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Navigating Nicaragua: A Lesson In Getting Lost

Aug 16, 2014
Originally published on August 16, 2014 8:46 pm

One of the most popular songs by the Irish band U2 is about a place where the streets have no names. That place could be Nicaragua, the small Central American nation where I just got back from a reporting trip.

While major boulevards and highways do have names in Nicaragua, and some buildings even have numbers, no one uses them. So if you are trying to get around or find an office building, let's say to interview someone, then you're in trouble.

The way to navigate Nicaragua, I quickly learned, is by reference points. When in the capital, most involve the lago, Lake Managua. Two blocks to the lake, then go three blocks south and one down. Lost? I was, constantly.

But I had help from my Nicaraguan producer, Dorisell Blanco, who thankfully also did all the driving. Her address: Start from the place where all the journalists live, head south to the entrance, go two blocks down, one to the south, two more down and then almost to the corner to the green wall.

That address is what's written on all the bills that come to her house and in the phone book. "God help her the day they paint that wall a different color than green ... everyone is going to get lost," Blanco says.

But people don't seem to get lost, and the mail and pizzas get delivered. The firemen also get to the fires, insists fire chief Francisco Reyes.

"We're all used to it ... so it's hard just for the out-of-towners," Reyes says. Though he admits he has received some odd directions. Once a dispatcher gave him the reference point, and then said from there go three blocks down and three blocks up. He was back where he started.

If that isn't mind-numbing enough, there are two more complicating factors when getting directions: the vara and what I call the donde fue. Vara is an old Spanish measurement that turns out, depending where you are in the world, is about a yard. People will tell you often to go two varas south and then one vara north. It's used interchangeably with a block, but a much shorter distance.

The donde fue direction, now, that's the toughest. That's a reference for something that used to be there. For example, the church that fell in the 1972 earthquake or a supermarket long closed, but everyone used to go to.

But here's the best part of the system: It works. That's because everyone helps out. Once you get close to your reference point, you start asking for directions. Everyone we ever asked was very willing to help. The direction discussion usually turned into a five-minute ordeal, not efficient at all, but always, always, extremely friendly.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of U2's most popular songs is about a place where the streets have no names. NPR's Mexico and Central America correspondent Carrie Kahn says she thinks she's recently found such a place - Nicaragua. She just returned from a reporting trip and sent us this audio postcard.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: OK, before you start sending in the comments, major boulevards and highways do have names in Nicaragua, and some buildings even have numbers. The thing is, no one uses them. So if you're trying to get around or find an office building, let's say to interview someone, then you're in trouble. The way to navigate Nicaragua, I quickly learned, is by reference points. When in the capital, most involve the Lago, Lake Managua. Go two blocks to the lake, then go three South and one down. Lost - I was constantly. But I had help from my Nicaraguan producer Dorisell Blanco, who, thankfully, also did all the driving. Check out our address. It's what's written on all the bills that come to our house and in the phone book.

DORISELL BLANCO: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: I'll just translate a bit of it. Start from the place where all the journalists live. Head south to the entrance. Go two blocks down, one to the south, two more down and then almost to the corner where the green wall is. Wow.

BLANCO: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Blanco says God help her the day they paint that wall a different color than green. Everyone's going to get lost. But people don't seem to get lost, and the mail gets delivered - so do the pizzas. And the firemen get to the fire, so says Fire Chief Francisco Reyes.

FIRE CHIEF FRANCISCO REYES: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: We're all used to it, he says, so it's hard just for the out-of-towners. I asked him what's the oddest directions he ever got?

REYES: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Once, a dispatcher gave him the reference point, then said from there, go three blocks down and three blocks up. He was back where he started. If that isn't mind-numbing enough, the most complicating factor when getting directions is what I call the donde fue - that's a reference for something that used to be there - for example, a church that fell in the 1972 earthquake or a supermarket long closed that everyone used to go to. But here's the best part of the system - it works. That's because everyone helps you out. Once you get close to your reference point, you just start asking for directions. It usually turns into a five-minute discussion - not efficient at all, but let me tell you - extremely friendly and fun. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.