Im sitting here on the bus returning to nyc from the lovely dc and its the non-stop express. I cant stop thinking about how I wouldn't just love someone to be selling food whether its tajadas with ensalada or cashews or even some other non identifiable street food. I just know I'm hungry and wondering where's the vendor at?
So now I'm thinking, this is where development brings us? The bus is cleaner yes (point), I can not see the street passing beneath through a hole in the floor (point), the seats are both padded and able to recline (quadruple points) and truly the best thing of all is that there is a seat for everyone, myself included (infinity points). But we have lost the camaraderie of it all. Everyone is in their own bubble. Whether it's listening to music, reading, on the computer or sleeping, the space and comfort of it all has allowed us to disconnect from one another. Worst of all the complete absence of some, any easy eats.
In our "world" street vendors or vendors aboard platforms or trains (Ive never witnessed one on bus, certainly not a local one at that) are generally frowned upon or at the very best their goods are considered dubious. I'll admit I used to question the "hygienity" of it all but then I started to think about the restaurants that Ive worked in and then thought about adding the layers of filth that come with nyc dwelling and right then and there I decided to never think about it again. If I allowed myself to be so easily disgusted then I would be forced to stop eating out entirely in which case I would deprive myself of one of nyc living's best assets, the food.
Back on subject of the food vendors on transit. In Nicaragua and nyc Ive often indulged in street food for the sheer novelty of it. There's something so inexplicably alluring about it. I realized though, once in a hot crowded bus in 100+ degree heat and out of drinking water that its not just novelty demand but unequivocal need. I needed that water and soon and would have had to fight a large agitated crowd to exit and subsequently enter the bus to find a vendor selling water. I understand that those circumstances can not be experienced in US what with air-conditioned trains and buses but then again is convenience not a virtue of development? Is it not more convenient to get a bottle of water from a vendor walking down a train aisle than to make an errand of it by going into a store to purchase one?
On another note if not just for the novelty having unrestricted vendors would force us to look up from our seats, converse with another being even if it is just a transaction. They have potential to bring us together and out of an almost stifling daily routine of non- or seriously limited personal interaction. The only conviviality I experienced on that long ride was brought by the driver (the one person who I was sure would lack it) who, with not even the suggestion of jest in his tone, insisted that before he could turn the ignition we must first all say "good afternoon", and announced later that if you slept too loud he would be making fun of you. Finally upon our arrival in nyc he welcomed us to Richmond, VA sending a few of the freshly awoken individuals into minor panic, followed by self-humbling laughter at their foolishness.
When boarding buses it’s first a race to door and then a matter of pushing your way to enter as quickly as possible with the wild thought that you might actually get a seat (ha! Never happens). Lines for cashiers are a total farce. There is no first come first serve it’s a matter of pushing your way to the counter of the farmacia and hoping that you get noticed so that you can buy some immodium before you poo yourself (and some panadol for the headache you accrued while being cut “in line” and ignored). When I stand in lines I like my space, no need to crowd you’ll get there, so I give people the same courtesy, this concept in Nicaragua is as foreign as me. No matter if you are at the pulperia or ATM, personal space doesn’t exist, someone is breathing down your back or leaning on the counter next you anxiously waiting their turn as if it will pass.
If you are walking through the Mercado you are ceaselessly grabbed and told “pasa adelante” or “que buscas chelita, preguntame”. If you are walking in the station to catch a bus headed out of town you will inevitably be grabbed and pushed towards another bus for a city in which you are not going at least twice (which I still cannot make sense of, its as if they believe that you will suddenly change your mind and decide to go to another city). Children begging for money will grab your clothes and hands, pushing chicklets or flowers made of palm fronds on you and then telling you how much you owe them. I have had to harden my reactions. Before I used to keep walking and brush it off, mentally that is. More recently, without a second thought I have taken to seizing the hand that grabs me and in a calm but commanding manner removing it from my person. It seems only fair that if a person feels permitted to touch me than I too am able to touch back.
I boarded a relatively full bus and a very old woman began grabbing at my clothes and hands as I was trying to pass, I removed her hand from me and continued towards the back. Afterwards I felt bad about it, not so bad I wouldn’t do it again but bad. I had had an audience of passengers and I felt that they thought I had crossed a line. I believe the only reason she so aggressively grabbed at me is because due to the fact that I am a “yanqui” and therefore I feel justified in my response. Its difficult to know which things I experience as a result of my “yanqui-ness” and which are cultural. The incessant cat-calls are a combination of both, the grabbing in the Mercado or at the bus station I have witnessed happening to residents. I will never know.
There has been more than one occasion where I have been walking and a stranger passes by and says in an audible tone “gringa”. It’s frustrating, not so much because it hurts but because it’s so alien to me to have someone bark your ethnicity at you. I am not sure if the act is motivated by hostility but I can not think of any other reason a person would cry out such things.
With all of these cultural nuances I try to make sense by searching for the root, for example, directions. Usually you will have to ask at least 3 people who all give you different answers and only through divine intervention/luck do you get where you wanted to go. In cars driving with people they will wait until you have almost passed the intersection to tell you to turn right. This is made more ridiculous because in Nicaragua derecha and derecho both mean right and most other Spanish speaking countries derecho means straight, so you are immediately confused. Its worse if you have more than one person “giving directions” because they will shout opposing statements. Asking “how long” is silly because you will get a wild range of answers from ten minutes to three hours. Driving is not common and therefore it difficult to give driving directions or know your directions in general. Most people take buses, which are without timetables and this contributes to the inability of people to establish a time frame for a trip or to know how to travel to a place without a bus. Another contributing factor is that streets do not have names. Addresses are determined by a point of reference system, example: 1 block north and 75 meters east of the Esso gas station or 3 blocks south of La Unión (a supermarket). It is with this in mind that I am able to laugh rather than become unnerved.
To know your bus and sidewalk etiquette is next to godliness in the book of kara. Allow me to school you. First thing, when you are choosing your seat and you have the option of aisle or window, aisle is the proper choice. Why? Because it speeds up the ride and its generally courteous (do you really want someone falling over you while the drive accelerates?). When the person sitting next you leaves and you are in an aisle seat, please stand up to let them pass or move your legs to the aisle (then scoot to the window seat to abide by rule number 1). If an elderly woman or a woman with a baby is lacking a seat offer yours, yes typically it is the responsibility of a male passenger but we fought for equality (and chivalry is dead). Do not stand or put your stuff in front of the exit. Most importantly, always exit from the back!
Bus etiquette does not exist here, and not one, but all of my “common senses” regarding bus courtesy are foreign. I have never had some move their legs for me pass nor seen someone move to the window to allow another to sit. Rarely are seats offered and I have concluded that do to fear of being run over most prefer to exit from the front. By far this has been one of the hardest things to adjust to. If it wasn’t already such a pique of mine I wonder if I would be this vexed. This vexation is compounded by the fact that the drivers drive as if it is a timed race, hardly even stopping to let people off while the fare collector or other passengers scream ”suave, suave”. And to this consider the fact that these buses are known as “chicken buses”. I am going to attempt to illustrate this phenomenon but you cannot and will never understand until you have experienced the chicken bus en vivo. It is when the bus is so loaded that while standing there is no need to hold on because due to sheer squish factor you will stay in place and there are people standing on the entrance and exit steps and its 99 degrees with 99% humidity so it feels like you are melting and you’ve got 6 strangers sweating on you and you are suffocating because someone’s bag is squeezing the life out of you and as you are fading into delirium you think to yourself “I cant possibly fathom another person fitting on this bus” the driver pulls over to pick up 10 more people, who will all get on without a single passenger deboarding. This is the chicken bus. I understand now more than I have ever wanted to.
As I was walking down the street and saw one of the vendors set up ahead I had a craving for Jocotes, a grape sized mango-ish fruit. I approached and found that there were none so I figured that the next vendor would have them. Again there were none and each one that I passed was without the fruit I craved. I was confused that I unable to procure this fruit that in my recent memory had been so pervasive you couldn’t take step without seeing a discarded pit. Once I reached work I asked the girls where I could go to fulfill my craving and they laughed. “10 months into the future” was their response. I was immediately overcome with a feeling of “duh” which was followed by the feeling of utter American ignorance. In an effort to make myself appear less foolish I tried to explain to them that the seasonality of a fruit or vegetable doesn’t necessarily affect the availability of a product. They were shocked and found it hard to understand that I could eat an avocado or strawberry in the dead of winter or in high summer. Trying to explain how this can be to my Nicaraguan peers only deepened my feelings of foolishness and to it added the feelings of guilt and privilege.
In this country where they produce great coffee, incredible handicrafts, amazing fruits and vegetables, yet they consume Presto instant coffee, Papitas chips and covet all things American. I find it very sad to think that my home country’s overwhelming demands for products that we ourselves are incapable of producing leaves another country unhealthy and to an extent unable to fully indulge in and appreciate what their land provides them. They have resorted to establishing Zonas Francas (Free Trade Zones) throughout the Managua area, which are meant to draw foreign investors into the country to set up shop tax-free. Ideally Nicaragua benefits because it provides work, which raises the standards of living. In reality these zones are not bound by laws and are a notorious for violating workers rights and paying very minimal wages, so Nicaraguans don’t gain much from their presence only a lowered unemployment rate. Two of my family members have worked in the Zona Francas and continue to today.
In the North it’s a different type of exploitation because it is mostly farmland. Workers rights violations compounded by the exposure to toxic pesticides and contaminated drinking water and the many developmental and health issues that result. Demetrio, the security guard who lives at the foundation, grew up in Matagalpa. When he eats he finishes within a minute. My coworker tells me this is response to having worked as a campesino (farm worker) where his boss would give them one minute for all meals and what they didn’t finish was taken from them. Its hard for me remember why I wouldn’t eat a banana with a brown spot not just from hearing the experience of Demetrio but because naturally banana’s are not blemish free. When I go to the markets here I get to see what food really looks like and generally it’s not pretty but this is the market and this food can and will be eaten.
An unintended effect of developing country is their ability to recycle most things. Waste is a luxury of the rich. Here (and I imagine most developing countries) most people cannot afford drinks or products in plastic bottle form so instead most things are sold in bags. For example the majority of liquid cleaning products are not sold in ready to use spray bottles but in plastic bags. In need of a device to dispense the product most people take an old litro de coke, poke 2 holes in the cap and now it’s a spray bottle for your cleaner. When you buy a refresco (fresh juice) to-go from a vendor they serve it to you in plastic bag knotted at the top with straw and not in a plastic cup with a lid. My family ordered a pizza to be consumed at our house (a rarity reserved only for a special occasion) and we received it plastic wrapped on a metal tray that we had to return once we were finished. To a person unfamiliar with this form it may appear less appealing. Why? Most bottles for cleaning products are thrown out upon final use. Having the brand name on your drinking device or being served your food in numerous disposable containers doesn’t change its taste. I can only assume these things are considered less appealing by some because they have the stigma of being a product of the impoverished.
A bottle that once held body spray is now reclaimed to hold kerosene for the grill, used 3 liters (that’s not a typo) of Coke or Fanta are cut and painted to make light shades, ripped stockings or worn cables become clotheslines, old botellas (plastic bottles) my mother reuses to store water in case of a shortage or they are cut to become planters, glass bottles from beers or sodas are sent back to the distributor to be washed and refilled. Here little is wasted and most everything is reused. Recycling programs don’t exist because they don’t need to, it’s an inherent part of the culture. It makes me think about the worth of things and the difference in value systems between cultures. I understand that most things here are recycled due to a necessity directly determined by the wealth of the culture and not out of concern for the ever growing environmental issues caused by the abundance of waste (evidenced by the ubiquitous volume of trash). In the states people recycle not because they cannot afford to waste a product, in fact most products have a “consumer pays” recycling tax added on to the cost at time of purchase. We recycle because we feel that we are doing our part to curb some of those environmental ills. Maybe the more important thing is to change how and what we consume to produce less “things to recycle” and less waste. I don’t say this to discourage people and devalue their efforts to recycle. My concern is with the way things are packaged which is equal parts industry and consumer. As consumers I surmise that if the burden of the actual costs associated with the waste created when we throw out a bottle or box was bound to the consumers and the industry the demand would change. In turn this could cause the industry to find new cost effective and profitable methods of packaging goods that would not have the same toll on our world.
“La basura!” Manuel yells from his rocker stationed next to gated door. Its usually about 7am and everyone is getting ready for work or school. Maria is the kitchen cooking as Manuel hears the approaching bells of the dump truck and yells for the second time “la basura” this time with a bit more urgency. Maria begins to talking to herself reflecting but of course saying it loudly enough that the guilty parties can hear. “Cada dia, cada dia. Nadie, nadie, nadie. Sola yo saco la basura, sola yo (everyday, everyday, nobody, nobody, nobody. takes out the trash, only me). I cant help but laugh at this, thinking that this Nicaraguan family supposedly so removed from the “developed” US having this same fight that I can remember my family having.
Trash a dilemma that has no borders. When I first arrived in my house here, I was sitting with all of the kids who live on my street enjoying popsicles on the curb. Upon finishing every single kid threw stick and wrapper into the street. I was shocked, but I was new and I wasn’t sure yet how to approach the subject without being culturally insensitive. All the time see people throw their trash out the window or on the ground. When riding the crowded buses the “agua, agua, agua” vendors sell their bags of water or juice to the thirsty passengers, who finish and immediately launch it out the window. Walking with Rafa (a scholarship student and farm manager for Fenix) to make copies I purchased some “orange juice” and once she had finished she launched here botello on the ground. I felt that at that point in time we had established a good enough relationship that I could broach the subject of litter. So I stopped walking and stared at the botello and at Rafa. Once she realized what I doing and that I was upset she burst out in laughter. She told me it was okay because it was already dirty with other trash. I requested she pick it up and hold on to it until we get to a public garbage can (a rarity here). Once back at the foundation she told the story to some of the other students, laughing about how silly I was being. This is not the first, nor will it be the last. It is behavioral and it is not exclusive to the street. Countless times Gabriella or Andreita or Dianita throw their trash to the ground in their own homes. Of course this is exclusive to the children but when the act is committed in front of the adult who inevitably will later be the one to sweep it up, nothing is said, the behavior stands unaltered. And thus the litter culture is born.
When living in NYC, I couldn’t stand the amount of trash everywhere. Walking with Alex he would always say to me when I would get upset about the trash that “trash begets trash” meaning that the more trash people see, the more they will add to it. This behavior is exemplified in my recounting my walk with Rafa and it stands true to reason. Most cities from NYC to Ciudad Sandino employ individuals to walk the streets and sweep up the litter. People justify litter and waste through the existence of litter and waste. And being around all of this waste it made me think more on another point Alex would bring up which is that waste is waste and why should it matter if its in the street or in a dump. He surmised that if more trash was in the street the waste accumulation would reach a point where people would realize its negative effects and reduce their personal waste in total. I now have to agree, it’s all waste and its location shouldn’t hold so much weight in my abhorring thoughts (and this is repeatedly reinforced since being here). This doesn’t mean that I now condone littering. I will continue to call out my co-workers and family for littering the streets because I don’t think that anyone should ever have to clean up other peoples waste. I will eternally be disgusted by the site of trash along a highway with what could be a priceless country view. But I now recognize that my problem is less with the litter and more with the waste. If we had to live in our waste wouldn’t we be more likely to repair and reuse rather than throw out and by new?
Food is a tough thing. I recently finished reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which he discusses the linkages between food and culture and family. It wasn’t so much reading the book that got me to thinking about diet in my new life but more living it. From day one (outside the Laguna de Apoyo) I immediately noticed a theme: this culture loves their food either fried or super sweet. Everything is over-sugared or fried and its no wonder most people have diabetes and/or weight issues. Its hard to understand how this can happen in a country with so much fresh and readily available fruits and vegetables, more than enough to meet the demands of the country. Here the major form of hydration is gaseosa’s (pop/soda). In moderation (like with most everything) a gaseosa is not all bad but when it accompanies every meal and it is universally opted for instead of water, this is no way to live. Last week I went to get a refresco (juice) from the mercadito near my work but my coworkers informed that it was not safe to drink the market drinks for fear of e-coli or hepatitis so they suggested I get boxed orange juice from the store. I went, I bought, I drank and yikes, was that thing was sweet. Now, you know me and you know I like my sugar (preferably in cookie form), and you know I am definitely don’t typically read the nutritional facts on anything (because that’s not a box I want to open, I prefer to be blissfully kinda ignorant) but when I read the nutritional facts on this tiny box and saw what I perceived as a ridiculous amount of sugar per serving I was shocked (mostly by being shocked by sugar). So the next time I was feeling thirsty for something other than water I chose Gatorade thinking that “this will be good, I like me some Gatorade every once and again” so without looking at the facts I bought it. Again, I was shocked by the amount of sugar it contained and I didn’t bother to look at the nutritional facts because I could taste it.
I recently had a discussion with Maria, my “mom”, about soda consumption and diet in general. She never serves me gaseosas with my meals and she never even keeps it around which I am pretty happy about. She was upset with Anisa (her daughter who also lives here) because she is always drinking soda as well as giving it to her children. Maria understandably doesn’t agree with this and is frustrated with what she, Maria, perceives as Anisa’s uncaring and thoughtless decisions about the health of her children. However my “mom” will often make refrescos and rather than drink the refresco as is with its delicious fruity sweetness she and the rest of the family cringe at the taste sin (without) sugar. After I pour my glass and hers she will add three to four heaping spoonfuls of sugar. While I think that Maria’s diet is very healthy by comparison to many other individuals how is this better and/or different?
In this country where indisputably the most important result of the Sandinista revolution was the implementation of universal healthcare (that means free) does the government not enforce corporations to practice more social responsibility? These are not the same products found in the US. They may appear the same and have the same brand name but they don’t contain the same ingredients. I understand the principles of marketing and I understand holding focus groups to analyze taste but seriously, its out of control. Why are there not health campaigns to promote exercise, nutrition and better diet especially when health is one of the major tenets of this (and all) political parties? I guess with a imminent threat of a dictatorship this isn’t really on too many peoples agendas. But I have to wonder about the consumption practices here and how much of it is uncaring, how much is cultural norm and how much is strictly taste?