Friday, November 8, 2013


My world map is almost finished, by which I mean I still probably have 20 hours of work to do on it.  But most of the countries are painted and, although I still have plenty more painting to do and the labeling of countries, it’s looking pretty good. So on the occasion of my second to last class with the little kids at the library, I decided to focus the class on the map. We reviewed colors and numbers in English inside the library and did a little exercise on how you copy a rabbit from a small grid onto a larger one, by way of illustrating how the map was made.  I showed them the pages from which I had drawn the large map before we headed outside to look at it.  We identified the map colors, counted the countries in South America and labeled the map by continent.   Then I gave each kid a piece of paper and asked them to trace their favorite country.  I didn’t expect much: the paper was too thick to use for tracing, the map sits high and so the kids can’t reach many countries. But there then ensued an explosion of curiosity and creativity.  Someone asked the name of a country he had traced and then other kids wanted to know the names of their countries.  Then, when they couldn’t trace well, they began to draw countries free-hand, asking what they were called and spontaneously writing the names on their drawings.  The kids wanted to know where countries they had heard of were, countries like Spain and Hoduras.  They asked about islands and Asian countries and African countries with colors they liked.  They wondered at how big Russia and China were and how small Nicaragua was. They were drunk on islands:  Madagascar, the Malvinas, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Nueva Caledonia.   I was shuffling sheets, not able to provide the country names fast enough to keep up with the questions. The kids filled their sheets with countries and names, all of this completely without my urging.  We had a hard time closing the activity for the story time which ends each class.
I began the world map, in all honesty, for two reasons—to keep myself occupied and directed through the last 3 months of service, and to leave something concrete behind when I left. Nicaraguan schools may not have much but they do have maps, so it wasn’t as though I was providing the only view of the big world kids would ever have. If I thought there might be some use for the map it was maybe as an instructional aid for a teacher who thought its size and locale might aid motivation.
Now I see it entirely differently. Passers-by can study it for a moment or two.  They can say to themselves, “Ah, so that’s where India is.”   They can wonder, “Must be cold in Chile.” Or “How big is Africa!” They can look at the United States and Spain and Costa Rica and Panama and think about their family members working in those countries so far from home. People, like my kids, can indulge their natural curiosity about the world.  They can imagine better, understand better.

So I am happy today, not just for my project, but because my little class of kids reaffirmed the faith that all teachers have, despite, at times, all evidence to the contrary, that human beings want to know stuff and given a chance they will try to learn it.    

On Beihg an Older Volunteer

Since I’m leaving Nicaragua for the States in 3 weeks and, since, before that, on November 3, I’m having still another birthday (3 in total) in Nicaragua, and since age loomed large as an issue for me before I come here, and since older people in the States wonder if Peace Corps is really for them, and finally, since I’ve settled a few things about age in my 2 years here, it seems a good idea to share some thoughts on the subject.
To begin, before I left the States I was worried about being what Peace Corps calls an “older volunteer”, defined as anyone over 50.  Even that threshold age was a challenge since I came to Nicaragua at age 66 and will leave at 69.  Are they kidding?  Fifty isn’t “older” at all.  But 66 arguably is. What was I worried about?  Not my health which had always been good.  My ability to learn a new language was a concern in the face of all those urban legends that say older people can’t learn languages very easily (I did some research on this and all I could find by way of studies were comparisons of the language learning abilities of, say, 3 year olds and college students in which the 3 year olds trump the students.  I’d be interested to know if there are studies about 65 year olds.) But I worried most about social isolation.  I figured the younger volunteers would like me well enough, but not care to hang out with me much. Before I left, I saw a YouTube video of volunteers in training in some country doing one of the silly getting-to-know-you exercises for which Peace Corps is famous, in this case a dance.  There, right in front of my eyes, was an older volunteer gamely putting on her best face to join in the fun, and missing by a mile.  I winced in sympathy and shame.
So how was it?  From the point of view of working in Nicaragua my age was nothing but a plus.  I wouldn’t say that Nicaragua is a traditional culture to the extent that the aged are revered for their wisdom, but, in contrast to the marginalized position of older people in the States, seniors here are equal members of the community. Teenagers don’t avoid them.  Everyone talks to them. They work like everyone else.  When they get really old, they stay in the family with no apparent annoyance from the younger family care-takers.  They are referred to with kindness—“mi abuelita”—my little grandmother.  I don’t have family here of course, but people call me “madre”, a term I feared, with my US defensiveness, might be an insult to my wrinkles, but, no, it’s a term of respect.
Professionally those wrinkles conferred an automatic deference the younger volunteers needed to earn.  At my school I was an assumed expert even though the truth was that I had no experience teaching English as a foreign language, a fact I kept to myself. It’s hard to document, but I always felt respected here in part because I am foreign and in part because I am old.  Although, difficult as it is, people can get their minds around foreign young people traveling around without their families, they are blown away by my ability to navigate another country when all their experience of their own seniors is of people ever more sedentary. They are amazed by my energy (thanks to my great fortune in having grown up with excellent health care.) Nevertheless, as I have said before, they offer me seats on the bus, a not unsubstantial benefit which the wrinkles also earn.
Peace Corps takes terrific care of all volunteers but us older ones in particular.  I can’t walk into the medical office without someone wanting to check my blood pressure. I get all the meds I took in the States.  The people in charge listen to me.  And I hear that Peace Corps wants more older volunteers because we have skill sets. In Peace Corps Nicaragua, at least, there is no liability to being an “older volunteer”.
As far as my social life with other volunteers is concerned, I made a point during training to get to know the younger ones.  I really wasn’t looking to become a surrogate mom.  I needn’t have worried.  Younger volunteers have their own moms and, unlike in years past, they stay in close contact with home.  They belong to that generation that likes their parents, has remained tight with them all through college and, thanks to the miracles of the internet, Skype, and relatively cheap telephone service, they talk with parents at least weekly, sometimes daily.
 By the end of training I knew everyone fairly well, but, as we headed off to our very separate sites, I could tell I was on my own. Generally no one called, wanted to visit, wanted to travel together, but, to be fair, I didn’t try to be in contact either. That is because I carried an ageist assumption from the States that they wouldn’t want to do those things with an older volunteer. The exception was one young volunteer who vowed to call me every Sunday night  to exchange experiences.  And she did.  When vacation time came, she and I visited each other and traveled some together.  That first year was pretty lonely and she saved my life.  In the second year something changed with the other volunteers as well.
What changed, I think, was the shared accumulation of responses to difficult situations.  We ended up having so much more in common in terms of what service brought so that differences such as age became less noticeable. (Take as an example the number of volunteers here who have had dengue.  Now, that makes for a fraternity.) Also as I got to know volunteers better I discovered that I have more in common with some of them than I thought.  There are some very interesting people in Peace Corps, readers and theorizers, people who have been thinking about things.  I would be fortunate to have many of them as friends in the States.
Sometimes I am bothered by an unhappy thought that maybe I am not “acting my age”, that because the only Americans I am in contact with here are young, I am aping them in some unseemly way.  I am sometimes mildly shocked when I look in the mirror and remember, yes, I am almost 70. How I feel conflicts with the received social weight of those words.  But then I think that this is one of the gifts of the dramatic reorientation that my Peace Corps service has given me. All kinds of things are not as they once seemed, so why not age, too?  
What all this has taught me is that the ageism of the States doesn’t have to apply.  (And I need to repeat that I was ageist, too, to the extent that I assumed that my age would overshadow any other qualifications I might have as a friend.) What one needs, though, are some amazing young people and maybe something in common like work or study or a volunteer effort.  Will I find those in the States when I go home?  I’ll have to see, but I think that at least my attitude about these things has improved a lot.   I am more open to the possibility of friendships with young people so, I have to believe, they will come my way.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Access to a Future

This is an op-ed piece I wrote at the request of someone at the embassy and I figured anyone who has followed this blog might like to read it, too:

One of the unexpected benefits of service in the Peace Corps here in Nicaragua is the opportunity to observe other U.S. government development programs operating in my small part of this poor country.  There are USAID initiatives, embassy-sponsored agricultural projects, and all kinds of internet education possibilities, but the program closest to my heart here is Access, a program which provides free, intensive English education to poor but motivated Nicaraguan students. One of those students is Einer.
I met fifteen year old Einer the first week I arrived on site to begin my work as an English teacher and teacher trainer.  Every day he sought me out, asking about the meanings of English words and expressions.  Nicaraguan students wear uniforms to school and for this reason it is sometimes hard to know how they fit in the socio-economic picture, but Einer’s mom, who came to school for a parent event, let me know.  He is among the poorest students at the school. The family lives on about $40. per month in a community a distance from the high school.  Their adobe house is without electricity.  Einer’s mom hauls water from a community well for bathing and laundry.  However, someone gave Einer a Spanish/English dictionary, his prized possession.  Einer’s mom told me that he studies it as late as he can every night, looking up new words and trying to pronounce them.  “Me encanta el inglés,” said Einer.
After the first year in site I volunteered to teach at a week-long camp sponsored by the Access program and there I learned that Access offers classes in many cities in Nicaragua.  Students apply to the program, submitting personal essays and electricity bills, the latter I think as an indication of family financial status. If accepted, they study two hours a day, five days a week for two years with an excellent Nicaraguan English teacher.  The classes are held entirely in English, as is the camp which students can attend once during their two year course.   The students I met at camp were amazing for their ability to communicate in English.  The Access approach obviously worked.
Back in my site I received word that Access was opening a new program in a city a half hour bus ride from Einer’s community.  I told him and four other eager students about the classes.  They applied and were accepted. Most Access students live in the cities where the classes are given.  But my students lived in outlying communities.  It would cost about $7.00 a week each to get to and from classes, something my students could not pay.  When I explained the problem, Access found a small fund from which it could pay the transportation cost.
Einer and his classmates have been faithfully going to class. After just six months of Access instruction, Einer speaks  only English with me now.  His fluency is so good and his pronunciation so clear that he outstrips the abilities of most of the English teachers in the high school he attends.  His story is a lesson in motivation, but also in the efficacy of well conceived and executed government programs.  “I love the United States,” says Einer.

What Can Be Done

A draft of this entry was started, but not finished, 5 months ago:
Six volunteers gathered recently to say good-bye to two of our number who are COS-ing (PC jargon for close of service, i.e. going home having completed a two year commitment.)  That leaves 5 of us up here in the north, all in various stages of our service.  I am now the most senior and there’s a brand new volunteer in the group.  Whenever a bunch of volunteers gets together, try as you might to avoid it, the conversation turns to the difficulties of service. I try to be careful of the conversation when there is a newbie present.  Everyone arrives on site with stars in her/his eyes to some extent, that is, scared but ready to go, looking for the challenge, expecting to make some changes, to make things better. After some time it becomes apparent that not all is possible and that realization triggers an initial disillusion which most people work through with a degree of pain and a dose of courage.  But it seems only fair that new volunteers have some time disillusion-free.  By the same token, it also seems only fair that when you get to hang out with other volunteers, which in places like mine doesn’t happen too often, you can vent a little. Hence a tension.
The truth is that the challenges make the job here, in the education sector, close to undoable.  The institutional difficulties are overwhelming.  Example: school gets canceled all the time.  Next month—July—there will be only 11 days of school.  And on those days, if things run true to form, at least 2 classes per week will be cancelled for a meeting or other reason.  The classes that are held on those 11 days will start 10-20 minutes late and/or will be interrupted for any number of reasons.   Three of my teachers never studied English in college.  They taught other subjects until they were assigned to teach English by the principal who had no trained English teachers.  They took a crash 6 month course sponsored by the department of education (but not before they were already teaching) and passed a test.  How, I don’t know since I tutored one of them and know her ability. There are no books or instructional materials to help. The students are charming and nice but noisy and there is no standard for classroom behavior.  Most of the teachers never learned how to control their classes although some few do.  This makes it hard for students to learn. You want to hear more?
The truth also is that progress is possible, small steps, 2 forward, one back. I am close to the end of service, and may be trying to protect my fragile ego from thoughts of ineffectiveness, but I can see improvement. One teacher writes on the board and explains to the students what they will learn during class.  Big step forward.  Another uses English a little during every class.  Big improvement.  A third reads the sentences in an exercise with the students to be sure that they understand them before they are asked to fill in a blank or complete them in some way. Progress. All more or less get the idea that students need to practice what they are taught. Yes, there is massive backsliding (a tired teacher puts up a paragraph in English and tells the kids to copy it and to translate it while she sits down to rest for the period.  A few kids do the translation, more or less, and the others copy their work.) And I worry what will happen when I am no longer here to remind people to do what they know they should do but which the press of life makes hard to do.  But I can say it’s better right now, on the whole.
This is the lesson the new volunteers will learn, all of them the hard way.  I’ve talked about this with other volunteers.  In training, should new volunteers be given more modest aspirations, be told how difficult it will be?  We conclude, no.  Better they should learn than self limit to begin.  But we need also to be able to say how damn hard is the work and how disillusioning and frustrating it is. In a word, to vent a little.  We’ll give the newbie a few months, and then she’ll be glad we’re around to hear all about it. 

Painting the World

Peace Corps tells us not to start new projects in the last 3 months of service, but I paid no attention and I’m glad I didn’t.  I’ve been wanting to do a world map since I got to site.  The world map is a signature PC project.  It was started by a PC volunteer in the Dominican Republic about 30 years ago.  There’s a manual that tells you just what to do and provides 18 pages of the world, all laid out in nice little grids which you copy onto an enlarged grid wherever you can find space.  I am painting mine on the outside wall of the little library in town.  The upside of this location is that kids pass by the library, the de facto youth center in my town, all day long.  It sits behind a fence which I hope will give my map some protection from random acts of vandalism which we sometimes see here in Nicaragua just as we see in other parts of the world.
Originally, I thought kids would want to help draw and paint the map. I was wrong.  I’m not alone.  World maps appeal to volunteers, not necessarily to kids and so after trying my best to acquire a crew, I resigned myself to drawing the map and painting it myself. This has turned out to be a long contemplative job for which I am grateful. I have to paint in the mornings because the afternoon sun bakes the wall.  I also teach in the mornings, so I’ve been pouring it on weekends and a few stolen morning hours before class.
The work is slow and meticulous, made more difficult by a bumpy stucco surface.  But the paint is good.  It is thick and doesn’t run or drip. I paint one color at a time, for example all the red countries at once.  So far I’m through the red, yellow, blue and orange countries.  Still to go are the pink and purple countries and white Antarctica. It’s coming along.  When I’m done, I’ll paint a border, touch up the ocean blue I laid down under everything and proudly paint the Peace Corps symbol in the upper right hand corner and the Nicaraguan flag in the upper left.
Sometimes I have company while I paint. People stop by to watch.  Once in a while they ask a question.  Nicaraguans appreciate an artistic effort. Drawing is popular, decorating more so , (anything—buildings, notebooks, fingernails, hair, walls).  So people admire what I’m doing.  I get the usual complement, “Es bonito.”  It’s nice. I tell kids the name of the country I’m painting.  Adults sometimes give me advice. One guy helps me move my chair so I can reach a new map section.
Painting for hours at a time frees the mind to reflect.  I reflect on the countries I’m painting. Niger.  Wasn’t that where uranium was allegedly being exported from before the Iraq War?  Benin.  A family from Benin rented my house for a year while I was in Nicaragua.  Indonesia.  Isn’t that where Barrack Obama’s mom worked?  Ruwanda.  The genocide, of course.  Somalia.  The pirates. I’m struck by how little I know about the world beyond a single association or factoid, even about the places I’ve visited. Happily there’s still time to remedy some of that.
I also—inevitably, constantly-- think about my service here for the last two years.  For some reason I’m kinder to myself while I am filling in the countries with color than when I’m when I’m stewing in my room.  I wasn’t the most brilliant or effective volunteer Nicaragua has ever known but I was a good enough volunteer and will leave content with my service—and I say that having done my best to filter all judgments for all those self serving glosses humans are prone to. I did a hard, hard job more or less well. And from my own perspective, I had the best, best time—the time of my life. Thank you, Nicaragua, and thank you, USA.
About  11:30 this morning, the sun was making me sweat lots and fatigue was cramping my right hand, when two of the kids I asked to help with the map stopped by to see how I was doing.  They are brothers, both acknowledged artists in town. They watched for a while and then asked to help. My first response was proprietary.  Are you guys careful enough not to mess up my map, I thought.  But I gave each a jar of paint and a brush and they did a great job for the half hour before the sun became impossible.  I minded sharing only a little. Maybe they will come back another day.  If not, I’m easy.  I’ll be back in solitary map-painting, ruminating, summing up mode, a happy place to be.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Coming Home

Coming back home after a week away for vacation is always a pleasure.  Usually everything is the same as when I left, but this time there were differences. A sample:
1.      There is a chicken living in my house, a captive chicken as distinguished from the wandering chickens that roam around town.  This chicken is tied up in what used to be the dog’s pen, the dog having been relegated to outdoors where he does fine except when it rains. I didn’t even notice the chicken the night I got back home from vacation, although there was a kind of odor.  I saw her as I was washing my clothes the next morning, standing still, beady eye fixed.  I asked Candida, “Why is there a chicken in the house?” although I knew the unhappy answer. “For sopa de gallina,” she confirmed.  So tomorrow morning the chicken is sacrificed for chicken soup.  Candida will do the sacrificing and I will be, I hope, at school.  Will I eat the soup, if offered?  Of course.
2.      There still was a mouse in my room.  I thought maybe he had gone away on his own since I didn’t see him for a few days before I left. But my first night back he shot across my floor, the big, black mouse I remembered.  I looked up the word for poison in my dictionary and set out to find some, this mouse, for weeks, having failed to abandon my room despite the absence of food there and the nudge of the open door.  He was going to have to die. You can’t buy poison in all the stores in town, only at the store where the lady sells liquor.   She sold me a “pill” of poison for 6 cordabas and for free gave me instructions.  You crush the pill till it’s powder and then you mix the powder with rice.  Only rice will do—I have that on the advice of many people.  Then you put the poisoned rice on the floor and two days later you have a dead mouse. Under the bed, in my case.  You know you have a dead mouse by the smell in your room.  You dispose of the mouse and the poisoned rice in a plastic bag.  End of story.
3.      My friend Marisol planted an herb garden in my absence and she was excited to show it to me.  Her house has a big back area where grow trees she maintains to help feed her large family.  There are banana, plantain, and several kids of fruit trees.  She has a couple of avocado trees.  She has trees whose roots provide traditional Nica favorites like yucca and malanga.  I was admiring the flower at the end of a big bunch of plantains and so she cut down the tree with a machete to show me the flower and, of course, to harvest the plantains.  Where I protested killing the whole tree, she pointed out the stubs of trees all around and all the small plantain trees growing to take their place.  I guess that’s how it’s done.
4.       The kids at school are practicing for the English Song Festival next Monday. Last year I was pretty much a one-woman festival organizer and facilitator, but this year the principal made it plain that the English teachers should do all the work and I could help if they asked me.  I’ll be interested to see how it turns out.  Already there are signs that it will be good.  For one thing, because of a time crunch, last year I picked all the songs and we taught each grade level one song.  This year students are coming up with songs in English they want to sing.—better motivation. Also the Festival anticipated small groups of students performing and that’s happening this year.  The downside is that there’s less emphasis on getting words right and more on getting the accompanying dance routines down. Still, tomorrow I’ll spend an hour tutoring different groups to improve pronunciation.
5.      It’s Fiestas Patrias in my town.  Every town has such a festival celebrating its patron saint. I missed out on it last year except for the hipica (horse parade), which I caught.  I have been looking forward to seeing the rest of the fiesta.  In the bigger places there are extravagant parades with folkloric costumes and masks and the acting out of Nicaraguan legends. Not so in my small town.  Around the park is a food vendor, a seller of cheap plastic stuff for kids and a shirt salesman.  So much for the “feria”, the fair.   A tenth of a kilometer or so down the highway is a carnival with rides.  That I will avoid, but I am told there will be music one night, probably this weekend and I’m looking forward to that. Fiestas Patrias is an event much anticipated.  It’s a diversion from the usual, but I am kind of fond of the usual.
6.      Things have been a little slow at school.  To begin, after vacation, sometimes kids do not return to class right away.  All my teachers are either sick or caring for a sick and hospitalized family member. Because of this I’ve only been able to co-plan and co-teach half my usual load of classes this week. But the slow start to the new semester has been welcome as I recovered from my trip to Solentiname.
That’s what’s new in the north. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


I started dreaming of Solentiname before I left the U.S. This little archipelago isolated in Lake Colciboca near the Rio San Juan and the Costa Rican border has a compelling recent history, or at least it resonates to me. What I read before I left was that the group of some twenty little islands was sparsely  inhabited and ignored by everyone until Ernesto Cardinal, a priest, poet and artist, went there in the early 1960s to found a kind of communal society, organizing the campesinos.  Cardinal was influenced by, and helped to influence, the liberation theology movement which emerged in Latin American countries as a response to Vatican II and to the social and economic inequality pervasive then.  Christ was radically conceived as champion of the poor. But to this mix of Christianity and campesino culture, Cardenal introduced a third element—art.  He gave the people paint and canvas and brought an artist friend from Managua to teach them rudiments of painting.  And they painted the world they saw in a primitive style, the paintings full of what Solentiname has in gorgeous abundance—water, birds, animals, flowers. The style and skills have been passed along to the next generation but there are still painters on Solentiname who were part of the original experiment.
When my sister and niece were visiting we explored the Rio San Juan, but I wanted to see Solentiname and so we made an overnight trip, arriving at 4:30 one afternoon and leaving at 5 in the morning the next day.  Not much of visit, but enough to tell me I had to come back.  There is magic in Solentiname and great peace and beauty.  No cars, no cell phone service, no electricity (on most islands) except what people generate with solar panels. But there is the art and it is something.   I took the opportunity of a school vacation to set out by myself on the long journey from my site to San Carlos (10 bus hours) and by lancha 2 hours across the lake to the archipelago. And I brought money.  I had seen enough on the previous trip to know that I wanted a Solentiname painting to bring home, a gift to myself after two years of service and a reminder of the natural beauty of Nicaragua.
There are tourist facilities on only two islands.  I had previously stayed on Mancarrón where I saw Cardenal’s beautiful white church.  But most of the art is on two islands,  La Venada and San Fernando, so I stayed on San Fernando, the only other choice.  In the whole archipelago there are only about 2000 people, spreadout over maybe 15-20 islands. I lucked out in the hotel I stayed in, not because it was so wonderful, but because I made friends with two nice Nicas there. Olivia, the daughter of the owners, surprised me by speaking to me in English the first morning when I came to the kitchen early looking for coffee.  We sat down there and chatted while she was preparing breakfast. Olivia explained when I asked that she learned her English on her own with the help of three lucky factors.  She studied for five years in a University in Managua on full scholarship, although she took only two English classes and those specialized for her major, environmental science.  She also was able to study abroad on scholarship twice, one full year in Germany and a month in Turkey. It was in Germany she picked up the English.  Why was she back in Solentiname cooking at a hotel? (I hope I put the question to her more delicately) Well, she explained, that’s her home and she had been unable to find work (This is the sad song of too many educated Nicaraguans.  They study but find no jobs.) I expressed surprise, suggesting that it would seem that with her major and her excellent English she could work for an NGO.  She said that when she put “self-taught” on her resume as the source of her English ability, potential employers discounted it, preferring credentialed English speakers. What a shame.  She is better than most.
The conversations continued later that morning when she agreed to lead me on a hike to a lookout and site of petroglyphs. (Hiking in Nicaragua can be dangerous solo.  Trails just aren’t marked and they criss-cross in a way familiar to the inhabitants but not to visitors.  In fact, Olivia told me, a foreigner had died on a trail on the island when he fell and shattered a leg.  His body was not found until much later because no one knew he was missing or where he had gone.) The hike was muddy.  Torrential rain fell as we huddled under an overhang at the island elementary school (two classrooms areas in one building).  The view was worth the hike and the soaking. On the way back, Olivia pointed out the houses of some artists and I looked at some paintings. She also helped me locate a man with a boat to take me in the afternoon to La Venada where a large family of artists lives.  I spent the rest of the morning at a gallery where the paintings of many artists were exhibited, a great opportunity to examine the paintings closely and consider the prices, which seem to depend only on the size of the canvas.
The boatman turned out to be a guide as well.  He took me to five different houses, all located near each other and all with a few paintings set out to view. Obviously everyone was glad to see me and there was no awkwardness in looking and moving on.     I had made a list from the gallery of artists whose work I wanted to see and I also wanted to go back to see the work of Rudolfo Arelleno, the progenitor of the other artists in this little compound.  I saw his work on the last trip and really liked it, but I couldn’t afford his most spectacular paintings, big complex pieces, museum quality, in my untutored opinion. On this trip I ended up buying one of Rudolfo’s painting, a much smaller piece, but my eye was instantly caught by a painting in the house of a relative, a largish and beautiful example of the Solentiname style.  The artist quite rightly wanted a good bit for it.  She could tell I admired it.  When I said I couldn’t pay so much she shyly invited me to bargain.  I gave it a shot, both of us laughing and saying how we were no good at “negociando”.  We made a deal.  The boatman, I think genuinely, said it was a good painting and I waited while she took it off the stretcher and rolled it so I could carry it. I went back to my hotel with a singing heart. I had got what I came for and so much more besides.
The next day I spent at the little museum on San Fernando and at the library where I found a book describing another project—a poetry writing workshop on the island during Cardenal’s time.  I shared an avocado with a maid at the hotel, Jessica, and we talked for some time. That night Jessica introduced me to her daughter.  The next morning at 5 o’clock I was standing on the dock of the hotel, waiting for the boat to take me back to San Carlos.  Made it in time to take an 8 o’clock bus to Managua, a taxi from one bus station to another, another bus to Jinotepe and a third out to LaPaz, my training town.  After a 12 hour travel day I was so glad to see my old host mom and to bask in all that love and approval.  She really is something. This has gone on too long so I won’t detail the day I spent visiting old friends there except to say that I am most fortunately included in the list of people for whom by name Doña Petrona, my host mom’s sister, prays nightly. To this I attribute my health and happiness in Nicaragua, if not for its supernatural effectiveness , then for being held so kindly in the hearts of people here.