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Finding Your Way Home No Easy Task in Managua

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Finding Your Way Home No Easy Task in Managua

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Finding Your Way Home No Easy Task in Managua

Finding Your Way Home No Easy Task in Managua

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Residents of Managua, Nicaragua, have a unique system for finding their way around. They don't use street names or addresses, or even geographic conventions like North or South. The haphazard city plan is a legacy of the 1973 earthquake that flattened downtown Managua.


Finding your way around any new place can be daunting, but Managua, a city of more than a million people and the capital of Nicaragua, may win the prize for being the most inscrutable city of all. Managua lost its old orderly city plan more than 30 years ago when a earthquake struck. What grew up in its place is a system that's sometimes perplexing even to the natives. NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.


Imagine a place where the streets have no names.

Ms. MARIA ESPINOZA: As you can see there are no signs on the street at all.

SCHALCH: Addresses are scarce as well. Lifelong resident Maria Espinoza(ph) zigzags through her parents' neighborhood past rows of sherbert-colored houses behind elaborate iron grates. Only a few have numbers, and these are in no particular order.

Ms. ESPINOZA: That's the seventh block and this will be the third. So it's no sequential number to a house development.

SCHALCH: So four, five and six are missing.

Ms. ESPINOZA: No, there are no missing, but I don't know where they are. So this would be east. No, sorry, this will be west, and then going up will be--actually going up will be south.

SCHALCH: If you're going up to the mountains, that is. Otherwise, as tour guide Julio Cesar Flores(ph) explains, up means east.

Mr. JULIO CESAR FLORES (Tour Guide): For us, north is the lake. OK, the south is the mountains. The east for us is up, because that's where the sun come up--you know, it's up. And right there is down.

SCHALCH: Flores is pointing west. A busload of American tourists listens wide-eyed and open-mouthed as Flores explains how Managuans find their way around without street names, addresses or conventions like north, south, east and west. We swerve around a traffic circle with a horse in the middle of it--not a statue, a life horse grazing. This is a landmark; so is the new gas station on the right. Managua has thousands of these reference points and these, it turns out, are the key to navigation. Flores explains how you would address a letter.

Mr. FLORES: If you're going to write to me, for example, I'm going to give you the direction like this: From the parking area that is called Rocarzo(ph), three blocks to the lake on the left-hand side where there is a big tree. That is called Hanizero(ph). My house is painted in white and blue.

SCHALCH: That is what you actually write on the envelope. Managuans must learn the locations of trees, parking lots, buildings and places where these used to be. People can be landmarks as well. Native Managuan Marta Cecilia Falliyos(ph) describes her favorite reference point person, Damano Paluda(ph).

Ms. MARTA CECILIA FALLIYOS: Which means `hairy hands.' Can you imagine? That funny, ugly name--it is a lady, and everybody knows where she lives.

SCHALCH: In one neighborhood, a key landmark is a car.

Unidentified Woman: Because the car was parked for maybe 10 years (unintelligible) years, so everybody knew where the car, the yellow car, was parking. This is crazy. I know this is crazy, but it's the way we are with the addresses.

SCHALCH: It wasn't always this way. Julio Cesar Flores and his bus wend their way lake, that is north. The buildings give way to vast scruffy meadows.

Mr. FLORES: OK, that's the place--that's the former downtown of Managua. All these empty places that you see right here, there were buildings here. All the activity was just done here in this area.

SCHALCH: Then in 1972, Nicaragua's capital was hit by a massive earthquake. It killed an estimated 10,000 people and left 300,000 homeless. Juan Carlos Pereira runs Nicaragua's Investment Promotion Agency.

Mr. JUAN CARLOS PEREIRA (Nicaragua's Investment Promotion Agency): You're basically talking about your capital city, you know, disappearing--I mean, 80 percent of the city actually sort of, you know, rubble. And in fact, the problem was that the city was built on a humongous fault.

SCHALCH: Pereira says it wasn't safe to rebuilt in the old areas where the streets had names and the buildings had numbers. Instead, the city grew organically.

Mr. PEREIRA: The areas that became Managua were old suburbs that weren't really established in sort of a, you know, planned way. We had the earthquake in '72. Then we had the war in '79. You know, we had a tough couple decades in the '70s and '80s.

SCHALCH: Recently, Nicaragua's postal agency decided the time had come to modernize Managua's map by reintroducing street names and numbers, but the proposal went nowhere. It was going to cost too much money, and Managuans insist their system works just fine. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

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