The Town Hall in Granada is reminiscent of Spanish colonial architecture; (top) musicians play near Lake Masaya
Managua, the capital city of the central American country Nicaragua, is a strange place.
The city was completely destroyed during a severe earthquake in 1972, with all its Spanish colonial heritage ground to dust and rubble.
The capital was quickly and cheaply rebuilt to look like an overgrown and unattractive development with just a couple of pretty streets housing the elite and the diplomats. A large modern square with various statues of the stalwarts of the revolution is a place of pride for the residents.
However, a strange dichotomy exists even here. A large and rambling shanty town has come up alongside the citys pride and joy where hundreds of landless farmers have made their home for the past several years protesting against something or the other — nobody was quite sure what. They have been living in these deplorable conditions for a long time and the media and the government do not pay them any attention any more.
A very strange thing about Managua is that it does not have street names!
The French cultural centres address for instance is 1/3rd kilometre from the Embassy of Mexico! Which in turn has the address — 2km from the road to Masaya. And so it goes on. My French diplomat friends live in a gorgeous house with a pool. The address: 17km from Lake Masaya!
Many a stop to ask directions was made when my friends and I were trying to find our way to an art show in a local gallery — an almost Herculean task. Unfortunately the effort was somewhat pointless as the show was extremely amateur and rather disappointing.
Managua is beautifully located atop Lake Managua which is the second largest lake in Nicaragua (the largest being Lake Nicaragua) and you can see little hills in the distance of which some are active volcanoes.
Large cutouts of the Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega are all over the city. He was voted back to power 18 months ago after several years out of office. However, the romance of the people with this great personality seems to have waned. While I was in Nicaragua some time ago, a transport strike was crippling the country. The problem? Petrol. The people were convinced that the government was oblivious to their plight — does that sound familiar? Inflation is high in this country of 5 million and the recent oil crisis is felt very deeply. In spite of buying oil at a fairly low rate from Venezuela the government wasnt passing on the benefits to its citizens.
For a largely poor nation it was strange to see the huge gas guzzling pick-ups crowding the streets that are the preferred mode of transport. Also, the local buses all seem to be American school buses that have been discarded by the US and sent over to the Nicaraguans to use as public transport. Gas guzzlers again.
The other, very popular mode of transport was unbelievably our very own autorickshaws — and some are even in familiar black and yellow colours. Autorickshaws are probably one of Indias chief exports to this tiny country which is about the same size as New York state.
Indian businesses seem to be making its way to this Central American nation though I did not meet any of my compatriots during my stay. There is no Indian embassy in Nicaragua.
(Above) Horse drawn carriages take tourists on a ride through Granada; an abandoned church on the outskirts of Managua
Photographs by author
However, it was easy enough to get a visa from their London consulate and the friendly immigration officials at the airport in Managua seemed familiar with visitors from our country as they were very concerned about my lack of a bindi. Strangely, Shah Rukh Khan didnt feature in this conversation as it has done in many other countries that I have visited.
A few miles out of Managua and the landscape gets interesting. You can actually visit several active volcanoes which are a pretty formidable sight. I visited volcano Masaya.
Masaya, a little town an hour away from Managua, is one of the countrys top craft centres.
Hammocks and rocking chairs are their craft of choice and can be found in large numbers everywhere — perhaps they tell you a little about the laidback Nicaraguan lifestyle.
Granada, a beautiful, clean and very quaint town a couple of hours away has retained almost all its Spanish colonial architecture. This is a town which is a favourite with travellers and its dotted with delightful restaurants and cafes. You could almost be in Spain.
Horse-drawn carriages can take you for a ride around this lovely place and a must-stop would be the shop that sells the best cigars — they are one of the countrys chief exports.
Nicaragua is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other and therefore seafood abounds. However, the cuisine of choice seems to be rather unappetising and simple rice and beans is a favourite dish.
The Caribbean coast is one of spectacular beauty and offers an inexpensive holiday to worshippers of the high waves and many a surfer from the United States and other nations prefer the pleasant Nicaraguan beach resorts to their rather more expensive and overcrowded neighbour Costa Rica. Nevertheless, this Spanish-speaking nation seems to be in a somnambulant state after many years of hardship and civil wars.
But I must admit that a sense of déjà vu would often overtake me when I looked around this charming country. What with its MGR style cutouts of political figures, transport strikes and Bajaj autorickshaws, the smell of the tropics. It was all rather lovely.
• Getting there: American airlines, Continental and Taca airways have regular flights to Managua from various American cities. Taca airways, and Iberia also connect to Managua from Europe via Costa Rica or Panama city. Domestic flights on Taca are available easily from Managua to the Caribbean coast.
• Where to stay: There is plenty of accommodation available for tourists at various budgets. Granada, Leon and the coast offer charming small family-owned guest-houses as well as resorts.
• Best time to visit: June to January is the best time to visit as this period has a pleasant weather
• Currency: 1 Nicaraguan Cordoba Oro = Rs 2.20
• Web watch: For more information log onto: www.visitanicaragua.com.