Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas in Latin America with the RebelAngel

At the phone company's show in Granada
In Nicaragua, the holiday season is more about family and food and less about a glut of consumer goods. O, and fireworks. Last week's Festival of the Virgin was all about loud bombas in the street, day and night. My eardrums barely survived.

Granada is a small city, and unless we take the bus to the mall in Managua, we never see billboards, rarely ever encounter a shiny advertisement, and have very few decked-out window displays to ogle. Since the only TV in the house is in the guest house, we rarely ever watch TV or see ads either. Our house is on a street with no commercial businesses, barring the gym down the street and the pulperias -- the home-based convenience stores where you can buy things like emergency packets of coffee, eggs, soda, little bags of Tang and cookies.

The commercialization of Christmas is almost non-existent, and that feels nice. Last week one of the two mobile phone companies set up a huge stage in the central park, complete with a Santa booth, dancing ballerinas on stage and lots of lights and loud music.

The show was set up in the park, right in front of Granada's big yellow parochial church -- the most well-recognized landmark in town, where bullets from the executions that happened during American William Walker's 19th-century revolution are still embedded in the exterior walls -- a wild juxtaposition of the clash between tradition and commercialization.

I looked around at the Nicas enjoying the show, and i had to fret a little about how this type of Christmas was creeping in here, and right in front of their beloved church at that. To get to take part in the bazaar and see Santa and get the kids' faces painted, you had to buy a Movistar phone card to recharge your phone. We watched what we could from outside the gates.
Bright blacklights on the tree

Decorating our fake white tree with blinking blue blacklights and our plans of making a big meal and sipping yummy drinks are the things we are thinking about this holiday -- not so much about all the things we want.

Still, the things the rebelangel does want are, as always, stretching my budget. The other parent has only just recently gotten a phone that allows him to email his daughter, so he's been nearly silent all these months we've been here -- and of course, that means silent with any sort of financial benefits as well. It's easier to get by here, but not so much easier that support from the other parent wouldn't be welcome. We'll survive and thrive as we always do, and this year, we'll also be getting a tan on Christmas day.


At the mall in Managua, where the
other phone company hosts Santa

Speaking of fathers' contributions, I love it when i find sites that endeavor to empower men to be strong fathers and to take on some of the tasks that have traditionally been left to women -- and especially when those conversations take place in the traditionally-machismo culture of Latin America. Check out Súper Papá, a Costa Rica-based site designed to empower the modern father. (Hint: use the Google Translate feature to translate the site into English)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Serenity and Yoga in Central America

Before we got to Nicaragua, Zumba was my jam. I loved the heat of the room, learning Latin dance steps, the positivity of the instructors, and then getting to lift weights in the gym next door when the hour was up.

Here though, just thinking about all that activity makes me start sweating -- not to mention that none of the gyms here have air conditioning, as did the gym back home. Plus, there's not much need to "learn" Latin dance steps when every party involves dancing cumbia, salsa, bachata and merengue...
Yoga and stretching on the beach, San Juan del Sur

In my American life, i'd somewhat given up on yoga -- or at least it wasn't part of my routine. I needed heat, not serenity. Here, i need serenity, not more heat. So while i spent the first couple months hardly working out at all and trying to figure out how to get exercise into my new, expat traveling life, i can now safely say i'm a yogi once again.

I love hearing the soothing voices of the instructors, reminding me to practice self-love. I love that nothing moves too fast in yoga, but that i sweat just enough. I love that the stiffness of working in a straight-backed wooden chair melts away after a few minutes on the mat. I've even taken to using YouTube videos to get a dose of guided instruction when i don't feel like walking to the gym down the street.

I bring this up because it reminds me of how we tend to be different people in different environments. Here, i need peace and tranquility, because the noises outside don't allow it. There, i needed to increase the fire to ward off the damp. I am proud of myself for figuring this out without too much delay.

As far as parenting this rebelangel with my network so far away, i find myself increasingly taking to the cyberworld for solace and support. Your comments and suggestions mean the world!

In case you're in need of some more personal, one-on-one support and your friends and family aren't cutting it, cyberspace also offers us services such as the Positive Parenting service offered by Roots of Life. Check out the free consult and let me know if it worked for you!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Do I Stay or Do I Go Now?

While it's true that i love being the author of my life, sometimes it's really, really hard to decide what to do with said life. Right now, i am loving living in Nicaragua where i can afford to pay someone to clean my toilets, and where i get to swim outdoors in December. I heart the tropics.

I have hit my stride and i'm loving it here -- to the point where i dread the stress and the money strains that will come when we return home. In short, i was even thinking of staying.

The rebelangel, on the other hand, is counting down the days until we leave. With constant connectivity via FaceTime, email, iMessage and the rest, she gets to see every day what she's missing out on back home. Her friends talk about stuff that she doesn't get to take part in, and it bothers her. I tell her she wouldn't get to be part of everything even if she was there. There are limits, i say. She tells me she misses having lots of friends. I point out that friends here are constantly coming to the door. She says she misses being cold. I ask her what about that boogie board she was hoping to get, on account of her newfound love of riding Pacific waves?

I try to counter her every argument with a rosy-hued view of how good we have it here, but it doesn't always work. Sometimes, i wish for an ally to back me up. I've tried getting out more, and even online dating, but i haven't found the right one yet.

Maybe it's not even that i need someone to help me convince her, but that i need someone to help me make decisions. Am i making the right ones? Am i mad to leave our family and friends? What about the fact that i can actually save money here and that having sun on my skin every day makes me feel more alive?

But back to the little issues at hand. Like a 1950s, strict parent, i have to finally resort to saying that as the parent, what i say goes... even if i am not really sure whether to stay, to go, to put my foot down, or to just let it hang from the hammock...

Monday, November 24, 2014

When Your Tween Gets Catcalled

As the grown woman in our family, somehow i thought it was only me who gets catcalled on the streets of Nicaragua.

And even then, not when my still-innocent tween daughter is in tow.

I started to notice the marked difference in attitudes between "sex object women" and "women who are mothers" when we first arrived here and i was still biking my daughter to school. In typical developing world fashion, we rode together on one bike, her seated side saddle on the rack we'd bought specifically for school commutes. It would be a relatively peaceful ride, albeit hot, as i pedaled up the slight incline that you encounter in Granada when moving away from Lake Cocibolca.

Ometepe island, Nicaragua -- with Lake Cocibolca on both sides
On the way back from dropping her at school, the ride would be easy and slightly downhill, but it was then the onslaughts would come.  The second she left, i lohhh yous, the beu-dee-fulls -- and the worst, the Latin American hiss, sort of sharp "sss" sounds -- would start. It's like clockwork. One second i am a mother cycling her daughter to school, the next i am an object of affection for every construction worker, driver and ambling walker i pass.

Like men all over the world, the men here seem to do it at the last possible moment, to me showing their cowardice -- to photographer Laurie Anderson, "forcing the woman to backtrack if she should dare to object." Her tactic was to photograph every man who catcalled her on the streets of 1970s New York. Then she made an art installation out of it. Brilliant. 

Forty years later, it is still happening all around the world, and is certainly a part of life in Latin America -- though a part many North American women learn to barely, seethingly tolerate. My approach is to ignore completely anyone who treats me that way. It might be part of their culture, but it is not mine, and in my mind catcallers don't deserve any sort of reaction at all. Part of me believes Latino men do it to foreign women more, just because they love to see our reactions. So i give them none, and i try to waste as little energy as possible on this ridiculous form of attention.

That is, until i heard it was happening to my 11-year old too. 

She told me one recent night at dinner that she's never been brave enough to stick her tongue out at people, even from cars when she and her friends were goofing around... but now that guys hiss at her or call her baby, she's not bashful about it anymore. Turns out, she's been getting hissed at while in the transport car that now takes her to school, and she's taken to using her tongue to show her disgust.

Ironically, i've given up biking her to school on the back of my bike, partly to avoid the heat and of course the daily hissing onslaught, and in turn, she's the one who's getting hissed at. She has a flash of lightning-blonde hair, and i can imagine that the men who see her passing hardly have time to recognize that she's a mere child. Or at least i hope that's the case, else my disgust erupt like a Nicaraguan volcano.

I told her my approach and reiterated my philosophy that people who give her unwanted attention or try to hook her attention for ill ends deserve none of her attention at all. I told her that boys and men who treat women with respect don't act like that. I reminded her that i never see older men, who apparently have enough wisdom to know better, do that, and that's because they've learned to respect women.

Beyond that i don't really know what else to say, because it's a situation that also confronts me every day.

Other times we talk about how to nail a man in the balls really, really hard with her knee if anyone ever tries to touch her. We go over my dad's old advice that the "head goes where the nose goes," and how to put two fingers in a person's nostrils and pull back. I try to tell her, at the same time, that violence begets more violence, and that those tactics are only last-ditch efforts to get away, not to be used unless you really, really need to.

Like every parent, i walk around with daily terror of the what-ifs and the fears that come with allowing your own heart to walk outside your body. In some ways Nicaragua is safer than the USA; in other ways it's not.

I am steeled a bit by organizations such as Hollaback! and Bitch Media, where people share stories and speak out against catcalling -- but alla that's not doing me much good when my baby is getting it daily, right now, in a taxi on the way to school.

For now, i sticking with the "ignore" tactic, trying my best to avoid trouble... but still, i ain't gonna object to my baby's coping strategy -- the glorious, defiant, hollaback tongue.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

And the wind that blows sweet

If i could wrap up a pitaya and deliver it to your door
i would, i would
show up with arms open wide and a suitcase of smoothies,
not much else.
I'd bring the sunshine too, and the wind that blows sweet
and the simple Nica sandals we all wear upon our feet...


My friend's social media profiles make me love the tropics all the more, and make me write poems for them as they enter the spring of their winter misery.

They're wearing scarves and showing photos of their thermostats, while i am doing this:

Sipping pitaya (dragon fruit) smoothies in open-air cafes,
bright, delicious and full of Vitamin C
Rolling around island beaches,
with volcanoes hugging us

Making lunch buffets with tropical fruits galore and watermelon
licuados -- blended watermelon and nothing else... so, so delicious
Counting flowers as they bloom

Of course, because living in the tropics -- and in a developing country -- means things are still developing, we have the new, modern world's bumps and bruises all around us. Right now our house is filled with dust -- pulvo -- a new word I won't forget, on account of the sewer project they're putting in on our street. First a little pamphlet came around, telling everyone how sewers work and how they're more sanitary and will protect Lago Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua, visible just outside our window) from pollution... all while the government plans its massive canal that's displacing people and could turn the lake saline. Plus, it seems none of our neighbors are connecting to the sewer (we have a septic tank), so the rivulets of soapy water from the part of the street that has their sewer finished still mingle with the dust. That dirty greywater passes near our curly-metal front gate, twisting its way in a downish direction til it reaches Cocibolca, not far away...

Fine dust as the city gets a sewer system

And finally -- i've become a little more Nica. These past months i've been wearing only flip flops -- the plastic kind my Ohana in Hawaii sent us -- but not the kind that Nica women wear. Nicas, like many Latinas, like to be a little more dressed up than their Norte counterparts, and wearing plastic flip flops is something they'd do only if they were selling tortillas on the street, not sipping pitaya smoothies in a cafe. So finally, after searching high and low for a pair that would fit my size-10 feet, i got my first pair of Nica sandals. They're a little tight because NO ONE sells my actual size -- Euro size 42, they slap on the ground loudly, and they have way more bling and sparkles than tends to be fashionable on Portland' east side. Like many things here, my sense of fashion does not blend in easily.

My friends' nanny says to bring along a backup pair of shoes, wherever i go because these ones are going to break in no time... but when they do, i guess that's another way i'll learn to adjust, to move with the changes, and become a little more Nica along the way.

Blingin' enough for a gringa, kinda tame for a Nica.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Looking Up

The rebelangel's blowup has happened.

I take at least part of the credit, me being a holy mess of emotion, angst, and overworked-ness half the time she's home. After one of our recent bouts of mother-daughter acrimony, she'd finally had enough.

She cried about having few friends and how there's always dust in the corners and how her school was so small and how she had to do art class with first graders. How she's missing out. How the milk tastes bad and the cheese in the burritos at school is like plastic, and how she has few friends. How she doesn't want to stay longer than we first discussed. All while sniveling and her face turning red with preteen fervor.

That last one, as it turns out, is surprising, because i think the clouds have parted on my own sense of seclusion and culture shock. I was just beginning to really like it here. Sure, living in a corner house on the first paved street you hit between the lakeside barrios and the town center means this house does get dusty fast, and loud as hell -- and that was a sticking point for most of the first month or two living here.

Hell, right now the sounds of a steel drum band three blocks away could just as soon be across the street. Nicas, like many Latinos, like it loud. Me, i've taken to relishing swimming back stroke in my pool, looking up at high-flying birds while my ears are covered with sweet blue water.

Silence, looking up.
Getting out and swimming in volcanoes

But her -- how should i tell her that this will pass? That seven months from now she'll probably be hysterical at leaving this place behind? I tried to explain the culture shock graph, but not sure it hit home.

I'm also trying the "get out more" approach. She does love the act of moving from point A to B and seeing what's out there -- she told me so on the bus to Managua last week.

We were sitting -- gloriously sitting instead of being crammed in the aisle of a roaring chicken bus -- looking out the window at the city creeping in closer.

"Mom," she said, "Do you like traveling?"

"Yeah baby, i like traveling. That's why we're here. Do you like traveling?"

(Unabashed grin) "Yes!"

So obviously she will get through this, and soon enough she too will be looking up.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Nicaragua Linda

Nicaragua's natural beauty is staggering -- and i only lament because i have yet to see enough of it.

Granada is beautiful too, with its colorful colonial houses, swept streets and of course our bamboo house -- but like every house, its four walls are still more or less uniform. Out there in the wild, Mother Nature's curves are still exceedingly more elegant.
Back side bamboo house, and flat Hazel.
Indeed, this house is lovely. Flowers. Hammocks. Trees. Bananas, any day now i am sure. Every night a pair of bats -- quite obviously lovers -- circle the almond tree near my second-story hammock, knocking almonds to the ground, sometimes swooping near the balcony rails, other times getting so far from the tree that they come in the one section of the bedroom's top-windows that isn't screened, drawing a circle around the ceiling before i watch them swoop out the double front door.

It's from that door every morning that i also see the clouds gathering around Mombacho volcano -- the nearest dormant behemoth to Granada.
Granada Cathedral and Volcan Mombacho.

Twilight swim, Laguna de Apoyo
It's when you get into -- or rather on top of -- those behemoths that you really feel it though. Not far from here though lies the very stuff i'm talking about. Mentioned in nearly every guidebook or article on Nicaragua i've read so far, Laguna de Apoyo, the lake carved into the top of a blown volcano, earns all of its accolades. Just see the pics. No more words necessary to convince you.

In that nature reserve just a 20-minute drive from Granada, i wonder why the hell i am living in town -- with its bombas going off for every Catholic holiday, its party vans hustling by bumping loud, its hoots of school kids coming from the big public colegio just two blocks away, its damn roosters -- when i could be living near this mineral-rich, clear-blue water, seeing clouds like this and looking volcanoes straight in the eye.
Laguna de Apoyo iPhone 3 pic
What, you need to be near a school for the RebelAngel? Roosters live in the country too? You don't have a damn vehicle of your own? Yes, the first and last answers both speak to the practical nature of living in town. But i assure you, while i may be logistically barred from living there right now, i am not proud of not having spent more time in the more verdant, more stunning side of this land we now call home.
Walking home, Granada.

Monday, October 6, 2014

When You Can't Go Back Home

It was 8th grade track practice and i had just mastered my first four-stride hurdle. That was really a high-high point in the day, as it turned out, because as i rounded the hurdle practice zone, i saw my mom walking out onto the field wearing sunglasses. Grandpa V. had died suddenly, she said, and it was time to go.

Later we were in the blackness of our late-80s Astrovan, us three girls allegedly sleeping in the back seats. We were driving in the dark to get us back to Dad's family, who lived 9 or so hours from us now -- a relatively close distance compared to just months before, when we'd been living across the Atlantic from almost everyone we loved.

Dad and Mom had been quiet most of the trip, but then Dad spoke up, probably thinking none of us in the back could hear. He said he'd been dreaming, and that in his dreams his father had entered, waved, and said a simple "goodbye." I rarely see my father choke up -- this military officer, the head of the family and farm boy used to hard things -- but in that moment his voice caught. I never told him i saw or heard.

In the 23-odd years since Grandpa's sudden passing, our family has never completely been at peace with it. Why should he be taken from us so soon, from a heart attack, while ironically driving other war vets to the VA for treatments? It's never been fair, not least of all to my Grandma, who talks of him as if he just left the room. Or talked, i should now say.

Last night my Grandma V. went to join the man she called her "tall drink of water." At 89 she'd been slowly declining this past year or so, and eventually her organs just stopped working. For the past few days she's been surrounded by her 10 children, her many grandkids and greats, doling out advice and encouraging everyone to get up one last game of pinochle. She talked until she couldn't talk anymore, and then she was gone -- her mind never leaving her til nothing at all was left. Days ago i talked to her on FaceTime and she was blown away that we could do that. Me too.

She married my Grandpa in the Hathaway Chapel in Vancouver, Washington in the WWII era -- just a few miles from where i now call home (when i'm not here, of course). She worked as a hair dresser and worried and took care of his twin baby girls while he sat in the bottom of a plane and dropped bombs on Germany -- a place he would later visit as a tourist in the last years of his life, when he came to visit us in our home across the Atlantic.

I am so happy for her now, that she gets to be reunited with him. We missed him, but she missed him most.

Still, i can't get over my own selfish feeling of being cheated out of closure. I look out my window at baby banana trees and palms, thinking about how i should be watching the first flakes of snow fall on southern Minnesota. How if i were living in my own country, only lots of land -- and the prospect of driving over Rocky Mountain passes -- would keep me from being there, instead of frontiers known to strike fear into North Americans called Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala.

But i am not going. Can't, rather. In this self-imposed cloister i have to rely on modern technology to get to commune with my family -- and i know it's all my own doing. This time there is no big military commander putting an ocean between a family and everyone else who loves them. 

There is only me and my desire to raise this revolutionary with some sense of the world; its faults, its pleasures, and the exquisite feeling of getting to go back home again -- sometimes denied.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Soccer in the Global Village

Last week The Oregonian published my story about the appearance of Portland jerseys in Soccer without Borders' Copa de la Paz -- the Peace Cup -- here in Granada.

Here's the link to the story, originally titled Girls Soccer in the Global Village.

RebelAngel and Ms. A, sweating it out after the Copa.
Image courtesy Florent Brossollet

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cats in a Bag

Lately i've resorted to bribery to get the rebelangel to write in a journal or to draw pictures that compare this life with her old one.

I keep thinking she's gonna blow up or melt down in reaction to the crazy-crazy she sees every day -- but nope. Not even when we see cats in a plastic bag. 

Stray dogs are a regular sight around here; they follow my scent of just-eaten food as i walk my former stray around the block, they come to the gate and give us the sweet eyes that signal they'd just love that morsel we're eating. It's not easy to deny them or to want to rescue all of them, but we're getting used to their flea-bitten presence. The maid doesn't like it, so i try not to let her see me putting scraps around the corner of the house, on the side of the street where old diapers and castoff concrete from the local sewer project tends to accumulate.

But then today, the cats in a bag. We were rounding diaper-corner, returning from an afternoon walk when we saw a man near our door. As we walked up our step, he held up his yellow plastic bag -- barely transparent enough for us to see a litter of kittens smooshed together inside -- and asked me if i wanted to buy them. He held the bag tightly with a fist, cinching it completely in his sweaty-black paw. The kittens' poor faces smeared against the bag. They flopped on top of each other in all sorts of uncomfortable configurations.

"Aire!" I said, seeing one kitten pawing at the sides of the bag. "Ellos necesitan aire!" They need air! Cat man then opened the bag, asking me again if i would buy them, telling me they did have air. No, no they didn't i said, and i don't want them. Yes i do. No i don't. No i don't want you to kill them, cat man, inside that wretched bag. Cat man looked at me with the same eyes that the dogs have when they're asking for food -- as if i should take them simply because i felt sorry for him. No.

We got inside and had to sit down for a little while. Once again i plied and pleaded and asked rebelangel would she like to process her feelings, somehow, especially since earlier she'd also been a little rattled seeing the neighbor's baby rabbits in a box, and then finding out they planned to eat them?

Nope. None of it. She'd rather just think about it on her own, in private, she said. I am trying to help her, but she is not me, i admit -- so when it comes to putting something to the page, i guess that's only my way of dealing with cats in a bag.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Like Coming Up for Air, Occasionally

Learning another language -- or being the midst of understanding it half-assedly -- is like trying to listen to a conversation while swimming. (Since we have the pool now, you can bet many of my metaphors will be about swimming...) Even if you're keeping your head above water and not dipping below the surface, you'll only catch about half of what's going on.

That can get you into trouble, say, when you enlist someone to buy you a few groceries and tell them you expect change -- but they instead spend all the money on even more food. Or when you tell someone you want to talk to their boss and they think they're suddenly in trouble -- so you know you've committed some lingual faux pas. Oops.

Much like i've done in years past in my own country, tonight i went to the meeting of the PTA at my daughter's school. Here it is called "Padres y Profes," though since only one father showed up in a sea of madres, it should be more accurately called "Madres y Profes y un Padre." But even when there is one male in the room, you must submit to calling the group "padres." The nuances of a male-oriented language...

Anyway. The school my daughter is attending is a tiny international school not far from our house. There are five kids in her class, and a combination of grades four and five at that. I chose it -- and this city -- because it offers a curriculum that is much like what she had at her bilingual school back home. Half the day in English, half in Spanish. Activities like Halloween and crazy hair day, and kids who are mostly locals or of foreign-born parents who live here full-time but still have a grasp of Norteamericano culture. I had no objection to public school, but this seemed to be the best fit.

While my understanding of what other parents said tonight was like swimming with your head only occasionally peeking above the surface of the water, what i got was that public school is a far, far cry from what our international school offers.

One mother talked about her child being bullied by other kids and even teachers at her public school. Another talked about the public schools' laissez-faire attitude toward student success, and how a student could repeat the same grade over and over with really no consequences. True, i've already met 12-year-olds who are in 3rd or 4th grade. My daughter has a 10-year-old friend who is in 1st, and we already know countless kids who don't seem to go to school at all -- even in spite of free public education for all.

It's things like this that make me want to cry out and to ask more questions, but i am at the same time swimming, swimming, barely afloat. Catching a verb and unpacking it slowly to find out whether it was past tense or future. Digging deep to remember this noun or that adjective. Feeling hot sweat when asked to share my own feelings, in Spanish, among a group of native speakers. Now i truly understand why the PTA at our school in Portland had a recap, in Spanish, of what happened at the last PTA meeting for the non-native speakers. Keeping up in the moment can make you feel like you're drowning.

Maybe in the future i will get to ask deeper questions that reach to the heart of what's happening in the public schools here. For now, i tread water and send more gratitude to the universe that my daughter has so much support in keeping her afloat...

Monday, September 22, 2014

Piñatas One and Two

And just like that, the slump goes away.

I think it has something to do with piñatas one and two. 

Images courtesy Florent Brosollet (my French little brother)
As you're probably aware, the piñata is a sure sign in Latin America that fun is afoot. In case #1, we were invited to visit the home of our maid, María, for her son's sixth birthday. In her home in the barrio of Pantenal, far from the paved roads of Granada, she's known as Doña Dolores.

To get there we took a taxi outside the town and asked to get dropped off at the place in Pantanal where they make concrete bricks. In case you're lost, you tell the driver that it's also right next door to where they slaughter pigs. We found this out when we got out of the taxi as six hefty beasts, spray painted with red numbers, were also arriving by horse-drawn cart. Doña Dolores' home is right across the street from these two sentinels of industry, thus easy enough for a taxi driver to find. 

María tells me she didn't need to buy her stretch of land; she is esteemed enough in this barrio that when she told her neighbors she needed a place, they set her up there for free -- across from the noise of the brick-making and the squeals of pigs ready for slaughter -- but in any case, free land. Since moving there not long ago, she's been busy planting fruit and almond trees around the house -- which for now consists of a few boards, plastic campaign signs filling in the gaps, a dirt floor and a pile of concrete blocks signaling the hope of a more sturdy house to come. Two tiny pups, one with a bum foot, are tied on tiny trees outside, not far from tiny ducklings kept in a pen near the water trough. Everything here points to what could be, but isn't quite yet.

In lieu of a cake -- which of course was to my daughter's dismay -- María made a steaming vat of menudo -- this one a combination of cabbage, carrots, tiny hot dogs and chicken. Since her trees were yet too small for holding the piñata, all of us put our heads together to fashion a solution for hanging it -- a thick bamboo pole, combined with the taller, thinner piece of bamboo that was previously holding the tv antenna in place.

We played soccer outside in the dirt street with her son's new ball, told stories and laughed, and laughed some more when we got to see the neighborhood kids dancing for the right to hit the piñata. This was our first time seeing this -- the requirement that kids dance in a fashion something like twerking (as is the Nica fashion, we now know) in order to get to play.

That was remedy one.


Remedy two was another piñata just yesterday, at the home of the rebelangel's new buddy from soccer, Ms. A. She's fast-talking, turning 13, plays soccer like a champ, and spends most of her time taking care of her younger siblings, as is also the fashion in Nicaragua. While her home has a concrete floor, it too is shored up in places by cardboard and old signs. There are tidy beds and there is running water. To get to her house you must leave the cobbled-paved street where we live, turn right at the store where they sell knockoff Adidas shoes, walk a hundred or so yards toward Lago Nicaragua, cross a creek of soapy dish water and small boulders and then turn left at the end of the line. Even on the paved streets, these are the sort of directions you get. House numbers simply don't exist.

Like the party before it, A's mom was all too gracious in handing me the best cup in the house from which to drink Coca Cola, and bustled around finding me the best chair. At this party too we laughed at little girls doing the Nica twerk dance...the rebelangel remarking how she was surprised that little kids figured it out so innately. Me too.

The point here is, we have now been the guests of honor at two piñata parties inside of a week. Before this i've been spending time gazing at my poor, sad, lonely navel and writing about how things get so hard, but then i go home and i don't do my own dishes nor worry about whether i have hot water to do said dishes nor fret whether i'll have to spend time doing my laundry today.

Instead, every time i get home from the hot, hot heat of the paved street in front of my house, i strip off my clothes, put on one of my six swimsuits, and dive into my very own pool. Bam. Piñata.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Low Lowdown

Before i studied abroad at the age of 20, the organizers of the program showed us a graph that was meant to enlighten us about the highs and lows of being away from home for a long time. It went something like this:

  / \
 /   \
/     \     __/\__   ___/\__ ad infinitum.
       \   /          \/

Basically, you start out your trip on a high note in which everything is new and all things rosy. That is quickly followed by a plunge into a low in which everything seems difficult and everything back home was waaay better than what you're now experiencing. Then there is an evening-out for a while, followed by less-profound spikes and plunges. Eventually though, you find your center.

Today, friends, is one of those plunges.

There is no one thing to pin it on. In fact, it's perhaps more due to what happens in my everyday job of writing how-tos for the masses -- and the snarky faceless editors that come with it -- than anything happening on this strip of land.

But today the plunge is punctuated by yet another child coming to the door asking to swim (meaning i have to supervise said kid who doesn't know how to swim), yet another ca-cawing pair of roosters at 4 am (who are not kept for making babies, but for fighting in cock fights instead), yet another loud motorcycle revving over the sounds of my phone call, yet another person interrupting -- yelling at me from the main floor up to my second-floor office where i am engaged in turning thoughts into cash, yet another sad attempt at explaining something in Spanish.

One more realization that we are outsiders and thus targets of much scrutiny and unwanted attention and many requests for money. One more sweaty set of clothing. One more sad wash of doubt about leaving behind one of the only creatures to grace me with unconditional love...

Clink clank crash, i fall into the low-lowdown loudly, like all the bottles of rum i've already consumed and left on the curb.

When i fall there, the maid, who's cooking my lunch, asks me "Estas enojada?" -- "are you angry?" -- and i cannot explicate my feelings adequately. Craaaasshhh.

Of course i am still enchanted by this town's colonial charm, its fruit sellers who come to the door with the day's harvest, the pool that gives my daughter something to do all day when school is out for three days for a holiday, the maid who makes my life easier by doing my laundry and answering the door in my stead. I am buoyed that my bank account is no longer diminishing and that spending $20 a week on groceries is an exorbitant budget. I try to remember these facts.

Meanwhile, the rebelangel also has her moments of low-lowdown, perhaps less-intricately described. Her, she erupts with "I need a hamburger!" when the monsoonish tropical rain, in its fourth hour of falling, is now combined with the twilight that comes at 6 pm.

To ease her woes i flick open an umbrella and thank the unseen stars that i can catch a cab to a store that stocks emergency doses of American food in large quantities. I buy a pizza -- the ready-made hamburgers seem still too disgusting -- and return to consume carbohydrates with her in the peaceful quiet of a house that is usually much less than.

We eat our feelings and hope for the upswing, which will inevitably come. Swoosh. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sports for Girls in Nicaragua: Get It Where You Can

As a child of the 80's, I grew up in a post-Title IV world. That meant girls sports in school, sport gear specifically for girls, including pink balls (lord, why only pink??), cleats and jerseys and sports bras cut for preteen girls' bodies. Teams for everything. Tournaments winter, spring, summer and fall. All this, we took for granted. 

When we arrived in Nicaragua last week, i started looking around for a girls soccer team for my daughter, and found only one, through Soccer Without Borders, a non-profit that uses soccer as a vehicle for engaging girls and helping them make healthy choices. According to the program's website, 28 percent of Nicaraguan girls are pregnant or mothers by age 18, and only 13 percent have played sports in any type of informal or formal setting. Compare that to the 40 percent participation in Varsity-level sports among American girls, as reported by the Women's Media Center, and you can see how Title IV has helped girls in our country not only participate, but reap the side benefits of sports, including being more confident, healthier and avoiding risky behavior such as drug abuse. 

I am thrilled to have my daughter be playing on the Mariposas team this year, however, i am a little sad for her too. It's a great program to have here, but it's a far cry from the weekly rounds of competition that she engaged in back home. While the program serves more than 150 girls in this town, there are not enough girls her age playing in Granada, a town of more than 117,000, for there to be regular games -- so that means practices and scrimmages are the name of the game. For competitive girls like my daughter, that takes away a big part of the sport. There's a big tournament coming up against teams from Managua, but after it's done, what's next?

I want the world for my daughter and that's why i brought her here -- to see the world, in all its tropical, complicated glory. I am grateful that she has the option to play with girls in the neighborhood on a regular basis, and to have them as teammates and friends who splash around the pool and come to the door at all hours of the day. Yes, there's more to the sport than the sport.

But you can bet i will try to be recruiting more girls, as we meet them, so that there's the chance of more actual games...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

We Get to Nicaragua in the Dark

Just when you thought it was all sadness and regret, someone speaks up and changes your mood.

I was shedding yet another tear as Managua came into view from the airplane, the capitol city's lights and baseball stadiums the only thing we could see. In the hours before, we said long goodbyes to countless beloved people -- among them the only schoolmates and close friends my daughter has ever known, not to mention my own beloved tribe. This, for me, meant tears upon tears, all day long as we flew across our country and then over the Caribbean Sea. Sniff.

But in the seat next to me, the little blonde pixie who sheds pixie dust wherever she goes whispered, "Thanks for doing this."

This, gratitude and awe from a 10 year old who's barely traveled outside her country.

This, a reminder that i am not crazy and that this is a good thing.

This, something that will sustain me when the heat gets too hot, the smell of garbage fires gets too intense, the thought of speaking anything but my muttersprache gets too hard. She was amazed and excited, and i should be too.

Shortly after, we landed in the night, when the unsavory smells of the developing world are the main sense to assault you. Burnt trash, charcoal cookfires, chile roasting in the night so no one has to endure it during the day. No sweet banana trees to remind you that you'll be eating sweet fruits in short order. No smiling baby faces, no colorfully-painted colonial buildings to enchant you. You might sleep a bit, but the roosters, who you have yet to see, will wake you early, early. The sound of countless horse's hooves clopping along, carrying people to work, will puzzle you, but you will cling to the breeze of your fan and just TRY to sleep, sleep.

And then you will wake to a swimming pool in your yard and the glint of a giant lake shimmering out your window, and the horses' hoof sounds will become full-blown beautiful mares, decked out with big ribbons and toting carriages full of people, as if cars deigned not to exist on this lonely street, just steps from Lago Nicaragua.

And then you, filled with doubts in the dark, will change your tune in the light, and under your breath you will mutter

"Thank you for doing this."

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Wonderful Year to Disappear

The drop of a box and it all gets lighter.
One box, two box, three,
light, lighter, lighter

On the eve of leaving it all behind
you're supposed to be doing it with joy --
so you try to remind yourself of joy.

O joy, that wonderful joy
o joy, that impossible joy
o joy, that wretched, guilt-ful joy
o boy, would that you could feel that joy

Yet the drop of a box and it all gets lighter.
one stack, two stack, three
lighter, lighter light indeed.


Title inspired by Nicole Blackman's "Daughter," a rager of a poem.

And this from her too:

"Girls have to go somewhere dangerous every now and then just so they know they can find their way home.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Who You Leave Behind

Last year we adopted a little white mutt who looked so much like the street dogs we've encountered around the world that his nickname became the "stray from east LA." He even has his own song, set to the tune of Cheech Marin's "Born in East LA."

We didn't mean to take on another dog, but our neighbor asked us to take care of her dogs for a while, and in the meantime, we fell in love with this nutty little foster dog. He came to live at our house the same day that our beloved big Akita boy Ascha decide to leave this earth. We took it as sign that his gentle giant spirit was still with us. It was just too coincidental.

Tonight i bought a little soft-sided zippered kennel, perfect size for a little white street mutt to fit inside while he travels in the cabin of the airplane down south. Meanwhile, my beautiful, loyal, 13-year old Akita girl companion looks on.

This, friends, is sticking point one in trying to move your family out of the country. A little white mutt to whom you've so recently become attached gets an airline traveling case, while the big reddish mutt you've loved all these years gets a new home. Or should i say, just a foster home?

As we prepare to move our lives out of this country and to a warmer, sunnier one, we have so many loved ones we're leaving behind. Most of them though, we know we are going to see once again. My beautiful reddish mutt, on the other hand, i am not so sure. She's too big and too hairy to hack life in Central America, so what to do?

I've had her all these 13 years, her being born at my feet in the middle of the night, hours and hours after the rest of her litter was curled up, nursing in the torn up dog bed her mama had torn up for their arrival, just at the foot of our human bed. When we went to bed there were eight puppies; when we woke up there were nine, including a slimy little runt set right at the arch of my foot. I am a sucker for a sweet story, and so you know what happened next; she stayed with me forever.

If she were an elderly human i know she would say 'go, go, children -- don't stay on my account...' but i can hear in her relieved sighs when i return from a weekend away that she misses me beyond belief. It needs no words. It hurts.

Still, my daughter's education in the world will not wait, so i trust that she will be in good hands with beloved friends who love her and for whom she wags her tail when they come in the room. I hold onto that tail-wagging as proof that i'm doing the right thing, even when just looking at her threatens to choke me up and drown me with tears.

Dogs are our loves, our companions, our loyal friends when it seems we have not a friend left in the world. That's the reason we have them, in my opinion -- so i falter at choosing to give that up. But still, perhaps her love is as strong as mine.

The rest of our friends will be waiting for us when we return -- and i can only hope she will be waiting too...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Raising a Revolutionary Around the World

You look forward to moving to a new country to meet new people and learn a new culture. Your child, meanwhile, is really just looking forward to having her own pool.

So it goes when you raise a good old fashioned rebel; they tend to surprise you.

For years I have been kicking the tires on the idea of taking Raising a Revolutionary -- with its resident revolutionary -- on the road. Now that the tickets are in my hot little hands, i guess it's time to announce it!

We are moving to Nicaragua at the end of the month. We are not sure when we'll be back, but we have a pool and a guest house and that means we want visitors...

I've probably written a time or two about how important bilingual education is to me. Before kindergarten i bugged and bugged our target school's principal to take us off the waiting list and enroll my RebelAngel. A few sighs and a lot of emails later, we were in. This next step, then, is to go beyond the Spanish-immersion-by-day experience and into an all-day, all-night kind of immersion, for me and for her.

Why Nicaragua? You'll probably chuckle at the short answer: they have tacos. When i am in the midst of a Zumba session or riding my bike for way too long, the first thoughts i have are of my deep love for that most simple of street foods. I started reading blogs -- which included detailed budgets -- from people who are doing the expat thing in Nicaragua, and found that most of them were spending money at taco stands on a regular basis. With that kind of access to tacos, i knew i could survive. Perhaps they won't be the same as they are in Mexico, but i'll survive.

The second, and deeper, reasons are more complex. South America seemed too expensive to fly back and forth. Costa Rica has too many Norteamericanos for my taste. Panama -- been there, wasn't overly impressed. Mexico is always on the list of places to live, work, and play, but i wanted to go somewhere new. That left Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to consider... but with a young beauty in tow and the news rife with talk of human trafficking and refugees piling up in U.S. detention centers, i thought those places were best left as a trip for a brave solo journalist at a later date. (By the way, these trips are always about telling stories, and there will be many to tell!)

That, then, left Nicaragua, with its promises of surfing beaches, monkey jungles, treehouses, brightly-colored colonial towns, and houses that were cheap enough for this solo mama to afford one with a pool. And i've told you how well that one went over. Also, there's the fact that my child needs to live among people who aren't mostly liberal and generally entitled for a while. It's good for our characters.

So now it's time for packing, saying the long goodbyes to friends and loved ones, and leaving our beloved Pacific Northwest behind for a while. We know it is not forever, but with no end date in sight, we are careening toward our new home with little time to look back. We love you. We can't believe how you've supported us all, and how you've helped us grow.

Now join us here for a new journey -- starting right now...

Photo of Granada, Nicaragua courtesy Adalberto H. Vega, Flickr

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tiny Tips: 2 Ways to Heal Yourself When You're Sick

O, homemade chicken noodle soup, how i love thee
sprinkled with coarse black pepper, so cheap and so good...

Then from the back room, "awwwww -- not soup again!" 
Soup in macro. Mmmm.

So this is how it goes: (There seems to be a food theme going on here lately. Suffice to say it's winter and all i think about is where my next meal is coming from)

You or your brethren are getting the sniffles so you boil up a big ol' pot of something so delicious, so nutritious, and available with very little fuss or rabbit-from-the-hat miracles in the pantry. Only garlic, onion, a chicken leg (not one of mine), some carrots and a bag of noodles, and it makes you feel like you're back in the warm arms of your mommy, thermometer in hand while you faked sick so you could stay home under the cozy covers... 

That's #1. That will get you through the first round of the sickies real good.

But like any well-meaning whole foods health-food parent, you make too much, and when you try to bust that meal out the next night, you start hearing those cries from the back room.

So then you do #2:

Pour half that mess into a big ol' container and stick it in the freezer. Put a date on it, and give it a name like "To the Rescue When I'm Too Damn Sick to Put Even an Easy Soup Together Soup." That's also called throwing yourself a bone. It's a real art.


Also try the wet sock treatment or these other great remedies. They've done me and mine a lot of good.

Image: Bobjudge, Flickr

Friday, December 13, 2013

Melancholy Arrives

In like a parade
the dreaded shadow comes;

not a parade for which children
flock to the streets, gathering the offerings
of beauty queens and Santa
but one in which innocents
fly under the covers
hugging their pillows tight chanting
not this time not this time not again.

It's the boots of an army,
heard far-off approaching,
the rumble of a truck
set to repossess your wares,
the snap of a lock,
the whipping-master is home.

Lo, you tried to prepare,
stocking up the larder,
squirreling away the liquid
sunshine of tomatoes and
spiritual food: how a blanket,
under an August spread of city-stars,
sounds when skin is
rubbed against it over and over.

You thought you'd be spared --
but at the first touch of thunder
the picnic is done.

First round the corner then down the street then here
The Shadow,
ever darkening the door.


As adults we abuse ourselves more -- so melancholy and despondency seem to hit us more. But we are not the only ones to feel it. Our children suffer seasonal depression too -- they just manifest it in different ways.

One day the RebelAngel is peppy and flitting around the house, hunting down her basketball shoes... the next she's angry, lazy and saying i just feel so sad, so sad... Unlike us adults, though, she doesn't have the vocabulary to recognize it for what it is. It's just a scary, ugly thing looming from around some dark corner.

Were i only able to take away her hurt, to rip this shroud of clouds off the sky and let the sun and warmth in. I would wallow in it with her -- both of us lying in the grass on the side of the house, paying no heed to the dog walkers, the speedy delivery trucks, the stares of our well-meaning nosy neighbors...