MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Uh-oh, another victim riding to certain doom. Clear across the shopping mall, you can see the terror in her eyes, a middle-aged woman frozen on the metal stairs as they glide upward, upward -- and now, with the end near, she leaps!
Skidding across the floor of the food court, she knocks over a large metal ashtray, spilling sand everywhere, before coming safely (sort of) to rest against a wall.
Bystanders, pursing their lips, nod appreciatively. One more brave Nicaraguan has survived her first trip on an escalator.
With the rest of the world poised to enter the 21st century, Nicaragua is getting an exhilarating, terrifying look at some 20th-century technology. The country's only escalators went into operation in December when a pair of enclosed shopping malls opened in Managua.
The shopping centers themselves are major novelties -- Nicaragua has never had malls -- but that word doesn't begin to describe the delirious mixture of dread and adventure that the escalators have generated.
In a city generally built low to the ground because of the danger of earthquakes, few buildings need staircases. Managua's two public elevators are regarded as suspiciously newfangled.
(When President Arnoldo Aleman visited New York in 1997 and his hotel elevator plummeted several floors before an emergency brake stopped it, his aides nervously decided to keep it secret. "Nobody likes to talk about elevators," says one person with knowledge of the incident.)
So the new escalators have been an absolute sensation. Thrill-seeking kids crowd around the landings on the upper floors at the Metrocentro and Plaza Inter malls, daring one another to bolt down the rising stairs.
Panicky older people beg their adult children not to set foot on the sinister devices. And clusters of ghoulish spectators stand back a safe distance, anticipating a gruesome accident.
"I'm hoping people will get used to it soon," sighs Irene Lei, general manager of the four-story Plaza Inter. "We knew the escalator would cause excitement, but I didn't think it would go on this long."
When the Plaza Inter opened Dec. 16, Lei -- anticipating problems -- had a dozen or so young attendants dressed up as Santa's elves and children's storybook characters to put shoppers at ease with the "electric stairs," as they're called here.
But the attendants were more scared of the escalators than the customers were.
Those shoppers who braved passage on the escalators were so frenzied with delight that they often jumped up and down, which triggered sensors designed to shut the machinery down in case of an accident.
The escalators lay silent for most of the mall's first two shopping days.
"Finally, we brought the attendants in an hour early and had them ride up and down, up and down, between 10 and 11 a.m.," Lei says. "Once they were used to it, we placed them strategically where they would screen the sensors and keep the escalators from shutting down."
Even so, the attendants have had limited success in educating Nicaraguans about the intricacies of escalator travel.
"Just the other day, I heard about a woman who took an hour to travel from the basement to the fourth floor," Lei says. "She kept getting confused at every floor and trying to go the wrong way."
At Metrocentro, managers took a more Darwinian approach, leaving shoppers to figure the escalators out themselves or die trying. The results haven't been much better.
"What's going to keep me from being sucked into the ground down at the bottom of this thing?" demands 59-year-old housekeeper Bertilda Cruz indignantly to two younger companions trying to persuade her to use the escalator.
Later, after braving the trip down, Cruz confesses that she knew the chances the escalator would turn on her were minimal.
"The truth is that I've ridden them before, 30 years ago," she says. "But I'm not as young as I used to be. All that moving around makes me seasick."
Her previous experience came at the Carlos Cardenal Department Store, which between 1949 and 1972 was the Neiman-Marcus of Managua. In 1952, seeking new ways to maintain the store's reputation as the most urbane shopping venue in Central America, owner Carlos Cardenal installed an escalator to carry shoppers from the first to the second floor of his three-story building.
"It was 13 yards long, 18 inches wide," says his namesake son, still able to recite the precise dimensions. "I remember it took two days to install, and the city had to close Roosevelt Avenue, which was the major shopping street in Managua."
Other businessmen scorned Cardenal for installing what they regarded as an expensive white elephant.
Family legend has it that the escalator cost $50,000, though the younger Cardenal has his doubts: "I just read a book that said Richard Nixon bought a house in 1949 for $7,000. Could an escalator really have cost seven times as much as a house?"
Cardenal's son agrees that the escalator, all things considered, probably wasn't a good deal.
"It brought in some customers, no question about that, people who just had to see the moving stairs," he says.
Nicaraguans who remember the Carlos Cardenal escalator still get a little spooky when they recall its demise.
On the night of Dec. 22, 1972, in the middle of a busy Christmas sale, it stopped dead for no apparent reason. The store's perplexed engineers hadn't found what was wrong two hours later when a killer earthquake pounded downtown Managua to bits.
The Plaza Inter's Irene Lei dismisses any suggestion of an omen.
Pub Date: 2/23/99