Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nica 7 Years on: The Price of Progress

My recent pilgrimage to Nicaragua was my 10th since February of 1999 and I look forward to many more in the years ahead. The last 7 years have brought many changes to the Land of Lakes and Volcanos. Some can be labeled as progress, some are inevitable, some unwelcome. I, somewhat naively, dislike change and often wish things were the same as when I found them. But as much as I protest, things change..and people change.

1) Managua
Here is some good change, the progress of increased investment and interest in Nicaragua as a place to do business and visit. In 1999 the airport had no jetways (you left the plane on stairs rolled up to the door, immediately experiencing the shock of the humid, Jet-A fuel scented air) no air-conditioning inside, rudimentary baggage claim (your bags were simply just distributed on the floor) and an overall decor that had not been touched since the 80's. After claiming your baggage, you stumbled out in to the seething morass of beggars and "porters" relentlessly grabbing at you and your bags. I feared for my safely and belongings as we rushed to the waiting car to take us to the Casa Ave Maria. The streets were rough and strewn with trash. A general stench of garbage and diesel permeated everything. Although the earthquake that destroyed Managua was in 1972, it looked like it had happened yesterday.

Today the airport is modern and expanding. Clean and comfortable, the crush of beggars replaced by official porters and cabbies. You get on and off on jetways with real boarding gates and baggage claim carrosels. Duty free shops are nicer and bigger than those in Houston.
The City of Managua, although showing the scars of years of abuse and neglect is much cleaner and the new Caraterra Norte is smooth and even has stoplights. New hotels and services, shopping (even a Costco like PriceSmart) and restaurants are plentiful. Still poor and still susceptible to earthquakes, Managua is almost livable. At least it does not scare you to death.

2) Mulukuku
The 21st century has arrived, albeit late, in Mulukuku. In 1999 we took batteries for the clinic as there was no electricity except for the small generator at the co-op compound. Now, there was a request that we bring them a laptop, and there is talk of a wireless internet tower. Phones are arriving via Enitel. There is one payphone on the main road now looking brand new and unused. I didn't see if it worked, but it must a harbinger of things to come. There is electricity in Mulukuku now, from about 9am to 12mid. That has brought TVs to those who can afford them, and even cable TV; courtesy of an enterprising resident that installed some satellite dishes and strung cable. A few with money have Direct TV. This has brought the world to Mulukuku, and violent shows and a regression from a front porch society to an in front of the boob tube society. Although the electricity means better refrigeration, security and our ability to do more than just pull teeth (we even did root canals), it has taken the innocence of the village and thrust it in to the world.

3)San Juan del Sur
No longer Nica, SJDS is Gringolandia South. Once a few lonely and enterprising gringos roamed the streets. Ricardo's was the only place in town besides the few seaside restaurants. Now there are gringos a-plenty, new houses everywhere, ATM machines, gringos, real estate offices, condos, gringos, pizza, Chinese food, hotels, gringos, cruise ships and did I mention gringos. "Mas trabajo" said one of the locals as I asked about the latest gringo invasion. "But can you afford to live here as the prices go up and up on everything in the lust to capture the dollar?" I got a shrug.

I wish time had stood still here, that the SJDS of 2001 was still there today. A lazy village, the view of the sea unspoiled. The Hotel Piedras Y Olas was still a dream, the pool and rancho the only signs of what was to be. My dream of living there a dream then as well. But then I would have contributed to the gringofication of the place, so maybe it all worked out. When the pool opened a couple of years later it was fun to swim and play there with no one around,the place to ourselves, with only a cooler of Victoria for a bar. The invasion of the pretentious retired gringos sitting around never venturing out to the world was still off in the distance. You used to only be able to get good cheap seafood in SJDS, now there is steak and pasta and European dishes at US prices. Pools and fancy homes now dot the hillside. You can't spit without hitting gringo $.

4)The Nicaraguan People
I see the change in the Nica people as well. For some, a life in the new middle class is emerging, having the ability to buy things, to have a nicer house, a car, appliances. I see a bit more pride in the country as it cleans up and presents a fresh scrubbed face to the world. There is pride in its products, the fine rum, produce, poetry and art and the world is taking notice.

But I also see the dreams and ideals of the Revolution disappearing. No one talks of Sandino or how Nicaragua finally threw off the chains of imperialism in the 1979 Revolution. They want to forget the Sandanista years and the long, bloody Ronald Regan backed civil war. Now, if someone owns a Kamaz truck from The Soviet Union, the Cyrillic "Z" at the end is removed, so as not to be laughably Russian. The country's politics are sliding into a morass as well. Once most of the eligible voters voted with gusto. Now there is talk of abstaining, in order to show the discontent with the corrupt politicians who promise and promise and lie and lie and lie. Much like here in "Los Estados", polictical apathy is running high.

The invading gringos keep talking of "changing the Nicas", teaching them, training them to "do it right". "Service in this country sucks", one of the students proclaimed after failing to recieve his beer he ordered, "they need to learn customer service". Fucking leave them alone, I love them as they are: industrious, pleasant, laid back, clean, smiling, never wanting to let you down. Frustrating as hell to type A gringos. A breath of fresh air in this complex world.

Progress: Yes. "Mas trabajo": Yes. Something lost: Yes. The price of progress I am told.

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