Print and Go Back Surfing [Print without images]

Monday, July 16, 2012
Welcome to Nicaragua

With wide open beaches and offshore winds all day, the ISA World Masters Championships are in for a treat this week at Playa Colorado.

Pork spines, hoofs and snouts dangle from the window of the carniceria. Flies buzz. The smell of fatty meat spoiling in the sun wafts by on the tropical airwaves. The people of Rivas, Nicaragua, shop for dinner. A block up is the farmers market ... a real farmers market with real farmers, who work their plots in the hopes of making enough money to support their family for another week, like impoverished people have done for centuries. No GMO foods, everything's organic because that's just how it's grown. Who can afford pesticides, herbicides or super tomatoes here? No crafty "100 percent organic" stickers litter the produce. The tentacles of ConAgra have yet to wrap themselves around this tiny banana republic. Pineapples, coconuts, mangos, sacks of dried beans and rice fill the stalls.

Nicaragua ranks as the second poorest country in the Americas behind Haiti. But today there is hope. Today there is reason to celebrate. In the central square of Rivas workers busy themselves erecting scaffolding, in two hours the opening ceremony of the International Surfing Association's World Masters Championships will march down the streets that seem to have no names. Flags will wave, drums will beat, and it will all be broadcast live on the countries two national TV stations. ISA President Fernando Aguerre will fly in on President Daniel Ortega's helicopter.

"On the way in from Managua we flew over a volcano where previous dictators would dump their political opponents," he'll say later the following day.

It's the first world championship of any kind to come to the country since a billiards tournament in 1994. Even Arabic news channel Al Jazeera will come down to cover the goings on. Al frickin' Jazeera, people. Simply put, it's the biggest thing to happen to the country in years, maybe ever, and it shows on the faces of the people. Pride is inescapable.

In America or Australia, or those few other First World countries where the sport of surfing has flourished, people wouldn't give a contest like this any more consideration than a fart in the wind. Aguerre and company would try to make them care, but it's easy to be cynical, and in America it's just something else, another event, another day at the beach. But for Rivas, for Nicaragua, this is a big, big deal. The president, who Aguirre reckons is Central America's Nelson Mandela, is watching, the Board of Tourism is on notice, and things couldn't be going better.

26 countries and 150 surfers will be represented this week at the ISA event, for Nicaragua it's a huge deal and even bigger honor.

Over the next week the Masters will take place at Playa Colorado, a beachbreak where the wind blows offshore all day and the jungle comes down to the sand. All 150 of the surfers in the event are 35 years old and over, a fact that induced snide "old guys rule" jokes from friends before I left. Headliners include Hawaiian champ Sunny Garcia, America's Shea Lopez and Dean Randazzo, and Australia's Robbie Paige. Nicaragua will not be represented in the water, the sport is too new here, nobody that surfs is over 35 yet.

Ever since the opening ceremony at Rivas on Saturday the question, can surfing change the world, has been rolling around in my head. Maybe it's because after covering the sport for so long I can't help but wonder what's the point of talking about a dreamer's pursuit such as this when there's civil war, nuclear arms races and suffering in the world. But then again, surfing, like any sport, can be a powerful mechanism for change. The people of Nicaragua are hoping this is the case.

It feels safe here, unlike traveling in Mexico or El Salvador. Petty crime exists in Managua, but that's no different than any big city. In Nicaragua, thanks in large part to the efforts of President Ortega and the efforts of the country's law enforecemnt personel, drug cartels do not run the show. Bodies are no longer flung into volcanoes, bags of severed heads don't mysterious appear in town squares.

When I asked my driver, Tomas, what people thought of the president he said, "To me , es muy bien, for the poor people of Nicaragua, he's fantastico. He change the country in many good ways."

But maybe it was former world tour surfer Shea Lopez that put it best as the first day of competition was coming to a close yesterday: "I've been wanting to come down here for a long time, and now that I've seen what's here, I'll definitely be coming back."

And that, after all, is what the people of Nicaragua are hoping for.