A balmy summer`s night in Granada, Nicaragua.
Under the trees of the park in front of the cathedral the local ladies had set up their charcoal burners; the aroma drawing passers by to the folding chairs set up by their stands.
On the Calle de Calzada the restaurants had set out the tables in the street for the crowd who wanted Guinness, burgers and chips
The lighted windows were bright at the hotels and restaurants serving the more recherche fare…at recherche prices.
So where was I?
In the police station. Not a patch on the other attractions of Granada and no food on offer either.
The back story is as follows…
Two women friends had been visiting us in Costa Rica: one my age, the other much older.
We had had a lot of fun, starting with the discovery that the lady who had brought me harissa found that the lid of the pot had worked loose in her luggage, giving her an entire wardrobe of clothes with oily orange stains and a pot with very little harissa remaining inside it.
We flogged ourselves round the shops of Escazu, the upmarket suburb of San Jose, without success. My friend liked designer clothes…but not at Escazu prices.
So we took the car to the centre of San Jose to hit the Ropa Americana…the secondhand clothes shops.
Except that not all the contents are secondhand. A lot of the stuff is new…complete with tags…and you can find some real bargains.
My friend shops with precision..she knows her size (in every world measurement known to woman)..she knows what fabrics she likes and she knows her style. As always the staff were very helpful: she would emerge from the changing room saying
I like this…but with some detail on the sleeve.
Immediately a bevy of assistants would fan out into the shop to seek what she wanted and would sometimes find it.
Try getting that service in London – unless you are the sort of woman who is accompanied everywhere by bodyguards paid for by her seventy year old husband.
Our shopping trip was very successful: my friend`s wardrobe was replenished at minimal cost but in maximal style.
Nothing orange though, I noted…
We had taken Danilo with us as we needed the car for the spoils and so went together to the terrace restaurant opposite the Teatro Nacional which had caught my older friend`s eye, with tables set among the borders of coffee plants which separate it from the traffic roaring along Avenida 2.
Service was slow….clear sign of a place which thought that coffee plants in the centre of San Jose were attraction enough to draw customers.
Tired of the nods and becks of the only visible waiter Danilo – keen to have visitors to Costa Rica properly treated – went off in search of assistance.
He returned with a head waiter and two female accolytes who presented menus and waited patiently for our orders.
The ladies wanted a fresh fruit drink to quench the thirst generated by shopping followed by white wine. Danilo…driving..stuck to a fruit drink.
The ladies ordered plates of carpaccio of fish. Danilo ordered grilled fish with rice and beans.
The fruit drinks arrived..and were leisurely consumed.
The table adorned with empty glasses, a furious Danilo set off once again in search of assistance.
The head waiter and acolytes returned, cleared the table and served the wine with a further fruit drink for Danilo.
Where, he asked, is the food? These ladies have been waiting at least twenty minutes! Just how long does it take to open the fridge and slice some fish?
The head waiter eyed him…he had a problem in assessing his status.
Danilo, to show his countryman`s contempt for San Jose, would normally wear an old tee shirt and torn jeans together with wellies. Given that he was escorting visitors he had compromised: clean pressed jeans, newish tee shirt…and shoes.
All the ladies were respectably attired and, in one case, wearing a large diamond pendant on her necklace.
The head waiter had a problem…this unsophisticated chap had in tow three somewhat upmarket ladies…he must have hidden talents!
At once, senor!
The carpaccio of fish was superb…well worth another glass of Chilean white from a head waiter now hovering.
Danilo viewed his fish with disapprobation. It was not grilled…it was poached…
Would we, asked the head waiter, care for coffee?
Before we could speak, Danilo replied that, on current form, we could not wait for the coffee berries to be processed…no, just give us the bill!
The bill eventually arrived..the head waiter somewhat bothered as to whom to present it.
His dilemma was solved by the older friend scooping it in and paying in cash – which Danilo promptly counted and returned the sum in excess of the bill to her purse….
Don`t encourage them….
We adjourned to the cafe of the Teatro Nacional where my friends ordered patisseries and cappuccino while Danilo and I contented ourselves with the latter.
Except that the waiter in the Teatro Nacional had resolved the problem which had bemused the head waiter of the terrace restaurant.
Danilo`s cappuccino came with a heart and cupid`s dart design….
He rose and took the waiter aside.
I could not hear all of the conversation but the gist of it was that if the waiter thought that he, Danilo, was a gigolo he could come outside and accept a bunch of fives while, furthermore, the ladies he was escorting were the wife and friends of his employer and Europeans at that, not some dried out old bats coming down to Costa Rica to pick up young men – here a sweep of the arm over surrounding tables – and could the waiter not tell the difference between real diamonds and costume jewellery.
His coffee was removed and replaced with one with a fleur de lis design…
The wardrobe replenished we did the usual visits…volcano, waterfalls, little towns with quaint churches….but I thought it a shame that they should come to Central America without visiting Granada in Nicaragua, once the port from which the fleets sailed for Spain in the time of Drake, crossing Lake Nicaragua, down the Rio San Juan to the Caribbean and on to Europe.
A Spanish colonial city, burnt in large part by a would be American dictator in the nineteenth century, it is still a gem…
We booked tickets on one of the bus services which travel from San Jose to Managua, calling at Granada….while it is fun when younger to travel on the bus to the frontier and elbow your way in true jumble sale fashion through the queues for customs and immigration, given the age of my older friend discretion was the better part of valour and we took the service where the conductors shepherd their clients through the formalities at the frontier as painlessly as possible.
My friends had the seats immediately behind and above the driver where they had a superb view of the road…and a equally superb view of said driver eating his lunch from a plate on his lap while guiding the bus with two fingers….but we arrived unscathed and found a taxi – well, a young man with a car – to take us to our hotel, a restored colonial style house a few blocks from the centre of Granada.
Setting out to explore the next day it was obvious how much Granada had changed since I first visited it with Leo years ago.
Then we had stayed in a hostel: the bed had had cushions for pillows, slippery polyester sheets and an ensuite shower which consisted of an overhead tap in an enclosure of corrugated plastic sheeting.
Leo had spent most of the first night slapping himself in an attempt to kill the mosquitoes….on emerging the next morning he was greeted with a large brandy offered with the respects of the staff who had mistaken his actions for those of wild sexual passion….
We stayed there for three nights and in that time it was impossible for him to buy a drink…they were lined up on the bar from staff and regular customers as soon as he showed his face. Men came to look at him…
Now, Granada had changed: boutique hotels, chi chi restaurants….we were not objecting as we took wine stops in cool courtyards on our tours of the old streets…but it was no longer the haphazard, casual place that it had been. Professional tourism had arrived and the waiters were chasing away the crowds of little boys who moved from place to place offering sweets and matches for sale, thinking that they annoyed the customers. Given the type of customer, it is probable that they did but I had liked the saucy little devils with their hard sell and their backchat.
On the last day of our trip I took my friends out to Masaya to see somewhere less affected by tourism.
We took the collective mini bus from down by the market and were dropped in the town centre in time for lunch…and what a lunch!
Fresh fruit juices and whole grilled fish with salad does not do justice to the meal…all I can say is that fresh meant fresh….and no, we did not climb up into these tall chairs to enjoy our meal.
We visited the stalls selling ceramics, clothes and leather goods in the old fortified market building:
And then walked up the road to the town market which covered acres under its corrgated iron roofs…
As always, a gentleman offered his services to find the best deals…
As always I accepted, made my own deals and paid him a retainer…he has a living to make.
He was kind enough to bring our shopping bags to the bus stop where we were scooped up by the conductor and instructed to hold tight as the packed bus whirled away.
Quick, said the elderly friend. Take a photograph…this is the first and last time you will see me pole dancing!
In no time young men had given us their seats and we returned to Granada in the late afternoon.
This is where things went wrong.
I wanted to go to the market to buy shoes.For some reaason I can buy my size in Nicaragua but not in Costa Rica.
My friends wanted to take a carriage tour of Granada. I would always willingly forgo this as not all the horses are well cared for, so we agreed that we would meet up at the hotel.
Shoes bought, I had returned to the hotel and was sleeping when the receptionist roused me with the news that my friends had been attacked on the corner of the street.
I hurried down to find that my elderly friend had had her diamond pendant snatched as she walked to the hotel: neighbours had come out of their houses to chase the thief ….but he had escaped, using a bicycle lying in the gutter half a block away….and to care for my friends. Chairs had been brought on to the street…remedies had been applied….
The hotel staff were superb in helpng to calm and care for my friends…but the owner (French) was only concerned to insist that it was not the fault of the hotel. Clearly it was not…but some concern for her guests would have been welcome.
Finally the desk clerk got to the nub of the matter.Never mind if the thieves could be caught…my friend needed a police statement for her insurance company…
He called (and paid for) a taxi to take us to the police station on the other side of town.
The Granada police station reminded me of English police stations in the sixties…clean, yes….sophisticated…no.
Unlike English police stations, however, this one had been baking in the heat all day and it certainly did not run to air conditioning.
We waited on a bench in the entrance while some young men emerged from an office in handcuffs and were taken away in a van.
A police officer emerged in their wake and asked if any of us could speak Spanish.
I put up my hand…and that was that…
The problem was that I was not an accredited translator in Nicaragua so while I could describe what my friends had seen my translation would have no value in law….the police chief who turned up confirmed this and then with a wink said…but all they want is a statement for their insurance and for that you don`t have to be accredited.
I was turned over to a gentleman who took down my friends` statements and thought that that was that, but he called his boss as my friends had described how a young lad had jumped up alongside the driver shortly after they had left the park and had chatted to them in English, asking them where they were staying then had jumped off later before the driver dropped them off on the road leading to the hotel saying that he was not permitted to drive up to it.
A set up.
The boss explained that he had a very shrewd idea of who the culprits might be…but by that time the pendant would be in other hands…sold for next to nothing to a fence to buy drugs….and unless my friends were willing to wait to see an official translator and attend both an identity parade and appear in court there would be little point in arresting the malefactors.
Drugs! We have to combat it or it will be the ruin of our society!
While we were waiting for the statements to be typed up the paddy waggon brought in two young people.
They had been arrested disembarking from the ferry from the Rio San Juan to Granada having been found to be in possession of marijuana.
Nicaragua does not tolerate drugs or drug use: the rules are clear…..
However, the Granada police know that a significent number of the visitors to Granada use drugs. Appearances in the criminal courts do not help the business community, so other measures are taken…
A preliminary interview revealed that neither had a word of Spanish. Their passports showed that the young lady was from New Zealand and her male companion from France.
The official translators would have to be called but, in the meantime, could I assist the police with their enquiries?
Cold drinks would be provided for my friends if they were willing to stay…
Indeed they were, feeling that they were inside one of the police dramas they both love, and cold drinks were accordingly brought: cola in a plastic bag with a straw tied into the knot closing the bag. Different…but it was a drink and it was cold.
The boss explained to me that the idea was to frighten the wits out of the young couple and then put them on a bus for somewhere…anywhere..out of Granada. The official translators would have to make out the formal papers relating to their apprehension, but could I assist in explaining what was going to happen.
I started on the young lady, explaining what the police intended to do and asked her if her companion understood.
Oh no…he doesn`t speak English.
Well, can you explain to him?
Oh no…I don`t speak French.
I explained this to the boss whose ruddy countenance turned purple.
I suppose the only language they have in common is hash!
I explained that I could speak French as well as English and he breathed again.
I addressed the young man in his own tongue.
He explained that he thought it very unjust as he was only carrying marijuana for his own use.
But did you know it was ilegal to do so in Nicaragua?
Oh yes, but it was legal in the Netherlands…
Right, so much for the logical French mind.
I explained what the police wanted to happen again and he pouted.
It was getting late. He had booked a hotel in Granada.
The police chief wanted to know which, obviously thinking of mounting a raid.
He didn`t remember.He had the name on his mobile `phone…which did not work as he did not have a local SIM card and the police station had no wifi.
Anyway he did not want to get on a bus to be sent into the void…
I tried explaining that in the circumstances it might be a good idea to do so as otherwise the police chief might decide…business community or no business comunity…to throw the book at him.
I want the French consul.
The boss was going purple again as this was translated and asked me to explain that were the consul to be called the young man would certainly be in for an overnight stay in the hands of the police as there was no way the said consul was likely to shift himself before a late hour of the following morning.
I don`t want the French consul.
Our documents were ready…but the boss had to take a `phone call.
The official translators refused to come until morning.
Could I explain to the young couple that they would have to remain in police custody overnight?
I did so….
The New Zealander was phlegmatic about it, the Frenchman hopeful of better quarters than a bench in a police station.
Are they sending us to a hotel?
Yes, indeed they are. The Hotel de Police.