By Jonas Demuri-Siliunas, 2016 GU Impacts Student
June 16, 2016
Managua is characterized by its chaos. Even during our first short commute to work, the nature of the city was evident. Horns blared, and vehicles weaved in and out of traffic as we made our way through the winding streets to our office. Street vendors dodged oncoming cars as they sold their wares to passersby. Sunlight glared down upon a seemingly unplanned amalgamation of stores, houses, apartments, and roads. The chaos that embodies this city is epitomized in a surprising place – its systems of addresses and navigation.
In Managua (and in fact all of the country), very few streets have names, much less names displayed in any visible public place. Similarly, most houses and even large businesses remain unnumbered. Postal codes are not used universally, and the equivalents of states and departments, are not part of addresses. In place of street names and numbers, Nicaraguans rely on a complex (and always changing) system of landmarks and reference points. Here, a reference point is not a definite concept; it can range from a church to another (usually well known) business to a famous location to a historical landmark that may no longer exist. This is especially common in Managua where several earthquakes have devastated the city over the last two centuries. Addresses describe how many blocks a location is from a reference point and in what direction. For example, a restaurant may be located “one block north and two blocks east of the Metrocentro mall.” However, this is further complicated by Nicaraguans’ use of directions. Locals will often forego the cardinal directions for geographical features. For example, east may be replaced by arriba (up) and west may be replaced by abajo (down) for the direction of the sunrise and sunset. Similarly, north is often replaced with al lago (to the lake) in Managua, as the city is located on the southern shore of Lake Xolotlan.
After arriving in the city, I quickly discovered the lack of American-style addresses, but it took several weeks for me to realize the nuances in the way Nicaraguans convey locations. Initially, I was remarkably skeptical of the efficacy of the system. After reading about the lack of street names and numbers, I expected there to be substantial confusion and inefficiencies in navigating the perceived chaos of the city. This is not the case. Nicaraguans are able to successfully navigate the system with the same ease, efficiency, and accuracy as a Washingtonian would use numbered and street names to find a new address in DC. It has also been relatively easy to pick up; I now have a sound understanding of the layout of the city after learning major reference points.
Where I initially saw only chaos and disorder, I now see a complex system that functions across the country and is used effectively by over six million people. I came away with an important lesson: a phenomenon that may be remarkably different and seemingly inferior to what one is accustomed to, may actually be surprisingly effective upon further examination. This is an important lesson not only for myself, but for all future leaders to understand. When we are in an unfamiliar environment, it is important that we look beyond our initial and superficial perceptions to understand our surroundings more deeply and shatter any preconceived notions that may exist. It is the difference between simply making an assumption and asking questions to better one’s understanding. I quickly learned this lesson here in Managua, and it will clearly influence the rest of my experience in GU Impacts.
The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.