Letter from Nicaragua

The May/June & July/August double issue of Orion featured “Mango, Mango!” (selected as a web exclusive by the website Longreads.com), a report from the Mercado Oriental, Central America’s largest marketplace. The author, Douglas Haynes, who spent a day with Dayani Baldelomar, an eleven-year veteran of the market, sent us this update.

In Nicaragua, October is the cruelest month—the month of heaviest rains, frequent floods, and, this year, even an earthquake. Fortunately, the 7.4 magnitude tremor that rattled Managua on the night of October 14th did little damage. But people poured into the streets, spooked by the memories of previous quakes that have devastated Nicaragua’s capital. In the Mercado Oriental (Eastern Market), where Dayani Baldelomar Bustos sells fruit and soft drinks, vendors fear chaos if a quake were to strike during the day, squeezing more than one hundred thousand panicked people out of the market through narrow evacuation routes.

Managua didn’t escape October’s rains, though. Large swaths of the city flooded several times, and knee-high water filled the dirt street Dayani lives on. Rushing currents repeatedly carpeted low-lying parts of the Mercado Oriental with sodden garbage. For two weeks, trash lined the curb in front of Dayani’s stand—at one of the busiest bus stops in the city—until she and her neighboring vendors paid someone to take it away. The city garbage trucks responsible for picking up the trash never came.

The earthquake and the rains made months of slow business in the Oriental even worse. As food prices have reached unprecedented heights over the past year and people have less to spend, self-employed vendors like Dayani have suffered. She’s now lucky to make five dollars on a very good day when she used to top out at six or seven.

One of her staple fruits, watermelon, exemplifies the problem. A year ago, she could buy a dozen watermelons for about ten dollars to slice and sell. Now, a dozen watermelons cost around twenty dollars, more than she can invest, so she only buys four or five. She knows that if she raises the price she charges for a slice—five córdobas (nineteen cents)—customers won’t buy watermelon. So she settles for making less money. The prices she pays for bananas and oranges have doubled too, and her profits on these fruits have been roughly halved. Soda and water sales are all that’s keeping her business afloat.

Dayani sees her current economic situation as unsustainable, so she’s planning to start a new business that she thinks will be more profitable. From a stall deep in the market that she just bought, she’s going to sell plantain and yucca chips that her mother and siblings make every day. She will sell them in bulk to roving street vendors and sell homemade fruit drinks. But first, she has to finish paying for the stall. She hopes that the increased sales of the holiday shopping season at her fruit and drink stand will earn her the rest of the $450 price of the stall so she can start her new business in January. Through eleven years at her stand, she has developed a business and support network from nothing, but she knows that her family depends on her ability to adapt and move on.

In the meantime, artificial Christmas trees and lights are appearing for sale in the Oriental, and the market’s three hundred private security guards are making new plans to protect shoppers during the holidays, when up to two hundred thousand people a day enter the market. But the season has started ominously. On the morning of November second, the Day of the Dead, as shoppers were buying flowers to decorate graves, a lovers’ quarrel across the road from Dayani’s stand ended in murder. A water vendor known as El Flaco twice stabbed twenty-seven-year-old water vendor Jessica Conner as she was getting on a bus. She bled to death in the road.

The market was still haunted by the murder when I stopped by Dayani’s stand to say goodbye two days later. She told me that she wasn’t at her stand when it happened, but her fourteen-year-old son, Edwin, was. He saw the killer walking down the middle of the road with a knife in one hand and blood all over his shirt. People in the street were shouting “Watch out! Watch out!” Dayani’s other son, thirteen-year-old Gabriel, knew Jessica. She played soccer with him at The Filter House, a nearby center for street kids and teenagers who work in the market. She left four orphaned children behind. Jessica’s death was part of a growing wave of violence against women in Nicaragua that has included sixty-nine murders so far this year.

I left the market with this grim reminder that the Oriental is a city within a city, “with all of the problems of a city,” as market manager Augusto Rivera once told me. Its future, like Dayani’s, swings on the pendulum of the everyday struggle to survive.

Douglas Haynes teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. An interview with Haynes about his time in Managua was aired on ABC’s Saturday Extra. Photographs courtesy of Douglas Haynes.