By MARY TALBOT
MARCH 5, 2014
Managua’s airport doesn’t look anything like it did the day I first arrived there with an ill-considered buzz cut, two donated microscopes and a mind brimming with untested idealism. That was in 1985, when the Sandinista revolution and the American-backed contra campaign opposing it were in full swing. I had taken a leave from college to see the revolution up close, to lend my hand in whatever way I could, including teaching, and ended up staying for nearly three years. At the immigration counter, a compañero in fatigues insisted, in Spanish, that I redo my forms. Leafing through my American passport, he noted that I was born in Germany, but he seemed disappointed that my birthplace was in the western half of the country, not in socialist East Germany. To tell the truth, I was a little disappointed, too, and all the more so when my microscopes, destined for a rural health clinic, were seized by customs.
So much has changed since then as I was to learn last August. At the climate-controlled, glass-walled airport, an official welcomed me with a big, tourist-friendly “hello,” and nobody even glanced at my 50-pound suitcase, stuffed with gifts for old friends. I had returned to Nicaragua for the first time in 25 years, partly to see my daughter, Willa, who at 15 was spending a month there to improve her Spanish (and her tan, she said), and partly inspired by my nostalgic desire to compare the reality of this Central American nation today with the revolutionary place of my memories. I wanted to see if Willa’s stay was changing her, as my years in Nicaragua had changed me.
I would discover a place vastly more developed, but still one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. It is also a land of extraordinary natural beauty and wonderful food. This time around, I encountered things I had never seen before: eco-tourism outposts on Nicaragua’s stunning Pacific Coast, and pristine cloud forests that, 25 years ago, were occupied by armed guerrillas. Cafes and smoothie stands were everywhere. One of the first Spanish phrases I learned in the austere 1980s was “no hay” (there isn’t any), routinely heard in response to anything you might order from a menu or ask for in a store. This time around, there was only “hay.”
Managua, despite a building boom, still bears the scars of the 1972 earthquake that nearly destroyed it. Many tourists skip the city, though it is a great place to eat, shop and get a first-rate $10 massage.
“I’ve booked your ‘welcome shiatsu,’ ” my Nicaraguan friend Mignone Vega, a sociologist and clothing designer, said on my first day there. “You won’t be able to appreciate the new Nicaragua until you’ve de-stressed.”
We headed off to the Institute for Advanced Studies of Oriental and Natural Medicine, a Japanese government-funded project that trains students, some from the adjacent academy for the blind, in massage and acupuncture. In a bare-bones cinder-block building where the silence is broken only by the whirring of ceiling fans and footsteps on tile floors, a masseuse swathed me in orange-scented towels and treated me to an expert shiatsu treatment.
An hour later, and thoroughly relaxed, we made the 45-minute drive southeast to Granada, an elegant cluster of 18th- and 19th-century Spanish colonial homes and churches on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, to meet with Willa in her new habitat. As in the rest of the country, addresses almost never consist of a simple name and number. Over the phone, Willa’s host mother told us to turn at the hospital (“the old one or the new one?” my companions asked), go a block and a half south, and look for a house painted “color mamón,” referring to the apricot-hued interior of the mamón fruit. I’d misheard her, and was on the lookout not for mamón but jamón (a ham-colored) house. When we finally found Willa, we took her and her host sister, Wendy, out for pastry at Espressonista Specialty Coffeebar and Restaurant, a cafe in a magnificent old house with a courtyard overgrown with palms and hibiscus. Andrés Lazar, a co-owner, is among the bicultural Nicaraguans who returned to their country after taking refuge overseas during the 10-year civil war that ended with the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinistas.
“I was a waiter at the Chateau Marmont, a yoga instructor, a hotel manager and art student in London,” he said. “I worked for CBS in New York and attended N.Y.U., and produced TV documentaries in Managua. I developed a superhuman ability to adapt.” His latest incarnation, as a kind of cultural curator, is drawing a sophisticated cross section of Nicaraguans and expats to artistic events — readings by local poets and novelists, exhibitions of conceptual sculpture — at the cafe, where he serves local food, including ham from pigs that forage on the slopes of the nearby Mombacho volcano, and Camembert-style cheese from the mountain town of Matagalpa.
Mignone was eager to lead me to her boutique Spices and Sugar housed inside the cafe building where she sells her own line of simple, chic clothes. She uses Nicaraguan materials when possible and employs local artisans to make her dresses, bathing suits, bags and jewelry. It’s a far cry from the wardrobe acquisitions I had made during my previous stay: a T-shirt from China I found on the bare shelf of a grocery and another that advertised the benefits of breast feeding.
One pleasure of this trip was being able to wander the lush, mountainous northern part of the country, where tiny coffee farms and terraced hillsides hide behind veils of mist. This area had been the war zone. One December in the mid-1980s, I picked coffee with a brigade of Managua office workers near the city of Jinotega, as part of a national effort to salvage some of the harvest that was being decimated by the war. We were outfitted with combat boots and instructed in the cleaning and loading (not the firing) of an AK-47 I could barely lift. At night, we could sometimes hear mortars exploding in the distance.
Willa had stayed with her exchange program in Granada. I would have loved to show her the sites of the intrepid excursions of my youth, but she decided to attend a school dance and the next day go zip-lining on the side of a volcano. My nostalgia trip didn’t compete with such activities, and anyway, it dawned on me that Willa’s generation has its own revolution: the one encapsulated in her iPhone that makes every place, no matter how far-flung, feel like home.
My friends and I spent the night at Selva Negra Mountain Resort (named for Baden-Württemberg’s Black Forest), a coffee farm and inn midway between Matagalpa and Jinotega that has been run by a succession of German immigrants since the 19th century. In 1975, Mausi and Eddie Kuhler bought the property and stayed there during the war, building a resort-cum-sustainable-coffee-and-dairy farm in the midst of 1,000 acres of nature. All the buildings, including the stone and timber guest cottages, which you reach by following winding, flower-lined paths through the forest, have spontaneously occurring green roofs — ferns, orchids and bromeliads that have sprouted in the bed of organic debris that falls from the canopy overhead. Early one morning, I trekked a few miles along the trails and ran into two agoutis, rain forest mammals that resemble outsize guinea pigs. The solitude felt primordial, until I heard the nasal cry of the guardabarranco, Nicaragua’s national bird, a turquoise and green beauty with swaths of rust and a flirty, pendulous tail.
After a breakfast of eggs with yolks the color of blood orange, Selva Negra feta, papaya and Selva Negra coffee, I toured the farm. My guide, José Luis García, pointed out the whitewashed house where he was born in 1979, the year the Sandinista revolution toppled the dictatorship. As we bumped along in the Selva Negra van, he regaled me with descriptions of the farm’s workings — from the natural pesticide lab to the methane gas converter that powers farm workers’ stoves. I wondered if this is a little more agriculture than the average tourist would swallow, but the views at the Selva Negra were sublime. And 25 years ago, my young guide would have inevitably been ensnared by the war.
A 90-minute drive to the west, past Day-Glo green rice fields dotted with egrets and cattle, is the town of Estelí, where I once helped manage a group of American volunteers who were building some houses on a farming cooperative northwest of town. In those days, the road leading to the farm was lined with fallow tobacco fields. A year after we built the houses, I returned to visit; they had been abandoned after a contra attack that left half the inhabitants dead.
On this trip, I hardly recognized the site of that gut-wrenching history. Estelí and its environs were bustling now. It is one of Nicaragua’s fastest-growing cities, the frontier purveyor of building materials and agricultural supplies, and has the noisy energy that typifies all the towns I visited this time around. In fact, Nicaragua’s population, most of it under 25, has doubled since the ’80s, to six million people.
Estelí is also the country’s cigar capital, and according to Cigar Journal’s rankings, many of the world’s top stogies are born here. The cigar producers, most of them of Cuban descent, waited out the revolution in Honduras and in the United States and made their way back to Nicaragua in the ’90s to reclaim their expropriated land. “When you’ve got tobacco in your blood, nothing can keep you away,” said Néstor Plasencia, the scion of a venerable Cuban cigar dynasty. His family’s operation, which produces cigars for Rocky Patel and 40 other labels, along with their own highly-regarded brand, offers factory tours. In the pungent, stucco-walled workrooms, skilled workers in ocher smocks coddle the leathery leaves, sorting, curing, cutting, rolling and packing them in an exacting process.
I talked Willa into joining me 250 miles south of Estelí, where we encountered the pristine beaches of San Juan del Sur and waves that beckon surfers the world over. We skipped surfing lessons for a dip in the saltwater pool at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, an exquisite resort and wildlife reserve where estuary kayaking and nighttime sea turtle watches are included in the price of the room.
“Don’t you want to get up early and collect our own eggs for breakfast?” I asked Willa. “Or visit the reforestation project?” We were lolling in a hanging bed on the screened porch of our bungalow, overlooking the bay. “Mommy, we’re on vacation,” she said, rolling over to give me a look. She was right, I had to admit. I lay back, inhaled the briny-sweet Pacific air and contemplated a stroll down the hill for another coconut-banana smoothie, knowing that in the new Nicaragua, there is Wi-Fi at the snack cabana.
An article on March 9 about a writer’s return to Nicaragua after 25 years misidentified the German state that is home to the Black Forest, for which the Selva Negra Mountain Resort in Nicaragua is named. It is Baden-Württemberg, not Bavaria. And an accompanying picture credit misstated the surname of the photographer who took the pictures of present-day Nicaragua. He is Oswaldo Rivas, not Riva.
An article last Sunday about the writer’s return to Nicaragua after 25 years misstated the direction she drove from the Institute for Advanced Studies of Oriental and Natural Medicine in Managua to Granada. It was southeast, not southwest. And the article misstated the direction she drove from the Selva Negra Mountain Resort to the town of Estelí. It was west, not east.