The half-crazed fool came charging into the crowd as giant flames leapt above his head and fireworks twirled away in every direction. Street vendors and families with children stuck to the sides of the plaza whilst us youngsters chased around in the middle. As the sea of screaming teenage Latinas parted my girlfriend and I stood and watched as the frenzy of fire hurtled towards us. We jumped to the right just in time. The man carried on chasing through the crowd playing his part in the tradition of toro encuetado, a wooden structure that is lined with fireworks and supposed to represent a bull; is fitted over someones head, lit and then sent as a berserker through the crowds.
The rest of the Dia de la Virgen de Merced, an annual festival for the patron saint of the city, had been rather tame. Marching bands of youths filled the streets with their music as a statue of the saint led the way. Families spent the afternoon sat enjoying the quiet plaza life, watching others go by and feasting on the good of street vendors. But everything became wild as the clock ticked eight p.m and a burst of almost fifty fireworks exploded a few feet away from us. The smell of sulfur was thick and the noise intense. Then the fiery bulls came.
A few months ago I had stared down actual stampeding bulls in Pamplona, but this still made my heart race. My legs got the ‘fight or flight’ twitchiness and my head told me to run as I heard another fiery beast coming up from behind. In this frenzy the street vendors were still screaming about their goods. A woman walked nonplussed with a bucket of water bags balanced on her head and called out ‘Agua! Agua! Agua’.
I bumped into a guy and almost spilled his toffee apples all over the floor. He looked at me as if I were crazy to be running away from the exploding fireworks. Certainly the Nicaraguans have an affinity with fireworks. Each morning dozens are sent up into the sky to signify something. My Spanish teacher told me they have a Catholic meaning, but since she was part of the Protestant minority she could not tell me what that meaning was. Even for funerals and remembrances fireworks are a preferred way to mourn. Walking through a cemetery yesterday, a gathered family sent up twenty fireworks from around the grave.
But fireworks still burn, and despite being in the land of machismo, I still wanted to run away. As the flames died down and the teenagers stopped screaming, a brassband started to play and peace returned to the plaza.
They call Léon the oven of Nicaragua and after one week in the city I am a very crispy Englishman. There’s no hot water in these parts, which is a blessing since I need five or six cold showers each day to cool down and relax. All of the fans here are crippled with arthritis and the mosquitoes take advantage of the nighttime humidity to attack any limb that hangs out the sheets. Plus, soon I will begin work as a volunteer tour guide and hike around the surrounding volcanoes most days of the week. Walking horizontally feels like an effort and my legs are psyching themselves up for upcoming inclines.
But not to complain; I love this place! I am back in Central America and cannot believe my luck. Five months ago I was planning for an upcoming year of daily commutes to London to drudge away in whatever work I could find, then coming home every night to a bedsit. Now I am in the middle of the continent, the heat is in the high thirties, the food is exotic and sweet, the beers are cold and cheap, the sights are a spectacle and I have settled into a fantastic house.
Léon is the second city of Nicaragua, although the few tourists that do come to Nicaragua will avoid the capital, Managua, like a rash. So there’s only two real touristy cities: Leon and Granada. The latter is the polished, manicured and welcoming place to go. It caters to tourists and bends over backwards to accommodate them. People tell me that impoverished women and children bus in and out of the city daily to get the scraps from the growing tourist trade. However, Léon is different. Whilst Granada is Conservative (the base of the right-wing parties), rich and immaculate; Léon is the heartland of the revolutionary Sandinistas. It is raw and real Nicaragua with bullet-holed building, traditional markets, the occasional ugly anti-Gringo stare, noisy streets, dodgy food and a ‘so-what’ attitude from most people towards travelers. From the majority of Léon’s residents there’s no real animosity, but neither is there the over-the-top, almost embarrassing, attempt to please visitors. They look at you and then get on with their day, without pondering if you could make them an extra cordaba (the currency).
Vamos a la playa
As a respite from the heat, the beach is only a thirty minute ride from Léon in a ‘chicken bus’. These are the local buses, unwanted U.S school buses that have been stripped down and are now being driven into the ground. We took a taxi to a small market and were then pointed the way to the bus by a couple of helpful fruit sellers. It was just about to leave so the conductor hurried us into the rear, gave a whistle and hung on to the flapping door as the bus pulled away. My time in Guatemala had acquainted me with these types of buses but here in Nicaragua things seemed different. There wasn’t the squawking chicken cages at the back, which give the bus its nickname; nor when I found a seat did a local woman plunk her three kids on my lap and squeeze into a space that never existed. Things were comfortable here. When two free seats became available and I managed to tuck my long legs into the tight space, nothing was plunked on top of me. I looked around and noticed for the first time that the bus even had a flat screen television up front and a DVD player. None were working and I guess they were either a political gift given around election time or an expensive investment.
In any case the day at the beach was great. I had never been in the Pacific before and was surprised the water was so warm. But these beaches are not the best for swimming; surfing is where it’s at and I looked on with envy as the local teenagers zipped over the ten feet waves with ease. Still, I had great fun launching into the waves to be forced to the bottom of the sea and sent sprawling with twists and turns. Swimming is thirsty business so we spent the day between tumbling in the waves and sipping cold beers in the hammocks of the beachside bar. A hippy turned up with a guitar and I won a bet that his first song would be one Bob Marley. Also, I decided that I will return in the coming weeks to nail surfing and fulfill my dream of becoming a lazy beach bum.
In the coming few weeks I will get a chance to explore this great city and country a lot more. But for now I am feeling knackered. Promises: my travels will be further, my travels will be wilder, my observations will be more informative. Hasta leugo!