When I look back, what amuses me most about my trip to Nicaragua is that, when I first started several years ago, I absolutely hated step dancing. I attended lessons only because my father forced me, and between alternately hating the dancing itself or one of my teachers, step dancing and I would have swiftly parted company had my father ever relented. Naturally, I eventually learned to love step (once again proving Dad knows best) and became a captain of my step team.
In March or April of 2005, my brothers, Joseph and Daniel, and I received a invitation from an older friend who lives in Bluefields Nicaragua, an invitation which, as you've probably already guessed, involved step dancing. Essentially, she wanted us to visit her for a few weeks and run an after-school/weekend program for the children in her town and other communities in the area. And so, in July, along with our friend/person-sent-with-us-to-keep-us-from-dying, Laret, we flew to Central America to begin work.
Because air fare to Costa Rica was considerably cheaper than air fare to Nicaragua, we flew first to San Jose, and then travelled 48 hours to the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. Our pilgrimage involved an 8-hour bus ride, one night spent in a barracks of a room in a Baptist mission, a scorpion dancing around outside our bedroom, half a day of waiting for the communication tower to be repaired so we could take a microscopic puddle-jumper airplane to Bluefields, and half our luggage being left behind us in Managua, but we eventually arrived safe and (more or less) sound.
This is a view of a street near where we lived. For us, being there was literally like being in another world, so we spent some of our afternoons exploring our neighborhood. This picture was actually supposed to be of a massive swarm of black butterflies that crowded the sky, but for some reason they didn't show up. The very same day I took this shot, a truck drove down our street spraying into the air what i suppose was huge amounts of some sort of insecticide. Whatever it was, we didn't see any more butterflies. Somehow I also doubt that the chemical-clouds billowing forth from that truck were good for the people around, either.
I'm not entirely sure where this was taken, but I like the fact that you can see how abundant fruit trees are. Actually, every house that we visited had its own fruit trees somewhere in the yard, and most people raise their own fruit. Needless to say, the fruit we ate was amazing.
This was the view from our porch. We were there during the rainy season, and we soon discovered that rain at that time is like nothing one will ever experience in the NorthEast corner of the US. I think it rained every single day we were there, and you never knew when the rain would start or stop until it did. One day, while we were standing on our front porch staring at a torrential downpour, Daniel pulled out his camera to take a picture of the rain (I'm not sure how he imagined the picture would come out, but that's beside the point), but when he pointed the camera toward the sky, the rain stopped as though someone had flipped a switch. Disappointed, he returned the camera to his pocket; instantly, the rain was pouring down as hard as before. Daniel glared at the sky in disgust and called, "are you kidding me??"
Fruit trees again. I believe these may have been next door to the church/school where we worked.
We were provided a house to live in for the duration of our stay, but we ate all of our meals at the home of the friend who had invited us down in the first place. Since her house was a decent walk from ours (and since the weather was so oppressively hot -- at least for us New Yorkers), we generally took taxis to and from. On one such trip, this little urchin ran out of nowhere and hopped onto that perch to get a good look at us. You can't see it in this picture, but he was actually wearing a gold necklace with a little medalion on it. We're convinced he was the Pirates of the Carribean monkey.
More importantly, this picture also shows the condition of a vast portion of the real estate in Bluefields. The community is far from rich, as you can see, and the Nicaraguan government seems not to care much about how people are living there. While we were in town, the very first plumbing system the city has ever had was just being built. Now, most houses have running water, but only because there are wells connected to the houses from which water is pumped into the pipes. The water isn't purified or heated, so you can't drink it and. . . well. . . you can just imagine what showering is like. Our house collected rainwater from the roof and pumped that into our shower, sinks, and toilets. Quite sanitary, no? Families have to boil the water before they can drink it, or just use bottled. Our friends told us that Bluefields has, especially recently, attracted some attention from large companies because of its location on the coast. They claimed this was the only reason a plumbing system was even being installed, and most asserted they wouldn't trust that the water was being properly purified even once the system was in place. It astounds and horrifies me that in this day and age a government can care so little about its people it can allow them to live without things that are, at least to my mind, such basic necessities.
One day as we were walking through town peeking into stores, we spotted this little guy traipsing around in a basket of plantains (which, by the way, was merchandise. They don't have very strict standards of cleanliness in stores). We thought he was terribly cute, until one of the men nearby went to pet him and nearly got his hand clawed off. I guess we should have known from the look in his eyes that he meant no good to anyone.
I hope this shows up on people's computers, I had to resize it and now it looks a little blurry. Anyway, the boys found this in our house. That's right, IN OUR HOUSE. Looking back, it's still a wonder to me that I managed to survive the trip without having a nervous breakdown. The full list of bugs and animals we lived with during our stay is: a scorpion, bats, mice, lizards, fire ants, HUGE spiders, a dog, weird long, skinny bugs with lots of legs, and bazillions of strange little insects.
I wish I could do that. She's carrying baked goods in that basket, and she sells them here and there as she goes. In other places we visited, young children would go around with baskets of food like that, selling pastries to help bring in some money for the family. Some wanted us to buy from them, but Laret wouldn't eat any unpackaged food or let us either, so we gave them money instead. At times it made me sad to know that, unlike the lemonade stands and jewelry sales my friends and I used to have, for them it wasn't a game.
The view from our friend Carolyn's front yard. Wouldn't you love a view like that? Unfortunately, her house is so far from the main part of Bluefields, taxis and trucks won't even drive there because there's no road. See what the yard looks like? Well, that's as close to a road as it gets.
She does have a beautiful house, though. Personally, I admire the fact that she's so committed to Bluefields she's willing to return there after living so long in New York. I don't think I could.
Carolyn's backyard. It makes me a little sick to think I probably ate the relatives of some of these magnificent birds. See, Carolyn's relatives cooked all our meals. And we ate a whole lot of chicken.
One of the turkeys took offense at our walking through the yard and tried to attack Joey.
I thought they were pretty.
Honestly, I have no idea what Bimbo is, but we fell in love with the sign. I guess this was on a store somewhere in Bluefields.
Where we lived and worked:
Our house! We actually had the place entirely to ourselves. The pastor of the church/school where we worked was studying in Managua (we met him while we were there) so his house was free for our use. On our first night we discovered that half the neighborhood had a key to the front door, though, and they kept walking in on us. We wanted to tell them to stay out of our house, but it's difficult, especially as a visitor, to tell someone with a key that they can't come in. At one point, well into the night, a man came to the front door (I was sitting in a chair by the window and when he came onto the porch I shrieked. He probably had a good laugh at the stupid foreigner), unlocked it, poked his head in, and held up a breadfruit as if to say "don't be afraid! I come bearing breadfruit!" He then proceeded wordlessly to the kitchen, deposited the breadfruit on the floor, and walked right back out the door with no further ado. Laret hypothesized that he was a church member who was curious and wanted to see us, because there's no living reason he would need to leave a breadfruit in our kitchen. . . but we still pulled an armchair in front of the door before we went to sleep.
The house was nice, all things considered. We had running water, though we couldn't drink it and it wasn't warm (brushing our teeth WAS a challenge, let me tell you!) and for the majority of the time we had electricity as well. On certain days they shut down the town generator, but no one knows when or how long the intentional power outages will be (I don't know WHY they have them, either). Just imagine living in a place where you don't know from one day till the next whether or not you'll have electricity. They told us that our power would probably be off from Friday evening till Monday morning, but the only outage we had was on a Tuesday and lasted for only twelve hours.
By far the most difficult thing for me to adapt to was the amount of animal life we had to share the house with. We had barely been in the house for ten minutes when I was greeted by a lizard jumping out of a roll of toilet paper at me. By the second day, though, the lizards were my best friends, comparatively speaking, because everything else I found was a million times worse. One night, when I was talking to my sister on the phone (we only got to speak to our families on one night during the whole stay) a bunch of mice were racing around on the floor at my feet, so I had to stand on a desk while I talked to her. She laughed at me, but I maintain she wouldn't have been any calmer, had she been there.
Our bedroom. I was supposed to have my own room (the house actually had four bedrooms, so there was no need to share), but I was positively petrified of sleeping by myself, not because I thought anyone was going to come into my room, but because I needed the boys nearby at all times to kill bugs for me. Thus, we all slept in the same room. Despite the number of pictures you're seeing of us sleeping, we actually didn't sleep much at all on the trip, and sometimes went whole nights with only an hour or two of sleep, followed by several hours of trekking here there and everywhere.
Living room. Yes, we did have a TV, and yes, whenever there was power we also had cable, so we could watch a lot of American TV. Of course, all the American stations were weird cable channels, and whenever we found a show we really wanted to watch, like the Simpsons, it would always be in Spanish. Consequently, we watched lots of bad American movies, and strange Spanish soap operas (which are, amazingly, even more melodramatic than American soaps!). Our Spanish proficiency sky-rocketed.
We wanted to buy souvenirs from Bluefields, but all the stores in town closely resembled dollar stores in the States and we couldn't find much in the way of trinkets and gifts. These men sell handcrafted rosewood and jewelry, so some of the church people brought them to our house. In less than an hour we spent about a hundred dollars (1,675 when converted to Cordobas). Two church members stayed with us, though, to ensure that then men would give us fair prices (since, after all, we're dumb foreigners and don't know how much things cost).
Our house was conveniently located right next door to the church/school.
During our stay we ran a few different classes for the kids. Sometimes we would keep them all together and teach step dancing (which, in case you were wondering, is a sort of urban dancing which involves rhythmic stomping, clapping, and slapping different parts of the body), and other times we separated them into boy and girl groups. Joey and Daniel taught the boys more step routines, while I did arts and crafts with the girls. I'm not entirely sure why they make the girls wear dresses every day.
I brought an entire suitcase filled with beads, string, ribbon, construction paper, stickers, and tons of other craft supplies. As one of the projects we did, I taught the girls how to weave the string through the beads to make flat keychains and things, instead of just necklaces and bracelets. You know, you always hear about how kids in other countries don't have all the toys and nonsense most American kids take for granted, but for me personally, it never sunk in for me that those stories were true until I saw the girls faces while we did crafts. Honestly, the things I brought were nothing special. Just some plastic beads and ordinary string. But after I had finished getting the little girls set with their projects, Nancy, one of the teachers who is five years older than I, came to me with a handful of beads and asked if I'd teach her how to weave them like I'd taught the children. Her excitement over something so silly and simple deeply touched me. I can't think of a single 20-something-year-old I know who would get excited at the prospect of making a project from plastic beads, simply because we all grew tired of those things when we were ten. But Nancy never had piles of junk like that. This is something I still have difficulty wrapping my mind around: in some places, people who are wonderful and industrious and hard-working and exceptional in every way just don't have the same amount of stuff so many of us take for granted. There is something inherently unfair in that.
And there's Nancy! She will always stick out in my mind as one of the most amazing people I have ever met. With precious few resources, she somehow manages to be a teacher, friend, and role-model for those girls, in addition to handling a million other little jobs around the church.
The boys' class. The guys benefited a great deal from having their own class, as they tended to learn complicated routines with greater ease when they weren't mixed with the little girls (the boys tended to be older).
And then, of course, we had general, co-ed step classes. Step dancing is an excellent activity for kids because, like most other forms of dancing, it teaches discipline, following directions, and how to focus on one's own movements while still paying attention to others'. Plus, it's fun. The kids enjoyed it immensely; after we did demonstrations of complex routines, we'd see them trying to imitate us and making up their own motions.
Two of my sweeties.
One our first night, we found this guy in our house. The boys wanted him to stay indoors with us, but Laret and I would have none of that, so someone from the church came and hauled him outside. Part of me knew that was unfair, after all, it was his house and WE were the visitors, but he creeped me out a little bit.
We did manage to lock ourselves out on one occasion (and only one, which in itself is a miracle). Fortunately, we had with us the REAL Spiderman.
The climate and constant activity were so exhausting we started falling asleep in the strangest places.
. . . It also made us act like retards.
And of course, I insisted on sleeping with a weapon in my hands at all times (to ward of insects and animals, not people) and wearing Daniel's sandals to avoid touching the floor. Somehow the trip didn't manage to turn me into less of a priss.
I know this post is epic, so I'll stop now. More Nicaragua entries to come!