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.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What I Learned At School Today

Because we are working in a school - they donated their two of the classrooms - in a four classroom building - to us.

1. Tapeworms can get up to two feet long. Over two feet long. I saw Claudio pull one out of the ass of a dog that was like Rapunzel's hair. After the first foot and a half I turned away. Some of the vets got cameras and took a picture of it. I am screwed up, I am not that screwed up. Nor am I a vet, thus negating either need for any photo of a gargantuan tapeworm. There will be no tapeworm photos.

2. Pigs make a horrifying noise when they are either being sedated to be castrated or castrated. I did not look outside to see which of the two was happening. The theme of today was "don't look". There are a lot of photos on this blog that have compelled people to email me just to tell me that it almost made them vomit. If I can't look, that says something.

3. I suck at writing short, photoless blog entries. Particularly after three days of wicked hard work and with the ever present threat of internet cut off looming over my head. I also suck at being social after this, too. I want a nap.

4. The music of choice out here is either reggae or new country. This makes no sense. It does, however, make me enormously happy I own an ipod.

We finished our last day of clinic today. Tomorrow we hang around the island in case anything goes wrong with any of the animals we worked on, then head back to the mainland Saturday. One guy who brought in two of his dogs has a fishing boat and he's taking us out snorkelling and fishing tomorrow as a thank you. Even with the panga-ride-from-hell in the back of my head, I'm still tempted.

Off to save the world. Or go back to the hotel and write an overly wordy, long, real blog entry to bore the shit out of everyone when I post it later.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fallen Off The End of the Earth/ Watch This Space

Good news! I made it to the Corn Islands. More good news! We've done about seventy animals in the past three days. Even more good news! I have five full blog entries and about a million pictures, including some of the Nicaraguan Health Department swine flu posters. These have absolutely nothing to do with the project but feature five of the absolute worst actors ever to grace a public health campaign.

Bad news: Little Corn Island is hella more remote than I ever thought. After dragging my laptop an hour across a choppy sea in a small boat I discovered there is no wireless on the island. I also discovered there's about five computers on the island that have internet at all, via satellite dish. A very unreliable satellite dish. It's gone out twice in the twenty minutes I've been online and this is the first access I've had since Monday morning when I went to the Managua airport at 3 AM to get on a plane to Big Corn.

The gist of this whole thing: there are blog entries but I can't post until I get to someplace where I can get a signal. Then I will start talking and not shut up. This project is undoubtedly the coolest, most remote and hardest one I've ever worked on. We have no running water. We have as many supplies as we could haul over an a very small, very scary boat. But the island elders are awesome, there's so much support for this, I'm covered in wormer and dog vomit and this connection is about to bite it.

More soon.....Don't plan on getting any work done at the office on Monday as I'm going to toss all the entries up Sunday or Monday....

Saturday, June 6, 2009

An Ignomious Beginning:A Non-Dog Related Prelude With Irrelevant Photographs.

(Just a quick note: there is no clinic stuff in this entry. Today has been sort of an orientation day - I haven’t done anything clinic-y aside from showing up at Donna’s house to find no one home)

Don’t Worry Kids, There’s Enough Houston For Everyone.

No matter how early I check in I get the shit seat. I have shit seat karma. I don’t know what the hell I did in a past life to deserve this but I am now wedged precariously between two very large women, one in the aisle and one next to the window.

Two things you should now about me:

1) I am very leggy. Not in a sexy way, in a “I don’t think that woman has a torso” 34 inch inseam sort of way. Mutant giraffe leg girl.
2) I am claustrophobic. No, I’m not going to urinate on myself or freak out and be led off the plane in cuffs. It just stresses me out.

Being crammed into an aisle seat, the best possible option, stresses me out. Being crammed in the middle seat between two large women, a mother/daughter duo with thick Texas accents, on very little sleep and with dubious plans on where I’ll be staying tonight, sends my stress o’ meter through the roof. I offer to switch with one of them so they can sit next to each other but the mother refuses. “She likes the window” she twangs cheerfully, “and I like the aisle, so we do this. Don’t worry, we’ll just talk over you!”.

Twenty minutes into the two hour flight from Denver to Houston I want the both of them dead. An hour in, while I’m trying to sleep with my iPod on and my hood pulled over my eyes one of them taps me on the shoulder. “Your cookie….are you going to eat it?” She twangs sweetly and points to my food tray. I just hand it to her. Honestly? Really? You’re asking strangers for food? Have at it.

I’ve never been so glad to see Houston in my life. When the plane drops through the clouds and I can see little houses and cars, it’s the fucking promised land. Forget Nicaragua. Houston, and it’s promised escape from being the meat in a Large Twanging Women sandwich, is Mecca, Utopia, my own personal holy land.

Unfortunately, however, there is more Houston than is good for anyone. Usually once you start seeing signs of life, of little cars and freeways, and people, the runway is in your very near future. Here not so much. We fly over suburbs and more suburbs. Water. Some more houses. A bevy of industrial parks. Either the pilot is lost or Houston is not a city but rather an animate, living thing. An amoeba of a city, stretching amorphously in every direction, spreading itself across the landscape, growing exponentially with every minute.

Or, you know, my perspective could have been skewed. But I lived six lifetimes in that final thirty minutes. Six cramped, annoyed lifetimes of strange thighs pressed up against mine.

It’s a long road home.

Pig Fever

It pops up for the first time in the Houston airport: signs posted on glass doors, a picture of a woman coughing with a dire warning about swine flu and a list of vague symptoms: fatigue, fever, cough, sore throat, having a pulse and breathing, feeling a little peakish, etc etc etc. If you have any of these symptoms, the sign warns, stay in your hotel room and call a doctor. Do not go out in public.

It occurs to me that Houston might be chock full of hotels packed with people with the sniffles, all of whom are sure they’re going to die very soon. Must be a big boon to the Marriot and doctors who are willing to make house calls to hotels.

While talking on the phone to a friend two people walk by me in surgical masks. A second later Mickey Mouse walks by. I put the same amount of importance on both of these things. The world is an odd place. People do strange things. People like to have things to be scared of and the media likes to create them. People also like it when people in enormous mouse costumes wave at them. Go figure.

By the time the plane drops into Managua it’s dark out. I don’t have the opportunity to swoon over the sight of the metal roofs and traffic circles. I could be landing anywhere. The first sign something might be amiss is a strange form we’ve been handed with our customs declarations on the plane. In broken English it asks if we have any symptoms - the same vague list as the flyers in Houston. I’ve been seated next to a sweet Danish man and a woman who’s there as a medical volunteer. None of us are stupid, we check ‘no’ next to every single one. The we confer snidely about hysteria and how much the media loves a good pandemic. Swine flu was so three weeks ago. *

The three of us are still making swine flu jokes when we disembark to find every single person on the jet way wearing a surgical mask.

You can’t get anyone in this country to wear a seatbelt but you can get them to wear surgical masks? What? Since when did Nicaragua start giving a shit?

Through the rabbit hole, Alice, we’re going through the rabbit hole.

Instead of just walking to customs, like I’ve done a billion times, we are instead herded into a long, nonsensical line in the hallway to customs. When the line rounds the corner I see a lot of men in white lab coats and surgical masks and a thermo-imaging camera with a big screen behind it. Each person has to stand on a rug in front of the camera and a bright red silhouette of yourself with your temperature in Celsius, flashes on the screen. It’s like a cross between Ghost Hunters and getting a new license at the DMV.

I notice big fluctuations in people’s body temperatures but the men in lab coats - at least one of whom looks to be about fourteen years old - just wave everybody through. They’re huddled together chatting amongst themselves. The youngest one takes off his surgical mask and plays with it, swinging it on a finger.

When we get finally get to customs there are more long lines, more surgical masks, including some military men packing big weapons. If you sneeze do they shoot you? Everyone is dead shocked. Managua is the capital of the wave-through customs people. Now there are at least a hundred people standing in lines and the customs people, instead of taking your five dollars and glancing at your forms, is interviewing every single person.

The Dane times it on his watch - every person is interviewed for an average of three minutes. There are at least thirty people in front of us. By the time I get through this I’ll just turn around and get back on a plane to Denver. Sometimes a couple goes up at the same time, filling us with hope: this will economize time! The Dane clocks them - couples come in at seven minutes. In short, we’re fucked and hoping everyone is single.

Sometimes the world isn’t fair. Today it isn’t fair to my new insta-travel friends. As we’re commiserating in line a woman appears behind the masked customs officers desks brandishing a sign that says “Finnegan Dowling”. My shuttle driver. I step out of line and from the other side of the barricade get her attention, point at the line and make that helpless “What can you do?” shrug. She talks to one of the customs guys and I’m pulled out of line and waved over to a closed line. One of the customs guys comes over, looks at my paperwork, stamps my passport and waves me through. I wave goodbye to my plane friends, still marooned in the never-ending line, who wave back with murder in their eyes. By the Danish man’s calculations they have about two hours in line ahead of them.

In twenty minutes I’m out, in the shuttle and on the way to Granada at last. We drive by the Pharaoh casino, La Colonia supermarket, the mall where Linda and Alan and I went. The past few months have been crazy. There was a Bad Relationship, a relationship so riddled with drama and angst it more resembled two people trying to keep a sick goldfish alive than anything romantic. I had my semi-annual battery of medical testing, more stressful than I let on but everything came out clean. A health crisis with my much beloved, completely satanic corgi mix Mercy. I haven’t had time to get excited about coming back. It seems the days just flew by until yesterday morning when I woke up with a packed camping pack and a stern note to myself to buy batteries on the way to the airport.

Driving through Managua, finding myself on the Carraterra, passing the familiar love hotels** and roadside restaurants, none of the bad goes away. It just gets easier. Distance equals perspective. There’s something somewhere between relief and excitement in the back of my throat.

We stop at an On the Run for water - I’m parched, dying***. The woman behind the counter is wearing a surgical mask but I’m getting to the point that I don’t even notice them anymore. There’s a group of twenty somethings buying cans of Tona and plantain chips, talking amongst themselves. When I got home last time it took me a while to get used to the background hum of strangers speaking English again. Killing time in Houston I told a friend of mine I was afraid I was going to have culture shock. The past eleven months is the longest stretch of time I’ve been away from Nicaragua in three years. You won’t, he said. And I don’t. I have Background Chatter Shock.

Lilly doesn’t have a room this time so I’m at the mercy of a new hostel, one I picked at random at the last minute because it advertised free internet. Lie. I should have remembered that most hostels here advertise free internet and don’t have it. But it’s on the Calzada, close to Donna, three blocks from my old house, close to my neighborhood. The women shows me the room. It’s the size of a closet and a bit cobwebby but clean and with it’s own bathroom. Ten dollars a night. Done. I check the bed for scorpions. It’s never happened to me in Granada but after my last night in San Juan Del Sur with the nest in the window, I’ve sprouted a new phobia with accompanying OCD.

Paying for the room, requesting it, my Spanish feels gummy, thick, coming out of my mouth. Speaking it at work hasn’t helped me retain the basic things you need to get by in daily life. My accent blows, my grammar is laughable but I get through. I am thoroughly humbled but I have a room. I fall into bed and pass out.

The last text I sent from Houston airport was to Jon, my old roommate, adopted brother and close confidante from the house on Calle Santa Lucia. He’s in California with his family, will be back in Nicaragua next month. We tried to hook it up to cross paths but with my work schedule and his family stuff it wasn’t doable. I want to be going back to our old house, I text. I want you and Alan and Linda there. I turned my phone off before he had time to reply. This morning is bittersweet. It’s like I’ve gone back in time but everything is different, rearranged. Later today I’ll walk up to Calle Santa Lucia, see Lilly, find Donna, go by the clinic, get ready for the trip to Corn Islands on Monday. Now I just orient. I go to the Euro Café, where I’ve had a million Diet Cokes and written a billion blog entries. The guy who owns it recognizes me. You’re back, he says.


I’m back.

Bring on the scabby dogs.

* Lest you all think I’m somehow superior or above all this, please see blog entry from last year: In Which A Quick Glance At The Tuberculosis Poster Convinces Finn That She Has Tuberculosis, Thus Filling Her With Mortal Fear And Dread.

** Love Hotel, also known as Auto Hotels: Okay, so most people in Nicaragua live with their extended families, three or four generations in a house. As you can imagine, this does not allow for, errrrr….intimacy. Hence the ubiquitous Love Hotel. These are roadside hotels with completely walled in parking lots (so no one can see your car) where you can discreetly rent rooms by the hour. It’s not as creepy a concept as it would be in the US. I’ve never been in one but I did meet two young, strapping Australian guys on a surf tour who did not know what a love hotel was, checked into one and were mortified when they were handed a stack of clean towels and condoms. Apparently nineteen year old Australian surfers do not appreciate their sexuality being called in to question. Me, I would have thought it kind of a tip off that they were asked how many hours they wanted, but what do I know.

***On The Run is the exact same thing in Nicaragua as it is in Colorado: an ultra modern, brightly lit convenience store with well laid out shelves and clean bathrooms. It’s like an island of Non-Nicaragua in Nicaragua. That said, last time I was here I used to sneak up to the one in Granada all the time to have a little gringa-fest of air conditioning and fountain soda.

(Photo notes: I did absolutely nothing today that could be illustrated with a relevant photo and I was afraid to take pictures of the mask-wearing workers yesterday, though I wanted to. I was afraid they wouldn’t let me into the country if they thought I was mocking their pandemic. Or the military guy would shoot me. But an entry without pictures would kinda suck. Everyone likes pictures, even if I take horrible ones. First shot, house near Parque Central. Second, cathedral near Donna's house. Third, funeral carriage near Parque Xalteva, final, street dog outside of Euro Cafe)

*****Some big-time kudos: to Val Arie, Carol and Jack, the woman from Malaysia who’s elephant card occupies a place of honor on my dresser, to everyone: thank you for sending me back. I am enormously grateful I cannot even begin to tell you. To my sista-from-another-motha, the ever diabolical Sheena, queen of three, who really should be here with me . To Renee, for driving my ass to the airport. To Roseman, for babysitting my beasts while I’m running off again. To Karen, Kristen and Marlon for babysitting my sanity in Denver in the run up to me coming back. To my father and my sister for helping me out. To my bosses for not canning my ass for taking off for two weeks. And of course to Donna and Dr. Tom to asking me to come back for this. *********