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“¿Mami, que hace esta gallina encima de la cama?”

“Mommy, what’s this chicken doing on the bed?” Good question little girl, what is that chicken doing in your bed? My nine-year-old host sister, Maria, broke the awkward silence with this question my first night in the campo. After dinner we all sat on plastic chairs in the main room with only a candle to illuminate our faces. Silence. Complete silence as the family all looked around the room before staring at me for what felt like hours. Finally, Maria was asked to grab something from the kids’ room to show me. What followed next was a series of panicked clucking as she lunged for the chicken, tripping over chinelas and running into the wooden beds. I couldn’t help but laugh at the comedy of the situation, and neither could my host-family. Going through my mind was a similar question, but more like “what is this estadounidense city girl doing in the campo.” What you’re about to read are small windows into my rural Nicaragua experience.

“I will throw my hamaca into the bosque.”

No one anywhere has ever said that sleeping in a hammock is comfortable. And if they have they need to check themselves because it’s a complete lie. Bedtime was 8:30 PM and I was trying to stay optimistic, but within 30 minutes I was about ready to leave the campo. My hammock was made out of a plasticy material and I quickly discovered that my travel blanket was not going to protect me from the mountain cold. I wore a long sleeve shirt, a thick flannel sweater, yoga pants, and socks, and none of that stopped the shivering. Reverting to the fetal position is more harmful than helpful since you commit to the longest and biggest stretch of your life! I mean, when your feet and upper torso are both pointing towards the ceiling you shouldn’t be surprised when you hyper extend your butt! I was also convinced that any movement would bring down the wooden house…if it weren’t me it was the apocalyptic winds and the sky falling upon my zinc roof.

I probably slept about 2 hours that night, interspersed between bouts of darkness and uncontrollable shivering. I awoke to the roosters crowing to greet the dawn. How quaint and rural. Oh, but wait. One rooster had the audacity to saunter into my house, walk towards the main room where I “slept” and meet the dawn IN MY EARDRUM! I hated the campo so much at that moment. I hated the roosters even more.

After that I took a melatonin every night to ensure I would not have to endure the treachery of that first night ever again. My family also tied one of my sheets to the hammock, which I used to wrap myself up like a human burrito. I have ultimately vowed to never sleep in a hammock again, and the mere sight of one brings up past trauma.

 

Being out-coffee-picked by 6 year olds.

Residents of El Porvenir, the campo in which we stayed, relied on coffee for economic sustenance. We picked coffee almost every day that we were there, mainly green coffee from sick plants. This coffee was then sold in Matagalpa for what I understood to be 14 cordobas a pound (because there’s no way it was $14 a pound).

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Heading down the mountain to pick coffee! (Photo cred: Alex)

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The coffee plant.

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Pick the ripe ones!

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Perks of picking coffee are the views.

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He found a little frog!

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Look at my derpy campo outfit! (Photo cred: Alex)

Beauty in the eye of those who hold the brush.

The countdown of the campo was a real thing. Every day I would greet my friends in our “reading” circles with “4 more nights” or “3 more nights.” These reading circles were an essential part of our time in El Porvenir as they helped keep us sane. One day I decided I wanted color in some previous sketches I had been working on for my mural on female empowerment. It wasn’t unusual for us to be watched during these reading circles. Community members, especially children, would come and sit on the steps to the kitchen or by the trees and observe us as we talked to each other in English. However, my drawing was a community wide event. People stood behind me, looking over my shoulder as I colored in a woman holding a baby, encompassed by the words as translated to English “I protect my daughter from the cat calls of machismo.” It was incredibly stressful to be observed so intently when trying to do something creative, but endearing all the same time.

1743725_730336090333368_710910973_nThe locals all dispersed as soon as Alex whipped out her camera.

I later learned that other members of the community started drawing, and even that one host-mother wanted me to draw a picture for her. Nobody every confronted me about this or showed me their drawings but it reinforced this idea of art as a therapeutic tool. One of my friends thought it was strange that adults in the community were proud of their stick figures and asked why even bother if they’re drawings were so rudimentary. But that’s the beautiful thing about art. It’s not so much about the final product as it is about the process. I hate when people say they’re terrible at art because there is no standard definition of how creativity is supposed to look. I love children’s drawings because they are the most organic and honest pieces of work. Their perceptions of beauty have not yet been tarnished by the conventional definition of beauty, which is set primarily by old white men…I mean come on!

I think drawing in El Porvernir emerged as an outlet and a past time for the campesinos, and I hope that they continue to utilize art in this regard.

Breaking barriers with a machete.

My host-mom in the campo was one of the more intimidating people I’ve ever met. She would just stare at me and rarely smiled. When we spoke her words were cold and abrupt. I knew it wasn’t personal; I was an alien in her world who ate all of her rice and beans. I think the following photo best represents our relationship:

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Things changed for the better mid-way through the 3rd day. I was heading back home from one of our famous reading circles to grab something. As I was about to enter the kitchen from the main room, my host-mom was coming through the door of the kitchen to come into main room. We almost ran into each other but here’s the thing: she was wielding a machete. We both let out a gasp as we saw the blade near my face, and then we started laughing. After that she would ask me more questions and smile/laugh more. Moral of the story: watch where you’re putting your machete.

 

The domination of hummingbirds.

We had just seen the most beautiful sunset from atop a nearby mountain. This sunset:

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I watched my host-mom make tortillas that night in complete ecstasy of being surrounded by nature. That’s the funny thing about the campo. You either hate everything and feel completely trapped, or you are wildly in love with your surroundings and the lifestyle. There is no in between. Anyway, while I sat in the dark kitchen the community leader, Eugenio, came into my house and asked, “you like birds, right?” (He knew this because I insisted on holding all of the chicks). He put out his hand to show a hummingbird with iridescent green and blue feathers. It was completely still. For a second I thought it was dead. I saw its chest rise with small breaths. Eugenio opened its wings, which with the thought of freedom, began to flap frantically. I almost cried.

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Every time I see a hummingbird I think of my sister, Nebai. I think it’s because of her love for the Native American tale of the hummingbird who carried droplets of water in its beak to put of the forest fire, while all the other animals watched with defeat. At a time when I was feeling perpetually uncomfortable and awkward, and a day when I was feeling especially trapped, this little hummingbird was a reminder of her presence and something familial.

But as I looked at the little bird longer I realized that it felt just as trapped as I did. Eugenio had found it on our walk back from the top of the mountain and took it from its nest where it had a few small eggs. It’s easy to romanticize the campo as this place where people appreciate and value their natural environment, but having spent some time there I realized that even these campesinos who lived off the land abused it. We watched locals kick skeletal dogs, rip the wings off of butterflies, and burn plastic or throw it in the plants. Could it be that the campesinos felt disempowered from their economic situation that they took it out on what they knew they could dominate?

Measuring happiness.

While in the campo I conducted a few interviews because I was curious as to whether people in the campo really felt happy with their lifestyle. The first interview is with my host-mom. When we sat down to talk and I asked her the first question her husband came by and stood next to us. She immediately stood up, ushered him to sit next to me, and told him to answer my questions. I had to insist to speak with her and ask questions before she sat back down.

Me: When do you feel happiest?IMG_5111

Argentina: In the campo and in the kitchen

Me: If you had to choose between a TV and spending time in the bosque, which would you choose?

Argentina: The kitchen. Well, both the bosque and the kitchen, but the kitchen more.

Me: Do you sometimes wish you lived in the city?

Argentina: No, because you have to pay for everything. Light. Water. Here you have everything. It’s much simpler.

Me: What change would you like to make to the community?

Argentina: Change the jobs of the women, such as in the kitchen. I’d like to add a stove. Electricity. Also, the school. It’s nothing but a roof.

The next person I interviewed was my host-sister, Alexania. She is 15 years old and does just as much work managing the house and her younger siblings as her mother does.

Me: When do you feel happiest? IMG_5096

Alexania: When something happy is going on, like the dancing last night. Also studying. I want to be a high-school teacher in San Ramon.

Me: If you had to choose between a TV and spending time in the bosque, which would you choose?

Alexania: The bosque because there are some animals. At this point her father had come to stand next to us. After she had answered he left and I asked the question again. Well, I would also like a TV.

Me: Do you sometimes wish you lived in the city?

Alexania: Yes, I like the cars and the houses. I would like to live in Matagalpa.

Me: What change would you like to make to the community?

Alexania: Education. Houses, they have nothing. I’d like to make them bigger so that when people come to visit they feel comfortable.

The final person I interviewed was Eugenio, the community leader. He was a former Sandinista who gained his land after the Triunfo.

Me: When do you feel happiest? Screen shot 2014-02-21 at 4.47.47 PM

Eugenio: When there’s money because there are opportunities for happiness. We can buy medicine, toys, school supplies.

Me: If you had to choose between a TV and spending time in the bosque, which would you choose?

Eugenio: I like being out working in the campo during the day, but the TV would be good for the night.

Me: Do you sometimes wish you lived in the city?

Eugenio: I don’t like the city. It’s loud and dangerous.

Me: What change would you like to make to the community?

Eugenio: Better houses made of concrete and a recreational center. Also, a car for emergencies.

“How to” on killing chickens.

Word travels fast around the campo, and apparently the word of the day on February the 16th was that I was going to kill a chicken. It happened like this: my host-mom asked if I ate chicken and I do, so I responded yes. Great, she would go to the market and pick one up. Oh, I thought we were going to eat one of these chickens. Would I prefer one of these chickens? Well, I was just curious as to how they are killed but whatever is most convenient for her. We’ll have one of the campo chickens then.

It wasn’t until later that I learned I would be doing the killing. Jhony, a 15-year-old community member, would teach me first and then I would do the deed on the chicken waiting under the basket in my kitchen. The task seemed simple enough. You grab the chicken by the neck and then spin it 3-5 times until the neck breaks. It may take a few seconds for it to actually die, which seems pretty tragic, but that’s about all it takes. Oh yeah, and you have a live creature in your hands that you’re about to murder.

It was a community event. All members were present outside of my house as the chicken was transferred from my host-mom’s hands, to the community leaders’ hands, to my own. Shit. They’re all watching and I need to kill this damn chicken. It took a few minutes of screaming “WHAT DO I DO?!”  in English, with responses ranging from “DON’T ASK US” to “JUST SWING IT!” from my friends, until I did what the Native Americans would do. I said a small thank you to the gallo for providing me and my family with sustenance, apologized for it’s sacrifice, and swung.

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My host mom insisted I take a photo of the chicken I would kill later that day…

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Jhony holding the chicken he would kill.

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Jhony teaching me how to kill a chicken.

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The passing of the chicken.

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They told me to pose with the chicken…

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Here we go…

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Wait, no. What?!

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Queue uncomfortable laughter.

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2 of the best reactions to the chicken incident.

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The community laughed at my distress, confused by the fact that something like killing a chicken required such a dramatic display. Don’t they eat chicken where you come from? Didn’t your mom ever teach you how to kill a chicken? I feel safe in saying that what I did was more ethical than any factory farm in the United States. The chicken you pick up in grocery stores has been pumped with hormones, left in dark, overcrowded warehouses since birth, and are mutilated before death. I understood that my killing the chicken wasn’t as much as a recreational act but a step towards better understanding the community, as well as helping to bridge the gap between the campesinos and us foreigners. I was the outsider who wanted to learn and experience every aspect of their lives, even if that meant stepping out my comfort zone.

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