Cordovas Oro de Nicaragua. It’s not like I don’t have anything better to do. But doing most anything seems to involve spending, shuffling through that new paper money. Every few years here it changes, to stay ahead of the counterfeiters, I imagine. Shortly after the Sandinistas came back into power in 2008 all those historical portraits disappeared off the next iteration of Cordovas, including Cordova himself. I miss Ruben Dario’s plump face. He was on the blue 100 note back when it was worth five dollars. (U$, naturally; all’s changed, but nevermind.) A poet, whose very words were non-denominational money, ever appreciating. Cool. That was part of the reason I dallied in Nicaragua during my original Central American sojourn. I traveled lite, without a camara, no computa, pre-cellphone-ish, but I did pack a paperback copy of some of Dario’s poems & essays. (One reading on a hammock on an isolated Guatemalan beach among sunning iguanas brought me to tears – never confess such to fellow backpackers! Another time on the same hammock under a huge ceibo tree an uraca (an intelligent, crow-like bird) spotted me and hopped down limb by limb and – while eyeball to eyeball with nature – it shat on me. Backpacker liked that story.) I digress.

So about the time Ortega gifted an original work of Dario’s to the then socialist hero Hugo Chavez while visiting & speechifying in Nicaragua, the new ‘person-less’ cords appeared in circulation. The 100 was still blue (after Dario’s book ‘Azul’), and still paper (OK, a cloth-paper composite), but a sketch of Leon’s gorgeous cathedral was on its ‘face’. On the back a drawing of the monument to Ruben Dario in Managua. (Much nicer than any statue to him here in his hometown of Leon. All are stiff soldier-like renderings. Dead poets get only misunderstood respect in their hometowns. I guess. Like they say, you can never go home again.) In the back of the 100 cord bill is woven a metallic-looking ribbon – sold to the Sandis as something near impossible to mimic in a counterfeit, I guess. But folk who deal these from their wallets to venders don’t always scrutinize what’s in hand; ditto venders more concerned with turnover. For whatever reason(s), the new blue (still) 100 cord bill is plastic (oriented PP, I guess). It has drums on both sides & clear windows (an advantage to going plastic). Most significantly the drawings are all Granada; its cathedral in front and one of their horse-drawn carriages that park in front of Hotel Alhambra along their lush Parque Central. No mention of the dead poet. The change of cities is politically significant. Historically, before Managua was its capitol, it shifted between Granada and Leon, through numerous battles. Leon was the bastion of the liberals and Granada, the conservatives. Regardless of labels, all skirmishes were fought by peons in sackcloth. The landowners of Spanish lineage kept their distance, in order to later sit down & divide the spoils (Nicaragua & serfs). The divide persists (among the old elite) despite the capitol now being in the middle (old money wisely managed lasts centuries). So the Sandis are giving a nod to both sides and more: they’re putting hallowed images of the main institutions of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua up front. Ortega & company haven’t forgotten that among the deals that brought them back into power, some 30 years after the revolution, that with the Church may have been key. Why such a diatribe over the blue 100 cords? They mark the growing (albeit slowly) middle class.

Most Nicas handle the 10 & 20 cord bills. (I was about to write “all Nicas”, but I suspect much of Pellas’ crowd never see such small denominations.) I can’t recall whose face was on the pre-Sandi-return 20, but he’s gone, to be forgotten. (Hold the presses, it’s Jose Santos Zelaya. (My little woman was saving one.) Orange print on paper. With ‘playa del Caribe’ on the flip side.) The first-round-new 20s are yellow plastic with a greenish-brown center shading. (This PP plastic has a memory effect; it never forgets how it once was folded or crammed into a pocket. For one who likes to collect bills folded in the middle to be readily peeled off & counted, these aggrevate.) They sport a thatched-roof shack titled “Costa Caribe” (the theme carried) and an Indian pounding with a pole into a large urn some vegetable into edible submission. (Some here say rice, or beans, or corn for chicha; what say you DAC boys?). The flip side shows dark-skinned women (Negro? It’s probably not political correct to suggest such a word, but such is the slave history of that region that once was British Honduras) with head turbans and long dresses lifted to show petticoats as they dance around the “Palo de Mayo”. The Sandinistas have long had little political sway over this major undeveloped region of Nicaragua, labeled the ‘Autonomous Regions, North & South’ as per the secession agreement with the Brits. (Hey, wasn’t it Zelaya who negotiated that?) And though they are present there in force (think of the ‘Canal lands’ being seized), the Sandis are not popular there. I suppose the thought behind the commonly-viewed design was propaganda aimed at reversing their unfavorable reception, plus to reinforce in the majority’s mind the claim that Nicaragua is the biggest, sea to sea Central American country despite the fact that that after five centuries 90+% of its Spanish-speaking majority reside West of the continental mountain divide. I’m anxious to see the new 20. No one I know has one, but all say it’s weirdly colored. The hardware store cashier didn’t have any to give me in change; the MoviStar kiosk looked through their wad of twenties – no new ones. I scored one at the bank LaFise. The teller had none but the skinny pencil-pusher in the office behind her knew where one was; after paying and showing my ID I got it. It’s plastic, of course, and banded with colors: red, beige, brown & red. The Moravian church (looks like a New England church) of Pearl Lagoon (wasn’t that the set for a Brook Shields movie?) is flanked by a couple of translucent sea turtles. On the back, several women in wildly patterned dress share a weird stance (like they’re ready to drop to a squat & give birth). It’s titled ‘Festival Mayo Ya’. Is that a typical celebration of Mosquito Indians? How old is the church, was it built on what was British Honduras? The DAC guys of TRN would know. But clearly the theme of not letting the ‘Atlantic regions’ forget that they’re an important (money is serious) part of Nicaragua continues.

I do have the old-new & new-new 10 cord bills. They’re colored green (dreaming of becoming dollars?) and made of that same annoying cheap plastic. No one I asked remembers who was on the pre-Sandi note. (They sell ‘em under lacquer in the tourist stalls; I must go look.) The old-new note has the ‘Castillo Immaculada Concepcion’ which I believe, is near San Carlos on Rio San Juan, the border with Costa Rica. Ortega recently & conveniently ‘fought’ with the then female president of CR over claims to a mud island mid-river; it was a simple case of wagging-the-dog as O & the Sandis sought re-election. (And the ploy work very well; appeals to patriotism always do.) The flip side of the old-new ten show a simple structure, ‘ hacienda San Jacinto’. Both it and the river fort were dropped from the new-new (a-tad-greener) ten. History lost (to be forgotten?) The battle of San Jacinto defined the new Nicaragua. Fought against the ‘filibusteros’. (A name all Nica grade school kids know that no longer translates well into English. They were American soldiers of fortune (mercenaries) drawn mostly from New Orleans pre-US-Civil-War to fight for William Walker, a sober gringo who was briefly president of Nicaragua. Nicas beat him at San Jacinto, while the Ticos were beating him in Guanacaste. Reading the history fascinated me. The elite of Leon invited (paid) Walker & his well armed toughs to battle Granada. Walker didn’t let on that he was fluent in Spanish and took over, as I said, briefly. It was the period in US history where expansion was driven by a “God-given” sense of “manifest destiny”. (And Spain-ruled Mexicans were in disarray with Napoleon stomping all in Europe.) Texas & California (& AZ & NM & NV) became US territories, and no few wanted to push into Mexico & Central America (the South had solid plans to do so had secession been successful)).

Again, a detour, I have trouble containing my thoughts. So where was I? Yes, the new-new ten, in circulation this month. Merry new socialism. On the A side an attractive perspective of “Puerto Salvador Allende” on lago Xolotlan in Managua, the new showpiece on the waterfront that I credit to La Chaya’s machinations. Restaurants, shaded picnic tables, colorful flags waving in the constant breeze (off the lake which hopefully will start smelling better; toward the lake in the party-time evening) is worth a visit when in Managua. A nominal entrance fee keeps the bad drunks out; the otherwise drunks (after all, quality FdC with set-ups is very affordable) are not allowed to go to far out of line by nearby wives (or classy girlfriends). Salvador Allende, of course, was the socialist president of Chile who confiscated AT&T copper mines there at a time when all telephony used copper wire, enraging them such that they pull all their strings to the US government in order to get the CIA to stomp Allende & socialist Chile with a ‘covert action,’ a kind of ‘secret’ war back when it was possible to keep some things secret for long enough to render all irreversible. It was nasty. Allende became a hero, a martyr for socialismo. That touches the second of the Sandinista 3-word motto: cristianismo (the 100 cord bills), socialism y solidaridad. The flip side of the new-new 10 cord note shows a beautiful woman with a multilayered skirt in mid-spin dancing “la vaquita”. It’s a folk dance commonly seen throughout Nicaragua (where folk dances are staged, mostly in the West) and is a strong tie of cultural identity, the nation’s roots, or solidarity. You’re probably asking yourself about the gang of Aunt Jemima look-alikes dancing around the Maypole on the back of the new-old 20. Right, the amalgam includes other cultural roots. All would seem not all that unified, unless you take in mind diversity (which the Supremes are struggling with at the moment) and surmise an overriding tangible sense of patria as territory (versus culture, language, history).
While at the bank I saw the guy at the window beside me depositing 500 cord bills neatly stacked and measuring roughly a foot in width, something over a million cords. Business is good in Leon. So let’s look at this red/pink money that’s still paper/cloth (the new-new is plastic coated) and is most often found unwrinkled, never wadded. Gone is the etching of the house where Sandino was born – whoa! – on the front with the copper-like ribbon woven in. In its place is the exact same drawing of the Cathedral of Leon (in red/brown) that appeared on the old-new 100 (in the poet’s blue). (Reuse is economical.) Sandino’s life is interesting & very Nica. The young men I talked with that were(are) fervent Sandinistas most admired Sandino’s modesty, the man’s humility. I would fault him for being too trusting with the likes of Somoza. Murdered after a peace parley with the dictator, Sandino’s body was never found. On the back of the old-new 500 are photos of indigenous statues on display in Granada in the museum behind iglesia San Francisco. There are more than a dozen such large stone carvings to be seen under a roof. Few visit, usually those with wallets full of pink 500 cord notes. (Or bus loads of school kids who could care less, i.e. unless the statue has a penis.) The newest 500 shows the volcano Momotombo – a near perfect cone with a geothermal plant extracting energy at its base beside lago Xolotlan (lake Managua) – that has been raining acidic dust on Leon for the last few weeks. The new-new bill has an actual hologram in front, a green-glowing halo circling but bound by a bee’s hexagonal cell. With a few shots of 7-year-old FdC gran reserva (or the 12 or 18 year-old stuff, should you, dear reader who has read this far, be among the 1%), you may see the hologram differently, or experience synesthesia. Groovy.

The plastic 200s went from yellow to banded-brown-beige with a nice rendering of the Gueguence charming a couple of sucker Spaniards out of their money. What I dislike is the erasure of the guardabarranca. The gorgeously colored, rare, national bird is nicely shown in the old-new 200 (by Isla Ometepe which I can’t make out). In the new-new most of its body is clear plastic – error!

The best thing about the old-new 50 cord is the national flower sacuanjoche. The old Central Bank building on the bill is simply modern ugly. And the sketch of Somoto Canyon in monotone is too flat. The new-new 50 shows Masaya’s attractive crafts market downtown that looks like a midevil castle and hosts ‘jueves vervena’, the Thursday night dinner-theater that features folk dancing (drawn nicely on the flip side). The newer is banded purple-beige, whereas the older of the two is all purple (lite, lilac?) with the bright pink sacuanjoche.
When I ‘moved ‘ here near 10 years ago, they’re were red/pink 5 cord bills. No more. Now there are 5 cord coins. (10 cord coins rapidly disappeared from circulation. I’m guessing they got squirreled away by savers(hoarders) who don’t trust banks and know that bills are bug food (though the plastic must be particularly undigestible).) It was a poetic move by Nicaragua to use the same red/pink color scheme for the fat-cat 500 cord notes. The exchange rate was 18 cord/dollar when I came here 10 years ago; now it’s hugging 28 cords/$ - a slight inflation rate with respect to dollars that was fixed by some US-Nica accord that I’m unaware of. I live here only half-years, during the US chilly-cold months, a snow-bird, as they say. Nicaragua is my un-Florida (nothing against the geriatrics who could only dimple, not punch-out, those famous chads of 2000).

When those dower-face Ticos change their Colones a few years ago, they made the old bills bogus, unspend-worthy, to be exchange at banks. I got caught with a bunch of year-old bogus Colones at the border. I used to cross every 90 days to renew my Nica visa. (Since then diabolico Ticos have tagged on more fees & require exit-CR ticket (bus, plane) for those not driving.) I’d save a few Colones to hop a bus & eat, avoiding getting screwed by the exchange kiosk. The s.o.b’s wouldn’t let me on the bus (the last out) with a fistful of year-old Colones. Dollars worked. A bank in La Cruz exchanged my biggest bills (>10,000; for $2,000 you too can be a millionaire in CR!) for new Colones, showing my passport (as though money forgers don’t carry forged passports). The rest are bookmarks in various half-read paperbacks. I could have exchanged those small bills at their central bank in San Jose, a costly trip – the small bills, mind you, that the poor use mostly. Clearly a move to rob the poorest or dumb saps like me who believe that paper money issued by a government is backed by the integrity of that government (“full faith & credit”). Ticos are less able to defend themselves against counterfeiters. They have no room to complain &/or ridicule Nicas. Ticos are under China’s thumb (and guess who has the most skilled counterfeiters in off-shore ships on international waters), overrun by narco-lords (CR has imported demand, too many gringos with lots of money who want to get high) and economic refugees. Ticos are unable to ‘take-it-easy’. Nicas smile. Come to Nicaragua to play with the faceless fun money – it’s real, guaranteed, if an ATM regurgitates it from your homeland account. I only occasionally check my change for bogus bills, because I mainly deal with establishments I trust. None thus far (maybe I passed ‘em on unwittingly). But I’ve seen a few (500s), taped up beside registers.

Happy holidays, days-off, days-in-prayer, days-in-limbo and planned or not fiestas!