Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nicaragua... the land of poets and volcanos

On my recent ( 9-11 May 2009) visit to Nicaragua I took a travel companion with me. Guess.. a book on Nicaragua written by Salman Rushdie with the title¨The jaguar smile¨. Rushdie quoted someone´s saying that there are poets and writers in every street of Nicaragua and that everybody is considered to be a poet until proved to the contrary¨. Incidentally this was the first non-fiction written by Rushdie.

Daniel Ortega, the President himself writes poetry. When he was a political prisoner at the age of 23 from 1967 to 1974 , he wrote many poems, one of which is titled ¨I Never Saw Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion¨. While in jail he received visits from Rosario Murillo, a poet. The prisoner and visitor fell in love; Murillo became Ortega's wife. She has published several books of poems. One of them is called as ¨Amar es combatir ¨- to love is to combat. She is now the President of the Foundation for Promotion of Love (FUNDAMOR).

One of Daniel Ortega´s brothers Humborto Ortega was a published writer. Many ministers in his cabinet now and during his previous presidency and Sandinista leaders are poets and writers. Notable among these is Sergio Ramirez, Gioconda Belli and Ernesto Cardinal.The revolutionaries and common people found solace and expression in poetry for survival and inspiration during the volcanic eruptions of revolutions, war and struggles.

Ruben Dario, the poet and writer of Nicaragua is the most well-known in the world. He is considered as the father of the Modernist Movement in spanish literature in the twentieth century. His book Azul (1888) is said to be the inaugural book of Hispanic-American modernism. He was a precocious poet and published his poem in a newspaper at the age of thirteen. He was precocious in love too. He fell in love with a eleven year-old girl, when he was fifteen. Thereafter he fell in love frequently with different women in later life and married some of them. In San Salvador, he was married to Rafaela Contreras, daughter of a famous Honduran orator, Álvaro Contreras, on June 21, 1890. One day after the wedding there was a coup d'état in which his wife died. The coup was engineered by general Carlos Ezeta, who had been a guest at Dario's wedding.

Dario had lived in several central and south american countries and worked in the newspapers of these countries including the Argentine daily La Nacion for a long time. He wrote a book Canto a la Argentina. Interestingly he was appointed as the Colombian honorary consul in Buenos Aires by the Colombian president Miguel Antonio Caro in the period 1893 - 1895.

Dario is remembered for the following prophetic poem in which he anticipated US as a invader.

Eres los Estados Unidos,
eres el futuro invasor

You are the United States
you are the future invader

Nicaragua was one of the worst victims of American invasion and the infamous Contra war.
An American mercenary adventurer William Walker maneuvered to appoint himself as President of Nicaragua in 1856 and ruled for a year and even made English as the official language. Walker recruited about a thousand American and European mercenaries to invade the other four Central American nations: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. This was supported by the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt who had business interests in the region. Fortunately the invasion failed and Walker was later executed.

Here is the iron plate statue (in Managua, the capital) of Sandino, the father of the nation who raised a rebellion against US presence in Nicaragua in the peiod 1927-33. He was assasinated by Somoza whose cruel dynastic dictatorship was brought down by Sandinistas in 1979.

Nicaragua is a land of lakes too. May be it is Nature´s compensation to cool the volcanic heat. The largest, Lake Nicaragua is spread over 8000 sq kms. I visited Granada, the former capital and a picturesque city, on the shore of the lake and took a boat tour of the small islands called as islets. There are over 350 of them in varying sizes ranging from an acre to dozens of acres. These can be bought and used for private purposes. Rich people have built attractive holiday homes. The islets, although rocky, have dense vegetation and many of them have large and tall trees.

Here is an island house:

I asked the boatman what did he know of India. He replied that he associated India with two things: motos and high economic growth. Nicaragua is full of Bajaj motorcycles and three wheelers. While the three wheelers are for the poor people, Bajaj Pulsar motorcycle has become a status symbol among the young Nicaraguans.

The landscape and people of Nicaragua reminded me of Kerala. The countryside of Nicaragua is like the Kerala villages with palm and banana trees, yukka and beans, mountains and waterbodies, literacy and marxism.

I wanted to play golf in Nicaragua. But I was not sure if golf courses existed in the land of Sandinistas. To my surprise, I found a world-class course called as Nejapa golf club. I played with India´s honorary consul Alejandro Lacaya, who is a golf fanatic with a handicap of nine. He told me that the original golf course in Managua was taken over by the first Sandinista government, which converted it into a housing colony for the poor. Later, the Chamorros government, paid a compensation to the golfers who supplemented it with their funds to acquire land and build the new Nejapa golf course, which is dotted with neem trees from India.

I found an interesting Indian business executive too in Managua. Mr Ashwani Dhingra, the Latin America regional head of Tablets India Ltd, Chennai ,runs his 6 million dollar business from his residence in Managua. He is at home there with his family and a passion for Latin America.

The government of Nicaragua, in an unusual but welcome move, have authorised their honorary consul in Mumbai Paresh Mehta tel 022-40479444 to issue visas.

Volcanoes are part of the geology of Nicaraguan land and they erupt from time to time , like the politics of the country. Here is a volcano poem of Gioconda Belli with the title,

Yo, la que te quiere - I am the Woman Who Loves You.

Yo caliento tus noches,
encendiendo volcanes en mis manos,
mojándote los ojos con el humo de mis

I warm your nights,
lighting volcanoes with my hands,
making you cry with the smoke from my

Here is the picture I took at the Masaya volcano, between Managua and Grenada

To me the whole country of Nicaragua looked like a political crater, having suffered so many eruptions of wars, invasion and violence in the past. I hope the country will erupt in the future with more poetry instead of volcanos and wars.

Here is the answer to the question in the previous blog on Costa Rica. Why did I choose to visit these two countries?

They were the only two countries missing from my Latin American curriculum. I can, now claim, that I have kissed the land and breathed the air of every Latin American country. My Latin American Karma is complete now...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Costa Rica ..... ¨pura vida¨ country

Pura Vida.. is how the Costa Ricans respond cheerfully when you ask them , Como esta ( how are you ). Pura vida literally means pure life. But what the Costa Ricans mean is ¨full of life¨, ¨great¨. This makes them distinct among the Latin Americans who respond generally as Bien ( fine) or Muy Bien ( very well ). I had the opportunity to discover some more unique characteristics of this Pura Vida country during my visit there last week from 6 to 9 May.

The Ticos ( nick name of costa rican men ) or Ticas ( costa rican women) distingusih themselves from the other Central Americans and Latin Americans not just by the word Pura Vida. They have genuinely made themsleves distinct and succeeded in marketing their country as a business and tourist destination with a difference. Here are some facts substantiating their claim.
Costa Rica had abolished the armed forces in December 1948 and has been peacefully and democratically governed in the last fifty years. Unbelievabe... but true. This is their greatest distinction from the rest of Latin America which had suffered military dictatorships and the consequent miseries in this period. Mind you .. the Ticos are not living in a far away island. They live right in the middle of Central America which has gone through devastating civil wars, proxy wars, contra wars and even soccer wars. It is against this background that Costa Rica´s achivement looks even more admirable. From an intellectual, cultural and historic point view abolishment of army by Costa Rica is indeed a civilisational advance! As the first country to abolish armed forces, Costa Rica has set an example not only for Latin america but for the whole world. The neighbouring Panama has followed the example of the Ticos by abolishing their army in 1990.

The Ticos are not just content with passive peace within the frontiers of their chiquitico country of four million. They have established a University for Peace (UPEACE) in 1980 “to contribute to the great universal task of educating for peace by engaging in teaching, research, post-graduate training and dissemination of knowledge fundamental to the full development of the human person and societies through the interdisciplinary study of all matters related to peace”. At present, the UPEACE Costa Rica Campus has 170 students from 52 different countries, including India, making it one of the most diverse universities in the world for its size.

Oscar Arias, the president of Costa Rica successfully mediated to stop the central american wars and get the presidents of the region to sign a peace agreementin 1987. Peace has endured since then. He was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1987. He used the monetary award from the Nobel Peace prize to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he said ¨ We are a people without arms and we are fighting to continue to be a people without hunger. Our children walk with books under their arms rather than guns on their shoulders. We are a symbol of peace for America.¨ Not a rhetoric. Preaching based on practice.

In 1869, the country became one of the first in the world to make education both free and obligatory, funded by the state’s share of the great coffee wealth. The literacy rate of Costa Rica is one of the highest in Latin America.

With its high literacy rate, Costa Rica has positioned itself as the silicon valley of Latin America. Intel has a chip making plant employing 5000 Ticos. Hewlett Packard employs 7000 Ticos in its call centres and BPOs.

Costa Rica is not only a kind of silicon valley; it has made silicon mountains out of the breasts of Latino women. Read my blog story on this

Costa Rica was the pioneer in introducing Canopy Tours. There are 190 of them in various parts of the rain forests of the country. It is an adrenaline rush soaring above the canopies of the forest and sliding down the steel ropes ( like monkeys ! ) through the branches and leaves of the trees. It gives an intimate feel of the forest. My own monkey trick on the rope was not a big deal. I used to climb palm trees in my village. I was scared for another reason. Behind me in the rope was a MacDonald-fed 400 pound Gringa. I was afraid that the rope would break and she would fall on me and crush me to a pulp. But the ropes were stronger and I survived. Here is a picture of the Canopy tour:

Costa Rica was the first country to start coffee plantations in Central America, in 1779. Again the Ticos have distinguished themselves from the other central americans. While in the other countries cafe oligarchy has caused political and social problems, in Costa Rica the coffee economy is more inclusive with the participation of a large number of small and medium coffee farmers. Whereas in other countries the Indios and tenant farmers were displaced from their communal lands, most Costa Ricans have benefited from Coffee. Of course, there are coffee barons in Costa Rica including the current president Oscar Arias. But they are the benevolent types.

Costa Rica has the best golf clubs in Central America with some fantastic world-class resort courses. I played in the Cariari country club, the one nearest to the city. It is one of the toughest courses I have ever played. It is narrow with hazards and out of bound scaring the hell out of the players. I survived without losing a ball or going out of bounds but with a poor score of 92! David, one of the foursome in which I played is a retiree from US, settled there for the last seven years. He comes to the club in his own golf cart from his house located inside the golf course. The snack and drinks cart moving around the golf course had many alcoholic drinks including black label whisky. Lou Aguillera, one of our foursome started playing better after a couple of glasses of rum...

Here is the signature hole ( par three hole number four )

Tourism is the largest source of foreign exchange for the country. About 2 million tourists visit the country every year. Ecotourism has been well developed. Many Ticos in the services sector such as Tourism and Hotels speak fluent English. The climate, political stability and friendly services has attracted a number of Americans who have settled down there permamnently.
I went in a tour group to see local folk dances at Pueblo Antigo. Two Ticas namely, Chavela and Consuelo gave a guided tour of the place and cultural event for two hours. They entertained us with jokes, stories, songs, dances and anecdotes explaining the history and culture of Costa Rica. They were like a two-person theatre. They were the best and the most impressive tourist guides I have ever met in my travels around the world. Chavela is on the right and Consuelo is on the left in the picture below:

Costa Rica has a distinction from the Indian point of view too. It is the Americas Headquarters of the Indian company Havells Sylvania, which has a global turnover of one billion dollars. Kapil Gulati, the bright young Indian is based in San Jose as the Director of Americas managing the 160 million dollar operations in the whole region of Americas including USA. This company has perhaps the largest volume of business in Latin America among the Indian companies operating in the region. It has business in ten countries and has production units in Costa Rica, Brazil and Colombia. The Indian company Havells ( sounds it was founded by a Havelli Ram ) bought the lighting and fixtures business of the American company Sylavania worldwide including Latin America. Here is their website
Gulati is in the process of consolidating and streamlining the business in the whole region, operating out of the chiquitico Costa Rica.
There are a few Indians there, the most notable being Dr Nandwani, who has been there for over thirty years and has earned the respect of the Ticos as a leading scientist and Head of the Solar Energy centre in the university. Tico Nandwani has become a Tio Indiano ( Indian Uncle) for the small Indian community there.
Two disclaimers...
-This is not marketing for Costa Rica... my genuine experience and feeling.
- Costa Ricans did not pay for my trip to write this story.. I was on a private tour paid by myself.
Why did I choose to go there?
Answer in the next blog story on Nicaragua to be published this week.