Saturday, December 15, 2007

I want to be safe at home

I was supposed to spend the day making cookies with my host family. Instead, I found myself frozen in the back of pickup truck racing backwards down a mountain. As the truck narrowly missed a tree and the steep cliff approached, I should have been trying to plan some sort of escape. All I could think of, however, was how good a no-bake cookie would taste.

My friend, Oliver, had called me in the morning and invited me to tag along to a rural community where an NGO he works for had built a small school. They had called him in the morning and wanted some pictures of the school with the smiling students in front of it. It seemed like an easy mission, and although I wanted to go I initially declined since, as I mentioned, I had already planned on making cookies for the day. Then, after a little further thought I decided I could make cookies any day, but I would never again get the opportunity to travel to this small, rural community. With the “you only live once” mentality I cancelled my engagements and said “vĂ¡monos!”

Oliver picked me up in a red, early 1990s Toyota pickup that he had hired at the bus station. Besides Oliver there was the driver, a mumbling older man that I didn’t understand, and two “helpers” along for the ride. I climbed into the back of the pickup truck with Oliver and one of the helpers, a guy about our age who introduced himself as Victor Victor, and we set out.

The first leg of our journey went well and as I enjoyed the view of the mountains I was pleased with my decision to go. Even better I had decided to let Oliver sit closer to Victor Victor who had started to badger him with questions about digital cameras, the Backstreet Boys, and other gringos he knew. I pretended I didn’t know Spanish and just listened in as Oliver awkwardly explained, “No, Victor Victor, I will not buy you a digital camera, but yes, I do like the Backstreet Boys.”

We easily made it to Telpaneca, a small town about an hour north east from my town, and then turned off the highway onto a small, mountain road towards our final destination. As we got higher up the mountain, the weather turned cold, rainy, and windy, and I soon realized that this community was a lot further away than I had originally thought. Two and a half hours into the trip, we came to an old, one lane bridge with a broken down truck in the middle, blocking the way. With no possible way of getting past the truck, we had to decide to walk the rest of the way or turn around defeated. Cold and wet, I tried to convince Oliver that another hour walking to the community wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t hearing any of it and decided to continue on in the rain. After a long, muddy hike up the mountain we made it to the community, about three and a half hours after we had left my town.

A couple of community members rounded up the students while Oliver and I enjoyed lunch at a teacher’s house. The rain let up, the students showed up, we took some good pictures, and things looked like they might turn out after all. Though it started to rain again on our way back to the truck, we made it back a little before schedule and thought the worst was behind us. Then I remembered that we still had a two and a half hour trip through the rain on a small, muddy mountain road in an old pickup with bald tires, no wipers and a mumbling old man driver. A little nervous, I got back into the back of the truck and we set out in the rain.

When the truck picked up any type of speed, it was difficult to see where we were headed with the rain pelting us harder and harder. I just knew that driving in this weather on this road was not a good idea. Tensely gripping the side of the truck, I watched through the rain as the truck dodged potholes, rivers, and cliffs. It was freezing cold, we were 30 kilometers from the nearest town, and I was sure we weren’t going to make it. Luckily, when we had to stop to wipe the windshield off, the guys in the cabin threw us a large plastic tarp that we could throw over us to shield the rain. Oliver, Victor Victor, and I huddled together, threw the tarp over us and the truck took off. Out of site, out of mind. Now that I couldn’t see what was coming or where we were heading, I relaxed and convinced myself that the driver knew what he was doing.

Another 10 minutes we drove like this. Oliver, Victor Victor and I sitting down in the back of a pickup truck covered with a black tarp reeking of gasoline. I made the unfortunate decision to let Victor Victor sit in the middle of us, so not only did we bump shoulders every thirty seconds as the truck maneuvered through the potholes, he also fired questions at me. Freezing cold, soaking wet, and completely annoyed that I had even decided to come on this trip, I was in no mood to explain to Victor Victor that I don’t like Linkoln Park and that a discman costs $60. When we stopped a second time on a steep incline to clean the windshield, Victor Victor hopped out of the bed of the truck to help and I thought I might take the opportunity to put Oliver in between us again. We didn’t make it any further though.

The truck had stopped on a huge hill. Victor Victor quickly cleaned the windshield and was helping push the truck when the tires started spitting up mud and the driver realized he didn’t have enough momentum to get it going again. Stuck on the hill, the driver put the truck in reverse and slowly started to descend the hill, looking for a flat piece of the road where he could potentially gain enough speed to climb the hill. At this point, Oliver and I were still in the back of the truck peering out of the black tarp. The road looked like a small stream, the hill looked really steep, and Oliver and I traded expressions that said one thing, nervous.

The truck begin to crawl backwards down the mountain before it started to gain a little more speed than I thought necessary. Then, like a rollercoaster at the top of the hill releasing the train from the belt, I felt the brakes give out and the truck started careening down the road gaining speed. Oliver and I sat there frozen, watching as a large tree got closer and closer. It was at this precise moment when I should have been thinking of a way to bail, but things were happening too quickly and all I could think of was the chocolaty, fudgy taste of the cookies I should have been making. I hated myself for deciding to come on the trip and for convincing myself that I could make cookies any day.

I snapped back into reality as I watched the large tree narrowly miss the back bumper and the truck continue towards the cliff. Almost immediately after the tree, the truck fell into a large pothole on the edge of the cliff and it sat there balancing, deciding whether she wanted to fall and take all of the truck’s passengers with her or if she wanted to stay, nervously shaking…cliff, road, cliff, road. Oliver and I jumped out the back and the three men in the cabin hurried out as well. Safe on the road, we rehashed what had actually happened and reviewed the precarious position the truck was in. Then we realized the precarious position we were in. We were all dripping wet and cold, we were 20 kilometers from the nearest town/house, we didn’t have cell phone service, and we were left with only about an hour before nightfall.

Walking up the mountain with his cell phone over his head, Oliver ended up finding service and we were able to call Telpaneca’s mayor’s office and a fellow volunteer that lives in Telpaneca. Since we only had a couple of minutes left on the phone card, we weren’t able to talk for long and we were left a little confused as to whether or not the mayor’s office was sending someone, but they rolled up an hour or so later with a large Toyota Hilux (this story would have been exceptionally better had they arrived in a Chevy Silverado). They managed to pull the small truck off the edge and out of the pothole with a large chain attached to the Hilux. As they were working, the mayor told Oliver and I about another truck and three guys that tried to get up the same hill and weren’t so lucky. The truck’s brakes went out and rather than veering to the left-hand side of the road like we did, it drifted to the right and raced off the steep cliff, killing all three people on board. I felt sick to my stomach when he finished his story.

Victor Victor, Oliver, and I hitched a ride back into Telpaneca with the mayor, arriving around 9pm. Victor Victor was going to Somoto to find a mechanic while the driver and the other helper stayed in the mountains by the truck to make sure no one tried to steal it through the night. We stayed in a hostel and though I was wet, stinky, muddy, cold, and still hanging out with Victor Victor, it felt really nice/secure to lie down safely in a bed. We took the 5am bus back to my town and after saying my goodbyes to Oliver and Victor Victor, I got back into my house around 6:30am, 16 hours after I had initially planned on getting back. I relaxed a little, took a shower, washed my muddy clothes, and then made my way over to my host family’s house. That afternoon we made the best damn cookies I’ve ever tasted.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


My friends and I recently built this hammock system. Not as nice as a proper wallow spot in a L-shaped couch but about as close as you'll get in Nicaragua.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Sad Truth

Two months ago one of my best friends in my town collapsed in her backyard. Her family quickly found her and rushed her to the town health center where they took her to the department capital, Somoto, in a small, run down taxi. From Somoto, she was taken for a three and a half hour ride in an ambulance to a public hospital in Managua where she and her husband were told to go back to Somoto. There was no space and the doctors weren’t available. Since the ambulance had already left, they made the return trip in a school bus. After a stroke, eight hours of travel, and little consultation with any medical professionals, she returned to the same spot where she had collapsed in the morning.

A couple of days after the stroke, I was able to visit her in her home where she was recovering, and though I had been in her house several times before, I wasn’t prepared to see what I saw. Her husband led me into their dirt floor room where they had the small bed that she, her husband, and their 3 year old daughter share. My friend was half asleep with a bandana tied around the lower half of her face, covering the drooping, right hand side of her mouth. Her face was swollen and her glassy eyes rolled around cartoonish-like. A four inch foam mattress sat atop an old metal bed frame that sagged under her weight, nearly touching the ground. Above her, two plastic trash bags were tied to the cinder brick walls in what appeared to be a feeble attempt to catch the water that got through the old tile roof when it rained. The room was damp, dark, and horribly depressing.

I stayed in the room and visited with her and her husband for about 45 minutes. In my year and a half here, I’ve never felt so distinctly the divide between rich and poor. She was struggling to recover from a stroke, holed up in a damp, dirt floor room, sleeping on an old mattress under a leaking roof because she happened to be born in Nicaragua. I wanted to take her to the States. Take her to a hospital where they wouldn’t kick her out. Get her the care that would have prevented a 30 year old woman from having a stroke. Put her in a room worthy of a human being. Give her a small handful of the opportunities that I’ve been given.

While I was sitting in the room, her husband handed me what they always share with me, a cup of coffee, a warm tortilla, and a Nicaraguan cheese, cuajada. In her normal, joking fashion, my friend said, “Ahh, David, you’re used to everything now, even tortillas with cuajada.” I smiled and agreed, but it wasn’t true. I’m not and will never be used to the cruelty of chance and circumstance.