Tidbits of Nicaragua's history were evident in nearly every turn during a day trip to the city of Leon. The country's original capital, it is now home to universities, commerce and striking architecture. Though it is far from touristy.
Instead of opting for a museum on contemporary art, we chose a less traditional destination which turned out to be the saddest and weirdest part of the day when we went to the Museum of Legends and Traditions or Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas. The subject though was timely since the week prior, my conversation classes were about duendes, or trolls. I learned that duendes are not considered just a myth here. In fact, they are frequently sited here, even just last week, if you're to believe local TV news reports.
The most striking thing in this eclectic museum is that it does not tell tales of myths but of many truths. The museum was a prison during the Somoza dictatorship where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and killed. Visitors are sent through a range of emotions: one minute we are looking at the locally made gigatonas (larger than life puppets seen in parades and pictured below) only the next to be distracted by what used to be prison bathrooms.
Another must-see site and one of the highlights of the day was a trip to the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion, the largest church in Central America. The view from the roof was beautiful: volcanoes in the distance juxtapose colonial and more modern architecture.
One of the many activities at La Mariposa is a weekly history lesson. During last week's discussion about the Revolution a photo of Oliver North popped up in the powerpoint presentation. For the Americans present we knew who it was immediately but the professor giving the presentation momentarily forgot North's name. Who could blame him? Oliver North is small potatoes compared to the most famous American around here, William Walker. Walker is so famous in Central America that Costa Rica has a celebration in his name. They celebrate his death.
I either forgot or was not taught about this peculiar bit of American history. But our tour in Leon gave me the highlights: In the 1850's, American business interests were intent on taking over Nicaragua and Walker was their man to establish an expedited route for shipping gold from California to New York. William Walker promoted these efforts by making himself the president of Nicaragua, instilling English as the national language and reinstating slavery. Long story short, he was booted out of Nicaragua and later assassinated in Honduras.
The trip to Leon was a fascinating history lesson. And not only to learn about colonialism and revolutions. One of Nicaragua's most famous poets, Ruben Dario, is revered here and while poetry is normally not my go-to art form reading his works (here for example: http://www.dariana.com/R_Dario_poems.html) provided a new cultural lens to help understand this part of the world.