Defining freedom. Last Saturday we stopped by Edwin and Reyna's to pick up Edwin's truck. We were only going to Rivas, but we've been told repeatedly, by everyone, that the stretch of road by the cemetery, basically a black hole at night in terms of visibility, is a favorite spot for ladrones, thieves, and while locals were vulnerable, as Gringos we would be especially tempting. We've done it as late as 9pm without problems, but as we were heading out to El Principe, Rivas' premiere nightspot, where in all likelihood I'd have at least a couple wee drinks, we gave in and borrowed the truck. It was a disco night at Edwin's, with an actual DJ and towering speakers. The music was blasting, and a good portion of Buenos Aires' finest were shaking their traceros to the gut-vibrating beat. And then Officer Amable showed up and had a word with the DJ. The DJ stopped the music and spoke into the mike. He told the happy people that the Policia Nacional had requested him to pack it up; there'd been a complaint about the music. The response? Immediate uproar, with everyone yelling abusive things at the cop, getting right in his face, telling him this was the only place to dance in B.A., that they'd worked hard all week and it was their right to blow off some steam, that it was only 8pm for crissakes! Then Edwin took the mike and made a short speech about local rights, and that they paid their taxes, but when he needed the cops last month to come arrest some drunken idiots who were trying to steal his electric cable, they told him no one was available. Reyna had a word with the DJ who took the mike back and announced the bar owners would be circulating a petition to show support for the disco. Throughout all this, the cop stood calmly in the middle of the dance floor, fending off jibes and verbal assaults from irritated patrons. Eventually he wandered back out into the street, Reyna turned on the bar's usual sound system, and the party resumed more or less undeterred.
Pat and I just stood aside, watching with considerable interest. While it's been quite a few years, I remember being at parties of such energy the cops couldn't possibly stay away. Inevitably, within moments of their arrival, dozens of drunken but basically meek partiers would be staggering docily out into the street with little more than a few murmurs of, "Awww, man, we weren't doing' nuthin' wrong…" or perhaps a "Lighten up, man, it's just music and beer…". But never once do I recall anyone showing actual defiance, let alone showering the officers in outright abuse. And yet here, in a country with a complex and very recent history of extreme military and National Police violence against innocents, kidnappings, torture, innumerable disappearances or unlikely "suicides", despite all this, the people fight for their rights without fear. Pat and I returned late that same night, after everyone had gone home, and sat and talked to Edwin and Reyna about the night's events. When Edwin told me it had been provoked by a neighbor's call, I said, "But you have music here six nights a week! And it was only 8:00 on a Saturday night! And what about all those little neighborhood Evangelical churches and their sing-a-longs? A dozen born again Christians yowling ditties about "El Seignor" at the top of their lungs three or four nights a week to the same three guitar chords? No one seems to complain about them!" (You can tell by my unusually excessive use of exclamation points how fired up I was.) They laughed and agreed and said it all about morditas, pay offs, and if they had slipped a few notes to the officer, he would've had a sudden change of heart. But as Edwin had said, they pay their taxes, they have all their licenses and whatnot in order, the police aren't doing what they're paid to do, so he sure as hell wasn't about to pay them off for something like this. He said he'd go down and have a talk with them on Monday, for as much good as that would do. Pat, upon hearing that the neighbor had called in because the music was disturbing his elderly mother, pointed out if she was all that elderly she was probably deaf anyway… As a follow-up, it was actually Reyna, with Milagro in tow, who went down to have a word with the police. They told her not to worry about it, that next time they just wanted advance notice, and that the cop had in fact been acting outside his official perimeters on behalf of a friend, and had been reprimanded. Reyna said all that was fine and good, but she was still skeptical, and perhaps she should have Edwin come down…a suggestion the chief vehemently argued was unnecessary. So much more pleasant dealing with the woman of the house…
The winds have returned and while they cool things down a bit, they also stir up the dust, pollen, and all the other man-made pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides so prevalent in this agricultural community. I had to put away my contacts for over a week when my left eye refused to relinquish a diabolical shade of red. After trying assorted over-the-counter drops, I finally went to a clinic and saw an actual eye specialist. He was quite the comedian as well. After learning a bit about me, and the talk had returned to the eye, he said, "Here in SW Nicaragua this sort of thing is very common. I tell my patients there are three courses of treatment available. The first is to build yourself a small room with no windows or doors and stay there until the wind stops. Obviously, this can present difficulties. Second, get yourself a scuba mask and wear it day and night. Clearly, this option too has its drawbacks. Finally, get a suitcase, pack your clothes, and buy a ticket to Alaska." (I soon disabused him of the misguided notion there was no dust in Alaska.) Then, when I noticed the halogen headlamp on his desk, identical to the ones Pat and I depend on all winter in Homer, and asked why he had it, he told me it was for when the power went out during surgery. "I always wear it, and if the lights go off, I just ask my nurse to switch it on. It's come in handy a few times now." Actually, in retrospect, I think he was probably serious about that one… He then asked me how much we'd paid for our property, and upon hearing the amount, asked if I knew of any other available land as he and his wife wanted to build a weekend house on the lake.
A few readers have written asking my opinion on the current political and social situation here. Typical of most administrations, the new Sandinista government spent the first month remodeling the President's House and throwing lavish celebratory parties. In an attempt to show the constituency a bit of what was to come, Daniel had his Secretary of Education declare all school fees (which had ranged from $2 to $10/mo) abolished, thus allowing children from even the poorest families to attend classes. A noble concept, except that it was done mere days before the new school year began on Jan. 29, and without any thought to the outcome. Predictably, the student-teacher ratio swelled from roughly 35-1 to, in some cases, over 75-1, resulting in a catastrophic shortage of rooms, books, desks, and sane teachers. Emergency meetings were called, teachers protested, parents complained, and many students fled to private schools, perhaps the only beneficiaries of the crisis. In the end, the government placed a 60-1 cap for now, while it desperately tries to recruit more teachers and hastily fling up a few more schools. Rumor has it they are counting on a huge attrition rate, as many of these kids are entering school for the first time at higher ages, and will more than likely give up from a combination of bullying, unsupportive parents, and general lack of commitment. All in all, a fine start for the new administration.
Beyond that, foreign investment still seems to be the prime focus, on all levels including individual, corporate, and in the form of international aid. We've heard that right in our little barrio of Tolasmaidas, 120 small, efficient, modern houses are to be built for the poorest families. (We're trying to determine how they decide who deserves a house. Possibly it concerns the number of viable chickens running about, or the quality of the dirt floor. Yes, I'm being facetious. With a couple exceptions, nearly everyone along our road would benefit from an actual house.) The funding and materials are from a US-based NGO with the initials INF. What we are having great difficulty in learning from our very secretive mayor, is who will be doing the actual construction. Pat feels strongly it should be the people who live here (most of whom are unemployed, work sporadically in the plantain and sugarcane fields, or do a little fishing) and will be living in the houses, along with a team of professionals to oversee and assist. Specifically, he wants it to be himself, Edwin, and a few other experienced locals. What we're hearing, however, is it will probably be a crew from Managua, which makes very little sense. Stand by for updates.
We recently went to the workshop of the carpenters who are making our windows and doors, to see the first completed window. They use a beautiful hardwood here, called "cedra", which is not cedar. It's extremely durable, and very strictly regulated. We are having seven large opening windows, one smaller sliding window, and a two-part, Dutch-style front door with round window made, plus installation, for around $1000. According to Pat, just one of these windows back home, assuming you could find such wood, might run as much as $600 or $700. The workmanship is quite good, if not flawless, and they should (operative word) be ready in a month or so.
In addition to Edwin and Julio and/or Chepe, Pat's acquired three additional helpers on the job. Boys from the neighborhood who have learned that by making themselves useful, they could earn a few cords a day. They help carrying all the tools, fetching things, running to the local shop for cold drinks and snacks, and pointing out any flaws they see as Pat and Edwin plaster the new wall. They also want to learn English, which is not taught at the local school (I'm asking around about that; perhaps I could do something there). So our first word, an easy one, was "gecko". As expected, they got it right off, and proceeded to spend the next hour until we left yelling "Gecko!" "Gecko!" at each other. I gave them "water" as well, which morphed into "Walter", the name of one of their uncles. The next day they worked on "See you tomorrow". As one of them, Donald said, very seriously, "Word by word, we'll learn to speak English. Then you can teach us French!"