Of Islands and Roadblocks


The island of Ometepe, Nicaragua. Photo: Ivana Cajina, Unsplash.

In this story there are two cities. Granada and León.

There are also five volcanoes. León is guarded by four: El Hoyo, Cerro Negro, Telica, and Momotombo. Granada appears to be spied upon by the solitary Mombacho, its peak always hidden behind a plume of clouds. There are also two veterinarians, a dog, and a revolution.

In this story there are also two time periods. There is the one of the cities that I had visited since 2017, and the one that came after April 18, 2018. I saw the cities in celebration, full, overwhelmingly happy, illuminated, with fireworks bursting in the night, with beaming and chattering people squeezing each other on the streets. A glass of rum and a lot of ice in one hand, empanadas in the other.

They told me about them later, because the cities were isolated behind barricades. A neighborhood defense, block by block, with cinderblock walls. Interrupted highways. “The gangs take care of us, the police chase us,” a neighbor from León wrote to me during the most violent days of the revolt.

Granada was my favorite city, even though it only had one volcano. Smaller, easy to visit on foot, a city with Lake Cocibolca as a border and with a neighborhood of islets. Each one distinct: here a corn field, there a five-star resort, a cemetery, a chapel, mansions with helipads, ramshackle wooden huts, an old fort from the time of the pirates… Granada, founded in 1524, is the oldest colonial city on the continent. Granada, plundered by pirates, burned by William Walker, that doesn’t even have two hundred thousand inhabitants. The one on the shore of the Mar Dulce, or Fresh Sea, according to the chroniclers.

When he discovered the lake, the conquistador Gil González Dávila thought he had reached the sea: from the shore you cannot see the other side. There are waves. But they say that his horse drank from that water and it surprised them.

The last time I went to Granada was in December of 2017, and I left after New Year. The first of January I boated around Cocibolca in a tiny boat that carried us through the islets. The guide told us that it had been a long time since he had seen the freshwater sharks, the bull sharks that enter the lake from the San Juan river, in the area. And that there were 365 islets, one for each day of the year. In the Nicaraguan geography books, they are not precisely counted. They say there are more than four hundred. In Cocibolca there is an archipelago called Solentiname. And there are two big islands: Zapatera and Ometepe.

I owe the first sigh of surprise that Nicaragua gave me to Ometepe. In the airplane that carried me from Panama to Managua, on a sunny and clear day, I saw that island in the lake from the sky, with its two volcanoes on either end. One of them was smoking. I later learned that Maderas is inactive and that the smoking one is called Concepción.

Cocibolca, a few hundred square meters smaller than Puerto Rico, is the biggest lake in Central America. And the islets of Granada, according to some geologists, were part of the Mombacho crater. They were shot out in the last big eruption, when one side of the peak crumbled into more than three hundred fragments and a trench was opened up on its flank.

On the boat I saw Mombacho, and I photographed it from the water. A few months later, I borrowed a book by the poet José Coronel Urtecho filled with his playful poetry. His “Ode to Mombacho” made me laugh with the forward declaration of love for the volcano, his hangar in the clouds.

Nappy hill
Eunuch volcano
Castrated ox
Big-bellied God
Get up! Fat, lazy hill!

In 2017 I visited Granada more than twelve times. After Managua, it was the second city that I visited in Nicaragua. I had heard about its little houses with colorful walls. Its roofs made of terracotta tiles. Its streets filled with backpackers and retired foreigners turned neighbors. The city —now battling it out with León for the title of the most popular destination in the country— on the shores of the lake and under the shadow of Mombacho.

Everyone talked about her beauty. I went and fell in love with her and with her bakeries that called to me from the sidewalk with their delicious and warm aroma as I walked through La Calzada, her main street. The restaurants in interior patios, with the little tables around the fountains, the constant sound of water.

Months later I went back seven days in a row to visit my dog. The pup of the house, Thor, had been run over and his veterinarian in Managua sent him to a specialist in Granada. The doctor immobilized and kept him for a week. We had to wait for his hip to knit back together and try to put his femurs back in place. Thanks to that veterinarian, Thor runs quickly today, like a wolf.

I went back to Granada, with my dog, every two months: to see how he was walking, to probe him, to take a couple of x-rays, and to assure me that this run-over puppy would grow without further problems. I went back to Granada, without my dog, other times. There were restaurants to discover. Beautiful hotels. In the Granada Poetry Festival, I listened to poems in six languages and I saw Ernesto Cardenal recite excerpts from his most recent book.

Until I could not go back again. A revolution gives way to emergencies. The highway was closed because of the protests. Masaya was full of barricades and Granada is hidden behind it. You have to cross or go around Masaya and its surrounding villages to get there.

One month into the crisis, in May, I wrote to the veterinarian. Thor had a check-up and I wanted to see if there was any way he could come to Managua to see him. He told me then that he was no longer under the shadow of Mombacho. He had moved to the foot of the volcano Imbabura, in northern Ecuador. After denying it for a long time —when his veterinary was full of clients and nothing was happening in Nicaragua— he ended up accepting that far-away job in a matter of weeks: in Granada there were no more routines or clients. It was the best thing for his family.

He left, he told me, because Granada had become a ghost town.

I knew it. I saw the photographs in the newspapers. The reports on the tv showed that those narrow alleyways where you had to squeeze to get by were empty. I read the news on social media. I learned about it from the warnings on social media: that bakery, that restaurant that I liked so much, had closed.

Phantom Granada. I had seen it full during the Poetry Festival. So many people on the streets between December 31 and January 1. We walked around happy, feeling the breeze from the lake.

The veterinary had been left without clients. The routine check-ups of the pets of the retired foreigners were what paid the bills. Those that had moved to a beautiful and cheap city and brought their dogs and their cats there for vaccines. Until they came to request exit documents. They returned to their countries. They brought their pets with them. They didn’t come back.

In that Granada in which I rang in 2018 little was left four months later. Town hall had been burned. The restaurants I visited were closed. Of the people I knew, many had left. Just Costa Rica, in September, had received twenty-three thousand asylum requests from Nicaraguans, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In July, when I left the country for six weeks, the plane was almost empty. We were no more than twelve passengers.

In Managua, Thor still goes to his usual veterinarian. The one who gives him vaccines. The one who checks his ears. The veterinarian who is from León.

We lost him during the most difficult days of the rebellion. Each morning, Monday to Saturday, Thor’s veterinarian leaves his house in León and travels the ninety kilometers to his job in Managua. In May, the day my dog was due for his rabies vaccine, I saw three fleeing families march through the office. They were foreigners, they were looking for cages to transport their dogs and cats on the plane. They wanted to know how long it would take to get the exit permission for their pets. One of them, a tall, paunchy, bald man was upset because his cat didn’t have the required chip to get the passport. When I entered the office, the doctor told me it had been like this for two weeks. And that they had run out of chips. Those who could leave Nicaragua easier than anyone else were experiencing the drama of the chips scarcity: without their pets, they wouldn’t leave a country in which they no longer wanted to live. I asked him what requirements Thor would need to fulfil to leave Nicaragua. I didn’t have plans to leave the country. But I also didn’t want, if it were to come to that, to leave the country without my dog. Until one day León declared itself on strike; they put up barricades and no one could leave. For two weeks, the veterinarian didn’t go to work.

One day at the end of July, as he adjusts the gloves on his long and delicate hands, Thor’s doctor smiles and asks my dog: “how’s my little vandal?” Vandal, tiny, puchito… that’s what the vice-president —the first lady— Rosario Murillo, calls the rebels. The citizens that ask, on the streets, for the repression to end, the government to resign, elections with clear rules on the streets. The Nicas, humorously, emptied those words of offense and filled them with complicity until they became terms of endearment. Thor wags his tail, climbs onto the scale, allows himself to be held to lift his twenty-two kilos onto the exam table and the veterinarian gives him his vaccine while he tells me about the days he was shut in his city. The barricade that his neighbors put up. They didn’t let any stranger through to protect the young university students who had been accused by Rosario Murillo of being golpista vandals.

The tragedies that become quotidian. The mothers who cry over their children in the city. The death of an altar boy in the León cathedral, a teenager who was hit by a sniper’s shot while he was behind a barricade. The boys and girls of the neighborhood wearing balaclavas, as if they were criminals. The shame of some, frustrated and angry at having to hide their faces.

León is a reincarnated city. The conquistador of Nicaragua, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, founded it in 1524, next to Lake Xolotlán and facing Momotombo. The eruptions of the volcano, an earthquake, the murder of a bishop, and the cruelty of a regent led the settlers to believe that the city was cursed, and they moved it in 1610 to where it is now located. León was the center of power: the head of the province of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There they signed, in 1821, the Costa Rica and Nicaragua Independence Act from the Spanish monarchy. And it was the capital of Nicaragua for many years, taking turns with Granada until they chose Managua, between the two, as the capital in the middle of the nineteenth century.

In León, Rubén Darío died. In León, he published, in 1919, “I wrote my first lines and I dreamed and I suffered my first loves.” From León, most of the excursions to the volcanoes of the Maribios range leave. You had to get there, to the university city, to then surf the slopes of Cerro Negro or camp in the crater of Telica.

The most recent news I’ve had from León, as I finished writing this text, were about the Gritería Chiquita, the August 15th celebration. While the paramilitary forces and Ortega’s police monitor the country and search for those who participated in the marches or roadblocks, the city’s devoted señoras put together their altars to the Virgin Mary to celebrate the fiesta that a Catholic priest promised them if the ashes from Cerro Negro stopped falling on the city. They call it the Gritería Chiquita. It consists in offering candy to those who visit the altars and singing songs for the Virgin Mary while fireworks shine and blare in the streets. It is a smaller version of the same —much older— celebration that takes place in December.

I observed a detail in common among the photographs of the various altars that I found. The virgins were placed on cinderblocks and blue and white flags. Suddenly, in León, they have invented a new order: Our Lady of the Roadblock.

Translated by Sarah Booker
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

José Coronel Urtecho's poem "Ode to Mombacho" was translated by Mark Anderson and published in Disaster Writing: The Cultural Politics of Catastrophe in Latin America.


Ida Vitale in LALT
Number 12

In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Ida Vitale

Dossier: Julio Ramón Ribeyro





Brazilian Literature


Indigenous Literature

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene