Monday, March 22, 2010


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
Chloroquine – anti-malarial medicine, supposedly bad for the liver
Hydrogenated oils – in local baked goods, instead of the traditional rendered animal fat
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, “reg├íleme 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.