Monday, November 24, 2014

Letter from Managua: Missing the strange

I can see why people wind up travelling to more and more exotic places. After a month in Managua, I recognize a faint disappointment at the lack of full-on culture shock.

The first month in Copan Ruinas, less than three years ago, was a thrill ride of new sensations. The grungy home stay, the cobbled streets, the half-starved dogs and sheer newness of life in the world’s most dangerous country. We would walk along, under the scorching sun, and say ‘Geez, we’re living in Honduras’ in a slightly bewildered way.
The arrival in Nicaragua was wildly uneventful by comparison. Sure, there’s a buzz landing at night in any big Central America city, and it was strange to have the airport staff all in surgical masks and a thermal camera employed to see if we had fevers. (Ebola was their worry, with good reason. If it ever got a foothold in Central America, things would get desperate fast.)
But we quickly found a place to live, having learned the only way was to walk the streets looking for signs and asking anyone you saw about places for rent. Within the first hour or so, a helpful guy guided us to our eventual home. We found the stores, stocked the casa and started work with our Cuso International partner organizations.
Part of the difference is that Copan is a town of about 8,000 and Managua is a city of some 2.5 million. We were plunged into a whole new world in Copan, where a 20-minute walk took you into some dead-poor villages. In Managua, we’re in the Barrio Bolonia, a pretty nice neighbourhood. There’s a PriceSmart a couple of blocks away, a Costco clone.
And part of the difference is that Honduras is a wilder place. Nicaragua actually ranks lower on the UN Human Development Index, ranked 132 out of 187 countries, with Honduras in 129th. GDP per capita is about $4,300, compared with Canada’s $42,000. 
But the taxi drivers in Managua don’t pay weekly extortion fees to the street gangs. The murder rate is around 15 per 100,000, compared with the ridiculous rate of around 85 per 100,000 in Honduras. That meant about 18 murders a day, most never investigated.
Still, Managua is hardly Victoria. I walk a little over three blocks to work, and say hello to half-a-dozen security guards. Horse carts trot through the barrio and there are no street signs, or even names. The cathedral on the main square is a beautiful ruin, shattered in the 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt. A mysterious Chinese billionaire plans to start work next month on a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the Ortega’s government support and without much of anything in the way of consultation or economic or environmental studies. We’ve been to one giant, crazy market; an even bigger one is considered highly risky to even venture into with any possessions of value. 
It’s nice to wander, as we did Saturday, down a main boulevard where the government is setting up some 20 giant displays dedicated to the Virgin Mary, without constantly looking over my shoulder. I’m keenly looking forward to Dec. 7, when at 6 p.m. we all pour into the streets, set off fireworks and sing and chant to give thanks for her birth. 
Things are still plenty different here. But we’re different too. While I like being better at settling in, I miss the shock of discovery that was so vivid when we landed in Honduras. Or I think I do.