Life in Nicaragua is a full-bore assault on clothing. Between the mud and dirt, the hand-washing on rough cement, the tropical sun, barbed wire, and a myriad of stain-producing fruits, clothing doesn’t stand a chance. What I originally brought to wear here is now little more than a pile of tattered rags. I’ve observed that my clothing passes through a series of stages on its journey from dress to dishrag. New stuff is great for when I go to Esteli or when I have to look presentable in the Peace Corps office in Managua, though clothing can only last in this stage for a few months, maximum, before it is too holey or faded or stained. Next comes the community phase. When I walk around my community I feel fine wearing faded, stretched out jeans and slightly holey tee-shirts, since most other people do too. After the community phase is the house/garden phase. I have plenty of shirts that are too worn out to be good for much besides sleeping or gardening or working out. Finally, when an article of clothing is simply too far gone to even be worn, it becomes a trapo (rag).
This micro-scale clothing cycle is nested within a larger, international-scale clothing cycle. First, cotton is grown in India and the American south and other places. The cotton is turned into clothing by manufacturers in China or Bangladesh (or even Nicaragua). It then is shipped to the US, where people pay a lot of money for it, wear it a few times, and then give it away to thrift stores and other charitable organizations. When this clothing is not sold immediately it is packed into huge squarish packages known locally as pacas. The pacas arrive in Nicaragua and are distributed all over the country to small stores that sell ropa Americana.
Nicaragua is a vintage clothing enthusiast’s dream come true, though “vintage” is kinder term than some of these old clothes merit. If you’re looking for the hottest fashions from the eighties, look no further. One of my closest volunteer friends with a distinct sense of style struck gold at a ropa Americana store we affectionately referred to as “the mold store”. (You can probably guess why.)
There are also, however, ropa Americana stores that sell brand-name, very gently used clothing, like a consignment shop. One store in particular, Megaboutique, has become somewhat of an addiction for me. I don’t know how these clothes make it to Nicaragua. Granted, they are much more expensive than what comes out of the ordinary pacas, but it is worth it. I’ve found great pairs of jeans, dresses, collared shirts, etc., all practically new and for a fraction of what I would pay in the US. I plan on stocking up.