by Darrin DuFord
A gastronomic exploration of Nicaragua’s post-war highlands reveals renewed talent for suckling and a stubborn joie de vivre.
“Chicken, chicken, soda, soda!”
I was sweating in a parked bus, serenaded by barks from Managua’s take on curb service. I didn’t believe the vendors would be able to stand tall enough to push their products through the high safety windows of the bus, a reincarnated Bluebird that used to haul American kids to school. But greasy plates tilted their way in, as if I were sitting in the innards of a giant row of slot machines.
Not to feel left out, I shouted out an order just before the bus left the terminal. With help from a vendor’s beanstalk arms, I received not-so-recently fried chicken, more bone than meat, and a plastic bag of Coca Cola. My confused Gringo hands allowed me to slurp out about a nickel’s worth of Coke before I dropped the squishy thing during the jolts of the geriatric engine. Thus my culinary journey of Matagalpa, the mild-aired mountain city in the belly button of Nicaragua’s coffee country—our destination—prematurely began.
As my sneaker treads stuck to corn syrup, I wondered how the Matagalpa area, rich in crops and livestock, rebounded from the abuse of the Contra War during the 1980s. But you wouldn’t know that Matagalpa survived some of the nastier guerilla fighting of the conflict if you glanced at the cheerful folks on the bus en route to the city. Hemorrhaging distorted classic rock through speakers mounted on the ceiling, the bus turned into a carnival when a tiny bird made the mistake of flying into an open window. In a country full of comically rabid baseball players, I knew the bird wouldn’t last long before being caught with a pair of bare hands.
I would soon discover from where Nicaraguan shortstops had inherited their coordination. When the bus spilled us onto the tight sidewalks of Matagalpa, I had to duck around a procession of women balancing wooden trays of oranges on their heads. They swung both arms at their sides without a crumple of concentration. Smooth and unhurried, their steps ended up creating an odd elegance, as if the women were flaunting peculiar hats topped with fruit patterns.
Matagalpa inhales and exhales food. It’s a playground for provisions. Such a reality seems contradictory in light of the country’s economy having been ravaged by wars, hurricanes, and presidents pocketing international relief money. Yet none of those gruesome setbacks prevent farmers from bringing down produce from the surrounding mountainsides and making a living.
With the city’s avocado stands and stew carts and head-balanced produce blocking pedestrians, I realized I wouldn’t need to walk inside a restaurant to eat. Or maybe that was their plan. How else could I explain a vendor setting up a grill on a sidewalk so narrow she makes pedestrians walk in a sluggish single line past her cart, forcing them to snort up sweet puffs of grilling banana leaves and corn tortillas? I was helpless. Like flies stuck in a web, pedestrians became ensnared in banana leaf smoke and found themselves ordering 9-cordoba (50-cent) guirilas , thick tortillas wrapped in said leaves and stuffed with fresh cuajada cheese.
The streets of Matagalpa were about to get more crowded, thanks to a truly Nicaraguan brand of Catholicism. Across from the city’s central supermarket, a deejay’s boxing-arena announcements shot from speakers aboard a truck trailer painted with advertising for a canned tuna company. The trailer had no walls, all the better to watch three caramel-colored young ladies grinding hotpants and spinning miniskirts to the beat of the company’s jingle. “La Sirena tuna is the richest,” screamed the tweeters, as the girls shook their spandex-slung, sun-ripened produce for the approval of a crowd collecting on the sidewalk. Holy Week and Easter were approaching in a few weeks, and the city decided that the best way to butter up God was with lent-friendly offerings of hotpants (no meat, right?) and spiced fish in a can.
The trailer kept bouncing up and down more than a mattress in a love hotel. People emerged from the store with armfuls of the chili flavor. Shaky pyramids of the lemon flavor. Oranges scattered as fruit stands tipped over, smacked by the spasmodic knees of men trying to get a better look at what exactly makes La Sirena the richest. And that is how tuna is sold in Nicaragua.
In Nicaraguan street take-out, cups and bottles are viewed as strange extravagances, because everyone sips their on-the-go beverages out of plastic bags. The factory-sealed varieties look like melted ice packs the little league coach would toss at you after you slid into second base all wrong. But unlike the home-poured sandwich bag of Coca Cola I fumbled in the bus, the factory-made bags don’t come with a straw. When confronted with such a quandary, the Nica drinker bites a hole in the corner and squeezes the bag while cradling it, like suckling on a boob.
The burbling breakfast pots along the edges of Parque Morazán, adjacent to the city’s inescapably gigantic cathedral, provided me with rice, beans, and roast chicken, all of which I washed down with a bag of chicha de maiz , a corn drink. A little fermented, a little sweetened, and unsettlingly pulpy, the bright purple juice matched the jovial paintjobs and neocolonial architecture of the buildings, so much that I almost forgot that the city was constructed out of concrete.
The city’s brightness and bustle have also obscured the effects of the recent war, aside from the city’s monument for the tomb of the unknown Sandinista soldier and a few veterans hopping around on crutches in the parks. When I met Rafael, a middle-aged science fiction author, I was going to ask him how Matagalpa survived the war so well. Rafael, like many Nicas, left the country during the war and didn’t return until the Contras disbanded. So instead, he and I ended up debating whether recent teleportation experiments in physics actually moved particles themselves, or merely information about the particles. It was a conversation I hadn’t anticipated having while drinking corn beer out of a plastic bag.
Snacks call for an equally simple container: the napkin sheath . . . unless you’re a superhero. When Spiderman visits Nicaragua, he must be bored without the Green Goblin around, so he stays sharp by snagging hotdogs with his web-shooter. Or at least that’s what the hand-painted artwork on the side of the park’s pushcart vender depicts.
Don’t Just Watch it Grow
I often wonder if Nicaraguans laugh at Americans who cultivate chia pets. Not because of the pets’ campy, stuttering jingle on late-night commercials. Not because chia pet owners are more likely to own Clappers than passports. When an American grows a chia pet’s hair only to chuck the sprouts after a few weeks, a Nica would probably view the practice as a waste of tasty food. Since chia (also spelled chilla) is native to Central America, the many cultures that have lived there during the past few millennia—including the Maya—have been eating the sprouts as well as the seeds.
Don Chaco’s restaurant, Matagalpa’s epicenter of natural shakes, mixed the seeds in a tall glass with lemon juice and sugar to make their tangy drink chilla con limon , Nicaragua’s answer to Taiwan’s bubble tea. The seeds, when wet, form little gelatinous spheres around themselves, and when I sucked them up through a straw, they gave me the same exciting sensation of not knowing whether I’ve just sucked up a tapioca ball or a fly.
The Little Horse
I always seem to attract drunks in my travels. Maybe I’ve listened to too many Tom Waits songs. Maybe it’s my appreciation of hearing thoughts stripped down to their candid essentials by a buoyant blood alcohol level. Or, in the case of yet another encounter on a narrow Matagalpan side street, two construction workers invited me to chat with their easy-to-understand, boozy Spanish. They had finished their shifts and were now hard at work on a bottle of Caballito, or “Little Horse,” the country’s White Castle of hooch. Any rural road in Nicaragua would be naked without a few crushed and faded plastic Caballito bottles underfoot.
But drowning in sorrows they were not. “Tell me, amigo, what country has the best beaches, mountains, lakes, seafood, volcanoes, landscapes, and gold?” one asked me. He didn’t wait for me to answer. “It’s Nicaragua!” he gloated, without a hint of irony. His friend nodded in agreement after a slight post-Caballito grimace and passed the bottle.
I reflected on how I had been struck by the attractiveness of vistas almost everywhere I looked in the country (excepting the sprawling chaos of Managua). I’m sure the views helped, but happiness is a frame of mind, after all. How the duo can have so little yet still trumpet their country, the second poorest in the Western hemisphere, showed a resilient coping mechanism and an intrepid lust for life that’s AWOL in the world of cubicles and plasma televisions and Hello Kitty waffle makers.
Tubers in Plastic Casings
At 4 am, the cathedral must have been locked, because I awoke to a throng of people mumbling prayers of mass in the street. A warped brass band, filling in the silences with soggy, funeral-like blurts, provided accompaniment. It was another Holy Week preparation. But without bikini tops and tuna, just what did they think they were doing?
Far from chocolate, the bag of chicha de cacao , or cacao juice, I bought from a breakfast vendor at the Parque Morazán was white and tasted like coconut because the seeds were not dried and fermented. The juice packed plenty of energy for my imminent hike around a coffee cooperative in nearby La Reina. But in reaching the cooperative, I burned off most of the chich a weaving through Matagalpa’s Guanuca Market, an explosion of machetes and Chinese-made flip-flops that doubles as a bus terminal. Repetitive sales pitches drilled through grill smoke. In the middle of it all, a mattress man couldn’t move and just chose to stand still. With a dozen folded mattresses strapped to his body, a chance elbow collision wouldn’t matter anyway.
Abandoned by cronies of the Somoza family (the American-backed dictators that ran the country for four decades until overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979), the Danilo Gonzalez cooperative resulted from the Sandinistas’ redistribution of oligarchic land to campesinos. The cooperative, founded in 1983, sells Fair Trade coffee, guaranteeing members $1.35 per pound of arabica beans, about double what they would receive from a traditionally unscrupulous middleman. The latter offer is often not enough for farmers to break even.
During the Contra War, brigades of European volunteers arrived to pick coffee beans on this farm to keep the Nicaraguan wartime economy going, an effort that eventually failed because the brigades competed with the Contras, who were destroying crops, schools, and ports. Both sides heavily mined the countryside in the 1980s, a fact I considered when the guide led me into the lushness of the farm’s coffee bushes, although the Matagalpa area has been mine-free since 2002. Farmers who could not wait for the under-funded de-mining teams taught themselves clearing techniques, and thus mines became one of Nicaragua’s lesser-known bumper crops.
After facing a burden of over 170,000 mines in her soil, Nicaragua has claimed that at the current rate of mine removal, the country will be declared free of the weapons in just a few years. While that’s a statistic to be proud of, I would bet the tourism board is having a difficult time capitalizing on it. Come to Nicaragua: almost all the mines have been cleared!
The project is helping 53 farmers make a living in a country that is half unemployed or underemployed. With such a success story, the farm could make a killing on tourists, if only the farm built a tasting room and sold coffee bags. But the tourism aspect of the farm is still young, and for now, the farm told me to buy Matagalpan Fair Trade coffee when I’m in the States, since that keeps the whole Fair Trade system going.
A Highway Hit
With my cheeks full of rum-flavored chocolates made by hand at the nearby Castillo del Cacao (Chocolate Castle), I climbed into the bus that would take me back to the capital. Vendors entered with baskets of water boobs and buttery cheese cookies called rosquillas. Bustle as usual. I realized that in Matagalpa, the people did not allow their war-torn past to hold the present hostage. I never discovered where the aggression went.
I was left wondering about other Nicaraguan conundrums, like why the so-called express bus was making a stop on the highway. We pulled into a lot that looked like an abandoned bus terminal and the driver shut off the engine.
Then the shouting began. From the outside.
Approaching the bus from every direction, arcs of white teeth aimed upward, open mouths hollering in a vicious drone. There were too many of them. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Did they have someone’s head on a stick? Did they want someone’s head on a stick?
I tried to discern whether the mob was robbing the bus, but I had to make that decision quickly, because they were beginning to reach up into the windows, trying to shove in dark objects that wouldn’t fit.
And then I began to understand the shouts. We were being invaded by bags of onions and half-green tomatoes.
Once the front door was breached, in came the squadrons of ice cream vendors. Then a wave of mushy fried chicken, apparently cooked during Reagan’s first term. They strafed us with rosquillas, the vendors pushing free samples towards our mouths. OK! I surrender! I’ll eat it!
I seemed to have discovered a new generation of Nicaraguan guerrilla maneuvers after all. To defend yourself, instead of needing an AK-47, you only need to draw out your haggling skills and a quick sense of what produce is the ripest. And you might want to keep some charcoal tablets in your holster in case you need to reckon with that fried chicken.
Darrin DuFord’s book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. He has also contributed articles to Perceptive Travel, Transitions Abroad, The Panama News, and GoNOMAD. Read his latest travel pieces and recipes on his web site,www.OmnivorousTraveler.com. When not traveling, he can be found near the souvlaki and tamale carts in his hometown of Astoria, New York. “Subdued by Street Vendors” won the Silver Award for Food and Travel in the Third Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.