Diriamba. A run-of-the-mill town. The kind of town you notice just as you are about to leave it. A church, a square, a boarding house and a couple of streets. Streets that run in a straight line from north to south and east to west, in which only the memory of a colonial look braves the wind forever blowing on the Nicaraguan tableland. Even the dust from this dry and barren country is swept away. Sounds scatter. And illusions.
It is dusk. On the way to Diriá, one of the sorcerer’s towns, I have taken the wrong bus and ended up in Diriamba. Bar Flomoli is the only place serving a meal.
“Hello, my friend,” a man calls out as soon as I have taken a seat.
“How are you?”
“Fine, and you?”
The short, slight man gets to his feet and totters over to my table. He bows forward and extends his hand.
“Please let me introduce myself: José Hernández, at your service.”
His breath smells strongly of alcohol. The man sits down and stares straight at me from his watery eyes.
“Do you speak espanish?”
“Yes, I do.”
His gaze remains fixed on me, he takes a puff from his cigarette and exhales.
“Fine then. Spanish it is. That’s easier. And better. That way we can understand one another well. It is important for people to understand one another, am I right? Let’s talk, that’s what we’re here for, aren’t we?”
Hernández clears his throat.
“I’d like to ask you a question. Just one. See if you know.”
He restrains himself.
“We’re sitting here, peaceful, having a chat. That’s great, isn’t it?”
Again, he waits.
“But all the same, and that’s what I want to ask you: where is the faith?”
“Yes, the faith. What is the faith? You look like you have been to school, you’re intelligent if you ask me, that’s why I’m asking you, because it’s pretty complicated. Do you know what faith is? Can you explain that to me? Just that.”
He brushes back a lock of hair from his forehead and keeps on looking straight at me, until the cigarette falls out of his mouth and he bends over to pick it up. He puts the cigarette back and awaits my reply.
“Faith,” I say, “that is believing in something without knowing what it is, believing that the road you are following is the right one. Something like that.”
“Exactly! Something like that. But you don’t know it, not really. I don’t know, no one knows. No one can explain to me what faith is. Where is it? I’m telling you, right, I tell you: faith does not exist.”
With a sluggish, but sudden movement, he turns around and waves his arm into the air.
“Señorita, señorita, please bring two more beers. You do want to have a beer with me, don’t you?”
“But, aren’t you a Catholic?” I ask, after we have toasted.
“You bet. Yes, I’m a Catholic. I believe in God and I go to church.”
“And the priest, what does he say?”
Hernández shrugs his shoulders.
“He can’t tell me where faith is. He doesn’t know either. And let’s be honest, what does faith have to do with me going to mass, where I think about the Lord and only see women. I pray and meditate on Him, as deeply as I can, you understand, and the only thing I see are women, naked women. How can you say you are a believer then? When all you can think about during mass are women?”
“Faith and women are two different things, aren’t they?”
“Faith doesn’t exist, I tell you…I’m in my fifties, right, so we might suppose I have a little more experience than you, shall we say, about the things of life.”
He tosses back his beer, froth spews out of the corners of his mouth. With the back of his hand he wipes his lips from left to right.
“You see, I have a garage, a couple of streets from here. I work every day, the way it should be. I have a wife and five children. But like I said: faith does not exist.”
José shakes his head.
“How could that be if your favorite son dies? Of all my children, I had six you know, he was the one I loved the most. The best of all of them, right, that’s what I told him, and then he dies. What good is faith, when it comes to those kind of things?”
He gives me a questioning look with his red-rimmed eyes, before staring down at nothing in particular.
“And that’s when I started drinking. For at least a whole year, downing shots, morning, noon and night. I was still going to work, mind you, but all day long, although slightly less in the morning. Hey, señorita, two more beers please!” he shouts behind him, before continuing.
“You ask yourself, what did I do wrong? How was I supposed to know he was on drugs?”
He lifts up his head and looks me right in the eyes.
“Did you know I started having dreams? I saw the Virgin appear before me. Dressed all in white she was. As white as a sheet. I kneel before her and feel how she scatters leaves over my head, they turn out to be rose bush leaves. Then, a week later, a gentleman appears who is walking up ahead. I did not know it was the Son. Until he suddenly turned around. He points his finger in my direction and says: “You!”
Hernández jabs his finger toward me.
“A couple of days later my favorite son was dead. The best one, like I already said. He had planned everything. Suicide. What did I do wrong, I said to myself, right. Well, if this kind of thing happens to you, you ask yourself: where is faith? And during mass, when I want to be contemplating the Lord, all I can see are women. You understand what I mean?”
He downs a generous swig of beer.
“My workplace is doing pretty good, but you can’t really make a comfortable living out of it. Sometimes my brothers and sisters have to help me out. They all live in the United States, you see. Four hundred, five hundred dollars. One of my sisters recently sent me a package. Do you know what was in it? Poison! To kill cockroaches, she wrote. But you kill cockroaches by stepping on them with your feet, bam and you’re done! I don’t need any poison, I need dollars. Well, the next time she comes to visit I’ll make that perfectly clear to her.”
He grimly takes another drag off his cigarette and throws it away.
“It all really sucks, I tell you. And busting your ass at the garage, even though I am really a flight engineer, right, but I couldn’t get a job doing that.”
He pauses briefly to reflect.
“Do you know what I say? Let’s hope the new government is going to help the country get back on its feet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Somoza, but the Sandinistas have brought this country to rack and ruin. Under Somoza everybody had his job, and
that was that. There was not as much mess with him as there was with the Sandinistas. What I’m telling you, if the new government does not help this country get back on its feet, we’re all going to get screwed.”
He stares down at his feet again in silence. Suddenly, he looks up at me.
“And you, what brings you here? Your work?”
“As a journalist.”
“As a journalist. Well, you must be recording all this then? To put it in one of your papers. Fine. So let’s tell the truth here, because that’s what you should always do with journalists, tell the whole truth. And the truth is, what we were just talking about, right, the truth is that faith does not exist. Because you can talk and talk about faith without ever getting an answer. That is why I am personally telling you that faith does not exist. You don’t know, nobody knows.”
He calls for two more beers and says:
“I am very pleased to meet you, my friend. That’s how you say it in English, isn’t it? Pleased to meet you.”
He lets a little laugh escape his lips, then turns serious again before staring back at the table.
“And I dreamt about the Virgin, scattering roses all over me, and the Son who said: ‘You!’ And then my favorite son dies, the best, you see? If I had known. For me, friend, faith does not exist. We’re screwed, all of us.”
He takes another big gulp, says nothing for a moment, and then resolutely sets the bottle down on the table top.
“Look, because you should always tell a journalist nothing but the truth, I am going to say something that is not very nice, but you mustn’t put it in one of your papers, you understand. Something personal, between you and me.”
He holds back, then looks at me askance.
“I don’t know if I can tell you, I mean, it’s really intimate, a question. Not nice at all.”
The cigarette falls from his hands, but he doesn’t notice.
“I am a full blown man, right. I have my wife and five kids…oh, I don’t know.”
He lights up another cigarette and raises his bottle.
“To your health, my friend, you are a nice guy. I can really talk to you. Because you are not from around here, you see.”
He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth and lets his breath escape.
“Like I said, I’m a full blown man. Women appear before me, during mass, don’t they?”
Carlos looks me straight in the eye.
“But the truth, you want to know the truth, that’s right isn’t it? Nothing but the truth.”
He takes a long drag off his cigarette. After another hefty swig of beer he leans forward, supporting himself with his arms on his thighs, loosely cradling the bottle in his hands. He looks at me out of the corner of his eyes.
“My wife…my wife, how shall I put it, my wife doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. Like an iron bar, that’s how she lays there. And I…I can’t bear it. She has closed her legs on me for years now. And I just can’t bear it, you understand?”
He sits up straight a bit, sizing me up with an intense, but blurry look in his eye.
“You, on the other hand, you see, as big as you are, I’m just some shrimp, but you look virile. At least, it seems like it to me. Am I right or what? She hasn’t wanted to do it with me for years, but you…my wife could fancy a bit of that.”
Carlos goes silent, with a vacant stare, taking his time before speaking again: “Look, my house is two kilometers from here, two blocks south of the Colonia. When you go that way, you’ll automatically find yourself standing in front a big white house. ‘That’s the most beautiful one around,’ you will say. My house is the best one in the street.”
He looks bashfully at me.
“I’m going to ask you an indelicate question…something between us, right. The thing is this. If you go with me, you will…you will find my wife…Me, like I told you, she hasn’t wanted for years. But you. My wife, that is… she will give you a warm reception…with her legs spread wide open.”
He stares blankly into space, takes a big swig of beer, staying still and lost in thought for quite some time. Then in a serious tone of voice, even though he is having trouble speaking, he says:
“And all I can do is think of women, even in the house of God, and those dreams, right, and my son, who dies. That’s why I’m telling you, amigo, the truth, since, after all that’s what we’ve been talking about all along, the truth is, faith does not exist.”
That’s the way it is. Diriamba. A run-of-the-mill town. Before the intersection, where the main road bends to the left and goes out of town past the gas station, is a church steeple. Just as austere as the surrounding fields, with a simple dial facing every direction of the wind. Slow and relentless the hands of the clock move, while the wind blows by, day in and day out, carrying dust, sound and illusions in its wake. Even faith, which surely does not exist here.
This is a story from Maarten Roest’s “Nicaragua: At the Foot of the Volcano”, a rare portrait of Nicaragua’s transition from a place of hope that inspired people around the world into a country where utopia was left behind. During the two years he spent living there, Maarten Roest traveled throughout ‘the country of lakes and volcanoes’, even experiencing the temptations of the ‘other’, Caribbean Nicaragua and literally putting on gloves in the shadowy world of Nicaraguan boxing. Uncompromisingly yet full of empathy, he describes a society that, yet again, is facing the threat of civil war. See more on: www.amazon.com/Maarten-Roest/e/B018Y4CZ9M