July 29, 2007

Nicaragua: Introduction

These next few entries on my blog will be about a recent trip that I took to Nicaragua. I also obviously got married since I went there, and I intend to write and post some pictures about that, too. But since I went to Nicaragua first and began writing these entries first, I’ll post them first. They’ll be divided into a few entries, so that you don’t get as bored.
In any case, I went to Nicaragua with the purpose of renewing my Costa Rican tourist visa, which stipulates that I can only stay in the country for 90 days at a time; after that, I need to leave the country for 72 hours before returning again. Many foreigners living in Costa Rica without permanent residency have to do the same thing, and Nicaragua is a popular destination when leaving the country, since it’s a bit closer than Panama, and significantly cheaper.
When I got to Nicaragua, though, my trip slowly developed into something much more than an ordinary vacation, and it is still affected me for a long time, not only mentally, but also physically (ugh). Hopefully the impact of this trip on me will become apparent as you read these next few blogs. I hope that it will be at least a bit eye-opening, and hopefully you will enjoy it, as well. I very much hope that it won’t merely be a reflection of my deeply personal contemplation and therefore just an exercise in vanity or ego.
Maybe this doesn’t make any sense. But, if you have a bit of time, just read the entries, and maybe you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

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Nicaragua Part 1: Once Upon A Time...

It seems like everybody around the school where I work wants to learn English, with the notable exception of my students. Most of the kids seem to not care one way or the other about my native tongue. Not counting a small, hard core of dedicated students in my classes, most of them seem to goof off, not study at all, and attempt to get by on the English that they’ve learned in the first few years of elementary school. Aside from my students, though, I’m surrounded by people who want to learn English: the parents of my students, the administrative personnel at the school, the other teachers, the cleaning staff, and even random strangers I meet on the street or on the bus. One of those people is Samuel, the security guard at the school.
Samuel is contracted by a private firm to carry out the security detail at the school, which includes a 12-hour-at-a-time shift, since the school is guarded 24 hours a day. He presents a welcoming but reliable face for the school. He wears a purple uniform with a prominent 9-mm pistol on his belt, and when he smiles, which is often, one glimpses a mouthful of gold-capped teeth, including an incisor with a little gold star in the center. He’s good-hearted, friendly, hard-working, and, as it turns out, Nicaraguan.
I found out about his citizenship as I was giving him an English lesson in my break one day. He had said that since he was working at a bilingual school, he wanted to be able to say at least a few phrases in English to the parents or visitors that came to the school speaking little or no Spanish. He asked me if I could give him a private class outside of school, and offered to pay me something. I told him I had little time outside of school, but if he’d take a quick lesson here or there when I was drinking my coffee, I’d be happy to accommodate him, and he wouldn’t have to pay, either.
Samuel is not the fastest learner when it comes to English, but then again, he’s 37 years old, which is a relatively late age to begin learning a first foreign language. But what he lacks in language skills he makes up for in commitment and motivation. I often scold my 7th, 8th, and 10th graders, chiding them because their parents pay tons of money for them to get a good education and learn English, despite the fact that they usually don’t even put forth the smallest effort. Samuel, on the other hand, has independently dedicated himself to improving his life in any way he can, including learning English, which can open up many possibilities in this country. I tell my students that Samuel is my best student because even though he’s not perfect, at least he tries. My students glance up, and then go back to day-dreaming about their cell phones I confiscated earlier in the class.
In any case, when Samuel and I were covering the basics of English, we came upon the question, “Where are you from?” He answered, “I am from Nicaragua.” For me this was surprising, although that is probably just because I’m not from around here. Every person I’ve mentioned this to since then has said, “Of course he’s from Nicaragua. Just look at his gold teeth and listen to the way he talks.” Guess I missed that. Then again, let’s see these guys attempt to distinguish a Texan from a run-of-the-mill hick, and see if they can nail it. Still, I’m getting off track. The point is, Samuel is a “Nica,” a term that is used by both Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans and doesn’t seem to have any negative overtones. I think it’s just easier and quicker to say than repeating “Nicaragüense” over and over.
I had last entered Costa Rica on April 8th, which meant that my visa would expire on June 7th or 8th, depending on whether one considered the 90 day visa as exactly 90 days, or a cool three months. Either way, June 7th was the day of my wedding, and I didn’t want to get deported for my honeymoon. Although I hold the Costa Rican migratory authorities in the absolute lowest esteem and continually doubt their abilities to operate efficiently, I still didn’t want to risk any sort of fines or illegal status while I’m still waiting for the approval of my permanent residency, so I decided that I should leave for the 72 hours, just to be safe. Plus, I needed a little vacation.
I came up to Samuel about a week before I was planning on leaving to go somewhere, and I casually asked him, “Hey, you’re from Nicaragua, right? When’s the last time you went back there?” Well, it turned out that he’d not been back to see his family for about two years, partially because his passport had expired, and it would have been a hassle to go to the Nicaraguan consulate in San José to renew it. Plus, he informed me that his family was pretty poor, and since his family came from the part of Nicaragua in the far north near the Honduran border, it had just been too far and too expensive to make it back there frequently.
I proposed a deal. I told him that one way or the other, I’d have to leave Costa Rica for 72 hours, and the best option up till that point would have been to just cross to a Pacific resort on the other side of the border. However, if I could stay at the small house he told me he still had in Nicaragua, I’d pay for his passport renewal and his bus tickets, which together only came to about 50 dollars. I told him that I’d probably pay at least that much for a hotel for three nights, but that I’d much rather have an authentic experience with a person from the country, instead of just sitting alone on a beach and not actually seeing anything of the country I was supposedly in. He agreed, and we decided to set off on the following Saturday and return the Tuesday after that. It’d turn out to be a whirlwind tour far more “authentic” then I could have ever imagined.

Samuel took this picture of me, and I guess that it's the only proof that I have that I was in Nicaragua...besides memories, that is. Awwwww....

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Nicaragua Part 2: Getting There

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to get to Nicaragua. According to the bus plan we’d worked out, we’d need to take three buses to get to Pantasma de Maria, the village where Samuel was from. As it turned out, we actually needed four, but more about that in a moment. In any case, the first bus left at a definite time: at 3:30 in the morning, a Tica Bus would stop on the freeway outside San Ramón and pick us up. It did. Besides the fact that they kind of screwed up our reservations, and besides the fact that it sucks to get on a bus at 3:30 in the morning, things went fine.
It took a few hours to get to the border, where we got out of the bus in order to go through exit and entry procedures in the immigration and customs departments of each country. It was around this point that it became clear to me that I was possibly sitting next to The Biggest Bitch in The World. I had greeted her with a friendly “Buenos Días” when I got on, but after getting no reply, I just went to sleep. Fuck you, too, then. All the way from San Ramón to the Nicaraguan border, this same fat lady next to me was mumbling to herself and shaking her head. I just thought she was crazy, but it turns out she was much worse. From a glance at her passport, and from her insistence on speaking in snippy English at the conductor to berate him, I knew that she was American, and that her name was Deborah. But for the sake of a smooth story and to not name names, let’s just call her Hoebag.

Anyhow, to leave Costa Rica, we had to get out of the bus and wait in a line for Immigration to stamp our passports, and Hoebag, who was sitting near the window, tenderly suggested that I move it so we could get the hell out of the bus. I moved it indeed, cutting in front of a few people in the bus aisle, and we waited outside in the same line that everyone else from the bus had to wait in. Then, when getting out of the bus again to enter Nicaragua (borders here are complicated), we needed to take down our luggage to have customs review it. I pulled my backpack down from the overhead rack and Hoebag, who was chomping at the bit to get out, apparently was glanced by my backpack. She mumbled something. I said, “Pardon me?” To which she gently replied, “I said you just hit me in the fucking eye with your stupid backpack.” I told her I was sorry, and that I hadn’t intended to do so, to which she replied, “How fucking long are you going to wait to get off this bus…can we leave?”

I sort of doubted Hoebag’s injured eye story, considering that she was wearing large eyeglasses and a hat, but if I did “hit” her in the eye, perhaps it was just the universe working itself out. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where bitches don’t get hit in the eye with luggage. Besides, a few minutes later I wished that my backpack had somehow popped her eye right out of the socket when Hoebag put on another presentation.

Everyone from the bus was waiting with their bags in a line, and an old lady in her 70s or 80s hobbled up with her bags and a confused expression on her face. She seemed to be trying to figure out if she was supposed to wait in this line, when Hoebag offered the lady the following piece of advice: “No no, you have to wait in the back of the line just like all the rest of us!” She began yelling at the poor lady. “You get your ass back there; there’s no way you’re getting in front of me!” The poor lady, who obviously didn’t understand English, made a soothing gesture with her hand, the universal signal for “take it easy,” which pissed off Hoebag even more. Hoebag once again ordered the lady to the back of the line. After we got our bags checked, we all waited outside the bus for about 30 minutes, including Hoebag, the little old lady, and myself.

When we got back on, some British girls had changed buses, and Samuel and I took their seats immediately. Hoebag presumably continued on to her final destination of El Salvador where, with any justice at all, she insulted another old lady and was subsequently maimed by a crazed pit-bull belonging to a member of the Mara Salvatrucha. We can always dream, can’t we?

So, the remainder of the first bus went pretty smoothly, but by the time we got to Managua, my stomach was feeling a bit off, possibly from the shitty food they’d given us on the bus. The food made me feel like I was in one of those 60s or 70s novels about a near future where the world is controlled by totalitarian governments and the narrator describes eating food replacement items with depressing names like “syntho” and “nutrical,” or where all sustenance for a day is gained from a single pill. Whether the bus took us into the future as envisioned by a campy dystopian novel or not, the sandwiches were rubbery and the coffee tasted slightly ashy.

In any case, to make things worse, by the time we got out of the bus, a wave of heat enveloped us. I headed directly to the bathroom, and while Samuel waited outside with my bags, I had a nice series of dry heaves and then desperately evacuated my bowels over the seat-less toilet. Neither of which was particularly fun but, hey, vacations are about trying new, exciting things, right?

I came out of the bathroom and sat on the floor. Samuel had already enthusiastically procured a taxi to take us to the next bus station, conveniently located on the other side of the sprawling Nicaraguan capital. I objected, saying I thought it might be best to just sit on the floor for a while and then die, but he and the taxi driver assured me that after getting out into the fresh air of the taxi, I’d feel better. So with my head sticking out of the open window of the taxi to better inhale the pestilent, polluted air of Managua, we hauled ass across town.

We had missed the bus to Jinotega by a fair shot, but apparently there was a bus to Matagalpa, from which we’d be able to catch the last bus to Jinotega. Possibly. At the bus station, the taxi let us out, and I walked over to a stand of bushes and threw up. A minute or two later, as I was sitting on the ground with my eyes closed and trembling quietly, a man started shouting at me. I replied with a meek, “Como?” He asked if I was going to Matagalpa. I informed him that I was vomiting. He said well, if I was going to Matagalpa, I’d better throw up on the bus, because the bus had to leave. He said I could open up a window, and thereby be on the bus and vomit, simultaneously.

How can you argue with reasoning like that? For the next three hours or days, I sat in a seat in the back of the bus with my eyes closed, as I for some reason clutched a long-sleeved T-shirt in my hands. I think I believed it was the only thing keeping me alive, somehow. I was buffeted by a constant flurry of hot dusty air, which left what passes for my hair these days blown back and caked stiff, and left my left ear black with soot and dust. A few hours into that ride, I was quietly praying that I’d get randomly shot by some Bedouin sheepherder like Cate Blanchett in “Babel,” just so I could be taken to a forgotten village to be treated for a gunshot wound by a local veterinarian…basically, anything to make the bus rides stop.

Occasionally, I did in fact stick my head out the window to throw up a bit, and remarked to myself at the abstract beauty of my foamy vomit flying back behind me like sticky, white streamers, making the colorfully-decorated bus look like a float in the world’s worst Homecoming parade. It was kind of fun, all things considered.

When we got to Matagalpa, we quickly changed buses for Jinotega. I actually have no recollection of this part of the journey, but I believe that on that bus, I sat next to Samuel while my head bobbed back and forth like a jack-in-the-box. I offered him my peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d brought, and I began to feel better. My only clear recollection is actually not really clear, mainly because it was based on such a strange event. I remember waking up at one point when I realized that the bus had been stopped for two or three minutes. I asked Samuel what was going on, and it turns out that the bus had stopped because in the yard of a house we were passing by, two boys were out front playing with machetes, trying to attack each other. Our bus driver had pulled over to yell at them. I guess that’s just one of the hazards that comes with living, loving, and leaving in machete country.

In Jinotega, we’d missed the last bus to Pantasma. According to a group of old drunks on a bench, though, we’d only missed it by five minutes, so we commissioned a taxi to take us on a mad dash to catch up with the bus, already on its way to Pantasma. Somehow we made it (well, I say “somehow” as if I didn’t actually understand how we caught up with the bus; we caught it because the driver hauled major balls on some seriously potholed country roads using techniques that would make Bo and Luke Duke proud).

The bus from Jinotega to Pantasma was actually sort of enjoyable. Early in the trip, I gave up my seat so a girl and her mother could sit down, and I walked to the back of the converted school bus, where the last row or two of seats had been removed for cargo or standing passengers. I was taller than most people and I had to crane my neck just to stand there, and my head still often hit the ceiling when the bus went over holes in the road. Still, the reason it was kind of fun was that it turned out the back of the bus is where all the manual laborers sit around on bags of corn and drink beer. After I was standing there for only about one minute, they offered me a beer, which I politely declined, saying with regret in my voice that I’d thrown up on the last few buses, and that it might be better to not repeat that. After about the fourth time they insisted, I finally accepted a beer. It was shitty and probably one of the worst beers there is out there (Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason Nicaragua isn’t really known for its beers), but it was cold and it actually hit the spot. It was the first thing that had helped me that day, and I was grateful for that.

Before they got off the bus, the workers offered me two or three more beers, which I subtly passed on to one of their cohorts, a young 22-year-old man named Jenny (really). He was a very nice guy who asked me questions about the U.S. He was trying to speak English with me, and he wasn’t too bad at it, but as he kept drinking the beers that I passed on to him, his skills declined sharply. Still, he was very friendly, and it seemed to not just be the result of the alcohol. At one point, he asked me if we were friends, and I said, “Sure.” He asked me if I remembered his name, and when I told him it immediately, he was impressed and said I had a good memory. I didn’t tell him, though, that he had the same name as my childhood dog. Nor that it was a girl’s name.

After however many hours of traveling, we finally pulled to a stop on the side of a dark road, and Samuel told me it was time to get off the bus. The village of Pantasma was dark, because evidently the Powers That Be shut off the electricity most nights sometime around 6 pm. The darkness lasted for anywhere between 1 and 3 hours the nights that I was there, but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how it worked. In any case, one of Samuel’s nieces was waiting in the road where the bus had stopped, and she walked with us to the house that Samuel owns.

Samuel had told me that his house was humble, but I hadn’t realized how humble it actually was. It was really a one room wood house, but since it was on a slope, the area beneath the room had also been turned into a sort of second room. Off to the side of the upstairs room was a kitchen with a dirt floor and a wood-burning stove, the smoke from which exited through cracks in the wall and an area between the wall and the ceiling. In the yard behind the house were three outhouses and a bucket shower, which a few of the neighbors seemed to share.

As for the cast of characters, I immediately got a lot of names thrown at me, and I was never entirely clear on the names or the relations of the people that I met. I was also unsure whether it was appropriate to ask or not. Samuel usually just introduced people as “my (type of relation),” for example, “my niece.” To make things more complicated, he tended to refer to most males as “Chico,” which didn’t help me much (although I do think that one of the guys there actually was named “Chico”).

When we got to the house, though, I was pretty exhausted. Samuel and I ate a meal of rice and beans alone in the kitchen, and we chatted a bit. I could hardly eat anything, since my appetite was still off, but he assured me that if I didn’t finish the food, someone else would.

After that, we sat in chairs and chatted with some members of his family, and when he saw me nodding off in my chair, he helped me to fix up our sleeping area. We slept on the planks of the wood floor, which we covered with a piece of cardboard and a sheet. Fortunately, I’d brought a blanket. I rolled up an extra pair of pants inside my lifesaving T-shirt, and as Samuel chatted away I fell into sleep like a rock.

Samuel's sister preparing something in the kitchen at night. The bottom flame is the stove, and the top is a cluster of candles. It was dark when they cut the electricity, but kinda cozy.

Samuel with his mother. I never met his father, who apparently lives in another village.

The wood-burning stove in the day. It'd be fun for a day or two, but after that, you might get tired of suspiciously smelling like bacon, even though you never ate it.

Samuel with Charita and Primitivo. For an attempt at a description of everyone's relations, see the text.

Samuel with his sister and a niece. The niece is wearing some of the clothes that Samuel brought in a gigantic sack bigger than me (literally). He was kinda like Santa Claus with Grillz.

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Nicaragua Part 3: Being There

As I mentioned before, I stayed for Nicaragua for only two entire days, but those days still left quite an impression. The first day I basically sat around and aged a day, and the second day, I went into the village with Samuel and some of his family.
Most Mondays, when I return to work, I ask my students what they did over the weekend. I am always surprised by how many of them say “Nothing” (actually, about half of them say “Anything,” since they still need to sort out that language problem). I usually say something like, “What do you mean, you did nothing? You have 48 hours to account for. Did you just wake up and sit in a chair and look at the wall all day?” Typical annoying teacher. But, as it turns out, it really is almost possible to do literally nothing, and for a significant period of time, at that.
The first day I woke up and proceeded to move from plastic chair to plastic chair, and although I didn’t look at a wall, I did watch the street for hours on end which, as it turns out, isn’t that much more interesting than a wall. If anyone were to have asked me, “Hey, what’s going on in Nicaragua?” I feel that I could confidently answer, based on my field research, “Not that much.”
For most of the day, Samuel was busy distributing the big-ass bag of clothes he had brought, and was busy telling his personal testimony. I hadn’t really realized before, but he was an evangelical Christian, and he was happy to talk about his experiences over and over and to praise the Lord. All of which is fine, but since it’s not for me, I was left to contend with a rather boring day. At least I got to know the various members of Samuel’s family and friend circles a bit more.
One of these people is an old man named—seriously--Primitivo. And yes, it means the same thing in Spanish. I had noticed an old guy with a cane the night before, and I was able to gather that he was Samuel’s father-in-law. The next morning, then, I realized that he was in the same room as us, sleeping in a bed. The term “bed” conveys a bit more of a sense of comfort than actually existed, though. He was actually sleeping on a wooded bed frame with pieces of hard leather stretched in a cross-hatching pattern throughout the empty space in between. The leather straps were then covered with a piece of cardboard and a sheet. No wonder he began his days by spitting up gobs of phlegm.
I also realized another reason for the phlegm when I noticed a handwritten chalk note above one of the windows. It read: “Primitivo Gamez se enfermó el 26 de NOV del 2006.” This meant that he had gotten sick the previous November and that someone had decided to record it on the wall, for whatever reason. In any case, he didn’t seem to be terribly sick, but at the same time, one could easily tell that he wasn’t having an easy go of it. He generally hobbled around very slowly with his cane, and when he sat down, it was very hard to hear his voice, let alone understand it. His voice tended to be very quiet and almost squeaky, and when he talked about his family—especially his daughter, Samuel’s wife—that voice would quickly crack and he’d begin to cry. This would literally happen dozens of times a day so for me, a relative newcomer to the Spanish language, he was a bit of an unconventional conversation partner.
Nevertheless, we sat on the porch in plastic chairs for hours and hours. Occasionally, he’d say something and I’d try to understand it, but if he asked me a question and I tried to reply, we’d have a completely different problem on our hands, since he couldn’t hear well, either. We eventually fell into a good sort of conversational groove wherein both of us were content. That groove consisted in dozing off most of the time, and we’d occasionally jerk our heads up in alertness to mumble something like “hot day” or to kick at emaciated dogs or stray pigs trying to sneak into the house to steal food. Occasionally, Primitivo would wake up and work at his throat a bit, hocking a giant lougie or a snot rocket onto the porch in front of us. I was beginning to understand the logic behind dirt floors.
Through the day, various people walked by the house, and even though I was wearing a hat, many of them stopped to look at me, and I could tell that an American was a bit of a novelty around those parts. A few guests came to the house, too, since they’d heard that Samuel had come home. I also realized that whoever made up the stereotype about British people having bad teeth had obviously never been to Nicaragua. And I’m not only talking about the gold-capped teeth. I saw many a mouth with nary a tooth. Although I saw a fair number of policemen, I never did see an inspector from the Colgate Cavity Patrol.
Another character who figured prominently into the day was named Charita, and she was an older lady who lived in the area below Samuel’s house. I believe that she was related to him in some way, but I’m just not sure how. She was a little woman packed with energy and, possibly, neuroses. People said that she had epilepsy, but when she had one of her supposed epileptic attacks, she was really just walking around the kitchen rambling at people. I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think that’s epilepsy. Still, I sort of dig the tendency towards self-diagnosis, since it’s cheaper than paying for a doctor and more entertaining.
After God-knows-how-many hours of porch sitting, Samuel finally returned from wherever and said that he’d like to cut down an avocado tree that was beginning to destroy a cement retaining wall below the kitchen. He was afraid, with good reason, that the kitchen might slide down the hill by the next time he returned. I helped him with that for a while, and was pleased to discover that the avocado tree had at least never given fruit. We then “constructed” a system to hold up the dishwashing area of his kitchen, which was really just a piece of wood jutting out from the back wall of the kitchen. In any case, though, it was beginning to rot and fall down, so we put the trunk of the avocado tree underneath it to sustain it. Brothers gonna work it out.
The whole time we were working in the back, we were serenaded by a neighboring parrot which would periodically screech, “Mamaaaaaa!” Then, when it got no response from its mama, it’d change to, “Papaaaaaaa!” It was kind of unnerving, like something out of a suspense/horror movie, right before Samuel turns on me with the axe.
As the daylight began to wane, I noticed I smelled like ass, and I asked about the shower. It turns out that a bucket shower is about as straightforward as its name implies. I stood in a wood structure with black plastic on the inside, with the top open to the sky (as well as to the back windows of the houses above). I’m a pretty tall guy and I was sticking out of the top of the shower a bit, but I didn’t really worry about peeping Juans from above, since I got the sense that that wasn’t something to be concerned about. Sort of an unspoken “Don’t show me yours and I won’t show you mine” type of policy. Plus, it was getting darker by the minute, and the cold bucket water I’d retrieved from a neighboring well also motivated me towards opting for a quick shower.
Still, while I was showering I paused for a moment to look up as the first stars of the night began to emerge from the darkness. It was really pretty beautiful, and for a moment I felt as though I’d gone a couple hundred years into the past when a bucket shower or a river was probably all most people had to get clean, if they were lucky. In a way, it was a nice feeling, where you begin to think, “Well, if there’s a nuclear war and indoor plumbing is wiped out, at least I could get by doing this!” But at the same time, it was comforting that I didn’t actually have to.

Samuel working on cutting down the avocado tree. Did you know that avocados grow on trees? No shit.

One of Samuel's nephews. I can't remember his name, but who cares, since he's just so adorable.

The ominous note, written in chalk above the back window (overlooking the bucket shower), stating that "Primitivo Gamez se enfermó el 26 de NOV del 2006."

A fleet of outdoor shitters. Accompanied with a barbed-wire clothesline, a must for this summer's fashions. Seriously, though, these guys may not recycle, but they sure do reuse. Which Bobby Majzler says is the most important of the Three R's.

The bucket shower, as viewed from above. This picture was taken from the "Primitivo Gamez" window. (Not pictured: author's dick.)

Another one of this kid. Hopefully your internet browser settings aren't aligned to filter out "cute stuff," of your computer will catch on fire right...NOW.

Some kids playing with marbles in front of an evangelical church in Pantasma de Maria.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

Nicaragua Part 4: Field Trip!

The second full day I spent in Nicaragua gave us a bit of a chance to walk around Samuel’s hometown, Pantasma de Maria. Since our time in the country was limited, we tried to pack a lot of socializing and getting-things-done time into one day. I began with an attempted visit to one of the outhouses in the backyard. I’d not “gone” since I arrived in the country, partly because of my sickness while traveling there, and partly because of a hesitance to sit on or even squat above a concrete shitter filled with cockroaches, if at all possible. But this morning, the call of nature was turning into a scream. I pleaded with my body to just hold out one more day, and maybe we could enjoy the facilities at the Managua bus station on the return trip, but my guts were following their own agenda. So, I gave up, grabbed a roll of toilet paper, and headed out the back. I made all sorts of faces as I opened the door to the latrine. I laid a few scraps of TP on the concrete rim of the hole, to enjoy at least the partial illusion of sanity and/or comfort. I pulled down my pants and began to squat down, but just as my left ass cheek partially glanced the rim of the john, my ass sent a high speed message to my brain, something to the effect of, “Oh shit, you were right!” My system shut down immediately, like a NASA mission control center struck by lightning. And it stayed shut down until I arrived at my toilet back here in Costa Rica. At that point, the food or water in Nicaragua began to have a profound effect on my constitution, and I spent a fair amount of my free time for the next two weeks sitting on that same toilet, contending with what I began to call “Nicarrhea.”
But enough talking shit.
Midmorning, Samuel and I left the house with his sister-in-law and her son in tow. To get to the center of town we took a bus which, although it was only a broken-down Toyota 12-passenger van, at least got us there quicker. On the way, I was surprised at how poor things really were. I mean, I’d seen Indian reservations in the US and driven by the slums of Buenos Aires and Mexico City, but while those places all exhibited poverty, they still had at least a certain level of material comforts. Many houses in those places had glass windows and even a TV, but that was not the case in Nicaragua. I read in my travel book that after Haiti, it’s the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Which makes me curious to check out Haiti sometime, actually.
We first tried to track down the Western Union office, which had apparently moved. Samuel had tried to send 40 dollars a few months before, and something had gone wrong. We finally found the office in a building guarded by a fat man with a pistol and shotgun. At one point another man walked by the fat guard, grabbed the pistol from his belt, said something quickly, and went into the office. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I guess perhaps the fat guard had been holding on to his friend’s pistol while the friend did a quick errand somewhere else. I hope. Otherwise, the casualness and ease with which some guy walked into a money transfer office with a gun is somewhat alarming.
We also went to the city hall to do something involving Samuel’s birth certificate. While I was waiting, I read a poster on the wall that gave information about Nicaragua in general, and it listed some facts and statistics. The statistic that caught my attention the most was one that said that 78% of the young people in Nicaragua would leave the country, if they had the chance. There were no qualifying statements like “If working conditions were better elsewhere,” but I still have a feeling that these young Nicaraguans weren’t expressing a desire to leave the country to go on a classic 4-week European Riviera summer tour. The results for the same question were lower for older people and city residents, but still, that number is pretty alarming. I tried to imagine what America would look like if things were bad enough to make 78% of its youth want to jump ship. It was hard to do, and mainly I just came up with a vision of lots of cars burning in the streets while chants of “Hail President Rosie O’Donnell!” rang out. Still, it’s an obvious statement that the children are the hope and future of any country or group of people, so if your children are looking to bail, it doesn’t spell out a very pretty future for your country.
Speaking of the youth of a nation, one of their representatives was outside of the town hall, drunk as a skunk. A shitfaced skunk so drunk it can’t even hold its bottle of booze. When he saw me, he tried talking to me, but all I could make out in the slur of words was, “Gracias al Dios, es un gringo!” He tried grabbing my arm, but missed by a fair shot and almost fell down. Right then, Samuel came back out and led me away, and we continued on our magical mystery tour.
The tour included a few more Poverty Highlights, the most interesting one having to do with Toddler Fashion. We saw a fair number of naked kids standing and/or running outside, but they weren’t the carefree, cradle-to-the-grave social security, Scandinavian kind of naked kids. These were abject poverty, do-you-have-any-food-or-pants-for-me?, Third World kind of naked kids. One fashion combo that was featured prominently was the young child wearing a shirt, but nothing else, leaving his or her butt and junk to stick out. I’ve never really understood this combo, because it seems to me that once you’re sporting a truly unfinished basement, there’s really no point in wearing a small T-shirt to cover what’s left of your above-the-belt “shame.”
As we walked through town, though, I noticed that the drunk at the city hall had not been an isolated event…well, he was actually the only drunk we came across, but what he said wasn’t isolated. Many people seemed to be interested in a tall guy with blue eyes and blond hair, even if the hair was covered in a hat. A few times, random schoolgirls said hi to me and smiled, and one random guy in his early 20s tried to shake my hand. After my encounter with the drunk guy, I thought this new guy was joking, but Samuel said I should go shake his hand. The guy said that they appreciated Americans a lot, and he was glad to see me there. Even stranger, he seemed to mean it.
The gears in my brain whirred as I tried to process this information. As a bit of a traveler, I’ve seen a fair part of the world, although it was mostly the European part. In the last few years, especially, Americans haven’t always been welcomed with open arms, even though their tourist dollars might have been. In Germany, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Slovenia, Italy, the United States itself, and various other countries, I’ve experienced some variety of anti-American or anti-Bush sentiments, especially in the form of graffiti or mumbled comments. But here I was in Nicaragua, just a few short months after the Sandinista Daniel Ortega had re-won the presidential election, in a part of the country that was known for continued small-scale Sandinista activity...and the people loved Americans? What the hell was going on?
I talked to Samuel about this, and he said that the goodwill was in fact genuine, and that most people are able to separate a person or group of people from country’s political outlook. It made me feel pretty good to hear him say that. I also found out a lot more about Samuel and his original reasons for leaving home nearly 20 years ago. The main reason had to do with the civil war. It had affected his village a lot, and there were multiple threats against his family, who had supported the Sandinistas. He had eventually left after his family members’ houses had been shot up various times and people from the village had been hanged. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to talk to him about his past, and I have a feeling that I just scratched the surface of the Samuel Experience.
We paid visits to a few of Samuel’s friends, and I took pictures of some of them. I thought it was interesting that before taking pictures, most people asked for us to give them a few minutes to change into their nicest clothes, since they wanted to look good for their photos. Also, that’s perhaps a reason that these pictures don’t really show people in old crappy clothes, or men my age wearing T-shirts that say stuff like “1998 Southern Minnesota Girls High School Volleyball Tournament.” Most of all, though, I came to appreciate my digital camera’s capability to display the pictures I’d just taken, which people loved. (Also, thanks to Bobby for the extra battery you gave me—it saved my ass!)
We eventually made our way back to the house to visit more with Samuel’s neighbors. Charita approached me on the porch and asked if I knew how to write. I told her yes, so she asked if she could dictate me a letter, since she couldn’t write very well these days. I thought that was kind of ironic, considering that due to Sandinista educational movements decades ago, most everyone else there probably was able to write, but she still chose the Foreign Guy who couldn’t hardly understand a word she said. Still, I did it. It was a long process, and I’m sure the letter she dictated to me in Spanish was full of mistakes and may spark off another minor civil war in the region.
A bit later in the afternoon, four of us guys went to a cemetery to clear off Samuel’s mother-in-law’s grave, which had become covered with weeds. It’s always interesting to see how people bury their dead in other countries, and here was no exception. The cemetery was actually more of a field with an occasional tomb, and various chickens and other animals were walking all around. It was near a series of beautiful hills on one side and a misty valley on the other side, and all in all, it didn’t seem like such a bad place to spend the rest of your death.
As we were working on clearing the area, one of the guys—whom Samuel called “Chico,” although that might not be his real name—cut his leg with a machete. It wasn’t too big of a gash, but it was still bleeding a fair amount. He was laughing a bit, so I didn’t feel too bad laughing as they collectively decided that the best provisional treatments would be to put a leaf on it, and to secure the leaf with a handkerchief. Just another hazard of living the Way of the Machete. Plus, if the pros even do it, now I won’t feel so bad when the time comes when I cut myself with my own machete.
That night, we visited Samuel’s brother’s house, and we ate a candlelight dinner outside. Not for romance, mind you, but rather because there wasn't a room inside, and the house doesn’t have electricity. Near the end, just when I thought we were about to make tracks back to Samuel’s house, he started to ask his brother for forgiveness for fighting when they were kids. Then their mom asked for forgiveness, too. What proceeded took about an hour and a half, and was uncomfortable, to say the least. They were holding each other in a group hug, crying and talking and praying, and at one point, Samuel’s brother’s wife joined in. That left me on the periphery, along with two of the daughters of the house, who I had never actually been introduced to. I could sense that they also felt awkward about the situation, but fortunately, there was no light, so we didn’t feel compelled to make awkward conversation. While everyone else was weeping and praying, we stood quietly to the side of the circle, rocking back and forth from our heels to our toes to avoid passing out.
Probably the most awkward part of the prayer circle was when Samuel referred to me a few times as an “angel of God,” since I’d paid for his bus ticket. I’m not a really vocal person about my personal beliefs, so for me, it was kind of disturbing to be called an angel. “Let’s not exaggerate,” I told him. I think if I actually were an angel, I should have the power to fly, or at least be able to have flowing Angel Hair. And I probably wouldn’t cuss as much. So I don’t quite buy the claim that I’m an angel. But I guess it could give me something else to add to my résumé. After our Southern Gospel Revival Meeting, we headed back home, and that concluded today’s episode of The Adventures of Samuel Chavarria and Angel Boy.

Samuel´s sister-in-law and her two kids. Sorry, but I can't remember any of their names, and I'm not sure I ever even knew them.

The guy on the inside of this window--who you can barely see--was one of the people we visited on our outing. The woman and her daughter, who may or may not be related to that guy--didn't want to take a picture, because the mother wasn't wearing her good clothes. We were trying to trick her and get a secret picture, but this is the best we got.

Finally the woman agreed to take a picture with her daughter, but not until she'd ditched the crappy capris and put on some nice clothes.

Samuel, "Chico," and "Chico" clearing Samuel's mother-in-law's tomb. This is moments before "Chico" (not pictured) performed a bit of minor machete surgery on his leg.

A view from the cemetery, which gives a sense of the open-ness and the rustic feeling of this place.

"Chico" and his "medicinal" leaf placed on his machete cut. It was before the "medicinal" used handkercheif was tied over the wound to hold the leaf in place.

Strictly for my Nicas: Samuel and his brother "Chico" in the candlelight. It's not a very clear picture, but I think it's cool. Plus, it's hard to set up a clear photo when you can see next to nothing in your camera's viewfinder.

Samuel's mom on the front porch of her house. She lives right across from Samuel's brother, who lives on the other side of Pantasma from Samuel's house.

As his daughter looks on, Samuel's brother writes a thank-you note to Samuel's wife for some stuff she sent.

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Nicaragua Part 5: Coming Back

Compared to the vomit-filled mayhem that was the trip north, our return to Costa Rica was relatively calm. When Samuel and I were leaving, we gave the equivalent of 5 or 10 dollars to Charita to buy some food, and as we walked to where the bus would stop to pick us up, her rambling, quasi-incoherent proclamations that God bless us, God bless us indeed, bade us farewell.
We had another pre-four-o’clock bus departure, but the rides this time were all pretty smooth and somewhat enjoyable. We didn’t miss any buses, and nothing terribly interesting happened. Managua was still polluted, but it was a nicer day, and it was nice to see more of the city and listen as Samuel talked to the taxi driver about the state of the nation of Nicaragua.
The border crossings were annoying again, but they didn’t last as long, since it was later in the day, and by now it was old hat for us. Coming back into Costa Rica, though, one noticed a marked contrast in the quality of life and housing, and it made me grateful to live here. Costa Rica is really a great country, and I especially liked the slightly rugged northwest province of Guanacaste, which looks like what I imagine Florida might have looked like some 50 years ago: hot, flat, scenic, and a bit fucked up. As the sun set out the bus window to my right and “Rocky Balboa” played above me, I mentally tried to digest my trip.
In all the storytelling and joking in these blogs, I realized that I failed to mention one important thing: Nicaragua is a beautiful country. Sure, it’s got its problems--there are unregulated areas of environmental damage, and many people simply throw garbage out the bus window, for example—but it’s also the biggest and least densely populated country in Central America. That means that there are huge natural areas with beautiful views, all the way from Lake Nicaragua in the south to the foggy highlands in the north. I saw many amazing landscapes and many beautiful, friendly people. It was the people that worried me a bit, though.
As I said, I realize now how lucky I have things, especially when I compare Nicaragua to the United States. I had the luxury of being able to leave the country after just a few days, and that’s a luxury that most of the people living in poverty don’t have. I am trying to think of ways that I can personally help out, since I noticed how much impact even a small action can make. I thought of how the amount of cash that would buy me one meal will buy Charita food for a week. I thought of how most of the males in Samuel’s family expressed to him and me the interest of coming to Costa Rica to work.
In the time I’ve come back to Costa Rica, I’ve talked with Samuel a few times, and as thanks to him for his hospitality, I decided to offer about two hundred dollars to him, to spend in the manner he deems most appropriate to help his family. I told him he could pay it back or not. My two stipulations were first, that he spend it to help his family and second, that if one of the men in his family wants to come here, that his family discusses it before coming. I’d rather not be the reason for a family being broken up, even if it is in search of a better future. So, we’ll see what happens.
I’m not trying to make myself into some sort of Ryangelina Jolie, but I’m trying to help. Maybe these blog postings—if you’ve even managed to read this far—can also help raise a bit of awareness. The main thing I didn’t want to do was to make an attempt at writing a humorous email and trivialize what I saw. I also didn’t want to send a message like, “Hey, these people are just great; they may be poor, but at least they’re happy and they have their music,” or some crap like that. They’re poor and they’re friendly, but still, they’re freakin' poor, and there must be something we can do to help. I know that Americans have big hearts, and that we give more to charities than any other country, and that’s great. But maybe this email will motivate you to think a bit more about other possibilities, or just to think more about the world around you. We’ve got it pretty good, and maybe we could help some others out, too.
Thanks for reading.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

July 16, 2007

Wedding Photos

Since a few of you are already asking for wedding photos, I'll set up a link to a site that will have them all soon, I think. The pictures were taken by my friend Brad, and he was great! I'm still deciding between what I want him to use as my official "happy client" quote on his website. It's down to:
"Brad Bonner was the consummate photographic professional."
"Brad Bonner is a photographic alchemist--we gave him the basic elements and he turned our wedding pictures into gold."
The photos that are up so far can be seen here.
Thanks for the great work, Brad!
For now, here's another preview:

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

July 14, 2007

Newfound Domesticity

Well, it’s obviously been a month since I posted anything to the blog, but at least it’s been a busy month. As you know, I got married. That was really nice. There was also a lot leading up to that and following that, so I’ve been very busy.
I’m also a bit on the dark side of the moon in terms of communications technology right now, too. So this entry will be short. There will soon be many, many wedding photos viewable on either this blog or the wedding blog, and when that happens, I’ll let you know. Also, I went to Nicaragua for a few days before the wedding to renew my tourist visa in Costa Rica, and that was very interesting (for me, at least), so I’ll put some stories and pictures from there up on the blog soon, too.
But for now, it’s just nice being married, and to have a break from work at the same time. We’ve been sleeping in, hanging out, and reading. Very nice. And now, I’m sitting on the couch, using the dial-up modem, and hoping for the best.
Angela is sorting out kernels of rice or something like that in the kitchen. That’s why I prefer bread.
Anyhow, more on the wedding soon, but I just wanted anyone who reads this to know I’m still alive, and happily married with my beautiful wife!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook