Friday, July 21, 2006

Birthday Bash

Allan had his ninth birthday last week. Now, when I turned 9, I had a party with all of my friends from school. We all gathered in the backyard to play games such as red rover and capture the flag, and if I'm not mistaken there may have even been a scavenger hunt. So I was a bit surprised to find that Allan didn't have any friends over. Instead it was a family gathering. Uncles, aunts, cousins showed up to eat roasted chicken, rice and beans. Of course there was Coca-Cola to drink. And for desert we had delicious chocolate cake with lots of frosting that Allan's aunt smeared all over his face after he blew out the candles.

The traditional birthday song in much of Latin America is called "Las Mañanitas."

Las Mañanitas

Éstas son las mañanitas
Que cantaba el Rey David,
A las muchachas bonitas
Se las cantaba así.

Despierta, mi bien, despierta,
Mira que ya amaneció,
Ya los pajaritos cantan,
La luna ya se metió.

These are the morning verses
That King David used to sing,
To the beautiful young ladies,
He would sing them like this.

Wake up, darling, wake up,
Look, the dawn has broken,
The birds are singing,
The moon has already gone down.

When I was teaching in Mexico, the whole school would gather every Monday morning to sing this song to all of the children who had a birthday that week. I never really understood why they sing a song about King David on a child's birthday. Then today I did an internet search for Las Mañanitas and found that there's actually a third verse...

Éstas son las mañanitas
Que cantaba el Rey David,
Hoy por ser día de tu santo
Te las cantamos a ti.

These are the morning verses
That King David used to sing,
Today because it's your saint's day
We're singing them to you.

Now it makes more sense. Because back in the old days they didn't celebrate birthdays on the date on which you were born. Instead they celebrated the day that corresponds to the saint that is your namesake, which could be in an entirely different time of year.

And now, some cute birthday pictures:
The birthday boy smeared with frosting
Blowing out candles with Mom (Mari) and Brother (William)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Sandinista Pride

Turns out that July 19 is the anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution here in Nicaragua. Even though the Sandinista’s aren’t in power now, it’s still celebrated as a national holiday, and the Sandinistas hold a huge rally in Managua’s central plaza. Not one to miss a populist political demonstration, I had to attend.

In my estimation there must have been hundreds of thousands of people who showed up. Buses poured in from all over Nicaragua, bringing Sandinista partisans adorned in Che Guevara T Shirts and waving red and black flags. The atmosphere was festive. Vendors were selling all sorts of food, beer, rum, even toys for the kids. There was a large stage set up on one end of the plaza, but for the most part people didn't pay too much attention to the speeches and dance performances up on the stage. Instead, families just hung out and had fun. Kids played while parents drank (sometimes excessively). It was a demonstration of pride: in Nicaragua, in Latin America, in anti-Imperialism. Thousands and thousands of people were waving their Sandinista flags enthusiastically, clearly proud to be celebrating the ideology of Sandinismo. But then there were lots and lots of people who were just there to celebrate for the sake of celebrating. How many people there at the plaza were planning to vote for the Sandinistas in October's elections? That remains to be seen.

For those who aren't familiar with Nicaraguan history, the Sandinistas emerged in the 1970s as a guerilla movement that was opposed to then-dictator Somoza. The Somoza family ruled Nicaragua for much of the 20th century. If anyone criticized the dictator, that person would be promptly "disappeared" and never seen again. For many years the US supported Somoza because he protected American business interests in Central America. Harry Truman is quoted as once saying, "He may be a bastard, but at least he's our bastard." But in the late 1970s, Somoza made the mistake of murdering a US journalist and lost the backing of the US government. Finally, in 1979 the Sandinistas were able to topple Somoza's government, and they promptly instituted a socialist regime in Nicaragua. However, by 1990 many Nicaraguans were dissillusioned with the Sandinistas, and they were voted out of power. Since then the Sandinistas have been an important political party, but have never recaptured the presidency. Every election since 1990 has seen Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader, lose to his opponents. This coming November there's going to be another election, and word on the street is that Ortega may actually win. Nothing is certain in politics, especially in Latin America, so it will be interesting to see what happens in November.

Island Life

The island of Ometepe is comprised of two volcanoes rising up from Lake Cocibolca. Volcano Concepcion is still active, and on the ferry ride to the island I could see smoke rising from the top of Concepcion’s volcanic cone. Concepcion is surrounded by the islands more densely populated towns, and hundreds of people could lose their lives should the volcano erupt violently. Volcano Maderas is on the eastern, less populated side of the island. Maderas is no longer active, which makes it a popular destination for hikers.
I spent Friday night at Finca Magdalena, a hostel located in the middle of an organic coffee plantation at the base of Volcano Maderas. Then Sat morning I climbed the volcano with four Canadians and a guy from England. It took just under four hours to reach the top and another three hours to get back down. It rained for the first two hours of the hike, and the trail was completely muddy. But it was a beautiful hike. We saw howler monkeys in the trees above, heard the sounds of many different tropical birds, and even saw a 6-ft-long snake (that according to our guide was not poisonous). We walked through fields of coffee and cacao, and were surrounded by thick, green forest all the way to the top. At the summit of the volcano there’s a crater lake, but it was so cloudy and cold that nobody in our group felt like swimming.

Saturday afternoon I joined up with two of the Canadian guys I met on the hike and we decided to take a bus to the Monkey’s Island Hostel on the other side of Volcano Maderas. Sunday we rented horses and rode to a beautiful jungle waterfall that was a couple hundred feet tall. Previously, I’ve only ridden a horse as part of a group with a guide, so this was the first time I found myself totally in control of a horse. It was up to me to control the horse’s speed, tell him which direction to go, when to stop, etc. Other than the pain in my butt from all the bouncing up and down, it was great fun. And when I got back from the waterfall I cooled off with a swim in the lake. Lake Cocibolca is the only freshwater lake in the world with sharks, but apparently people aren't worried about shark attacks because everyone swims in the water.

The best part about Ometepe is the laid-back lifestyle. Dogs, pigs, chickens, cows, and horses roam free. Howler monkees scream from the trees above. Roads are mostly muddy, and are only passable by high clearance vehicles. Public transportation consists of old American Schoolbuses retrofitted with monster tires. Mountain bikes are the main means of transportation on the island, and wooden canoes are the main means of getting around in the waters offshore.


Ometepe Beach

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Health Promoters

Getting to Ometepe involved a two hour drive in Saul’s pickup truck from Managua to San Jorge, and then an hour-long ferry ride to the island. The trip was made ever the more difficult because Saul was bringing a large whiteboard to the Health Clinic on the island. The ferry from San Jorge arrives in the village of Moyogalpa, but the class was on the other side of the island in the town of Altagracia. Getting to Altagracia required a taxi, but finding a taxi that could take a large whiteboard was not so easy. Eventually we found a large van and were able to tie the board to the roof. Tying things to the roof of a vehicle is quite common practice here in Nicaragua (chickens, bananas, sacks of flour), and I’ve never seen anything fall from a moving vehicle. That is until Friday. Because after driving for ten minutes we heard a loud THUD and turned around to see the whiteboard on the road behind us. Remarkably, it didn’t crack, but the wooden frame splintered into many pieces.
The fall of the whiteboard turned out to be an omen for a long and unpleasant taxi ride, because soon afterwards it started raining, and then we found ourselves stuck behind a flag relay that consisted of a Nicaraguan child running with a flag for a few minutes and then passing the flag to another child who would continue down the road, etc. It apparently is a nationwide event in that the flag is carried by schoolchildren across the entire country, much like the Olympic torch relay. So we found ourselves going about 3 miles per hour in back of a 10-year-old boy who is jogging with an outstretched arm proudly holding aloft the Nicaraguan flag. And the police escort wouldn’t let us pass.
When we finally got to the health center in Altagracia, we then received the bad news that many of the health promoters had not been able to come to the meeting because the heavy rains had made travel impossible on the dirt roads of their villages. Just as Saul was ready to cancel the class, however, some of the promoters trickled in, and we were able to hold the class for the 10 people who showed up.
Inspiring, is really the best adjective I can think of to describe Saul’s class. The health promoters were mostly poor farmers without a great deal of education. Yet, he really connected to them in a meaningful way by emphasizing the interconnectedness of community health. That is to say, if your neighbors don’t have a latrine, and your family does, then you should be happy, right? Wrong. Because if your neighbors don’t have a latrine, they’ll go to the bathroom outside, and insects will land on the human waste and then fly over to your house and get you sick. So it’s to the benefit of all members of a community that everyone stays healthy and that everyone has clean water and a hygienic bathroom/latrine.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An Island Adventure

Just got back from Isla de Ometepe early this afternoon. It was quite a journey. From the hostel where I stayed last night, it's a long, slow bus ride over muddy dirt roads to reach the town of Moyogalpa where the ferry departs. The ferry ride to San Jorge is an hour, and from there it's a 20 minute ride to Rivas from where you can get a bus to Managua. I got on the bus at 5:30am in front of my hostel. Didn't get back to Managua until 1pm. Quite a trip.

But it was much fun - monkeys, volcanoes, swimming, horses, waterfalls, lots of pigs, and a good amount of rain.

I don't have much time to write now, but hope to update the blog with details by tomorrow.