Exactly one year ago today I arrived in Nicaragua. Can you even believe it? Where has a year gone?!
It’s been an incredible, roller coaster ride of a year. I’ve been stung by a scorpion, got majorly sick (again…and again), travelled all over Caribbean Nicaragua, lived and worked in very rural (read: impoverished) areas, made a teeny pueblo and its’ people my own, and explored a bunch of this awesome country.
I feel like a bazillion things are different in my life from a year ago. Or slightly longer than a year, since just before coming here I was loving Bolivia for a couple of months. But you catch my drift. I’m not in Kansas, anymore, you read?
And it’s all of those bazillion things that I rarely talk about, don’t overly know how to share, and wouldn’t even necessarily know how to explain. They’re not the things you mention in a Skype call. The Skype calls are for the big stuff, the important stuff, the don’t-forget-me-I-love-you-how’s-the-baby kind of stuff.
But it’s so many of these small things that are every day, perhaps imperceptibly at first, changing me. Changing who I am as a person because they’re changing how I live. They’re changing my perception of “normal”.
It’s crazy how adaptable we humans can be, isn’t it?
And so I wanted to document those changes. Because they’re also the things I’ll forget one day. One day I won’t remember what made Nicaragua feel so different – either because I’ll still be living it and it will totally BE my normal, or because I’ll be long gone and the memories will have faded.
So here it is, a list of ways in which Nicaragua differs from Canada (or most westernized countries).
Everyone lives very “one with the elements”
Most homes have a patio or courtyard area that the rest of the home literally or figuratively revolves around. The doors and windows are always open for airflow because of the heat – heck, most of the roofs do not touch the walls because ventilation is more important than keeping out dust and bugs.
Imagine that, for a moment. The walls of your house do not touch the roof of your house. And this is not an indicator of poverty or preferences, simply a necessary and obvious way of building for the climate.
So yes, we all live with a certain number of other beings in our homes. Depending which part of the country and the season, those may include spiders, lizards, cockroaches, mice, bats, or scorpions. Often, it’s all of the above (or worse). And it’s life.
No prissy pants here because you can’t stop it from happening. You can only clean more often, spray Raid from time to time if it really bothers you, set rat traps, and appreciate when the city fumigators come around, but you cannot escape it.
That being said, you might take a few precautions…
I now, without fail, shake out my shoes and clothing before putting them on
Tarantulas are a thing. As are scorpions (and yes, I was doing this before the aforementioned scorpion incident of ’15). And believe it or not, scorpion spiders are a thing that exists. How I do not keel over in fear every time I have to put on a pair of sneakers is really beyond me. We must all deal with our own little hells, mustn’t we?
Cold water showers are pretty well the norm
Unless you pay too much in rent and then are spoiled by having an electrical shower head…ahem…(ME). But the fun little nickname of these shower heads happen to be “suicide showers” so, while I am eternally grateful for warm-ish water on a regular basis, I can never touch that thing and have to jump out of the shower immediately if I start to smell burning or it goes red or I hear a cracking sound. So there’s that 🙂
Buying anything takes a lot of knowing where to look
If you need a tire fixed, there’s a shop for that. Need a tool to fix a tire? That’s a different shop. There is no one, giant supermarket that houses everything I might want to buy. Is this the end of the world? Certainly not. Does it make locating lentils feel like some sort of triathlon? It can.
There are three supermarkets and the bustling open-air mercado where, between them, chances are I can find almost anything my little heart desires. But it’s the finding that’s the thing…
This is my washing machine
It takes me about two hours to do a week’s worth of laundry, assuming I wasn’t out doing construction that week. When that happens, I usually pay someone to wash the really dirty clothes. Because I am a capitalist snob that way.
The cost is extremely low – low enough for me to justify having her wash all my clothes, really – but it’s also kind of extravagant to NEVER wash my own clothes. Isn’t it? IS IT?
And if I’m being really honest, I don’t even mind hand-washing everything all that much. It kind of feels good to take care of myself and take time out for something so basic and necessary. How very domestic of me, no?
And of course, though I am sure this will surprise no one based on the aforementioned washing machine, this is my dryer. Works like a charm unless it’s…uh, raining. Or cloudy. Or cool. Or overly windy (almost lost a blanket to that barbed wire, once!).
Everything moves more slowly
And because I am a product of my own environment, I want to say it moves less efficiently. Just getting stuff done does not happen here in the manner that I am used to! Planning to run into that coffee shop for a quick coffee and head back out? Chances are it won’t be that quick, so you might as well just relax about it now.
Quadruple that for anything government related.
We lose power. Often.
Especially here in the North. That includes internet, btw. And it can make doing your job a liiiiitttle trickier at times. It happens about once a week and might last for minutes to hours, and once or twice has even lasted a day. Fortunately, I’ve been in the habit of keeping my computer charged, so I usually have an hour or two of entertainment close at hand (assuming I remembered to download something new).
That, and I try to keep a few candles close by as well. Night blackouts are the worst. When was the last time you tried to cook dinner by candle light?
Cows, horses, oxen, and all manner of carts share the roads with you
Whether in town, on the highways, or out in the countryside, it’s just normal, man. So drive carefully!
This makes more sense when you realize that…
Horses are still modes of transportation
I mean, it’s amazing! Fathers can often be seen taking their kids to school on their mount and I never get over it. Tons of people use a horse and small wooden cart in place of a vehicle for getting things not only in and out of town, but around town as well.
There is so much noise
For starters, horns are used in place of signal lights and generally obeying any sense of traffic order. Additionally there are trucks that roam around the city from the very wee hours of the morning screaming through loud speakers about any number of things – milk, obituaries, promotions, business advertisements, and city news. Plus there are a lot of big produce trucks that roll through our little country town and there are no noise restrictions on mufflers, or music, or really…anything.
Hammocks. Hammocks outside and hammocks inside.
Used as places to relax, often in place of chairs and beds, and sometimes even instead of cribs. Many truck drivers will hang a hammock below their trucks and relax in the shade, which makes me smile every single time. And now a pro myself, I even slept from a hammock swaying on the back of a cargo ship not that long ago and I’m darned proud of it.
Barbed wire is part of my daily life now
Ducking under barbed wire, gingerly stepping over barbed wire, or tripping on barbed wire (and ruining my nicest jeans and getting an angry slash up my leg) are all in a day’s work!
Street lights are a bit of a treat
They are prevalent in the bigger cities, less so in the smaller cities, and completely non-existent on the highways. Many people choose not to drive at all at night for safety reasons.
Picking up hitchhikers is a cultural norm and expectation
In a place where farm hands often have to walk 20km into or from town, most people don’t own a vehicle, and transportation is always crowded, the general culture is that of picking people up along your way. People will stop and offer it to one another without pause, but it’s also totally acceptable to stand on the side of the road with a thumb raised.
If you have a truck, you might consider stopping. They’d do it for you!
Family trumps friend
Literally the entire blanket of society functions around the family here in Nicaragua. Which is beautiful. But it can also be very isolating and lonely at times for a foreigner. Having expat friends can help because you’re all in it together. But it can be especially wonderful to get invited into a family or two over time.
It may never be exactly the same – the sense of priority and obligation that most people feel about their families here somewhat alludes me – but it helps. And it’s a welcome cultural immersion. But oh, how I wish some days that there was a Nica woman my age that wanted to grab a drink and just chit chat 🙂
Buses do not have bathrooms
No need to keep asking, because they don’t. It doesn’t matter if the trip is 10 minutes or 10 hours, there are no bathrooms. Plan accordingly.
(This is a slight stretch. Turns out the transnational buses do have bathrooms. So if you’re crossing a border, you’re fine. But if you’re staying in country, you’re outta luck.)
Poverty is literally all around me
There is no escaping it, it’s never invisible, though it does vary in how drastic it is. Sometimes I can shut it out and then whoosh! it catches up to me and sucks me into how dire it all is again.
In the city it’s a little less obvious, or easier to avoid seeing. But then a little girl walks out of what I thought was an abandoned shack and I see through the door a whole life being lived behind it and I am reminded once again.
In the countryside it’s impossible to close your eyes to the poverty, to families who sew old, ratty pants together to make a blanket because they can’t buy one and they don’t waste a thing. To a family of 8 sharing two beds. To wooden slats with holes where little eyes peek out at you, unsafe from the elements or anything else that might come knocking.
It is actually overwhelming at times. But it reminds me what I’m doing here and it keeps shit real in the most humble of ways. There are shacks that sit perched beside the garbage dump and entire families that live off of the pickings. And in the end, each of those families will still invite you in, find you somewhere to sit, and offer you whatever they have on the stove without a second’s hesitation.
I eat A LOT of rice and beans. And bananas.
Pretty well no day goes by that I do not have one or all of those three, and there are some days when all three meals consist of mostly (or only) those three. They are staples in the country and eaten in most conceivable fashions, they are cheap, they are pretty good in terms of vitamins and balance, and did I mention that they’re cheap? Here’s how you make Nica style gallo pinto (rice and beans) in case you want to get in on the goodness!
Men catcalling women is a total norm
And while it’d be a stretch to say I’m used to it or it doesn’t bother me, I feel less inherently awkward ignoring them and carrying on my merry way than I once did.
The sense of community is impossible to miss
I saw it regularly in my job when people would come out to help build their neighbours’ homes, even though it meant a day of missed wages for them. I also see it constantly in the way the family across the street from me always checks in or helps out, the way many families in the community adopted me into their homes and shared their stories with me, and in the general sense of belonging that Nicaraguans themselves will tell you they feel.
Many would never even dream of leaving Nicaragua, because it’s the Nicaraguans themselves that make it home.
There are seriously like, no rules
I mean, sometimes there actually are rules but they can almost always be broken without serious fear of repercussions. This translates at times to awesome things, like barricading one side of the river to block the flow and create an impromptu swimming hole. Or piling mattresses into the back of a truck and barrelling down the highway with family in tow to find a beach.
It can also mean that the roads are pretty dangerous to drive and your neighbours can be loud until all hours of the night and there’s not much you can do about it.
But mostly that fun stuff!
Corruption is rampant
If you have a bit of extra money, this can really work in your favour. You can often buy off the police in place of getting a ticket (or simply to avoid their false hassles), you can bribe a doctor to bump your son up the surgery list, and if you’re a higher up in the country, well you’re golden.
But obviously this poses an issue for the poorest of Nicaraguans who – for the record – still make up the majority of Nicaraguans. Since they are unlikely to be able to afford to bribe their way into better circumstances they are often left out in the cold.
As a Canadian, most of this is entirely new to me and in some instances has caused a steep learning curve (like when dealing with police).
Fruit and vegetables are local…and seasonal
Which certainly is amazing on the one hand, but it also means I have never seen cauliflower here, I spent 3 months gorging myself on avocados and then not seeing one for 9 months, and I cannot find a blueberry to save my life.
General safety measures do not exist
You really have to keep your wits about you and stay safe. There are no fire detectors in homes or elsewhere, no sprinklers in the schools and office buildings, no fences in front of houses on busy streets. People ride in the backs of trucks but buses don’t signal when they pull out in front of you. Double lane highways are not a thing that exists and when the buses are full, men ride on top of them. Animals graze untethered on the side of the highway or downtown (as mentioned above). Electrical cables hang mere feet above the sidewalk and often fall in heavy winds. There are no “lifeguards on duty”, no fire hydrants, often no sidewalks for pedestrians.
Necessity is the mother of invention
A little quote stolen from my Grandma that perfectly suits Nicaragua. Everyone here, especially those in the rural areas with limited resources at hand, are so freaking smart. They literally find a makeshift solution for anything without even breaking a sweat.
I like to think this one is rubbing off a little bit but I will never be such a naturalist, I don’t think, as so many Nicaraguans are at making due with what you have – and not even noticing the difference.
BONUS: It’s all in Spanish!
Surprised this one is on here, because it seems so obvious? Well, it IS obvious, which is why I made it the bonus item at the bottom ;-).
But have you ever given much thought to what “it’s all in Spanish” means for a foreigner?
Grocery shopping, connecting a cell phone, reading road signs, working in a community, working in an office (though everyone in my office speaks English and helped me SO much whenever I was struggling with my Spanish), buying a coffee – it’s all in another language.
Think to yourself what the best, most relaxing, easiest part of your day is. Then consider what it would be like to do it in another language, alongside all the hard parts of your day. I love it, but I can admit that sometimes, especially in the early days, I had a little cry just from the sheer frustration of not being understood. Or worse, being MISunderstood! Fortunately both of those are lessening in frequency as my Spanish improves. Poco a poco!
I’m sure there are more I’ve already forgotten or normalized and therefore aren’t on the list. But these are the things I noticed time and again this year, many of the things that still catch me off guard a bit and make me feel like I’m in another world. You know, which I am. And it’s awesome.