by Matthew Lyon
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
There’s a narrow footbridge at the edge of San Juan that separates the barrios from the rest of town. The wood slats are shaken loose and the twisted rigging is badly frayed. The bridge crosses a small river carrying rainwater and untreated waste into the harbor, turning the silver-blue bay a rusty brown after heavy downpours. Plastic bags and irreparable household appliances swim out to sea, fooling hungry pelicans and irritating local surfers. Blonde, sunparched gringas, who once read this was a Gorgeous! beach are fearful of even kicking the surf with their pink toenails, never mind taking a plunge—some look disappointed, angered, almost cheated on their far-flung holiday. They say, Oh my God, with a pouty pose and lockjaw face, like bleached crows with their beaks splayed open.
The river serves as a boundary between the “safety” of south San Juan and the unpredictable poverty that lies beyond. It’s an arbitrary checkpoint, but better safe than sullied. Last week, my friend crossed the bridge and saw a group of young men circled around a lifeless body lying on the river bank. When he brazenly asked what happened, the muscle of the gang broadened his chest, lifted his chin and pointed with silent authority at himself. He quickly moved on, and told the first police officer he saw that there was a problem. The officer, adjusting his dismembered sunglasses, nodded his head and said, I know, I know.
There is something unsettling about a disheveled police officer. They walk the sunny streets and beaches in pairs, every bit as weary as the stray dogs that follow. Wrinkled trousers and an unpressed, faded blue shirt are good indications of lawful indifference. They seem to say, I have no reputation to uphold so I will save a few cordobas on laundry. No two officers in San Juan wear the same uniform. There appears to be a semblance of dress code that encourages pants, shoes, and a young, shapeless mustache. Some don’t even have belts; nothing resembling order or discipline. They might easily be mistaken for attendants of a parking garage or a hotel elevator. Earning around 50 dollars a week, they could almost be called volunteers. The veterans of the outfit are known to supplement their incomes by shaking down tourists caught drunkenly urinating on the beach. They will ask for a hundred dollars in a serious tone, but will settle for four with a smile.
The police are not the only scruffs in town. Nobody is mindful of, or can afford, the swirling tides of fashion. Shirts with sleeves are considered formal wear. Collars are for dogs, ties are for opposition parties.
Halloween, on the other hand, is for everyone, and a costume competition brought new life to San Juan. First prize at the open-air club, Arribas, was $200, equivalent to an average monthly wage. That buys 200 tallboys of Victoria, 100 kilos of fresh dorado, or 10 evenings with Delina, the pot-bellied, raven-eyed pro from Grenada.
There were good witches and bad witches, angels and demons, pirates and gypsies. Those without capital or seamstress mothers just painted themselves in various shades of kinky and horror. Aside from the odd trannie in drag (naturally a good fright!), glittering ladies ruled the roost. Men arrived, dressed as themselves or their vacationing alter-egos, reduced every Halloween to “creatures of habit, admirers of female indulgence, open to fantastic happenstance.”
Arribas was full, mostly with locals and a few busloads from Managua. All weekends and holidays draw a boisterous crowd, not afraid to finish the whole bottle, not afraid to remove their clothes and swim, and not afraid to be the next to drown, at least not until the warm, lapping darkness pulls its final frothy prank. Some people know how to have a good time.
There were no children dressed in costume or collecting candy in San Juan. They are vaguely aware of the tradition, but nobody has money to buy sweets, or anything else, for their neighbors. Even at the big market, there are only vanilla taffies and hard candies available—either of which we would have scoffed at and tossed on the browning October lawns as 10-year-olds. Cheap, old Mister Stafford, we would say. Ungrateful little pricks! he barked.
Young locals, no less, enjoyed a festive night, focused more on the destructive end of fun. They cried with delight, igniting quick-wick firecrackers with bummed cigarettes. Their carelessness and sulfuric haloes created a timely sense of dread, a scary premonition of another young generation in decline. They pretended the stray dogs were blood-thirsty werewolves and tossed explosives in their path.
The regular late-night characters heightened the new-moon spookiness of Halloween. Mobile coke dealers whipped through on bicycles far too small for them. Unlicensed taxi drivers shouted out fares and colorfully racy insults from the hood of their cars, all beat and rusted from wet seasons and gravel tracks. Prostitutes lounged and laughed on the curb, one of whom was visibly pregnant. The police collected the name and hometown of each streetwalker, and directed the entire congregation to a lampless corner. For reasons that are not obvious, the corner beside the Eskimo ice cream shop was deemed more hooker-friendly than the corner by the Good Time taco truck.
Inside the bar, a Flor de Caña promotion made rum cheaper than beer. A blue avatar danced on a table, and a jaundiced girl puked over the railing. Dennis, the weed dealer, was doing good business on fright night. He came as a Caribbean cliché, still wearing his sunglasses, transfixed by the club’s flashing lights bouncing from his bottle of 7-Up. He mingled about curiously like a giant child, barefoot, carrying the sparkling green soda with both hands, the red straw never leaving his side of his mouth.
As the MC encouraged, the final two costumed contestants tore away their clothes on the bar. The loud reggaeton chorus thumped between Que que que color! and the suggestively redundant Bendova, bendova, bendova, bendova!
The good witch stripped away Lycra and any remaining dignity, and a red devilish vixen who had nothing more to peel away but stubborn red glitter and mascara, shook her hips in epileptic rhythm until an approaching storm cut the power. The lights and music crashed, and girls shrieked in haunted delight.
Arribas closed but nobody wanted to go home. The power was still out and sleep without a functioning fan would be impossible. To kill time, a group of locals suggested we walk to the footbridge. There is nothing appealing about this bridge, other than the fact that it stands as one of two landmarks in San Juan. There is also the yellow stucco church, but that certainly wasn’t a loitering option. When we arrived at the bridge, a police officer, who is planted there to discourage visitors from crossing, was snoozing in a plastic chair, snoring above the murky flow of fresh rain.
The river was a screen of reliable blackness, illuminated solely by thick constellations of fireflies. I was impressed, and the locals assumed I’d never before seen these synchronized blinkers. I did a jerky vertigo dance on the unsteady bridge, trying to avoid the stealthy scrum of mosquitoes. I mentioned my fears of dengue, but my new friends balked. A shorter kid in a flat-brimmed LA Dodgers hat said, You don’t need to have fear, friend. These are the magic animals, the ones with the light.
I started to clarify my concern, but he stopped me. You see the ugly ones, he said, But you don’t see the good ones. You cheles, come to relax but always fear. You come find fear, and always go back home.
He was not scolding me, maybe just reminding me of local resistance. But his friends noticed, and were amused by his defiant tone. Another kid, costumed in Contra camo and curly Bozo black hair spoke up, smiling in plain English. Yes, friend, he said, You cheles cannot live it out here. Los Gringos se fueron. All you come and go. But we stay. We Nicas, he laughed with pride, We live it out.