked to work each morning, leaving the house at 3 a.m. and enjoying the long, dark trudge that gave a fleeting taste of peasant life.
On Sundays we were sometimes visited by another, typecast Sandinista, Carmen. She was not of la Quebrada stock and quietly disparaged the barrio but she still came to see us, seeking refuge from the San Juan military base where she was a volunteer soldier. On Sundays her male comrades drank and she preferred to avoid them. So she sat in our rocking chair declining fruit juices which we never made sweet enough and telling us sporadic anecdotes about her military career which began several years before the revolution and had continued ever since. She pointed out to us, needlessly, her glass eye; and rolled up her combat trousers to show us the scars on her tiny leg which, it seemed, accounted for her funny walk, She told us of how she had once come round from major surgery in a Hungarian hospital to learn that her husband had been killed in action. This catalogue of death and injury was not offered to impress: it was passed on, matter of factly and without embroidery as the simple outline of her life. She smiled rather crookedly, rocked in her chair and looked around our living room with a calm absence of curiosity. Unlike Dimas or Ronaldo she offered no lectures or polemics. She appeared not to think them necessary. The truth was self-evident and one just did what was necessary until the body could accumulate no more wounds and expired altogether.
And then there was Rosa, who did live in our barrio. A technician in the agriculture ministry, she was abandoned by a different man every time she became pregnant with a new daughter. For more than a year she and her daughters lived in a cellar beneath the casa communal, a little, two-roomed house where the pre-school playgroup met, while she acquired, bit by bit, the materials to build a house around the corner. Three bricks this week, a bag of cement next and some reinforcing steel sometime soon. Dimas did the building.
While Rosa worked, her little girls ambled round the barrio taking care of each other. Six year old Idana, trailing mop headed, lisping baby sister José Maria after her, frequently called in at our house to interrupt the novel and pass the time of day. ‘What’s this, Nicolás?’ she would ask, pulling odd bits of rubbish from the waste paper basket: an empty film canister, a broken cigarette lighter, tin foil from a bar of chocolate bought at the diplomatic store in Managua. ‘It’s pretty, can I have it?’ She stacked her booty up in the corner, and then forgot to take it when I closed the doors and said I was going to sleep, the only comprehensible reason for requesting privacy. She was a bright child. Her older sister had won a scholarship to study in Cuba, so perhaps she was a bright child too; or perhaps, as some tongues had it, she was favoured because of her mother’s ‘participation in revolutionary organisations.’
When Rosa’s house was finally built her place in the cellar of the casa communal was taken by a woman in just the same circumstances: Ana, with a gaggle of daughters and no man. Ana had two jobs: as a store-woman by day for the local water authority and as a cashier in the Cine Yarrince by night. Isolated from the support of an extended family—for she was not from the town—the income from these two positions barely sufficed to feed her girls and fell far short of meeting their clothing needs. It would be a long time before she found, even in dribs and drabs, the $200 or so that it would cost to put up a couple of rooms of her own. But Ana too was something of a revolutionary, had done ‘conscientisation’ work for the official women’s association and, for the purposes of conversation with us at least, blamed her poverty on the ‘war of foreign aggression.’ She was never really accepted by the barrio, the only one in which she could find an empty cellar.
We had in our barrio not just Sandinistas but Communists too. There was don Jaime (or so everyone said,) the cock fighting tailor; don Julio, the carpenter who came back from military service with a smashed up foot; and next door to him there was his uncle, Robelo, who was next door to us on the other side from the Pérez household.
We were warned about Robelo by Aracel (doña Afortunata’s great granddaughter, the daughter of Marta, now in Miami.) ‘You shouldn’t talk to them, they’re Sandinistas!’ she whispered to us one day, in between bouts of giggles. What does being a Sandinista mean? She thought for a while. ‘It means they’re against the church, against God!’ Her eyes were appropriately, ecstatically wide.
How wrong she was about Robelo. A sub-contracting builder, he was a vast lump of a man, a man’s man with a zest for life and rum. Every Sunday and on high days and holidays he sat in his parlour and drank himself gloriously silly with his cronies while the womenfolk of the house crept about serving more ice, rum, nacatamales. In the late afternoon he would begin to sing, his great lungs pumping out the wailing, tuneless, happy notes to the accompaniment of a screechy old mariachi record. By ten o’clock he would go contentedly to rest and set up a snoring that made the walls of both his house and ours rumble. In the morning, when he lumbered out into his back yard in his underpants to use the latrine and then splash some water over his impressive belly, he would sometimes exchange sharp words with his wife, doña Nacha; but real rows seemed rare, and no hangover seemed bad enough to suppress his good humour for long.
Doña Nacha, burdened with this huge, happy, spoilt child, managed as well she might, but appeared tired and often wistful. There was a refinement about her that had no outlet. for, apart from the family, she seemed to have no friends. Between Robelo and the Pérez family there was a feud of obscure origin which meant that although the sons of both families were fighting, however reluctantly, on the same side in the same war, social intercourse between them was nonexistent.
Opposite us there lived a third force in the street, a quietly affluent family, that of doña Petrona and don Pedro and their many children. A pious and orderly lot, they had a small farm in the country and were thus cushioned from want as the economy skittered and plunged further downwards. Don Pedro had a trim little mule tethered outside (which he brought into the house when it rained) and every Sunday doña Petrona killed a pig to make nacatamales, for which people came from all over the town. Indeed, the address of our house was most effectively given as ‘opposite the house where they sell nacatamales.’
Another obscure feud meant that relations between doña Petrona and the Pérez family were strained; and grievances also existed between doña Petrona and Robelo. In short, the three households closest to ours never spoke to each other. It was only after living in the barrio for two years that we found out that Petrona was Nacha’s sister. This made the latter’s social isolation seem even more poignant.
Robelo lent a critical eye, and tools, and sons, to the balcony I built. Propped against the breeze block wall that divided our back yards, by the hole which let his storm waters and hens through to destroy my flowers, he amiably scoffed and criticized. I ignored all his advice on the grounds that his own house was a precarious collection of sheds, only just proof against his snoring, that offered poor testimony to his building skills. It was doña Nacha, moreover, who used to have to clamber on their roof to secure the loose sheets of tin with new stones when they came adrift in heavy rain. But perhaps I did the man an injustice. As the economy slumped lower and he had no work on he set his men on to his own house, supervising them from the same position, leaning against the wall. The structures that emerged were unsightly but solid and more or less square, oozing a porridge-like mortar between the breeze blocks and finally depriving me of my view of his bedroom, kitchen, back yard and all the little children who scrotted about in the dirt there, getting under the feet of the women and the pig.
I was frequently invited to join the Sunday afternoon drinking sessions. To invite me, Robelo would bellow my name and stand beaming in his yard, making a conspiratorial gesture that was more than half way to thumb-sucking, an interesting mime for its suggestion that deep drinking amongst men is a continuation of infantile indulgence. Occasionally I would accept.
The record player was always unlistenably loud and nobody noticed when the scratchy old records got stuck unless they happened to be singing along. The floor was sticky with dropped food and gobs of spittle into which cigarette ends had been crushed. Outside, wives hovered in the shadows, waiting to carry their men away. Inside, the conversation was an unintelligible roar of male voices fired by the searing guaro. The guests invariably fell asleep, in shameless bundles, long before their host.
On one such occasion I broached the subject of Eugene Hasenfus, a CIA hireling who flew supply drops for the contra. Hasenfus’ job was to open the aircraft doors and kick the bundles out. His plane had been shot down and the Sandinistas were cock-a-hoop. Hasenfus should, like the other two crew, have died in the crash; but against orders he had sneaked a parachute aboard. He landed in the bush and was promptly captured.
The Sandinista publicity machine made the most of this gift from the skies. Live press conferences and a show trial were broadcast on radio and television. Hasenfus, bewildered, lonely and frightened, spilled every bean he could while Washington washed its hands of him. Meanwhile, his photograph, grizzle chinned, shell shocked, being towed along by his tied hands behind a young Sandinista soldier, did the rounds of the world’s press and ended up on hoardings all over Managua with a quote from Sandino by way of caption. Mas de un batallón de vuestros, invasor rubio, Habra mordido el polvo de mis agrestas montañas. ‘More than a battalion of your men, blonde invader, will end up biting the dust of my warring hills.’ Hasenfus was sentenced to 30 years in gaol, and then pardoned and sent home.
What did Robelo make of Hasenfus, who was on trial at the time and whose fate was the subject of excited speculation in the national media? ‘He’s a patriot!’ pronounced the master builder, thumping the table and knocking over the ice, ‘Fighting for Nicaragua’s freedom!’ But hang on, Robelo, I thought that you were a Communist? ‘I am. I am for the working man. But not like those Russians.’ Ronald Reagan, it turned out in Robelo’s account, was on the side of communism too. It was the Americans, after all, who kept the Russians at bay after ‘the European war.’ It made no sense at all.
And then the little clutch of men leaned closer together, earnest and inflamed, looking over their shoulder for passing, Sandinista spies. ‘There’s no freedom in this country’ they declared in bellowed stage-whispers. Don Julio, bitter about his smashed leg and the lack of state assistance, was particularly vituperative. ‘You can’t say what you think!’ Robelo, who perhaps after all had only a vague idea of who Hasenfus was, raised a fat finger and made a cutting motion across his throat.
Nicaraguans, in my experience, seldom failed to say what they thought, although it was often hard to interpret or to understand why they thought what they did. Some, out of politeness, would dredge up that part of their thinking which they guessed would come closest to your own; others, more contrary, would seek to shock and to provoke. And quite often, I felt, people thought or said what was the most dramatic and exciting thing to think at any given moment. Thus it was that Sobeida ran into our house one day and told Kate that ‘Nicolás has run over a child and killed it, and the police have put him in prison.’
The child in question was Antonio, a four year old nephew of Robelo’s, who lived in the master builder’s household as a refugee from the war-troubled province of Nueva Guinea. He had crawled under Kate’s Land Cruiser, perhaps seeking shade like the pigs who sometimes snoozed there, perhaps to inspect the sump. When I got in and reversed away he rolled wailing from under the bonnet and down the shelving rock of the street.
I rushed him to the hospital with as much haste as the pot holes and undulations of Boaco’s streets allowed. There he was pinned to a bed by two nurses while a doctor examined him under the interested gaze of several peasant women who had trudged in from the countryside with their diarrhoea- stricken children, the doorkeeper who was supposed to keep the women out, a passing policeman and me, the perpetrator of the crime. It turned out that Antonio was unscathed but he was kept in overnight under observation with a drip stuck in his arm. I, meanwhile, was escorted to the police station to give an account of myself, and Kate, who had run up the hill with Sobeida’s version of events tearing at her bowels, was dispatched to scour the town’s bars for the police surgeon, whose signature would be necessary to confirm that I was not guilty of boyslaughter.
Outside the police station Robelo and a posse of his mates had gathered; in order, I assumed, to lynch me, if the authorities let me go. I was wrong. This little demonstration of fraternal muscle had assembled to make sure the police did not beat me up. Their shoulder badges, after all, declared them to be Sandinista police.
Robelo need not have worried. I was led to the office of sub-comandante Alfonso Léas, in charge of Boaco’s traffic, which was not considerable. Having heard the case, he tried to telephone Managua’s immigration department for confirmation of my identity since they had recently lost my passport in the course of renewing a residence permit. The lines to Managua weren’t working. So sub-comandante Léas exercised a rare discretion: he decided to believe me, reckoning, no doubt, that even the CIA would attempt nothing so crude as mowing down innocent children in broad daylight. Then he tried to telephone the hospital, less than a hundred yards away, to check that the child was still alive; but the lines to the hospital weren’t working either.
The office was bare save for a metal desk, the telephone that couldn’t get through to anywhere and a stack of automatic weapons in the corner. Léas was a neat, delicate, handsome man, just beyond the age at which he could still be called young, with a trim moustache and eyes that didn’t like to dwell too long upon the suspect. He drummed his slender fingers on the metal desk top. ‘Your Spanish is good,’ he lied conversationally. ‘Not really; I taught myself by reading, but I don’t speak well,’ I grovelled. ‘You like reading?’ he exclaimed. ‘About Nicaragua? By Nicaraguan authors?’ He rooted in the drawers of his desk and extracted four books: ‘The Living Thought of Augusto C. Sandino’ (2 Vols, edited by then vice President of Nicaragua, Sergio Remirez); a history of Central America by some Progress Publishers (Moscow) hack; and a translation into Spanish of Goethe’s lyric poetry. He insisted that I accept these as a gift, but said he’d like the Goethe back some time, because it was difficult to get your hands on that kind of thing.
Overcome by bashfulness he then passed me over to a subordinate, a jolly, curly-haired man called Rodolfo who didn’t bother with the telephone but walked back to the hospital with me to check on Antonio’s progress. We were followed at an ambiguous distance by Robelo’s gang. The doctor wasn’t available so Rodolfo poked his own head into the cupboard of the paediatric ward and decided that the boy looked okay to him. Let the police surgeon go hang or drown himself! Nothing then stood between me and my freedom except six copies of an accident report that Rodolfo would have to bash out with two fingers on a police typewriter while humming along to the radio in the background. But first, if I wouldn’t mind, he just wanted to go to the hospital dispensary for some ointment for his foot because his bunions had been playing him up lately.
We subsequently tried to befriend sub-comandante Alfonso, but he proved too shy. I returned the Goethe with a note inviting him to supper. He said he would come, but didn’t, and managed to avoid later invitations until departing for a long training course in Czechoslovakia. Rodolfo left the force and encountered various difficulties associated with a heavy drinking habit and two bouts of hepatitis. For a while, between bouts, he worked as a driver for Kate’s water project and became, temporarily, Boaco representative of the transport workers union. Robelo, to the best of my knowledge, remains a ‘Communist.’
That day of the accident Juan Ramón, son of don Milán, grandson of doña Afortunata, recently returned from military service, was in the passenger seat. I was going to change a gas cylinder for our stove—if, that is, there were any full cylinders in the depósito—and he was coming for the ride.
The Land Cruiser, when Kate was not manoeuvring it along stream in search of remote, village wells, had soon come to be regarded by the barrio as a community resource. It was the only vehicle in a neighbourhood of a couple of thousand people. Therefore, delegations would arrive almost daily, asking could you possibly consider coming to collect a few bags of cement for us; could you take my cousin to hospital, he’s dying, it won’t take long; when are you next going to Managua, could you give us a lift? Official delegations came too: from the Sandinista Youth who wanted to transport parents to a show put on by the Association of Sandinista Children; from the health ministry, who wanted transport for the rural vaccination programme; from the high school carnival committee who needed a vehicle for the carnival queen’s procession arriba. There were also more sombre requests: once, when Kate was out in a village some thirty kilometres away, the vehicle was requisitioned by the army for an afternoon to carry away the bodies of peasants who had been killed in a contra attack the night before.
The barrio transport needs were aggravated by the town’s water shortage. In 1986, water was pumped to the town direct, and without treatment, from the river. It came out of the taps brown and, because sewage from arriba was discharged into the same river, exceedingly unwholesome. But it did not come out of the taps very often, since there was not enough installed capacity to pump it round the decaying distribution network and huge quantities leaked away through cracked and broken pipes. Officially, Barrio la Quebrada was supplied on alternate days, but it arrived much more seldom. During the dry season our tap often produced nothing for weeks at a time. So, during the dry seasons of 86 and 87, we made regular journeys to a borehole three kilometres out of town to fill up buckets. It would have been churlish not to invite our neighbours. Very soon, the daily excursions involved twenty or so passengers standing in the back with their buckets, barrels and water churns, children hanging perilously onto the tailgate.
People in the barrio must have thought us easy game. Or a button worth pressing at least. The request for lifts became more confident and, at times, outlandish. Juan Ramón, more intimate with us on account of having witnessed my paling face as Antonio rolled shrieking from under the bonnet, came round one day to ask us to drive him to Chinandega, at the other end of the country to call on a girl he fancied. We suggested he take a bus. He went away mortified and returned an hour later with a conciliatory gift. It was a half-dead green parrot trailing a wing freshly broken by his catapult, panting with thirst and panic. We were not very gracious about this gift horse, reckoning birds entitled to their liberty. But after looking it in the beak we decided that it would die anyway and stuck it in the orange tree in the yard.
Maud did not die. For a year she lived in and systematically defoliated the orange tree, waking us up every morning with a crazy and joyous imitation of Robelo’s hens. Robelo leaned on the wall and said we’d have to clip her wings or she would fly away. We said we wanted her to, but he must have attributed this ridiculous sentiment to an inability to express ourselves properly, for occasionally we would come home to find that he had sent his children over to capture her and had given her a nice, close clip for us. It would be hard to say whether we or Maud were most outraged by this. Then we caught hepatitis and didn’t go out for a long time and Maud’s feathers grew and she flew away. We were heartbroken. Robelo beamed over the wall and said he’d told us so. It’s astonishing how fond you can become of a parrot.
Juan Ramón had an older brother called Milán (son of don Milán, grandson of doña Afortunata) who was loco. Everyone said so. He had, we were told, been rejected for Patriotic Military Service on health grounds, so perhaps his madness had showed up in the interview, although he usually seemed both fit and rational: a cheery, cheeky jack-the- lad with a baby and girlfriend billeted in his father’s house and a wife somewhere else. The trouble was that he went bonkers when he drank, which happened not infrequently.
It took determination, or great exhaustion, to sleep through the nocturnal orchestra of Barrio la Quebrada. Around ten o’ clock there would be a promise of quiet, ruffled only by Robelo’s snore and the clanking of a few, final pots in Esperanza’s kitchen. A drunk peasant might lurch past on his way back to the countryside, looking for his pack mule or stopping for a muttering, reflective piss. You would fall asleep hearing his slow, irregular footballs on the shingly street. Thickening sleep would then be stirred by the beating of powerful wings: Robelo’s cockerel, stretching in the tree where it roosted. A pause, and then the brute would let out an experimental crow. Another pause and then, very quietly but audibly—because you were now wide awake waiting for it—there was another beating of wings: don Julio’s cock, two doors up. You could almost hear it clearing its scraggy throat for the answering call. Within minutes, every cock in the street would have joined in. And then the dogs would start: on dark nights, they just barked, on the nights when the moon shone bright they howled plaintively to their doggy ancestors. And then the babies, discovering singly or in unison the irritant parasites in their guts, also giving vent to yowling, primeval plaints. And mothers cooing and soothing or angrily despairing. And tom cats brawling. And perhaps, away in the distance, gunfire: and although you told yourself it was most likely just exuberant soldiers in the base at San Juan shooting tracers into the air there was always the shadow of doubt. We were, after all, in a war zone, and people said the contra had conservative Boaco targeted as the town they would most like to ‘liberate.’ You listened anxiously then for the chink chink chink of the blacksmith in the next street, who preferred to start his hammering in the cool of midnight, to check that he hadn’t taken fright.
All night long the body struggled to remain asleep. Often the intermittent, anticipatory silences were the most disturbing. And then dawn: the cockerels dozed, exhausted, but the parrot was beside herself with the hen imitation: puck-puck, puck-puck, puck-puck PUURCK! The real hens responding, puzzled. Robelo’s women beginning to hack up the breakfast firewood. Esperanza slopping water about. Crows skittering and fighting on the tin roof.
Milán eschewed such mundane disturbances. His style was more grandiose, Lear-like in a youthful way. Down the hill he would come in the small hours, ranting. You could hear the silence deepening around him as everyone tried harder to sleep, not to hear him. God knows what he was roaring about. Perhaps some of the Pérez family could interpret his glorious fury; we could not, but the particulars didn’t seem important. When he arrived at his father’s house little couplets separated themselves out of the generalized rage. ‘Open the door, sons of whores!’ The thud of a machete burying itself in the door frame. The gentler sounds of remonstrance: ‘Go away, son, we’ll sort it out in the morning.’ The little squeals and oohs! and aahs! from a crowd of extras that had not been able to resist gathering in the street. The sudden rattle of a sermon spat by Inés from the hutch of her bedroom in the maze of outbuildings that connected doña Afortunata’s house with that of her son.
These episodes lasted an hour or so. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that is how long they kept me awake, because I can’t remember how they were ever actually resolved. Only that once they involved the ráfaga of an AK47 discharged some ten yards away from our pillow. Into the air, presumably, as there were no corpses in the morning. There were a lot of guns in Nicaragua, under the beds even of people who whispered or shouted about living in a police state; and a lot of drunks.
The surprising thing, I always thought, was that Milán’s father and brothers didn’t dispense with the pleading and persuasion and give him a good smack in the mouth instead. But in the end the family did the next best thing. They saved up and sent him away to Miami, leaving behind his wife, his girlfriend and his little daughter Hazel, who seemed to fall to the care of his sister, Rosa, a skinny, pretty schoolgirl who was permanently drooly and in love.
The day I ran Antonio over, David was with me too, as he almost invariably was. David, son of doña Tomasa, grandson of doña Afortunata, was twelve, fatherless and at a permanently loose end. Our house seemed to alleviate his boredom somewhat and he spent many hours sitting in our rocking chairs staring at whatever little was going on.
The transition from child to adulthood is difficult in Boaco, especially for boys, who are not called upon domestically and so must face up to the problem of free time. There is very little to do. The odd errand to be run arriba. The occasional game of baseball in the street, with an old stick and a bundle of rags as a ball. The even more occasional catch of a live rat or iguana, to be baited for a while and then killed. Apart from that, there is not much for it but to sit and watch other people while waiting for the years to slip by towards military service, girls and liquor.
David’s idleness was unrelieved by initiative. If you told him to do something he would happily do it, and he enthusiastically joined in our various home improvement projects: driving to the river to collect soil for the garden in which nothing would grow; hammering nails into the balcony on which nothing would grow either. But deprived of a direct command his mind, like a perfect foot soldier’s, seemed to return to a peaceful blank. He would arrive in the mornings, relatively bouncy, and we would exchange cordial and relatively animated greetings. But once it was established that we had both dawned well silence would gather again as if there were a delicate topic to be avoided, or as if he were puzzling over some forgotten idea he had wanted to communicate. And he would revert to gazing, frozen by the doorpost or immobile in the rocker. Some kind of conversation could be contrived about school, about the family, about whether there was any bread in town that week; but if you steered too recklessly away from David’s immediate experience the blankness thickened like curing concrete.
His nine year old brother, by contrast, was as sharp as glass. Where the uneventfulness of Boaco life had numbed David’s mind, in Carlos’ it had mothered a lively inventiveness. His inquisitive fingers were into everything and he soon embarked upon his own series of improvements to our home. He rearranged our kitchen, took the machete to the back yard and destroyed the few, cherished green weeds growing there, and made us a contraption of tattered plastic to shade the light bulb.
At first Carlos’ fidgetiness made him difficult company, but he mellowed with the passing months and soon supplanted his brother (who adopted us first) in our household. Vague thoughts may have crossed our minds about broadening the experience and horizons of this bright lad but, of course, the reverse happened. Being still a child, Carlos had the wit and patience to teach us. At nine years old, he was an almost completely formed Boacan but he was more ready than his elders to explain, as often as would prove necessary, such elements of local lore and custom as we were unable to retain. So when Esperanza lectured us on the perils of washing in cold water after ironing, or opening the fridge door after coming in from the street, we would cross check with Carlos to make perfectly sure that he had not misunderstood and that, yes, these activities would undoubtedly result in our catching a chill and quite possibly dying. And when doña Petrona across the road obtained a concession to slaughter and sell the meat of one bullock per week it was Carlos who explained, after everyone else had tired of doing so, that although there was ample meat for every house in the barrio, and although no-one else was allowed to buy it, it was still necessary to start queuing at 3:30 a.m. on a Monday morning to make sure they didn’t cheat you.
Carlos thus became our guide and cultural interpreter. He was also a faithful spy and informer, bringing us up to date with barrio gossip and running to tell us when the Carnicería de la Fé, the Faith Butchers, had eggs or sour cream in stock, or when the provisions had arrived at the puesto, the little barrio store that dispersed the rationed sugar, beans, rice and soap. And he taught me how to mop the floor properly.
Through David and Carlos we got to know doña Tomasa’s branch of the Pérez family. David came by one day and, in one of the longest sentences he was ever heard to utter, invited us to their sister Xaviera’s fifteenth birthday party. Arriving at the house at the appointed hour we immediately feared some embarrassing gaffe. Xaviera had just returned from a mass in the church, decked out in what can only be described as a wedding dress; and on the table stood what can only be described as a three tier wedding cake. An older brother, Ricardo, managing the tape recorder in the corner, had meanwhile unearthed a recording of Mendelssohn’s wedding march, above the screech and hiss of which he grinned triumphantly. But who and where was the groom?
Urgent consultation with Carlos reassured us that there was no groom: not yet, anyway. This was Xaviera’s coming-out ball, to mark her availability for courtship. ‘Look,’ her lacy, pink dress proclaimed, ‘You remember Xaviera who yesterday was a ragged waif and the day before that a snot nosed babe in arms? Well, look again, because today she is a woman.’ People looked and the cygnet Cinderella blushed excruciatingly, all hot and petulant under so many gazes, not knowing where to look. Then the wedding march was over and the party began.
Pérez baptisms, birthdays and weddings all follow the same formula. Chairs and benches are borrowed from all the neighbours to line the walls of the one room with a tiled floor; and these are soon filled with neighbours in their party frocks. Men’s dress is not elaborate, consisting at the most in ironed trousers and guayaberas, embroided white shirts; but the women dress with invariable care and not infrequent panache. It was one of the smaller marvels of a country where cloth was both scarce and costly that women with next to no income, with no water supply to their homes and no soap in the shops nonetheless emerged from their cramped little houses so gleaming and resplendent. Fashions followed what was going on further north only very vaguely, with a much greater tendency to frill and flounce, a more studied ‘femininity’ and a more determined smartness. Women who worked as secretaries, earning perhaps fifteen dollars a month, would consider it a source of shame not to have at least as many smart, working outfits as there were days in the week, which required extraordinary scrimping, borrowing, ingenuity and needlework; and hosting a party required something special that the neighbours had not seen before.
The guests are served food: rice, a little mash of tomato and squash, a purée of beans and garlic; fragments of fried tortilla. This is ferried out from the back of the house, where the tiled floor gives way to the more businesslike, open-air kitchen and the jumble of dirt-floor cardboard-partitioned sleeping compartments. From the kitchen doña Tomasa coordinates the efforts of her female relatives. She is a handsome woman in middle age with a fluting, deferential voice that laughs its own opinions away to nothing. Her thick plaits of black hair, streaked with grey, are like those of placid squaws in Reagan B movies.
The food arrives on plastic plates for the most important guests, then on paper plates. The least privileged of all—uninvited children and passing drunks who teeter in the doorway with attention attracted but unfocussed on any further plan—receive their portion on banana leaves. Toasted maize and fruit drinks are served in a similar hierarchy of cups. A family connection with the ground staff of Aeronica—the national airline that operates one medium-haul jet on flights to Central American capitals and Miami—yields a small but sufficient supply of plastic beakers. Certain of the guests are discreetly supplied with rum, but doña Tomasa’s is a moderate household, so the men do not end up parked around a table out the back drinking themselves to a stupor.
There follow several hours of dancing to salsa tunes recorded from the radio complete with time checks and station signals. Everyone dances, from two-year-olds upwards, and many people sing along too. Carlos runs around giggling. David’s face is so pink with pleasure it suggests he might have been at the rum. Ricardo bashfully explains to Kate that he only feels attracted to foreign women.
Doña Tomasa had mostly boys. The oldest was in the States. Then there was Octavio, who drinks. Then Ricardo, who doesn’t. Then William, the most handsome, with dreamy eyes and a polio leg iron that doesn’t slow him down around the pool tables in the all-male billares saloons arriba. Then Lester, then David, then Carlos. Between Lester and David came Xaviera, and somewhere much earlier there was Liduvina who worked some time as a schoolteacher before marrying and bringing home Vladimir.
When we first moved to the barrio Ricardo was in the process of being called up for military service. He was far from keen to do his patriotic duty and the business was dragged out for several months while his claims to suffer from a debilitating kidney disorder were examined. The kidneys occupy a special place in the Nicaraguan valetudinarian concerns, but the military decided that Ricardo’s were okay. He gave in with good grace and came to say goodbye to us wearing his new uniform and carrying a brand new gun. The uniform suited him, the stooping listlessness of the kidney patient transformed into a soldierly jauntiness.
Sobeida assured us that nothing more would be seen or heard of him before his two years were up unless they sent him back dead. But in fact he had frequent home leaves and it was evident during these that he was thriving. They had made him a flechero, in charge of a rocket propelled grenade launcher—leastwise, that’s what he said— and told him that if he managed to shoot down another Hasenfus he could go home immediately with a grant to study anything, anywhere in the world. Shyly, he brought us gifts, or rather he brought Kate gifts: an olive green combat hat; posters issued by the political department of the Popular Sandinista Army depicting a soldier holding a baby aloft under the legend ‘Facing the future: by defeating the mercenaries we say no to the past!’ His little brother Carlos, as would-be regulator of our taste, disapproved. He couldn’t understand why, when we had such a nice house, we wanted to put things like that on the walls, instead of pictures of the saints. Muy feo, he would say, very ugly.
As Ricardo approached the end of his time he had to make a difficult decision. They wanted him to stay on, which would mean promotion and a wage. The fact that he even considered this suggested to us that the programme of political education which conscripts received had had some effect. But in the end he opted for demobilisation and unemployment; and if he had temporarily become quasi-Sandinista he soon switched back, because in the elections eighteen months later he eagerly took up the opposition cause.
Undoubtedly, in deciding to leave the army, he was influenced by his mother. For as soon as Ricardo was demobilised, Lester went off to the service. After Lester, it would be David’s turn; and then Carlos’. Doña Tomasa was less outspokenly anti-government than some of her sisters, but she obviously didn’t like always having one or other son away at the wars. She hoped to break the cycle by sending David and Carlos to Miami. Monseñor Obregón meanwhile had other plans for Carlos who had become a catequista and altar boy.
After we had moved from Boaco these plans were disrupted by Doña Tomasa’s sudden death. She went to the local hospital with a ferocious headache and was transferred to Managua where a cerebral haemorrhage was diagnosed, although confusion surrounded both diagnosis and cause of death. Her sister, Esperanza, told us at some length that they didn’t want to leave her in the hospital in Managua because there the doctors remove ‘fluid from the spine’ of hopeless cases to put into a ‘spinal fluid bank.’ So as soon as the family decided that Tomasa was going to die they removed her from the hospital and brought her back to Boaco. It appeared that she died during the journey but it is hard to know what really happened. Whereas in Britain relatives of the sick will hang on to and rehearse every medical detail, in Barrio la Quebrada suspicion of the medical profession was such that strenuous efforts would be made to keep the fatally ill out of the clutches of doctors. ‘You should never let them take you into hospital’ Sobeida told us, ‘Because if they do, they’ll operate on you. That’s what hospitals are for!’ When death ensued there was little or no interest in the precise cause and little speculation about what the medics could or should have done. Death was simply what God willed. The important thing was to get hold of the body so that the proper rites could be observed at home.
The funeral was a heart rending affair. Of the many orphans, Carlos, the youngest, was the most distraught, and his future the most uncertain. He didn’t want to go to the United States to live with his brother, who he hardly knew, and the dead atmosphere of mourning in the house in Boaco seemed to us unhealthy for a boy now twelve years old and entering adolescence. In the year that we had been living in Managua he had often visited us at weekends and during school holidays, so we wrote to Ricardo and Liduvina saying that, if he wanted, he could come to live with us full time until we left the country, not discounting the possibility that he could, thereafter, leave with us, although pointing out that he would almost certainly dislike England which, unlike Miami, has a foul climate and no Latin American community. Ricardo’s response was straightforward. If we wanted Carlos, he said, we could have him, con mucho gusto. He did not seriously question that we could give him a better life than was available in Barrio la Quebrada.
Carlos, to his credit, thought otherwise. He had become very close to his second godfather, appointed at the time of his first communion: a young, evangelizing Catholic who would have been a priest if he had not fallen in love and married, and who spent much of his time away from Boaco in rural communities as a lay preacher. Carlos had started to accompany him. He seemed pleased by our offer and spent an undecided fortnight toying with the possibilities, but soon enough opted for Boaco and lay preaching.
At Xaviera’s party I first became aware of the extraordinary dancing talents of Socorro, daughter of doña Ana, granddaughter of doña Afortunata, mother of pert little Ana Yanza and toddling César. She was a large woman and when she danced a huge dynamo of natural energy came into play. When I asked her for a dance she left the party and avoided me for several weeks.
Socorro was the head teacher of a junior school. She lived with her mother, a sister and brother and her two children in a muddled little one roomed house next to doña Tomasa’s. The tiny interior was a mystery of old drapes dividing up the sleeping compartments. Her husband worked away from home and was a relatively infrequent visitor. Socorro met her husband when they were both young teachers in the ‘literacy crusade’ of the early 1980s and ended up staying together in a remote village teaching the peasants to read and helping in the fields. Those were the heady days when everything seemed possible. By now, the shine seemed to have gone out of the relationship. Leastwise, Soccorro was one of the many Nicaraguan women who liked to bring the conversation round to celos, sexual jealousy. ‘Don’t you get angry when Kate dances with other men?’ she asked me. ‘Don’t Englishmen beat their wives when they fight?’ She it was who dubbed Kate espageti. ‘You’ll lose him if you don’t fatten up a bit,’ she warned her.
Socorro, the head teacher, was poor by almost any standards, but she appeared to retain some residual loyalty to the idealism of the literacy crusade.
It so happened that in 1988 Region V, of which Boaco was a part, was selected by the Frente Sandinista as the region which would host the principal celebrations of the ninth anniversary of the revolution. It seemed that, belatedly, someone in the Department of Agitation and Propaganda had realised the need for a rapprochement with the ganaderos. A bull was chosen as the anniversary symbol instead of the variations on the theme of an AK47 which had marked most of the others. Region V’s Sandinista Youth T-shirts that year read En la quinta somos un toro suelto—‘In Region V we are a bull on the loose.’ At the July 19 celebrations in the regional capital, Juigalpa, not far from President Daniel Ortega’s birthplace, he and the rest of the leadership arrived in check shirts and on horseback. After the usual speeches berating the yanquis they all went off to watch a bullfight and other cowboy games.
Boaco was a hive of activity in the run-up to July 19, as projects which for years had been no more than talking points were rushed towards completion in honour of the anniversary. Ortega was to visit the town to inaugurate the projects. The main one was a water treatment plant, which the town had spent sixty years waiting for. But there was also the grada, a huge flight of steps rising from Barrio la Quebrada arriba, connecting our street with its continuation 200 feet above us.
The building of this stairway to the skies had long been the ambition of our barrio’s ‘Committee for the Defence of Sandinismo.’ Such committees were still being described by the international solidarity movement as ‘organisations of grass roots democracy’ and by the United States press as ‘neighbourhood spy networks;’ but the truth is that they were defunct across much of the country and in Barrio la Quebrada the committee had been moribund for a long time. Meetings were occasionally called. Catalina and Dimas, the barrio idealists, would go round from house to house reminding everyone that the meeting would be at six o’ clock and asking for revolutionary cooperation. At seven o’ clock they would still be sitting outside the casa comunal waiting for people to turn up. The people would peer from their doors to see if it had started and, if it hadn’t, those who intended to go would wait a while longer. Thus, for every four meetings that were planned only one would take place, and that wouldn’t start until Cuerpo a Cuerpo, ‘Body to Body,’ the current Brazilian soap opera on the TV, was over.
When they did happen, the meetings were interminable and unproductive. Catalina’s husband César, the guard from the bank arriba, attempted to chair them, but he was quite at a loss to stop people raising and chewing over old grievances. Time-honoured feuds hovered in the background. While children played in the middle of the room someone would ask, yet again, what happened to the money that was collected four years ago for the bridge. This was a footbridge intended to cross la quebrada, the brook which gives the barrio its name and which ran past the bottom of our street, carrying waste water from most of the houses and dribbling away, in the dry season, into stagnant puddles for mosquitoes to breed in. Catalina would explain, yet again, that it took so long to collect contributions from the community, and then so long to wait for materials to become available that, with annual inflation at 20,000 per cent, the savings in the bank had shrivelled away to nothing. Those, like Sobeida, who didn’t attend the meetings, scoffed at such explanations and bluntly maintained that the money was embezzled.
Trying to move on from the bridge, César would then stumblingly read out a communiqué from the Ministry of Defence announcing that able bodied men under 40 who had completed military service would in future be required to perform one month per year in the Patriotic Military Reserve. This caused at least an hour’s worth of confusion and inspired a rousing call from Dimas for renewed revolutionary vigilance and for night patrols of residents to guard the barrio from robbers and contra. A list of volunteers was drawn up, in which I was put down for Tuesday nights—but the matter went no further than that for the whole issue was then forgotten as someone else launched into a blistering attack on local storekeepers for favouring ‘certain people’ in the distribution of rationed maize. César, prodded by Catalina, would try to restore order by pointing out the need to elect a properly constituted committee. The old guy who sold roof tiles from his house around the corner from doña Petrona at this point stood up and delivered a much-appreciated conceptual analysis of democracy. ‘In some of these elections, you see, you have such and such a number of candidates and you count up the votes and you find that you’ve got more votes than people voting! Well, that’s what some people call democracy!’ Applause. The meeting rarely got round to discussing community projects.
But with the impetus of the ninth anniversary a committee was finally elected and, along with Dimas and César, Socorro had a place on it, as a good compromise between the Sandinistas and the Pérez family. The mayor came to the meeting with plans for the grada and work started.
Dimas went round the barrio time and time again trying to organise rojinegros—‘red and blacks’—Sandinista colours: days on which a voluntary workforce would turn out to hack away the rock and knock up dozens of tons of concrete, by hand. No-one ever turned up. In the end the Boaco revolutionary junta—that is, the town council—had to contract paid labour as well as providing the cement. For years, cement had been as hard to come by as milk (for, although Boaco had plenty of dairy herds, the milk all went of to Managua for pasteurisation and never came back.)
Although the grada had only slender claims to being a ‘community project’ it was undoubtedly a boon for the barrio, allowing people to climb arriba without getting their boots caked in mud and muleshit. Concrete benches on a serious of platforms also provided a good, nocturnal meeting place for young lovers until the electricity board, in an excess of revolutionary zeal, installed the best street lighting in all of Boaco right above the benches.
The inauguration was a cheerfully chaotic demonstration of how charisma stuck to the Sandinista leadership even after nine years of war and disappointment and even in Boaco. President Ortega and his entourage arrived at the outskirts of town several hours late, abandoned their convoy of vehicles and jogged though the streets to the water treatment plant. The good townspeople of Boaco, so many of whom could normally be taken for contra fifth columnists, could not resist the general alegría of the occasion and charged after the short, T-shirted President with the huge spectacles, nodding and winking and shouting and waving at him. Serious men in Interior Ministry uniforms had spent several hours pushing coat hangers up the tubular steel legs of the chairs put out for the guests at the water treatment plant but in the event chairs and bodyguards alike were promptly lost in the melee. Bayardo Arce, one of the Sandinistas’ chief ideologues, delivered a brief harangue and then the crowd surged off again to Barrio la Quebrada. Jaime Wheelock, Minister for Agriculture and the owner that day of the sulkiest face in Boaco, appeared to get lost, to Sobeida’s lasting delight; and Arce went off to harangue the local Frente cadres in private. That left el señor Presidente, as even Sobeida felt moved to call him, all alone in our barrio, surrounded by the ragamuffin la quebrada kids.
Dimas stood at the top of the steps in the whitest shirt that had ever been on his back, speechless with pride, holding out a red ribbon for Ortega to cut. On an adjacent wall, hidden by the stampede, was a handmade poster listing the ‘outstanding volunteers in this community work.’ Of all the volunteers listed only Dimas had raised more than a token finger. Now he got his reward as Ortega held him in a momentary, fraternal embrace. Then el el señor Presidente trotted down the steps and at the bottom Socorro grabbed and kissed him. Dona Afortunata and don José looked on from a respectful distance.
It was after the rains that year that we left the barrio to live in Managua, but we kept in touch with the Pérez family and returned often to visit. On one such occasion, a year later, we ended up driving dona Afortunata and don Jose to the airport when they left for Miami.
They had been before, for three months. Just long enough to get residency permits, and to get homesick. They didn’t like it there. Don José had nothing to do and doña Afortunata missed all her grandchildren. Now they had to go back before their residency permits expired. Doña Afortunata wept most of the way to the airport. It seemed stupid and pointless, this breaking up of family and community. Not much to show, anyway, for ten years of revolution and eight years of war.
East Horsley, UK, 1990
In October 2007 I revisited Nicaragua for the first time since leaving in 1990. I travelled with my oldest son, Enrique, who was born in Managua the summer after Kate and I left Barrio la Quebrada and who left the country with us before reaching his first birthday. La Quebrada folk insisted back then that he would be bound to return adonde cayó el ombligo,—to where his umbilical cord fell. Enrique’s 18th birthday seemed like a good opportunity to fulfil this prophecy, to satisfy his curiosity as to where he came from and to satisfy mine as to what had happened to the place. Kate could not come because she was too busy working to pay for our trip.
A British friend from that time of our life, who has done better than us at keeping in touch with Nicaragua, warned that I would find it changed beyond all recognition. But this was not so. (My perspective was doubtless influenced by having just spent thirteen years watching momentous, fast-forward change in China.) There were more cars and advertising hoardings in the capital; a smattering of new office buildings, banks, hotels, bars and restaurants; a couple of shopping malls where Christmas trees and plastic reindeer were already being erected; several casinos and, next door to one of these, an ‘exotic dancing’ club, near which streetwalking sex workers loiter. More facilities, in sum, for business travellers and for a slightly enlarged local elite when they are not out shopping in Miami—for Managua must still seem a small pond to them. But for the great majority of citizens life seemed as pinched and dull as ever: no substantial change in their housing, nor their services, nor their diet, nor their work—except that the latter is desperately short, there being a limit to the number of demobilised soldiers and contra guerrillas who can be taken on as pizza delivery boys; so the main career options for urban youth appear to be either migration or crime or becoming a security guard. We were repeatedly warned against pandilleros, criminal gangs, many of them with firearms. Armed guards are now ubiquitous in the better-appointed areas, nervously patrolling under the almond trees at night. (The man outside the guest house where we stayed—tucked, like all other businesses, in a residential area, for the straggling city still has nothing you could call a centre—walked up and down the ill-lit street at intervals blowing a whistle: less, I suspected, to deter bandits than to let them know his whereabouts so that they would steer their criminal course around him.) None of this seemed to amount to ‘change’ so much as a simple keeping in step, in a less-developed sort of way, with the way the rest of the world has gone.
According to World Bank and UN reports, Nicaragua remains the second-poorest country (after Haiti) in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a gross national product of just $453 per capita and 45.8 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Only half of the rural population has access to electricity, twenty per cent lack potable water supplies and a quarter live on less than a dollar per day. Twenty three percent of adults over 15 are illiterate. Some of these percentages have improved slightly since the early 1990s, the reports say—but, owing to population growth, the absolute number of poor is higher than ever. These seem like very modest achievements after seventeen years of peace during which successive governments have ruled more or less in accordance with globally prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxies.
Since doña Violeta Chamorro’s 1990 election victory for the National Opposition Union Nicaragua has been through several electoral cycles without, at least, slipping back into armed conflict. Chamorro was succeeded by two ‘liberal’ governments under, respectively, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños. The latter began his presidency by instigating criminal charges for corruption against the former. Bolaños’ own rule was impeded by stalemate in a deeply divided National Assembly. Following elections in 2006 the presidency returned to none other than the old Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, who had repeatedly contested elections as representative of one of the factions into which the original Sandinista Front split in the early 1990s. In 2006, Ortega’s running mate was Jaime Morales, a former anti-Sandinista exile whose confiscated home Ortega had himself occupied and lived in during his first stint as president nearly twenty years previously. This time Ortega had stood on a populist, ‘anti-poverty’ platform. His first months in office were a balancing act, courting support (in the form of cheap oil) from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez while attempting not to frighten local entrepreneurs, landowners and foreign investors. He had also endorsed new laws making all forms of abortion illegal. This in a country that, according to the World Bank, has the highest adolescent pregnancy rate in Latin America and the Caribbean—twice the regional average. AIDS ‘information, education and communication’ materials were quite widespread but mainly oblique: on the lines of ‘HIV/AIDS is a very big threat, so let’s all work together to overcome it!’ My guess is that programmes to encourage pre-marital sexual abstinence and fidelity within marriage are the chosen instrument of control, even though anyone who knows anything about the subject knows that only ‘low risk’ people pay any attention to these.
I looked in newspapers and magazines for a debate about development, about where the country was going and what might be possible for it, to answer my own questions after so long an absence. The papers were full of heated but obscure argument about constitutional change. This seemed to reflect the concerns of a querulous political class, as fractious and divided as the folk of Barrio la Quebrada but largely disconnected from them. There seemed to be no good grounds for supposing that Ortega was any different.
I couldn’t even find a debate about climate change. Perhaps people were already getting used to the idea. I had timed our trip to coincide with the early part of the dry season, when it should have been warm and sunny with the land still fresh from the summer rains; but in fact it had rained without pause for the 17 days before we arrived, roads to the north had been washed away, the north-east coast had been devastated by late hurricanes and it continued pouring for many of the days that we were there.
The bad weather limited our travel options but we did manage to spend a week-end in Boaco. The bus ride, rising into hills from the volcanic plain, was exactly as before: sugar cane giving way to steep slopes of maize, occasional homesteads cobbled together out of sticks, weathered planks and sheets of corrugated zinc, crowds of hopeful vendors at stops along the way offering nacatamales and plastic bags of iced water through the windows. The second-hand US school bus (originally manufactured in Guatemala, and the mainstay of Central American public transport) was perhaps in slightly better shape than those of twenty years ago and nowadays, to Enrique’s chagrin, they no longer let you ride out on top with the sacks of produce on the luggage rack. Another novelty was that as we wound the last few kilometres into town a neat young man near the front got up and, after thanking the driver for permission, delivered an evangelical homily on the hard route to salvation, warning passengers against the dangers not just of drink and drugs but also dancing and ‘playing billiards’ (pool). When the homily ended the preacher passed round a bag for donations and, to my astonishment, a good proportion of the travelling public dropped mites into it. The Church of Rome seems to be losing its grip on the public if not on the politicians.
(Coincidentally, as we had set off on our travels from London, a middle-aged black woman boarded the Croydon tram and offered a short and shy little sermon, rather reduced to bullet points. But the British are so advanced at making strangers of each other that everyone had looked past or through her as if she were no more visible than the Holy Spirit.)
Boaco has sprawled slightly, with the makeshift barrios of self-built houses on the original outskirts now fully incorporated and connected by paved roads to the faded centre. New ‘suburbs’ hammered together out of this and that are beginning to straggle over the brow of the hill that leads to the community of San Nicolás. There are fewer horses in the streets and a couple of dozen dilapidated taxis now rattle up and down. The townhouses of the ganaderos, many of whom seem to have returned, are perhaps a little smarter; but the town still has a pleasantly sleepy and ‘local’ feel.
With some trepidation I took Enrique down the hill to Barrio la Quebrada and found our old house exactly as it was—not even repainted—but, alas, with the rear balcony I built now gone. We knocked at the neighbours’ door and, sure enough, the Pérez family was still there in force and much as before; except that the people I knew were, like me, older and stouter; and an entire generation of new look-alikes has appeared. Esperanza, answering the door, recognised me straight away, saying ‘Nicolás, you’re back!’ as if I had been away for just a fortnight.
Her daughter Agladia, who I first knew as a five year old so skinny I could encircle her wrist with my thumb and index finger, was now a plump kindergarten teacher with two children of her own and an absent husband. Esperanza, whose husband had absented himself before we knew her, was still looking after the house and selling home-made chupetas from the old fridge in the corner. She had been away in Miami for several years but did not have a job there and did not much like it, she said. She had come back bringing her father, don José, the improbable patriarch: now 92 and visibly fading, having lost his wife, doña Afortunata, the year before. Inés got him out of bed and dressed him up in a clean white shirt to come out and sit with us. She, Inés, had never left Boaco, save for some short, church-related trips to San Francisco. Monseñor Obregón was long dead, but she continued to work as parish secretary under a new man. Sobeida was now in Houston, married to a Nicaraguan. I was sorry to miss her but glad that she had made a match at last. I would have liked to tease her about that.
Doña Ana, the oldest Pérez sister, had been seriously ill with heart trouble. Her first granddaughter, Aracel, thirty something and still single, was now running her household. (No sign or mention of Aracel’s mother, Marta, or her sister Mariela.) Aracel had been away in Costa Rica for a few years looking after a disabled child in a well-off family but she got homesick and came back little better off than when she left.
The surviving children of doña Tomasa, whose funeral we had attended 19 years before, appeared well. Liduvina was now deputy principal at the high school, still married to Vladimir and apparently happily so. They lived in the same tiny little house but seemed content. Their oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school. Ricardo, who in his youth had taken such a shine to Kate, was portly and cheerful, living with his wife around the corner in a house that he had extended substantially but that was now beginning to slip downhill. He had worked for the town council for a while and then in a Kodak photo processing shop arriba but had now been unemployed for several years. His wife still had a clerical job with the council and they had a son, of whom they were immensely proud, doing well in high school. Ricardo’s youngest brother, Carlos, the young lad we nearly adopted, was now 30 and had recently left for Madrid, where he was working as carer for ‘an elderly señor.’ Ricardo sent him a text message and he phoned the house from Spain to speak to me. Nearly every sentence he spoke, in a gentle, grown-up voice that was new to me and yet oddly familiar, contained the phrase gracias a Dios: by God’s grace.
Within minutes Enrique, whose Spanish is just about good enough to order a beer, was being regaled with stories that he could only nod and smile at uncomprehendingly, such as the day I had proposed a picnic at a nearby ‘puddle’ on the river (charco—I had meant chorro, ‘waterfall;’ good to know that a slip of the tongue can cause merriment enough to last 20 years.) Inés slipped off arriba and came back with gifts for him from the market: a plastic case for CDs, a belt and a hat. And every branch of the family dug out photograph albums to show Enrique pictures of himself as a baby—‘baldy’ and ‘buffalo’ they called him then, when we brought him from Managua to show them—sitting on their younger and less ample laps.
We assembled as much of the Pérez kin as we could, spanning three generations, and took them for Sunday lunch in a restaurant arriba, with doña Ana puffing and heaving all the way. It must have struck them as an odd idea, for in Boaco eating out is only for richer folk. But after China it was the gesture that came most naturally to me. Afterwards, they took us, slightly sheepishly, to see an addition to Boaco made by the 1990s government of doña Violeta Chamorro: a narrow flight of concrete steps up to a small viewpoint over the town.
Greater girth was one of the few signs of material progress. Everyone complained, as they always had, that life is impossibly expensive nowadays. Our old street, rock and mud when we lived there, has been paved (courtesy, people said, of the government of Japan, which is also building a new hospital on the outskirts of town. There were plenty of cheap Chinese motorbikes around, some of them, according to Enrique, masquerading as Hondas; but no aid yet.) Several homes we visited now have tiled flooring throughout, whereas packed earth used to be the rule except in the front parlour; and some have bigger TV screens and satellite channels with more telenovelas to choose from. ‘Connectivity’ has of course also arrived: many old neighbours now sport cell phones on the starmovil network and Liduvina has a home computer although the internet connection doesn’t often work.
But none of this seems to have made much difference to the basic pattern of life. There are births, marriages and deaths. There’s family and family separation. There’s trying to make a small living and a more comfortable home; trying to muster the cash to go abroad to work or deliberating, for several years, whether to do so. Destinations have diversified, with Spain and the ‘middle income’ countries of Latin America, not just the United States, now offering some opportunities; and family size, in the Pérez clan at least, seems to have declined sharply, presumably through ignoring Catholic strictures on birth control. Liduvina and Ricardo had, I think, only two children each. In one or two generations more there will, perhaps, be enough work to go round.
Enrique and I lodged in the Sobalvarro Hotel overlooking the central park arriba. Its cramped and creaking rooms of bare planks, secured with padlocks but offering no protection from mosquitoes, had not changed a jot. We risked perdition by shooting a few games of pool in the billares saloon and discovered another thing that remains the same in Boaco: lurching drunks still expect to accost and bore you with impunity. For men, evidently, one of life’s great challenges is still to resist, despite the paucity of other entertainments, becoming a worthless drunk, a pulga (flea) as Sobeida used to call them. And small wonder when secular politics delivers so little that people should look to religion for salvation from themselves.
From Boaco we went to spend a few days on the Atlantic Coast, which is mainly inhabited by English-speaking descendants of black slaves mingled with the remnants of indigenous Indians. The last time I went was 1988—just after Hurricane Joan, when I was interpreting for a couple of Oxfam water engineers who were helping restore drinking water supplies in the main coastal town of Bluefields. Back then, flying over the 300 kilometre stretch of tropical rain forest to the coast, the ground seemed strewn with matches where the hurricane had flattened the trees. Now I was interested to see how much of it had grown back. None, as far as I could tell. The old hunting grounds of Yarrince were gone for ever and in their place was rough savannah, still mostly empty but dotted here and there with cattle and smallholdings.
Bluefields seemed every bit as poor and shabby as it had been in 1988. A man we met on the plane, who said he was visiting home from his job in Minnesota, insisted, redundantly, on showing us round the half dozen streets. He pointed out a luxury beach house, concealed by bougainvillea, heavily guarded and with a yacht moored in the bay. All this, he said, belonged to a Colombian drug baron, as did an adjacent hotel and casino where the baron laundered his money. We looked into the ground floor of the casino where visibly poor people were pumping tokens into slot machines. (There were gaming tables and bigger stakes upstairs.) A few years ago a local police chief, our self-appointed guide told us, was murdered when he tried to move against the baron; since then the police had been bought off.
We gave this ‘guide’ some cash to hire a boat the next day to take us to Pearl Lagoon. He turned up very late in the morning claiming that he had been mugged on the way home and lost all the money.
So we went on the public launch to Pearl Lagoon, an outlying community accessible only by boat, which I remembered as pristine: no cars, all green lawns, wooden houses, smiling children. Was it because I was only thirty-odd then that I found it idyllic? It was still okay but now there was litter and a lot of drunkenness and a dirt road being driven through. We sat for six hours waiting for the boat back—the irregularity of timetables hasn’t changed—and watched a barge laden with mahogany from the Rio Coco inching across the lagoon. So there must be a remaining patch of forest somewhere up north. For the time being, anyway.
And we visited Corn Island, 60 kilometres off the coast, Nicaragua’s tiny slice of Caribbean paradise. Kate and I had never made it there. It was pretty, despite the poor weather. But German, French and English quality of life refugees, who also thought it pretty, were in the process of buying it up. They were setting up diving schools, cafés, guest houses, handicraft shops for tourists; while the local youth loitered by the pier hoping to find a tourist to buy a stick or two of gangja from them. Well, that’s not quite true, there were a few quite prosperous locals, but they had made their money in the States or working on Caribbean cruise ships. Yet we also met mestizo Nicaraguans from the west of the country who had come over this way looking for work: a taxi driver from Leon who seemed very happy; another who hated the place. The local people, the blacks, this man said, were hopeless at business: no initiative, lazy, spent whatever they got straight away. His diatribe reminded me of Chinese migrants in Tibet, of Indians in Africa.
All told, this re-encounter with Nicaragua felt strange, unsettling in some ways. I ended up feeling bad for not having spent more time with our old neighbours in Boaco. That was ridiculous, though: it was enough that we went; and three nights there were enough for Enrique (who did enjoy it, I think). Yet I was moved by how well we were remembered. The liberty to drop in and out of their lives—a liberty for which I am profoundly grateful—is also unsettling; for it seems to me that it must imply some reciprocal duty, but I don’t what that is or how to discharge it. It would help at least to believe that things are getting better for people, but the evidence of that is slender and mixed. Arriving in the barrio 22 years ago, I was full of jaunty hope for some kind of fundamental, world-improving breakthrough. Youth is so full of hope, history so full of disappointment. The hard thing now is to know what to hope for.