Tuesday, March 27, 2012

el nacatamal, por fin

A photo post, as I am short on time. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I promised an update today but my camera has decided to run out of batteries at the internet cafe... foiled!

Stay tuned this weekend for photos and the recipe for some pretty baller nacatamales. (Secret ingredient for added extra deliciousness? Lard, of course!)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Things I am still too proud to admit...

The amount of time it took for me to realize that the cobrador isn't shouting allez! to the bus driver as a signal to go.

Da le. Da le. Oh, the world suddenly makes so much more sense.

...Somewhere, I will always be that kid writing the French days of the week on their Spanish quiz, happily oblivious to the fact that it doesn't look quite right.

(New Year's Resolution: Rehabilitate this blog. Perhaps... two posts every six months?)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

bank adventures (written June 16)

Last week I went to the bank.

It’s not the first time I’ve been to the bank, of course, but usually I only go to the ATM outside; surprisingly, I don’t care to stand in the long Saturday morning lines of people waiting to cash in their paycheck. But last week I wasn’t taking the equivalent of a few dollars out of my own tiny account: we were withdrawing a significant amount of the USAID funds we had received to finish the community-based birthing center we started planning last August. More money, more problems, and less chance that the ATM would have what we needed; my counterpart and I decided to stand in line inside the bank and wait for a teller.

Going to the bank here is different than going to a bank in the States. In some ways it’s the same—air conditioning, a blue water bubbler with plastic cups, potted plants which look too shiny to have anything resembling real chlorophyll, the peculiar inky smell of paper bills—but in the US I’ve never been patted down before being allowed entrance to my local bank, nor have two security guards armed with semi-automatics looked through my purse to make sure I’m not carrying anything untoward. (The stack of condom-promotion pamphlets left over from an HIV prevention campaign raised eyebrows, but fortunately didn’t prove to be sufficient cause to keep me out.)

Once inside, we joined the line. Standing patiently in line is something which I have learned to do very well over the years, and which is a completely useless skill here. But inside the white walls of the bank, within the view of the guards, the line was quiet, clearly defined—and absolutely stationary. All three windows were open: at one, a woman was arguing with three bank employees; at another, a mustachioed man and the teller gravely passed bits of paper back and forth through the small hole in the glass between them, each signing and re-signing on the proper lines; at the last, a man in a pink Oxford waited as the teller stacked up bundles of twenty dollar bills to be counted. None of the three customers appeared to be in any hurry to move along. My counterpart fidgeted.

“Get in the other line,” she hissed. The other line had two other people in it instead of thirteen, and was clearly marked with two separate signs as the line for senior citizens and pregnant women only.

Afraid of losing the spot I had when we were inevitably kicked out of the special line, I refused. She went to stand in it anyway, motioning for me to join her every time I looked over.

Busy ignoring her, I nearly missed my cell phone ringing—a friend trying to confirm the details for a class she was arranging to give.

“Hold on,” I said, digging for my agenda; someone tapped my elbow.

“Cell phones off,” one of the guards informed me, frowning. I looked at my planner, looked at the gun hanging off his back, and meekly hung up the phone. The line moved forward—not because more people were being seen by the tellers, but because everyone waiting had pressed together more closely, giving the illusion of movement.

My counterpart had reached the front of the other line. “Get over here!” she said, and over I got—to be faced with a confused teller who looked at me suspiciously and asked if I had authorization to be in the line.


“Authorization,” she repeated. “To be in this line.”

“Er...” I turned to my counterpart, since she had gotten me into the situation to begin with, but she had disappeared—I barely caught a glimpse of her shirt as she ducked outside to take a call herself. Without a native speaker to vouch for me, I put on my best little-lost-foreigner expression, and managed to negotiate until the teller agreed that I could do one transaction in her line.

I handed over my ID card, and immediately ran into another problem. I needed my passport—which I didn’t have, since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not yet finished processing my new visa. The only thing I had to hand was copies of all my documentation, which had been acceptable to immigration officials all three times I had been stopped on the roads.

This, according to the teller’s expression, was unacceptable.

“But I’ve never needed my passport at the bank before,” I protested. “My passport number is even on my ID, look!” She frowned, and went to confer with her supervisor, leaving me with the line backing up behind me, everyone in the bank staring at me, the weird foreigner who didn’t understand she was in the wrong line. My counterpart returned, and demanded to know what was happening. I explained. She laughed, scolded me for not having my passport, and went to sit down to wait.

Eventually, the teller returned. The ID had checked out. We proceeded onward.

I slid the paper with the total amount through the window. “Can I get some of that in smaller bills?” I asked. “Not very much, just a little bit of it.”

Of course I could, she said, and sent someone else to the back with a sheet of paper with the amount needed while we took care of the paperwork. She handed me the receipt to sign. Once I’d written my name and signature, she held it up to the computer screen and frowned.

“This isn’t your signature.”

What do you mean, it’s not my signature, I thought. I’m standing right here signing the paper, aren’t I?

After a struggle, the truth came out: “My signature has to be exactly the way I signed it in your files?”

Of course it did. I took the new receipt she handed me, thought about how I had probably, maybe, signed my name a year and a half ago on the initial form: jetlagged, exhausted, and signing sixteen different forms in a language I didn’t understand in order to start my new life in a new country. I took a breath, channeled my frustration, and scribbled something which must have checked out, because she didn’t say anything about the new signature.

Honestly, I thought, all of this jumping through hoops had better be worth it, and as I thought that, the bank employee who had gone through the back returned with an armful of cash, which the teller began to count.

Fifty thousand of anything is a lot, whether it’s córdobas or dollar bills or Tic-Tacs. Fifty thousand córdobas, all in small bills, is a multicolored nightmare. Finally, when it was counted and stacked neatly in front of me, the teller smiled, told me to have a nice day, and handed me a paper bag to put it all in. My counterpart was in absolute stitches beside me. Somehow, I managed a smile in return, the money heavy in my hand in its conspicuous paper bag, and walked out the door to hail a taxi, hoping desperately no one would put two and two together and pick me as an easy mugging target.

We got the money to the people it needed to go to—and had another laugh about it when the cashier said she’d needed small change anyway—and now we have a fence going up with a small roofed area for an outdoor woodstove. It will be worth the trouble, in the end, when we open the center with all the fanfare it deserves; in the end the story will become just another in the repertoire I’m accumulating here.

But even so, when I went back later to get the money we needed to pay for the mattresses we’d ordered, I used the ATM.

Friday, April 29, 2011

and to dust

(Written March 27th)

If you live in a town smaller than most US high schools, everything -- and I mean everything -- becomes a big deal. Rubbernecker syndrome runs rampant. Maintaining any sort of privacy in a community where everyone is related three different ways and knows every person in a 20+ kilometer radius by name, face, and latest rumor is little more than a pleasant fantasy. Pueblo pequeño, incendio grande, so the saying goes, and whether it’s a scandal or a stranger walking through town, it helps to accept that the fishbowl isn’t ever going to go away, as much as it might make life easier if your neighbors weren’t discussing how often you do your laundry or where you go when you leave your house.

But there are ways in which such a tight-knit community shines. This week I had yet another meeting interrupted and indefinitely postponed by a funeral, which made me angry, and then pensive.

Funerals here start, for all intents and purposes, the moment someone passes away. Family, friends, and neighbors come from wherever they are in whatever transportation they can find as soon as the coconut grapevine kicks into overdrive with the news. The body is laid out in humble state, wrapped in white. The house (or wherever the vigil -- the vela -- is held; we’ve had one in the health center before) is strewn with flowers. At least sixty women are crammed into the tiny, smoky kitchen making coffee and washing cups; more bring thermoses or food to pass around, their voices hushed. Candles are lit; men drag out ladders and argue about how to string more bare light bulbs outside. Someone finds the key to the town office and sets up an open tent with plastic chairs underneath, so that people can sit outside to sip their coffee after they pay their respects. The Catholic pastor and the evangelical preacher both come to lead prayers and hymns over the body. People hold hands. They hug. They talk, or they sit in silence. Kids run around, somehow always underfoot.

Eventually most people return to their own homes, their beds, but the vigil is all night: always, someone accompanies the body, sits with the dear one so that they will not be alone in death.

The following afternoon -- after picking more flowers to festoon the simple coffin and the truck which will carry it, after digging the hole in the cemetery next to relatives already passed on --there is Mass, or a simple celebration with music and prayer in the church if no priest can make the journey out. Many people will attend; more still will arrive to sit and wait patiently in the shade, buying soda and homemade popsicles and complaining about the heat while the ragged hymns rise up on the parched air. The final words said, everyone moves slowly outside, chatting and laughing while the driver of the truck is found, while the nearest family members gather to follow behind as it moves slowly up the road. Everyone else falls in after, strung out along the short distance, ambling in a boisterous parade: accompanying the body once again, to the grave itself.

More prayer follows -- and more flashes from cell phones and cameras alike -- and it is only after the first dirt is thrown into the grave that the crowd turns and makes its way back to town, leaving a few men to finish the work and plant a simple wooden cross over the grave, perhaps painted light green or a violently neon shade of pink, a name and date painstakingly handwritten in large, wobbly letters on its face. Even then the remembrance is not yet over; nine days after the burial comes the novena, a celebration of life and death and the life after. Family members walk out to the cemetery often, to visit and lay flowers, to make sure the cross has not gone crooked and the grave is swept clean of debris.

So yes, to tell the truth, I was peeved when a meeting we had been planning for a month fell through after an unexpected death -- an older man from an outlying community, by all accounts beloved (perhaps too well-loved by the ladies, if one listens to the gossip), someone I had never met. But I think, if there is a good way to leave this world, this might be one of the best: surrounded by family, by friendly hearts and wagging tongues, conducted and accompanied toward whatever might lie beyond; that final lonely journey made, perhaps, not quite so lonely after all.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


There is a bird here with a mango-orange belly and a brighter back; it perches quietly for the most part, its more somber colored wings thrown over the raucous color like a black coat covering a party dress, until it’s startled into flight, throwing off caution and the coat alike to wing away with an alarmed chrr-chrr-chrr to warn its friends. I disturbed a flock of them this morning, stood for a moment while they flew chattering away: they were annoyed at the surprise, and didn’t hesitate to let me know it.

It disorients me whenever this happens, whenever they rise up out of the gray-brown scrub beside me: my first thought is, inevitably, orioles! -- though we’re several degrees of latitude too far south for them -- followed quickly by the thought, the sense, of spring.

Spring is of course far from us here. We are in the height of summer, the months when everything is dry and crackling underfoot. Even when we passed through what could be considered springtime, it never truly felt like spring: the wind here never has that damp smell of living growing things running riot after a long winter sleep. There is something visceral about that smell, the particular scent of dark earth warming the frozen seeds within it, some ancient instinct tied deep down to silently announce yes, yes, spring: light and life and newness, and seeing my fake orioles jars that instinct uncomfortably in the half-second it takes me to remember where I am.

Spring will be coming soon to the States, ice melting slowly away through rain and the steadily tilting earth; the dirty mountains of snow in parking lots will gradually give way to tulips and road repairs, wood smoke subsumed by the tang of new asphalt, the smell of it hot in the back of your throat. I hear the cherry blossoms are out in Washington DC already. By Easter, perhaps, the lilacs at home will be in full bloom, every garden an eager chaos of bulbs and weeds exploding from the ground, desperate for space and sun, while the peonies dip their heavy heads down to earth for the ants to shelter in. Robins will lead the orioles north before the goldfinches arrive to gossip and scold en masse at the feeders.

We will keep our own coat on a little longer, here, quiet and moving slow beneath the sun -- the heat stronger every day. There is no snow to melt except for what I have in a little can marked INSTANT SNOW (for the purpose of decorating Christmas village miniatures,) but the rain will fall on us too, eventually, slowly turning the whole country greener, the jungles deeper -- a dangerous sort of green, a green I’ve never seen in the north: too thick and wet to be fully trusted. We’ll have corn again, and wobbling foals, and colors dripping everywhere from the flowers tucked away in unexpected places.

And my mango-bellied bird, who is not an oriole, will still be waiting quietly in the bushes, ready to fly up and tip me off-balance from the sudden shock of orange streaking out into the sky.

Friday, February 18, 2011

a valentine, of sorts

The sun is strong today, though it’s not quite as warm as it has been, and we bring a grand umbrella, large and bright pink and decorated with flowers, to shield ourselves from the worst of it. Being the tallest by a foot or more, I’m more likely to get poked in the neck than protected from the sun, at least until it’s my turn for shade duty -- holding the umbrella becomes a communal job, as no one really wants to do it.

It is Saint Valentine’s Day, and we are going to the rodeo.

We are on time -- that is, half an hour late, and just in time to see the aftermath of an escape, one lively bull breaking through the makeshift wooden barrier and running for the hills, everyone screaming with delight at the unexpected sideshow as men who have spent all day polishing their boots go running through the dust after it, waving their broad-brimmed hats as if that will stop the bull in its tracks and bring it meekly back.

The spectacle takes the better part of an hour to resolve itself: enough time for a good gossip about who likes who; which boys have said they’re going to the dance later; who has red nail polish to finish painting the flowers on our nails, since Janeth’s ran out; and to buy a few enchiladas from María, hot and greasy and perfect.

“Foto! Un foto!” The older girls have discovered the huge and magical world of Facebook, and now that they’ve all made accounts they need pictures for their profile: good pictures, they say; I am not allowed to put anything embarrassing up. A straw hat makes the rounds: the resulting pictures are declared absolutely forbidden from appearing anywhere online. The younger kids just want to take pictures of everything: themselves, each other, the bulls, the sky, everything slightly out of focus, blurry, with strange, inexplicable angles that might make good Art if anyone could figure out what the pictures are of.

This is cowboy country, the Wild West of Nicaragua, and on days like this, where the sun beats down and dries the earth to an unforgiving red-brown, it’s easy to get caught up in the feel of the place, to imagine that the Man with No Name might come striding into town at any moment, a pistol on each hip. It’s all scrub brush here, cactus and pine, the houses slung low to the earth, red-roofed, their crazy porches running wide where women sit you down for conversation and coffee boiled over a fire with milk from their own cows. The men walk with bowed legs from too many days of riding horses, the worn spurs on their heels clicking on every step. Their boots are dusty, their shirts unbuttoned at the top from the heat. Hard work, a lifetime of it, shows on everyone’s face: they are burned bronze-brown from the sun, the lines deep around the corners of their lips and eyes from laughter and from hardship -- memories are long, and the war was not so very many years ago. Here there is a man who lost an eye to a bullet; there someone missing a leg or an arm; there someone whose brother fought or was killed or simply disappeared.

But today, no one is thinking of that: today is for amor, for amistad, for competing to see who can yell the loudest for the hometown boys: so young, so intoxicated with life and themselves and the bull moving underneath them until they fall, scrambling away from the heavy hooves while the handlers move in with lassos, everyone heckling everyone else and laughing.

We heckle along with them, giving everyone fair play: the riders, the handlers, even ourselves, joyful spectators. We scream at the bulls when they kick too close, or when they come out and simply stand in place, dark tongues lolling and their eyes rolling at anyone who tries to make them move. Marcelo is standing next to me, filming with his own camera, narrating for posterity:

“Next is Josue, Josue on Coqueto, here we go -- here they come, Josue and Coqueto!”

But it is only Coqueto in the ring; Josue has been left behind while Coqueto does his best to kick down a wall and escape and Marcelo cracks jokes about the rider and this coquette of a bull that after a year here I still only half-understand.

The shadows grow slowly longer, the crowd more restless on the rough wooden stands. Marcelo has packed up his camera and moved on, and finally it is the last rider, the last bull, and everyone is trickling out of the field back down the road to town. There are no winners today, no losers, only the same sturdy men clicking their tongues to their tired horses, separating their cows expertly from the rest and herding them away.

Later, there will be a fiesta, regatón and bachata echoing off the dark sides of these hills which are never fully silent, the bass writing over the sounds of the wind swishing through the pines, the nightly conversation between the dogs and roosters. There will be music, Black Eyed Peas mixed with Shakira, with Luis Enrique and Dimensión Costeña and Aventura; there will be food and dancing and moonshine of all varieties, and in the morning everyone will get up before the sun climbs up the mountains to peer down on our valley, and go back to work. But for now, we are riding back to town, to the tight cluster of houses and families that is our home, dust in our hair and our mouths as everyone talks at once, and men on horseback lift their hats as we go by.