Tuesday, September 28, 2010


We went to Nicaragua for a week, three days of which we stayed with a host family, each of us in a separate one. I stepped into a taxi with Samantha, my host-second cousin, who is two years old with big brown eyes, and my host mom, Susie. “Guantanamera” is soothingly blasting. Samantha is staring at me furtively from Susie’s lap, and my impulse is to smile and stare back, but I don’t want to seem creepy especially as a first impression in front of Susie. I abashedly look over at Samantha and she looks away and smiles and I look away and smile and then we both look at each other, catching our eyes in the other and we look away and smile and smile… and then I realize I’m supposed to be an adult and I try to plan what to say to Susie. The only think that comes to mind is asking her about her experience of the Samoza dictatorship or if she has a bean crop that has washed away in the flood as David has of course recommended we ask. I chuckle at the absurdity of these first questions. I do feel like an observer here, though, in this unknown world of strings of Spanish slurs without “s’s” and bright bold houses on steep cement block streets.

As I enter the house, my host sister (25) is stepping out of the bathroom covered only by a small towel and I choose to turn my head rather than awkwardly say hi. There are supposedly three ways that latin americans customarily greet each other. Girls meeting girls hug and kiss on the cheek, guys meeting girls hug and kiss on the cheek, and guys meeting guys shake hands. I am still shy and awkward at greetings, not knowing if a particular greeting is just temporary and I should remain seated if I am so and only say hi, or other times, I will reach out a hand out of instinct to be met by a hand clasp that turns into an awkward half hug and someone kissing my cheek. Anyway, it is usually awkward for me, whatever happens or does not happen.

Mancho, my host brother, who looks around my age and is a handsome, muscle-y brown-skinned guy, is there, seated on the couch. I quickly decide that this must be a real greeting, he is my brother after all, and I stick out my hand. I am not ready, though, for any sort of tricky boy handshake. We grab hands, and I am focused on making sure my grip is firm and strong enough, while Mancho re-orients his hand so that his fingers slide around to grasp the top of my hand, and I am still trying to make sure that my fingers are mimicking his in a mirror image as he is pulling me in for a boy hug, arms blocking our chests, one arm extending around the other to pat each other’s backs once firmly. I am excited to be included in this boy mannerism but nervous that it is tenuous, that he will discover that I’m not a boy like him, and then how will we interact? So we sit on the coach watching TV, and I make sure that my ankle is resting on my opposite knee, legs wide, slouching deep in my seat. Dinner is ready for us and we sit side by side at the table, still watching the TV from a distance. I, with my fork and knife, cut into an egg-like mound on a corn tortilla. Mancho grasps the tortilla and egg in a sandwich-like fashion; he holds his sandwich with both hands, one on each side, elbows out wide, sinking his teeth in with large bites. I quickly disgard my fork and knife, sacrificing my table manners in front of Susie, and follow suit. The both of us side by side chomp into our tortilla egg sandwiches like hamburgers, swallowing big mouthfuls without chewing too long, eyes fixated on the TV (which I think was actually a telenovela ☺ ).

Mancho speaks very quickly, and the Nicaraguan accent, not pronouncing the “s” at the end of words, made it sound all the more like one long word jumbled together. After the second day, though, I was impressed at my ability to understand him, not thrusting “Como?” back at him after his every question. I had successfully gotten our handshake down, and we were seated at the dinner table again after he had just gotten back from work and me from school. I asked him what he did for work (I couldn’t understand his answer, but caught that it was close by, in Matagalpa) and how much he worked (6am-7pm) and he asks me about my tattoo. A pause. Suzie and my host sister Raquel leave the table, so it is just us now, one on one. He asks me if I use anything in my hair. I say no, just the rain. He proceeds to show me his large jar of orange “Bronco” gel. We sit there eating. “Do you have a girlfriend?” He asks, nodding and grinning at me. “No,” I say. That is a more simple response. “That girl who was in here earlier is my girlfriend.” “Oh, she is pretty,” I  say. “Yeah, it’s hard,” he says. “Yeah,” I say, unsure of what I’m agreeing to. “I’ve had 20 girlfriends in total.” “Oh,” I say, taking a big gulp of the sweet purple drink in front of me, stalling time for a response, “that’s a lot,” I reply, not wanting to reinforce his machismo with an eager affirmation, but also unwilling to give up my boy alliance. I hope that it’s not my turn to calculate and tell how many girlfriends I’ve had. Luckily, Mancho keeps going, “and the one in here today was just one of them.” I am confused if he’s talking about the present or the past but now Suzie comes back into the room, and our secret boy conversation is over and I am relieved not to have to ask Mancho any questions about his girlfriends.


It has become some sort of routine now. What tourists don’t think of when they think of Costa Rica I’m pretty sure is rain. They are ready for Costa Rica where the sun is always shining (among other things like no people in houses with tin roofs or dirt floors or the air smelling of stale fire smoke, or chip wrappers clogging the gutters). But, it rains a lot here. And by a lot I mean constantly in September and October. It is raining when I wake up and when I go running and when I go to school. It is raining when I come home and go to sleep. Rain pours out of a drain in the cement wall like a (US) showerhead left on full stream. The water skirts around my shoe like a rock in the river. The rivers run brown from soil washing down the hillsides, collecting in sediment that will raise the river's floor and make floods more likely. Nicaragua has lost 80% of its bean crop because of the floods. The sky is grey. So, like I said it has become some sort of routine now:
“Strip!” Sonia demands.
“Quitese la ropa para que puedo lavarlos de inmediato.”
“But they are only wet, they aren’t dirty. I can hang them—”
“Son muy sucios, mi amor.”
Sonia has already caught onto my habit of stashing away clothes that I have already worn once or twice, hanging a shirt discretely behind others so she won’t notice. Well, she is too clever for that. Every day I return to my pink hamper empty, in addition to a couple of other items that I am sure I did not place in the hamper.
 “No se los guardan.” She warns me, shaking her finger at me, and smiling un poco endearingly. I can’t help but half-smile, “Si, si,” and let her lead me into my room, leaving me there to peal off my soggy pants.

Ex-Trabajadores Bananeros afectados del Nemagon Saludan

This is their banner. Ex-Banana Workers affected by Nemagon Welcome you. Across from the National Assembly in the capital city, Managua, of Nicaragua, lives a community of 500 ex-banana workers and their families from Chinandega. And what was I doing here? We (group of study abroad students) came here to interview some of the residents about their situation. It is a city (two blocks) of black plastic, of cardboard, and tree branches. It is a city of resistance, of death, of hope, and survival. A bean plant grows between the cement sidewalk and a woman’s black plastic wall, curling up its wood pole. Seedlings sprout out of black plastic bags, which the ex-workers will sell in the market. For five years, they have camped out right here in the face of the government. For eighteen years they have been fighting for reparations for their multiple health problems caused by the pesticide Nemagon. Nemagon was outlawed in the US in 1979; Dow and Shell exported millions of pounds of this pesticide in the 1970s and 80s to Nicaragua until it was banned here in 1985 (Revista Envio, June 2005).

What was I doing here, poking into houses of people who probably did not want to talk to me, or tell me about their scars and their poverty so that I could write down their names and their illnesses in my soggy notebook? Maria Feli, who I had just met by swooping under a plastic overhang in front of her house with insensitive Kathy leading, and soft-spoken Molly in tow, ushers us into her house. She pulls up her pant leg to show us a spotted purple rash. It was 30 years ago that she left her work on the banana plantation. She worked there for 15 years, deflowering, packing the bananas, body constantly exposed to the contaminated water. Purple rashes itch on ankles, legs, arms. Some have stomach cancer, asthma, sterility, children with deformities. Maria Feli’s husband, who worked in the banana fields, has gone blind from the poison. Many have died. 2,520 deaths, Guillermo Vivas, says. He is their vice-president, saying all they are asking for is a guaranteed pension and access to special treatment for their illnesses. The three ex-workers that I spoke with said that they have access to a doctor now, that he comes once or twice a week. Ortega’s government is providing them with rice, beans, and oil. Is it enough? I ask. Es suficiente? Maria Feli and Yolanda, the two women I interviewed, dismiss my question, Yolanda simply saying yes, there is food. It is then that I realize the foolishness of my question. They are here alive. Regardless of how much food the government gives them, they will survive. (They have been surviving without this government assistance for 60+ years in a country where most of the population has learned to live day by day, learned because if it was not for the earthquake of 1931, or the earthquake of 1972 that destroyed 80 percent of Managua, then perhaps it was the Contra War or the thirty year dictatorship of the Samoza family that destabilized most of the population. Why plan for the future when everything could be destroyed, gone tomorrow?)

Ortega has also implemented a literacy campaign in their community, attempting to provide education up to the third-grade level. Next door to this camp, bulldozers roar, installing a low-income housing project, which, Guillermo says, he hopes will be given to the people of Chinandega. In 2001, these workers were finally successful in bringing a lawsuit against Dole, Dow, and Shell, in which these companies were ordered to pay $490 million in compensation, but they refused to pay.  They refuse to pay. Meanwhile, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) threatens to nullify these lawsuits (Revista Envio, June 2005). CAFTA has commodified banana production in Nicaragua by making not only resources, but also bodies for sale. This commodification cannot be rectified within a neoliberal system in which people and land are disposable. The Chinandegan banana workers have resisted this neoliberal project through sustained community protest: marching from Chinandega to Managua, squatting the land, effecting a lawsuit, using hunger strikes, and other forms of protest (Revista Envio, June 2005). They are still fighting. They are still there. The transnationals still refuse to recognize them.

But aren’t things better now? Nemagon is no longer in use. Yes, well even pesticides that are not known to be dangerous to humans, affect workers´ health. Our white aging ecology prof, David Norman, explains to us how our bodies are chemically very similar to those of our pests. We develop new pesticides every five years because pests become resistant to these chemicals. And we are complicit. Despite the social movements of local people affected by these policies, the atrocities of nemagon will not disappear until we change our neoliberal development strategies, until we stop bodies from being sold in the free market, until development focuses on social objectives (health, education, fairer distribution of resources) rather than economic growth for the rich. Nemagon will not disappear until we look to the workers of our current neoliberal globalized system for clarity.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lessons on floor humping: regaeton and machismo

Today, for class, we had one hour of a Latin Dance class. Our bronze Tico dance teacher, dressed in a tight black T-shirt, tells us we will practice merengue, salsa, and regaeton. Our class consists of 17 girls, and Gus (Harvard Jew) and me. Before class, I was nervous about the division of chicos and chicas for this class, but as we started warming up, doing all our moves together, everyone shaking their shoulders and moving their arms and hips, my worries diminished. Next, however, our teacher says "okay, chicos aqui" and "chicas alla." "Each of us gets six women," he says to me and Gus, asserting his masculine sex drive. "Chiste," he was joking. "Seis chicas seran chicos," (Six girls will be boys). Of course, it is necessary to divide us first into chicos and chicas at the risk of two of us chicos being partners for that would threaten masculine desire, and clearly it is also necessary to tell the girls that they are boys because they cannot really be boys, and of course, guys only like girls and girls only like boys.

Salsa and merengue end up being fun and silly besides our teacher singleing out Courtney,  a blonde, to dance with him, pulling her up too close and calling her "mi chica." He says, "chiki, chiki, chiki, chiki" to the rhythm. "El codigo (Elbow) sexy arms!" he instructs us. We stick our elbows out more to show off our sexy arm muscles.

Regaeton is next. This time he separates us again into chicos and chicas, but this time no girl will be a boy. Girls cannot hump the floor, obviously, as we will soon learn. Our teacher first teaches the chicas their part as Gus and I watch awkwardly and laugh nervously. Their moves include shaking their boobs, strutting adelante and atras, twirling, and striking a pose, "don't forget the arms," he scolds, and runs his hand down his face, his chest, his stomach, motioning toward his groin area.  Clearly, the chicas must tempt the men by exhibiting their luscious bodies.

Now, it is our turn. Gus expresses brotherhood and shows his true macho side by giving me a slap on the back and saying "Aright, we got this." The music "Rompe" begins with our first move: a simultaneous pelvis thrust and downward elbow jab. We repeat this four times, alternating sides, next, leaning back so that one of our hands is on the floor. We are ready for break-dancing position. Then, we turn over into push-up position, and widen our stance so that we can gyrate our hips emphatically, humping the foor, first in small motions, and then bigger, pumping our whole body down and up, down and up, in case it wasn't clear by our head nods that we are insertive sex machines. Taquila shouting "Yeah Spencer," affirming our masculine prowess. I glance over and see Gus, old-fashioned white new balances, snugly fit jeans revealing his high socks,  moving his ass up and down as if he is trying really hard to do a push-up. I see our teacher, furrowed brow, biting his lip. It looks as though his whole body is about to convulse. The chicas are laughing.

This was just practice. Now we had to do the "real thing" by putting them together. "Listos?" our teacher asks. He instructs Gus and I to go to the stair, not satisfied, he comes over to demonstrate by putting one foot up on the step, leaning against the wall with crossed arms. He gives a head nod to the chicas, telling me and Gus "como si estas en la esquina" (as if you are on the corner). The "real thing" clearly involves the guys checking the girls out from "the street corner," objectifying their hot bodies, as they shake their boobs and touch themselves, signaling the desire for male attention. Gus attempts to whistle so as to complete our objectifying privileged roles of asserting the male gaze. As they finish, our teacher gives first Gus, and then me a high five, (we are about to score some hot ass) and then he swaggers out to the dance floor, me and Gus following, although our swagger is not quite as manly. We take our fuerte male stances and begin our pelvis thrusting routine.

la feria agricultora and my avocado

Sonia knew that I wanted to work on a farm. I would also ask Sonia for the names of all the fruits, vegetables, and prepared dishes that we ate, and she would tell me, in both their Cuban and Tican (Costa Rican) names. Sonia makes many dishes and uses many types of food that I have never seen before, and to say the least, I cannot keep them all straight. (In Spanish class I was explaining how my host mom (Sonia) asked if I preferred papas fritas (french fries) or chichurrones and I said that I told her I preferred chichurrones, making Sonia very pleased. Chichurrones are pork rinds, whereas chichurritos are the cuban word for plaintain chips, which is what I meant to say. So the professor just thought I was crazy in mistaking chichurrones for the Tican name of plaintain chips, patonecas. She did not know what chichurritos were.) Anyway, besides Sonia knowing I was interested in farming and the names of food, the first day was no anomaly. I continue to eat large amounts of all of her delicious dishes at her insistence. So entonces, my excitement at being asked to accompany Sonia to the farmers’ market was no surprise.

At 8 am Sunday morning, Sonia, under 5 ft tall, and I, pulling a folded up shopping cart behind me, headed out to Zapote for the farmers’ market. Along the way, we stumbled upon my classmate Lauren, a lanky, soft-spoken blonde, at which point Sonia scooped her up with us. After a half hour of zigzagging our way along the streets of Curridabat, the three of us reached the market. It is the largest market I have ever seen. The orange, yellow, reds, and greens stack against each other, row upon row. There are juices and plants. There are pupusas and empanadas. Before we arrived, I had thought Sonia was just being overprotective when she said that we should have a meeting place in case one of us gets lost.

After watching Sonia barter for bruised platanos and carting around her rapidly accumulating produce, I tell Sonia I’d like to buy an avocado and some other produce for my lunches at school. We snake through the rows of papayas, bananas, brocoli, pina, Lauren dragging the cart now and me carrying Sonia’s three grocery bags. We get distracted by various fruits we have never seen before. “Que es esto?” “Pruebalo.” Or “Aqui.” And the vendor proceeds to cut open the guayabana or breaks open a mamon chino for me to try, Sonia always nearby perusing the produce, returning to us to place the boniatos in the cart and comment on the fruit (and trying some herself.) “Can I buy three of these jocotes?” I ask (The Jocote is a small fruit, of the same family as mangoes). “Take it.” “But…are you sure.” “Take it.” The vendor says.

I try to buy carrots and Sonia says “No. Tambien las necesito” and grabs them out of my hand while thrusting 1000 colones at the vendor for all of the carrots. She almost doesn’t let me buy strawberries, “Estas gastando el dinero,” (wasting my money) she mutters, says she has some at home, “ya.” When Sonia has wondered off in search of coliflor, instructing us to stay put, Lauren buys 6 cucumbers and I hurriedly buy two guayabas and some kind of orange.

As I am talking with a vendor in mid-sentence, Sonia approaches, coaxes the avocado out of my hand and steers me like a child away from the vendor. She says they are not good, estes aguacates no estan buenos, too green, and we will find others. Aquellos? I ask. She says those are too caro (expensive) and only “No,” with a look of disgust to another set. Another row over, she finally selects a green turning-black avocado for me, “Este.” She raises it up, admiring it in the sunlight, medium-sized, slightly soft to the touch.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Volcan Irazu

In coming to Costa Rica, I was determined not to buy into ecotourism for its problematic features (forcibly removing the people that live there in what are now National Parks, preventing the local people from using their own resources in the name of conservation and preservation, large numbers of gringos coming to "observe" local people, etc.). However,  after realizing that going to National Parks or to the beach was what all of my classmates were doing, and not knowing another option to suggest to them (besides inhaling exhaust fumes and dodging careening cars and people in San Jose), rather than spend another weekend at home with Sonia and Julia watching telenovelas inside (as much as I love them), I steered Gus, Harvard gap-year friend, and Sara, whitewater kayak instructor friend, toward a close option, a one-day trip to Volcan Irazu. I had, after all, never been to a volcano before.

That night I had a terrifying dream about a volcano in my room back at home that I was waiting for to erupt. Dad and Bridget scolded me about bringing the volcano into my room in the first place, and then finally I threw a lacrosse ball at it because I didn't want it to build up more pressure, and ran for dear life as it erupted and blew out part of the house.

Carrying my fleece jacket, rain jacket, and packet of galletas (cookies) all at Sonia's insistence, I head out at 6:45 am to meet up with the others. While we wait for the bus in front of the Gran Hotel, a sunburned, middle-aged white American guy and three others come up to us. He starts out with "Donde esta el teatro nacional?" which is right in front of us. "Esta aqui," Gus laughs and responds. "Are you guys American?...Well then what the hell am I speakin' to you in Spanish for? I thought you were from here." "Are you two brothers?" He motions to me and Gus." "How old are you son?" He asks me. "Twenty one!? No way. He must be usin' some kind of special shampoo or somethin." He half-whispers to Gus. "Come over here," his wife beckons with a camera, "You're a tourist."After taking his picture in front of the slanted bus stop sign, his wife asks us how long we've been here. (1 week). "Oh, well then tell me where to go! Tell me everything. Where have you been?" she demands, "we need to go everywhere....an organic coffee farm? Where? How did you get there?" It is then that I resign abashedly to my tourist identity.

An hour and a half later, past fields and fields of cebollas, and winding through farmland that flourishes from the rich, volcanic debris, where I wish to jump out and stay, planting my feet in the black soil, Gus convinces the National Park guide that we are residents, and so only have to pay 1000 colones (2$) instead of 10$. "Viven aqui?" She asks. "Somos estudiantes." "Well, what kind of work do you do?" Sara stumbles to say we are only visiting as students, when Gus jumps in and shows her our "ICADS" ID and mumbles "internship...soy un medico (doctor) y el trabaja con el medio ambiente (environment)..."

I insist that we walk the 2 miles up the road instead of taking the bus the rest of the way. Pausing after a few words to inhale the crisp, thin thin air, we are distracted by giant-leaved vines. We stop for pictures, trying to figure out how to crawl through the brush so that we can take turns in front of these giant leaves for scale. As soon as we start walking again, we see the same plant even bigger, right by the side of the road. We again take turns with pictures, boasting about these new, better onesonly to realize 5 minutes later that these plants cover the entire terrain, as well as the volcano.

Leading up to the crater, the remnants of the volcano, is a wide flat stretch of grey and black sand with people dotted across it, reminding me of people wandering across a waste land. A kneeling blonde-haired woman blends in with the thin wheat grass patched across this expanse. Finally, we peer down into the crater, a deep, deep hole in the mountain like it has been hollowed out, mountain-top removal mining being the only thing I can compare it too. Immediately I want to get closer. It feels too far away to me, too big to look at from afar. My eyes lose their focus following the pattern of rocks, lines, down, across, out. Hints of brown, tan, and red, but mostly deep grey, medium, light grey. Grey, grey, grey. I am drawn to the ridge--a black sand peak snaking toward me like I could jump in and slide down its sides. I want to climb the rocks and feel them under my hands. I want to measure the ravines and cracks with my body. The water at the bottom is definitely not bright ice blue like the photos but looks like a mostly dried-up swamp with mud cracks.

As we hike up the road to the summit, I see what looks like a goat's path up to the right. I dart and leap up its slope. Crawling under our favorite giant-leafed plant, I look back to see that Gus and Sara are smirking but following hesitantly. The path winds around the brush and basaltic rock, and sneaks upward, open, black sand at our feet. Sara catches up to me. Gus emerges feet heavy up the hill breathing hard, "Just a sec." "Haha, good thing we have Spencer as our Ohioan tour guide," He smiles jokingly. We get to the top (3,432 m) and scramble to take out our cameras right as the fog comes rolling up the mountains and gives our pictures a nice blinding white backdrop to our smiling faces.  

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cosas que he aprendido... Things I have learned on a rainy weekend at home with Sonia and Julia

"EsPen-sare," "mi hijo," "mi amor," or "Esteven" all refer to me.

When asked what you want to eat for dinner, do not try to be polite and say "No me importa" or you will get everything...a dinner of beans, rice, cheesy rice, platanos, ensalada, and chocolate cake.

When you are finished eating, you must exclaim, "Estoy lleno" and even still Sonia might demand "Mas suchini. Mas brocoli. Eres flaco. Coma, coma, coma. Mas, mas, mas."

Let Sonia translate everything that Julia says.

Do not try to go running if it is raining out (which it does for at least two hours every day). Yo miraba por la ventana y sin decir nada, Sonia ya sabia. Me informo, "Espensare, hay demasiado lluvia, no puedes correr hoy. Sientate mi amor." (I was looking out the window and without my saying anything, Sonia already knew. She informed me, "Espensare, there is too much rain. You cannot run today. Sit down, my love."

Handstands in my room are okay.

The streets do not have signs.


There are two cultural taboos I was informed of before arriving at my homestay in Costa Rica: Never go about the house barefoot and be clean-shower every day. I was informed that body odors were upsetting.  After hacer ejercicios on my first day at Sonia and Julia's home, I was pleased to remember that I must shower. Emerging from the shower dressed and clean, (I had even used my rock salt deodorant) I approached 87-year old Julia sitting in her rocking chair. "Descalzo!" She exclaimed. In my haste at having showered, I thought she said, "Te has duchado!" and I announced YES, in fact I had showered only to realize to my embarrassment that she was announcing that I was barefoot.