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Pacific Coast Picture Stories
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8 Weeks in Nicaragua

part 2: Studying Spanish

posted Summer 2001
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I had my classes every morning across from the mural below. La Casa de Cultura was an old Somocista house - a "house" in León being a large chunk of a large block, in any shape, made up of a maze of rooms & hallways & one or two open courtyards. This one had a pool, which probably hasn't been filled since sometime in the seventies. When the sprawling house's owners fled sometime in the eighties, it became a cultural center. Its walls are covered with art, including the most disturbing, realistic painting of Reagan I've seen in a long time.

Given the increasingly friendly politics, however, the owners may well return from Miami to take it back.
Homenaje a Antenor Sandino Hernandez
the signature reads: Homenaje a Antenor Sandino Hernandez
Pintures: Luis Manuel Duarte, Alfredo Martinez, Norwin Jolorzano, Marco Canales, Cesar Sanchez, Diego Saavedra, Daniel Pulido * Financia: (?) Alemania, Feb 2000.
Across the painting - whose faces are twice as tall as I am - is a poem, which I have reproduced to the best of my ability below. There are a couple words of which I am uncertain & now that I'm home I wish I had taken the time to have it explained to me while I was down there . . . I took in as much as I could & it still blows my mind. What I'm writing down here is barely a breath of the story. This is the story that the pictures tell me almost a year later, what I can catch of it.

oh un día de la pintura azul de los volcanes
que te pones de noche las estrellas, para lucir mejor,
y te vas a bailar al hogar de tus manes
como en los caminos de oro de netzahualcoyotl

este mercado indio que cantando yo pintado
es un mercado indio con frutas de ideal

yo me siento orgulloso de ser indio, mi tatuaje
es un quetzal con plumas de rojo tornasol
es un mercado indio: hay mariscos y flores

india, la de la raza autoctona del viejo nicarao
la que vio gil gonzalez ante el altar del sol
leftie the ruins of Leon Viejo, the oldest city in Central America
León Viejo, established in 1526, it is the oldest city in Central America. The volcano, on the other side of Xolotlán, or Lake Managua, is Momotombo.
oh one day of volcanoes painted blue
when you put up the stars at night, to illuminate better
& you will dance to the home of your ghosts
as in the golden streets of netzahualcoyotl

this indian market of which i, the painted one, sing
is an indian market with fruits of perfection

i am proud to be indian, my tattoo
is a quetzal with feathers of red sunflower
it is an indian market: there are shellfish & flowers

indian, she of the original race of old nicarao
she who saw gil gonzales before the altar of the sun
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Nubia, who first learned to teach as part of the literary brigades in the '80's, gave me exactly the lessons I craved. I wanted to learn Spanish, but more than that I wanted to listen to her stories. I wanted to hear the stories I could only get by going there. She tirelessly shared her culture, history & love of León with me. She also made me study grammar, which I hated, but she filled some important gaps for me, bringing together years of study in a way that had never been clear in the States. She was hard to leave too.
Mi maestra, Nubia
con mi maestra, in front of another colorful painting in La Escuela Leonesa
León spoiled me. I had an excellent house, not just because of the personality of my hostess but it really was luxurious. My teacher was amazing, & my classmates were really the kind of people I enjoy spending time with. I wandered the town shopping with Sara & was sorry when she left the next day to spend a few days with her boyfriend, who suddenly got a job in Bosnia. Patty took me out to La Paz Centro to get quesillos from what appeared to be quesillo row.

The first day I arrived in León I was served all sorts of things I knew I shouldn't eat, like cheese or fruit drinks with ice in them. I asked the other students & the brave ones among them said they were fine. Paquita was a nurse & she assured me I would be safe, so I ate & drank whatever was put in front of me. Once or twice I took the precaution of a pepto pill or two, but I figured as long as I didn't go too fast it would be easier if I could eat anything that tasted okay.

Patty's host mother (or sister, really) & one of the school teachers, old friends, took us on three bus rides to the perfect place for a quesillo. It turned out to be a thick homemade (everything is homemade - except for the "very special" wonderbread stuff that came from Guatemala) tortillas, wrapped around an equally thick slab of creamy cheese, with a middle of onion salsa, stuffed into a plastic bag & filled with a sour creamy sauce that gets all over your hands no matter how careful you are. As if the cheese & sauce wasn't enough, we dared to get tiste, a cornmeal, chocolate & coffee drink, served in cups carved out of gourds.

My next school was on the coast, way down by Costa Rica. San Juan del Sur is one of the original tourist towns in Nicaragua. There aren't many. There are a few tourist spots, but one can get lost anywhere (I mean, that's a good thing). It is fairly easy to cross Central America through the southern part of Nicaragua, up the Río Coco, across the immense Cocibolca, or Lake Nicaragua, then by train to San Juan del Sur. It used to be the route to San Francisco from New England.
leftie El Indio: looking north on the beach at San Juan del Sur
looking north on the beach at San Juan del Sur -- It's hard to make out here, but the profile on the edge of the headland is called "El Indio."
Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit that I spent quite a bit of evening time in one of the two most extranjero bars (gringo is used mostly to describe those from the US), speaking English with my classmates. To be honest, I enjoyed every bit of it, & learned plenty. My friends, 3 from England, 2 from Germany (one of whom lives in DC), & wandering others, humbled me with their perceptions of the world. As in the whole world, not our world of the World Series. I never felt so gringa as I did with those Europeans. Maybe I'm just not as interested in politics as they are, but they were telling me all about the presidential race at home & about scandals from several different countries. It's true that their world was pretty euro-centric, but it was a lot bigger that the one that's shown whenever I catch the news.
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Laura was my swimming pal. We both loved the trips to the beautiful, deserted beaches to the North & South of San Juan del Sur. We talked a little, about learning Spanish or about some good song that we'd heard, but mostly we played in the waves & laughed. Except in the wide protected beach in town, swimming meant starting out where the waves were at about knee level, so that when they crashed in on us we were not long off our feet. The warm but violent sandy waves pushed us way up the beach & sucked us out, dragging our feet. It was wonderful. It was safer to have somebody with you & she could have stayed out there for hours. She was fun to go dancing with too. She spoke very proper English & Spanish & we got along quite well for how different we were.
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looking south on la playa yanqui we could see all the way to Costa Rica
looking south on la playa yanqui we could see all the way to Costa Rica
Hotel Barlovento, which used to belong to Somoza, towered over the street on which I lived for 2 weeks.
Hotel Barlovento, looming over my street in San Juan del Sur, used to belong to Somoza. My house is the pink one on the right.
Flor & I in front of one of the painted walls of the school
My teacher Flor and I stand in front of one of the painted walls of the school in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.
Mi maestra Flor was very curious & liked to gossip - but cheerful stuff, not hurtful gossip, which she told me many people like to do. Another teacher, just before I left, told me that gossiping was the national sport. I heard a few unhappy stories that supported that theory.
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