Sorry for the absense. I wrote a post a while back that seems to not have made it online and the draft is lost, so I will try to recap things as best I can. First of all, Christmas was completely different here. It was my first year not being with my family. Christmas is not by a long shot the biggest holiday around, taking a backseat to the Holy Week celebrations preceding Easter Sunday. This, along with the poverty of rural Nicaragua, meant a build up to Christmas bereft of the nonstop commercial pummeling which I always found depressing in the States. Christmas here serves as an excuse to drink to excess and eat as many nacatamales as possible. For my part, in the space of two days I managed to down seven of the large festive cornmeal tamales which consist of corn, pork, veggie and lard masses wrapped and boiled in banana leaves, a total matched by my fellow Peace Corps volunteer Travis who visited me for the holiday. We spent Christmas walking around my community visting families that invariably offered us food and commented on Travis´s height.
Travis was the first visitor to grace the peaceful confines of my new house (pictured below). It is affectionatley known throughout the community as "El Synogogue" (why I don´t know) and is of the finest adobe and mud construction with a newly finished concrete interior. Featuring a clay tile roof outfitted with two transparent plastic laminates to allow for a brighter interior, "El Synogogue" is the occassional home to a variety of local wildlife including but not limited to mice, bats, sparrows, a wasp´s nest and chigüines. While it´s not perfect, I am very happy living in my own house and have been lovingly welcomed into the neighborhood. I spend a good deal of time with the family up the hill and am treated as one of the family. Contrary to what you might think, I actually have less privacy living alone, given the fear of my former host mother by most of the community meant that I had very few visitors living there. Now there is a constant stream of visitors curious about how I manage to not get bored living by myself, to which I always respond,"Well, I´m never alone here." Men simply do not live alone here and my solo lifestyle (especially what I eat if I don´t have anyone to cook for me) is a constant topic of curiosity for the Nicas. One benefit of the cultural incongruity of me living alone is that people have a hard time allowing me to do what is normally considered women´s work here. As the inept male, I am constantly assailed with offers to do my laundry, sweeping, cleaning and dishes, which I generally accept out of courtesy, always helping out enough to prove that I´m capable, but staying out of the way enough as to not offend the offer.
My house also played host to my first visitor from the States. My girlfriend came to visit me for 2 weeks all the way from the snowy hellscape which is Michigan. It was great having her here and a big blow to see her leave again so soon. However, the time we spent together was amazing and it was a nice treat to have someone to show around. Also, everyone in my community was very excited to meet her and despite her near total lack of Spanish skills (with the exception of Hola and Graciás), they graciously insist that she speaks very well. We managed to tour around a bit, taking advantage of the New Year´s holiday to get to a good variety of Nicaraguan destinations. The pictures that follow are of a couple of these spots. The first is from the belltower of a cathedral in Granada (the tourist capital of the country). Granada is lovely, but I felt very out of place as the city seemed half filled with gringos and half filled with people trying to sell things to the gringos. I really did enjoy my time there, but the difference between how I feel in my community as the only American and how I felt on the backpacker´s trail is remarkable. The second photo is of the Finca Magdalena on the Island of Ometepe. It is a coffee farm operated by 27 families at the base of a volcanic (half active) island in the middle of the freshwater lake Nicaragua. It was very tranquil and the surrounding forrest was filled with howling monkeys. It is cheap enough to stay there even on my Peace Corps budget (a private room is $10 a night and a dorm bed is $4) and while I was advised that the Finca´s accomodations were "very rustic" beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is a significant step up from my everyday accomodations ("you mean they have showers AND toilets"). The Isla de Ometepe is a beautiful place and is the closeset I have seen here to what I consider true wildness. The final photo is of me buying pupusas on the street in Estelí for Alice and I to share. While the street food here carries a distinct risk of contracting stomach parasites, if it is served hot you are generally in the clear. And at about 50 cents for 3 delicious cheese and chicken filled pupusas, I, for one, am more than willing to take that risk. Alice managed to stay healthy through the entire trip and I hope she manages to convince some others that Nicaragua is a safe, fun and cheap travel destination, as they could sorely use your tourist dollars.
Speaking of tourism, my community is trying (with the help of a NGO based in Ocotal) to attract visitors with a project based in non-traditional agro-tourism. It has the distinction of being along the route where Agusto Sandino hid and staged raids on American targets in the 20s (I´ve been told there is an old mine that still has abandoned American equiptment around it from that time period. The American interests abandoned it because of increasing pressure from Sandino´s guerilla army). They hope that this historical importance along with a curiosity about the lives of small scale Nicaraguan farmers will help to bring tourist dollars to the community. I don´t have much faith in the flood of visitors that some community members are expecting will ever make it here, but I am happy to see the community getting behind something like this. They have already been around taking a census ( which lead me to correct what I had previously though was only a mispronunciation, but turned out to be a complete misunderstanding of my name. A group had been calling me by what is certainly second only to Judas as the least desirable of biblical names, Cain.) and cleaning the streets. I can only hope that they will take to my projects so well.
I received some generous donations over the holidays from the James family and my aunt and uncle. I would like to thank you here for your generocity and let you know that a portion of the money has already been used to buy school supplies to be distributed to the children most in need. Oftentimes the poorest families cannot send their children to school for the simple lack of funds for a notebook. The rest will be used to purchase fencing material and bucket irrigation systems for a number of small patio gardens which will hopefully both help the families vary their diet and sell veggies at the green market in Jicaro. Thank you again, and I will keep you updated on the progress of these projects.
I should head back to my house as I am supposed to meet one of my 9 year old neighbors there that is writing a letter to some schoolkids in the states (if you have a young one interested in a pen pal, I can arrange it and translate the letters myself, just send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org), but before I forget I´d just like to mention a couple of strange things I´ve seen recently. First, to add to the casual daredevil list I found a new favorite. I saw a mozo in the fields using an old pesticide bottle as a watter bottle (I have since given him an old empty water jug to use instead). Secondly, there is an old man who lives in the park in El Jicaro off of the scraps off garbage he can manage to collect, who, as I recently noticed, often is seen sporting a black t-shirt with a shipwreck printed on it. The shirt is labeled with the name of my hometown Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. ¿Qué Raro, no? With that I´ll leave you. Hope all is well and hasta luego.