Puppetry at the Nicaraguan deathcamp
Words and pictures by Jeff Shyman
A funny thing happened at the deathcamp yesterday. Actually, a lot of funny things. And that was weird.
I am one who feels that 'tragedy tourism' is important. It's one thing to learn about the Killing Fields, but looking at the pictures of the dead, seeing their skulls and the ditches they were thrown gives a better chance to let it sink in what it all mean, if anything. Visiting the sight of the Ancash avalanche in Peru, that buried a town of 25,000, leaving just a few hundred survivors was pretty important when I think of how I dealt emotionally with Katrina.
With that I went to Carcel XXI in Leon, the prison where generations of Somozas jailed, tortured and killed generations of people who thought, correctly, that the Samozas were assholes. Much of the Sandininsta leadership of the 1979 revolution spent time there, some never returning. As you cross the thick high wooden walls, you see the guard tower, the water torture tanks, and then get an experience nobody could ever have prepared me for, and if they tried, I wouldn't have believed it.
The prison is now the Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas, dedicated to the myths and legends from Nicaragua, the early Indians, the Spanish, the later mixed cultures. The Museum was placed there because after the civil war, there was no other building that was large enough for the collection that was still standing.
The place seems (relatively) normal enough until I enter the first room and there is a gigantic puppet of the mutant bastard of David Byrne, John Waters and Hitler staring right at me. I laughed out loud, which was awkward since it was just me and my slightly insane crosseyed guide alone. As a bonus, to that puppets left, appeared to be (New Orleans R&B singer) Ernie K-Doe holding black and gold pompoms. I wasn't expecting that, actually.
Turns out David Byrne/John Waters/Hitler was Jose de la Cruz Mena, Nicaraguans greatest (only) classical composer. Also a leper. Why was he wearing such a big suit was never answered. Ernie K Doe was the jester, I was told, but that was obvious.
Off to the next prison room, where I heard the tale of the Giant Gold Crab that walks the streets of Nicaragua the week of Semana Santa. If you catch the crab, you are blessed with no financial woes that year, which as I asked, would probably be because you have a giant golden crab. "No man is poor who has a gold crab in his pocket", as my abuela used to say.
The stories and puppets took a turn for the truly nuts as I got to the Toma Tu Teta. In awesomely mangled English my guide explained that she was the daughter of the richest man in town. Her face was hideous, but she had amazing "boosters", and by "boosters", I could tell from the puppet, my guide meant "tits". Anyway, since no one would marry her, she would go about town late at night to find lecherous drunks. She would offer to let them kiss them (if you're thinking about Roadhouse now, you're not alone) and when you did she would crush your head with them and kill you. On a quiet night, they say you can still here me laughing at that tale, because, well, I am.
Her puppet was in the area of the prison where those who were sentenced to death awaited their killing. It was decorated with Halloween wrapping paper and had a 'scary sounds and screaming' CD on a loop.
The guide would enter every room and say, "What it is important for you to learn is this..." and begin the story. What I learned was always way different to what he intended. Tomorrow I will climb and sled down the side of a volcano. Compared to this museum, it's gonna be boring as hell.