Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I´ve been with my host family for over six weeks now, and this weekend I finally felt like part of the family. Sunday morning I told my mom I wanted to cook an American meal for them. I decided omelettes and home fries would be a good cross-cultural meal, nothing too ambitious or foreign. Once I am in my site I am going to try to cook for people more often, both so that I can offer hospitality as a way of gaining confianza (trust) and so that I can introduce some dietary novelties - green vegetables, for example. But for my first foray into cooking for Nicaraguans, I went for the easy sell. The omelettes were pretty simple - some queso coajada (I tried for mozarella and failed), onions, and oregano inside - and my mom helped me fry them, at which time I understood why my refried beans taste so delicious (hint: 3 letters, starts with O ends with L). To the papas fritas, I added some rosemary that I found at the plant nursery next door. Both the papas and the huevos were a hit. And of course they served it all with rice and beans and fried plantains.

After that lunch, my host sister-in-law offered to paint my toenails, which I took as a huge compliment since she´s been very shy with me up until now. I am now sporting a french manicure on my toenails. Unfortunately, all the colors she had were pretty much the same as the color of my skin, so you can´t see it too well.

It´s been a great cooking week all around, actually. On Friday we made mantequilla de mani (peanut butter). Even though this is a peanut-producing country, the butter is practically unknown. My family, especially my little host sister, was really into it. The soymilk and soy meat we made yesterday were also very popular. I´ve been in soy city since then, eating tortas de soya (deep fried soy patties), soy chorizo (sauteed soy with spices), and drinking soymilk with pinolillo, the national drink of Nicaragua.

To make pinolillo you toast whole corn and cacao and add cinnamon, cloves, and something they call pimiento de olor (odoriferous pepper). My mom mixed the ingredients in a bucket, then sent me to the mill to grind it. For ten cordobas (50 cents) the family with the mill ground it for me twice, leaving a fine powder that smelled wonderful. Back at home, we mixed it with soymilk and sugar. Pure deliciousness. Now that I´m cooking over a wood stove, taking things to the mill by myself, and drinking pinolillo, I am really starting to feel like I belong here.

Into it - dreaming in Spanish, very tight jeans like the Nicas wear, the rainy season (aka ¨winter¨)
Over it - flea bites, mildew

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mirando Quien Viene

One of my favorite things to do here is to sit outside on the wooden bench by my house. Just watching who comes by - mirando quien viene - is better than television. All manner of transportation rolls, gallops, and meanders down my street. The biking is truly a thing to behold. More often than not, there is more than one person on the bike - a mother with her child, a guy and his girlfriend. Sometimes three or even four kids will be perched on the same bike - one on the seat, one on the top tube, one standing on pegs, and one on the handle bars. People also bike by carrying all kinds of things - machetes, big baskets, coolers full of tortillas or nacatamales, plants that they've purchased from the nursery.

There are a couple of kinds of three-wheeled transport as well. The caponeras or triciclos are three-wheeled bicycles with a bench to sit on in the front, covered by a shade. The kids that drive them are all in their teens or early twenties, and they hang out together at a few critical intersections, kind of like bike messengers. They'll drive you around town for a couple of cordobas (about 10 cents), which is great for people in my town because most of them don't like to walk. There are also the mototaxis, which are basically motorcycles with three wheels. They are really built to hold about three people - the driver plus two passengers in the back - but in a pinch they can accomodate up to six. As with the bicycles, people carry all manner of things with them in the mototaxis and triciclos. Today I saw a mototaxi with a big basket on top that held, no joke, two dogs. Not puppies either. Dogs.

Sometimes horse-drawn or ox-drawn carts pass by carrying milk or the harvest from a farm. It was from one of these carts that my host mom purchased the milk I insisted on drinking cold, and which made me really sick for about a day and a half.

The evangelical church across the street just adds to whatever scene is occuring in front of the house. Around 5 o'clock each night they start singing religious songs about El Senor. The church is just a group of benches and little lectern, but their meetings are always fully amplified. Plus I think they must have some agreement that the guitar-player's instrument must be completely out of tune and that the person who holds the microphone must be the singer with the worst voice.

Mirando quien viene is not a passive activity, either. The bicyclists passing by like to mirar right back at me. Sometimes my gringa face inspires them to rattle off whatever English words come to mind at that moment - hello, goodbye, I love you. "Adios," I say back.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dance, Gringo, Dance!

I´ve become something of a salsa dancing addict in the past year, so I was psyched when the Peace Corps placed me in Latin America. Little did I know then that Nicaragua is basically a dancer´s purgatory. Every day I hear my favorite songs blasting out of people´s stereos - reggeaton, bachata, salsa, cumbia, merengue - and yet it doesn´t seem like anyone really knows how to do any of the dances. I´ve been so hard up, as has my friend Hannah, that the other day the two of us started dancing outside of my house to the cumbia my host brothers were listening to. My host mom got really excited. ¨We can have a party here!¨she exclaimed. ¨We´ll have a DJ and you and all the other gringos can dance.¨

I wasn´t sure exactly what she meant, but I had been to a party the weekend before at another trainee´s house, so I kind of had an idea about what a Nica-style dance party would be like. Sure enough, last Saturday at 5 pm the DJ arrived in a pickup truck loaded with speakers. He set them up and commenced to play first the Ghostbusters theme song, then Funktytown, and Nirvana´s cover of The Man Who Sold the World. Those songs were just a warm-up apparently, because then the Latin music got started. He played my new favorite cumbias - the one about the guy who gets poked in the eye with a sharp object, and the one about the kleptomaniac named Maria, and all the others.

But nobody was dancing yet. Once the other PC trainees arrived, everyone started pressuring us to dance. This has become a familiar routine. It seems everyone´s favorite activity at these parties is to watch Gringo Dance Theater. It even happened at the club we went to in Esteli last week. A guy was actually using his camera to film us dancing, as if it were the most amusing thing he had ever seen.

At the party at my house I think the gringos must have danced for a full 15 minutes before anyone else joined in. It kind of makes you wonder what the people do for entertainment when we´re not here. It was also really strange to be in a simulated club environment when I was actually out on my host family´s dirt patio, though the music was certainly loud enough, and the lights were certainly flashy enough.

At one point I paused to watch the other gringos dance, and then I started to understand why everyone here enjoys GDT so much. First of all, we are pretty spastic. We aren´t at all like the restrained Nicaraguans, who kind of bob back and forth gingerly in time with the music (no spins or dips here, folks). What we lack in rythmic intuition, we make up for in raw enthusiasm. Also, I´ve noticed that making such an effort to comport myself according to Nicaraguan cultural norms means that when I cut loose, I really cut loose. I think all of us do. So if the people want to see some gringos dancing crazy, I´m happy to oblige.

Into it - cramming 18 people into a microbus, i.e. minivan; Nicaragua buses in general
Over it - nightly news that always features dead bodies

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mi Abuelita

One of the people I most admire here is my host mom’s mother – my host grandmother. Her name is Dona Luisa, and she must be in her seventies. She has nine children, eight of whom still live in this small town. Her grandparents lived in Masatepe, the larger town down the road from Fatima, and her grandfather was an immigrant from France.

Last night Luisa announced that she was going to plant her terreno, the family field that is about a 10 minute walk outside of town. I asked if I could come to help. We went out this morning - Dona Luisa, my host mom, three of my host brothers (I have four total), and I - before the sun got too hot. There were a couple of guys there already using a draft horse to plough the weeds under. We each took a bowl of beans and started walking down the plowed rows, dropping the beans in slowly, and kicking dirt over them.

After the beans were planted, we left the two guys and one of my host brothers there to plant the remaining part of the field with corn, while the rest of us went out to see the part of the terreno that is planted with fruit trees. We walked through a field of coffee trees, and my host grandma remarked that the harvest probably won’t be good this year, since there hasn’t been enough rain yet. We collected some fallen mangos – stragglers, since the season has really almost ended. My host grandma offered me the one ripe orange clinging to a small orange tree. It was tart and extremely juicy.

When we got to the avocado grove, my host mom told my brothers to go climb up the trees. They each scrambled up, at least 30 feet in the air, and started shaking. Avocados rained down. We collected them and wrapped them in tee shirts to carry them back. On the way, one of my host brothers picked up a big brownish ball-looking item from the ground, cut it open with a machete, and offered me a piece of orange fruit that tasted like papaya, only better. “It’s called mamey,” my host mom informed me.

While we walked back, I asked Luisa about the terreno. I asked her if the land had always been in the family. She explained that after the revolution, a lot of people left their land. This parcel had once belonged to a wealthy family, who left during the revolution. When the Sandinistas took power, they divided up land and gave it to peasants who had never owned land before. Now the family has four manzanas (an area of land slightly larger than an acre) that they plant each year. Before that time, the family had to rent land to plant it.

I really loved being out there this morning, following the family in one of its annual routines. My host family insists that they are poor people, and it’s true that they have very little in the way of material possessions as compared to North Americans. But there is wealth here too. The more time I spend learning from my host family, the more convinced I am of that fact.

Friday, June 5, 2009

This is Nicaragua

Think for a moment about Depression-era America. Then take the image you’ve constructed and set it in a tropical country. Next imagine that the Depression was preceded by a decade of civil war, and you will have an idea of what Nicaragua is like. But to your dirt roads, wood stoves, and corrugated metal roofs, add modern television and plastic trash. Here, houses with dirt floors and walls that don’t touch the ceiling are home to massive stereos that blast reggaeton, merengue, and the occasional American pop song at full volume from dawn to dusk. Young people work in sweat shops making designer clothing they can’t afford to buy. Their parents are subsistence farmers. They dream about owning iphones.

When trying to understand any society, it is all too easy to fall into black and white thinking. I think Americans tend to hold one of two opposing views about the developing world. One is a kind of Noble Savage idea – these are people who are closer to nature, they have long traditions of indigenous knowledge, they have a lower ecological impact, and their world view is altogether more harmonious. The other view is of a people living in poverty and misery, lacking in skills, knowledge, and opportunity. Our responsibility as First World people is to help save them.

Now that I’m here living this reality, I find it impossible to romanticize this life. Both of the viewpoints I’ve described seem to me to hold some elements of truth, though both are woefully incomplete. It would be complicated enough if my only goal here were to observe and attempt to understand the culture in which I am immersed. But I am also tasked with doing something to improve the lives of the people I meet. I want to help people to realize their dreams for themselves and their community, but I don’t want to be part of the process of turning Nicaragua into an individualistic, work-obsessed, car-loving, cement society like the US. But what is the first thing that rural people here do when electricity comes to town? They buy television sets and start mainlining US culture.

It’s not even that I dislike the US. There are many parts of our culture that I absolutely love, the independence of women for example. Ultimately, I want to hold complex views of both Nicaragua and the US. I don’t want to be reduced to line-item judgments – e.g. Nicaragua does well with family closeness, or, the US does a good job providing clean drinking water to its citizens – because the reality is that behind even these simple statements there is complexity. Sure, Nicaraguans have really tight-knit families, but women are often confined to their homes whether they want to be or not, and there is rampant cheating and womanizing. And sure, the US sanitation system does an amazing job of delivering safe drinking water to our homes, but we also waste it profligately. We take clean drinking water, a resource to which a full third of humanity does not have consistent access, and flush it down the toilet and spray it onto manicured lawns.

I am having a really fun but also very difficult time trying to explain America to my host family here. The questions they ask me are deceptively simple and surprisingly tricky to answer. The other day my host mom asked me, “Is there poverty in the US?”
“Yes,” I told here.
“Is there poverty like there is here?” she continued. “Are there people living in houses made out of plastic?”
I tried to explain American urban poverty to her, since that’s what I’m most familiar with, but it was really difficult. The fact that people live in permanent structures doesn’t necessarily mean they are any better off than poor people here. And at least here, even very poor people often have access to land they can farm.

Then she asked me, “What kind of things do you grow there?”
“Mostly corn, soy, and wheat,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said, “you grow corn. So you must make a lot of tortillas, and tamales, and sopa de maiz…” and she continued to rattle off a list of corn-based foods I had never heard of before.
“Uh, not exactly,” I said. How do you explain to a person in a traditional, corn-based society how the US uses corn? We put it into our cars, we feed it to animals, we process it into junk food, and we distill it into High Fructose Corn syrup, a product that is sweeter and even less nutritious than sugar and is slowly turning us into a nation of diabetics. I tried but failed to communicate that despite how much corn we grow and use as a country, the amount that we actually cook with corn is quite small.

While we’re watching television, my host dad will often point to the TV screen and ask me, “Do you know that person?” I finally realized that he wanted to know if I actually knew that person. Not, had I seen the actor in a movie, but rather, did he come from my town? Had we perhaps met walking down the street? Once I realized what he was asking, I explained to him that no, I don’t know Harrison Ford, I’ve never met Barack Obama, and Angelina Jolie is not a close personal friend. He looked disappointed. “Well,” he asked me, “do you at least know Chuck Norris?”

Pluses: fried plantains, rain on a zinc roof, Eskimo ice cream pops.

Minuses: malaria medication, Chagas bugs, boiled plantains.