Our scheduled stop in Nicaragua was at Corinto, a small seaside town. The closest inland city was colonial Leon. I joined in a private tour with 8 others from my cruise critic group for an all day tour provided by Julio Tours.
The man himself, Julio, met us at the ship and soon we were settled in to his air conditioned mini bus. The drive to Leon was about an hour long so on the way Julio told us some things about his life and his country.
In 1978 he was fourteen years old and living with his mother and eleven siblings near Leon. It was the beginning of September and he was doing what lots of boys his age did - out wandering around the city and it's outskirts.
At that time the Samosas were ruling the country. It was an oppressive society and there were uprisings throughout the land and a growing guerrilla force that hid out and trained up in the mountains and jungles.
One night Julio and three of his friends were rounded up
By the Samosas and taken to jail, accused of being guerrillas. The boys vehemently denied this but to no avail. They were held for three months, until early December. During this time they were beaten, starved and for days on end placed in wooden coffins with nothing but a little
air box from which to breathe.
Once a day, a guard would open the little box door, peer inside, slap their face and pour a few drops of water into their mouth for nourishment. There was no bathing, no toileting, no talking, no eating. One of Julio's friends died.
In early December they were released and sent back to their homes. Julio's life had forever changed. On Christmas Day of that same month, in the predawn hours, there came a quiet knock at his door and Julio left his home, joined his two remaining friends and went with another group of young men and a guide, into the mountains to join the guerrilla forces. Julio hated the Samosas and everything they stood for by now and wished to fight for independence and a better future for his country. He became a Sandinista.
The years passed - he was sent to Russia for nearly a year for special training. He found the cold winters nearly unbearable but he persisted and eventually rose in ranks in his army.
By the 1990's he had married and had a young son. Being in the army all of these years he had no other skills, and he could have stayed but his son became very ill and he needed money for special medicine for him, so he took advantage of the army's offer of paying soldiers $1,000 to retire. He used that money to buy the medicine to save his son.
If anything, Julio is smart and resourceful. He went to Leon and found a job at a bank as a security guard. Soon, the owner of the bank noticed Julio and offered him a job as a bellboy at his hotel. Julio accepted and worked there until 2005. He made more money there because of the tips. He also drove guests places from time to time, when called upon by the owner of the hotel.
One day the owner of the hotel asked Julio if he could take a few guests on a three or four day tour of the country. Julio agreed. The guests were so impressed with Julio and his knowledge of the country and his good English that they told him he should have his own touring company.
And so Julio Tours was born.
Nicaragua is still a very poor country. 45% of the people have no job and live on government handouts but at an incredibly low poverty level. The economy is bad, yet the crime rate is low. The country is over 90% Catholic. There are 5 million people in Nicaragua. About one million live in the capital city of Managua; 200,000 live in Leon. In Leon there are five universities, four of which are free. Many of the young generation are encouraged to leave and so this is what is happening. They are a proud and friendly country but in contrast to Costa Rica, their opportunities seem vastly less available.
Julio walked us through the more non-touristy places of Leon - we rambled in and out of small bazaar-like markets, viewing fresh fruits, beans, corn, meats and fishes. The market vendors stared at our small group as if we were creatures from another planet. I was both bemused and sobered. What do they think of us?
We walked back streets and caught long glimpses of current life in Leon. Barber shops, restaurants, a few hotels, cars and buses mingling with bicycle taxis and horses drawing wagons laden with small pieces of lumber piled precariously high.
Julio guided us to a restaurant set off the street inside a lovely and peaceful courtyard. Ice cold
beers were passed around along with bottles of cold water. Soon, plates filled with rice and beans and tortillas, along with chicken fajitas, were placed in front of us and we all dug in, hot, tired and hungry from our morning walk.
After lunch we continued on through the city, visiting the central plaza and coming back into contact with street vendors selling souvenirs. We passed by churches and visited two small museums. Eventually it was time to get back in the van for our return trip to the ship.
I was deeply moved by Julio's story. Everything else I've seen and heard since then has paled in comparison to what I heard from this man called Julio in Nicaragua.
Pictures of a local open market:
Pictures of a local open market:
One of Julio's friends at the barber shop.
Leon's central cathedral.
School girls. Kids go to school 4 hours a day - 1/2 in the mornings, 1/2 in the afternoons, as there are not enough schools to house all the kids at once.
People lined up waiting for a noon meal at a town food kitchen
Julio and an iguana at the market