The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War
Obfuscation, The Particular Ennui of Checkpoints, Dictatorial Lineage, Proper Church Comportment, El Inter, The Effect of Socialism on the Service Industry, Fried Fish Eyes, Sandalistas


Deb Olin Unferth
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George and I had gotten nowhere with joining any revolution. It was August. We’d been fired from one job and hadn’t found another. We’d managed to throw up a wall between us, or at least some small obfuscating stones (a dot of diamond, two glints of red). And now we had to get out of El Salvador. Our visas were running out. We couldn’t wait around for people to figure out what they were going to do about the bridges that had been exploded on the road to the border—put them back up, explode somebody back, chart a little path through the river—no time for any of that, George said, because to be stuck in El Salvador with an expired visa was no joke. So we set out. The truck drove in loops, searching for bridges still standing. A few kilometers from the border, some guys with black-market gym shoes threw their duffel bags off the truck and jumped out, ran into the trees.

At Salvadoran customs we had the deepest, longest search of them all. The soldiers spent hours scratching our money with their fingernails and going page by page through our books. We were so bored with searches by now, had had so many, we didn’t care what the soldiers did. We sat on a curb and watched.

At last we arrived in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. We pulled into the station. I was aggrieved, begrimed, laden. I’d had exactly no fun in months and I was ready to blame George for it. I filed to the front of the bus and looked out over the heads of the people waiting to get on. There, amid the crowd, I saw my first Internacionalistas, white and balding, holding cameras.

Compared to El Salvador, Nicaragua was like playing jacks. The two countries were nothing alike. El Salvador was your basic mail-order military dictatorship: terror and torture, stuttering civilians. Nicaragua was more like a cheerful communist kazoo concert. Nicaragua had once been like El Salvador. A line of Nicaraguan dictators, the evil Somozas—a father and two sons—had had their hands on the country since 1937. Then, in 1979, the revolutionary Sandinistas had come down from the mountains and into the capital and run the Somozas out. The Somoza family fled on airplanes, lifting whatever they could and throwing it into the cockpit. The Sandinistas marched into the National Palace and installed themselves. Nicaragua became a socialist country, the only one in the hemisphere other than Cuba. It was a big capitalist scandal, and the United States was enraged. But the Soviets loved it, sent supplies and weapons and men, and bragged about it on the radio.

In El Salvador there hadn’t been anyone like me and George. We’d been alone, going around on the streets. In Nicaragua there were hundreds of us, thousands, so many we had a special name: we were called Internacionalistas, and we came from all over the world—Europe, Africa, all the Americas. We had professors and scientists among our ranks, and farmers and newspapermen and a brigade of artists, all trooping around. We converged on the capital and trucked out to the towns, to Granada, León, Estelí, carrying every kind of equipment—hoes and seeds and cisterns and books. We were ready to scrape up whatever was there and pat down a nice new revolutionary version instead.

Since I was the youngest and spoke Spanish, the Internacionalistas could tell me to do anything and I would. Every day there was something for me and George to do. On Thursdays we went to the U.S. embassy to protest U.S. support of the Contras, the reactionary group trying to take down the Sandinistas. (Their very name annoyed us: Contrarrevolución—who would want to be against the revolution?) A hundred Internacionalistas or more showed up each week at the embassy gates and waved signs and shouted. Priests gave talks in front of the line of military guards. Buses pulled up and dancers hopped out, and musicians and tightrope walkers and mimes. They clowned, sang ballads of corporate evil, pantomimed Contra destruction. We put down our signs so we could clap. I never saw anyone go into or out of the embassy (there may have been another door?), but we marched in our circles and chanted.

On Sunday afternoons we went to la misa campesina, peasant mass, where Uriel Molina, a great priest of the revolution, talked about what God had revealed at Vatican II, the new directive Lucharemos o moriremos! “We will fight or we will die!” he told the Internacionalistas, because the place was always full of Internacionalistas, so many that buses had to bring them. They filled the church, sat on the floor, stood in the back, blocked the campesino murals. Some had to wait outside. There was hardly room for the Nicaraguans. A few Nicaraguans, the musicians, fit. They played their instruments on the side. Some Internacionalistas danced, marimba-style, in the aisle. Some took photos of the walls.

“Where are the Nicaraguans?” George said. “They’re missing all the fun.”

“Oh, they come in the morning,” the Internacionalistas said.

“Imagine,” said George, “what it must be like in the morning, when the Nicaraguans are here, if it’s like this now.”

One week George and I went to the Sunday-morning service. We woke very early and rode several linking buses across town. The church had Nicaraguans in it, but it was silent. No music, no shouting, just Molina at the front, murmuring Mass. “You should come at night,” a man leaned over a pew to tell us. “The Internacionalistas come at night.”

“Why do you come in the morning?”

“The Internacionalistas are asleep,” he said. “A church is not a place for dancing and making fun.”

Managua heat was mean, and the Internacionalistas had to share the fans. Sometimes it became too much and we would split up and go hunting for air-conditioning. The one place we knew we could always go was the Intercontinental Hotel. This was a strange-looking building, constructed like a concrete staircase to the sky. We called it “el Inter,” and knew it as the hotel where the real journalists stayed—not the screw-ups with rock music and a tape-recorder—all the famous people from New York and Washington, D.C. who wanted to see the Sandinistas. It was the only place in town that never ran out of food, that hung on to its old-style waitstaff through the revolution (nothing is worse for the service industry than socialism), that was rumored to have a rooftop pool, sparkling sun chairs around it in a star (though none of us had seen it). Yes, el Inter was capitalism incarnate. We used it as shorthand for all that was wrong and greedy in the world. We secretly wanted it and felt guilty for it.

In ’72, Howard Hughes had been living up on the eighth floor when the great earthquake came, the one that took down the whole city, but left el Inter standing. The rebel Chamorro had shot a rocket from one of its windows at the most evil Somoza of them all, the second son. There’d been machine-gun battles fought in the lobby. There’d been assassinations. All the top military brass used to go there, smirk over drinks at the bar. Later, Somoza himself moved in, crouched through the barricade days before he fled the country. In 1979, Daniel Ortega stayed in those rooms at the dawn of the new order. Jimmy Carter was there while taking in the communist sights—and when George and I arrived a year later, the bellboys were still talking about it.

The Internacionalistas used to go to el Inter to cool off. It was an easy walk from the cluster of hostels, and any old Internacionalista could go over and sit in the lobby as long as you made a show of looking in the gift shop and being animated and didn’t stay too long or fall asleep. Then the security guards got to know you and shooed you out. George and I were eventually barred.

Every night we ate at Comedor Sara’s, where we sat on benches with all the other Internacionalistas, dinner coming out on plastic plates, fish raised high and passed down rows over the tables (no menu at Sara’s, just one dish for everyone—“This is socialism, after all,” we said), a single eye fried and up on the plate, fins and skin caked with some rusty substance, cartilage protruding. The Internacionalistas would sing, everyone taking turns with their home country’s national anthem, waving their forks.

George, who back at school had been incapable of a regular conversation, at Sara’s could sit and talk all night. The Internacionalistas liked me and George, except for the Christian part. They said that all the time. “Except for that Christianity crap, you’re all right!” I took this as a compliment. George, though, you didn’t want to start on that one with him, boy.

“Fuck God. Who cares about that stupid myth,” someone would say, and George would be off arguing with them for hours.

Later, back in our room at the hostel, I’d say, “People don’t like us if you talk about it all the time. You don’t have to talk about us being Christians all the time.”

“I don’t,” he said.

“It comes up somehow.”

“They bring it up.”

You bring it up,” I said.

“No, you bring it up,” he said.

I denied it, but he was right. I couldn’t help myself. “I’m Debbie and that’s George,” I’d say. “We’re Christians.” The people around us could say who they were in three words and be fascinating. Christianity was our single distinctive trait.

All over Nicaragua there were food shortages, water shortages, shortages of all kinds: cars, clothes, paper. We lived in zones in Managua, and in order to save water during the shortage, the government turned it off two days a week, and which days you had no water depended on what zone you were in. The Internacionalistas always became very animated about not having water. The night before, the dueña of the hostel would fill container after container with water—tubs and jugs and bottles and buckets—and set them out for the Internacionalistas. Water stood all over, and still we were very pleased about having no water. Sometimes the city didn’t shut the water off until seven or eight in the morning, so if you woke early you could still have a shower, but on the day the water was off in your zone, you were ready not to take a shower. You were ready not to brush your teeth. You drank beer or Rojita all day because it was better to save what water you had. By afternoon the standing water was squirming with bugs, and small clouds of mosquitoes hung over the buckets. The water attracted mosquitoes. In Panama, tens of thousands of people died of yellow fever, malaria, and dengue from standing water during the French effort to build the canal. We all knew that and talked about it, shaking our heads, and yet it never occurred to us to cover our water.

At night, after Comedor Sara’s, the Internacionalistas would go back to the hostels and sit in the atrium and drink Flor de Caña rum (except George and I, who tried not to drink, being Christians). They’d get into arguments, call each other capitalists or fascists, shout, and bang the tables. Then they all became friends again and sang revolution songs until two or three in the morning. They left the atrium as if exiting a stage, calling to each other, waving and blowing kisses, holding hands.

The cast shifted each day. Some left to work in the north or headed off to a different town. New Internacionalistas arrived. Some days Sara’s was so crowded you couldn’t find a seat. Other days it was empty, and when you came in, looked for faces, you’d find only one table occupied, two compañeros huddled over a map, a lone German in a corner sewing a button, and even if you didn’t particularly like the Internacionalistas—their racket, their mess, the very space they took up with their long limbs—still the loneliness set in without them.

Years later I heard that the Sandinistas referred to us as Sandalistas, not Internacionalistas. We wore Birkenstocks, right? A bunch of hippies, ha, ha. I don’t recall hearing that during the revolution, only after. I believe the Nicaraguans called us Sandalistas behind our backs.

That’s OK. I can take (or be) a joke.

In fact, I did wear sandals. I brought on the trip my smartest pair, not Birkenstocks, but a strappy affair. It turned out the revolution was going to involve a lot of walking. A week into Mexico, my feet were blistered and my sandals were broken. I bought a new pair for five dollars and I wore those until they broke, too. I bought another pair and another. Finally George said I couldn’t keep buying new pairs. I had to make the pair I had last. At that point I had a pair that cost about three dollars. The sandals stretched after a few days and fell off my feet as I walked. I took some string and tied them to my feet. When the string broke, I tied knots in it and tied my sandals back on and kept walking until the soles wore through to the ground. Why didn’t I bring a pair of damn Birkenstocks? I thought. But I’d wanted to look nice, you know, cute for the revolution.

  • Adapted from Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth, to be published in February by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. © 2011 by Deb Olin Unferth. All rights reserved.
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