Wednesday, February 6, 2013

three days of catch-up

2/4/13 – Civics lesson, cross-cultural version

Went to a community meeting today, organized by a group of expats. So I guess I’m officially a member of the community. As always, felt good to exercise one of the responsibilities of membership. Agenda items: a proposal to develop a tourist map of the pueblo, to help people find restaurants, lodging, charter fishing and surfing-related offerings; a discussion of the water situation; and, concerns for public safety. The meeting was attended by a few locals (almost all of them women) and quite a few expats, mostly Americanos y Canadiens. The expats did most of the talking, but a few of the locals also contributed. I was impressed by the efforts to translate the discussion for the benefit of the non-english-tongued. The first item was interesting but boiled down to marketing. The water situation was more engaging. Apparently, one of the developments on a hill above town has been providing water to the townsfolk, for a modest fee, but they’re not happy with (some of) the locals’ not, so they’re thinking seriously about cutting off the supply to the entire town. Many homes use pirated electricity – during a power outage they’ll loop a cable around the power line running through town and run the line into their homes. Quick, relatively easy , though a somewhat risky proposition: the power is unreliable, but equally unpredictable is the length of “lights out.” Could be a shocking experience if your timing is off.

Pirating electricity and ignoring the water bill reflect a general attitude about “services,” stemming from generations of autocratic rule. Especially out in the campos, people got accustomed to the gummint deciding what they could have (and could not). Accept what you get and do without the rest. Folks never had to make any decisions – Somoza took that problem off their hands -- so they never learned how. Turned on its head, you get folks who’d recognize themselves in Mitt Romney’s dinner hour conversations. Democracy is only 33 years old in Nicaragua and folks are still figuring stuff out. So maybe we should give two-year-old Arab Spring-ers a little slack……

Two home invasions in the last month have everybody sitting up. One was at the place I stayed last year. In that incident, the thieves fed the owners’ dogs meat laced with rat poison before crashing the house. A total of four dogs died, including two visiting pooches who came by with their humans right after the attack and found some extra bits lying about. Fortunately no humans were injured and I’m generally not in favor of capital punishment (and there is no death penalty under current Nicaraguan law) but for dog killers I’m willing to make an exception. The locals are mostly not too worried about it because the gringos have been the targets, but a few of the local women (including my hostess) understand that if the pueblo develops a reputation for safety issues, they’ll get no potential trade from guests staying at the big resort going up two beaches to the south.

One of the problems for the locals is the practice of retribution; if a perpetrator is arrested and jailed, his family will blame and attack the victim. In this case, even though the victims were gringos, and even though the locals (probably) know who the attackers are, they aren’t talking, for fear of retribution. Another problem is the almost complete lack of local civic institutions. There’s a town council comprised of elected locals, but since the last election the chairperson moved, the vice chair assumed the chair, and she continues to serve ex-officia. There were nationwide elections in November 2010, including elections for local officials, but the pueblo didn’t organize elections for new council members, so the council members’ terms expired and there are no replacements. At this point it sounds like they’ll have to petition the central government for permission to conduct a special election, and nobody in town with standing (sorry, legal terms are an occupational hazard) to make such a petition seems too interested in pursuing the formalities.

A bright spot: A young gringo named Bo, who works with Project WOO. He seems really earnest, and he has the energy of the yoots. Maybe he can figure out how to get the locals to buy into the idea of neighborhood watch, community courts, and the most interesting idea: hidden cameras located strategically throughout town and the immediate outskirts (where all the recent trouble occurred). In an odd way, a high tech contribution to the solution is appropriate for a country that skipped full coverage land lines and went straight to cellular. Even with money from the expat merchants it would be difficult to afford full-time police or private security services, but a set of cameras with wife eye connections might have some utility, at an affordable price point. Oh yeah, since they never had telephone lines coming into their homes for the internets, they went straight to wife eye.

2/5/13 - Ana

I met Ana last year at her place of employment, the ferreteria (Don Perlin’s) where I bought fence-building supplies. Twenty-something, apparently single, and (PC alert!!!) gorgeous. And she was very forgiving of my lack of facility with her language. What’s not to like? We made a little small talk while her boss was putting together my parts order, and, as I recall, she ran out to the car as we were pulling away to make sure I had one of Perlin’s business cards with her number written on the back. Still have that number programmed into my Nica cell phone. Because I might need another parts quote sometime.

One year later, Ana and her boss both recognized me when Juan and I showed up today to get quotes for this year’s project. Her boss didn’t blush, but Ana’s face flushed bright red when she recognized me, and her eyelids flashed open and closed like butterfly wings. And she blushed again when I teased her about blushing. At my age, a notable event. We didn’t get a chance to talk much today, because this time she put the quote together, but she and Sr. Perlin both told Juan they were pleased to see me. Ordinarily, folks are glad to see me go…..

Most Nicas buy cell phone service on a prepaid basis – pay 50 Cordobas (about 2 bucks) for 60 minutes, and when you use that up, go to the pulperia (neighborhood groceria) to buy more time. That’s pretty damn cheap, and they have all kinds of deals that make it cheaper. Por ejemplo: Last year, I bought a cell phone in Rivas for $19, and this year I had to buy a new SIM card for it, because after 11 months of disuse, the number got reassigned to someone else. New SIM Card, 50 Cords. One hour of airtime: 50 Cords. Special activation deal: we’ll triple that to 3 hours airtime, no extra charge. Activation fee: WHAT’S THAT? Sometime this week I’ll get a text message from Claro offering one hour of free international calling for….texting “Claro” (the provider’s name) to: 1800. Seriously. Shitting you not I am. We pay WHAT for cell service?

Speaking of notable events (although this one has nothing to do with my advanced age and is more ironic observation): had a consultation with a local attorney about building permits. He reviewed my title documents, assured me that I own what I think I own (though he had some choice words for the attorney who drafted my Escritura), and outlined the process, including documents I need to provide to the Alcaldia (something like the mayor’s office, registrar of deeds and tax assessor all in one stop). Fee for one hour consultation: Zero Cords (an amount pretty easily converted to dolares). Secondary irony alert: in the VISA ads, they’d call that “priceless.”

2/6/13 – Macalas, pelas y picos

At home I have one of those in-the-refrigerator-door ice dispensers. Press a lever and cubes or crushed ice fill your glass (oh, the choices!). When it’s refill time, it’s a few steps to the fridge, twist the cap off the Flor de Cana, we have refill. Turns out both of my dogs like hielo, one of their favorite chewies. Also turns out that a few cubes usually miss my glass during the refill ritual, so they’ve learned (Pavlov, the sequel) to run to the kitchen whenever the dispenser motor engages. I’m pretty sure they’d just tilt their heads at me and give me the “huh?” look if I asked them, but I’m pretty sure, like me, they’d find under these circumstances no reason to walk to the other end of the beach for ice. But I’m living out of a cooler, I just spent a hard day supervising a crew of guys who did real work, and I needed a couple of cubes for my post-supervisor, post wind-down walk on the beach adult beverage. So walk to the pulperia I did. Drink secured, tonight’s report:

Juan found a local mason/excavador (Iziquel) who quoted us a fair price for the labor required to build the foundation for my Nica bodega/casita and a septic tank. For both projects, a fair amount of digging is first required.

Iziquel and his two assistants started work today. I showed them where I wanted the bodega, cisterna y septica, and Iziquel set the lines. He used the same technique masons use in los estados to define and square the excavation borders, though with much simpler tools: for the corners he used tree branches instead of dimensional lumber stakes, and he used a clear plastic hose filled with water to establish level at each corner instead of a laser line. Because I’m stupid I checked each line using a line level, and his method worked perfectly. On the level and on the square. I spent most of the day simply watching. Got a good base tan, colored bright red. Dr. Lewis won’t be happy with me. Going to need to find a long-sleeved shirt and some aloe vera tomorrow when Juan and I go to Rivas to speak with Ana about cement, sand and gravel.

After setting the lines, Iziquel and his two-man crew started the excavation, a trench around the perimeter of the bodega where they’ll lay a concrete “footer” to support the walls of a 14 by 24 foot estructura (Which we’ll build during my next visit. One piece at a time.). I picked what looked to me to be a relatively level piece of ground for our site. Turns out the difference between the high corner and the low corner is about 2 feet. So much for “level.” Significance: at the “low” corner, Iziquel must dig one foot below grade; at the “high” corner, the footer trench will be three feet deep. At the close of business today, Iziquel assured me that they’ll be done with the bodega excavation tomorrow, and then start to excavate the septico (a six-by-six-by-six foot hole) on Friday.

The crew used three tools for the excavacion: a pico (pickaxe), shovel (pala), and a macala (a two-inch wide chisel mounted on a four-foot long pole. Last year’s readers will remember the macala and pala. For excavation work, both are used just as for fence-post hole digging: the macalero thrusts his tool into the soil to break things up, and the next man clears the space with the pala. Because they’re digging a hole wider and longer than a fence post hole, the pico also gets a lot of use breaking things up. With these rudimentary tools, Iziquel and Co. got an amazing start today.

Refill break, more news to follow whenever time and sobriety permits.

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