More kids, clowns and pieces of things part 3

So this is obviously quite late.  I could say that I decided to wait until after I rang the bell, a Peace Corps Nicaragua tradition demarcating ones close of service, before writing this in order to give an RPCV’s (returned Peace Corps Volunteer) viewpoint.  I could say that I needed to wait to be back in the US in order to evaluate my experience.  I could say that I needed to see my friends, family, and town in order to gain perspective.  I could say a lot of things, but the truth is I just never made time.  I even thought of never writing a final post and let it be interpreted as ‘Oh, well service never really ends.  You can’t encapsulate it.’ Or some such nonsense, but that would be a serious cop out.  Ever since I had to write 5 paragraph essays in schools I always whiffed the conclusion.  Maybe it was resentment towards my reader; if you can’t synthesize what I just told you then it’s your own damn fault.  More likely it was laziness.  This time I’m just lost.  I thought I knew what I wanted to write but now being home I don’t. 

Lots of people, Nicas, volunteers and Americans in America, have been asking me, “So how do you feel?”  without any further prompting. How do I feel about what?  How do I feel about going/being home?  How do I feel about the future?  How do I feel about value-added taxation?  I have to assume it’s about my service and whenever people have asked me do you like the Peace Corps/are you happy that you joined, I always responded, “It depends on the day you ask me.”  Some days I feel great about it, and other days I think it was the worst decision I’ve ever made.  So I have to ask myself that question now, looking back trying to sum up the whole experience.  In order to do that, I have to think about why I joined Peace Corps in the first place.

Well, one reason was selfish; I thought it would be a good career move.  I was very interested in developmental economics when I applied and Peace Corps seemed like a great way to get interesting experience in that.  So was it a good career move?  I was talking about this with a fellow volunteer a few months back and she had asked me about my service on the wrong day.  I had recently applied for a position at the company I used to work at before Peace Corps and it was essentially the job I had when I left.  I didn’t get it.  I’d normally like to think that two years work experience would at least make me as qualified as I was two years ago (one would think a little more) but certainly not less.  I look around Facebook and I see lots of my friends with interesting and advanced positions while I seem to actually be worse off than when I graduated.  My friend smiled and nodded politely.  Then she told me in a very courteous way to shut the hell up.  She is a somewhat older volunteer, in her thirties and was established in her field.  She made me realize that lots of people join the Peace Corps much farther along in their careers and still come back from it.  Moreover, I’m very young, and it’s not uncommon for people to start whole new careers later in life.  Not being far up a career ladder at this stage in my life, while not ideal, isn’t tragic.

So why else did I do it?  I wanted to travel and have a new experience; I wanted to learn a new language, a new culture and a new way of life.  So check.  That happened.  I also wanted to do something positive and altruistic. I wanted to make an impact, and to quote Hippocrates “… make a habit of two things – to help, or at least, to do no harm.”  I may not have achieved everything I wanted work-wise with my service, but I’d like to think I certainly did no harm.  Due to the nature of the type of work I did in Nicaragua I unfortunately won’t be able to witness too much of the impact I’ve had for years to come, if ever.  But, in my opinion, Peace Corps isn’t strictly a development organization.  It’s also very much a diplomatic service (although Peace Corps specifically denies this).  So for however successful I may have been with my 1st goal work (“help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women”) I’ve seen a positive impact I had with 2nd goal (“help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”) and I think this blog, in combination with other efforts, has had a positive impact on 3rd goal work (“help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”).  I’ve made myself a world citizen, improved public opinion of America in Nicaragua, and taught some Americans about a country they might have thought was in Africa otherwise.

While I say it depends on the day you ask me, I have generally maintained that counting all the good days and all the bad, I was left me with a net positive.  When I analyze it like that it seems that I would say that yes, my service was indeed worth it.  It was hard leaving Nicaragua.  It was harder than I thought it would be.  Not in a small part because of saying goodbye, which I had been doing since January pretty much.  There were some people who said to me every day for six months, “Wow, you’re leaving soon and never coming back.  You’re off to go and forget all about poor us.”  The sentiment was endearing at first but quickly became tiresome.  I’ve always been surprised by how much people like me.  I don’t mean to seem arrogant when I say that, because certainly not everyone likes me, but I am almost disoriented sometimes by the impact I have on other people’s lives.  The sincerity and emotion of the good-byes I received were almost surreal, as have been the welcomes.  In the moment, I don’t always fully appreciate this. 

Nicaraguans would sometimes be amazed that I would be willing to move to a foreign country, away from everyone I’ve ever known for two years.  They think it must be a military obligation of mine or something I need to get my degree.  They can’t believe I could up and leave everything I know, especially for no money.  I’ve often prided myself that I could, indeed, drop everything and leave like that.  I liked seeing myself as emotionally independent, adaptive and as a result free to chase any opportunity that presents itself.  Maybe I’ve changed or maybe I’ve just learned that that isn’t really true about me.  I don’t know if I could do something like Peace Corps again because I’m not sure I could leave my whole life again, twice.  I left everything going and once again coming.  Everything is different while it stayed the same.  If nothing else, my service was worth it to learn that. 

I can’t think how to end this.  What can I really say?  I remember when I studied in Mexico I thought after two weeks I knew everything there was to know about the country.  Then after six weeks I thought, “How arrogant I was to think I knew everything about Mexico after just two weeks.  What a tourist I was!  Now, of course after six weeks I really do know everything about Mexico.”  I repeated this mistake thinking I knew everything about Nica culture before training was even over.  In these posts I’ve talked about a wide range of topics.  Some of the topics were about me and my life and my personal minutiae, some about my work with the Peace Corps and some about Nicaraguan life and culture.  I’ve tried to capture incredibly broad topics by describing discrete and usually isolated observations.  I hope people have enjoyed reading this and have learned a bit about Nicaragua (or learned anything).  Even after having spent two years in Nicaragua, I know that I can’t say I really know everything about the country, its history, culture, etc.  I’ve spent my whole life in the US and can’t claim to be an expert even on the state of New York.  Beyond that, these things change.  Just as a man can’t step in the same river twice I can never fully define anything I’ve talked about in these pages.  They are all simply anecdotes; pieces of things that happened.

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More kids, clowns and pieces of things part 2

I realize that these kids have a pretty strong incentive to lie and say that their mothers gave permission even if they didn’t.  So I decided to walk to see the mothers and make sure.  They were pretty shocked that I was willing to take their kids to the circus, but I think that they were also a little unsure as to whether or not they should let me.  One mother agreed pretty quickly and sent her kids along with me.  I say to her, “Uhm, do you want my phone number or something, just in case?”  “Oh yes, that’s a good idea.”  “Uhm, do you want to give me your phone number of something, just in case?”  “Oh yes, that’s a good idea.”  Damn, lady.  I should kidnap your kids just to teach you a lesson.

To be fair we weren’t going very far, just a little over a half-mile down the road.  But the show was starting at 7pm and the parents don’t know me all that well.  So while I think that they were justifiably a little nervous, they really didn’t want to spoil the chance for their kids.  I also somehow ended up with a group of 4 kids instead of 2, but that’s how these things go.  So once every got their permission, we all pile into a pedi-cab and head up-town.  The kids were all very excited and during the ride we were talking about what we hope to see and all that good stuff.  Their eyes widen as the point of the circus tent comes into view and they start rushing out of the tricycle towards the entrance.  This is the first moment I start to get worried that I’ll have trouble keeping 4 over energized kids in check.  We go up, buy our tickets and walk in. 

The place is completely empty.  0 people are in this tent, excluding the sound guy.  I go back to the ticket taker.  “Hey, what time does the show start?”  “8 o’clock.  Sharp.”

Eight o’clock.  Not seven.  Not even seven thirty.  And thus began the longest hour of my life.  Maybe I should say the longest hora Nica of my life, because it most certainly did not start at 8 sharp. 

We all settle up on a high part of one of the rafters and the sound guy indulges me with some music to entertain us while we wait.  This will obviously not suffice.  I start getting worried, I need to entertain these kids for an hour or it’ll get ugly.  I didn’t bring anything with me, because why would I?  I struggle to think up games we can play.  First we play telephone, which is a hit.  That peters out.  Uhm…..I spy!  This was a hit for a second until I realized these kids can’t spell to save their life.

“I spy with my little eye something that begins with the letter ‘que’”.  What?  ‘Que’ isn’t even a letter.  Do you mean ‘q’?  No ‘que’ as in ‘queso’.  Fine whatever.  No one could get it, because, seriously very few words begin with ‘q’.  I even guessed ‘quetzal’, just to guess something.  We give up.  “Computadora!”  Ok, we’re done with I spy.

I check my watch.  7:10.  Jesus Christ.  Uhm…uhm…damn what did I do as a kid? I start texting my friends for examples of possible games.  I get back Out of State License Plate, Punch Buggy, etc.  Perfect.  The other tough part of these games is that one kid is 5 while the others are 9-10, so it was hard to keep them all entertained with same game.  Anything I came up with would be boring for some or too complicated for the other.  To make matters worse the engineering of the circus tent wasn’t going to win any awards.  If you stepped on the wood plank of our row it would lift on the other side.  There wasn’t even a guard rail on the other end of the stands.  And this for some god awful reason attracted the 5 year old who decided to try and go up and down the stands at this edge. 

I decide to get them some popcorn. At least eating will distract them for a little.  I go down to the little popcorn stand.  I ask the shady circus guy, “How much for a bag of popcorn?”  “20 cords.”  “No, no.  Just one bag, please.”  “20 cords.”  Now, I won’t embarrass myself by saying how much 20 cords is in dollars, but it’s suffice to say that a bag of popcorn on the streets costs 2-3 cords a bag.  Fortunately there was only one bag ready, so I just bought the one.  They can learn to share, because I’ll be damned if I buy more than one of those.  Here’s an image of the littlest one when he realized he wouldn’t get his own bag of popcorn.

 

 

Hanging on the ledge no less! 

Before things got completely out of control, the show finally starts, albeit late.  And in the true fashion of a child they manage to go from completely discontent and downtrodden to ecstatic in seconds (remember Stalin was on the point of a complete breakdown just a few hours earlier than night while apologizing to me.  Being a child must be an emotional rollercoaster). 

The circus is pretty standard fare.  There is a juggler, a balancing act, a girl hanging from a dangling metal ring.  The exotic dancing was a bit of a unique touch, but hey, that’s Nicaragua.  And of course, what circus would be complete without clowns.  The other shows weren’t that impressive, but I didn’t really expect it to wow me.  The clowns, however, were actually quite good.  It’s obviously targeted towards kids and the humor is slapstick combined with butt and fart jokes.  Very low brow stuff.  They even played Benny Hill music to bring them on and off the stage.  But that’s OK.   I appreciated their showmanship and was seriously impressed by their craft. 

Things were going well and the kids were enjoying themselves up until intermission.  And thus began the longest 15 minutes of my life.  The music stopped, the show is paused and the kids go berserk.  I thought the usury had stopped with the popcorn, but these circus folk are professional sadists.  Suddenly these kids realize they need ice cream, food, light up swords and all sorts of other trash.  During the show I was stricken by how much this circus resembled what I imagined a circus to be 50 years ago.  I was pleased by how it the whole thing felt so traditional and, well, very American.  But I had forgotten a part of the American tradition of the circus that had also been adopted.  Circuses don’t sell tickets, circus folk trade in children’s tears. 

This circus has modernized its extortion techniques somewhat.  Now, some depressed looking circ-underling walks around at the start of the show and snaps a picture of each kid with his digital camera.  During the show they print out a little picture and make a keychain out of it.  Fortunately they didn’t try too hard to sell me on this one.  Remember these kids looked like I had just told them I disemboweled Santa before the show started.  So when they came around to offer me the keychain I think the guy realized no one wanted a bunch of pictures of crying kids.  In retrospect I think I would have liked one of these, it would have been kind of funny.

I’m really not such a cheap person, but I’ve been pretty poor in Peace Corps.  I’ve depleted my savings over the 2 years in order to travel in Nicaragua, make my life easier with projects and eat more than rice beans and vegetables three times a day.  I had already set aside the money I had left for a going away party for my friends in the community.  They’ve treated me to so much food that I wanted to pay for them to all come and eat and drink at a pool in town.  Going to the circus alone was already outside that budget, much less 4 kids, even worse 4 kids who want a lot of overpriced garbage. 

I’m also really stubborn.  I realized it wouldn’t have been so excessive to buy them each one ice-cream or something at some point, but I had already said no and I wasn’t going to be pushed around.  As I was often quoted saying in high school, ‘it’s the principle of the matter’.  But so far, so good, I was fending off the attacks and firmly holding my ground.  But then they sent in the clowns.  Those daffy-laffy clowns. 

Clowns are supposed to be loud, eccentric and ridiculous.  I get it.  It’s part of the act.  But these guys were selling this garbage by screaming, “¡Paleta! ¡Paleta! ¡Paleta!” all around.  These clowns are no amateurs either.  They spotted a gringo in the audience with 4 kids and heard a big old cash register ring.  I still have to say, I respect the craft.  One clown came and stood next to me in such a way that his box of paletas dangled precipitously over the kids like it was the Sword of Damocles.  But like I said, I’m stubborn.  These things look tasty, but they’re actually really gross and I won’t be bullied by clowns or children into buying some marshmallow crap.  To hell with you clown!  Finally, the two minute warning comes over the PA and the show is going to resume.  Just then I get a call from an unknown number on my phone.  “The kids come home.  Now!”  Jesus. Alright, lady.  It turned out to be the aunt of one of the kids, who I guess wasn’t keen on them being out this late with me.  It was almost 9:30 and I was planning on taking them back early, but I wanted to get at least one act in for having suffered through intermission, but her tone told me otherwise.

The kids put up less of a fight than I thought when we left.  I think they were tired and were ready to go.  Honestly, who starts a circus show at 8pm?  Riding back on the pedi-cab I asked them, “So what did you like most?”  “The clowns were funny”  “Yeah, I liked the clowns.”  “Yeah, the clowns were my favorite.”  The girl didn’t say anything; she’s too cool for that already.  “Ha, yeah.  Me too.  I liked the clowns.”

I dropped the kids off.  No one really thanked me, and we all went home to go to sleep.  I lied down exhausted and tried to think what I thought of that experience.  Was that worth it?  Was that worth it for me?  Was it worth it for the kids?  I think they enjoyed it, but like I said, kids are fickle and they may not even remember that a few weeks later.  So there I am lying down thinking about all that and realize I’ve been doing the same thing practically this whole month with regard to my service in general.  I’ve been asking the same questions about whether or not I think Peace Corps was worth it and have been trying to put the whole two years in perspective. 

And I’ll save what I’ve decided for part three.

More Kids, Clowns and Pieces of Things pt. 1

More kids, clowns and pieces of things

This will be my last post in Nicaragua, so it’s going to be a little bit special.  It’s long, and I’ve decided to split it into three parts that I’ll release over the week.  It starts where I left off in my last post with Stalin and the neighborhood kids.

As I mentioned in the last post, I had created a store in which kids could buy prizes.  The absolute end-all be-all prize was a gift from my cousin.  It was a little red plush pouch with the words “SANTA BOWLING” embroidered in gilded lettering.  Inside were 10 little white pins and one oversized marble representing the bowling ball.  Before the store, I had tried to show the kids how to “actually” play the game, setting up the pins, strikes, spares, etc.  They didn’t care much for the orderliness of regular bowling but it didn’t matter, the games they made up with it were just fine with them.  This game was like a better version of marbles and marbles is huge for little kids here (sometimes Nicaraguan tastes really make me feel like I live in the 1950’s).  They even called the bag “chiboles-chibolines” which I understand as “marbles-marblies”.  To be fair, I didn’t know the word for bowling and just called the bag of pins and ball a “chunche”, thingy.  It turns out the word for bowling is ‘bolos’ which here more commonly means ‘drunks’, so it’s probably just as well that I didn’t use the right word.

So given its reverence, when this prize entered the store, it had to be assigned the highest price.  It served as a great incentive.  There is a maximum possibility of earning 7 points on a good day and the marblies cost 15 points.  The idea here is to teach the value of delayed gratification, saving, etc.

Once again, Stalin is the focus of this story.  He didn’t seem to be getting this notion of saving and regularly spent every point he earned the minute he earned it.  Then he would ask for chances to earn more points.  When he can’t earn anymore he asks me, “Why are the marblies so expensive?  I think 6 points is a much better price.”  And so it went.  I was perfectly happy to never give anyone the marbles to teach them a lesson.  I regularly encouraged them to save the points but always left the decision in their hands.  I think he assumed he would get everything in the store when I leave.  I realized that he might be upset when I leave and this illusion is shattered, but sometimes a little heartbreak is the best way to teach a lesson.

Recently, I was away for a few days and wasn’t able to play with the kids.  When I got home it was late in the evening and I went straight into my back patio to start washing dishes and prepare my dinner.  Not two minutes later a group of kids are at my door.  Sometimes I think they set up patrols.  I tell them that we can’t play today, that I’m too tired and so I shoo them out.  I go back to washing my dishes but shortly after Stalin and his little brother return and walk back into my house.  Stalin says something to me from inside the apartment like, “Hey, Juan, can we come back later and play?”  “No, pipe.  Qué sea mañana.”  Stalin agrees and rushes out the door, but his little brother has stayed behind and is playing with my chess pieces.  “C’mon, Yovani, it’s time to go.  Go find your brother.”  “And the marbles-marblies?”  “Don’t worry.  They’re there in the store.  You can try for them tomorrow.”  But as I’m saying this I turn and look at the shelf and sure enough there is a big glaring space where the bag should be.  The bag hadn’t been moved for at least 3 hours so there was of course a very clear layer of dust indicating where it once stood.

Fuck, man.  I mean just fuck.  Fucking fucking fucker fuck!  What a fucker!

I haven’t actually said anything.  Jovani squeaks out, “Stalin took it”.  Yeah, I know he did.  “Go tell him to come back here.”  I sit fuming in my house.  I don’t even know what to think or say.  Lots of volunteers get robbed.  It’s just part of being gringo in a poor community and having things that other people want.  Usually it’s cash, electronics or anything more valuable than some marbles-marblies.  But obviously it’s not the value of the item.  The marblies weren’t even the most valuable thing in the store, and I was fine with giving it as a prize anyway.  It’s the breach of trust, and the fact that he did it right under my nose.  Stalin hasn’t showed up.  I need to go look for him, and I could use the walk anyway.

I find him and his brother about halfway between our houses.  “Where are you going, Juan?”  To which I respond, “I’m looking for you.”  He quickly shouts back, “I didn’t take anything!”  Now, I realize I can’t actually be 100% sure it was him.  Other kids were in the house and Yovani is only 5; he’s not a credible witness. But still, methinks he protests too much.  I give a general scolding while only referring to the thief in anonymous terms.  I talk about how it’s wrong to steal; it needs to come back, blah blah blah.  We’re both bored by my tirade.  “No more games, and no more store until the marbles-marblies come back.  I don’t care who it was.  If it wasn’t you than you go and find out who it was and bring them back.  They just need to come back.”  Well, that got his attention.  And off he goes.

I get back to my apartment and realize that’s bullshit.  I definitely care who it was, and this isn’t going to be one of those times when you just say “All’s well that ends well”.  If it was something valuable I would only care that it comes back.  But there needs to be some justice here.  This is a moral crime and the restitution of property simply isn’t enough.  Stalin comes back maybe an hour later saying how he went to everyone’s house and turned up empty handed, but assured me George (A quick aside.  Although this is how the kid told me he spelled his name, everyone, including his mother, calls him /yon-BLO-ki/.  I don’t know how to reconcile this.) was the culprit.  Stalin thinks this is enough to appease me, and it is most certainly not.  No marblies, no games.

I’m in a bad mood the whole next day.  I really liked these games and put a lot of time into them.  I’m not sure I’ll even want to play should the marblies come back.  I’m thinking that if Stalin doesn’t bring me them of his own accord within 24 hours of having taken them, I’ll go talk to his mother about it.  He lets the clock run down to the wire and shows up just when I’m getting ready to go find him.  He comes to my door as though nothing was new, with the marblies in hand.  “Hey I found this in my brother’s bed.  Here you go.”   Man that’s spineless.  I know you’re 9, but still.  You’re going to frame up your little brother?  My dad told me once that when I was 9 I tried to pick a fight with some teenagers because they wouldn’t let my brother play “Streets of Rage” in peace.  I definitely wouldn’t sell him out for some marblies.  I thought Nica families were supposed to be tight.  I eventually got him to admit it was him.  “Go home.  You stole from me and then lied to me.  There will be no games today.  Maybe tomorrow.”  He’s bummed, but not destroyed.  I don’t think he really cares that he hurt my feelings.  In fact, he never even apologized or asked for forgiveness.

As Stalin leaves I undue the Gordian knot this kid tied in the bag (practically everything in Nicaragua comes in plastic bags and deftly tying strong knots is as much a national pastime as baseball.  Almost as impressive is their ability to bite open the corner of bags containing liquids and pour them out into a cup, while simultaneously using the other hand to drive, text, hit a dog, etc.) and it dawns on me that something seems wrong.

God. Fucking. Damnit.  You gotta be kidding me.  This stupid piece of shit.  Does he think I’m fucking stupid?  He didn’t give me the whole set (you could say it was only a tuco de la chunche).  The goddamn ball is missing.  That’s the most fucking important part!  And it’s goddamn huge!  Of course I’m going to fucking notice it.  Fucking hell!

The next day, the whole cadre shows up, bright-eyed, smiling and ready for game time.  My gate-door is locked but the solid door is open.  “¿Vamos a jugar?” The gall of it all just gets my ire up.  Yea, right.  Maybe we can play the “me punch you square in the face” game.  He even denies that he kept the ball.  This time I go off on him.  It’s cathartic for me and painful for him.  Neither one of us are bored by this scolding.  “When you tried to trick me you stole from me again.  You’ve lied to me three times in three days.  Why on Earth should I trust you to come into my house?  Worst of all, you won’t even admit what you’ve done or ask for forgiveness.  Friends don’t treat each other like that, and I can’t be friends with someone who steals from me.”  And so on.

He starts crying a lot and takes 10 steps to the side of my door where we can’t see each other.  I continue to talk to “George”, because I know Stalin can still hear me.  I explain the whole thing to “George” and why it was wrong and what needs to be done, and so on.  “George” steps aside and talks to Stalin, then comes back and tells me how sorry Stalin is.  “No way.  If he’s really sorry, he can tell me himself.”  “sorry.”, peeps out from behind the wall.  “No way.  If he’s really sorry, he can say it to my face.”  This was a long step.  I start thinking that maybe I’m being too hard on the kid.  He’s only 9 after all.  But then I think, “No, to hell with that.  He knows right from wrong, and he knows how to say he’s sorry.  I can’t give forgiveness to someone who doesn’t ask for it.  And to ask for forgiveness is to admit to a mistake.”

Finally he comes to the door and between hiccups and sobs a little “perdón”, chirps out.  I press him to say why he’s sorry, what he’s sorry for, but he’s frozen.  He can’t move or say anything besides that.  I realize that I’m just torturing him now.  Fine, enough.  I give him a typical spiel about how I hope he’s learned something, blah blah blah and we’re both appropriately bored again.  We talk it out a bit and eventually I tell him he’s lied to me again, so no games today and that maybe tomorrow he can come back.  Tomorrow, however, is the last day of school, he reminds me.  He’s going to spend winter vacation with his father and by the time he gets back, I’ll be gone.  So today is really the last day.  While contemplating this he asks, “Do you hate me, Juan?”

Maaaaaan.  That’s an awkward position.  I don’t want this to be our last encounter, but I also won’t be strong-armed into playing.  I still don’t even have any desire to do so.  I also still legitimately don’t trust them to come into my house.

I thought about it a bit and a solution struck me.  The circus was in town, and I had already made plans to go with some friends of mine.   I told him I would treat him to a night at the circus to show him there were no hard feelings.  He’d need to get his mother’s permission, but I’d pay for him to go.  I won’t give him the marblies; that would ruin the lesson.  He should feel bad and upset about what’s happened.  Sometimes a little heartbreak is the best way to teach a lesson.  But I should reward him for (eventually, sort of) owning up.

The notion of the outing further cements that 1950’s feel I have of Nicaragua sometimes.  Even just saying “the circus is in town” seems like something out of Boardwalk Empire (I know, not the 1950’s).  It just seems like everyone should be trading baseball cards and playing stickball in the street while the girls play with jacks.  Oh wait, yeah they do that too.  Still this retro activity seems like a nice way to put some closure on this one aspect of my life.  It’ll be a special treat for the kids and a nice way to say goodbye.

This may have been one of the most imprudent decisions of my life.

To be continued in part 2.

Kids

At a touchy feeling Peace Corps meeting a while back we were talking about the things that we will miss about Nicaragua in the States and the things that will seem strange to us.  One of the comments was that “you will no longer be immediately interesting to children.”  It’s true that by virtue of being gringo kids often want to come visit my apartment and ask me all sorts of ridiculous questions (“How do you ‘Michael’ in English?”, “Are you sitting down right now?”) , rearrange everything in my apartment or just kind of mill about.  Most every volunteer I know has a cadre of ‘neighbor kids’, who, for better or worse, have defined a large part of their service.  I am no different, although anyone who knows me can guess that I’m not great with kids.

It’s not that I don’t like kids. I just have a hard time pretending to be interested in things that I am not.  When a neighbor kid starts listing off all of the kinds of fish he knows it might sound like it could be sort of interesting.  That is, it would be interesting if he actually knew the names of the fish and didn’t simply describe every kind of fish he knows.  Some people find this kind of stuff adorable, cutesy children style speech impediments and all.  I have a problem where I start talking back to the kid like he is an adult and ask him something like, “Sure, but don’t you think it’s such a tragedy that the sport culture of fishermen is leading to overfishing of that particular species, potentially eliminating it forever?”  To which I get a very appropriate blank stare.

The thing about kids in Nicaragua is that, in the best case scenario, they are in school five hours a day, five days a week.  Although in reality school is cut short or outright canceled regularly making that number a bit inflated.  Some kids work at the family business or have chores to do when they get home, but the vast majority of them are just free to do whatever.  They’ll often roam around the neighborhood without much supervision.  The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is particularly relevant in my community as it is pretty acceptable, and almost expected for everyone to take care of everyone else’s kids.  There isn’t much wrong with a stranger castigating or explaining manners to someone else’s child.  Despite my lack of paternal instincts, I have been no exception to this rule.  I’ve had to teach kids to share, not touch mouse traps and step in for all sorts of pseudo-parent roles for kids in my neighborhood during their visits.  These visits sometimes make me think I’d actually be a great dad.  Then I remember that when the kids bore me, annoy me, or I feel like doing something else, I can just shoo them out of my apartment, close the door, pretend I’m not home, and forget they ever exist.  That’s not a technique I’d like to rely on in a real life parenting situation. 

I’ve briefly alluded to a lack of certain skills and abilities present in the average Nicaraguan adult with regard to common math and language skills.  My experience working in the high schools have led me to believe that this is ultimately a failure on behalf of the primary school system, which doesn’t prepare the students with a base to learn these skills.  If I were to ask a primary school teacher what they think the problem is, they would probably say the responsibilities fall on the secondary school teachers, or perhaps on the parents.  Towards the end of my service, I’ve become more inclined to agree with putting the blame on the parents.  I think kids simply don’t receive enough attention, stimulation or encouragement during their developmental years.

I was talking to a colleague of mine about a time when he was getting his car fixed in Nicaragua and was watching a young apprentice mechanic trying to fit a trapezoidal piece into a trapezoidal slot.  The youth was holding the piece incorrectly and needed to turn it in order to make it fit into the slot.  He couldn’t seem to quite figure out how to reorient the piece to make it fit.  “This is the kind of fundamental skill that just is never developed among a lot of the youth here.  It’s the kind of thing we take for granted in the States that can have a dramatic impact on the youth.”  I was watching two kids playing Mario Brothers 3 the other day and they were lucky enough to reach the mushroom house that lets you play a basic memory game to earn extra lives.  The player is presented with 3 rows of 8 cards.  The player gets to select a card, which is then revealed, and then has to try and match it with a second card.  If the player fails to make a pair twice, the game is over.  When the kid I was watching tried to play this game he selected one card, a mushroom, and a second, a star.  That’s one strike.  He only has one more shot to make a pair.  He immediately selects the mushroom again (a card of lesser value no less), and then tries to match it.  The strategy is all off.  There is no reason to select the card that has already been revealed unless you can be sure you have already found a match.  Obviously, the best strategy is to pick a third unknown card.  If it is a mushroom, select the mushroom that was already found; if it is a star, select the star already found; if it is a new object (say a flower) select another unknown card.  Not only was he not utilizing his memory in a memory game, he couldn’t even realize that he was supposed to try and use memory to succeed.

I have taken a special shine to one neighbor kid of mine, Stalin (“No!  I’m named after my father”, he quickly corrected me).  He visits me more regularly than any of the other kids and is politer and quieter than the others so I tend to respond to him more warmly.  One day he spied my chess set and I offered to teach him how to play.  He’s 9 years old, and as with most kids his age that I’ve tried to teach, I can keep his interest only long enough to explain pawn movements.  Seeing I’d lost his interest I told him that we’ll finish the lesson another day and asked him to put the pieces away.  As it turns out this was enough of a challenge for him.  It was like that game Perfection.  I was fine with it, as it kept him really busy.  But he wasn’t even satisfied just putting the pieces away.  After he put them all in their spots, he took all of the pieces out and put them back in.  He did this so many times that I eventually felt obligated to time him.  After his first attempt, I wrote his name and his time up on my whiteboard as though it were some sort of scoreboard.  I told him, “Every day you can come and try and beat your time.  Every time you beat your time, I’ll give you a prize.” 

I should take a step aside and draw attention to the fact that this would be a wholly unacceptable and presumably criminal situation in the US.  This kid had been coming and hanging out in my house for hours, without outside supervision for a long time before I ever even met his mother.  Just imagine this situation in the US.  I am a foreigner, living alone in a dark musty apartment.  I spend most of my time in my apartment wearing no shirt, mesh shorts in desperate need of a wash and dirty flip flops.  I have a huge stack of empty liquor bottles in a box near my door (glass is too valuable to throw away here, they just sort of accumulate over time) and I either have a scraggily beard or at times a creepy mustache and I’m offering candy to a little kid.  Obviously I know I’m not a dangerous person, but what parent in their right mind would let their child in a house like that without at least meeting the owner?

I digress.  This challenge has become a regular thing with us, and I’ve had to come up with more games since then.  I made some flash cards with simple math on them as well as some English vocabulary cards.  There is also a clock reading game, pattern recognition, among others.  He gets one chance to beat his time/record for each game each day for which he earns points.  The points can be redeemed for prizes of varying value.  I was talking recently with friends about the potential real benefits to things like Luminosity, Brain Age, Sudoku or crossword puzzles.  While I can’t really be sure how useful those things are in increasing brainpower or offsetting Alzheimers, I have to believe that they are having an impact on this kid. 

Stalin has been pretty funny about what he does with his winnings.  I set up the ‘prize store’ in my house, mostly filled with little things of low value that I don’t plan on taking back to the States.  This includes a water gun, hackey sack, a ruler, some Post-It notes, some gel I won in a raffle, etc.  When I first showed the kids the idea of the store and explained how they could earn points the buy things from it, they seemed more excited to put things in the store than to win them.  They scoured my apartment looking for more things to add to the store.  They picked up everything they could saying, “¿Va a ocupar esto? ¿Y esto? ¿Qué tal esto?”  Are you going to use this?  And this?  How about this?  This ran the gamut from rubber bands to my desk back down to pieces of trash on my floor.  One kid actually went out, bought two pieces of candy, brought them back put a price on them and put them in the store.  He made them really expensive too (and even had different prices from each other). 

Before I had started the whole store scenario there were fewer kids and fewer games, so I just said I would give one prize, usually a piece of candy, for each win.  The first time a kid won I had forgotten to actually go and get prizes for him and when he crushed his time I felt guilty that I had nothing to reward him with.  “How about a coin?” he asked.  I thought, “A modest request.  Fair enough” and gave him one córdoba, less than a nickel.  He dashed out of my house and came back with a single piece of jelly filled gummy candy, ripped it in two and gave me half.  I doubt many nine-year-olds in the US would do that.  Things like that make me think it’s going to be harder to leave here than I thought.

  

A Funny Thing Happened To Me When I Met A Pedophile

It’s not uncommon for me to see Americans in Nicaragua.  In fact, I see them quite often.  Aside from the fact that Nicaragua has a really dense Peace Corps volunteer population, there is also a pretty large body of missionaries throughout the country representing various creeds.  There is also a small US military presence protecting the embassy and the Foreign Service workers at the embassy, as well as a spattering of US NGOs and aid organizations situated in the country.   Those are just the people that are semi-permanently living here for official reasons.  You also have your backpackers, cruise shippers and transients.  So it really isn’t all that weird or interesting for me to run into an American.  Sometimes they assume it must be quite exciting for me and that we should immediately become friends.  I’m reminded of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David is traveling in New York and runs into an acquaintance (but not friend) of his from California.  The acquaintance wants to talk to Larry and have lunch with him.  “Why would we have lunch here?  We aren’t friends in California, why should we suddenly be friends here in New York?”  Exactly.  There are 300 million people who are American, and plenty of them are in Nicaragua at any given time.  It’s really not that amazing and we don’t necessarily need to be friends for finding each other.  I like people fine, and I like making friends.  Being American isn’t enough to immediately qualify you. 

This isn’t really that big of a deal or much of a nuisance.  And sometimes these people can be interesting to talk to for a little while, befriend for an evening or even develop a real friendship.  However, there is a certain group of Americans I’ve found here that are generally never enjoyable: the ex-pat. 

Ex-pats are funny people.

I’m not sure what technically defines an ex-pat or if any of the other Americans I mentioned count, but for my purposes I’m going to call an ex-pat any American living here that cannot (or will not) explain what they are doing here in one sentence.  There is usually some mysterious air about their past and they generally give off an unsettling vibe.  I met a particularly interesting one recently.  He is a pedophile and a rapist.  His name is Mr. Cricket.

OK, his name isn’t actually Mr. Cricket, but I think it would be imprudent for me to use his real name.  I met Mr. Cricket through a mutual friend of ours when I was out one night.  He had recently come from the services of a local prostitute which became the immediate topic of conversation after we had been introduced.  He told me the prostitute was 18 and I was pretty sure he was right since I think I recognized the girl.  I’ve worked on occasion with commercial sex workers, as a development worker of course, not as a client.  He had recently moved to my town from nearby León, where he assured me the prostitutes he frequented were much cheaper and of higher quality.  They were also younger.  I later ascertained that he was about 67 years old.

I can’t say that I ever expected to meet a pedophile and statutory rapist in my life, and certainly not under such cordial conditions.  I also would have imagined that such a person would be very abashed by their status.  Not Mr. Cricket.  I also would have thought that should I ever meet such a person I would be immediately repulsed by them; that I would punch them in the face or denounce them indignantly and shame them.  The thing was, I think I was taken aback by the whole situation.  As he was talking I was becoming physically repulsed by him and angry at him.  I did indeed visualize punching him right in the nose and half my mind contemplated how much I had had to drink and whether a violent encounter would really go in my favor.  In retrospect, it would probably have gone poorly.  A glass of beer can easily help me forget I’ve lost about 15 pounds here.  Yet the other half was genuinely interested in what he was saying.  Despite myself, I found his pathological thinking fascinating. 

I’ve known that perverts and degenerates like this exist, but I’ve never thought that they considered themselves morally justified.  I’ve often lamented ‘super evil villains’ in films, the kind where it doesn’t seem possible where they don’t realize that they are the villain.  I’m much more intrigued by films and stories that feature villains who think that they are doing the right thing, that they are in fact the hero, but are just so pathological that they mistake their heinousness for nobility.  The Signal or the villain in Watchmen are good examples of this.  This guy was like that. 

I asked him how he could do what he does, whether he felt any guilt or remorse about it.  Did he have some moral code that he felt justified his actions or what?  As it turns out he was pretty ready for such an argument.  He didn’t consider what he was doing wrong, and in fact felt justified in what he did.  I happened to wearing my Catholic University t-shirt during this conversation.  “It’s ‘cause of these guys we have all this bullshit.”  He stressed this point emphatically by firmly pressing the word ‘Catholic’ into my chest.  He’s a relatively big guy, in his late 60’s, a Vietnam vet with a bit of a gut but still in pretty good shape.  He made a point to show me his biceps and talk about knowing karate (I did ask him what kind and he didn’t have a name, so who knows.  Maybe it was just some general Army martial arts.  I don’t know what they study.  I thought it was Jiu-ji-tsu.  Maybe he could tell I was thinking about punching him and just wanted to dissuade me).  Regardless, I hated the way he poked me and was indeed thinking again about what would be the repercussions of taking a swing. 

“America is the outlier in the world with our views on sexuality.  We’re the most conservative country in the world; we’re repressed sexually and it’s because of the puritanical religious right.”  He continued comment saying that most other cultures in the world allow sexual intercourse at much younger ages and essentially that we as Americans are weird anomalies.  “In Nevada she can give it away at 16 but if you pay her she’s gotta be 18.  Doesn’t make any sense.  Our whole view on sex is messed up.”  He never gave me a straight answer on how low he goes, but I got the idea that 12 was the youngest.  As such it may not be accurate to call him a pedophile, because I would say it’s a term best reserved for prepubescent abuse, but statutory rapist doesn’t sound hard enough by itself.  

I asked him about his young prostitutes here and if he felt like he was exploiting them, and if he felt any guilt outside of the illegality of it.  “First off, it’s not illegal here for them to sell it if they’re over 16 and they can give it away if they’re over 14 so it ain’t illegal.  And no, I’m helping these girls, giving them money they wouldn’t otherwise have.  Besides, in places like Jamaica, it boosts the girls social status.  Girls just like to be seen with a white man ‘cause it’s like, ‘ooh look at me’”. 

First off, I should clarify some things about prostitution in Nicaragua.  My understanding from my interactions with the prostitutes is that while prostitution is not a sanctioned or regulated part of Nicaragua, it is also not illegal.  Essentially it is tolerated, but not a protected vocation.  They can’t, say, form a union, but they can’t be thrown in jail for working either.  Mr. Cricket is also totally off on the age of consent rules for Nicaragua.  Age of consent is 18, not 16, and definitely not 14, and there is no distinction between commercial sex and non-commercial sex like in Nevada.  18 for paid sex and 18 for free sex.  Nevada has this dual age system because of the fact that only one county allows prostitution.  I’m not sure why it has to be 18 if the state age of consent is 16, I would assume it is for federal reasons.   It seems logical to me anyway.  Prostitution is more intense and requires greater emotional and mental maturity; it makes sense that if a discrepancy exists, it should skew to older prostitutes.  The truth is however that despite the fact that he’s breaking the law, it’s not one that is really strongly enforced.  It’s not uncommon to see old American men come and marry young Nica girls or hire young prostitutes.  So I’m sure breaking this law isn’t a big concern of his, despite the fact that he denies that he is breaking it.  Most Nicas may not even be aware of the actual age.  I previously thought it was 16 since that’s the age needed to vote and receive your national ID, things that basically make you an adult (although smoking and drinking aren’t allowed until 18.  This restriction is only enforced by way of the fact that most people under 18 can’t afford to smoke or drink, although many still do). 

However, all of that is really a moot point.  The PROTECT Act states that it’s illegal for American citizens to participate in “illicit sexual conduct” outside of the US, irrespective of local laws.  It reads, “For the purposes of this law, illicit sexual conduct includes commercial sex with anyone under 18, and non-commercial sex with persons under 16 when there is at least a four-year age difference or the person is under 12 years of age.”  So this guy is clearly breaking American law.  However, I get the impression that Mr. Cricket may even be in Nicaragua because of his lack of deference to American law. 

Mr. Cricket is also quite mistaken about the irregularity of American age of consent laws compared to the rest of the world.  First of all, his history and chronology is screwed.  Our age of consent laws aren’t some outdated puritanical legacy like some kind of sexual blue law.  Wikipedia offers me a different story as it turns out.

“The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams. Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) ‘made it clear that the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband’s estate was 9 even though her husband be only four years old.’”

Of course that is marriage, what about extramarital sex?  The article continues,

“In the United States, by the 1880s, most states set the age of consent at 10–12, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only 7… Female reformers and advocates of social purity initiated a campaign in 1885 to petition legislators to raise the legal age of consent to at least 16, with the ultimate goal to raise the age to 18. The campaign was successful, with almost all states raised the age of consent to 16–18 by 1920.”

So the story is told backwards.  We were loosey-goosey with ages and then became more conservative (or progressive depending on how you look at it) as time went on.   Also it sounds like age of consent laws changed (at least in part) from a feminist perspective on the rights of women (girls) and not from a religious moral justification.  OK, so we “became” puritanical and irrational he might say.  But what can I say about the rest of the world, from whom we apparently deviate so?  Again, from Wikipedia,

“Social (and the resulting legal) attitudes toward the appropriate age of consent have drifted upwards in modern times. For example, while ages from 10 to 13 were typically acceptable in Western countries during the mid-19th century, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were marked by changing attitudes towards sexuality and childhood resulting in raising the ages of consent to ages generally ranging from 16 to 18.” 

And it’s true, while some countries still use puberty or ages under 16 as the marked age of consent, they are far from the majority.  In North America, all countries have an age of consent of at least 16 with the exception of Costa Rica, Honduras (15), and a few states in Mexico are 12 or puberty.  Most of the countries in Europe that are less than 16 are not developed countries.  I would also hazard a guess that there is a strong negative correlation between the history of a country’s age of consent and women employment, literacy, suffrage and other civic rights.

But this also really isn’t the point.

I don’t really have a problem with Mr. Cricket because he is breaking the law.  If it were legal for him under both Nicaraguan and American law to have sex with a 14 year old, I would still have a problem with it.  So, while it’s fun for me to prove him legally culpable, my real concern is to show why he is morally wrong.  The implicit argument he provides is that by adhering to laws (both local and national) his actions are justified.  Essentially he justifies his actions to himself as moral relativism.  Morality is a commonly agreed upon set of a principles by a group of like minded people.  There is no objective truth, only what people come together and agree is the truth.  Laws are a reflection of the context in which people live and the fashionable attitudes of the time.  I cannot judge another culture’s morals because I am not part of that group.  Therefore they cannot objectively be considered wrong.  There is no such thing as an absolute evil, nor any absolute truth (to which one could retort, ‘and you believe that absolutely?’) and so whatever any group of people agree to be moral is ipso facto moral.  The easiest way to contest this argument then is to ask, “Then do you consider the actions of Nazis to be justified?  If morality can’t be judged objectively, and they considered themselves to be acting morally, does that mean that the Holocaust cannot be deemed an atrocity?”  But again, I digress from the point, and while I am neither a strict moral relativist nor absolutist, there isn’t space in this post to discuss the concepts in depth. 

When I told him he was violating the PROTECT Act, despite what he says about Nicaraguan age of consent laws (of which I was less sure of at the time) he responded with some more bogus rationalizing.  He told me that that act only applies to sex tourism.  He said that it only applies when you sign up for some package deal explicitly for the purpose obtaining sex in a country with different age of consent law than that of your country.  If you just happen to be in the country for work, temporary residency, etc. then only the local laws apply.  So since he has been living here for a while, he is not participating as a sex tourist in his mind.  While the PROTECT Act has the reduction of sex tourism as a major aim, this weird loophole does not exist. 

But here’s the messed up part of it all.  He seems to be justifying his actions through moral relativism, (i.e. it’s right because of the moral context, because the local laws say it is ok), yet he realizes he is, in essence, a sex tourist.  When I asked him why he chose to come to Nicaragua over another country he told me because it was safe, the women were cheap and they had a low legal age (despite the fact that it is actually higher than many states in the US).  Thus, according to his own definition, he traveled here with the specific purpose of having cheap, underage sex.  Maybe it is sex migration and not sex tourism, but I think the difference is really negligible.  So even if he doesn’t think he is legally breaking the PROTECT Act (which he is), he realizes he is breaking the spirit of the law in the weird way that he perceives it.  He feels like he is ‘getting away’ with this special loophole.  That can’t be morally justifiable, not even in his whacked out code. 

It was weird to me how he could be so mistaken about so many of these laws, especially since he talked as though he had done thorough research on the matter (as you would imagine one would), and yet be so wrong.  He constantly challenged me, “if you go to ask.com and type in…”, “just type in ‘a’ ‘s’ ‘k’ ‘dot’ ‘c’ ‘o’ ‘m’ and search…” when I called him out on things.  I don’t know why people specify search engines like this.  It’s one thing to use Google as a verb but you don’t need to tell me how to use the internet.  We don’t do this in other contexts.  No one tells me how to drive to Canada by saying “Get in a Ford and fill up the gas tank at Mobil so that your Firestone tires will turn.”  You can just say, “look it up”, I’ll figure out the rest. And is ask.com the official pedophile search engine then?  Maybe it wasn’t the algorithm that killed Jeeves.  Maybe he was up in Sing Sing on a child abuse rap and some ornery inmate shivved him during yard time.   

So I did look up a lot of what he challenged me to.  I had to do a fair amount of research to write this up.    A lot of what I’ve written only occurred to me after the fact.  At the time of our conversation I simply posed a question to him.  “Do you think it’s alright for a bank to give a $100,000, high interest, 20 year loan to a 14 year old girl who doesn’t understand the ramifications of a loan, how finances work, etc.?”  He said he didn’t.  “Then don’t you think potentially impregnating a girl (he commented on his disregard for the use of prophylactics) who cannot adequately grasp the consequences of a teen pregnancy is at least – if not more – predatory than such a loan?  The term is comparable, and the benefit of sleeping with you isn’t nearly worth $100,000.”  I never got a clear response from him.  He is convinced that he is helping the girls by giving them money and claims that should he impregnate a girl he would take better care of her than if she were to get pregnant from a 17 year old Nica, a claim of which I am suspect.

But even all of this is beside the point.  I didn’t write this to point out more faulty logic that people have, or publicly condemn some random pervert I met.  I didn’t even write this to talk about the diversity of Americans you encounter here.  This is actually a very self centered post.  What surprised me more than anything about this ridiculous Mr. Cricket was that I was able to sit down and learn all of this about him.  I didn’t immediately walk away from him, throw a punch at him or start cursing at him.  While I wasn’t exactly polite to him, and I made no secret about what I thought about his lifestyle, I still sat down in a bar with him and discussed all of these things.  I’m not sure how I feel about myself that I did that.  In a way I’m glad I did because I got a chance to learn about sex tourism, child prostitution (which is apparently a bigger problem in Nicaragua than I thought) as well as reflect on my own moral justification for an age of consent (it didn’t change, but it’s good to know why you believe the things you do).  Oddly enough, a few days after this encounter when I walked into my classroom, a bunch of my students asked me about the legality of a teacher having sex with a student if they are close of age (they assured me that it’s the plot of a current telenovela).  I serendipitously was well prepared to talk about the issue. 

On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed in myself for not being more outraged.  I consider myself to be a level headed and even tempered person.  I rarely lose my cool and it’s a trait I’m generally proud of.  Sometimes, however, I think I can be overly temperate.  When I first fell in love with Stoicism my girlfriend at the time called me emotionally robotic.  I don’t fly off the handle when someone cuts me off in traffic, but there are times when I feel like I rationalize myself away from moments of appropriate outrage.  I’m not always sure when keeping quiet makes me the bigger man or a humiliated fool.  If a guy like this isn’t enough to set me off, what would be?  Maybe I’m actually not magnanimously stalwart.  Maybe I’m actually just too scared to speak my mind and be confrontational.  Maybe I’m insecure and in some weird way am afraid of anyone not liking me, even a pedophile. 

I’d like to think it’s not any of these possibilities.  I think it’s a combination of my natural curiosity combined with a level of acceptance I’ve learned in Peace Corps.  When I was talking to the kids about the ‘person of trust’ statutory rape issue I remembered that a teacher I worked with that very day is dating a student (I think the ages are something along the lines of 25 and 16).  This is in fact illegal and against Ministry regulations.  It’s also icky.  There is also a teacher at the school where we were having this discussion who married one of his students.  To be fair, their courtship began in his first year of teaching, so he was 18 and she was 17.  He had attended school with her before becoming a teacher and transferred schools once the relationship started.  Part of the training we receive in Peace Corps is cultural sensitivity training.  We are coached on when, if ever, it’s appropriate to intervene or make judgments on a host country national’s actions.  I had actually forgotten that this guy I work with has (or had, I don’t know if they’re still together) a young girlfriend.  Most other teachers agree that the relationship is wrong, and I never felt it was my place to say anything.  May/December relationships are relatively common here.  Despite the official 18 year old law, it’s really more of a family decision.  I imagine the law exists to protect against commercial exploitation, like the actions of Mr. Cricket.  Still, it suddenly dawned on me that I have already been pretty cordial with statutory rapists. 

Of course Mr. Cricket is leagues away from these two Nica cases.  He targets women specifically because of their naïveté and their youth.  He can’t really hide behind a moral relativism defense.  He hasn’t taken on Nicaraguan attitudes or beliefs.  He can only speak enough Spanish to negotiate a price, but not to communicate (that’s actually how he described it to me), and he seems to generally hate and look down his nose at Nicaraguans.  He doesn’t sleep with Nicaraguan girls because it’s ok in Nicaragua, but rather he’s in Nicaragua because he thinks it’s ok to sleep with Nicaraguan girls.  The courtships for Nicaraguan May/December relationships tend to be much more family-oriented and really cannot be compared with the kind of predatory actions of Mr. Cricket.  Still, the whole encounter a much more interesting experience than I would have expected.  It was quite a funny thing that happened to me when I met that pedophile. 

Logic Games

I can’t not write about this.

This may be one of the stupidest ways I’ve ever spent any night of my life. And it began with a nonsensical text.  One of many that I get.

My friend sent me a text.  This text offered a little puzzle, and a challenge to my ego.  It read (in Spanish):

“For those who are intelligent, the daughter of the husband of the sister of the mother-in-law of my sister’s boyfriend is my…  I await your response.”

Don’t think about it too long.  It’s bullshit

I was walking home while I got this message.  “How cool!  This will entertain me as I walk home and I get to prove to the sender that I am indeed intelligent.”

It sounds really tricky, so I try and take it piece by piece, moving backwards from my sister.  Very quickly I decide that it is entirely possible that I am of no relation to the child.  Simply put, the child only need be related to my sister’s boyfriend, and that’s the end of the story.  I am not necessarily related to the boyfriend, therefore not necessarily related to the child.  I send my answer.  We aren’t related at all.

“Jajaja!  You aren’t so smart after all.  She is your niece!”

Oh, ok.  So it’s like that?  Fine, smug texts beget smug texts. 

“Not a chance.  I hope it doesn’t you hurt to be so seriously mistaken.”

I explain my position and we go back and forth with friendly taunts.  I go so far as to draw a diagram on my whiteboard to be absolutely sure that I am right. 

Indeed I am. 

As I become more convinced of my superiority, she becomes more indignant. 

“It’s just that you don’t understand, John.” She tells me.  “Read it more closely.”  She says.  “It’s just that you’re confused about the way we say family members in Spanish.”

This is no longer just a friendly game.  Both my intellectual prowess and my Spanish skills have been contested.  This is tantamount to an attack on my very manhood and sense of self.  The gloves are coming off (someone recently pointed out to me that boxing gloves actually make boxing more dangerous for the boxers, albeit safer for their fists and the careers of fight promoters.  Despite the inaccuracy, I like the imagery). 

“Go ahead!  Explain to me how it could possibly be my niece.”

All of this has been through text.  Nevertheless, while reading the following response I swear that I could hear the slow condescension in how she would have spoken.

“Wellllll, you see.  it’s like this.  Let’s say my sister’s name is Francesca, and the mother-in-law’s sister’s name is Lucy.  I am married to Francesca’s boyfriend.  So the mother-in-law of my Francesca’s boyfriend is also the mother-in-law of my husband.  The daughter is the child of Francesca and Lucy’s husband!”

No way.  I’ve already gone too far.  I’ve been way too snide to be proven wrong here.  I had a diagram!  She isn’t smarter than me, there is something missing here.  A clever turn.  Nothing more.  This isn’t the answer.

I adjust my diagram to include her names and replace the placeholder I had for the boyfriend’s wife.  It was obvious from the start that the boyfriend was unfaithful by virtue of his having a mother-in-law.  This aspect of infidelity was easy to spot and is by definition true.    The other two infidelities (Francesca cheating on her boyfriend and Lucy’s husband cheating on her to bear the child), however, are of hot debate.  I pore over the diagram, there’s a hole here.  And I have to act fast.  Self-satisfied messages that further expound this absurd theory are flooding my inbox.  They can’t possibly be accurate.  Perhaps…

“Ok, fine.  That is a possible way that she could be your niece, but it isn’t the only logical answer.  There is nothing that necessitates that the Francesca is the mother.  In fact, there is no reference to a mother at all.  The whole riddle is one long description of the father.  There are an infinite number of responses, which is the same as saying there is no response.”

I am still right.  It was possible that the child is of no relation.  I’m simply now more right.  I’ve not only solved the riddle, but what’s more I’ve bested the riddle by dismantling it.

“No.  Read it carefully.  It tells you who the mother is at the end, where it says ‘the mother-in-law of my sister’s boyfriend’.”

She won’t be easily swayed.  This argument doesn’t even make any sense.  It barely even addresses my point.  I get to be smug again.

“Go ahead and repeat the phrase considering that any woman is the mother and you’ll see you’re wrong.  And honestly, it doesn’t even need to be this complicated.  The mere fact that my original answer is possible means your answer is nonsense…” 

Note: my first answer is not nonsense because it was reached under the assumption that the question indeed had an answer.  Her answer is nonsense because of her refusal to acquiesce in the face of my illumination. 

“…It’s entirely possible that Lucy and her husband are the parents of the child, and your only relation to the whole family surrounding the child is being the sister of the whore of an unfaithful man.”  (‘your’ being the subject of the riddle.  It hasn’t gotten so vicious yet) 

This goes back and forth for a while with increasingly aggravated language.  My diagram gets more elaborate.  I’m texting so fast my phone actually shuts itself off.  My inbox is teeming, and I’m constantly clearing it.  I have to connect my phone to its charger.  She has to realize just how absolutely wrong she is.  Neither one of us can understand how one is unable to comprehend the other.  The difference is that my argument is crushingly accurate whilst hers is painfully flawed.

“Well, I received this message with my friend, and we analyzed it and this is the correct answer that we got.  I guess you just don’t understand.” 

Garbage!  Nonsense.  How can I prove this any more clearly? 

“Ok, then tell me this.  Then tell me where the story fails if we say that La Chayo (first lady of Nicaragua) is the mother of the daughter in question.  Say the whole story to yourself, knowing that La Chayo is the mother and tell me where it fails.  Tell me what part doesn’t work with La Chayo as the mother.”

“You’ve confused it now by adding another person to the story.”

“It doesn’t matter!  Accepting the possibility of more than one acceptable answer means that all of the answers are irrelevant because there is insufficient information to answer the question.  This would be an interesting and tricky riddle if you only rephrased it as, ‘How is it possible that… is my niece?’  But as it stands, there is no answer, because every answer is valid.  If you can’t understand this, you’re beyond salvation.” 

I don’t know quite how to translate the last bits I got from her.  Punctuation would really help, but alas such are the pitfalls of grammarless text messaging.

“Acepto tu punto de vista que me hace dudar lo siento”

“Que me hace dudar aun lo siento haber que dia lo analizamos mejor”

The best way I can translate the first part is,

“I accept your point of view which makes me doubt myself.  I’m sorry.”

Vindication.  I am clearly the winner.  She has admitted defeat.  Although…

Although she didn’t actually say, ‘you’re right’; she said ‘I accept your point of view’.  This implies that she considers that her point of view is still valid.  It may sound like I am being stubborn, childish and vain to care about the difference (or about any aspect of this whole exchange), but this statement actually infuriates me more than had she continued to argue.  She’s being conciliatory and also a bit condescending.  She wants to brush me off without actually admitting that I’m right or that she’s wrong. 

Consider the following.  She is implying that both of our hypotheses are correct.  But that is in itself a fallacy.  It is not a possible proposition.  My idea is absolute.  It is mutually exclusive.  It accepts neither brothers nor competitors.  I claim that the question is flawed because multiple answers are equally valid and therefore any exact, single answer is unknowable.  This eliminates the value of the riddle.  She is implying that we are both correct and that more than one answer is valid.  This fundamentally contradicts what I’m saying, which means that I’m wrong.  Therefore by considering us both to be right, she undercuts my idea and denies the validity of my argument, which leaves only her to be right.  She is, very politely, still saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong!”, whether she knows it or not.

Then, the next part tricks me up even more because it seems like it is a rewriting of the last part of the last message.  It now says,

“…which makes me doubt myself.  I still feel that we need to analyze it better some day.”

Ok, definitively refusing to accept any stage of logic.  She accepts my point of view but feels that the situation requires further analysis.  See above for how she is being illogical in her inability to acknowledge her lack of logic.    

“Whenever you want.  For me, any day is a good day for you to tell me I’m right.”

To which she quickly responds,

“You’re consumed with being right, haha.  Good night.”

Indeed I am.  Because I am right. 

I’m right.  I’ve won.  I am completely, unequivocally correct in this case. 

I don’t think she will ever tell me that I’m right. 

I don’t think she will ever admit that there is no answer to this question.

I’m so frustrated by this exchange, by her inability to accept my arguments as I’ve presented them, that I can’t concentrate on anything besides writing about it.

This was completely, unequivocally, a waste of my time. 

I’ve lost. 

I’m wrong

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In Defense of the Accidental ‘Se’

It’s been a long time again since my last post, so I decided to make this one esoteric and un-relatable in order to disenfranchise all of my readers.

I’ve wanted to write a post about the argument of linguistic determinism (the idea that our actions, ideas and outlooks are determined by the words we have available to us) here in Nicaragua, and this post will explore some aspects of that theory.  Volunteers tend to bemoan phrases like “si Dios quiere” (‘if god wants/wishes/wills’ i.e. ‘God willing’), or “ojalá” (mutation of the Arabic “inshalah” also meaning ‘God willing’) because they believe these to be self-defeating mantras.  I was discussing this with a friend and she told me, “When they say ‘I’m going to go catch that bus, if God wants.’ I want to say, ‘No, you’ll catch this bus, if you run.”  By saying “I’ll be at the meeting tomorrow, God willing.” implies the speaker isn’t taking responsibility for getting to that meeting and that if they don’t arrive that it is God’s will and not their fault.  The contention is that by constantly saying phrases that imply a lack of personal responsibility, Nicaraguans consider themselves less liable for their actions and as a result are less reliable.  

To a certain extent I agree with this contention.  I don’t mean to say that I don’t think it’s important to realize the limitations you have on influencing your own life (irrespective of how you view God).  One of my favorite philosophers is the Stoic Epictetus who said that we must realize that no matter what we do, how much we plan or prepare for a specific outcome; there always exists the possibility that something will interject and disrupt that outcome.  Thus, we cannot be upset by unexpected or undesired results as we were not ultimately responsible for the outcome.  We should have already accepted the fact that there was the possibility that things wouldn’t go as planned and dealt with it.  However (and this is a big however), that does not mean that we have no influence on our life or the outcomes of it and that we should just sit around doing nothing because “hey, that’s life”.  So, yes, it’s true, you will only arrive at the meeting if God wills it but not only because God wills it.  It’s true that even if I set my alarm, call the bus company the night before, leave hours in advance and have a detailed map of my route as to how to get to the meeting, it’s possible that an unforeseen, unpreventable event will impede me.  Nevertheless, I’m now still much more likely to arrive than if I hadn’t done any of those things.  While I’m not in control of the ultimate result of my actions, I can take precautions to increase the probabilities of their success. 

There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the limitations of your ability to control your environment.  As volunteers we constantly are faced with the realization that no matter how much effort I might put into planning an event or project, ultimately there lies an unknowable variable that could ruin it.   We learn to mitigate and anticipate these problems when we can, and accept them when we can’t.  It essentially boils down to the Serenity Prayer.  So I don’t take issue with the phrase per se, but rather with its excessive use. 

But that’s not even this issue here (nor the main example of the issue I’m debunking here).  The claim is that by saying “si Dios quiere” one’s actions start to be determined by the phrase.  I think a big part of this is volunteers hearing the phrase in their head as “if God wants” and not “God willing”.  As a result they forget that this is a fairly common phrase in American English as well, and I don’t think anyone can honestly attribute laziness or irresponsibility to it in the US.

Some volunteers also take issue with the use of the subjunctive mood, implying that this also has a fatalistic linguistic consequence.  I think this might also be a simple misunderstanding.  The subjunctive mood in Spanish is generally used to express doubt.  This can often be represented in English (although in a slightly stuffy manner) with the word ‘may’ or might’, e.g. “espero que venga pronto” – ‘I hope that he (might come) comes soon’.  In this case, because I said ‘I hope’ that he comes, I am expressing that there is a possibility that he will not come, i.e. doubt.  By an extension of this rule one can remember that the subjunctive should be used in commands (I can’t be sure the person will do what I demand/ask them to do) and when referring to the future (I can’t be sure what will happen in the future).

 The problem is that there are times when colleagues use the subjunctive (doubtful) mood when volunteers feel it is expressing unnecessary doubt.  For example, “Podemos hablar más cuando te vea en la reunión mañana” – ‘We can speak more when I (may) see you at the meeting tomorrow’.  This doubt seems unnecessary, or is implying more of a chance of us not seeing each other at the meeting than should be necessary.  It begs the question, “Why might you not see me at the meeting tomorrow?”  I have to think that this is an overextension of the guideline for the use of the subjunctive.  The subjunctive is used here because we are talking about the future.  We use the subjunctive when talking about the future because the future is technically unknowable.  The subjunctive, however, is not necessarily used here because this future event is uncertain, but rather because that’s how the grammatical construct has evolved.  A native Spanish speaker doesn’t consider the dubiousness of what they say when they choose to use the subjunctive.  It just feels natural because they are thinking about the future. 

It’s instructive to remember that the subjunctive is used in other situations that represent no real doubt, like when the subject in the subordinate clause is different from that of the initial clause as in impersonal expressions.  For example, “Es bueno que hayas venido” – ‘It’s good that you (may?) have come’ “Estoy alegre que estés aquí” – ‘I’m happy that you (may?) be here’.  I wrote ‘may?’ here to show that implying doubt in these uses of the subjunctive is illogical.  There is no doubt that the person stands before you.  I don’t think people are always implying doubt when they use the subjunctive, despite that being a good rule of thumb for remembering when to use the mood.

These are actually less common complaints, I think, to the ever mocked and hated accidental ‘se’.  The accidental ‘se’ is a construct in Spanish that is used for extremely passive phrases.  The word ‘se’ isn’t translated but is used to indicate the passive voice (“Se habla español.” – ‘Spanish is spoken.’ instead of “Hablamos español.” – ‘We speak Spanish.’).  In these constructs the object and subject of the sentence are also switched.  For example,

“Se me cayó el lapicero.” – ‘The pen has fallen.’, or literally, ‘The pen has fallen itself (on) me.’ 

“Se me quebró el vidrio.” – ‘The glass was broken.’, or literally, ‘The glass broke itself (on) me.’

“Se me olvidó la tarea.” – ‘The homework was forgotten.’, or literally, ‘The homework forgot itself on me.’ 

The argument is that these phrases are beyond a comprehension we have for passivity in English (hence the awkward literal translation).  I can take responsibility as the agent and say “I dropped the pen”.  I can be ambiguous and use the passive voice implying that there is no agent and no one is to blame when I simply say “The pen has fallen”.  But can I blame the pen, and put myself in the role of the receiver of this pen’s haphazard actions by saying “The pen has fallen itself on me”?  Surely that is too much.  It wasn’t the homework’s fault you didn’t do it.  It’s your fault.  Again, the argument is that this form of language removes responsibility from the speaker and deterministically enhances their unreliability.  However, I’d like to show a few more examples that might be illuminating.

“Se me quemó la estufa.” – ‘The stove burned me.’

“Se me llenó mi agenda.” – ‘My schedule filled up on me.’

“Se me descompuso el carro.” – ‘My car broke down on me.’

“Se me olvidó.” – ‘It slipped my mind.’

Really?  The stove burned you?  I think you burned yourself when you put your hand on the stove.  Your schedule doesn’t fill itself, you fill it.  Your car sort of is the agent in its breaking down, but you aren’t really an object of that action, and honestly you’re the root cause of its state.  You forgot it; ‘it’ doesn’t go anywhere.  There are countless other examples of this in English, especially when we start bringing technology into the mix (‘This stupid phone froze up on me after I tried to open the 23 apps at once…stupid phone’). 

I don’t think there is anything irresponsible in the use of any of these phrases, in English or in Spanish.  We use them to soften a statement.  To say ‘it slipped my mind’ is less offensive than ‘I forgot about you’.  Perhaps we blame inanimate objects so that the action sounds less embarrassing when described.  Perhaps we do it because we really don’t understand what we did that caused the reaction and so we perceive it as an action on behalf of the inanimate object.  For all that is said about the accidental ‘se’ it’s not really that foreign a concept to us.  It’s just more ubiquitous in Spanish and easier to apply to more situations. 

Maybe I haven’t proven that language isn’t deterministic (and I do believe it is to a certain extent, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post about sexism), but I hope to at least have shown that it isn’t drastically different from our own language.  So how about I try and discredit strict linguistic determinism with a single question.  If language, particularly the aspects of language talked about here, is so influential on the actions of people, and all of the Spanish speaking world employs the aforementioned constructs, why are Nicaraguans, Argentines, Mexicans and Spaniards so radically different?