Initially when I was organizing our trip to Nicaragua, I assumed that after Ometepe we would all three drive our compact rental car to Colby’s PC site: past Chinandega, past El Viejo and over dusty rutted roads to Monte Rosa, the sugar cane refinery and farm that surrounds his tiny village.
Colby made it very clear that we would not be driving to his village, we would be arriving by bus, because that is how everyone in the village travels, and that is how he travels throughout Nicaragua. Given the reputation of Nicaraguan buses for comfort and safety, you can imagine my trepidation. (See previous post on this subject.)
It is a measure of my limited perspective and privileged travels in the country, that I have never before ridden a Nicaraguan bus. This would change. Colby was absolutely right. Simply arriving by bus, the same bus the locals ride, gave us a certain cred, if not exactly respectability, in the village. Plus we did not embarrass Colby. And one should never miss an opportunity to NOT embarrass one’s offspring. (Or do I mean the opposite? Ask me tomorrow.)
So we parked our rented vehicle in Chinandega, and took the bus to El Viejo. In El Viejo (home to the silver Virgin statue brought over by a brother of Teresa of Avila, a long time ago, about which I wrote thousands of words in my novel Absent a Miracle, and then deleted most of them.) Colby bought a 100-pound bag of pig feed for his pig, Rojita. She is named for his favorite, red-flavored, Nicaraguan soft drink. We tried to visit the inside of the church but it was closed. There were, however, a gaggle of very young nuns in pale blue habits looking for money, and I have never learned the art of saying no to a nun.
Then we took the bus from El Viejo to Monte Rosa. The 100-pound bag of pig feed rode atop the bus. A young man carried it up there. I have no idea how such feats of strength are possible, but they are, Because there it was, a 100-pound bag of pig feed on top of the bus, and no crane, pulley or winch in sight.
Inside the bus, I glanced across the aisle and noted that the leg of CSB’s seat – yes, we were lucky to have seats– had pierced the floor of the bus and dangled in midair. It hovered over the dirt road like a nectar-gathering hummingbird. I watched and waited for the inevitable crash. I wanted to photograph the incongruity of CSB’s un-Nicaraguan tall frame perched upon the suspended seat in the ancient school bus, but I was dissuaded.
Then we arrived at Colby’s village.
In years past, I have driven past villages like this in Nicaragua and other Latin Countries, and I have had friendly chats with the people who live in these villages, small farmers, cane-cutters, and teachers. But I had no idea.
Here we are staying with Colby’s host family: Doña Pastor, Pipé, her autistic 23-year old son, and Bryan, a grandson. Their house is built of cinder block and plywood, and loosely roofed with sheets of corrugated tin. There is a well in the garden, so it is quite easy to pump water into a bucket, or send in through PCB pipes into a cement ‘sink’ inside. The latrine we won’t speak of. Personal ablutions take place inside a cement enclosure, with a bucket and a bowl. The heat is such that I do not miss hot water. Which is saying quite a lot, since my devotion to hot water is legendary. While here, Colby has graciously given us his bed, which we learn is a typical Chinandega style bed Chinandega bed: a wooden bedframe supporting a platform of woven cane. And Colby will sleep outside in the hammock.
After making a few visits to various families, we are back for an early dinner. It gets dark early, and so dinner is early. Even though the village got electricity about a year ago, there are still very few lights and the current is unreliable and weak. Still, any electricity at all means that those who have them can charge their cellphones. They can talk on cellphones will sitting on latrines in the middle of sugar cane country. Doña Pastora prepares dinner, the usual rice and beans, with the special treat of plantains cooked in coconut oil; Colby (along with his backpack and his 100 pounds of pig feed) brought home a plastic jug filled with coconut oil for his host mother. Colby relishes the coconut-fried plantains. CSB not quite so much so. Then, as the darkness quickly descends, Doña Pastora and Pipé and Bryan head off for cult. That is what they call it: cult. Me voy para cult. I had to hear this to several times to believe it. I know that in my prejudiced & narrow mind I may think of their evangelical meetings as cult-like, but I certainly didn’t expect to hear Doña Pastora refer to it as such. Yet she did, repeatedly. I did not hear wrong. Almost every night she goes to cult.
When she doesn’t go to cult, she and the family watch the news. Because they have a television, bought from a traveling salesman who drives around the countryside selling shoddy goods at inflated prices. They will be paying for this television long after it has died. The reception is terrible; the television is more like a radio with suggestions of black and whites shapes moving across its screen. Still, they gather around the television to watch the news. Colby suggests that we do the same, and this seems like an excellent plan. But first I take a bucket shower with the aid of my headlamp. Then I hear some oddly familiar strains of music: Que barbaridad! Those are the opening credits for Downton Abbey.
For some reason there is no news on tonight at the usual time. Instead, in a sweaty dusty village in Nicaragua, the people are watching and listening to the dramas of the upper classes of the early 20th century in the English countryside. It must be the first season: Lady Mary is the early phases of her romance with the self-made newspaper mogul who will turn out to be such a cad. I am trying to consider how I can sleep and yet simultaneously be vigilant against the Chagas vector, and also thinking ahead to Lady Mary’s later romance and marriage with Matthew Crawley and then the craven, distressing, and yet utterly predictable, ending to last season: crash.
Then we retire in darkness. Lady Mary’s fate is still an open question. I read Giaconda Belli’s memoir of love affairs and revolutions by headlamp, and fall asleep.
It may be the countryside, but it’s not quiet. Crickets bellow. Roosters crow at surprising hours. Dogs wander and bark. But suddenly this noise is more than ordinary wandering & barking dogs. The dogs are barking a lot, and loudly, and in unison, and without stopping. In the interstices we make out angry voices, the clang of metal upon metal, and more angry voices coming from other directions. We are resting upon the caned surface of the Chinandega bedframe, wondering if this goes on every night. Along with Downtown Abbey. Or not.
CSB converses with Colby, still in his hammock. Much later things quiet down, and we do not get bitten by the Chagas vector that night.