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Public Address System

When navigating the Nicaraguan capital, you’d better have a good sense of direction — a really good sense of direction

Author Eliot Stein

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MANAGUA – Officially, Wilma Mendoza lives at 19 Avenida Noroeste, in Managua’s Santa Ana neighborhood. When asked for her address, however, the 73-year-old retired seamstress always responds the same way: “From the little tree, go down two streets, turn left where the man sells fruit, and it’s the yellow house.”

Without understanding that “down” means west, or spotting the local fruit-hawker on the corner, or knowing that “the little tree” grew into a big tree before being chopped down in 1973, you might not find Wilma. But the mailmen do. In fact, many of the letters she receives have the same address she recites—usually written in small and meticulous handwriting.

While major roads in Nicaragua’s sprawling capital have names, hardly anyone uses them. House numbers too are largely ignored. Instead, locals have woven together a patchwork of reference points—many of which haven’t stood in decades. Even gravity is turned on its head. “Up,” in the local parlance, is where the sun rises; “down” is where it sets. So, depending on where you are, up can mean downhill.

It’s not a terribly efficient system, but it works, more or less, mostly because the famously obliging Managuans are happy to help visitors (and each other) make sense of it.

Today, for instance, as Wilma sits beneath the mango tree outside her yellow house, a delivery van rolls to a stop and the driver asks her if she knows where Ana Lopez lives. “Of course!” the old lady responds. “Go toward the lake, down at the parking lot, and she lives across the street from the Montoya family. You can’t miss it.”

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