Hayden Abroad

Dispatches from Somewhere in the World

Friday, June 29, 2007

Photos from Nicaragua!

Here is my final slideshow of pictures from Nicaragua:
The Best of Nicaragua

Friday, June 22, 2007

Books I've Read in Nicaragua

In English:

1. W. Somerset Maugham -- Of Human Bondage

2. John Steinbeck -- The Grapes of Wrath
3. Edmund Morris -- Theodore Rex
4. Tracey Kidder -- House
5. Alan Patton -- Cry, the Beloved Country
6. Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr. -- Central America: A Nation Divided
7. Truman Capote -- In Cold Blood
8. Gioconda Belli -- The Country Under My Skin
9. Ann Patchett -- Bel Canto

In Spanish:

1. Pilar Molina Llorente -- Ut Y Las Estrellas

2. Paulo Coehlo -- El Alquimista
3. Paulo Coehlo -- Veronika Decide Morir

Thursday, June 21, 2007

For Now, The End of Traveling

Sometimes when I explain to people my plan -- to spend the first two years out of college traveling and volunteering at organizations in developing countries -- people have told me that this is a good idea because then ¨I´ll get it out of my system.¨ Comments like these always make me smile because they allow me to see just how poorly the speaker understands me. My desire to work and study abroad comes from a deeper, life-long yearning to understand and know the world we live in.

But there is a time for everything. And on the eve of my departure, I feel that I am ready to return home for a while. I´m looking forward to studying again in Chicago this fall because I think my course will eventually give me the tools I need to understand the world in a deeper way and one day make a larger impact.

More fundamentally, I know well that traveling is not forever. The genius of it is in coming to a foreign place and seeing it with widely opened eyes. These moments of exploration have such magic in them, a magic that is beautiful because it is fleeting. We are all transitory creatures in this world, but we feel our transitory nature more viscerally in encounters like these. After spending the majority of the past four years doing just this, I am ready to take a break. For a variety of reasons, I feel a bit tired of traveling at the moment, having done much of what I wanted to do here, and am looking forward to being still for a while at home.

The truth is that we will not be given an unlimited amount of moments like this. There are only so many times that you can play frisbee in a park in Benin or fly kites on a rooftop in India with large groups of exuberant children and have it be one of the most joyful moments of your life, for that joy is partially derived from the spontaneity of the encounter. All the times that I met old men on the street and played chess, or had families invite me back to their houses for dinner, or shared a hilarious conversation with a perfect stranger on the bus, were so potent in part because they could not be replicated. I had to live the moment fully lest it be lost.

Over the course of my travels, a great number of kind individuals and families have invited me into their world. It may have been only for an hour, or for a few days, or for a few months. Here in Nicaragua too I´ve been granted that privilege numerous times: to make friends, live with a family, and share some of their world. It´s hard for me to express my gratitude, but this really is the thing that I have wanted most here.

Likewise, over my time traveling, I´ve enjoyed a wide variety of natural pursuits: in the Thar desert and the Sahel, the Himalayas and Fiordlands, along Caribbean beaches and Ganges delta. But one can only so often hike into the crater of a volcano, traverse snow-capped ridges, cut a path through a dense tropical jungle, or stand in the middle of a desert and feel space extend all about you so many times and have it be the most formative experience of your life. Those first encounters are the most precious, because you see for the first time a new wrinkle in this beautiful world, you feel the full force of the land inside you in a way you didn´t quite before. As a kid at summer camp, I feel lucky to have cultivated a love of natural spaces, and so each sunset, mountain top, impossibly starry night, and late evening descending into dusk is special to me.

I´ll take a break now from experiencing these things abroad, but they are indeed all around us in the States, if only we take the time from our busy daily lives to look around and appreciate it. This is something that I think has been a bit of a challenge for me in the past, breaking out of the confines and habits of daily life to find what´s surprising, so I´m looking forward to it now. But just because these moments from abroad have gone and past does not mean that they are done: To the contrary, I carry them with me always, as they have helped forge who I am.

I went back to visit Las Tias this afternoon, the school where I volunteered for two months with at-risk children. I was overwhelmed by the response I got from when I returned: They remembered me well, all our songs and games, and were thrilled to see me. After we had sung and clapped like old times, Cristobal asked me when I´d be returning. It´s a common question I´ve received from my Nicaragua friends in recent days. I told her that I wasn´t exactly sure, but that after my year studying in the university I would have to again decide what I wanted to do. To a nine year old, a year must sound like a long time, and she worried that I would forget her. No, I told her, that´s impossible. I could never forget her, could never forget what we shared here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

¡No Hay Aqua!

Life here is getting just a little bit intolerable.

For a significant portion of the last several days, the city of León has been entirely without water. Everybody´s talking about it and nobody has it.

Indeed, as the headlines on the newspaper blare, this is a reality for most of Nicaragua. As much as half the population has been left without potable water. The electricity has frequently been out too, with various barrios crippled during different times of the day. In Managua, frustrated residents in the capital lit bonfires to protest the energy failures.

All this has very practical implications: For much of the day, we have no drinking water. We have no water for showering. None for washing dishes. Or the laundry. Or for cooking. And no water for flushing the toilet. This is getting gross.

This leads, of course, to tensions and frustrations both within households and communities. It is still hot here each day, and not being allowed to shower after a long day feels like a sweaty punishment.

Last night I had to run out to the store to buy a gallon of bottled water (and I hate bottled water) so we could have some to wash the vegetables and boil the rice and pawns for my birthday paella.

Worse still, the newspapers state that because the state power company and the workers failed to reach an agreement, and because the demand for power is so high, the shut-down might continue until the end of the year. Unable to cook, shower, brush, and flush, most everyone is fed up.

Sure, there are several strategies families employ to alleviate the effects of the water cuts. Ubiquitous in ever Nicaraguan home is pila, which is basically a multi-purpose sink for washing, divided into three basins, one of which can left filled with water when it does indeed flow. Families also fill large covered barrels with water, scooping them out by the bucket when needed. But none of this can alter the fundamental inconvenience, the failure of the state to provide basic services for its citizens.

I write all this not only to talk about the daily features of the life we live here, but also to mention the wider social and ecological implications. Though it may look like only a short cut, these are in fact the symptoms of a crisis.

And it strikes me that the exploitation of natural resources will not appear in a bang or any type of sudden shift. They will not suddenly explode in our face like a volcano or an earthquake, forcing us to pay attention. The changes will be more gradual, and therefore easier to ignore. It will be a series of small but mounting frustrations, inconveniences, and hardships that must be borne each day. Over time, each day, each summer, each year, the inconveniences will become slightly worse, the quality of life will slide down a notch.

It´s needing to shower and not being able to. It´s having to cook in the dark. It´s an hour long traffic jam on the way home because the roads are bad, the volume of automobiles too heavy. All of this places daily hardships on individuals, but also serves to reduce the flow of commerce, endangers health, encourages crime, and forces the consumption of scarce natural resources. For the poorest people in society, the problems are greatest, as the rich will maintain the ability to insulate themselves from these problems.

We ignore these symptoms at our own peril. These reoccurring shortages underscore the urgent need to develop sustainable solutions for energy needs, ones that are affordable and appropriate for developing countries. Devising and implementing solutions, done at the local level whenever possible, is the main challenge that we face.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My 24th Birthday

First off, thanks to everyone back in the States who took the time to wish me a happy birthday. I really appreciated getting those notes.

I had a great 24th birthday here in León with my friends. I was a little afraid they might get ¨Hayden´s birthday fatigue¨ since we celebrated it ten days ago, but we still had a very nice time.

After two special phone calls, I spent some time roaming around the city, shopping for the feast. Harry, Adam, Rufus, and I decided to cook up a paella. So I researched a recipe and bought all the ingredients. To this we added the bottle of red wine that I won at the trivia night at Via Via the night before. We gathered at the house in the evening and cooked up the meal. It was really delicious, a richly seasoned plate packed with shrimp and vegetables.

Then we headed up to the poker game, which featured seven members of the Quetzaltrekkers/Las Tias family. We played for several hours, drinking mojitos all the while. Luckily, or gracias a Dios, I was the top winner at the table, bringing home C$255.

To me, it was just nice to eat and play with my friends here. And I look forward to continuing the celebratory month with my friends and family back home in the States.

Monday, June 18, 2007

San Juan del Sur

After Michelle returned to the States, Ian and I headed from Granada down to the Pacific Coast for the weekend. San Juan del Sur is a small, touristy coastal town, the most popular place for accessing Nicaragua´s best beaches.

While in town, we stayed at the Casa del Oro, an easily place to meet fellow backpackers. There we had good seafood for dinner, swam in the ocean, and partied in the town´s hectic Saturday night scene. The next day we took a day trip up to Playa Maderas and Bahia Majagual. This is a very remote and beautiful stretch of coastline, ideal for surfing and swimming. As of yet, the infrastructure serving the area is very limited, and it´s possible to have a great deal of these white sand beaches, bordered on each side by interesting rock formations and wild forest, to yourself for the day.

We had a good time down in SJDS, and it was cool to soak of the scene there for the day or two.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Newsflash: Coming Home Early

I will be returning to the States ten days early, on Saturday, June 23, instead of on July 3 as I originally planned.

Deciding to come home early (instead of, say, extending a trip) feels contrary to my character, and I´m a little surprised I did it. But when I think about it, I know it was the right decision.

I´ve had an amazing time here in Nicaragua these past five and a half months. I´ve learned to speak Spanish, volunteered with at-risk kids in León, taught English, made friends, traveled up to México with Kamilla, and visited many places in this country. Though I have two weeks left, I feel like there´s nothing more I really want to do. I feel a little restless and bored, and though I of course need to improve my Spanish, there isn´t really enough time to take on a new project. After traveling with friends, family, and my girlfriend for so long, I don´t really have a desire to be on my own at the moment.

I had thought about taking a trip out to Bluefields, or down the Rio San Juan, or spending some more time tucked away on Ometepe, but when it came down to it, I couldn´t really motivate myself to undertake these excursions. The bus rides on terrible roads would have been unbelievably long, and I wasn´t convinced there was a great deal to see. More ominously, I haven´t been feeling so safe here lately, and wasn´t up for going to these remote areas on my own. So I decided to return to León for a few more days with my friends, in my city.

Satisfied with all that has occurred here, my thoughts have turned the future. I´m excited to reconnect with friends of the summer, and plan my coming move to Chicago as well. I need a flat (with flatmates), a computer, and a job. It´s a new and exciting thing for me.

In short, it feels like my time has come to a natural end, and I want to remember it as it is now. When I made the decision to come to Nicaragua last November, I booked a trip of six months. But that plan cannot really reflect the reality of the moment. It wasn´t expensive to change my ticket, so I made the decision. I´m happy with the way things are now, and I´m ready to come home next weekend.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ninth Book: Ann Patchett´s ¨Bel Canto¨

I grabbed Ann Patchett´s ¨Bel Canto¨ from the bookshelf in Quetzaltrekkers. I finished it in five days. Reading it reminded me just how much joy I derive from reading. There´s a reason I enjoy virtually everything I read. The simple act alone is one of the great pleasures of my life.

Patchett´s story is about a state dinner party held in an South American country that gets taken over by terrorists. During the prolonged standoff, which lasts a few months, the terrorists and hostages (who all come from different lands and speak different languages) forge many surprising bonds. Feelings of friends, family, and even love springs up between them.

Patchett is adept at creating this world for the reader, and as I read little seemed implausible in her world. Rather, I loved the development of the characters, learning how they grow and change. They share a confined space, the mansion belonging to the Vice-President, and without fully realizing it, they share something of themselves as well.

This book ponders language and love, it explores desire and motives, and it deals with the idea of what it means for a person to forget or to remember. The reality of the characters change, and they end up in places that they never imagined.
Mr. Hosokawa had a private life now. He had always thought of himself as a private man, but now he saw that there was nothing in his life before that had been private. It didn´t mean that he had no secrets then and now he did. It was that now there was something that was strictly between himself and one other person, that it was so completely their own that it would have been pointless to even try to speak of it to someone else.
But he understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same.
Maybe the private life wasn´t forever. Maybe everyone got it for a little while and then spent the rest of their lives remembering.
My favorite character in the book was the Japanese translator, Gen Watanbe, who happens speak virtually every language present at the dinner party. Yet over the course of that time something happens to Gen that he never expected. All of the characters like Gen, perhaps because he translated their words so smoothly that the speakers sometimes forgot his existence. It seems to me it is much the same with Patchett: She presents such a charming world, with so many desires and personality, that often the reader takes for granted the slight of hand necessary in creating such a story.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Rise of Tourism in Nicaragua

Ever since the end of the Contra War in 1990, the economy of Nicaragua has been changing rapidly. Along with export-oriented agriculture and the service sector of the economy, tourism has become a growing source of income for Nicaragua.

In many ways, all Central American countries have been following this trend. Costa Rica, of course, was the first and most effective nation in the region to profit from American and European tourist dollars. Guatemala, too, has become extremely popular with backpackers. For those looking for a bit more of an experience "off the beaten path," Nicaragua, along with Panama, El Salvador, and Belize, are increasingly popular destinations.

Indeed, by some accounts, tourism in Nicaragua has grown at 133% per annum over the past several years. Projects that it seemed would take several years to get off the ground are now become popular in a much short time-frame. Tourists have been lured not just to the main destinations but also to smaller attractions in startling numbers. For this previously unheralded country, the effect is noticeable. The impact, unsurprisingly, is not all positive. Environmental destruction and cultural loss are too common outcomes. But Nicaragua is at an early stage in the development of its tourism industry where it's possible to put in place structures and institutions that respond to these concerns. It really is a critical time, and thus very interesting to be here.

Nicaragua has some awesome places to visit, and it's possible to visit many of them while doing some good. For instance, Quetzaltrekkers, the volunteer trekking and social action organization in León with which I was affiliated, offers trip to the volcanoes surrounding the city while the proceeds go to a school for at-risk children. Other NGOs in Managua and Granada run city tours that expose visitors to sites that the casual tourist might well miss. And on the Isla de Omtepe, there are many opportunities to stay on organic farms and visit the island's attractions in a sustainable way. Volunteering, I have found, is a great way to meet the local people, understand a bit of their world, and contribute in a small way.

Throughout the country, there are many tourism co-ops and small-scale projects designed to bring the benefit of increased tourism to the people. This is particularly true of Nicaragua's wild spaces, a great amount of which is protected through the system of natural reserves. It's important to get out there and find programs that are sustainable and run by local communities.

One cool thing about Nicaragua being a newer destination is that more opportunities exist to make the traveling experience something that the traveler actually wants. I've met many people here who are full of new ideas for the industry. Many of these are foreigners who have developed a great love for Nicaragua, but there are many locals doing innovative things as well.

In León, my friend Bart runs the Via Via, a popular hostel. He's now expanding and developing new partnerships with local Nicaraguans to increase tourism. Similarly, the Oasis in Granada is a hostel that has created quiet and peaceful spaces, full of the amenities (Internet, pool, hammocks and comfy chairs, free DVDs) that travelers hope to find along the way. A restful places like this, while still reasonably priced, allows travelers to recharge while positioning them to interact meaningfully with the culture around them.

The rise of tourism in Nicaragua presents a tremendous potential for the country, along with a few dangers. It's important to think critically about all the options available, and to support those with a beneficial social mission when the opportunity presents itself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Isla de Ometepe (& Volcán Maderas)

The morning after the party, Michelle, Ian, and I headed down to Ometepe. Six hours and several cramped bus rides later, we arrived.

I was stunned by what we found. Ometepe became, over the course of our five days there, my favorite place in Nicaragua.

Ometepe is an island in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. The island is unique because it has two awesome volcanoes on it. From the mainland, you look at them both rising up into the clouds, and it is an extraordinary sight. Volcán Concepcion is an active cone; it could blow at any moment. Slightly smaller Volcán Maderas is dormant, with cloudforests running down the sides and a crater lake at the top.

Ometepe is sparsely inhabited (only 35,000 people), with a few small towns and lots of small settlements. It is a place of jungle (low alitude topical rainforest and high altitude cloudforests) and farms. Much of the food grown there is organic, but we also saw that pesticides are increasingly common.

Despite the quiet and slow place of life, there is so much to do on Ometepe: There are lagoons and rivers and islands and beaches and forests and waterfalls and volcanoes. I felt I could have spent weeks there exploring, though it is not very big. The people are laid back and friendly. It was the kind of place one falls in love with.

Better still, I believe that Ometepe is best poised of any spot in Nicaragua for an explosion of sustainable eco-tourism. Saying this, I must note that Ometepe is no secret. The vast majority of tourists visit the island, and Nicaraguans love to vacation there as well (particularly during Semana Santa.) And the great news is that it´s quite accessible from Granada, Managaua, and the like.

But despite all this interest and acclaim, the tourist infrastructure is not highly developed. There is a great chance to employ sustainable technologies and agriculture strategies in order to preserve the beauty of the place while opening up to more visitors. And because it was the off-season there, we had a little extra peace.

Michelle, Ian, and I got along great: we had a nice dynamic amongst the three of us. We stayed our first night near Chaco Verde, in a sweet little hotel called Pasado Chico Largo. This is right on the beach, and we swam and ate an enormous fish for dinner.

On our second day we visited the natural reserve there, walking along the beach with sea turtles. From there we hitch-hiked to Finca Magdalina, which is one of the most famous spots to stay. It´s a working farm that is situated right on the trail to Maderas. There are also stunning views of Concepcion and the beaches, and from my hammock I could watch explosive lightning storms off in the distance.

On our third day in Ometepe the three of us hiked Volcan Maderas (1374 m) with our guide Manuel. It´s a bit of a tiring climb, but the views and the entrance into the cloudforest rewards. The crater lake is something else, a green expanse hidden beneath Maderas´ fog. We loved it there. At the finca we met a bunch of really cool travelers, and it was fun to hang out with them.

On the fourth day we took the bus to the beach at Playa Santo Domingo and lazed around in the water there. After lunch we walked up to a swimming hole named El Ojo del Aqua. This was particularly fun because this beautiful spot had a rope-swing, and we enjoyed all this toy had to offer.

On the fifth day we headed home, taking a pick-up truck for an hour and a half to the ferry terminal; the roads are horrible on Ometepe. But we had lots of fun. It´s a special place, and with just two weeks remaining in my time in Nicaragua I´m not convinced that I won´t head back there one more time.

Monday, June 11, 2007

My 24th Birthday Party

On Saturday night in León, my friends and I got together to throw a party. Originally, the idea was that it would be a house-warming party for Rufus and Harry, who are now renting their own place. But when our group of friends heard from an anonymous source that my 24th birthday was coming up later this month, we added the celebration to the agenda.

Last year in India I celebrated my 23rd birthday completely by myself; I didn´t even speak of it once to another person. But the experience made me feel rather sad. And I vowed not to let my 24th, which might be spent alone again in a foreign land, slip away. So I took the opportunity to share it with my friends in León.

It was a big party for our standards, with approximately 25 attending. All the people in our scene were there. Harry, Rufus, and Adam: my closest buddies. All the Quetzaltrekkers volunteers, new and old. Bart and his girlfriend Veronique, the owners of Via Via. That Dutch girl whose boyfriend is in jail, or something. Not to mention many of the Nicas we know. And then some additions from outside: Karina, my Duke friend working in Masaya, and a couple of her friends. And Michelle, visiting from NY, with her friend Ian.

Harry and Rufus´ house was filled with more bottles of Flor de Caña rum than pieces of furniture. The only decorations to speak of were candles with seashells as holders. There was also a cardboard box filled with vodka jello shots. And there was a cake, a delicious chocolate birthday cake.

Best of all, I bought myself a piñata. I had wanted one for the longest time. But for all the other birthdays we celebrated I was somehow denied. So I went out and bought it myself: It cost US$6. It was a multicolored clown.

After several hours of hanging out and drinking, we sang the song and cut the cake. I also made a speech, as I am prone to doing, but this one was somewhat more sprawling than my previous farewell speech.

Then came the piñata, which Ian and Harry expertly operated. I was pretty drunk at this point, so I seem to remember the piñata beating me up. It was fun though. And lots of us took swings at it. Of course, it fell to Hannah, our resident tough girl, to split that clown open and send those candies sprawling across the floor.

Altogether, I had an excellent time, happy to celebrate with friends.

Friday, June 08, 2007

What This Blog Is About

This has all happened a little differently than I thought it would. I came to Central America knowing little, and at first communication was a real struggle. I´ve used this blog as a space to write about my daily life. I´m primarily writing for myself: I have the feeling that this blog, and the five journals that I´ve scribbled in, will be a great present to myself in my old age.

But of course, I´m writing for you -- my friends and family -- as well. I want to let you know a little bit about what my life is like here. And when I can, I want to explain a bit about the people of Nicaragua, their history and culture, as I encounter it.

But while I´m trying to share my experiences with you, it is tricky sometimes to know how I should write about my own emotions. Mostly I´ve been happy here, and I´m certainly very glad I came. But I´m never sure exactly what people want to hear: I get the sense that both raving and complaining get obnoxious. Yet one must speak from the heart if one is to say something important.
And when it comes to emotions, the truth is always more complex anyway.

When I first arrived it was lonely, and it took me a while to make friends. I just accepted that though, for I was used to it from India. I didn´t expect much at first, but I soon found that I hungered for friendships and connections. Over the course of weeks and months, however, things fell into place with my work, my group of friends in León, and then with Kamilla. During my final weeks in León, I was having one of the great times of my life: it was really perfect for me. And luckily, my travels around Central America were also as enjoyable. Now, though, that my work is finished and my family´s visit has finished, I think I´ll struggle a bit in these last few weeks: It feels like a lot of things have passed by before this is over and I´ll have to find a way to make this period of time meaningful. Just another challenge, really. I´ll face many more when I get home and move to Chicago.

Upon departing for Nicaragua, I had visions that I would be talking to people about the Sandinista Revolution and the Contra War, the way this country is developing, and what they hope for Nicaragua in the future. I do talk about these things with people sometimes, but it is not my main focus. At first, the language barrier made that impossible; it continues to make it difficult. But more to the point, these just aren´t the things that people think about each day. They are just living their lives normal people: going to work, sending their kids to school, taking care of their family, enjoying their free time when they get it. Daily life is rarely spectacular. And so it is that I´m writing about perhaps more superficial topics: the hammocks, the frescoes, the volcanoes, the small anecdotes I come across.

And when I think about it objectively, little that I´ve written in this spaces seems that gripping to me. While nice, none of this seems essential. If you want the best adventures and observations, you´ll have to go read my mass e-mails from India. Still, I´m pleased I´ve been able to document my experiences here so extensively. When I return home, I look forward to sprucing up this blog with the links and pictures I´ve thus far deprived you of. I think the blog will be a useful tool for finalizing my reflections on Nicaragua.

I know that one day it is my great ambition to write a book that speaks to core beliefs and experiences of a people, that expresses powerfully how political and environmental changes affect communities in individuals in the developing world. I think a work such as that will take a career to produce. And I´m ready for that. Perhaps now I´m just gaining the skills (linguistic, writing, personal, etc.) to do this. For now though I am just content to write about the life I´m living, exploring this place as a 23 year-old volunteering abroad in Central America.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Eighth Book: Gioconda Belli´s ¨The Country Under My Skin¨

The truth is this: It has always been books that have sent me places.

After reading Ayi Kwei Armah´s classic post-colonial novel ¨The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born,¨ I decided I needed to go to Ghana to see the place he wrote about so evocatively for myself. Similarly, when I decided last fall to move to Central America to learn how to speak Spanish, the thought of one country immediately jumped out at me. During my senior year of college, I read Gioconda Belli´s celebrated memoir about Nicaragua, ¨The Country Under My Skin

And so along with wanting to go to a cheap and relatively untouristed country, and to a country where the need was very great (Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti), I wanted again to see for myself a world that had once been so richly created for me in words. And so knowing little else, knowing not a soul or a word of Spanish, I bought a plane ticket for Managua.

Having lived in Nicaragua for five months now, I decided that it was time to pick up this book again and re-read it from my newly gained perspective. Belli is an award-winning poet and a Sandinista operative. This ¨memoir of love and war¨ explores the fusion between her personal journey and the turmoil of her country during the 1970s and 1980s. She is a woman with many different identities -- writer and worker, militant and mother -- and this book explores the nexus and the conflicts that arise between these strands over time. She writes passionately about clandestine operations and sensual love affairs. She tells of fallen comrades and dangerous missions. She tells of failed marriages and family struggles. And yet there is an optimistic strand that runs through this book. It is the type of joy that comes when you see another living life fully, pursuing a course with all her heart.

This time I was reading her account of Nicaragua´s political developments more closely. She had deep contact, friendships, and sometimes relations with the most powerful members of the Sandinista movement. I wanted to read her impressions of Daniel Ortega, his brother Humberto, his wife Rosario, and other members of the National Directorate more closely. She describes with great deal the divisions, personal and ideological, that arose within the Sandinistas. She also became acquainted with Fidel Castro of Cuba and General Torrijos of Panama. I was paying closer attention to her description of the battles and movements during the revolution, the impact on places like Managua, León, and the Northern Highlands. Interesting, she accuses the current President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega (whom she knows well) of betraying the spirit of the revolution by supressing dissent and using any means available to maintain his grip on power.

One thing I like about her writing is the way she sees the connection between her political cause and her personal growth as a woman. She writes profoundly about what it meant to be a Sandinista, what it meant to devote your life to this struggle:

Were we all mad? What mystery in the human genes accounted for the fact that men and women could override their personal survival instincts when the fate of their tribe or the collective was at stake? What was it that enabled people to give their lives for an idea, for the freedom of others? Why was the heroic impulse so strong? What I found most bewildering and extraordinary was the real happiness and fulfillment that came along with commitment. Life acquired unequivocal meaning, purpose, and direction. It was a sensation of complete, utter complicity, a visceral emotional bond with hundreds of anonymous faces, an intimacy of multitudes in which any feeling of loneliness or isolation simply evaporated. In the struggle for everyone´s happiness, the first happiness one found was one´s own.
The story of the Sandinista Revolution is the story in fact of two wars: The first was a guerrilla war that culminated in 1979 by removing the Somoza dictatorship from power. But after that feeling of euphoria, of overthrowing a dictatorship that lasted 43 years, a broken country was forced again into another more costly and ruinous war. When Reagan became President in 1981, he began funding the Contras, who invaded Nicaragua from Honduras. It was only at the end of the decade that this illegal and profoundly immoral activity came to a close. The result was ruinous for Nicaragua and for the Sandinista program.

Belli describes many victories and setbacks, yetthe overall tone remains triumphant. This is a story about what it is possible to do with a life. In this vein, Belli quotes the words of an anonymous Vietnamese poet:

We fill the craters left by the bombs
And once again we sing
And once again we sow
Because life never surrenders.

(Next up: Ann Patchett´s ¨Bel Canto¨)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On Being Back in León

When I first arrived in León on Sunday, I was thrilled to be back. This is, after all, my city, my home. It was such a good feeling to be walking along these streets and hanging out with my friends again. It seemed like I couldn´t go ten minutes without running into someone I knew, and everyone was so pleasantly surprised to see me again after so long. Of all the places I´ve visited in Central America on this trip, I like León the best.

But after a day or so, after that initial rush subsided, it began to feel strange. The truth is that what I loved was León the way I left it at the beginning of April. That was what I missed. The routine of my days and the feeling of complete comfort. Now it felt empty, like something was absent. Like I no longer belonged here. To be frank, it has been a bit of a disorienting experience.

And I missed people: I missed walking down the street with my girlfriend. I missed chatting in the Quetzal Trekker house with Nick and Jessica. I missed lounging in hammocks on my balcony with Allie and Janine. I missed watching Kolja´s face when he went all-in (again!) at poker. Although I still had Harry, Adam, and Rufus around, among many others, it seemed like times had passed me by a bit. There were new volunteers in old rooms, and though they all seem cool, what I lack is the same history and comfort with them.

And I missed my work, my daily trips to school on my bicycle. I missed being a part of my student´s lives, that they would look forward to seeing me everyday and I would look forward to seeing them. I missed hanging out with my friends Karla and Adela, chatting with David, or having class with Idania and Johania. When I went back to visit, the sensation was awkward even though it was great to see them again. Since I was no longer involved with their day-to-day lives, I felt like a ghost visiting from the past, half gone.

Overall, it still has been cool to be back, and to show Michelle my city. There have been great home-cooked dinners, lunches out at La Buen Cuchara, poker games, drinks at Via Via, live music at La Olla Quemada, frescos in the market, etc. But I also see that the magic that I felt here remains embedded in the memories of two months ago. It is something that cannot be recaptured.

And so this Sunday I will leave León again. Michelle and I will travel down to Ometepe for a week, and I´ll spend the remainder of June exploring Nicaragua on my own. I´ll return to León again at the beginning of July, just before I depart Nicaragua for good. But I won´t harbor the same illusions. Sometimes the beauty of an experience is that it is fleeting, and that forces one to therefore hold onto it tighter.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Seventh Book: Truman Capote´s ¨In Cold Blood¨

After having watched the acclaimed film Capote, staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, I decided I ought to read the novel on which the film centers. Truman Capote´s ¨In Cold Blood¨made waves when it was first published, and it´s not difficult to see why. Although this is a work of non-fiction, it doesn´t read like it. Instead, it has the gripping feel of a thriller. Set in a rural town in Kansas in 1959, ¨In Cold Blood¨ describes the brutal murder of four members of the Clutter family, and how their killers were ultimately brought to justice.

Americans love stories about crime, and this certainly fills this need in the national psyche. I was transfixed by the scenes in the book describing the actual murders, and the following investigation, capture, interrogation, and trial of the killers. It was also interesting to track the lasting social impact of the murders on this small town. I was a little less interested by the psychological profile of Perry, on which Capote devotes much time. Nevertheless, Capote is a master of pacing; reading this book is like watching an episode of C.S.I.

As a writer of non-fiction, I am also interested in how how the authors glean their information, how they draw their informants into their confidences, particularly when the subjects can be so painful. This to me is the genius of this book: the fact that Capote successfully got the killers themselves, the investigators, the family members, and the townspeople to recreate for him the course of events that must have been very intense for them.

(Next up: Gioconda Belli´s ¨The Country Under My Skin¨)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Newsflash: Back in León and Michelle is Here!

On Saturday morning, I returned to Nicaragua after a one month absence. I was excited to come back.

I proceeded from Costa Rica to the town of Masaya, where I met up with a friend from Duke, Karina. I walked around the markets with her for a while, purchasing the two hammocks I plan on bringing home. Then we hopped in a van, headed for Managua. We met up with another volunteer friend of hers, Maddy, from the States. After a big dinner and bigger conversation at a nearby fritanga, we headed out to the bars and clubs of Managua. It was my first time going out in this oft-intimidating city, so that was exciting.

The next morning, Sunday, I returned to León. Very excited to make this drive home. And who did I find on the street but my good buddies Harry and Rufus? They immediately invited me to stay in the new house they are renting. I strung up a hammock there, excited to be back among friends. The rest of the day was a blur of seeing old friends, catching up, wandering around. The rains have altered this once dry city. That night, of course, we cooked dinner and played poker: And I won 240 cordobas! Good to be back.

But most exciting of all, my good friend Michelle from Duke is here. Turns out my reports of Nicaragua have proven irresistible to her, and she came for a two week visit. First she´ll study Spanish at the Casa de Cultura (she has my same teacher, in fact!) Then we´ll head to the Isla de Ometepe next Sunday for a week of exploring Nicaragua´s famed and exotic volcanic island.

So it´s nice to be back in my adopted hometown, and I´ve got some fun things to look forward to.

Friday, June 01, 2007


After Arenal, we drove to Playa Tamarindo, where I spent a few relaxing days on the beach with my family. We stayed at Hotel Capitan Suizo, and its leafy gardens were set right against the water. The weather was warm and partly cloudy throughout.

There weren´t many activities to do here, so the highlights were mainly just relaxed on the beach and ate delicious seafood. We also made one day trip over to Playa Grande, which is a nesting site for leatherback turtles in the breeding season. For the most part though, it was just good to hang out with my family, as that was pretty much the point of the vacation.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sixth Book: Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.´s ¨Central America: A Nation Divided¨

Motivated by a desire to understand more completely the history of Central America, I picked up Kamilla´s copy of Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.´s ¨Central America: A Nation Divided.¨ This single volume sums up the history of region in an accessible, if rather dry, format.

Beginning with the indigenous people and their first encounter with the Spanish, Woodward traces the heritage of Spanish colonialism, the turmoil and civil wars that accompanied independence, the rise of coffee and banana, and the oligarchs that profited from these commodities, finally closing with the social revolutions of the 20th centuries that challenged these power structures. He presents Central America as a region with the potential for unity and prosperity, but a place marred by ongoing poverty, violence, and division.

Woodward does a fine job of noting how foreign influences (notably Britain and the U.S.) repeatedly intervened to ensure governments that backed their commercial interests. He explains how foreign governments and corporations used their influence to alter the course of events--stealing elections, eliminating threats, and repressing the local people. He also does a good job of sketching out the internal divisions and conflicts present in these states between Liberals and Conservatives, and how these rivalries emerged and morphed over time.

Unfortunately, the book becomes a bit confusing during Woodward´s dissection of 20th century socialist movements: He focuses too much on the names of the presidents elected and the factions vying in the political arena so that he obscures many of the larger social trends ongoing during this time. And I found a significant part of this analysis troubling because he glosses over the repression and violence of right wing dictatorships without emphasizing the full nature of the abuses of these regimes.

¨Central America: A Nation Divided¨ is indeed a book worth reading, as it is full of information for a curious reader. In particular, he considers the concept of Central American unity and places the idea in a historical context. But it is also a rather slow-going account, and thus most appropriate for those with a sustained interest in the subject matter.

(Next up: Truman Capote´s ¨In Cold Blood¨)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Of Ticos and Nicas

Citizens of Nicaragua (Nicas) and Costa Rica (Ticos) don´t really like each other that much. These neighboring countries share many cultural similarities but resentment runs high.

Costa Rica´s peaceful history stands in direct contrast to the violence that´s periodically marred Nicaragua, and partially due of these differences, Costa Rica (meaning ¨the rich coast¨) has developed much more prosperously. As a result, many Nicas have sought work in Costa Rica, often illegally. Ticos contend that these immigrants stress the country´s social security and safety net. At the same time, they also need Nicas to perform many low-paying jobs, such as harvesting coffee. Exports of coffee and bananas, along with tourism from the United States, sustains the Costa Rican economy.

Ticos are a gentle and tolerant people, but they have concerns about the way Nicaragua is impacting their country. Specifically, they have concerns over the extension of CAFTA, the free-trade agreement on which Costa Rica will vote on later this year. They also are watching with trepidation the moves Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua´s newly elected President, and his ties to Venezuelan Hugo Chavez. A good percentage of Costa Rica´s oil and commerce comes from Venezuela.

During both the Revolution and the Contra War, rebel groups used Costa Rica as one of the bases for invading Nicaragua. When the Sandinista movement toppled the Somoza dictatorship, they enjoyed solidarity with the Costa Rican people. In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias won a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the civil wars that plagued the isthmus.

But today in Costa Rica there is a wariness founded in economic concerns. Despite Costa Rica´s relatively high level of development, the country has many social problems and high levels of foreign debt. Tourism and commodity imports are notoriously fickle industries, and recently Ticos have struggled with a downturn in their economic fortunes and standard of living. Overall, they see Nicas as imposing on their country. For their part, Nicas in both countries harbor resentment for the way they are treated: like criminals or second-class citizens.

Having lived in Nicaragua for four months and having only visited Costa Rica for ten days, I inevitably saw Costa Rica through Nicaraguan eyes. I was interested in the labor conditions and Tico attitudes towards their neighbors. Many of my friends warned me that I may not enjoy my time because the country is so touristy and much more expensive. Yet despite my loyalty to Nicaragua, I found myself charmed by Costa Rica: It is simply a beautiful country, green and biologically diverse and interesting to explore. The people are friendly and open, more so than Nicaragua, I believe, perhaps because they have more (and better) experiences with foreigners.

For me what all this is really is a fascinating study in what it means to live side-by-side one another and what people will do to survive. None of these issues are going away, so it is necessary to find a way to compromise, to co-exist. Ticos and Nicas share many things, and they have a joint responsibility to create a peaceful and prosperous region.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


After Monteverde, we drove to the Arenal region. There we stayed in Mountain Paradise Hotel, which looks directly onto the volcano from a green hillside. And because the hotel is newly opened, we had its facilities and swimming pool all to ourselves.

Activities while in the area included swimming in the natural hot springs, whitewater rafting on the Rio Sarapiqui, a canopy tour at the Arenal Hanging Gardens, and viewing lava flows on the volcano by night. It was nice just to relax with my family by the pool, read a book in the sunshine, eat traditional Costa Rican cuisine, and play cards with my sister.

The best feature of our time there, however, was the stunning view of the volcano. Volcan Arenal is perfectly conical and the most active volcano in the Western Hemisphere. From the doorway to our bungalow, we could look out directly at this looming monster, constantly emitting large puffs into the air like a chain smoker.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The War Goes On. Stop It Now.

Everyday I find myself thinking about it at some point. But today is Memorial Day 2007, and it seems appropriate to write something.

The war in Iraq is in its fourth year and President Bush has noted, stubbornly and repeatedly, that he will not end it. More American soldiers and Iraqis are dying, and the situation has only worsened over time. Too much suffering has occurred needlessly, and it´s an illusion to believe that the situation will somehow it will magically ameliorate itself in the future. The American people have turned against this war, and the Iraqi people certainly don´t want us there. Yet we are still sending soldiers to die.

I´ve been fortunate to spend the last four years of my life studying, working, and traveling, meeting people and seeking to understand this world in diverse ways. It makes me sad that so many young American men and women in the military, just my age, have not had the same chance. They are fighting and dying for lies, and that is a tragedy and a crime.

Looking forward, one thing is clear: This war won't end unless the American people demand that it end.

It´s time -- past time, in fact -- to stop this war now.

Friday, May 25, 2007


Our first stop in Costa Rica was Monteverde, the famed high-altitude cloudforest. This is in many ways the epicenter in the ecotourism movement. The Quakers who have settled here and the local inhabitants have carefully preserved much of the astounding biodiversity and ecosystems of the area. It is one of the most popular places to visit in Costa Rica, and has become a model and a study in how to develop sustainably.

While in the area, we went on a tour of the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve. There we saw much wildlife, including the resplendent quetzal. It is an extremely beautiful forest, so green and wet. The next day we visited El Trapiche, a working farm that produces coffee and sugar products, among other things. It was fascinating to learn the processes involved in these industries since so many inhabitants of Costa Rica and Nicaragua are employed in them.

Otherwise, it just rained a lot. I enjoyed spending time with my parents and family in our hotel. The roads up to Monteverde are some of the bumpiest in the country, but I´m glad we made the trip to see it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Newsflash: Here in Costa Rica

I´ve now arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica, to meet my parents and sister for a ten day vacation here. We will visit three spots: Monteverde, Arenal, and Tamarindo. I´m looking forward to my time with them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Long Bus Ride

At 2:30 AM on Wednesday I left San Salvador, El Salvador on a Ticabus, heading south. Sixteen hours and three border crossings later, at 6:30 PM, I arrived at my destination, Liberia, Costa Rica. Clear across Honduras and Nicaragua, I had only Shrek 3 (we watched dubbed in Spanish... twice), a few brief conversations with fellow passengers, and a whole lot of staring out the window to keep me company. Luckily, I did manage to sleep. And I had a pair of seats to myself, so it was comfortable enough. So that was the longest single bus ride of my life.

Friday, May 18, 2007

San Cristóbal de las Casas

Kamilla and I spent more than a week in San Cristóbal de las Casas, one of Mexico´s most charming cities. Set in picturesque hills, San Cristóbal has a refreshing climate. It is a beautiful place with colorful colonial adobes, large churches, and impressive plazas. We stayed in a hostel called Casa Jardin, and enjoyed getting to know our host, Erica, whose family has owned this house for more than a century. During the day, we spent most of our time wandering through the pretty streets, shopping in the markets, sitting in the parks. We ate delicious chicken tacos for lunch; at dinnertime we used the kitchen and cook up a hearty pot of stew. Indiginous women wander through the city, selling handmade blankets and crafts. We did take one daytrip out to the Cañon del Sumidero, which is a beautiful piece of nature. It is a rare and enjoyable thing when traveling to just stay in one place, relax, and feel totally content.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Norwegian National Day

May 17 is Norway´s National Day. Kamilla, my Norwegian girlfriend, was feeling sad that she was missing out on all the celebrations back home. These festivities consisted of, as far as i could tell: dressing up in costumes, waving flags, getting drunk, singing songs, and running down a big hill. Yep, that sounds like a good time. She is, after all, descended from Vikings, or so I like to tease her.

So in order to cheer her up and focus on the all the fun we were having in San Cristóbal de las, México, the two of us cooked a special dinner: I made a stew with roasted chicken and all sorts of vegetables (the peppers here are especially zesty), thick delicious bread (that seems impossible to find in Central America), and a nice bottle of red wine.

After our feast, I got drunk, started talking garrously in Spanish, and she beat me for the first time ever in the card game rummy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Waterfalls in Chiapas

Chiapas, México´s southernmost state, is known for its large indigenous population (groups that have maintained a large part of their Mayan heritage) and for its verdant, hilly scenery. After spending several days strolling through San Cristóbal de las Casas, a charming colonial town in the mountains, we made the six hour trip to Palenque, to visit the impressive Mayan ruins there. After our day at the ruins, and two lovely nights spent in a jungle cabaña, Kamilla and I signed up for a tour to visit some of the waterfalls in the area around Palenque. The tour bus, crammed with backpackers, visited three waterfalls before we returned to San Cristóbal. All three spots were very beautiful, and allowed us to enjoy some of the state´s natural beauty in an accessible way:
  1. The first stop, Misol-Ha waterfall, featured a tall, thin stream of water cascading down into a swimming hole, surrounded by jungle. While there I chatted with a pair of sisters from New Zealand on our bus. Every time I meet a Kiwi, I can´t stop prattling on about how much I love that country. And it was particularly appropriate in this case, since many of my fondest memories from my time studying in New Zealand involve trips to waterfalls with my friends.
  2. The second stop, at Aqua Clara, featured a surprisingly clear blue lake. Kamilla took a boat ride on a wooden raft, rowed by a little boy. I sat on the grassy bank and took photos of her. Afterwards, I tossed the boy some of my bananas, but it took him until the third try before he caught the fruits without them bouncing into the lake.
  3. At the final stop, Aqua Azul, I made Kamilla tuna sandwiches by the side of the river. They were delicious, and this is one of our favorite meals. After eating, we strolled up alongside the river, admiring the series of waterfalls, cascading one on top of the other, from many different miradors.
Best of all, at this stop three Hungarian travelers (two girls and a guy) engaged in a world-class moment of unintentional comedy: Wearing only swimming trunks and bikinis, they started rubbing mud from the lake all over their bodies, then posed for a series of photos for each other on the rafts as if they were models. One girl struggled to keep her balance, and almost toppled into the water. Kamilla and I stood on the hill above, filming this ridiculous scene and laughing hysterically. We thought we were the only ones of the group to enjoy it, but when we got back to the van we all couldn´t stop giggling. Rumor was that after we left one of the girls took off her top. What a fascinating cultural experience this was, to watch take this so seriously.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Thought About What I´m Doing Here

Here´s yet another example of why I believe my decision to work abroad and travel during my first two years after graduating from university was the best decision I´ve ever made:

At 10:30 AM on a Tuesday, while most of the people I know were probably in some type of meeting at work, Kamilla and I were climbing on the Mayan ruins at Palenque, surrounded by the dense, tropical jungle of Chiapas, Mexico.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Time Zone Adjustment

Remarkably, we spent five full days in Mexico before realizing that this country is actually an hour ahead of the Central America. Thankfully, we realized this oversight before it negatively impacted our trip, forcing us to miss an important bus departure or something. Woops.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Fifth Book: Alan Patton´s ¨Cry, The Beloved Country¨

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.
Alan Patton´s classic novel ¨Cry, The Beloved Country¨ is a true book, despite the fact that it is a work of fiction. Set in South Africa in the 1940s, the book concerns one African pastor´s search for his son in distant Johannesburg, and on the implications of his son´s actions. Dealing as it does with racial tensions in South Africa, this book touched a topic close to my heart. It reminded me at times of Bryce Courtenay´s ¨The Power of One,¨ a similar novel that I have also loved reading. Perhaps the power of this story is that it rings true not only in the context of South Africa but resonates too in other places undergoing social upheaval.
The judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if a Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just.
This is a story of fathers and sons. Indeed Absalom is named after King David´s rebellious son in the Bible. This is the story of transgression and forgiveness. Indeed it concerns the most chilling crimes and the deepest yearning for salvation. This is the story of destruction and renewal. Indeed it focuses on the broken tribe, the broken land, and the efforts undertaken to revive them. This is the story of comfort and desolation. Indeed the pastor Kumalo travels through a faceless city and thirsty land. Throughout, the book begs one pointed question: What can be regained after so much has been destroyed?
Call, O small boy, with the long tremulous cry that echoes over the hills. Dance, O small boy, with the first slow steps of the dance that is for yourself. Call and dance, Innocence, call and dance while you may. For this is a prelude, it is only a beginning. Strange things will be woven into it, by men you have never heard of, in place you have never seen. It is life you are going into, you are not afraid because you do not know. Call and dance, call and dance. Now, while you may.
The book proceeds in three parts: First, a fearful searching, then a terrible answer, and finally a look what can be salvaged. But it was what transpired in the final book that moved me most. I was riveted by the encounters between Kumalo and the elder Jarvis, the fates of their sons entangled most tragically. To me, Patton seems to be saying here that the only way out is through a human connection. Salvation for Africa and its people lies only in this compassionate moment, meeting each other with an open mind, forgiveness, and love. It´s a powerful message about men, and about their capabilities and their failings, and the outcome for Kumalo and his community left me weeping at the end.
It is Africa, the beloved country.
Next up: Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.´s ¨Central America: A Nation Divided¨)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Una sorpresa más: México!

Today, Kamilla and I arrived in Tapachula, México after a 12 hour bus ride from San Salvador. We´ll be here for about two weeks, exploring the state of Chiapas. We´re pretty excited about this.

Monday, May 07, 2007

San Salvador: City of Barbed Wire

We´ve have spent a few days hanging out in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. In contrast to the gloomy warnings of gangs, theft, and violence we so often heard, our time here has been peaceful. We´ve found this to be quite a charming city. Granted, it´s not really a pretty place, and the air pollution is bad. But San Salvador does have a fun vibe to it. The people have been helpful, and unlike most metropolises in the developing world, it´s not difficult to get around with public transportation. It´s been fun to go out to some nice restaurants, museums, and (I confess) even modern malls. San Salvador is actually a very accessible place as long as you take care to stay out of the areas that face endemic problems of gangs and urban poverty.

That said, my first drive through San Salvador from the bus station to our hotel was somewhat startling. Having visited South Africa and other developing countries, I am used to heightened security measures. But everywhere you look here, on the top of homes and businesses, there is barbed wire. And these aren´t just thin little barbs; these are massive stay-out-or-you-will-bleed-to-death barbs. Every building has it, and the reason is understandable: In a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, swabbing your property in barbed wire as if it were patriotic bunting at a Fourth of July parade is only understandable. I wonder if any statistics on meters of barbed wire per capita are available, because I´m certain San Salvador, a city that at times resembles a maximum security prison, is among the top contenders.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Fourth Book: Tracey Kidder´s ¨House¨

While in Corn Islands, I polished off Tracey Kidder´s ¨House.¨ I picked up this book because I enjoyed his crisp style of writing from his ¨Mountains Beyond Mountains.¨ What appealed to me was the angle of this non-fiction story, set in Amherst, MA in the early 1980s, following the construction of a single house from the birth of its idea to the moment that the owners celebrate their move-in with champagne.

Indeed I enjoyed reading it, as Kidder is a very good explainer. He concentrated on the desires of the owners, the thought processes of the architect, and the craftsmanship of the builders. He then went on to describe each phase of the construction. Throughout, he made the process accessible, adding where appropriate passages about the historical context and modern implications of the methods of construction. This is not just a story about the building of one house; Kidder relates the construction to broader social practices dealing with the craft.

This book about houses got me thinking about houses and books: The house I grew up in (it was built around the same time and in a similar Northeastern manner of craftsmanship) and the house I would like to live in one day. He talks in broad terms about what houses mean--to the people that design them, to the people that build, to the people that live in them, to the communities that sustain them. He writes about how a house is more than a structure made out of wood and nails, but rather a thing made special in American history because of the craftsmanship that goes into it.

And this book got me thinking too about the books I´ve written and those I´d like to write some day: Specifically, I like what Kidder did here as a story-teller, getting people to open up to him. He managed to insert himself into a very precise and often intense place, one at which he could observe and record all the internal conflicts that arose between the builders, architect, and owners over the course of the house´s construction. As a journalist, that´s really not an easy thing to do.

This is a book about processes, and he captures all that. But, more importantly, it´s a book about people. By the end of the story, I felt like the characters wer my friends. That´s because Kidder nails their mannerisms and sheds much light onto their personal motivations with vignettes about their personal histories. He´s naturally interested in the differences between them -- cultural and economic, professional and personal -- and the conflicts that arise as a result. Yet the building of the house does not prove to be a zero-sum game, and the various parties must compromise repeatedly in order to ensure the success of the project.

In his writing, Kidder reconstructed for the reader the world surrounding the building of this house--a world populated by people, blueprints, and wooden planks. But naturally, this world comes to a close when the house is finished. As such, I found that I missed the characters when the book ended.

(Next up: Alan Paton´s ¨Cry, the Beloved Country¨)

Thursday, May 03, 2007


After San Miguel, Kamilla and I headed up to Perquín for a few days. This small town is a historical city in the Morazan region, located in northeast El Salvador. Twenty years ago, it was the stronghold for the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional) forces fighting to overthrow the authoritarian regime and create a more just society. It´s a pretty town in the hills, and there is an excellent museum there that details the heroic efforts of the FMLN. Just being in El Salvador was interesting because we could compare the experience of the FMLN with that of the Sandinistas.

One of the cool things we did was walk with our guide to the town of El Mazote. In 1981, the El Salvadorian army, trained and funded by the United States, massacred approximately 1,000 residents of this small town. They herded all the people into the church, and burned down their homes. The soldiers then marched the women into the hillsides before they were killed. Hundreds of small children were murdered, buried in a mass grave. No one survived. For several years the town was uninhabited. But since the war has ended, El Salvador has repopulated the town a fitting memorial to the victims has been erected.

Aside from viewing this important site, our guide spoke to us generally about how the region had changed as a result of the war. Commerce in this largely agricultural region was disrupted and many people fled their homes. Today there are encouraging efforts to create a historical route for local and international tourists so that they can learn about the revolution. Agricultural and small-scale industry projects have also commenced. When I looked at the hillsides, all I saw was new growth, young forests that had been replanted since the war´s end. Our guide spoke to us about how the army cut down all the trees and polluted the rivers of this place. And so it was clear to see how war also destroys communities and livelihoods by ravaging the local environment.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Markets of San Miguel

My parents raised me to love harbors. They like to take long strolls along seaside docks, watching the boats and the people that work them, admiring the way the late afternoon light filters into the scene, enjoying the rhythmic sound of the water lapping against the wood.

And indeed I have grown up to appreciate harbors. But on my travels I have developed an affinity for another scene as well: markets. To me, these are somewhat similar scenes. A walk through the market entails the same voyage into a world of ordered lines, vivid colors, strange smells, shouts of work, surly characters, and daily rituals. And so, with both harbors and markets, I like to wander around.

Some of my worldwide favorite markets include Kotokraba in Cape Coast, Ghana where we first landed unsuspectingly during our orientation to that kind country, and the municipal market in Mysore, India, which is rich with scent and colors of flowers, fruits, and incense, almost beyond description.

Add to this list the market in San Miguel, El Salvador, which Kamilla and I both loved. (It´s big brother in el centro of San Salvador isn´t too bad either.) Strolling through both these markets was a joy, for they are both filled with row after row of colorful displays and interesting characters interacting at a bewildering speed. Guidebooks and fellow travelers seemed to take a special joy in warning us about the danger of El Salvador´s cities, but the markets are truly one safe haven where, during the day, you can discover the beat of a country.

Indeed you can get nearly anything there, even if there is nothing that you really need. There are sections for clothing, t-shirts, shoes, toys, hats, souvenirs, toiletries, household items, farm items, lunch stalls, sweet stalls, juice fruit stalls, vegetable stalls, and on and on and on. And between all these are the hawkers, the itinerant peddlers, the fiery preachers (note him now, down on one knee, Bible open in his hand, shouting verse after verse onto all that come near), cripples, children, beggars, housewives, buisnessmen, rural folk, market ladies, urban shoppers, and two wandering travelers taking it all in.

No, it´s not a shabby scene at all.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Dollarization of El Salvador

The first thing that I noticed when I arrived in El Salvador is that I didn´t need to exchange dollars for the local currency. A few years ago, the government of El Salvador became the third country (after Ecuador) in the world to make the U.S. dollar its official currency. They have even made the word ¨quarter¨ a Spanish word: Indeed peddlers give prices in quarters: An item might cost three quarters instead of seventy-five cents.

This switch to the dollar seems to make sense given how closely the Salvadorian economy is tied into the U.S. (and clearly illustrates the power structure of our neo-imperialism in the process). But such a decision, while perhaps controlling inflation and reducing transaction costs, the adoption of the dollar undoubtedly threatens the national sovereignty of a country that for so many years has suffered at the hands of ¨the Almighty Dollar.¨

As a traveler, paying in dollars added a new wrinkle to my journey. There´s really no escaping the understanding of how much stuff costs: the prices are written neatly before me in my home currency. Rather, during my time here, I´ve found myself translating prices back into Nicaraguan cordobas in order to assess the comparative value of a good or service.

Furthermore, the appearance of dollars and cents in our wallets again allows me to teach Kamilla a few things about my own country. I´ve taught her the words for ¨dime,¨ ¨nickel,¨ and ¨penny¨ (which she never had to learn before) and given her mini-lectures on the Founding Fathers whose heads grace these coins.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Crossing Borders

This week Kamilla and I crossed from Estelí, Nicaragua through Honduras to San Miguel, El Salvador. Now we´ll spend a few weeks traveling around El Salvador.

We decided not to take a first-class bus, instead doing the connections ourselves. It was simple and cheaper to do so, but the trip is unavoidably a long one. To break up the journey, we spent the night in the Honduran town of San Marcos ($12 for the room, $4 for dinner). Here´s how it broke down:

Estelí-Somoto -- 2 hrs. -- $1/person
Somoto-El Espino -- 0.5 hrs. -- $0.50
Leaving Nicaragua -- $2
Entering Honduras -- $3
Hitching El Espino-San Marco -- 0.5 hrs. -- FREE
San Marco-Choluteca -- 1.5 hrs. -- $1
Choluteca-El Amatillo -- 2 hrs. -- $1.50
El Amatillo-Santa Rosa -- 0.5 hrs. -- $1
Santa Rosa-San Miguel -- 1.5 hrs. -- $1.50

After crossing into Honduras, we chatted for a while with the friendly border guard. Indeed in our brief time in Honduras we were surprised by the extreme kindness of the local people. But it was getting late so we hitched a ride from the border to San Marco in the bed of a pick-up truck. The scenery was as it had been for most of the day: simply beautiful. The expansive green valley fell away before us, and we leaned back against the cab, marveling at what lay before us. The sun dipped behind the mountains in the west, lending them for a little while a golden crown.

The total cost of our trip was $7 per person (with $5 for custom´s fees); a first class bus would have been more than double that. We spread out the 8.5 hours of bus time over two days.

And so here we are, safely in El Salvador, with a new country to explore.

Friday, April 27, 2007

¡Finishing ¨El Alquimista¨!

Cuando una persona desea realmente algo, el Universo
entero conspira para que pueda realizar su sueño.

Well, I´m proud to report that I´ve achieved a major goal of mine for my time here: to read Paulo Coehlo´s ¨The Alchemist¨ in Spanish. The book is titled ¨El Alquimista¨ in español; it was originally written in Portuguese but the story of course begins in Spain.

I was pretty pleased to do it, and it didn´t give me much trouble at all: I read the book in only six days. Of course it helped that I had read the book a half dozen times in English. But this, the first book I´ve read in Spanish that´s more than 200 pages long, proved to be quite an easy read. I found I only needed to look up a few words per page, instead of, say, a few words per sentence. I think I´ll now try and read other books by Coehlo in Spanish since his writing style (e.g. simple words, short sentences) is straight-forward.

And one day, perhaps, off in the future, I´ll be reading Neruda, Garcia Márquez, and Cervantez in Spanish.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Highlands Misadventure

This week I spent a few days visiting in the Northern Highlands on Nicaragua. Kamilla had to meet some friends in Managua, so I went up there alone. I visited Matagalpa, Jinotega, San Rafael del Norte, and Estelí and some rural areas and nature reserves along the way. This is the story of what happened in between.

After spending the night in Matagalpa, and climbing the next morning to the top of Reserva Natural Cerro Apante for fine views over looking the city and the surrounding mountains, I set out for Jinotega by bus. But along the way I called an audible and hopped off on a desolate stretch of the highway. I had decided I wanted to go to little-visited Reserva Natural Dantalí-El Diablo. All I knew from the guidebook was that I needed to walk down a dirt road at ´Km 146´ to Finca La Esmeralda, where I might be able to find lodging and guides for the park. I was on my own, so I figured it was worth a shot.

I hitched a ride to the turn-off, then began walking down the road with all my things. It was the middle of the day and there was no traffic. There were no towns to speak of, just solitary fincas with coffee plantations and flower gardens dotting the hillsides below. There were fine views across the valley to the green and blue hills that seemed never to end. Occasionally I passed a young campesino carrying a machete on the way to or from a farm. But I did not reach La Esmeralda. I had walked for more than an hour, and was very tired, when I spied a little town in the valley below. Perhaps this was it.

This was not it. I was in the pueblo of La Fundadora. The man sitting next to his horse on the side of the road greeted me, and I asked him about La Esmeralda. He knew it, and said it was at least another 5 km further. ¨Largissimo,¨ he told me. I must have looked strange to him, for cheles carrying all their possessions do not often foolishly decide to wander 7 km down this road to get to this small village. He told me to wait and take the one bus that was coming through in 40 minutes. It was not safe to walk alone on these rural roads, he told me, because there were many ladrones (thieves) about. I sat down on the porch of the pulperia and had a Coke and waited for the bus.

On the bus (C$7) a young campesino named Pedro greeted me, and at La Esmeralda he pulled me off the bus and led me to the Director of the Reserva Natural. I was pleased to learn that there was indeed an albergue to stay in, and that guides could take me to the park the next morning. I sat on another pulperia porch with these men for a while, and they too warned me that there were many robbers around. I began to feel uneasy in my new surroundings. I had walked the greater part of 12.5 km to get to this tiny village. I knew nothing about it. All the information in my Lonely Planet had proven unsatisfactory. And here was everyone warning me about danger lurking around.

After some time, Pedro led me up a deserted path to Finca Elizabeth, where I would be staying. Once we were alone, he stopped and pulled himself nearer to me. He then demanded that I give him as a gift 20 pesos. I felt nervous. I had seen this coming: I didn´t like the look in his eye when he was watching me. And my traveler´s instinct made me suspect the way he had attached himself to me so possessively. And now here he was demanding money. I didn´t like the fierce whisper of his voice, that look in his eyes. I looked around. The path was deserted. I began to feel very scared.

--Arregalame 20 pesos.
--Por que lo quiero.
--¿Para que?
(A pause. We stare at each other. I am very scared that he might kill me. I tell him in what must have approached a whimper that I wanted to go to the house.)

So we continued up the path. The nice girl there, Keña, showed me to a bunk in a dark and musty room. This was fine with me. Pedro and his uncomfortable stare left. I was alone there in that farmhouse though and it took me a while to calm down. I really believed that I was going to die. I´ve reflected on that fear for a while now, and it surprises me. In my four years of traveling in this manner, I can´t often recall feeling like that. I think there was a confluence of factors. For one thing, this man who one minute earlier was telling me about the presence of ladrones was then demanding money. Something about his manner (and in his eyes) made me highly uneasy. Furthermore, I have read or heard first-hand many tales recently of travelers who have been robbed or encountered violence in Central America. Writing an article for Harry and Adam´s magazine, the Leóneazy, about how to avoid getting your camera stolen in a robbery probably made me more on edge. I also felt ashamed of my fear since I often scoff at such notions as misplaced stereotypes. Yet here I was succumbing to them. It was a strange and bewildering moment for me.

I sat down to relax in the farmhouse, reading my book. A few hours later the guides came. They were young guys and very much into birds (which I guess is why people come here). Yader told me he´d take me the next morning on his motorcycle to the park. There was fierce rainstorm that night, the type of rain that one must shout over to be heard. I ate a bowl of gallo pinto in a dank hut. I had longed to see rural Nicaragua and here I was, tucked away in a tiny village, deep in the interior of the country.

We woke at six the next morning an I went with the three guides to the reserve. The ride there was on a track made muddy and slippery by the night´s storm. We swerved and skidded along the muddy path. Several times I had to hop off and run to the top of hills as Yader revved the engine to climb the hill. Along the way we passed by tiny huts and little coffee farms clinging to the steep sides of the hills. The epic ride on the motorbike reminded of a similar incident in the desert of Rajasthan, a year and a half before.

We trekked down a path and into a surprisingly dense forest. At the base of the hill we waited for an hour and looked at birds. We saw maybe a dozen species, including some related to the quetzal. You have to be really into birds for this sort of thing, which I am not, but I appreciated how much my guides were. For me, it was just peaceful to smell the morning and watch the stillness of this lush tropical forest. After we finished with the birds we took another sendero down to a raging waterfall, which must have been at least 20 meters high. It was a very worthwhile trip, especially because my guides were so affable.

Having visited to Reserva Natural, I planned to continue on to Jinotega. But I had a problem. Only one bus left for the city in the morning at 6:30 AM; I had already missed it (and only one bus returned in the afternoon.) At 9 AM, I paid for the bed (C$50) and the food (C$20) (the guiding service was free), and walked to the edge of town to try and hitch a ride out. This was possible to do, except that it was such a remote area that saw such little traffic. I sat on the edge of this dirt road on the outskirts of the little village and read. I was glad I had my book because by the time I caught a ride back to La Fundadora, the fifth ride I´ve hitched in Nicaragua, 4 hours and 18 minutes had passed.

4 hours and 18 minutes! That is by far the longest I´ve ever had to wait for a ride in my life.

And I was lucky to get it, since I could have waited 9 hours, or I could have waited for the bus the following morning. It was that remote. My body was jolted as I rode in the back of that pick-up, but I was just happy for the chance. After all, it is a deflating feeling to stand on the side of the road with your thumb out when you´ve been standing there for hours.

From La Fundadora, I still faced a several km walk back to the main Matagalpa-Jinotega highway. The day was still high and so I started off up a hill. This was all uphill. Once again, I was nervous about encountering thieves on these rural roadways. My nervousness increased when another young campesino stopped me, and warned me with that same uneasy glint in his eye about ladrones. I told him he was mistaken, that it was a safe area. No, he told me, you better hurry up. Despite myself, hurry up I did. I walked for another 5 km or so back to the main carretera, and I was exhausted and relieved when I arrived there. Not long after I got there, I hopped on a Jinotega-bound bus, my foray into the interior complete.

I´ve been thinking about what happened for a number of days now. I´ve thought about the friendly and helpful people I´ve met. And I´ve thought about the fear I had then (and still retain) and whether it´s justified. I didn´t set out to have the experience that I did have, I certainly didn´t set out to risk my own life in this way, but that´s sometimes how traveling ends up and it´s really about how you handle situations that are less than ideal. In the course of 24 hours, I was terrified and thrilled. I lost calm within myself and found it again deep in the forest. I lost and restored my faith in people. And I saw a little bit more of this country that fascinates me, and walked away having been in some small way changed by that.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Cock Fight

The first time Kolja asked me if I wanted to go to a cock fight (these are popular events in Latin America where men gamble on two fighting chickens), I told him that cock fighting was immoral and I did not want to go. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I should go to at least see what it was all about, from an anthropological perspective.

A few weeks later, my friends and I went to see a cock fight just around the corner from the school where I work. It was a Saturday night, and I went with a group of my eight closest friends. The scene really is quite remarkable to one has never seen it before. You enter through a narrow alley into a courtyard with a well-lit ring with 3 foot walls and steep metal bleachers erected all around. There were hundreds of men there in baseball caps, t-shirts, and jeans focused on a central ring; there were some women there too of course but this is primarily a masculine endeavor. The ring, perhaps 20 feet in diameter, is decorated with painted advertisements for Nicaraguan beers and Coca Cola. The ring has a sandy dirt floor, lined with wooden square on which the chickens are placed before the fight.

We grabbed our drinks and headed to the top of the bleachers. One fight was finishing and the new chickens were being brought in. The proprietor of each brings the birds from the back (where they are kept in cages and then weighed, with much fanfare. Then he sort of warms the bird up by getting him to hop around and getting him excited by waving another chicken in front of him. Small razor blades are attached to each chicken´s foot. At this point, the patrons have had a good look at the birds (their size, movements, reaction time, etc.) and begin to place bets on the fight. Of course, the owners of each bird have more at stake than anyone. Thousands of cordobas are bet on each fight: Gambling is the whole point.

Since we wanted to partake, my friends and I formed a syndicate. Four or five of us who favored the same bird and would bet 100 cordobas (20 or 25 cordobas a person) against one of the locals standing near us. This was exciting. If we disagreed amongst ourselves on the stronger bird, we might place a small 10 cordoba bet within our group of friends. Betting made this more interesting, because otherwise it´s just two birds pecking and fighting against each other. Altogether that night I won 30 cordobas, or a little less than $2, which isn´t so bad.

The fight begins with much screaming and shouting. And all of a sudden we were caught up in it too. The birds are charging at each other, pecking and ducking and clawing and scratching and moving about the ring. It´s a very professional set up with an umpire and a timer for each match. Often there was a man in the ring with a fancy video camera filming the fight. The owners and the umpire stand around watching the birds go at it. Usually it´s pretty even for the first few minutes and then one bird begins to take the upper hand. As blood starts squirting out onto the feathers and the floor, the crowd´s cheers become more intense, or more desperate.

At the point one it seems one cock has clearly won -- because the other bird has given up fighting, running away or crouching into a ball to minimize to the pain -- the birds are often picked up. At this point, you can see such things as one owner licking the blood from his chicken´s neck. Then comes what to me was the saddest part: Even though it is clear that one chicken is the victor and the other is badly, almost mortally wounded, the birds are still put out there again for a second or even a third time. It is really upsetting to watch these lop-sided attacks, where the winner claws at the loser with his beak and razor-aimed claws. The losing bird is there getting hurt badly. I just don´t see the point to it. It disgusted me.

Then the fight ends and a new batch of birds and owners enter the ring. The rhythm of the night repeats itself for hours on end. We stayed for a few fights and then left, feeling we had gotten a good sense of it. I was glad that I went to see it, but I don´t think I´ll be buying season tickets anytime soon. There was something repugnant in it to me, but I also realize that it´s not my culture and that I can´t judge it. There´s something in a cock fight that appeals to the lifestyle and outlook of the people here; of course it´s foreign to me. Still, it was sad for me to see what happened to the birds at the end of the fight. However, cock fights have been popular events in Central America for hundreds of years, and I don´t think they´re going away anytime soon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Kamilla and I just spent the week staying in Granada. The city is located an hour to the south of Managua and is an ancient colonial rival of León, the city where I was working and living for more than three months.

Granada is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nicaragua, and it´s easy to see why: There are indeed many interesting and accessible sights in and around the city, and many fine restaurants cater to the tourist dollars. It is a pretty town, as all the colonial adobes have a fresh coat of bright paint.

But though we certainly enjoyed our time hanging out there, I´ve decided that I still like León better. There´s a certain vibe to my city that I came to know and appreciate--artsy, liberal, filled with students, with many outlets for music and art. Though not as photogenic on the surface of Granada, I found there were many meaningful pursuits that lay just underneath those worn facades.

More and more, though, I´m finding that the Nicaragua I´ve come to love has been the Nicaraguan experience I´ve forged for myself here: living in my house in León, working with my students, hanging out with my friends, interacting with the locals, riding around on my bicycle in search of frescoes, and just enjoying the rhythms and routines of daily life I´ve created for myself here.