May 4, 1996
Email is no easy thing here. Lee was busy away from his office so it was 13 days that email wasn’t checked. I’m going to take a chance on hand-writing letters at times like this.
Tuesday I have to go to Managua to tend to some business and to get my visa renewed. Alan Wright is coming down from the states, too, for a week, so I’ll get to meet him. Lee will be gone for a month at some period, I think in June, so I probably won’t have access to email during that time.
I can’t remember all I’ve told you, so if I repeat myself think nothing of it. But things are going great at the co-op. When I first got there, the first day or two, I wondered if it was possible to do anything at all about the looms. The fly shuttle boxes were caving in, the parts worn and broken. Then I started paying attention, and as luck would have it, there was Cecilio. He’s my apprentice carpenter. God, he’s smart! And quick. And industrious.
I introduced him to tools he’d never seen before. Like the saber saw and belt sander. The reversible drill for taking out old screws. One demonstration and he’s miles ahead of me.
He reminds me of Joe Moura. Those of you not familiar with Fort Bragg should know he’s a millionaire contractor now, but back about 1962 or so, when I was taking wood shop at night school from Bob Dragness, there were three kids from Bob’s high school carpentry class building cabin in the middle of the wood shop. One of them was a shy young kid from the Azores who didn’t speak English. Bob said he was quick, eager and a working fool but he never says anything. Joe was always quick to come help me push a 3/4 inch sheet of birch plywood through the table saw, or to carry it around. Not necessarily what I wanted at that time but I didn’t know how to talk to him and he only smiled. That was Joe Moura when I first met him. As I said, he’s now a millionaire contractor. Several years ago he built a physician’s professional building and donated it to Fort Bragg as a thank-you to America. He’s still a nice guy. Last time I saw him, he was building himself a three-million-dollar house. (Don’t know what he wants with it but to each his own).
Cecilio reminds me much of Joe. He also reminds me of my son Nick: he looks at a problem and figures out what to do about it. And he works all the time, taking only the shortest break for lunch and he’s back at it again. We have excellent communication, especially without words. We may work with gestures only for a half hour or more without saying anything – measure this, cut here, bolt here, sand this, etc. Then we’ll start talking while he tries to teach me Spanish and I to learn.
I wish I were a contractor – I’d sure hire this kid. Wish someone in the family was a contractor. He’s too good to let go to waste. Somebody – find a job for this young man! He doesn’t have a chance here.
The last couple of days we – Cecilio and I – rigged up a jerry-built skein winder out of one of the old bobbin winders. We had to have some means of getting the yarn into skeins so we could try dyeing it. We did our first dye job today but won’t know much about it until we go back Monday. None of the weavers knew what a skein was because they’ve always worked off cones.
Speaking of which, when I got here they had two long warps of 70/2 cotton (that’s sewing thread, on cones, in colors). They have a special order for a whole bunch of napkins but they weren’t able to weave them. They tried and tried. That’s when I asked Alan for corner braces, which he sent down with a delegation of high school kids. I showed Cecilio what I planned to do and right away he did it. Then he made new wood parts for the pickers, and I took the old leather out and soaked them in water – they were so stiff I thought at first they were plastic – then I waxed them. So one loom was working and we spent last Saturday at the Studio until 6:45. (It’s dark at 7 and we walked home in the dark.) The other loom still didn’t work and with my lack of Spanish I had trouble making Mirna understand I needed to see her weave so I could watch the loom. The others were all weaving. Finally Mirna stayed at the loom and I watched as the shuttle flew off the shuttle race. The problem became obvious: the shuttle couldn’t stay on the track because after three-quarters of the distance across the shuttle race flattened out and the shuttle flew to the floor. I showed Cecilio and he and I went to the bone pile of old looms. It took parts from three looms to make it but now there is an excellent beater on that loom.
The little 24 inch loom is finished, it’s now Swedish style. I’d planned for it to be for hand throwing, but Cecilio went ahead and put a fly-shuttle beater on it. It may be too short to work; we’ll find out. But that’s what these dyed yarns are going to be for, for starters. Dish towels.
Nicaragua is a country of patterns. Of designs. To my artist’s eye, it’s a delight. I hope I’ll get good pictures. Concrete blocks in fancy shapes, grills for windows, doors and fences. Tiles in sidewalks in myriad variety. Pickup trucks have sidewalls on their beds made of ornamental concrete reinforcing steel in fancy patterns. Even in the poorer sections there is lots of pattern.
It’s easy to talk about getting adjusted to the heat but the people here suffer from it, too. I think everyone who has a refrigerator with a freezing compartment makes and sells ice. They freeze it in plastic bags about one quart or two quart size. The smaller bags cost about seven cents US. The weavers buy four or five bags a day for their drinking water and it is a blessing.
I’m having trouble with the food. Too much salt, too much sugar. And too much food, too. They give me about three times as much as anyone else. At first I tried to eat it all; one wouldn’t waste food here. But I just couldn’t. I started removing small portions to another plate. There was still too much salt and sugar. Their “frescos” would be delicious if they left out the salt and sugar. They are fruit blended with water and salt and sugar added. Sort of like lemonade but made with a variety of fruit. Here I’d been cooking with little salt for three years, and to come to this. I was afraid I’d throw up the next time I got a mouth full of salt. (I’ve had fish that was to me like eating salt salmon that hadn’t been soaked out. Cabbage salad that’s really salty, etc.) So every day I’d buy a sandia – a watermelon – to share with everyone. That was all I’d eat. I’d hear them talking about me. “Poco, poco,” Mirian would say. “Comes nada.”
Finally one day they brought chairs and sat in a circle around me and asked me, what did I eat? I told them I ate every kind of food. But no salt, no sugar. They couldn’t believe that, we perspire so much we need salt, they told me. I decided to exaggerate and said the doctor told me to eat no salt and no sugar. I figured I could learn to like food without.
So guess what’s next – I got lemonade with no salt, no sugar. I drank it, too. They cook some delicious vegetable dishes with no salt, but they load theirs down after I’m served. These ladies are so sweet.
Actually, commercial orange juice here has sugar added. Coca Cola doesn’t taste sweet compared to anything else and they drink a lot of Coke. So do I now – it rebuilds electrolytes we lose in sweat. I bought some instant decaf coffee – there’s only Nestles at the supermercado. No one knew what decaffeinated meant but they all had to taste my iced coffee and they made awful faces. “No azucar.”
Mirian has tried hard since I first got here. One night I had what looked like a flauta. When I bit into it the meat was sweet. Really sweet, as if cooked with jam or something. The next day they asked me if I’d like an enchilada and my mouth watered with anticipation but it was sweet, too. When I get home one of the first things I’m going to do is go to La Fuente and have a Wenatchee-style Mexican dinner with lots of salsa!
Nicaraguan cooking is not at all like Mexican cooking. They don’t use peppers or chilis and there is no “heat” in any of the food I’ve had.
May 1 is Primero de Mayo, a holiday. The day before Danelia said, “Mirna, Rosa Maria, Mirian, Ana Maria, yo y tu,” here she poked me in the chest, will “marcheron” to the “parque” at 9 a.m. At last I get to participate in a May Day celebration. Bueno!
So the next morning, buses not running, we walked to town.
Took one and a half hours, Went into an open courtyard with covered seating all around the sides. Danelia talked with a woman who then came over and shook my hand, welcomed me and the blank wall of my lack of Spanish. Damn! She indicated where we should sit. When things were about to begin, she gave me a black and red FSLN flag, then went up to sit at the speakers’ table. So there I sat, in my sun hat, my sun burn, with my FSLN flag while some guys from a TV station shot tape of the doings. Mirian’s TV broke down a week ago Sunday, so I don’t know if I made local TV that night. The meeting was great, actually. I’ve been to enough political meetings it wasn’t hard to follow the rhetoric and they had great music. Woodie Guthrie-type songs, I suspect, definitely songs of the worker. Afterward the lady from the speakers’ table brought me a cola, Pepsi, thanked me for coming, and wished me well.
I find no anti-Americanism here, which surprises me. Before the TV broke down there was a program about an anniversary of a massacre that took place in the 1980s. The boys, who would have been 10 or 12 back then, told me it happened during “the war with the United States.” No rancor to me. One young man did ask me, “Presidente Bill Clinton is a good man, isn’t he? He’s not like Presidente Ronald Reagan, is he?” He seemed really concerned, as if there was an underlying fear the U.S. might come down and impose another dictator on them, or do something to ruin their economy again. (The crap of the U.S. imposing dictators in Nicaragua goes back as far as 1852.)
So far as I’ve been aware, I haven’t ever had a hostile glare. People go out of there way to come and shake my hand and say they are happy to meet me. The young boys/men who are studying inglés are aggressive about asking me to help them with their English. The girls hang around and listen, but aren’t as aggressive about it. If I sit on the bench in the front yard at night and watch the kids play street ball in the light from the houses, little kids come and sit with me, smile shyly and say hardly a word. They are darling.
I’ve been doing tapes at their request, where I say an English word three times, while Hector repeats it after me. It’s surprising to me, the sounds they have trouble with. It gives me an idea how awful my Spanish must sound to them.
I had to go to town on business one day when the high school kids from New Haven were here and was invited to join them for lunch. There was a noted muralist there, Daniel Pilido, who is Colombian. He came up to help with the revolution in 1984 and stayed. He paints and teaches painting now. He has better English than I have Spanish. Someone had talked to him about me and he came over to meet me. He was impressed to learn I used to paint TV backdrops, back in the days before they filmed on location. I wish he was going to do another mural soon (he just completed one with university students). I would love a chance to work with him.
May 9: Monday Lee took me to Managua so I could get a paper notarized at the American Consulate. That was a shocker – the heavy rolls of razor wire surrounding the buildings. Formidable. They treated us beautifully as soon as they saw our American passports. But they kept my camera. Probably thought I’d take a picture of the john. It did have a toilet seat – probably the third or fourth I’ve seen since I’ve been down here – but it was in need of a coat of paint. And no toilet paper. No dispenser for toilet paper, either. Shopko has them all beat in that department. Count your blessings and carry Kleenex.
I went to Immigration and got my Visa extended for seventy days, so I’m legal here until July 14th. At least I don’t have to go back again for that.
The container with the Sister City stuff had arrived. Lee hired six men to unload it and the truck followed us to Leon, the men riding in Lee’s van. The container was full, jammed full, mostly with stuff for the hospitals. Including nursery bassinets and incubators. I was impressed; boxes of dressings, gloves, gowns, all kinds of hospital stuff. I don’t know if those guys Lee hired at the dock are called longshoremen, but if they are they are the shortest longshoremen you’ll ever see. As Lee put it, “Can you imagine anyone hoping for a job where they’ll work that hard, for that little money, and pray they’ll get another job like it in the next few days?”
Alan Wright is here so I finally met him. He’s nice, and the weavers adore him. He seemed duly impressed to find the looms bolted together, not nailed or held together by cords. They told him three months wasn’t going to be long enough for what I had to teach them. They are willing learners.
Today Cecilio and I went looking for wood to make new holders for the warp beams – something that won’t fall off in the middle of a colcha/blanket. “No hay” was the word at the different carpenter places so we ended at a sawmill, where they have big 3 ½ foot diameter logs they cut to order. Cheap, too – so cheap it has me worried. I had to put down a deposit, of course, and when they saw they were taking all the money I had on me, they gave some of it back. So now I have money enough to ride the bus to Lee’s office in the morning. To get more money, of course.
I spend a lot of time in hardware stores, ferreterias they are called here. They are not like ours. Displays of one of each thing are out front and the clerk goes and gets the rest. I try to figure out what to ask for ahead of time, but it’s usually not good enough, so I take Cecilio as my interpreter (and so I won’t get lost). I’m learning the important Spanish words: perno, tornillo, clavo, broca, martillo, etc. (Bolt, screw, nail, drill bit, hammer, etc.) I think the guys in the ferreterias cringe when they see me coming, but they are most polite and helpful. And they grin a lot.
Pretty soon I’m going to move to Ana Maria’s house for a month. I’ve so enjoyed staying at Mirian’s I’ll hate to go for fear I won’t see the kids again. They are special. But I’ve already met three of Ana Maria’s sons and they are really nice. Then there is six year old Yuri (pronounced “Judy”). She’s my best friend and won’t go to school until she says Adios to me.
And speaking of “adios” I quit saying it when we parted because I never heard anyone else say it. Then I listened carefully. They do say it, but they pronounce it “ah-yo”. They hardly ever say eses (S’s?). Managua is Manawa and Nicaragua is Nicarawa.
Tonight was quite emotional. The kids and I spent the evening trying to talk about “Washington” where I lived. Then they got out family snapshots to show me and each one selected one of himself/herself, each taken four or five years ago, to give me, inscribed on the back with lots of love to me. It ended in much hugging and kissing. I’ve only a couple more days at their house. I hate to leave.
Back to 1996 letters.