Aghast in Achuapa

When 200 R ONE received its first official invitation to attend a festival in the backwaters of Nicaragua we didn’t know what to expect, but we certainly didn’t expect this.

In hindsight we should have noticed that the festival was going to be completely different from what we expected much earlier than we did. We could have figured it out when we asked the organizers if we could park our grafittied 200 R ONE car on the event grounds.

That’s a really beautiful car. Jean Pierre Rosales did that, right?
Yeah! He invited us here.
Fantastic! But it’s not a good idea. We don’t know what it’s going to be like later. It’s probably better you park it somewhere else. Park it far away.

But we didn’t notice. Perhaps a bit stupid, but then everything is obvious in hindsight. At the time we were mesmerized by the beautiful countryside, committed to our getaway from the interwebs and had already caught the festival bug. So we shrugged our shoulders, did as the organizers told us, and – as the festival had not yet begun – wandered into town to look for coffee and food.

Which were surprisingly hard to find. This wasn’t some tourist town. There were few foreigners here. Look up ‘Achuapa’ on Wikipedia and all you get is, ‘San Jose de Achuapa is a municipality in the Leon department of Nicaragua.’ They could have just written ‘mostly harmless’. It would have been more concise. So, instead of food and coffee we found grandfathers in cowboy hats, children going to market on horseback and people sitting around watching life roll by. What we found was a town surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside we’d seen in our time in Nicaragua, with green tree-shrouded hills rolling away in all directions.

What we found was people living a life we’d only ever seen in movies. They watched us, we watched them. They were by far the more patient. A forgone conclusion, really. You learn patience in a place like this. Or maybe it’s that you’re infected with impatience in other areas, with the rush-rush culture, their ‘now’ mentality and the idea that time can be earned, spent and wasted. These people didn’t think like that. Most of the world doesn’t think like that. As we walked through that town, we realized that we were the weird ones. As we watched the children play, the old men joke and the women gossip we wondered, why do people in these places work so hard to be more like us? We marveled and shook our heads, as we sat down at the one bar in town, to eat, drink and lounge. A little later our friend Jean Pierre made it a little clearer why so many people want what we have.

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This is the poorest region in Nicaragua. The entire economy is dependent on farming. And that’s not very profitable when you don’t have modern techniques. There is no tourism. The only foreigners here are the volunteers, the artists and you. We’re trying to change that. We’re trying to build an alternative economy, boost tourism. The region is beautiful enough for it. But it’s hard. And there’s a long way to go. Fifty-eight percent of the people that live here live off less than a dollar day.

We looked at the table, at the food, the empty beer bottles and the waiter bringing us our next round. We’d marveled at how cheap it had been. Now we realized the meal alone would have cost these people six days in wages. The extra beers put an hour’s pleasure at more than a week’s work. That was obviously out of their reach. This entire bar was out of reach. The last round – another hard week of backbreaking labor – was mostly drunk in subdued silence. Finally we ask Jean Pierre what was going on at the festival.

A fashion show.
Great! What kind of fashion show?
I don’t know, it’s not organized by us.
Are there horses?
Yes, there are horses.
That should be fun!

His expression didn’t offer much support to that statement. But we remained conveniently oblivious to this sign as well and made our way back to the festival. Initially our conversation turned around the topic of poverty, but – as is often the way with statistics and their lack of an emotional anchor – our conversation floated away, drawn onwards by the topics of the town, hills and pretty young girls on horseback that were suddenly everywhere. This was, after all, meant to be a getaway and, as many a partying backpackers can confirm, you can ignore a lot of misery when you’ve dedicated yourself to pleasure.

As evening approached we find ourselves back upon the road to the festival when a chance glance over a shoulder caught the oncoming tide of hundreds on horseback. At the front rode the beauty pageant contestants. They’re doing the pageant on horseback, we told each other, as if competing for the title of Captain Obvious. Only after they’d passed did somebody remark, weren’t they kind of young?

But this third sign was ignored as well.

The festival was no longer just a few souls scattered about the town’s baseball stadium. From everywhere people had come, to watch the horses and the girls that rode them. The food stalls were in full swing, frying up the many local dishes, all of which were some variation of the central theme of pork, rice and beans. We joined the people in the bleachers as the horse show came to an end.

They couldn’t have been much more than fifteen, we murmured, as the girls retreated out of sight. A cowboy with a receding hairline and a gap tooth smile overheard us and leant in closer. Of course fifteen! First kid at sixteen! He made a popping sound. After they lose shape! He painted an oval in the air with two index fingers then laughed uproariously. We weren’t sure if we were the butt of his joke, or the girls were. Wordlessly a girl of maybe seventeen summers provided the answer: She had a baby on each arm.

Another sign of what is to come. This one we couldn’t ignore. This one was a sledgehammer between the eyes. Dazed, we looked around. The evening had grown deeper, the crowd thicker and the pageant more sinister. In a loud voice a man announced the start of the show, as he was followed onto the stage by girls in frilly dresses. Where before their age had been suspect, now it was criminally clear. There were no curves under those dressed, only lines. What the hell was going on here?

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The men knew. They nudged each other, deserted the stands and crowded the stage. The girls introduced themselves, their voices forced down towards a woman’s sultry tones – but they were just little girl’s voices and they were as suited to the art of seduction as men forced into woman’s dresses. Or at least that’s what we thought. The townsfolk’s expressions told a different story. We snapped some pictures, as we felt that this needed to documented, but we couldn’t do it for long.

I can’t even take the pictures. Even that feels wrong!

One of the artists standing around, with his face schooled to neutrality, explained that the music would start at six. As that was close at hand, we tried to stick it out. Six, then seven rolled by. The pageant ran from low to low. Finally a girl not yet eight was brought out onto the stage to undertone-filled cheers. We retreated.

We discovered we were not the only ones who’d had enough. A nearby bar was packed with artists. Similarly disgusted – both by the pageant and how far it had overrun – they’d gathered there to play to each other and discuss what the event has come to. Soon we found ourselves gathered around listening to the ex-hermit, life-long revolutionary socialist Paul Baker Hernández. The festival, he explained, started in the name of socialism, intent on spreading the revolution, intend on changing the world one region at a time.

I was there, at the beginning, when it started 15 years ago.

Well, one of us quipped, that makes the festival older than most of the girls on stage.
Nobody laughed. That remark cut slightly too close to the bone. Instead we asked what had happened to make it what it was today. It is the man at the next table who answered, leaning in and taking over with the experience of a lifetime of bar room intrusions.

It’s like this, he explained, revolution and radicalism aren’t a poor man’s game. Look back to famous movements and you find that their biggest supporters, the biggest believers were almost all middle class. And that’s not so strange, when you think about it. They have time to get the education, they have the time to think, they have time to reject the system they’re raised in. When you’re poor, you spend your time worrying about your next meal. It’s only when your belly’s full that worry about what’s right and wrong. These people are poor. Socialism won’t draw them. A beauty pageant will.

And so they sell their daughters?

They’re not selling their daughters. They’re trying to give them a good life! They’re trying to make them the belle of the ball! It’s all so easy for you, with your high-handed morals, that wad of bills in your pocket and the ability to go home, to your air-condition condominium, where you can tell the security guard to keep the riff raff out. These people don’t have that choice. They don’t have the education, they don’t have the money and they don’t have anywhere else to go! They’re simply trying to make the best of a bad situation.

So you’re alright with this?

Of course not! There’s nothing alright about old men leering at teenage girls! He leant back, rubbed at his face, drained his beer. Look, I’m not trying to excuse what they’re doing. I’m simply trying to explain it. These people don’t have the opportunities and the west has played its role in that. Nor do they get to see other places and other ways of living. They just live their lives, which are almost identical, by the way, to how we lived, maybe a hundred years ago.

We changed!

Of the back of others, he sneered. His expression mellowed. Look, the truth is, these people can too, if we help them. What won’t help them, however, is you judging them from your high horse and then getting in your car tomorrow morning and driving away, to tell this as a ‘did you know’ anecdote at you next cocktail party. That doesn’t help anybody.

We studied him, annoyed by his tone, more annoyed that we had no retort. He looked back at us, sagged in his chair, slightly frumpy, a dozen beer bottles scattered around him, but his eyes still flinty. Finally we asked, and what will help them? He leaned forward, a wayward arm knocked over several bottles. He ignored the clatter of glass.

All you have to do is tell the world about this place – tell them about this beautiful region, where the grass is green, the hills rolling, and the people poor. And above all tell them how there is an alternative, how people are trying to create different choices for these people who are trying to scratch out a meagre existence from the soil. That alternative is eco-tourism. All you have to do is make people aware of this place and its opportunities and you can change lives – of those girls and of everybody in these valleys! You’re reporters, right? So write about this place! That’s what you’ve got to do!

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He slapped the table in satisfaction, then rose and tottered away, before we could tell him we weren’t, in fact, reports at all. We sat in silence as we contemplate his words. A few beers later we decided we might not be reports, but we could report. After all, aren’t we about equality? Don’t we have a platform? Don’t we have a base of motivated caring people who can get the message out? We grabbed a notebook and put pen to paper. In longhand the first words appeared. In hindsight we should have noticed that the festival was going to be completely different…