Wednesday, 18 December 2013

(Re)Cycling in Granada, Nicaragua Part 1:Machetes, Marinas & Mountain Bikes

Nicaragua may rank as the 2nd poorest country in the Americas behind Haiti but one of the side effects of having no cash is that Nicas certainly do make best use of their resources.

This frugality permeates all aspects of life. Be that sustainable eating (outside urban centres Nicas tend to grow their own veggies/keep chickens & pigs and supermarkets stock far less imports than the UK), recycling (certain plastic and cans are worth money so they are not left lying around)or transport(ubiquitous ramshackle US school buses are imported, pimped-out and always full to the brim).

In the UK you can hardly see the stars for light population but when you fly over Nicaragua at night it looks like the place has shut for the day. Nicaragua may well take the prize for the most eco-friendly country I've ever been to.
So, with resources at a premium and cars being an expensive luxury for a lot of the locals it makes perfect sense that Nicas are bike crazy. After all cycling is cheap, quick and efficient means of getting around. The Granada streets are teeming with bikes of all shapes and sizes.

Five gear mountain bikes of indeterminate make seem to be the most popular. On my way back from the baseball I saw a man riding an a bike on a busy road in near darkness with his other half riding side saddle on the crossbar whilst holding a two year old. I wonder what Boris Johnson would make of that? Despite the apparent lack of traffic lights & road rules (no one indicates so you have to slow at junctions and watch what other people are doing) cycling in Granada is excellent way of assimilating with the locals and getting a feel of this lovely town.

In Granada there a few place on La Calzada (the main tourist drag) to hire bikes. They aren't all in great nick so it's definitely worth testing them out first before setting off. I got mine from Bicimaximo which is based in the Parque Central just to the right of the custard coloured picture book Cathedral. You can hire a decent if unspectacular 5 speed for $5 (about 5 hours), $7 the full day or $22 a week. You can hire bikes with better spec but no one rides around on these so forget it unless you plan on doing some serious offroad.

They also do guided tours of the area if you feel the need for back up as there are certain areas where it may be sensible to exercise caution. The area between the lakeside and the start of La Calzada is fine during the day but a bit sketchy at night with reports of muggings and I have read anecdotal evidence that the 2hr ride up to Laguna de Apoyo has its share of problems.

Irrespective of the potential risks I love cycling and always hire a bike on my travels so I ventured along the coast past the unspectacular "tourist area", through fields and jungle and onto the Marina Cocibloca. Its an easy 4km ride on tarmac that can be easily in an hour or so. I like to do things at my own pace so I skipped the tour. In the end it all worked out OK but not before I got a lucky break.

Cycling on my own and into an area known for robberies might not win me the Einstein Award but there can be much to be said for just travelling minimally and trying to blend in. One way to do that is not to carry a gaudy back pack around like some travelling North Face turtle. This will mark you out as a gringo with something worth stealing. Keep it light, take a few cordobas and there will always a corner store selling something to eat and drink.


Although there have been reports of muggings in this area the journey on the main road to the marina seems to be OK in daylight as there are now tourist police stationed at the half way point to dissuade any would be assailants (although I'm told they are less than useless if you do get into trouble). I passed locals on horse and cart transporting their wares from the fields, cattle grazing on the shoreline and farmers chopping grass with machetes. It looks pretty idyllic and a world away form the hustle and bustle of Granada.

WARNING:DO NOT take the dirt road down to Astillero Diamante (at a junction you'll see a big sign with a diamond) as I now know many people have been mugged and even had their bikes stolen on this trail. I only learned about this particular pitfall from the caretaker at Marina Cocibloca AFTER bumbling down this pretty path bordered by fields, farms and the odd shack for about 30 mins. I was on my guard but only doubled back to the main road when I saw some dubious types up ahead. That was a wise move.

"You were lucky my friend. That area is notorious"

The caretaker started to tell me a story about how growing up in "el campo" was paradise. He and his friends used to climb trees and sleep out in the countryside at night and walk wherever he wanted without any fuss. Now even the locals have to choose their routes with caution especially at night or risk bumping into an opportunistic "pandilla".

"Kids don't want to work these days. They want the easy life so they just take nice things from other people"

It was interesting to chat to the old chap as he lamented about the ills of modern day Nicaragua and the changes it was going through. In that respect Nicaragua is no different from the rest of the western world with old school values replaced by a preoccupation towards get-rich-quick materialism. I blame 50 Cent.

Part 2 - Bells, Butterflies and Burials

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Baseball in Granada, Nicargaua - It's A Whole Different Ball Game

When you think sports in Latin America you think football, right? From Mexico to Argentina the average Brit has romantic images of kids playing keepy-uppy with oranges on street corners and crumbling stadia flooded with rabid fans in a riot of colour all garnished with flares and streamers.

Having travelled to a few of these countries I've seen that many of the stereotypes ring true. However, in Nicaragua football is not el deporte numero uno, it's baseball. Only a 2½hr flight from Miami it's no great surprise that this quintessentially American sport has taken root in Nicargaua.

It was first introduced in the 19th Century by American importer Albert Addlesberg and popularised by US Marines stationed in the country. Despite Nicaragua's turbulent past and impoverished present the country has a 4 team professional baseball league (La Liga Nicaragüense de Beisbol Profesional)that runs from October through February. 

It comprises of the Indios del Bóer, the Tigres del Chinandega, the Leones de León, and the Orientales/Tiburones de Granada. Most of the Nicas I spoke weren't really that interested in the national league but were pasionate about "las grandes ligas" i.e. Major League Baseball.

Nicaragua may not have exported the volume of top players to the US as Cuba or the Dominican Republic but they can be proud of the likes of Dennis Martinez who broke numerous pitching records during his 23 year playing career. Currently only Everth Cabrera (San Diego Padres), Wilton López (Colorado Rockies)and Erasmo Martinez (Seattle Mariners) currently play in the MLB.

So, when in Rome or in this case Granada I thought it only right to check out one of the games from myself. After getting confirmation of a 6pm game via their Facebook account (they don't have a website) I jumped in a shared cab (you could walk it but its wise to spend the 15 cordobas) and headed to the

Roque T. Zayala stadium or "el estadio" on the outskirts of town on the main Managua road.

The stadium is Nicaragua in microcosm: rough and ready but with tons of character. Pitching up in the dark and stumbling through the dusty car park I was a little wary of what to expect. How rowdy do baseball fans get after a few beers? A long line of people were queuing at a ticket booth for the main standing area which you could enter for about 30C$ (just over a $1). I thought I'd go for the comfort of a plastic chair and splurged 70C$ for "el palco" or the posh seats behind the batting area. There was no queue for this line. With this you get a program so I caught up on what Los Tiburones had got up to.

Walking up the gangway into the main arena it was obvious that this wasn't a must win game as the stadium was half empty and no touts had come to try and flog me tickets in the car park (I was warned this might happen) so I could sit wherever I wanted.

The teams took to the field without a huge deal of razzmatazz but after about 10 mins play was abandoned as a freak storm deluged the pitch and the fans in the cheap uncovered seats were getting well and truely drenched. Things started to get a bit heated as they were shouting for the gates that separated us to be opened so they get into our enclosure. The stewards and police seem to mull over the implications of this for a while before relenting and letting the soggy mass in. This was great as the atmosphere soon perked up.

First of all lets start with the food. None of your rubbery pies or reconstituted hotdogs here. A constant procession of food & drink vendors shout their wares at you as the cruise up and down the aisles. Quesillos (cheese filled tortillas), Vigoron (pork rinds & cabbage wrapped in banana leaf), Cerviche (raw fish marinated in lime served out of coolers), Asado (roasted meats) sweets, sandwiches, tiny bags of nuts (with a thin moustachioed guy constantly shouting Nipi,Nipi,Nipi,Nipi! on a loop) are just some of the delights you can sample from the comfort of your seat.

Whilst football in the UK has only recently moved from its white working class male roots baseball in Nicaragua is a family affair. Nicaragua in general is a very young country (the median age is 23 compared to 40 in the UK). Maybe its a remnant of Catholicism, maybe there's not much on the TV or maybe they can't afford babysitters but the stadium is full of the little critters running around and causing havoc. It makes for a pleasant atmosphere. Those who run the club even let the street kids come round with sacks to collect the discarded cans and bottles. There is nothing like poverty to encourage you to recycle.

An annoying habit that the Nicas have got from the American cousins is their obsession of sponsorship and advertising. Virtually everything is sponsored in some shape or form. At virtually every pause in the game the stadium announcer would boom out the same four adverts. One for a steak house, one for rum, one for a travel agency and one for Marfil soap which I've still got stuck in my head as I write this.

"Jabon Marfil!!!!! Lava, lava y nunca se acaba!"

It's brainwashing taken to Clockwork Orange proportions. I would have bought a box of the stuff just to shut the guy up!

As the innings moves past the half way stage the brass band starts to crank up the volume and we are treated to some booty shaking in the aisle from one die-hard as he is cheered on by the crowd. Then, apropos of nothing, the stadium announcer decides to play The Village People's YMCA during a break in the activity and the crowd all does the synchronised dance moves. This makes me very happy.

Rival fans are not segregated and a tiny group of Tigres fans sat to my left were getting progressively drunker as the game wore on. By the end they were hammered and took to questioning the sexuality of the Tiburones pitcher. At the end of the 9th with the game tied at 3-3 they were loud but they exploded into rapture when deep in the 10th with bases loaded their batter hit one over left field above the despairing gloves of the Tiburones outfielders. Game over.

Overall it’s a great night out and a unique glimpse into an aspect of Nicaraguan culture. It’s an assault on the senses and a must for baseball virgins. In Granada there is no better place to pop your cherry.