A History Lesson in Three Dimensions

I liked the city of Leon instantly. The former capital of Nicaragua is a college town in a colonial setting, full of youthful energy, and home to a sophisticated art and music scene. That Leon was a stronghold for the Sandinista rebellion and is permeated by a revolutionary spirit is evident walking the narrow streets between its elaborately painted murals.

leon basketball courtMy first day in Leon I strike out into the city after a morning session with TOTALe, equipped with just a compass and a camera. Leon is a young and vibrant city flooded with students, covered in art, and I intend to get lost in it. There was a time when I would have been nervous navigating a new city, but now that I can communicate with the Spanish-speaking locals I don’t even bother bringing a map.

I ask the clerk at the hostel how to get to the central park—colonial cities like Leon are always built around a church and the adjacent parque central. Figure out how to get home from there and you’ll never have to worry about finding your way from any place in town. Just about anyone will be happy to tell you how to find the main plaza.

leon cathedral 25I locate the city center and, adjacent to the main square, Leon’s most famous and possibly most ambitious mural spanning the two long walls of a memorial park. The painting is a visual narrative, a timeline of images representing Nicaragua’s tumultuous history.

While taking photos of the mural I’m approached by a woman who asks if I know of the story it tells. Her name is Marta and she identifies herself as a tour guide for the city of Leon.

I might have been skeptical of her overtly friendly nature and self-applied title, but I recall visiting a very old church in Guatemala where an elderly guatemalteco invited me into his nearby home for an animated retelling of the legend associated with it. For history buffs who might have become writers or professors in another context, it’s a natural choice to share their knowledge and passion in exchange for a tip from curious travelers.

leon mural 1 25I sit with Marta in the park as she explains the panoramic mural and how the various details represent key events in the history of Nicaragua, from the Mayans and conquistadors to its war-torn recent past, and beyond—the mural actually includes a vision of the future with children playing peacefully in a pastoral setting.  View my Photosynth of Leon’s Mural.

As she points to the different scenes and narrates the history, I’m reminded of my sessions with Rosetta Stone. Though Marta speaks quickly, her gestures and the corresponding images fill in the gaps in my vocabulary like puzzle pieces and result in a nearly seamless understanding of the stories she relates, without any English translation.

Marta weaves into the history her own personal story and opinions—which, in the spirit of Leon, are strong and outspoken. Her excitement and a hint of sorrow bring an honest human element to the mural, another dimension that I would not have gotten from any history book.

I thank Marta for her time and tell her that I’ll never look at the mural in the same way again.

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