Nicaragua: Honoring Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente
“I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.” -Roberto Clemente

As a young child, I remember falling in love with baseball.  Baseball players were my heroes and my friends and I traded baseball cards for our favorites (Oh, to still have those…).  In the third grade I signed up for the local little league team but I didn’t have a baseball glove.  I remember my mother licking S&H Green Stamps until she had a greeen tongue and enough books filled with stamps to “buy” me a glove.  I still have it.  I  played organized baseball through Little League, Teener League, high school, and Legion Baseball.  In those early days, I was a Phillies fan and would strap my transistor radio (check the history books for what that was…) to the handle bars of my bike and ride up on the hill by our house glued to the broadcast of as many games as I could every summer.

In 1964, beloved Phillies had 12 games left in the season with a 6.5 game lead over St. Louis and Cincinnati.  Their magic number was 6…any combination of six wins by them or losses by the Cardinals and Reds who were hot on their heels.  They should have been a “lock” to win the National League Pennant and move on to the World Series.  Instead, the Phillies collapse was epic.  They lost 10 games in a row, finished third in the NL and the St. Louis Cardinals went on to win the NL Pennant and the World Series.  I haven’t listened to the Phillies since.  Go Orioles !!!

But my love of baseball never waned.  My son Mark and I took a motorcycle trip with a memorable stop in Cooperstown, NY to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame…sacred, hallowed ground to baseball fans (…we were actually heading to Canada to buy Cuban cigars…!!!).  While walking through that quiet, reverent place of commemorating the greats of the game, one couldn’t help but feel the aura honoring the players enshrined there.  They are there because of their accomplishments on the field.  And no one deserves that honor more than Roberto Clemente.  With a .317 life time batting average, 240 career home runs, 2 World Series Championships, 12 All Star appearances, 12 straight Gold Glove awards as a right-fielder along with National League MVP and World Series MVP awards, he is the epitome of a consummate ballplayer both on and off the field.  In what would be the last at-bat of his career, Clemente got his 3,000th hit–a double.  There is no doubt his achievements on the field are worthy of his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame (92% of the vote on the first ballot).  But it is his off-the-field devotion to the community that makes him such a remarkable man and role model for children.

Roberto Clemente StadiumEven though Clemente was from Puerto Rico (not Nicaragua), imagine my surprise when I saw a baseball stadium and marker named after the Pittsburgh Pirates legend in the center of downtown Old Managua.  Those of us old enough will remember that Clemente was tragically lost in an airplane accident in 1972 cutting short what would have been the final years of an amazing career but the details of that loss are not as well known.

In 1972, Nicaragua was hit by a devastating earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people, injured some 20,000 and more than 250,000 people were left homeless.  The city was devastated.  Clemente did more than simply donate some money to the relief effort.  He organized and gathered supplies to help those in need in Nicaragua during an unbelievable time of national disaster and arranged to fly them to Nicaragua.  Unbelievably, however, the Somosa government was so corrupt at the time that it was stealing the supplies from the planes at the airport intended to help the Nicaraguan people–three planes had been sent with similar results and the supplies never reached the people in need.  In an effort to assure the crucial supplies actually reached the people of Nicaragua whose lives were devastated by the quake, Roberto Clemente thought his presence on the next relief flight to Nicaragua might thwart any efforts by the Somosa government to steal the supplies and bring international attention to what was happening in Nicaragua.  It was a fateful decision.  Shortly after take off, Clemente’s overloaded plane went down in the ocean and no survivors were ever found.

P1010599The stadium that honors his memory and his efforts to help the people of Nicaragua is small but beautifully maintained.  Although the gates to the playing field were locked when I was there, I tried desparately to get the maintanance man to let me in and take my picture at home plate.  He explained, in Spanish, that only the Ministry of Sports had the key to the stadium and he pointed to a building off in the distance that I would have to visit to get permission (and the key) to go on the field.  In spite of my desire to commemorate my visit and considering my “command” of the language, I thought such an occurrence highly unlikely and decided to forego the walk to the building.

Clemente’s jersey is displayed in left, center, and right field

In each section of the outfield, Clemente’s jersey and uniform number is posted (left field, center field, and right field).  The grass and grounds are beautifully maintained and the baseball stadium is the centerpiece of a relatively new park built for the people of Managua (Parque Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores).   A family oriented-park with playgrounds, soccer fields, basketball courts, and family gathering areas, it represents just how important Clemente was to this community and, I am sure, the kind of legacy he would have wanted to leave behind.  Clemente was a remarkable man and the people of Nicaragua have never forgotten his valiant effort to help them.


Nicaragua: Taxi Talk in a foreign tongue–BRILLANT ! (…not so much)

Individual Taxi in Managua

The city of Managua is a big place.  Too big to walk everywhere and I wasn’t adventurous enough yet to ride the local buses.  Taxis seemed the most logical option for me but I struggled with telling taxi drivers where I wanted to go.  Very few spoke any English and as noted before, my Spanish is, shall we say, somewhat short of flawless.  After sitting up on the mountain with a six-pack and thinking deep thoughts, I came up with a BRILLIANT well thought out plan, a technological wonder that would make men and women weep and children cheer for its simplicity.  Well…kinda.

Taxis are an interesting means of transportation in Nicaragua.  You can flag one down along most streets and they seem to be everywhere.  Some have the company name on the door, others have the company name AND the word “Individual” (see photo above).  Taxis designated Individual mean you, and only you, are in the taxi from the time you are picked up until you arrive at your destination–you pay the whole fare.  Taxis without the Individual designation (colectivos) can be flagged down by anyone at anytime along the way whether you’re in it or not.  Thus, the empty taxi you started out in might have seven of your closest friends in it, whom you never met, by the time you arrive at your destination–the fare is ostensibly split making it more cost effective for the locals.

Note no “Individual” designation–come one, come all colectivo.

People flag the colectivos down at anytime regardless of the number of occupants.  They simply cram themselves in.  Some sitting on laps, possibly yours !  Some have air conditioning but it seldom works.  Although I did not utilize the colectivo taxis, I have no doubt there is a national law requiring deodorant.  Think of the sixties when folks tried to see how many people could be crammed into a Volkswagen Beetle at once….  I’m not quite that adventurous so I only took “Individual” taxis or used the private car services available with a phone call…usually safer, newer cars, that are better maintained and have functioning air conditioning.  The car service vehicles are unmarked and often have English speaking drivers.  They are only slightly more expensive than the “Individual” taxis but I had good experiences with them.  In fact, one driver gave me his card and home cell phone number and was quite willing to take my calls anytime.  Thank you Samuel Salazar !  Although I took a curbside taxi from the airport when I arrived, Samuel’s car service took me back as I had an early flight and he was very reliable.

ScreenshotBecause the taxi drivers almost universally spoke only Spanish, getting to my desired destination was an adventure.  I had a brainstorm, an epiphany…put technology to work !!!  By using the wonder of screenshots through Trip Advisor and Google Maps of where I wanted to go, I could simply show them.  The beauty of using the Trip Advisor (small map with the street address clearly listed on the screen at left), it was a foolproof plan regardless of the language barrier.  I was proud of my technological creativity and anxious to give it a try.  As an aside, note the lack of street addresses (no house numbers and street names).  The translation of the directions on the left are to go to the Rotonda Ruben Dario (a large traffic circle landmark in Managua), 1 block south, 3 blocks east, 1/2 block south !!!  Other such postal addresses might be “the green house across from the soccer field.”

When I decided to move to the small hotel from my initial rooms on the planet Solar (see earlier post), I flagged down a taxi.  Predictably, the driver spoke no English.  The hotel, I suppose, was such a small one that it was not a national landmark in Managua so he had no idea where I wanted to go.  Anxious to test my brilliance, I handed him my phone with the screen shot displayed and he looked at it carefully.  What could possibly go wrong?  He held it up, he held it down, he shaded it with his hand, he stretched his arm to full length and squinted.  Final I gave the name of the hotel.  He said “Ah…hotel” and he handed me the phone back.  In flawless Spanish I said, “Si” and we were off.

Now I’m no geographical genius but I had carefully studied maps of Managua to get a sense of where on the planet I was.  I was pretty sure the taxi driver was heading in the wrong direction but what did I know?  He took more back streets than I knew existed and seemed very purposeful in his driving.  I was pretty convinced I would become a statistic on the U.S. State Department website.  However, just about the time I was ready to pull the emergency stop cord (there wasn’t one), he pulled up in front of a hotel.  A hotel.  Not my hotel.  This place looked like even pimps and hookers would have higher standards.  What a shit hole.

The taxi driver proudly pointed to the building and said, “Hotel !”

I said, “No señor. No mi hotel.”  At first I thought he had simply taken the dumb Gringo for a ride to his cousin’s sister’s brother’s hotel and the whole family would come out to greet me.  I wondered how on earth did we end up here.  For no reason in particular, a statistic I had read popped into my head…UNICEF and others estimate the adult literacy rate to be about 78%  (Costa Rica, by contrast is 98%; the United States is 99%).  That means that about 1 in 4 Nicaraguans cannot read.  I think I found the one in four.

With that realization, I read the directions from the phone screen to the taxi driver and his face lit up with a smile and he said, “Si” quite happily and we were off.  I got the sense he had absolutely no idea where I wanted to go to begin with and didn’t know how to ask.  I didn’t know enough Spanish to tell him.  By reading him the directions, he took me directly to the door of the hotel.  Lesson learned.  Back to the drawing board…maybe not so brilliant an idea.