Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Out and about ('Out in a boat? we're going in a boat??")

Outside of Teustepe, in the Departmento de Boaco

With his new water pump.

Just after riding on the moto and just before playing with the bees.
I lead a glamorous life here indeed.

The local boys.

Smell: the Underrated Sense

Let me take a moment on the wonders of scent. Sense of smell in Nicaragua needs its own post because it’s a little less accessible than the others. You can experience a little piece of Nicaragua through the other senses without leaving Canada: I can show you pictures, I can let you listen to raggaeton and mariachi music (cranked to 11). You can taste the coffee I fed-ex you or (more cost-effectively) recommend for your consumption available at fine fair trade stores across the country. You can even feel the love and humidity I send to you by reading my posts while visiting your neighbourhood steam-bath. But I cannot pack up smell.

And I don’t take smell lightly. You can live without one kidney, your appendix, your sight, your hearing (Wassat?? ENH?). We all know what it is to be blind and deaf, but no one ever lacks scent. This makes me think it may just be a little more vital to our survival than we originally thought. Apparently you can’t live without it.

So I, putting all my powers of speech to the test, hereby give you some of my favourite scents of Nicaragua:

First, people: I am living in a hot country, if you didn’t know. Shannon and I have, on several occasions, commented on an incredible phenomenon here. You are walking down the street and you pass someone who just bursts forth this smell that tickles your nose that makes you giddy with joy. It’s a woman who smells like flowers, or a guy who smells like he just jumped out of a Ralph Lauren ad and is about to sweep you off to a field of love. It’s a baffling thing in a country that makes you sweat and then laughs in your wet, flushed little face. I don’t know how they do it- especially the woman who is out Oprah-Winfrey style power-walking every morning and still smells like she has been dozing in Heidi’s alpine meadow. It MUST be something in the food.

There are some, ahem, interesting smells here too. There are places that I will forever associate with one smell or another: the fridge at work smells like crema that has gone just a little bit sour. I actually hold my breath now when opening all heretofore unknown fridges. The corner a block from my house smells like an outhouse. Carretera Masaya smells like smoke- someone, somewhere along that highway is ALWAYS burning something.

But I don’t want you to think it’s all bad; it’s definitely not. Like I said, there are people here that always smell good. Moreover, the Catholic Church across from my house early in the morning smells like something I love. It’s like it picks one of my favourite places to smell like each time I jog by- maybe as a reward for getting up to go jogging; or perhaps as a tempting little finger telling me to get myself to a church. One time I walked by and it was the forest at Qwanoes on Vancouver Island; another time it was the ocean.

And let’s not even get started on the flowers here! A couple weeks ago, two friends and I were in a restaurant that was absolutely empty save us and the two waiters, and each table had a sprig of giant peace lilies which smelled so good that I could not actually remove my nose from one of the blooms for a full three minutes. The waiter saw my addiction and kindly took pity on me, offering me a fresh sprig from an inside table to take home.

Ah yes, Scent: the underrated sense. You really can’t experience it unless you come here (oh and feel free). But these are the things I will leave you to ponder: If I start eating enough gallo pinto and drinking nothing but pinol and kola shaler, will I too smell like Heidi’s meadow?

Friday, January 11, 2008

This just in...

The Hurrycane Coaster Roller

Octavio and Fred discuss the meaning of life in an Esteli restaurant

Awaiting a ride to little Corn

The Stevenson-Tegelberg Nose

Our place at Derek's place

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The anatomy of a development worker wardrobe

Sometimes I think to myself that I should completely forget the whole master’s thesis on fair trade or micro-credit strategies and instead do an in-depth dissertation on the anatomy of a development worker. We are such odd creatures.

There are, of course, different orders, geniuses and species of development workers within this phylum. I am fascinated by the various reasons people have for being here- to travel, to assuage some sort of quasi-healthy guilt complex, to save the world, to avoid settling, to avoid the ordinary, to feed the poor. The list goes on. I know some are here for truly altruistic purposes; I respect the integrity. Most are here for mixed motives. The younger ones are, generally, here for perhaps one part altruism, one part bewilderment of purpose and another part adventure.

The dichotomization, identification and classification of the whole phylum would be a work for years of study indeed; and that is nothing to say of the passing travellers who, to the untrained eye, would easily be confused for those who are actually living here. But to the trained eye, it is similar to twins- those who are related or very close to them cannot possibly mistake one for the other. Young development workers (YDWs)- the 20-something class of interns, volunteers, Peace Corp Workers- and backpackers often are the most similar looking group, mostly resulting from the fact that they interbreed: backpack for a while and you suddenly have the desire to stick around; or you finish a 10-month contract and finally get to do all the bumming around you couldn’t squeeze in on the weekends.

But these two groups are not the same. When one transitions from one to the other, there is a change in form- sometimes it is quick and decisive, in other cases it is gradual- borne out of necessity and routine but clear nonetheless. It is most clearly visible in the outward appearance of the YDW and the backpacker. For example, those MEC quick-dry pants are useful travelling, but once you settle into a place (and figure out that your housekeeper WANTS to do your laundry) you realise they are actually unnecessary and kind of ridiculous looking. This is generally distasteful, considering you already stick out in the local population enough. Ridiculous pants made of space-age material with a horde of pockets and secret compartments which suggest a sincere distrust of new surroundings might make you stand out enough, but a lot of the time they just look dorky.

More often than not the fashion sense of an YDW is strongly influenced by necessity- but not the same necessity of the backpacker. Its the influence of the alturism's child, simplicity clashing with the idealism of localisation (wear what the locals wear) clashing with the grinding reality that they don't make many pants for tall people in Central America. Its also a challenge to find women’s jeans in Nicaragua that do NOT have sparkles, studs, rhinestones or crazy metallic embroidery on the already sizable backside. It’s a slippery slope to becoming a fresa- the Nicaraguan pretty girl. Especially if you are working in the city, where the utilitarian is not always necessary, nor (surprisingly) practical. Ultra-light weight fabrics meant to cool you off on your Columbian river boat tour aren’t helpful when working in a Managuan air-conditioned office with average inside temperatures on par with those of Ulan Battar. Before you know it, you are wearing giant gold hoops, leggings and a shirt-dress that has “princess” written in well-nigh indecipherable silver script with rhinestones scattered hap-hazard across your chest.

But resistance is not always futile, as long as one has a high adaptability. They wear those same jeans that they came down wearing. There is even a rare bird indeed that wears those crazy Mary Poppins MEC pants back home- so why stop now? Thus, the YDW often becomes a modified version of it’s natural self. I LOVE the people who wear hippy bohemian stuff that is airy-fairy and usually has several strands of silver thread woven throughout. They are just as much in the Vancouver coffee shops as they are the Manguan coffee shops. Those are the people that can pull off dreadlocks and look good in the rugged and untamed manner of a Shakespearean shrew or a Scottish moor-dweller. And Scottish moor-dwellers have accents and as we all know I have a weakness for accents. I have a breezy cream scarf with Indian bells on the tassels that I love. My inner bohemian sometimes timidly asks that I take it out and hold it. She isn’t very bossy, so she doesn't often ask me go out the door in it, but she really likes the gold thread and the bells, so I humour her.

In truth though, I cannot account for nor explain my own clothing style here. This is likely because I am not entirely sure that I have one. Sometimes I wear trendy clothes, but I am hardly one of those people defined by her clothes. A friend told me that he went to high school with debutantes that actually wore cable-knit pink sweaters with pearls every single day (Bet they were reluctant to wash out the fuzzy insides too). I told him I didn’t believe in fairies or their tales anymore. I think of other friends I’ve had that always wear the sports shorts, or nothing but surf brands.

I am certainly not a fresa, but I have my days for each. I wore skinny jeans yesterday. While we all know I have been a firm supporter for those, I don’t need to wear them two days in a row- they just aren’t that comfortable. It’s a trend I support, but cannot realistically see it lasting.

Sometimes I’ll pick a style for several consecutive days, but they generally don’t go more than four in a row. It makes me laugh no to remember the time that I told a friend that I would define her style as “Sears catalogue sporty-casual” (SC2) We had a rocky few days after. I think at this point to be able to define my style at all, even it was SC2 would be funny, but I am not sure I really want to be one of those people that are definable. It seems so high school.

One good thing though about being around all these YDWs is that every now and then I am exposed to new bands or manners of dress or foods, or ways of thinking- philosophies, ideologies and strategies. And every now and then I pick up a few things that I dig- like Feist (thank you Kevan and Jordan) or skinny jeans (thank you skinny asian girls everywhere) or street photography (thank you Fred Herzog). But I don’t need to jump on every indie-cool bandwagon on its way to being the next big thing. If we are going to continue this silly indie artsy-fartsy cool comp, I know I will be out in the first round. I haven’t listened to nearly enough underground Finnish ambient musical groups that uses sitars and banjos for their principle sounds.

The other good thing about the YDWs is that they are often as undefinable and lovingly tolerant for any way I want to go- bells and silver thread or Mary Poppins pants included.