A Writer Writes

Snapshots
by Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 1998–2000)

      MY CLOSE-OF-SERVICE KIT arrived from Washington this week. It is a big white package, heavy with import and bureaucracy. The end of two years that once seemed so looming and impossible is finally near. It’s starting to smell official.
           But I’m not there yet. Not by a long shot.
           I have four months to go and still, every day, I find myself in the middle of incredible scenes — vignettes that at first seem normal to me because of how long I’ve been here; then I take a step back, and realize just how strange and dramatic it all still is. When I first got to Nicaragua, I reveled in the richness of every day — the colors, smells, sounds, and me all wrapped up in it.
           I’m still here, and every day it all plays out around me: scenes, colors, sounds, smells . . .

    I sat in Eudelia’s big open, dark kitchen, eating breakfast at about half past six this morning. My fridge was busted and I hadn’t felt like walking down the block to buy milk and eggs so I wandered across the street instead. I wore hospital scrubs, red rubber flip-flops and an old t-shirt. I sat in the wide, smoke-blackened kitchen of Eudelia’s home and improvised restaurant, trying to ignore the flies. She had stopped sweeping yesterday’s mess across the floor to cook up my beans and eggs, so the flies were having a ball on the old cabbage, onion scraps, and cheese wrappers. Eudelia’s massive body stood in front of the stove, working the black iron pans like they were extensions of her arms. Her tired swollen feet, one of them bandaged, painfully supported her while she cooked and complained to me about not sleeping well last night. I sat at a crusty wooden table with her eight-year-old daughter and drank my coffee. The girl drank coffee too and smiled at me while her mother complained. “What are you going to do for New Year’s?” I asked Eudelia. She turned around from the stove and was suddenly happy. “We’re going to have a party and I’m going to cook two stuffed chickens!”

It was hard to call Don Pio’s place a “bar.” He sold bottled beer and plastic bags of local moonshine, and men gathered there to drink it. I guess those are the minimum requirements for a bar, though. There were no windows; just dirty red brick and three closed wooden doors. One door was open, and some light came in through cracked roof tiles too. Despite the strong rays of sun that penetrated these openings, the room was dark. The ground was packed dirt and the dark red walls were nearly bare. There was an old photo framed in the plastic packaging from a walkman, and there were a couple of shiny gold “Feliz Navidad” and “2000!” decorations hanging near the refrigerator, all clustered in one dark corner and you barely noticed them. About eight men sat in various wooden and plastic chairs, more or less in a circle, and I was offered a seat of honor next to Don Pio and his mandolin. My entrance had caused a small commotion, and everyone turned their energy into a wave of bona fide Nicaraguan hospitality, thrusting a drink in my hand and making sure I was comfortable. It was Sunday afternoon and they were dressed for the occasion. Cowboy boots, dark pants, plaid shirts. Some wore cowboy hats; probably the ones with horses tied up outside. Others were bareheaded, and their hair was carefully styled with what appeared to be motor oil. They were mostly older men in their 40’s and 50’s. All had lines on their faces, neatly trimmed black moustaches, and short glasses of local guaro in their hands. Everyone was fairly sauced. They were calm, happy drunks, and when I broke out my guitar and banjo, a warm anticipation hovered around them and somebody poured me another tall shot. “Mexican music!” demanded the oldest of the men with a big, beige, rounded felt cowboy hat. “Play us a ranchera!”

The fireworks had been exploding all day, loud sudden bombas to “call God’s attention to our alegría,” as one woman had explained them to me the night before. There was lots of shouting too, and drunkenness outside in the hot, sunny streets. This chichero music was new though, and as the band approached my barrio from blocks away, we heard it from the soft, afternoon darkness of my bedroom where we were making love. Chichero music is happy and loud and the musicians wear clashing, mismatched clothes and march through the streets with all their noise. Often they play from up in the patched-together wooden stands of the taurino, the bullring. It is driving music, loud and chaotic. There’s a bass drum, a snare, cymbals, a sousaphone, and loud, crashing brass — quick, drunken Dixieland with lots of dust and a scrappy splash of Mexico. As the group passed my house, the music banged its way through the cement walls and inside the olive-green mosquito netting with its mellow folds and mesh shadows. We matched our rhythm to the big bass drum and as the band approached and passed my house, we laughed together — faces close, hot sweat mixing.

      Joshua Berman completed his service in Nicaragua last April as a Environmental Education Volunteer. He worked with teachers in rural schools and helped a local farmer reclaim his land with soybeans after his original crop was destroyed in Hurricane Mitch. He is currently an Outward Bound instructor in New York City and is working on a budget travel guide to Nicaragua. He can be contacted at diesel_cat@excite.com.