No Hay Agua

“No hay agua,amor” my host mum, Aura, greets me this morning.

I mutter a greeting in return and stumble in my sleep-drunken state to the bathroom to splash some water on my face but as I turn on the faucet- no hay agua. There isn’t any waterI groan. This will be the third day in a row without water, each day getting significantly worse. The broken pipe that supplies water to the city has broken, no one knows when they will come to fix it. I dip a bucket deep into the depths of the rapidly depleting storage barrel for a few drops of water and go to put on my running shoes for my morning walk with Aura.

On our way back from our walk that winds up away from the highway into the hills of the surrounding communities we pass her cousin Berta’s house and usually always go in for a cup of coffee. This morning it way also for practical reasons: she has a latrine, a drop toilet. The morning’s conversation is punctuated by conversations about previous water shortages and puns about sweat,smells, and shit.

Amid their joking I sense the tension. Most Nicaraguans are serial optimists, with a “c’est la vi” outlook on life and unwillingness to let themselves stress out about the (often very unpredictable) future. They are also realists though, and like being prepared to some extent so, while joke about the broken pipe lasting for a week and everyone smelling bad and having to stay home from work because they can’t shower, they also give each other side glances, trying to figure out to what extent the other believes it might be true. “Fijase, no hay agua” (look, there is no water) is an actual, real excuse for being later, not coming to work, backing out on plans here.I laughed about it before, but somehow it isn’t that funny anymore, now having realized just how much it really affects everything.

There is an obvious priority in water usage that I have been privy to these last few days. The lowest priority are things that use a lot of water like laundry. If the water goes that is it- no clean clothes for three days. Closely following that is mopping and flushing toilets. I have never realized just quite how much water is needed to flush a toilet. It is an absolutely ridiculous and, after a weekend of using composting toilets in Jiquilillo, also completely unnecessary. The garden is close behind. The first plants that suffer are the ornamentals, then Aura’s prize roses, and then my vegetables. Next is hair-washing. Then we start to ration the water for bucket showers. Along with all of this we also start to ration or decrease activities that will in someway require water: I have stopped cooking and started to eat my dinner with the family as it will require water to clean extra pots and pans. I don’t dig around in my garden daily as I need a lot of water to wash the dirt off my hands. We don’t go and do exercise because it will mean we will need to shower twice in one day.

Basically it means we do a lot of sitting around doing nothing, which is fine because 2 out of the 3 nights we also have a blackout from 6-10pm. Fun. The most important water and hardest to ration is the water for drinking and the water for food. Water to cook the rice, wash the vegetables, cook the beans, wash the pots and pans. It is shocking and eye-opening to physically see just how much water we really need a day, and by how much one can reduce that if need be.

There is a certain type of vicious cycle that I can see forming, especially if the water shortage continues. With decreased water, there is also decreased importance put on properly cleaning cooking instruments(already below food safety standards). Raw meat is cut on a plastic cutting board, rinsed off with cold water (there is only one temperature of water here: luke-warm-cold-ish), and then the fruit cut up and blended for the daily fresco, fruit juice. As water dwindles, washing of utensils becomes performative rather than thorough. If someone were to get sick, there is no water to properly clean their cups, body or bathrooms. the infection probability rises exponentially as more and more people get sick. The health center and hospital are also on rations- and probably a place where at this point you would get sicker rather than getting better. How much more water does a sick person need? A lot.

It seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Talking about disasters- if some disaster really did happen right now- not unlikely in a country prone to earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions- we would all be screwed, everyone already scraping the bottom of the barrel of their reserved water storage.

In case you can’t tell- not having water makes me anxious.

As we walk back to our house from Berta’s we see our neighbor struggling towards us carrying two containers filled with water. He greets Aura and myself.

“Who has water?” Aura asks

“Candida” he mentions as he lifts the buckets up again.

“Who is Candida?” I ask as we run inside to grab buckets.

“The women in the stone house on the corner where we sometimes buy tortillas when we run out and who is married to the man with the machete that opens the coconuts you get from Silvia ,” my host mum answers as way of a descriptor.

 

My host mum Aura- excited about the prospect of having water to shower with
My host mum Aura- excited about the prospect of having water to shower with

When we arrive at Candida’s house there is already a line of neighbors, all patiently waiting; the unquestioned assumption of the neighbors and Candida’s unquestioning acceptance of the situation forming the glue that holds this community together.

“I just need a little” Aura says as a way of explanation as she butts ahead of the line. Here, too, is a patient acceptance, a deep knowledge of each others private lives and acceptance that because Aura has an official job at the bank, her time does indeed warrant priority.

All the neighbours gather around to fill up their various water vessels.
All the neighbors gather around to fill up their various water vessels.

Struggling back to the house with the buckets I reflect on how much my views have changed and a conversation I had recently with a friend. He was asking me if I thought, that by living here in a semi-remote city, living the problems that the people here experience on an everyday basis, if that made me somehow more knowledgeable or better equipped to understand global development issues.

Specifically he asked: would the time spent living in country with a family not be better used studying at university, or gaining hard-skills somewhere else?

I was on the fence when we last talked, but as we go into our fourth day without water I have this realization about the importance of what I am doing here. Germans have multiple different words for understanding or knowing things. Wissen is to know something theoretically, conceptually. Verstehen is to understand something on a more personal level, to understand something contextually. Begreifen literally means to “grab something to oneself”. Nachvollziehen means “the ability to reconstruct it”.

I know, in theory, all of what I have experienced in the last few days, having studied about it in international development and nutrition classes. I know that people will ration water in shortages, unnecessary activities being last and food-related ones being first priority. I have learned that in situation where water access is sporadic, informal networks will often step up to supply people before formal ones do. But for the first time in my life I really feel like I understand it all. It is not an objective theory anymore, it is a real subjective experience, with faces and place names and real fears and real responses.

I call her the "gangsta-granny" cause not only does she look badass she is! And she is like 90 years old too
I call her the “gangsta-granny” cause not only does she look badass she is! And she is like 90 years old too

So I suppose this is a rather length response to my friend. Yes, for me at least living here has allowed me to know and understand day to day problems,fears and responses on such a tangible level that I feel much better equipped to start to understand problems and begin to understand solutions. Yes, the context will always be different and depend on culture,social structure, gender roles, access,history,politics and environment but there are some things that schools and hard skills can’t teach you, and some things that are universal: in this case the fixation on water that happens when there is none, the way that the quality of life diminishes so rapidly, and perhaps the most important and least teachable thing: the sheer communal anxiety of living without water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and death in the Barrios

I hear the Taxi’s horn behind me and stick out my arm to wave it down. It pulls up behind me; an old Toyota, one of the many that comprise the fleet of well-used, beat-up cars that serve as collective Taxis. I stick my head through the passenger side window.
“INPRHU?” I ask questioningly.
The Taxi driver nods, barely noticeably and I jump in, greeting the other two passengers in the back.

As the Taxi turns by the park I hear the familiar mourning songs; the slightly sappy but still quite beautiful songs that they blast too loudly from cheap speakers every time somebody dies. There are about 10 songs that they cycle through on a regular basis and by now, I know most of them off by heart. For a small town of 40,000 people, there sure are a lot of deaths. Or maybe just in life there are a lot of deaths but living in a society where death is usually kept private, one doesn’t realize it.

You always know when someone dies here. First there is the announcement car : a white car with giant speakers and a megaphone strapped to the roof that functions as a sort of mandatory radio, spewing out local advertisements for shops, government propaganda, reminders for upcoming festivals and events, announcements of deaths and, if there is nothing else to report, the drivers favorite music.
Their usual starting time? 5.30am.

Then there is the wake with the white chairs set up outside the house and the canopy to block the sun, the grieving family, the community gathered together, the obligatory coca-cola served in cheap plastic cups. Finally, usually the day after, there is the procession. The whole community, neighbourhood, family, relatives and friends gather to accompany the corpse in a slow procession to the cemetary where it is finally buried.

The cemetery in Granada (I know, no picture of the one in Somoto but this one is nicer anyway).
The cemetery in Granada (I know, no picture of the one in Somoto but this one is nicer anyway).

The taxi turns the corner to INPRHU, the organization I work at, and finally see the procession of mourners on the opposite street. “Oh look, a funeral” mentions one of the passengers casually.“I wonder where they are coming from, I didn’t hear anything yesterday”. “Sector 24” I say without thinking. “It was a young father, 28 years old.” For a short minute I feel guilty, like I am gossiping, talking so casually about death. No, I reason with myself, fighting to overcome my culturally-ingrained conception of death as a personal thing, death here belongs firmly in the public sphere. I wonder why the announcement car didn’t drive around announcing this man’s death. Maybe it is because sector 24 is one of the poorest in Somoto. Maybe even in death one does not escape social hierarchy and class divisions.

The first death I experienced here was the father of my boss. The whole team walked the three blocks to her house where the wake was, sat in the room with the grieving family, drank coca cola out of plastic cups and passed by the corpse, lying peacefully under a blanket of glass. I had to physically force myself to look at the corpse. The other times I have seen corpses up close have all been remarkably unpleasant, like the old begger in Varanasi that we almost stepped on.I would have thought he was sleeping if it weren’t for the flies. “But where is his family?” I remember asking my dad, seeing him struggle briefly with my 7 year old curiosity, choosing whether to tell the truth or not. As always, the truth in India prevails. “He doesn’t have a family, he will be collected with the other corpses and burnt on a collective pyre, if he is lucky”. Shortly after that, maybe a few days later I saw my second one, lying in a white cloth on a funeral pyre, his son, head shaven and solemn, anointing his fathers body with oil before setting the pyre on fire. I still remember the stench of burning flesh, the way his body seemed to crumple up like paper and then melt like wax. And then the last one, bloated and purple with gashes accross his chest on a beach in Goa.I still dream of his blue eyes sometimes, looking up into the emptiness of the sky. My boss’s father did actually looked like he was sleeping, peacefully. For the first time, death seemed almost pleasant.

This procession passes the office, as all of them do, almost every day. The team gets up to stand in respect at the gate.
“His poor child” says my boss “but apparently he is doing well, they said he was playing outside normally yesterday”.
“They say he was the one that found him,” D. mentions.
“Actually,” says M. “ he was there when, you know, he did it”. She looks over at my confused face. “He choked, you know” she says, making the sign of a noose in the air, “he choked on a cable”.

There are the rumors, of course, that follow: he owed people money, he was lonely, he felt guilty about abandoning his 10 year old daughter. I feel sorry for the community of that sector, one that I have just started to get to know better. For people that literally share a wall with their neighbours, living so close together, such a tragedy has a way of seeping in and dampening the little joy that there is, a dull reminder of much of the struggle that surrounds them. I am forever in awe at peoples resiliance here, their attitude towards tradgedy, their acceptance of death. Maybe it is because they give death its due place in society that it doesn’t seem to affect them in such a negative way.

“You know else who died just yesterday” M. says in a more upbeat voice. Everybody seems eager to stop talking about the suicide. “The brother of the husband of that women that lives in administartion. He died of a sickness.” Everyone turns away from the gate with a small sigh of relief to discuss this other death. It seems that suicide remains a universal cultural taboo topic, even here, even in this culture where death is squarley in the public realm.

“What sickness” I ask causally, turning back to my work. I feel a certain amount of confidence, like I have understood and accepted, finally, the significance of tragedy and death in this place. However Nicaraguans have this way, every time I think I grasp something, of throwing in something that makes me question all over again my norms, values, and understanding of the world that surrounds me. M. looks at me as if she knows this and hesitates for only a second.

“Alcoholism”.

Rememberance plates line the walls of the cemetery in Granada
Rememberance plates line the walls of the cemetery in Granada

A bitter-sweet symphony in Pearl Lagoon

The boat sputters and heaves against the waves. I see the front lift up and then smack down on the surface of the ocean sending a wave of bathtub-warm wáter to where I am sitting in the back of the boat, drenching me instantly. I taste the salt on my lips and hug my bag closer as the boat surges up, once again, against the next oncoming wave. I make a mental note to myself- if you don’t want to become drenched, never ride in the back of a boat on the side of the oncoming waves.

Picture taken from my disadvantageous position in the boat moments before hitting open water
Picture taken from my disadvantageous position in the boat moments before hitting open water

It is hard to imagine that just 3 days ago I was baring the infierno of Managua with my dad, racing towards the bus station to catch the first bus on our 24 hour journey to the atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Sitting in the back of a beat up cab a familiar song comes on the radio- Natalie imbrulie’s “torn”. Our taxi driver, a scowling, grumpy, overweight man in his 50’s, sweating profusly in the hot, humid heat of Managua turns up the song, subtly nodding his head to the beat. Nicaraguans absolutely love the 90’s, significantly more than any other era, including the most recent one. The election of Violeta Chamorro in February 1990 put an end to the US embargo that had been in place and opened the doors to US trade, US-waste, and inevitably, US music. I have heard TLC, Suede,Nirvana, Alanis Morisett, the Cranberries and the likes more than I even did as a kid growing up in the 90’s. And it seems that the 90’s, at least for the time being, are here to stay.

These mestizo boarder guards manning the waterways surely know the lyrics to "No Scrubs" off by heart...
These mestizo boarder guards manning the waterways surely know the lyrics to “No Scrubs” off by heart…

Back in the boat, we have finally pulled up to the second village on our stop, a small collection of basic one room shacks on stilts on a grassy clearing that has been cut from the surrounding forest and mangrooves. I step onto the pier and while the rest of the boat slowly makes its way towards dry land I take a minute to survey the wild expanse of turquise blue ocean in front of me, dotted with mangrove islands and palm tree fringes.For a minute it is utterly and completely silent, except for the waves lapping at the side of the boat. I feel that familiar feeling of having arrived at the end of the world and my heart surges.

I didn't have a picture from that spot exactly but here is a nice picture from one of the nearby cays.
I didn’t have a picture from that spot exactly but here is a nice picture from one of the nearby cays.
Ready to head back to civilization from Marshall Point, the most northern village of Pearl Lagoon
Ready to head back to civilization from Marshall Point, the most northern village of Pearl Lagoon

I suppose I am, in many ways, at the end of the line. It is logistically almost imposible to go any further than the last village we will visit, a singular remaining Garifuna village on the North end of Pearl Lagoon. The rest of the atlantic coast of Nicaragua is a wild expanse of Mangrove forests, ilegal cattle ranchers, narco-trafficers and indigenous tribes etching out their living. I feel like I am in another world, so different is it from the pacific coast of Nicaragua, the spanish-speaking, corn-based,mestizo majority of this country. Here it is a predominantly english-spreaking, coconut-based, creole community. My host family must have told me a dozen time, alongside rumours of black magic and witchcraft, with a comically shocked look on their face when I told them where I was going: “they even fry their Gallo Pinto in coconut oil!” True blasphemy.

A picture of the town of Pearl Lagoon, built into the edge of the mangrove forest
A picture of the town of Pearl Lagoon, built into the edge of the mangrove forest

By all means it is completely and utterly worth every uncomfortable, hot, wet, salty moment of the trip. I have had the pleasure of being connected, via a tour guide friend in Somoto to the manager of Kabu Tours in Pearl Lagoon. Kabu Tours is a tourism initiative that is helping to lessen sea turtle fishing in the Pearl Cays by providing alternative sustainable livlihoods options. My dad, who has joined me on this adventure, is absolutely in heaven. Not only is the manager an avid local historian and extremely knowledgeable about the communities he works with, he also takes along his friend, an anthropologist doctoral student, to show us the amazing diversity and uniqueness of the indigenous communities surrounding Pearl Lagoon. Kabu tours does it right, employing the local fishermen as guides and teaching them about environmental and marine conservation along the way.

Our local Miskito guide showing us how they repair fishing nets
Our local Miskito guide showing us how they repair fishing nets
A pile of Manatee bones. Alongside see turtles, many fishermen also hunt the almost-extinct manatees, making initiatives like Kabu Tours extremely important
A pile of Manatee bones. Alongside see turtles, many fishermen also hunt the almost-extinct manatees, making initiatives like Kabu Tours extremely important

As I near the small shack where the rest of the group is lounging, drying off in the hot midday sun I hear a familiar sound. A familiar sound that in this village at the end of the world sounds oddly out of place. Three Indigenous Nicaraguan men are strumming away a cover of “I’m so afraid of losing you again” – a famous 1970’s country song by Charley Pride. When the Revolution started in Nicaragua in the 1970’s, young Americans were sent to this side of the Atlantic to support the Contra movement against the Sandinistas. Among the many things they brought with them (death, destruction, the CIA to name a few), country and western music was one of them. Yet another hyphenated characteristic that differentiates this part of Nicaragua from the rest. Indeed during our 4 day stay in Pearl Lagoon, I hear more country & western music than I ever have in my life.

Listning to a trio of miskito men sing a country and western song
Listning to a trio of miskito men sing a country and western song.

Watching my dad and the manager of Kabu tours, Rudolfo Chang, dancing in the hot sun to a trio of Miskito Indians singing charley pride I can only shake my head. It astounds me, the ability of music to transgress cultural boundaries and it seems so absurd to be hearing 70’s country and western, at the very end of the line, in a tiny, tiny, village, over half a days travel from the nearest form of civilization, that it almost seems right. And to be honest, I am starting to get used to Nicaraguans affinity for and odd acculturation of western music.  As the guitarist twangs his guitar and the vocalists harmoize with an uncannily accurate southern accent it would seem that at least for the time being, the 70’s are here to stay.

For more information on Kabu Tours:
e-mail: info@kabutours.com
website http://www.kabutours.com,
tel: +505 87145196
or Twitter @kabutours

 

Semana Santa in Bluefields

“How much longer?” my dad asks next to me, his voice sounding slightly pained.

I look over at him, wondering if he is talking in his sleep or just resting his eyes. He is jammed up against the window of the bus, trying, I suppose, to get some relief from the overwhelming humid heat inside the bus, made worse by the dozens of people crammed into the isles, overflowing onto the seats around them. I feel pity for him; after 2 days of non-stop traveling and a red-eye flight to Managua he has been crammed on this old American School Bus for the last 8 hours. He keeps on asking me, apparently confounded by my answer, if this bus that stops what seems every 20 minutes, really is the “express” bus. I always shrug- it is, theoretically. Practically though it is the last bus of the evening the week before Semana Santa, the biggest holiday here. This is the only bus going this far east down one of the only two highways that connect the pacific with the atlantic coast in Nicaragua. So the bus driver will stop when he feels like it to make a few bucks, knowing that noone will really complain or take a different bus next time. He effectively runs a bus-monopoly.

I duck under a rogue arm and backpack dangling in front of my face and ask the women on the next isle when we will arrive at El Rama.

“Now,” she says, gesturing to pitch black darkness outside the bus, “we just arrived on the outskirts”.

My dad enjoying the pleasant temperature of El Rama
My dad enjoying the pleasant temperature of El Rama at 7am in the morning.

The ride to Bluefields from Managua via land is an arderous journey, almost crossing the entire isthma of Nicaragua. There is a highway there which takes slightly more than 12 hours but we chose the 8 hour bus ride to the river port town of El Rama and a 2 hour panga ride down the river to Bluefields. Bluefields, a city which during the height of the banana trade and rubber rush of the early 20th century made its mark on the map, “with steamships departing daily to London and New Orleans”, shows little more than a skeleton of its former glory and is now a rather run-down, sketchy port town increasingly based around “White lobster”- cocain which is frequently thrown overboard by smugglers when their boats are raided and subsequently found by local fishermen. In fact so much of it is found that many fishermen have almost abandoned fishing altogether to forage for washed up cocain packets.

The wealth, and disparity, is obvious while touring the streets of bluefield.

“Check out that one,” my dad says, pointing to a gawdy-looking, completely white house with faux-romanan pillars in the entryway and two porches parked in the garage.

“Yeah, and check out the gardner,” I answer, pointing at the semi-automatic rifle slung over the gardener’s shoulder, alongside his hose.

Watching a procession on the streets of Semana Santa on Good Friday eve
Watching a procession on the streets of Semana Santa on Good Friday eve

Coming to Bluefields during Good Friday in Semana Santa was in many ways a curse and a blessing. Good Friday is kinda like the equivilant of Christmas day.The town was completely empty, which given the general sketchy nature of Bluefields was a probably a good thing– no people hassling you, no people trying to rob you or sell you cocaine or sketch you out with their general sketichiness but it also meant that nothing was open: no restaurants, no bars, no banks, no taxis. It appeared that almost everyone had decided to go to El Bluff – the only swimmable streach of beach, a 30 minute panga ride away from the city of Bluefields. So we crammed into one of the many boats and headed there ourselves.

A panga, a speedboat for 12-20 passengers, is the main mode of transportation on the Atlantic coast
A panga, a speedboat for 12-20 passengers, is the main mode of transportation on the Atlantic coast

To nobodys surprise, the beach was exactly as I had imagened it – a long sandy expanse of beach with what seemed like the entire population of Bluefields congregated around the few dozen shacks selling fried fish and beer.

This is one of those cultural things that still continues to bafle me completely in Latin America. Although they have expanses of untouched sandy beaches on all sides, people will inevitably congregate on one tiny area of the beach, packing it to the point that relaxation is imposible with footballs flying around your face and toddlers screaming and people drinking and passing out on the sand all around you.

So me and my Dad start walking, stepping over drunks laying in the sand, avoiding screaming girls running into the waves and  active beach-football games. I look at my dad, he seems to be struggling with our ingrained cultural desire for peace and seclusion. I see him look at the glaring sun, the jungle of feet and children and bottles still in front of us. I see him mentally weigh the pros and cons of trecking through this to the untouched sandy beach beyond. I see him look up at one of the shacks. And then I see that wonderful thing happen. That paradigm shift, that “aha” moment, that second of acceptance, or perhaps rather that moment of resignation.

“You want a beer?” he asks. I look at his watch. It is 1pm on Good Friday on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. I let that image of myself on a tranquil, secluded beach slide and embrace the festivities and general feeling of relaxation around me. It is an excellent time to have a beer.

Watching the sun rise in the port of Bluefields
Watching the sun rise in the port of Bluefields

Let’s (not) talk about sex, baby

I knock again on the door, more firmly this time.

“Bueeeenas,” I call through the chipped blue door. I hear a creak from inside and move to the window. The top glass pellet is missing and I peer through the dust and smoke filling the inside of the room to where I see a shuffling figure moving in my direction. The door opens. She stands in front of me in rumpled clothes, her T-shirt streaked with dirt. Her eyes are still puffy with sleep and white around the edges. A baby cries faintly but steadily from behind the curtain that serves as a door to the one separate room. It’s 10.30 am.

“Entra” she says, as I step through the door.

I make myself as comfortable as I can on the one plastic chair in the room.It is a child’s chair and one of the back legs is starting to buckle so I balance predominantly on the front legs, shifting from one butt cheek to the other as subtly as I can. She disappears behind the curtain for a second a reappears with a small girl who has stopped crying and is now whimpering. She sits on the bed and pulls down her shirt. Both mother and daughter look at me defiantly as the daughter takes the nipple into her mouth and starts to nurse. The smoke from the fire behind me is getting in my eyes and in my throat. I can smell it on my skin. The house seems to weigh me down, clogging my pores with its smoke. A chicken walks into the room, picking it’s way around the dirty clothes and pans on the floor. It finds some day-old rice kernels on the floor and happily starts picking at them, the sound of its beak on the rough dirt floor almost in tune to the sucking of the child.I look down at the follow-up questions I have on my sheet, ready to have this over with. “Do you live with the father of the child?” I ask. She looks away for a split second and I see something like anger pass over her face. When she looks back at me her expression, if possible, is even more defiant than before.

She is from one of the nearby communities, she tells me. She doesn’t mention the name but mentions that it was close by the river, which makes me guess that it must be the Guayaba, or Malpais, both about 2 hours away by bus – a rickety old American Bluebird that splutters its way up the unpaved roads, snaking it’s way among the never-ending beautiful, rolling expanse of mountains to the communities, perched precariously on the steep edges of civilization. To me it is but a short bus ride away; to her it is another lifetime, the furthest distance she has ever traveled in her 17 years. When she was 14 she made that trip alone and since then has not had any contact to her parents or family, aside from the distant aunt she now lives with. I try to ask her once more about the father and her family. Her anger tells me more than I need to know.

The child has stopped nursing and the mother tucks away her breast, rearranging the child on her lap. My ass cheeks are both asleep by now and the survey is finished. For a family that only consumes rice and beans 3 times a day, a dietary diversity form is easy to fill out. The mother is still looking at me defiantly. I want to say something, I want to tell her that her defiance is justified, her choices admirable, but I suddenly feel the need for fresh air. I stand up and pick my way around the clothes on the floor. It is 10:57.

“Con permiso,” I say, tugging the door closed behind me.

This scene stays in my mind the next week as I am preparing for a workshop on sexual health and pregnancy prevention for underage girls. I look over the statistics in my notes that are ever apparent but never talked about. Of the number of women dying at childbirth, 22 percent are teenagers. Of all the females that are raped every year, two-thirds are girls under 17. In 2011, Nicaragua’s rate of domestic or sexual violence was 57 times higher than the WHO’s definition of an epidemic.

But when I get to the schoolroom with the group of bubbly adolescents I change my mind. They are so innocent. So adorably awkward and at the same time so ready to be taking change into their own hands. For the most part they are aware that the substandard sexual education is doing them more harm than good, that the general cultural taboo on talking about sex has to be changed so they courageously ask their questions. It is an informal air, I feel almost like an older sister answering to the curiosity of my younger sisters. That is, until the question of abortion comes up.

One of the girls, an energetic 13-year-old bundle of black hair and bony knees and a rebellious streak looks at me directly.

“What do you think about abortion?”

I feel the other coordinators in the room pause. Suddenly it feels like glass shards surround me. I look over to one of the younger coordinators, a fairly religious and very smart young man. His face is blank. I haven’t figured out if his complete pro-life stance is for real or not, despite sharing an office space with him for the last month.

“Well,” I say, “that is a difficult question here…”

Abortion in Nicaragua is outlawed; the country is one of the last four in the world that doesn’t allow therapeutic abortion even if the mothers life is at risk or due to rape and incest. This was only recently enacted, in 2006, and since then Nicaragua has seen an increase in maternal mortality – the leading cause (unsurprising) of maternal mortality being complications from illegal abortions. It is an intensely taboo topic and, although portrayed as a religious issue, is ultimately more of a political theme, being intricately linked to the ruling party’s desire to capture votes and appease the catholic church – a not unimportant force.

I search for a diplomatic answer.

“The thing is, in my opinion the basis of a democratic, just, and equal society is one in which the society respects the right and freedom of control of the individual over their thoughts, beliefs and body….”

I hear a clap from the back of the room. The younger coordinator is standing up, smiling at me and the crowd of young girls in front of me.

“Yes,” he says “ a difficult question indeed, shall we move on?”

A coffee story

The trucks came about 30 minutes after we had arrived, trailing a cloud of dust behind them. The dust was so thick along those unpaved roads that I could feel it filling my nostrils and coating my tongue every time one of them passed by us. I took another sip of the earthy, acidic and delicious coffee and watched them unload their wares. First one, then two and then what seemed like a hundred women and children poured out the back.

“Jeez, they must be packed like cattle in there,” I mentioned to my friend who is sitting beside me, watching the unloading.

“They are from the comunidades” he said in a slightly diminutive voice. The communities – this seems to be a widely used statement here to explain everything from poverty and crime, to being loud, humble, rude, compliant or just about anything that is socially adverse and embarrassing in any given context. “Most of them are coffee farmers” he continued“ and most of this” – he swept his hand over the spectacular view of lush green forested hills in front of us –“ is now coffee”.

Image

 

I was sitting in San Juan del Rio Coco, a small coffee-growing town nestled in the hills of northern Nicaragua. It was March 8th, International Woman’s day and the Sandinista party was putting on one of those charmless mass assemblies-cum-celebrations in an old coffee-drying warehouse for the women coffee farmers from this region. My friend, part of a brass band, had been invited to play for them and knowing my hunger to see as much of the country as possible had invited me along.

As the band warmed up I wandered the rows of white plastic chairs littering the hall. Even though there were hundreds of chairs, the cathedral-like open space of the warehouse made everything feel small. There was a smell of coffee in the air, a smell that seemed to permeate from every house, every gutter, and every pore of the people from this town. The smell brought me for a second back to Café Artigano, a hip coffee house and one of my old favorite haunts in Vancouver. In my minds eye I saw the minimalist design of the coffee house and the baristas in their hipster garb behind the counter. I heard their shuffle of feet, the gentle rumbling of the coffee machines, and the folding of newspapers. I saw myself there,  a well-made latte in my hand, arguing with my ex-boyfriend, debating the benefits of fair-trade “happy” coffee. I’m arguing about what I consider the injustice done to the small farmers by the coffee industry. My point is undermined slightly by the artistic black and white photos on the walls, depicting pictures of happy, smiling campesinos. Look at how happy the people are that are producing your coffee. Look at how healthy they are; they are just like you and I, only different.

over 1000 women assembled for half a day to celebrate International Woman's day
over 1000 women assembled for half a day to celebrate International Woman’s day

In the Nicaraguan warehouse there were no colorful pictures of people drinking coffee; instead grime-covered cracks and crevices concrete decorated those walls. There were, however, the smiling campensinos. Over 1000 women, who, for one of the few days in the year, get half a day off to participate in this celebration and go home with prizes and a plate of food with meat, something they consume only once a week or on special occasions. Although we saw plenty of new SUV’s and pick-up trucks on our way back from San Juan del Rio Coco, I am told that the wealth from this “black gold” has yet to trickle down to the actual coffee farmers, who despite the well-meaning attempts of fair trade and organic certification, have shown little improvement in their basic standard of living.

The vast majority of the coffee is dried in Nicaragua and then shipped to Europe and North America for roasting; a process that transfers both the majority of the coffee as well as the wealth to industrialized nations.
The vast majority of the coffee is dried in Nicaragua and then shipped to Europe and North America for roasting; a process that transfers both the majority of the coffee as well as the wealth to industrialized nations.

A week later I drive back up to San Juan del Rio Coco with the coordinator of a food security project. The first community we arrive at, nestled in between the fecund green mass of rain forest surrounding it, is made up almost exclusively of coffee farmers.

I meet one while I am milling around the preschool, waiting for the coordinator to finish. She stands timidly in a corner; the young boy next to her seems about as much of an accessory as the machete hanging loosely from her side. She looks young, small and short, but it is impossible to tell the age of the women here.

“How old are you?”

“35”

I smile at her and gesture with my mouth at the boy: “and him?”

“Seven” she says, smiling down at him.

“Your first?” I ask.

“My grandson”. The fact that I am not shocked at all at the succession of 14 year old girls having children out here in the communities tells me I have been in this country a while.

“You farm coffee?”

“Si”

“Do you like it?”

She wrinkles her nose at me, a gesture used all over this country to signify incomprehension of some sort. I wonder if she didn’t understand my Spanish, but most probably it’s the question. What do I mean by does she like it? Tied to coffee through family, history, politics, international trade and lack of other opportunities, choice is not a relevant question. Coffee is lifeblood here, making up a quarter of Nicaragua’s national export and employing over a third of the rural population.

She continues to stare at me with an emotionless face: “Do they drink coffee where you come from?”

In my mind I see the selection of coffee lining the walls behind the counter of Café Artigano: Espresso blend from Brazil, Dark roast blend from Mexico, Medium blend from Guatemala, Strictly high-grown coffee from Honduras.

Si

“Do they grow it there too?”

“No…it comes from other places, like here”.

“Is it very expensive there?”

“Around 12$ a pound”

“Oh”. She looks a bit confused. I am too, considering that she only makes per pound around 10 Cordobas, or 50 cents, on a good day. I see the coordinator has turned on the car and is waiting to leave. I shake her hand.

I think back to the pictures of the smiling campesinos. I wonder if they are black and white for a reason.

“Can I take a foto?” I ask, my hand already on my camera bag.

She nods, puts her hand on her grandsons shoulder and smiles.

A coffee farmer poses with her grandson
A coffee farmer poses with her grandson

The randomness function

“I’m pretty sure the last bus leaves Leon at 2.”

“Nahhh, there is one at 2pm and one at 3pm”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah”

“Sure sure?”

“Yeah, my cousin asked his friend who said so.”

I dug my feet into the hot sand and looked out at the beautiful expanse of crashing waves and blue skies. I could spend another hour here, no problem.

“dale pues – okay”.

It was Sunday at Las Penitas, a beach town by Leon, 3 hours away from Esteli. I had made the trek down there for a weekend of sun and surf and had to trek back to Somoto, via Esteli, by that night. I remember at that exact point that I felt that undeniable tug of two worlds. The German in me wanted utter assurance that the last bus did indeed leave at 3 and we would leave from here, ideally with more enough time to catch it. However I have found that being obsessively German about things like punctuality and schedules is often more of a hindrance than a help and the other part of me was way too full of fried fish and cold beer to care. Plus, by my reckoning, my Nicaraguan friend who is from Leon and does this trip uncountable times should really know the bus schedules by now. So I drowned my German side in another cold Tona, lay back down on my towel, and let the waves lull me into a lazy stupor. 30 minutes later, I am awaked by my friend.

“ermmmm…Sarah. There is a bit of a problem”

“uh huh?”

“So it turns out that the last express bus to Esteli leaves at 2.00”

I look at my watch. It is 1.30 and we are still at las Penitas, a 40 minute bus ride, 20 minute taxi ride  from Leon.

“Oh sh!#”.

By my German calculations we can’t make it. We still have to walk back to our hostel,  pack our bags, get changed, pay, ring a taxi, wait for it, and drive to Leon. What followed was a prime example of how buses, family ties, Nicaraguan politeness and randomness transect.

My friend rings his uncle, who is a taxi driver in Leon but somehow he happens to be close by and agrees to come pick us up. Mind you, he doesn’t arrive until 1.55 but we still jump in the car and race off to Leon anyway. The whole time, my friend is ringing random people on the phone, trying to sweet talk the ticket seller to stall the bus for us. We make it to Leon in just under 20 minutes and come to a halt at the bus terminal. We jump out of the cab and race to where the bus is supposed to be. It’s gone. We run to the express bus going to Matagalpa, which would take us to the main highway halfway to Esteli where we could hitchhike or flag down any northbound bus. Just as we are about to enter, my friend gets a call from his brother, who also happens to be at the bus terminal, and there is this fast transaction with much arm waving and yelling and laughter from which I gather that the bus just left but a distant cousin is working that bus and it would wait for us at some unknown destination. We hop in another taxi to speed off after the bus and just as we are leaving another girl jumps in with us. She had also missed the bus and somehow her cousin knew my friends brother and had told her that she should go with us. So we race to the turn-off in the road where the bus is waiting, an old American school bus that is absolutely packed at this point. As soon as we get out of the taxi the bus starts to rumble forward. They open the back door and we jump aboard. It’s 2. 37.

My friend, still incredibly calm, gives me a grin and a high-five. For him this is just another close call. For me, another incredulous journey which leaves me with a million questions. What if his uncle hadn’t been close by to give us a ride to Leon? How does he have a distant relative working on exactly that bus, how did he know that, and how did he manage to convince him to stall the bus? How did people on the bus not complain about waiting 30mins for 3 random people? How did his brother manage to find us in the two minutes we were at the bus station? How did that girl’s cousin happen to find out that there were two other people trying to get to Estelí and coordinate that she would also find us and recognize us in those two minutes when we happened to be at the bus station? And how on earth does everybody act like this is NOT an extremely fortuitous and lucky situation?

By my German calculations it would have been physically impossible to have gotten on that bus. However, my German side also doesn’t account for a very important element in many interactions and functions here. It is the element of randomness, almost like accounting for a margin of error in statistics. I like to call it the R function. I think situations like these, with a very large R function, seem incredible to people that live where the margin of randomness has been largely reduced or accounted for. Foreigners  are thus not necessarily amazed by how transportation works but rather they are amazed that it works at all. Because the fact of the matter is, in some weird and crazy way, it does.

The unbearable strangeness of culture

Cultural filters are important for being able to function in a society. You have to be able to filter out the unimportant from the important and focus on that which society deems relevant. Without said cultural filters, every time I see a man here on the street with a second-hand American shirt that says “Kiss me, I’m Irish”, or when we celebrate a birthday party for an adult with a Hello-Kitty pink birthday banner, or when for the 100th time someone sings the theme song from “Titanic” at the local bar on karaoke night and everyone joins in for the chorus, I would be so distracted by the irony of the situation to appreciate the uniqueness of it. To some extent you have to “go native”, you have to accept that your reality is just one reality, you have to understand the difference between what a thing is and what a thing means. You have to strip the things of their material symbolism and see them for their ontological function. A banner with “Happy Birthday” on it is just that; the giant, creepy-looking, animated, Japanese cat on the pastel pink background doesn’t actually change its function.

Every so often however, this gets challenged for me. Like this Saturday: occasionally my friends and I here go to the next biggest town to break up the monotony of Somoto and to dance. When we arrived at our usual bar, it turned out that there was going to be a live rock band from Estelí. Having come so far already we decided to pay the cover and check them out. The poster for the rock band looked pretty much like any hard rock poster you would see in most parts of the world. All four members dressed in black, one of them shirtless with black eye-makeup, a cross visible on his chest. None of them were smiling. Judging by their attire and attitude, I was already anticipating incomprehensible words and bad covers of Iron Maiden.

An hour later found I found myself biting my lip to stop myself from laughing too hard while the main singer stood on the table next to me, one cowboy boot on the chair, the other on the table,  his long black hair covering his face, metal studded leather wristbands on his hands,  his sunglasses obscuring his cajole streaked eyes, blurting out the lyrics to “Eye of the Tiger” . He had this thing, when he hit the high notes, of lending his voice this opra-esque fluctuation, making it sound like some Native American war cry. It wasn’t even bad, maybe that is what got to me. The band was musically quite good, the singer hit all the notes consistently, but I think it was just the seriousness of the situation. No one else in the bar thought that this was, in the slightest, at least somewhat comical. In fact the only thing comical for them was the white girl at the table, silently shaking with fits of laughter and tears streaming down her face. For everyone else there, this was just another typical Saturday night in Northern Nicaragua.

It is random moments like those, the tears in the fabric of culture,  the moments that challenge my own cultural perception, that allow me to really appreciate how much of a layer culture really is, and how so much of what gives our life meaning is purely cultural. It is moments like those that I fully grasp the wondrous, comical, ironic, and strange situations that I so often find myself in and realize the full extent of power that exists in breaking free of those cultural constraints.It is moments like those, rare moments of clarity among so much strangeness, that I finally feel the almost unbearable lightness of this being in this world.

My sister sent me a great quote that sums it up well:

“The habitualness of travelling lulls the spirit to sleep; you get used to everything, the exquisite exotic landscapes as much as the unusual faces. But in certain moments, when the spirit awakens and finds itself again you suddenly become amazed at the foreignness of that which surrounds you.”

“Die Reisegewohnheit schläfert den Geist ein; man gewöhnt sich an alles, an die erlesensten exotischen Landschaften ebenso wie an die außergewöhnlichsten Gesichter. Doch in bestimmten Augenblicken, wenn der Geist erwacht und sich selbst wiederfindet, ist man plötzlich verblüfft über die Fremdartigkeit dessen, was um einen ist”

(Volley) Balls and Machistas

“Ay preciosa, hermosa, guapa, princesa, barbie….”. I stop in my path and glance over with cocked eyebrows at the man squatting on the corner.

“Barbie? That one is new”.

He shrugs at my comment, and now that he feels he has my attention he continues with his assault. “You are the most beautiful women I have laid eyes on, come marry me, come to my house, I will show you….”

The rest of his sentence falls on my deaf ears. I am skilled in the art of blocking out these comments, which have become such a permanent part of everyday life here in Nicaragua that I cannot conceive of my life without constant cat-calls and propositions of various sorts from male strangers. Indeed it is getting to that point where, if a random male sitting on the corner staring at me does not call out something, I wonder what is wrong.

I have been meaning to write a blog post about machsismo – a concept that infiltrates and permeates almost every social interaction in this part of the world. But the concept still evades me. It is not just “hyper-masculinity”, as most of the English-speaking dictionaries define it, it is not just the “belief that women are subordinate to men” as most of the Spanish-speaking dictionaries define it. It is a lived concept, whose boundaries are at times very fluid, making it hard for me to discern where machismo stops and starts.

I am part of a volleyball team here. It is an inter-institutional tournament and I was recruited I think largely because they needed more people, I am tall, and it had been said that I was this amazing volleyball player (I think I told someone once that I played volleyball for 6 months when I was 15 in Germany and the result of what I call “Nicaraguan whispers” is that he heard I was a fantastic volleyball player that had played on the regional selection team in Canada. How…?). I was  not surprisingly also the only female player in the tournament by the end. When we won the tournament last week, one of the first things the captain said, in the nicest way possible, was      “…and we even won with a girl on our team!” Seeing the appalled look on my face he added quickly “oh it’s not because you are a bad player, it just gives our win more value.” I almost punched him.

But there are always those rare moments that make me question what I really think or know about masculinity, manhood, machismo, and how much I am still imposing my western concept of manhood on men here.

After our victory we decided to head to a bar to celebrate. I jumped in the back of the pick-up truck with another fellow player, who also happened to be the most machista out of the team. He was the one that was just as likely to comment on my curves as on my volleyball skills and I anticipated an awkward drive fending off his attempts to hit on me in English.

Unsurprisingly he starts off with “you played well today, almost as good as a man” followed closely by “we have this saying in Spanish: ‘you are so beautiful it makes me face hurt.’” So I was surprised when he asked me if I like salsa music. I confirmed I did, and without pretext whatsoever, he was like : “I do too, I love this song, ” and proceeded to serenate me with very old, beautiful Salsa songs whose lyrics were surprisingly complex and profound.

I sighed inwardly, confused. Sitting on the back fender of a pick-up truck, a warm breeze in my hair, a machista to my side singing beautiful salsa music, whose lyrics talked about how you could never own a woman, should never own a woman, how they are most beautiful when they are free, I realized how I still haven’t caught that moment where machismo starts and where it ends. I had meant to write a blog post about machsismo, but for the time being,  the concept still evades me.

My short walk home

This post is an excerpt from a writing course I am currently completing, hence the slightly different style. Comments or critique are welcome!

The view laid out in front of me is wide and open. It funnels my perspective down to the valley and the centre of the small departmental capital of Somoto. The sun has started to go down. It is golden hour. I bid the community leader Don Andre buenas noches and head back down to the centre of town and my house. This walk from the eastern most barrio of Somoto, derogatively called “la chureca” by the local Somotenians after the main garbage dump in the capital city of Managua, is slowly becoming familiar, each walk fading into one common blurry path, etching itself into what assuredly will become my closet of memories for this town.

Leaves from a lone mandarin tree ahead of me float down and land on the small, uneven dirt path that separates sector 24 from sector 20. On both sides there are homogenous grey concrete houses, built 5 years ago with funding from a Spanish organization. The black tarps chaotically placed here and there between adobe brick houses, wooden frames, and grey concrete blocks catch my eyes. The sound follows me as I walk downhill. Every 7 seconds or so I hear a distinct crack from the tarps as the wind runs through them.  They become consistently less prevalent as I head downhill, the omnipresent destitution of the peripheral barrios giving way to a more nuanced, less offensive type of poverty.

I enter sector 20. The plots of land here are bigger, the houses less organized, more individualistic. A man exits the outhouse in the backyard of the house on my right, still doing up his belt. He walks funny, both of his legs stiff in front of him, his beer belly protruding from his rolled up grey t-shirt.

A man swings open the gate  to his house on my left; his clear eyes look at me suspiciously. The Gaelic lettering on his caps spells the name of some American baseball team. His done-up friend leans on his polished Yamaha motorcycle looking out of place, juxtaposed by the dusty cactus and barbed-wire fence.  I reach the cross in the road, referred to here as the “crossing of the pit” because the crossing lies at a large depression formed by two hills on both sides and the sewage from the surrounding streets tends to snake its way down and pool in toxic puddles, forming these permanent ditches of hostile sludge. It is impassable, I am told, during the rainy season. I accidently step in a puddle of grey water crossing over one of the ditches. The filmy dark water squishes uncomfortably between my flip-flops and the scent of sewage and refuse fills my nose.

The road curves in front of me, shooting me out onto the main road of sector 18. The road here is already wider, with fewer potholes. Two streets over I see two children ride down a paved road on bicycles. The older child’s bicycle is too small for him and he looks comical with his knees and elbows splayed out beside him.

The door to the church is open as I pass by. A few people sit of the simple wooden benches as they praise the lord in off-tune voices.The singing follows me for another block until I reach the first real paved street and a passing car drowns it out. The car’s stereo is blasting a popular Romero Santos song Propuesta Indecente. The bachata beat is catchy but the lyrics are obscene and the young man driving the car gives me a knowing grin. I feel a slight whisper of fear creeping up my neck: the car is brand new and pimped out which can only mean one of two things – gangs from Honduras or drug money – but aside from his sleazy grin he passes without incident.

I head down the main street of Barrio 10. The new renovations on the street almost give it the impression of belonging to the other side of the river, the “right” side of the river, the side with cobblestones and sidewalks where it is safe to walk alone at night.  A man stands on the back of a parked truck, hauling sacks of rice off of it. His body is covered in sweat. His T-shirt is covering his head from the sun.

I cross the river, the tributary of The Rio Coco that separates The Barrios Unidos from the rest of Somoto, the poor from the rich, the have-nots from the haves. Three blocks up I turn east at the central park. The Pizza seller outside the park leans over his greasy counter to whistle at a passing girl. The girl turns to yell something at him. They both laugh.

An orange seller sits in the shade as I turn the corner to my street. His Cowboy hat is pulled down low. His wares pile around his feel. He plays absentmindedly with the machete in his hand. He is old, his face wrinkled. He looks like he has had a hard life. I feel the urge to ask him about it. He strikes me as the kind of old man that would have great stories to tell.

I am almost home now. I see the Pan American Highway in the distance and the huge almond tree in front of my home. A piece of cardboard is hung on the iron fence of my neighbours as I pass it. On it is scrawled in legible writing:  Se vende Leche, Crema, Cuajada, Queso.

A plastic gum wrapper dances over the street in front of my shoes. My nail polish on my big toe is chipped. It is the same colour as the white washed wall to the entrance of my house. I take my keys out of my bag and look up at the hill where I came from. The last of the sun’s rays dance on a forest of aluminum roofs. Somewhere in the distance, or perhaps it is now just a distant memory, I hear a tarp crack in the wind.