I’m returning after falling off the blog-wagon again. Yes, it’s been a couple of months. I was back in San Diego and then New York for a bit but I have returned to Central America and I am posting from Nicaragua after a really unique learning event of a day. This isn’t a normal photo-rich gallery but I had a really thought provoking experience today and I wanted to share.
The punch line first – I was guided for an hour by a man who was shot in the head, through the back of his jaw and out the other side of his cheek fighting in a battle to free his country from the aggressive rule of a dictator in the 1970’s. He let me see the scars and feel his skin where you can feel the cheek bone has never fully regrown and there is a hole underneath.
I certainly didn’t expect this when I entered the worn faced colonial building which houses the Museo De La Revolucion leon Museum in Leon, Nicaragua. Briefly, Leon is a colonial city in Nicaragua full of classic, colorful colonial buildings that I have come to know and love in Central America. Some of them are crumbling, some of them restored, many of them with those great looking doors that make for artsy travel photos suitable for just about any place you could hang a photo. Of course Leon has the traditions Parque Central which faces the Cathedral and is flanked by historical government buildings. The Spanish left this structure as the core legacy of their imperialism and Leon is a nice example of this style.
In Leon as with this style of city the centro is the modern touristic hub and as such I was simply in the centro and saw the Muse0 (housed inside one of the historic government buildings) and decided to go in without reading about it. Hence my lack of understanding that this museum is not self-guided. It’s not a museum that you can just walk through and evaluate the contents on your own accord or at your own pace. When you pay your admission you are introduced to your guide and the next hour you are immersed in the history of the revolution of Nicaragua (which is effectively the history of the country since 1920 or so but as the tour moves the most intense barrage of information shapes the 1970’s and 1980’s).
As it turns out all of the guides are actual veterans of the war which the Nicaraguans participated in to first overthrow a brutal dictator. They aren’t docents who have read up on their subject material. They lived it. In addition the subject material didn’t take place in some distant land or some distant past but it happened not to long ago on the streets of the town that you are standing in. In fact, in the square where the museum is located (although for what it’s unimportantly worth the building itself wasn’t really a critical location in the armed struggle). The tour is basically a room with several sequential walls of numbered photographic posters. Your guide starts at number one and explains each of them in his own details. It’s entirely in Spanish and I was really happy that I was able to understand I would say 85% of the very detailed information he was giving me. It’s definitely not something that would work for a person without a pretty extensive listening fluency in Spanish and there are no English speaking guides.
The first wall is dedicated to the 1920’s until the the mid 1950’s which is the period where Nicaragua was unifying underneath a group of leaders to gain independence as a country and so this was sort of background and the guide didn’t mention his involvement. It was interesting but it was just like a distant history lesson.
Things all changed when we reached the next wall where the pictures began to show the oppression under the dictator and the beginnings of protests in the streets which quickly moved into pictures of citizens with arms taking up positions against tanks and soldiers in uniforms and this is the point where he told me about getting shot through the head and in 30 seconds my attention snapped from being passively reading a history book to being brought into the reality that I was talking with a guy who lived through this revolution – not only lived through it but really truly “Lived through it” (as in ‘some died, but I lived through it’). It’s pretty incredible how much changes when you are confronted with a first person representation of a piece of history.
It was pretty incredible to see the pride in this man’s explanation of how his fellow countrymen were able to defeat a dictator who came to the table with all of the cash and all of the equipment. In the first group of pictures there were tanks and a well armed army more or less rampaging over the citizens trying to maintain the order. Sequentially the pictures started to show more and more of the rebels with weapons of all sorts fighting back. I asked him where the weapons came from (this was before the US started pumping money into the country – I knew that the pictures I was looking at were those of the opposition and the guns weren’t coming from us). He told me “You would start with a pistol and kill a soldier, then you would grab his weapon whatever it was and use it to kill more soldiers and continue to grab more guns”.
In addition to getting shot through the head he helped to destroy several tanks using malitov cocktails. There is a painted graphic on the wall of the museum. It’s clearly a coke bottle – I asked “Coca-Cola?” he said – “Yes, the best Malitovs are made from them”.
Another surprise in the museum – women were armed combatants who fought side by side with the men and saw equal amounts of action. There were some seriously stirring photos of women decked out with big machine guns on the firing line.
Not to go to much further but it was a radically interesting contrast to when I went to Bosnia and met the young woman who had been a little girl in bombing raids where Bosnia was brutally held down. That girl had been a survivor but there was little pride in surviving a genocide. The man I met today couldn’t have been more proud of the actions that his people took and while Nicargua is still an incredibly poor country and most certainly my tour guide was among the poor who live there, something about standing up and being on the winning side of the story seemed to give him everything he needed to be extremely enthusiastic in holding his country’s flag and telling his story in that museum.
I’ll close it out with this – meeting this guy and seeing these pictures of he and his countrymen actually fighting in the streets again a dictator who literally sent tanks and soldiers to stop their initially peaceful protests left me with a greater feeling of disgust than normal with all of the rhetoric going on in our country about how dangerous life is and how we’re at war in our country, how we have to keep people out and how we have to arm ourselves to the teeth against this supposed war which doesn’t actually exist. It’s worth taking a look back into the history of actual conflicts around the rest of the world and seeing how people acted and how it took shape before running around screaming fire.
I’ll put the soapbox down for now. We’re extremely lucky and making up fears to scare us into feeling unlucky is a pretty low bar to live by.