Monday, April 9, 2007

April 9, 2007

Well sorry for the delay (I’m sure you have all been on tenterhooks), but Nicaragua just reopened after shutting down entirely for nearly a week to celebrate Semana Santa, or Holy Week. This is accomplished by moving en masse to every available beach and drinking themselves into a collective stupor for five days. Oh, there’s lot’s of splashing about in the water, frolicking children (most of whom are not drunk), and dancing in the sand as well, but it’s really all about the drinking. To aid and abet this respected tradition, we turned out house and grounds over to Edwin & Reyna to run beach business. They brought out truckloads of stuff, and Edwin basically moved into the house for two weeks to guard everything. They sold gallons of beer, rum, guarón, and plate loads of fried chicken, fish, and pork, cups of ceviché, etc. The jukebox was out there, so the music blasted all day and into the night. We spent the better part of every day out there with them, if not exactly helping, at least supporting the business. We brought everyone we know out as well, and there was much revelry and dancing under the palapa. We swam and played with all the kids, both the beach variety and Rosita & Milagro, Edwin’s girls. His brothers came down and joined in, along with various other family members (he’s related to half of Buenos Aires), and all in all, had a good week. And now, back to business as usual.

A few days back, to celebrate the end of "acknowledging San Jose" week, Edwin & family invited us to "los toros", or what passes in Buenos Aires for a rodeo. As with the circus, the event was posted to begin at 7pm, we arrived at 7:45 and had our choice of seats in an empty arena, and the event got underway somewhere around 8:30. Pat and I amused ourselves in the interval by counting public safety violations, beginning with the structure itself. If you've ever wondered where stray bits of wood go when they've outlived their apparent usefulness, I can tell you o good authority that they end up in rural Nicaragua, clinging to one another regardless of length, width, or thickness, and managing to form a split-level four-sided balcony-like wonder on which were placed two rows of wooden and plastic chairs, teetering on their uneven perches. To get up to this upper level we had to ascend a stairway that must have begun its life atop a ship's mast, permitting entry to the crow's nest, and even then only the most intrepid, or intoxicated, sailors would have dared attempt it. Once secured to our wobbly seats, we looked down into the 'ring' at the dozen bulls selected for the evening's entertainment. Right off the bat I said, "Look—it's Ferdinand!" and then explained to Pat that Ferdinand was a famous bull from a children's story, a bull that while raised for the bull ring, preferred to lie about in fields gazing rhapsodically at daisies. Why Ferdinand didn't end up as oxtail soup eludes me, but I know the story enchanted me as a child, and caused me to immediately throw all my somewhat limited bull-riding enthusiasm behind his Nicaraguan cousin. Actually, I think I said something like, "Whoever gets that bull better bring a book; it's gonna be a very relaxing ride."

We knew the spectacle was poised to begin when the six-piece brass band struck up a joyous, ear-splitting version of "When the Saints Come Marching In" approximately eight feet from our seats. Within minutes, the dusty arena floor was filled with over 50 young men and boys, many of them barefoot, and all of them attempting to coax the bulls into the holding pen at one end. They employed various tactics, depending on their experience and level of sobriety, and after twenty minutes of hollering, lariat flinging, and general mayhem, the last, clearly irritated bull was ushered behind the gate. Most of the seats were taken by now, although since this was the last night of five, and a Monday, the crowd was less than exuberant. After another 20 minutes had crept by, the band started up again, the milling males faced front, and then the gate swung open, releasing a very distressed bull (no doubt the result of having his testicles trussed up like a Christmas goose) mounted by a young man sporting a Nike cap and rubber bones. He managed to stay on long enough to loosen the truss to the point the bull stopped trying to launch him into the stands, but was still tight enough to keep the bull charging at the brazen (or drunk) machistos flinging themselves in his path. At every charge they would scurry to the sides of the arena and leap up on the chicken wire fencing, directly at our feet. After ten minutes or so of this, the rider removed the truss completely and a barrel-chested, pony-tailed specimen came out with a lasso and neatly roped the bull about the horns and battled for a while to get him into the pen, to the semi-enthused cheers of the audience. This process was repeated several more times before Ferdinand II arrived. Either they didn't tie up his personal bits with the same tension as his predecessors, or he just couldn't be bothered, because other than one rather comical leap straight up in the air as he left the enclosure, he just wandered about the ring looking lost until the lasso guy came back out. This must have rung a bell of some sort, because upon seeing the rope, he immediately headed over to the gate and stood there until someone thought to open it. The rider woke up about then and they rode out. The only sound in the arena was the throbbing bass beat from the disco-in-a-shack next door.

We were pretty much ready to go by this point, but Reyna told us we had to wait a bit longer, for the grand finale. Well, anyone who's given to PETA might want to stop reading at this point…The band launched a spirited cover of "We are the Champions", the gate flew open, and out charged a large white Brahma with a small monkey firmly anchored to its back. The monkey, a type of spider monkey I believe, was screaming like only a creature tied to a much larger, very distraught animal can scream, waving its arms around, and generally conveying the entirety of its displeasure. I was stunned, appalled, and desperately trying to get a picture, but my wee camera was no match for the blazing lights and the speed of the Brahma. (I learned the next day that the monkey is called Celia and according to my source, is a bit of a drama queen.) As the odd couple disappeared behind the gate, we grabbed the children and fled. I can't wait till next year.

We are now firmly entrenched in Semana Santa, Saints Week, the eight days leading up to Easter when this country ceases all activity save for heading to the beach and partying like it's Spring Break in Aruba only with marginally more clothing and no sign of beer bongs or wet t-shirt contests. We turned the house and grounds over to Edwin & Reyna to run a little bar business, and now the place looks like a full-scale restaurant complete with beer coolers and advertising banners. Hopefully all their work will pay off over the next few days; rumor has it these temporary operations can be insanely profitable. Meanwhile, it's been kind of fun to see so much energy and activity in and around our still nascent home. We got the bars all finished just in time, and they are attracting a fair bit of attention. The neighbors at first thought it was some sort of spider's web, until the sea creatures began appearing…

Several people have asked me how I'm coping with life in a macho culture. Well, Nicaragua's funny that way. On the one hand, it shares traits with many of its neighbors: men are openly and unabashedly given to catcalling and other, mainly verbal, forms of female "appreciation", and it's generally assumed they will have girlfriends and bits on the side throughout their marriages—if they ever do actually marry. They drink a lot, and domestic abuse and incest are distressingly common, with little recourse for the victims. But: thanks to the Revolution of '79 and the subsequent eleven years of Sandinista government, many women found themselves in positions of power, commanding military units, heading up government posts, and so on. They either did not have babies, or had them and left them behind with grandmothers and other relatives to return to the front and to their responsibilities. Many began to emulate their male counterparts by taking lovers and generally taking control of their romantic and sexual needs. The result now, nearly 30 years on, is that many women are still in those positions of power (I don't have the stats, but a many mayors and other government positions are held by women), while others run their own businesses or have become doctors, lawyers, etc. I heard from a Canadian woman that she had a terrible time in Chile when she and her family lived there for nearly a year, because all the men were constantly sexually harassing her, and the women despised her for, they believed, wanting to steal their men. It's not like that here. Although the men do not, as mentioned earlier, hide their 'appreciation', the majority of women seem to believe that most of their men are such fuckups, why would any self-respecting Gringa want to bother with them? I can generally disarm any remotely concerned looking woman in seconds simply by making it clear that I have my own husband who, although I adore him, is still "a guy", with all that entails…knowing roll of the eyes…and much head-shaking laughter.

We took a mini-excursion up to Granada and nearby Lake Apoyo last Sunday-Monday. Our goal was to meet the (Belgian) friend of the son of a friend of my mom's, and also the (American) friend of some friends down here. We succeeded with the latter, and spent the night at Fred's place. He's been down here about eleven years, and has built himself a beautiful place at the edge of the volcanic crater lake now known as Apoyo. A salvage nut, he collected many of the beams, doors, tiles, and stones of old dwellings around Granada, in the years preceding the current real estate boom driven primarily by North Americans. He now has a main house, and a couple guest places which he rents out by night or long-term, all of which he shares with Carmen, his lovely young wife, three dogs and three cats, one of which attached itself to us and made our stay that much more enjoyable as we are both starved for kitty-love. We wandered around Granada for a bit, admiring the beautifully restored colonial architecture, gorging on American-style breakfasts at a local ex-pat hangout, and dropping our jaws at the $8 bottle of fish sauce at what has to be the world's most eclectic deli. Tins of mackerel next to tubes of wasabi; a family-size jar of Skippy sharing the shelf with a bag of marshmallows and tiny elegant containers of French country mustard. There was some sort of fútbol tournament going on right in the main plaza, with dozens of boys sporting shirts from various schools yelling enthusiastically from the sidelines as their mates pounded the stones amidst the sweating, gawking turistas, venders hawking tiny clay whistles and bags of cashews, and ragged red-nosed children begging to support their sniffing habits. Granada is a lovely city, but the sheer number of Gringos made us feel uncomfortable, particularly as most of them (tourists not included) are obsessed with real estate, and anytime we tuned into a conversation around us, the speaker, more often than not expensively-attired, cell phone gripping men in their 30's-50's, would be aggressively discussing the market, sounding like extras from a Mamet play, and begging to be run over by a chicken bus.

There was a young Swedish couple also staying at Fred's but planning an excursion to Omotepe. We gave them a ride down, stopping at our place for a beer and to show them around a bit. He was a gentle giant—easily 6'3, with startlingly clear blue eyes and several feet of thick, blond, wild dreadlocks, which filled Reyna and the girls with curiosity and awe ("are they soft? How does he wash it?"), while the girlfriend was a tiny, angelic creature with a surprisingly deep voice and strong opinions on alternative energy and no qualms about peeing in a bush behind the house. They are both dreaming of escaping Sweden (we had fun comparing life in Sweden and Alaska—the differences are few) for Nicaragua or perhaps Guatemala, opening a restaurant on a beach, and pursuing a less goal-driven life.

Last Saturday we were invited to the wedding of another American ex-pat, RT (59) and his beautiful Nica wife, Sonja (26). Pat and I both think she's wonderful, and are not entirely clear on what she sees in RT, but what the hell, they both seem happy enough. The wedding was held in his rented house in Rivas, one of the older, traditional style places with several huge rooms, a big open yard, and occasionally a cool breeze. They were married by a lawyer who stood up and introduced them to the guests as "The North American Ruben Theodore and the young Sonja" resulting in muffled snorts of laughter from most of the Gringos in the room. The ceremony took about 15 minutes, but the reception lasted hours with everyone getting increasingly soused, including RT's right-hand man who had been instructed to take pictures of everyone with whatever cameras he could get his shaking hands on. Suffice to say many people will be wandering why they have thirty-seven pictures of utter strangers amongst their wedding shots. We finally made our getaway when it became apparent that the groom was no longer sure who we were and left him fuming over one of his new neighbors crashing the party and drinking his (mostly wedding-gift) booze.

Finally, I began a small English class here in Buenos Aires. I teach out of the front room of the house, and have four students: Edwin, Emer (a 17 y.o. uni student who lives nearby and works at Reyna's on weekends), Julio (20 y.o. law student), and Manuel (12 y.o. prodigy). The fact they all know each other compensates for the age differences, and we've been having fun so far. It feels good to be teaching again; I knew I missed it, but hadn't admitted just how much. I'll keep to this group until we head back to AK in June, but when I return in the fall, I will begin getting a more substantial school up and running. All I need is a decent building, materials, and a few dozen students—should be a piece of cake.

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