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Granada, Nicaragua and the Backpacker Invasion

The road through Nicaragua is like a tongue of tarmac squeezing through a rolling landscape of green; not the dense vegetation of the jungle that suffocates all view but rather layers of fields and trees that almost glow with good health.

Along with the rainy season it is the volcanoes that are the source of such radiant fertility and it´s amazing how fast one becomes accustomed to the sight of a potential fountain of fire on the horizon. Until now I’d always concluded it was a bit short-sighted to live so close to a volcano, just like asking for trouble, but now I didn’t think twice.

The Nicaraguan civil war died out a few years ago into a bad memory and with each peaceful year that passed the flow of tourism increases into a flood. It begins as always with the backpackers and I was following the yellow brick road of the budget traveller, hitting the same picturesque route as everyone else who owned a guidebook.

This route brought me to Granada, the oldest colonial city in the Americas. This is the kind of thing you read in the introductory passage of a guidebook and which doesn´t really tell me a thing – I fail to appreciate that an exquisite church or neighbourhood becomes any more beautiful by knowing its age.

Maybe that´s my lack of a historical conscience but what animates me more is to know the ambiance of a place and that’s an appreciation that takes a while in coming. I was looking for a beautiful town to settle in for a while and from the outset it hit that Granada could be it. All the houses were painted in the colonial style where beige, blue, green and white bordered one another and their residents sat outside on rocking chairs watching everyone pass by. The doors were so tall and wide that i felt very small standing by them as i sneaked a look inside; each home could have doubled as a theatre or church had there been the need, so far back did they stretch. Each had a large courtyard where they hung clothes to dry and old folks rocked back and forth in silent communion with the television.

A tall man walked up to me and began to fan me with a thick wad of Nicaraguan currency and dollars.

“Change money?” He asked as he would ask every white face he saw on the street. But before I could decline he was already engaged in animated discussion at the window of a passing jeep. The numbers game. I imagined that for him to feel comfortable walking around in public with the equivalent of a few thousand dollars in his hands he must be a well connected man.

Hunger drove me down to the main square where old ladies sat with plastic chairs and tables selling yuka under trees with hanging vines. Like baby cousins of the banyan tree. Yuka itself is a staple food virtually unknown outside of the Americas and which is only slightly more exciting that the tortilla. Something like a potato it was served with a coleslaw salad in large banana leaves that served as a bowl. They were good to eat in the day but at night there was little chance of detecting the atomic pellets of green chilli and I´d be unable to taste anything for the next 12 hours.

As pretty as Granada is, it’s still situated in a very poor country and, as with many other poor countries in the Americas, the poverty is accompanied by crime, violence and substance abuse. The lake of Nicaragua is just a 15 minute walk from the centre but no one in their right mind walks there at night.

“Thing is,” a local told me, “They don’t just rob you – they’ve usually worked themselves up into such a frenzy that they jump out and beat you with sticks and iron rods first.” I took a taxi there like everyone else.

The actual lake is something of a dump strewn with rubbish and syringes. There are a few cheesy discos, only two of which are considered to be safe and the lake water is grey and unwelcoming-welcoming.

“That will all change,” Heidi told me, a Danish woman who´s been running bars in Central America for ten years now, “Tourism is up 60% this season – give it five years and the whole lake front will be filled with hotels and restaurants.”

Her words were backed up by all the old American men who sat around in the bars talking real estate. Most of them seemed to have fled from Costa Rica but no one seemed inclined to explain why. Most of them had girlfriends here half their age and would explain their business plans to anyone disposed to hear them. Unfortunately I’ve always been a good listener.

I was saved from a particularly dull monologue on the antique business by the Virgin Mary herself. It as the time of year when her effigy is brought down from it´s elevate place of honour in the cathedral and towed through the town to bring blessings and fortune to everyone. Tens of thousands were out on the streets to watch her pass and then didn´t know what to do with themselves once she did. Unbelievably someone had forgotten to remove a Playboy sticker from the car that pulled her along.

Such small details could pass however when it seemed like war was breaking out again. Hundreds of fire crackers were let off in sequence and the resulting smoke enveloped us all. People began to run and more than one of the rockets let off screamed in our direction. Maybe I’m a little paranoid about fireworks but there were men releasing the missiles directly from their hands. I guess they didn’t read the warning labels.

I strolled back to my hostel and bought a couple of pastries from one of the old ladies who sat by a large basket covered in cloth. A dollar would buy 14 of them and so i bought a few extra to give out to a kid who came to sit next to me. His glazed eyes told me he was of the many street kids who walk around with tubes of glue in their hands, thus there was no point in giving him any money.

I gazed up at the huge cathedral bells and wandered why that kind of thing doesn’t make me sad any more. Salman Rushdie described it as acquiring “city eyes”. That you just grow so accustomed to the sight that it doesn’t touch you. Or maybe that you can´t afford to let it inside.

Outside the Flamingo, a local dive that I’d been advised not to enter, two women were fighting each other on the street. Whilst they assailed each other with stiletto shoes and handbags, a crowd was merrily gathered around to watch the show. On the other side of the street two policemen watched and by their smiles they seemed to be betting amongst themselves on the winner.

But none of this put me off being charmed by Granada and I set about looking for work.