I’m going to try and be extra careful not to be offensive in this post, but I’m afraid I might toe a fine line should any of my Nica cohorts read this.

First off, I’d like to say that Nicaraguans are not stupid.  I think a lot of volunteers, especially those working in education; can easily get really down on Nicaraguan intelligence.  I’m one of many that will bemoan persistent but basic spelling errors, the need for shopkeepers to take out a calculator to perform even the most basic calculations (hint: 10 + 6 is 16.  The way you say both ‘ten plus six’ and ‘sixteen’ is ‘ten and six’) or the awkward bastardization of some words (‘dijieron’, ‘componido’, ‘hace’ – where they pronounce the ‘h’, ‘haiga’ as in ‘no creo que haiga nadie’ – it should be ‘haya’).  But I don’t think this makes them stupid.  I think a big cause of the spelling errors is due to the fact that reading is practically unheard of (be it books, newspaper, magazine, etc. – anything other than a text message) and I expect this has a bigger impact on orthography than most people think.  The math I think is a combination of fear of making a mistake when it comes to money and a fear of looking like an idiot.  I think math is also considered this abominable subject that only the most brilliant can understand, and an early lack of self-confidence makes the idea of learning math outside rote memorization an insurmountable endeavor.   The ‘bad wording’ is a cultural thing.  You repeat what you hear.  A lot of the mistakes I listed earlier are based on logical conclusions based on the behavior of other words. In these cases however, the words are somewhat irregular (past participle of an ‘- ir’ verb is formed by adding ‘-ido’ to the stem, except in the case of componer, it should be ‘compuesto’).  If no one corrects you, and everyone else says it, the word seems right, and really whether or not it is in fact wrong could be a lengthy discussion.

Even in a developed country like the US, with a far better (but obviously still not great) educational system, I think we can see a lot of the same issues.  One of my favorite things to stumble upon online are silly grammatical mistakes that radically change the meaning from what was intended, and there are websites devoted to this very concept.  The book “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” has a great collection of them.  I saw a bumper sticker on Facebook the other day that nicely sums this problem up.  It read, ‘Grammar: The difference between knowing your shit, and knowing you’re shit.’   I think lots of people in the US struggle with math, albeit not to the same extent here.  Nevertheless, I remember math teachers in elementary school and up responding to questions like “why do I need to learn this if I can just do it on a calculator?” with an inevitable variation of “are you going to walk around with a calculator in your pocket everywhere you go?”  Of course, the answer to this now would be, “As a matter of fact, yes.  And my calculator will also be able to search Wolfram Alpha and solve algebraic equations for me.  Or should I need, I could call a friend for help with my calculator, or immediately compare the price of the product I’m considering buying to that of competing stores.”  Still, from what I see here, I still think the teacher was right, and I’m glad I can do basic arithmetic quickly in my head.  As for ‘bad words’, we’ve got plenty of that too.  While I think it may generally be considered an particularly southern affliction, it’s not completely unheard of for someone to say ‘broked’, ‘runned’, ‘aks’ (instead of ‘ask’), ‘liberry’ (instead of library) in any part of the country.  And it’s pretty much generally acceptable now to not pronounce the first ‘r’ in the word ‘February’.

But this post isn’t about whether or not Nicaraguans are fundamentally smarter or stupider than any other nation, or about similarities in common errors made by either populace.  This post is about creenciasCreencia literally translates as ‘belief’, and is essentially a superstition, myth, or old wives tale.  However, I think it’s important to note the choice of words.  I would say that most people in the States know a great number of superstitions.  But even if someone follows a superstition, they’re usually aware that it’s nonsense.  I may blow on dice before I roll them, but I’m doing it for fun, not because I actually believe it changes the probability.  A baseball player may go through some ridiculous routine for every at-bat but most people recognize this as a psychological ritual, and not as though the movements themselves have an effect.    Myths are a little different in that they are something that we believe, but are willing to accept that they are not true.  I can prove to someone that it is a myth that eating pop rocks and drinking Coca-Cola will make your stomach explode, and afterwards they will change their thoughts on the subject.  Mythbusters has made a career out of doing just that.  Old wives tales are usually a little trickier, because they tend to be based on some sense.  However this sense can be easily lost because of the eccentric means of achieving a desired end.  Sometimes the purpose of an action can be lost and mutated into something silly.  For example, when curing hiccups, there are many proposed solutions.  Some say hold your breath, have someone scare you, drink from the opposite side of a glass of water, etc.  Essentially they are all trying to do the same thing; they are trying to change your breathing pattern.  So, it’s all well and good, that they achieve the end they want, but without identifying specifically what the means are.  However, if someone were to extrapolate and say inhale carbon dioxide, watch a suspense-thriller (without any ‘boo!’ scenes) or eat a burger with your head upside down, these solutions are similar to the aforementioned ones, but have forgotten the main idea.  As such, they’re just weird distortions of a good idea.

Creencias are somewhat different in Nicaragua, mostly in that people follow a superstition not for fun, or ‘just in case’ but because it is in fact a heartfelt belief.  Even those that are myths are hard to dispel, as some can’t be easily demonstrated to be false either because they require a lot of time to prove one way or the other, are too complicated to explain, or are too costly/problematic (like showing a girl can get pregnant by whatever strange means supposedly prevents it).

I decided to take a survey of 100 Nica volunteers (read: all the volunteers in my phonebook that responded).  I asked them what their favorite creencia was, and present the following list of Nica creencias.  I’ve categorized them by topic as best I could.  These creencias are not universal even within Nicaragua.  Some of the more outrageous ones only tend to be found in smaller, rural regions, while others are basically doctrine, and may very well be taught in primary school for all I know

1.       Food related

These tend to be the most harmless and are followed less vehemently than other creencias.  I think some of them may even have a touch of truth it them.

  • Avocado causes acne.

This could potentially have some truth to it.  Avocados are pretty fatty and could clog up pores.  Masturbation is also said to cause acne.  Oddly enough I only hear this with relation to males.  Maybe no one even considers the idea of female masturbation.

  • Avocado is an aphrodisiac.

I have to say this is nonsense.  But to be fair, in the states we also say oysters are an aphrodisiac, and I’ve never felt any effect from eating oysters, nor have I noticed anything to suggest otherwise when others eat them.

  • If you want to lose weight, eat garlic.  It burns fat.
  • Do not point at plants you are growing, it will cause them to die.

I think the origin was something like, “a watched pot never boils”, but the thought of jinxing a plant can be pretty serious business.

  • Do not eat pineapple/mangoes/drink coconut water/juice after five pm.  It will make you sick/give you a sore throat.

This one is pretty serious.  Nicas will gasp at the idea of it.

  • Beware people ashing cigarettes in your drink.  Cigarette ash in a drink is pretty much equivalent to a roofy.

Once during a session on alcohol consumption during our service, our director of security warned us about leaving our drink unattended.  He then said how we need to be careful in case anyone might tip a bit of cigarette ash in our drink.  I had to assume that an educated man, whose job is to be responsible for these kinds of scenarios (among many others) wouldn’t believe this, and simply confused his English.  This turns out to be a strongly held belief.  I’ve tried to argue that if that were so, why wouldn’t alcoholics and drug addicts simply buy one beer and one cigarette to get really high all day?  As this usually is not sufficient evidence, I have drunk my fair share of cigarette ash in an attempt to dispel it.

  • All the Coca-Cola in the world is produced in one large annual batch by witches.  Said witches sacrifice a human into the batch.

….Yeah.  Presumably the advice that goes with it is ‘don’t drink Coca-Cola’.

2.       Witchcraft

Speaking of witches….

  • You need to sleep with your clothes inside out to prevent someone from putting you under a spell to perform their witchcraft.

This one isn’t very common and is pretty remote.  I don’t imagine many people believe in it and it’s probably something said to scare little kids.  I assume this has to have some kind of purposeful origin that got lost along the way.  Maybe it was to make kids shake out their clothes/bedding before going to sleep (to get rid of any bugs/scorpions, etc.)

  • Beware duendes (elves/gnomes/dwarves).  They steal children. The only way to recover the child is for the whole neighborhood needs to get together to sing constantly.

This one is also pretty isolated.  Most people know what duendes are, but I think they’re considered as real for most people as elves and gnomes are in the states.  My guess is that somebody’s child was kidnapped and so a story was created to make the family feel better.  And then the neighborhood got together in solidarity.

3.       Animals, Fictitious Animals

Duendes aren’t the only fictitious animal.  Some of these are not as vehemently adhered to as other creencias and are seen for their absurdity.  However some still constitute supposedly very sound advice.

  • If you are bitten by a snake, don’t tell anyone.  It will make the venom work faster.

I also imagine this to be a distorted old wives tale.  Freaking out and screaming about the snake bite will increase one’s heart rate and thus make the venom pump faster through the veins.  However, I’ve heard this creencia taken pretty seriously, to the point where the victim wouldn’t even tell the doctor what was wrong with him after being bit in the leg.  Supposedly the man only said “my leg hurts”.

  • If you are bitten by a snake, bite the snake back three times.

This seems just as dangerous as the last one, because, as I see it, trying to bite the snake will just give you more chances of getting bitten again.  I’m not sure what the purported benefit of biting the snake is.  At least it makes you pretty manly, and shows the snake who’s boss.

  • Keep toads near your house, they are a good luck charm to ward off thieves.

This is likely a ‘rain on your wedding day’ type deal.  Say something crappy is lucky so that you can rationalize its presence.  The volunteer who told me this said she heard the creencia from her host brother, who then proceeded to rob her in the presence of many toads.

  • Animals shouldn’t be slaughtered on a full moon.  The moon will suck up the blood.

I don’t really know what to make of this one.  I’m not really sure why less blood at a slaughter would be bad, or how this is not easily dispelled.  I’m not even sure I believe that people believe this.

  • Spitting on a puppy is good luck.

It’s not really clear to me for whom.  Nevertheless, someone spit on my friends dog as a friendly gesture.  For more on the powers of saliva, see below under the “babies” category.

  • Watch out for Sisimique (bigfoot) lives in the mountain will come down and take you as his mate.  He also punches wild boars to death.

I also have to believe this one to be relatively isolated.  Still, it was heard as a warning from the Evangelical pastor of a town.  So there’s that.

  • Watch out for La Mona – a person who turns into a monkey and hangs out on your roof at night to scare you.

This one is actually not very isolated, and a few volunteers in sites of varying size and location have told me of the same one.  I’ve personally never heard of la mona, and can’t say how serious people take the warning.

  • Rats crawl up into trees and fold themselves into cocoons.  They eventually emerge as bats.

“Jacobo, there are many things that science can prove, but this is one area it has not studied sufficiently.”

  • There are sea monsters/a kraken/whirl pool/ghosts of indigenous Nicaraguans in the center of the Laguna de Apoyo that pull down and drown people.

I have to base this on the fact that a surprisingly large number of Nicaraguans do not know how to swim and have attributed drowning to such events.

4.       Hot/Cold Related Injuries

This is essentially one creencia, but it is far and away the most prevalent in Nicaraguaand taken more seriously than any other.  Essentially the idea is that if there is any relatively rapid change between touching something hot or being hot to touching something cold/being cold one will get sick and/or die.  This is usually a problem when it comes to bathing (since the water is always cold).

  • When you watch TV, the images make your eyes hot.  Therefore, if you bathe after watching TV, you’ll slowly go blind.
  • Showering after running or exercising will basically kill you.
  • Washing your face after running or exercising will cause your eyes to fall out of your head.

This was vehemently confirmed by various sources.  This leads me to consider the possibility that someone’s eyes actually did fall out of their head, although I highly doubt it was a result from cold water.

  • If you bake in the morning and wash clothes or dishes you will get sick and likely die.

Like I said, these are all pretty serious creencias.  I worked with a group of women who started a bakery but refused to do the baking themselves.  They insisted that they needed to hire a baker to come in and do nothing other than start the oven, put trays in and take them out.  They agreed on a payment system where each worker was guaranteed 50 córdobas worth of product for every day they work, and then divide any residual income for the day.  The baker charges 100 córdobas, cash, every day, for what amounts to relatively very little work.  I tried to explain to them how much this affected their income, but the creencia is indeed very strongly held.  This works the same if it’s any mix of hot and cold activities (ironing and taking something from the refrigerator, washing dishes and starting a fire, etc.)  It’s not yet clear to me how much time needs to pass in order to be able to touch something of an opposing temperature again.

  • Being hot can also gives you an “evil eye” (see the “babies” category below for more on the evil eye).

5.       Pregnancy/Feminine Hygiene/General Health

A lot of the volunteers I know work in the health sector.  I think dealing with creencias is a bigger part of their work lives than it is mine.  Myths about sexual reproductive health and snake oil recipes are abundant in both the States and in Nicaragua.  Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting ones they mentioned to me.

  • Do not eat eggs or beans during or immediately after a pregnancy.  This can harm the mother.
  • Not eating a pregnancy craving can cause a miscarriage
  • Can’t pick vegetables while pregnant, the extra hormones kill the plants
  • Do not eat beans during your period.  It will harm you.

This is one of those creencias that is particularly worrisome because it is the exact opposite of good advice.  Beans are a great source of iron, something which a woman loses during her menstrual period.

  • Do not eat citrus if you have a cold.

Same deal, vitamin C is exactly what you do want to be consuming when you have a cold.

  • If you use an IUD, you will have a baby born with an IUD implanted in its forehead.

It would seem that this creencia also doesn’t believe in the effectiveness of an IUD to prevent pregnancy.

  • You can’t get pregnant having sex standing up.
  • You can’t get pregnant with a virgin girl.
  • Standing near a horse after surgery can be fatal.
  • If you burn your finger, rub it in your hair.

There may be some sense to this, in that it keeps your mind off the pain or something.  Not any worse than just squeezing your finger with your other hand.  Of course this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, depending on the severity of the burn.

  • If you have an earache or pressure in your jaw, take a tunnel of rolled up newspaper and burn it in your ear.

I have not seen this but my friend promises me pictures.

6.       Babies

Closely related to the previous section is the wealth of creencias related to infants.  There is probably something notable about the relatively high number of creencias in this category.  These vary in the level in which they are obeyed.  However, they are certainly not exclusive to the exceptionally poor, uneducated or remote sites.  I think many people don’t totally believe in them, but would just as soon not take the chance.

  • Do not look at babies on your period.  This can give the baby a learning disability, constipation, make the baby sick, and/or give it the evil eye.
  • The ‘evil eye’.   If someone gives a baby the evil eye, either the person who gave the baby the evil eye has to spit on the baby or the baby needs to be rubbed down in moonshine while someone prays the rosary over the baby.  Babies can also pass the evil eye on to small animals or other babies.

I’m not sure as to where the evil eye originate, however it is said if you are really hot from the sun and stare at a baby you can give it the evil eye, or simply make it sick/crazy/have learning disabilities.  Mentally disabled people can have the same effect.  Drunken men are also commonly suspected of carrying the evil eye.

  • Hung-over men should spit on your baby if they pass it.  This will help prevent your baby from becoming an alcoholic
  • If a baby has a fever, spitting on its face will help bring the fever down.
  • Rubbing gasoline on a sick baby’s belly will help it recover.
  • Burn a birds nest underneath a baby laying in a hammock.

It wasn’t made clear to me when this should be done.  I presume it’s for when the baby sick.  However, I’ll go ahead and make a cultural judgment and say that it’s never a good idea to light a fire under a sleeping infant.

  • Babies are born speaking English.  They forget it when they get older and learn Spanish.  Therefore, Americans can speak to babies.

More commonly believed than one might think.


Would An Haczel By Any Other Name Rock As Hard?

I remember when I was in elementary school or middle school there was a big discussion about names in standardized tests. Questions like, “Mary has 5 apples, and Johnny has 10. How many apples do they have together?”, were being debated. The debate wasn’t about whether or not they could accurately measure the test taker’s ability to synthesize information and perform basic arithmetic, but rather whether or not the names of the characters in the question were appropriate. I don’t know what the arguments were for or against changing the names, but I remember it being a contentious issue. Eventually, names in standardized tests questions changed to be more reflective of the diverse nature of the names found amongst Americans.


You would think there was some similar changing point in Nicaragua. There is a unique love affair that exists between Nica mothers and American/Anglo names. Everywhere you guy you find hordes of Nicaraguans with very distinctly foreign names. Sometimes these names maintain the spelling of the origins, and their pronunciation is adapted to match Nica phonetics (i.e. Henry  /EHN-rree/, Muriel  /MYOO-rel/, Douglas  /DOO-glahs/), or sometimes the pronunciation is kept (more or less) and the spelling is divined (i.e. Ayling [Eileen], Mery [Mary], Escarleth [Scarlet], Leydy [Lady], Kemberling [Kimberly], Haczel [Axel – this one is actually really popular]). And, sometimes they just border on the downright weird. I’ve personally met Airoman [Iron Man – it should be noted that the kid is like 18 years old and was therefore named before the movies], Riddik [as in Chronicles of], and Wilminton [Wilmington], but I’ve heard tell of even stranger ones. My friends have told me of Jónibi [Honeybee, a boy’s name as it were], Usnavy [/OOS-na-bee/ named after a cool looking ship with a mysterious decal so the story goes], Ronweasley [Not a typo, one name], and Ermaini [Hermione, who, as far as I know, has not yet had the pleasure to meet Mr. Ronweasley].


Sometimes it’s not just American/Anglo names that make the cut. I’ve met a few Valdimir’s, I have a student named Staling (presumably after good old José Stalin) and a Boris or Viktor here and there. Nicaragua was pretty tight with Russia for some time, especially during the Sandinista Revolution and I have to assume that accounts for those names. So that makes sense. But Daniel always talks about how the Yanqui imperialist are ruining Nicaragua. There is a song about how Americans are the enemies of humanity (which I awkwardly and unwittingly tried to sing along to). So if all of that is true, why are so many Nicaraguans, including Sandinistas, naming their children this way? Is American soft power reaching as far as the very names of the Nicaraguan children?


Just a quick look through my phonebook and class lists yields (aside from those already mentioned), Ashley, Danny, Hamilton, Terry Wilson, Eddy, Milton, Edwin, Dennis, Alexander, and the list goes on. And sure there are plenty of Marías, Josés, Albas, Adán’s, as well as some indigenous names like Xochi, or Xiomara (unrelated by I’ll state here for the record I think the X’s in these names should be pronounced /sh/ and not /s/) and what have you in there as well. And yes, some of the American/Anglo names are due to people from the Atlantic Coast, which is English (sort of) speaking and was under British rule for some time. And yes often times the names are not purely Hispanic or Anglo but are mixed (Nicaraguan custom, as in many Latin American countries, is to have two first names and two last names) like in the case of Elizabeth María or Melvin Cristóbal. Still, the presence of non-Hispanic names seems really very high. This is especially true if you were to think about the number of Asian people named Roberto you may have met in America (or anywhere for that matter), or red headed Irish girls named María de los Ángeles.


It’s customary for many volunteers to Hispanicize their name when they come to country, especially if their name is difficult to pronounce. I suppose that we consider a part of cultural integration, or it has to do with language learning, since oftentimes the way you speak in another language can be as if it belonged to another personality. So, in keeping with the custom, I initially introduced myself to everyone as Juan. For some reason however, oftentimes when I would do so people would make a weird face at me, as though they didn’t believe me. They would then say, “Hmm, John then?” This struck me as really odd for three reasons:

1. In America, if I were to meet a Hispanic man who presented himself to me as Carl, and I said “Nice to meet your Carlos”, I think there would be a national scandal and I would have to apologize to the general public on Maury Povich.

2. The Nicaraguan guy who doesn’t possibly believe I could actually be named Juan, is named something like Gregory.

3. When I do present myself as John, people tend to stutter or say my name oddly (‘chon’ or ‘yawn’) and then say “Ah well, Juan then?” There is an old gringo that lives in my town. I’ve never spoken to him, but see him bumble around busses and cyber café’s with some brutal Spanish. Once I was sitting behind him on a bus back into town. He was sitting next to a Nica with a newborn in her arms. When she told him the boy was called Clark or something he asked her point blank, “Why would you name your kid that?” She just stared at him blankly. Now, from my perspective, she hadn’t been enjoying her conversation with this guy or seemed very interested in talking to him. So maybe she just didn’t know how to respond, maybe she didn’t understand him, maybe she was hoping he would just stop asking questions if she shut up, or maybe she was offended by the question. Eventually after a long awkward silence he just said, “Because you like it?” and she said, “Yes. Because I like it.”


Names are really a very interesting thing and I can recall sitting around the table with my parents, brother, uncle, aunts, cousins and niece (?, whatever Amelia is, cousin-once removed) and having a long entertaining discussion about the origin of all our names and middle names. That may just be a weird DeMaria thing that we even talked at such length, but I think most people would have a story to tell if you asked them. Of the few people who I know well enough to feel comfortable asking about their names I haven’t received any particularly interesting stories. In any case they were Hispanic names so they wouldn’t help answer the question as to why these American/Anglo names are being chosen. I don’t want to be that awkward old gringo man, so I’ve refrained from making a survey out of it.


It could be that things from America just have a general appeal. Wearing shirts with English writing is seen as kind of cool I think, regardless of whether or not is meaning is understood (like a tattoo of Chinese characters perhaps). I wouldn’t think it’s a thing like when 2nd or 3rd generational American families are trying to help their kids adapt. It could be all of the American movies, music and television they see (of which Riddick and Ronweasley are definitely a product), but then I would expect a lot more names that are mimicking the more eccentric names of American celebrities. My guess is, well, they just like it.


PS: If any of my fellow volunteers are reading this post, please comment with your favorite Nica name. I’d love to hear more.

Nice Weather

During a scene in a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is having an awkward conversation with a new acquaintance.  After deciding that the conversation is thoroughly boring, Larry asks his new friend a very personal question.  The other party is offended; surprised that someone he hardly knows would ask such a question.  “I was just trying to elevate small-talk to medium-talk”, responds Larry.

I am constantly meeting new people here.  This can be partially attributed to the openness of Nicas towards strangers, but even more due to an understandable interest in me as a foreigner.  As a result, I tend to constantly answer the same basic questions ‘just met you’ questions over and over again.  Even with Nicas I’m already acquainted with, I sometimes feel like that I am in a perpetual state of small-talk.   Just this past week, a teacher I have known since my first day here asked me what state I was from and whether or not I liked Corinto (yes, it’s very tranquil here. Yes, New York is very large.  We’ve got those facts quite well established at this point).  I also have noticed that due to the large volunteer population here, combined with the regular turnover schedule (new groups of 20-40 volunteers come and go every 4 months), I’m constantly meeting new Americans.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve talked about where my site is, where I’m from, what I studied and what I did before Peace Corps.

Recently I’ve been questioning why social interactions begin this way.  Why do relationships, of most any nature, be it professional, romantic, platonic, etc., start off by obtaining the least interesting and least pertinent information?  Doesn’t it make more sense for me to find out if I think you are an interesting person, or someone with whom I want to spend my time before we talk about how many siblings we have?  I mean, who cares that your oldest sister is 25 and your younger brother is 19?  It’s not even a guarantee that I’ll care that much if we do indeed become friends.

I don’t mean this to sound misanthropic or that I don’t like meeting new people.  I love meeting new people, and I’ve met some really cool and interesting people here.  I’ve met people with fascinating things to say, with viewpoints on various subjects that have and will continue to influence me and my personal outlook on life.  But none of these interesting conversations ever took place in the first hour of our meeting.

I guess we start out this way because there are a number of established questions that are acceptable to ask in almost any circumstance.  Perhaps, we don’t want our first impression to be weird or eccentric, and we want to avoid a potentially offensive or antagonistic topic.  People’s opinions of us are also shaped by the context in which we are known, for better or for worse.  Maybe someone has a seemingly radical take on aid programs in the developing world, but if you knew him or her, it wouldn’t seem so brazen or extreme.  Or, for example, the way I interpret a Nicas views on Sandinismo will definitely be different whether or not I know if he served in the Contra War (and on what side).

Omaha Steaks agrees with me.  At least, I think so.  They send out little ice-breaker cards with their packages.  The cards say things like “tell us about a hidden talent” or “if you could have any super power, what would it be?”, etc.  I assume their presumption is that that your plan is to host a classy dinner party with your coupled friends from various social circles (instead of hording all the meals and eating them at regular, rationed but delectable intervals, much to your roommates chagrin – sorry, Charlie), and that these little cards will help stimulate potential medium-talk conversation.

Still, I’m not sure if I really like this or not.  For one thing, there’s something vaguely interview-like about some of these types of questions, and if there is one thing I hate on an interview is when I’m asked, “if you were a(n) fruit/animal/car etc., which would you be and why?”.  I feel like I’m being pseudo-psychoanalyzed by someone who is completely unqualified to make any kind of interpretation.  I mean, if I were to say, “I would be a tiger because I believe I possess a variety of strengths, both hidden and visible, while being methodical and calculated in their exposition.”  My interviewer could interpret this basically with the interpretation that I give him.  He could think, “this guy is actually really self conscious, insecure, and has trouble working without direct supervision” because his interviewer book has some kind of weird flow chart that says predatory animals mean an appeal towards strength, but stalking animals reveal fake strength, or feline animals indicate a sense of independence but foreign animals mean that he likes to steal pens and drink during his lunch hour, and so on.  And in reality, I just picked a tiger because it seems like the kind of animal that you are supposed to say in this situation.  Honestly, who says what animal they are really truly most like?  Doesn’t everyone say lion, tiger, eagle, dolphin or maybe some animal with some aphorismic trait (“an elephant because I never forget”).  I doubt anyone ever says, “Well, a gnat because I have a really short att–”

I get the idea behind the question though.  It’s a way to give people a bit of freedom to just talk.  It’s a way to say, “Show some of your psyche.  Let me see you.”  But if that is really the case, it’s really a bit lazy then, isn’t it?  Or at least, it’s imprecise.  Even if people knew themselves well enough to hand over their egos in an envelope, few, if anyone would be comfortable to hand that over to a total stranger.  People tend to muddle up who they really are, mixed with what they want you to hear and whatever they can think of.  The receiver then tries to parse out the information they really want, and the whole thing just seems inefficient.  It’s like going to buy a pound of sugar and having the store clerk blend together a three pound mix of salt, sugar and meth.

I give mock interviews as part of my class for students in their penultimate year.  There is a whole unit about life skills and employability skills (i.e. how to find available positions, writing CVs, personal budgets, etc.)  I gave them a few of these “if you could/were” type questions, mostly because I couldn’t think of a lot of good example interview questions (and I suspect this is why many interviewers do it as well).  They just really did not get it.  I asked them “if you could meet any person, alive or dead, who would it be and why?”  Some just gave me blank stares; a few others said their mothers.  The most “real” answer was to meet Agosto Sandino, hero of the revolution that ousted the American Marine occupation of Nicaragua and namesake of the Sandinista revolution that ousted the family that usurped Sandino himself (although he didn’t have a great reason why – the kid, not Sandino.  I suspect he’ll run for public office soon).  I’m not sure what to make of their reactions to the question, but I found it interesting to note.

I don’t take my own advice.  I still open with small-talk when I meet people, although I do try and accelerate to medium or even big-talk, especially if I don’t really care about the interaction.  As in a case where I meet someone who I don’t necessarily ever have to see again if I don’t want to, but could if I did.  Either I offend the person, create entertaining conversation for us both, or it doesn’t take and we both move on.

As I start thinking about what I’ll do when I am done with Peace Corps I can’t help but think about the interviews I’ll go on.  There is something to be said for doing whatever you can to distinguish yourself in your initial conversation with someone (be it a potential new friend, picking up women or an interview – all three of which are pretty similar in some respects).  An uninspired ‘safe’ conversation makes you less desirable for any of these groups of people than a distinguishing one would.  I’m not sure if this type of approach is too risky for interviews, but answering that my greatest weakness is that I work too hard seems just as banal to me as saying, “Man, it’s Wednesday but it totally feels like Tuesday” or “Do you come here often?”

No Homo

No Homo

I mentioned in my last post that I consider Nicaragua to be a religious country.  This religious fervor manifests itself in many facets of Nicaraguan life.  Questions about one’s religious practices are generally part of the off the ‘I’ve-just-met-you’ interview that a gringo gets when he or she meets someone.  Other questions tend to be, “How old are you?”, “Are you married?”, “Do you have a girlfriend?”, “Do you have a girlfriend in the US?”, “How many kids do you have?” (notably, this is rarely preceded by, “Do you have kids?”), “How much money do you make?”, ”How much do you pay in rent?”, etc.

It often seems that no question is too personal, even when asking a stranger (ironically, once I become acquainted with someone every question becomes prefaced by “John, can I ask you a question?”).  So the religious question is far from shocking to hear, but still somewhat difficult to answer.  I generally answer by identifying as Catholic, with the added footnote that I am not a practicing Catholic, and no, thank you, but I do not want to attend mass with you.  This is a pretty honest answer.  While I don’t really share much spiritual affinity with the Catholic Church, my ethical and moral foundation is deeply rooted in and in alignment with Catholic teachings.  This, I believe is both a result of circumstance and deliberate choice.

I generally try and steer clear of religious discussions that delve any deeper than that.  One reason I do this is because the Peace Corps basically prohibits us from doing so, and for good reason.  Officially, we are not a religious or a political/diplomatic organization.  It’s easy to rile up strong emotions and convictions when discussing religion or politics and any wrong step could lead to misinterpretations of the Peace Corps’ role in the country.  It can also cause problems between the volunteer and their community or even, in some cases, compromise their safety.

Avoiding these potentially hazardous situations isn’t as easy as one might think.  For example, I am trying to help some of the civics teachers at my high school with the section of their curriculum on economics.  Now, the curriculum is determined by the State, and the State is a socialist one.  So when I want to impart my knowledge of economic concepts, institutions, and their functions I have to tread carefully.  It can be hard to teach socialist economics from a neutral standpoint when all of these pesky truths and facts get in the way.  So I do my best to stick to fundamentals and use lots of vague language and passive sentence formation that neither confirm nor deny certain tenets, e.g., “it has been thought by some that centralized planning will bring about a more prosperous and egalitarian society”.

Electoral issues have been easier to avoid.  When asked if I’m Sandinista, Danielista, Liberal, etc. a quick “Well, I’m gringo and can’t vote anyway, haha.”   This seems to always make people assume, had I the chance, I would sympathize with their particular viewpoint.

I probably run into more awkward religious conversations than political ones.  Usually, I don’t even try and tip-toe around these topics.  I’ll either change the topic or flat out say that I can’t talk about such and such an issue or that I have no opinion.  On one religious issue, however, I eventually decided to weigh in occasionally (when appropriate), namely, on the issue of homosexuality.

There are a couple of reasons why I make an exception for this issue and not for others such as abortion, abstention (of alcohol or sex for example – and I even have a lot of good arguments about these) or divine communication/apparitions.  The main one is that this issue is relevant to my work as a Volunteer, and even more so for Health Volunteers, who I help from time to time.  Exploring the differences between sex and gender, the false dichotomy of sexuality, and self-esteem are all topics that make up a part of many Volunteers work.  The topic of homosexuality often intertwines with work relating to these issues.

Another reason I broke tradition with this particular issue was due to a conversation between a counterpart and I.  One morning my counterpart started reciting passages from the Bible to me because we had finished our work at a monthly teacher workshop early and she had gotten bored (she didn’t warn me that she was going to do this, it just seemed to her the natural way to fill a lull in a conversation).  The passage she chose was one that gave a list of all the different kinds of sinners who go to hell (y’know, as you do).

“Rapists, murderers, non-believers” – yeah, sure Dante laid this out, “homosexuals” – yeah, I disagree, but I get it, go ahead, “effeminate men…” – woah, say what now?  “Yeah, right here look, ‘effeminate men’.”  – Wow, ok, so I’m not a Catholic scholar by any means, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not a cardinal sin to be effeminate.  Like I said, I get why homosexuality isn’t permitted.  St. Thomas Aquinas lays out a pretty logical rationalization in the Summa Theologica, assuming you grant all of his assumptions, which I don’t, but fair enough.  But being effeminate?  Again, I’ve never sat down and read through the King James Bible, but I’m pretty confident that’s not in any Bible I’ve seen in the States.  “Yeah well this is the Latin American Bible, so maybe it’s different.”  – Don’t you think that raises some doubts on the idea that this is some fundamental divine truth?  I mean, effeminacy is ok in the States but a damning sin in Nicaragua because of a liberal translation or interpretation?  Doesn’t that seem inconsistent, if not unfair?  More importantly, what’s the rationale or justification as to why that would even be wrong, being effeminate?  “Well just like homosexuals, effeminate men are born men, but then choose to stop being a man, and that’s a sin against God.”  – What?  They’re both still men.  “The whole thing gives me the shivers (un escalofrío – which to me has a stronger connotation than ‘the shivers’, but I’m not sure how else to translate it.  Maybe something like ‘the heeby-jeebies’ is more accurate, although she did actually shiver as she said it).”

That conversation was one I couldn’t step away from.  Part of the reason why I’ll talk about this particular religious issue is that I simply consider the attitude towards homosexuality in Nicaragua to be fascinating.  I’ll offer a few instructive examples.  I was eating dinner at the house of a friend of mine.  Her little brother of about 6 years was playing near some of her older brothers, who are something like 25 and up.  The little brother does something annoying and then older brother calls the kid a faggot (not with any particularly harsh wording, nothing more than you would see amongst brothers in the States, although perhaps not directed at a 6 year old).  This caused the little one to get indignant, which leads to more gay taunts.  The mother comes over and grasps the child’s arms and comforts him with, “Don’t worry.  You’re not gay.  You’re a man.  Don’t let them tell you otherwise.  You tell them, ‘I’m not gay. I’m a man’”.  –‘Woahhh.  There are so many crazy things going on here’, I think.  But this is really one of those situations where you just don’t say anything.  To try and start a really heavy conversation about child rearing, sexual identity, etc., in the house of the woman who just fed me, with her feverishly devout husband and machista sons would be incredibly rude apart from simply ill advised.

But that’s the stance.  To be gay is to cease to be a man.  It’s important to note that most openly gay men in Nicaragua are incredibly flamboyant.  There are few openly gay men who identify as such in a subtle manner.  True, it’s possible that I simply haven’t met many, or haven’t been able to tell, but I doubt it.  My theory for this is twofold.  For one, to be out can be pretty hard, understandably, and only made possible through a strong support network, like other gay Nicaraguans.  Subsequently, I think the gay Nicaraguan community maintains itself by being extremely proud (basically “I’m here, I’m queer…), and so in order to gain acceptance by this community one can’t just be ‘a little gay’, but has to wear women’s clothing, make effeminate gestures and speak in a falsetto voice.  Basically, you need to either put up or shut up.  The ‘not-quite-so-gay’ don’t have any desire to do any of those things, but they don’t want to be openly gay and alone.  As such, they maintain a delusion of heterosexuality and partake in another interesting phenomenon, HSH.

HSH (Men who have Sex with Men), is sort of a sub-culture of the homosexual community, although they aren’t really part of said community.  These are men who do not identify themselves as gay, but will have sex, or perform sexual acts, with other men.  Sometimes this consists of a group of friends who get drunk together and have a small orgy or can be random individual hook-ups.  Then they get up in the morning and pretend it never happened (think Y Tu Mamá También).  Other times, these men will accept that they are having sex with a man, but will not consider themselves gay because they are the one who is penetrating and/or receiving oral sex.  As such, it’s not really different than having sex with a woman because “the parts are the same.”  They still do other manly things.  They play soccer, they drink, they catcall women, they work manly jobs, etc.  They maintain a masculine role both in their both in their everyday life and hidden sexual life.  They don’t cease to be a man, therefore, logically, they cannot also be gay.

I heard of this during training but didn’t totally believe it.  However, sure enough one day I had a really strange chance encounter.  A student of mine can by my house one day, which is pretty uncommon.  To make a long story short, after about twenty minutes of conversation he very awkwardly asked me if I’d like that we might show each other our genitals.  – Wow, what?!  No, man, sorry, and no for a great number of reasons, not the least of which being that I’m not gay, and even if I were, you’re like sixteen, and even if you weren’t you’re my student.  What made you think that I was gay?  “Well it’s not gay if we’re just showing (direct quote).  It’s not a big deal.  I just heard that you did that kind of thing?”  – Huh?  Who told you that?  “I need to go.”

And then there’s that.  I am apparently considered to be a notorious homosexual pederast by some circles in my community (and I’ll put in here a big Seinfeildian “not that there’s anything wrong with that – well, except for the pederast part).  It’s not the first time that I’ve been told by people that they think I’m gay.  I’ve received vulgar messages from a different student, pretty gregarious advances from a missionary, amongst others.  I’m not really sure why people think I’m gay.  I assume it’s because I haven’t impregnated any Nicaraguan women yet, because I don’t play sports and because I’ve had male volunteers stay over at my house (female volunteers have stayed over as well, but that’s less noticeable I guess).  The pressure to sleep around to prove yourself a man (and therefore not gay) is a whole issue in itself, and often how this issue works its way into our work (especially with HIV prevention).  But I digress.

One of the proposed justifications of the “gay people aren’t men” modicum is that they act like women, and that their role is like that of a woman – because they receive sex instead of give it, because they are considered weaker and as a result they cannot be machista – a supposed pinnacle of masculinity (I also maintain that I have met nearly as many machista women as I have men – not to say that they act masculine but that they propagate machismo, mostly in the expectations they have of the men around them).

Ironically (or perhaps not), no one seems to notice that gay men tend to still act very much like men, at least in their attitude towards sex.  I’ve noticed that they tend to be just as aggressive as their heterosexual counterparts, which is to say very.  Female Peace Corps Volunteers often complain about the catcalls and sexually aggressive/offensive attention they receive from Nicaraguan men.  I semi-jokingly say that the gay men are just as bad.  I can’t ever say that I know what it’s like to be a woman in Nicaragua, be it Nica or gringa, but I’ve received my fair share of unwanted attention from Nica men as well, even if it may be less than the females.

It’s important to reflect on this information with the appropriate context.  It’s easy to stand back and be amazed by these attitudes and consider them unprogressive, hateful, or at the very least misguided.  However, the last time I checked in the States, there is still a lot of debate about many aspects of homosexuality (whether it’s a choice/can be cured, where it comes from, etc.).  Laramie wasn’t so long ago, discrimination still abounds and a closet politician/priest/coach or what have you getting caught in some scandalous sexual act is relatively commonplace.  On top of that, I’d have to anecdotally say that homosexual students are less bullied and better treated in Nicaragua than in the States.  While students may make fun of a homosexual with some pretty harsh language, it’s not much worse than what they might say to anyone else about anything else.  The jokes don’t have a tone of malice to them, and the person at whom the jokes are directed usually doesn’t seem to take much offense.

I don’t claim to truly understand human sexuality.  A great book, “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” does a great job exploring the subject while also pointing out a pretty lacking body of literature on the subject since Kinsey.  A lot of what I have to say on the subject is personal opinion (still fundamentally based Catholic morality mind you) and interpretation of unscientific observations.  I think the only thing I’ll claim with authority is that there is no reason to believe that effeminate men necessarily go to hell by virtue (sin?) of being effeminate (even more unfair to the effeminate men is that the butch women are left unnamed and presumably given free reign).

Below is a clip from the show “The Boondocks”, demonstrating a humorous cultural phenomenon which balances out the idea that the US is widely more accepting of homosexuality than Nicaragua is.  I’ve transcribed the dialogue below.

Grand Dad: I’m gonna really let him have it, show him my stuff, give that man everything I got.

Riley: Pause.

Grand Dad: Pause? Pause what?

Riley: You said something gay, so you gotta say no homo.  Or else you a homo.

Grand Dad: But what did I say gay?

Riley: You say you was gonna give this dude everything you got – no homo.

Grand Dad: That’s not gay. I said I was gonna give the man everythin I got

Riley: Pause, Grand Dad!  If it sound gay, it’s gay and you gotta say ‘no homo’. How I know you not a homo Grand Dad if you don’t say ‘no homo’?

Grand Dad: I’m not sayin’ ‘no homo’.

Riley: Ok if you wanna be a homo.

Grand Dad: Stop callin’ your granddaddy a homo!

Riley: Then say ‘no homo’!

Grand Dad: I don’t wanna say ‘no homo’. I’ma homo your ass if you don’t stop sayin’ pause

Riley: ….pause.

Twist and Shout

I would claim that Nicaragua is a very religious country. Or at the very least, I would say that religion plays an important role in people’s lives here, and local churches have a significant impact on society. According to Daniel Ortega’s campaign posters Nicaragua is socialist, Christian and is a country of solidarity. There isn’t space in this post to investigate whether or not all of that is really true, or why the once atheist Sandinista party now warmly embraces the church. It is enough to say that Nicaraguan is indeed a Christian. I would estimate that at least 90% of the country is Catholic or Evangelical. The rest of the country is a spattering of Protestant, Baptist, Mormon, and Jehovah’s Witness. I would also dare to claim that a heavy majority of that 90% Catholic/Evangelical piece is Catholic.

However, Nicaraguan Catholics are a bit different from American Catholics. For one thing, they observe a number of religious holidays and practices that are much less common for Catholics in the US. This includes novenaries, a mourning period where the bereaved host rosary prayer circles for the nine days after the deceased passes, patron saint celebrations, which vary depending on the town and its respective patron saint, and a special celebration of the Immaculate Conception.

For those who are less familiar with Catholic teachings, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is an event in December that celebrates the immaculate conception of Mary, not Jesus as one might think. Catholic scholars eventually decided that in order to be a pure host to birth Jesus, Mary too had to be conceived immaculately. It’s a relatively minor Catholic holiday in the States, and most Catholics probably don’t even know about it. The only reason I even heard of this holiday in the States was because in college the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was a reading day before finals week. Of course the Virgin Mary has a much bigger role in Latin America and correspondingly this is a much bigger event in Nicaragua.

The Immaculate Conception is referred to as “la purísima” meaning “the most/extremely pure one”, and the celebration of it is called “la gritería” meaning, “the shouting/the shout maker”. Why is it called “the shouting”? Well, to celebrate la purísima families set up an altar and create a little shrine in their homes to a statuette of Mary. Then they turn on all the lights, play a bunch of happy music and wait for kids to come to their door. “Who causes such happiness?”, shout the children. “The conception of the Virgin Mary!” is the immediate response. And then the children sing one of a handful of songs about how great and pure Mary is. The families then dutifully hand out candy, matches, soap, detergent, trinkets, plates, or what have you, while shouting back “Long live the Virign!” it’s kind of like a weird mix between Halloween and Christmas Carolling. The whole event is also surrounded by lots and lots of firecrackers and fireworks going off all over town.

When Nicaraguans hear that I’m from New York, oftentimes they comment on how much I must enjoy getting away from such a deafeningly noisy place (the word ‘suburb’ is pretty uncommon – and difficult to pronounce – and it’s not always possible or worth the effort to explain that I’m not from the actual city). They say this without a hint of irony when we’ve just completed a conversation about an event called “the shouting”, a conversation we had by shouting at each other, because a car just drove by with 12 foot speakers strapped to it promoting a party at a nightclub was pumping bass so loud that it even drowned out thunderous sounds of rain falling on a zinc roof.

The fun of the event is worth the noise though, so much fun that in my part of the country, one shouting wasn’t enough. Here, we celebrate a second, mini-shouting, in order to celebrate the ascension of the Virgin Mary (presumably to heaven). I have no idea how the date was picked, for either really. I mean, one couldn’t simply say that the day Mary died is the day she ascended, even if that could be known for sure, right? Wouldn’t Mary have to wait some time in Purgatory? It seems presumptuous to know when she ascended into heaven. Never the less a date was picked and the whole thing is repeated, just on a smaller scale.

My new site mate wasn’t here for the last shouting and when I was explaining what it was to her I had a great idea. Even though Nicaraguan adults go around shouting and getting candy, I feel a little too old to do it, especially if I’m not taking a kid around to do it. So why not host our own altar in my house? So we went out, bought some candy and decorations and put together a little altar. Neither of us had a statue of Mary, but she brought a religious picture of a statue, which seemed good enough for us. Luckily a neighbor walked by and assured me, that just any old statue will not do, much less just a picture of it, and lent me an extra statue of his. We actually made a pretty decent looking altar and the whole thing was a big success. I uploaded a video of it to my Facebook page a few weeks ago. The true gritería is still to come, and I haven’t decided if I will make another altar for that one. It’s cool to do some real cross cultural stuff like this, so maybe I will. It was really fun and I recommend anyone in the Miami area to try and find a Nica neighborhood. Supposedly enough Nicaraguans live in Miami that the tradition has become widespread in a number of barrios there. I wouldn’t be surprised if New York didn’t also host some shrines and shouting.

Lo Bueno

Lo Bueno

Being without a computer for even just two weeks was miserable.  I actually came up with a bunch of ideas for blogs, but hadn’t been able to type any of them up.  Here’s the start of a series in the style of article.  Below are 3 awesome things in Nicaragua that you can’t find in the States.


1.     Nickney Slang

What it is

For those unfamiliar with cockney rhyming slang, it is a really odd type of English slang based on (what I would consider) un-guessable rhyming patterns.  One example, featured in “Green Street Hooligans” is when the word “bees” is used to mean money.  Bees make honey, honey rhymes with money.  Another example is the word ‘bristol’ being used to mean breasts, as in “check out the bristols on that bird” (Bristol City, city titty).  My friend Charlie and found the idea hilarious in college, but ultimately our lack of lime consumption made their use in everyday conversation impossible.

I have seen word play in Nicaragua that reminds me of this, although of a slightly different flavor.  I was hanging out by a street vendor who sells gum, cigarettes, candy, water, etc., on a median of a busy street.  A taxi driver rolls up and asks for a Persian avocado (aguacate persiana).  This, through a convoluted process of interpretation, actually means a small bag of water.  Aguacate is an extension of agua and persiana is a play off of peso (which in itself is a bit of slang, since the currency is the Córdoba).  So the guy is actually saying “give me the water that costs one Córdoba.”

This type of word play comes up even more frequently in card games.  When playing Casino, one often has to announce the number of the pile that one is ‘building’ in the game.  Rather than just saying “diez” or “catorce”, people say “Diego” and “catarro” (a cold, as in illness).  Instead of “J”, “Q” or “K”, which are ‘jota’ (HOE-tah), ‘cu’ (coo), and ‘ca’ (kah) in Spanish, respectively; one says “Julieta”/”Julia”, “culebra” (cobra), and “caramba” (as in ‘ay caramba’).  It’s important to note that it’s rare to say jack, queen or king.  Some people do say Ace but mostly because the word for Ace, ‘As’ – pronounced ‘ahs’ – sounds very similar to the pronunciation of the letter ‘A’ – pronounced ‘ah’.  For those who are interested, in Nica Spanish diamonds are called gold, clubs are called flowers and spades are called black hearts, while hearts are still simply called hearts.

My favorite part of this is that “catarro” is taken one step farther, and oftentimes someone will say “catarro al pecho” (a chest cold) instead of “catorce”.  This then gets clipped to “al pecho” or just “pecho”.  So somehow, “chest” now means fourteen, even in situations outside of the card game.  The fun part for me now is that I can’t see a queen playing card without associating it with a snake wrapping around her, nor can I see a king without thinking of him screaming “¡ay caramba!”


Why this is awesome

One of the great things about Nicaraguans is the way they play with language.  I don’t find most Nicaraguan humor compelling; most of it consists of dick/gay jokes, double entendres and puns.  I have a soft spot for etymology and linguistics and I think this stuff is just downright fascinating.  Whenever I hear a new phrase like this it’s like a mini-puzzle and its fun to try and trace back what the person really means to say.

Why this isn’t in the States

Honestly, people may do this in the States, I just can’t think of any examples.  Reduplication is certainly common in American English.  Examples of this are, ‘namby-pamby’, ‘itsy-bitsy’, and ‘nitty-gritty’.  The word picnic comes from the same phenomena, just in French, from the combination ‘pique-nique’.  Here ‘pique’ either means a leisured style of eating or it means the special food taken for the outing and ‘nique’ being non-sense, and not from the ‘pick a nigger’ myth.  We also play around with numbers a bit through some synecdoche.  Drug dealers sell dime bags (ten dollars worth drugs) or a prisoner might ‘do a dime’, meaning ten years in jail.  Still these don’t really feel the same as the Nicaraguan examples cited above, and besides Nicaraguans do the money to large number change as well.  A chelín (25 cents) can be used to mean 25 of anyting else (minutes, Córdobas, kilometers, etc.)  A side note on that as well, chelín is a corruption of the Britishism “shilling”.   If anyone can think of an example of this weird rhyme play in American English, please feel free to post it.

 2.     Double Baggin’ It

What it is

Packaging is a pretty serious expense in Nicaragua.  I’ve bought entire cakes before and been asked if I wanted a box with it.  I was dumbfounded.  The box doesn’t come with the cake?  How am I expected to take it anywhere?  But it was fair that she asked, because boxing up that cake didn’t come cheap.  And sure enough, I’ve seen plenty of people balancing an unboxed cake on the handlebars of their bikes on their way to a party.  Take-away Styrofoam food boxes lead to a premium on your meal.  Glass is pretty precious as well and breaking or dropping a beer bottle is a bigger deal than breaking a drinking glass in the States.  Nor could you even think of walking out of the bar with it in hand (despite the lack of/enforcement of public drinking laws).

But there is one form of cheap packaging that every Nica loves: the plastic bag.  You can get consume quite a lot through a plastic bag.  Everything from drinks like juice water and soda to solid foods like rice and beans, tacos, plantain chips, etc. For a time even moonshine liquor was sold in plastic baggies until enough people were hospitalized from being given duped into drinking methanol.  After this the state declared this type of sale to be a public health hazard and baggie booze was outlawed.  I should explain something about this as well.  To consume out of a plastic bag, one doesn’t drink from the opening at the top, or necessarily reach in and pull out the food.  The idea is to tie a knot at the top, then bite a hole in a corner, and suck out the food/drink.  If you have a taco or a bag of plantains, you mash them up in the bag and then slurp it out the corner.

Yer doin' it wrohng

Why this is awesome

Leaving the slurping fried food part aside for a moment, one of the great things about bagged drinks and food is that it is so cheap.  Recall the one cord bag of water.  Buying bottled water can be easily ten times as expensive as buying it bagged.  It also allows anyone to sell juices and drinks made in their house.  It’s much simpler to buy a bunch of empty bags and fill them than it is to start bottling something.  There’s also something that’s actually kind of pleasant about drinking out of the corner of the bag.  Maybe it’s some Freudian oral fixation.  Who knows?

Why this isn’t in the States

DC and I assume other places in the States already implement bag taxes just for the bags you carry the food away in.  I can’t imagine environmentalists would stand for packaging everything in these very expendable little plastic bags.  And with good reason, as great as the bagged water is, a plastic blue sheen stains the majority of the Nicaraguan landscape.  Also, sucking tacos through a hole isn’t a very classy way to eat, and I don’t think it could gain any mass appeal in the US.

3.     The Magic School Bus

What it is

The majority of busses found in Nicaragua are either reformatted school busses or mini-vans.  Coach busses do exist but are mostly for international travel.  Bussing is one of the things that is surprisingly well run in Nicaragua, at least in my part of the country.  Despite a stereotype for lateness given to most of Nicaragua, busses run very regularly, are pretty reliable and have routes that cover the majority of the country.

Why it’s awesome

The bus cooperatives receive a subsidy on their gas from the government.  While I don’t know how much the subsidy is, it must be pretty substantial because bus travel is incredibly cheap here.  A 140 km (84 mile) trip costs a little over $2.50.  This is not only relatively cheap compared to the states, but also compared to other expenses here.  This, combined with their reliability and coverage, makes the bus system here pretty awesome.  Even when MegaBus ran 1 dollar specials from DC to NY, I was still spending a lot of money and time on getting to and taking metros, commuter trains and all that noise and the whole trip becomes a big deal.  Here, it’s no big deal to jump on a bus and ride pretty far away.  You can also eat pretty decently and cheaply either at little restaurants in the terminals or by snacking on food brought on by vendors at various stops.

If only the busses here were this cool

Why this isn’t in the States

As great as the bus subsidies are for me, a resident who doesn’t pay taxes, I have to assume that these subsidies can’t last forever and are a pretty substantial government expense.  Hugo Chávez helps Nicaragua out a lot in this respect, and his magnanimity can be expected to diminish in the coming years.  Besides, it seems like the last thing the US could handle right now is an unnecessary increase in public spending.  As for the vendors selling food on a bus, I don’t know why this isn’t done.  Food is sold on planes and trains.  Why not on busses?  It doesn’t even necessarily need to be sold by the bus company.  Why don’t passengers just take on a bunch of food and try and subsidize their trip a little?

I had the idea to do a few more, but didn’t want the post to run too long.  I should have the next one coming up soon.


The other day I was invited to come to the department wide chess tournament where some students from our school were participating.  I had class in the morning, but promised to make it to the department capital as soon as I could afterwards to lend some support.  I arrive just before the second round was finishing.  The tournament was more legitimate than I expected.  There were thirteen boards, and some professional tournament sets, a series of officials, and a handful of clocks available for games over 20 minutes.  No one else from my municipality was there, and I couldn’t talk to the kids while they were playing (or even stand too close to the boards to watch – lest I gave some surreptitious eye signal).  Needless to say, I was a little bored so I started to chat up one of the player’s mother who is from a different municipality, telling her how I coach kids, but haven’t been able to keep a steady club on track.

Once my kids had finished their games they came over and we shot the breeze for a while.  Overall they’re not doing well in the tournament, but they’re happy to see me.  I try talking to them a bit about their games, but they’re not particularly interested.

The daughter of the mother I was talking to approaches me.  She has just won her last game and is ecstatic.  The mother has told her I coach, and the girl asks me to give her a couple of tips between games.  We played a game and she lost within a handful of moves.  Some of my students gathered around, wanting to see a decisive victory from me again.  She was doing basically the same thing and so I stopped the game.

I decided to give a quick fifteen minute lesson about some chess basics; control the center, develop minor pieces first and quickly, avoid moving the same piece twice in the opening, castle quickly, etc.  The weakest square at the initial stage of a chess board is the King’s Bishop’s pawn because it is only defended by a single piece, the King, which is not a piece that ought to play guard duty early on.  Now, it’s easy to prevent an attack on this area (especially if one has been controlling the center, developing minor pieces and castling, etc.), but defense strategies at this level of play aren’t great, and attacking a single square is a pretty clear cut plan that’s easy to and follow.  In chess, as a rule, it’s better to have a bad plan than no plan, so even if the defense is ready for such an attack, this is not necessarily a bad overall strategy.

With the last few minutes before the next round, I run through the steps for a common opening based on these principals and then it’s time for the game.  Within 4 or 5 minutes one of my student’s hands goes up.  He’s already one.  He runs over to me, slaps my hand and has an incredibly smile on his face. “You won already?” “I did it just like you said, profe.  I was like ‘pwah’, ‘pwah’, checkmate.”  He went on to explain exactly how his opponent made such and such a mistake and how he chose to capitalize on it.  Here’s a picture of the winning shot.


It was over before it started



The great thing about this is that he didn’t do exactly as I said.  This isn’t even the attack I showed him by transposition.  In fact, he had some wasteful moves in here.  But that’s even better, that means that he understood what I explained to him conceptually and not just as a series of moves.  It’s irrelevant that 3 of his opponent’s four moves were basically completely without merit.  These games are meant to be riddled with error, and the winner is whoever can see how to capitalize on those mistakes (I guess that’s true for chess at any level).  Being able to identify those errors can only come from a conceptual understanding of what you’re doing.

He was kind enough to sit still while I tried for an artsy shot

This whole event took place in less than an hour, but it had all the key parts to a full project.  There was a community identified need, a training/educational segment, behavior change and assessment.  The life cycle of projects I work on is generally over the course of several months, if not longer, with results that may not come about until after my tour is over.  This type of immediate gratification is incredibly uncommon, but perhaps one of my most rewarding experiences to date.

Sure, teaching a kid to win at chess isn’t the iconic piece of work one thinks of in the realm of development work.  I didn’t build a school for one armed single mothers with scurvy or anything like that.  But if there are three things I’ve noticed among most of my students in high school is that there is a lack of extra-curricular activities, creative/analytical thinking and self-confidence.  A day like this helped at least a few kids with all of these things.  Hopefully, his enthusiasm will carry over to other students and we can develop a regular club.