I am a member of the Moscow Sister City Association and a retired English professor from the University of Idaho . From February 2 to March 28, 2007 , I lived with a family in Moscow 's sister city Villa El Carmen, Nicaragua . The household consisted of Ana Julia Castillo, who had lived in Moscow for half a year in 1998, her husband Mario Mendoza, and Mario's niece Aura, age 13, with extended family nearby. I taught an English class to high-school seniors at the school in town, visited the seven main schools of the area, and served as a relay for expressions of the friendship and gratitude that the people of Villa El Carmen feel for the people of Moscow . The following selection of my letters home focuses on the people and way of life in Nicaragua .
-- David Barber
They've all been wonderful. Ana Julia and her husband Mario are in their mid-thirties. (Sometimes I forget I'm almost twice as old as they are—it's easier to do because the house has no mirrors, except maybe in their bedroom. I never have to look at myself, anyway.) Mario's niece Aura lives with them. Living in her own house in town, maybe a mile away, is Ana´s mother Amanda, in her late 80s. Mario´s mother Aura, who lives out of town surrounded by sugar-cane fields, is early 60s. Ana´s nephew Roberto, mid-20s, alternates between living with his mother in Managua , about 30 miles away, and with his grandmother Amanda in the village.
All my basic needs are met. I have a small bedroom -- no window, but a fan. I can use their washing machine, or the by-hand-scrubbing board and portable double sink in the tiny back yard; Aura uses board and sink daily to wash her one white school blouse. There is no hot water, and the clothes dry on lines. Though they have a shower, the water pressure does not allow showers, exactly. El agua no sube , I was told the first morning; the water can't climb up the pipes. Instead, you fill a large pail outside and take it into the shower stall and use a bowl to pour the water over your body. . Physically it´s the most refreshing time of the day.
12 de febrero
Mario and Ana are among the professional elite in the town, being education administrators and former teachers, and they have the basic household appliances, though in old, creaky forms: a gas stove, a refrigerator, microwave, washing machine (no dryer), blender, TV, CD player and radio. (I bless the blender--with it Ana makes various full-fruit juices, often with orange and sugar to taste: we have cantaloupe juice, pineapple juice, papaya juice, tamarindo juice, even carrot juice and a juice with the huge local version of beets.). They have a car, which like most of the cars here is a well used ex-taxi. It has bad shocks and only one working headlight on low beam, which is interesting on these roads. The tourist book says driving is the most dangerous thing you can do in Nicaragua , and I can see why. But Mario is a good driver.
16 de febrero
At Mario and Ana´s house we normally sit down to eat together (usually just Mario, Aura, and I because Ana usually makes and eats supper with her mother). But the first custom of Nicaraguan eating is that you don´t wait for anyone else. When food is in front of you, you start eating (with your napkin, if there is one, remaining on the table). And Nicaraguans eat fast; I´m usually the last one done. They wait for me. When everyone is done, often we just pick up the dishes and that´s that. Other times we talk for a while.
Saturday morning we had the most lovely and purely American breakfast: Ana made French toast, with hot honey. Roberto [Ana's nephew] was there and was on his favorite subject of the mysteries of English word sounds. He wanted to know if I could understand American Southerners. I said yes, but it could be difficult because they talk funny. (This was probably not helpful.) Mario observed that Americanos negros have their own way of talking, and then he launched into prominent differences among Spanish speakers. In Cuba , he said, they don´t pronounce R and RR; instead they say L. A Cuban doesn´t make an error but an elol . (Cubans drink lon not ron .) Mario says the Cuban educational system diligently teaches R and RR but the Cubans don´t care and continue to use L. Then he and Ana expounded on the lazy Nicaragüenses who are always omitting final S from words. Unlike Costa Rica , where they meticulously pronounce all the sounds.
That reminded me of a traveler to Nicaragua who wrote that he liked learning Spanish there because the people only spoke half of each word so it was twice as easy to learn the language. Mario, Ana, and Roberto thought that was pretty funny. I said really the best way to learn Spanish would be to visit Nicaragua to learn the front ends of words and then go to Costa Rica to learn the back ends. They thought that was pretty funny. Then I asked about the special use in Nicaragua of vos for tu and the different verb forms in the 2nd-person singular: tenés not tienes, podés not puedes . They said these forms were imports from Argentina and used for informal effect here. That made sense of a joke I´d read that morning in the newspaper, in a section for teenagers: “A man from Argentina said to his wife, “Tonight I am going to make love 'afónico.' [meaning “without sound or voice”]. His wife said, “OH? Afónico? “Si,” he responded, “SIN VOS.” [Play on voz meaning “voice.”]
28 de febrero
Last night Mario, Aura, and I were eating supper when Aura gasped and pointed with alarm at the wall where swarms of tiny ants were climbing up and out onto the ceiling, forming colonies and building roads. Another large contingent advanced across the floor under the dinner table, and since my feet were in the way Mario suggested that I rest them on the table´s leg supports. To Aura´s expressions of alarm Mario simply said the ants weren´t doing anything. Hacen nada, no hay problema. He said this with the gentle scorn of adult experience to Aura, girl of 13 and ignorant of ants.
For my part I was busy being calm while the ants marched under my sandals, but I was thinking RAID! Where are you, Dow Chemical, when we need you? I was sure that Mario would find implements of destruction after we finished our slow-moving meal. But no, after we finished, we picked up and washed the dishes while the ants developed their suburbs and highways. Then Mario went outside and began watering his plants. I kept vigil to see if the ants would want to head for my bedroom.
They did not. After an hour of so of maneuvers they gradually reversed course and began to stream back home, which I imagine is a nest under the house. As Mario said, they did nothing to bother anybody. They lifted a few rice grains, perhaps.
5 de marzo
As representative of the Moscow Sister City Association, I am to visit all seven of the big schools, which go from pre-escolar to secundaria (kindergarten to high school senior), while I am living here. Also some of the satellite schools, which are primary only and often only one room. Yesterday I visited the school of which Mario is principal. I was greeted like un presidente , or caudillo. W e walked between two lines of students, many boys with drums and many girls dressed quite like cheerleaders, with similar routines. Mario and I then sat down on a platform and two pairs of dancers did Nicaraguan dances. Then the drummers drummed and the girls danced, with one boy playing a vertical kind of vibes-chimes instrument. They played something like The Battle Hymn of the Republic —don't know why this is an important tune, but I also heard it at a ceremony at another school Monday. Perhaps they were playing it for me.
10 de febrero
I teach English at the local school, Gustavo Carrión Zamora, to the seniors, on Tuesday and Thursday. The school has a computer lab, funded by the national government so that it can offer computer certification to adults as well as a tool for students. It´s air-conditioned! This is the only Internet connection in town, and no other school has the connection, which costs $400 monthly (that's 7200 cordobas), far beyond the capacity of any school to pay for itself. The school principal, Alba Sequeíra, has graciously offered me use of the computer, so I have two reasons to go to school—three if you include the air conditioning. (At its coolest this area feels like mid-80s, at its hottest over 100, and humid though not so humid as Georgia , say. There will be no running here, or fast walking; any movement is exercise. When not moving, I am always seeking moving air.)
12 de febrero
Last night Mario and Ana and I discussed equipment needs. It seems the immediate school crisis is one of an expanding population, which has created a shortage of various things (at bottom, of course, is the shortage of teachers), including CHAIRS. At Gustavo Carrión in any given classroom there are normally not quite enough chairs: this is why students press to get into school--there is only one entrance, always guarded by a doorkeeper--so they can get good seats. Since one class group (e. g., 8th grade, 9th grade) may be much larger than another (my senior class sets the record at 64), the schools are forced to assign classrooms to STUDENT CLASSES rather than to SUBJECTS. This means that a given class of students is always in the same room, with just, or almost, enough chairs for that group. So it´s the teachers who move from aula (classroom) to aula , not the students. Which means teachers cannot store materials in an English room or a science room, and the use of materials is severely limited.
5 de marzo
My English class is picking up some steam. I had my students try to translate Frost's Stopping By Woods on an Snowy Evening. And they did a nice job of translating the poem, once they got past 'Whose woods these are . . . ,' which threw most of them. ('Downy flake' was a little tough too.) But there is a student culture here of copying other students´ work; it looks like each group of friends has its own worker and the rest are copiers. That may be overstating the case, but I tried to persuade them yesterday that not doing your own work is bad for learning! I forbade the practice. We´ll see.
In the meantime we´ve been studying a letter from Moscow High School students Leslye Penticoff and Brendan Littlefield. Before leaving, I asked them to collaborate writing a letter to my Nica students, in both Spanish and English, about their lives and plans. This they did brilliantly, but I hesitated to use the letter because of its complexities in English. Then it occurred to me that here was an entrance into an area of their expertise: Spanish! So I asked them to find the errors in Leslye and Brendan´s Spanish-version letter.
Leslye and Brendan are so proficient in Spanish, so far beyond the point where my Nica students are in English, that I hope they will forgive me this indiscretion. I learned a great deal about Spanish yesterday myself, as my students had a gleeful frenzy over the text. Like tiburones felices they were, happy sharks. The mysteries of 'a' vs 'en,' 'por' vs 'para,' 'me gusta bailando' vs 'me gusta bailar' etc. all became a bit clearer to my gringo eyes. Now I need to have them write letters of their own to Brendan and Leslye, but I´ll have to help them with the English.
It would seem to help in learning another language to be able to forget your own. Spanish keeps trapping my students into English errors. PADRE means FATHER and MADRE means MOTHER but PADRES means PARENTS (and PARIENTES means RELATIVES). They think that in English PARENTS are FATHERS. HERMANOS means not brothers but SIBLINGS, so they´ll write I HAVE FIVE BROTHERS, THREE VARONES (or MACHOS ) AND TWO MUJERES (or HEMBRAS ). Somehow, in ME GUSTA BAILAR (I like to dance, to me it is pleasing to dance) they got the idea that GUSTA means TASTE in English, so it comes out, ME TASTE DANCE, not to mention the structural problem because the English expression of liking has “I” as the subject: I like to dance, whereas in Spanish the subject is the thing of activity: Me gusta BAILAR. . (They´re also weak on sticking in the TO for infinitives.) Slow going for us all.
9 de marzo
Last Friday I visited La Ceiba, the last of the seven big schools here (“big” means they have both primary and secondary), one of its satellite primary schools, and the home of one of the two alcaldes (mayors) who visited Moscow in 1992.
Mario, Alba (principal of Gustavo Carrion), someone from the Education Ministry, the vice-principal of La Ceiba, and I drove to these places in a sturdy pickup truck. Good thing--Mario´s car never would have made it over these dirt roads. The satellite school is Escuela Osneydo Medyano, high up in the hills. Its pre-escolar class had only nine students, and its main primary class about 25. All the 34 students filed into the main classroom, and the teacher arranged chairs for us across the front. We sat facing the students. They stared at us. We sat there. I started taking pictures to pass the time, showing them to the kids, who find it very funny to see themselves on my 2 1/2 inch screen.
We sat. I remembered what Katrina [Nelson, who spent two weeks in Villa El Carmen in 2003] had said: don´t have expectations, just wait and something will happen . Well, the older kids had prepared a song and eventually they sang it. Then we went outside and stood around. Then I saw Mario stringing a blue ribbon from one tree to another near the wall at the edge of the school property. I knew that the Moscow Sister Cities Association had funded the construction of a wall around a school to stabilize the land and make a safer space, but I did not know which school. Turns out this was the one, and Mario and Alba had arranged a blue ribbon-cutting ceremony to make the wall, la cerca, official--or rather, to send back a message of thanks to MSCA . There is a very silly photo of me cutting this ribbon.
If Osneydo Medyano is typical of the thirty-plus satellite primary schools, which are primary only, they are making a go of it with minimal resources. This school has 35 students, two classrooms, and two teachers. The toilet is a one-stall outhouse. There is no functioning well, so the students and their parents bring water every day. And every day they use some of this water to tend three little trees, planted not long ago by the side of the school.
La Ceiba may be the smallest of the seven big schools, and the farthest out in the country—away from the village. I´m sure it needs more classrooms and teachers as they all do, but the class sizes were a manageable 25-30, and the furniture etc. seemed in pretty good shape. They have the most antiquated volleyball net I´ve seen, though, and an uneven dirt surface--a good but undeveloped space for soccer or baseball if they´re willing to cut down one tree. But the funding is lacking. The bathrooms look primitive from the outside. The English teacher had the most limited skills of any of the English teachers I´ve met, and he said why: he can´t afford to go to the university to learn more.
But the students are just as neat and clean, the girls with earrings just as ornate, as the students in other schools. The show they put on included two dancing groups with expensive-looking costumes, one featuring very short skirts and the other high black boots, denim jackets, and berets for the girls and blue sport-coats and dark glasses for the boys. Two students recited poems by the ubiquitous Rubén Darío [Nicaragua's most famous poet], three sang songs, two 7th-year old girls danced the palo de mayo in a very energetic sexy way for 7-year olds, and later these same girls showed up in pale blue MOSCOW SOCCER JERSEYS, from a large shipment of Moscow soccer jerseys sent by MSCA and distributed among the various schools.
At La Ceiba I talked with half a dozen classes, notably the seniors. Like others they did not want to talk in English, but eventually they asked questions in English, which I answered mostly in Spanish. They wanted to know how I like Nicaraguan culture. That´s tough, since I know so little. They wanted to know if I thought the United States is more powerful than China . How old am I? Do I like animals? What wild animals live in Idaho ? One kid actually knew the English word 'moose,' which was a great help to me as I didn't know the Spanish word (which is alce ) and was trying to represent moose antlers with my hands above my head. Yes, we have bears in Idaho , but not the big white ones. They thought that any place where it might be snowing in March would have osos polares .
One girl asked, Do you dance? I said, Not much . She said, Will you dance with me? I said, Now? She said, Yes . Decision time. Here´s this beautiful dark-haired girl offering to dance with me, and my mother taught me not to be rude, so I said Por supuesto! and up she bounced and we twirled (you might say) around the classroom while her girlfriends sang fragments of a song for company.
There are various ways to make a fool of yourself, and I figure this is one of the ways that are free. Besides, you never know, certain opportunities may never be offered again.
19 de marzo
Villa El Carmen the MUNICIPALITY (like a county) is an area of some 216 square miles that stretches from the Pacific shore to about 30 miles inland, with VEC the VILLAGE roughly in the middle. To date I´ve seen the Pacific only from a distance of maybe 10 miles from the top of a hill, in the family car. Over 35,000 people live here, according to the alcalde (mayor). The village VEC has 3-4000 people, including the 'suburbs,' such as the colonia (neighborhood) where I am staying, built largely by the owners themselves as part of a project funded in part by Canada . These houses--and I think they're typical--are of two basic sizes: about 20x20 feet and 20x35 feet. The design and materials are basic: concrete block, corrugated metal roofs, wall material flimsier than our sheetrock. Ceilings are of light plastic blocks, about a yard square, resting on supports; when I enter my 7x10 bedroom, the act of opening the door pushes air into the room so that the ceiling blocks rise and fall and it sounds like a wind has rattled the house. No house here has a second story or a basement. The electricity is pretty reliable--last year, I´m told, it was not. Three times in the past two weeks there have been outages of 1-2 hours, and I live in fear of not having my electric fan functioning in my windowless bedroom. But so far we have always had power at sleep time.
16 de febrero
Here at the edge of the main street, I have already passed at least two stores. I say 'at least' because I am discovering more family businesses all the time. A couple of blocks from Ana and Mario´s, a family owns a freezer, and they store and sell packaged ice cream cones and sandwiches and popsicles. Various women--girls usually--walk around selling warm tortillas, and one girl has cornered the market on cajetas , a delicious soft caramel candy.
On the main street are a couple of stores in every block: one-room affairs with a motley assortment of goods. I know where I can get shampoo and paper goods, where I can restore my electrolytes with Gaterade, where—only one place in town, evidently—I can buy a newspaper, Nuevo Diario or La Prensa . Today I bought a white shirt, for 65 cordobas--that's about $3.75, and I probably got what I paid for.
Strangers I meet will often initiate and always return a greeting: Buenos dias, Hola , or--the most common greeting-- Adios . Immediately you sense the warm, informal, physical closeness: adult to adult, child to child, adult to child. I am largely included in the mix. The children blow me away. Apart from their amazing physical beauty--they are always reminding me of my two grandchildren who combine Korean and Caucasian skin tones--they have the brightest smiles ever seen. They are shy--often I have to smile first, and then they light up as if the most enchanting thing in the world has just happened to them. (As I type, the little girls next to me are staring transfixed by my typing.) Kids at school are always saying to me, Hello DAYvid, how AAHRE you? Yesterday I sat down to write some notes on a bench outside, and was immediately surrounded by a dozen ten-year old boys who just wanted to look at what I was doing--no purpose, just curious. Today while I was waiting to get into the computer room, a class of 7th graders lined up and one girl said hello and then went down the line of children naming each one for me, so I could say Hello, how are you? to each.
The dogs are a puzzle to me. They are mostly small to medium size, docile, sweet, and scrawny. I may be wrong, but to me they embody the core of St. Paul´s idea of love. They are not proud, they do not bark much, neither do they beg; they expect nothing, nor do they want to smell my hand or my crotch. I´ve seen only a couple with collars. There are lots of them, and they must have a place to call home, but only a couple of times have I seen anyone TOUCH a dog. I hesitate to be the first, not wanting to set a precedent or find out that they´re really vicious curs.
16 de febrero
Sunday we visited Mario's mother's house, a mile out of town and surrounded by sugar cane fields. She and Mario baked bread, while during the cooking I got my first horse ride in 30 years, on a very gentle yegua named Lucera. This was a nice follow-up to a few days earlier, when I was walking to school, and a man I didn´t know stopped on his motorcycle and said, LESGO , pointing to the seat behind him. I´d been operating on Katrina´s [Katrina Nelson, previous visitor to Villa El Carmen] first principle, which is, Don´t turn down anything directly offered. I figured if it worked with food (and so far it mostly had) it should work with motorcycles. So I got a ride to the school.
Katrina´s second principle is, Don´t have expectations. Her third is, If in doubt, tough it out. Combined with Meghan´s principle: Always keep busy , I´ve been fine.
25 de febrero
More physical facts of the town. Mario and Ana have a septic system for their indoor toilet, so recent that there is a large mound of dirt beside where the hole was dug for the tank--and the field, I guess. There´s certainly no room for a septic field Idaho style. In back of Doña Amanda´s house in the center of town is a large rectangular hole, about 8x5 and 6-7 feet deep, where HER septic apparatus will go. She´s been in this house at least 15 years and has never had an indoor toilet. Times are changing. Neither Mario and Ana's colonia nor hers has a common sewage system, so it´s each house for itself.
I was wrong about Villa Ed Carmen having only one paved street. Several of the intersecting streets are also paved for a block or two in either direction. Driving down the main street is a bit slow not only because of the pedestrian, cyclists, and horses, but because every few blocks is the speed bump from Hell. These massive topes are essential because some drivers around here drive crazy-fast. There are also pretty good sidewalks on both sides of the street. However, this place is a minefield for ankle-spraining. So far I´ve been lucky.
Water. This part of the colonia has a weak though reliable flow of water. Flow is weak because the main pipe installed is narrow. An adjoining neighborhood, I'm told, has a big pipe and a strong flow. To the east of here, in a newer colonia with few trees, there is no water at all. So you see horses pulling or children pushing wooden 2-wheeled wagons with big kegs in them; they come to the neighborhood where there is water, and they fill up at s friend or relative's house. Mario says water will come to this section sometime soon, and a wider pipe will be laid down in his own area. Then water can subir up the pipes and make showers possible.
28 de febrero
I´ve tried to make friends with a couple of dogs who often visit the yard. One is a puppy, maybe half a year old, white and brown, shorthair. (All the dogs here are shorthair--wonder why?) He lives next door, and is the only dog around with a collar. The other is a middle-sized black-brown dog named Sacha who often stands just outside the door, not pleading or begging, just looking in. She lives across the street, but she gets scraps from here, and that´s why she checks us out often. To both dogs I offered my hand, to lick or sniff or bite. Petting dogs is not what people do, so I haven´t messed with dog´s heads. Both dogs responded in the same way: a quick sniff, then a very gentle bite on the fingers, so as to be totally sure, I figure, that they weren´t being offered food. A whiff, a soft nip, and off they went.
I´ve stopped wondering what is wrong with the dogs here, because clearly they´ve been trained by the heat to move as little as possible. All days are dog days here. There is also a mindset in this town which seems not anti-dog but just not very affectionate toward them. Maybe inside the houses it is different. Actually, Doña Amanda is affectionate with her two foot-long yappers, who are treated with the same benign neglect but occasional affection as her turkeys, parakeets, and the skinny black cat named Jacinto, who is retired. (He gets respect for having given up chasing mice; now he relies on scraps of people´s food.) I´m pretty indifferent to these dogs myself since I don´t much like foot-long yappers. But what I miss, overall, is the sight of a happy, or at least a passionately yearning dog. I think of that lovely description of a dog´s mind: Ah, a toast crust--my favorite! Ah, a walk in the park--my favorite! Ah, a pat on the head--my favorite! Ah, a nap--my favorite! Etc. Do the dogs here have favorites? Hard to tell.
5 de marzo
Saturday I finally got to the Pacific. It wasn´t easy, with six people in a car with no shocks, four of us packed in the back seat and the trunk full of watermelon, chicken, drinks, and the ever-present arroz (rice). But Mario knows just how much the car has to slow down over any given bump. When this car goes, it will not be through any large thud with broken axle or ruptured gas tank. It will be the death of a thousand scrapes, wearing a hole somewhere in the underbelly.
We stopped at a lovely beach, at the western edge of Villa El Carmen (the municipio- county, not the village), with dark sand which, if it´s dry, is hot and you don´t want to walk on it with your bare feet. Miles of public beach for walking or swimming. We did the things you do on the beach, bouncing around in high but friendly Pacific waves, picnicking under a roof of palm leaves, gathering shells. Three dog strangers kept us company, to their great profit.
13 de marzo
On the east edge of town is a sign that says SITIO ARQUEOLÓGICO and it lists three sites, two rivers and the CUEVA DE LOS INDIOS . On the west edge of town is another sign on the same subject, with an arrow and below it, 4 KILÓMETROS. I´d been wanting to see this place. Sunday Mario decided to take me. He, a lifelong resident of the area, had never been there himself.
So around 11am , dripping sunscreen, we drove out past this western sign, looking in particular for the Indian cave, where there were supposed to be prehistoric petroglyphs by natives whom Mario could identify only as Nicaragüenses. Some day maybe 20 years ahead, the way to the Indian cave will be clearly marked wherever the road forks and reforks and forks again. The road will be flat and paved. From the road there will be a path, and from the path a stairway, leading tourists, out for a drive from their condominium on the Pacific coast, gently down into the cave. Pero ahorita, no . This is not a tourist trap yet, it´s a maze for natives. Mario had very little idea where we were going, and left to our own devices we never would have got there. But he stopped to ask three young men (one in high school and the others a year out of school) where the cave was. They gave some really sophisticated directions, but then they came running after the car to say they´d show us, because they knew where the carvings were (and had nothing better to do). So they climbed in the back and off we went.
And they did know, mostly. First we skirted the edge of Villa El Carmen´s water source, a spring from where the water is pumped through pipes to the town. We had to do this to get to a path to a stream, where the boys stopped and one started brushing leaves from a rock to reveal a prehistoric carving beneath. A few feet away was what looked like a dinosaur but was (they said) a large lizard, and across the stream--one boy splashed water on it to make it stand out--was a portrait of two faces with the eye and mouth holes about an inch deep.
To get this far we had to cross a recently plowed sugarcane field—no signs to be seen but somehow the boys knew—over a temporary road made by tractors, except the middle part of this 'road' turned out to be plowed over so the car had to stop and we walked. This on a day when the wind was fierce and clouds of dust were whipping all over (the erosion here has to be massive). When we returned Mario had to back out over a few hundred yards, being careful not to stray off this path and get stuck in what looked like very soft, fine dry dirt. We continued, up an ever-more bumpy dirt road, with Mario manipulating the window buttons like a video game to keep the dust out from whichever angle it was blowing in. To have all the windows closed in this heat was certain death.
But when we came to a ledge in the road, twice the height of Villa El Carmen´s speed bumps, it was all over for the car. Mario just said, No , and we got out and walked, up to the top of a hill and down the other side, bushwhacking, and even the boys weren´t quite sure where the cave was. But we found it, and the petroglyphs were there: human faces, a bird, groups of people, patterns I couldn´t figure out. One pair of faces, the boys said, were a man and a woman. How can you tell? Because the man´s face is round, they said, but the woman´s face is heart-shaped. This may or may not be good anthropology, but it´s sweet so I believed them.
21 de marzo
Coming back from inspecting a tourist resort under construction on the coast, Mario took a detour and said, Now we´re going to the funeral . This was the funeral of the father of two local teachers; he had died yesterday, and Mario had gone to his vigil Sunday night. We were in San Cayetano, a town not far from Villa El Carmen. We arrived at the house of the dead man´s sister; inside was the coffin. Outside, where we stayed, were about three hundred people, including quite a few school kids; it looked like school had been let out for the occasion. Plastic chairs were everywhere. People sat and talked and laughed, and a few showed signs of grief, but the people closest to the deceased were inside the house. We sat for close to an hour. I was sitting next to Manuel on one side and a fourteen-year old girl, a student of Mario´s, and her mother on the other. Manuel claimed that the girl and her mother were gossiping about whether I wanted to get married. Just who was angling for me remained unknown, but the girl was full of giggles. Pale-skinned strangers are funny to kids here.
Eventually there was singing inside, and then the people outside all stood up, and the coffin descended the steps on the shoulders of four men. The coffin led the procession of mourners down the street. We did not follow, but watched as the coffin turned left at the end of the block and the crowd pursued it out of sight. We drove home.
Manuel says that in every Nicaraguan village, the cemetery is within walking distance.
21 de marzo
A few nights ago the electricity went out shortly after sunset. Ana and Mario were still out, and Aura was watering the dust. I went out to sit on the front step, feet in the street. Evenings without electricity are a bother indoors, but outdoors it´s lovely because all the house lights are off, and most houses have glaring light bulbs outside, perhaps to keep the bugs from coming inside through the always open doors. In the total dark you can see the stars really well where the trees let you. Orion was almost straight up, and from this angle I could see the Big Dipper reclining toward the north; I could even see the North Star, just above the horizon.
Two kids came by kicking balls. We tossed the half-flat balls back and forth. Other kids wandered by. Eventually there were 8 or 9 of them, all between the ages of 4 and 8. They had nothing to do either. They sat down; we hung out. They wanted to see if I really could speak English. One girl asked if I could say UNO in English, and I could. Then she and a younger boy counted off one through ten. (That surprised me--they must be starting them earlier with English now in the schools.) Then we got into serious stuff: where I´m from, when I´m going home, how I´m getting there, animals, food, siblings, weather. It was peaceful and odd: a bunch of children, fascinated by the strange--and I, the strange --sitting surrounded in the dark, straining to understand their Spanish, and suddenly hearing two of them reel off one through ten .
Afternoon, walking by a park on the east side of town, I see six little girls playing. I´ve never seen them before, but they know me. I am the Gringo, the one who habla inglés . They don´t seem threatening or hostile so I approach them, and we talk a little. They are 5-7 years old. I say goodbye and walk away, but half a block later they come running after me. They want to introduce themselves, want me to know their names. The ringleader says I´m Rosalia, this one´s Carolina , this one . . . They jump around and giggle. Soy David , I say, and all six repeat it together. DAAYveed . Something about this is very touching: little Nicaraguan girls announcing themselves to the gringo world.
26 de marzo
The heat is relentless; this is SUMMER here, they say. I know, this flies in the face of astronomy, Nicaragua being in the northern hemisphere, but febrero, marzo, y abril are the hottest months of the year. I guess that´s because when the rains come in mayo they cool things off. Astronomy buffs will also be happy to know that the sun really does set FAST in the tropics. And when I look up in a very bright starry sky, around 9pm , I see Orion almost exactly overhead.
12 de febrero
I left the iguana en casa , her front legs evidently dislocated behind her back, assuming that Mario would dispatch it there in the afternoon. But he took it to Doña Amanda´s house (Ana´s mother), which has more space for dispatchment, and I figure she has experience with iguanas. That evening I saw the completed product, the iguana now not green but red, neatly spiraling above its 33 eggs. It is when female iguanas have their almost ready eggs in tow that they are considered a delicacy.
But we did not eat it-them that night. Mario decided that since it might not agree with me on the eve of our outing to Granada and the Masaya Volcano, we would eat something safer. But it turned out to be not that safe. We had frijoles and yuca --that´s fine, but the arroz was fried in what seemed an excessive amount of oil. And the cheese was fried. The cheese here is OK, white and grainy, tasting smoked, but queso frito is my idea of overkill. Who knows the mysteries of cause and effect, but later that evening I suffered my first serious bout of diarrhea, which worried me because of the trip next day. Possibly having two tall glasses of water with powdered Gaterade didn´t help, or perhaps it saved me, along with Pepto Bismol provided by Mario, and Rosauers´ finest preventative (Immodium), which I started taking at midnight .
The next day, a little shaky but solid, I went off with Ana and five school principals, including Mario. Our trip took us to four spectacular places. As guest of honor I got the front seat next to a very excellent and amiable driver, who looked a lot like Morgan Freeman and who was the second person here to speculate that I am German! He excelled at avoiding potholes, whose number is legion on some roads, and bicyclists, who ride often on the edge of the none-too-wide roads.
First we drove to the Masaya Volcanic National Park . The Masaya volcano is one of several active volcanoes in Nicaragua , and you can drive right up to the rim, get out of the car, and walk 20 yards to find yourself looking down into a crater with vertical walls and smoke rising from the bottom. It´s maybe 400 yards in diameter and 300 yards straight down, and some days, I´m told, you can see the red magma at the bottom. I´ve never looked down into a live volcano before. Its last big eruption was about a century ago. The first Spanish priest who arrived here, in the 1520s, had a cross erected at the top of the hill nearby, where we couldn´t go because it´s supposed to be dangerous just now. The cross was to mock Satan, or keep him down there among the flames.
Next we saw Granada , one of the main tourist cities. There´s no Alhambra in this Granada , but some charming Spanish-colonial public buildings and a lovely, not imposing cathedral. And last weekend, I read in the newspapers, they had an international festival of poetry here. Only Bob Wrigley would want to be there more than I.
Digression. Here´s a Nicaraguan paradox. First, it is a nation that prides itself on its poetry. You see that in various ways, including all sorts of reference to its great modernist poet Rubén Darío. Friday when my school gave me a special show for (delayed) Valentine´s Day, interspersed among the dancers were two students who had memorized and recited poems, and did it very dramatically and well. But second, it is not a nation of readers. Even Ana and Mario, professional educators, have no books around the house (unless they keep them in the bedroom). and the light for reading in the house is minimal at best. There are no tables where you can PUT a book, except one with a Bible on it, always opened to the same page except when the wind blows through the room. For a whole week I saw no newspapers anywhere in town. There is no public library. But in Catarina (see below) there is a public library. Wonder what it would take, and whether it would be worth it, to create one in Villa El Carmen.
Next we went to the near shore of Lago Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua ), which is the biggest lake in Central America and something like the tenth largest in the world; but anyway it´s big and it´s the one with the unique fresh-water sharks. We took a lancha , a tourist boat, around the small islands, isletas , along this shore. Here I discovered what the very rich do in Nicaragua : they buy small islands and build houses on them. Americans would build bigger but grosser. For me, though, the main thrill of this trip was the large number of huge white birds that lined the shore. Herons, egrets, at least one pelican--we pass within 40 yards of them and they pose. Also cormorants and some kind of duck, but no gulls in sight.
Finally we climbed up to Catarina, a tourist town that sits on the edge of a hill from which you look down to a crater lake, Lago Apoyo, whose beauty equals Oregon´s Crater Lake—is not so round but bigger, just as blue, and you see it from WAY above. On its shores, just one building. On its surface, just one small sailboat in all that blue. Beyond the lake, the buildings of Granada and beyond that, the shore of Cocibolca .
On the drive home, Morgan played the same CD of songs nonstop and loud, and I was in the front seat. But I liked it, for a while—three hours is a bit much at full blast while dodging bicyclists, and I was glad to be nearing the end even though I knew we were approaching the iguana and her 33 eggs. Ultimately I ate, without serious damage, one egg (they are half the size of a chicken egg and have soft membraneous shells) and what I thought was a leg. It turned out to be the tail. The meat is OK, like a tough chicken. I didn´t like the sauce that permeated the rice, though; it had the taste of lizard, somehow.
18 de febrero
When students ask me how Nicaragua is different from the United States and what I like about their country, I sometimes mention how I like it that the people and the animals all live together. In my home town, I say, only dogs and cats live in town; the roosters, chickens, cows, and chanchos (pigs) live in farms, usually penned in. Here all the animals roam free in town except horses and some of the cows. I can sit in the back yard for half an hour and see roosters, chickens, and pigs all stroll by me as well as dogs and an occasional cat. These animals live off the land, which includes being composters for garbage scraps that people toss into the yards.
At the time Mario and Alba were out in the car paying a visit, as I learned later, to a young mother who last month lost her two children ages nine and three, to el dengue , Dengue fever. It is transmitted by mosquitoes. A couple of weeks ago a woman was handing out brochures about the disease and asking people not to leave any standing water around. It´s the dry season and there are very few mosquitoes, and I haven't even opened my new bottle of DEET. But the people use a lot of water here. The water is available at a fixed price regardless of quantity, and people throw a lot of it at the dust, and also do a lot of washing outdoors. Occasionally water in pails or other receptacles is left out in the open. El dengue has two forms: bad and very bad ('hemorrógico' I think is the term). Those two children clearly got the very bad form and were not treated early enough. [I later learned that the disease is really bad if you get it twice, from two different strains of the virus.]
In Nicaragua when someone dies they have a vigil (vela) through the night and bury the person the next day. These children died during consecutive days, the second succumbing as the first was being buried. When a family member dies a Nicaraguan teacher gets five days leave. But it´s been a month and nobody is pressing this woman back to work. But she is pressing herself now, since she and her husband can´t afford for her NOT to work. Not surprisingly, Mario doesn´t think she is ready.
19 de marzo
In Nicaragua I´ve perfected the art of hanging out. Hanging out has always seemed a suspect activity to me; it lacks purpose and focus, and it seems to be usually practiced by the very young in front of TV sets. But here it's especially a part of life´s rhythm.
The first time I had a beer at the Chinchilla café, the woman who runs the place was not communicative, so I hung with myself. The second time she was friendly, having discovered that her daughter Meyling is my student. The third time she was not there but her niece was. The sobrina had nothing much to do, and she came to my table and sat. I had been walking for two hours and had come to see the sun go down, something I can´t do at Mario and Ana´s for the trees. I had an hour and a half to wait. We hung out. Lots of silence, intermittent talk.
Her name is Italia, she is in her mid-20s, a bit overweight. She has a seven-year-old son but she is not married. She does not go to the schools on Saturday and Sunday which are open to adults. Schooling is not her thing, she says. What hopes and plans does Italia have for her son? Many, she says, but she can´t name any. Would she work somewhere else if she had the chance? Yes, but she doesn´t see that happening, with her lack of education and training.
Mario says that most young women in Nicaragua are married with a child before the age of 20. Premarital sex is enthusiastically discouraged here, so when kids do it anyway and the girl ends up pregnant, a swift wedding can be relied on. In Nicaragua even therapeutic abortion is illegal. Italia sounds like the norm, except she doesn´t even have a husband. (Mario says that irresponsible fathers and husbands are a big problem here. Neither Roberto nor Aura has a relationship with their fathers, though both are living and Aura´s father lives near Villa El Carmen.) Italia has a job, sort of, tending the café, but it doesn´t look very challenging. She has nowhere to go in her life except through raising her son. This may be fine and good, may be all she expects out of life, but it seems like altogether too much hanging out.
21 de marzo
Reflections on the Way Home
I won't know for a long time what I've learned in Nicaragua , how I might have grown. The easy stuff I know already: I can live without coffee, hot water, mirrors, movie theaters, even alcohol. I know a little about schools here and the pluses and minuses of living here. These are people who have to devote most of their energies to life's basics: water, food, fuel, a little money for necessities. From the outside it seems like a slow life, because they have to minimize the necessities. This is not a nation of Thoreaus, thinking themselves rich in proportion to what they can afford to do without. In Villa El Carmen, at least, they have enough water (elsewhere in Nicaragua there are droughts and no running water). Most of the time they have electricity, and many have TVs on which they see well-off people straining after life's comforts.
Then the power may go off. When it comes back on, claps and cheers roll up and down the street.
But the tone, as felt by the visitor, is warm and joyous. Here are people living in or close to poverty and adversity, living with grace, dignity, enthusiasm. They seem strong, confident. They are physically very affectionate without much regard to age or sex. I would not ignore or minimize the problems that I know about but don't see. Unemployment is a core problem. From that pressure comes alcoholism among men. Family instability is common. A recent newspaper article claimed that the percentage of women subject at some point in their lives to sexual assault or harassment is – 100! Mario says that violence is a particularly Nicaraguan problem. But the country is working on these problems, with a lot of governmental initiative. Private groups, national and international, like Plan Nicaragua and Instituto Juan XXIII, even the entrepreneurs at Gran Pacifica's new luxury vacation center for tourists, focus on education, poverty, health needs, women, children. The Moscow Sister City Association has played a major role in these areas for Villa El Carmen.
Often in Villa El Carmen I felt like a fraud, or, to be generous, an opportunist, taking in all those experiences by standing on the shoulders of others: the active members of MSCA since the late 1980s. I felt this more than ever my last full day in the village, as Mario dragged me to the Education Ministry office and three schools—Samaria, Los Cedros, and Santa Rita—and then Alba the principal pulled me around Gustavo Carrion. Their purpose was to provide a photographic record of the contributions made by MSCA in recent years. So with Mario's blue ribbon roll left over from his niece Aura's first communion five years ago, I got to cut half a dozen ribbons in front of assorted improvements funded by MSCA , from the Santa Rita water tank and retractable-center-glass-classroom wall to the education office's computer to Gustavo Carrion's renovated bathrooms and encyclopedia and renovated classroom. Etc. And there are photos to prove all this, in which I am inanely cutting a ribbon with scissors or, in one case where no scissors could be found, with my fingers.
On this last day I tried to escape from ribbon cutting by disappearing to teach my last class. But after class I discovered that I was not done snipping. Alba had enlisted a photographer, possibly professional, for the occasion. First she herded a group of kids into the library where the encyclopedia was that MSCA had bought. Snip. Then a computer and a slide projector. Then the repaired bathrooms. Snip, snip. Alba herded twenty boys—and girls—into the boys' bathroom; everybody crowded around, two kids held the ends of the ribbon, and I snipped in front of an open toilet stall.
The highlight of all this snipping occurred when a bunch of young kids were crowded around me behind the display of the encyclopedia on the table. When the photos were shot and the kids started to move out, a girl, not more than ten, silently grabbed my hand. It was one of those Well why not? moments, and this girl and I walked hand in hand in the middle of the crowd of kids, out of the classroom. I never got to see her face clearly and I never saw her again nor probably ever will. Still, the impression of that hand remains, and the mystery of what was going on in her head, or the heads of so many kids who just wanted to connect with the Unfamiliar—hundreds of times— Hello Dayveed, Hello Teacher, Goodbye (equivalent of Hello on the model of Adios , which in this country usually means Hello), Hello Mister Dayveed . All these greetings out of nowhere, moments of grace across time, space, culture.
I continue to be struck by the impact made by Meghan Beard and Katrina Nelson here—and even Connie Larson over a decade earlier. Lots of people remember Meghan and Katrina very fondly, and my reception here was largely prepared for by them. On my last day I had lunch at Alba's house (she, the principal at Gustavo Carrion, was Katrina's host) and visited that evening with Meghan's host family also. The presence of those young women was palpable in the households. You can see the material improvements funded by MSCA in photos, but you have to be in Villa El Carmen to fully appreciate MSCA 's impact on the town simply through making possible the visits by those three Moscow women.
Thank you, members of Moscow Sister City ! though there is no way I can thank you for everything that this experience has meant to me and will continue to mean. I am just awash in memories. I am drafting this letter in the Atlanta airport. Twenty-four hours ago Nestor the alcalde was driving us home from a luxurious dinner on the Pacific shore. My last act in Villa El Carmen this morning was to walk to the house of Tania, the young woman who, with her little daughter, was always shouting Adios Dayveed as I walked by. There I discovered that my student Keyla also lives there. There was also a one-year-old girl, who is, let's see, Keyla's prima but not Tania's hija . I didn't have time to do a family tree. This is one inter-knit community. You have to love it, love them all.
It's almost 3am now in the airport and I continue to hang out with myself. One of the two sleepers here at Gate A20 just got up and left. I'm on Nica time . We were all on Nica time two days ago when I was to meet with the principals at 8:30, but Mario said they might not get to me right away so I should come around at 9:30, so I did and then waited for an hour more. A man who serves as a driver and handyman for the Ministry of Education had nothing much to do so he pulled up a chair by me and we hung out. He said this is a new job for him. He quit his job with Texaco because he always had to do things and be places en punto , right on time. The company told him they operate on American time, not Nica time, and it was hard for him. He fits right in at the Ministry of Education.
There's more, there's always more, but the time to stop has long passed. Maybe I can sleep a little, here in the airport, but I doubt it. Many nights in Villa El Carmen I couldn't get to sleep right away because I was just so happy , listening to the midnight roosters crow and the dogs howl—the dogs get more vocal in the cooler night air—as thoughts of the day rolled over and over me.
28 de marzo a 3 de abril