Well, we are back in Managua after a 4 hour bus journey from Ocotal, enough time to begin contemplating the effects of the past last four months on our lives. Only a beginning. Our host family accompanied us to the bus stop, helping us haul the embarrassing amount of luggage we have. At least one big bag is gifts (those we received and those we are bringing home), but despite our efforts to give away what seemed like a lot of stuff, we still have too much. Too much. Not enough. Enough. How to know when you have reached the last of these is the great challenge of our time. The extent of our material culture is always much in evidence at Christmastime. Yet “not enough” has driven humans to be the accumulative creatures we (mostly) are in the early 21st century. Accumulation in the age of carbon has exacted a price that looms as more catastrophic by the day, as news of the Arctic warming faster than scientists can come to terms with and the planet as a whole is heading for its 2nd or 3rd warmest ever.
In the weeks to come I will try to weave together some final thoughts about the past, present, and future of Sabana Grande and post them. But for now we thought we’d share a few final impressions of this country that has become like a second home to us.
It is strange to be writing about playing baseball in December, but Samuel and Isaiah played until the last day of our sojourn in Sabana Grande. Baseball offered a connection to the boys in the community in a way almost no other activity could have. It certainly enriched our boys’ lives, and they have developed some authentic friendships through baseball. On Tuesday Kristen organized a final distribution of the equipment from the lending library she initiated at the outset of our stay. The kids got to choose based on their commitment to the spirit of the library (returning things on time), but everyone who came left with a glove and at least one other item (some baseball-related, some not). The photo above was after everything had been distributed–the two adults other than Kristen are Reynaldo and Eddy, the coaches of the boys’ team. We hope the kids will continue gathering at the field every day and playing. The boys will miss these informal chances to play baseball, so common in the U.S. as well until a generation ago. One thing Kristen and I noted was how male the sports culture in the village remains, baseball especially. Had we come to Sabana Grande as the parents of two girls our entire family’s experience would have been very different.
Baseball and Christmas do not generally go together, at least not in New York. Reindeer and Christmas trees seem equally dissonant here in Nicaragua, but both abound as Christmas decorations–the weather has not seemed Christmas-like at all, but familiar icons of the season are everywhere.
We first saw them in Managua when we were here in early November, a massive fake tree rising 2 stories in one of the malls here (where signs proclaiming “Black Friday” sales–the black Friday in English–abounded). But soon we saw them (or silhouettes of them) in every town and city park. In a place where the lovely yellow blooms of the chilca tree are everywhere, the need for color in the deep midwinter does not exist. But the force of Christmas traditions in the U.S. and Europe is powerful, especially in the ways those traditions have become fused with consumer culture.
A Christmas tree in the main park and a straw reindeer in Ocotal–trucks ply the streets selling them.
Christmas music can be heard in many stores and public places, some of it Spanish language lyrics set to familiar tunes like “Jingle Bells,” some of it just English language standards. It’s a bit jarring to hear “White Christmas” when it’s 80 degrees outside. Less we be too judgement about the Christmas tree tradition in the tropics, we have to note that one of the traditions that we have brought north and sell by the thousands is the use of poinsettia flowers (native to Mexico). We had a poinsettia tree right outside our house that has been blooming for the past three weeks. It is a scraggly looking thing that has almost no leaves except around the beautiful big red flowers. The ones northerners use are cultivated in greenhouses. (The milk of which also has the medicinal properties of drawing out botfly larvae, a common problem in rural Nicaragua that we’ve discovered the hard way. )
Yet for all of the imported Christmas traditions, life in Nicaragua moves to its own rhythm, especially in the north. In Sabana Grande you hear a lot more about eating nacatamales and spending time with family than exchanging gifts. Consumer culture has not yet invaded the holiday season. It helps that in the north, the coffee harvest in full swing, so the holiday falls at a time when it is just not possible to stop for a week. Most employees only have the 24th and 31st off as official holidays. Staying up and setting off firecrackers on Christmas eve, or, it you are more religious, attending midnight mass, is the most common way to celebrate. Totogalpa has an interesting variation on the firecracker tradition in its village. People make dummies and set them in chairs on the street corners. Inside, the dummies are filled with firecrackers, and the neighbors take turns igniting their creation as soon as dark falls.
Aside from the firecrackers, most people just enjoy a day with family, a cornerstone of Nicaraguan culture. Being foreigners we are often asked what we like about the country, and in turn ask what other people appreciate. Almost universally people will respond, that life in Nicaragua is “tranquilo.” It is also a response you commonly hear here when you ask how someone is doing. “Tranquil” would be the literal translation. A value that is especially appreciated and treasured when you live in a country where civil war is a recent memory, and you are surrounded by countries plagues by narco-trafficking and random violence.
The Brennan-Smith clan would like to wish all of our readers a navidad tranquila. Thanks for reading–we’ll try to post one or two more in the new year.