Saturday, September 16, 2006

Food and drink in Nicaragua

September 12, 2006

I have the depressing admission to make that I ate lunch at McDonalds today. I wasn’t able to get out for lunch until quite late, and the only places nearby are a McDonalds, a Subway and a supermarket. This comes as quite a shock for someone used to fast-food-free Kyrgyzstan.

Here, there is a fried chicken chain on just about every corner. Sodas have made their incursion in the same way they have in the U.S., while in Kyrgyzstan, people main drink soft drinks only during parties and special occasions.

With even the local food leaning heavily on the fried side, it’s no surprise that obesity is an issue here.

“She’s a bit fat,” one man told me today, explaining why he thought a 63-year-old woman was healthy and would live a few more years.

“It’s only here in the Caribbean that people consider being fat to be healthy,” his boss, Armando, said. “But really, they could have a heart attack at any time. And it’s largely due to our diet and its effects on our health that our life expectancy is only 60.”

Right now, one city, Leon, is suffering tremendously from people taking in an unhealthy beverage. Aguardiente, an alcoholic drink similar to rum, but without the mandatory four years aging, is drunk mostly by alcoholics and the poor.

Vendors of this drink buy it in 55 gallon drums. And to each five gallons, they might add a gallon of water, increasing their earnings by diluting it. If they add too much water, they add a bit of methanol in order to retain the alcohol level.

Recently, someone added too much methanol, and people (mostly men) are falling by the dozens. Last I heard, 36 people had died. The hospital in Leon is full and patients are being transferred to Managua. The U.S. military has donated supplies and the front page news story today was that an antidote to the effects of methanol was acquired and being administered to the patients. Those who survive could face blindness or the ruination of their digestive systems.

I also learned today about a restaurant not far from my house that makes a famous sopa levantomuertos (soup to raise the dead). It’s only served from 8 p.m., contains lobster, fish and shrimp, and is served very hot, in order to sweat out alcohol. After drinking and dancing, when people are drunk and feel they can’t take any more, they order this soup and suddenly regain the strength to continue dancing throughout the night.

Hairy pig skin, methanol laced homemade alcohol, soup that makes one sweat. Yum yum.

One week after being virtually paralyzed by my lack of speech, I can now communicate. I understand most of what’s being said. I can read the local newspaper And while I think I still sound like an idiot, I can more or less get my points across.

Russian words dot my speech frequently. But other times, I try to think of a word in Russian and find I can’t reach beyond the Spanish. It will probably be another struggle to adjust when I return to Kyrgyzstan and find myself using Spanish words in the place of Russian.

At home (or not) in the city

September 11, 2006

Yesterday I tried to take my first walk and didn’t have much luck. I got lost (even going a short distance). Yes, the guidebook is right. There are no landmarks in this city and no center. I didn’t have any real problems. But I didn’t feel safe.

A lot of men whistled at me and made smooching sounds or under the breath comments. I haven’t experienced that since high school. And it’s a strange, and unwelcome change, from Kyrgyzstan, where no one harasses me in any way. They consider me much too old to warrant any attention in any case.

I felt I had to take my watch off, even though it’s not of any significant value. After I put it in my pocket, I continued to look around me vigilantly, feeling obvious and out of place on the quiet Sunday streets.

I learned that Sunday is the day of rest and most businesses are closed. Even in the middle of the day, the streets are virtually empty.

I made a mini-project for myself to learn the bus routes, thinking that would force me to pay more attention to my surroundings, to learn my way around, and to have more contact with the people I feel too separated from.

That worked relatively well. I took two buses yesterday. I got off of one too early, and ended up needing to take a taxi. But at least I learned something in the process.

Today, during my lunch break, I went out to a nearby market to start buying souvenirs for my Kyrgyz colleagues. I told the guard I was taking a look at the market and left. I asked passersby where the handicrafts section was, found it, and was doing just fine when I suddenly noticed the wide-hipped cleaning lady at my side. Someone had sent her after me, to mind me, to take care of me.

She immediately instructed me to take off my watch, and to be careful with the plastic bag I carried. I appreciated the sentiment of her protection. But her presence made it impossible for me to shop. Could I spend $10 on a painted box for my niece knowing that she likely earned less than that in a day? No. So I bought something cheaper.

She led me to a Jamaican café for a quick fritanga – fried platter of stewed chicken with black beans and fried plantains. And when they didn’t have Diet Coke, she went out and brought one to me. Only when I convinced her I could make it the several feet back to the office on my own did she leave.

I am allowed to walk the ten minutes to work. But then am shepherded from the office to another office and back home. Everyone I have contact with seems to know where I am at any one time. While this is very nice from a security perspective, it unfortunately leads me toward the more typical expatriate lifestyle, of living a life outside of and beyond the local community. I haven’t had a chance to have extended conversation with anyone besides my colleagues, so Awalter, my Spanish teacher, has become my main window into the culture.

Today during Spanish class, Awilliam told me he loves chicharon, fried pig skin.

“Have you tried it?” he asked.

I said I hadn’t. But I’d be interested in trying it if it was locally popular.

“I have some right here!” he said. And to my surprise, he unzipped his black portfolio. He popped a skin into his mouth, with a crunch, and handed one to me.

I took a bite of the hard, crunchy thing and didn’t like it especially.

“Is this a pig hair?” I asked him, looking at a small red hair on the skin.

“Yes,” he said, seeming embarrassed, as though it wasn’t supposed to be there. “But it’s been well fried.”

“And this too?” I asked, finding one more, and then several others. The hairs made it too easy to imagine the pig’s paw and I found it pretty gross. I put it to the side of my papers during the lesson, then gave it back, thanking him for the experience.

A visit to the city center

September 10, 2006

I was pretty bummed out to be here a week and feel as though I really hadn’t seen anything of the city. So today, I organized a conversational Spanish lesson and arranged for it to be held somewhere in the city.

Awilliam picked me up in his 1981 Datsun truck. None of the indicators – speed, temperature, gas – worked, to roll down my window, he attached the crank, then removed it, and opening the door required a punch in a certain location of the door. But I was excited to get out and see something – anything.

His plan was to take me to Revolution Plaza. But the main road was closed off, due to a motorcycle race and we had to take a detour.

We went through what Awilliam said used to be old Managua. Until the earthquake of 1972, it was the center of town and filled with multistory buildings. But now mostly one-story homes of low-income residents fill it. Even these are built with steel rods to weather future earthquakes. Awilliam said that parts of Managua lie directly on faults.

Early on a Sunday morning, there wasn’t much activity at the Revolution Plaza. But I saw the most attractive collection of buildings I’ve seen so far in Managua.

We stood in front of the old cathedral, where two guards kept visitors at bay and the birds living inside tweeted contentedly.

“It’s their palace,” Awilliam said.

It had been heavily damaged in the earthquake of 72 and Awilliam said that pieces can come tumbling down at any time. It seemed to be a dangerous job for the two guards.

A still, round fountain stood in between the church, the yellow and sand-colored Presidential offices, the ivory National Museum, and a deteriorating park. This fountain, Awilliam said, used to be very beautiful. And in order to tell me the story, he filled me in on the past several decades of Nicaraguan history.

At the time of Nicaraguan independence, in 1921, there were two parties, the Liberal and the Conservative Party. The conservative party almost always held control. In 1893 the Liberal Party sponsored a revolution, wanted more changes. Among their achievements were bringing coffee to Nicaragua for production and export. By the mid 1950s, Nicaragua had good roads, plenty of work and a strong currency.

But at that time, the hippies set the fashion. And when the Cuban revolution took place in 1959, the Liberal party no longer seemed to be on the forefront of change. The future was with Castro and with the Soviet Union.

A group of Nicaraguans went for ideological and military training in socialism. These people later founded the FSLN (the Sandinistan Front for National Liberation), which opposed the Liberal party. They began a guerilla war, which drove President Samosa out of office in 1979.

When the FSLN assumed power, they moved to the extreme left, forming close relations with Castro and Qaddafi, confiscating homes and land from the rich, jailing and killing people with other ideas.

The people didn’t want an extreme government, so they began a contra-revolution, which the U.S. assisted. Wars began in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

“Nicaragua served as a bridge for transporting arms to this different wars,” Awilliam said. “The U.S. knew Cuba could be controlled because it was an island. But Nicaragua had the possibility to spread these problems throughout the region.”

In 1985 the population asked for elections. The FSLN agreed, but only allowed the FSLN, Socialists and Communists to run. The FSLN won.

By 1989, the war was serious. Young men were drafted from schools and universities, sent to fight without any experience, died.

“The mothers and fathers looked ahead to the future and saw that their children would die in battle. They didn’t want war anymore,” Awilliam said. So they asked the Organization of American States and the UN for pluralistic elections with observers.

The FSLN gave permission to anyone who wanted to form a political party. Despite the continued danger of opposing the regime, 14 parties were established.

“No one could speak openly,” Awilliam said. “On each corner stood CDSs, members of the Committee in Defense of the Sandinistas. They were the eyes and ears of the Revolution. They could kill anyone they thought was against the Revolution.”

The parties recognized that without uniting, they couldn’t defeat the FSLN, which controlled all the countries resources. So in September of 1989, they formed into a single party, Party UNO, the Union of National Opposition.

UNO won the election and took power in 1990.

“It was very difficult for them though,” said Awilliam. “Because everything Nicaragua had was under FSLN control – the police, the army, transport. They couldn’t just change the leaders because there were masses of people under them still loyal to the FSLN, who could organize coups. They decided to leave the leaders in place, to try to change them little by little.”

In the 1995-96 elections, UNO disappeared and the 14 parties competed separately. The Liberal Party won, based on the progress it had made during its former rule. The President, Arnoldo Aleman, obtained investments, built new hotels and tourist structures, and created the National Museum, the Presidential offices, and the fountain we were looking at.

“But he had a problem,” Awilliam said. “He stole money. There was a lot of corruption.”

By 2001, the population, tired of the corruption, was ready to vote FSLN back into power. Until the events of September 11th. After the attack on the World Trade Center, FSLN leader Daniel Ortega was interviewed on TV. He congratulated Osama Bin Ladin, saying it was about time the U.S. experienced the same thing it did in other countries.

After that interview, President Bush said that if the FSLN won the election, the U.S. would immediately impose a blockage on Nicaragua, equal to those imposed on Cuba, Iraq and North Korea.

“The Nicaraguans knew what a blockade was like from the 1980s,” Awilliam said. “And they were afraid. Even the Sandinistas didn’t vote for the Sandinistas.”

So the former Liberal Party vice-President, Enrique Volanyos, became President.

“The fountain had expensive colored lights, streams of water, and speakers. But that wasn’t all,” Awilliam said. “The water and lights moved to the rhythm of the music. So when a particular symphony was played, the water and light flashed and moved to the music. People would gather at the park to watch and listen.”

However, in the last two biannual municipal elections, the Sandinistas won. And the Sandinistas ignored the fountain. When it broke, due to neglect, they didn’t want to repair it, because it had been created by the Liberals.

We walked to a nearby area, where we ambled along the top rows of a white bandstand. In one direction, I could look out at the obelisk built to honor Pope John Paul II, at a faded amusement park and young boys driving four-wheelers for rent, at a statue of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of the Americas, on a horse.

In the other direction, I looked out at the shores of Lake Xolotlan, polluted due to dirty water that has run into it from higher elevations, and a series of small lakeside cafes, where people gather to drink and dance in the evenings. A Cuban café played upbeat Spanish music, wild parakeets make a constant racket, and the smell of garbage filled the air, despite the impressive numbers of trash bins.

“The government keeps reminding people to keep their city clean. But they throw things on the ground anyway. It’s very difficult to change,” Awilliam said.

I looked out at culture, history, nature and amusement, at a place with so much potential. But it felt run-down, abandoned, stripped of its potential. Maybe it appears differently in the evenings, when concerts are in progress and the heat and spirit of the people liven the area up. But for now, it seemed emblematic of where Nicaragua is right now – a place of potential that needs a good push forward.

When I returned home, I turned on the TV. Awilliam had told me that channel 8 showed sensational local news. And when I came across it, the coverage struck me. A motorcycle, that had participated in the races we passed, hit some bystanders. One person died and four were injured.

The news camera came in for close-up shots of the stunned and hurt living, as well as the woman who’d died. According to the broadcaster, the heavyset woman lying face-down in the street, her legs splayed, her shorts ripped open, was a vendor named Dona Theresa. She’d been selling things to the bystanders and had been with a child, who wasn’t with her at the time of the accident. The camera zoomed in to where guts were spilling out of her knee, where the bike had probably run over her.

It was really distressing to see. It may be called censorship, but I’m glad the news in the U.S. doesn’t show such images. It didn’t do me any good to see that. I only found it disturbing to see the lifeless body of someone who rose this morning to work, trying to support her family. And it must be terrible for her relatives. The broadcaster seemed to expect her relatives to be watching.

“Her body is in the morgue, waiting to be identified by relatives,” she said. “Dona Theresa didn’t have any identification on her.”

Caught in the rain

September 9, 2006

Today at my Spanish lesson, my teacher, Awilliam, told me he’d missed the news last night.

“So today, when I went to the university to teach,” he said, “I found out that two of my students, sisters, aged 15 and 19, died in a house fire.”

He said it was caused by an electrical problem. The father had left early for work. The girls didn’t have classes that day and were still sleeping. The neighbors heard their screams from the second floor.

“Why couldn’t they jump?” I asked.

“Because, you know, in Nicaragua security is very important.” They’d had metal bars on their windows, to keep thieves out, but also to trap them in.

“Those on the first floor got out,” he said. “But those upstairs died.” He paused. “They were so young.”

At 4 p.m. today, I had my very first free time in the daylight, an hour or two to go see or do something in the city. I decided to visit the volcanic lake of Tiscapa. This crater lake, in the center of town, was supposedly very clean in the past. But during the Sandinista time, it was contaminated by another water source and is now said to be pretty nasty.

I’d read they had a canopy ride – something I think is like a cable that you attach yourself to and swing across the landscape and thought it would be fun to try.

Awilliam gave me a lift on the back of his motorcycle. Dark clouds gathered on one horizon and Awilliam commented on the approaching rain. I didn’t take it too seriously. Although it’s supposed to be rainy season, I haven’t actually seen a heavy rain yet.

We drove to an overlook where I could see the greenish brown water at the base of a forested crater. Kayaks paddled back and forth.

He dropped me off at the other side of the lake, at the park entrance. I walked uphill, past a series of bright white steps lined with tanks – a soldier’s memorial. A bolt of lightening crashed into the ground just ahead of me, causing me to tremble. By the time I’d neared the top of the hill, raindrops had begun to fall. Grey clouds covered half of the sky, while the other half was sunny and blue.

I expected the rain to pass quickly. I knew a canopy ride was no longer in the plan, but I wanted to explore the lake and the park a bit. So I huddled under an umbrella and wanted for it to stop. Instead, it only intensified. When I looked at the darkness of the sky, I realized it would probably take a while and started making my way downhill.

By this time, I was drenched. My pants were completely soaked, my sandals squeaked, sopping with water, and I could only dry to keep my backpack from getting too wet. Water coursed down the roads and ran in waterfalls off the roofs, and down a crumbling stadium.

I sloshed my way to the Crown Royal, a fancy hotel nearby, where I’ve just joined the health club. (I know, I feel very uncomfortable patronizing a ritzy hotel in a country this poor. But after going almost a whole week without a workout, I realized that for now, this is my only chance for getting some exercise). One of the benefits of the health club is access to the swimming pool. And they might have thought I’d jumped into the pool, fully clothed, as I dripped down their hallways.

The lightening continued to jolt the earth with such power, I worried about metal nearby, and could imagine being hit. Even the health club worker winced when a bolt landed seemingly just beyond the swimming pool.

“I think it was a hurricane,” my taxi driver later said, recommending not to walk in such powerful rain, because the roads turn into rivers. I’d been eager to see what makes the land so green and it showed itself with all it’s force. Not only could I visualize the source of the greenery, but I saw the powerful workings of the earth, the angry torrents that, along with other geological activity, whipped the earth into its shape of volcanoes, mountains, jungles, lakes and craters.

So I cut short my exploration plans with a short workout, a peek at the movie theater in a modern mall across the street, and then a few precious, extremely welcome hours to myself at home. I didn’t even mind that our storm knocked out our power, and that I’m writing this in blackness.

Masaya cathedral and central square

farmer with her alter

inside of middle-class home

Thursday, September 14, 2006

First Day in Managua

September 5, 2006

I didn’t have much opportunity to spend time on the street yesterday, but I did finally make it downtown and caught my first glimpses of the capital. What did I notice? A bright, colorful city under a hot, sunny, cloudless sky. Plenty of green, with tropical trees lining the median. Colorful ads, for deodorant, Fanta, Esso gas. Small, run-down buildings followed by nicer areas.

We passed a square where people seemed to live on hammocks strung from the trees and under flimsy tents made of black plastic. I asked a colleague, Kenia, why they were there.

“There was a banana company that used chemicals that caused mutations
in people. But because the company is no longer in Nicaragua and has been bought by another company, they don’t want to deal with the consequences. Those people live there in hopes that the government will support them.”

“How long have they been there?”

“A long time. Too long.”

A large bronze statue with a man holding a gun toward the sky, a red and black flag at the tip of the gun. “Only the workers and peasants will go to the end. FNT.” Lots of activity on the street. My companions told me to lock my door when we stopped at a stoplight.

“It’s dangerous,” they said, as a window washer approached, as well as vendors selling everything from tires to books to passing cars. A man sat on the median, making sit-upons out of plastic, a row of colorful two-part chairs hanging on the line.

They told me it is the safest country in Central America, perhaps in Latin America. However, they said some parts of the city are OK for walking, others not. Even my new neighborhood, which is considered one of the better areas, is apparently not safe to walk through after 7 p.m.

“That’s the barrio!”, the driver, Alfredo, said with emphasis as we passed an intersection that led to a row of common houses among the fancier neighbors. As if the barrio was populated by untouchables. It makes me feel separate, isolated from these people, most of whom are probably good.

Alfredo said there were too many people out of work there, the street was dark and isolated at night, and sometimes groups of men would stand out on the corner. I wish I had my bike. If I had wheels, I know I could outrun them.

I spent the day at the office, where several guards with guns stood at the door. Despite the scary-looking security, in the entire country, there was only one attack and that was five years ago.

I slowly, very slowly, began to dip back into my Spanish. My last opportunity to speak Spanish was the two weeks I spent in the Dominician Republic over two years ago. And before that, I had another hiatus of several years.

My ability to understand depends on who is speaking, but is somewhere in the 80 to 90% range. This is the only factor that prevents me from feeling like a complete idiot. Because my speaking is horrendous. When I arrived at the hotel, words came out slowly, individually, in little, hesitant shots. At the office, trying to talk about professional issues, it was even harder. At times, I had to give up and try English as I sat in silence, trying unsuccessfully to dig up the Spanish word from under the Russian and English.

My colleagues and boss are supportive. We spoke only Spanish during our lunch at an Italian restaurant, where I enjoyed fish from the sea, despite my significantly slowing down the conversation. And I’ll start Spanish lessons today, hopefully an hour a day.

Except for the little time I spend writing, I’ll be fully immersed in Spanish – with all dialogue and written materials in Spanish at work. At home I’m trying to limit myself to Spanish TV and Spanish books, at least until I improve. Russian has never seemed so easy and comforting as now!

At lunch, my boss, Carl, told me Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti. I asked what prevented it from developing. He named two reasons. One is the general lack of development in the country and the fact that Nicaragua doesn’t have a special hold in any of the agricultural products they produce – coffee, bananas. Second is the corruption among the elites. He said the former President was said to have stolen $300 million dollars. Nicaragua exports the equivalent of $600-700 million a year. So one person stole half of an entire year’s export income. There are powerful families who control much of the countries, establishing monopolies (for example, in sugar), and then controlling the associated industries.

I asked about the growth potential for small businesses not associated with these families. He said generally, the best they can hope for is stability, or diversification in sources of income, rather than strong, continued growth.

I live close to the office, so I can walk in the mornings. It’s an attractive little arrangement. Called an apartment, I have a bedroom, joint kitchen/dining room/living room, and bathroom. It’s simply, but nicely furnished and has basic kitchen equipment. There are eight such apartments, which are visited and cleaned daily by the staff.

A few things I noticed early on about the life and culture include: the importance of coffee (a tea with milk drinker here is considered strange), a love of air conditioning and the unfortunate presence of the large yellow arches with McDonalds hamburguesas. Best of all, I love the public schoolbuses, which the owners seemed to take great pride in. They paint them bright colors, hang strips of cloth from either side that flutter in the wind, and name them, such as Lobo de Aire – Wolf of the Air. Watching them move through the city is to me like seeing flowers move down the street.

In the evening, I went to a supermarket to pick up something for dinner. The long, bright rows glimmered with local and imported food, toiletries, even clothing. And it was packed. At least ten carts stood in line patiently to have their fruits and vegetables weighed. I liked the foreign feel among the modernness, the local fruits and vegetables, the huge bags of rice and beans, and the products I don’t see elsewhere, like guava jelly.

For less than 20 cents, I bought a package of six starfruit. Justified or not, I don’t know yet, but I don’t have the confidence in the quality of Nicaraguan produce and meats as I do in the Kyrgyz. The banana chemical protest scared me. And I have the sense that products are made cheaply when possible. My orange juice, which said it was from concentrate, had sugar in it. My ice cream, instead of cream, used skim milk and then added animal fat. In this strange city, where there don’t seem to be commercial centers, I haven’t yet been able to clearly identify where I can find food, other than at McDonalds or the supermarket. So it will be a process of exploration.

A Series of Mishaps

September 3, 2006

Enroute to Nicaragua, I had a short stop in the U.S. There, I got caught in tropical storm Ernesto. I saw the mean, powerful grey waves build up their strength before crashing into shore, spreading spray over the spectators. The greyness was absolute, spreading out to the horizon and then across the sky, a gravid sign of the storm to come. We decided to escape the rainy afternoon by heading to the movies (I thought Little Miss Sunshine would brighten things up). Upon emerging from the movie theater, we found the island strip of Jersey shore we were on flooded.

We ended up driving along roads that were like lakes. From the car window, I watched pedestrians cross the street in water up to their knees, travel in blow-up plastic boats, look outside front doors as the water crept up around their houses, and stand on dry patches snapping photos of the driving through the floods. It was quite scary to think of the car stalling in the deep water, to be stuck on a small strip of land as the water continued to rise. I thought of how terrifying it must have been for those standing on their rooftops during Hurricane Katrina, watching the waters rise toward them.

Luckily, we got out OK, and I got to Nicaragua. The view from the plane upon landing was enticing. From the order, pools, red roofs, and waterways I saw upon takeoff from Miami, Nicaragua provided a contrast of dense greenery under a soup of clouds. The remote, scattered homes seemed rare among the immense, vast swathes of green. It looked dark, empty and wild, brightened by the rainbow that descended vertically from the clouds toward the land.

We flew over a dark body of water, Lake Xolotlan, and then an attractive city on the lakeside – Managua. As a lover of lakes, I think I’ll be happy here. Managua is right on one lake, and only 30 minutes from another large, reputedly beautiful lake. And Managua, at least from the air, looked much more attractive than my guidebook led to me believe. A few singular peaks, which reminded me of Osh’s Souleymane mountain, rise in the mist behind the city. I noticed red and gray roofs, a traffic circle, and lots of rigs. At 6:53 we landed on the bright green runway, dense trees nearby.

But no one was there to meet me at the airport, as had been planned. And on a Sunday night, I didn’t know who to call nor where to go. So I found myself alone in a foreign country with no money, no contacts and no ideas of where to go.

I ended up taking the easiest option, by walking across the street to the Best Western. I’ll spend the night here and hope the logistics can be ironed out when offices open for work again tomorrow.

This is the nicest Best Western I’ve ever been to and is a very pleasant place to spend my first evening in Nicaragua. The hallways are outdoors and the rooms are like small cabins. It feels light, clean, colorful and tropical. If only I wasn’t alone…