In the late afternoon it is very pleasant to pull up a chair to the mini balcony directly off my bedroom and watch the comings and goings on the street below. Doing so in the mellow evening air as the sun goes down. Since our building is taller than many of the others nearby, I get a clear view up and down the street and across the surrounding town.
Across the way, an old woman is running a tienda out of a small opening in her gridded door where folks line up for purchases and the exchanges are made through the opening. A brown, freckled hand appearing with products or taking money; like an entry to a speakeasy.
As the sky darkens and evening sets in, someone plays older Nicaraguan popular music that can be heard up and down the street. It reminds me of Mexican musicals with singer / actor Pedro Enfante from the ‘30s and ‘40s. It is a gentle addition to the evening.
A young fellow in a clean, sleeveless t-shirt, sitting easily in a plastic chair with a whiteboard and notebook taking bets from folks (mostly older women from what I can tell) on patterns of numbers he has displayed. A poor man’s lottery run by a numbers guy – a bookie; I saw one woman give him what would be the rough equivalent of $50 to an American (using the countries’ relative wealth), which makes an American’s lottery ticket buying habit look pretty mild.
Our neighborhood bookie relaxes with genuine Airpods on show – games of chance are a good to him – while he waits for customers. It isn’t clear that he has higher ups to report to – bookmaking in America was run by the mob and his American equivalent would pay the local gang protection money. Think of it as a commission. Taking a long shot to win something big has a strong draw: American lottery sales top $90 BN (legalized number running) every year and $7.5 BN is bet on all manner of number combinations on the Super Bowl annually.
A warm, soft breeze that feels cool after the day’s heat, folks sitting in chairs pulled from their houses, glimpses into their interiors show ornate furniture in varying conditions and the inevitable a large flat screen television.
Couples walking arm in arm, some quite young, conservatively dressed in casual tops in slacks (the women sometimes wearing skirts) that you might find at an outlet store back home. Quiet conversations that carry as murmurs in the darkness. A sliver of moon overhead – perhaps the tropical downpours will skip us this evening.
Tangles of wire slung on poles at my eye level, where phone, power and now the essential internet cables have been stretched. A crew of telecom workers with bright vests and hard hats in front of a fenced off switching box just down the street. Three are discussing something in its interior with great intensity, while a fourth is concentrating on his smartphone, where texts from family, game scores or other essential information is coming and going.
Motley brownish-red terracotta tiles protecting their structures from the massive tropical downpours, held in place with large dollops of cement, set like a low skill icing job on a birthday cake found at the baking counter of your local supermarket. Gobs of buttercream.
We are entering the winter season during which the rains will intensify – we’ve had one massive downpour every other day this week. The heat builds during the day and breaks around 4 PM. When it rains, it pours, and I need to close everything up so that the apartment doesn’t flood.
The roof scape visible from the third floor deck of my apartment appears as a rumpled, reddish brown quilt of tile spreading to the edge of town, punctuated by sheets of corrugated metal and bursts of green from tropical greenery spilling from walled off, vacant lots. Solitary confinement for jungle palms. Large, mature trees spreading their canopies over buildings and streets. In the middle distance, I can see the cathedral, by far and away the tallest structure in town, in a striking deep yellow.
The position and size of the cathedral – built in 1583 – would reinforce the Spanish colonial worldview of the 1500s: the church as a stable institutional force at the center of things, in a town laid out in an orderly grid. At the time of the town’s founding the reformation and the renaissance were on full throttle in Europe, disrupting society, upending the established order, and putting man at the center of things. But here in the colonies, the church remained the untroubled center of power and reigned supreme. If anything, this colonial world view was more aligned with that of Europe in the Middle Ages, 500 hundred years earlier.
Granada was founded in 1524, 40 years before Shakespeare was born and 9 years after Luther had nailed his 95 theses (criticisms of the Catholic church) to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This nailing was the start of continent-shaking changes throughout Europe that continued for hundreds years.
Motorbikes rumble up the street driven by crisply dressed young fellows, the occasional bicycle, sometimes loaded with propane tanks, large baskets, once an old woman sitting on the crossbar looking secure and a little perplexed. A fellow pushing a cart with “hot dog” hand painted in shaky script on its side on his way up the street, the cart bumping and shaking against the paver surfaced street. A horse driven cart, pulled by a sad, thin looking pony, its driver encouraging with the occasional thwack of a whip.
A cellphone tower – its open steel structure forming a transparent web, painted in regulation red and white bands, looking at once substantial and fragile, holding mobile phone antennas, looms in the near distance, a solitary red aircraft warning light glowing steadily at its top. Another a 1/2 of a mile away. Standing like silent sentinels surrounded by billowing clouds of data, keeping our devices glowing, beeping and seductively engaging.
Taxis rattling by, late model and not so late model Japanese compacts, all looking and sounding heavily used. Vehicles that have seen better days and will see a lot more, their owners tweaking and tinkering with them to get more miles out of them than their manufacturers would recommend. I appreciate this thrift – there is something heartening in seeing folks figure out ways to extend the use of items at hand.
One Sunday morning, I hear a marching band practicing somewhere nearby. I spend a long time standing at my balcony anticipating their appearance at the next corner. Rather than this or their fading into the distance they fall silent and terminally so. Practice is over: no march today.
I volunteer as an English tutor for an NGO at a clean, well organized shed that fronts onto a muddy, half paved street in the barrio of Cerro, about ¼ mile off the main highway heading southwest out of town. The first day I walked to the center which, with classes starting at 1 PM meant a 3 mile trek in the heat of the day. Since then, I’ve taken shared taxis ($0.90) and have steadily figured out how to find one that will take you where you need to go, which route is most direct, and have enjoyed a range of co-riders. Often, mothers with young children, or folks carrying baskets and buckets of things to sell at the market..
I am greeted by a gaggle of happy kids, aged 7 – 11, clean, wriggly, well behaved; some of the older ones are on the cusp of adolescence but not yet in the often glum, sometimes sullen and rarely talkative phase that I remember from our own parenting adventures. The children work on Spanish, math, art, computers and English in 45 minute chunks of time.
Volunteers come mostly from Europe and the U.S. – my Nicaraguan colleagues tell me that the French prefer to speak their own language or Spanish but not English and the Americans pretty much stick to their native tongue. Canadians likewise. The most generous donors are the Americans, then the Canadian, with the French coming dead last.
The NGO is well managed with a solid board, well developed programs and a young, professional staff. Esperanza Granada gets a lot of volunteers from France, the Netherlands, Germany, the US and Canada. Understandably, I am not allowed to take photos of my students or mention their names..
Roberto, the director of the NGO and his wife are expecting their third (and he insisted) final child; I am to take the family out for dinner this evening. We chatted in reasonable Spanish about his program, where I could help and discussed his studies later this year in Los Angeles. Like one of my conversation partners from Mexico, he received a 10 year visa from the U.S. government – an impressive document pasted into his passport – and will come to study business; I’m sure we’ll get down to Los Angeles to see him. He is quite excited about attending the mega church run by a famous Argentinian pastor in Anaheim.
In the four short daily classes, we cover very basic English items (e.g. common greetings, vocabulary, numbers, spelling). Students range from a few that “get it” and who are confident and can pick things up easily make responses to my questions, to ones for whom saying “how are you” is hard work, to others who are frozen in shyness, speaking almost inaudibly.
There are the class crackups (boys and girls) whose antics weaken the already frail focus and attention spans that my students have, but which do provide a high level of hilarity. You cannot believe how funny things are when you’re a 10 year old in an English class in a poor barrio of a smaller Nicaraguan town. Hilarious.
I am supported by a paid staff member – Irene (“eh-rin-neh”) – who has a simple written syllabus in a school notebook that we follow. We break-up work around the table with games of tag or hide and seek, all in a small space shared by other groups. No one pays any mind. I am waiting for a student to crack her head on a sharp corner of a table or desk or cabinet, but this doesn’t seem to trouble any of the other adults in the room.
The one thing that entrances all the children is coloring: what is it about this activity that is so enjoyable, gives them such focus, stays their insatiable need for change, for something new?. Hand eye coordination? Pleasure in a physical activity? Pride in making something? I stress to the students that they are citizens of the world (“son ciudadanos del mundo”) and that knowing more than one language is a way to broaden their horizons. Not sure they get it, but I actually do believe it.
When the day ends, kind and tired mothers, and a few fathers, wait outside to pick up their children who line up waiting to be paired with the right parent, still gyrating, giggling, talking, hustling, moving non stop. I myself am not moving in any of these ways and am looking to getting home to have a cool shower and a cup of tea.