The streets are lined with chicken buses. It seems that all of Nicaragua has converged in Leon tonight. Vendors are on every corner selling quesillos, empanadas, maduros and all manner of small toys.
This is the celebration of the conception of Mary, La Purisima.
In Nicaragua 47% of the population proclaims Catholicism and another 37% protestant. Leon boasts the largest basilica in all of central America, Catedral de León. The celebration seems to be concentrated here.
We made our way to the central park just outside the cathedral. The square was packed with people shoulder to shoulder.
At 6PM what sounded like a canon exploded. Fireworks flew overhead lighting the sky in screaming kaleidoscopes. Sirens wailed and the church bells rang.
Towering over the crowd, six gigantonas, lifeless until now, suddenly became animated and started twirling in a care-free dance to the beat of drums that added to the already saturated cacophony. Gigantonas are tall, statuesque dolls built to satirically represent the lavish, Spanish woman who came with the conquistadors. How are they related to La Purisima? Quien sabe.
Smoke from the fireworks descended like a mist on top of the crowd. The massive doors to the basilica began to open. A large display of Mary with a backdrop of blue shimmering cloth appeared.
Quien causa tanta allegria?
The crowd began to push their way toward the blessings being handed out in front of the shrine to Mary. Others started dissipating into the city streets to commence La Griteria (the shouting). People visit houses and shout Quien causa tanta allegria? (who causes so much happiness?) and the homeowners respond with la conception de Maria (Mary’s conception) while handing out a treat which could be anything from noise-making toys, candies, plastic bowls or plates, or a bag of spaghetti noodles.
At first we were hesitant to join the fray but pretty soon it became apparent that it did not matter which class of society you belong. Everybody participates. Trin enthusiastically approached the homes with his hands raised in a receptive gesture exclaiming, “Quien causa tanta allegria?” (I guess it was memorable. Three days later as we were walking through central park a man stood watching us closely as we approached. With a huge smile on his face he held his hands outs and said “Quien causa tanta allegria?” He said he remembers us at his house).
Treats, but no tricks
We ended up with a bowl, candies, cups, laundry soap and a few other items. It was a lot of fun. It’s a bit similar to trick or treating in the United States, but not really. This is how we ended up not quite trick-or-treating in Leon.
By midnight we were back in our rooms when the next barrage of fireworks went off. We could constantly hear fireworks all night long going off from various directions. I couldn’t decide if we were in a war zone or in the middle of a huge bag of microwave popcorn. I was glad we were back in our rooms safe from the sparks and streamers.
The following day is also considered a holiday. We slept in and moseyed along, getting breakfast and studying Spanish. The guy next door invited us to go to Las Penitas beach for the afternoon. His name is Jonas and he is from Germany staying in Leon for a few months to do his medical internship. We also met Tanya, a local Nica whom Jonas met through her German lessons.
Playa Las Penitas
The beach-bound buses at the Mercadito in Subtiaba were all packed. It turns out that Dec 8 is a popular day to go to the beach. We decided to hitch hike and found a ride in the back of a pickup truck. A couple of french backpackers joined us, and we were on our way. Jonas pulled out a six pack of Victoria Classic and passed it out.
About a half hour later we got off at Bomalu Resort, a less crowded part of Playa Las Penitas. Tanya said that there would be fewer visitors here, and she was right. There were only a few on the beach and we enjoyed a peaceful afternoon split between jumping in the ocean waves and relaxing under a pavilion simply enjoying great conversation.
Tanya had to leave early but the rest of us stayed till the sun disappeared beyond the sea and then we wandered back out on the road to catch the bus.
As the bus went by we saw that every seat and the aisle was packed including the steps going into the bus and the exit doors. We decided to thumb it. Before long a pickup truck pulled over, and we hopped in the back. We had plenty of room for the journey with a beautiful warm breeze and Venus emerging in the sky while the colors gradually drained from the sparse clouds.