Pat woke me at 4am this morning to tell me Buenos Aires was on fire. I suggested it was the sunrise, but he countered that he was facing NW. I followed him out to the porch and found the sky glowing a deep orange, perhaps three or four kilometers away. We decided it must be intentional, farmers burning their fields, and confirmed it later with Reinaldo. Burning is an integral part of the sugarcane harvest, and when we biked by later, the air was filled with a sweetness that made our mouths water. Trickles of residual smoke drifted aimlessly across the road as the farmers loaded bundles of cane onto large, colorful diesel trucks. The bottom may have fallen of of the sugar market a few years back, but in Nicaragua it remains big business. This is in part due to the Pellas family, owners of the largest rum company in Central America, Flor de Caña (Flower of the Sugarcane). A national obsession with extremely sweet things doesn't hurt either. Here, people who are particularly fond of sugary treats are affectionately called 'sugar ants', just one of dozens of local ant types. (Our kitchen offers up a surprisingly vivid assortment 24 hours a day.)
On the insect theme, Friday night we'd biked over to San Jorge, next town south, to eat dinner at a little carne asado place—pork or chicken grilled over wood, served with mayo-free coleslaw, beans and rice, and corn tortillas for about $1.35 a plate. It was dark when we came in and as I was wheeling my bike through the house to the place near the kitchen where we keep them I saw something on the floor. Years of owning cats has taught me never to kick or even nudge unidentifiable things on the floor as odds are it will be either a partially digested rodent or a small pile of cat puke. Though presently cat-less, I remained hesitant and called Pat to come and turn on the light. "Oh, look--it's a young tarantula!" Pat announced with considerably more enthusiasm than I felt the situation warranted. He has told me for years how great tarantulas are, how mis-judged and under-appreciated, how smart and even affectionate they can be, and how if they should actually choose to bite you, it was hardly a bee sting. I remembered all of that, and then said, "Get it the f**k out of here please." He looked wounded, but went and got a couple plates from the kitchen. With extreme gentleness he encouraged it to step onto one plate, lightly covered it with the other, and took the fuzzy beastie out to the garden. It scuttled off into the bushes without a backward glance.
On Saturday, Pat & Edwin, along with Julio (our caretaker and now laborer), worked the traditional half day. As they were cleaning up, Edwin told me they were about to embark on a great fishing expedition. He had found someone who knew how to use the net Pat brought back from Japan. (It's a traditional throw net, about 20' long, huge circumference, with light chain along the bottom. We'd brought it to SJDS the previous Sunday and Pat and Edwin made a concerted effort to figure out the throwing technique, but never quite got it. It was very entertaining to watch however.) We all piled into Edwin's truck and headed off down the beach: Edwin, Pat, me, Julio, and the pro who I think was called Chepe. Julio's dog bounded along behind. After a couple km, we stopped and traipsed inland a bit to a sort of river/canal. It was over half filled with some kind of floating inedible lettuce, but between the green patches people were fishing. Long sticks with a bit of line seemed to do the trick, and we watched as fish after fish was tossed up on the banks. These were not large fish, most between 5-8", but enough of them and a family eats well. Chepe proceeded to demonstrate perfectly that the net actually does work. On his first toss he brought in about 50 tiny guapote. Guapote can get up to 18", but this lot were barely out of their eggs which resulted in four men scrambling about in the grass gently removing the wee wrigglers from the webbing and returning them to the water. We moved further upstream where Chepe thought the fish might be larger. After a few more demo throws, resulting in catches of fewer, but no bigger, guapote, it was Pat's turn. He launched a successful toss, and caught the only keeper of the day: a 5" tilapia. He presented it to Julio who very earnestly ran a string through its tiny mouth and proudly carried it the rest of the excursion. Edwin had a go and did ok, but then things took a turn and no one seemed able to get the net to fall in that ideal open circle. Even the baby fish managed to elude capture (no doubt having finally figured out what was going on.) On the way back to the truck I realized that Julio's dog was actually not a female but a neutered male—the first I'd seen in this land of abundant canine testicles. I pointed it out to Pat who told me to ask Julio about it. I said, "I don't know the word for neutered and I don't want to ask him why his dog has no balls." He failed to see the problem and nudged me to ask. After Julio (and Edwin and Chepe) stopped laughing, Julio explained the dog had had too many girlfriends and people were complaining so he had him clipped. Pat said to ask him what he'll do if his son has too many girlfriends, but fortunately by then we'd reached the truck and I was spared.
That night we went up to Edwin & Reyna's for dinner and I made a fair attempt at translating a couple jokes people had recently emailed me into Spanish. I knew the jokes would be appreciated as ribald humor is rampant and finds its way into almost any level of conversation. Amazingly, the jokes worked, and we were treated to a couple in return. When I went inside to pay Reyna for dinner she nodded at a young man slouching elegantly against the kitchen wall and said, "This is Eduardo, Edwin's nephew. He's a gay." (Really. Her exact words were, "El es un gay.") I said, "Ah. Well ok, you know up there there are a lot of gays, so we don't really make a big deal about it." Eduardo sighed and said, "Yeah, that must be nice." I asked how it was, being gay here in Nicaragua. He said it was fine, but then Reyna jumped in angrily, saying, "No it isn't! You're totally discriminated against, you have no rights, even your family can barely deal with you. It's not 'fine' at all!" Her outburst both surprised and pleased me. I have come to know her as a strong, hard-working, warm-hearted woman, but she once trained to be a nun and I wouldn't have expected this degree of open-mindedness. I asked if there was any sort of national support for gays. "Not really," Eduardo replied. "We just kind of stick together. We all live in Managua where it's more tolerant." I said, "There are still problems for gays in the US, too. The whole marriage issue is under the microscope now, and ..." "Marriage!" Reyna burst in. "Why would they want to get married? It's not like they can have children!" (This comment was somewhat ironic as one of the jokes I'd just been told involved a gay man who really wanted to have a baby and long, somewhat disturbing story short, ends up with a monkey.) I said, "It's not just about children, it's about equal rights, like you said earlier. Fairness." She nodded and said she agreed, that the gays should be treated equally, but I think the whole marriage concept was a bit too outré for her.
The next day we were back at their place for a special lunch called bao. It's a sort of rudimentary pot roast, beef steamed over wood for about three hours in a huge metal bowl under plantain leaves, along with hunks of yucca and ripe plantains. The meat just falls apart, and the salty yucca and sweet plantains compliment each other perfectly. We ate until we were bursting, thinking if this were such a special meal, it might be ages until we had the chance to eat it again, at which point someone mentioned the woman in front of the grocery store who sells bao daily for about $1.65 a plate.
While Pat was on a lunch break the other day we were sitting on the beach, watching one of the local fishing boats come in. There was a lot of excited shouting, and people began gathering around the boat. Pat wandered over and discovered the guys had somehow found and dragged aboard over 300 feet of anchor chain and a large anchor. He helped them haul it out of the boat and they stretched out on the beach. The kids were jumping around like sand fleas, hopping back and forth over the chain, trying to move the anchor which soon took on an Excaliber-like quality. Later, when the fuss had died down a bit, we asked someone near the boat if we could buy a fish. They seemed amused by the request, and someone told us they just caught enough to eat this time, not to sell, but a kid overheard and ran to the fisherman who said, Sure, and picked out the biggest one. He said it was called a sabalo, and that it had many bones but was tasty nonetheless. He also gave us a handful of the small black crabs for soup.
Later on, after Pat was done working and we were once more sitting on the beach, the fisherman came over and sat with us. He was much younger than I'd initially thought; maybe 22 or 23. His name is Walter. I had a lot of trouble understanding him as the people in this area have their own particular dialect. Pat really wanted to know how he'd found the anchor, and especially, how in hell they'd gotten it aboard. Walter told us his brother had said they'd caught something heavy and at first they'd been very excited, thinking it was one of the hard to catch huge lake fish that would've made them some real money from a restaurant, but then it became clear this was no fish. His brother dove in and came up with a piece of the chain, tangled in the net. Together they managed to slowly haul it on board, although the anchor gave them a bit of trouble. We asked if he planned to sell it. Not right away, he said, because if he did, then no one would believe his story. In all his years living here and fishing, he'd never heard of such a thing, and figured no one else would have either. He said it must've come off one of the old ferries to Omotepe, but that it had been in the water for a very long time. When we returned the next day with the camera, it was already gone.
One thing to look forward to is the return of the mangos. They are just starting to come into season, and the trees are abundant with bunches of tiny green prepubescent fruit. Rivas is popularly known as the City of Mangos, to the extent that it is nearly impossible to buy one in the market; you need only pluck them from trees or scoop them from the ground. Along with the mangos come the chacorros, small green parrots that exist almost entirely on the flesh of rotting fruit. I haven't seen one yet this time, but they filled the sky on my first trip in August '05, squawking and swooping through the city. Not everyone is equally enchanted by them, however, least of all owners of restaurants with outdoor tables. It seems the parrots' diet does wonders for their tiny digestive systems…
Finally, our one bit of frustration has been attempting to rent DVDs. After a disastrous try with "Babel", clearly acquired from some clown with a cheap camcorder sneaking around the cinema (barely any sound, silhouettes of people crossing in front of the camera, and the English subtitled bits covered by Spanish), we decided to only go for older movies on the assumption they'd be actual studio releases. Not so much. When I asked the video store guy how we could tell which were copies and which were official, he said happily, "They are ALL copies!" And then proceeded to tell me we just needed a higher quality DVD player if we wanted the discs to work, and coincidentally he had this cousin who…you can guess the rest. Suffice to say we will probably not be renting any more movies for while. Chess, anyone?