A PhD-level scientist, Sankar Chatterjee possesses the passion for traveling worldwide to immerse himself in new cultures and customs to discover the forgotten history of the society while attempting to find the common thread that connects the humanity as a whole for its continuity. His most recent essays appeared in The Missing Slate and Travelmag - The Independent Spirit.
Photos courtesy: Shelley Chatterjee
A Serendipitous Cultural Experience in León, Nicaragua
“Should we or shouldn’t we stop at León?” my wife asked.
“We should.” was my response.
That was a part of the conversation between her and me during a recent road-trip from Granada, Nicaragua to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in the week of Christmas. As the highway was winding up and down through the mountainous regions, we came to learn from our knowledgeable guide that we would pass by the town of León. The town had been historically the intellectual center of Nicaragua and recently served as the birthplace of the Sandinista revolutionary movement establishing the current government. In addition, León sits on the Pacific Coast offering a beautiful view of the ocean. The decision was made swiftly and we arrived in Leon around noon. For our accommodation for the night, we located an old convent (used to house the Christian nuns) currently being converted into a modern hotel, still decorated with various Christian artifacts all around. I wondered how well I had to behave staying in an ex-convent.
Once settled, we headed towards the central plaza of the town to visit León’s famous Cathedral, a UNESCO World heritage Site. After a visit to its magnificent sanctuary, we were allowed to climb up to the top of the church to get a closer look at the architecture at the top as well as a panoramic view of the mountains, dormant volcanoes and lakes of the countryside.
On descending, we explored the market area bustling with Christmas week’s business. For lunch, we grabbed a few local tamales (made up of rice, chicken, bean and some spices all mixed together and wrapped in a leaf to cook at a high temperature). While wandering around the plaza, we passed by a federal building bearing the sign Primeria Capital De La Revolution. Interestingly, in front of the building, a two-story tall colorful woman puppet stood on one side. Being new to the city, my initial impression was that it might have been a part of the street decoration for the upcoming Christmas, since various displays for the upcoming festival had already been set up throughout the area.
At day’s end, we viewed a glorious sunset from the beach of the Pacific Ocean, a short distance away from the center of the town. Returning to the central plaza, we sat down for an evening drink in an outdoor café. Soon, we started to hear the sound of drums emanating from different directions. It turned out that, in the evenings of the Christmas season, the teenagers would come out to act out a folklore, known as "La Gigantona". According to a version of the folklore, the show evolved to project the assimilation of the Spanish culture and Catholic Christian traditions with the culture and beliefs of the indigenous mestizo people. Thus, La Gigantona, a tall woman puppet dressed with a colorful gown adorned with jewelries, carried by an unseen teenager, represents a big white Spanish woman with elegance and wielding power. She is surrounded and followed around by a few Pepe Cabezón (big-headed) characters wearing big black head-gears representing short but smart indigenous men.
As we watched, various groups started to crisscross the plaza stopping for a performance in front of the café. La Gigantona of the group danced wildly while Pepe Cabezón-s shook their huge heads up and down. Meanwhile, another member started to recite coplas (poetic sayings) in a loud voice to the spectators while the drums played on. Small donations were collected at the end and the groups then headed towards various local neighborhoods.
Interestingly, in another explanation of the show’s theme, it could very well be a representation of the historic domination of the Spanish colonialism of the poor and marginalized mestizo population.
“So, was it about assimilation or exploitation?” She asked.
“Either way, it was quite a serendipitous cultural experience.” I replied.
We were already on the road to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.