It’s the height of the dry season and the city of Estelí is parched and hot. In the flat light of midday the sprawling, one-story town would appear monochrome, like a sepia-toned photo, were it not for the vivid murals above nearly every sidewalk celebrating Che Guevara and the Sandinista rebels.
I stay in Hotel Nicarao where I am doted over by three matronly women, and squawked at maliciously by their pet duck who wanders freely around the courtyard. He is clearly not fond of me and I suspect he heard my lame joke upon arrival—“¿Él es amigo o almuerzo?” I asked the ladies. Is he a friend or lunch?
Outside, cowboys swagger through the streets in dark jeans and checkered western shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons. A few ride weathered horses alongside the city traffic. Handmade leather saddles and garish belt buckles hang in the shop windows. On the sidewalks, towering piles of fruit rest on tarps and in baskets awaiting purchase.
This town is seething with activity and commerce.
I’ve come up from the city of León and through the mountain town of Matagalpa before the climb back down to this wide, flat valley. After straying from the more frequently touristed coastal towns, I haven’t spoken English in days. I’m enjoying having left it behind.
My guidebook entry and map for the town is riddled with inaccuracies. After walking around in one too many circles my first morning, I give up on it and realize that I’ll be navigating exclusively with my Spanish here—a prospect that no longer worries me.
My morning sessions with Rosetta Stone have become less frequent north of León. As I speak more Spanish and less English, I rely less on the daily lessons to prime my Spanish. My newfound vocabulary seems to be seeping from the machinery in my brain that calculates foreign-language replies and into the reservoir of natural response. It’s a great feeling, beginning to speak a foreign language without thinking first . . . like I’ve cracked a code.
I celebrate with a posh dinner at one of Estelí’s nicest restaurants, Pullasos Ole. It’s a drastic departure from the comedores I’ve been frequenting that serve gallo pinto—the national dish of fried rice and beans—three times a day.
There’s also a brief refrain from the horns, guitar, and accordion of ranchera music that so commonly accompany the plastic chairs, corn tortillas, and gallo pinto—though it’s an unfortunate one. I’m finding that many Nicaragüenses have an affection for sappy 80s rock ballads. This particular venue has decided to play Air Supply’s 1980 hit single “Every Woman in the World” on repeat.
After twenty minutes of the schmaltzy crescendoing chorus, I realize that there’s no end in sight, and I joke with my waiter about it. He laughs nervously, asking if I want him to change the music. “No importa,” I tell him. I’m actually sort of curious to see exactly how long it will last.
After an hour of quietly laughing to myself while the waiter eyes me suspiciously, the same song is still playing. As I pay my bill and bid him farewell I mention with a smirk, “Todavía la misma canción . . .” Still the same song. He finally smiles as if he’s beginning to realize that maybe listening to the same Air Supply song for an entire shift is just a little strange. I count it as a major cultural victory.