The High and Low Life

My eyelids flutter as the sparrows sing a goodmorning symphony in the light creeping through my window, and I linger weightlessly in that sweet moment between sleeping and waking.

I bathe in the silky sheets cooled by the champagne colored bedroom’s air condition and I slowly rise to await my breakfast in the elegant dining room before being driven off to a meeting in a nearby cafe.

Only two days earlier, I was eating street fritanga (rice and beans, fried plantain, chicken), staying in a rustic hostel, and relying on biking, running, and hitching a ride in the back of fruit trucks for transportation. Three days before, I was staying in a treehouse in the middle of the jungle listening to monkeys howl in the trees around me and watching the stars from my hammock.

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Such are the extremes of developing country living. One minute, you are reporting in slums and the next sipping pineapple daiquiris with embassy officials on a sailboat overlooking a tropical beach (true story).

I’m either fearless or crazy or curious or a mix of the 3, but I try to do things in Nicaragua as most Nicaraguans do. I ride the chicken buses, I go into their factories, their schools, eat the same food (except the fried things). My college anthropology professor called journalism ‘fast anthropology’, and I think she was right. Like actors do well when they immerse themselves in their roles, journalists are most accurate when they immerse themselves in what they’re reporting. You learn as much as you can about a culture and topic and write and move on.

When I am reporting in Managua, seek friendship and/or the comforts of home, I head to my friend Leslie’s house. Leslie is a girl my age from Nicaragua, and we went to the same college, and were actually in the same Spanish class. She and her family are so incredibly hospitable and kind, and it’s nice to have a friend here.

A couple of days ago, I went to the beach with Leslie’s friends. From our leather-seated, air conditioned car, we saw zona francas (free trade zone factories) on the side of the highway pop up on the side of the road though the crowded, sweaty school buses Nicaragua uses for its inter-city transportation. The girls sitting in the front seat next to her driver said her uncle owns a textile factory,  and my nice little day trip was dampened with the thought of slave-like conditions in zona francas I had just written about (http://bit.ly/13r81mN) and my stomach turns.

At the beach, we visit a resort nestled in the mountains overlooking the ocean, and swim in the peerless pool. We indulge in the freshest guacamole and cevice (mahi mahi, citrus and spices) on Earth and chat with the owner, a guy named Gabriel who I’d met clubbing one night when I was living by the beach. Gabriel’s American parents headed down to Nica in the ’80s to help out with the Sandinista Revolution and he was raised on Ometepe- the mystical island and my favorite place in Nicaragua that boasts two volcanoes, towering waterfalls, sparkling pools made of volcanic mineral water, coffee plants, organic farms, rocks with hieroglyphics and horses roaming wild amid the mango trees. Ometepe is a  magical and charming place where life is simple and pure; everyone walks, bikes, swims and runs around the organic farms and beaches below the towering volcanoes and absorbs the indigenous vibe of the place. Gabriel’s dad tells me he teaches at GW University in DC, where I’ll be in the fall, and says he is asked back for his curious viewpoint since he things international development is bogus.

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It’s nice to have a good group of people to hang with. When I lived beachside, I lived by myself, and despite making friends with local beach bums, my guard and restaurateurs, I was sometimes fearful of being the journalist living alone in the small town, especially since I was reporting on a major crime in the area (http://bit.ly/19CVLOG).

Later that night, our group dines on fish and vegetables and dark chocolate and red wine-my favorite palate- on a patio amid lush greens, canopy and candlelight, and I enjoy feeling clean and womanly wearing a dress I bought in Granada laughing and postulating over the wine.

It was a nice break from the fried food dominating the Nicaraguan food supply. Though this country produces many organic, nutritious foods, most are exported and Nicas pretty much stick to fritanga. Many of the problems Nicaraguans have could be solved by such simple procedures we have in the West- reduced diabetes and heart disease with less fried food, better teeth with the ability to have a cavity filled, blindness with the ability to have seen a doctor for an eye check up.

While I’ve been here, I’ve tried to treat myself well. I’ve indulged in a couple of wonderful massages and acupuncture, gotten a hair trim, run, swim, bike, eat fresh (favorite: hibiscus tea) and shop a bit- AMAZING deals on clothing and shoes here. Let me tell you, the clothes you give to good will actually do end up in much needed places, though entrepreneurial people have learnt to buy the incoming clothing shipments and sell them for a fee. It’s simultaneously hilarious and sad to see Nicaraguans wearing Prom ’05 or Birmingham YMCA shirts, sporting Miley Cyrus bags and t-shirts with cuss words on them without realizing what they’re wearing.

In terms of reporting, I’m happy with where my writing is and proud of what I’m doing but don’t take much time to reflect on it because I want to keep the articles coming. Getting information is much more difficult here than it was in Cambodia, where our newsroom shared contact information for sources. Here, there’s none of that, so I find people the hard way- a little of showing up in places they might be, looking up numbers and emails online and trying to get a hold of people, and a lot of asking people for sources through word of mouth. I’ve thought of all the ideas for my articles except one, and once I get the green light I chase it down. I’ve learned some stories are almost impenetrable to write on at their core- sex trafficking and wood poaching, for example. I tried a hand at both, and after a few interviews realized the issues here are just too deep for me to be willing to risk my safety to chip away at, and found it better to write on the issues at the fringe (example: http://bit.ly/1d89vB0)

The Dispatch ended sooner than I expected because my editor received a Nieman Fellowship and had to head to the US. I am understanding because the Nieman is pretty much the highest accolade in journalism, with 6 fellows from around the globe each year accepted to study at Harvard. This is my second editor who was a Nieman fellow, the first being my head editor in Cambodia.

With the Dispatch over with, I was about to make my way onto Guatemala and Mexico when The Tico Times English newspaper in Costa Rica contacted asking me to be their Nicaragua stringer since there are really no other bilingual journalists here. I decided to stay longer and try it out, and I am trying to freelance some pieces. I don’t mind sticking around a bit more because I like that I am feeling comfortable in Nicaragua. While I was on Ometepe in a little organic cafe, I struck up a conversation with the guy who sells the only coconut oil products all over the country. It was so nice to know he recognized me: “Oh, you’re the new journalist here! I’ve been reading your stuff and wanted to meet you!”…that’s a nice feeling and I like building a feeling of familiarity.

Tomorrow I am going to the Sandinista celebration in Managua for their 1979 revolutionary triumph…probably going to be a shitshow and hopefully Ortega speaks. Most people have told me not to go and avoid Managua like the plague on the 19 de julio, but since journalists usually go where people tell you not to to get the story, I’m going. I’ve reported once already on a hectic event here- the dias patronales (http://bit.ly/11Rr7iX)- where townsmen honor their patron saints by whipping each other with wooden sticks and petrified bull penises to slap away evil spirits. People have lost eyes and ears and it was a bit scary to be in the bunch.Image

Today I went to hotsprings outside Granada where water from the ground travels up into a sauna and natural swimming pool. Once I got back, I did some writing and joined a group of Nicaraguans and my housemates- all American girls here working for NGOs- for a late night swim at a nearby country club. Very relaxed but tired at the same time!

Signing off. Goodnight.

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“Big Fish Eat Little Fish”

As I sway in an old wooden rocking chair beneath the brilliant moonbeams unclouded from human activity above the secluded island, a conversation with a nearby guard lingers in the humid air.

“There’s no work here in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas used to represent something different- revolution, the people. But now the big fish eat the little fish again. Power corrupts everybody,” Carlos said as he sat in the chair next to mine on a break from his night shift at the restaurant across the street from my hostel.

The sound of the waves from the lake surrounding us lapping against the base of two volcanoes here on this island called Ometepe fills the heavy silence of the night and I think Carlos is more with it than most Nicaraguans.

During the country’s civil war, the Sandinistas represented Nicaraguans all too ready to rid the country of its post-colonial handlers- the ruling Somoza family, who were empowered by the United States.

But now that the Sandinistas run the show, they represent the very thing they fought against during the war: authoritative, oppressive and exploitative government. “People are afraid of this government,” Carlos said- and it’s true. Who wouldn’t fear a government that suppresses freedom of expression and beats down protesters, divides its opposition to weaken them, deports naysayers and unilaterally pushes votes through Congress, riding itself of any politicians who vote contrarily.

Though half the population here lives below the poverty line, few recognize President Ortega’s negligence of his constituents and instead take solace in his welfare programs, overlooking his failure to reform the core issues in the country such as education or employment as they focus on getting by day-to-day.

But Carlos gets it. And I’m grateful that he opens up to me. I love being able to speak the language here; once Nicaraguans realize I work here, am genuinely interested in what’s going on in the country and I speak their language, they open up to share priceless information.- tips on taxi fares, where to buy what, but also their family histories and what they feel about the country and government (to the extent to which they can talk without fear). I love that I can talk to a farmer in a field harvesting beans, a taxi driver, a kid on the street or a night guard. It’s nice not to rely on a translator to get the real deal myself, and certainly helps with the fluidity of interviews.

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Tomorrow, I’ll hike one of the two volcanoes on Ometepe- the island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua where I’m currently staying. One of the volcanoes has a lagoon at the top, and the other is an active volcano with lava oozing down one side. There’s also coffee and chocolate farms to visit alongside the volcanoes, a waterfall to hike to, hieroglyphics to check out, an ocean-like lake to swim in and plenty of bike riding and horseback riding.

I climbed my first volcano on Sunday as a post-deadline treat. I had written 5 heavy duty articles last week and was delighted to have a much needed break. My two housemates, their coworkers from a children’s school where they’re volunteering and I headed out on a half hour bus ride from our lovely colonial home town of Granada to Mombocho volcano. Bus service here means old yellow school buses exported from the US to be used here as Nica has laxer carbon output regulations. A few hours’ ride can cost as little as $1.50 paid in coins (though Managua is now getting techy and switching to electronic payment…I wrote about it here: http://www.nicaraguadispatch.com/news/2013/06/managua-buses-enter-digital-era/7888  .

Hiking Mombacho was wonderful, mostly for the lively company and stunning views of the volcano’s crater, islands formed by lava however many years ago, the smoky sulfur popping up through its misty rainforest, and sloths and monkeys hanging around. One psychic guy I interviewed for a story about witchcraft in Nicaragua  (http://www.nicaraguadispatch.com/news/2013/06/nicaraguas-diriomo-enchants-visitors-with-witchcraft-tourism/7830) thinks Mombacho will erupt in 2015. If so, it’s cool to say I climbed it.

After the hike, our group cooked a dinner of eggs, veggies, pasta and hash browns. Apart from the fruit, food is not the bragging point of Central America, where fried foods and sugary drinks abound. But the dinner satiated more than a stomach could. Our group representing India, Britain, Virginia, New York and Belgium sat for hours discussing life and death, love and hate, division and unity, religion and politics- all the topics your mom tells you you shouldn’t discuss at dinner except we do because w’re interested and young and present and passionate and we can.

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am grateful to have met so many passionate, curious, fun, worldly, intelligent, heartfelt and involved people abroad during the past 2 years. Wonderful people travel, especially in developing countries- friendly spirits who are open to the world and realize it is much bigger than we are yet smaller than we think, who want to embrace and challenge all there is in life, to throw themselves into an unpredictable and uncomfortable atmosphere and have a wild ride, and who want to make a difference doing so. I’ve met former employees of the Federal Reserve, Department of Defense, big advertising agencies who have quit their jobs to “feel more alive, more human,” as they say. I’ve met some out-there hippies married to their surfboard and granola and free love, on-a-mission foreign service officers and aid workers, a curious bunch of journalists and NGO folk, business people looking to capitalize on countries’ nascent markets, and the party backpackers traveling through. In any case, all have been open, adventurous, smart, and fun.

Checking out for now- getting up early to swim, bike, run and hike around the island! Hasta luego!

Machismo

Is horrible. It really is.

When I decided upon venturing to Latin America, l received numerous warnings about Latino dating culture: “Don’t get involved with any guys down there…you know…machismo,” I was told. While dating is the last thing on my mind, I soon realized machismo isn’t just about dating…it’s about guys constantly whistling/hissing to you or patting your behind when you walk down the street (even if every inch of you is covered and they swerve over to you on their bicycle which also happens to be holding their 5-year-old son). It’s about men taking the prerogative to invade your personal bubble, masturbating in the streets or flirting with any female in sight before moving on to the next one.

So far I have felt much more unsafe in Latin America ( at least Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua) than Southeast Asia, Kenya, and of course, Europe. And I attribute this to machismo. While Southeast Asia is generally more chilled out now (maybe it’s the Buddhist thing?…besidesBurma of course…), Latin America is not. The type of crime here scares me- it’s quite premeditated, vindictive, and systematic, often involving many accomplices. Taxi scams are common- taxis are allowed to pick up other passengers en route, and cases have occurred where the driver will pick up a friend who will rob passengers at gun or knifepoint, bringing them to an ATM machine to withdraw all their cash and then dropping the victims off in a remote location. Armed robberies upon foreigners are all too common here.

In Bogota, I took a 2 minute cab ride with a local guy, and when the driver charged us too high a fare (seeing as I’m a foreigner and with his blue eyes and caucasian features from his Spanish descent, the local looked so too), the local protested and paid what he said was the normal fare. A verbal fight escalated into a bloody full-on fist fight on the street with a crowd gathered round as I stood there offering to pay (didn’t matter…this was now a macho-macho fight). When the taxi driver threatened to kidnap me if the local didn’t pay more, we both ran away until the crazy driver followed us around the corner, parked, ran out with a crowbar in his hand sprinting toward the local guy. I darted off as soon as possible in the other direction. Like, wow….all this for a dollar. Take a chill pill “men.”

Yes, poverty is behind a lot of the desperation and violence. But so is attitude. I’m not quite sure how the women here put up with it- men are notorious for leaving their wives, kids or impregnated girlfriends only to do the same again. Of course there are exceptions and this is quite a broad brush I am painting, but I’m not afraid to call out a blatant trend. Most of the country’s small businesses are owned by women, who in most instances singlehandedly raise their (many) children and keep the households running. This is true for many developing countries, but machismo adds a certain punch to it.

I’m currently working on an article about microfinance projects for women- how the simplest of loans could help kickstart a small sustainable business like honeymaking or jewelry crafting. There’s no shortage of women’s rights issues to focus on here- from underground abortions (all abortion is illegal in Nicaragua) to domestic violence to teen pregnancy rates, Nicaragua has its fair share of obstacles facing women I’d argue are on par with many Middle Eastern states.

Normally I don’t acknowledge the hoots and howls, but occasionally, after about 30 in one day, my anger will accumulate so that I flip off the culprits or tell them to “callate,” or shut it.

The calls mostly happen on my runs, but I run anyway. Lately I have been running along the ocean to the top of a nearby mountain with a statue of Jesus towering above all of San Juan del Sur, the beach town where I live.

San Juan is a funny place- a small fishing village turned surfer haven. One local remarked that he didn’t like how tourists have come into his town, saying he disliked the dreadlocks and half naked guests and resented gringo hotel and restaurant owners for exploiting local labor.

The double-edge sword of tourism is most definitely a recurring issue here in Nicaragua. Tourism has provided jobs as tour guides, waiters or conservationists to many Nicaraguans, but also makes them dependent on a foreign growth model and changes local culture into mimicking carefree gringos here to have a good time on vacation.

I only have two days left in San Juan before returning to the middle of the country! Here is a photo of my running mountain with the Jesus statue! Gets me every time…

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Dura Vida

The wind whips my hair around my face as the orange and purple sky beckons ahead of me. As I cross the border from Costa Rica to the land I will explore for the next few months, I keep my head out the bus window to take it all in. I smile as the smell of fried plantains creeps over the hills and the inviting energy of the strange lands pull me forward.

I titled this blog Dura Vida because its meaning of ‘tough life’ is quite reflective of Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, one phrase is omniscent: ‘Pura Vida’, which means ‘pure life’, a way of saying all is good. Ticos use it for everything from greeting and leaving each other, describing personalities, describing their day, describing a mood, agreeing with someone and complimenting clothing or food.

But cross the border to the north and you will find no pura vida; what you will find is a dura vida, or ‘tough life’. Unlike Costa Rica, which has enjoyed stability and massive economic investment- particularly in tourism- since 1869 after it repelled the same foreign forces that Nicaragua did not, Nicaragua has been marred by post-colonial enslavement, civil war, violence and widespread corruption that has left its people struggling to meet basic needs.

But all is not doomed; development can be an optimistic beast. Dura also means resistant. Though people here surely have it harder than most, hope exists, particularly now that the country has stabilized enough to invite more foreign investment that has garnered more jobs for the country’s overwhelming youth population.

The country is in dire need of good journalism. The two Spanish language newspapers here, La Prensa and Diario Nuevo, are either blatantly pro- or anti- Sandinista (the ruling party), and there is only one English newspaper- The Nicaragua Dispatch- for whom I am reporting. Important events such as crime more often than not go unreported, political happenings are reported with a slant, and journalists here have not exactly received the best training in the trade to pass down to the next generation of aspiring reporters. Since I do believe that good journalism keeps a government in check, I hope that solid reporting increases here as the country is undergoing a very formative period of development (including the latest announcement of construction of a new inter-oceanic canal to be built by China).

Part of why I love journalism is its interdisciplinary nature- one week I could be writing about sex trafficking and the next, diplomacy or microfinance. So far, I have found that here. I have been hunting stories related to anything including labor rights in factories (ie sweatshops), domestic violence, renovations to public transit, crime, microfinance projects, call centers, women’s rights. The beauty of developing countries- especially those with few English speaking journalists- is that there are countless fascinating trends to uncover. The stories don’t have to be Earth-shattering; some of the most interesting have been about local cultural events such as religious celebrations where men hit each other with bull penises (http://www.nicaraguadispatch.com/news/2013/06/cheap-booze-punitive-penises-pueblos-blancos-honor-their-patron-saints/8033). Yeahh…. But in any case, there is an infinite amount to write about and the freedom and adventure in doing so is thrilling.

A very cool aspect about reporting here is I can actually communicate with the local people. It’s nice to not have to rely on someone to translate like I did in Cambodia and can interview whoever whenever. People here have been through a lot, and when they feel my genuine interest in hearing their stories, open up to share quite fascinating ones I hope to include in my writing.

Common Sense

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I think my common sense now outweighs my intelligence.

In college, I was enamored with the philosophical world of exploring the just, the political, the ethical, temporal, spacial, perceptual. I devoured concepts arguing the best and worst political systems and their corresponding case studies from throughout the world.  Perhaps experiencing the luxurious problem of overeducation that many liberal arts students do, I desperately needed to put the theories to practice. I needed to Get Out There.

After working as a journalist and traveling throughout the world during the past two-and-a-half years, the aforementioned lofty realm has subsided back into the textbooks on the shelves in my lovely bedroom in New York. I am now an instinctual being.

Pragmatism has consumed me as I have learned to cut through PR bull to the core or truth of a story, to craft ways to get people to talk about sensitive topics depending on their personality or profession, and find alternative ways to get the facts when they do not. I have learned how to deal with corrupt police systems, to keep a low profile, hide all kinds of valuables in the best of places (most recently: passport in a ceiling), how to dodge thieves and gunfights during a night on the town, how to dress and act to deter problems (look as unattractive as possible- and to be OK with the lack of femininity). I’ve learned how to meet friends from every corner of the globe while out of a comfort zone, how to handle culture shock,  to detect parasites, navigate capitalistic taxi drivers and bus systems in different languages, how to gracefully handle power outages, to discern when to be aggressive or pleasant, how to hide fear and and how to keep a secret. 

So much so has my short sighted sensibility matured that I am wary of adjustment from the lifestyle I have grown accustomed to into that I used to know as I look ahead to graduate school in the political cosmopolitan I left 4 years ago knowing I would someday return in some capacity or another. 

One instance jumps to mind; while visiting with friends in Spain, we confronted the question of where to leave our only set of keys so our group could split up. “Bury the keys in the dirt,” I suggested, pointing to a flowerpot nearby. My friends reacted with disgust, saying they felt it unsafe and did not want to dirty their hands doing so. “Duh,” I thought…no one else is going to want to either nor suspect anyone would bury keys deep into the large pot.

But I was outnumbered, and in this moment I realized the many useful tactics I had learned in many situations would not necessarily fit in this element so different from the untamed countries I had been in where surgery methods sometimes mean superglue- and actually painted me as somewhat uncivilized rather than cunning.

For now, I am still in my element. I am in Nicaragua writing for the country’s English newspaper, and I feed off the experience. Everyday I look forward to getting up and finding new ideas to write about, conducting interviews or writing and editing. Nicaragua, a country torn by war through the 1990s, affords plenty of material to dig up. Most recently, its government struck a deal with China to build a canal that will challenge its neighbor in Panama. Everyday, corruption occurs on a national level, with political opponents illegally deported without explanation or protesters beaten down in the streets. At the same time, it is also stable enough to afford many stories of emerging businesses, microfinance projects, initiatives worthy of World Bank funding, start-up NGO work and developments in tourism, which is gaining momentum but still so blissfully unexploited.

In my writings, I won’t presume to be an expert on the country or my work. But I will document what I observe  as I attempt to understand some aspects of this deeply enigmatic place. Thanks for reading along to learn through my lens.