travel: There’s al­ways more to see in Nicaragua

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Joshua Berman

Arainy sea­son cloud bulges out of the sky, about to spill, while sweat streams down my back. A thick crowd has ap­peared up the nar­row cob­ble­stone street. Sud­denly, there is mu­sic, fire­works erupt and shout­ing teams of vil­lagers, each car­ry­ing a heavy, hard­wood tree trunk laden with co­conuts, plan­tains and pineap­ples, are head­ing straight for me. To avoid get­ting speared, I back up against the home of Juan Car­los Jimenez, a young ce­ram­ics ar­ti­san I met ear­lier this af­ter­noon as I walked around San Juan de Ori­ente, to see how the peo­ple were pre­par­ing for their an­nual fi­es­tas pa­tronales to cel­e­brate John the Bap­tist, the town’s pa­tron saint. An­other group crashes by with their fruit, ac­com­pa­nied by cheer­ing crowds and two guys who are smok­ing cig­a­rettes and us­ing them to light crude rock­ets. They are all head­ing to a gi­ant log struc­ture in front of the mayor’s house, where the teams lash ropes to their poles, then hoist their of­fer­ings 20 feet above the ground.

“This tra­di­tion is over 400 years old,” Jimenez tells me. “Chil­dren dance to the mu­sic from a very young age and they love it.”

“What about the fights?” I ask, re­fer­ring to an un­usual as­pect of San Juan de Ori­ente’s fi­es­tas that you won’t see else­where. “What about the chilillo fights?”

Jimenez laughs. “It’s all a sport, a tra­di­tion. We grow up with it.”

The fire­works leave the smell of gun­pow­der in the air. The brass chichero bands bang away. I’ve been trav­el­ing to Nicaragua since 1998, but I am wit­ness­ing some­thing I have never seen be­fore, which hap­pens to me time and again. It’s one of the rea­sons I keep re­turn­ing.

The White Vil­lages

San Juan de Ori­ente is one of Los Pueb­los Blan­cos, as peo­ple re­fer to the dozen or so vil­lages that dot the vol­canic hills to the south and west of Masaya. They’re called “the white vil­lages” for both the color of their churches and the pu­rity of their young women. I once lived with a fam­ily in this area, in a vil­lage just up the road called Pio XII, where Peace Corps as­signed me as part of my com­mu­nity-based train­ing. It’s about an hour south of Managua and the in­ter­na­tional air­port, and 30 min­utes from Granada, the beau­ti­ful colo­nial city where most tourists to Nicaragua base their trav­els.

I’ve vis­ited be­fore, usu­ally to buy pot­tery. But I’ve never been here dur­ing the last week of June, when San Juaneños drop ev­ery­thing to honor St. John the Bap­tist.

As we step back onto the street, some­body asks if I’d like a nacata­mal, the tra­di­tional Nicaraguan dish of corn masa, lard, meat and veg­eta­bles, wrapped in a ba­nana leaf, boiled and shared dur­ing fes­ti­val time. In a few mo­ments, a plate ap­pears and I am un­wrap­ping my nacata­mal like the pre­cious gift that it is. This is fa­mil­iar — this raw hos­pi­tal­ity that one learns to ac­cept. This is the Nicaragua I’ve known since first trav­el­ing here in 1998.

Nicaragua’s tourism in­dus­try is grow­ing. Now, in ad­di­tion to $10-a-night bud­get hos­tels, there is an ever-grow­ing se­lec­tion of mid-range con­verted colo­nial homes and beach bun­ga­lows for rent, as well as a small but evolv­ing high-end lux­ury scene. But you’ll still get raised eye­brows from your friends when you tell them you’re head­ing here — and you’ll still see the oc­ca­sional U.S. Depart­ment of State travel alert (the cur­rent one is set to ex­pire af­ter Nicaragua’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in Novem­ber). Nicaragua has that edge in the eyes of the world, and its un­pre­dictable pol­i­tics and rule-chang­ing lead­ers keep it in that ex­cit­ing, slightly un­cer­tain space.

There is no talk of pol­i­tics on this fi­esta day. Down the street, the shout­ing be­comes louder and I see sev­eral hands wav­ing floppy sticks in the air. “The chine­gros are go­ing to fight!” some­one shouts.

A few hours ear­lier, I was sit­ting with Jimenez as he put the fi­nal touches on his chilillo (pro­nounced Chi­hLEEyo), a whip-like sword made of stiff leather … from a spe­cific body part from a bull. “The picha del toro — that is a com­mon word for bull pe­nis — is stretched and cured, some­times for 12 to 18 months,” Jimenez says. Now it’s time to fight with it.

As I ap­proach, the crowd has al­ready pushed back into a cir­cle and the fight­ers are squar­ing off. The first blow comes quickly, and the crowd cheers. The chine­gros take turns, whip for whip, and just when they seem ready to grap­ple, their friends rush in and the swords are low­ered. The fight­ers give a chest­bump/man-hug, ev­ery­body bounces to­gether, then the fight­ers are plied with shots of guaro, a clear liquor, out of old plas­tic soda bot­tles.

The fights are part per­for­mance, part rit­ual, part cul­tural dance, part blow­ing-off-of-steam and part raw bru­tal­ity. The whole thing cul­mi­nates in the street in front of the Catholic church steps, where St. John is placed to look out over the fire­works and fight­ing.

I don’t com­pletely un­der­stand this jux­ta­po­si­tion of re­li­gious aus­ter­ity with the noise, vi­o­lence and al­co­hol, and I like that I don’t com­pletely un­der­stand it, and that the event is car­ried so proudly.

The next day, I choose a more fa­mil­iar des­ti­na­tion. Or so I think — I’ve been to Masaya Vol­cano Na­tional Park at least a dozen times. I’d heard that re­cently, seis­mic ac­tiv­ity be­neath Vol­cán Masaya had cre­ated a larger, more ac­tive lava pool.

I step up to the stone fence and re­mem­ber that the scene never fails to as­tound me. It’s what I imag­ine Mor­dor must look like, all black rock, poi­sonous sul­phur plumes, and dark clouds in the sky. But my eyes are drawn down­ward. Where once there was just a hint of orange be­hind a bank of rocks is now a bub­bling, fiery stew, where molten rock heaves and spits and hisses.

I make the same drawn-out “whoaaa” sounds as the other vis­i­tors lined up along the rock fence. Once again, I’m wit­ness­ing some­thing I’ve never seen be­fore in a coun­try I thought I knew. And as sure as Juan Car­los and his fam­ily will keep his small-town tra­di­tions alive, I’ll keep com­ing back — for at least an­other 18 years — to visit my friends and to see what else I can learn.

Dur­ing San Juan de Ori­ente’s an­nual fi­esta cel­e­brat­ing John the Bap­tist, the Nicaraguan town’s streets fill with mu­sic, dance and of­fer­ings.

The vil­lage of San Juan de Ori­ente has many con­nec­tions to its preHis­panic past.

Men in San Juan de Ori­ente, Nicaragua, par­tic­i­pate in chilillo fights with whip-like “swords” — an un­usual as­pect of the town’s an­nual fi­es­tas pa­tronale. Pho­tos by Joshua Berman, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Vol­cán Masaya Na­tional Park is one of the most im­pres­sive sites to visit in Nicaragua, es­pe­cially since seis­mic ac­tiv­ity has in­creased the amount of lava bub­bling into the main crater.

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