Saturday Diary: Nicaragua is beauty and ugly, braided like hair
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Our driver to the airport couldn't believe anyone would go to Nicaragua on vacation. He assumed we were on a humanitarian mission.
Many people think Nicaragua is still a hot spot, but there hasn't been a revolution there since the Pirates last won a World Series. (Granted, there was that decade of fighting afterward, thanks to the Reagan administration's "Contra" subversion efforts.)
As it is, with the Sandinistas in and out of power over the past 30 years, life is better for some, the same or worse for most. The tourist might be a victim of airport baggage kleptos, the occasional carjacking or police shake-downs for gringo money, but these pose no more risk than on any trip to the Third World.
The hardest part is the heartbreak. UNICEF reports that 65 percent of the people are poor or extremely poor, 40 percent have no access to health care, a third have no reliable source of drinking water and 24 percent of children don't attend school.
And then there are the hungry street dogs.
Photographer Annie O'Neill and I left on Feb. 8 for 10 days. It was her second trip and my third to Nicaragua. And while it was sort of a vacation, we went with the purpose of someday publishing the story of Donna Tabor.
A former Pittsburgh TV producer, Donna joined the Peace Corps in 1996 and stayed in country. With support from Building New Hope, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, she directs the work of two schools, a music program and an animal clinic. She also serves as the nonprofit's face for a colony of coffee farmers whose organic beans are sold here under the Building New Hope label.
I've had a slew of little adventures with Donna in and around Granada, a colonial city of 110,000 founded in 1524 as part of the Spanish empire. On my first trip, we saw a street vendor attacked and robbed, and I tagged along as Donna, in her tornado-ish way, whisked the guy to someone with a car and to the hospital, where his head bled into a cloth in the waiting room.
He was making a few dollars a day selling flimsy jewelry spread over a sheet on the street. He had no health care coverage. Donna made a contribution.
Many Americans think we're struggling. In Pittsburgh, we're worried about the police pension fund. In Nicaragua, the police make so little that their "pensions" are supplemented by roadside stops.
At an intersection near San Marcos, an officer wiggled his finger for Donna to pull over. We were DWG -- Driving While Gringo.
He asked where she lives and what she does. When she said one of her jobs is overseeing two schools, the officer said, "My daughter needs notebooks for school."
"How much?" Donna asked, shielding the opening of her wallet. He accepted 100 cordobas, about $5. At least in Nicaragua, bribes are cheap, like everything else except school.
School is a luxury for families who can't afford supplies, uniforms and, most of all, their children's time away from earning money. Children shine shoes and sell cigarettes and Chiclets, of all things, to tourists. Donna raises money to give parents so their kids can attend the schools she oversees.
At the animal clinic, peasants who can't spare two cordobas drop them in the basket while some gringo expats leave nothing. The young Nicaraguan vet and vet tech make less than burger flippers make here in the States.
One day during my visit, a woman called the clinic to report a dog near death nosing around the language school where she is learning Spanish.
Claudio Mayorga, the vet tech, grabbed a stretcher and a muzzle and we piled into Donna's Jed Clampett pick-up to troll the streets for a listing, almost hairless, skeletal creature. We saw him along a rubble sidewalk and jumped out. He began a furtive jog away. I was 20 feet from him when a taxi coming toward us swerved and hit him, just hard enough to roll him over the concrete.
Too furious to think in Spanish, I screamed at the guy in English as the dog kept jogging and turned the corner. I knew I wouldn't catch him, but I ran as hard as I could, forgoing a ride from Donna and Claudio. With aching legs and a face streaked with tears, I burned with that aching sense of injustice I remember as a kid.
The dog headed up a dirt-packed hill between shanties and disappeared.
Back in Pittsburgh, I got an e-mail from Donna. They finally caught the dog and had to put him down. I picked up my own dog, Nica, and buried my face in her thick, shiny fur. She had looked as bad as that dog once, before her plane ride in a bag on Donna's shoulder.
In 2001, when I first alit from a bus in Managua, arriving from San Salvador, the smell of burning garbage burned into my memory. Obnoxious at first, it has become a nostalgic odor, like the awful perfume of my grandmother.
I can now summon that smell and the feel of the air there and the cacophony of clanging church bells and clopping horses and yelling fruit vendors.
Nicaragua is beauty and ugly braided like hair: flowering vines spilling hot pink over corrugated-tin shanties; a peasant's hand cupping the ear of his hound as it lies in the clinic under a drip bag tied to a rusty fire escape; a pharmacist strumming his guitar and singing love ballads with his door open to a deafening street.
The country is firmly in my heart by now. It's a place where vacation sometimes can't avoid becoming a humanitarian mission, however brief.
First Published March 6, 2010 12:00 am