Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Thanksgiving Kitten

Thanksgiving morning rolls around. The 7 of us female college students have decided that we will not lose our very American holiday and plan to slave to make a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. All the food was stored at our office, a small house in the neighborhood we all live in. Heading into the kitchen to grab the potatoes I hear crying.

*meww. meww. meewww*

What on earth. The crying continues. I look down and see a small gray kitten, asking for a little milk. We oblige. Which in this country means, we are choosing to adopt the kitten. Once it finds a house that feeds it, it will never leave.

I go back to my house and begin preparation. Turkey is in the oven. Mashed potatoes are being hand mashed. The stuffing is slowly coming together. My host mom curiously watches the little things I do. Asking why I soak bread with garlic onion broth and put it in the oven. How I know the turkey is ready (how should I know, I´m a vegetarian without a meat thermometer). Why I need two sticks of butter in the mashed potatoes. Why there is apple in the crushed bread mixture. Can she have some apple? Why is there so much food? Wait, the other girls are making food too? Can I sneak her a plate of food when we are done?

All of the questions and sharing of cultural tradition while she pops fresh mandarin oranges in my mouth as I mix the gooey stuffing mixture with my hands. The football game on in the background, adding noise, the Spanish announcers taking away a bit of the traditional feel of American football as the soundtrack to Thanksgiving cooking. Looking at my cultural traditions through the eyes of someone with a very different cultural background proved interesting.

We bring the food from my kitchen to the office, where we have set up a serving table filled with everything traditional: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, cauliflower au gratin, brussel sprouts, gravy, and apple pie. As I carve the turkey, everyone stands in awe. While gazing at this amazing table of food, we see a small figure fly off our friend’s body onto the table. It´s the freaking kitten.

And this is how Thanksgiving continues. Our mood music, the candles, the food, the laughter, and this dang cat climbing up our bodies and appearing at the table. I mean, this thing is half-kitten, half-spider monkey. We eventually locked the poor kitten in the bathroom with some pieces of turkey because it just wasn´t sanitary anymore to let this kitten that just arrived this morning from the street to keep walking along our plates of food as we ate. It just was not sanitary.

Our guests arrive for the birthday party portion of the night where we serve pie, sing feliz cumpleaƱos, smack the pumpkin piƱata, dance to our mix of gringa and latin music. The kitten, quiet and happy knowing all of these people have come to spend time with him. We clean up, kitten sleeping quietly on top of the stack of newspapers in the corner, tired from all of the turkey he ate.

So now Thanksgiving is over, but the leftovers are not. The kitten remains. We continue to ask the question, what are we going to do with this cat?! We are all in the midst of writing our enormous research papers, which requires a lot of focus and time. Sitting at the table when suddenly the cat starts climbing up your leg. And this little guy cries, cries the second he is without attention. For being a Nicaraguan cat, a creature that normally would not receive a bit of attention, he expects a lot from us American college students. Love. Attention. Playtime. Leftovers.

Our papers are being written more by him than by us, because to take the attention away from our work and onto him, he walks across our keyboards, typing whatever he feels like saying. Then batting at your screen to try and grab at the moving curser. Now he´s cuddled in my lap, arms around my arm as I type.

Who even is this creature, our Thanksgiving surprise? What do we do with him? Help?

Monday, November 18, 2013

How They See Us

As I find moments of writer´s block in recording my field notes and writing my research essay, I turn to my pleasure reading to take my mind off of things. Currently, that is a book of essays by authors from around the world answering the question, ¨How does the world see the United States?¨ Hence the title, ¨How They See Us: Meditations on America.¨ As I wrestle with understanding my identity as a United States Citizen in the face of what I have learned and continue to learn, I find a lot of solace, challenge, and understanding reading this. The majority of the history of international relations, foreign policy, and general demeanor to the rest of the world is, frankly, barbaric. When your major is political, you learn this quickly, and what you do with that understanding in the murky gray of the black and white scale of morality shapes you. The following quotes are excerpts from these essays that I find both interesting and challenging, perspectives that I think are worth opening my mind to.

¨A Stranger among Them¨ by Alberto Fuguet

Maybe the whole problem-this image/PR problem that you have- is, in the end, or at it´s core, linguistic. Americans (OK, you guys win, it´s hard to write ¨United Statesians¨ and ¨North Americans,¨ which is not really fair or true) by and large don´t speak any other language and a fair amount of the rest of the world is able to speak or understand English. You don´t understand us and we understand (or try to understand or want to understand) you.
You, me, them, us. . . .
Ironic: even the title of this collection of essays walks a thin red line.
How they See Us
Typical self-centered, We-Are-The-World type of lingo.
Not: How We See Them
At least, as a friend commented, it´s not titled Them.
Them, like the killer, mutant ants from that fifties movie.
Them as in us, the rest, the others.
Maybe too scary.
Another friend: It´s a good title, since it´s actually about them, third-person plural. How They See Us, perfect.
Perfect if you are in America. If you are or feel that you are in the center of the world.
But they are, says another. Do you think we would do a book about how they see us?
A film critic friend adds: they don´t see us, period.
I think: I don´t even want to know how they see us.

¨In Praise of the Delinquent Hero, or How Hollywood Creates Terrorists¨ by Sunny Singh

Isn´t it Hollywood that taught the world that ¨heroes¨ learn the local language, talk to children, are kind to women, and respect another´s culture? After all, Hollywood taught us that ¨good¨ Indiana Jones has Arab friends and doesn´t disrespect or attempt to rape local women. That particular offense is left for those from ¨evil¨ empires. In films ranging from western to sci-fi to war, Hollywood has taught us that it was only ¨evil¨ empires that held captives and tortured prisoners. For years, we knew that Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Sylvester Stallone stood for truth and justice even as they were tortured by bad guys wearing indistinguishable uniforms and running dingy prison complexes in dusty, far-off lands. Now, of course, it is the Americans who run similar prison complexes that administer electric shocks and beatings, or kill inmates at random. Shindler´s List perhaps? Therefore, should it be a surprise that the Iraquis, Afghans, Lebanese, Somalians, or Venezuelans now identify America as the cruel empire that must be fought and defeated?

¨Returning from Exile¨ by Gianni Riotta

America now sponsored dictatorships all over the world. The historian John Lewis Gaddis talks of the Cold War as the Long Peace, and peace it was for us, in Europe. The adjective cold has traditionally overwhelmed the substantive war-for us, the war of ideas, emotions, identities, cultures. Washington was often hypocritical, denouncing the T. rex in the Kremlin while feeding its own T. rex in Latin America or Asia. The antidote to nihilism, the sense of loss that eventually drove so many in my generation into the arms of the radical Red Brigade, came from America. Not from the center of power this time, but from the fringe: ¨I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.¨ America was the madness, America was the reason.

¨The American Empire: A Libretto in Eight Movements¨ by Chris Abani

Part of the problem is that the excess of American culture makes it possible to erase in a relatively short period the memory of such things as the Great Depression. Americans have forgotten what it means to live with war, with occupation. Even 9/11 doesn´t apply. I am not belittling the event at all by saying that most Americans (New Yorkers aside) experienced that trauma from a distance. It is not the same as a generation of Bosnians who remember snipers taking out their friends and siblings as they walked to school. Perhaps if the war came to American homes and streets, you would have been less cavalier about not impeaching a man whose decisions have produced the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and cost his own country immeasurably, and yet rush to impeach a man for a sexual misdemeanor. Priorities.

¨Giving the Harness Bells a Shake¨ by Mourid Barghouti

Democracy is accepted or rejected according to Washington´s interests; dictatorships are created, armed, financed, and protected by Washington in one region and bombarded with smart bombs in another. Unfortunately, America was and is the main friend, protector, and supporter of any dictator in the world serving its interests, from the royal family in Saudi Arabia to General Pinochet in Chile to Musharraf in Pakistan. You cannot ally with such dictators and then invade other countries to teach democracy.

(And another section of this essay)

¨In my part of the world, however, the question might be of a different nature: ¨Do they see us?¨ Or, ¨Does America see us at all?¨ Do you hear our voice? As a matter of fact, despite having the best intelligence agencies, news agencies and correspondents, academic think tanks and research centers, Ivy League universities and 154,000 troops in our midst, you do not see us. It seems to me that America wants to see and hear America, and thinks that this is sufficient. One of my poetry collections has the title The Logic of All Beings. This book is composed of epigrams in which people, plants, animals, and things speak:

The mirror said:
How Miserable I am,
No one of those looking at me
Wants to see ¨me¨

As a (trying to be) socially-conscious traveller, I am acutely aware of how embarrassed I am writing my citizenship down when I check into a hotel or purchase a transportation ticket. Especially ashamed when I know what my country has done, how it has actively sought to destroy so much of this country. I continue to be humbled by how I am received with grace, considering my citizenship. Don´t get me wrong, I like where I am from. Being a citizen of the United States has never been a tie to the history or the politics before now. For me, being a citizen of the United States means Crisp Washington Apples. Having the funds in my education to take field trips in elementary school, many of which included using ferry boats to reach our destinations. Swimming in the lake, the ocean, the local pool during the summer. Never tiring of good ol´ french fries. Enjoying my truly free press by reading material ranging from The Economist to The Stranger. Being able to purchase visas (many of them) upon arrival to the country to which I am travelling. Eating really delicious food on Thanksgiving. Watching the sky light up on the Fourth of July. Living in California but making fun of Californians. I love our National Parks, so so much.

I like that I can be critical of my government without fearing for my life (though I´ll admit a bit of fear for extra inspection upon arrival in customs in three weeks). I wish I still believed I could make change to that government. I wish we were not in a generation of stagnancy, and I wish every United Statesian could take a critical eye to what their tax dollars go towards. I wish our culture didn´t tell us to look out for ourselves first, then worry about how your actions effect others later. The things I hate about the U.S. are the ugliest things about the world we live in, but the things I love, they are the heartbeat of my life. For this I remain as contradicted as the society that raised me.

I hope instead of inspiring political tension, raising these quotes brings awareness to the perspectives that we all intentionally (very rarely unintentionally) chose to ignore. That we stop for a second, open our minds, and choose to look beyond our own borders.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Kyla Finds Vampires in the Jungle

Night has fallen. After walking for an entire day in extreme humidity, I need a shower. I ask Ernesto to turn on my water access, light my candle, undress, and head towards the bathroom. Suddenly, the sound of wings flapping wildly comes very close to my face. Cursing, I shine my candlelight around, trying to find where the bat went. I don´t see him on the ceiling so, speaking aloud, I make a deal with this bat and his family, ¨Totally chill if you fly around. Be free. I get that I am in your home. But please, please try to not fly around me when I am naked.¨ My only request...

I shower. Me and my bat friends are chill. They live under my bed, I have my mosquito net, we live in peace... for the first night.

The second night they broke our pact. While changing, they started flying around uncomfortably close to my body. I scold them for this and we have another chat. Satisfied, I head to bed. After reading by candlelight for a half-hour, I blow out the flame and try to sleep. But I cannot sleep. Looking out the window waiting for this wave of insomnia to pass, I begin to notice something odd in the way light is coming in through the window and the way shadows are reflecting on the walls. The foot of my bed, the part of the room that is closest to the window, was the darkest spot in the room. Gasp. Fear.

At this exact moment in time I remember that vampires also take bat form - basic childhood lessons that Twilight has faded from my memory. From this moment on my night consisted of paralyzing fear that the vampire at the foot of my bed would suddenly grab me (through my mosquito net) and suck the blood from my body, feet first. Really, it was the feet thing that freaked me out. The main reason being that I just despise feet and hate the idea of dying with a mythical creature touching his/her mouth to suck such a distasteful region of my body. Then there is the fact that my death would be slower and more torturous from that region. The loss of blood would be at the farthest point from my brain, and it would cause that awful tingling sensation you get when you sit in a weird position for too long and your foot falls asleep. So not only would I be irritated with that discomfort, but I would be irritated with it longer because my brain would be aware of it, being the last organ of my body to lose function.

If I am going to die by vampire I would at least like him to woo me first. Buy me dinner, enjoy a little necking, then proceed with the classic bite into the neck where I would lose consciousness almost instantly. At least in that scenario I would die thinking about how ugly the hickey on my neck was going to be.

Obviously at this point I am just freaking out. I consider calling out to Ernesto, the night guard, then I realize 1) that he couldn´t do anything if there was a vampire and 2) that he is probably a vampire himself. I continue to lay helplessly in terror, listening to the distant cries of the howler monkeys playing in the tree tops. While trying to figure out what language to use if I need to call the monkeys to my rescue (English is my go-to in emergencies but they probably overhear more Spanish and would understand the word vampiro. Also, I could try monkey, I saw Eduardo using it earlier and they seemed to respond well... but my voice isn´t deep enough) I worried myself to sleep.

And that is the night I survived almost being murdered by a vampire.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

El Campo

If you need a motto to sum up the Campo, it is this: campo es campo, es campo. Directly translated to, the countryside is the countryside, is the countryside. But there really is no direct translation. It's the campo; you are a fool if you think you can define the campo. It's vaguely like Las Vegas, where what happens there, stays there, but what happens there doesn´t include strippers, prostitutes, or gambling in any way shape or form. It's just a different world where unexpected things happen.

Technically, it's just the farming community. Where the coffee is cultivated, where the beans are grown, where corn stalks line the fields. Cows are milked, chickens run free, roosters crow at absurd hours of the morning, tortillas are on the hearth of the clay oven for breakfast. For describing purposes, I really wish it was as simple as that, but Nicaragua in general is just a difficult place to communicate because it's so unique.

We were given 5 days to immerse ourselves into the community, get to know the life of the campesinos. At first, I jumped in head first. Making tortillas, pulling them off of the blazing hot stove plate, making cheese, collecting the vegetables, feeding the chickens, playing cards with the kids... it was all pretty ideal. With the exception of massive television watching, it was your quintessential picture of life on a farm. My time with my host family continued to be simple and pleasant, until the second night....

And the violent illness strikes.

I went to sleep feeling slightly nauseous, but honestly, with my weak stomach, that's entirely normal. I woke up two hours after falling asleep at 11:00PM, after the entire community fell into their deep slumber, dying. I am not exaggerating. I think I almost touched death that night. In the moment I would have preferred death. I have never experienced such violent illness in my entire life. From that moment on I spent the entire night walking back and forth between my room and the latrine. After my first expulsion, I laid back down, expecting to fall asleep. I mean, I´ve never vomited more than once in a row, why would I think that the pain would continue? So wrong, so incredibly wrong.

Highlights of my nights incidents:
·         Sitting in my bed, asking God why this is happening to me.
·         Cleaning up after myself which included walking back and forth from the communal water bucket with a small tray until I removed evidence, all while continuing to expel from my mouth.
·         Making bribes with the spirits to make it stop.
·         Needing a shower in the middle of the night in a land without plumbing or warm water, which means me, outside, in a small roofless stone room, with a giant bucket of freezing cold water, in the freezing cold night, trying to wash myself, pouring small buckets of the water onto myself, quietly so I don´t wake the family.
·         Trying to open the door to the main part of the house to get drinkable water, finding that it's locked and there is no way to enter, trying to enter from the front, waking up the neighborhood dogs, being chased back into my room by every dog in the neighborhood (talk about security), remaining extremely thirsty and surviving the whole night without a sip of water to wash away the pain.
·         Stepping on a frog, the frog proceeding to jump on me, screaming like a child, throwing my headlamp deep into the unknown abyss, losing a shoe in the freaking out process, standing on one foot alone by a tree in the dark waiting for the poisonous coral snake to come finish me off, eventually running back to my room shoeless and lightless, without finishing my originally intended business.
·         Thinking I´ve finally finished the terror at 8 in the morning, only to walk into the kitchen, smell the horrible waft of fresh cheese, and running away to continue expelling stomach acid (because at this point, there was nothing left to divulge.)

I wouldn´t wish a night like that on anyone. I desperately hope any person reading this never has violent illness without access to plumbing. If anyone became queasy from reading that, I dearly apologize.

The next day I was worthless, clearly. I didn´t eat for the rest of the week except for some Ritz crackers towards the end when I was in literal starvation mode. I tried hiking to the waterfall with the group. Succeeded, then returned and remained in bed miserably the rest of the day (worth it). On the last full day, I went with my host father to the fields to milk the cows and clear the field. I successful managed to make milk leave the cow; I would not use this as a measure of my milking ability. A valuable experience, but not what I pictured when envisioning the first time I milked a cow. Honestly, I never really pictured that moment, but now I have the self-challenge to learn. Way harder than it looks.

My fever hit while milking the cows, so I felt miserable in the fields. I ended up sitting in a grove while my host father cleared the fields with some fellow workers and his machete. I sat on the ground with my Swiss army knife and a stick. Fearing the deadly coral snake and knowing I could not defeat it with my army knife alone; I whittled an extremely sharp, impressively useful, beautifully crafted spear. I would have kept it, but I imagine that would not go well in customs, and decided against keeping it.

Upon arriving back at the house, I curled into the fetal position on my bed and shivered under four blankets for 24 hours. Playing cards when my friends felt like visiting. Praying for my academic director to come with medication and make my pain go away. To take me home to Managua where there was plumbing and a concerned mother to take care of me. Now, back in Managua, removed from the situation, post-illness, I have never felt cleaner in my life. That horrible, awful experience cleaned my system from head-to-toe. You don´t understand detox until you expel your entire system and don´t eat for a week. Don´t follow that advice. Do not ever try to do that, but as something that happened to me without control, I'm thankful for the clean start. The super healthy body.

I don't have a bad word against the campo; I just know the inside of my bug net more than I know the community after bedridden days. The people are wonderful; they took good care of me. The lifestyle is simple and organic. The campo is beautiful and I appreciate my experience, good and bad, immensely. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

La Costa

For our first big trip of the semester we hopped on a bus to the caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Yet, bus isn't an accurate depiction of our travels. We also spent 2 hours in a Panga (20 passenger boat) to Bluefields, traveling along the Rio Escondido (Hidden River), where we spent 48 hours before taking another Panga to Pearl Lagoon. The means of travel is important to note with this trip because it is the rainy season, and any period of time on a Panga with a giant sheet of plastic covering our heads with pounding rain will remain memorable for a while.

Again, picture this giant clear tarp, drapped over your heads in pounding rain, accelerating at full speed. This means the tarp is not only extremely loud from the pelleting rain, but it also is smacking itself against any part of your face that it comes in contact with, violently. Once you decide that this experience is too much, especially for over an hour (three hours on the return journey), you choose to pop your head out of the side. This would be fine if the rain didn't feel like needles charging at your face and the wind being too extreme to keep your eyes open. 

The scary thing is, I loved this experience. While everyone left the boat soaked, miserable, sore, cranky, I felt thrilled. Another badge of boat life, achieved.

The community of Pearl Lagoon is fabulous. We hung out with Mr. Wesley and he hooked us up with cool families to pass our time with. A friend and I hung out with Miss Fern, and Miss Fern sent us with her son to go crab fishing. That was fasinating, and very different from my crabbing experiences on Oregon Coast. Especially since we went crabbing in a very small canoe that sat low in the water, and threaten to flip with every inhale. Also that once the crabs were caught, they just sat in the boat next to our feet. Which, I'm pretty comfortable with crabs - normally I pick them up and treat them like puppets, but these blue crabs were not fooled and knew that attacking my feet was a really clever way to potentially escape. It almost worked a few times when I threatened to flip the boat by flinging my feet in the air. Pretty sure Miss Fern's son thinks I'm crazy.

Later we went on a kayak ride, visting the nearbly indigenous villages. Which would have been entirely uneventful if Miss Fern's son didn't encourage us to try standing in the kayaks. Which is always an awful idea, no matter how experienced you are with kayaking. I flipped my kayak at least 3 times, which is really absurd and more fuel for Miss Fern's son to think I'm crazy.

What's fascinating about Pearl Lagoon (and all of Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast) is that while it lies in the heart of Central American, which I think even the most uneducated American could identify as a place of Latin culture, they speak English. Creole, to be correct, but they are taught in school English, Spanish, and they also have the opportunity to be educated in local indigenous language if they would life. The community primarily identifies as Afro-Caribbean or Creole. Who knew that half of this country doesn't share Latin culture? That is astounding to me. 

Additionally, the region is only connected to the Pacific half of Nicaragua by one road that leads to Rama. From there to actually reach the coast you must take the two hour Panga ride to Bluefields. There is no other way. They have built a dirt road to Pearl Lagoon from Rama, but in a land where the rainy season is every season, this isn't entirely feasible. This systemically isolates half of the country from the capitol center, which creates a wealth of problems considering it's is the indigenous, racially diverse, extremely rural half of the country. Imagine if there was no transporatation by road to the East Coast of the United States, and we had to take a boat from the Mississippi river to get to anything on the Eastern Coast. That´s insane. 

On our last day on the coast we took the Panga for another hour out to the keys, these small desolated islands that you can swim around in 20 minutes, tops (the individual islands, not the keys). The scenery was as perfect as those depressing office calendars of island life, except the view was real and not just a tourture image reminding me of what I cannot have. I cannot express the beauty of the landscape, it's impossible.

The clarity of the water framed the life under the sea perfectly, making snorkeling a dream. The palm trees dropped the most refreshing coconuts into our laps, allowing us to hydrate then cry tears of joy eating the freshest, creamiest coconut meat, then we could go lay in the hammock and nap before swimming for another few hours. I spent a day playing with turtles, cuddling starfish, and floating in heaven --- life does not improve from this moment.

If anyone reading this every has the opportunity to visit the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, I urge you, do not miss that. It's rural enough that your experience will not be on the beaten path, but it will be as heavenly as any of those beach photos that you have stared longingly at (we have all done this, do not be ashamed).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Random Pictures Just Because

Therapy Garden in Oaxaca, Mexico

Street Art in Oaxaca, Mexico

The Hostel Crew in Chiapas, Mexico

Rainy Days at the Market in Chiapas, Mexico

Chandra Sleeping in Chiapas, Mexico

Chiapas Sunset in Chiapas, Mexico

Two Volcanos and Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

Maria Teresa AKA My Favorite Nicaraguan in Managua, Nicaragua

Life in Managua

Experiences of living in Nicaragua, in 10 points:

  1. Tropical storms, always. 
  2. There are more english words used here than in Tijuana.
  3. Describing people as fat is common and not offensive here, but it still throws me off when my mom says, ¨You know, the gorda.¨
  4. Everything you need to live on you can buy from your neighbor.
  5. Everything is fried. Everything needs more sugar. Fried chicken, fried plaintain, fried cheese (without breading), everything. You name it, I bet you Nicaraguan´s will fry it. On the other hand, if you put a pound of sugar in it, it still needs more. You can never put too much sugar in anything. Nicaragua is like the South in this way. 
  6. Instant coffee ain´t my thang. Fresh squeezed orange juice on the other hand...
  7. Cold showers, even in 90 degree humidity every day, still feel very uncomfortable.
  8. The history of Nicaragua and the revolution is alive and present, you can see the affects everywhere. That is rare with history. Here, history isn´t distant, it´s necessary to understand anything that occurs in this country. 
  9. I made my family dinner this weekend. Vegetarian Mossaka, my version of potato salad (because they love potato salad), and normal salad. A really odd pairing, but odd pairing is the definition of a Nicaraguan meal. At least, my experience with Nicaraguan food. Potato salad with spaghetti with beans and rice. I know someone who had beans and jello for breakfast once. Food doesn´t have to make sense to be eaten together here. 
  10. On Sunday I taught my family the game of American Football. We watched the 49ers-Seahawks game, on my suggestion, obviously. It was difficult to explain everything. "Uhh, and now there is an hour pause for a thunder storm. This isn´t normal." Life here doesn´t stop for a thunder storm. Every day is a thunder storm. That would be ridiculous. Also, how do you translate a quarter back? A false start? Why they are wearing black masks? What the 12th man is? Tailgating? Explaining the Space Needle, ferries, the Great Wheel, and that by living close to the stadium, I mean 20 minutes away, not 4 blocks. Again, all in Spanish. All this to say, anything is possible. 
Leaving tomorrow to head to the coast where they speak English and Creole and dance a lot. Excited to go fishing, take 6 boats to my destination, go to the beach, and hang out with Miss Cherry.