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


melissa said...

I am just amazed imagining the spectacle of a club atmosphere and a dirt floor combined. Please keep posting--I love reading! Will send a care package as soon as we get back from the honeymoon. xx -m.

Brian said...

Hi Laurie,

I am an Ethical Society friend of your parents and have started to read your blog. I very much enjoy your posts; so personal and thoughtful---your experiences and observations offer great insights into assumptions and prejudices that are exposed when confronted with a very different culture.

We have several friends who are anthropologists, one of who has done fieldwork in Peru and San Cristobel, Mexico. When we arrived in St Louis, 30 years ago, we wanted to have a similar experience. We decided to go to Peru, but canceled at the last minute because the State dept said it was unsafe because of the shinning path guerrillas. So we went to Mexico instead, to off the beaten path places recommended by our friends. While it did challenge our world, as we hoped, it also was an ordeal. We were so glad to get back home, where we could drink water and eat vegetables, and so exhausted and stressed out, that we have never returned to a third world country again. So, you see, we are now armchair anthropologists who enjoy the vicarious thrill of experiencing the shock of another culture, very different from our own, without leaving our own home. Your blog, in other words, is perfect!

I have several questions:
It is not clear to me why pc volunteers should be trusted by people who have been exploited for so long by our country; why would they let you in, and why wouldn't they think you might be spies or agent of the US government, which you are, officially.
And what does a city-raised gringo have to offer them, in terms of assistance? There are many examples, historically, of experts from developed countries offering their expertise that results in long term ecological damage to the environment (farming practices, in particular). Also, you mentioned that in the town meetings, it is the men who bluster on; women are mute and uninvited. So, in this culture where power resides with the men, and presumably the political structure for making important community decisions about policies and changes would require their approval, what hope is there for a gringo women ( thus doubly hexed) to affect any meaningful change?

Yours is the first blog I have read, so I don't know if I have correctly accessed the comments section---my last try at this i ended up sending something to your gmail account.

So,thanks for you efforts, and keep on blogging for those of us with less courage who seek enlightenment on the cheap...


Laurie Pickard said...

Hi Brian,
Thanks for reading my blog. Your questions are some of the same ones I had myself before arriving here. As for the first one, about why the people would trust us, is especially important in a place like Nicaragua, where the CIA funded a civil war during the 1980s. I have been pleasantly surprised that the people of Nicaragua understand that it was our government, without the consent of the people, that committed this atrocity. In fact, many US citizens were brothers in arms with the Nicaraguan people during the Sandinista revolution. Also, I think the PC does a great thing by placing volunteers in communities where they live for two whole years. We are expected to spend the first six months to a year just getting to know people and establishing trust with our community. This model is different from development organizations that work at the level of municipal or departmental governments, or even at the level of the whole country. The Peace Corps stresses direct, person to person development work.

Your second question, about what a city gringo has to offer, is also a great question. I have come to realize that our main role is in helping people to establish organizational structures that can help them to set and meet their own goals. We are community organizers, not technical experts. The expertise is with the community. Sometimes we can introduce a new technology or design - such as an improved stove or oven that uses less wood and reduces smoke exposure - but the implementation is always in the hands of the community. We are strongly encouraged to start community bank projects that give people access to credit and to set up small markets in places where people sell basic grains (corn, beans, rice) but don't have a way of selling veggies or fruits.

Finally, as for what a gringa can do in a male-dominated culture, we actually have a privileged role as foreigners. Sometimes men will listen to us even if they wouldn't listen to Nica women. So we can help them to value the input of their wives and other female community members. Also, we do a lot of organizing among women. When women have access to credit and their contribution to the family income and overall food security is more visible, they often gain more power within the family. Then it is possible for change to occur at the level of the society.

Hope that answers your questions. Keep reading!