Thursday, December 9, 2010

Immaculate Conception


One of the biggest holidays in Nicaragua is La Purísima, or Immaculate Conception Day, celebrated on December 8th. To understand how big this holiday is, you have to understand that Nicaraguans absolutely love the Virgin Mary. Mary is basically the patron saint of the country, the same way that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico. La Purísima celebrates the event of Mary’s conception, which had to be pure so that she could go on to bear God’s child.

Purísima seems to me kind of like a mixture between Halloween and Christmas. The traditional way of celebrating it is that each family builds an elaborate altar to the Virgin Mary in their home. Then, groups of women and children go around visiting all of the altars. They do a call and response ritual and then receive a candy or sweets. I don’t know enough about Catholicism to know if there is a similar custom in the US, but I suspect there is not. What really gives it a Nicaraguan touch is that the tradition is called La Gritería, or The Shouting. As I’ve said before on this blog, Nicaraguans associate loud noise with joy. True to form, The Shouting is very loud and very joyful.

The call and response goes like this:

Quien causa tanta alegría? (Who causes so much happiness?)
La Concepción de María! (The conception of Mary!)

Por qué celebramos este día? (Why do we celebrate this day?)
La Concepción de María! (The conception of Mary!)

Dónde está María? (Where is Mary?)
Venida! (She is come!)

Dónde está Jesús? (Where is Jesús?)
Donde está María! (Where Mary is!)

María de Nicaragua! (Mary for Nicaragua!)
Nicaragua de María! (Nicaragua for Maria!)


As with any religious celebration, there is a lot of singing and praying. And fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bus Driver


If I had been born in rural Nicaragua, I think I would have wanted to be a bus driver. Now, hear me out on this one. First of all, the bus system in Nicaragua is not the tame, government-sponsored affair that it is in most US cities. Bus drivers here are cowboys. Basically, to start a bus route, you get a group of guys together, at least one of whom knows how to drive and at least one of whom can do repairs, and you buy an old school bus from the US. You paint it and decorate the crap out of it with stickers and religious iconography and anything else that strikes your fancy, you affix a metal rack to the top of it, you give your bus a cool name, and you go to work.

For those of us in rural areas, the buses are a lifeline. Not only are they good for getting into the nearby cities, they are also good for sending messages, refilling cooking gas, and hauling anything you might buy in the city. These buses also transport firewood, fresh milk, and live animals up to the size of a goat.

Fortunately for me, buses pass by eight times a day in either direction. In the morning there’s El Pitón (the Big Honker), the Red Bus, Úbeda, and Santa Inez. In the afternoon it’s Chico’s bus, Confite (Hard Candy), Wilo, and Chepita.

The reason I think I would have liked to be a bus driver, or at least an assistant on a bus, is that these guys are local celebrities. Everyone in all the towns along the bus route knows their names. The women talk about whether they are good-looking, trustworthy, flirtatious, or up to no good. Also, a lot of times these guys are ripped, since they spend all day climbing around on the bus, ferrying people’s heavy belongings up to the roof rack and back down again. Not only are they strong, they are also chivalrous. They hold babies for women as they find their seats and help old people on and off the bus. And they walk around with big wads of cash from all the bus fares they have collected. Basically, they are really, really cool.

Everyone once in a while you see a female assistant on a bus, but it is rare. I have this idea that it would be really cool to start an all-female bus cooperative. The bus could be painted pink, and it could have a name like Mamasita. I would ride that bus. Hell, I would drive that bus.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Clothing Cycle

Life in Nicaragua is a full-bore assault on clothing. Between the mud and dirt, the hand-washing on rough cement, the tropical sun, barbed wire, and a myriad of stain-producing fruits, clothing doesn’t stand a chance. What I originally brought to wear here is now little more than a pile of tattered rags. I’ve observed that my clothing passes through a series of stages on its journey from dress to dishrag. New stuff is great for when I go to Esteli or when I have to look presentable in the Peace Corps office in Managua, though clothing can only last in this stage for a few months, maximum, before it is too holey or faded or stained. Next comes the community phase. When I walk around my community I feel fine wearing faded, stretched out jeans and slightly holey tee-shirts, since most other people do too. After the community phase is the house/garden phase. I have plenty of shirts that are too worn out to be good for much besides sleeping or gardening or working out. Finally, when an article of clothing is simply too far gone to even be worn, it becomes a trapo (rag).

This micro-scale clothing cycle is nested within a larger, international-scale clothing cycle. First, cotton is grown in India and the American south and other places. The cotton is turned into clothing by manufacturers in China or Bangladesh (or even Nicaragua). It then is shipped to the US, where people pay a lot of money for it, wear it a few times, and then give it away to thrift stores and other charitable organizations. When this clothing is not sold immediately it is packed into huge squarish packages known locally as pacas. The pacas arrive in Nicaragua and are distributed all over the country to small stores that sell ropa Americana.

Nicaragua is a vintage clothing enthusiast’s dream come true, though “vintage” is kinder term than some of these old clothes merit. If you’re looking for the hottest fashions from the eighties, look no further. One of my closest volunteer friends with a distinct sense of style struck gold at a ropa Americana store we affectionately referred to as “the mold store”. (You can probably guess why.)

There are also, however, ropa Americana stores that sell brand-name, very gently used clothing, like a consignment shop. One store in particular, Megaboutique, has become somewhat of an addiction for me. I don’t know how these clothes make it to Nicaragua. Granted, they are much more expensive than what comes out of the ordinary pacas, but it is worth it. I’ve found great pairs of jeans, dresses, collared shirts, etc., all practically new and for a fraction of what I would pay in the US. I plan on stocking up.

Monday, October 11, 2010

You, You, and You

Those who have studied Spanish (or any other romance language) will recall that there are two ways of addressing a person; usted is the formal (like calling someone sir or ma'am) and tu is the informal (regular old "you"). In a handful of countries, however, including Nicaragua, instead of using tu people use vos. (1)

For the most part, conjugating vos is pretty easy. The harder part is knowing when to use it. In the south of the country and in urban areas, vos is used quite often, much the same way that tu is used in other countries - with children, with friends, and in social situations. In the rural north, however, people tend to be much more formal. I sometimes hear people call each other vos, but I also hear people use usted with friends, children, and even with animals. After having lived in my community for a year, no one calls me vos - not friends close to my age, not my host family, nobody. And being from a country where informality is the name of the game, it has started to bother me that everyone always calls me "miss". Why, I have started to wonder, after a full year in my community, does no one feel comfortable enough with me to drop the formality?

Recently I put this question to a new friend from the community. Basically, he said, it is about respect. People use usted to show me that they respect me. Vos is only for people with whom you are very close or for people for whom you have no respect. (This seems like an odd double-usage to me.) Maybe if I lived in the town for ten more years, people would have enough confianza with me to use vos, but barring a life decision to become a permanent resident, it probably won't happen. My friend also warned me that if I try to use vos with people in the community, they will probably take offense, or at the very least the word will sound weird coming out of a foreigner's mouth. I asked about tu, if that would be a more acceptable way of addressing friends and children. No, my friend said, tu sounds pretentious and stuck up. Everyone knows the word from soap operas, but it is not used in conversation unless someone is putting on airs.

Based on what he said and what I have observed, I interpret vos to mean something like dude or homey. It can also be used as an English speaker would use the expression hey you. For me, an outsider, to use it is considered too informal. But if I were to use tu instead it would be as though I were always calling people dahling.

English is a much more informal language than Spanish, and gringo culture is generally more informal than Nicaraguan culture, especially in the rural areas, where people are a bit more old-fashioned. I know that this is just the way things are, but I am frustrated with what I see as a linguistic barrier to forming close friendships. How can I make a friend if I am always calling everyone "sir" and "ma'am"? Then again, I don't want to sound weird, like a French exchange student who insists on calling everyone "homey", and dahling is obviously ridiculous. I need to get over it, and accept that friendships can form between sirs and ma'ams and misses, but to my gringa ear it all sounds much too formal.

1. Vos is different from the Spanish vosotros form, which is an informal way of addressing a group of people (kind of like y'all). Vos is easy to conjugate and only differs from tu in the present and the command tenses. The present-tense conjugation of vos is the same as the infinitive, substituting an -s for the -r at the end and adding an accent. The present tense of comer in the vos form, for example, is comés. For andar, it´s andás. The command form is even easier. You just drop the -r and add an accent on the last syllable. The command for venir is vení, for sentar it´s sentá. This difference in conjugation has the humorous (to me) but also unfortunate effect of making the name of Nicaragua´s leading brand of toothpaste, Colgate, synonymous with the command to hang oneself (cole-GAH-tay, from the verb colgar).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Friends

I have a new group of friends. Luis, Brian, Emel, and Junior – all between the ages of 10 and 12 - come to my house every afternoon to play desmoche, the national card game of Nicargua. Here is how we became friends: one day I was playing my guitar and singing in my house, when I had the sensation that someone was watching me. It turned out that someone was – four someones in fact. I sang “Oh Susanna” for them, and I showed them how I can play the guitar and the harmonica at the same time. Then they found out that I own a deck of playing cards, and that pretty much sealed the deal.

Now every day around 2:00 my new friends come over to the house. I clear all of my junk off my plastic table, and we sit down to play desmoche. Only four of us can play at a time, so the loser of each round has to give up his/her seat. Brian almost always loses. Throughout the game there is a lot of talking. “Dame algo bueno, hombre.” Give me something good, man. “Ay, vos, porque me jodiste?” Aw, dude, why did you screw me like that? “Que clase de juego que tengo. Van a ver.” I’ve got this game, you’ll see.

Overall, the play is pretty free-wheeling. If I hadn’t learned the game from other Nicaraguan friends, I don’t think I could have caught the rules from the way these boys play. Desmoche is kind of like a combination between seven-card stud and gin. You have to assemble a ten-card winning hand like in gin, but you don’t get to replace the cards in your hand. Instead you pick up a card from the stack. If you can make a set of three or four using the card you’ve drawn and two or three others from your hand, you do it. If not, you put it down, and another player can take it. Supposedly each person has a chance at the card, in order, but in our games it never works like that. Pretty much whoever grabs the card first gets it. Also, shuffling is not these boys’ strong point, so the deck sometimes turns up three aces in a row, or a run of hearts.

Desmoche also has a lot of arbitrary rules – e.g. cards have to be arranged black-red-black, and you can win outright by drawing four of the same card on the first deal or by having all of your cards be the same color. A friend commented recently that desmoche is a big brother game, in the sense that you might be winning and then your big brother would suddenly claim that you’d lost for not doing some silly thing like arranging your cards according to color.

I’ve taught my new friends some other games – Crazy Eights (Ochos Locos), Hearts (Corazones), and a dice game I had lying around – and they catch on very quickly, all except Brian, who always loses. The best part is that these boys are very sweet and polite. They talk a lot of smack to each other during the games, but they don’t usually use bad words, and they’re always very respectful to me. When they leave they always push in their chairs, thank me for playing with them, and as they file out the door not a one forgets to say “adios.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tropical Storm Matthew

Tropical Storm Matthew hit Nicaragua last week. For the first time in my almost year and a half here, the Peace Corps put its Emergency Action Plan into effect. For me, this meant that for one night I stayed in a hotel in Estelí playing cards and watching reality shows. The storm turned out to be less dramatic than expected – at least during that first day. After we went back to our sites, though, it just kept raining. In my part of Nicaragua, the storm has been more dreary than dangerous. But in other places bridges have been washed out, and entire neighborhoods have been inundated.

Even here, though the river did not overflow its banks, it would be hard to overstate how wet it got. No one has done laundry in the last five days because absolutely nothing can dry. My yard has gone from jungle to swamp. All the weeds have turned brown and fainted into the muck. The ground is so soft on some of the little roads you can sink in up to your knees if you make a wrong step.

Although today was a nice day, the first without rain in quite a while, we Peace Corps volunteers been advised that we are not allowed to leave our sites due to the state of many roads and bridges around the country. Lake Managua is full, and many people living around the lake have lost their homes. Also, according to rumors that are flying around my community, there may be another storm system headed our way.

Ironically, everyone spent the whole year praying for rain. I have been here now for two harvests. The first one was bad because of a drought. This second one is even worse because of too much rain. It all leads one to wonder, do they ever have a good year? I asked one of the farmers I know when the last time was that they had a good harvest, and his reply was, “Ah, well, not last year, and not the year before that. I think it was---yep, it was three years ago.” Which means that in the past four years only one has been good for farmers here. To me, those do not seem like great odds.

The silver lining to this rain cloud is that even with a poor harvest, most families are able to scrape together at least enough to feed themselves for the year. I asked my neighbors (a family of four) how much they needed to put away, and they told me they like to have 8 quintales (800 pounds) of corn and 4 quintales (400 pounds) of beans. This year they just barely made it. However, since they didn’t produce enough to sell, they will have no cash to buy things like sugar, oil, coffee, clothing, shoes, and soap. Likely, the man of the house will travel to another community in the off-season to cut coffee or work in a tomato field.

No doubt, this has been a bad year, the worst in a long time, according to some. But what I realize from my conversations with people is that a bad year is really not out of the ordinary. Yes, it’s bad, but bad is normal. As I heard my neighbor Marina say to a friend from out of town when asked how her family is doing, “Estamos jodidos pero contentos.” We’re screwed, but at least we’re happy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

100 Things

I first heard about the 100 Thing Challenge while traveling in Belgium two years ago. Since then, the idea has grown much more popular. (See this website http://www.guynameddave.com/100-thing-challenge.html) Those who accept the challenge strive to reduce their stock of personal belongings to only 100 things. I find this idea appealing, though whether or not it is possible depends entirely on how you count (i.e., do you count every fork and every t-shirt, or do you count ‘forks’ as one item and ‘shirts’ as another?). On the website, the originator of the challenge says to count only items that are mostly or entirely yours, not shared by a family or roommates. Since I live alone, these rules mean I would have to count everything in my house. For fun, I recently made a list of everything I own, just to see how many things I have. It turns out that if you include multiples of any item – food, books, pens, cups – you will quickly reach 100, no matter how minimalist your lifestyle; whereas, if you don’t count multiples, it could potentially be very easy for anyone to get under 100 things.

I have never owned what I consider to be a lot of things. I move often – in fact, if I stay through the end of my service in the house I am renting, I will have lived here longer than in any place in the last 12 years – and so it behooves me to be able to fit all of my belongings into a mini-van. I came to Nicaragua with less than 100 pounds of stuff*, a fraction (though a significant one) of my total belongings. I have acquired many items since arriving here, mostly necessary household things: a stove, a mini-fridge, dishes, a broom, a hammock, etc. My life here feels quite modest – I don’t have a single rug, a television, or any upholstered furniture - yet I am amazed at how much stuff I own in comparison with many of my Nicaraguan neighbors.

Stuff clings to me like burrs. It seems every time I leave the house I come back with more. Be it books from the Peace Corps library, groceries, used clothing from one of Esteli’s Ropa Americana stores, care packages, new pens or markers, whatever. It amazes me how my house seems to fill up on its own, without any conscious effort on my part. I thought this process was particular to the developed world and that it would not be part of my life in Nicaragua. However, I now think that this tendency to acquire things is a cultural attribute that comes with having grown up in a materialistic society. It’s not even necessarily that I am spending money to acquire these items. Many times they are gifts or things someone else is throwing out.

I am planning to come back to the US with almost nothing, and it gives me great joy to think about all the stuff I will be giving away or selling at the end of my service.

*This might be a more accurate way of counting how much stuff a person owns. It would certainly be much less open to interpretation than ‘100 things’. Though depending on the weight goal, it might be impossible to own things like a piano or a refrigerator or, for that matter, furniture. Maybe one ton of stuff would be a good goal.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Flooding of the Rio Viejo

Here are some images of flooding in my site this rainy season. This first one is of me standing in the road that passes in front of my house after it rained yesterday.








Here you can see where people will be losing part of the corn harvest, on top of the beans they've already lost due to excessive rains.




This river went completely dry during last year's drought and subsequent dry season.


What looks like a creek here is actually a road.





The water level rose high enough to enter many people's houses, some up to knee deep.






Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rainy Season Blues

I am getting pretty sick of the rainy season. It has been a rough one so far. Last year many farms lost their harvests due to drought; this year the farmers are losing again, only this time due to excessive rain. It has rained so much that the river actually changed course, overflowing its banks and taking over a dirt road as its new channel. Some families downstream have had to leave their houses for fear that they will be swept away in the night.

My yard is a complete swamp. My garden has drowned, and in its place a jungle has grown, practically overnight. Almost every other day I have to blaze a new trail to the latrine with my machete. I don’t even consider leaving the house without putting on rubber boots. And because there are so many places for mosquitoes to lay eggs, mosquito-borne diseases have been especially bad this year all over Nicaragua. Several of my neighbors have had fevers I’m convinced were dengue.

But the thing that is really making me hate the rainy season is that all of my clothes, my shoes, and even my bed smell like an old lady’s basement. I feel singularly helpless about the situation because on top of the excessive rains, we’ve had power outages. And when there’s no electricity, there’s no running water either, since our water system requires electricity. So ironically, we’re suffering both from too much and not enough water. Even if I could do the wash, there is a high probability that my stuff wouldn’t dry before it rains again, which would just start the mold cycle all over again. Just this once I would love to throw everything in a washing machine and then dry it in a dryer – even my pillows, my mattress, and my hiking boots, all of which are being taken over by mold.

I am grateful not to be among those who have lost their houses or their bean crops, of course; but I seem to forget every time I pick up a shirt and realize it’s too stinky to wear even though I’ve just washed it. Everyone says September and October are the rainiest months. We’ll see what they bring this year.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Talk at Ethical Society St. Louis

While visiting my family in June of this year I gave a talk at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. I spoke about my experience thus far in Nicaragua. The talk is now available online as a podcast from the St. Louis Ethical Society's website. If you'd like to listen, you can find it here:

http://www.ethicalstl.org/res_libraryaudio.html

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fernanda

Yesterday I finally visited Dona Fernanda, the old lady who always stops in the street to talk to me. I usually see her when she is on her way to church, dressed in old-fashioned pastel colored dresses, usually with a scarf over her hair and a large cross around her neck. When she sees me she calls out to me, we embrace and air kiss, which is a bit awkward since she stands about four feet two inches tall. No matter how hot it is outside her cheek is always powdery and cool. She blesses me in the name of Jesucristo and tells me to come visit her at her home.

Yesterday afternoon I was walking home from a visit to one of the teachers in the school when I saw Fernanda sitting outside of her house. She was wearing a bandana and her hair hung down in two long, skinny braids. She was sitting on a rock smoking a cigarette. I walked over to her and sat down on a rock facing hers, and we had a lovely conversation, punctuated by Fernanda dragging on her cigarette and spitting into the dirt. “Soy grosera, no?” she asked me several times. I’m crude, aren’t I?

I asked her who lived here in this home with her, and she said she lived alone. But she isn’t afraid, she said. She proceeded to tell me that even during the war she wasn’t afraid, when she used to cross military lines in order to deliver babies. She never feared, she said, “porque para Jesucristo y una partera no hay fronteras.” For Jesus Christ and for midwives there are no borders.

Listening to her talk about her life was like reading a Gabriel García Márquez novel, all magical realism. She told me that she learned midwifery directly from God – no one here on earth taught her the trade. She learned how to sew in dreams, she said. “Son las cosas que Dios regala a una.” These are just things that God gives to you.

She has five children and nine grandchildren. Most of the grandchildren she delivered in her dirt-floor home. “They were born into my hands,” she said. I asked her if she was ever married, and she said no; her children were gifts sent directly from God.

Fernanda’s father taught her how to play guitar, and she used to write songs, she told me. But after he died she never touched the guitar again. I asked her if she could sing me one of the songs she had written, and she said no; she remembers the lyrics, but her voice doesn’t cooperate anymore. She could, however, recite for me a poem that had occurred to her as she saw me walking down the path to her house.

“Muchachita, que bonita
Me alivia mi corazón.
Espero que venga para una visita
Y le doy un apretón.”

Translated:

Such a pretty girl
Makes my heart feel light.
I hope she comes for a visit
I’ll give her a big squeeze.

As I was leaving, she did just that, and I promised to visit again soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Back in the Day

Before I was assigned to my site, I was prepared to handle almost anything. I was willing to live an hour’s trek from a bus route, I would have been fine in a village without electricity. I did request to be placed in a place with running water, but a well system would have probably have been just fine. While I was still in the US, the idea of using a latrine for two years freaked me out, but by the end of training I had decided it wouldn’t be too bad. My one wish was that I wouldn’t have to live in a dirt-floor home.

When I got to my site I was pleasantly surprised. For an Agriculture volunteer, I’ve got it kind of cushy – we have running water for at least two hours every day, so I don’t have to haul water from a well; my house is wired with electricity; and best of all, I live right on a road – newly paved – along which pass eight buses a day. I can’t receive calls right in my house, but it is possible for me to find pockets of cell coverage in my community.

I sometimes think about what it would have been like to have been placed in this site back in the old days of Peace Corps Nicaragua, i.e. the nineties. At that time, the community had not yet gotten electricity, nor was there a running water system. And the country did not as yet have any kind of cell network at all. The road was a rutted dirt track that became impassable during the rainy season.

The odd thing is that one year ago I was prepared to take it, whereas now I don’t think I could. Contrary to what I expected before I got here, as time goes on, I am less, not more willing to give up comforts of any kind. I am accustomed to using my computer almost every day and listening to my ipod whenever I’m in the house. I download podcasts whenever I go to Esteli, which thanks to the easy bus transportation, is about twice a week. When I talk to my host family, I realize that they feel the same way that I do about modern conveniences. My host mom lived the first 39 years of her life without electricity. Now, when it goes out for one day she’s bored without the television. And she can’t imagine going back to hauling buckets of water – sometimes six trips a day – up the steep hill to her house.

I think the point of this is that it is very difficult to go back, no matter if you have a lot or very little. For those of us, like Peace Corps Volunteers, who choose to give up (at least for a time) many of the comforts we are used to, it is possible to prepare for that moment and to make the transition willingly. But once you’ve settled in to a simpler life, it becomes just as hard to give up anything that you’ve come to depend on as it was the first time, maybe even more difficult.

Note: Ironically, just after I wrote this the charger for my laptop stopped working, so I am currently without the ability to download podcasts, write blog posts at home, or watch DVDs. Hopefully the situation will be resolved quickly.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Snake Oil

During my bus ride home yesterday, a man got up, went to the front, and started to speak to the passengers. These bus speeches are pretty common. Ninety percent of the time the speaker is either talking about Jesus or selling something. This guy was selling medicine. He started off talking about how we need to take care of ourselves, how we get tired and run-down, we can have nervous attacks or trouble sleeping, or just feel worn out. “Well,” he said, “I have a solution for all of you, ladies and gentlemen. Here in my bag I have a wonderful cure for what ails you.” He pulled out a small box. “This, my friends, is what you have been looking for. Inside of this box you will find a syringe, a fresh syringe with a new, clean needle. Inside the syringe is a powerful vitamin.” This man is selling do-it-yourself intramuscular injections of vitamins on a bus. What?!

He went on, “When you inject yourself with this vitamin, my friends, you will feel 100% better. You will feel fresh, young, healthy, and happy. And how much, my friends, do you think this injection would cost in a pharmacy? I invite you, friends, to go and ask. Ask them how much an injection like this will cost. They will tell you, my friends, they will tell you $140 cordobas. That is how much this medicine will cost you if you want to go out and buy it in a store. But I am offering you this wonderful injection, this amazing cure, for only 50 cordobas. And if you buy two, my friends, I will throw a third one in for free.”

Then he pulled out a pamphlet. “But please, my friends, if you’re going to use these vitamins don’t do it until you have cleansed yourself of parasites. I want you to look here at this drawing. This worm, my friends, he lives in your stomach. He has five mouths, he eats and eats and eats, and he never gets full. And this little animal, this is the amoeba. He attacks you when you drink milk. And this one, this one lives in the flesh of the pig. Those who have epilepsy, who suffer from nervousness, they have this worm. And there are many others, my friends.” He indicated a plethora of other drawings of worms and microbes. “So if you are going to take this vitamin, please, please, kill these parasites first. This medicine here” – he produced another box – “will rid you of all these creatures. Do I have any takers? The senora here, yes, and here this man, anyone else?”

He went walking through the bus handing out the boxes. I took one of each, just to look and see exactly what he was selling so I could look it up later at home. The injection was a vitamin B cocktail – B1, B6, and B12. The parasite med was called albendazole. When I got home I went straight to my shelf and pulled out the book Where There Is No Doctor, which is a great medical reference manual for places like where I live. The parasite medication this man was selling works for a variety of worms, which I guess is good if that’s what you’ve got. But it doesn’t work on the two most common parasites in Nicaragua – amoebas and giardia. Not to mention that a lot of what he was saying about the parasites he did mention was flat-out wrong.

But the vitamin is the truly appalling part of his package for wellness. Let me quote from several sections of Where There Is No Doctor. First, from the part about vitamin B12: “This is mentioned only to discourage its use. Vitamin B12 is useful only for a rare type of anemia that is almost never found except in some persons over 35 years whose ancestors are from northern Europe…Do not waste your money on vitamin B12 or let a doctor or health worker give it to you unless a blood analysis has been done, and it has been shown that you have pernicious anemia.”

And from a section called “The Most Dangerous Misuse of Medicine”:

“The common belief that injections are usually better than medicine taken by mouth is not true. Many times medicines taken by mouth work as well as or better than injections. Also, most medicine is more dangerous when injected than when taken by mouth. Injections given to a child who has a mild polio infection can lead to paralysis. Use of injections should be very limited.”

Later, in a section entitled “Medicines Not to Inject”, the first entry is “Vitamins.” “Rarely are injected vitamins any better than vitamins taken by mouth. Injections are more expensive and more dangerous.” Just below, B12 is given special mention. “Injecting [B12] can cause abscesses or dangerous reactions (shock).”

To bill this medication as a cure-all, to suggest that it is good for people to buy a few packages and inject away, is absolutely unconscionable. I can’t believe it is legal (and I’m pretty sure it is. Even if it isn’t, it is quite common) for any old schmo to buy a carton of vitamin B injections and hand them out willy-nilly to unsuspecting poor farmers. It doesn’t help matters that people around here tend to be injection happy. I wanted to stand up myself and tell people not to waste their money or put their health at risk by listening to this snake-oil salesman. Maybe next time I’ll work up the nerve to do it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hot and Cold

Many local health beliefs in Nicaragua have to do with avoiding the mixing of hot and cold. For example, if you’ve just been working outside, you shouldn’t bathe right away or drink cold water. If you’re eating hot soup, you should have a hot drink with it instead of a cold one. If the floor is cool, you shouldn’t walk on it with your warm bare feet.

And people are fastidious about it. When my neighbor bakes, she gets “agitada” (agitated from heat) and cannot come outside for the rest of the day. Sometimes she’ll call me over to accept some rosquillas (corn cookies), and she’ll be standing in the doorway with a towel over her head (to keep the heat from escaping her body too quickly, I presume) holding out a dish of baked goods that I have to go over to get, since she can’t come out into the cool air. And it’s not even cool out. It never is.

On a “cold” day during “winter” the temperature may be around 75 during the day. Still people complain about how cold it is, they put on sweaters, they have respiratory infections, they drink soup, the works. I wish I could explain to people how cold it can get where I grew up. “You can put a glass of water outside and it will turn into ice. That cold,” I say. But it doesn’t seem to penetrate. How could it? How could you understand true cold if you’ve never lived in a place where houses needed insulation or central heating, or even a fireplace (apart from a cooking stove)? How could you understand a North American winter if the coldest night you know of is one that requires two thin blankets instead of one?

I laugh when people warn me about going to the colder parts of Nicaragua (mainly Jinotega, one of the nearby cities). “Oh, bring a sweater. Jinotega is ‘helado’ (icy).” Which is a joke, because nowhere in Nicaragua is icy, ever.
“I think I’ll be okay,” I say.
This word “helado” makes me laugh because people use it strange ways. I’ve heard people say that a fire is “helado” when food isn’t cooking fast enough, or even that the sun is “helado” on a cooler day. Clearly, we do not share an understanding of what constitutes iciness.

Often people describe illnesses according to hot and cold essences, sort of like humors or energies in the body. One day this week I saw my host mom with a piece of a plant tied around her ankle, and I asked her about it. “Too much heat,” she told me, and she explained that she had recently come down with an illness in which her left foot and ankle become inflamed, and she gets a fever and nausea. She told me the name of the illness in Spanish, but it was nothing I had heard of. “I have to put cold things on my foot to get rid of it. This is aloe. It’s very helado. I got this sickness once before and you know what cured me? Something even colder than aloe.”
“What?”
“A toad. Wilmer (her son) is out looking for one right now. One time he found me a toad that was so cold, it was heladísimo! I rub it right here where my foot is inflamed.”
“And that works?”
“Yep, but the poor toad, afterwards he dies. Too much heat for him. He’s cold, and it kills him, the poor guy.”
My only response was the one word everyone teases me for saying constantly. “Wow.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Nica Time

Nicaraguans, especially those that live in the countryside, have the tendency to be less than punctual. In Peace Corps we call this “la hora Nica” - i.e., plan for activities to start an hour or so later than scheduled - as opposed to “la hora Gringa” – things start right on time. It can be hard to count on people to be where they say they’re going to be at the time they say they’ll be there. Even when you make a concrete plan with someone, they’ll often throw in the caveat “si Dios quiere” – if God wants it. Basically, with all commitments the idea is that people will show up if they can – provided it’s not raining too hard, they didn’t feel lazy that day, or something else didn’t come up. If a meeting starts at two, the majority of those that are coming will probably be there around three. Some may show up even later.

I am getting used to this part of the culture. I padded the agenda of the community meeting I held recently with ample time to make up for the late arrival of 90% of the participants. You learn that it’s necessary to schedule things for an hour earlier than you actually want to start. You also learn not to try to do more than a couple of things in the day – one activity for the morning, one for the afternoon. And even that may be pushing it.

Yesterday I got a better idea of why people have this mentality. I was going around inviting people to another meeting to discuss the computer center idea, and I had to go out to the farthest house in the community – the last house on the other side of the river. I went with two chavalos (kids) from my neighborhood. We crossed the bridge and started trekking through the mud. I was wearing hiking boots, luckily. The farther out we got away from the bridge, the deeper the mud became. We ran into an older lady resting by the side of the road and offered to help her carry a jug of milk and a bag of tortillas back to her house. The mud got deeper. One of the kids had on sandals, and by this time you couldn’t even tell he was wearing anything on his feet. The bottoms of my jeans were caked with mud.

Finally, we got to the last house. We sat on the lady’s porch for a minute to rest, and we chatted about the meeting. “Well, I’ll do the best I can,” she said. “But I don’t use the bridge, and the water’s up to my waist now.”
“Why don’t you use the bridge?” I asked.
“It makes me dizzy.” It’s a suspension bridge, and it does bounce a bit, but I’m still surprised to learn how many people in the community prefer to ford the river rather than use it. Talking to this lady, I started to understand a bit better why people consider all plans tentative. If it has rained a lot the river may be un-crossable. Also, if the path gets any muddier, even the bridge might not be a good option.
“Ok,” I said, “Well I hope to see you there.”
“I’ll be there,” she said, “Si Dios quiere.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Community Meeting

This weekend I held a three-day workshop on community project design and implementation. With the help of a counterpart, I invited 25 people who are considered leaders in my community. Over the course of the three days, we talked about the resources of the community - the river, arable land, many educated young people, and some rockin' fiestas patronales (happening next weekend) - and we came up with ideas for ways that the community could be improved.

Before the meeting started, I was really nervous about whether or not it would work. For starters, a prominent man in the municipal head died on Thursday, so on the first day of the meeting only a dozen people showed up. And of course, they showed up about an hour late, so for the first hour I was fretting that we wouldn't have a meeting at all. But even that fist day, things went well. We made community maps and talked about all the positive things about our area, and we discussed past successes of the community.

The second day went much better. All twenty-five invitees showed up. We spent the day imagining how the community could be improved, and we ended up with four project ideas:
1. A new seconday school
2. An expanded health center
3. A recreation center
4. A computer lab

At the end of the third day, we chose two projects to continue working on - the computer lab and the health center. Now I am excited - and nervous - to see what will happen next with these ideas. Tomorrow we are having our first follow-up meeting, and my boss from Peace Corps is coming to visit. Unfortunately many good ideas fall apart for lack of support from the mayor's office or from the community itself. But for now I am optimistic that in my second year of service I can help my community get something concrete done.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When the Power's Out

Lately the electricity has been going out every night around 7, just after dark. My host family hates it when the power goes out because it interrupts their soap opera-watching routine. I don’t watch soap operas, but I hate it too. By day, I feel like the master of my home. For the most part, I decide who comes in and out, be he man or beast (unless he happens to be a fly – I have no control over flies). But as soon as it gets dark, the equation is flipped. At night, the animalitos are boss. As long as I have the power to flood a room with light, I feel okay about the situation. I can see who’s around, and the guys that don’t like the light tend to make themselves scarce. But when the power goes out, it’s just me and my headlamp against a whole world of creepy crawlies.

I always seem to have my most intense encounters with the lesser beasties when the power is out. Last night, for example, I was contemplating watching a DVD on my laptop, when the lights went. It was about 7:30, so I decided to just go ahead and call it a night. I fumbled around the dark house for a few moments looking for my headlamp. When I lit it up and shined it around my room, a flash of activity in the area where I store clothing caught my eye. I came closer and saw a bunch of large ants crawling among my bras and panties. Uh-oh. I’ve dealt with these ants before, so I sort of knew what to expect.

Cautiously, I lifted up a pair of underwear, then threw it down on the floor violently. It was covered in giant ants, and underneath it was a pile of what I assume were eggs – round, white, bean-shaped things that the ants were now rushing to grab onto and cart away. I began to lift up underthings with two fingers, throw them on the floor, and smash ant eggs with my feet, all the while praying that none would fall or crawl down inside my rubber boots. I don’t know whether or not these guys bite, and I was hoping they wouldn’t give me a chance to find out.

Some of the ants on the floor were scrambling furiously to move the eggs to safety. Others looked shell-shocked. They had grabbed onto eggs and were sitting stock still, holding them. I grabbed a bandana and swatted the remainder of the eggs off of the shelf where my clothing was. Then I left the whole mess for the morning and went to close the doors.

I’ve developed a fear of snakes since I’ve been in Nicaragua. It’s funny, as I’m here longer, I find more things frightening, not less. I have this image of a coral snake – highly poisonous – coming in under my door during the night to get out of the rain. In this vision, the snake sneaks into my bedroom, slithers up a bedpost, somehow gets under my mosquito net, and nestles in among my covers, where it wakes me up, gets startled, bites me, and leaves me to die alone in my house, where no one finds me for days.

I realize that this scenario is unlikely, but nonetheless I have taken to shoving plastic grain sacks under the doors at night. Last night, as I lifted up one of the sacks, out from under it wriggled a millipede, also – according to what I have read – potentially poisonous. Luckily I was still in my boots, so I stomped that guy good. Another enemy vanquished, I got the bags under the doors and went back to my room, where the ants had mostly finished carting off their precious babies. I got in under the mosquito net, checked for scorpions under my pillows, and said my nightly prayer asking the powers that be not to let any chagas bugs (aka assassin beetles) bite me. Then I went to sleep.

Friday, June 25, 2010

US Trip

Apologies for the gap between posts. This is one I wrote while traveling in the US. Since then I've been witout internet access. I'm trying to get back into the groove now that I'm in country and have a more or less normal schedule.

I am in the US right now. Actually, at this very moment I am in an airport waiting for a flight to Miami. I’ve spent two blissful weeks in this country enjoying the comforts and conveniences of the developed world. It’s kind of funny, I expected to experience some sort of reverse culture shock after having spent a full year away. But I think two things are at work here keeping me from feeling too weird.

First, the Peace Corps has conditioned me to be incredibly adaptable to all kinds of situations. Over this past year, I have often been faced with the unexpected and had to just deal. I’ve gotten pretty good at switching modes, since I move from the country to the city with some regularity. Yesterday, I was supposed to have been back in Managua, but I missed a connection and got stuck in New York. After a brief moment of stress in the airport, I got on a bus and headed to my brother’s apartment unannounced, called some friends, and ended up spending a great night in the city. I barely even missed a beat – even when I found out that they had sent my luggage to Atlanta. I think getting used to an alternate reality in the countryside of Nicaragua – and then going back and forth from there to Esteli and Managua – has just prepared me generally to accept my surroundings without getting too bent out of shape.

Second, I think over this past year I have become more, not less, materialistic. You might expect that living more simply would make me think, “Wow, we in the US live with a lot of unnecessary stuff. We waste a lot, and it really is possible to live quite happily with much less.” While I recognize that this is indeed true, in this past year, I have become more inclined to think, “Wow, we in the US have so much great stuff. I feel so lucky to be of the part of humanity that gets to have access to it.” Throughout this trip I found myself appreciating all kinds of ordinary US luxuries - bike lanes, consistent cell phone service, air conditioning, cars, supermarkets, food safety standards, customer service, fast internet connections, well-made shoes, and the list goes on and on.

I think a lot of my friends have always considered me to be a bit crunchy. I didn’t own a car for my last several years in Philadelphia, I shop at farmers’ markets, I even kept a worm composter in my basement. I didn’t own very much stuff, but I never felt deprived. I still don’t own anything of value, but now it is common for me to fantasize about the fancy things I’m going to buy at the end of my service. I can really start to drool thinking about iphones and laptops, or about a well-fitting pair of dark jeans, or Italian leather boots. I don’t know how to explain it, other than that when you live with less not because you want to but because you have to, something happens to your brain. You start to Want.

Maybe it’s part of my acculturation to Latin America, but I also care a lot more these days about how well I am put together before I go out of the house. I use more beauty products than I ever did before. I feel naked if I’m not wearing nail polish. When they lost my bag, my first thought was, “Well, at least my makeup is in my carry-on.” What?! Who is this person? And what have they done with the old urban hippie version of me?

Perhaps I will feel more of a shock when I come back to live in the US for good. This time I was on vacation, so maybe it wasn’t an accurate test of how I’ll feel being back in my homeland. Also, I wonder whether this materialistic streak will grow or diminish over time, if it is a permanent change to my values or if it’s a temporary effect of living in semi-self-imposed poverty.

Friday, May 28, 2010

When It Rains

The rains have arrived. Last week I came back from a trip to Managua, and it was like I came home to different place. Where the hills were brown and barren, they had turned a dazzling green. My yard went from being a patch of burnt-looking scrub to a full-blown jungle of weeds.

You’d think the farmers would be happy, overjoyed in fact. And they were at first. But then it kept raining. For the past five days straight we have not seen the sun. Sometimes it drizzles, other times the rain falls down in fat drops, and at night it rains hard. All of this rain is bad for the newly-planted corn and beans, now drowning in marshy fields. Where people plant near the river, the fields themselves have in some cases been submerged.

Last night my neighbor invited me to come with her to take a look at how much the river had grown. When we got there, I was positively shocked. If you have been following this blog, you will recall that the river in my community had dried up completely. As in dry as a bone. As in no agua. Where that dry trough was a month ago, there is now a rushing river, too deep and wide to cross. We joked a few months ago that just when the municipal government had finally put in a bridge, the river had disappeared. Now, people are worried that the bridge is going to fall down because a couple of big uprooted trees crashed into it full speed during the flood.

I’ve been tromping around in botas de ule (rubber boots), even to go to my neighbors’ houses or to the latrine. I feel lucky because so far, the trench around my house has prevented the water from coming in. Others have fared worse. In one part of my town, where the houses are right next to the river, there is some concern that the river may erode away so much land that the houses themselves will fall in.

In talking about this flood, people often bring up Hurricane Mitch, which caused the worst flooding anyone in the community can remember. At that time, numerous fields were destroyed, turned into giant rock piles that have never been recovered for planting. This flood has been mild in comparison. And hopefully with a few days of sun, most people’s crops will not be lost. But whether they are dealing with floods or droughts, price fluctuations or political instability, the people in my community live much closer to the edge than most US Americans that I know.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Year In

Last week I passed an important milestone in my service. On May 14, 2010 I completed a full year in Nicaragua. In that year, I left only one time, and that was to go to Guatemala. That means I have spent more than a full year outside of the US, something that at one time I listed as a lifetime goal to accomplish before turning 30. Just made it. The day of my one-year anniversary in Nicaragua I was participating in the orientation activities for the new group that just arrived, Nica 53. It was especially nice to be able to reflect on my year in country while welcoming the newest additions to the PC Nicaragua family.

The new trainees asked a million questions - Will the language training really make their Spanish better? Do I feel safe in my site? What is my housing situation like? Do I feel like I'm making a difference? Did training prepare me to do my job? Do I like it here?I felt very fortunate to have almost all positive things to say - yes, the language training is amazing. Yes, I feel very safe in my site. Yes, I have a great housing situation, close to a host family but in my own place.

As to whether or not I'm making a difference, I still think it's a bit early to tell. But one thing I am happy to realize is that regardless of what kind of tangible results I am able to point to at the end of my service, the cultural exchange element is enough to make me feel that being here is worthwhile. Many Peace Corps volunteers are the only US Americans that people in rural Nicaragua (and in many places where Peace Corps works) will ever really know. And although I am sometimes asked what could have possibly possessed me to give up the advantages of living in the US, even for a couple of years, most Nicaraguans that I meet and get to know are impressed that so many North Americans would willingly choose to spend two years living at the same standard as some of the poorest Central Americans. My friends here have become real friends. We cook together and eat together, we talk about our families, we even have inside jokes - ask me sometime to tell you about 'pelo de cusuco' (armadillo hair). I honestly believe that this kind of interpersonal cultural exchange makes the world a better and a safer place, maybe even more than an improved oven or a family garden.

Okay, one more point before I get too mushy. Have you ever stopped to think that American English lacks a real term for our own nationality? In Spanish, they have the word 'estadounidense', basically United States-ian. We call ourselves Americans, but that term could apply to anyone living on either of the two American continents. I make an effort when speaking English to say US American, but that sounds kind of weird. American from the US is too long, United States-ian is kind of strange. Gringo is okay, but it only works in Latin America, and it has negative connotations. Any other suggestions?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vagando

Whenever I come home after having spent time out of my site, my host family tells me I am being "vaga", which means something like "vagabond". This month I have been extra-vaga. Between my mid-service medical and dental exams (no cavities this year), a workshop on program design, and the fact that I'm participating in the new Ag group's training activities, I have not been in my site for a full week since mid-April.

I mention all of this in part to explain why I haven't been keeping up with this blog. But it's also an interesting reflection of Nicaraguan rural culture that people are not used to the kind of constant motion that North Americans are. There are many people in my town who have never traveled farther from home than the two major cities that are two hours in either direction from where we live. Many have never seen the ocean or any of Nicaragua's natural and cultural wonders. To me, it's mind-boggling to think that there are people who leave our tiny community of 700 people no more than a couple of times a year.

In two weeks I'll be heading back to the US for my first visit since I started this adventure. I wonder how it will feel to be back in what Thomas Friedman calls "the fast world" after having spent a full year here where things move at a much slower pace.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me

Yesterday I completed another year, as they say in Spanish, and I decided to take stock with a list of things that have happened since my last birthday. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. I visited two new countries - Guatemala and Nicaragua - and lived in one of them for the majority of this year.
2. I learned how to make tortillas by hand.
3. I got really good at speaking Spanish.
4. I acquired two new families, one in the south of Nicaragua and one in the north.
5. I ate beans almost every day.
6. I rode a horse exactly three times.
7. I had my first experiences with intestinal parasites. Verdict: not as scary as they sound.
8. I read a ton of books.
9. By some miracle, I did not get a sunburn one time.
10. I ran a 10k race, my first ever.
11. I taught my first yoga class in Spanish.
12. I paid a sum total of $200 in rent.
13. I spent a full month with my younger brother - more time than we have spent together since our childhood.
14. I grew a vegetable garden.
15. I picked dragon fruits, lemons, and guanabanas from my backyard.
16. I learned that living without running water is not as difficult as it sounds.
17. I got good at washing clothing on a cement slab. (I even think they actually get cleaner that way.)
18. I made several new close friends.
19. I learned to tell time by which bus is passing by my town, e.g. The Big Honker at 6:30, The Red Bus at 7:30, Santa Inez at 11:00, and Chico's Bus at 1:30.
20. I developed the habit of washing my shoes after almost every use.
21. I ate a lot of fertilized eggs, aka huevos de amor, and I came to believe that they are many times superior to unfertilized eggs.
22. I learned to make soy milk from scratch.
23. I slept most nights underneath a mosquito net.
24. I saw 3 scorpions - inside my house.
25. I felt cold twice.

Overall, it was a great year.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Home Shopping Network

When I was in high school my mom’s side of the family took a vacation to a resort in Mexico. One of the things my cousins and I enjoyed most about that trip was that while we were lying on the beach any number of vendors would pass, selling silver jewelry or wraps for our hair or tee shirts. We loved looking at all of the wares, bargaining with the vendors, and purchasing souvenirs, all without moving from the beach. My aunt called it “The Home Shopping Network”.

At my home in Nicaragua, something similar happens. For the most part, you can’t buy anything in my town. There are a couple of houses that have makeshift shops that sell basics – soap, sugar, homemade popsicles – but for anything else I have to travel an hour and a half to one of the bigger cities. Sometimes, however, people will come through town selling items out of a truck or out of a pack.

In front of my door have passed people selling used shoes and clothing, electronics, DVDs of American movies, ice cream bars, and pots and pans. The best is the fruit truck. For some reason the fruit guys always make the biggest commotion when they come through. They’ve got huge bull horns mounted on their trucks, and they advertise their prices as they roll through town. “Avocados three for twenty cordobas! Papayas cantaloupes watermelons! Bananas ten cordobas a dozen!” Only the acoustics are really bad (and it’s in Spanish) so it sounds like that unintelligible voice that comes through the speaker at a drive-through window. “A-WA-wa ba-ba-TA-ba dee-bee-bee-BA-ba”. You can hear them coming long before you can see what’s in the truck, so I always have to ask my neighbor if it’s the fruit guys or the guys who come by to pick up old car batteries. (Which, by the way, is somewhat of a mystery. The car battery guys seem to come through quite a lot considering that no one here has a car.)

I always go overboard on the fruit. The last time the pineapples were on special, four for a dollar. “What if I only want one?” I asked. “A dollar,” the man said.
“Let me get this straight. It’s four for a dollar, and if I only want one it’s still a dollar?”
“Yep.”
That week I ate four pineapples.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Drought

The change that has come over the landscape astounds me. When I arrived, the hills were lush and green. Now they are brown, brown, brown. Everything is brown except for the sky, which is bright blue, not a cloud in sight. In the dry season, this area is a veritable desert. At night it sometimes gets chilly, but by mid-day you could fry an egg on my zinc roof.

This has been a particularly bad year for dryness, but people tell me that the winters (rainy seasons) have been getting worse and worse (less rain) over time. Less rain means smaller harvests, less food, and less money. This year’s drought has meant that for the first time the Rio Viejo, which flows through my site, has gone completely dry in places. And that is bad news for the farmers who use the river for irrigation of their vegetable fields during the dry season.

When I ask people why they think the winters have been so bad, they say, “It’s because so many trees have been cut down,” they say. And in part that’s true. These hills were forested before the trees were removed to make fields for pasture and farmland. The trees by the banks of the river used to help keep the level of the river more constant. Without them both floods and droughts are worse. And yet people keep cutting down trees. Of course, there are larger forces at work – global warming, el Nino – but local climate change here has been profound.

People are certainly aware of the problem since the drought affects their livelihoods. And the solution, at least part of it, is obvious - don’t cut so many trees and start planting. But it doesn’t happen. What I wonder is, why not? What would it take? I’m working with high school students to make a tree nursery, but what is really required is a concerted reforestation effort on the part of every family in this town. I understand why people cut so many trees. When you’re cooking with wood, you pretty much have to. For that reason, I’m trying to start a solar oven project in my town. But I’m baffled as to why people aren’t more serious about replacing what they’ve cut.

Worldwide, water is a big deal, and getting bigger. Even conflicts such as the one in the Darfour region of Sudan are based in large part on scarce resources, e.g. water. In my area the local farmers argue with the people in the town upriver from ours; they are damming the river and restricting how much water comes into our area. As a result, in our town the river has vanished completely in spots. Where there is any small pool left, motorized pumps are sucking it dry. Everybody with a vegetable field has a straw in the river, or what is left of it.

The weather people are predicting that this year the rains won’t start in earnest until August, which if it comes to pass, would spell disaster for Nicaragua. The rains are supposed to start in mid-May; if they don’t come until three months later these farmers would lose another planting season. The experts say that it’s impossible to pin individual weather events on global warming. But one thing is certain: there are some areas that are more sensitive to changing weather patterns than others. I saw a map the other day in a copy of National Geographic showing the predicted changes in rainfall due to global warming. Northwestern Nicaragua was in one of the areas that can expect to see a fifty percent decrease in rainfall over the next 25 to 50 years. If this year is a harbinger of things to come, the outlook for northwestern Nicaragua is not good.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Own It

I am a big white alien baby. I’ve spent the last nine months trying to come to terms with this fact. I am the tallest woman anyone in my town has ever seen. I tower over almost every person here. My skin is paler than anyone else’s. I have strange habits – I eat greens, I go running, I wear glasses, and I read books for fun. I have more years of formal education than anyone else in the community, and yet I am singularly helpless when it comes to things like killing mice in my house, doing my laundry so that there are no stains on my clothes, cooking beans, making tortillas, and knowing the bus schedule by heart. But what can I do? I am a weirdo, and there is nothing that can change that. No matter how well-adapted I become, and no matter how good my Spanish gets, I will always be immediately identifiable as a gringa. In the most physical sense, I cannot hide.

Nor can I escape the obvious fact of my privilege as a person from the developed world. I have much more stuff than anyone else in my town – clothes, books, electronics, packaged foods, and all kinds of other things. It is easy for me to travel to this country and to work here legally, easy for my parents to come and visit me here, easy for me to travel around Nicaragua, easy for me to spend $20 without having to make sacrifices. When people see me, they see money. And even though I wouldn’t consider myself rich (especially now that I am earning a Nicaraguan salary), it is true that I have far more resources at my disposal than anyone else in my community.

Here’s what I’ve discovered: because it is impossible to hide, the best thing that I can do is to own up to who and what I am. My mistakes in Spanish, my freakish height, my relative wealth – I can’t pretend that any of these don’t exist. (And no one around me will let me forget it either.) The best I can do is be upfront and honest. I answer people’s questions when they ask them – what’s it like to fly in a plane, how much did those shoes cost, why do you have so many moles and where did they come from, etc. – I laugh at myself when I make a mistake, and I don’t try to pretend that I am anything I’m not.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Long Term Effects

Before you travel to a developing country, people will warn you, “Don’t drink the water.” It’s a good idea to try to follow that advice, since third-world water systems are notorious for harboring bacteria, viruses, and parasites. But in practice it’s nearly impossible to limit your exposure to zero. The longer I’ve been here, the more I am aware of all the ways I am being exposed – eating off of plates that have just been rinsed in the water, drinking juice in people’s homes, eating at restaurants, etc. – and the more comfortable I feel knowing that I am getting some small dose of whatever is in the water on pretty much a daily basis.

Still, I have been shocked more than once by hygiene practices that I consider appalling. The worst was in a public bathroom in a bus station in Jinotega City, where the toilets have to be flushed with a jug of water. Nothing gross so far, just the norm. To flush, you use a gallon milk jug with the top cut off to scoop the water out of a big metal barrel. Here’s the gross part: people then use the water from this same barrel to wash their hands – by dipping their hands into it and splashing them around for a second or two. Clearly, there is nothing sanitary about this system. The only thing it’s good for is mingling your poo germs with everyone else’s.

This brings me to a discovery I have made here, which is that in general, people’s grasp on germ theory is pretty weak. The idea that germs are what cause disease, that you can’t see them, that even if your hands feel clean they can still have germs on them, these concepts have not made it into the popular worldview. Among poor people, the general belief seems to be that water equals cleanliness. So after simply splashing their hands with water – even dirty water – people feel confident that their hands are clean. This explains why sometimes fruit vendors carry their fruits in bags filled with water, supposedly so that they will be ready to eat without the need for additional washing. It also explains why people feel comfortable washing their hands with water that another person (or people) has already used to wash their hands. And why people feel just fine washing both their clothing and themselves in rivers that cows and horses wade through.

But these are no longer the kinds of things I worry about, at least not for my own personal health. When I first arrived in my site seven months ago, the volunteer down the road came to visit me. At that time I was still preoccupied about the hygiene practices (or lack thereof) that I had seen, so I asked her if she’d gotten sick a lot during her time in Nicaragua. She said, “Well, I did at first, but now I have a cast iron stomach.” By now my stomach has gotten pretty strong too (though I wouldn’t want to jinx it by comparing it to cast iron).

Now instead of worrying about whether the last meal I ate will make me ill, I find myself worrying about the long-term health effects of living in a poor country. I have been making a list of all the toxins and carcinogens that I am exposed to here on a regular basis, likely in greater amounts than what I was exposed to in the US:

Aluminum – in cooking pans
Aflotoxin – from peanuts (look this one up if you haven’t heard of it. It’s kind of scary)
Burning plastic
Chlorine
Chloroquine – anti-malarial medicine, supposedly bad for the liver
Dust
Hydrogenated oils – in local baked goods, instead of the traditional rendered animal fat
Pesticides
The sun
Scratched non-stick pans
Occasional doses of antibiotics and anti-parasite meds
Wood smoke
Zinc – in cooking pans, etc.

So I wonder: is there any data on populations like Peace Corps Volunteers that shows the long-term health effects of spending two years in a less developed nation? Is sum total of everything I’m exposed to here any greater than my exposure in the US would have been? Is fresh food, fresh air, and abundant sleep enough to make up for all the bad stuff? And is two years enough to have any kind of lasting effect?

Clearly there are long-term effects of the kind of exposure that Nicaraguans are suffering – the life expectancy is lower here, there is a higher infant mortality rate, etc. But Peace Corps Volunteers have good access to quality medical care, were better nourished as children, and are only spending a couple of years in these conditions. Given the fact that we are already a special population – generally from well-off families, health conscious, well-educated – do a couple of years of exposure to the hazards of the third world in our young adulthood make long-term difference on our health? I would love to know.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Gift Economy

One of my favorite things about my town – and I imagine much of the Nicaraguan countryside is this way – is the way people give each other gifts. Whenever people have a bit extra of something, they give it away freely, especially food. My three closest neighbors (who are all part of my host family) have basically opened their kitchens to me. I eat all the beans and tortillas I want, and my neighbors won’t hear of taking payment from me. In addition to the staples, I receive baked goods whenever my neighbor Clara bakes, soup whenever my neighbor Marina kills a chicken, and now that it’s vegetable season I’ve been receiving little gifts of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, cabbages, and watermelon. Sometimes I get a couple of freshly laid eggs or a ball of salty farmer’s cheese, all as regalos - gifts.

My one source of anxiety when it comes to this system is that I am not exactly sure how the accounts are kept. I receive so much, and I don’t know how much I am expected to give in return. At the very least people are not generally afraid to ask for things they know I have. It’s not uncommon at all – nor is it considered rude, unless you do it a lot - for people to say, “regáleme un poquito de eso” – give me a little bit of that. I keep certain spices in my kitchen that my neighbor Marina often comes to borrow. But still, I am not sure if I am holding up my end of the bargain, and people’s reluctance to accept money is part of a larger aversion to talking directly about what is owed. I’m sure I’m getting it wrong a lot of the time.

My gifts tend to be different, as well, from what my farming neighbors give to me. I give things like printed photos of their kids that I’ve taken with my digital camera, or pieces of chocolate that my parents have sent me, or once some glue traps for mice that Marina asked me for. She was going to pay me, but I insisted that they be a gift. Come to think of it, I have in some sense adopted the ways of my Nicaraguan neighbors when it comes to gifts. Marina asks me for a favor – can I pick up a mouse trap next time I’m at the supermarket in Esteli? – and then when I come back with it she asks how much she owes me. “Nada,” I say, “es un regalo.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The War on Dust

I live in a part of Jinotega (one of Nicaragua’s departments (like states)) that is known as “the dry zone”. And let me say that the dry season in the dry zone is, well, dry. Every day we have bright blue skies with nary a cloud in sight. It’s still chilly after the sun goes down, but once it pops up above the hills, the heat is immediately intense, starting at 7 in the morning.

Dry season is great for doing laundry, since it takes about 30 minutes for my clothes to go from soaking wet to bone dry. But where the hills were once a lush green, they are now brown. The cows and chickens have nothing to eat. Milk is scarce, so there’s no cheese and no baked goods either. My garden has shriveled into a ratty mess of sad-looking plants barely clinging to life under a shroud of dust.

The river has become a narrow trickle. The other day I saw a group of farmers using plastic cups to scoop out the silty dregs of what was once the town swimming hole, where during the rainy season the water was so deep I couldn’t stand. It is especially bad this year, people say, since Nicaragua is in the midst of a bad drought. During the second half of last year’s rainy season only four good rains fell, where people are accustomed to daily soakings for a straight month and a half.

To make matters worse, there is a road project on the highway I live on. A road crew is set to come through and pave (by hand, with cement tiles) around the end of the dry season. That will be helpful when it’s finished, but for now it just means that trucks come through constantly and kick up huge dust storms. I am fighting a personal war on dust and losing horribly. Everything in my house is covered, no matter how many times I wipe it down. If I leave for more than a day, you can practically measure the accumulation on my table and chairs with a ruler. I sweep out my house daily, have a huge sneeze fest, and then by the time what I’ve stirred up settles back down it’s like I never swept at all. When I shake out my sheets at night to look for scorpions, even my bed smells like dust.

The war on dust is like the war on terror or the war on drugs. It’s long and protracted and it cannot be won definitively. All I can do is hope for mud.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How to Be Healthy

When I go on visits to people in my community, a very popular topic of conversation is the fact that I run in the mornings. Running – or really doing any kind of deliberate exercise – is a very gringo thing to do, and as such is something of a curiosity in my town. People ask a lot of questions. I love it because their questions teach me a lot about local beliefs, and answering them challenges me to be clear about what exactly it is that I believe.

For example, many Nicaraguans have beliefs about hot and cold and being careful not to mix them. When I get back from a run I am warned not to drink water or take a shower right away, as the effect of cool water on my warm body will “hacer dano” – do me harm. (I’m still not sure what kind of harm exactly.) This same warning, I’ve learned, applies to men who are working out in the fields. These guys will often spend the whole day out in the sun without drinking any water. Sometimes, men that I pass on the road while I’m running will say things like, “You’re going to dehydrate yourself” or “You’re going to get tired” in addition to the usual piropos – “ay, que linda”, “mi amor”, etc. These comments always struck me as being kind of strange since getting tired is kind of the point when you’re out running, but when you realize that it’s not customary to drink water after physical activity, it makes more sense that these guys would say such things. Going out and working up a sweat could actually be kind of dangerous.

Recently, one of the community members that I work with asked me, “What is this running for? Is it to lose weight or to gain weight?”
“Well,” I said, “I guess if you’re fat you would lose weight, but if you’re skinny you might gain weight. It’s not really for either one. It’s more to keep your heart healthy.”
“And how does it do that?” he asked. “Why is it better than walking like we’re doing now?” We were on our way to a community meeting.
“Walking is good too,” I explained, “but running makes your heart beat harder, and that’s good for it.”
He seemed satisfied with my explanation, more satisfied than I was. It was actually difficult for me to come up with reasons for why I hold what is for me a very basic belief - that vigorous cardio-vascular exercise is good for me.

My host family also loves to talk about my running. My host mom, Ester, often asks me how far I’ve gone, or makes fun of me for the fact that I come back red-faced and sweaty. Though she does not exercise herself, Ester at least seems to hold the belief that exercise is good for you. It seems that some of the more overweight women in this town have been advised by the doctor at the health post to walk for at least 30 minutes a day in order to burn off some excess fat. “They’re lazy, though. They don’t do it,” Ester tells me. “I try to teach my students” – she is a teacher at the school – “that it’s good to exercise. I tell them to run with their mouths closed.” I’m not sure why this is so important, but Ester brings it up every time we talk about running. Anyway, at least we are in general agreement about the benefits of exercise.
“No, Laurie, people here don’t take very good care of themselves,” she says. I nod along. We’ve had this conversation many times. “It’s the same with women who have given birth. They’re lazy. The ones that really take care of themselves don’t drink water for 40 days.”
What? Now this is new information. “Excuse me, they don’t drink water for 40 days?”
“No,” Ester informs me. “Only pinol [a hot drink made from ground corn] and pinolillo [the same thing but with cocoa]. And they don’t eat beans or eggs. Only tortillas and roasted chicken.”
Really? “Really?”
“Yep, and they wrap a towel around their heads and they don’t get out of bed for 40 days. And if they have any pain in their vientre [uterus] they drink guaro[liquor].”
Okay, now really I have no idea what to say, since this conversation about taking care of oneself by exercising has now changed into something else entirely. “That’s interesting,” I say,” because doctors in the US say pretty much the opposite – that women should drink milk and water and definitely not drink liquor and that they should eat a varied diet with all the normal things in it.”
“Oh, the doctors here say that too, but we know that the old ways protect the women. The lazy ones go ahead and eat everything, but the ones that really want to take care of themselves, they do it the traditional way.”

It is easy to think that these beliefs are flat out wrong, and that part of my job is to debunk what to me are myths that are keeping people less healthy than they could be. But when I’m sitting at a woman’s kitchen table talking to her, how can I launch into a lecture about how her deepest beliefs about her health are wrong? That just seems rude and uncalled for, not to mention ineffective. Besides, I am interested in where these beliefs come from. I wonder if they may have at one time had a protective effect on a population that didn’t have easy access to clean water or sufficient calories. So I continue to do what I have learned to do here, which is to live the way I think is healthy, to talk about it when I’m asked, to listen when people talk about their own beliefs about health, and to keep off my soapbox as much as possible.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Join the Peace Corps

Every Peace Corps blogger has to at some point give an endorsement of the experience. I’ve been waiting to give mine until I had finished the parts people say are most difficult – training and the first three months in site. Well, I am six months in site now, almost seven, and I can honestly say that I highly, highly recommend this experience. If you are reading this and thinking about applying, or if you’ve applied and are deciding whether to actually do it, here is my advice to you: DO IT. Especially if you are a bit older, as in older than 22. At 28 I am the oldest volunteer in my group who is not a retiree. But I actually think that the 4 or 5 years I have on most of my colleagues make a difference in a good way.

I think I’ve said before in this blog that I view this whole experience as a sort of extended meditation. It is a meditation in the sense that I simply cannot escape myself, and so I am forced to deal with what I am finding out about myself (mostly good, but not all). Also, the task of trying to help people is profoundly spiritual in that it causes you to constantly question everything you thought was true. Any time I think it is important for someone else to change their behavior – whether it be to start eating more vegetables, to grow a garden, or to wash their hands more thoroughly – I have to ask myself, “Why do I think this is important? Does this other person think this is important? If not, why not?” I have learned to really resist the urge to lecture, or to be the annoying gringa who’s always saying, “You know, in the United States we do this better.”

Apart from being a great spiritual challenge the Peace Corps has been great for my writing. In between gently coaxing people into working with me – basically drinking lots of sweet coffee and sugary fruit-based beverages in people’s homes – I have plenty of time to work on my novel. (Yes, I am writing a novel.) I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I do want to give a little sampling. The whole thing came out of the question, “What would it take for things in the suburban US to work the way they work here in Nicaragua?” From there I invented an adventure story based on a family that has been separated.

Outside, Steve heard a noise. A pickup truck was driving slowly past the house. A man with a megaphone sat in the truck bed hawking wares. “Batteries! Electronics! We have walkmans, we have solar panels! We have blenders, toasters, radios!” Some of the neighbors had come out to take a look. The truck pulled to a stop in front of the next door neighbors’ house.
“Hey, Judy, do we need anything from the electronics truck?” Steve asked.
“No, nothing I can think of.”
Steve decided to check out the merchandise anyway. He knew the family that ran this particular business. The man with the megaphone was the son of the man driving the truck. The driver was a tinkerer who had spent his whole life collecting broken appliances and parts, thinking that one day they would come in handy. Finally, they had.

Outside, a small crowd of neighbors had gathered to look at the goods. The back of the truck looked like a junkyard. Toasters were piled up in one corner, blenders and food processors in another. The metal railings around the truck bed were lined with wires and cables and cords of all description. There were old television sets and laptop computers. Anything you could imagine, as long as it had a plug. Steve felt nostalgic looking at all of these appliances and electronics. Some of the toasters must be at least 30 years old. Even the older laptops looked like antiques. The sheer abundance of the stuff reminded him of a time when people plugged in whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to and didn’t think twice about it.


Like I said, just a taste. And if anyone reading this knows anything about book publishing, give me a holler.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hermosa

Last night I took my first salsa class in a year – that’s right, people, a year. It was incredible. And not only was it a great class, it was a Cuban-style class. And since I didn’t have a partner, I got to dance with the teacher. Amazing.

The classes are held in the posh Vivian Pellas gym, which is owned by the richest woman in Nicaragua. As far as I can tell, these classes constitute the entirety of the salsa scene in Nicaragua, since I saw everyone that I met the one time I successfully went out salsa dancing in Managua.

I was on a total high after the class, until a guy I had met dancing those several months ago came up to me and said, “Are you looking a bit more ‘hermosa’ than the last time I saw you?” ‘Hermosa’ translates literally as ‘gorgeous or lovely’, but in Nicaragua it means something like ‘big and beautiful. Ergo, “more ‘hermosa’” basically means “fatter”.

So I said, “Hey, I’ve been in this country for a while now, and I know a thing or two. I know what hermosa is. You mean I got more gordita.”
And he said, “No, I didn’t say that. I said hermosa.”

Sadly, this guy is no the first person to tell me that I’m looking a bit more big and beautiful these days, even though as far as I can tell I haven’t changed since I got here. I think it may be some kind of compliment. But to my gringo mind, fatter is definitely not more beautiful. “Más hermosa” seems like a pretty backhanded compliment to me. But then again, maybe it is my perspective that is messed up. Maybe I should be embracing the fact that in Nicaragua women are considered more attractive with a little more junk in the trunk. Maybe instead of trying to cut back on carbs (as if there were anything else to eat) I can just roll with it. More beautiful. I can live with that.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Haikus

While my brother was visiting me we got in the habit of writing haikus about the little quirks of Nicaraguan life, basically taking verbal snapshots. Here is a sampling:

Bomb blast? Guns shooting?
No, just kids with fire-crackers
Loud noise equals joy (1)

If he doesn’t know
He’ll still tell you where to go
“Siga más recto” (2)

Asleep in the street
You have been drinking guaro
Where is your left shoe? (3)

Don’t get on that bus!
Everyone has a chicken
You don’t want bird flu (4)

Chicken on a plane
Hope you’re not afraid to fly
Buckle up, chicken (5)

What is this music?
Reminds me of the eighties
That’s the clásicos (6)

Once these socks were white
But washed on a cement slab
All my socks turn grey (7)

1. People here associate loud noise with joy. It doesn’t matter if the noise is pleasant – as in the case of nice music – or annoying – as with the cheap fire-crackers that every kid seems to have a stash of. It’s all considered joyful. It’s surprising to me that in a country that has known civil war the sound of a bomb connotes joy. But that’s how it is.

2. As a general rule, Nicaraguans are very friendly and helpful. Which is great, except when they don’t know the answer to the question you’re asking. This haiku was inspired by the experience my family had trying to find the Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake near the city of Granada. We took a wrong turn and ended up on the worst road any of us had ever seen. You know how it is when you’ve gone the wrong way, though. After a certain point it seems like a better idea to keep going than to turn around. At any rate, every time we saw anyone walking or driving a donkey cart or riding a horse we would ask them if they knew how to get to the lake. Without fail, every person said, “Oh, you’re not too far. Siga más recto.” [Keep going straight.] Which we did, and eventually we got there. But it was definitely the long way.

3. Some people (including the author of the Moon guidebook) consider Nicaragua to be the Wild West of Central America. An unfortunate similarity to the Old West is that many Nicaraguans, especially men, are a bit too fond of the sauce. In some communities (not mine, thankfully) Sunday is the day to get drunk on guaro, aka moonshine. By Sunday evening, guys are passed out all over the place.

4. Riding the local buses is a colorful experience, in more ways than one. First of all, the buses are literally colorful. The collectives that run them – usually a groups of brothers or cousins – manage to turn old Blue Bird school buses from the States into traveling works of art, most often featuring religious iconography and/or celebrities. While he was here my brother Joe took a picture of a bus with huge, side-by-side pictures of Jesus and John Claude Van Damme in the front windows. Also, people transport all kinds of things on the buses – furniture, fruits and vegetables, and small animals. The latter has led some people to call these buses “chicken buses”.

5. Related to (4) and inspired by Joe’s trip to the Atlantic Coast. While he was waiting for his plane, we saw a passenger whose carry-on was a tied up sack. He put the sack down, and it started to move. Then it started to cluck.

6. Many Nicaraguans unabashedly love American 80s music. Even my too-cool-for-school host brother regularly watches Bon Jovi and Michael Jackson music videos. Based on my travel experience, I think people almost everywhere in the world (including France) love 80s music, except in the US (where people secretly love it but are embarrassed to admit it). The English music radio stations here play exclusively 80s music, which they call “los clásicos”.

7. This one is self-explanatory.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hospitals

Before leaving for Nicaragua, I predicted that I would visit a hospital at least once during my two-year tour. In the past two weeks* that prediction has come true – twice. Don’t worry, I’m okay.

The first time was on New Year’s Eve day. My whole family was in town visiting me for the holidays (which is why I haven’t written in so long), and I had planned a weeklong get-to-know-Nicaragua-fest for their benefit. Our trip ended in San Juan del Sur, the most popular Nicaraguan beach town, known for its spectacular surfing opportunities. I’m not sure what part of my brain had shut down that day to make it seem like a good idea to take my whole family out for a surfing lesson. But that’s what we did. Our instructor was a hottie teenage Nica surfing champion, but alas, his teaching skills were not as impressive as the many scars adorning his scalp – all surfing injuries.

After a brief beach lesson on how to stand up on the board, we were out in the water. The surf was kind of rough that day, but our instructor didn’t think it was a big deal. I was still getting the hang of holding onto my board when a wave would come by when the instructor started sending us out in turns. He would wait for a wave to come then push us out to paddle and try to catch it. My first one, I didn’t stand up on the surf board, but I did ride the wave. “Okay,” I thought, “I can get the hang of this.” I waited and watched my family members for a minute, and then headed back towards the instructor, expecting that he would wait for me to come and take my turn again.

Well, I didn’t get a second turn. As I was swimming out a big wave came. I held on to the leash of my surf board and went under the water just like I’d been taught. But when I came up, I felt something hit my head. I heard my brother, Joe, say, “Hey, Laurie, did you see that? I almost stood up on that one.” And then suddenly the instructor was next to me freaking out, pressing his hand to my forehead, and saying, “Don’t worry. It looks like it will only be two stitches.” And that’s how I ended up in the hospital the first time. Not five minutes in the water and I got whacked in the head by my brother’s surf board. Luckily, the emergency room got me in right away. I was even able to go out for New Year’s sporting three stitches covered by a band-aid right below my hairline.

My second trip to the hospital occurred yesterday. My brother – who is still staying with me – woke up feeling sick and spent the morning revisiting our dinner. When he didn’t feel better by mid-day, I started to get worried. I live two hours from any medical attention besides a small medical post (not open on Sundays), and I have spent the last six months wondering what would happen if I were to get really sick at my site. Now, thanks to my brother, I know. I gave him an anti-nauseate that didn’t seem to do much, and we boarded the bus. A bumpy two hours later, we were at the public hospital in Esteli.

The good thing about the public hospital is that it’s free. The bad thing about it is – well – almost everything else. The ER was clearly overwhelmed. While my brother tossed and turned on a bed that had clearly not been made up just for him, I tried to avoid asphyxiation from the competing odors – of food on a tray that had been sitting there for who knows how long, of hospital cleaning agents, of stale urine – that surrounded me. Finally, a nurse gave Joe a shot to stop the nausea. Once he could stand and walk around and not feel like he was going to lose his lunch, we were sent to the lab for tests.

At the lab, a little girl of about three years old was sitting behind the counter playing with lab test sheets. It soon became clear that there was only one person working at the lab presumably the little girl’s mother. This woman was responsible for all functions of the lab – giving out sample cups, receiving samples, drawing blood, and examining the samples. Given that it was just her and her three-year-old, she was actually quite efficient. After emerging with a handful of results from previous patients, she handed my brother a Gerber baby food jar and instructed him to produce a sample. Which he did, equipped with a headlamp in a bathroom with no working light and no toilet paper. Thirty minutes later we had handwritten results to bring back to the doctor. She saw us immediately, wrote out a prescription for antibiotics, and sent us on our way.

Overall, although the conditions were certainly not up to the standard of an American hospital, I must say that the experience was not as bad as it could have been. The whole thing took only four hours even though the emergency room was full of people clearly in worse shape than my brother – a guy who had been kicked by a horse, for one – and we did not pay a single córdoba for the injection, the lab exam, or the doctor’s time. We wouldn’t have even had to pay for the antibiotics if the hospital pharmacy had had them (they were out). Based on my limited experience, my assessment of Nicaragua’s medical system is that it is comprised of competent people working with very limited resources.

Okay, so not as bad as it could have been, but still not an experience I hope to repeat. Here’s to good health in 2010!


*Apologies for having taken so long to write anything. I wrote this post about two weeks ago but the internet was down when I went to post it.