It’s a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood

Steven helps Ron

You know how a song gets stuck in your head and you hum it all day long?
Yesterday, as I was raking and burning the mango leaves, Mr. Roger’s song, “It’s a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood” cycled repeatedly through my brain. If you have forgotten the words:

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?”
Fred Rogers

Mister Rogers had two distinct neighborhoods on his show: The Neighborhood of Make-Believe and The Real Neighborhood. The Neighborhood of Make-Believe was comprised of puppets, where each character played a role much more complex than one would think.

Yesterday, I felt like I was living in The Neighborhood of Make-Believe. With each bar I hummed, more and more neighborhood kids arrived to play in our gringo world of make-believe. Steven, the two-year-old, crawled under the fence and toddled over to our house wearing his cloth diapers. He reminded me of the character, Daniel Striped Tiger, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Like Daniel Striped Tiger, Steven is shy, yet affectionate and loving when he gets to know you. Ron plopped him in the wheelbarrow and Steven helped him dig a trench and drop bricks and stones into the trench for a needed retaining wall. Steven’s favorite greeting is “guapa” ( the female adjective for handsome). In fact, everything is “guapa”. “Steven, do you want some lunch?” I asked. “Guapa”, he responded.  “Steven, do you want to color?”  “Guapa,” he said. “Steven, your diaper is dirty. You can’t sit on my couch.”  “Guapa”, he replied as he plopped down on my couch with a giggle.

Christian (10 years old) and Reyna (12 years old) arrived to play with Cory and Sam, but Cory and Sam weren’t here, so they hung out with the old gringos.  Christian reminds me of Cornflake S. Pecially because, like Cornflake, she is good-natured, inventive, and industrious. I showed her how to cut the grass with my sickle. It took a few swings to perfect her stroke, and in no time the grass was flying. She’d make a wicked golfer.

Reyna reminds me of Hula Mouse. Hula Mouse was a Spanish speaking character that could do many wondrous things with his hula hoop. Cory and Sam had their slack-line suspended between two trees (It is similar to a flat tight rope), and Reyna demonstrated her keen sense of balance in walking the slack-line.

Johnson showed up with a sack of bananas for us. Yesterday was his birthday. Johnson comes to our house every Sunday and Ron teaches him  English, as well as trains him for marathons. Johnson is like Prince Friday. He is curious, interested in his schoolwork, dedicated, and very respectful.

Julio arrived with his machete. I have been asking him to machete our yard for us for days. Remember, we have no lawn mowers on the island ( and only a few in the entire country). Julio is Bob Dog, the lovable, good-hearted, and rather timid dog, who loves to howl. Like Bob Dog, Julio is shy around girls and sometimes gets confused when things get complicated (especially when we are all speaking English). Julio is practically part of our family. We’ve known him since he was 9 years old. His birthday is next Tuesday and he will be 19 years old. He also is graduating from high school. There will be a dual celebration, his family has a big fiesta planned for Saturday. I’m making a chocolate cake…Julio’s favorite.

There were probably a dozen other people that showed up at our house yesterday. Marvin, my iron man, measured my kitchen walls for two more projects. Santiago stopped by to pick up a memory card I purchased for him in the states. He’s going to help Ron with his retaining wall in lieu of paying us money for the memory card. Roberto arrived in his truck to pick up some gravel and barbed wire for Izzy. Izzy, from Australia,  is staying with Roberto and she is building a little earth bag house for herself on Roberto’s property. Too many visitors to remember…but that’s the way it usually is in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I love the spontaneity.

If I had to compare myself to a character in The Neighborhood of Make-Believe, I would say I am most like Harriette Elizabeth Cow. She was the school teacher at the school house at Some Place Else. She is a kindly  teacher who has a warm relationship with her students and likes to help them in interesting ways. Yep…that’s me.

Comparing Ron to a character is a little more difficult. He is a blend of several characters. He could be part Edgar Cooke, the chef at the castle. Edgar Cooke generally sang his messages in a minor key. Ron…poor Ron, loves to sing, but he is tone deaf. His messages shriek in a low pitched song, making all the neighbors giggle behind his back. He is definitely not like King Friday XIII. King Friday XIII ruled in a regal and pompous manner. So unlike Ron, mi esposo. Instead, I think he has many virtues and qualities like Mister Rogers. He is a gentle, compassionate, creative, and virtuous man. Yep, that’s Ron.

My trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe must come to an end, now. It’s time for me to return to the Real Neighborhood, where I’ll take on new roles. Today, I’m Miss Paulificate, who had a cleaning service and was always seen with a duster. My duster is my little whisk broom. Ron will return to the Real Neighborhood playing the role of Handyman Negri, who was the royal handyman and always available to help with repairs around the kingdom.

Mister Rogers always ended each episode with the song, “Tomorrow, Tomorrow”. Now, I’ll have that song stuck in my head all day. Here’s to starting each day with a song or two, and a smile!






Ron’s Passions

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For those of you who know Ron, you also know that his passions are fishing and gardening.  If you come to visit us, generally you’ll find him puttering around in the huge garden in our back yard.  If he’s not there, he’ll be in the front yard, fishing.  Our little La Paloma beach house is the perfect setting for Ron.  The early morning sun rises above Vulcan Concepcion spreading its tropical rays on his mounds of fruits and vegetables scattered throughout the half-acre garden.  The fence is dotted with wild purple morning glories and vibrant yellow flowers resembling an old English country garden watercolor painting.  In our front yard, Lake Cocibolca waves her gentle fingers beyond our front doors tempting Ron with her aquatic delights.  Life couldn’t be more perfect, or more picturesque.

With a year round growing season, Ron has experimented with a variety of fruits and vegetables.  His cucumbers, papaya, green beans, sweet potatoes, black beans, black-eyed peas, oregano, and greens are bearing now.  It’s been a constant battle, though, with the neighbor’s chickens, the nematodes, leaf-cutter ants, and yesterday, the wild horse that got in the garden and ate the leaves off his banana tree.  The only consolation was that the horse manure landed exactly in the right spot.  The neighborhood kids were here playing baseball yesterday and they forgot to close the front gate.  This morning, Julio spotted the horse and he and his four bony dogs chased it out of the yard.

Our friends and neighbors have generously supplied us with sweet potato cuttings, peanuts, basil, mint, and other starter plants.  Ron has tenderly nurtured carrots and beets for months now, but so far, they refuse to grow.  Some people have told us to pee on the plants, but that hasn’t solved the problem.  There are so many mysteries to tropical gardening.  The volcanic soil is rich and sandy, yet it lacks certain nutrients.  For example, Ron’s tomato plants were growing tall and spindly like something out of Jack and the Bean Stock, so one of my former English students told Ron to try pouring milk in the soil.  Instead, he mixed up the liquid calcium supplement I bought from the traveling pharmacist, and it worked like a charm. Now, they have been attacked by nematodes, so he had to sterilize the soil and plant them in buckets to prevent another nematode onslaught.

Ron’s garden is dotted with avocado trees, papayas, eggplant, peppers, cantaloupe, and garbanzo beans.  Between the rows and circles, Ron machetes the tall grass to make mounds of compost.  It’s a never-ending job.  But, in the process, Ron has lost over twenty pounds.  Today, he was showing me his arms and his machete arm appears to be twice the size of his other one. He’s becoming a real pro with his machete…. a sign that he’s fitting into this primitive, macho world of ours.

Although all the neighbors like to visit Ron’s garden, it’s really puzzling that no one has a garden of their own here.  We can’t understand why they don’t garden.  There are large fields of tobacco, plantains, coffee, rice, beans, and sesame seeds, but no family gardens.  We haven’t figured out if they lack the initiative or the know how, or both.  Don Jose, our closest neighbor, sometimes doesn’t have enough food to feed his family, yet he has a big garden spot behind his house that is overgrown with mango trees, lemons, and other tropical fruit trees.  One of the locals recently told us, “We like to pick and we like to eat.”  That’s very true.  Maybe they just don’t know how to dig and plant.  Fruits are so abundant here and easily obtainable.  If we want lemons, mangos, oranges, coconuts, hot peppers, or other fruits, we walk outside and gather them off the trees or the ground.

When Ron gets tired of gardening or macheting, he grabs his fishing pole and heads to the lake.  The lake near our house is very shallow and sandy.  Although, the Guapote ( the big, fat fish of the lake) are generally found in the more rocky, deeper areas, he’s been successful at catching smaller, silvery fighting fish that jump into the air about six feet. The Munchaca are harder to eat because they have lots of little bones.

His fishing pole is still a novelty in the land of long fishing nets.  Strangers walking along the shore will often stop and stare at Ron casting his line into the lake.  They’re sort of befuddled with the unusual contraption and don’t know what to make of it.  One day, Ron took his electronic fish finder to the lake with him and you can’t imagine all the fuss that it created.  For the past week, Cory and Sam have been flying a spider man kite. The end of November and  December are the windy months…excellent kite weather.  With lots of creative ingenuity and third world materials, they  attached the kite to Ron’s fishing pole and tested it out at the beach.  As a result, we’ve learned many new Spanish words like… tail, kite, wind, and crash and burn.

Ron is also the household chef.  I’m glad that he enjoys cooking because it gives me more time to write.  Like his fishing pole, a cocina man “kitchen man” is a novelty on Ometepe and I suspect in all Latin American cultures.  The neighbors are in awe when they see Ron in the kitchen preparing a meal.  Several years ago, when I asked my English student boys how to prepare plantains or other exotic fruits and vegetables, they gave me blank stares.  They had no idea what takes place in a kitchen.  The cocina is an alien world full of frilly aprons, smoky fires, squawking pigs, and crying babies.  I gave them a writing assignment one day.  “Go home and write the recipe for your favorite meal, in English.”  They had to interview their mothers and translate the recipes into English.  Not many could do it and the recipes I got were useless because they don’t use measuring cups or ovens.  The recipes were hysterical with words like, drain the blood, gather the wood, use a fistful of oil, and locate a chicken egg.

So now you have a little peek into my amazing husband’s life.  He’s definitely a keeper!!  I’ve seen these young Nica women eyeing him and smiling seductively at a gringo who likes to cook, fish, and garden and I may have to swat them away with my twig broom.  Life on Ometepe suits him well.  As the neighbors say, “He’s a beddy goot man.”

Our First Nicaraguan Thanksgiving

I am in travel mode again. I’m headed to Florida with my mother and step-father, then back to Nicaragua. While I am traveling, enjoy a story I wrote about our first Thanksgiving in Nicaragua in 2004.

Seven years later, many things have changed, while many things stay the same. I’m hoping that I will be able to buy a frozen turkey on the mainland this year. A new airport is almost finished where the old airstrip used to be. Norman still drives his truck around broadcasting the local news. Tourists still die climbing our volcanoes. (The two boys lost on Vulcan Maderas in 2004 were found dead, three weeks later) Our electricity is still sporadic. Yet, for all that remains the same…I wouldn’t trade it for a mansion or a million dollars. Home is where the heart is…and my heart is embedded on Ometepe Island.

Our 2004 Thanksgiving Dinner

A Nicaraguan Thanksgiving

November 24, 2004

            The biggest problems we have encountered in living on Ometepe are speculation and rumors.  Lacking a local newspaper, radio station, or television station, the islanders have to rely on information from an outside source to keep them abreast of current conditions on the home front.  If there is a death, birth, wedding, political rally, or a new bank in Moyogalpa, someone hires Norma’s son to broadcast the announcement.  He hops into his beat up old Nissan truck with two giant speakers in the bed and travels the rutted roads blasting the news, which is gratefully appreciated by even the most auditory challenged listeners.  However, Norma’s son only delivers local Moyogalpa news, so anyone needing information about other parts of the island has to rely on media that isn’t always accurate.  Such was the case on Thanksgiving Day.

A week before Thanksgiving, Ron and I were on a wild chompipe chase, ‘a wild turkey chase’.  I wanted a turkey for Thanksgiving, even though we have no oven to cook it.   Necessity is the mother of invention, so I had a plan to roast it in a big hole that we would dig in the sand on our beach.  Things didn’t turn out as I had planned because, although we found a live turkey, Ron wanted no part of my plan and refused to bother with such a massive production.  However, a day before Thanksgiving, Francisco, my dedicated English student, and now a good friend, came to our rescue with a 5 to 6 pound Guapote that his Uncle Foster caught in his fishing net.

While wandering the streets of Moyogalpa looking for a chompipe, we heard Norma’s son broadcasting the opening of a new bank.  We’re getting rather good at identifying the shish kebob of Spanish words in context and are now able to get the drift of most conversations if we know the subject.  We stopped at the Hospedaje Central for a cold beer and listened to a discussion about the two lost hikers on Vulcan Maderas.   A tourist asked if they found the boys and Valeria launched into a tirade about the stupidity of hikers that refuse to spend ten dollars to hire a guide to trek the volcanoes.

Thanksgiving Day, a week after the boys were lost, Ron and I were disassembling our broken fan to get parts to make a grill for our Guapote, when we heard a helicopter flying above our house.  The only other time we saw anything flying above Ometepe was in early November, right before the elections.  Daniel Ortega hovered above our house and landed in the La Paloma playground near the elementary school.  He campaigned hard for the Sandinista mayor and handed out US dollars to all the kids at the school.  Previously, the islanders had seen one plane in February, 2004.  A prop plane flying from Columbia to Guatemala lost altitude over Ometepe and their choice was to dump their cargo or crash into the lake.  They opted to dump their load, which consisted of many kilos of cocaine dropped from the sky like manna from heaven.

We dropped our fan pieces and ran out to see the helicopter flying in the direction of Vulcan Maderas.  All the neighbors were jumping and running excitedly to catch a glimpse of the novelty.  We wondered if it was the old Sandinista helicopter hired by the US boy’s parents to search for their son.  It looked exactly like the helicopter that Daniel Ortega flew in… an old, army helicopter painted in camouflaged colors.  I wondered who was piloting the antiquated thing and if it was an old Sandinista pilot who had both of his legs blown off in the war.  I wondered why there wasn’t a helicopter hired to search for the El Salvadoran and if the boys on Vulcan Maderas were still alive.

A few minutes later, a new Piper Cub buzzed our house.  It circled four times headed for the old landing strip near our house.  We all hopped on bicycles and peddled frantically to the old landing strip to see if it would land.  Julio clung to the handlebars, Luvis straddled the rear tire, Ron panted as he wove through the rutted, black sand road, and I ran along the side.  At the old air strip, everyone from La Paloma had gathered to watch the event.  I really don’t know if the landing strip had ever been used and after a heavy rainy season, the volcanic sand had washed most of the strip into the lake leaving crevices large enough to park a Mac Truck inside the holes.  The islanders watched in fascination as the shiny bird circled four more times, each time getting lower to inspect the potential landing site.  But, to the disappointment of all, it was unable to land and it sped off across the lake toward Managua .

Like the fish kill in September, speculation and rumor abounded.  Everyone thought these unusual sightings of novel flying machines had something to do with the boys lost on the volcano.  One onlooker said he just heard on the radio that one of the boys had been found alive.  Another said, “No.  All they found so far was a wallet.”  Everyone agreed that it was a huge event because the lost boys  were gringos.  Although the other boy was from Great Britain, all the islanders called anyone with white skin a gringo. Technically, that term is reserved for citizens of the USA because during the war with Mexico, when the Mexican soldiers saw the green uniforms of US soldiers, they said, “Green, go” in other words, “get your asses out of our country.”  But, the islanders use the term affectionately and we don’t find it offensive.

Where was Norma’s son when you needed him?  We didn’t know what to believe about the lost boys.  We returned to our house and it began to rain, so instead of grilled Guapote, Ron made a delicious Guapote Thanksgiving stew.  I think it topped the turkey.  We sipped a bottle of Chilean wine and toasted our lives on this wondrous primitive island lacking any hint of tourism infrastructure.  We gave thanks for the many blessings bestowed on our lives and prayed for the safety of the boys on the volcano.  We drank to our generous neighbors, whose family has increased now that Papa’s two older daughters and their little niños have moved back home ( another long, sad, story) , and thanked them for translating the TV news that evening using slow, well pronounced words for our benefit.  The Managua station said there is no new information.  It’s been ten days now and the boys still haven’t been found.  We’re all dreading the news that maybe they didn’t survive and wondering what the effects of these deaths will have on tourism on Ometepe.

Sideline:  Sorry, this letter is so disjointed.  We’ve been without electricity 2 days now, and tonight (Sunday) our neighbors who own the little palm leafed bar down the road have somehow bypassed the transformer that blew up so they could have electricity for cold beer and loud music.  Lester’s Papa sent him on his bicycle tonight to tell us that we’d have electricity until 3 am .  With lots of sign language and pictures on our white board, we figured out that the temporary line is dangling dangerously close to the lake water and we have to shut off the power to our house before we go to bed so we don’t get a dangerous power surge.  Anyway, that’s the best I can make of it.  It has been a relaxing change without power.  I’ve read, painted a beautiful watercolor scene looking out our front door, and Ron’s been busy in the garden… which I promise will be the next newsletter.  We had our freezer full of chicken, Guapote, and hamburger.. so today we had a big feast with the neighbors.  We grilled hamburgers, made two types of delicious fish and cheese stews, and ate delicious grilled chicken and plantains.  Lourdita, the 3-year-old, wore her red party dress, which she tore on the fence; we danced, drank lemon/rum drinks, warm beer…, and sang lots of Spanish songs.

It’s almost December and we’re looking forward to many celebrations.  Cory will be here Dec. 9th, Julio’s birthday is the sixth, ( now, he and Luvis have told me that Papa looked at The Paper and said that Julio is only 11 and Luvis is only 10 ) go figure….no one seems to know how old they are here!!  Our neighbor’s daughter at the local bar is getting married this month, and many French Canadians have flown in for the wedding, because Eric, the groom, is from Quebec .  We feel like we are becoming a part of the community now.  I even helped to birth Don Jose’s litter of piglets.

Today started a festival of the Immaculate Conception.  Apparently, they take the Virgin Mary out of the church and she sleeps in various homes for the next eight days.  Everyone gets to hunt for her at 7 o’clock each evening.  When they find her, the house owner has to give everyone presents, like fruit, candy, and little toys.  Then, the home owner has to cart her back to the church and they start all over again.  Ron and I are hoping that she doesn’t end up at our house because we’ll have to buy lots of toys and candy and she’d be very heavy to carry a mile back to town.  We can’t quite figure out how the Immaculate Conception occurred on Dec. 8th and Jesus was born on Dec. 25th.

Well, I’m really rambling, now…trying to fit it all in and copy it before we shut off the power to the house.  I’d better close this before I really get carried away.  I’ll write a better letter when I have reliable power.


Homesickness in Color

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I am unbelievably homesick! Not for the states, but for my family and home in Nicaragua. I had to return to the states for three weeks. UGH! In a period of two weeks I’ve endured a bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork, cold and snow in my shorts and flip-flops, hospitals and nursing home visits with elderly parents, an ingrown toenail, packing and moving my mother and her husband to Florida, the Penn State scandal on every TV station, a bad haircut, and skin so dry and scaly that I look like an alligator.

To end on a positive note, I only have one more week in the states, my mother is packed and ready to go, her husband will be released from the hospital with doctor’s approval to fly to Florida, the Steelers won tonight’s football game (I could listen to it in English for a change), I shopped at Wal-Mart, drank good wine, ate pierogies, slept under two quilts, saw the stunning maples and oaks change colors, and had wondrous deep mother-daughter conversations. Life is good, no matter where I hang my hammock…..but…I’m still homesick!

Enjoy my homesickness in color slideshow. Just looking at these photos keeps me sane. I’m tapping my emerald flip-flops together…there’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.

Dung Beetles and Politicians: A Comparison

A Dung Beetle

Today is election day in Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega is the projected winner. Of course, anyone living in Nicaragua for the past six months could have predicted this long ago. Instead of a political discourse ( I am certainly not a political analyst), and since my contest is over and we have a winner (see post below), I thought you might be interested in a few facts about the dung beetle, and a comparison of dung beetles to politicians. You may choose to read between the lines…or not.

Fact # 1: A dung beetle refers to all the species of beetles which are dependent on the feces of animals for their food and shelter. Not surprisingly, the species of politicians feed off the crap of their constituents, as well. They have a peculiar ability to eat the poo of their followers and regurgitate it into meaningless promises …and more poo. For their survival as a species depends on the crap received and redistributed within their habitats.

Fact # 2: There exist more than 7,000 species of dung beetles on the planet, which are found on all continents except for Antarctica. Politicians are found all over the world, too…except for Antarctica. Antarctica has no president or government. Apparently, this frozen continent is governed by seals and penguins. So, it would be very difficult to tell a dung beetle or a politician to eat sh** on Antarctica. Very little poo is found there.

Fact # 3: Dung beetles have an important role in mythology. The Egyptian scarab beetle was considered sacred. The ancient Egyptians believed that it was a giant dung beetle that kept the world revolving, as these beetles revolve dung balls today. Some tribes in South America believe that the first human was carved from a dung ball. As with politicians, the sh** hits the fan as it continuously rolls from one government office to another…gaining momentum…growing larger and more powerful…until it is so enormous and so powerful…it is unstoppable. It becomes a bureaucratic nightmare filled with a stench that spreads its greedy, rolling poo throughout the world. It makes me wonder if the first human carved from a dung ball was a politician.

Fact # 4: Even though it may sound repelling to eat feces, dung beetles are very helpful little insects. They disperse seeds, clean up animal poo, and recycle nutrients back into the soil. Politicians can be very helpful, too. So, the next time you see your local politicians, tell them to “eat sh**.” It may be the best compliment they have ever received. 🙂

Thank you, dear readers, for participating in my contest. We actually have two winners: Sandy and Tamara. They both guessed a dung beetle ball, only 3 minutes apart. Your seed dolphin prize should be in the mail, soon.