The Summer of Living Dangerously

In this week’s edition of my newsletter Field Notes, I talk about my 1984 trip to Nicaragua. I wanted to link to a piece I wrote in 2017 about that trip during the promotion of my novel Tropic of Kansas, but the mystery readers site where it was published seems to be defunct, so I thought I would republish it here.


When we told the taxi driver to take us to a hotel in El Centro, he said there aren’t any.  We insisted, with the full confidence of two Americans not yet old enough to vote but old enough to think they had a handle on the whole world. He looked at us in the rear-view mirror with eyes that had seen his country torn apart by revolution, said the Nicaraguan colloquial equivalent of “whatever,” and started driving.

We had come to Managua the long way, college kids posing as journalists, with IDs from our school papers next to our passports and Graham Greene novels tucked in the side pockets of our summer suits. Charlie and I had hatched the plan after watching a midnight showing of The Road Warrior, committing to spend the summer after freshman year touring Mexico by jeep. The idea grew up over the next two semesters—we would write news features from the war zones of 1980s Central America. Our parents agreed to not fight with us about this half-baked plan if we promised not to go to El Salvador. Deal.

We did not know that meant we would end our trip in a real-world mirror of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that had lit the original idea in our heads.

I took a night bus from New Orleans to Laredo, crossed the border by cab, and picked up the Aguila Azteca sleeper train through the mountains and into the old downtown of Mexico City—another “El Centro.” Charlie and I met up there, on the third day, at a pre-arranged place and time, the kind of thing we had to do when cell phones were the stuff of science fiction, and even a long distance land line call could break the budget of a student traveler. And from there we set out by budget buses, through Chiapas and into the jungle wars on the other side.

We talked our way into the company of real journalists, traveled by helicopter with the Guatemalan army into the highlands where indigenous people were being rounded up into model villages, had office visits with a military press officer who teased us about the dinnertime conversation he’d heard us have on a surveillance tape, met Iowan priests in secret bars who told us stories of torture by machete-wielding soldados rooting out the Mayan Maoists. We toured a military hospital at the edge of the U.S. air base outside Tegucigalpa from which the secret missions were launched, drank beers in a San Pedro Sula Holiday Inn with middle-aged dudes from Virginia who called themselves “contractors” with winking smiles, and danced with strangers to jukebox cumbia in an open-air cantina while we waited for the 3 a.m. bus to the next town.

The Nicaraguan border was DMZ, with the checkpoint pulled back 7 kilometers. There was one taxi making the run, and the truckers only gave rides to girls, so we walked, down the middle of what we thought was an empty highway, telling stupid jokes and singing songs. I am not sure which stupid song it was that got the soldier up on top of the hill to start shooting at us, but that turns out to be a very good way to get 19-year-old smart asses to shut up. We managed to get through the border crossing with wads of black market Nicaraguan cash stuffed in our pants, and arrived at our final destination as the sun went down.

The hotel the taxi driver took us to was straight out of one of those Graham Greene paperbacks, a revolutionary outpost in the ruins of the official city—a place where what hadn’t been destroyed in the earthquake a decade earlier got blown up in the long civil war that followed. The night manager wore her scarlet Che Guevara T-shirt in a way that compelled good behavior by the guests, while the leader of the junta lectured from the TV on the wall. The room had two bare mattresses, an open window, and a bare industrial-sized fan that looked like it could shorten your fingers. We packed it in early.

And in the morning, we looked out the window onto the ruins of the future.

I don’t know how many blocks the zone spanned, but from that vantage it looked almost like forever. This was where the colonial-era city had been, until it was completely leveled in the terremoto of 1972. The dictator took the international reconstruction funds for his own purposes, one of the many reasons even the business owners ultimately joined the uprising against him. But the people who really won the revolution were the committed ideologues who had been fighting in the jungles for longer than Charlie and I had been alive, people who believed they could build utopia from the material of their damaged polity. The Vice President was a poet, and the head of the intelligence apparatus was a guy who had gone to our prep school. And during that moment, the faith in the future was in full flame, even as the market shelves got emptier, and the cigarette filters had to be made out of sawdust. (We smoked them anyway.)

We walked out into the zona, past bombed-out buildings in which you could see squatters huddling in the shadows around oil drum fires. We saw an experimental kindergarten in the exposed basement of an old bank. A Sherman tank half buried in the dirt, covered in graffiti. Empty fields of browned-out weeds devoid of people—except for a platoon of North Korean soldiers doing parade drill on a plaza of cracked pavement. The cathedral that had once been the center of municipal reality reduced to a skeleton tagged with obscene images. The words of Ozymandias, translated through a peninsular prism in the last days of the Cold War.

We found our way to the suburbs that night, and the memory receded over the years, until two decades later I found myself beginning the book that became Tropic of Kansas. As I drove that winter on the back roads of the plains through towns in the process of being abandoned by the exhaustion of their economic potential, I recalled that morning in Mad Max’s Managua. Dystopia is not a real place, but you can see it from here. The dark road trip I wrote had to go back to that zona, through an American mirror. I finally figured out what those kids in the experimental kindergarten of 1984 had learned: that to find a better future, we have to navigate the way through our own ruins.

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