León: Iteration II – CJD

Sequels are never better than the original. Oh man, the pressure of writing this second Heston Journal is a mite more intense than I had anticipated. I suppose a logical starting point would be the present: as I sit and type, I am tenderly scooping ridiculously hot Nicaraguan soup into my mouth. The soup, it should be noted, has as its primary ingredient a large mangled heap of fleshy pig spine marinating in the middle of the bowl. My host dad tells me it is the soup of dead pig vertebrae. I must say that I am at least glad that it is not the soup of live pig vertebrae.
To properly put this in perspective, I will admit that I have never been a very adventurous eater—not like my brother, Andrew. When on a family vacation, he ate dimsum without any concern. I, however, knew better than to trust the three-pronged, questionably skinny piece of meat that we were told was chicken. Turns out it actually was: it was chicken feet. Thus, while certainly not as brave as my “try things first ask questions later” brother, I have been exposed to a wide array of dishes that I would not imagine trying elsewhere. I have learned that the usual vehicle for odd foods is soup: sopa del cerebro de vaca (cow brain soup) and sopa del estómago de pollo (chicken stomach soup) are two foods that I have already consumed at the insistence of my family; they are certainly two examples of the food here in which the USFDA might find inherent of consumption risk. Oh well, when in Rome…er, Nicaragua.
Now that I am almost done with my soup, I am beginning to wonder is the vertebrae meat supposed to be this chewy? Evidently, it is not. That was the medulla; the mistake elicited laughter from the family. Apparently to them, however, a lot of what I say is funny. I bet they are really going to laugh when my host dad makes good on his promise to make me some sopa de testículo de tortuga—turtle testicle soup.
My Nicaraguan family, which I incidentally forgot to explain in the first post, is wonderful. My mother, Antonia, rightfully deserves mention as one of my favorite characters in the house. She tends to all she owns and cares about with a proprietary heart that can scarcely suffice comparison. Her favorite saying is “que barbaridad” (which I have understood as a general comment of surprise) and her favorite onomatopoeia is her gasp of shock. Many of my American habits are evidently cavalier, skipping breakfast for example or trusting late-night taxi drivers, and so, a few times a day, my actions elicit the unforgettable image of her bulging maternal eyes while her mild cultural-disbelief manifests in incomprehensible Spanish musings. She insists on my eating healthy and says my bad eating habits may land me in the very hospital in which I work. And so, true to her word, yesterday for dinner we had cake and soda to celebrate El Día de San Martín, some comparatively obscure saint whose claim to fame is the saint of lovers. In regards to staying healthy, however, I try to come home for lunch at the end of work now instead of going out to eat at my favorite pizza place where the waitresses already know what to bring me before I even order—I guess it is because I am the only gringo “doctor” that eats there regularly. At home the food is healthier, but still the infamous Nicaraguan cheese is part of every meal. Try as I might, I doubt I will ever enjoy the bitter, salty, sour taste of the national flavor—with all its gloriously unhealthy preservatives, I think I still prefer slices of American cheese. All that said, I am still trying my best to become a culturally-acceptable Nicaraguan. Regardless, I still have insults hurled my way from the school children when I am strolling about with my adorable hat and gringo ensemble.
My father, Teodolo is perhaps just as noteworthy—he has one volume: loud. When I first came to live with the family in January as part of an Immersion Project trip, I will always remember the night that he had taken a few too many shots of Nicaragua’s famous rum: Flor de Caña and when I had come home that night from a day full of service work/touring the country, he patted me on the back, ruffled my hair paternalistically and struck his chest with pride, saying: “I want you to feel like you are at home” his flat palm again slapped the exposed skin of his chest “this is your home and I am your father” fortunately, at the time, the Star Wars reference was lost on me, otherwise I would have had to control some laughter. For all his volume, he is certainly an admirable figure and has the habit of humoring himself with his own jokes. Although I usually only understand every 3rd word he says, I am nonetheless keenly aware that the majority of the jokes are directed at me, either because his wit-rimmed eyes are beaming my way or because the words “doctor” or “critofer”(yes, without the ‘s’ as is typical of Nicaraguan speech) are mixed in.
Living in the house also are my host brothers and their wives/girlfriends—I have never worked up the courage to inquire about the nature of their relationships. Luis is 30 and is a veterinarian and Martín is 28 and, thankfully, drives the family-owned taxi—otherwise I would have to walk the 20 minutes to work every morning. Both brothers live with their wife/girlfriend in the two rooms that flank mine. They are, like the rest of the family, similarly amused by much of what I say. Whenever I am sweating enough to give the appearance of having just cried they ask why I am sad. I have learned to deflect this question not by denying it, but admitting it as truth. Then they ask if it is because I miss a girlfriend—because, to them, everyone and their mother must have a significant other—and, because denying it does not diminish the interrogations, I reply: “por supuesto” (of course). ‘Why not just find a Nicaraguan girlfriend?’ They ask ‘you would not miss her’. I have since realized that the harassment is inevitable.
Daily life really revolves around the 36 inch television stationed in the common area of the house. Ironically as I write this it is not actually on, but usually the rhythms of the day are played out to the tune of the television droning in the background. Furthermore, my room has but one small opening to the outside world, aside from the door, and that little window, covered by a small curtain, permits all the sounds and lights of the blaring television to disturb my sleep. Or maybe it is just a way of forcing me to become accustomed to the Nicaraguan circadian rhythm: wake up at 5 go to bed at 9. At home in Pittsburgh, thanks to my parents’ foresight in all matters, I was never a kid that liked watching television. It was only after I left for college that my family had a versatile cable package installed at the house. So, perhaps the irony of my television culture-shock in my Nicaraguan home may find some humor for the reader. Adding to the shock is the content of the television programming itself. While soap operas, telenovelas, and cheesy Spanish game shows are tolerable in small quantities, it is actually the gruesome candor of the news programs that has surprised me. The bloodied, mangled, and ugly bodies of the deceased or mortally injured are captured by cameramen in the field and displayed nonchalantly during the scheduled programs without a single consideration expended on account of shielding viewers from the disturbing images, as is routine in the U.S. In one particular station, the “Noticias Nuevas” (new news) section, which traditionally features such gore, is followed by a section called “Cumpleaños” (birthdays) in which the station extends its congratulations to kids on completing another year of life. Oh, Nicaragua.
Along the same vein of things relating to home-life, the water here, we are told, is safe to drink. I suppose it is because of its heavy chlorine content—it smells like pool water and I imagine is just as healthy.
There are three dogs, a cat, and several birds that live in or around the house. The pigeons that live in the trees beside the house have nearly been trained to fly onto the dinner table to waggle their heads in hopes of food, and who would deny the poor birds that? They are pretty darn cute, if not helplessly stupid. The dogs are vicious when they are chained up and when let loose at night they are hardly placid but at least they love being petted. The one dog had two pretty cute puppies a week ago but then they disappeared and the family supposes that the other two ate them. The cat is pretty sneaky and one time scaled the wall that borders my room and the common area and sat there atop the wall partition (as the walls do not fully connect to the metal-plated ceiling), just meowing for an agonizing twenty minutes. Had I anything to throw at that moment, I certainly would have done so if it were not for my status as guest.
My family also really enjoys when I tag along during social events, which I guess makes me miss my family back home a little bit; just kidding, it makes me miss them quite a bit. MID-BLOG POST SHOUT OUT: mom and dad, thanks for always supporting me in everything I do and giving me the confidence to do what is in my best interest; Andrew I hope you have a blast at camp this summer and I cannot wait to come back so we can have some bro time.
Now back to your regularly scheduled programming. Last weekend, my family bought a ticket for me to go with them to a Quinceñera, a girl’s 15th birthday party which is a rite of passage in the stage to growing up. I attended the corollary mass and then walked the streets, decidedly less well-dressed than the crowd of smartly-clad boys and girls who, with their parents, marched through the streets of León like an army on parade. The corresponding party, which featured live bands, music, food, and friendship took place at a bar. Because I had made a name for myself on my first trip to Nicaragua as “el balarín” (the dancer), I was summarily expected to dance at the event, a courtesy I declined until I heard the familiar bass and electronic beats of techno—I knew then that I had to demonstrate how we dance in America, knowing full-well that I was about 10 seconds away from making a fool of myself. YOHO.
I took to the dance floor and there were only a few girls and the Quinceñera girl dancing so I began with some hip-hop moves that were not designed to attract too much attention but, before I knew it, the dance floor was empty, the crowd of 100 people were clapping and cheering, and camera shutters intermittently blinded me like a series of strobe lights. Needless to say, I was quite sweaty and tired afterwards and my family was thoroughly impressed with my performance.
Now onto work (that is, after all, what I am here for, is it not?): every time I feel as though my hospital routine is beginning to become just that, a routine, I am always surprised. Like Grey’s Anatomy—which, on my honor, I have never watched unless forced to do so—there is occasional drama between staff members and supposed hospital romances; the female doctors with whom I work have implicated me as being involved in one of said clandestine relationships, but I literally have less than no idea what they are talking about. Often, I chalk up those things to deficiencies in my full command of the language. As far as the actual experience is concerned, my continual exposure to the environment has served to soften my initial notions about certain ineptitudes/shortcomings of medical practices and procedures. In the mornings, I work on the fourth floor of the hospital in the room which has the sole EKG machine. Sometimes, when my boss has a headache or when her inflamed knee is giving her problems and she does not feel like doing work, she tells me to close the door and lock it and she goes to sleep on the bed while I doze off in my chair in the corner—that is always humorous. In the emergency room, where things are usually a little busier, I am in the process of learning how to write scripts for medicine, managing IVs, drawing blood, and referring patients to orthopedic or surgical care, among other things. This past Friday, I attended a medical lecture in the hospital’s auditorium on the possible causes and complications of diarrhea. An insightful topic, too bad the medical jargon was lost on me. I have also learned to accept that the hospital does not provide soap, toilet paper, or toilet seats in any bathroom, even the staff bathrooms, and this is certainly a questionable health choice as unsanitary bathrooms are certainly a popular vehicle for causing and perpetuating disease. Deficiencies in such areas, however, are ostensibly things of necessity. The lack of funds forces the hospital to appeal to private donors, not the government or other public agencies as would be the case in the United States. I was sent home last week with a document addressed to the program director, Greg, and in it the official parchment outlined the plans to construct a new bathing facility for patients in clinical care—all this in light of recent safety concerns as fallout for the murder on the premises 4 months ago. They solicited donations from PGL to help. When the Immersion Trip from Gettysburg visited the hospital in the spring, the hospital asked if they would make a donation (and why not) to which they replied positively. In a trip I am hoping to make out to the rural health clinic in Talolinga, they similarly asked for a donation from Greg as a compromise for my involvement in observing their basic system of healthcare. Therefore, the hospital in León, as elsewhere, does all it can with the funds it is allocated and to make up the difference, it must turn to more creative measures.
Speaking of medicine, I have learned that my family’s notion of healthcare, I must admit, is a bit superstitious. They emphasize the miracles of pills I have never heard of, certain foods, and oriental teas in curing sicknesses and diseases and, perhaps it is my western-oriented ignorance/knowledge in medical things, but I tend to find such things not overtly effective.
This past weekend, Phellix, Greg, and I went to Managua to have a short cultural tour of the city and surrounding area and to take a not-so-cultural-tour of the zipline over one of the lagoons in the city. The lagoon was one of the famous places that the Somoza dictators (who ruled the country from the 1930s-1970s) dumped the bodies of the political prisoners. Nowadays there is a nice little section roped off for use as a public swimming area. While ziplining the facilitators offered to hold us in two positions, both of questionable safety: upside down and the superman. After the experience, we visited a museum dedicated to Augusto Sandino, the national hero.
Yesterday (on the 14th) I opted to skip work to go with a group called Nuevas Esperanzas whose director, a lovely British chap named Andrew, I met once before at a high-end concert that I attended with Phellix per Greg’s invitation. We talked then about rain catchment systems, arsenic contamination in water, and sustainable agriculture that his group seeks to promote in mountain communities that are spread throughout the mountainous countryside in some of the most nearly inaccessible volcanic jungles—or perhaps this was just my observation as a foreigner used to roads that are usually not made of boulders and wet mud. Regardless, we began the day around 7am but, adjusted for Nicaraguan time-table, the day actually started at 8:30am. I met a man with a neat moustache complimented by a humble beard gathered about his chin in roughly the same width. His name was Rolando and, through the course of the day I found out that he was an evangelical pastor and I realized that explained his easy smile and jocular personality. Driving the truck to the mountain communities of the Volcano of Los Piñones was a man by the name of Enrique, amicable, ready to practice his English, and a father with a son my age, he was a perfect driving companion because he withstood all my questions. He told me that the rain catchment systems are designed to capture rain for the communities (which is a commodity not available in the dry season—our winter) and once captured, the rain or mountain run-off is placed into a bucket that has three levels of filtration. The first, which may seem counterintuitive upon initial investigation, is comprised of oxidized nails with the seeming aim of combatting dirtiness with dirtiness. By some chemical process that I should not pretend to understand, this removes much of the arsenic in the water. After, the water is filtered by two separate basins of very finely ground sand and once that step is complete, it is safe to drink. The arsenic contamination of the water is the number one health problem that these communities face. It is a byproduct of spontaneous volcanic activity and, epidemiologically, a lot of obvious problems arise at this juncture: volcanic activity cannot be predicted, only measured as it happens, and, given that a great part of the Nicaraguan countryside is dominated a jagged line of volcanoes that stitches together the vertical length of the country, arsenic contamination can foreseeably happen in any region at any given time. After a rumbly drive up—to say the “roadway” or glorified footpath had some rocks and boulders in it would be an understatement—we arrived at the first community and I thanked my lucky stars that I had not been thrown from the vehicle. We met a lot of people, I explored a school, and all the children seemed eager to get my attention; they wanted to teach me how to play marbles, how they treat their animals (not very nicely) and a whole bunch of odds and ends they do for entertainment. After we left the first community, we walked through the volcano’s crater—evidently the volatile nature of thermal activity makes it great for planting, if not a risky business like investing in Wall Street—we made it to the second community where Enrique demonstrated how to make organic pesticides for ants that destroy the people’s crops. While there, I tried to demonstrate my best showmanship as I endured catcalls from the farmers out in the field who felt compelled to scream “GRINGO” from distances of a hundred yards or more. I tried to carry on shouting conversations with them to demonstrate I was friendly. They just turned to their friends and laughed. I comically thought of it from the perspective of a school-age child: “Dear mom, today I got harassed at school. The kids were laughing at me and since I could not understand them I laughed too.”
Anyway, after the touring of the multiple sloping farms beyond whose precipices great vistas yawned into oblivion, Enrique decided it was time to leave. He intended for the journey to bring us from the crater-side community, about half way up the mountain, through four other communities in a two hour hike that after each community approximated an ever-steeper vertical climb; we only made it to the second community. Like a great cannonade roaring in the deep, we could hear the storms before we saw them—okay that was a lie used for poetic effect: the great mountain vistas indeed swept away thousands of feet beneath us such that hundreds of miles became visible all at once. Like a giant terrain rug sprawled before us, the intricate partitions of the countryside drove on in perpetuity until the far-off rains effaced the perspective. So we could actually see the rains before we heard them. These rains, coincidentally, caused everyone but me to turn their heads gaging, in earnest, from which direction they were coming. I was prepared to get a little wet so I was not perturbed in the slightest. Thus, we continued our hike, but, to all appearances, we had begun to descend the mountainside in a rather fortuitous hurry if I do say so. I thought this rather strange and so I asked Enrique why he was in such a hurry, the dashingly ignorant outdoorsman that I evidently am. He replied, indicating at the skies ominous of tempest: “the storms are coming from both sides and even though they are yet some distance away, if we do not get to the truck quickly, the lightning might get us before we do.” Looking around then, with my eyes newly opened, I noticed all the tall, green bulls-eyes swaying in the wind that draped the entire mountainside—the need for haste was sufficiently demonstrated. Haphazardly we clambered down the path of rocks and loose dirt, praying that it would not soon become a river of mud and tumbling rocks. To make matters worse, Enrique temporarily lost the path on the descent and we nearly missed the car entirely. Fortunately, the storybook adventures of the day ended with a rather appropriate ending, me falling asleep on the car ride home.
The time spent here thus far has been great, even the struggles I count as integral to the experience. I have always disliked reading but, for whatever reason, the Nicaraguan atmosphere lends itself well to reading so in between the books I am reading, I enjoy reading the posts of my fellow Heston-ites. Keep it up!

Until next week,
Christopher Joseph Dellana

Post Script about the photographs:
The first photo is of my host dad and my host mom. The second photo is a view from atop the mountain top community described. The third photo was taken by my host dad during the Quincenera, it is part of a series of such photos in which I enjoy playing the game: Where’s Waldo? Or, more appropriately, see if you can spot the tall, awkward Gringo. And the final photo is a view of my family’s common space from the view of the dinner table

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One thought on “León: Iteration II – CJD

  1. The problem, Chris, is that you are setting the bar really high for yourself. How will you ever write your third journal entry? :)In all seriousness, you’ve painted a great picture! I even laughed out loud a few times.Thanks to all the Heston interns for giving everyone else a chance to learn through your journals!–Kim

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