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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in Central America

Dragons and Rum
Roger Smith

Only about twenty kilometers separates Grenada from Nandaime, but it would be just as accurate to say twenty years. Managua, Puerto Cabezas, and Bluefields are enjoying a strong shot of narcotrafficking money; San Juan del Sur and other Pacific resorts are attracting rich beach loungers and surfers; Grenada and León are becoming cultural tourism centers; Chinandega, for all its squalor, is seeing new factories being built to take advantage of the abundant, cheap labor.

If these cities represent the directions that Nicaragua is heading in the twenty-first century, Nandaime, a city of forty thousand, has been left well behind. It has no attractions for tourists; even though on the Pan American Highway, it is of no interest to long-distance haulers and smugglers; its local economy has long depended on rice and yucca producers, who are having difficulty competing with foreign suppliers even for the Nicaraguan market. The money goes elsewhere, and because of it Nandaime is as isolated now as it was under the socialist economics of the Sandinistas, and worse off.

My wife and her Portland colleague Dr. Elaine Gossman have come to Nandaime to donate medical equipment to its only public health facility, Hospital Primario Monte Carmelo. Its fourteen doctors serve 80 percent of the population, an impoverished population. While we tour the warren of small, gloomy buildings, the Ministry of Health official from Grenada who is accompanying us glances nervously to catch our reaction, yet the local hospital director, a strikingly beautiful woman in her mid thirties, is not at all self-conscious about what she shows us. Half of the treatment rooms are closed for lack of funding, and those in use are shockingly bare. The emergency room contains a gurney, a couple of carts with cleaning fluids and a jar of mercurochrome, a desk, and an antiquated otoscope and ophthalmoscope, but neither blood pressure sensors nor the equipment for delivering intravenous fluids. The delivery room is much the same, except that the gurney has stirrups; the ward for newborns has only six wooden cribs. The consultation rooms have a desk and two chairs apiece, nothing else. The gastroenterology room (or so the sign says) has neither gastroscope nor colonoscope.

Dr. Gossman and my wife change that, however. We lug in two big suitcases, and they take out a scope and all the paraphernalia needed to look down into the stomach and deal with ulcers, varices and cancers—special tubes, snares, biopsy forceps, water sources, guide wires, a light source, and a dozen other gadgets. The local specialist who now has the wherewithal to perform gastroscopic procedures, Dr. Carlos Talavera, and the director stand in one corner and watch the equipment being laid out as if it is their birthday party. Afterwards there are speeches—from the director, from the health ministry official, from Dr. Talavera, from the León physicians who've come with us, and from my wife and Dr. Grossman—and then everyone has a Coke and soda crackers for a snack. Later, Dr. Talavera takes us all to his mother-in-law's house for more snacks (toasted plantains and cheese) and orange juice. His in-laws are all smiles, but then so are the people who pass by on the street generally a cheery lot.

Dr. Talavera is not quite satisfied that he's shown us enough appreciation. We have planned to return to Grenada to do some tourist shopping, but he makes an impulsive decision and has our driver turn onto a dirt road that leads us deep into the countryside through gravelly, dry ravines and past the ramshackle huts of farmers. The land is dry and the crops stubbly; ribs stand out on the cows and sheep that wander among the huts; people at roadside watch us pass with surprised curiosity and wave. As we approach the south face of Mombacho, a cloud-crowned volcano, we swing off the road into his father's small ranch. There a table and chairs are produced and set up in the shade of an immense mango tree; rum is brought out, as well as ice and coconuts. A farm hand opens the coconuts with a machete, and we drink the water inside through straws, some of us mixing it with rum first. Guitars are produced, and Dr. Talavera and the driver serenade us for a half hour. As always the other Nicas join in on every song. When at last we get back to Grenada, yet another party ensues. More rum and coke, beer and plantain, and this time a local fish delicacy as well are brought out to the veranda of a waterside restaurant as we sit overlooking Lake Nicaragua and the light fades to pastel red above distance volcanoes and forest and then suddenly vanishes.

When I comment to Dr. Juan José Guadamúz about how merry and accommodating people in the area seem, he replies, "People in León and Managua are serious. But people in Nandaime like to laugh and sing all the time. They love jokes. They are very happy even when they are very poor." They remain happy despite the lack of local prospects and services, despite a national government paralyzed by political infighting and a corrupt judiciary, despite growing crime and drug addiction, even despite rumors of impending coups.
For his part Dr. Talavera is very merry indeed because he is in on a surprise that the Nicas are saving for the end of the party. It involves special gifts. Suddenly they appear: Dr. Javier Pastora, chief of gastroenterology at the university hospital in León, comes to the table with two stuffed garrobos. He presents one each to Dr. Gossman and my wife. Garrobos are black-and-gray striped iguanas native to the Nandaime area. The one set before my wife is more than a meter long. Its claws are the size of hawk talons, and its mouth, filled with pearly needle-like teeth, is large enough to swallow a dove.

The Norteamericana doctors exchange startled glances, then fall to discussing how they can possible sneak the garrobos past U.S. Customs in Houston airport. Laughing, the Nicaraguans join in with suggestions. More rum is ordered.
© Roger Smith Feb 2005

Some Basics about Nicaragua
*Borders Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south; Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
*129,494 square kilometers in area, largest country in Central America.
*Tropical climate.
*Population: 5,128,517 (2003), of whom some 60 percent are between 15 and 64 years of age
*Literacy: 67.5 percent.
*Gross Domestic Product, $11.6 billion (2002); GDP per capita, $750.
*Independent republic since 1838; federal government includes a executive branch headed by a president, a judicial branch with a sixteen-member supreme court, and a unicameral legislative branch.
(Sources: Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, 2004: and David R. Dye, Democracy Adrift: Caudillo Politics in Nicaragua, Managua, 2004)

See also

Saving Chinandega
Dr Buitrago and Ruben Dario

More World Destinations here


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