Week 18: Two Uncomfortable Nights in Matagalpa
[Need to catch up on my previous stories from Nicaragua? Start with this short primer on the country, then read about my intrepid decision to visit. Jump from there to learn about the three life perspectives I gained during my week in the country, and you’ll finally be caught up after reading about school life in the rural campo. Now, on with the show!]
One way I convinced myself to be brave enough to visit Nicaragua now, this year, was through considering the unique opportunity I had to do so with someone who truly knows the country. My friend, Kristin, after having lived in the country for several years, knew Nicaragua better than anyone I would expect to know in my life. She had friends, she had coworkers. She randomly runs into people on the street who she knows well enough to greet with a hug. She knows the local customs, quirks, and shortcuts. And she’s fluent in Spanish.
All things I cannot say for myself.
When she told me if I were brave enough to visit, she could make it where I would be comfortable, I believed her. I knew this may be my best chance to go for it.
The advantage of being in Nicaragua with a friend, not just as a member of a group there to learn and volunteer, first came into play in Matagalpa, a working-class city in the mountains. This city, with a population about the size of Kansas City, KS, has served as Kristin’s home and headquarters for much of her time in Nicaragua. Matagalpa is about a 2.5-hour drive north from the capital city of Managua, but only about 45 minutes from the small communities and schools where Project Alianza works. It has all the standard living necessities a person would need and is more affordable than the tourist cities of Granada and León.
Our group leaders from Project Alianza arranged for us to spend two nights in Matagalpa, the one time during the trip we were in the same place two nights in a row. They made that decision for all the same reasons a person would choose to live there while working in the area, but also for a couple other reasons: one, if any group members had a really difficult time staying in the rustic cabins at the ecolodge in La Fundadora, the hostel in Matagalpa would be a step up. And two, if a visitor needed medical or pharmaceutical help—a common need for foreigners who inadvertently consume some local water and bacteria—Matagalpa offered better access and resources.
I looked forward to our two nights in Matagalpa because Kristin (making the best of those in-country connections) was house-sitting for a friend who rents a home in the city, and I got to stay there with her instead of in the hostel. Of all our accommodations, I’d been most anxious about the rustic night in the mountain cabins because it was the furthest step outside my comfort zone... on paper. In my personal pep talk, I told myself I could handle anything for one night, because the promise of a private home in Matagalpa awaited us. Kristin accurately described this home as “gringa living”: a nice home in the city that was up to foreigners’ standards… and also not affordable for most local people.
What I didn’t recognize was that separating from the group also had its disadvantages.
A Navigational Challenge
When I last mentioned Matagalpa in my post on the three slices of life I encountered while in Nicaragua, I noted how entering the city was an assault on the senses after spending a couple days in the mountain campo. Exhaust from old vehicles in disrepair made it unpleasant to breathe. Horns honked constantly as drivers motored through a city with few stoplights and optional stop signs. Milk-delivery trucks announced their presence over loudspeaker to reach people who couldn’t read what was written on the side of their truck.
While my ears and nose took in the cacophonous environment, my eyes didn’t pull their weight. Walking from one place to another—and not worrying about crossing traffic—I never felt I could look up and observe my surroundings because the sidewalk was so uneven and holes opened up in the path every ten feet or so. Most often, the concrete itself or the tiles on it had broken, whether from years of neglect or small earthquakes. When we went to step off the sidewalk and cross the street, we had to be particularly watchful for gaping cavities along the gutter where the metal grates had been stolen off a stormwater drain to be sold or used for scrap metal. If you stepped in one of those holes, they looked to be at least three feet deep.
Spending my time watching where I was placing my feet meant my normally good sense of direction was handicapped. Each time I raised my eyes, the area looked the same, so I felt disoriented without any memorable landmarks to navigate by.
Independent Living in Matagalpa
After our dinner at the one comedor in La Fundadora, we really felt like we were living in style by dining at a good restaurant in Matagalpa our first night in the city. A traditional, family-style Nicaraguan meal of meats, fresh cheese, plantains, and chilero, we enjoyed listening to rain showers roll through as we ate in comfort on the open-air balcony. A stop at a popular local ice-cream shop afterward made everyone feel more like tourists on the town.
Kristin and I walked the group back to their hostel after dessert, then the two of us began to make our way back to our neighborhood. Kristin wasn’t comfortable walking back through the unlit barrios between the bustling part of the city and her friend’s home (her discomfort certainly put me on alert, too), so we got a shared cab ride back to the house.
Shared cabs in Matagalpa offer a cheap rate but meandering ride. You pay a flat fee per person of 10 Cordobas, which is about $0.30. As your driver heads toward your destination, he watches for other riders who can pile in and out. So what might take 10 minutes in one straight shot could lengthen to 15 or so if the driver makes several more stops on the way and picks up a few more people.
Our home really was lovely and upscale for the area. It had a sheltered front porch, full kitchen, three bedrooms, three baths, a warm shower, and a back porch with washing machine. Even though this home was comparably upscale, it still didn’t have the convenience of hot water from the tap. To get a warm shower (not really a hot one), homes and hotels alike had electric, heated shower heads.
Two features of the home really dominated all others for me, though: like all nice homes in the area, each window was secured with iron bars on the outside. And also like the other homes in this neighborhood, the house was enclosed within tall, concrete walls topped with razor wire.
Sleeping in a place protected by razor wire has never been on my bucket list, but I guess I can check it off now.
The house—or compound, with protection like that—had two points of entry from the street: one locked gate large enough to get your car through to park inside the fortress, and one locked gate for simply walking out to the street and returning home.
While limited points of entry add security, barricades also cause some challenges for more innocent (and common) mishaps, as we experienced on our second night in Matagalpa.
That night, we had a couple of hours to rest and recharge between our afternoon activities and the group dinner at a local pizza place. Kristin and I got to the house, through the gate, to the front door, and found ourselves locked out. The key wouldn’t turn. We wiggled, jiggled, and whispered sweet nothings to it, but nothing worked. Remember that fortress-level protection? That also means that there was literally no other way into the house. No way to the back door. No way to the second floor. We couldn’t have even broken a window to crawl in if we wanted to. We were stuck on the front porch.
Two hours later, after tracking down neighbors, off-duty repairmen, and the owners of the house, the lock decided on its own it was time to give up the fight and relent.
Getting locked out of your home is not an unheard-of experience anywhere, but it was particularly frustrating for Kristin, who'd also been locked out at the street-side gate for two hours the previous week. She told me mishaps like this are commonplace: when things are going smoothly, she loves being in the country. But when life is not going smoothly—like with broken locks, scorpion infestations, or incurable car trouble—it's really hard to keep your chin up.
Add a Complicating Factor: Being Female
Nothing I've shared with you so far would have, on its own, made me truly anxious.
So let's add a variable to the equation: being female. Particularly a white, obviously not-native female.
As a woman who works in a city, I encounter street harassment on a weekly basis. Usually, it's not pleasant but not truly threatening. I generally deal with it simply: be on the alert and aware of who's around me, don't make eye contact or acknowledge it, keep walking with purpose, and the offending man will most often make his comments but nothing more.
Those rules didn't work in Matagalpa.
On our first night, walking to dinner, even walking as a group of eight people with a man in our midst, we were harassed and followed. Spewing an inebriated, uninterrupted stream of Spanish, a man walked alongside our group for two blocks without stopping. Chris, our one male, calmly called from the middle of the pack, “Uh, Kristin? Is there a good way to handle this?” Sadly, my first thought was, “Welcome to the female experience.”
Men leaned out their car windows and off the back of trucks to whistle and holler at us wherever we went. One evening, walking to a well-lit street corner to hail a cab back to the house, Kristin and I paused before crossing the street because a man ahead of us had stopped to relieve himself. While it was no means a dark alley, it wasn't a busy pedestrian street at that time of night, so I had a very keen sense that we were alone and very noticeable.
The most disconcerting moments happened on that second night, as we worked to resolve the locked-out situation.
We were still locked out as the time approached when we would need to walk to join the group for dinner. Kristin had tracked down some cousins of the owners of the house and was going to try to get their help. Speaking no Spanish myself, I could offer zero help at this point except to provide company while we sat in the dark on the front porch. Kristin insisted that I go and meet the group for dinner, and I could bring back some food for her.
My inability to be self-reliant hit me very keenly at that moment: I couldn’t get to the restaurant on my own. If I got a cab, I could show the driver a written address for the restaurant and back, but since I didn’t know the city at all, I wouldn’t be able to pay attention and see that he was taking me in the right direction. Cabs didn’t even regularly come to the neighborhood where we were staying, so the drivers’ familiarity was low. I couldn’t answer if he had questions. And I couldn’t ask for directions if I got out and lost.
So I had to wait for Niki, our other group leader, to get in a cab and come pick me up to go to dinner. I hated feeling so incapable.
On her way to collect me, Niki called Kristin to report that her driver had gone to the wrong area of town, so they were running a little late but almost there. To help look for the cab when it arrived in our neighborhood, Kristin walked down to the end of the block to watch for its approach while I stayed at the house.
Feeling silly lounging on the porch while two other women did all the work to get me to dinner, I stepped outside the gate onto the sidewalk to watch and wait myself. I could see Kristin down the road about 30 yards or so.
As I stood and watched for the cab, a man slowly trudged and stumbled his way up the street in my direction. I deployed my usual tactics: be alert but ignore him as he passes. But he didn’t pass. He stopped next to me and started speaking. I can imagine the words he was saying; they were probably along the same lines all street harassers use. On the scale of annoying to threatening, he could have fallen anywhere. Not knowing, and standing alone, made my heart pound.
I continued to try to ignore him, hoping he would just give up. After a few seconds, Kristin saw what was happening, and started to run toward me, yelling, “Señor, NO! NO, Señor!” It got his attention, and he mumbled and started to back off. It wasn’t until she got right up to us, still yelling at him, that he continued to amble up the street.
She said she was worried he was going to touch me, and her running and yelling was as much to draw attention from others on the street as it was to get him to back off.
I went to dinner with the group, Kristin came to collect me, and it wasn’t until we were safely back inside the house that I felt the tension in my body begin to release. I had trouble sleeping that night because of the adrenaline pumping through my veins (not to mention the sounds of a dog fight on the streets outside).
I’m independent. I rely on myself. I have a good sense of direction and enjoy using good old-fashioned paper maps. I stand up for myself. I regularly travel alone and enjoy it. I’ve been single for a long time and am used to taking care of everything on my own.
But the intensity of the experience on the streets of Matagalpa made me feel truly vulnerable, and I can’t remember the last time I felt that way. It’s not a feeling I want to repeat anytime soon, either.
I won’t judge the whole city on two nights’ negative experience, especially because a couple people I met talked about how much they enjoy the city. I didn’t miss it when we left, though, and it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to revisit if and when I return to Nicaragua.