Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Life Of Crime Part II.......Things That Go Bump In The Night

As I’ve mentioned before, I rent a room in a neighborhood called Altagracia. It’s a simple room with two doors (one that opens to the inside of the house…….one to the street), a bathroom (no door there.....good thing I live alone), and a small window. The window is approximately 12” X 24”, is located just below the ceiling, and is covered only with bars on the outside (better at keeping out PEOPLE than mosquitoes, bright lights, or the ungodly decibels of the #54 bus). Directly below the window is the V-shaped mattress on which I sleep. Between the bed and the window is a small ledge. Because I have no closet or place to hang clothing in my rented paradise, this ledge below the window works quite nicely. As a result, when in their rightful place, the clothes dangle a mere 12-14” above my snoring profile.

Because I was planning a small excursion to Granada the following day with some folks from the neighborhood, I called it a night at the early hour of 10PM. After all, I wanted to make sure I received ample beauty sleep, something I can certainly use more of. The first hour of sleep was a bit light, interrupted on several occasions by housemates returning home from a night on the town. By 12AM however, I was sleeping like a baby, dreaming no doubt of Spanish beauties and eternal beach fiestas. But it was also around the 12 o’ clock hour that things took an unexpected turn.

The first thing to come was an unusual sound. It wasn’t a particularly LOUD sound, just unfamiliar. To be quite honest, I’m not exactly sure WHAT my subconscious mind registered as the source of such a strange noise. But the second event came in the form of something much greater than a sound. The second event was an object. To be entirely accurate, I should add that it wasn’t simply AN object but SEVERAL objects. And these objects were not just ANY random objects in the space-time continuum. They were objects falling ON ME!!!!

It was at this point, the point at which random objects were suddenly raining down upon me as I slept, that my subconscious uttered the initial wakeup call. I mean the subconscious mind can only do so much on its own. It had already begun to process the events. It now needed the rest of the brain to figure out what exactly was taking place. So far, the sub had processed that objects were raining down upon us. It had also processed the fact that this made absolutely no sense, being as though we were sleeping peacefully, alone in a room behind locked doors. Beyond that though, it had processed that exactly TWO such objects had fallen upon us in the still of the evening. But as strange as that seemed, it was the third and final piece of information that seemed perhaps strangest of all. One of the objects was particularly furry. FURRY????? Yes, VERY furry. And with that, the subconscious sounded the emergency alarm and declared a level of “code ORANGE”. WAKE UUUUUUUPPPPPPP!!!!!!

The next thing I knew, I was flailing about in my bed, trying to free myself from these uninvited guests as quickly as possible. What could they be? How many were there? I thought of the cat that walked above me in the ceiling on a nightly basis. Had the feline enjoyed a particularly large dinner and FINALLY fallen through the ceiling tiles? No, I wasn’t sure HOW I knew it, by I somehow knew that whatever IT or THEY were, the entrance had NOT been the ceiling. The entrance had been the window above me. Perhaps it was the injured bat that had been in front of my room just a few hours prior. Could it have made its way through my window in search of fresh gringo blood? No, that didn’t make sense either. After the encounter with that vehicle, the bat couldn’t even fly. And whatever this was, it was SIGNIFICANTLY LARGER AND FURRIER than a bat.

And so it was at this point, still in that foggy state between sleep and reality, that the subconscious sounded the alarm for “code RED”. We were now well beyond the point of needing to wake up. It was now time to PANIC!!!!!!!!!!

Panic. Now THAT is a word with which NO ONE really wants to be associated. I am certainly no exception. I mean I’ve been working in emergency services for the last 10 years, and I generally pride myself on taking an “OK, let’s look at this for what it is…..let’s not overreact and make matters worse……everything will be just fine” approach to life and crisis. I typically enjoy a natural personality that lends itself AWAY from such things as panic or hysteria. And if I’m honest, I would have to say that I can be a bit critical of those who choose a different, more dramatic path. On that night however, I wasn’t given a choice. The internal alarm had sounded. We were now in “code RED”. It was now time to panic, and that was exactly what I did.

I continued flailing about in my bed, trying desperately to free myself from the fury of this creature (or creatures). And although I still remained primarily in the world of the subconscious (never have been one to wake up particularly easy), I realized that things didn’t seem to be improving. I realized that the more I struggled, the more I flailed about, the more intertwined I became with the beast. My current actions of mere struggling did not seem to be effective. It was now time to invoke the second half of the panic strategy. It was now time for the historically tried and true method of……screaming like a little girl.

I think it was the screaming that actually did the trick. That is, I think it was the screaming that carried me through on the final leg of the race to the world of the conscious. Because as I officially woke up, freed myself from the no-doubt rabid beast, and jumped out of bed with a gold medal performance, I realized that the screaming was indeed coming from me.

Several moments later, the screaming had thankfully stopped. I stood motionless, breathing heavily in the darkness next to my bed. I took an inventory of myself. There didn’t SEEM to be any teeth or claw marks on my body. Was it possible that I had miraculously escaped this attempted mauling, unscathed? I waited, primarily for movement. Where had the beast gone? Was it still in the bed? Was it hiding in the shadows? Was it crouched in a concealed location, UNDER the bed perhaps, planning the second attack? I continued to wake up. As I visually inspected the darkness in complete stillness, the theories continued to build in my head. I assessed the facts known to that point. I KNEW that at least one animal, most likely two, had fallen upon me. This much was clear. I also somehow knew that it or they had entered through the window above me. And as I looked to the window, I noticed that there was indeed something unusual about my small portal to the outside world. There was still something in the window. To be more exact, there was something halfway IN the window and halfway OUT of the window.

It was in THAT moment that I realized exactly what had happened. It absolutely made perfect sense. I was SURE. I had been the unfortunate recipient of a cruel prank. Someone had trapped some type of animal, put it in a pillow case, and injected it into my room through the available opening of the window. There in the darkness of the night, it was clear as day. I still hadn’t located the animal, but there was the pillow case, halfway IN and halfway OUT of the window. I was officially awake. The mind was firing on all cylinders. I had solved the mystery.
But despite the facts that backed my air-tight case, two lingering questions remained to be answered. First of all, although I had stood in the darkness next to my bed for a good five minutes now, I STILL hadn’t found whatever furry creature had been dropped into my sanctuary of peace. AND besides that, it didn’t make much sense that the pillow case, still in the window, seemed to be made out of the exact same material of a shirt I happen to own. Was it possible that there was more to this story than I had figured out?

It’s funny what the mind does, especially in a state of SUB or UN consciousness. So as I stood there next to my bed, finally realizing what had ACTUALLY taken place several moments prior in the REAL world, I had to laugh a bit, not only at the situation, but at myself. Sure enough, that “pillow case” in the window WAS INDEED my shirt. And as I turned on the light and offered a closer inspection, I realized that in addition to this one shirt, most ALL of my hanging shirts, pants, and jackets seemed to be in the process of making a hasty exit. In fact, the only hanging items that WEREN’T on a journey to the outside world, were lying motionless on my now vacant mattress. There they were, one pair of jeans……..and that furry, no-doubt rabid beast known as…….my black Patagonia fleece jacket.

The neighbors had warned me about the window in the past. I had just chosen to ignore their advice, claiming that the window was high enough to pose NO viable security risk. Without climbing the bars, one couldn’t even see that there were clothes immediately to the interior. That night however, someone HAD climbed the bars and subsequently reached through the window in an attempt to steal whatever happened to be in reach (i.e. my clothes). Unfortunately for him (or her….let’s be fair), in the haste of this well planned heist, several of the garments had fallen upon me from the ledge above. It was most likely my screams of terror that brought an interruption to the crime. As for what had brought an interruption to that beach fiesta? I’m going to have to go with the jeans. After all, they’ve got some real weight to them. But the real problem wasn’t the weight of the jeans. The REAL problem, as it turned out, was that black fleece jacket. It’s just so soft and “furry”. The more I struggled, the more “the beast” and I became mutually intertwined. It was truly a hopeless situation.

I spent the next hour or so hammering boards over my “once a window to the outside world”, as if preparing for a future life on the Gulf Coast. What I ultimately lost in fresh air and outdoor access has more than been made up for in sleep-conducive darkness and silence, not to mention the additional security for my classic collection of hanging garments. Once again, as was the case of the Panamanian bus, all was well that ended. The would-be thief returned home empty handed, and the only thing I lost that night was a bit of valuable sleep. And sure, I’m a little embarrassed over the events that transpired on that fateful Saturday night. But you have to laugh at yourself from time to time. I mean without that, you might just look a little ridiculous…….flailing about in the night.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Life Of Crime Part I.....Panamanian Bus

Most of the local buses in Latin America are retired school buses from the US. Because American children between the ages of 5 and 18 don’t tend to carry large suitcases or enormous sacks of rice, grains, or beans to school, the buses are not designed to accommodate such loads. For this reason, when these buses are used here in this part of the world, anything larger than a Sponge Bob lunch bag gets stored in the BACK of the bus, or the space located between the emergency exit door (utilized of course as a primary entry/exit) and the last row of seats (those coveted so highly by the elementary/middle school ruffians).

Generally there is no problem with the above system, and the respective valuables of the passengers are left in peace. A few months ago however, as I found myself slowly waking up from a short siesta while on just such a bus in Panama, I realized that something could be amiss. You see, like everyone else commuting between Boquete and David that day, I too had stored my backpack in the area to the back of the old yellow school bus from Anywhere, U.S.A. And as the bus made one of its regular stops by the side of the road, I looked up in my foggy state to witness several passengers making their way off the bus.

“hmmmm…..that guy has a Dana Design backpack just like mine.”

“How nice.”

“Wait a minute……That’s MY Dana Design backpack……And it seems to be hitching a ride with that Panamanian!!!!!!!”

Fortunately, this final thought was enough to jar me from what remained of my slumber. I woke up, told my traveling companions that I’d be back shortly, and quickly made my way to the front of the bus to retrieve my belongings. Fortunately, I caught up to the pack just as it was making its way down the stairs of the bus. I grabbed the pack, the would-be-thief continued down the stairs, and as the bus lurched forward in a continuation of its journey toward David, I found myself standing in the front of the bus, holding what consisted of most of my Latin American possessions.

“Close call”, I thought. “I suppose I better hold on to this for the rest of the trip”.

I discovered later that the guy HAD taken a few things out of the top pocket of the backpack before attempting to de-bus. But the headlamp was on its last leg anyway, and I was actually more than happy to get rid of the bag ridiculously large coins from Costa Rica (my least favorite form of money in the region……who designed that stuff?????). All was well that ended well, and the rest of the year has gone pretty well for me in respect to preservation of personal property.

Unlike Panama, which despite the aforementioned exception to the rule seems to be a relatively safe nation, life down here in Nicaragua is a different story. Rather than being the exception, crime is often accepted as the norm, simply a part of life in the second poorest nation in the region (second only to Haiti). So, if you put a $2 light bulb in the porch light receptacle to have better lighting for a post-death wake, it will be stolen in the night. If you park your vehicle without someone watching it at all times, things like exterior bulbs, windshield wipers, antennas, and lens covers will mysteriously disappear almost immediately. Forget to install the obligatory “decorations” (i.e. jagged glass in cement) around the upper portion of your wall, someone will most likely climb the wall and steal brooms and mops from your patio…….all true stories from recent days in the neighborhood.

For the most part though it’s just petty theft, something common to many countries in the world. And although I’ve known 4-5 people personally who have been robbed at knife or gunpoint in the last several months, I’ve never had much of a problem in my home city. I take the usual precautions, try to stay alert, keep the laptop insured and regularly backed up on a second hard drive, don’t carry a credit card or large amounts of cash, “generally” heed the warnings of the locals, and follow the “never stop at red lights after dark” rule when riding the motorcycle. Of course my favorite strategy, one that has already saved the laptop on at least one occasion (but that’s another story for another day) is the MAKE AS MANY FRIENDS AS POSSIBLE in the neighborhood rule. After all, in my book, more friends equals a more secure living environment.

It’s not a PERFECT system. I mean NO system is really a perfect system. Regardless of its sophistication (or lack thereof in my case), all such systems are, by definition, mere deterrents. But without trying to sound arrogant, I have to say that my short list of simple strategies has served me relatively well over the last 6 months of living in Managua. It has served me relatively well that is, until last night.

…….to be continued.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A NEW DAY HAS DAWNED Part II.....Operation Sanitation

There are some who feel like they can attack us there. My answer is……Bring em on! We’ve got the force necessary to deal with the sanitation situation.

As I mentioned in my last entry, the axis of evil had been identified, and “all things of filth” was its name. MINED, the branch of the govt. that had donated the food to our program, returned with six of the largest Nicaraguans I had ever seen in order to remove 42 bags of beans, rice, and cereal from our storage area. We were given a written reprimand along with instructions to bury the “contaminated food”. Not 5 minutes after their departure, the blame game began. When asked, I stated very plainly that it all seemed quite obvious to me. The food had arrived in perfect condition, yet after several months of being under OUR care, it was contaminated. It was clearly our fault. Who else COULD we blame? I also explained that we were a TEAM, and that we ALL shared responsibility for what happened (or didn’t happen) in our program. I explained that the last few days had been an excellent learning experience for all of us, that some problems had been identified, and that it was now time to move forward in some very positive directions. The response?

“’…….well it wasn’t MY fault!!!!”

I think we’ve reached a critical point in the struggle between sickness and health.

Things had indeed reached a critical level, and I now had the green light from our parent organization and other members of the staff to use whatever force necessary to fight such an evil. The time for diplomacy had ended. It was now time to act. And with that, an official declaration of war was issued.

I think it will go relatively quickly……weeks rather than months.

I needed to meet them where they were hiding and where they were breeding. I needed to hit them fast and hit them hard. I needed shock and awe. But where does one turn to in times of such difficulty? Where does one go to find resources for such an intense and overwhelming struggle? Desperate times called for desperate measures. I went to Cosco.

My weapon of choice was an advanced piece of “smart technology” by Shop Vac. It was sleek, powerful and able to handle both wet AND dry forms of evil. The people of Nicaragua had never seen such a weapon. Children ran in fear. Adults stood at a distance and looked on with eyes of suspicion. I wielded the E85 with glee and exuberance.

“You’re not such a BIG CUCARACHA now are ya!!!!!!!

Everything was removed from the kitchen/storage area and scrubbed from top to bottom. We purchased additional security in the form of storage bins, bleach, and antibacterial soaps. We scrubbed high, we scrubbed low, and we followed the enemy into the very holes where they lived. The E85 performed flawlessly, and although the enemy attacked its core, or hepa filter, on the night following the first day of major combat operations, they were successful only in breeching the outer perimeter.

Progress has been steady. I believe the insurgency is in its final throes.

So it’s been a tough couple of week. We’ve fought brave, we’ve fought hard, and all of us have been called upon to make personal sacrifices for the health and betterment of our program. The good news is that we’ve made significant progress and many of our SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) have been changed to maintain and build upon our new state of sanitation. We still have a ways to go, but I’ve already had a banner made in preparation for a special event I have planned for next week. On the banner is written “mision cumplida”. I plan to stand under this banner and address the students and citizens of Acahualinca. On that day, as the school band plays the national anthem on their flutophones, I will proudly read the following statement:

Thank you all very much. Major combat operations in Acahualinca have ended!

…….uh.....can someone please step on that cockroach?

Monday, September 1, 2008

A NEW DAY HAS DAWNED Part 1......Zen and the art of third world living

I’ve noticed something about living in a third world country, and that is that those who are the happiest and most well adjusted EXPATS are those who simply surrender their first world expectations and accept a new or different way of life. No one “showing up on time to ANYTHING”? Struggling with the “toilet paper DOES NOT GO IN THE TOILET” rule? Finding that “the people down here just don’t know how to ANYTHING RIGHT”? Can’t find ANYWHERE to buy your favorite…….? NO PROBLEM. You’re no longer living in the land of plenty. Accept it…...find a peace within it….and move forward. Aaaaahhhhh ………sweet third world serenity.

As I’ve mentioned before, I spend most of time helping out with a “feeding program” in a local elementary school. Although the food is donated primarily through the US government, the Nicaraguan government, and several small NGO’s, it is ALL stored and cooked on-site. This means that we run a fully functional “school cafeteria” that feeds around 500 kids per day. This also means that there is a LOT of food to cook, a LOT of food to serve, and a LOT of food and dishes to clean up.

For the most part, I’ve done pretty well with the above “Zen and the art of third world living” approach around my new workplace. I mean sure I see things around the feeding program that are CERTAINLY NOT the way I would do them if I WERE IN CHARGE. But I remind myself that “I AM in Nicaragua”, that “they do things differently down here” with “different standards”, and that “I’m not here to come in and change their operation. I’m just here to help and support the program in whatever way possible”.


I don’t really know what was particularly different about that day last week. I suppose that things had been building for quite some time, and that it was simply the final straw. So as I watched the small parasitic worms swimming around in the water we had been using FOR EVERHTHING (yes, EVERYTHING does include “serving in beverage form”), I found myself abruptly arriving at my limit.

You see the actual goal of this program is to GET AND KEEP KIDS IN SCHOOL. And because this school is located in a horribly impoverished area of the city where child labor is more the expectation than the exception, this can be quite a challenge. On one hand, the food is simply a bribe to get a kid to come to school. Beyond that though, because malnourishment is such a problem in the area (and subsequently the numerous associated health concerns), the food serves as, yep you guessed it, NOURISHMENT. So simply put, the program exists to improve the overall health and education of a whole bunch of impoverished kids. If our practices cause or perpetuate illness in any way, then the time has come for a serious re-evaluation.


I’m not a germ-a-phobe. Really, I’m not. Yes. It’s true. I DO keep a tidy house, I DO believe that everything for the most part has a place, and I CAN have a tendency toward excessive order and cleanliness (did I mention I’m an “excellent driver…..excellent….excellent….driver”?). On the other hand though, I’m a BIG believer in the 5 (or 30) second rule of “food in contact with ground/floor”, I believe that expiration dates are generally a marketing tool used by food manufacturers to increase sales, and I view the avoidance of washing hands prior to meals primarily as a way of strengthening the immune system.

“HAZEL, do you notice anything unusual about this water here?”

From the water, we began our tour. We looked at the thick layer of mold in the sink, we examined the grease, grime, old food, and dirt covering all parts of the kitchen, we checked out the PILES of dead insects in all of the cabinets, the holes that the rats had chewed in most every bag of stored food, and the absolutely UNBELIEVABLE amount of rodent feces covering literally EVERYTHING in the storage area (not to mention the carcasses of a few that didn’t make it…..I’m pretty sure they just over-ate). Of course, as we were taking our little tour, we were noticing the cockroaches scurrying about.

After the tour, we talked about various practices, in addition to the general sanitation makeover, that could improve the overall cleanliness of our program. For example, as great as it is that the kids want to wash their hands before eating, it’s probably not the best idea that they come directly from the bathroom to wash their hands IN the water we are using for drinking/dish washing……….just one example.

I knew that a number of changes needed to be made. I also knew that without the support of Hazel (the director of the kitchen) and the other volunteers, I would find myself alone in the kitchen at night, armed only with an arsenal of mouse traps and scrub brushes. Fortunately, Hazel endorsed all of the ideas and agreed that we could begin working toward some much needed change.

Interestingly enough, a group from some branch of the govt. showed up at the school THAT SAME DAY to give a presentation on “clean water practices”. If that wasn’t enough of a coincidence, a group from a different branch of the govt. showed up the following day to inspect the food they had donated. As you can imagine, they weren’t terribly thrilled by what they found.

… be continued.