Sunday, January 26, 2014

León the Tattered Lion

There is a TV show in the US called Pretty Little Liars. This is what I call travel writers who try to make a city sound appealing when in fact, it really is like putting lipstick on a pig. This is close to my take on León, Nicaragua.

However, our story begins with the morning of leaving Granada. Gerry our host knew I was ill, really, really ill. There wasn’t a single orifice on my body that was not leaking, spilling, spurting, or blasting out some type of fluid. All of this fun was yet to be enhanced with a 2 hour ride in an overcrowded shuttle meant for 12 people, but which had 15. The only redeeming feature was that it was air-conditioned or I would never have survived. My thoughts were leading back to last night’s dinner. Ron was fine, but had a different menu item. Regardless, Gerry offered some stomach pill and a large plastic bag. Unfortunately, it was clear and not black. Let’s just say I learned new skills in covert operations if filling the bag.

The shuttle left us off right at the front door of our accommodations - Posada Fuente Castalia. This was a lovely place run by a wife and her husband, both former educators. She was the local Minister for Special Education and he was a Professor of Literature at the local university. Typical of homes here, after passing the living room area, you walk into an extensive garden area open to the sky with rooms on one side sheltered by an overhang. Our room was named colibri, which I thought was interesting since it is kolibri in Hungarian and hummingbird in English.

Once in the room, I did not flutter my wings, but set out for a long nap with intermittent sets of jogging to and from the bathroom. We were not able to do much the first day since I was restricted to public conveniences. Somehow we managed to make it to the center square where one of the churches is located, but that is a given in these countries. Every square has to have a church, a Catholic church. Now the Lonely Planet guide suggests that León is a charming city with some faded eloquence of its colonial past still visible in the architecture. To this I say “Liar, liar, pants on fire”.

León is the 2nd largest city in Nicaragua after Managua the capital. It boasts having the Basílica de la Asunción, the largest cathedral in Central America. Highlights are listed as the Stations of the Cross by Antonio Sarria, which are considered to be masterpieces along with the black Jesus: El Cristo Negro de Pedrarias. It is thought to possibly be the oldest Catholic image in the Americas having arrived in 1528. The stations were huge, but not exceptional in my view. This could be my prejudice in the subject matter. The black Jesus was interesting, but what struck me the most was the outside of the building. It was decrepit. Perhaps the top 1/16 of the building was looking clean and fresh with a bright white luster, but the rest of it looked in dire need of a makeover.

Cattycorner to the church is an excessively oversized woman dressed in Spanish attire. She is La Gigantona, the giant woman who represents the original Spanish colonists and continues to be mocked today during folk festivals. Indigenous people thought the Spaniards were oversized humans who also happened to be ugly. The male representative does not fare well either, but he is not a giant, just severely unattractive.

As in most Central and South American cities, the central squares are bustling with activities in various forms. This is the heart of a town or city. It is where socialization happens, gossip is exchanged and cultural traditions are maintained.

There are few museums in the city, but one that was listed as a ‘not to be missed’ was the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones (Museum of Myths & Traditions). We had difficulty finding it as it is housed in La XXI (the 21st Garrison), a former prison during the political revolution. It seems like a strange setting for a quirky collection of life-sized papier-mâché figures that evolved from the history and legends of the city. Most of the figures were handmade by the museum’s founder Señora Toruña. There is a life-sized replica of her also on display. She lived to be 95 years old, but wanted to live on so had the realistic looking statue made.  Intermixed in these representations of fun and legend are the murals which graphically portray the methods of torture that the Guardia Nacional used on prisoners. At one moment you want to laugh at some legend, while the next you need to shed tears for man’s inhumanity to man.

We were led from room to room by our guide who spoke English well enough to understand, but at the same time make us have to hold in laughter at some of his mistakes. Each room is dedicated to a diverse aspect of local folklore. It is here where we discovered La Gigantona from the center square who is ridiculed still in a popular folklórico ballet. Another room has La Carreta Nagua (Chariot of Death), which picks up the souls of those foolish enough to cross intersections cater-corner.

When in a room, our guide would explain the local legends; outside the rooms he solemnly explained the cruelties used here such as stretching prisoners on racks, beatings, water tortures and other abuses that were regularly employed here until June 13, 1979, when Commander Dora María Téllez successfully breached Somoza’s defenses. He secured La XXI for the Sandinistas, releasing all prisoners.

The other museum we visited was on particularly no interest to me, but Ron enjoyed it. It was the home and archives of the poet Rubén Darío. I had not heard of him, but I am not a lover of poetry. I found this on the web “…initiated the Spanish-American literary movement known as modernismo that flourished at the end of the 19th century.” Everything within was in Spanish, increasing my disinterest.

The Nicaraguans say that there is fierce competition between León and Granada as to which city in the best. I cannot imagine it is a competition at all. Granada has intact roads and sidewalks, even in the outer areas. In León, if you aren’t continually vigilant, you are putting your life or at least your ankles at major risk with the broken cement, gaping holes, and irregular pavement. The architecture in Granada is charming, even the run down areas, you can find weathered allure. León just looks rundown and in need of a major renovation. There are 19 Catholic churches in León, but not one of them is in decent shape.

We did find two bright spots, both coffee cafés. One was Pan y Paz French bakery, the other was Casa de Café where the coffee was excellent and the bread, and desserts were worth writing home about.

We did spend a day visiting Just Hope. Last year, one of our B and B guests was associated with a woman minister who set out to create a charity where women could develop sustainable forms of income. That was over 20 years ago and it has expanded exponentially. Through our guest, we started writing to the minister who is based in Tulsa, OK. We took a taxi to the various projects accompanied by the Nicaraguan director Julio Delgado. It was a delightful day filled with admiration for all they have accomplished. This outing was postponed three times due to my being sick.

Basically, if I weren’t sick for almost the entire week we were there, I would have been bored out of my mind in the time spent in León.

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