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David Holub

Pan flute, drug dealers, and street dogs: My questions for Nicaragua

Ar 171129902
David Holub/DGO

A dog hangs out in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.
Ar 171129902
David Holub/DGO

A dog hangs out in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

I recently returned from Nicaragua, a lively third world country where the landscape was awing, the poverty was everywhere and heartbreaking, and the birds were exotic (some, like the 6-inch tall pygmy owl we saw, looked liked mythical children’s drawings brought to life). We bookended in Managua, the country’s capital and largest city, but stayed the bulk of our days two hours south in San Juan del Sur, an ocean-side city similar in size to Durango. Partly because of language barriers, I returned with a host of questions. Here are some:

At a restaurant, a junk bird (probably a grackle) stops by a nearby table, puts a ketchup packet in its beak and flies away. A waiter who sees that we all saw the same event unfold, stops at our table and says, “That’s for the potatoes,” and then gives a sly chuckle as he walks away. If he’s this funny in English, how funny is he in Spanish?

To the horseback-ridden horse that emptied all of its bowels into the ocean right in front of us, is this a regular habit for you? Do all of the horses do this every time they have to go right where those kids are swimming?

A dog trots down a street in town carrying a very full grocery bag in its mouth. Was it running errands?

At every restaurant without exception, all the cooks are women, and all the servers are men, the opposite of what we often find in the U.S. Why is this the case in both countries?

Of the many dogs roaming the streets, a select few wore muzzles. Were these for past transgressions? Were these dogs under the equivalent of house arrest? And was the muzzled dog that resorted to kicking the non-muzzled dog he was tussling with an aggressive bully or simply misunderstood?

Nearly every time I paid for a meal, I had a hard time asking for checks. Instead of saying something direct and clear, like “We are done eating, can we have the check?” I would say things like “We’re all set,” or “I think we’re ready,” or “We’re good,” or “That’ll do it.” How did I not understand how vague and colloquial my language is when it comes to this act, and how could I never quite figure out how to fix it the whole time?

At what was possibly the fanciest restaurant in Granada, I noticed the waiter would always serve me on my right side, even though it wasn’t exactly convenient for him. The best thing though: When he poured a bottled beer into my glass, he used the lip on the bottle to pull my glass forward to pour it smoothly, never touching the glass with his hands at all. When is this technique going to be adopted here?

At the same restaurant, the music was exclusively hits from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and today, but all played on saxophone or pan flute. Is this what they think North American tourists like?

To whom did all the cows, horses, and pigs tethered on the side of the highways belong, the skinniest livestock I’ve ever seen, like someone found a skeleton of a cow and stretched a hide over it?

Why is so much Spanish-language music sung so passionately, like this is the last song they’re ever going to sing?

There were many people peddling goods around town, things like sunglasses, jewelery, or tchotchkes. They’d always ask if you wanted to buy the thing they were showcasing, and if you declined, every once in a while they’d say in a hushed voice, “Weed? Blow?” It made us wonder, “Are the peddlers simply using sunglasses, etc., as a front to sell drugs to tourists?

In the city of Granada on our ride back to Managua, we ducked into an art gallery and ended up loving a painting so much we bought it. Like most establishments in Granada, the shop had no signs, inside or out. Later, when the credit card charges came through online, turns out the gallery was called Studio and Art Gallery. I had to wonder: Does Studio & have a Nicaraguan presence?