Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Corner Pulperia

The corner store (or pulperia) next to my house
The pulperia. Nicaraguan life revolves around this institution – what is it, you ask? Well, I was also a bit confused upon my arrival here. The word contains the Spanish word for octopus, “pulpo.” Was it where they sold calamari? No, a pulperia is another word for tienda; specifically a small store, usually run out of someone’s home that provides everything to the barrio it is a part of from washcloths to sanitary napkins, from underwear to shampoo. 
Gum and candies
Soap for washing clothes
Coming from Alaska’s bulk culture where practically every resident is a card-carrying Costco member, I was surprised to see the way that pulperia owners eke out their living in such small scale operations. In the rural arctic area of Alaska where they live, my older brother and his wife pile their pantry high with provisions for the winter, bringing in goods on the yearly barge. To avoid the high “village prices” their house is stuffed with dozens of packets of noodles, tins of sauce and meat, bottles of alcohol, and even the essential Reese's Pieces.

In Nicaragua by contrast, people buy their daily goods in the exact opposite of bulk, on an individual scale. Every morning the youngest children of the house that are considered old enough to go out on their own are sent out to purchase a single bag of ground coffee, a pound of sugar and some sweet bread for breakfast. Around 10:30 AM those same children will make the trek again to buy provisions for lunch: beans, rice, oil, chicken, salt. For the afternoon coffee at 3 PM, the same – and in the evening the pulperias are full of children buying salty or sugary packaged junk food.

Chips and treats - 10 cents each
You can buy everything individually – one bar of soap, one egg, a stick of gum, a small baggie of cinnamon, one ibuprofen pill, a packet of Tang… Families have no supply of petty cash to purchase items in bulk, and many households do not have refrigerators to keep food fresh, so everything is made in the moment and re-boiled or simply sits out overnight and eaten the next day. After two years here, I have begun to believe that refrigeration is actually an unnecessary part of Western life and a scheme that the electricity companies have put on us to use more watts – highly overrated. That mold won’t kill you – just smother some sour cream on it or some sweet ketchup to mask the taste and wolf it down, verdad?
Individual packets of oatmeal
I have a feeling that when I get back to the States, I will be shocked at the mere volume of food and supplies available in the grocery stores. I will protest, “But, what if I only want one piece of bread?” “Why buy the whole box of band-aid when I only need one?” Individual item purchasing a la pulperia is really very convenient.
The "medicine cabinet"
One of my best friends in-site is a woman named Mariana. She and her husband own a pulperia in the front of their house facing the main park – a very good location. They are open sunrise to sunset seven days a week, which really facilitated our friendship since every time I walked by I would hear her voice calling out to me “Hoooola!” beckoning me in for a cup of sweet coffee or a piece of papaya. She is a permanent fixture in the town, sitting in the pulperia looking out on the town and it’s goings on. She can always share the latest news with you and gossips to a fault. I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes as she goes on about Roberto what’s-his-name who had a child with Maria something-or-other and she and he were fighting last night (didn’t you overhear?!) and the baby was crying all night long! Who are these people? I have no idea, but for Mariana, they constitute her own private little telenovela or soap opera, conveniently accessible at all hours from her front porch.
Mariana at work weighing the dry goods
She sits and entertains visitors and clients who come by to spend a few córdobas. The money trickles in slowly and is measured in cents; I don’t know how she makes any money selling gum, bread and soap. I really don’t understand how any pulperia in this country makes a profit since within a 100 foot radius of any house, there are anywhere from 2-5 pulperias all selling the same exact items.
Individual batteries for sale
Single use packets of fabric softener and cleaning solution
Owning a pulperia is not so much about business as it is about socialization and being a part of your community. When you open up your home to sell items, you invite visitors at all hours – your private and professional lives are combined. You are never off-the-clock and can expect knocks at your door at all hours as someone comes for an emergency liter of vegetable oil or an extra pound of dog food.

Shampoo packets
Some of the pulperia items I will miss the most are the individual packets of shampoo – very useful for travel! Also, being able to buy hard candies individually and rosquetes, a sweet gingery corn cookie. Soon I will be lamenting the days when I could walk a few feet outside my door and find everything that a human being could ever really need, all smashed chaotically into the tiny space of the neighborhood pulperia…

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Meditation through Laundry

Everyone laments when it’s time to do laundry.  Usually when the pile of dirty clothes has piled up and spilled over the laundry basket, you’ll hear a long sigh by the owner of those articles of clothing, followed by the sorting and washing of clothes in a grudging manner.  Although most Westerners have clothes washers and dryers, apparently the act of putting the clothing and detergent into the washer and pressing a few buttons causes thoughts of dread and incites laziness.  I’ll admit, in college I was one of these people as well.  In my on-campus apartment, to access the laundry facilities, we had to walk outside a hundred feet or so in the snow and cold to change laundry loads.  And don’t even get me started on those infamous missing socks…
In Nicaragua however, I am without the modern amenities of a washer and dryer and instead use my lavandero or washboard and hang clothes out to dry on a few lines of twine strung between trees in the backyard.  Several other Peace Corps volunteers pay people to wash their clothes for them ($0.50/dozen items), but for some reason I have never felt the need to do this.  Maybe it’s because I’m just one person, and with regular washing throughout the week, the quantity or burden of laundry never piles up too much.  I’ve also realized, as I begin to think about ending my time here in Nicaragua (my service will be complete in two months), that washing clothes is a relaxing activity for me – almost meditative.
In a slow-moving country like Nicaragua, washing clothes makes me feel like I’ve had a productive day.  Talking with other volunteers about their average Sunday, you often hear something along the lines of “Well, I woke up, read a book for a while, watched a DVD on my laptop, and just sort of sat around…  But, I did do some laundry!”  The last part is said with a markedly positive tone, as if to point out that, yes, although I reclined in a hammock for six hours of this day, at least two of them were spent doing something productive, honest and with visible results.  Believe me, when working as a Peace Corps volunteer, you live for these little, visible results from your efforts.
I have always read articles on meditation in magazines and online that recommend that every healthy adult should engage in this rewarding, solo activity.  I however am not the meditative type.  My friends know that I can barely sit still to watch a movie or have a conversation; I have to be doing something with my hands, or in some other way be accomplishing something.  This is something that many Americans have in common, but it is also something that has slowly been toned down for me after living in Nicaragua for two years.  I am much more content to just sit on the side of the road for an unlimited period of time simply waiting for the next chicken bus to come along, or to just sit and talk about the weather and the recent town gossip at a friend’s house for hours on end. 
I do enjoy yoga and can relax when I’m being instructed to by the teacher – as if simply by participating in the class, I am “accomplishing” something valuable.  But simply sitting in my house with my eyes closed and legs crossed, “blanking” my mind is not possible.  Washing clothes however, is – and it’s something that I need to do on a regular basis (or else the townspeople will call me cochina, basically a dirty little piggy).
I like to think that I’ve become a sort of expert in the art of washing clothes by hand, and will proceed to explain the process which I find so relaxing and satisfying.  First, I fill up my large outdoor sink, or pila with water (usually first thing in the morning before 8 AM when the running water usually stops working in the town).  

Filling up the pila

If my clothes are extra dirty, I will have had them soaking in water with detergent for a few hours beforehand.  Then, I use a bar of laundry soap (sold in a variety of colors and smells – my favorites are the blue antibacterial or the purple, lavender-scented ones).  I rub this bar all over the item of clothing and then proceed to rub it back and forth vigorously over the stone ridges of my washboard (which also serves as my all-purpose sink for washing dishes, brushing my teeth, etc.)  After I’ve worked up a good lather and rubbed most of the dirt (and color) out of the piece of clothing, I pour clean water over it using a small bowl, taking water from the pila.   

Working up a lather

After squeezing out all the extra water, I hang it on the line, securing it from the gusts of wind with a few clothespins.  On a sunny, hot day, the clothes could dry in an hour or two.  In the rainy season, clothes would go days without drying – being hung indoors to avoid the endless rain.  Mold would even form on some of the hard-to-dry items, causing a lot of headaches for Nicaraguan housewives (myself included).  Every once in a while, a bird will decide to leave a little “gift” on some of my drying laundry, making me have to return to wash it all over again. 

My backyard - pila, washboard, outhouse and clothing lines

 Sometimes I listen to my iPod while I wash clothes, but usually I just zone out and let myself be carried away by the simple act that I am performing.  I can look at the trees, enjoy the breeze and eavesdrop in on my neighbors talking or to their radio.  I watch the pigeons and doves flutter in and out, trying to drink water out of my pila and sometimes the neighbor’s cat come and sits with me; the skittish thing watching me from a safe distance sitting in the dirt.
As I begin to think about ending my Peace Corps service, I am increasingly realizing the things that I will miss about Nicaragua and my daily, simple life here.  Washing clothes has become my meditative time and my moment to relax and enjoy being outside without expectations or requirements.  Although sometimes, this activity isn’t the most relaxing (try washing bed sheets by hand, for example), I will definitely miss it once I’m back in the U.S.  Although, nothing beats the feeling of putting on a hooded sweatshirt or wrapping yourself in a towel that is fresh out of the clothes’ dryer…

Monday, February 7, 2011


Want to take your honeymoon in Nicaragua?  Wait, wait – I can convince those of you out there reeling in shock.  Despite its tumultuous past with a bloody civil war, the Iran-Contra scandal and its extreme poverty, Nicaragua is also the land of lakes and volcanoes, of sun and beaches.  It is more affordable than its highly-visited neighbor Costa Rica and while it may not be known for its tourism infrastructure or luxury, you can’t beat its rural charm!  People are increasingly realizing though that despite a tumultuous past, Nicaragua has a lot to offer.

The Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism cites that in 2010 for the first year ever, Nicaragua was visited by over 1 million foreigners.  This influx may be due to the country’s recent publicity in the TV show “Survivor” and it’s past appearance on the Discovery Channel´s ¨Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmer¨ and it´s upcoming appearance as a destination another Discovery Channel program, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (it should be showing in March I believe…) 

So, it should be no surprise to you then that my college roommate from Alaska, Brianna (Bri) and her husband Ryan decided to come to Nicaragua for their honeymoon this January.  (Of course, my being a Peace Corps volunteer played a large role in their decision!).  They were married on New Years’ Eve in Colorado and arrived in Nicaragua on January 5th.  First, they went to Little Corn Island on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast and they spent a week in a beach bungalow having “couple time.”  After their week of honeymoon, they flew back to Managua and traveled around the western part of the country with me for about ten days.

This was my first time meeting Ryan.  Bri had met him the summer that I left Alaska to do an internship in D.C., and the following January, I left for Peace Corps, and I hadn’t seen Bri for two years.  It was quite a reunion – it was so nice to see her again and our friendship felt so familiar, but it was also different since now she had a husband and had in many ways completely changed her life.  The way Bri raves about Ryan, I already knew I would love him.  After getting to know him during this trip, I can agree that she is a lucky girl to have found him (and also he with her!) 
Reunited! In my community´s central park
They visited my Peace Corps community and stayed in my little pink house and we lived rural-style for a couple days, although it wasn’t such a change for Ryan and Bri as you might have thought.  In Alaska, they live in a “dry” (no running water) wooden cabin on the top of a mountain overlooking the city of Anchorage.  It’s quite a rustic and pioneering way of life – very similar to Peace Corps!  They have an incinerating toilet for solid waste and have to pee outside (at my house, Bri actually commented on my wonderful latrine and how nice and civilized it was!)  They wash clothes at a laundromat or an obliging friend’s house.  In many ways, my Nicaraguan house here was very similar to theirs (except here you can wash your clothes by hand and hang them up outside in the sun to dry, and in Alaska they would just freeze, and also I have running water most days).
Bri and I at my house
Ryan and Bri relaxing at my house
Washing clothes by hand at my house
Nicaraguan Betty Crockers - we made a green mango pie and wore our Nicaraguan aprons
Making sushi at my house (thanks Mom for sending the ingredients!)
During a visit to my friend Jairo’s rural farm, Ryan and Bri milked cows and rode horses.  Bri was thrilled to grind the corn by hand, pat-out her own tortilla and eat it fresh off the fire.  Jairo also showed us about thirty roosters that he was raising and training for cock fighting (which is not illegal in Nicaragua).  First they cut off the extra red parts on the rooster´s head (apparently called the ¨wattle¨ ¨earlobes¨ and ¨comb¨) to avoid having them being bitten while fighting.  Feathers on the bottoms of their bodies are removed as well to avoid injury and make them lighter and more agile.  Little spurs are placed on their feet to provide maximum injury to the other rooster.  Jairo said that people will bet US$500 - $1,500 on local games!
Removing the wattle, earlobes and comb of the rooster to prepare him for cock fighting.  Poor guy!  
The spurs the cocks use during fighting - imported from Mexico
Bri patting out a tortilla under Gregoria´s watchful eye
Comparing the tortillas Bri and I made

Bri trying her hand at milking
Another day we took a visited the Somoto Canyon and hiked/swam for four hours through the beautiful scenery.  In the city of Somoto we also visited rosquilla bakeries which make the traditional Nicaraguan corn and cheese crackers.  Ryan and Bri fell in love with rosquillas and between the three of us; we ate through about three bags in as many days.
Somoto Canyon
Ryan and Bri sharing a smooch in the Canyon
Coffee beans being sun-dried

Visiting a coffee processing plant in my town - right now is harvest season
After time in my village, Ryan and Bri went by themselves to the Miraflor Nature Reserve outside of the city of Estelí.  I have never been, but now I think I’ll have to put it on my “bucket list” before I leave Nicaragua because they had a great time.  They stayed with a local family there and went horseback riding for hours – seeing lush forests and pine trees.
And this is why they call them ¨Chicken buses¨...
After their time in Miraflor, we met back up and headed west to the colonial and university city of León.  
León is in an area of the country that is infamously hot, and the suffocating temperature made it was hard to do as much sightseeing as they would have liked.  We did get to do something that has been on my to-do list for while, and that Ryan was especially interested in since he works in geology and with volcanoes – volcano boarding!  What’s this, you ask?  Well, you hike up active volcano cone and ride down it toboggan-style on a wooden board.  It was just as fun and crazy as it sounds.  The hike up was about 45 minutes and very hot and slippery.  The entire volcano was composed of small pumice stones and ash and it was easy to lose your footing.  We were also carting along our wooden boards which were heavy and uncomfortably large.  The volcano we boarded is called Cerro Negro or Black Hill due to its distinctive black cone.  Once we were on top we could peek inside the shallow crater which was emitting smoke and smelled of sulfur.  In the distance we could see four other volcanoes running along the Nicaraguan coastline reminding us that this was part of the “ring of fire.”  On the edge of the crater there was an abandoned seismic measuring shack which looked dusty and unused.  Although this volcano is active, it’s not that serious I suppose. 
Cerro Negro
Hiking up
After reaching the top, we donned our bright our bright orange protective suits and plastic goggles to prepare for the ride down.  Our guide gave us a quick tutorial of what to do and not do: always hold on to the handle, keep your mouth closed to avoid stray pumice stones and ash from flying into it, and use your feet on the sides to steer and as brakes.  Bri and I were the third and fourth people from the group to go and despite the nerves, we both took off down the mountain without hesitation.  The hill was quite vertical and sloped down at a dramatic angle – we could see the orange truck that was waiting for us at the bottom and it seemed very far away.  The driver was waiting at the bottom and had a speed gun, clocking our speeds as we came down.  Ryan was the fastest in the group – he went 69 km/hour (40 miles per hour) and I got up to 49 km/hour (30 mph) before wiping out on my side and scratching up my forearm.  Despite my tumble, once at the bottom of the mountain, I instantly wanted to climb up and do it again.  After we had done it once, everyone was excited to do it again – improving our technique to go faster.  After the ride, which probably lasted about 45 seconds, our faces were completely covered in black ash – when Bri took off her goggles, there was a line of clean skin where the goggles had protected her and the rest looked like one of those cartoon characters that has had a bomb go off next to them; hair everywhere and face blackened.  We found pumice and ash everywhere that night – in our ears, socks, underwear and belly buttons!
We were pretty stylish in those suits...
Bri ready to go!
There she goes! See the truck far down in the distance?
From León, we headed to the colonial city of Granada.  We treated ourselves to massages at a spa ($25/hour!) and relaxed.  Bri had become quite sick at this point with a strong cough and she was visibly dragging.  I could tell that she was miserable – not just because of her sickness, but because it was interfering with her vacation.  She pushed herself though to do some of the activities we had planned.  We spent one day in Masaya – Ryan checked out the Masaya Volcano while Bri and I shopped at the famous market there, buying souvenirs.  We also went to pick up my wedding gift to Ryan and Bri – a special ordered hammock with their names embroidered on the side with a heart between them.  I can just see them both lounging in it in their little red cabin on the mountains above Anchorage.
Fancy dinner night in Granada
Our last day, we spent the night at the Apoyo Lagoon, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the country.  The water is clean and warm, and the surrounding area is a protected nature reserve.  It was a relaxing oasis and calmed our nerves from the frantic, touristic city of Granada – and despite Bri’s sickness, we all enjoyed one last night together.   
Apoyo Lagoon
So relaxed...
The next day we took off early for the Managua airport – Ryan and Bri’s Nicaraguan cigars, hammock and other souvenirs in tow.  Having both done stool tests while they were here (suspecting an intestinal infection), they knew that they were not contaminated with bacteria or parasites, and they were ready to go back to civilization.  Bri lamented that she could not stay longer to make up for the time “lost” while she was sick. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had changed her ticket at the last minute and stayed until the end of January.  But, of course, real life awaited – Ryan had to get back to work at the U.S. Geological Survey and Bri had a few more university classes to finish up this semester before obtaining her bachelor’s degree from University of Alaska Fairbanks in Natural Resource Management.  They were excited to move in together at Ryan’s small mountaintop cabin and settle in to their lives together as a married couple.

I am so grateful that Bri and Ryan decided to spend their honeymoon in Nicaragua, and a portion of their time traveling with me.  Having visitors really makes me feel loved, and I really enjoy sharing this country with others.  I don’t realize how much I have learned about Nicaragua and its culture until I am explaining it to a non-Nicaraguan.  Bri was amazed at how assertive I was against the machista Nicaraguan men and non-confrontational, passive-aggressive people we met.  In hotels, taxis and restaurants I became our biggest advocate – making sure that every last córdoba was accounted for and we weren’t being ripped off (a side-effect I suppose of being a Peace Corps volunteer that lives on U$180/month).  I am so glad that Bri and Ryan were able to experience Nicaragua and see how I live – when I return to the U.S., I know that the transition will be hard at first.  Talking about Peace Corps and my time in Nicaragua will mean nothing to most people.  I’m so glad that my parents, sister, and now Bri and Ryan have visited me here – they can share, in a way, part of my Peace Corps experience and relate to the struggles and celebrations that make up my life here.

Although saying goodbye to visitors is always sad, after Bri and Ryan had left for the airport, I felt oddly excited about returning to the U.S.  It had sunk in that I will be done in just over two months!  Seeing Bri again and meeting Ryan prepared me for life back in Alaska and helped me transition back to thinking about daily life there.  Talking with Bri, I got excited about the little things that I’ll be able to do when I’m back : go to the gym with Bri, train for the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks in September (we may do a relay team with my other college roommate Lexi), having Nicaraguan cooking nights at their little cabin, and joining a book club that Bri is a part of. 

So, the countdown has officially begun to my Peace Corps “Close of Service” (COS).  Time is flying by and I have to really budget my time now to make sure I do everything I want/need to before I leave in April.  I’m already looking around my house and mentally packing up my things and deciding what will stay and what will go.  The new Peace Corps volunteer who will replace me arrives April 1st to my town (they are already in-country in training), and I will leave soon after.  Alaska, here I come!