Please hang in there with me while I am in travel mode. I’ll try to post every other day, until we return to Ometepe, next week. In the meantime, enjoy a story I wrote in 2004 about our neighbors.
September 10, 2004
Our neighbors lack what most of us would consider necessities in life. They have no indoor plumbing, no carpeted or tiled floors, and no kitchen appliances. When Luvis and Julio awaken each day, their feet hit the dirt floor and they part a large, black plastic curtain that separates their sleeping quarters from their living area. The smoke escapes through the many holes in the lean-to kitchen signaling Papa’s preparation of fried rice and beans, a staple in their daily diets.
While Papa is preparing breakfast, Julio and Luvis run to the lake’s edge. Ron and I watch them from one of our three front doors as they shed their clothes and dip into their enormous bathtub clad only in their underwear. Julio’s freestyle stroke is improving daily with Ron’s guidance. His long, thin arms slice through the water as he chases his younger sister. They laugh and wave to us from the lake’s edge, a child’s dream. Papa moves his pigs around in the morning. The grand pig, the one he bred with a neighbor’s small female pig, is tethered in the choicest area in the front yard. We save our daily scraps of food for this magnificent creature. He is Papa’s source of pride. When Papa feels that the pig is deliciously plump, he will board the ferry and sell his pig at the market in Rivas. It should give him enough money to live on for the rest of the year.
Sometimes, I feel like I have been embedded in a nursery rhyme, like Papa’s fat pig. (off to market, jiggidy jig) Life on the island has a magical quality that I can recall from the old nursery rhymes my mother read to me as a child. Like Little Bo Peep, Luvis tends to her four dogs and the baby doves that have fallen from their nests. Julio is the Pied Piper enticing all the neighborhood boys with his new wooden top. Papa reminds me of old Mother Hubbard. The kids tell us that Mama is working in a hotel in Costa Rica. She has been gone for four years. Papa relays another version of the story. Of course, both versions could be lost in translation. Without a good grasp of the Spanish language, life remains a mystery.
All I know is that Papa is 70 years old and works from sunup until sundown providing for his brood. When the kids return from school at noon, Papa fires up the wooden grate and mixes the rice and beans together to form Gallo pinto. Every day, they jump fearlessly over the barbed wire fence with a steaming bowl of Gallo pinto for us. In exchange, they raid our refrigerator for ice-cold water, mayonnaise, and peanut butter.
We’ve cooked up many delicacies for them that were beyond their imagination: pancakes with vanilla pudding, popcorn, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, coleslaw, barbecued chicken, and mashed potatoes. Nevertheless, their favorite treat is still the mayonnaise. “Rico, rico,” they squeal with delight. I think it means “rich.” I don’t know if they are referring to the taste or the cost. A big jar of mayonnaise at our little pulperia costs 75 cordobas. That is almost five dollars. That is a day’s salary for a head contractor supervising a construction site.
Luvis always refills our water jug with fresh water from the spigot before returning it to the refrigerator. Ron and I are always on the lookout for this seemingly insignificant act because we boil our water thoroughly before drinking it. Neither Ron nor I have the heart to explain that we are afraid to drink the water and they probably wouldn’t understand anyway.
I don’t want to idealize their poverty because it has many drawbacks. Sanitation and health are huge issues that they have to surmount daily. Luvis comes to our door almost every day with a “duele,”or a cut or infection. We wash it with soap; apply antiseptic cream and a band-aid. They have no concept of keeping a wound clean. Once a week their older sister checks their heads for lice. I’m scratching my head as I write this.
Last week, Papa asked us if he could borrow 50 cordobas because his oldest daughter had to go to the hospital in Rivas and he needed the money to go with her on the ferry. Luvis told me that her sister was bleeding from somewhere. I looked in my children’s picture book to find the body part from which she was bleeding. “Is she bleeding from her nose?” I asked. “No,” Luvis responded. She kept trying to tell me the place, but I couldn’t find the word in the children’s picture book. Finally, she pointed, “down there” and I assumed her sister had bloody diarrhea and maybe dysentery.
The next day our Spanish tutor told us that Luvis’ sister had a tubal pregnancy and she had bled from her vagina. Robinson also told us that he had to give her a ride on his motorcycle to the ferry because she was unable to walk. Apparently, he was the only ambulance service in Moyogalpa. Although it was comforting to discover that the islanders take care of each other, it was more exciting to solve another part of the Spanish communication puzzle. No wonder I couldn’t find the word vagina in the children’s picture book. Maybe it should be included in the next edition!
I believe that I am slowly acclimating to the island life. Although, many reading this would feel sorry for our neighbors, I have never felt pity for them. It’s not because I am calloused and hardened because, if you know me, you know that I’m a compassionate person. I think it is because they don’t perceive their lives as a hardship. They don’t know that they are poor. They are never hungry, never cold, (our Spanish dictionary only has one verb form for the word, freezing), and they are deeply loved by their extended family. Life is successful when Papa can get enough money from the sale of his fattened pig to buy his children’s school shoes.
The islanders are proud and noble people. They have the ability to prioritize their values in their rawest form. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the reason for my magnetized attraction to Ometepe, maybe it can be summed up in one word, “reality.” It beats any reality show on TV I’ve ever seen, and I was addicted to them all. I feel honored to be here. Each day, as my vocabulary increases, and I solve more mysteries, I marvel at their generosity, their work ethic, and their love of life. I can’t imagine what I’ll discover when I become fluent in the language. However, I intuitively know that the surprises will only bring me closer to the island and its people.