My first attempts at speaking Spanish in a new locale are torture – my brain is slow to get going, it is like an early personal computer – one of those large putty colored boxes with a big CRT screen that you fired up with two floppy disks. Lights flicker, the hard drive spins up, you hear various gurglings and buzzes from within the box. I imagine a green screen displaying words I need. Sometimes It needs to be rebooted for me to get things right.
The overnight flight from San Francisco left me ghostly and walking around in a haze. I sleep on planes – I can sleep anywhere – but it is a fitful and uncomfortable doze that leaves fragments of thoughts and dreams strewn about the aircraft cabin. The cleaning crew may find them, but I will never see them again.
Whenever I take a redeye flight – which I used to do with great regularity – I always vow never to take one again. Then, circumstance, timing or money deliver one into my lap (I think scheduling was the issue with this one.) and I do it again. Like the problem drinker that cannot stop going to his favorite bar.
In American business culture, taking a redeye is a badge of honor, a purple heart for the ambitious, as is staying as short a time as possible at the other end of a very long flight for business purposes. Why take an extra day to get to know your hosts, particularly in cultures where relationships have high value (which is to say pretty much everywhere)? It makes no sense – “If I leave immediately after the meeting in Hong Kong, I can be back to my office in time for Friday’s sales meeting.” Because those sales meetings are one of a kind.
A small, quiet crowd gathered around the arrival door to greet us as we are released into the warm, soft Nicaraguan air. Rumple taxistas, hip surf tour guides, families awaiting loved ones. A solemn and gentle looking nun with the complete kit – heavy tunic made with rough cloth, a coif secured by a wimple, and a veil. And a small wooden cross linked a chain that goes around her neck that goes nicely with the brown tone of the rest of her outfit.
Our flight included a beauty contestant, rail thin – problematically so – in a long formal dress, thick makeup and tall platform shoes with a sash that said “Colombia”. She and her handler managed to get some photos while we waited in San Salvador during our layover, all on a smartphone. I lost track of her in arrivals but saw the entire beauty pageant the next day while walking through downtown Granada.
A short refresher on the politics of Nicaragua, which my taxi driver and I discussed on our way to Granada. Actually, mostly he ranted and I listened, trying to understand what he was saying. Daniel Ortega, a left wing Sandinista, took over governing the country from one of the Somoza clan, chasing him out of the country about 40 years ago. The Somoza family had ruled the country since 1937 in the old fashioned Latin American strongman way. The Sandinistas then fought the American-backed Contras in a battle between the cold East (Soviet Union and China) and cold West (Mostly the U.S.) This was a time of brutal proxy wars between the two powers, often taking place in far away places that most Americans didn’t know and certainly didn’t think about much.
At the onset, Ortega was mild-mannered, wanting to improve the lot of the poor, and was backed by the Soviet Union. He effectively lost the war against the America backed Contras and acceded to pressure to allow free elections, and won the first few. The Sandinistas, led by Ortega, lost an election in 1995 but were voted back into power in 2006 and Ortega has led the country ever since.
Now, any pretense of a democratically elected government is gone: Ortega has evolved into a classic Latin American Caudillo, jailing his opponents, all old, some dying in prison, and taking guidance from his wife, Vice President and astrological soothsayer. The country is in bad shape with the economy expected to shrink this year.
The apartment manager asked me to pay an additional 33%(!) of my rent for air-conditioning and was terribly upset when I refused (Air conditioning was included in the online listing).
I did some research and found forums where expats discuss how to cut their sizable electrical bills, dialing down refrigerators, selecting the right kinds of light bulbs, rewiring fans – serious stuff. The Canadian property owner has not responded to my queries; I don’t want to squeeze the manager (she might be paid a fee that includes electricity) but I also do not want to subsidize my Canadian host, essentially helping him avoid a fee he should be paying.
Air conditioning, along with the internal combustion engine, is one of the more amazing inventions transferred to the Global South from the West. When you think of folks in hot climes working in factories, offices or homes prior to air conditioning, it is difficult to imagine anyone getting anything done.
The ability to mechanically cool items was explored by Benjamin Franklin and others in the 1700s. In the 1800s, engineers figured out how to take the humidity out of air in a factory by cooling it; prior to this, evaporative cooling was used in many cultures (e.g. the Persians) – you’ve likely sat an outdoor restaurant in Las Vegas that uses a fine spray of water to cool things down which is very effective. But only where it is dry: this isn’t much help in climates that are humid – the water won’t evaporate.
New England made a lot of money in the 1800s shipping ice, packed in sawdust, as far away as India and Australia, although this was used to cool food and industrial processes and not people (unless they were dead). Ice shipments declined as folks figured out how to manufacture ice at scale using compressors and chillers.
Funny if you think about this; these folks weren’t shipping a product. They weren’t even shipping product containing energy (e.g. coal or oil or paraffin.), they were shipping a product that lacked energy but would extract it when placed in the right spot. This reminds me of how bizarre it is when we drink water – one of the most common materials on the planet – that has been sourced, bottled and shipped a very long way from some random well in Europe and do so because some marketing folks have convinced us this is important. And that the water company can make money doing so.
It wasn’t until Will Carrier invented the first self-contained – and very expensive (up to $600,000 in today’s dollars) – air conditioner in 1902, that the idea of cooling air in a space to make it more agreeable took hold. Today, over 1.6 BN air conditioning units are sold annually all over the world, radically improving the lives of people that work in hot, humid climes.
I am trying to be a good guest and not run the AC here too much and so sit at my desk, a floor fan displacing very hot air around me with merely hot air. Without the AC running, I can hear sounds from the street below – children playing, vegetable sellers coming and going, trucks with loudspeakers pitching cell phone services, propane and other wares.
And in the evening, dogs. Our standard-issue emerging market canine friends feel it essential to start up conversations as the night grows quiet. Sometimes debates, other times harangues, other times passionate soliloquies; their vocalizations filled with feeling and intent.
When I work in these temperatures I am like a reptile. Lay low, move slow, keep an eye out for predators.
Yesterday, heat grew steadily during the day in a background of roiling dark clouds that built quickly and were suddenly accompanied by ominous thunder and lightning and a strong breeze. Suddenly, a massive downpour, and a 20 degree temperature drop, downspouts cascading water onto streets, flooding them quickly.
The rain comes in waves, I stop at a sheltered outdoor restaurant to have a Coke along with other locals and wait for the downpour to abate. Quiet discussions in Spanish all around me; the young server looks like she’s decked out for an evening on the town. A wizened older fellow smoking a cigarette, two plump women – showing the strain and wear that mothers everywhere display – dressed in that standard issue Central American outfit (synthetic fabric, clean, casual but conservative, not quite Costco but close) discussing something with great intensity. The storm moves on, now only the sounds of water draining away in cooler air. People return to their tasks, all is quiet and coolly pleasant. I make my way home.