Until I spent time in Nicaragua, I didn’t believe that a tranquility like San Miguelito’s could be found in a town with more than one street. But here was a town like a forest, where life happens day in and day out, but without dramatic fluctuation. People farm, their fields behind the line of trees shading the gently rolling road that brings you to town. They fish, poling wooden canoes and flat bottomed boats out across the shimmering fresh water of the lake. And they live sano, just as they’ll tell you. In the cool of evening the town is out to greet and converse, to stroll or sit in the plaza square for a cigarette.
Always there is the backdrop of the great freshwater lake, called Cocibolca (sweet water) in the indigenous tongue and Lago de Nicaragua in Spanish. On clear days the twin volcanoes of the island of Ometepe; steep Concepción and low sloping Maderas, loom in the distance. The idealism and the lake attract some travelers, and the wetlands some bird enthusiasts in the know. The wetlands are internationally recognized, and allegedly protected, by a Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. But it remains through fishing, and not tourism, that the San Miguelito wetlands provide for the town’s economy.
For the most part the world has been passing San Miguelito by, much as it has with Nicaragua as a whole. A Chinese interoceanic canal project however has thrust Nicaragua back onto the world stage, and with it dragged Little Saint Michael and its wetlands out of their backwater and into the eddies, if still not quite the mainstream. When first drawn, the canal headed straight for San Miguelito and the Piedra river, which meets the lake nearby. The route however was suddenly diverted south; a pen stroke on the map, and a brief but unsubstantial announcement by a government spokesman. The change was ostensibly made to avoid the protected wetlands, but some said it was actually the bordering communities of El Tule, where local opposition was growing in both ferocity and public profile, that was being dodged. Still, the canal will change San Miguelito one way or another, as it will all communities along the lake. Maybe, anyways, depending on who you talk to and what they last heard.
San Miguelito is a microcosm for Nicaragua in ways outside of the canal as well. There are the houses; old and at times crumbling, where double doors with chipped paint open up to interior worlds of patios and living rooms shaded from the heat of the day. It is the same crumbling style being bought on the far side of the lake, in Granada, for ever-rising prices by North American and European retirees. Here hammocks swing in doorways and on porches. Around the center of town, every house is also a vendor, even if they only sell a single item-scrawled or painted next to doorways are signs of se vende (for sale) ice cream, tamales or stationary.
There is the scrawled propaganda. Black and red stripes on light posts read “Let’s Stay with Daniel Ortega” and on the bridge into town the same message is spelled out in the happy pink of El Comandante’s attempt at a public image facelift. On a wall in the central park is fresher pink paint: “My Nicaragua, blessed with the Great Canal.”
Most of all there is the sense of community on display every evening. As dusk falls the houses spill into the streets. Chairs are moved from the living room out to the sidewalk and the sitting converse with those strolling by. Watching this never ceases to charm, and so every evening I joined the ranks of the strolling, though no one ever greeted me. One evening I sit in the lobby of my hotel, where big double doors open out onto the main plaza and the lake below, chatting with the receptionist. It was a very pleasant place to sit, with the breeze drifting in and out, and we were both engaged in the conversation. My companion however was continually glancing out the doors, until finally he suggested “wouldn’t you rather move the chairs outside?” I said of course and we did so, carrying our chairs across the street to sit in the plaza. He became visibly more relaxed. We sent a young boy off, to where I don’t know, to change forty dollars for me, and I didn’t think about it again until he came back with a fistful of the pale-colored cordoba bills.
This communal shift to the street every evening takes place all across the Pacific side of the country, with stubborn efforts persisting even on the side of Managua’s busy and dusty highways. One night, the husband of the woman who runs the hotel and his friend took me up to a high point called La Barrera on their dirt bikes. I’d mentioned wanting to go, and they refused to let me walk. La Barrera turns out to be a government housing project, with a million dollar view of the lake at sunset. Ometepe loomed off to the right with its volcanoes framed against the orange sky. The hilly islands of the Solentiname archipelago, a national monument, showed as hazy mounds to the left.
The husband points out where the big ships will pass by – south of the archipelago. When he talks about the canal every thought is punctuated with uncertainty. “Asi lo dicen” he says repeatedly, raising his hands. That’s what they say. But there is a note of wonder in his voice as he describes the path big containers would take across the lake, and it makes me realize that there is a danger in the canal’s incompletion that I have missed, environmentally concerned as I am at the thought of it’s construction. Nicaragua is a land whose people have so many times had their hopes raised up, only to always watch the bottom fall out. In modern memory it begins with Agosto Sandino, Nicaragua’s George Washington, assassinated after his hard fought victory over the US Marines to leave General Somoza free to seize control. A burgeoning industry ended up strangled by the oligarch’s hands, along with foreign aid. Then the against-all-odds revolution, a moment of hope, only to be plunged right back into war and mistrust with the beginning of the contra war. Finally peace, and actual elections, with the Sandinistas internationally applauded for stepping peacefully out of power and the country beginning to open back up. Until the corruption of President Alemán and maybe of Bolaños, and then the latest blow, at least to many – the unconstitutional presidency of Daniel Ortega and the difficult to avoid evidence that the country is once again slipping into the hands of a dictator.
The canal might bring Nicaragua out of poverty and onto the world stage, my hosts suggest, but oh so tenuously, with their fears unspoken but palpable all the same… If it gets built right, if it doesn’t ruin our lake, if someone doesn’t take it away, if we’re not getting fooled again.
Whichever way things go, it’ll likely be out of their hands.