Friday, August 31, 2007

Farewell of Nicablogua

When I began this so long ago, I had no idea what all would take place within these pages. There were so many unknowns, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to handle everything that came my way. It is hard for me to believe that it is finally over—after years of planning and grant-writing, after 1285 hours in the forest watching the monkeys, after episodes of Vortex and loneliness, after meeting people from all over the world who I will remember forever. I still wake up in the night not knowing where I am and wondering why I do not hear frogs or roosters or barking dogs or the lapping of the lake. In many ways I feel like a stranger or visitor here, and that maybe when I blink, the buildings and walls will fade away and I will be in the forest again.

The blog has been such an important part of the whole thing. Staying connected with everyone back home was crucial for maintaining my sanity during the long hours of doubt and mosquitoes. I don’t know if I can adequately express how much it helped me to write about everything that happened, and then to receive such an outpouring of support and encouragement from people (some of whom I’ve never even met) who read the things I had to say. The next adventure I am about to embark upon—putting all of this data into a dissertation—will in many ways be more difficult than the first. If I am able to make it all the way through, to that golden PhD at the end of the tunnel, it will be because of all of you, who shared the journey with me.

I’ve always written, it is like second nature to me. After so many months of pouring my heart and soul into Nicablogua, it might be too much shock to my system to give it up all at once. Plus, all the comments and emails I got from people who encouraged me to keep writing, made me feel inspired to give it a try. So I am going to continue; at least, I am going to try to continue as long as I have something to say and the time to say it. I thought it would be wise to end Nicablogua here though; this blog has gotten me there and back, and it is time to move on to the next adventure. A million thank you’s to everyone who read the blog, and especially for all the comments, emails and general well-wishes that motivated me to do this project to the best of my abilities. If you would like to continue the journey, please visit the website for my new blog, Almost PhD. I plan to have it up and running at some point this weekend.

Again, thank you all so much for your support and encouragement over the past year. And as always, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


On Friday I went into school and S.L. actually told me he thought I needed some time to decompress. This, coming from S.L.? He said he thought a vacation might do me some good. Unfortunately, I didn’t get this in writing, so he may deny it all later. But realistically I don’t think a vacation is in the cards for me right now. What I’d rather do is train for and run the Dallas White Rock Marathon in December :) We’ll see.

It seems to me that the time for this blog is coming to a close. Certain readers (including but not limited to my mom) have encouraged me to continue, and there is a big part of me that is addicted to this blogging thing and would like to keep going. Honestly though, the excitement of my daily adventures back in the US is going to be pale in comparison to life in the jungles of Nicaragua. So, if there are people out there reading this, what do you think? Would you continue to read if I kept going? Please let me know if you have an opinion, either way. Its time for me to make a decision.

Well, now that I’ve had a little time to gather my thoughts about this year-long, action-packed Nicaraguan adventure, I’ve compiled some final observations about the whole experience. What follows is a listing of some major points and nuggets of wisdom that I have been collecting throughout the year.

First, here’s the final count for number of ticks removed: 68

And now, the things I learned:
  • There’s always a way through barbed wire.
  • It will be better in the morning.
  • Hospitals are free, but bring your own toilet paper.
  • Wear socks to sleep.
  • You can’t be too careful with a load cell.
  • Always say I love you first.
  • Little ants bite the worst.
  • “I woke up and there was a tick on my eyeball.” (Melissa)
  • “The @#$%-ing rat bit me.” (Rob)
  • This is a nation of people who have a lot of phlegm.
  • You’d be surprised at how many things in the forest taste like garlic.
  • If you smell something gross in your room, look for a gecko in the doorjamb.
  • Those aren’t gunshots, its just the 4am fireworks.
  • “The rat has outsmarted me.” (Rob)
  • Barbed wire is just a suggestion. The rock wall, now that has meaning.
  • “I don’t know why they call them sandals, they’re not very good in sand.” (Rob).
  • A surprising amount of people say “Right on!”
  • Beware of Nicaraguan Death Cheese.
  • Avoid the big rocks with your front tire.
  • “Don’t make yourself sick on chismol.” (Melissa, to Rob)
  • Try oiling the columns and central thread.
  • “Oh God, we’ve finally caught what they all have.” (Melissa, to Rob, after he hacked up a bolus of phlegm).
  • “Ay, el hijo de Melissa me mordió!” (Daraysi, after being bitten by the baby monkey).
  • There are likely to be live bees in the honey jar and live ants in the sugar bowl.
  • If it can be built, it can be built out of concrete.
  • Always keep the Toughness Tester battery charged.
  • “I think Dalila just called me a blockhead.” (Melissa)
  • “Tienes muchas cosas bonitas.” (Eduardo).
  • “I am not welcome at TelePizza” (Alvaro).
  • “The squirrel just jumped on me” (Rob).
  • “Don’t make yourself sick on cabbage” (Melissa, to Rob).
  • Costa Rican dogs have thick necks.
  • “I’m so hungry I could eat at Papa John’s” (Rob)
  • Papa Johns: Mejor ingredientes, mejor pizza.
  • Always bring a pen with you when trying to cross the border.
  • Don’t try to cross the border on a Saturday afternoon in June.
  • “Thank goodness I brought my traveling spoon.” (Melissa)
  • “At least the muffins got done and nobody got hurt.” (Melissa’s mom. Actually this has nothing to do with Nicaragua, but I thought it was really funny).
  • Nicaraguans are a bracelet-loving people.
  • “Chicho is soaking wet because of you” (Rob, when Chicho went to get lettuce for me in the rain).
  • Be sure to check your salad for tiny snails.
  • “That’s the second time there’s been a snail in my salad” (Melissa).
  • “That thing is not going to live in our room.” (Rob, when I wanted to keep a pet snail. That I had found in my salad).
  • “I ran into a baby cow.” (Rob, after returning from a bike ride around the entire island).
  • “Jesús wasn’t at home, so I left a note under an avocado pit on the table outside his house” (Melissa).
  • “My God, I never thought in my entire life that I would be so desperate for M&M’s” (Rob).
  • “Dang, I should not have drank the tap water,” (Melissa).
Thanks for reading. Let me know if you’d be interested in reading the non-Nicaraguan adventures of an almost-PhD grad student who may be attempting to train for marathon #6.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Breaking the ice

I’ve had a fairly high level of anxiety about getting back into the swing of things again and meeting with my advisor, S.L., for the first time. I went over to school yesterday and was greeted by the sight of his closed office door; the secretaries told me he was out at meetings. So I was off the hook, for the moment at least. Some other people were around, so I started to catch up with friends/co-workers I hadn’t seen in a year.

Then yesterday evening I went running—feeling all doughy and lethargic from more than a year without serious training. I left the house and headed towards the park, just hoping that I wouldn’t see anyone I knew in my saddened state. I hadn’t even gone a mile when a cyclist on the other side of the road called out, “Melissa!” I had no idea who it was. As the cyclist crossed over to meet me, I realized that it was none other than S.L. I’d forgotten—he has a garden plot over at the park and sometimes he heads over there on his way home from school. And so we met, in quite an unceremonious setting, but I suppose it was a good way to break the ice. In addition to the expected warning that I need to use my time wisely and crank out a good dissertation, he also offered me sweet corn from his garden (I declined, being that I was in the middle of a run). And Jodi, if you are reading, I did not get a hug, which under the circumstances was probably good, since we both had been exercising in the humidity.

I returned to school today and finally met briefly with S.L. in his office. I didn’t really have anything coherent to say to him, but somehow I managed to string together some of the high points of the research, and he seemed moderately impressed with my findings.

This evening Rob and I rode Big Red (that’s our tandem bike) over to the park for running club. It was really great to see so many familiar faces; I was even able to keep up with my buddy Norm just like the good old days. Rob actually did the run as well. Chronic knee problems have kept him sidelined for the most part since 2004, but for some reason he felt like giving it another try tonight. He promised to take it easy and run on the grass rather than the concrete sidewalk. He must have felt good because he sped up towards the end, and I wasn’t about to let him take off alone. We finished the 3-mile loop together, ending with an 8-minute mile, which under the circumstances, was fast for both of us. So far his knee is fine; hopefully he will say the same thing in the morning.

After the run and more chatting with old friends, we rode home on Big Red and had a dinner of vegetarian chili. I must say that I did pretty well making it; I guess cooking is like riding a bike—even after a year without cooking at all, it comes right back to you once its time to start again.

I know its not about Nicaragua anymore, but for some reason, I still keep blogging. Thanks for reading.

Oh, and David, if you’re reading, happy birthday.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Return to La-La Land

Welcome back to the USA: Where a good buy on mangoes is a dollar a piece

Towards the end of our time on Ometepe, I was faced with the realization that I would soon be returning to a world of cars and bills and deadlines and grocery shopping and so many things that I had been glad to leave behind. I told Rob that I felt, in a way, living on Ometepe for a year had been like running away from the real world. He said it was probably actually the other way around, and the more I thought about it, that’s right. The Third World is the real world. The US is like la-la land. Living there, you don’t see what really goes on—how the rest of the world lives every day. That way, its easy to ignore.

So we got back to La-La Land and are trying to get moved in to our new place. Most of our stuff is here by now, its just all kind of sitting in the middle of the floor in various boxes and bins, so its going to take a while to get settled in. My friends and family have been so amazingly helpful during this whole process: providing vehicles, lifting heavy objects, cleaning out cabinets and mopping floors, cooking dinner for us, and making sure that our refrigerator is well stocked with soymilk. Rob’s parents and my parents were both here to help, and as a surprise, my Auntie drove down with my Grandma, just for a little visit. It does seem that everyone was really eager to have us back, and that is a good feeling.

For the first couple of days we kept the air conditioning off. In some way, it was strangely comforting to be hot and sweating all the time, like a little bit of Nicaragua was still with me. And because it was so hot, I still took cold showers. You know, it would have been too much to leap into all the ridiculous creature comforts of La-La Land all at once. But then Rob got frustrated with the heat and turned on the AC, despite my objections. Nicaragua is starting to slip away from me. At first, I tried to imagine what Eduardo would say or think about all these US things, like our house, the grocery store, etc. I thought of how Leda (the woman who does cleaning and washing) might react to seeing our washing machine—its the front loading kind where you can see the clothes spin round and round. But then it just got too overwhelming; its like a completely different planet here. Eduardo and the other people I knew in Ometepe would have no frame of reference. It’s a very unsettling feeling, really. To look around and see all this stuff but to close my eyes and still see volcanoes, Guanacaste trees, monkeys, and sunsets over Lake Nicaragua.

On my birthday, I had an email from Eduardo, wishing me a happy day. Joel must have helped him—he had included a photo of all the children standing around a poster they had decorated that said “Happy Birthday Melissa” in English. I sent a reply, thanking him for the photo and telling him we should continue to write. And he wrote back right away, saying (in Spanish), “I will wait for you one day, on Ometepe.”
Eduardo is in the yellow shirt

There are a lot of things to do around here, so I need to sign off for now. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Leaving the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

On Friday morning, Rob and I left Mérida—our home for the past year. Leda, Dina, Reyna, and Joel insisted on carrying our bags for us, and they stayed with us as we stood by the tienda waiting for the bus to Moyogalpa.

I’d just about given up hope that Eduardo was going to show up before we left, but then at 8:15 he came tearing down the road shouting, “Meli! Roberto!” It was like one of those scenes in the movies when two people are running towards each other with arms open wide; I caught him in a big hug. Eduardo joined the small party of people waiting with us, although it was pretty hard for him to keep sitting still (Eduardo is in perpetual motion). At one point he disappeared into the tienda and then came running back to me, instructing me to close my eyes and hold out my hands. Into my hand he placed a small container—of what I did not know—and he said it was a gift for me. That this child had wanted to spend his precious córdovas on something for me… it made my feebly mumbled thank you’s seem so pale in comparison. He explained that this item he had selected for me was ‘hair cream.” It smelled really nice and seemed to be across between gel and mousse. Bless his little heart. He promised me that he would write me an email (he now has an email address) so that it would be waiting for me when I got home. I told him to stay good, and he nodded. Grinning from ear to ear, he waved and said “Bye-bye,” then ran back down the road.

Then the bus came and we got all our stuff loaded; it was time to hug Joel and the girls one more time. We were all crying… well, all of us except for maybe Joel and Rob. With just one last tear-blurred look around the place, I got on the bus and waved out the window at Reyna, Leda, Dina and Joel until I couldn’t see them anymore.

I felt like I was in a daze for the whole 2-1/2 hour bus ride, and before I knew it we were on the ferry, watching Ometepe fade away into the distance. I knew Rob was much more ready to leave this place than I was. I just kept thinking about how Reyna’s voice sounded when she crying as she said good-bye and how Eduardo was… well… Eduardo, and how it made me immeasurably sad to even think about going one day without seeing him, let alone the possibility that it may end up being a lifetime.
In this haze, we somehow got ourselves and our luggage to Granada, and after checking into a hospedaje, we walked down to the dock to take our last look out at Lake Nicaragua. I was able to check my email from the hotel later in the afternoon, and I found that I did indeed have a message from Eduardo. In his little words, he asked me to not forget about him and wondered if maybe I could come and visit for his birthday next year (June 8th).
On Saturday afternoon we made our way to Managua, and then this morning—Sunday—we got up at 4am to catch our flight back home. It was about the smoothest trip I’ve ever had in the air. Before I knew it, we had left the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes and were back in the Chicago airport, eating Cinna-bon and hugging Rob’s parents.

It still hasn’t all sunk in yet. There is so much more to say, but I’m running on very little sleep and need to sign off for the moment. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


We’ve made it to Managua. Last night (Friday) we spent the night in Granada, and I was finally able to post the super-long blog I wrote about our farewell party on Ometepe. If you’ve already read that entry, check it again because I’ve added a few photos and even some video clips.

There’s so much more to say; the blog is not quite over yet. I’ll write some final thoughts about leaving the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes once we are home, and who knows—I’m so used to it by now that maybe I’ll just keep on blogging for a while.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The country under my skin

Last summer before I came here, I read a book by the Nicaraguan poet/revolutionary Gioconda Belli called The Country Under My Skin. That’s how it is. Ever since the first time I came to Nicaragua more than 3-1/2 years ago. its been under my skin and that’s why I’ve kept coming back.

I’ve never been good at endings or leaving people and places, and this is no exception. There is too much going on in my mind now to write about all of it. I’ve been taking a lot of pictures of these things that are under my skin the last several days, so I’ll post some of them here.

Out by the dock here are Reyna, Leda, (me), and Doña Dina. Reyna and Dina work in the kitchen; Leda does cleaning and washing. Doña Dina was the lucky lady who I’ve passed my machete on to. Reyna had a baby (her 2nd daughter) just this past May.
I have never before been in a photo with 3 other adult women (who are not related to me) who are all the same size as me. As we giggled and looked at the photo of ourselves, I explained that in the US, everybody is taller that me, but in Nicaragua, I fit right in. Reyna said this meant that I am Nicaraguan and that I should stay. "No te vayas, Meli," she has been saying for several weeks now.

Here, by the kitchen is Doña Argentina, Daraysi, and Francisca (whom everybody calls “Chica”). Daraysi does bookkeeping, Argentina and Chica work in the kitchen.

This white dog is “Bravo”—a horrible, horrible dog who every night about 7pm goes crazy and starts violently chasing his tail. Bravo is actually going to be one of the things I do not miss about Ometepe.

This is a dog Rob and I named Scott Fargus, on a count of his yellow eyes (its from the movie A Christmas Story). At first I didn’t care for Scott Fargus too much (he would sometimes randomly just come into our room when the door was open), but eventually I warmed up to him and would give him treats and he became my pal.

Here is Albin (What a little heartbreaker! He is Argentina’s nephew), Joel (the English instructor), and Eduardo.

My special little guy

Eduardo was helping me pack and came across these sunglasses. He thought they were great, so I let him have them. He spent the rest of the day strutting around like hot stuff.

Towards the middle of the day, the staff here began decorating the common dining area with braided palm fronds and balloons. I also saw that a cake was being prepared in the kitchen. By dinnertime, the entire town of Mérida had showed up. I was glad to see Simeon, because I realized that I had never gotten a picture of him. Here is a photo of several of the volcano guides; Simeon is on the far right, wearing the yellow collared shirt.

Dinner was pretty much the usual, except for all the people milling around, but afterwards, Leda came to me and said they had prepared a surprise for us, but we needed to go back to our room and wait while they got it set up. So we went and we waited, talking with some kids, and finally Leda came back and got us.

Joel (the French-Canadian English instructor) acted as emcee and announced that the children of the town had practiced special dances for us and would be performing tonight. The first dancers were none other than my dear little Eduardo, Albin, Darling, and Augustina. It was a “reggeton” style dance to Nicaraguan hip-hop music. Eduardo looks cute jamming in his new shades.

The next dancers were little Helen and Darwing, performing a more traditional Nicarguan folk dance called “el sapo,” which was completely adorable.

The next were some girls I didn’t know, doing some kind of traditional dance that had been modernized to contemporary hip-hop style music. And yes, those are bandanas that they are wearing for tops. La Reyna’s little girl Laura (6 years old) also did a dance.

The next reggeton dancers took everybody by surprise. Tiny though they were, they could sure bust some powerful moves. What both amazed and disturbed me was how (and why!) clothes like that exist for such little girls. Rob figured out a way to post the video clips he took, so you can take a look at the dance; hopefully the material is not too objectionable for the blog.

But what was the most impressive and for me, meaningful, dance was the last one. Daraysi, who does bookkeeping and reception, performed a traditional folk dance with Yuri, another employee here. The two of them are cousins. I’ve seen Daraysi dance a lot of times at festivals and parties—she’s always decked out in flashy clothes and doing scandalous moves. I swear, every male tourist that has ever passed through here has wanted to take her home. And here she was, doing a traditional folk dance (so not her style!) for us before we left. I’d been weepy before, but this is the one that really started me crying.

When the dances were over, all the women staff members gathered around and had Joel tell us in English how much they would miss us and how Nicaragua would always be our home. Then they presented us each with a gift. For Rob, a wooden plaque with painted Nicaraguan memorabilia that has knobs on it so you can hang your keys from it. For me, a brown crocheted handbag with the word “Nicaragua” stitched in it. What beautiful gifts! What gets me the most about this is that people who have so little wanted to give something to us—who have so much. I have seen gifts like these at the artisan markets in Masaya—who knows how they came up with the money and sent somebody to the market to pick out lovely things for us. It makes me wish I could do something more for all of them, for this whole country, or that I had been doing something more for them the whole time I was here.

Then everybody gathered round and hugged us. I was a mess of crying and so was everybody else. Even Conny, usually so stoic and serious, had tears in her eyes. Over the last few weeks as our departure date has grown closer, so many times I’ve wondered what it would be like to leave everybody here. Most of the good-byes in my life have been so unceremonious. I figured Rob and I would just get our stuff together and go, without any pomp and circumstance. But here they threw a party for us, and gave us gifts, and cried, and told us to please come back as soon as we could.

Through tears, the girls went back to the kitchen and served up the cake they’d made. Dear little Eduardo was one of the first to get a piece, and he broke about half of it off to share with Rob and me. I didn’t want to take his cake, but how can you turn something that someone wants to give you out of the pure goodness of their heart? The cake was kind of like cornbread with raisins in it, and a lot of love.

We took a few more pictures after the cake had been eaten. Here is me with Leda:

This is Belkis, Augustina, and Darling

Daraysi and Conny:

Me with my special little guy:

And again, he looks sad this time though!

Eduardo’s mother Milena was among the townspeople who had come to the fiesta. I spoke with her for a bit, but mainly, I just forgot all my Spanish words while I was talking to her. I tried to tell her what a good little boy Eduardo is and that I hope someday to figure out a way to bring him to visit me in the US if he would like. She smiled so sweetly and said many things that I couldn’t understand because all I was thinking was how can I leave this place and these people when this country is so much under my skin?

Here is a photo of Eduardo and his mother;

I’ve stayed up half the night writing this so that I could post it before we leave Ometepe. Our plan is to make it to Granada today and then on Saturday head on to Managua. Our plane leaves at 6:00 Sunday morning, and we’ll be in Chicago by 4pm. It is finally starting to sink in that this is over. I never thought it was possible to feel sad and heartbroken yet happy at the same time. I’m trading one world for another. At home, there’s hot showers, cold drinking water, brownies, and a lifetime of friends and family. But where I’m returning to, there will be no monkeys, no volcanoes, no sunsets over the lake, and just about most importantly, no Eduardo. I think its going to take quite some time for me to readjust. I’ll try to post something when we get to Managua—thanks for reading.