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.