Wednesday, April 24, 2013

World Book Night redux

You have three relatively normal looking people – yes, they do have stickers affixed to their coats, but who can read the small print? – standing outside the train station, approaching strangers and giving them things.

The thing about giving away free books on WORLD BOOK NIGHT is this: anyone in his right mind initially assumes we are religious zealots. And hence to be avoided.
So last night CSB and I went to the Yonkers train station with Meg, bookstore champion, WBN promoter, big reader and dear friend. And as he did so brilliantly last year, CSB stood on the sidewalk and announced in his booming voice that it was WORLD BOOK NIGHT and we were giving away free books - as commuters emerged, rushing, dashing home, tired, cranky and hungry, eager for that chilled martini. Then Meg and I flanked out and approached likely people, and talked as fast as possible (before they could move away) about giving away free books to celebrate and encourage reading & about the merits of our respective books. Mine, My Antonia, about an immigrant family moving to Nebraska, being pioneers, homesteading in the plains. Make it quick!! Meg’s, The Tender Bar, about a young boy who is raised in his uncle’s bar by the patrons of the bar. Stress the bar! Coming of age in unusual circumstances!!
Because the train station is a warm place it is a hangout for homeless men, and so there are always 2 policemen patrolling the area, making the homeless men move away. We tried to give books to the policemen, but were told that they can’t accept anything, not even a book that can only be free. But we told them about WBN anyway. One of them (the “bad cop” of the Good/Bad Cop drill?) told us proudly that he hadn’t read a book since high school. He only reads anything on his “grundle” (sic). The other policemen seemed actually interested and said he was going to tell his son about The Tender Bar, but he couldn’t accept a copy, not even for his son. Later they frisked a man, and after that they questioned a red-faced, red-haired homeless man named “Red”. They asked him how long he had been known as “Red” and he said, Since he was born. Then they asked him for some ID, and he gave them a series of plastic cards, but none had his name on them, or any name at all. They told him to go hang out someplace else.
Since we gave away books last year at the Yonkers RR station, the daylighting of the Saw Mill River has been completed, and so instead of the dreary Larkin Parking lot, what you see when you debouch the red brick 1911 station is the river, banked with boulders, and straddled by an arched pedestrian bridge. It is quite lovely.
One of the challenges of WBN is its mission: to give books to “light or non-readers”. How do you identify a light or non-reader? By the Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts cup in her hand? By the earbuds affixed to his cochlea? By the clothes, shopping bags, race, color, creed or sexual orientation? Obviously, it is close to impossible. Readers come in all colors and shapes, as do non-readers. However, what often happens is that already-readers hear the words FREE BOOKS and became actually interested. (It works for me every time.) And we are so grateful someone is interested, that we happily hand over a book, only to be told that this person read this book last year and loved it, or, as happened yesterday when I was extolling My Antonia, that this man had a daughter named Willa.

After exhausting the book-receiving possibilities of the Yonkers train station, and with books still un-given in our boxes, we headed to the bar in Hastings. There was a man smoking just outside the door, and Meg told him about The Tender Bar. He wasn’t interested, but suggested she give one to his wife, Doreen, who was inside. At the far end of the bar were two young women drinking micro-brews. I gave them the plot line of The Tender Bar (boy, single mother, raised by uncle & bar patrons, comes out well) and one of the women said, “That’s just like me. That’s my life story.” She pulled open a satchel so I could see the paperback novel inside. We determined that the last copy should go to her friend, who was not raised in a bar.

I would like to tell you that after last year, when CSB had to rein me in, I did not chase anyone down the sidewalk brandishing a free book and imploring them to hear my spiel. Because I really was more restrained this year. I did not tug at anyone’s coat tails and I did not physically remove their earbuds to enable them to listen to my paean to reading.

Monday, April 22, 2013

In case you are wondering about the difference between the young growing up and the old getting older, consider this: in the past three days Iggy has learned these words: Suitcase, Scone, Office, Juice-box, Hammer and Ladybug. And countless others. And conjunctions and pronouns.
What have I learned in the past few days? The name of the architect of a famous tall building in Chicago. Something about Chechnya.

That may look good at first glance, but consider this. In six months Iggy will still know his words and will have mastered their usage in a multitude of ways, in sentences, in expletives, in stories and songs. If you mention the skyscraper at 326 Wacker to me in six months I will scratch my head and wonder what you are talking about. If it is a good day, I will know enough to Google the answer.

Friday, April 19, 2013

And where will we put the new chicks?

Swaths of Boston - where we have family, quite a lot of family,friends and memories - are hunkered in basements and behind closed doors, and staying away from windows for fear of a single surviving Chechen brother and the firestorm that surrounds him. Between checking the Internet for the latest terrible news, and listening to NPR interviews of random people who happened to be in Cambridge early this morning, CSB and I are engaging in heated words about the abode for the new chicks (broilers & game hens) that will arrive next week. CSB is suggesting that for their first week at Let it Bee farm, they could live in the downstairs bathtub: lined with newspaper and straw, and with the heat turned on. I feel strongly – I am in fact adamant and immoveable – that never again shall chicks live inside the house. The amount of dust generated by chickens is oceanic and incomprehensible. Are chicks born with an internal and inexhaustible supply of dust in their veins?
I know slightly more about chickens than I do about Chechnya. But that will change.

In classical times, the residents of Chechnya were the Circassians, the Avars and the Zygians. They have fought more or less constantly since the 1400’s.
What do they speak in Chechnya? Chechen and Russian. Chechen uses the Cyrillic alphabet (mostly), which only partly accounts for why I do not understand it. It belongs to the Vaynakh or North-central Caucasian language family, of which Ingush and Batsb are also members.

Currently, the only tourism in Chechnya is “extreme tourism”, a category that includes both bungee jumping and nuclear fallout zones.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Before we depart Nicaragua there remains the mystery of San Benito of Palermo or Saint Benedict the Moor or Saint Benedict the Black.
Having not expired in the earthquake or its aftershocks, we woke the next morning to ride the top of the bus to El Viejo, then to Chinandega, and then we drove back to León, where we couldn’t drive anywhere we thought we needed to go because the streets were all blocked with Passion Carpets and children dressed in white gowns sweeping. Passion carpets (nothing to do with rug-burn) or alfombras pasionarias, are religious images created on the streets with colored sawdust.
You will note that what started, presumably, as families and friends creating street art, has now fallen into the snake pit of corporate sponsorship. Yet another paradigm of life’s disconnects to be found on one dusty street in Nicaragua: the Central Bank of a Sandinista country sponsoring a Christian holiday that features a cruel crucifixion, and a foretold resuscitation, in neon bright colors.
I have not discovered why there was a festival and parade in honor of San Benito in León on the Monday of Semana Santa. It was not the feast of San Benito, which I have since learned is April 4th. (He died of natural causes, nothing gruesome to report in that department.). In order to celebrate San Benito, the folks of León dress in white robes, and by that I mean that all over town, from the supermarkets to the restaurants to insurance agencies, random people wear white robes over their clothes. And they carry brooms and they sweep. There is a lot of sweeping going on with no visible reduction of debris. Several inquiries by me elicited that San Benito was a baker and that is why people carry brooms and sweep. Huh? Sweeping up the flour? No one would explain, though several people clearly thought I was minus a hammer & wrench in the cerebral tool chest. Later in the day there was a parade and San Benito, along with a cohort of other holies, was carried aloft through the streets of León by swaying bearers. Since León’s streets are crisscrossed by webs of electric and telephone wires, the parade is accompanied by men with long crotched wooden sticks to raise the wire over the passing saints. We watched and held our breath, anticipating tangles and sparks, but that never happened. The saints passed through.

The next day we flew out of Sandino International Airport.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Back in Nicaragua

Have I mentioned the heat? It is overwhelming, overpowering, it is overcoming my capacity to come up with adjectival hyperbole; it is too hot to even speculate about what degrees F or C it is. It is so hot that all day long we lie in the hammock or rock in the rocking chair – an iteration of the rocking chairs that are found in every house in the village, the same rocking chairs that are lined up and sold by the sides of the dusty road – and move as little as possible, and only move enough to stay out of the direct sun and watch the mangoes fall from the trees. That’s right: mangoes falling from the trees. But don’t let hammocks and mangoes fool you into paradisaical fantasies. It is too hot to even imagine picking up and peeling the fallen mangoes, mangoes that fall with a thud onto the packed earth and send up a small eruption of dust upon impact. More dust to inhabit every pore and orifice you have, and some you don’t have.

In the morning we learn that last night’s clanging of metal and shouting was a certain drunken man smashing his neighbor’s house with his machete. Drunk and angry about an unspecified insult, he banged his machete against the walls and windows and tin roof of his neighbor’s house and bellowed out threats, and banged even harder when the inhabitants and other neighbors shouted for him to stop. This morning, we are told, he on the other side of the sugar cane field, persona non grata, sleeping it off.

Of course while we are weighing heavily upon the hammock and rocking chair and nodding listlessly in the direction of the plummeting mangoes, men are out in the fields cutting sugar cane, and men and women are harvesting a sweet variety of bananas favored by the inhabitants of Granada, and women are washing clothes and baking in earthen ovens and bathing babies, and children are cranking wells to bring up water and gathering firewood and kicking makeshift soccer balls in the packed dirt. And Rojita is snarfling up food and water.

Later when it is marginally cooler but still stratospherically hot we go visiting with Colby to the house of the lovely Paola with the curly eyelashes, she whose smile disperses even the heat. Earlier she brought fresh tortillas and avocados to Colby, whose name she loves to pronounce, like a magical incantation. Paola’s smile is clearly a direct defendant of her mother’s. Her little brother will do anything to elicit that smile.
Because Doña Pastora is away at cult, we go have dinner at Colby’s neighbor. There is something about Doña Indiana’s demeanor that inspires respect, and a little apprehension. Her ducks wander in and out of the house as we eat. One duck waddles coyly up to CSB, stares at him, and then piddles onto the dirt floor. He will not forget the piddling duck inside the house for a long time. The menu remains the same rice and beans.

That night, lying on the Chinandega bedframe, we are almost asleep when the dogs start their barking obbligato. It is a symphony of canine pipes and reeds and strings. Then our corrugated tin roof rattles and then – or more likely at the exact same moment – the earth trembles. We are jostled in our bed. Everything is making noise now: objects in the house, roosters, pigs, hens and especially the skinny dogs.
I say to CSB: It’s an earthquake.
He shouts outside to Colby: It’s an earthquake. Are you alright?
Colby answers that he is fine.
I say: Shouldn’t we go outside? What if the house falls on us?
CSB says: I don’t think so. There’s not much to fall.
I say: In 1972 most of Managua was reduced to rubble.
CSB says: I think this one is over.
But I stay awake for a very long time awaiting the aftershocks and after-trembles and tremors. I could tell you how many I felt, but I could not promise you that I did not imagine them.

Friday, April 5, 2013

We arrive in rural Nicaragua, and what we discover

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.
In case you are wondering why it takes 40 minutes to walk the block and a half to the camel park in Brooklyn, with young Ignacio, most extremely cute grandson, I can now tell you:

• Litter is very interesting. Even the nicest street has some litter, and litter is full of possibility. Litter raises endless questions and answers almost none. A wafting plastic bag can be chased, kicked and chased some more.
• The cement mixer. A large machine that makes interesting noises and rotates. Enough said.
• Cast iron fences that need to be touched. Every post and railing needs to be touched, and tested for strength.
• Cast iron gates that need to be pushed open, pulled shut, then pushed open again.
• A plastic fork lying on the sidewalk. A discussion ensues: since I would rather he does not put this particular fork in his mouth, I must assert to Ignacio that this particular fork is dirty, and possibly too hot to handle.
• Curbs to be straddled and balanced upon.
• Free books on a stoop, quite a nice selection: Melville’s Typee, Conversations with a Dead Friend, a novel by William Least Heat Moon, and Postcards of Kentucky 1900-1950. We decide on Kentucky because there is a lovely picture of a horse wearing a garland of roses on the cover. Ignacio identifies this horse as a cow, which is normal for him.
• Old dead leaves that dance along the sidewalk and drift down from trees. These leaves can be caught, waved about, pounded upon and stepped upon. They are so versatile and interesting.
• Men with hoses and brooms.
It is a good thing to walk a block or two or more with young Ignacio and realize just how interesting – how possible – everything is. While he is opening and shutting gates and balancing upon curbstones, I find myself going slow enough to consider the sidewalk, the material it is made of, its cracks and lumps, and the tree roots that obtrude. I take note of the species of dead leaves that have fallen from the street trees, and think about the elegance of the gingko and why is that particular shape so extra-pleasing, and then I lapse into a moment of sheer longing for the huge sycamore leaves that fell in the front lawn of our first house in Hastings, and how we raked them in the fall and jumped into the piles and raked them again. There is time to squint into the windows of garden apartments, and imagine the surreal delights of living half under, half above ground. I make judgments based on window treatments. I wonder who came up with that strange conjunction of words: window treatments. I think about Iggy touching hundreds of objects that have been touched by hundreds of other hands that have also touched objects in hundreds of other places, and the world seems simultaneously enormous and compact.
Then we climb on the chipped but much loved camel of the camel park of Fort Greene.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Things I cannot tell you about Nicaragua

There are several things I cannot tell you: how many billboards we saw featuring the smiling well-fed face of Daniel Ortega. This is not for lack of trying. I stopped counting at 165 because it was a) depressing, and b) driving CSB a little nutty. I can tell you that I saw more billboards sporting Daniel’s mug even than telephone poles stenciled with the silhouette of Agosto Sandino. We saw other fine murals as well.

I cannot tell you what was the meaning of the caravan of straw-covered wagons or why they were washing their horses, though I will point out that the horses (& cows) in Ometepe also were being washed, and either horses in Nicaragua tend to get washed in Lent, or horses in Nicaragua tend to get washed all year long, but we were only there to see it happen in Lent. Or the meaning may have nothing to do with horses or Lent or bathing, but instead be about a certain incredibly loud cricket, the loudest cricket I have ever heard, a cricket that sounds like a siren, or at least like the wailing of a not-mythical two-legged creature.

There is very little I can tell you about the buses in Nicaragua, except that they are very old American school buses, so old that they never transported you or your children. Possibly they transported your parents to school, a very long time ago, before environmental regulations. After having been deemed unfit to carry American children to school, these buses were sold to Mexican entrepreneurs, and when they were too decrepit for Mexico, they were sold again to enterprising Nicaraguans. I cannot even show you a picture of a Nicaraguan bus, because I neglected to take one, possibly because I was focused on staying aboard, or upright, or alive. Even after having wasted a considerable amount of time scouring the Internet for a suitable picture, I have not found one that captures the Nicaraguan bus as I came to know it: crowded or extremely crowded; still advertising its long ago provenance as the Southern Willits County Union Free School District; blasting Mayan Reggae music; having at least one young salesman squeezing up and down the crowded aisles selling patent medicines; having seat legs piercing the metal floor and suspended perilously above air, with views of the rutted road below; and with baskets of fruit and 100-pound bags of pig food on the roof, and also, us. Here is the view, on the roof, heading from Monte Rosa to El Viejo.

I wish I could tell you that the rash that returned with me from Nicaragua, or rather, appeared almost immediately upon my return from Nicaragua, has a name and a cure. But I can’t do that. Aside from making me very itchy and hence very cranky, it – the rash – has the additional attribute of making me paranoid. I may have wasted quite a bit of time looking for Nicaraguan bus photos on the Internet, but I have wasted far more time looking for possible causes for rashes upon returning from the tropics. The possibilities are legion. The first site I go to is Chagas, and Chagas is not anywhere you want to be. Chagas is a parasitic disease caused by a flagellate protozoan, and its very name fills tropical travelers with dread. In CSB’s son’s room, he has taped to the wall (Plywood, makeshift) a Peace Corps notice about the dangers of Chagas. If you get bitten by an insect vector – somewhere on your face - the bug will then suck your blood and defecate nearby. You may develop symptoms immediately, or you may not. One of the lesser symptoms is a rash. In the later acute phase of disease, things far worse than rashes will happen to you. At that point, I stop reading about Chagas disease, and change my search words, and come up with Miliaria, which is prickly heat rash and you probably won’t die from it. (But can you die of paranoia?)

In Nicaragua we witnessed several religious rituals devoted to obscure saints. I can describe them but not necessarily explain them. San Benito of Palermo and his broom, for instance. Naturally most Nicaraguans were delighted to have a Latin American pope, except for the Evangelicals, who think the Pope, whatever his provenance, is the Antichrist.

Monday, April 1, 2013

As my favorite son so aptly put it: If you receive a package in the mail today, it is not from me.