Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage.~Frederick Buechner
Globalization, as defined by rich people like us, is a very nice thing… you are talking about the Internet, you are talking about cell phones, you are talking about computers. This doesn’t affect two-thirds of the people of the world.
Part Two in a series of travelers vs tourists. The first part was: Codes of Responsible Travelers. In this post, I explore the problems that arise with sustainable and cultural tourism through the eyes of the indigenous community of Los Ramos.
Ten years ago, we gave our cell phone to Francisco of the Los Ramos indigenous community because we were returning to the states. For generations, this community lacked any means of high-tech communication. Grandpa Cabo announced special events in the community with his ancient bull horn. With my used cell phone and a tall tree, the people could now climb to the top of the tree to receive a stronger signal…and voila…they were connected to the world. Although, it worried Francisco when his grandmother became trapped in the tree and he had to rescue her…picture a cat in a tree meowing frantically… the cell phone signified a new beginning for this isolated community.
Years later, progress in Los Ramos advanced rapidly. With generous donations, they bought an electric transformer…yes, you have to buy your own transformers in Nicaragua…to run a pump from the well located two miles down a long, sloping, dusty path to the beach. Now, they had running water in Los Ramos. Their lives became a lot easier.
This agricultural community continued planting and harvesting their frioles, plantains, and sesame seeds. However, they were losing their young people to Costa Rica and other more cosmopolitan places in Nicaragua. There were no jobs to keep this community intact. Something had to be done to help their young families bring in the hay.
Enter sustainable/cultural tourism in Los Ramos. With the help of many knowledgeable and professional tourism people…including my son, Cory, and his good friend Sam…they compiled lists of available resources in Los Ramos, developed 12 cultural tourism programs, created brochures and a website, and perfected their programs with ‘fake’ travelers. Zac, the Peace Corps volunteer, helped them create a budget and worked closely with the community to develop an accounting system.
Word spread quickly about the authentic cultural programs in Los Ramos. Los Ramos hired their local son, Ever, as their new tourism director. They have a well-organized system of accounting, preparing, and planning for their programs. Yet, cultural tourism isn’t without its pitfalls. This indigenous community has learned that there is a fine balance between providing authentic cultural experiences and maintaining, yet improving their lifestyles, culture, and traditions passed down through generations.
First, they have learned that marketing their programs requires computers, cell phones, and internet access. Grandma can’t climb that tree anymore to call the world. It’s a dichotomy of development… a clash of cultures. The world was suddenly at their fingertips, if they learned how to boot-up the computer. They had to quickly become natives with netiquette to run their programs.
Second, they experienced language barriers. More travelers passing through their community, meant they needed someone who could speak some English. Fortunately, Ever has the skills to explain their programs, provide answers to questions, and help tourists limited to English only.
Third, more visitors = more money for the community. More money = more ‘conveniences’ for tourists, as well as their own families. Does providing authentic cultural experiences mean that they can’t buy microwaves, big refrigerators, open an internet café, start a smoothie bar, or buy a big flat-screened TV or iPhone? How do they balance authentic experiences with wanting to offer more comfort and ease for everyone involved in their lives? They are beginning to understand the dilemmas they face. Tourists seek authentic cultural experiences, then they complain about lacking a comfortable mattress, a hot shower, wi-fi, or ice cubes in their freshly squeezed orange juice. Where’s the balance?
Fourth, more money coming into the community always partners with jealousy and power. Host families have to offer safe, comfortable housing for their guests. When non-host families see the money coming into their neighbors’ host homes, they want to become host families, too. Yet, their only accommodations are the pig sty behind their house or the chicken coop. Then, little fights break out, feelings are hurt, and jealousies erupt like the active volcano looming at the top of their community.
Sustainable tourism, in my opinion, is a viable option for Los Ramos, especially considering the alternatives…high rise resorts, where the locals become the maids and gardeners…young men moving to Costa Rica to find jobs to support their families left behind…or cleaning houses in foreign gated communities. I have no doubts that this lovely community will be able to resolve these problems…poco a poco. They are resourceful, creative, and oh…the places they can go with a little help from their friends. This vivacious community of natives with netiquette are learning as they progress to…keep their traditions close to their hearts…proudly share their lifestyles with the world…and most importantly, love their neighbors.
Alba Lugia’s prom-like gown was the highlight of her quinceañera tradition, but it wasn’t the only fancy dress featured in the celebration. Quinceañera custom calls for 14 damas, or maiden attendants, to accompany the quince girl and symbolize the past 14 years of her life. Then, each dama needs an escort, which means the quince girl must select 15 chambelans, or male attendants in suits or tuxedos.
Extensive preparation included lots of powder puffing…
Buckets of hair gel…
And patience while waiting for the quince girl…”Are you ready, yet?” he texts into the next room.
“My aunt is helping me with the final touches,” she texts back.
Awwww…she’s gorgeous…and so much pink!
A beautiful smile...
Let the procession begin!
Life is a party. In Nicaragua, the whole point of being alive is to have fun. Have a blast (literally)…whatever it takes. For Hispanic girls, the 15th birthday, or quinceañera, explains the party theory in preparing for the most lavish celebration of their lives. The quinceañera represents a young girl’s journey from childhood to maturity. It highlights God, family, food, friends, music, and dance. And the food….oh my, the food! It must have taken weeks of preparation.
The food preparations for Alba Lugia’s quinceañera included slaughtering a cow, a pig, and many chickens. When we arrived with our 20 gallons of Jamaica/Rum punch more than a dozen cooks in the outdoor kitchen were busy grating…
The preparations included painting their house pink, blowing up hundreds of pink and purple balloons, ordering hundreds of plastic chairs and tables, and installing giant speakers and disco lights.
Ever’s professional cake-making mother baked a fancy, five-tiered cake in her adobe oven.
All that remained was to wait for quince girl princess to arrive. Then, the party could begin.
For what’s a party without a princess? The party theory in Nicaragua is alive and flourishing. Life is really a party in Nicaragua!
Stay tuned for Part Two: Quinceañeras Traditions
“There will be always something old in the New Year!” ― Mehmet Murat ildan
An old tradition in Nicaragua is to burn the ‘old year’. They collect old clothes, stuff them with dried plantain leaves and lots of gunpowder, and make muñecos, or old men scarecrows. Then, at midnight, they burn the effigies symbolizing an explosion of vices and a new beginning. A post I wrote in January 2012: A Molotov New Year
But, this year, I chose to explode old traditions and make a muñeca…a woman scarecrow.
Lauren brought an old shirt and shoes. I supplied the colorful socks and the pants. We made her head out of a Jicaro pod, painted gorgeous full lips and freckles. Lauren completed her head with fancy make-up, banana leaf hair, and a big lime green bow. She’s ready for a party.
But, wait! She’s not complete without her vices.
“What is her name, Lauren? She needs a name.” I asked. She thought about a name while we were raking the shredded banana leaves. “Laura!” she finally shouted. Perfect! If you live in Latin America, you may be familiar with the “Laura Bozzo Show” on television. Laura is kind of like a female Jerry Springer. She’s bold, bright, and beautiful. And most of all…Laura is a fighter. She fights for women’s equality in Latin America with a lot of controversy and conflict on her shows.
Laura it is! She’s too beautiful to burn on New Year’s Eve. I think she’s a keeper. I’m going to set her in front of my house for a long time…or at least until the midnight bandits try to steal her. Maybe I’ll make a sign for her to hold in honor of women’s rights in Nicaragua.
There will always be something old in the new year…but this year, she’s female! Here’s to keeping the old traditions, yet adding a new twist to the story. May your new year be filled with love, acceptance, and honor. I’ll leave you with a few photos of muñecos that my friend, Cindi, took on the other side of the island.
“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.”
― Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book
I’m not one for holding too many traditions. We had a Christmas tree until Cory graduated from high school, then we ditched the live tree mainly because we ran out of room on our property to replant our Christmas trees. My Christmas tree ornaments, which I so carefully bought over many years, are still stored in our garage in the states. Bah Humbug, some may say, but, honestly it simplified my life and I could concentrate on the really important aspects of the Christmas holidays like visiting family and friends and baking cookies.
Below is my Bah Humbug list of Christmas traditions we’ve discarded for a simpler life, or we have been forced to discard because we live on a tropical island far from the mainstream:
1. Presents: I used to make all my Christmas gifts. Each year I had a new theme: batik, gift baskets, homemade dog and cat biscuits, those little mason jars filled with layers of brownie mix or hot chocolate, homemade jams, Scherenschnitte pictures and frames, which means paper cutting in German, watercolor paintings, and gift bags from our travels around the world. Now, I bake cookies and give them to all our friends and neighbors on Ometepe Island. It is a real treat because most of my friends don’t have ovens and ( if you can believe this) they have never eaten a chocolate chip cookie.
2. Shopping: I was never one for going to the malls in December, and I only attended one Black Friday event. The invention of internet shopping became my sole way to shop for Christmas presents. I love Amazon, but even that is something I can only dream about in Nicaragua.
3. Decorating the house for Christmas: Oh, the collection of snowmen, those little ceramic Christmas trees, nativity scenes, wreaths, and hopelessly tangled Christmas lights and icicles I have given away in yard sales. This year, my 10-year-old friend, Lauren, made me a wreath to hang on my door out of Styrofoam cups. Since I wanted something a little twinkly to add beside the wreath, I took four used rum bottles, steamed the labels off, added some water, green and red food coloring, and set them on my porch railing beside the hanging wreath. It adds a festive touch to my entrance when the tropical sun shines through them. However, it confuses my hummingbirds. They’ve been buzzing around the red bottles with a puzzled and very determined look.
4. Christmas cards: I gave up that tradition long ago when the cost of a stamp was more than a small homemade gift. We don’t have mail delivery on the island, so that settles any thought of buying Christmas cards… which I’ve never seen here anyway.
5. Trips to see the Christmas lights: At the Bristol Motor Speedway, they have a fantastic collection of Christmas lights and scenes. What made it so cool was that we could drive our car around the speedway to see all the light displays. Now, very few homes have Christmas lights, and the ones that do are only lit up for a short period because 1. Electricity is expensive here 2. We don’t want to take our motorcycle out after dark because there are too many obstacles on the dirt paths and the few paved roads. 3. When electric demand is high, those who have the power ( literally) ration our usage. For example, there was a huge techno concert the other night. The surrounding towns were cut-off from electricity so the techno concert could go on without missing an eardrum shattering beat.
Ometepe Island still maintains its simplified Christmas traditions. Here are a few.
Church is still very important. The Virgin Mary statue is paraded around town for La Purisma for the first eight days of December accompanied by loud firecrackers and pipe bombs.
Nativity scenes abound…but where is baby Jesus? Traditionally, the manger is empty until Christmas Eve, then baby Jesus is tenderly placed in the manger.
Traditional handmade gifts are given…twig brooms, arts and crafts, fans, hats to shade one from the tropical sun, cloth dolls, handmade baskets and toys, and always lots of fruits.
Nacatamales..the traditional midnight Christmas Eve dinner.
Beautiful Christmas cakes adorn special parties.
Gift giving is traditional, and the gifts are usually given at midnight on Christmas Eve, but they open their gifts in private because they don’t want to embarrass the humble gift giver. Below are some of the gifts we received this year…bread fruit, lots of watermelons, underwear, socks, jewelry, a Christmas wreath, and precious Pre-Columbian pottery that my friend, Mitchel, dug out of a construction site where he was working.
In return, I keep up one tradition…my annual Christmas cookies. It seems fitting to me to continue this tradition because homemade cookies are scarce in Nicaragua, and I love sharing a tradition I have held for many years with my island friends and neighbors.
I hope your holiday is overflowing with family, friends, and lots of sweet things this year.
“The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.”
― William Makepeace Thackeray
I have often wondered why mirrors are a prized possession of the poor in Latin America. We all have mirrors, but in Nicaragua mirrors are a luxury. They are very expensive and there are many mirror salesman that travel the dusty, cow manured roads in search of buyers for their precious portals. My neighbor has a large, faux gold framed mirror in her living space. It hangs high on a dilapidated wall, the only shining adornment in her dirt-floored shack… if you don’t count the picture of Jesus beside the TV, which is wobbling against the cement block wall.
In the Mesoamerican culture, mirrors were used as a portal to another realm. I imagine them gazing into this mysterious portal, unable to interact, yet performing time-worn rituals to call forth the gods of love, health, and riches. This venerable tradition evolved from their early beliefs that the smooth surface of water could be used as a potent tool for divination, seeing the unknown, portals to the sacred caves, conduits of the supernatural forces, and as synonyms for the power of the sun. Before mirrors, bowls of water were used to examine the reflections of sick children. If the child’s reflection was dark then his soul, or tonalli in Nahuatl, had escaped from his body. I wonder, were the ancient ones frustrated because they couldn’t enter nirvana…constantly chanting “Beam me up, Scotty?” Or, were they satisfied in the powers of divination only with the ability to see the unknown?
This novelty of reflection continues in my little community. Peering into the mirror, the children let out a burst of giggling glee. They have the same reaction when I show them the digital photos I’ve taken. Then, I begin to realize that for people who have next to nothing, a mirror is an unattainable luxury. I am dumbstruck. It is hard for me to imagine a world where self-reflection is an unattainable luxury.
But, mirrors, as well as digital photography, can change that. They enable the poor to see the world through different eyes. I experience a moment of pure bliss in watching the children look at their reflections in the mirror and on my camera. They laugh at it and with it, considering it to be a kind of jolly companion. Pity and sympathy for their impoverished lifestyles vanish with the revelation that they are truly happy. This family chose to look at the world with optimism and joy. The world is their looking-glass, and gives back to them the reflections of their triumphant faces. This simple moment changed my perspective of poverty. Their looking-glass reflects hope for this troubled world in which we live.
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
― Mark Twain
November 2nd is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Nicaragua, when the cemeteries fill with family members decorating, cleaning, and painting the crypts of their loved ones. It’s a time to celebrate the dearly departed. Theresa and I walked to the Moyogalpa cemetery early this morning with flowers for our dead friends. We passed people with hoes, buckets of paint, brooms, and flowers…lots and lots of flowers.
The grave sites are picked clean of all weeds and the soft volcanic soil is raked. Then, they wash the crypts and apply a new coat of paint. Finally, family members and friends place beautiful flowers, little handmade skeletons, candy, and other bling-bling on the graves.
We walked along the paths admiring the variety of decorations, the arrangement of flowers, and the beautifully tiled and painted crypts. Even the poorest families, who couldn’t afford to make a crypt, lovingly placed flowers over the hills of dirt protecting their loved ones.
Theresa and I were looking for Jerry’s grave, the only foreigner buried in the Moyogalpa cemetery. We hadn’t been back to visit the cemetery since Jerry’s burial, so we couldn’t remember the exact location. Roaming workers directed us to the spot under the large Jicote tree shading his beautifully tiled crypt.
After a little chat with Jerry, and placing some flowers on his grave, we searched for Jose’s grave. “Excuse me,” I asked, but can you help us find Jose’s grave?” “He died 3 years ago. He was 24 years old and he worked at our house.” Friendly and helpful Nicaraguans helped us search for Jose, but there were hundreds of Jose’s in the cemetery and we didn’t know his last name. Some said he is buried in this dirt covered grave, but we didn’t know for sure. I placed my flowers beside the grave, and told Jose how much I missed him.
It was a lovely dia de muerte. R.I.P Jerry and Jose.
Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions. ~ Dalai Lama
Francisco’s 85-year-old grandfather, Don Cabo, is one of the happiest people I know. When Francisco visited us last week he said, “Oh, I have many problems. I wish for to have happy like my grandfather, Don Cabo.” Then he told the following story about his grandfather’s ancient bull horn. (Told in Francisco’s words to me.)
The Bull Horn
My grandfather is the happiest person I know. He never get angry like my grandmother. In December, Mayans come to visit us. They stay in our houses. My grandfather was very happy to share his life with them. He played his old bull horn for the Mayan people. He like to share his customs with the Mayans. The Mayan people enjoy my grandfather. After the Mayan people go back to their country, my grandmother look for the bull horn and discover that it was lost. She tell my grandfather and they look in all the places for the old bull horn. My grandmother discover that the Mayan people take the bull horn and she become very angry. But, my grandfather, the happiest person that I know say, “I am so proud.” “Why are you so proud for the Mayan people take your old bull horn?” my grandmother shout in very angry voice. My grandfather say, “I am so proud that the Mayan people put value on my old bull horn to steal. There are many things they could have took, but they choose my old bull horn, which is of great value to me. For this, I am so proud.”
I wish for to have happy like my abuelo,” said Francisco.
“Me, too, Francisco,” I responded. I was touched by his story. There was a lesson to learn here. For happiness does not just appear. Instead, it springs from our actions and our attitudes about life. Don Cabo understands happiness. He understands compassion, lives a positive and giving life, and enjoys every minute of every day. I hope the Mayans are happy with his ancient bull horn. ( I printed this photo for Don Cabo. I took it in 2004 when we attended his granddaughter’s birthday party.)
Be Happy Today! :-)
The plastic blanketing the pinata flapped ominously in the wind. It was a sodden day of rain on Ometepe Island. Fifty empty plastic chairs circled the pinata predicting a brewing storm over the volcano.
A sickly light, like yellowed old toenails, slanted over the steep sides of the volcano, sprinkling the birthday cake with bad omens, foreshadowing the celebration day of Hyron’s second year of life.
The children comforted forlorn Hyron, optimistically promising him that the storm would pass quickly.
Giant bottle rockets soared over the dark clouds, signaling the little ones to ready themselves for the dance of the pinata.
In hindsight, we should have realized that not even a threatening storm foretells the ruin of a pinata party in Nicaragua. Quite the opposite, it forecasts a grand celebration in the life of a brand new two-year old.
The synonyms for foreshadow are italicized in my Boding Birthday Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreshadow. Take a peek, but I’m warning you..you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. Many talented photographers await in the wind.