Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some color on Nicaraguan life

As fascinating as it may be to detail the goings-on of our writing workshop, even more interesting for you, dear reader, is probably the culture of Nicaragua itself. Given that, I'd like to take some space here to share some of the culture I've absorbed from this country, so that you can also feel immersed in it.

So to start - Nicaraguans are very clean people, in general. Even when it is 95 degrees, breezes kick up the dust all around, and the scalding sun shines down with such intensity you think it'd run out soon, people still put themselves together each day. Both men and women often slick their hair with some sort of gel or wax, with men combing their hair neatly back and women pulling their hair tight, tight into a neat ponytail or bun. Clothing is often neatly washed and not wrinkled, with many color shirts, slacks, and closed-toed shoes (heat notwithstanding). Houses are swept frequently and things kept in place, even when the roofs are made of tin (most of them are) and the wall are rudimentary (generally cement, stucco, or just giant swathes of tin pieces together like a quilt). In the rainy season, the rain can make such a clamor on the roof that they say it's hard to hear yourself think. I imagine it gets quick messy in the rainy season, as most houses have a 6-inch space between the top of the wall and the roof. I assume this is for ventilation, but it also allows the snoring of the neighbor, the howling of the dogs, the crowing of the roosters, the buzz of night insects and of course anyone's gossip to float through the houses along the breeze.

Almost every house in Nicaragua has a dog for protection, all looking looking as lean and tough and any stray mutt. Though they bark at times, these dogs are in the end are well-trained and polite. They generally lounge about the front of the each house in the dust, or wander about looking for anything suspicious or fun to play with. At night, one dog's growl, snarl, or bark can set off the others, but their excitement never lasts long. With the high rate of petty theft and other crimes in Nicaragua, having these dogs around must add a sense of security, or at least hope.

The men of Nicaragua mostly do farm work, construction, or other basic manual labor. They work on the farms that fill Nicaragua (not patchwork farms like you'd imagine in America, but smaller plots on scraggly, chaparral-like land). They grow beans, rice, tomatoes, and fruit. Giant papayas and avocados, mangoes, banana bunches and pineapples are grown everywhere, and sold in the busy local market. Many young schoolboys have to take several months off of school each year to farm with their families. This help with the harvest often puts them behind their studies in school, but there is little option. Girls also have to take time off school at times - if they are in school - to help with some manual labor as well. The number of single mothers in Nicaragua is astounding - so many have several children, perhaps aren't officially married yet, and then the men leave. These women are everywhere, running their households with such hutzpah and effort.

Everyone gets up at 5am. This is when the roosters crow, the sun comes up, and it is slightly cooler. Breakfast is gallo pinto, or rice and beans. Little is added to this dish besides water, and lots of salt. While rice and beans are eaten three times / day, essentially, a couple other ingredients may be added - chicken, dried, super-salty cheese that looks like sticks of feta, ayote (a cucumber-like vegetable in the squash family that can be sauteed), plantains (dried, boiled, fried, steam, you-name-it), and sometimes bread. Most families can't afford to have very much meat at home, though. Chicken is a special thing.

The women wash the family's clothing in the one sink in each house. These deep, wide sinks are made of dark cement, and reminded me of the sinks we used in elementary school art-class. The bottom of the sink has some fifteen ridges, used to scrub out the dust and sweat from clothing. The same sinks are used to wash faces, wash food, brush teeth, do the laundry, and clean the dishes. To the right of the sink is another sink that's 5 inches wide and a couple feet long, with a faucet, and this is often filled up for the day, with a plastic bowl left in it to scoop water out and onto the dishes/faces/hands/clothing that are being washed. This helps hugely in preserving water during the week.

The kids are pretty happy-go-lucky, not-with-standing the hardship. Often those with the biggest smiles in our classes had some of the hardest background. Nicaragua is not safe, and all know it. People know the groups of men hanging out who are professional thieves, who go into the city to pick-pocket and break into houses, and then return to their own town at night. The townspeople don't speak up, because they say it is better to be friends with them than on their bad side. People walk carefully, and are wary of city buses and walking or traveling-about after dark. Everyone is in bed by 8:30 or 9pm. Many people burn their garbage, and walking along at night you'll often see piles of cinders glowing alongside the road.

Huge portions of Nicaragua are undeveloped, with only a house here or there, and otherwise only scattered Fincas or bus-stops in sight. Nicaragua has huge capacity to become an eco-tourist zone, like Costa Rica, but has not taken advantage of it. This has helped to leave the nature undeveloped. We will see what happens in the future.

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