Donkeys on the Road

Transportation in another country can be an adventure in and of itself. My first introduction to it in Nicaragua came early on in training, as my fellow aspiring volunteers and I found our way in microbuses to and from our host homes and training sites.

Microbuses were 15-passenger vans that held an indefinite number of people. If you could pay the 16-cordoba fare, you could ride. I would guess that on one particular ride coming back from the capitol, they fit in 25 people. Of course, not everyone had a seat. Some had to stand, bent over because those roofs aren’t very high — they aren’t buses, after all.

Buses can hold an infinitely larger number of persons. I don’t even think I could count them all. Once in my two years there I was on a bus that denied a passenger a ride because it was too full. But every other time, they found a way to squeeze you on there. Even if you had to hold on to some lady’s bag and the hand rail, standing on the first step inside the bus with the wind whipping the back of your clothes.

Somehow buses were the scene of a lot of good stories for Peace Corps volunteers. Stories about getting vomited on and holding other people’s babies and getting accidentally left behind because of a desperate need for the bathroom. Fortunately, my bus stories aren’t worse than sitting next to a rooster and some mysterious creature flapping around above my head in a cardboard box.

But there’s no doubt that an American in Nicaragua will see some unusual sights. Like when my father, visiting me one summer, saw a few people put a dog in a sack normally used to transport corn or beans, secure the opening where his head stuck out so he could breathe and then tie him down on top of the bus with the cargo. I can only hope, for the dog’s sake, he didn’t have very far to go.

In my site, taxis were another option for travel. They made the journey from the departmental capitol to my site in half the time. Though the local police tried to cut down on the number of people crammed into a car, the “taxistas” would be as obliging as they could if they knew there was no patrol. That would normally be seven people, including the driver: four people in the back and three in the front. A taxista would never think of leaving until he had six passengers. Sometimes a man or two would ride in the trunk with the door open. A friend in a site close to mine said she once rode in a taxi with 13 people inside — seven adults and a child on everyone’s lap but the driver’s. I think that’s a record.

Once out on the road, there were other things to worry about, like donkeys that mozied their way from one side of the road to another, or the boys from a neighboring town who played soccer on the highway in the evenings.
Getting from place to place off the highways could be a challenge, particularly when the rainy season created small lakes in the middle of roads and sludge that tires easily sank into and got stuck. In the dry season, those dirt roads seemed to be made of rocks and pot holes, which is why sometimes the best form of transportation was a horse or a donkey. Many people, however, went on foot.

The health post where I worked serviced a wide geographic area, many of the towns being located along poor roads. The women who brought their small children to monthly doctor check-ups left at four or five in the morning to make the two- to three-hour walk to the health post.

Ox-pulled wagons were used sometimes when large items needed to be transported, but those were mostly used for shorter distances and smoother roads.

Bicycles were fairly common, in spite of the rocky, bumpy roads. They were cheaper than a horse or donkey and got you where you needed to go faster than your feet, so it was a pretty good compromise.

Transportation there is not as fast and convenient as it is in the States. But walking or riding a donkey gives you time to notice where you’ve been and where you are. It gives you the chance to hold long conversations with people you just met. I made friends in the long stretches of time waiting for the bus to come. I think there’s something to be said for the communal experience of riding a public bus or taxi. There’s a feeling you get on a run-down school bus that can sometimes get lost in our hurried culture. You stand hanging on to the bag rack above the seats, your hands touching the hands of the person next to you. As the woman with the woven bag slides past you, she smiles, and you both know that everyone’s in this together.

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A Week in Chinandega

Several weeks of training went by after the episode of the fireworks bull. In that time my group and I were kept busy between Spanish language classes and technical training sessions about the public health situation in the country. 
We all knew that eventually our time together would end, and that each would ride off in an old yellow school bus converted into public transportation to his or her respective sites. Where those sites would be, however, no one knew and all laid awake at night wondering. Of course, the volunteers we spoke with said you made your site your home, wherever you were assigned. But what comfort was that to us, when our future seemed like a looming question mark? Would the gregarious party-lovers be stuck in an isolated mountain village of five people? Would the introverts be placed in a huge city and expected to be the life of the party at all the youth workshops? The Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) for the health sector held our future happiness in his hands, or so we thought. 

To help calm the panic all new volunteers eventually feel, the Peace Corps trainers sent us trainees out to visit the seasoned volunteers, to get an idea of what Peace Corps life was like. I was assigned to the hottest region of Nicaragua, called Chinandega. 
The volunteer I visited still lived with a host family, not something all volunteers do long-term. Her biggest project was working with the youth of the community on adolescent health issues. The four days I was with her, she showed me around her town of about 5,000 people, which included a health center, a school and numerous “pulperias,” or small grocery stores. I shadowed her as we went out in the only form of private transportation available for health workers — the ambulance. Along with a girl from her youth group, she gave an informal lesson to the youth of a town further up in the mountains. 
I don’t remember what she talked about. I don’t remember much about that day, except that I have never been so hot. I knew Nicaragua was a tropical country, but this was a heat I had never before experienced. As the “charla,” or informal talk, ran on, I sat down, thinking it was too hot to stand. After about five minutes, I stood up, thinking I’d die of heat if I sat there one more minute. Then I had to sit down again; it was too hot. I learned something crucial during that visit: please, please, please, my dear APCD, do not put me in Chinandega. 
Of course, those who lived there claimed it was not as hot as everyone said it was, having already adapted to the climate. But that was something I’d rather not have to adapt to.

The last day of my visit she took me to the river so we could cool off with a swim. We passed women with huge sacks of laundry washing at stands and using river water. Will this be a common sight for me in my own site, I asked myself.

After an hour or so of blessed cooling off, we headed back up the mountain through a forest to her town. In rounding a bend, we found a white horse alone on the side of the path. Surely it was symbolic or somehow meaningful — perhaps a sign of peace for the future of my site assignment.

We stopped at a high point to look down over the valley. The river snaked through it, gleaming brightly in the sunlight. The green of the trees contrasted with the tan of the rocks down the mountainside. As we watched, two men on horseback, one leading a heavy-laden donkey, crossed the river at a shallower point. I felt just as if I had stepped back in time to the Old West. If my site was anything like this, I couldn’t wait to get there.



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Dodging the Swinging Bull

When I first moved in with my Nicaraguan host family, so many people e-mailed me, wanting to know all about the living conditions and what the family was like. My host family’s house really consisted of two separate houses. One, where I lived along with my host “mom,” “dad” and “little brother,” was a green wooden house with a corrugated tin roof set next to the other house of cement blocks and another corrugated tin roof. In the other house lived my host “grandmother,” “grandfather,” “aunts,” “uncles” and a wide variety of “cousins,” who sometimes lived there with their grandparents and sometimes in further away towns with their parents, when they were home from their seasonal work in Costa Rica.

The two houses shared an outhouse, a bathing area and a laundry area. The chickens they raised spent their time between the two houses, sometimes strutting into our four-roomed home to find any crumbs, only to be shooed out with “ch-ch-ch!”

They had what was termed “running water,” which was only actually turned on by the city for two or three hours every other day. When it was on, they let the water run into a big barrel to be saved for laundry, bathing, cooking and drinking.

I had been living with my host family for two, maybe three weeks, getting used to the differences in how daily chores and ablutions were done, when I got the chance to see my first “cross-cultural experience.”

My host dad — speaking in Spanish, which I was only just learning to understand — explained to me about the carnival we were going to see that night. He might have explained the history of it, what it meant and even what we were going to see. The only thing I caught, as I sat there vigorously nodding my head and smiling, was that there would be some sort of fireworks display. Finally my host mom broke into the conversation, telling her husband that I didn’t understand and that I’d just have to see it that night.

And so I did. In a nearby town there was a carnival set up very similar to a fair anyone might go to in the United States, complete with popcorn and concession stand candy, carousels and ferris wheels.

But the highlight of the evening for me was the fireworks bull. We watched from a higher vantage point as two rather large groups of people stood on each end of a street. Between the two groups maybe 10 or 15 people ran around trying not to get hit with the wooden bulls three people swung around above their heads. Add the fact that the bulls were filled with sparklers. Would you have been worried about people’s safety? I, coming from a country in which every cup of coffee must be clearly labeled as “hot,” certainly was. But fortunately no one was hurt.

So this was it: the first of many cultural events in which I would see manifested some important aspect of their way of thinking and living and their take on the meaning of life. I asked my host dad several questions about the significance of the bulls, expecting it to have some symbolic cultural or religious meaning or to represent a national historic event. But all I got for an answer was that it meant people were dodging the swinging bull so as not to be “it,” a sort of Nicaraguan festival tag.

Apparently Nicaraguans, like Americans, also have their festivities that don’t require us to ponder the deeper things of life but instead encourage us simply to have fun. Kind of like Labor Day, where we get the day off of work because, well … it’s Labor Day and we’re celebrating all our hard work.

In retrospect, that carnival might have given me more understanding of their culture than an event with some wildly different take on life. The moment I had expected to show me how different we were, in the end, made me see how very alike we are.

This article was first published in the Daily Review Atlas, Monmouth, IL. 

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Visiting the Purple Country

The first snow of the year has come, bringing with it both the happy anticipation of a white Christmas and the dread of icy roads and shoveling driveways. The latter is enough to make anyone say, as I did when it first started to get dark at 5 p.m., “I need to get away on a trip.” Like someplace sunny and warm, where palm trees flutter in the breeze coming off the ocean. Someplace tropical, with a hammock.

I think about that during the early morning chill as I sip coffee and wrap my bathrobe tighter around me. It takes me back a couple years when I actually did have the chance to go to a tropical country in January, just after the fun of Christmas and before winter started to take its toll.

I remember looking online at the current temperature in Managua, Nicaragua, north of Costa Rica and south of Honduras. Ninety-five degrees. Yep, that sounded just about right. I was about to head out on a two-year Peace Corps assignment as a health education volunteer.  After two days in Washington, D.C., I would fly to Nicaragua to begin three months of training, followed by a two-year placement in a town yet-to-be-determined.

Stories from further south of the border might help to make you feel warmer as you are snowed in and the wind is whipping and whistling around your house. And so with that in mind, I share some experiences from a country that taught and continues to teach me, that both fascinates and puzzles me, and, because of all that, one I have come to care about and miss.

I think it’s appropriate to begin at the beginning with something I have never forgotten from those two whirlwind days in D.C.

My group of 20 fellow Peace Corps volunteers-to-be were in a session meant to prepare us for both the first few days of our training as well as the Peace Corps experience as a whole. Our instructor told us this story:

There were once two countries. People in Country A wore red-colored glasses. People in Country B wore blue-colored glasses. One day a group of people from A decided to visit the people of B. They were well-received on their visit to B, whose citizens showed them all around their towns and countrysides. Those from A exclaimed how much they loved all the red flowers and red buildings. But the people of B informed those from A that they weren’t red; they were, in fact, blue. To help explain, those from B gave those of A a pair of their glasses to wear. Now the people of A understood better — everything really was a different color: purple. When the people from A returned home, they told all their family and friends about the beautiful purple country they had visited.

Recognizing that I may be writing all about the beautiful purple country I visited, I take the risk of relating the stories because I think there might be some value in telling things as I saw them: through my own cultural lens trying to see things through their cultural lens.


The entry “Visiting the Purple Country” first appeared as a column in the Daily Review Atlas, Monmouth, IL. 

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Women at Work

Women at Work

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