Granada – “The Grand Sultan”
You’d never know that during its illustrious history the city of Granada has been set alight on several occasions. William Walker, the American filibuster, who was routed from the city in 1856, was one of many to toss a match over his shoulder on his way out. Walker left a sign in the square reading, “Granada was here”. Well, thankfully it still is – and there were plenty of others who have tried to destroy it. Before Walker it was the British and French privateers who had a go. In 1664 Henry Morgan came this way. In fact Morgan made his name as one of the most cunning and resourceful of the privateers when he pillaged Granada. From the Caribbean he sailed up the River San Juan and crossed Lake Nicaragua. To ensure he uncovered all the treasure hidden in the city, it’s said that he seared the flesh of its citizens, or subjected them to a good old session of “woodling”, which is to say he tied a band round his victims heads and tightened it with a stick until their eyes popped out. Not to be outdone by Morgan, Captain Lawrence Prince, a Dutchman from Amsterdam, visited the city in the early 1670s. He was described as something of a desperado by the Spanish, who said that he, ‘…made havoc and destruction, sending the head of a priest in a basket, and declaring he would deal with the rest of his prisoners in the same manner, unless they gave him 70,000 pesos ransom.’ The city was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. It was nicknamed the Grand Sultan for its Moorish and Andalucian appearance. This is Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city and became a rich trading centre for its proximity to the Pacific and the relative ease by which goods from the Caribbean Sea could transit River San Juan and Nicaragua Lake, beside which the city lies. Despite the numerous fires it is still an architectural gem. It will be interesting to see how things may change in Granada if/when the Chinese funded “Nicaragua Canal” (the one to rival the Panama Canal) is completed, though I don’t suppose they’ll set it alight.
Masaya Volcano National Park
The twin volcanoes Nindiri and Masaya are Nicaragua’s most active. The Santiago crater last erupted in December 2008…not that that stops the Nicaraguans from parking their cars beside it. We even camped the night a kilometre or so beneath it. ‘Ah, you won’t have any problems here,’ the park rangers said, as they locked up the park gates and cleared off home for the night. ‘Okay, see you tomorrow,’ we called back. Oh, we have such blind faith in these fellows. Though we had a peaceful sleep, it has to be said, following two nights in Granada’s fire station. In days gone by the Indians believed a hag deity living in the bottom of the crater bestowed great wisdom upon them. Such advice, however, never comes for free, with a few unfortunate maidens and children finding themselves ceremoniously chucked over the rim. When the Spanish arrived they called a halt to all this heretical nonsense, declaring the bubbling, fiery crater to be the very “Gates of Hell”. In 1529, in the hope of keeping the demons in and the savages out, Friar Francisco de Bobadillo stuck a cross on the crater rim. And then one of his brethren cried, ‘Hey! Just a minute. Isn’t that liquid gold bubbling in the bottom?’ Was this the El Dorado the Spaniards had heard so much about? The church was most definitely not above a bit of gold speculation. The Plaza Oviedo honours the priest who climbed down into the crater, only to find it was lava. Poor chap.
Whatever happened to Ollie North?
We were driving north towards the Honduras border when both lanes of the road became blocked by buses and trucks and pick-ups overburdened with supporters of the Sandinista party, as they headed for a rally in the capital Managua. We stopped for fuel at a service station. ‘What’s going on?’ we asked the attendant. ‘It’s the 35th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution,’ the pump attendant replied. And then he and his mates broke into a fit of giggles. ‘These campesinos have never been to Managua before.’ he said. ‘They’ll all get lost.’ They thought it was hilarious. But it got me thinking. On the 17th July 1979, as Sandanista guerrilla forces prepared to take Managua, the tyrant Somoza finally resigned (and was later assassinated in Paraguay) and the revolutionary forces inherited a basket case of a country. When the US tried to cosy up to the new regime they discovered the Sandinista to be less than enthusiastic. Those dastardly commies from Cuba and the Soviet Union were already crawling all over the country. Something had to be done. The US needed a proxy army to topple these new upstarts and so the counter-revolutionary military groups known as the Contras were formed with US funding, until congress declared enough was enough – there would be no more money for a covert war in Nicaragua. It was some years later when we heard what transpired next, when Ollie North, then a member of the US National Security Council, became famous for all the wrong reasons. He’d cooked up the most wonderful plan, which was something like this: US companies would sell arms to Iran (as a softner to freeing hostages in Lebanon), part of the proceeds from the arms sales would buy drugs (care of President Manuel Noriega of Panama) and part of the proceeds from the sale of the drugs would be channelled to the Contras to support the civil war against the Sandinista. Make any sense? I didn’t think it would. Never mind. The old adage – it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up – was never truer, as one after the other, Ronald Reagan, John Poindexter, William Casey and North’s secretary, Dawn Hall, all did their best to dodge the fallout. Except it was good old Ollie, military hero and loyal government servant, who took it on the nose, after all. So, whatever happened to Ollie when the Iran-Contra Affair finally blew over? Well, after his convictions were reversed and all charges against him dismissed, he ran for the United States Senate as a member of the Republican Party, wrote several best-selling books, appeared on the Jerry Springer show, hosted his own radio show, played himself in several sitcoms and became a military consultant for the 2012 video game – Call of Duty: Blacks ops II. How appropriate! Well done Ollie.