No. 4: Nicaragua’s Ferris Bueller?

Well, not really.

Ferris Bueller was pretty good at skipping school, but I think I have got him beat when it comes to skipping work. For those of you who just raised an eyebrow at that last sentence (and for those of you who raised two since raising one eyebrow can be really hard for some people) I swear it is not what it sounds like; Nicaragua’s hospital intern is not carelessly skipping work to go out touring the countryside. That would be totally negligent. Indeed, in reality I am carefully skipping work not carelessly skipping work. The hospital staff always tell me how much they miss me and/or are jealous when I go out on weekday adventures, but they are all for a good cause. And by “good cause” I do not mean to say they are philanthropic—no, alas, I wish I could justify them so legitimately—instead, the aim is “cultural immersion.” With a pretense so vague, just about any activity qualifies as cultural enrichment. ‘Perfect!’ That was me quoting myself when I realized all this. The weekday excursions are usually only a day long anyway and thus work still takes up a large part of my time here weekly. All that said, this is blog number 4 *cue applause* just kidding, no applause, that raises expectations too much. It is best to keep things low key. What is not low key, however, is the length of this blog. Sorry for writing so much, a lot happens in 20 days.

Most of the encouragement to make the most of the program had actually been a large part of Greg’s parting wisdom as he returned to the States at the beginning of the month. The aim of being an intern in a foreign country is to learn both in and outside of work. Taking the rhetoric to heart, I found myself looking forward toward more adventures as I remained in the middle of the continuous adventure in the hospital. After a short conversation with Greg and Aaron at Greg’s proverbial Last Supper, which happened to be lunch, I decided that I wanted to do a full-moon night hike on one of Nicaragua’s active volcanos: Telica. Later, Phellix opted to join and so the dream team was about to set off on another quest.

We arrived at the establishment, Quetzal Trekkers, at 9:30pm on Tuesday night. We packed our gear and ate dinner; they served pasta. The part of my heritage that borrows existence from my last name could not help but eat three full servings of the pasta with the meat and cheese sauce. My acid-reflex-damaged esophagus cursed my gluttonous eyeballs the rest of the evening.

It was a twenty minute truck ride to the starting point, which was actually at the base of a second volcano or mountain; I do not think I ever asked. Around 11:00pm that night, we began our hike to circumvent the first volcano. Circumvent is one of those words that when you have the chance to use it correctly in context, you must move swiftly and take advantage of the opportunity like snatching a cookie from the plate you left out for Santa just praying the jolly old fellow fails to notice. It is also kind of like the word “defenestrate.” How often is there a whole word dedicated to a very specific action (in this case, jumping out of a window)? Alright, back on topic.

The hike to the base of the actual Telica crater took 3 hours, with an unnecessary 30 minute break in the middle of a moonlit farm for all the old people. The climb itself was a little over an hour and we arrived at the summit around 4:30am, the whole time guided by the light of the full moon. By the time we hiked to the actual crater, felt the sulfur stinging our lungs, and could see the bubbling lava, it was around 5:00am and the sun had just started to fling brilliant pastel rays into the fading night sky. Hence the attached photo. The volcano roared as loud as a jet engine as the red magma, beneath swirls of smoke, churned and gargled as if it had gastrointestinal problems.

Then after some awesome photography by Chris & Phellix Incorporated ® the four hour descent began. The only thing that kept me going was that the day was July fourth and, in my excitement, I began to whistle the Star Spangled Banner or just recite classic American sayings. The British chaps that were with us on the hike said: “congratulations on your independence” and they seemed bitter—still. It was 236 years ago. Aaron, Phellix, Moisés, and I celebrated adequately later in the day with burgers, hot dogs, a grill, country music, and maybe fireworks.

Anyway, the descent felt like walking among a pack of zombies moving in a haggard line, all stumbling toward the trucks that waited at the bottom. On the ride home, all 16 people fell asleep—too bad the truck was not designed for sleeping. It was a flat-bed truck with railings erected on either side and a tarp attached overhead. So, the scene of 16 tightly-packed strangers nodding off into railings and accidentally bumping heads in semi-consciousness can easily be imagined. When we got back, we were given a free t-shirt and breakfast. I would have traded my t-shirt in for extra breakfast if the breakfast were not already buffet style. I outdid my dinner record: that day I had four helpings of cereal and went home trying to stay awake so as to not mess up my sleep schedule, but instead fell asleep in three separate chairs before I realized the battle was futile.

By the time I got back to work it was Thursday and I had already begun training for my next adventure.

Each time I heard the story, it changed. It was just a race first. No big deal, right? Then it was a race up a big hill. Okay, still not terrible. Then it was a race over the river and through the woods, but, in this version, grandmother’s house was not waiting at the other side. Just kidding, it was never actually that last scenario. Regardless, the hyperbole illustrates just how ridiculous the whole thing felt. It reminded me of when doctors say: “This will only hurt a little” when they brandish alarmingly pointy needles. I am sorry to say I have become guilty of that transgression at work.

Anyway, staying on task: the race was scheduled for Sunday the 8th.

So around Monday of the preceding week, I felt it might be in my best interests to begin training a little more seriously. That never happened. So fast-forward to Friday. My family had told me about the city-wide march that was going to take place on Saturday, July 7 to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the liberation of León—the first capital of the Sandinista Revolution. The march was to begin in town and snake its way toward the more suburban area of Suitiava, where Phellix, Aaron, and I live, and then up an intensely steep hill to a fortress that was used during the dictatorship of Somoza to monitor the city. I ran up that hill 3 times in a row, expecting it to be a nice taste of my race the following day; I could have sworn that I have never run a hill nearly so difficult in my entire track and cross country careers. Or maybe I am wretchedly out of shape. Either way, the thing was a monster and it is no wonder it took the Sandinistas 12 days of siege to eventually storm the place. I realized then that there was no way I would win the race since there were probably Nicaraguans who trained there daily. When I returned to the house, proudly boasting of what I had done, my host brothers said that people get stabbed and robbed along such stretches of road so I think I shall not be running there ever again. That said, the march was the following day and I went out with my host dad dressed in dull shades of green and brown—nothing too gringo. When we got to the center of town, my father thrust a giant banner my way and ordered me to open it in the middle of the street where the large crowd had been marinating in the July heat. I gathered they had been there for some time because the marchers were already quite antsy. But, like moths to the flame, veterans of the revolution converged on us as we unraveled the Sandinista banner and everyone grabbed a fistful of fabric for the march.

In retrospect, I think I fancy myself a bit of a novice when it comes to marches and demonstrations. Aside from a March for the Cure walk or something, I prefer to stay away from large crowds. Fortunately, to look at least a little less gringo, my host dad bought me a headband with the acronym “FSLN” which are the initials of the Sandinista party: “Frente Sandinista Liberación Nacional”. After some marchers fired off fireworks from potato guns, and miraculously did not maim themselves with their misguided safety precautions, I heard some whistles, and revving of engines as the giant mass lurched forward. After fifteen paces, the men holding the edges of the banner had already run over two people and had said some not-so-nice words to a third, geriatric man struggling to move his bike through the crowd. So, like salmon with our banner, we stupidly swam against the current—sometimes shuffling sideways, other times pushing forward even when crowd momentum had been lost, or sometimes totally stopping the entire crowd behind us just to get some pictures. For whatever reason, the men carrying the banner were in a great rush to push forward and thus we furled up the banner from time to time and ran ahead of people, knocked some out of the way, or just shouted obscenities at others until they moved. Needless to say, I feared a little bit for my safety but figured that these men, veterans of Nicaragua’s Civil War, were quite capable of maneuvering us away from trouble. The march overall went well and when I finally got home that evening, I decided to go to sleep early for the race.

I woke up at 7 and was planning on wearing what I always wear when I go running: my Frisbee shorts and no shirt. My family advised me to wear long pants because of the terrain of the course. So I put on long pants and a tank-top and began to question what kind of path I was going to be running where pants were a necessity. We then ran to catch the 8 o’clock bus which did not actually leave until everyone was well-toasted and sweaty by 8:40, thanks to the Nicaraguan time delay. Before we left, a small man with a round face, wide-set eyes, and smart moustache stepped up onto the bus and started to tell us what the day was to entail: visiting a man at his farm to bring the statue of Mary to bless his land, then an outdoor mass, and then the race. My insides tightened, I was already unreasonably nervous for this race—mainly because my family actually expected me to win—and now it was going to be further postponed by other festivities. Then the man, who I presumed to be a priest, began preaching about the sacrifices we make for God—in the same breath that he had mentioned the race. To assure that the mention of “race” and “sacrifice” was not coincidental, he must have said the word “sacrifice” at least ten more times. At that point, I began to question what kind of race I had actually signed up for.

The mass was really quite enjoyable. It was too bad the location was poorly planned and most of the parishioners, myself included, roasted as the service dragged onward. While the priest talked, I stretched. I only half-listened to his homily as I was more immediately concerned with the vertical peak that loomed behind him: that was the course. My brother had come up to me at least three times during the mass to point out the pinnacle of the hill saying: “That’s where you have to climb to and then go back down and then go back up and you win.” It seemed simple enough. I strained my neck, squinted, and furled my eyebrows in search of the path that would wind its way up to the top. At the base of the hill was a dense, knotted thicket of thorny bushes and nasty underbrush. More toward the summit of the sharp hill, the unpleasant greenery gave way to harsh rocks half-buried among sunbaked dirt. Then, at the very top, stood a lone tree with foliage like a big fan blade. “So where is the path to the top?” I asked gesturing. “Oh,” my host brother seemed amused by my ignorance, “there isn’t one.” It was then that I realized the “race” was not going to be a race at all, at least not in any of the conventional senses I have come to know it by. No, at best, it was going to be a walk of attrition.

Though I was humored by my wit, it did little to alleviate the fact that I had just penned my name in the book of competitors, supposedly affirming that I knew I was about to willingly plunge head-first into an army of plants that looked just about as friendly as a “Welcome back to work!” party for the Enron executives. Alright, that was a little exaggerated. The priest then began to enumerate the dangers of the path ahead. “Be careful, competitors, for there are thorns, barbed wire, and snakes on the side of the hill. And try not to get too badly hurt because all we have is rubbing alcohol and—oh we do? And some cotton.” I thanked my lucky stars that they had prepared so thoroughly.

We did some warm ups and then, after reading the names of the competitors like a list of war casualties, we lined up and the priest mounted himself in a parapet with his microphone to commentate. “3…2…1!” He shouted and a full line of people hurled themselves into the brush.

I initially fought through a crowd of people, heard my host brother urge me forward, juked left into some spiny bushes, slipped on some rocks, clawed through the underbrush, and all the while moving forward. After thirty seconds, I regretted the tank-top. I could feel the thorns sliding through my skin and ripping at my clothes, but all I thought about was finishing with a respectable place. Meanwhile, droning on in the background, were the drummers, the band, and the priest’s voice. I did not quite listen to what he said in those first minutes because I was too concerned with the multiple stab wounds I was receiving but at least the music was encouraging.

What happened mid-way up the hill, I do not think I will forget anytime soon. After I had whacked aside thorns with my arms and clambered up the steep face of the hill, I finally saw the barren rocks ahead of me and could see the faces of the Nicaraguan Boy Scouts situated at the top looking down at me. I knew I needed to climb up to them to retrieve a bandana before descending to give it to the priest at the bottom. Out of the din below, I heard the priest’s voice with surprise and excitement: “And in first place…the American? Yes, I believe that is the American out in first place, ladies and gentlemen.” I felt like I was in the Olympics. I think I smiled right then, in spite of myself, because I thought how ridiculous it was that I was actually winning the race that I had thought was more like a “last man standing” competition. Spurred on by the priest’s booming voice and the ensuing cheers of the crowd, I snatched my bandana and hurled back down the hillside, a little too fast.

I tumbled down the mountain side and was met hands-first by a jagger bush—that is what we call them in Pittsburgh anyway which reminds me…SHOUT OUT to my Pittsburgh people: Becca Johnson—little life in Gettysburg? Gettysburg air conditioning? A.K.A. best things about coming back to the States; see you on the sixth! Alex Taylor—I think I am going to need around several dozen thousand cookies when I get back since I have been deprived of sugar for extended periods here so you better be ready! Steve Patrick—we will break that football record in your pool, and maybe break our bodies in the process but it will be worth it and then go to baseball games and heckle the outfielders, and obviously the family—love you all and I am excited to spend 3.5 weeks in America with you guys before I leave again. And I guess I can count Adrienne Ellis as an honorary Pittsburgh person since she was there all last week but she also lives in Cleveland so I try not to judge her too much; either way see you in August!

Anyway, back on topic, I heard the priest the whole time as I descended the hill. He talked about how exciting it was to have the foreigner out in front and how proud the Nicaraguans were (he spoke collectively for them) to have me participating. Meanwhile, I was still wondering how he found out where the heck I was from.

Long story short, I won. After climbing and descending the mountain once more, I gazelle-leaped out of the final hurdle in the brush and threw myself across the tape of the finish line. I cannot really describe what it was like crossing the finish line with half of my arm skin dangling from the jungle of thorns I had left behind, but I can tell you I was in more pain than the Russians were in when they lost the Space Race. After the nice lobster burn and the stripes of scratched skin, the mosquitos began to come after me. The grand irony was that I could not even put on bug spray if I wanted to. Needless to say, my skin was in a sorry state that day.

After the priest congratulated the other competitors on finishing, he announced my name and I saw everyone looking at me, taking pictures and videos, like I was some sort of spectacle. “Christopher come to the microphone.” The priest then said. As I approached, he looked at me closer, seemed humored, said: “you look like a lined notebook!” The crowd laughed. So, after a small speech about the pride he had in seeing a foreigner participate and overcome obstacles like one must in a religious life, he shoved the microphone toward me and asked if I knew Spanish. I said yes and said something about how I thought the course was going to be a death struggle but it was worth the fight and how I was honored to share in the Nicaraguan tradition. After the short applause that ensued, he bestowed me the medallion of silver and congratulated me again. The proprietor of the estate on which the event took place found me later and, swallowing my hand in his paw, he shook it forcefully echoing the words of the priest and saying how much better this year’s competition was from the previous year.

Thus, as we left the festivities of the afternoon, the family decided that celebratory beer was in order. With my first glass, I poured out just enough of the frothy antiseptic to lather my arms, hoping the 4.6% alcohol content would at least perform some type of disinfection, and the rest I drank. I believe the family wanted to get drunk and just waste their entire Sunday because after the race, even though I was heralded as “el campeón” for the rest of the day, I was denied the privilege of a nice cold shower and a bed. I was actually taken out to the family farm where they must have consumed 8 liters of beer, but I was not really counting because I fell asleep on a trio of chairs I had rigged into a bed.

Thus ends the tale of the valiant, but perhaps foresightedly-challenged American.

Speaking of foresight, I know that the vast majority of us are familiar with power outages in the U.S. or elsewhere; usually they are precipitated by inclement weather. In Nicaragua there is no pattern to power outages. Thus, upon receiving the “server curtailment” message from “hayden” on Monday I thought how I spent my Monday…oh yeah, now I remember: I spent the day working in Santa Rosa del Peñón’s rural Health Clinic with the doctors and passed that night working by the candlelight beside the doctor on night rotation. When the electricity goes out in Nicaragua, perhaps twice weekly, it is always an adventure. Without saying too much for the sake of my own pride, there were at least three instances where I—shall we say—forgot where the furniture was located.

One of those times, it may or may not have resulted in an embarrassing foot injury and a dirty word or two in Spanish. Never mind, I just tripped over a plant that someone left in the middle of the family walk space beside the living room. So it has been determined that the problem might not be the lack of light but carelessness instead. Or, more conveniently, it could be the fact that Nicaraguans have a strange habit of completely disregarding ergonomics. That is to say that they seem to misunderstand the concept of fitting the living/working space to the habitual interaction and movement of people.

Obvious examples of this are everywhere: unmarked and/or “homemade” speed bumps where self-imposed traffic vigilantes just throw a bunch of large rocks out onto the street and cover them in a mound of dirt as a means of slowing down local traffic. Another example is the EKG room on the fourth floor of the hospital. Perhaps this is just a strange means of ingenuity and I am overlooking it but, regardless, sharing the coffee/breakfast bar with an examination room is something that seems both uncomfortable and unsanitary. The best example of this disregard, however, is on the first floor of the hospital. I am a frequent customer of the blood laboratory there, thanks to the general demand for blood testing. The machine that tests the blood, the gasómetro (I literally do not know the word in English), was once located in a nice room tucked away beyond all the daily commotion of the lab technicians. I had no complaints about its location then, except that one time when somebody left a mob lying in the doorway and I tripped almost taking two nurses with me. Now, however, the machine has been moved to the middle of the hallway. Really? I inquired as to why and the response was: “because that’s where you can feel the air conditioning the best.” Now I have arrived to the gasómetro quite hot and sweaty on more than one occasion and I must say I have never felt the cool touch of the air conditioning that I was promised. Nowadays, taking blood tests is a little annoying because the machine probably could not be placed in a worse place—wait, I just thought of one. Okay, the bathroom would be the worst, but this is the second worst because people always bump into my fanny pack. Perhaps I wear it in a poor place as it sticks out from my body like a nasty growth on my lower back. To be fair, however, I have always thought that the lab coat covers the pack enough that it just looks like I have an impressive buttocks. Or I could be totally wrong and maybe everyone secretly laughs to themselves at my horrendous notion of fashion.

Only one time did I wear the brilliantly stylish pack out to one of the disco clubs and Phellix never let me hear the end of it, so that ended that. Anyway, this whole story started as a talk of ergonomics and shall be left at that.

But the culture here is perhaps the most interesting thing that Nicaragua and its people have taught me. To indicate or point out something they use their lips, not their index finger as we do in the U.S. From the members of the family to respected medical doctors, everyone here makes a kissing face when they simply mean to physically identify something. Timeliness is another facet of the Nicaraguan culture that comes to mind currently as I sit here waiting to go to a wedding mass. At school, the chapel is fortunately very close to where I have lived so I usually left five minutes before 5 o’clock (mass time) and still arrived punctually. In an effort not to exaggerate, last weekend I tried to go to church with Antonia, my Nicaraguan replacement mom, and we left the house at 5:21pm for 5:00pm mass. Given that the Nicaraguan priests have zero tolerance for frivolity, mass usually lasts half-an-hour. Thus, after a late departure and a five minute walk, we were left with four full minutes of church time. But, just kidding, mass ended early that day and, when we arrived, the whole congregation was already parading around the streets lighting off fireworks and chanting in commemoration of another Saint’s day. As the French say: c’est la vie.

And thus ends the fourth blog. Only one more and only 8 days left.

Respectfully yours,
Christopher Joseph Dellana

Ah yes, the pictures: the one dog is the family dog and since I am a member of the family here now they make me answer the phone even though, like at home in the states, the phone is NEVER for me. Even worse here is that I usually cannot even understand what the caller is saying. Phellix the photographer took the sunrise photo atop the Telica volcano. The high-contrast photo is of me holding the cloth banner during the march. The picture of the dead rodent was my first victory against the rodent incursion in my room, since then my efforts have failed to be successful. The final picture is of my host brother Luis and I after the wedding.

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