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  • It was midday before Conor and I finally decided to drag ourselves out of the Buena Honda hostel, to the smoggy bus depot of Matagalpa. We were groggy, gritty, and dehydrated. It felt like a vice grip was being turned at my temples. We sat on a crowded bus perfumed with sweat and the toxic fumes of burning trash piles. It didn’t take long for us to abandon the bus, and walk to an area of the city where special taxis would take us directly to San Ramon. We endured a slew of stares and were repeatedly called “Chele," the usual. Chele is the Nicaraguan slur equivalent to “Whitey,” although they use it to describe any type of foreigner, regardless of skin tone.

    When we arrived at San Ramon, we still had the 40-minute hike to our community, La Pita. The long walk, although grueling, was still breathtakingly beautiful. It was a stark contrast from the city in which we had spent the weekend, where people had become so complacent with living amongst their own filth, streets littered with beer bottles, plastic wrappers, and the occasional drunk, dried vomit plastered to his greasy beard. The mountains were so lush; it was awe-inspiring. The path was lined with thick, vibrant forest and you could see the foggy mountains in the background, densely covered in coffee trees. There were insects of all types: moths the size of your face, beetles resembling small rhinoceroses, and forest spiders they called “Mata Vaca,” known for biting the ankles of cows, causing them to tip over and die. A quarter way up the hill, we passed an elderly man who we affectionately called, “Old Man Red.” He’d sit on his front porch, wearing the same red jacket, giving us the same intense stare as we walked by. We would flash him a smile or a friendly wave, but his disgruntled expression would remain.

    Conor and I split up to walk to our respective homes. Immediately upon arrival, I stripped off my foul clothes, and took a cold shower. I had counted; this was cold shower number 59. When I had first arrived to the country, everyone that I worked with at the coffee cooperative assured me that I would get used to bathing in frigid water. They lied. I slowly got dressed and prepared myself to face my host family, knowing that I would be interrogated about my weekend trip to the city. I dodged most of their questions and told them that I had merely gone sightseeing, failing to mention the drinking, which was our main activity.

    We had hit the halfway point of our journey and it was a cause for celebration. We were having a difficult time adjusting, and a turbulent long distance relationship had taken its toll on me. Our initial projects had fallen through due to limited resources, and the poorly managed infrastructure of the coffee cooperative. Our passion had wavered, and we were plagued by self-doubt—a feeling of impotency about whether what we were trying to accomplish was really worthwhile. We had been lied to, and offered a load of empty promises and exaggerations, even by our superiors. It made it very difficult to trust anyone. On top of all of this, our physical health had declined, and both Conor and I had suffered a variety of ailments. His weight had dropped dramatically, bags had formed under his eyes, and his face carried a perpetual gaunt expression of lonesomeness and longing.

    After a shower and change of clothes, I still looked weary and disheveled. My host family served me lunch, which was, of course, fried plantains and the national dish, Gallo Pinto. This dish is composed mostly of red beans and rice, and any other kind of leftover you can find to throw in the mix, typically fried eggs. Despite the monotony of having eaten this at least once a day, and the stomach cramps that were ever present, I ate every last bite. Food was not something to be discarded, even if I knew it would cause war in my intestines. I tried to adjust to my new life situation, but my bowels would still try to purge the country from its system. Diarrhea had become a constant, Pepto Bismol my new drug of choice.

    As I finished eating, I watched the children run around and play with giant moths, throwing them to the chickens when they ceased to amuse. Our one-eyed dog Bobby was rubbing its behind together with a neighbor’s dog in a kind of foreplay; apparently they didn’t indulge in regular doggy-style here. Coincidentally, my host father Don Pastor only had one eye. He had a gooey, sewn-up slit where his eye used to be, having lost it years prior to a common congenital disease. I’d heard of dogs looking like their owners, but this was ridiculous. Don Pastor would often invite me to sit down with him to chat, and to listen to stories about his youth. My host mother, Dona Paula, would cook me three meals a day, and would arduously wash my clothes by hand. Laundry days in Nicaragua would literally last an entire day. I appreciated her compassion immensely.

    Before I went back to my room, they informed me that there was going to be a community baptism in an hour, and that it was vitally important that I attend. I lied, and told them that I would love to go, and quietly slipped into my room. My bedroom resembled a prison cell, composed of red brick walls, a heavy wooden door, and a tin roof that made every raindrop sound like a gunshot. I had recently been given a large metal pole to wedge between my door and the floor, after a group had attempted to rob me while I slept. Bobby the one-eyed dog chased them away that night, but my host family felt that I should have this precautionary tool, the latest in Nicaraguan burglar protection. I felt a boiling in my gut and rushed to the bathroom. I fought a cockroach for possession of the toilet bowl—I won.

    The decorations in my bedroom were slug trails that traced the walls, geckos that would scuttle about, and giant spider’s nests that had ensnared horseflies, moths, and cockroaches. There was a red net around my bed that was always covered in large brown mosquitoes. I shooed them away and jumped inside to safety. I immediately began my favorite Nicaraguan pastime: killing the critters that had infiltrated the net. No matter how tightly you tucked the net under the mattress, they still found a way inside. Even the smallest ones had a devilishly hard bite—itching had become a way of life. You never really feel like you’re a part of nature until you become a part of its food chain, and my body felt like a walking buffet. I obliterated all of my unwanted guests and spent the next hour feeling nauseous, dozing in and out of agitated sleep. I remembered something that my host brother Ernesto had told me, “Here in Nicaragua we don't count sheep; we count mosquitoes."

    ***

    There were two separate baptism events that afternoon: the regular, and the special. The special was at a community member’s house who was too ill to participate in the regular ceremony. My host family and I walked to his house— a rotting wood and mud shack at the top of a hill— and waited a few minutes while the rest of the people gathered. They urged me to push my way inside of the crowded house, so that I could have a better view of the ceremony. I passively complied. It smelled of body odor and earth. As I stood there awkwardly, two men carried in a skeleton of a man on a red plastic chair, and placed him in the center of the room. Everyone hushed. His flesh sagged from his bones and his knobby knees showed through his loose, brown slacks. He had a large protruding hump on the right side of his back, and a permanent expression of misery, utter hopelessness.

    The pastor began the sermon, reading segments from the bible, leading hymns that they all sang and clapped along to. I clapped with them and tried not to look conspicuous, although that was impossible. The most uncomfortable portion of the sermon was when the pastor would allow an allotted amount of time for personal prayer. This is where people would begin to mumble, shout, convulse, cry, and whatever else you do to converse with your God. I thought about pretending to communicate with some otherworldly creature, so as to look like I was really getting involved and participating in the spectacle, but I lacked the strength or drive. I resolved to stand there staring into space with my arms crossed, not knowing what else to do. My headache had intensified, and spread to the back of my brain.

    It was now time for the ceremonial submersion. However, given his abysmal condition, full submersion was out of the question. They decided to pour a little water on top of his head from a blue plastic bowl. Every drop looked as if it might break his fragile neck. They immediately took him into another room and got him changed. They commenced more prayers and clapping; and of course, more mumbling, and shouting, convulsing, and crying. Finally, the pastor said a few last magic words, and the man was officially baptized.

    Exhausted by this initial ordeal, I was ready to leave, but I had committed myself to the entire ritual. To find the location of the regular baptism, I merely had to follow the eerie sounds of what seemed like offbeat carnival tunes. The whole community had gathered around a large swimming pool by the donated guesthouse, "Casa Alverge," and the pastor led the people through some more songs and prayer, this time with the accompaniment of an obnoxious synthesized organ. The pastor babbled on and on about certain activities that we should never indulge in. I checked them off of a mental list, and wondered to what level of hell I belonged.

    Finally, it was dunk time. There were six people to be submerged in the pool and come out cold, wet, and completely cleansed of sin. Each one had to go through their individual prayers and declarations of faith before being dunked. There was a woman to my left who found it necessary to sing along to every prayer—she had the voice of a rooster being slaughtered. I made eye contact with different members of my host family. Each one gave me the same expression of hopeful optimism that the significance of this occasion was not lost on me. In response, I would give them the most genuine smile I could muster and a confirmatory nod. It was beyond me why anyone would go to such lengths to insure that they get into some invisible after-world, run by something no more credible than the Tooth Fairy. I didn’t need angels’ wings to fly to my paradise; I just needed a plane ride home.

    ***

    The sun was setting and the majority of the people began to leave. I took my exit with them. It was dinnertime—fried plantains and Gallo Pinto. I had an overwhelming desire to go to a place where I could eat a good hearty meal that wouldn’t give me diarrhea, drink a beer that didn’t taste like urine, and be in the company of familiar faces. I thought about how feeble my efforts were to do something useful and long lasting. All I was going to come home with was a nice set of stories, the ability to pat myself on the back for having an “authentic experience.”

    My host family turned on their old black and white television. The youngest fiddled with the antenna until a grainy image of an American music video emerged. It was the first time I had seen the video, but it was made of the same substance as all of the other ones—models prancing around in skimpy outfits, unabashedly endorsing materialism and sex. As the song crescendoed, I watched as the pop star attached two striped canisters to her breasts, and exuberantly shot whipped cream from her chest, finally blowing off the tips like discharged pistols. My entire host family giggled, turning to see my reaction. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. I tried to utter some words, but I had none.

    After a moment, I noticed Conor’s thin lengthy figure walking up the hill.

    “Oy Chele!” He saluted.

    “Chele!” I replied.

    He sat down with me in the dark living room, at the tiny dinner table covered with a cheap plastic cloth. His eyes turned to my half finished dinner bowl, and he smirked.

    “It’s not that bad.” I said. As I mentally prepared myself for a sweaty night on the toilet, swatting away hungry mosquitoes.
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