Before joining the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, I imagined I’d be roughing it. I even bought a solar-powered shower that was on sale because I thought I’d be camping in a hut for 27 months.
I knew there would be mosquitoes, humidity, and delicious mangoes in a bag, but there wasn’t much else I knew to expect– just like anyone who is about to jump into a new life.
I knew Nicaragua is Latin America’s most impoverished nation, so I assumed there were things like cooking that I’d be doing myself. I loved cooking anyway, so it would be no problem for me to whip up breakfast tacos or pasta (little did I know that my host family would prepare pasta with rice on the side). I didn’t expect my host family to cook my meals-I wanted to be in control of what I ate.
While I did expect to cook my own meals, I didn’t expect to wash all of my clothes by hand. When I was a teenager, my mom taught me how to hand wash a shirt here or there on top of which I might’ve spilled some mustard. I can still remember that bright pink bar of soap and how she taught me to squeeze out all of the soap from my shirt after I scrubbed and rinsed it. Then, we’d stick it in the dryer. Drying our clothes outside for most of the year in Washington State was a joke. 99.9% of the time, we relied on our washer and dryer.
Washing clothes by hand may seem like a hassle, but I’ve grown to accept it as a mundane task I don’t mind doing. It’s meditative. I’m in full control of how and when my clothes are washed in my washbasin. Well, I’m not actually in full control of when I can wash my clothes–that depends on when there is running water. Although I live in one of the largest Peace Corps sites, my host family and I frequently go for two to three days without any water, especially during the dry season. I never imagined I’d live in a place where the water that washed my clothes depended on the rainfall.
Sometimes, as we wait patiently for water, we’ll leave the water valve twisted open, even though no water comes out. Eventually, it will. We’ll sit and watch trashy telenovelas (soap operas) when suddenly, we hear the trickle of water droplets falling.
Ya llego el agua!
The water’s on!
Then, it’s a mad rush to fill every bucket, barrel, and empty 2-liter Coke bottle with water. We hear our neighbors doing the same. It turns into a big cleaning party, and I channel my inner Cinderella as I wash my clothes and mop my tile floor.
Que alegre que hay agua!
How nice that the water’s on!
My host grandma, Mita, reminds me of the little joys in life when she says this. The water comes and goes, and washing my clothes myself becomes so much more than a mundane task. It becomes an exciting routine that makes me appreciate running water–something I’ll never take for granted again in the states.
And no, I have not used that solar-powered shower once in the Peace Corps. When I’ll leave, I’ll give it to my host family, and they will probably bestow some sort of practicality upon it, like using it to store beans.
I left Boston Logan Airport on a humid August afternoon to board a shuttle for Wellesley College. I was 17, alone, and lugged two suitcases full of clothes that wouldn’t be warm enough for the frigid Northeast winter. I sat next to a young woman named Erica, who was from Ontario, California. Her parents were pleasantly surprised to find out that I was from Michoacan, Mexico, which is where they visit family sometimes.
I didn’t have many Latina friends in college, but meeting Erica was a sign. I was destined to latch onto the Latin@ community for the first time in my life because they understood what it was like to figure out the intricacies and politics of being a first-generation student at the country’s most challenging women’s college.
I asked Erica what she wanted to study, as first years do. “Economics, and maybe concentrate in international relations,” she replied confidently. My high school didn’t offer either of those fields, so I was lost. She seemed so much more prepared than I. I just thought I was going to study history because history was my favorite subject and AP History the only class I was able to get a 107% in.
During our junior year, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now from drinking regrettable amounts of Bailey’s and having an unlimited supply of blondies (why white people need white versions of brownies, I’ll never know). I had awkwardly grown out my short hair to a chin-length, massive mane. I dyed a streak of hair behind my neck a bright red.
One night, some friends and I drunkenly walked me home after a party to Mcafee, the farthest dungeon—I mean dorm, of all. They lived on the opposite side of campus, so they gladly handed me off to Erica, who had just gotten off the bus back from Boston. Erica grabbed me and walked me up to my room, and I blurted out “Erica, you’re my Mexican sister!” before she helped me take off my shoes and tucked me in bed. We’ve had our ups and downs like sisters, but I’m so happy we’re friends—and that I no longer dye my hair bright-red-skunk-style.
This Spring Break, Erica took time off from her PhD in literacy program at Penn State to visit me. I was thrilled to fill her in on my life here after two years apart! I took her to the warm, clean waters of the Apoyo Lagoon, where she treated me to a massage. I enjoyed swimming in my favorite crater lake, but I wanted to see something new as well.
We went to the northern city of Esteli, which is a jumping-off point for the Miraflor Nature Reserve. I’d hear great things about Miraflor’s clean air, hiking paths, and haunted swamps. Esteli is a clean, shiny city with a horrific history. Since it was a hotbed of Sandinista activity in the 1970’s, Somoza (Nicaragua’s former dictator) carpet-bombed the city. Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in Somoza’s desperate attempt to maintain his chokehold on the country. In Nahuatl, Estelí means “river of blood,” which was an unfortunately accurate way of describing the city. Somoza fled for Miami with his family and the remains of his murdered father in July of 1979.
Today, Esteli is a more relaxed, commercial city off of the Pan American highway. It’s one of only a handful of Nicaraguan cities with a cinema. It’s also nestled in the middle of tobacco country. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, wealthy tobacco growers fled Cuba and relocated to the fertile soils here and now tourists from all over come to visit the factories and take home high-quality cigars that would cost five times as much back home. I had no interest in touring a cigar factory, since I was set on seeing the Miraflor.
Erica and I went to the tourism office by our hostel, Hostal Luna ($9 a night for dorm beds), and found out from a tall, curly-haired guide that we wouldn’t make it in time to Miraflor. Erica had a flight to catch the next day and I had to teach English classes to Nicaraguan English teachers the next day. I was frustrated with the situation, but living here has taught me to get over my impatience and to be flexible. The guide offered an artistic alternative: “If you sign up for the cigar factory tour, then I’ll show you on a map where the murals are so you won’t have to do the mural tour.” We agreed to see the murals ourselves and take the cigar tour at 2 PM.
I’m a painter, and I haven’t found much of an artist community at all in this country, so I was eager to see the murals along the streets. We didn’t go hiking, but we still enjoyed the urban outdoors by snapping photos with and of the murals. Some paintings were confusing in the most thought-provoking ways. Other murals had Mesoamerican warriors painted in bright blues and with gold jewelry.
I felt more at ease walking with Erica than I would have felt alone. The people assumed Erica was from there, so they didn’t approach us as much and men didn’t harass much at all that day. When I’m walking alone there, I face a lot comments, whistles, and hisses there, just like most women do here. I was reluctant to do the mural tour because of this harassment, but exploring the city on foot ended up being fine for once.
At 2 PM, we paid $8 for our cigar tour and took a taxi with our guide, Julio, a friendly, short man with a black Nike baseball cap and long, black eyelashes. We got out at the Santiago Cigar Factory. The thought of entering a factory made me nervous to see people toiling away miserably for hours on end. I felt guilty for supporting this sort of labor. We entered a room where men crafted the wooden boxes for the cigars. Julio had worked her before, and they smiled as we walked in. The smell of sawdust hit us. We saw the screen-printing process for making the labels for the boxes, then we moved on.
Next was the tobacco fermentation room. I couldn’t stand the smell at first—it was putrid and incredibly strong. Erica chatted with Julio about the months it takes to ferment the leaves while I coughed, covered my mouth, and stepped outside. Before I knew it, I had gotten used to the smell and felt light-headed. Shirtless Nicaraguan men in aprons swept the floor and gently moved the leaves from the shelves.
We moved on to where the women were—in the leaf selection room. Since the cigars are made completely from the tobacco leaves, the women worked under bright lights to calmly clean the leaves up and remove the main vein from them. The women smiled politely at us. One of them played ranchera music from her cell phone. They worked at a leisurely yet effective pace, and didn’t seem as miserable as I’d anticipated. It was just another day at work for them. I wondered what the health effects of the smell of tobacco leaves were on them, though.
Next were the cigar rolling stations. Rollers, both men and women, sat at their desks, rolling away. Some of the men smoked as they rolled, while a female secretary sat at her desk on the phone while she “tested” a cigar out. I don’t think this would be allowed in the states, but we weren’t in the states. One woman showed us how she took a leaf, cut it with an exacto knife, then rolled it into a perfect cigar. She helped Erica and I roll our own. I took about a minute longer than the woman did, but it was all in fun. I thought I’d let her take a break and laugh at my sub-par cigar rolling skills.
We went into the cigar storage room, and by this time, I was more than used to the smell. Julio and Erica laughed at the buzzed look on my face. I had smoked a cigar once before and thought it tasted like a mouthful of dirt, and I certainly didn’t intend to buy one, but once I took a whiff of a vanilla-scented cigar, I changed my mind.The three of us shared an immense cigar on our way to the cashier’s desk.
After having seen the process and stood in a room full of fermenting tobacco leaves, I came to appreciate the earthy, spicy taste of the tobacco. It’s a much more natural taste than the chemical-laden bitterness of a cigarette. Is it healthy? Hell no.
The smell reminded me of the “puros” my witty, tall grandfather Samuel would smoke in his home when my family would visit him in Sherman, Texas, where he would commute from Morelia, Michoacan. The smoke of his cigars is as fleeting as the confusing and distant past I inhabited, especially now that my parents have been divorced for over ten years. I only passively stay in touch with my father’s side of the family through facebook. My cousin, Carol, and aunts Carmen and Monica are the ones I stay in touch with the most.
The last time I visited m father, I ended up staying for one night in his house because he told me that “I needed to focus on my career instead of traveling so much,” among a barrage of other critiques. My aunt Yoyoy picked me up the next morning and took me to her house to stay, kindly reminding me on the way back that the Johnson men have always been critical. “That’s just how they are,” she reminded me. “Don’t take it personally. I’ve learned not to.” As soon as we got to her house, we had a drink together. She opened a bottle of Modelo Especial for me and told me this would help to “olvidar las penas (forget one’s worries).” I squeezed a lime wedge into it and felt resigned yet grateful for her. This was in 2011 and I haven’t been back to Morelia since.
The sense of smell is the strongest when it comes to provoking memories, and today Esteli stirred up nostalgia for the past that I didn’t even know I’d harbored. I’ve had so much time in the Peace Corps to reflect on my past and present, but I didn’t expect so much from a cigar factory tour I’d been reluctant to take. The factory churned out cigars as much as it rekindled my dormant memories.
No he olvidado las penas, pero no las dejará controlar mi futuro.
I haven’ forgotten my worries, but I won’t let them control my future.
For New Year’s weekend, I stayed at the Paradiso Resort at the Apoyo Lagoon in Nicaragua. It’s a Peace Corps favorite because we can afford the dorm rooms and the food on our $150-$200 monthly earnings. The fact that the resort lies on the beaches of a clean, warm volcanic crater lake isn’t too shabby, either.Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and the resort was insanely busy with even more guests coming in with day passes. There were Americans, Nicaraguans, Canadians, and Germans, among others.
As I was swimming in the dark blue, deep water, I saw a kayak capsize. The Nicaraguan couple next to it didn’t know how to swim, but they at least had their life jackets on. Many people have drowned here because they don’t know how to swim, and the lagoon gets deep very quickly. I swam over to them and pulled the woman back to the kayak. She didn’t know how to kick. We were about 100 meters from shore.
I wondered how long it would take me pull them back to shore. Then, came Luis, this staff member, coming to our rescue on a paddle board. He was soaking in his jeans and white polo, but that didn’t bother him. He pulled the couple back to safety to a nearby raft, and sent them on their way. This was just another rescue to him.
“I once saved an Argentinian man. He was drowning. I pulled him back onto shore, did CPR, turned him sideways, and he spit out the water. I don’t know how many people I’ve pulled out of the water,” Luis says.
As I sat on my rainbow beach chair, I saw Luis, running back and forth along the shore as if he were in a relay race. His jeans soaked as he pulled kayakers and inner tubing locals and tourists away from the rocks. He hauled abandoned kayaks back to shore. He wasn’t the only staff member toiling away. There were around 7 waiters serving hundreds of people, picking up after them, bringing them mojitos and piña coladas, calling out animals like “Gecko!” Or “Whale!” To find the people whose day passes had the matching animals on them. These were some of the hardest working hotel staff I’ve ever seen.
Luis is a 33-year old father of two boys. He has been married for nine years. His five year-old-son does mixed martial arts. He gets his energy from his father. Luis is a gardener, repairman, groundskeeper, bartender, waiter, and a lifeguard in jeans.
As this New Year begins, I wanted to thank all of the hotel staff who have taken care of us during the holidays. I also wanted to thank you all in advance for taking care of us long after the Holidays end. Thank you for taking care of travelers like me 365 days a year.