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.