Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cat TV, A Triad Of Hyper Adolescents And A Giant Evil Clown Head Sprouts From The Pavement.

This is a roof cat. I think it's actually some one's cat that just hangs out on the rooftops and not an actual terrifying, squalling wild beast that makes American feral cats look like cuddly kittens. Hair splitting aside,  this is a random cat on the roof of the clinic.

There is actually a cat body. It's not just a dismembered head. 

And these are clinic dogs enjoying the highlight of their day:

Come down and talk to us, kitty. We just want to meet you

I had just fed everyone the Anti-Atkins-Fatten-Street-Dogs-Diet of huge amounts of rice with organ meat so this was a freakin' red letter day for them. Dinner and a movie. If you're having trouble putting this together, I give you the long shot:

Don't do it roof kitty. You have so much to live for.

They love them some Cat TV. There is actually a cat who lives here who belongs to the caretaker, a deadpan black and white cat with a wide face named, disingenuously, Gata. Gata hangs out behind the gate on the staircase where she spends most of her time engaged in an endless staring contest with Blanca, a lanky white sight hound mix.

We could be friends. Or I could, you know, just chew on you a bit.

Cat staring is a huge thing at Casa Lupita. Usually street dogs are pretty blase about cats so I put this obsession down to the fact that of the five dogs now residing there, three are teenagers. And we all know what assholes teenagers are.

Blanca practices counter terrorism. 

First there is Blanca, the most energetic and outgoing of the three of them. She's the first to greet you but also the first to steal anything she can get her mouth around. With all of the Teens, I have no idea where they came from. They were brought in from different people with injuries and illnesses as well as personable temperaments that make them ill suited to a life of Street Doggery. It's difficult to avoid kicks and poisoning when you're as friendly and outgoing as a car salesman.

Canela practices pathetic skinniness. 

Less outgoing but more playful is Canela. Canela will cringe the first few times you try to touch her but when she gets confident she's a party animal. She's the only one of all the dogs that has some idea of what actual play looks like and will attempt it frequently. This is very disconcerting to the other teens who are all down with the occasional zoomie but find her joie de vivre a little frightening.

Can I have my head back now?

The dark horse in the group is the skinniest teen, a bony shepherd mix that the caretaker calls Blacko. Blacko is all cool with me and the whole organ meat and rice thing but keeps her distance. She doesn't skitter away from me if I pat her but she gives me this tentative look that lets me know she'd really prefer I didn't. Or that I'd at least buy her a few more dinners before I'd try anything else.

Who doesn't enjoy a good boiled liver? 

There's also Rufino, a dog with a bad leg that took a machete whacking and keeps on ticking. He's my favorite dog here. The last resident is an impossibly old dog from the lake called Viejo (it means old, shockingly). Viejo seems a bit batty - I don't know how well he sees or hears - but happy enough. He stands under the tree in the yard and wags his tail at it slowly. Perhaps he's senile or maybe he's picking up signals from Planet Ancient Dog. I don't know. There's a rumor that he belongs to someone at the lake that wants him back. Someone had to have cared for him for him to live long enough to be this oblivious. He likes organ meat and palm trees, I know that.

Again, more on that later.

On the Big Freakin' Scary-Ass Puppet front, I'm NOT pleased to announce Armageddon is coming and it's made of goddamn made of paper-mache. If you've been following this at all - and really, everyone SHOULD follow the Big Freakin' Scary-Ass Puppet saga - the whole situation has totally crapped the bed. Remember how I said I'm scared of puppets and clowns and the across the street neighbors made gigantic evil puppets and leave bits of them in the street? Look - LOOK - at what was outside my shower this evening:

It's a goddamn puppet clown head. And it's the size of a sedan.

Buy your bottled water, people. The end is near.

I think I might be afraid of my shower window now. I'm going to turn around and see that thing peering through the window at me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Toilet Terror, The Nameless Cat Army, The Corpses of Terrifying Giant Puppets and A New Batch of Canine Castoffs.

Rafi and Chinga welcome me to Granada with the stink eye.
Nicaragua smells like burning tires, wet grass and lavender Fabulosa. All together - as if you made some sort of hellish smoothie of melted rubber, grass clippings and cloying ammonia cleanser. The whole country. I think it might be my favorite smell in the world.

There are only a few things that need to be said about the journey here:

1) People fight like beasts on Christmas Eve. Particularly in airports. I watched any number of awesome relationship meltdowns. Including a woman in a business suit screaming into a cell phone "I never want to talk to you again, asshole!". Stay classy, LA. FYI - after spending six hours in LAX I can tell you that it is, in fact, true that people from Southern California are more attractive than the rest of us. Even when they're berating their spouses and screaming at their children. Feliz Navidad, SoCal!

2) Panama City has a fucking Dunkin' Donuts. I cannot get a corn muffin in San Jose but the Panama City airport has them. It was not open when I was there but I could watch them putting the corn muffins in the little rack through the locked gate. My flight left at 8:40 AM and Dunkin Donuts opened at 9 AM. Screw you, Panama. Your airport is an overpriced shopping mall.
Up yours, Panama. 

3) All fifteen plus pounds of flea control made it through customs just fine. Apparently on Christmas all Nicaraguans return home bearing ginormous amounts of luggage and a million obnoxious backpackers descend on the country smelling like weed. Between those two groups and my long sleeved shirt (no visible tattoos - check. Brown hair - check!) I snuck through customs without having to even open my bags, let alone flash the World Vets letter.*

Thus I emerged from the airport bleary eyed and dazed. For some reason Copa does not allow people to sleep on it's red eyes - every two hours I would get shaken awake and offered a beverage or a tray of flat, unrecognizable food. Managua airport seems to have paved the runway a bit better but Costena still has the same plane - it was parked on the runway covered in the same old bondo but resplendent in a new paint job. Priorities, people. I'm so glad I don't have to get on that damn thing again.

Outside the usual crush of taxi drivers and family reunions was taking place and then there was that smell, that wonderful, awesome, only-Nicaragua smell that made me want to lean down and lick the pavement. Someone needs to make a Nicaragua-scented air-freshener for people like me. Preferably the same people who make the Toilet Terror deodorizer so I can stop explaining to Americans that there really is a product called 'Toilet Terror' in Central America and it's not something for your GI tract.

Let's feed the cats before they overthrow us.
 I am standing there, sweating buckets in my California-weather-appropriate jeans and sweatshirt and looking for The Blue Beast, Donna's monster Toyota truck that I've spent so much time riding in the back of when I see her, sans vehicle, walking towards me on the pavement. There is a hug, a declaration that she has to piss and that there is a 'new' truck over across the street and then we're hauling my enormous, bootleg flea-control stuffed bag over the sidewalk and into the truck. And then we're  passing Pharaoh's, the crappy casino I always use as a landmark for the road home to Granada, and we're on our way back.

If I haven't told you how much I love Donna's house: I love Donna's place. I love the murals on the outside walls, love the crush of her pets that form a caterwauling, staring horde when they hear the front gate creak open, love the guest place in back where I can spy on the neighbors while I shower. Donna herself has new beasts. There are a bunch of new cats, the remnants of abandoned litters she found homes for. Rafael, a silly, low riding clown of a basset mix that was machete-d but now looks worse from a bad hair cut than from than the scars. Don Vito, an ancient one eyed medium black dog who just squeezed through the gate one day, helped himself to food in the kitchen and never left. Xena, a gentle, laid back Shepherd mix who I've known forever. Now older, she occasionally nips at the cats if they screw with her and growls at Rafael. And Chinga (don't look up what that means in Spanish) a bossy, tail-less old lady who yodels psychotically whenever Donna leaves her sight.

New mural on Casa del Donna. 
Some of the cats, fixed and flea treated, don't have names so I set to naming them. Donna might be the only person in the world who appreciates my names. Bitchy Cat, a sweet calico that beats holy hell out of the other cats. Uno, one of a trio of orange cats who turned up on her porch, is the only friendly orange. The other two I name Dos and Dos y Media because they're so damn skittish they're not even like having two separate cats.

Terrifying 20 ft puppet killed by karaoke.
More difficult to love? The art warehouse across the street that makes enormous fucking creepy puppets and has now started a karaoke lounge. Scattered in the road are the detritus of fifteen foot heads and crumpled bodies. At night a man sings Celine Dion in Spanish with wavering vibrato through what has to be largest amplifier in freakin' Nicaragua while Donna screams 'Shut the fuck up, you assholes!'.

Okay, I lied. I actually dig that. At home noise drives me nuts. Here, not so much. Nicaragua is the loudest country in the world. Unencumbered by adequate mufflers, motorcycles shriek by. Car horns are employed constantly and with joyful abandon. The advertisement trucks circle blaring 'Gallo Mas Gallo'** ads for electronics on a thirty second loop. People yell in the streets and five hundred stereos compete for attention. Roosters crow and dogs bark and everything is so hopelessly, vitally, alive and kicking.

There is a new truck, a  new set of sarna dogs - five in total living at the clinic and a whole shit-ton of new developments. More on that later.

*Big old wonkin' thank you to Berger for the WorldVets letter.
** Gallo Mas Gallo is a chain of electronics stores down here. Translate the name. Hours of mirth ensue. 

Donna feeding Casa Lupita's Class of 2014.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Watch This Space

The laptop is toast. It's cobbled together enough that I am trying to rescue some of the Corn Island entries and photos I have on it and post them. This weekend I'm trying my damndest to endure the constant freezing-up and powering itself off at inopportune times to get the entries up. I am also spending a shit ton of money on coffeehouse Diet Cokes as I had this brilliant idea that I would have my wireless turned off so I wouldn't spend so much time in my abysmal dungeon of an apartment. But expect me to vomit up at least one semi-pertinent entry by Sunday night. Or else everyone can hunt me down and kill me, preferably by beating me to death with this shitbox of a laptop.

In the meantime, though, I offer a really unflattering self portrait of me exhausted in the La Colonia parking lot in Granada on this last trip. Observe Donna yelling at someone in the background.

And this gem:
The corpse of an enormous tarantula in the same La Colonia parking lot which is why I'm sitting on my ass in the car taking useless pictures while Donna loads the bags into the truck. That fucker is huge. When I pointed it out to Donna she waved it off and said cheerfully, oh, they just fall off the bananas sometimes.

Thus insuring I would not eat bananas or shop in that La Colonia while in Granada. Pali might be a dingy shithole but it doesn't have fruit infested with hairy monstrous spiders.

This is the sort of thing I take photos of.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Granada Interlude: The Run Up To Bondo Planes and Boats From Hell

**I mentioned before that there were going to be some entries out of order -stuff I started writing before I left for the islands that didn't make it up before the laptop bit it. Slowly but surely I'm dissecting the corpse of said laptop and picking out those pieces so there will be some backing-and-forthing, chronology wise**

Salon Letty is always busy. It’s on the corner of Martirio, one block over from one of the Cathedrals and it’s very Nicaraguan in that everything you get done there takes forever. A manicure and pedicure can easily take an hour and a half, not including the wait. A trim takes thirty or forty minutes. Letty has three or four women working for her at any given time but if you go in on a Saturday you’re going to wait. A long time.

That said, she has the best eyebrow waxers in the world. In the US I pay $12 for a mediocre waxer. At Letty’s I pay $2.50. And I love Letty’s – I love Letty herself, a woman with a shock of blonde Shakira curls and an hourglass figure who wears the tightest jeans in the universe and four inch heels and always talks with her hands, gesturing with a brush or a blow dryer to make a point about someone’s husband or what the neighbor did. Salon Letty is what American beauty parlors probably were like in the ‘50’s: stuffed with women, everyone talking with their hands and bitching about their husbands. It’s crowded and a little dark and the shelves are full of odd, dusty items and old mannequin heads but it’s perfect.

When I wake up on my first morning in Nicaragua I run some errands, walk around and then go to Salon Letty. I let my eyebrows get fuzzy just so they should re-shape them. As always it’s packed. Tonight is the Hipica, I’ll find out later, so there are more people in there than usual. When I walk in Letty recognizes me which makes me absurdly happy.

During the two hour wait I people watch. There’s a woman everyone is fussing over. She has three people working on her – one on her nails, one on her hair and one brushing eyeshadow on her and filling her brows with pencil. She’s obviously Nicaraguan but she speaks flawless, unaccented English with her teenage daughter and effortless Spanish with the women working on her. Both she and her daughter have the fair skinned, delicate Spanish features of the upper class and they’re both beautiful. It's the Nicaraguan version of the Beckhams. She holds court while they fuss over her, talking to her daughter, to Letty, to the other women in the shop. They've made her a little throne - moved a comfortable chair to the middle of the room. Though she looks haughty with her chiseled features and the ease with which she receives their ministrations, her ability to read a magazine while they brush gloss on her narrow lips, she’s not. She chats and gossips like everyone else. I’m fascinated by her and enormously curious as to who she might be to receive this treatment.

When they finish with her she is flawless, her bob cut swinging sleek and thick to her chin, her make up understated and perfect. There’s no evidence of the Central American penchant for kohl rimmed eyes and bright pink lips. She looks like she just walked off Fifth Avenue.

As she walks out she stops, examines my leg. San Judas, she says. Bella. Beautiful. Over the next two days I notice that somehow St Jude has changed my image. Whereas before I would just get stares and maybe some comments from men and the occasional undercurrent of hostility and suspicion from women – tattooed women in Nica are either prostitutes or gangsters. But good old San Judas Tadeo has made me approachable. Women come up and ask about it. Buen suerte – good luck. Old women come up to me in the market and pat my hands. Even the salon women, her retinue of drivers waiting outside stops, to put her hand on mine and beam. Bella. Muy bien.

St. Jude is the patron of lost causes, si. Do with that what you will.

Saturday morning I get up early. I don’t realize it’s early – my cell phone can’t get in touch with the universal clock so when I look it’s says 12. I think I slept until noon. It’s only when I power up my laptop at Euro café that I realize it’s 8 AM. And I had just eaten Asian noodle salad for breakfast. Go me.

It feels odd and good to be back, almost like I never left. At Euro Cafe the owner recognizes me and we chat for a bit. Walking down to the market the hisses and whistles start. If you’re easily offended don’t go to Central America. It’s just white noise, I don’t even really hear it. Halfway back to the house I register something going on behind me a “hey..” but I don’t even turn around until someone grabs my arm. I turn around to raise holy hell and it’s Oscar, my old neighbor. I didn’t know if it was you, he tells me, then I saw your arm. We hug, catch up on the neighbors. Everyone who’s lived in the house since “our” group has been lame. The secret bakery is still there. No one hears from Alan. I promise to stop by when we get back from Corn Islands. He thinks my Spanish is better. It’s not, I just can’t ask Jon or Linda to translate for me. In the square I run into Julio, who lives with Thalia and we chat for a bit.

Sunday Donna saves me from Hospedaje Ruiz, which is nice but loud and the cobweb population is starting to freak me out. Either there’s spiders in there somewhere – lots of them, from the amount of webs, or the whole place has been sprayed with industrial strength bug poison. I move into her upstairs. *

The New, Improved Casa Lupita/Bring On The Falling Horses

This is the Corn Islands line up: Dr Tom, who I’ve worked with since my first stint at Casa Lupita and who is the ‘home’ vet – he has a house in Granada and comes often, I think he helped found the clinic. Dr Terry, who has a house in San Juan Del Sur. I’ve worked with her before, there are pictures of her on older entries. Dr Dave, who looks familiar and is from Rural Area Vet Service in the US. Dr's Kathy and Andrea from World Vets. The other Dr. Cathy. Meg, a vet student from Georgia. Claudio, who runs the clinic in Granada and lives above it. He doesn’t do surgeries but he and Heidi see animals every Thursday there. Andrea, who volunteers with another program, a school I think, and got pressed into service when Heidi found out she couldn’t go. Norman, the other Dr. Kathy’s eighteen year old nephew who seems determined to kill poor Claudio by dragging him out to the bars every night. Me.

Sunday the vet group returns from a clinic in San Juan Del Sur and we meet to pack for Corn Islands. I am blown away by the clinic. Despite having been in regular contact with Donna she’s neglected to tell me that they’ve moved the school that was there to the old Café Chavalos building and the clinic has expanded to fill the whole space. What was the school room is now an exam room. The old clinic is now just for surgeries. And it’s beautiful, shockingly amazingly awesomely fantastic. The wall of kennels, formerly just cement, are lined with ceramic tiles, not only better looking but able to be sterilized. The back porch where the kids gathered for outdoor classes is lined with kennels. It looks like an actual, genuine animal hospital. I could cry. Claudio is living upstairs and he keeps the yard spotless.

To everyone who has sent donations from this blog: they were used and used well. We are so far from my first days in the clinic, with the one table and a few supplies and me trying not to barf in the garbage can under the table.

We pack and chat a bit. I fold and tape drapes in the old surgery room with the techs. In the next room the vets and Claudio put duffel bags on scales and pack them as full as they can. The Costena planes to the island are small: everything will be weighed as it goes on. Things are put in bags, pulled out, rearranged. Everyone buzzes, working well together. The San Juan trip was a good dry run, the group stayed in a house together, worked the kinks out of the system. I was sorry I couldn't arrive in time for it. Tom has built portable surgery tables, ingenious creations of PVC pipe and canvas. They are set up, cleaned, knocked down and bagged.

So very far away from the first days.

After we pack for a while we decide to take a break, walk out to Calzada and watch the hipica. Hipicas are a huge deal in Nicaragua and Granada has one of the biggest. The horses haven't started marching yet and already the streets are jammed with everyone. Granada and Managua folk in their finery, like the woman from Salon Letty and a million trendy young adults sweltering in polo shirts in the heat. The campesinos in to see the show, wearing denim, slighter statured and darkened from the sun. Everyone is wearing cowboy hats, shiny glitzy ones on the city people, leather ones with sweat stains on the people who actually wear them to work. Vendors are walking up and down the street selling them, straw ones.

The horses start down the street. To give the hipica it's full due I'll give it's own photo entry but it seems every horse in Nicaragua has been brought to Granada to skitter over the uneven cobblestones of the Calzada. The rich folk have enormous, well fed horses, strong and handsome with impeccably groomed tails and manes. They wear fancy costumes and stop in front of the crowds, make the horses dance, trotting back and forth. They're the crowd pleasers. Families march in groups astride their horses, matching hats and outfits. The campesinos march too - their horses are like them - almost pony sized, stringy with muscle and tough. These horses don't dance. They look intelligent and competent and next to them the beautiful prancing show horses look silly, excessive, like overweight women in tight dresses with garish makeup.

Somehow between here and there I decide I want to buy a cowboy hat. I don't, I just want to wander. I push through the crowds up Calzada, past the judging stand, bleachers full of VIPS. Past the dance stage blaring reggaeton that the horses all have to pass by, into the square. I stand on the stairs of the church with fifteen million of my closest friends and try to ignore the drunk men taking pictures of my legs. The road in the square is slicker and the horses skitter on the pavement, barely keeping their balance. Hundreds of horses, possibly thousands. As I watch a big, beautiful black horse, goaded to dance by it's rider, slides, slips, goes down, knocking into another horse which goes into the crowd. I'm pushed back into the church. The guy standing next to me snaps another picture. I turn the flash on and take one of him. Fuck off. Instead he finds this amazing. He and his buddies start posing, giving me the thumbs up, wrapping their arms around each others shoulders and smiling. They are drunk and silly and they make me laugh despite myself. With the parade stopped while they try to sort out fallen horses and injured pedestrians, I dart out into the street and make my way back down to the end of Calzada, back to the clinic and the group. The plane leaves early the next morning and we still have work to do.

* There is a two page entry about Hospedaje Ruiz that is trapped in the wreckage of my computer and probably likely to get me charged with libel anyways. Highlights: In which Donna comes to get 'the tattooed girl' and the owner, who had always been so nice to me, looked incredibly relieved that the neighbors will no longer think she is running a gang den/whorehouse: screw you, bitch**. A detailed inventory of the eerily empty spider webs in my room. A foaming-at-the-mouth-with-glee description of Donna's shower/water pressure that could only have been written after enduring two pseudo-showers in the impotent trickle of Ruiz's sad excuse for a shower.

Honestly, we're probably all better off for the loss of that one.
** The footnote within a footnote: I am not actually a whore or a gangster. See earlier in the entry re: the Nicaraguan assumption that all tattooed women are either whores or gangsters.

***Photo notes: Salon Letty as seen from across the street. St Jude as seen from an incredibly awkward angle (that photo made possible by yoga- I'm bendy!). Oscar & Xiomara dancing at the club - photo by our long lost Alan. If anyone sees a preternaturally calm, 40-something, chain smoking Briton please notify me or Jon Tonti. Flier from wall of renovated clinic. Piles of clean crates and built in tiled kennels in renovated kennels. On the carraterra, horses in town for the Hipica get ready to make the march to the square and down Calzada. ***

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Little Bit Of Foreshadowing/Welcome To Little Corn

The first thing you notice about Little Corn Island - once the death fear from the panga has worn off - is how quiet it is. There are no cars or roads on the island. We hear rumors of six horses but don't see any of them. There's a cement boardwalk that goes up and down one side of the island, bordering the houses, a few restaurants, two dive shops, some hotels and bars but that's it. That constitutes the LCI business district.

When we get off the panga Scott Smyth and Compana, an island elder, are there to meet us. Why should you remember Scott?

1) He started the whole Little Corn Island project last year - he was the impetus for this whole thing and put it all together.
2) He flew Minnow, the bald dog who liked to eat my flip flops, from LCI to Managua, got a car and brought her to the clinic in Granada last year to recover from her demodectic mange when the islanders were going to kill her.
3) He put this whole thing together again this year.
4) He and his girlfriend Kristine are Mr. & Mrs. Portia - they are they people that adopted everyone's favorite fat, one eyed monster and flew her to the states, where she lives a life of luxury, dog parks and Halloween pirate costumes in Fort Collins Colorado.

In short the man is a damn saint.

And I still get emails asking for a Portia update so I promise promise promise that we will do a reunion up in Fort Collins. Not only because I miss her fat ass but also because everyone should witness the most dramatic change in fortune ever to occur for a Nicaraguan street dog. And I saw a picture of her in the pirate costume and it's pretty damn cute.

The gear is unloaded - damp but unscathed - from the panga and we are all hauled up onto the dock - damp and deeply traumatized - from the panga. We got to a restaurant across the boardwalk and reconvene. People from Casa Iguana, the hotel on the other side of the island that has donated all our housing, is sending someone over with wheelbarrows to bring our personal luggage there. The dive shop nearest the dock is taking the clinic supplies to store since it's closer to the school and will make it easier for us to move and set up the next morning.

The Atlantic coast of Nicaragua is much, much different than the Pacific coast. Most of the islanders are more Creole than Latin and the dominant language is a lilting, Jamaican-esque English though everyone seems to be bilingual. Somethings, however, are universally Nicaraguan: it takes over an hour and a half for us to get our food - some sandwiches, a few tacos. While we wait Compana and Scott fill us in on the run-up that's been going on out here prior to our arrival.

At the school there's been an essay contest about why our coming and what we do is important and the eight winners will read their essays to the vets. Compana and other islanders have been working the barrios on the interior of the tiny island with a bullhorn, announcing when we will be here and where to bring the animals. Three different thank-you dinners have been planned for us. The island is plastered with flyers in English and Spanish announcing the clinic. Local volunteers have stepped forward to help us. The school has donated two of it's four classrooms - the two that actually have tiled floors - for us.

Most shocking is the power: the entire island is run off of one generator that runs from 4.30 in the afternoon to 4.30 at night. While a few businesses and individuals have private generators, this is the power source for the residents. To accommodate our clinic hours, they'll run the generators from 8.30-3.30 every day so we can have power for our lights and equipment. This will be at enormous expense and inconvenience to the island. The magnitude of this gesture really can't be understood by all of us who live in places where power is a granted, given thing.

In all the time I've spent doing this in Nicaragua I have never, ever seen such support for the clinic. Where I not a cynical, screwed up individual who is still recovering from nearly crapping myself on the panga I would probably cry.

While we're eating on the patio two dogs are playing in the yard. One of them is dragging a chain but they're the fattest, happiest third world dogs I've seen in my life. The people who own the restaurant and attached pulperia don't shoo them away or throw rocks at them. We did those two last year, Scott tells me, they belong to the restaurant owners. The littler one comes up to the table and sprawls on her back. These are not the cringing, sad creatures of Granada.

After lunch we walk the dirt path across the island to our digs, through the woods and to the other side of the island and down the beach. Scott gives us the tour. It starts to rain in big drops. We stop at the site of the eco lodge he's building. A little further down we stop at Carlito's, a hotel that's donated a room for two of our people. As we're walking by Scott whistles and a chunky, healthy little blond dogs comes zooming out from behind one of the casitas.

It's Minnow, the infamous blue dog of the Corn Islands who spent two months with us in Granada last year recovering from demodectic mange. I haven't seen her in over a year. She frolics around us for a second, nipping our heels and running on the beach and then goes dodging back to her hotel - she belongs to Carlos, who owns the place. I doubt she recognized me - if she did I doubt she would have been as happy to see me seeing as I shoved so many needles in her ass, but it's good to see her.

It's decided that Norman and Claudio will take the room at Carlitos. The rest of us are lodged up the beach a bit at Casa Iguana, who has donated six casitas for the rest of us. Andrea, the tech from Arizona, and I are roomed up together in a little cabana with a futon and a bed and a little balcony that overlooks the Caribbean, complete with hammocks. Holy crap. There's a gourmet restaurant, a bar, and a beautiful beach on the premises all linked by a serious of raked sand paths bordered by palms, pineapple bushes and flowers. Welcome to paradise.

That night we have all a welcome dinner at the Casa Iguana restaurant. Aside from having been up since 3 AM, this whole gig thus far seems like a cake-walk: everyone wants us here. The generosity and support is overwhelming. The island dogs we've seen thus far, from the restaurant dogs to Minnow, are chunky and happy, not skitzy or sickly in the least.

I unpack my scrubs, lay them out next to the bed.

A cakewalk.

Photos & notes: 1st - one of the numerous flyers up on the island announcing our arrival. 2nd - island dog lounges in front of one of the restaurants on the boardwalk. 3rd: halfway up the beach when we were getting our tour, local fisherman asked us to help them get their boat out. The fishermen, Scot, Dr. Tom and Norm roll the boat down the beach using logs. Last photo: Minnow, no longer blue or requiring needles in her ass, gets chin scratches from Scot.

Where the hell are the rest of the entries? I don't know if it has to do with the fact my 'puter got wet or what but I am having serious technical difficulties with the frickin' thing overheating. As my pictures and whatnot are stored on it, I'm working on these but it's taking forever to try and get stuff off of the piece of crap before it overheats. I'm sorry.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bondo Planes, Bottlecap Boats: Getting There/ An Ode to Norm

“Dude, that’s bondo. That’s totally bondo.”

Norman, Dr. Kathy’s 19 year old nephew, and I are standing inside the boarding area for Costanena contemplating the plane that will be taking us to Big Corn Island. It is boxy and smallish, patched and riveted together with different sorts of metals and sporting what looks suspiciously like a large patch of Bondo holding the tail on. To say it looks old would be an understatement. It looks like something Snoopy’s World War Flying Ace would be flying. I really wish I had a leather cap and goggles.

Or that I was sitting on a goddamn dog house with a talking bird pretending to be about to fly this thing and not actually about to get on it.

In describing the plane to Andrea, the other vet tech, Claudio said something to the effect of “they are old planes, old Russian planes, like sixty years old, that Russia didn’t want any more so they gave them to Nicaragua. Because Nicaragua takes everything”.

My trepidation is over-ridden by the fact that I am so glad – so fucking glad – to have made it to the boarding area. Last year I made it to the airport; I even made it onto the scale and had a boarding pass in my hand. However before I could board a huelga – a strike – on Big Corn Island shut down the airport there as the fisherman started burning tires on the runway. Instead of going on this trip last year I spent three days sitting in the Managua airport, babysitting seventy five pounds of medical supplies the team was waiting for and watching flight after flight get cancelled.

This year was another near miss as Costena very nearly blocked us from our flight – all nine of us – for nonsensical Nicaraguan bureaucratic bullshit. How I understand it is thus: Donna had bought our Managua/Corn Island flights online and we had online tickets, printouts from the website.

No bueno.

Costena flies to a bunch of different places in Nicaragua, all of whom are selling tickets, none of whom seem to have any connection whatsoever to the other offices. The website is connected to no other entity. Thus the only way to really get on a plane, completely regardless of what the website says, is to go buy a ticket – a handwritten one – at the airport.

No handwritten tickets, no board. In theory we could walk our printouts over to the Costena office, two doors down, and exchange them for handwritten tickets but the office opened at 7. Our flight left at 6 AM. And the ticket counter people were just not having it. After endless discussions it was decided that seven of our nine people would be allowed to board, thank God for Tom’s endless patience and Claudio’s ability to deal with this crap. The two left behind would be sent on the later flight with Donna and Lilly and all our supplies that had randomly been denied due to weight. The first two draft picks for staying behind were me and Dave, the large animal vet from the States. I volunteered to be a good sport. And I have a relationship with the Costena airport.

At the last minute though, weight and the possibility of future bureaucratic fuckups saved my ass: Claudio, the Nicaraguan tech with his native Spanish and uncanny ability to unravel these situations, would be staying with Dave. At the last minute I am handed a boarding pass and pushed through security.

As the Bondo-plane lurches, gathers steam and speeds up Tom turns around and tells me 'hey Finn, you might actually make it this time'. Don’t curse me, I tell him. I’ll believe it when we get there.

The plane flies low over the country, low enough that we never really lose sight of houses and cars beneath us. We fly east, over the interior of the country. After a bit you see no roads, no real towns, just the tiny dots of cattle in fields and the faint lines of dirt roads. A lot of Nicaragua, interior Nicaragua, is agricultural and untamed bush. The fields are laid out in meticulous grids, like crop circles with their precise irrigation lines cutting through. I take picture after picture. Oh, Dr. Suess said, the places you’ll go.

The plane touches down first in Bluefields, on the Atlantic coast, for a moment. From above it looks like a picturesque fishing village, a postcard. From what I’ve read it’s a frontier town, buried under crushing poverty, inhabited mostly by English speaking Creole and Miskito and forgotten by the government and aid agencies.

After ten minutes we take off again and head out over the ocean. Twenty minutes later we drop into Big Corn. The perfunctory swine flu screening in the offloading area and five minutes later we are piling the gear we managed to get on the plane out the door, looking for a cab, two cabs, and headed for the ferry dock.

I will not sugarcoat: what I see of Big Corn looks like a shithole. I know there are pretty parts of the island – I’ve seen pictures. But what I see in the four kilometer drive between the airport and the ferry dock can only be described as a godforsaken pisshole. Ramshackle buildings and barely paved roads and litter everywhere. Scabby stray dogs look at us balefully as we drive by, as if wondering why we’re passing them by. Despite having two cabs our driver shoved all our baggage into the trunk of his hatchback and left it open. Every time we hit a pot-hole, which is often, the trunk swings down with a whump and the whole lot of it threatens to dump onto the ground. The ferry dock, such as it is, is not a dock as much as a single deck out onto the ocean with two or three large rusting fishing boats and what appears to be an ancient twenty person uncovered motorboat sitting dangerously low in the water.

Meet the panga, the boat to Little Corn Island.
The elderly, decrepit fishing boats look like the goddamn Love Boat next to it. I look covetously at the cabins on them. The panga looks more and more like an upside down bottle cap with an engine on it. Jesus Christ. Have I mentioned I can’t swim? And I’m packing a laptop? Are you shitting me?

Norman comes over and looks off the dock at one of the fishing boats. “Oh, that isn’t so bad”. I point at the panga. That’s ours. He looks at it with an expression of disbelief.

“Oh shit.”

We have an hour to kill in Big Corn. Tom, Andrea and Meg wander off to get food. I try to find a Coca Cola Light. Terry and Norman wait with the bags and the others go to explore. I look around a little bit. It’s dirty and kind of dusty, with only one nicer-ish restaurant by the docks. The rest is shacks housing pulperias and the odd house and home.

Almost no one takes cards and by the time we figure out how to get to the only cash machine on the island it’s time to board. There’s no cash machine on Little Corn. Cash-wise, I’m fucked. Thank god Casa Iguana on Little Corn comped our casitas.

Boarding the boat means making a jump down from the piling into the bottle cap. This requires a bit of timing as the boat moves towards and away the deck with the ebb and flow of the waves. I don’t feel good about this.

Sit towards the back, an overly talky ex-pat from Costa Rica tells us, otherwise it gets rough. The back is about ten feet from the front so I’m unsure of how big a difference this is really going to make but the two guys herding us into the boat are loading the back rows first anyway. I get squeezed between Terry and Tom, clutching my laptop in its supposedly waterproof case and hoping for the best.

If you read Moon Handbooks guide to Nicaragua they make some comment about the panga drivers liking ‘speed records and big air’ or something to that effect. What does that mean? It means the minute we get the ropes off the boat takes off like a bat out of hell, going so fast the front is actually higher than the back by a good seven or eight feet. You can’t see over the top of it. We are literally skimming over the waves, almost surfing them.

Scary shit.

As the boat gets into deeper water we start to bounce off the waves – the front goes higher and then we are slammed around as it dumps into the trough. Bam, bam, bam, up and down. Water is pelting us from the sides. Every now and then we go into a wave so big the engine goes silent as it’s lifted out of the water – the whole thing essentially going airborne. Those quiet moments are followed a second later by epic slams as the panga falls back into the trough of the waves.

Holy fuckballs. There’s no way this piece of shit is going to make the thirty kilometers of open ocean across to Little Corn.

I’m jesus-mary-and-josephing. Kathy looks like she’s going to puke. Tom is completely Zen about this – he leans over and again mentions that he thinks I might actually make it to Little Corn this year. The more the little boat slams around the more I doubt this.

At some point in time Terry and I get so freaked out that we get punchy, joking around and laughing so hard we’re both crying. I am so going to volunteer building stucco houses next year, I tell her as the boat slams down again, soaking us. Fuck this shit. Nice little stucco houses. Some place dry.

Against all odds the boat makes it to Little Corn and then it’s a jump up onto the dock. Somehow I manage this, clutching my laptop in it’s now moist bag, my sunglasses coated with salt. Once safe and confronted with dry land all I can think of is how I really want to do that again. It’s like the best roller coaster you’ve ever been on in your life, made even more exciting by knowing that, unlike real roller coasters, there’s a genuine chance you might actually die.

But Tom was right, I made it this time. Despite a bunch of near misses and some seriously dubious transport, my feet finally hit Little Corn Island

Photo notes and then some other notes:

Photos 1) Dr. Kathy T & Norm walk out to the plane 2) Dr. Tom patiently waits by our stuff while the Costena folks check everyone else in and decide what to do about us. There are no photos of me waiting patiently because I was either outside smoking, pacing, or surreptiously trying to take pictures of people wearing surgical masks. 3) Agricultural areas east of Managua as seen from the plane. 4) Dropping into Bluefields. 5) The only shot of the panga I have which came out really screwed up, light wise. It's the only one that came out like that leading me to believe it's FUCKING POSSESSED. 6) on the panga with about eighteen other people, looking wistfully at fishing boats docked nearby. Grey hair is Dr. Terry, guy in glasses is unnamed guy from East Germany who kept popping up all over Little Corn island and was perfectly nice except for he started every sentence by saying "RIGHT, RIGHT.." in the loudest possible voice which was highly disconcerting. 7) The promised land: Dock at Little Corn with fishing boat coming in. 8) Norm chills with a recovering Mama dog in the second clinic room on Little Corn. (below)

A note on chronology: things are going to get kind of out of whack here as I have some Granada stuff I didn't get a chance to post before we left. So there'll the odd Granada interlude in the midst of Corn Island stuff. I just wanted to at least start putting Corn Island stuff up. Also: my computer is overheating badly, dying after about twenty minutes so posting is a lot more slow going than I had hoped. Add into the mix constant and persistant power outs - we were mostly out yesterday - and things are going to be coming up slower than expected. That's also why I'm not being great about answering my emails, I can only real work on my laptop in twenty minute spurts.

A note on Norm: I could do a whole blog entry just about Norm. He had no vet tech experience, had never left the country before and was a 19 year old chef from Detroit. His aunt, Dr. Kathy T, invited him on this trip. He rapidly became one of my favorite people in the world - if I could adopt him as a little brother I would. Norm is universal. No matter where he went everyone loved him and he fit in like a native, despite not speaking a word of Spanish. He cooked with the chefs at the resort. He played baseball and basketball with the islanders. He danced at Cafe Nuit. He chatted up everyone. At one point during clinic I looked outside and saw him holding up a little kid by the ankles and screaming "give me your lunch money, give me your lunch money" while the kid squealed with delight. Honestly. He spent hours playing with the island kids. He was a great ambassador for this project in terms of integrating with all the concerned groups and amusing the hell out of everyone.

All hail Norm.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Just Back In Granada....A Pig Fever Interlude

I'm finishing the serious blog entries and they should be up tonight and tomorrow. In the meantime, though, I present these photos from the Nicaraguan Department of Health's swine flu posters.

I hope they paid the woman in the bandanna extra for doing a love scene.

I generally try not to take photos of people and post them on my blog without them knowing. That said, I offer it as a public service. Anyone renting a car at the Managua airport should be gratified to know that the car rental guys are not breathing on your steering wheel. Or your paperwork. Or anything for that matter. I have no idea at what point renting a car becomes a high risk activity, health wise, but rest assured that we are all safe.
In all fairness they knew I took the picture because I was slick enough to forget to turn the flash off before I took it. I asked them if they minded and they said no.

And for those that were wondering, there are in fact pigtails on Big Corn Island. And they are important enough that they merit their own sign.
Now I will probably come down with swine flu as I have bad swine flu karma from being so damn snarky about it.