Nicaragua Part 4: Field Trip!

The second full day I spent in Nicaragua gave us a bit of a chance to walk around Samuel’s hometown, Pantasma de Maria. Since our time in the country was limited, we tried to pack a lot of socializing and getting-things-done time into one day. I began with an attempted visit to one of the outhouses in the backyard. I’d not “gone” since I arrived in the country, partly because of my sickness while traveling there, and partly because of a hesitance to sit on or even squat above a concrete shitter filled with cockroaches, if at all possible. But this morning, the call of nature was turning into a scream. I pleaded with my body to just hold out one more day, and maybe we could enjoy the facilities at the Managua bus station on the return trip, but my guts were following their own agenda. So, I gave up, grabbed a roll of toilet paper, and headed out the back. I made all sorts of faces as I opened the door to the latrine. I laid a few scraps of TP on the concrete rim of the hole, to enjoy at least the partial illusion of sanity and/or comfort. I pulled down my pants and began to squat down, but just as my left ass cheek partially glanced the rim of the john, my ass sent a high speed message to my brain, something to the effect of, “Oh shit, you were right!” My system shut down immediately, like a NASA mission control center struck by lightning. And it stayed shut down until I arrived at my toilet back here in Costa Rica. At that point, the food or water in Nicaragua began to have a profound effect on my constitution, and I spent a fair amount of my free time for the next two weeks sitting on that same toilet, contending with what I began to call “Nicarrhea.”
But enough talking shit.
Midmorning, Samuel and I left the house with his sister-in-law and her son in tow. To get to the center of town we took a bus which, although it was only a broken-down Toyota 12-passenger van, at least got us there quicker. On the way, I was surprised at how poor things really were. I mean, I’d seen Indian reservations in the US and driven by the slums of Buenos Aires and Mexico City, but while those places all exhibited poverty, they still had at least a certain level of material comforts. Many houses in those places had glass windows and even a TV, but that was not the case in Nicaragua. I read in my travel book that after Haiti, it’s the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Which makes me curious to check out Haiti sometime, actually.
We first tried to track down the Western Union office, which had apparently moved. Samuel had tried to send 40 dollars a few months before, and something had gone wrong. We finally found the office in a building guarded by a fat man with a pistol and shotgun. At one point another man walked by the fat guard, grabbed the pistol from his belt, said something quickly, and went into the office. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I guess perhaps the fat guard had been holding on to his friend’s pistol while the friend did a quick errand somewhere else. I hope. Otherwise, the casualness and ease with which some guy walked into a money transfer office with a gun is somewhat alarming.
We also went to the city hall to do something involving Samuel’s birth certificate. While I was waiting, I read a poster on the wall that gave information about Nicaragua in general, and it listed some facts and statistics. The statistic that caught my attention the most was one that said that 78% of the young people in Nicaragua would leave the country, if they had the chance. There were no qualifying statements like “If working conditions were better elsewhere,” but I still have a feeling that these young Nicaraguans weren’t expressing a desire to leave the country to go on a classic 4-week European Riviera summer tour. The results for the same question were lower for older people and city residents, but still, that number is pretty alarming. I tried to imagine what America would look like if things were bad enough to make 78% of its youth want to jump ship. It was hard to do, and mainly I just came up with a vision of lots of cars burning in the streets while chants of “Hail President Rosie O’Donnell!” rang out. Still, it’s an obvious statement that the children are the hope and future of any country or group of people, so if your children are looking to bail, it doesn’t spell out a very pretty future for your country.
Speaking of the youth of a nation, one of their representatives was outside of the town hall, drunk as a skunk. A shitfaced skunk so drunk it can’t even hold its bottle of booze. When he saw me, he tried talking to me, but all I could make out in the slur of words was, “Gracias al Dios, es un gringo!” He tried grabbing my arm, but missed by a fair shot and almost fell down. Right then, Samuel came back out and led me away, and we continued on our magical mystery tour.
The tour included a few more Poverty Highlights, the most interesting one having to do with Toddler Fashion. We saw a fair number of naked kids standing and/or running outside, but they weren’t the carefree, cradle-to-the-grave social security, Scandinavian kind of naked kids. These were abject poverty, do-you-have-any-food-or-pants-for-me?, Third World kind of naked kids. One fashion combo that was featured prominently was the young child wearing a shirt, but nothing else, leaving his or her butt and junk to stick out. I’ve never really understood this combo, because it seems to me that once you’re sporting a truly unfinished basement, there’s really no point in wearing a small T-shirt to cover what’s left of your above-the-belt “shame.”
As we walked through town, though, I noticed that the drunk at the city hall had not been an isolated event…well, he was actually the only drunk we came across, but what he said wasn’t isolated. Many people seemed to be interested in a tall guy with blue eyes and blond hair, even if the hair was covered in a hat. A few times, random schoolgirls said hi to me and smiled, and one random guy in his early 20s tried to shake my hand. After my encounter with the drunk guy, I thought this new guy was joking, but Samuel said I should go shake his hand. The guy said that they appreciated Americans a lot, and he was glad to see me there. Even stranger, he seemed to mean it.
The gears in my brain whirred as I tried to process this information. As a bit of a traveler, I’ve seen a fair part of the world, although it was mostly the European part. In the last few years, especially, Americans haven’t always been welcomed with open arms, even though their tourist dollars might have been. In Germany, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Slovenia, Italy, the United States itself, and various other countries, I’ve experienced some variety of anti-American or anti-Bush sentiments, especially in the form of graffiti or mumbled comments. But here I was in Nicaragua, just a few short months after the Sandinista Daniel Ortega had re-won the presidential election, in a part of the country that was known for continued small-scale Sandinista activity…and the people loved Americans? What the hell was going on?
I talked to Samuel about this, and he said that the goodwill was in fact genuine, and that most people are able to separate a person or group of people from country’s political outlook. It made me feel pretty good to hear him say that. I also found out a lot more about Samuel and his original reasons for leaving home nearly 20 years ago. The main reason had to do with the civil war. It had affected his village a lot, and there were multiple threats against his family, who had supported the Sandinistas. He had eventually left after his family members’ houses had been shot up various times and people from the village had been hanged. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to talk to him about his past, and I have a feeling that I just scratched the surface of the Samuel Experience.
We paid visits to a few of Samuel’s friends, and I took pictures of some of them. I thought it was interesting that before taking pictures, most people asked for us to give them a few minutes to change into their nicest clothes, since they wanted to look good for their photos. Also, that’s perhaps a reason that these pictures don’t really show people in old crappy clothes, or men my age wearing T-shirts that say stuff like “1998 Southern Minnesota Girls High School Volleyball Tournament.” Most of all, though, I came to appreciate my digital camera’s capability to display the pictures I’d just taken, which people loved. (Also, thanks to Bobby for the extra battery you gave me—it saved my ass!)
We eventually made our way back to the house to visit more with Samuel’s neighbors. Charita approached me on the porch and asked if I knew how to write. I told her yes, so she asked if she could dictate me a letter, since she couldn’t write very well these days. I thought that was kind of ironic, considering that due to Sandinista educational movements decades ago, most everyone else there probably was able to write, but she still chose the Foreign Guy who couldn’t hardly understand a word she said. Still, I did it. It was a long process, and I’m sure the letter she dictated to me in Spanish was full of mistakes and may spark off another minor civil war in the region.
A bit later in the afternoon, four of us guys went to a cemetery to clear off Samuel’s mother-in-law’s grave, which had become covered with weeds. It’s always interesting to see how people bury their dead in other countries, and here was no exception. The cemetery was actually more of a field with an occasional tomb, and various chickens and other animals were walking all around. It was near a series of beautiful hills on one side and a misty valley on the other side, and all in all, it didn’t seem like such a bad place to spend the rest of your death.
As we were working on clearing the area, one of the guys—whom Samuel called “Chico,” although that might not be his real name—cut his leg with a machete. It wasn’t too big of a gash, but it was still bleeding a fair amount. He was laughing a bit, so I didn’t feel too bad laughing as they collectively decided that the best provisional treatments would be to put a leaf on it, and to secure the leaf with a handkerchief. Just another hazard of living the Way of the Machete. Plus, if the pros even do it, now I won’t feel so bad when the time comes when I cut myself with my own machete.
That night, we visited Samuel’s brother’s house, and we ate a candlelight dinner outside. Not for romance, mind you, but rather because there wasn’t a room inside, and the house doesn’t have electricity. Near the end, just when I thought we were about to make tracks back to Samuel’s house, he started to ask his brother for forgiveness for fighting when they were kids. Then their mom asked for forgiveness, too. What proceeded took about an hour and a half, and was uncomfortable, to say the least. They were holding each other in a group hug, crying and talking and praying, and at one point, Samuel’s brother’s wife joined in. That left me on the periphery, along with two of the daughters of the house, who I had never actually been introduced to. I could sense that they also felt awkward about the situation, but fortunately, there was no light, so we didn’t feel compelled to make awkward conversation. While everyone else was weeping and praying, we stood quietly to the side of the circle, rocking back and forth from our heels to our toes to avoid passing out.
Probably the most awkward part of the prayer circle was when Samuel referred to me a few times as an “angel of God,” since I’d paid for his bus ticket. I’m not a really vocal person about my personal beliefs, so for me, it was kind of disturbing to be called an angel. “Let’s not exaggerate,” I told him. I think if I actually were an angel, I should have the power to fly, or at least be able to have flowing Angel Hair. And I probably wouldn’t cuss as much. So I don’t quite buy the claim that I’m an angel. But I guess it could give me something else to add to my résumé. After our Southern Gospel Revival Meeting, we headed back home, and that concluded today’s episode of The Adventures of Samuel Chavarria and Angel Boy.

Samuel´s sister-in-law and her two kids. Sorry, but I can’t remember any of their names, and I’m not sure I ever even knew them.

The guy on the inside of this window–who you can barely see–was one of the people we visited on our outing. The woman and her daughter, who may or may not be related to that guy–didn’t want to take a picture, because the mother wasn’t wearing her good clothes. We were trying to trick her and get a secret picture, but this is the best we got.

Finally the woman agreed to take a picture with her daughter, but not until she’d ditched the crappy capris and put on some nice clothes.

Samuel, “Chico,” and “Chico” clearing Samuel’s mother-in-law’s tomb. This is moments before “Chico” (not pictured) performed a bit of minor machete surgery on his leg.

A view from the cemetery, which gives a sense of the open-ness and the rustic feeling of this place.

“Chico” and his “medicinal” leaf placed on his machete cut. It was before the “medicinal” used handkercheif was tied over the wound to hold the leaf in place.

Strictly for my Nicas: Samuel and his brother “Chico” in the candlelight. It’s not a very clear picture, but I think it’s cool. Plus, it’s hard to set up a clear photo when you can see next to nothing in your camera’s viewfinder.

Samuel’s mom on the front porch of her house. She lives right across from Samuel’s brother, who lives on the other side of Pantasma from Samuel’s house.

As his daughter looks on, Samuel’s brother writes a thank-you note to Samuel’s wife for some stuff she sent.
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