Nicaraguans call the week leading up to Easter Sunday Semana Santa. It has nothing to do with Christmas, and there are no bunnies, colored eggs, or fat men in red jump suits. It is a week of vacation. There is no school and many businesses are closed at least part of the week. People are supposed take the opportunity to spend time with their families and attend church services. I certainly saw many people go to church and follow porcelain statues of Jesus wearing a sombrero through the street, but many people also take the opportunity this week to get tanked, drive drunk, drown at alarming rates in the country’s oceans, lakes, and rivers, commit petty crimes such as theft, and generally just make more noise than they normally do (which is already a lot).
Here is how how my Semana Santa went:
First of all, let me introduce the cast of characters:
- Hilda, 31, my host mother
- Fidel, 60ish, Hilda’s father and my host (grand)father
- Gabriel, 6, Hilda’s son, my arch-nemesis
- Emily, 4, Hilda’s niece, Fidel’s granddaughter
- Ballardo, 30ish, Hilda’s cousin, a minor character in this story, Hilda’s oft drinking buddy
- Porcelain Jesus in a Sombrero, a recurring, but minor character
After my Volunteer Visit to Jinotega I went back to Managua where all of my fellow trainees were gathering at a hotel. We were going to spend the night at the hotel, have class as the Peace Corps Office the next day, and then go back to our training towns. However, at 5:30 or so that afternoon there was a 6.2 earthquake in Nicaragua (despite being an East Coast boy this was not my first earthquake – there had been a smaller one about two weeks earlier in Nicaragua). The only damage that the hotel I was in had was the loss of electricity for an hour, but it shook up everyone a lot, especially the Nicaraguans. They haven’t had a “big one” in a while and everyone here is afraid that the next one is going to be a big devastating one.
There were aftershocks all night, so to keep us safe they sent us back to our training towns the next morning. Classes were cancelled at the Peace Corps Office. Little did they know, that afternoon there was going to be a 6.6er closer to our host towns. Again, luckily, no damage to my house, but I definitely felt it, and the aftershocks just kept on rolling after that temblor hit (Nicaraguans calls smaller earthquakes temblores and big nasty ones terremotos).
Life went on in San Juan de Oriente. The only different was that rather than sitting around all day and watching crappy soap operas they sat around all day and watched crappy news coverage of the earthquakes (which luckily caused no fatalities). I went to bed that night tired (I hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep the night before), but feeling safe, despite the constant threat of more tremors.
I woke up at around midnight with a stomach ache, so I went out to the bathroom. Despite letting loose a nice sloppy one the pain didn’t go away, and I kept having diarrhea all night. Bear in mind, the whole night as I was sitting on the toilet there were occasional aftershocks, which caused me to coin the new word temblorrhea: having diarrhea during an earthquake.
At around my 20th trip to the bathroom at 4:30 in the morning, one and a half rolls of toilet paper down, it became pretty clear to me that I had an intestinal parasite or infection. The Peace Corps doctor confirmed my suspicion the next morning when I called her, and she prescribed for me some parasite poison, which literally made me feel better in about 30 minutes. Between midnight and around 11:00 AM, when I had my last runny poo-poo, I had gone through two and a half rolls of toilet paper. Better yet, the only noticeable side effect of the pills was that they turned my urine bright neon yellow. I literally mean that the toilet bowl looked radioactive after I was done urinating.
By the next day I was feeling chipper enough to go to the Laguna de Apoyo with my friends and swim around for a bit.
It is a long hike up and down from the beach that we went to, but we had a nice time swimming around. Unfortunately there are a large number of drownings in the laguna every year. The Nicaraguans say this is because the lake is very deep and the sandy bottom just sucks you in, but really it is just because many Nicaraguans can’t swim, but they drink, think they can swim, and then drown. And yes, these incidents do spike during Semana Santa.
This being the dry season, my house, as well as many other families in the area, were dealing with a lack of water. Water hadn’t been running in the pipes for about four of five days, our tank was out (likely due to me having flushed roughly thirty to forty times in a 12 hour period), and we were taking bucket showers and flushing the toilet by dumping buckets of water into the bowls. The Nicaraguans were particularly calm about this situation, probably because none of them ever ever drink plain water, ever.
Although no one drowned while we were at the laguna, I woke up the next day with a cold, most likely caught from my host (grand)father who had been coughing his way through Semana Santa since I got back from Jinotega and temblor day in Managua. My cold turned out to be a nice five day affair, complete with some asthma and wheezing.
My recent health problems brought out the doctor in all of the Nicaraguans I know, and they all had some interesting theories for the cause of my ailments:
- It is all the dust that gets kicked up during the dry season, which we are in right now
- The change of climate going from the mountains of Jinotega to the warmth of Managua and my training town
- The lunar eclipse (also a primary reason for the earthquakes)
- The new foods in my diet (news flash – rice and beans are not that exotic!)
- Because I’m Jewish
- I got the parasite because I bite my nails (25 years of biting my nails and my first parasite coincidentally shows up five weeks into living in Nicaragua)
- Bananas are very fresco so they give you asthma
- And of course, everyone’s favorite, the temblores
- I also have from a good source that eating too much chicken will make you gay
In reality, the parasites were likely caused by the poor sanitation practices brought on by the water shortage, and I almost certainly caught the cold from Fidel hacking up a storm for the last week. And all of these folk diagnoses come from people in a town that has a reputation for brujos (witchcraft), but the people hate the reputation so they vehemently deny it. I wonder where the reputation comes from?
So I was sick, we were out of water, and I was getting twice daily emergency text messages from the Peace Corps about the likelihood of catastrophic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the return of Godzilla, and devastating tsunamis. I could see why a few people might think it is a good idea to parade around town with Porcelain Jesus on a donkey praying for his return.
Around mid-week the murders started. First, the local police captain from my town had a bit too much to drink and decided he wanted to visit his wife and two kids as the pool in their town (they actually live in the next town over, even though he works in my town). When he got to the pool he saw on his wife’s phone that she was texting another man, so he shot and killed her in front of his two kids. The other murder happened in a beach town outside Managua. A missionary from Jackson Hole, Wyoming went running on the beach one afternoon. She never came back. Turns out two guys strangled her and stole her camera. They sold it for $27.
At this point I want to introduce a new element to my Semana Santa story. My host mother is a typical Nicaraguan woman. She runs her own store selling ceramic pottery and other local handcraft items, she looks after her son and her niece, and she occasionally cooks for the family. However, she is also a binge drinker. When she drinks it is always a two or three day affair. She only does it about once a week, but when she does you can be sure that when she goes out one night you won’t see her for two days because she is at the bar. If she comes home at all it is only to sleep for a few hours. Everyone gets mad at her when she does this, especially her dad and cousin who get stuck with the kids, the store, and worst of all, looking after me. I suppose I should also add here that despite her drinking problem, it never really negatively affected me. Sure, the kids misbehave more when she wasn’t around, but that’s no different than living with Aaron.
Semana Santa was no different for her. Earlier in the week she went out and didn’t come back. But this time, enough was enough for her dad. He kicked her out! Two days ago she sobered up, picked up her son and the blender (why the blender is the only item she wanted from the house, I have no idea) and moved into another house that they own in town. From what I hear this other house has absolutely nothing in it. No beds, no couches, no stove, no running water (I guess none of us have running water right now). I guess they do have a blender, but I don’t see how she can use it since the electric isn’t even hooked up. Her niece is with a cousin right now, but she will be coming back to live with me and her grandpa today or tomorrow once pre-schools resumes for her after Semana Santa (you know, once the dust settles and they clear all of the rubble).
So right now it is just me and Fidel in the San Juan de Oriente bachelor pad. And all has been going fine here. I’m feeling better, the aftershocks have subsided (looks like the Mexicans weren’t praying enough this week so the seismic activity moved up their way), and I haven’t had any temblorrhea in days. Things have been going so well, in fact, that last night I went out to a local bar/restaurant with a few of my fellow Trainees. I knew it was time to go home when the locals started singing Bee Gees songs, in English, on the karaoke machine.
When I got home I found myself locked out. I don’t have a key to the house, and Fidel had locked up and gone to bed, seemingly forgetting that I do in fact exist. I shouted for him a bit, but he didn’t wake up. Luckily I recalled an event from three to four weeks earlier, and thought of a way I could get into the house.
At around 1:00 in the morning, three or four weeks ago, I found myself sleeping in my bedroom, as I am apt to do from time to time in the middle of the night. My fan was humming away, creepy translucent lizards were crawling on the walls of my room, and my mosquito net was neatly tucked into my mattress. However, I was awoken by a noise in my room. As my eyes quickly adjusted I realized that it was a person in my room! My first thought was that it could be my drunk host cousin, Ballardo. He had been out drinking with my host mom that day, and when I went to bed earlier that night he was snoring away on the kitchen floor. Surely he had just woken up, realized that he preferred a bed to the kitchen floor, and came looking for one. However, I quickly realized that the man in my room was younger and much smaller in stature than my host cousin. It was a complete and total stranger. I started yelling at him, in Spanish, asking him who he was, what he was doing in my room, and yelling the names of my host mother and (grand)father to wake them up. I would have liked to jump out of bed to my feet, but I was trapped by my mosquito net.
To make a long story short, he was the 17 year old cousin of my host mom’s nephew. He has fallen on some hard times (and some hard liquor that night) and needed a place to stay for the night. So he climbed up the signposts of the gigantic entrance sign to town that is right next to my house, jumped on to the roof of the adjacent family store (it is only one story), walked up the roof to the balcony on the second floor of my house, and then walked around the balcony until he found an open window. That window just so happened to have been mine because I liked to keep it open for the breeze. I actually think that he was trying to burglarize my host family, but they insist that he was only trying to take advantage of their good nature and have a comfortable place to sleep for the night (and yes, through all of this commotion, Ballardo did sleep soundly on the tiles of the kitchen floor all night long).
Fast forwarding back to Semana Santa, finding myself locked out with no recourses to think of, I started climbing up the very same signpost of the San Juan de Oriente entrance sign. I jumped on to the roof of the family store and walked up to the balcony of the second floor of our home. The zinc roof creaked so loud every step of the way I was certain I was going to go crashing right through. Once on the balcony I started checking windows. I now keep mine securely locked, but it turns out that the window to the bedroom that my host mother and the kids sleep in was unlocked (the room was obviously vacant), so I slid it open and got myself into the house. Before going to bed I made sure to lock that window behind me.
So I spent Easter worried about earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, myself violently erupting with diarrhea, ill and asthmatic, locked out of my house, surrounded by host family drama and murderers. I might also have post-traumatic stress disorder from all of the fireworks that people set off all night, every night of the week. I’m sure that my mother (biological, not host – Hilda can’t read English) is going to flip out when she reads this, but really, I am fine. I already feel better after writing this post, and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks of training where we will shore up our technical skills, polish up on our Spanish, learn where our permanent sites will be, and get the hell out of San Juan de Oriente for good! Just please don’t tell any of this to Grandma mom. She knows about the earthquakes. Let’s leave it at that.
So how was your Easter? If you’re Christian, I hope it was everything holy that it’s supposed to be for you. O yea, also, can you answer for me, if they crucify Jesus on Friday, it takes a few days for him to die, and then three days later he resurrects, how come you celebrate the resurrection on Sunday, just one full day after he was crucified?
Haha amazing! I love your humor. And it all seems pretty accurate. Semana santa here in guatemala is the week where you spend all your money and get wasted.
OMG, I’m laughing so hard I am crying! Not sure why (perhaps I have a defect in my momma DNA), but I am not all freaked out. I am glad you are fine.
you’re fine Shelly. Eric is just hilarious. We were all laughing out very loud! That’s Caitlin ( she had a nervous laughter) and me Daniel and mom Susan, the latter not sure how to digest all of this.
What amazing memories for Eric to read his blog years from now.
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I am thinking about the Peace Corps, do you feel safe?
Yes. There is always the threat of petty theft but I never feel like I am in physical harm.
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