Mesoamerican Triptych – William Fleeson

A Haitian view. Author photograph.

Pérado

I.

Pérado stretched over its one paved road, the village elongated to avoid the mud of the side streets. Haitians called out Blan! – “White man!”wanting attention or a cash handout or, failing the former, cash alone.

I stopped for lunch at a roadside shack. They had rice and chicken and pikliz – a spicy shredded cabbage, Haiti’s analog to Korea’s kimchi, and a national treasure.

Black flies proliferated in the concrete side room that the owner intended as a place to eat. I grabbed an old chair at the sticky table. They had water in little pouches, kept in a plastic grocery sack; a bag of bags of water.

When the cook’s girl-assistant laid the chicken before me, I attacked it with an unexpected zeal, burning my palette on the pikliz

II.

Two days of hiking had put a thorough fatigue in my bones. Pérado was the destination, at least for the hiking part, from south of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. I had come for a week and a little adventure. From there I took a motorcycle taxi to the village of Timikla, as far as Les Escaliers – “The Stairs” – so named after a sorry concrete structure on the mountainside. Les Escaliers was where the trail began. From Pérado I would take a mototaxi to Jacmel, a city on Haiti’s southern Caribbean coast. The hiking path had brought twenty-some miles of green mountains, thin air, and the predictable isolation of a blan traveling alone.

I broke up the hike with an overnight in Séguin, a mountain village and the rough halfway point on my itinerary. I chose to hike, though it seems ironic now, as an act of safety. I wanted to get to Jacmel but the roads from Port-au-Prince were lethal – not from disrepair, but from kidnappings and gang violence. I saw no other hikers, Haitian or foreign, in two days.

The second morning, descending from Séguin, the almost Tuscan landscape showed the beauty rendered by agriculture over four hundred years. Tall trees poked up between irregular fields, the land bowling down from the mountains and becoming jungle, to the hazy distant sea. Occasionally a farm kid, good-natured and curious, called out from across a field: Blan!

III.

My moto driver and I reached Timikla at a worrisome moment. A motorbike had fallen over the side of the mountain road, almost a thousand feet down, into green oblivion. It spelled financial ruin for the bike’s owner. He sat on the road, arms on his shins, head on his knees.   

My driver rode to the top of Les Escaliers. This was Highway 101, supposedly a national road that cut from the capital through the southeastern mountains to Jacmel.

All around the green mountains soared. Their terraced sides spoke of breathless human effort – and of the poorest farmers who made the unfavorable high farmland theirs. Clouds passed, curling. The road, like the clouds, shifted shape constantly, among forms of scree, muck, and loose rocks. Women plied the road with bundles on their heads, trudging in skirts and flip-flops and impossible mountaineer strength.

A crowd of two dozen looked from the ledge, close as they dared, for the fallen bike. The scene offered a nauseating sense of Timikla’s quotidian dangers.

My driver asked a woman marching up the stairs with a basket of goods if falling bikes were a common thing.

“It happens all the time!” she said, almost cheerfully. She continued up the stairs to her hardscrabble life.

IV.

After Timikla and Séguin, after the morning landscapes that reminded me of Tuscany, I huffed through the humid jungle toward Pérado. My feet were pushing up blisters well before the hike’s final hours.

The casually suicidal moto drivers rolled up, down, up, down, on the broken rocks and the wild inclines. Green slopes met us on either side, narrowing the road and defying us to lose our balance.

Around the hamlet of Miskla one driver stopped in front of me. The pattern of our words distilled the similar conversations I had with many drivers like him.

He asked, in a businessman’s frank tones, if I wanted to forget the whole hiking idea and motor to my destination instead.

Ça va, blan?

Oui.

Moto, blan?

Non.

OK, blan.

And he sped away, without malice, down the vehicle-swallowing mountain.  

V.

I finished my Pérado chicken and pushed the plate aside.

The sky cracked like a rifle shot. A destroying rain strafed the village. Pedestrians bolted for cover, their tee-shirts and cheap trousers already plastered to their limbs. Only the most reckless cars kept rolling – compelled, like the mountain motorbikers, to push on.

A taxi driver parked his bike and came in to the room, as eager for some food as I had been. I offered a pouch of water from the plastic bag. He agreed to take me – once he had eaten – the remaining hour to Jacmel. We left when the rain cleared, fifteen soaked minutes later.

VI.

The approach to Jacmel brought a tour of coastal dereliction. In another country, where the road bisects mountains and a turquoise sea, the zone would have been studded with mansions, the wealthy overbidding for the beauty and the vanity of prime real estate. In Haiti, and not only between Pérado and Jacmel, cinderblock shacks and carpets of garbage lined the beach for miles.

We stopped for gas in Cayes de Jacmel, still some distance from Jacmel proper. The driver had me dismount while he waited for a pump. A few school kids eyeballed me as the white, backpacked one unlike the others. But the attention was less dramatic here. The pressure of their gaze felt lighter, not as severe as in the mountains or in Port-au-Prince, where my strangeness rose to extremes.

On this provincial street reigned a kind of nonchalance, less an acceptance than an indifference that I, a blan, should be standing there. It was none of their business. They left things, me included, at that.

*

A Nicaraguan beach. Author photograph.

Playa Maderas

The same woman walked down the dirt path, surrounded by the forest that gave the beach its name. Playa Maderas – Woods Beach. The woman wore a backpack strapped at the chest, brown hair in a messy knot behind, her exquisite legs in the boxer-brief workout shorts that marathoners wear. It was six something, and too early to be so humid.

As I passed I said a quiet Buenas, the truncated form of Buenas dias that is common in Nicaragua. I didn’t hear if she responded, though I strained to hear a response. How I remember that strain.

I say “the same woman” because she had already electrified me once, as I sat in the café La Tostaderia, in San Juan del Sur, the Pacific beach town to which gringos and surfers and she and I were drawn. Her and my directions of travel, our reasons for coming here, spun out like a spilled box of a thousand of those old transparent slides once used for lecture-hall projections, and on those slides Venn diagrams and circles: a thousand images, some spaces overlapping.

In La Tostaderia I overheard the woman, who was possibly my age, apparently traveling alone, chatting with the barista. She spoke in a lilt that was native-English, possibly Canadian.

That was some days before she and I shared a path, if nothing else, between Playa Maderas and the rest of the world, the statistical odds of our encounter like the thousand transparent slides landing in a perfect stack – aligning, probability be damned, as one.

Maderas was not a place of random chance, of course. Its waves are celebrated among surfers. The welter of sandy bars and nearby lodges abet the endless-summer beach life that gringos, and some Nicaraguans, chose to live. Seeing Maderas, the Saturday morning I arrived, its appeal was naked enough. Powerful sun. A petite stretch of white sand. A white and turquoise sea ahead, churning like thunder. A much-photographed, ten-story rock, shaped like a shark’s tooth, pushed up off the northern end of the horizon.

When I learned that one place on the beach rented primitive, second-floor rooms at $15 a night, with no internet whatsoever, I booked one immediately.

I laid on the beach before lunchtime, only half-trying to read. The surfers came slowly, in twos and threes, either driving down the path or walking, boards under arms, from Playa Majagual, just north. They had tan lines around one ankle, where they velcroed their board leashes. The Nicaraguan surfers had black hair turned orange from so much time outside.

My vanity wanted to advance my tan. Underestimating the force of the semi-equatorial light, I laid out without sunblock, back to the sun.

A half-hour’s ill judgment would produce a pair of slanting, brown-and-white tones above my ass. Clearly visible wedges appeared, in differentiated shades like a paint swatch, from the times my waistband shifted up or down. The striations lingered on my body for months.

After lunch, already feeling the onset of a bad burn, I spent the afternoon’s first hour, and another, and another, reading on the second-floor balcony of the beach bar. My room had a bed with a mosquito net, a chair, and an electric fan. Nothing else. A bathroom waited at the end of the motel-style row of rooms.

I read in a hammock strung up on hooks in the balcony’s ceiling. The sea breeze kept the humidity from raising a sweat on my skin, while I lay in the hammock, shirtless, in the shade, with one leg hanging out. A table against the wall bore the literary tastes of a global, if western-leaning backpacker set, with its attendant cultural mishmash. Novels first written in Russian and German and Dutch lay in translation in English, French, and Spanish. The whole pile sprawled in disarray on the table, their covers curling in the heat. Like more plastic slides, covering each other, their themes brought into proximity, into one place, by the glancing encounters of their readers from everywhere.

The balcony gave a wide view, and a delightful privacy, above the beach and the water. I watched the bodies – some unfamiliar, some I’d met in town – swim and surf and drink. There were those who looked, or were in fact, American, Argentinian, Canadian, German, Israeli, Italian, Nicaraguan. We had all come to the same water.

At dusk the people on the beach disappeared. Some packed their cars and left; others simply walked down the beach or into the swallowing forest. That was another, unspoken but consciously-sought promise of Nicaraguan coast life: community if you liked, anonymity if you preferred. People came together or found the liberation of solitude.

The sun set over the water, the sky a furious orange, the water blue and black. The waves crashed and crashed. Not accustomed to the noise of the sea and its disquieting constancy, the Pacific allowed me only a broken half-sleep till morning.

I cleared out early. San Juan del Sur promised a return to a more familiar place, and the comfort of my other rented room, with its air-conditioning. From the balcony, before leaving, I took in the lightening water. The moment was warm – and the coolest weather we would get all day. I left the key on the bar downstairs. 

Walking out, my backpack chafing the burn over my shoulders, I saw the maybe-Canadian. She was quite alone, nearing the beach. Her loveliness was prodigious, even in the dim early light of the forest. I called my muted Buenas and strode up the path, not hearing if she answered.

I saw her again only once, in San Juan del Sur. Our circles of travel no longer overlapped. She sat in a corner bar, with a man good-looking like her.

As I passed she looked up. A shock of recognition played across her face. I said nothing. Neither did she, though I could have sworn she wanted to.

*

Managua. Author photograph.

First-Time Managua

Sara the hotel receptionist aired her cleavage again, as she did when I first came to the desk to check in. She had brightened when she saw my passport from a better place. She smiled so hard at me that I wondered why – wondered what Sara was seeking, what she couldn’t get away from, living and working here in Managua.

Walking out from the hotel I became quickly and thoroughly lost. I thought I was heading north from the Bolonia neighborhood to the massive Lake Managua, by which the eponymous city – the capital of Nicaragua – is built. I walked under the furnace of the sun. When I asked a school kid the way to el Lago de Managua, he didn’t know, even though he was walking home in his school uniform and had to be from nearby. It only confirmed the paucity of my Spanish.

Finally, I fell upon the Avenida Bolivar, which drove straight north to the lake. To guide me, even more garish than the harsh light on the water, were 100-foot ‘trees of life,’ painted fuchsia and mustard and emerald, the brainchild of the Nicaraguan president’s wife. She is thought among the populace to be a witch. The trees are illuminated at night with tens of thousands of bulbs – fire for the people.

The concrete boardwalk bore hardly a soul along its part of the lakeshore. In the distance, no matter where one turned, sleepy security guards dotted the view, leaning against walls or sitting in plastic chairs, a shotgun never far. I sat under a metal tree, in its sliver of mid-day shade, as much to beat the sun as to preserve my own business from the eyes of the Seguridad. Did Managuans suffer this all the time?

A mountain soared opposite the lake. There poked up a western hill – a hill I later saw in flames. The water had pilings and birds on their tops, the birds expelling streams of white skeet down the pilings’ concrete sides. On the water were no boats at all.

South down Bolivar, toward the Parque Central and the rest of things, black and red Sandinista flags hung limp everywhere. The government would hold an election that autumn. Yet no Nicaraguan felt the results were in question. They were supposed to feel that way: powerless, contemptible, small. The same feeling – of coercion, the politics of menace – radiated from the flags, once I understood not just their literal red-and-black of an old revolution, but the symbolic, deliberate, nobody-move demands of a government long past public support. Independent polls put the Sandinista party (the only party) at twenty-percent approval. The official numbers run far higher, flowing as they do from Managua’s central planning.

On the old plaza the Palacio Nacional was empty of all visitors but me. Inside the building, now an art museum, there milled a clutch of idle guides. One of them, a certain Félix, accompanied me room to room, walking and sometimes running to flick the lights on. The prehistoric and pre-Columbian periods collapsed like broken millefeuille into a couple of rooms. Renderings of Augusto Sandino – rebel leader, martyr, fire-giving Prometheus of Nicaragua’s modern independence – filled a couple of rooms on their own. His boots, his bandoliers, his pointed campesino hat were the Sandino visual hallmarks, synonymous with Nicaragua’s identity – and, for Nicaraguans, with the essence of national sovereignty. Félix walked me to the very doorway of the exit.

Across the plaza stood an empty cathedral, its roof having collapsed during a 1972 earthquake that killed six thousand. The longtime Somoza dynasty, then presiding, would embezzle the foreign millions sent for the country’s relief. Somoza greed sparked a civil war, the Sandinista revolution, and an epochal span of Marxist dysfunction. But the Somozas are not to blame for a still-roofless cathedral, fifty years later.

All that was my first trip through Managua. Two weeks later I did a second, on the way to the airport and my flight home. I won’t say much here or now about Managua the second time. Except:

  • Even the nicer neighborhoods, like Los Robles and Altamira, are not that nice;
  • Young, poor, costumed men string up tightropes at intersections and walk them, like ghettofied acrobats, then collect change and clear out before the next green light;
  • The same Bolonia hotel was just as hard to find, and Sara, seeing her flirtatiousness unreturned, grew surly and barely answered my questions;
  • An old blind beggar, his cataracts milky blue, jolted his pleading hand into my face; and
  • An upscale steakhouse had a pianist playing Beatles covers – and, in the men’s room, there hung lurid nudes titled Concubinas who spread their charcoal labia as you washed your hands.

Most of all I remember this, from my first time in Managua:

From the Loma de Tiscapa, a hilltop park south of downtown, the capital stretched for its suffocating miles. Downhill – the mound is in fact a long-dead volcano – a caldera was filled with water and covered in algae so green I thought it was a flat grassy field.

On the hilltop, a massive black sculpture of the Sandino silhouette rose, watching, nervous, eminent, a metal shadow of the guerrilla-state he would precede. Below the hill pooled Lake Managua – once evasive, now pervasive. On the distant plaza lay the shell of the cathedral, its rubble so much like the Sandinistas’ broken revolution.

And on a hill west of the city, as much a prophetic image as the shattered cathedral, stood a building obscured by blackest smoke. Red flames consumed it. The smoke plumed up and away. It fled, the spirit and desire of Sara and myriad Nicaraguans. Red-and-black, the Sandinista signature, devouring a small part of Nicaragua. Tomorrow, the rest.

*

William Fleeson is a writer and former business journalist. A native and current inhabitant of Washington, DC, his writing has appeared in BBC TravelNational GeographicNewsweekThe Washington Independent Review of Books, and elsewhere. In longform narrative he was a finalist for the New Millennium Writing Award 2020. www.willfleeson.com

Read William’s Porridge piece on Nicaragua here.

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