Saturday, August 23, 2008

Revisiting Nicaragua: Part 5

Monday 18 August 2008

We decided to leave Mérida on the 10:15 bus and head to Moyogalpa, where we’d take a day trip to the beach at Punta Jésus Maria (only 5km away) and then have Indío Viejo Vegetariano at Hospedaje Central for dinner.

The first glitch in our plan came around 9:30, when Conny told us that they’d just found out that the 10:15 bus was broken down and the next bus out of Mérida wouldn’t be until Tuesday morning.

Rob and I sat on a hammock for a while, trying to figure out what to do for the day. Reina looked slightly pleased about our situation. “No te vayas, Meli,” she said.

So Rob and I went over to teach the English class—the kids had shown up, either not remembering or not understanding that they were currently on “vacation” because their teacher had left the day before. It was a beginner class of very small children, and what made the whole situation hilarious was that when we arrived, 3 slightly older children (Horation, Darwin, and Eugenio) were attempting to teach it. But mainly there was a lot of screaming and running around, even rom the supposed teachers (who were probably only 11-12 years old themselves). For some reason, Horatio had decided to teach possessive pronouns, so we went over sentences such as: “The book is hers. These are their things. Is this your bag?”

Around 10:30, I saw a big van pull up and I thought it was dropping off a load of tourists. But Reina told me it was full of tourists who were leaving and I should ask if there was room for Rob and me. The van looked fully loaded, but they said okay. The driver told us it was 85 córdovas per person, which was about 3 times as much as the bus, but still less than $4 each, so not completely outrageous.

We quickly threw some money at Conny to pay for our stay, gave Reina one last hug, and climbed aboard the van.

It was a bumpy ride and I was unfortunately facing backwards, which meant that by 20 minutes into it, I was green and near death with car sickness. I managed to hang on until we made it to Moyogalpa. We ended up getting a room at Hospedaje Central, simply because we had been there before and couldn’t remember how awful it was.

We got something fairly disgusting and greasy for lunch, and then regrouped to take our trip to Punta Jésus Maria. We boarded a bus going in that direction and then walked 1km down a dirt path to get there. It was lovely. We swam and relaxed by the beach and then ended up walking the rest of the way back to town.

When we got back to Moyogalpa it was just before dark. We quickly noticed that there was no electricity anywhere in town. We also discovered that there was no running water. These things happen in Nicaragua. You just have to wait them out.

We relaxed in some hammocks and waited for the water and power to come back on, so we could order Indío Viejo—the whole reason why we’d come to Moyogalpa in the first place. We waited and waited. We were really hungry, so Don Alberto’s tiny bananas and Rob’s stash of junk-food came in handy.

In the darkness, Rob was sound asleep before 8pm. I was way too hungry, hot, and dirty (from swimming in the lake and walking 5km on dusty roads) to sleep. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever spent a night like that in Moyogalpa. And I knew I couldn’t complain too much—plenty of people were going to bed hungry all over Nicaragua. Without even Don Alberto’s tiny bananas to get by.

Tuesday 19th August 2008
We made it through the night and in the morning everything seemed to be working again. We found a place that opened at 7am to serve breakfast—it was new since we’d left, and run by a very nice American/Caribbean couple.

After having breakfast, we got our stuff and waited for the ferry to leave the island. Once we reached the mainland, we hopped on a minibus to Managua. Everything was going fine until the mini-bus broke down. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but when a Managua-bound chicken bus came by, we all got on it. The thing about this chicken bus is that it was already quite full when it got to us. I still do not understand how the laws of physics permitted our entire bus-load of people to fit on it, but somehow we all managed to crowd on. I assumed we’d have to pay again after we got on the chicken bus, but the ayudante explained that us refugees from the broken down bus didn’t have to pay.

We finally made it to Managua and took a taxi the rest of the way to our (posh) hotel by the airport. My original plan had been to drop off our bags at the hotel and then hop another bus to go to Masaya for some souvenir shopping, but by that point I was beyond car sick and totally done with transportation. We ended up just relaxing and swimming a bit in the hotel pool.

In all, I can’t believe how great the trip went. We accomplished so much in so little time. Before we left, I hadn’t been sure if we’d really get to see anybody, and (Wrinkle Belly aside) we pretty much saw them all. Of course, I still have lingering sadness about Eduardo, but I’ve got to believe that he is with people who will take care of him and that he will have a lovely life regardless of whether we meet again.

Thanks for reading.

Revisiting Nicaragua: Part 4

Sunday 17 August 2008
I didn’t sleep well and couldn’t quit feeling uneasy. Rob was trying very hard to be cheerful and I was trying very hard not to say anything about how awful I felt because I had assured him that I would accept whatever happened with Eduardo.

We had a slow start to the morning and then Rob decided that I needed to go to San Ramon to climb the waterfall, to cheer up. So we set out for San Ramon. When we arrived at the Biological Field Station (the entrance to the waterfall hike), we were pleasantly surprised to find Don Alberto there—the BFS chef I met more than 4 years ago and who once snuck me a scoop of rum raisin ice cream just for a treat. He seemed as happy to see us as we were to see him. He inquired about our health and the health of our families, as is the custom in Nicaragua. We were lucky to have caught him at the field station—he explained that later in the day he would be returning to his home in Estelí, like he does every year when the summer field courses are over.

So Rob and I set out to climb the waterfall. Its not too difficult of a hike, but it is 3km straight up the volcano, so it does get tiring. Its beautiful though. I realized that this is the 6th time I’ve done it, but nothing every compares to how beautiful it was when I climbed it the very first time.

There had been an earthquake in June of this year that caused a terrible landslide pretty much on top of the waterfall. Just over 2km into the hike, the path was completely eroded and disappeared altogether in a tangle of fallen trees. The only way to get there was straight up: climbing over slippery boulders in a stream not quite knee-high. There always was a bit of rock climbing at the end, but nothing quite like this. I was pretty sure I was going to die. The climbing was complicated by the fact that we didn’t have a backpack and had gone up carrying our things and therefore did not have free hands. We ended up going just until we could see the waterfall from a distance, admiring it for a few seconds, and then beginning the journey back down. I don’t know if it was because we were so far away or if the landslide had partially destroyed it, but the waterfall only seemed to have a glimmer of its former glory.

On our way down, we saw 2 Nicaraguan women (one of them elderly) ascending barefoot, holding their flimsy sandals in their hands. “Is it worth it?” the younger woman asked (I was proud of myself for understanding this phrase after having heard it on SpanishPod months ago). I told her that it was. Afterall, life is about the journey.

I felt pretty good on the descent, which is surprising since I suck at descending mountains or otherwise going downhill for any reason. I think my main motivation was to get back to sea level and go to Chico’s (a guy’s house where they sell beer if they’ve got any), and I’d sort of convinced Rob that we could get lunch there even though he didn’t think they usually sold food.

When we got back to the field station, Don Alberto was there, and so was Lucilla (one of Simeon’s daughters, who works as a cook at the BFS now). Alberto brought us both into the kitchen and he fixed me a glass of cold water and let Rob fill up our water bottle from the cooler. We talked some more and then got ready to leave. As we headed down the road, someone came hurrying from the kitchen and gave Rob a plastic baggie full of tiny bananas—just a bit bigger than a person’s thumb. It was a gift from Don Alberto. Sometimes it definitely pays to have connections.

We headed onto Chico’s another ¼ mile down the road. By then it was past 1pm and we were hungry. When we got there, Chico’s daughter seated us at a table. I was pretty sure she remembered me, but just in case, I told her that I was a student of Pablito’s (a statement which can open many doors on Ometepe). I asked her if they had anything to eat. She looked doubtful and said she would ask her mother. A moment later, Chico’s wife emerged and said that all they had was rice and beans and some kind of meat. I told her we were vegetarians, so just the rice and beans would be fine. I also asked for a beer, which may have horrified her because I’m a female and it was a Sunday at 1pm. But still. A trip to Ometepe is not complete without a cold Toña at Chico’s. A few minutes later, she brought out the Toña and two plates of rice and beans and steamed plantains. I put chili sauce on mine and it was great. I reminded Rob that he should be amazed at me for getting him lunch by pretty much just walking into somebody’s house and asking for food. He agreed that he was indeed amazed and admitted that he’d had reservations about my plan because it seemed like the kind of thing I would chicken out of at the last minute and make him do the asking.

It ended up being a very good day for Chico’s business because not too long after, some Spanish tourists who’d also been climbing the waterfall came by. They saw our Toña and plates of food, and they came in and asked for the same. We talked to Chico and his wife some more (I may have started the rumor that Pablo is coming back to visit in January), and then we asked for our bill. The grand total was 56 cordobas, which is around $3.00 for two meals plus a beer. I was immensely proud of myself for finding us such a cheap meal. We left them a nice tip.

Later in the afternoon back in Merida, we had a surprise visit from Joël, a French Canadian friend who just happened to be passing through. Joël was the first teacher of the English classes in Merida, and he knew Eduardo well, so I used the opportunity to get some inside information on the situation. He said what he’d heard was that Eduardo and his mother were not getting along well, that Milena’s husband (Eduardo’s stepfather) didn’t’ like Eduardo, and that there had been a lot of problems. Eduardo’s relatives in Pul had convinced hi to come live with them to get him out of the situation. Joël also said that Eduardo could be a bit of a trouble-maker at school and had earned the reputation of an instigator. As a result of everything he felt unwelcome in Merida: he did not want to be here because he didn’t get along with the other children or his mother and he generally avoided ever coming back. Joël said it had been hard on Milena, as she’d told me, to let her son go. As I can imagine it would have been.

I can’t dwell on it though. I have to think that Eduardo’s grandmother knew what was best for him and brought him to live with her. As much as I would wish to adopt him, it wouldn’t be the best thing for him. In Pul, he is with his relatives and other people who speak the same language and have the same knowledge of the world as he does. He can still be a volcano guide when he grows up (he still said that was what he wanted to be). Even if I could somehow bring him here, he’d just have Rob and me, and when the bone-chilling cold of winter set in, he would surely regret ever having left his home.

Its only Sunday evening, but I’ve already done everything I needed to do and seen everyone I came to see. We decided to leave in the morning, so tonight we began saying our goodbyes. For a long time we talked to Simeon. Rob gave him a t-shirt, and he thanked us profusely. He told us not to wait too long to come back again, lest he should become a spirit of the forest like Wrinkle Belly. When he saw the look of horror on my face, he threw his head back and laughed.

We told Sonja that we would be leaving in the morning, and she went to a cabinet and got out a little thing wrapped up in a bag. She explained that it was gift from Leda. Leda had told her to give it to me if she didn’t’ make it back before we left.

It was a little wooden plaque that says “Con amor de Nicaragua” (With love from Nicaragua), painted with a lovely bright scene and with hooks to hang your keys. I couldn’t’ believe it. She must have gotten it on one of her trips to Granada while she was taking care of Al and Esther’s baby. In such an uncertain world, when mercurial bosses could fire you at any moment and you never know where your next cordova is coming from, a gift like this has true meaning.

Revisiting Nicaragua: Part 3

Saturday 16 August 2008

Rob said I would regret it if I didn’t go out to the forest again. He said he would go with me. So we got up at 5:45am and went out. We found the North Group very low, around point 13, where I thought I had heard them yesterday. I know it was them because the first one I saw was Medio. I wandered back into the brush and found some more. One of the females that I saw was missing her right eye. She had a juvenile though. It must have been a tough dry season.

In total, we saw 6 or 7 females, 4 juveniles, and 3 males. Wrinkle Belly was not among them. I’m not totally convinced that he’s gone from this world though. He might just be on one of his constitutionals.

Adult female eating Acacia

We continued up aways and found the South Group around point 17. I saw Uno, eating Leucaena. Couldn’t get a count on the South Group because it started raining and they were all howling and moving around. There were at least 4 males though, a couple of juveniles, and a ventral infant.

It poured for about 2 hours. We kept walking farther and farther up the volcano, to over 200m of elevation. It was interesting to see it up there. We saw at least 1 more troop of monkeys.

Finally we came back down. I was really happy we had gone out to the forest again. I felt much better in the forest today and it was really good to locate both of my study groups.

We came back, showered, and fell into an exhausted sleep. Had lunch and then later in the afternoon I washed our clothes, talked some more to Reina and Argentina. Rob swam out to Monkey Island (1km away). While he was doing so, I ended up finding our old dog Scott Fargus. He came into our room (for old times sake) and I gave him some crackers. He waited at the dock with me for Rob, but after a while he got tired of it and left. Finally Rob got back from his swim at about the same time that Byron (a hacienda employee) and some of the boys (Horatio, Eugenio, and Darwin) arrived in Al’s new sailboat from some sort of fishing expedition. The cheered Rob in and pronounced him a good swimmer (buen nadador).

Ometepe sunset

Around 5pm, I couldn’t wait any longer to see if Milena had really gone to Pul, and I went back to her house. Her little son Angel Gabriel (Eduardo’s half brother) was outside and told me that she was not home, she would be back later. I don’t know if this means she went to Pul to tell Eduardo we’re here or not. I’m not sure what to do. I think I will go to see her tomorrow. If she didn’t go or Eduardo doesn’t show up, I want to head to Altagracia on Monday, get a place to stay, and then go look for him in Pul. I’m not sure how much of this Rob is on board for. He doesn’t think Eduardo is as good as I think he is, or that even if he once was, he is no longer. I’m trying not to think about it too much: whether we find him or don’t, whether he is as good as gold or not.


It was almost 9pm when out of the darkness a small figure approached, saying, “Melíssa!” It was Eduardo. He had a shy little smile on his face. I hugged him and kissed his cheek. He sat down beside me. He said he had come back on the bus from Altagracia with his mom.

I tried to ask him questions that would be friendly and not too prying. Things like, “Do you like living in Altagracia?” (Yes, he said he did). I asked him how long he had been living there and he said since February—the same time his emails to me had stopped. His voice was very small and his face so solemn. After his first little smile, there was nothing to match it. I told him to come with me because I had a present for him. He was hesitant but eventually followed. I dug out the shirt from my bag and held it up to him. I explained that “Urbana” was my town and that the “Market in the Square” was a place where you could buy all sorts of lovely fruits and vegetables. “Okay, gracias,” he said. The shirt was going to be way too big for him.

We walked back to the others and I asked him if he was okay. He said yes. I was unconvinced, so I asked him if he was sad and he said no. Then I asked if he was shy and I think he may have nodded a little.

We went back to the hammocks in the main area. Rob and I kept trying to think of things to say: asking questions about his school, his friends, where he lived with his grandma and uncles in Pul. He sat on the hammock, twisting his t-shirt and answering our questions but without any of the joyful Eduardo energy that I’d once known him to have.

After a while his mom walked in. I was surprised to see her, but also very glad that she hadn’t just sent him out in the dark alone. She looked cleaned up, so much better than the day before. “I told him you were here and he didn’t believe me. He thought I was lying,” she said. Eduardo did not look happy that she had arrived.

A bunch of the kids in the English class (the class that Eduardo had once been a part of) were hanging around. When a jovial boy named Junior walked past, he and Eduardo looked at each other and exchanged words that seemed a little tense.

I just didn’t know what to make of it all. Was he just shy and overwhelmed? Had he forgotten about me? Could he have cared less? About the most he said to me was to ask me why I had come back and then something that translated literally as, “Are you a nurse to the monkeys?”

There was really only so much that could be said. Eventually, he looked at his mom and whispered, “Vamos.” They got up to leave. I hugged him and watched them walking away, thinking that I would never see him again.

I went back to the room and stared at the wall for a while. When Rob came in to go to bed, I went back out to the main area, where we’d been sitting with Eduardo. So much had happened in his little life. He didn’t look any bigger after one year, but his eyes were more severe and his demeanor was serious and joyless. I wondered if he is always like that these days, or if it was just because his mom had made him take a long, hot bus ride to go back to a place he’d been sent away from, to see a strange white woman he only vaguely remembered from a long time ago.

He just seems lost to me now. Not like I even want to take him home with me and enroll him in Urbana Middle School and fix his breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. When I left him a year ago, I told him, “Stay gold, Eduardo,” just like in the book The Outsiders. I know this is exactly why Rob thought it was a bad idea for me to go looking for him: because nothing gold can stay.

Revisiting Nicaragua: Part 2

Friday 15 August 2008
It feels like the whole last year of my life was a dream and I never left this place.

Rob went with me to the forest after breakfast. The path up there is mainly the same, except there are now plantains growing where the Costa Rican guy bought land, and a lot of trees have been cut down south of the path as you head up.

Though it was late, we heard a few howls. Some were definitely to the North, but its all overgrown with Acacia and is completely impassible. So we went South where the trails have been maintained for primatology students. I could sense the monkeys all around, and finally Rob spotted a lone female. We eventually found another female and a male. It must have been the South Group, but none were individuals I recognized. The second female had a lame left arm, either paralyzed or broken. She had trouble moving but didn’t look to be in obvious pain. She and the male ate Laurel mature leaves and Cecropia fruit.

I went wandering a bit. Trails I made have been expanded. I went to the point 40 Genizaro tree—where so much South Group action had taken place. A huge treefall that had happened in this area around July 4th, 2007, had mainly been cleared away and new vegetation was growing. While I wandered around up there, Rob saw the male and lame-armed female copulate.

We left to go home and stopped by Simeon’s on the way. It was good to see him; we talked for a while. He said that he didn’t think Wrinkle Belly was living anymore because he hadn’t seen him in a very long time. He smiled endearingly and told me in a poetic way. He said that Wrinkle Belly had had a good life, with many sons and daughters and many grandchildren now. He said that Wrinkle Belly is in a place where he doesn’t have to work and he doesn’t have to worry about every being hungry. He said that Wrinkle Belly’s spirit is all around us.

It is nice to think of like that, but still, I am not convinced that Wrinkle Belly is dead. I think the tough old bird may have had a few years in him yet.

We got back to the hacienda and saw Reina and Argentina some more. Reina scurried to hug and kiss me, and then kept looking at me like she couldn’t believe I was really back.

Later in the afternoon Rob and I went for a walk through town. We saw Jorge, who had been the former driver of the hacienda. He was the one who drove Rob and me to the hospital when Rob got sick right after we first arrived in August 2006. Jorge got fired for some reason; I’d been told it was because he’d been asked to poison some of the stray dogs (not really in his job description?) and he refused to do so. I always wondered if that was true or not.

We went to Eduardo’s mother’s home, which was my only shot at finding him, since nobody else seemed to know exactly where he went. Milena didn’t look well. She was disheveled and tired, her eyes were vacant. She’d been plucking a chicken when we arrived and had little feathers stuck to her fingers. She told me that Eduardo now lives in a town called Pul, just outside of Altagracia (on the other volcano, about an hour away). She said that there had been much suffering. It was really difficult to understand her because her voice was so far away, but what I got out of it was that there seemed to be a problem with an uncle who was abusive and alcoholic. She didn’t want Eduardo around that, so he had gone to live with his grandmother and other relatives in Pul. She said she had suffered much to let him go, and her eyes filled with tears.

She said she would go to Pul in the morning on the 4am bus, to tell Eduardo we were here. She said that he would come to Merida on Sunday. She said that some time ago he had told her he was coming back on a certain day and she had waited and waited for him, all day, but he had never come.

When we left Milena’s house, we kept walking, and I felt like I was in some sort of dream. We went to Daraysi’s house. She was happy to see us; she brought out 3 patio chairs for us all to sit in. She doesn’t work at the hacienda anymore. She said that the work had been too hard, the hours too long. It is true, she generally worked from 6am to 9pm just about 7 days a week. She said she had become sick and anemic and had to quit. She’d gone to Costa Rica for a while with some friends, but she had come back and now she helped her mother sell sodas and chips to the school children at recess.

Daraysi and Melissa. She wasn't smiling in the photo too much, but she really was happy to see us!

Right now I feel as exhausted as I did after one year of research. Feel like I just can’t deal with the forest anymore, ever in my life. Feel so overwhelmed. Like I can’t face life without Wrinkle Belly and an uncertain future for Eduardo. Wondering if Milena will go find him tomorrow and if he really will come back.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Revisiting Nicaragua: Part 1

Wednesday 13 August 2008
Long day of travel. When the plane finally touched down, I wanted to kiss the ground. We took a Paxeos shuttle and got to Granada just before 10pm. We went to Granada because Leda had emailed me and told me that that’s where she would be: Al was taking a group of students to visit the US Embassy, and she was going along because she is the nanny of Al and Esther’s baby, Itzel. The whole group was staying at Hostel Oasis, but I couldn’t make a reservation there, so Rob and I booked a room somewhere else.

We checked in to our place and then went to Oasis to see Leda. There was some mild confusion at the desk, but I managed to communicate in my rusty Spanish. Once I dropped Al’s name, everyone jumped up and started making things happen. Since we were so late, Leda was already asleep, but Al came out—more himself than ever. He invited us to “come along” with the students the next day, which I felt would be a total disaster.

Thursday 14 August 2008
Didn’t sleep at all. Woke up with a migraine and feeling fat. Long story short, we finally met Leda at Hostel Oasis. She is so darling, I love her. We had some time to talk for a while, and I asked her about Eduardo. She said she wasn’t sure what happened but thought he left because he and his mother didn’t get along. I tried not to be too sad about that.

Leda and Meli. Only in Nicaragua am I a giant.

Ometepe kids who got to go to the embassy. Top row: Alberto, Junior, Darwin. Bottom row: Eugenio, Lisbia, Horatio, Helen.

We ended up going on a carriage ride through Granada with Al, Esther, Baby Itzel, and the Ometepe children who had been to visit the Embassy. I still felt too terrible to enjoy the carriage ride, and instead just felt bad for the skinny horse who had to pull us all through town.
After the carriage ride, Al, Esther, Baby Itzel, and Nanny Leda left to go to Estelí. We suddenly became charged with the job of helping Tía Maria (Leda’s aunt) with the 7 Ometepe children for the rest of the day. Al had arranged all these activities for the kids to do. First, we did a tour of the San Francisco church and museum. The children were mainly bored by this. Plus, Rob and I ended up having to foot the bill (it wasn’t much, but still).

Proud papa: Don Al with Baby Itzel.

Al, Esther, and Baby Itzel on the carriage ride. Esther explained that Itzel means "star" in Nuahtl (the language of Ometepe's initial inhabitants).

Esther, Tia Maria, and Nanny Leda with Itzel.

Views of Granada from the bell tower of Iglesia San Francisco.

When the tour was over, we shepherded the children back to Hostel Oasis. Rob was actually the only one of us who knew where he was going. It was very difficult to keep track of everyone through the busy market. Little Helen held onto my hand the whole time—not sure if it was to reassure herself or reassure me.

Then we left for Volcan Masaya National Park, Jairo driving the truck. I couldn’t help but wonder how he learned to drive so expertly in frenetic city traffic after having spent all his life on sleepy Ometepe. I sat by Tia Maria (everyone calls her Tia Maria) and she reminded me of my own auntie.

We got to the park and wandered until 2:00pm. I felt terrible since I’d eating next to nothing the past day and had only toast for breakfast. We had a guide at the park (a woman guide—not something you see too often) who led us on some paths marked “prohibited.” Given my obsession with volcanoes, I would have loved it had I felt better.

Volcan Masaya's Santiago Crater.

Kids at Volcan Masaya

"No pasar"

Afterwards we stopped at a town called Catarina where there is a scenic lookout point of the Laguna de Apoyo. It was cold and rainy; I didn’t even take any pictures. The kids were such great troopers though. Nobody was even complaining, though little Helen did say to me—in English no less—“I’m hungry. We are all hungry.” So was I. I felt really bad for the kids.

We finally got to Rivas at 4pm, where Jairo had presumably been told to stop and get us all “lunch” “to go.” I didn’t even know they did such a thing in Nicaragua. I was so hungry I couldn’t form sentences. Somehow Rob and I managed to get a vegetarian plate: greasy white rice, a pipian (squash) sprinkled with Death Cheese, and a scoop of cucumber salad. It had been microwaved in Styrofoam, so if I end up with cancer, I will trace it to this day. I scraped off the Death Cheese and still called myself quasi-vegan.

We got on the 5:30pm ferry that actually left at 5:45. In the year since we have left the price of the ferry ride has doubled from 30 cordovas to 60 cordovas (about $3.00).

They had a shuttle waiting for us on the island. The kids had all gotten cokes and became super-hyper. We finally arrived at Hacienda Merida at around 8:30pm. Sonja and Doña Argentina were working when we got here. Argentina is so dear: she asked me how Rob and I were, how my parents are, how my little nephew is. It is very comforting to see familiar faces and be with people who were genuinely interested in the well-being of my family, but somehow the whole place just seems so overwhelming.

Exhausted. Will sleep and hope for a better morning.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Its that time of year again

We got back from Nicaragua last night. I kept a pen and paper journal while we were there and took lots of pictures, so over the next couple of days I’ll be posting about our trip.

While we were gone, it seems like it became autumn overnight. The weather was cool and rainy today and campus was flooded with some 30,000 students moving in. My tomatoes are finally red, and the mums in the front yard are budding. Plus, when I went to the grocery store, they had a big display of Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale for sale. So you know its that time of year again. It just seems like its come so soon.

Bear with me as try to get the trip journal and photos posted. I’m also trying to get a couple of abstracts together for this year’s meetings and work up the nerve to present an actual talk instead of a poster like I’ve always done before. When the abstract submission dates were far away, this wasn’t quite so nerve-wracking to think about. But now that the time draws near, I’ve got this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Well, its either nerves about the meetings or lingering effects of the Managua tap water I insisted on drinking, I guess we’ll never know. At any rate, thanks for reading, and there will be more soon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

We're leaving for Nicaragua sometime around 6 tomorrow morning, and I'm still up packing. That's really saying something, considering that I am only taking 1 carry-on. But there are always so many last-minute details. With any luck, in 24 hours we should be in Granada with Leda (long story).

Life is full of hellos and goodbyes. I'm just notoriously bad at the latter. My friend Mt is leaving for Argentina this Saturday, not just to visit this time, but for good. I don't think I could have gotten through the proposal-writing process without him. The world is going to seem a lot bigger with him being thousands of miles away. This is an occupational hazard in my field I suppose. You become friends with people, share the best of times and worst of times with them, and then at some point, you go your separate ways. I'm hopeful that we'll meet again someday.

And speaking of meeting again, there are a lot of people (and monkeys) I hope to find back in Nicaragua. I'm trying to stay calm about it all, but I must admit that I'm a little bit stressed. We probably won't have much for internet while we're there, but I'll post when/if I can.

For the moment, I need to finish packing and get some beauty rest for the big trip ahead. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

What I got for Eduardo

I think this is what I am going to give Eduardo. While I was at the farmer's market (ie, "Market at the Square") this morning, I noticed that they were selling these t-shirts. I think its going to be way too big on him, but it was the smallest they had. It just kind of sums up what my life is about here, so I thought it would be a good thing for me to get him. Now I've just got to find him again. We'll see.

Vegan Cheese

Note: It doesn't actually melt. At least not by any way that I have tried. But that's okay because I don't like melted cheese anyway, so its not going to be something I miss.

Overall its not bad though. What I like best about it is that it does not come from a cow.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


You know you’re a grown-up when your sister gives you a crock pot for your birthday, and the thing is, you are really, truly, genuinely excited about this. Thanks, Michelle, for the lovely and gigantic crock pot, and thank you especially for the recipes you included. I love it that you carefully blacked out any offending item such as “chicken stock” and neatly wrote in “vegetable broth” to replace it.

At any rate, Rob and I are going back to Nicaragua next week. This is mainly because ever since we left Nicaragua a year ago, I have wanted nothing but to go back. Additionally, I decided to go away for my birthday in hopes that friends/family would just overlook it this year and not give me anything or even mention it. But my sister has already foiled the plan with her preemptive crock pot.

The thing is, I want to take some gifts back to people in Nicaragua but I am having trouble coming up with ideas. If anybody out there has any suggestions, I am all ears. This is complicated by various issues. First of all, there are luggage restrictions nowadays, so we are going to try to just fit all of our stuff—including gifts for people— into our carry-ons. So its got to be small, compact, light-weight, non-liquid, and nothing that could be construed as a weapon. The other thing is that I am not entirely sure how many people I will need to give gifts to. I will want to give a gift to Leda for sure—she is the only one who has been emailing me all this time, keeping me updated on what is happening at Ometepe. There’s generally a pretty high turnover of employees at the Hacienda, so I’m not sure if anybody who was working when I left will still be there. I imagine some awkwardness if I show up with gifts for some people but not others, and I just don’t want anybody’s feelings to get hurt. So whatever I bring, I just need to bring a ton of them and dole them out to whomever I find still there. My initial idea was to get the women canvas bags and then to decorate them, like the one I started (shown to the right). I think I may stick with this for the women in the kitchen, but the bigger issue is of course Eduardo.

I know Rob thinks I’m setting myself up for disaster. There’s a genuine possibility that he’s either turned into an insolent teenager or that he’s disappeared and I won’t be able to find him. I’ve thought and thought and then laid awake and thought some more about what to bring him. I would love to get him some good hiking boots, but how would I know what size shoe he wears? A year ago, his feet were just a little bit smaller than mine, but now its hard to say. The same with clothing. Who knows how much he’s grown between the ages of 12 and 13. So I’m at a loss. What would you get for a 13 year old Nicaraguan boy who has nothing and never has had anything, who has never known his father, who has been sent to live with his grandmother, who is the dearest, sweetest, most generous child to ever grace this planet? I just don’t know. If anybody has any suggestions, please do let me know.

I think I’m just bad at getting gifts for people. I’ve realized that this is partially because people tend to give others things that they want or like themselves. And what I like most of all is emptiness: blank white walls, clean, uncluttered spaces, general nothingness. I hate excess and piles of things and feeling overwhelmed or undeserving. Birthdays and holidays are complicated by the fact that my sister and sisters-in-law are great gift-givers. They always find the nicest things for people; meanwhile, the Ragfields walk in with something home-made that is wrapped in a brown paper bag. So all you great gift-givers out there, tell me your secrets!

Alright, gotta go put some ice on my aching, old-lady knees. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Almost Vegan

For a long time, I’ve considered becoming vegan. In fact, I’ve actually been vegan for some extended periods at various points throughout my life, but I guess its never really stuck. It would be sort of a logical progression for me though. I’ve been a vegetarian for long about 11 years, and I haven’t drunk milk on my free will in over 7 years. For the most part, dairy products repulse me, and eggs are always repugnant.

I’m not one of those people that is a vegetarian because I think animals are cute and ought dressed up in bows and have their pictures taken for a calendar. Most animals are okay I suppose, except that I hate cows. I mean, I really hate them. I never thought much about cows until I lived in Nicaragua and they were everywhere. Cows are disgusting, horrible creatures that smell bad and that left disgusting piles of excrement in the path leading up to the forest. And now that I’m back in Urbana, this cow onslaught only continues. If the wind is blowing just right, you can smell the horror that is the South Farms from anywhere in town. Sometimes I forget about it and decide to run south on Lincoln Avenue, on that lovely multi-use path that goes past the vet school and the Arboretum. But always, the stench assails me and then I have to spend about a ½ mile with my hands over my face, trying not to breathe.

What really set the vegan wheels in motion again for me was that a couple of weeks ago, I was bored and flipping channels and came to that show called Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. The host’s “dirty job” in that episode was to artificially inseminate dairy cows (ie, so that they could be milked after having the calf). This was a dirty job alright. It entailed the host getting up to his armpit in shit. Literally. I don’t think that the intention of the show was to persuade anyone to swear off dairy products, but seriously, cheese has not tasted remotely good to me since this.

I eat virtually no egg products and so little dairy as it is. For years, I have gone to great lengths to avoid buying things made out of leather. My philosophy being that I hate cows to such an extent that I will neither eat or wear them. The real reason why I haven’t become vegan is not because of myself, but instead, because of everybody else. It would complicate things for friends and family when we eat together, and it would definitely involve a lot more planning ahead for me (and I already have to plan ahead a lot) whenever we eat out or eat with others so that I make sure I have time to prepare and bring something appropriately dairy and egg free.

I’m not completely locked into this; I’d just like to try it for a while. And above all, I want to be vegan on my own terms. I’ve already decided that although honey isn’t vegan, its something that I consider okay. Particularly because I only eat Gutzmer honey (made by John’s dad) or local honey that I get at the Farmer’s Market or Strawberry Fields. As for dairy, I’m sure the next time that we do a pizza night at Cara and John’s, I will definitely want some of that kalamata olive, basil, and goat cheese delight. Maybe I’ll just be vegan in terms of avoiding things that come from cows. I have nothing in particular against goats and in fact, have often wished to own a goat in order to remove the need to mow the lawn. We’ll see. Like many things in life, this is an experiment.

At any rate, what I loathe most of all besides deforestation, cows, Hummers, and misogynist homophobic TV evangelists, are preachy vegans, so I really hope I didn’t come across that way. And also, just to prove to the world that being vegan doesn’t have to mean deprivation (note: S.L. maintains that after his daughter became vegan, she gained 15 pounds), I will include a recipe for my “special brownies” that I have made 3 batches of since “becoming” a vegan (note: I have been a vegan for less than a week). I call these “special” because there is a secret ingredient that makes them surprisingly moist and delicious, while also using up extra produce from the garden. See if you can guess what it is. The recipe pretty much follows this one from, but I made a few modifications, included below:

Melissa’s Special Brownies
½ cup olive oil
1 cup organic sugar
½ cup firmly packed organic brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups shredded zucchini (this is usually about 2 medium zucchini, and don’t skimp on it!)

Preheat oven to 350 and grease baking pan (I think mine is 8X8 or 9X9, not sure).

In large bowl, mix oil, sugars, and vanilla. Stir well. In medium bowl combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda; stir into the sugar mixture. Then add the zucchini and stir well. Pour into baking pan and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Bon appétit.

Thandem Thursday

Cara and John recently got a tandem bike (The Spike) and the four of us have been going on Thursday night bike rides known as “Thandem Thursday” (I believe Cara coined the phrase). Its been a lot of fun. Usually the ride ends at one of our houses with dinner and beer. This past week, we started the ride with a lap around Meadowbrook Park, which is one of my favorite haunts.

I took a some pictures from the back of our bike. I’m never sure if I should post pictures of other people on my blog, so I’ll just keep it to scenery in case C and J want to remain anonymous ☺
Its all a blur to me...

Path in the prairie

Flat, flat land. Sometimes when I'm running here, I imagine that there are monkeys in that tree line in the distance. When I get there though, there never are any.

Later in the ride, we had to stop for a train. "The old Union Pacific doesn't come by here much anymore..."

The next day there was a big ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new bike lane on First St. The mayor of Champaign was there and everything. At least 2 of the local news stations were filming. I wasn’t around to watch the news that night, so I guess I’ll never know if Iris 2 and I made it onto TV. I think the new bike lane is great and all, but it would be nice if it didn’t randomly start at Gregory and then randomly end somewhere just north of Springfield (the whole thing is less than a mile long) and also if it wasn’t covered in gravel, shards of glass, and general rubbish that frat boys toss out their car windows. But still, the debris is not the fault of the people who created/designed it and having this bike path is a really great start. I’ve already been using the path for a couple of weeks, and I definitely do feel a lot safer with it there. It was really inspiring to hear that there are a lot more bike lanes, etc, planned to make cycling even more safe in Champaign-Urbana. On a place like First Street though, where the road is ridiculously wide and there are stop signs or stop lights every block (so cars can’t go all that fast), I already felt pretty safe riding. What would really make a difference would be to have bike lanes in places where it is not already safe to ride (like on Neil or Prospect or Kirby, for instance). I don't know if that's even possible though. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Video of the ribbon cutting cermony