Hotel Colonial Grenada, Nicaragua Subject: The Nicaraguan Pistol Team
“Do you want to shoot an AK-47?”
I was perusing the racks of brochures in the hotel lobby here in Grenada, about 45 k’s south of Managua, when the man asked me this question. He was obviously a “Nica”—a local—but his English was excellent. He wore a white guayabera, jeans and big aviator sunglasses.
I looked at the hotel desk clerk for help, but she just picked up a sheaf of papers and retreated into the office. I told the man that I might have misunderstood him.
“Do you want to shoot a machine gun?” he said. “You know, an AK-47?”
I responded that I was only in town for the day and that I’d promised to scout some real estate for my buddy back in the states, which happened to be the truth.
The man showed me a toothy smile.
“Perfect,” he said. “I know a house that is for sale. I’ll show you around and then we’ll shoot the guns.”
I had already spoken with an agent about reviewing some property. In fact, I was waiting in the lobby for “Charlie” to come down the block from The Che Café to pick me up. The Che, bearing the classic image of the revolutionary on the outdoor wall, doubled not only as Charlie’s coffee bar, but also as his real estate office. Charlie was an overweight American hustler in madras shorts and Tevas, and sitting in his office earlier that morning, he expounded upon the virtues of the Nicaraguan real estate market.
“You spend dimes, not dollars in Nicaragua,” he’d yapped.
I imagined that with just a slight change of outfits and a time warp, he could’ve been selling pickaxes and claims in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Truth be told, this smiling Nica offering to take me out gunning seemed a lot safer than a day riding around with Charlie.
“There is no need to worry,” the Nica said. “I was on the Nicaraguan Pistol team.”
I told him I had no idea what that meant. He waved his hand in the air, saying it was a thing of the past. Still, he had contacts at a range in Jinotepe, just a few clicks away. We could see some properties for sale on the way. I asked the Nica to wait for me while I grabbed my bag from my room. I went up and hid my digital camera, I-pod and extra cash under my mattress. Back downstairs, the Nica introduced himself as Esteban. We shook hands and headed out to his battered Land Cruiser. As we pulled away from the curb, I saw Charlie huffing up the sidewalk to collect me from the hotel. I felt like I’d made a solid getaway.
“Fucking chele,” Esteban muttered, looking at Charlie in his rearview mirror.
I asked him what a chele was.
He told me it was milk—leche—spelled backwards.
Nicaragua is definitely open for business, but what kind nobody is quite sure of yet. With former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega back in the Presidential seat as of last year, there’s been a lot of speculation about whether Nicaragua is going to become the next Costa Rica or Venezuela. My buddy in the States is betting on the former, and for the past week I’ve been cruising around the southwestern part of the country, getting a feel for the real estate market. This small area of the country is really the only part of the nation that’s being actively marketed. as the north and eastern coast are both still considered too tricky for tourists—old land mines, surly natives, etc. I’d been down to San Juan del Sur on the western coast and it made me think of a pint-sized Acapulco, still in the cement foundation phase. Omatepe, an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua (allegedly home to the only fresh water sharks in the world), was also in the early development stages, with lots of staked-out lots and fading red surveyor’s ribbon flapping in the breeze.
Up the coast, former dictator Anastasio Somoza’s estate has been turned into a resort/ casino where somehow you lose at blackjack even when you push the dealer.
That national attitude of a tie being as good as a win seems to be pervasive, and my reports back to my stateside friend have been cautionary. Sure, the land is cheaper than Costa Rica, but Nicaragua is still reportedly the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. And with guys like Charlie on the make, you just can’t seem to escape the bad smell.
So, after five days of dealing with real estate hucksters like Charlie, I was willing to take the chance that “Nicaraguan Pistol Team” was just the brigand euphemism for “Take Yanqui Out to the Jungle and Shoot Him in the Back of the Head.”
Esteban thought we should look at a home for sale around Masaya before we proceeded on to the shooting range. Masaya is a dormant volcano that now counts as lakeside property as the crater has filled in with fresh water. It’s a stunning lake, almost navy blue in color. Esteban had keys to the house, which we let ourselves into. The place was nice—two floors of rambling, open rooms—but had the feel of something the bank had seized and hadn’t found the time to auction off yet. We walked down to the lake and Esteban asked if I wanted to take a swim. It was hot as hell, so I stripped down to my skivvies and walked over the shoreline rocks to the water. I was able to wade about five feet out before the bottom dropped out on me. Swimming in place, I could feel the great depths of the volcano crater beneath me. It was not a pleasant sensation. I scrambled back up the shore and got dressed.
Esteban was not a hard sell type and the only information he gave me about the property was the price. $50,000. I asked him the question which had been bothering me throughout my real estate search; what was the situation with the property rights? According to many of the Nicas I spoken with, the reason the Contras took up arms in the first place was because Ortega’s Sandinistas had seized huge chunks of land from the populace to turn it into state-run farms. They didn’t just seize the big ranches owned by Somoza’s cronies, but small family plots as well. They called this land re-distribution process “La Piñata” and the folks who’d had their plots lifted were pissed off enough to take guns from guys like Ollie North and go to war.
Salesmen like Charlie assured me that all that legal junk had been cleared up, that compensation had been doled out and everything was legit. Somehow, I felt like it wasn’t that simple.
“Who knows?” Esteban replied to my question about property rights. “Some people got paid, some people didn’t. And now we’ve got Ortega back and who the fuck knows what he’s going to do? And let me tell you, there are still a lot of Nicaraguans who haven’t come back since they left during the war. They might want their land back, too.”
I told him he wasn’t much of a real estate salesman.
“This is true,” he chuckled. “I want to get into tourism, I guess. Real estate is…not for me. That was actually my cousin’s house.”
I asked him if he’d been in the war.
“Sure,” he said. “For about an hour I was with the Contras. And then I got into my first battle.” He laughed. “I was hiding behind this little tree and all these fuckers were shooting at me. I said to hell with that. I dropped my gun and went to L.A.”
What had he been doing up there?
“Pumping gas on Alvarado,” he said. “I just came back two years ago.”
We arrived at the shooting range in Jinotepe, which wasn’t anything more than a couple corrugated shipping containers and a shaded cement porch. A few iron targets—shaped like pigs—were set out in a field. Esteban spoke with a kid who had been sitting on a folding chair. Aside from the three of us, the place was empty.
The youth went into one of the containers and came out with a very old looking AK-47 and a couple clips of ammunition. Esteban asked me for $40. I gave him two twenties. He handed one to the kid and put the other in his shirt pocket. He gave me a basic run-down on the rifle, how to switch from semi to full auto. He stepped back and put his hands over his ears. As I slapped in the first clip, I noticed a date stamped onto the metal under the ejection port. 1953. Good Christ, I thought, how many people has this thing killed in all those years?
I put a few cautious single shots down range, getting my ears and shoulder accustomed to the gun, before I flicked the lever to full auto. I pulled the trigger and watched the maelstrom of bullets kick dust all over the place. The ejection port locked open—indicating I was empty—after just a couple seconds.
“See?” Esteban said. “How’d you like to be on the other end of that shit?”
I told him I’d rather be pumping gas.
I switched out the empty magazine and was just about to shoulder the AK, when Esteban put his hand on my back. I lowered the gun.
“What the fuck is this?” Esteban asked, pointing to two people approaching us from the direction I’d been shooting. He turned around to ask the kid, who had stood up as well. The kid shrugged.
“What kind of idiots come walking onto a firing range?” Esteban fumed. Still, he took the AK from me and checked to make sure it was on safe. The figures were heading right for us and we could soon see that it was a man and a woman. They waved.
“What the fuck?” Esteban called out to them in Spanish. “Don’t you see you’re walking onto a gun range? You could of gotten killed!”
Esteban was about to yell something else, when a look of recognition hit his face. He handed the kid the rifle and jumped down off the porch. A few seconds later he and the strange man were embracing. They stood out on the range for a few moments, holding each other at arm’s length so they could look each other in the face. The woman stood to the side. They climbed back onto the porch with their arms still around each other’s shoulder. The new man was wearing a tan hunting vest, wrap-around shades and hiking boots. He appeared to be the same age as Esteban, but his hair was gray.
“I told you only a stupid son-of-a-bitch would walk onto a firing range!” Esteban laughed. “This is my old friend Nicolas. We haven’t seen each other since the war!”
I shook hands with Nicolas, who introduced the woman as his wife. The two friends exchanged information, Nichols saying that he’d just come in from Miami to show his wife where he’d grown up.
“But what the hell are you doing out here?” Esteban asked.
Nicolas pulled his vest to the side to reveal a pistol holstered tight on his hip. “I thought I’d come back to see if the range was still here,” he said.
Esteban whistled. “Man, you could get in a shitload of trouble for carrying that pistola. How the hell did you get it in?”
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Nicolas explained that he’d smuggled the pistol into the country inside a crate of computer parts.
“The war may have been a long time ago,” Nicolas said, “but I’m still not walking around without a gun. Not yet.”
The reunited friends and Nicolas’s wife stepped back into the shade of the porch as I blasted off my last clip.
-- Tony Perez-Giese