Elaine, Leon, Nicaragua

October 2, 1999


The yellow alert was changed to a red alert yesterday, with promises of more days of rain and pictures on TV of people in their houses sitting on beds with 10 inches of water on the floor below them, but at least it's better than being outside in the rain, standing in water as some are.

Yesterday morning Danelia and I were walking to work. As we passed the house of Cecilio's mother, Danelia said "Look!" In the doorway was standing a young man and I said "Gee, Cecilio has a brother who looks just like him." "It is Cecilio," Danelia said.

The young man in his army fatigues and burr hair cut looked too old to be the Cecilio I remembered. He came to the coop with us, and the women all commented on how fat he had become. That surprised me, he is still skinny. But food doesn't come easily for his family, so I guess the "Tan gordos" meant he had fattened up a couple of inches.

He came by the coop again this morning and was there when the sewing machine started making funny stitches. I asked Cecilio to oil and clean it, and explain the business to Danelia and Mirian. He could do it in Spanish, where even my dictionary doesn't have the words I'd need. He found a nest of black thread in behind the threading levers. I probably would never have seen it. It took some doing to get all the pieces of thread out. Heaven knows how long it's been there. They haven't sewn with black since I've been here, that I've seen. He had the machine running like clockworks when he finished.

My niece Pandy sent me some of Hunt's Screen Filler and Hunts Drawing fluid. It came yesterday and I spent several hours working over one of the silk screens. It's a lovely design, but the lines were all too delicate for the coop printers. The vigor with which they operate the squeegee would eliminate the lines, and we'd have a colored rectangle printed. I spent my hours thickening all the lines, and hope I haven't changed the basic intention of what the design was. I won't get to test it until Monday.

I'm staying at Danelia's house now. She's been trying to get me to Matagalpa for weeks, but all the Sundays have been too wet and unsafe for travel. If the rain isn't too heavy tomorrow, we'll go to visit her daughter Jasmina in Managua. I really like Danelia's kids. They are all adults, of course. She has three of the most amiable sons you could ever meet.

Huber has finished his university studies in engineering. He needs more time working on the computer, I guess, because he uses the only hours he could get at the university: from 2 am to 4:30 am. You'd have to really want to do the work to do it those hours. Pretty complicated stuff he's doing. He showed me. Incoming and outgoing water pipes in a factory, where the steam valves are, how much power to what area. Stuff like that. Way over my head.

Lucia, the girl who lived with Danelia last year and wove at the coop, showed up late last night. She's been going to school in Managua, but she said her papa couldn't help her any more, so she'll have to quit. She was sopping wet when she got here from her walk from the bus stop. She spent the night and took off for home this morning. I hope she somehow manages to stay in school. Her family lives way out in the country and there is no high school nearby.

When I was making those baskets at Rosa Maria's house, her son Walter sat across the room and watched me but didn't ask any questions. He's a 19 year old university student. One day I came home and there on the table was a basket he had made. He'd even figured out a way to make a handle, which I hadn't done. Too bad he hadn't been working with material that had been dried. I was so pleased. I like smart people, don't you?

I've told you about teaching Mirna, Norma, and Ana Maria to embroider. Mirna and Norma are young-uns, but Ana Maria had adult children. I was surprised at the determination she put into it. And the amount of stuff she put on the cloth, too.

She was making a scarf to cover her TV. They do that here. It keeps the ever-present sand out, I guess. But the people I know don't have occasional tables and bureaus.

I gave her a piece of white cloth about 18 X 40 inches. She started by transferring the rabbit and duck I'd done for Norma's baby things first. She started with outline stitch, took it home and must have worked for hours. Her stitches were pretty rough, but she wasn't one I'd have asked to take them out and do over. Too discouraging. Then she wanted sprays and columns of flowers and added those. I taught her the lazy-daisy and the French knot stitches, but she decided to do the whole thing in outline stitch, even to working around each petal of flower and leaf! She washed and ironed it and brought it in proudly to show.

I suggested that they all should sign their work and add the year. I told them I still had pieces I'd done in the 1930"s and 1940"s, but I'd never signed and dated them, so my grandchildren would never know how old they were.

Of course, I was thinking of a small signature or initials with the year, done in white in an obscure place. Ana Maria thought about it. She asked me to write her name and 1999 for her. I asked where she wanted it and didn't say anything when she showed me a spot right in the center , and said how high she wanted it.

I wrote out "Ana Maria" and "1999" in my best cursive. The capitals and numerals were 3/4 inches high, the small letters 1/2 inch for easier embroidery. Ana looked at it for quite a while, said, "Tan bonita" with a big smile and asked me to transfer it to the cloth, which I did.

The next day Ana proudly spread the cloth, freshly washed and ironed before us. She'd done the new embroidery in light green and her stitches by now were perfect. But the bottom 1/3 of the capital "A" wasn't done. I looked closely, and the transfer line there was faint. Then it hit me-- Ana Maria didn't know what her name looked like in script. I almost cried. She'd missed the bottom of the "A" because she didn't know it should be there, and her sight wasn't good enough to see the line of transfer. She has only one seeing eye. And she can't read or write. When she signs her name, it's like a pre-schooler printing it.

I was talking one time to a college professor who had been in Nicaragua. We were discussing literacy and I said something about television. "Yes," she said scornfully, "they all do have TV's, don't they?" as if it were bad. Just imagine what your life would be like if you couldn't read or write-- and if you didn't have TV. They at least get the news, as well as entertainment. Ana Maria knows about giraffes, elephants, and lions, and the Great Wall of China. And Hurricane Floyd and dead pigs and chickens in North Carolina. "Food lost", she said. One thinks of the basics when one is this poor.

Last Monday Mirna and I went to the store that sells things for "fancy work" as people used to call crochet and embroidery. I bought a half dozen crochet hooks, some pretty thread, and we looked at the crochet instructions books they had. I asked Mirna to chose one after making sure each had something suitable for beginners.

The most important thing for them to learn, I told them, was to read the instructions. If they could read instructions, they could do anything. But, of course, those instructions were in Spanish, so I had to set about learning new words. A triple crochet is a punto alto doble - see - I'm finally learning some important words. My dictionary says "crochet" is "croche", but they say it is ganchilla.

With the written instructions there is also a diagram. Mirna, being Mirna, had a doily made the first day while the others were on row 6 or 8. As with the embroidery, she will be the one to teach them when I'm gone.

The next day, Mirna was half-way into a rather complicated pattern for a doily, so I got to go over the written instructions with her, where the diagram didn't explain enough. If I can just leave behind me enough information that someone can teach someone else, I'll feel that I've done well here. I know already that some sisters have started embroidery. Now, if I can just teach Danelia how to make a sandwich…

Sunday Oct. 3

Rain, rain, and more rain. It's gray and gloomy all day long. I feel as if I were starting to grow moss. Some days my hair is still damp from my morning shower when I go to bed at night.

There's been lots of flooding in the news about Esteli, where Cecilio is stationed. He said the army had done lots of rescue work, hauling out people and the two days before he got leave they worked without sleep.

U.S. Army helicopters were helping rescue, sending down line to haul people up, but Cecilio said most of them were too afraid. There were lots of drowned and bloated cows and pigs in the water. I asked him if he'd seen any of the Houses for Humanity homes in Esteli, since I knew someone who had worked on them. "Yes, lots of houses. New houses. Is very good." He still tries his English all the time with me. I try my improved Spanish on him, but he wants me to speak English to him. I think that's great. He thinks the U.S. Army is wonderful, but his big hero is Rambo. Oh, Lordy! I hope he gets over that. Mirna is all smiles now that he's home for his first leave.

One sees lots of long skirts here now. Four years ago, I saw only six, all told, and they were worn by store owners. More local women are wearing trousers or jeans, too, including some in the coop. If I were that young, I think I'd stick with the short skirts -- they're cooler.

These women are all so washed-and-ironed on the street, I probably mortify them to death with my broom-stick skirts. I not only don't iron them but I twist them to make them more wrinkled. By now, they are no doubt resigned to me, but I have been determined that they are not going to iron my clothes. My shirts are truly no-iron and my skirts don't need it. Of course, what the women wear while working is a disgrace, but that's the point-- they save their good clothes for the street.

One day while shopping, Mirna and I had lunch at the "Cafetita" that sells tacos Mexicana down by the supermarket. The tortillas were small and thin, so I'm guessing they have a tortilla press and make their own. The tacos had little cubes of beef in them, and on the tray were three small bowls. One had avocado, one had beans that had been whirled in a blender. Both of them tasted as if they had no salt in the. The third dish was a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions, and chili. Very good. There was also a sliced and fried tortilla to take the place of our tortilla chips. None of it tasted like anything I'd had before. Now I wonder if the tortillas and tacos at home or the one I had her is more like real Mexican tacos.

I also wonder about this salt business. I've never had food in a restaurant here that was too salty. But in these particular homes, and when they buy food from the places that sell cooked food in the neighborhoods, its always too salty. It would be for you, too.

Danelia's roof still leaks but of course it keeps getting worse and worse. The 14 holes up there the size of tea cups, if tea cups had square corners. The roof is of clay tile, and it's high and steep. What she needs is some good old corrugated, galvanized iron roofing but of course she can't afford it. Or to pay for someone to replace the tile that are broken.

When it rains they cover the TV with plastic and unplug it, unless there's a game someone wants to watch. Then they put it on a chair and try to find a dry spot to sit and watch it. La vida es dura. Life is hard here. So much we take for granted at home. Danelia lives in constant fear her roof will cave in.

Yesterday I got out a cone of rayon macrame cord that's been sitting in the yarn room for years. I was thinking about how they don't have tables to put things on, so I decided to teach Mirna and Norma how to make a hanger for a basket. Simple but pretty. They loved it-- both the doing and the end product.

This talk of embroidery, crochet, and macrame may seem of little value to you, but you haven't seen their houses: dark, unpainted concrete or brick with few or no windows and dim light bulbs that are only on when absolutely necessary. I was amazed the zeal with which they set to work on these little pieces. They come to work at the coop and show me how much they did the night before. The are so proud. They are seeing ways of getting a little color, a little brightness, into their homes. Some of the crochet work gets put up on the wall because they have no tables to put it on. But they hope. They see homes on TV and know there is something better out there.

Tuesday, Oct. 5

The sun is out this morning and it's like a different world. Maybe those rivers will have a chance to go down.

Love, Elaine

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