Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seeing Costa Rica

Below, a few glimpses from this truly rich coast of gorgeous land. So far, we've visited the Montevideo cloud forests (first three) and the Rincon de la Vieja National Park. More to come...

Friday, March 25, 2011


Where has this been all my life? On Robin MacArthur's incredible blog (in her words):

I was born in a half-finished house in the woods and named after the bird that sang through the open window. Thus: woodbird. Now I live up the road from that house, in another one surrounded by trees, in a region where the winters are phenomenally long and the summers heart-breakingly short. Woodbird is an attempt at connectivity. An attempt to penetrate the trees and the darkness. An attempt to engage in and initiate dialogue about landscape, community, home, Vermont, belonging, and unbelonging; a place to investigate beauty, spread the word about good things, and best of all, connect with like-minded souls, wherever they may be. I thank you for being here.

Robin, I admire you so much.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

One way to see the memories...

How much Dina Aunty relished her memories. Mummy and Daddy were the same, talking about their yesterdays and smiling in that sad-happy way while selecting each picture, each frame from the past, examining it lovingly before it vanished again in the mist. But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be re-created - not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

So what was the point of possessing memory? It didn't help anything. In the end it was all hopeless...no amount of remembering the happy days, no amount of yearning or nostalgia could change a thing about the misery and suffering - love and concern and caring came to nothing, nothing.

Everything ended badly, and memory only made it worse, tormenting and taunting. Unless. Unless you lost your mind...the slate wiped clean. No more remembering, no more suffering.

Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Road that Goes Around

I swim before there's anyone else down there, before the communal coffee has been brewed, before the front-desk lady shows up. The waves in this lake are highest in the morning and in the evening, and so even as I try to coordinate my breaststrokes with the bobbing water, I constantly get splashed in the face. I climb up onto the dock, which rocks wildly, and I look all around me; far in the distance, someone is paddling a kayak. I imagine their tilting, flailing craft.

I write in the open kitchen. How's your work coming along? the South African guy asks, but other than that he's careful not to disturb me. Tired of rice and broccoli and carrots, I splurge and buy a Snickers. God, it has been so long since I've tasted something that good. I eat it way too fast. I imagine the maids, who are perched up on the stone wall at the top of the hill, snickering at me as I lick chocolate from my fingers and wipe a fleck of it from my keyboard.

When I get tired of writing I walk to the tienda, down the dusty, dusty road that goes around the island. I pass a woman tossing water onto the ground from a bucket, I guess so that when a rare car passes it will swirl up less dirt, but I could have told her that the heat will dry up those splashes so quick that her work won't make any difference. I almost don't notice a little boy standing in a tree along the road. He wears a red shirt and is sucking his thumb, thirty feet up, perched there like a bird. I wave. He frowns and says nothing.

The man at the tienda has three cantaloupes lined up on his counter. How much, I ask him, drawing one up to my nose, and when I smell how sweet it is, feel how soft and round and warm it is in my hand, I know that the price doesn't matter. I will buy it; I love it. Cantaloupes in American supermarkets are so big, so firm, so uniform in their spherical shapes; I like how small and lumpy this one is.

On the walk back, a little dusty girl appears from behind one of the lakeside gates. Her hair is all messed up from the water and wind and she throws mangoes at me. I pick one up and throw it back, softly, and she laughs and hides. I like that dusty girl. A cab passes, a little red cab that I can't believe is shiny on this dry, dry road. Alongside it runs a dog, a dog that looks like it's been in many fights, a dog that barks and yips and jumps and then gives up on its game and stops to look at me. You'd better be careful, I tell it. You might get hit someday.

When I return to the hostel, I put my cantaloupe in the fridge in the open kitchen, and then I look at myself in the mirror that someone has tacked over the sink. I look dusty, just like that little girl with the mangoes, and my hair is all blown around. There's a blob of dried toothpaste on my shirt, right under my boob. I wonder how long it's been there; I wore this shirt yesterday, too. I decide not to change it. I walk down to the shore to look at the waves.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011



Congratulations to Mary Ruefle; her amazing poem, Glory, has won the 2011 William Carlos Williams Award. I'm proud to know Ruefle from my time at Vermont College. Give yourself the gift of reading Glory, below.


The autumn aster, those lavender ones,

and the dark-blooming sedum

are beginning to bloom in the rainy earth

with the remote intensity of a dream. These thing

stake over. I am a glorifier, not very high up

on the vocational chart, and I glorify everything I see,

everything I can think of. I want ordinary men and women,

brushing their teeth, to feel the ocean in their mouth.

I am going to glorify the sink with toothpaste spat in it.

I am going to say it's a stretch of beach where the foam

rolls back and leaves little shells. Ordinary people

with a fear of worldly things, illness, pain, accidents,

poverty, of dark, of being alone, of misfortune.

The fears of everyday life. People who quietly and secretly

bear their dread, who do not speak freely of it to others.

People who have difficulty separating themselves

from the world around them, like a spider hanging

off the spike of a spider mum, in an inland autumn,

away from the sea, away from that most unfortunate nation

where people are butterballs dying of meat and drink.

I want to glorify the even tinier spiders in the belly of the spider

and in the closed knot of the mum's corolla, so this is likely

to go on into winter. Didn't I say we were speaking of autumn

with the remote intensity of a dream? The deckle edge of a cloud:

blood seeping through a bandage. Three bleached beech leaves

hanging on a twig. A pair of ruined mushrooms. The incumbent

snow. The very air. The imported light. All autumn struggling

to be gay, as people do in the midst of their woe.

I met a psychic who told me my position in the universe

but could not find the candy she hid from her grandkids.

The ordinary fear of losing one's mind. You rinse the sink,

walk out into the October sunshine, and look for it

by beginning to think. That's when I saw the autumn aster,

the sedum blooming in a purple field. The psychic said

I must see the word glory emblazoned on my chest. Secretly

I was hoping for a better word. I would have chosen for myself

an ordinary one like orchid or paw.

Something that would have no meaning in the astral realm.

One doesn't want to glorify everything. What might I actually say

when confronted with the view from K2? I'm not sure

I would say anything? What's your opinion?

You're a man with a corona in your mouth,

a woman with a cottonball in her purse,

what's your conception of the world?

Writing Retreat

I need some peace and quiet, I decide. I need some time to write, some time to think, some time away from all the noise and the merciless heat of Granada. I need a room to myself, a quiet desk, maybe a view of the water, certainly a view of some trees. I think about going to Ometepe, that island that the Lonely Planet calls magical, but the four-hour ferry to get there, the thirty-minute cab ride, the huge array of eco-hostels and hippy hotels listed on Trip Advisor; it all leaves me exhausted, just thinking about it. I should go to Ometepe, I reason with myself, at least just to see it, but then I realize that, for now, I am tired of seeing things, tired of traipsing around with my heavy pack, getting off and on boats, in and out of taxis. So I choose El Paradiso, a little hostel thirty minutes from Granada on the shores of the Apoyo Lagoon. A German boy I meet in Granada tells me it's his favorite place in the world, and so the next morning I pack my bags, trusting him, and I go there.

And so this is my gift to myself: a room with slatted windows and a hard double bed and red-brick floors. A breeze that blows straight off the lake onto my body when I'm sleeping. A little desk and a faulty plug, a broken fan, a twenty-dollar price tag for each night I'm here. A small, open kitchen with free vegetable oil and salt and pepper and use of the stove and fridge. A shared bathroom with brick half-walls and a shower with water heated by the sun. The lake, which tastes a little salty because a river flows into it straight from the sea. When I am tired of writing, I put on my swimsuit and walk down the stone path to the shore; I drop my towel onto a chair and swim out, bobbing in the high waves, to the little dock two hundred feet out. This lake reminds me of camp, those summers so long ago when I was just a little girl. The water smells just the same, and the ladder is greasy with moss, just as it was back then. I climb up onto it and lie on the sun-bleached boards, look up into the cloudless sky, and in my peripheral vision I can see the trees around me and the little hills that rise up. This lake was formed by a volcano, and it's so deep now that I don't even want to think about it, lying here on its surface. From the shore, the maids watch me swim out, then pick my way back in along the rocky shore, wringing out my hair and wrapping my towel tight around me against the wind.

On the first day I am happy with the one conversation I have; I meet a couple, the man South African, the woman Irish, who have been traveling for two years already. They make my four months in Central America seem like child's play, even though of course they never say that out loud. They tell me about Burma, the way the people there never tried to sell them a thing, only wanted to learn about their culture and to look at their maps. They share their rum with me, pouring it into a pink plastic cup and adding Fanta, warning me jokingly never to tell anyone that I consumed it, since they brought it illicitly from Cuba. I finish my dinner of rice and broccoli and carrots cooked on the little stove, and the rum helps me to sleep deep and long in the hard bed, the wind pouring through my slatted window, all night long.

While I'm preparing my breakfast the next morning, the South African guy shows me the cantaloupe he found at the little tienda down the street. They have pineapple, too, he says, and splits open the prickly fruit to reveal its stringy white meat. He offers me some. This couple is kind, I say to myself, and the pineapple is sweet on my tongue. At lunchtime, I walk to the tienda myself, down the dusty dirt road that connects all the homes and hotels that ring the Apoyo Lagoon. They have run out of pineapple there, so I buy bananas and eggs and a can of beer instead, and when I walk home the only person I see is a guy on a motorbike who turns his head to look at me as he drives by, his lips pursued in a kiss.

By dinner I begin to miss talking. I crave conversation, and I wonder where that couple has gone to. I swim as the sun is setting; the waves have gotten higher, and the maids warn me to be careful. But the water is still so warm from the sun, and even when I emerge covered in goosebumps, I know that that deep, round lake is good for my soul. It's good for my mind. I drink the can of beer I bought at the tienda and I look out onto the water and into the sky, which is turning pink. I can see beehives high up in the trees.

For dinner, I fix more rice, more broccoli, more carrots; I boil potatoes, I heat a tortilla, I do without salt. I find myself thinking of home, thinking of that pale maple table in my mother's kitchen, and the way my father, my mother, my brother and I each sat in the same seat every night, years ago when we still all lived together. I realize I can't think about them, sitting there in that open, empty kitchen with my plate of rice before me, without feeling tears form in my eyes. I hear a cat crying from somewhere in the woods and I know I can't let myself think of my own cat, either, thousands of miles away in a big, fun house with a basement and a drafty garage to play in. (I know my parents let her in there, even though I told them before I left that it wasn't allowed.) I bite my lip, wash my plate, and take out my book to read, because it's the closest thing I feel like I have right now to a friend.

I wonder how people do it, two or three months at those writing retreats in Vermont or Maine or Colorado. I haven't felt this lonely for a while, even as the water in the lake, the trees that surround it, the smell of the water, all remind me so acutely of home. I am so close, and yet I'm so far away. I look over at my empty, unmade bed and I wish, ridiculously, that I were nine years old and vacationing in Nova Scotia with my parents again, sharing a drafty hotel room with my brother, my parents just across the hall. It's been so long since I've thought of that trip, those miles covered in the old minivan, the dog left for the week with the neighbors. It's been so long since I've thought of a lot of things: those summers at camp, Kendra's grandmother's dock in Maine, the way pine needles carpet the floor of an Adirondack woods, the view from my childhood bedroom in summer. I thought this would be my writing retreat, but more than anything it's served, so far, as a time of forced memories. The things that come into my head here are the ones that have been waiting, just waiting, for a stretch of time that only the sound of the wind and the waves might fill. Without the noise of cars, of friends, of chores, I have to look myself in the face, because there aren't any buffers here. I see the water, the table, the bed, and I think of a million things that, for so long, have kept themselves hidden. I think of those things, I write them down, I try not to blink, I try not to weep. And at the end of this day I am grateful, because God, I am lucky. After all, these memories, these sweet little moments that pour in through the cracks in the walls; they are the things that have built me a life, and here is this time to hold them in my hands again.

Respeto, respeto.

(For Katie)

Lois introduced me to Katie during my first week in Granada—spunky, eighty-three-year old Lois, who I first met at the opening readings of the Nicaraguan Poetry Festival. Although Lois had no luck in matching me with the attractive Chilean man she’d also befriended that night, she brought me Katie, my only real friend during these six weeks I’ve spent in Granada. In a town overrun by French guys arguing over the price of a beer and American guys shouting to each other across the hostel where I rented a room, Katie’s friendship was a gift, and meeting her for wine on the Calle Calzada has helped to keep me sane in this heat that’s enough to drive you mad, and in this city that’s so far from home.

Katie’s an attorney. She spent four years in DC working for the proverbial man, selling her soul to pay off her loans, cooped up for long days and even longer nights in her office, scanning documents, writing up outlines, presenting evidence to her partners. She did what she could—buying herself massages in precious free hours, or paying obscene amounts for laser hair removal—to keep herself from going mad. She still doesn’t know whether it was worth it, she admits to me one night as we sip wine at an outdoor cafe and watch street performers throw sticks of fire up into the air. All those missed holidays, missed birthdays, abandoned vacations, fizzled relationships—at least now she’s here, here in Nicaragua, thousands of miles from all of that madness, trying each day to forget that price she paid.

Specifically, she has a contract with the Pan American Health Organization; she’s working to gather research on women’s sports in the developing world, specifically in Nicaragua. These days, she can wake up with the sun; she has time for the gym and for dinners with friends, or for mini-vacations when her boyfriend comes down to visit. She’s been here since September, and her work includes going to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, every few days to meet with government representatives who inevitably show up quite late, or cut the meeting short, or arrive without having prepared what she had asked them, many times, to prepare. Truthfully, all I know for sure is that Katie has been assigned this research on how women’s sports work down here, how teams are formed in schools and what hinders girls from pursing athletics, and she must present her findings this fall. If you want more information on the loftier, legal aspects of her work, you’ll have to ask her, because we don’t discuss those broad findings, or what they might mean for the Nicaraguan Constitution or the decisions the Pan American Health Organization will ultimately make from their Washington headquarters. What we discuss, Katie and I, are the crazy meetings she has; the incredible reluctance she encounters everywhere when it comes to examining and fostering women’s sports; the rampant sexism; the unbelievable mockery that comes when a women steps up to bat.

Katie has met a few times with Peter, an American guy who has lived in Granada for years and who has invested his considerable US-made fortune in a local school. He started small, with practical incentives for teachers and students, as well as strong disciplinary policies, and his school has grown into something that’s really successful. Katie came to him, I suspect, because her work was moving slowly, because her meetings in Managua could be like meetings with pieces of furniture, and because she is a motivated, very bright woman who desires some kind of measurable result for her time here. A packet of research will not be enough, and so she got Peter to help her recruit girls at his school for a softball team. Starting a team, Katie thought, was one great way to put her research into action. She attended their second practice on Saturday.

It was like all my research was thrown at me, she tells me the other night, of that practice. All the things that keep women from playing sports, I saw firsthand. Once again, we’re sipping wine, watching the street performers throw their fire and dance around on stilts. I wish I were a writer, so I could write something beautiful and funny about what happened, but I’m not. So she just tells me about the practice, which lasted three hours—way too long—Katie says, and took place on a hot, hot field in the middle of the morning. Although the girls were told by their coach to wear shorts, they all showed up in dark skinny-jeans and flip flops and tight, revealing shirts, their hair slicked back, their faces made up. Two girls, Katie tells me, wore gladiator sandals. No one arrived on time, and by 8:45—forty-five minutes after the practice was to begin—only ten of the twenty-five team members had shown up. Katie had arrived at eight, in shorts and sneakers and athletic socks, her hair tied back. There were so many things about that day, she tells me, laughing, drinking, leaning back in her chair. So many ridiculous things.

The first thing was the field. Some boys had already gotten to the field that the girls were meant to use, and they shouted that those girls needed to find somewhere else. That somewhere else ended up meaning a grubby old patch of dirt without bases, without stands, and without shade, and by the time the girls made it ambled over, they were already sweating and complaining. So there was the field, the space, and no questions asked when the boys took over, even though use of that place had been slotted for the girls.

The second thing was the stretching—the coach instructed the girls to swing their arms, shake their legs, move their necks back and forth—and the girls complained that they were in pain. For me, Katie says, stretching is like a massage, easy and deep and relaxing, but for them, it means using their bodies in a way they never have. Sure, they’ve carried their little siblings around on their hips, they’ve lifted buckets of water and baskets of food, but they’ve never moved their limbs for the sake of just moving them, warming up, shaking the muscles just to get the blood moving. That was the second thing.

The third thing was the coach. In the States, Katie explains, coaches are your friends. They are on your side—yes, they could be tough, but they also want to help you. This coach, a middle-aged Nicaraguan guy, screamed at the girls when they missed a pitch, fumbled a catch, ran too slow. What’s wrong with you! He would roar. I told you to do it this way! Don’t you listen? It took all Katie had not to pounce on him, start pounding on his chest, and demand what, in fact was wrong with him. That was the third thing, that awful coach, and the fourth thing was the team of hecklers. Boys from the high school sidled up to the edge of the field to whistle and shout at the girls, to flirt with them, to distract them, to ask each other why girls would ever want to play softball, and then to ask the girls themselves why, as Nicaraguans, they couldn’t throw a decent pitch. The girls grew dusty, sweaty, their hair sticking to their foreheads, and not a single one had brought a bottle of water. The coach screamed at them for that, too.

When the drunk fifteen-year-old staggered over, Katie thought she might break. He was the worst of all the hecklers, with a forty in his hand and a loud, arrogant voice. You throw like girls! He screamed, and when Katie told him to leave, he told her to chill out. Relax, blondie, what’s the problem? Don’t be crazy. For the second time that morning, Katie wanted to explode, wanted to use her fists on that drunk kid, but she took a deep breath and told him she was in charge here, and if he didn’t leave, she’d call the cops. (A lie, she adds, sipping from her glass and grinning. I wasn’t in charge, and anyway, the cops would never come.) Finally, he staggered away, probably to go do drugs somewhere else. Katie smiled when she told me the story, but I could picture her shaking fists, her blood growing hot, hot beneath that merciless sun and that young, drunk boy’s sloppy stare.

Katie taught the girls to learn each other’s names so they could cheer for each other. She let the coach handle the group pep-talks, and went instead to each girl. You’re doing great, she told them all. You’re doing great. By the end of practice, the girls were having fun, they had made friends, and maybe a few will come back next Saturday, Katie hopes. One practice a week isn’t enough, but on the weekdays the mothers need their girls to help with the housework—they say that even three hours on a Saturday morning is a lot. Maybe next week a few will be wearing shorts, a few extra girls will show up, and maybe the boys will get tired of coming around. Maybe, Katie says, practice won’t always be in that horrible heat, on that dirty field, and maybe the girls won’t always be sexually harassed and screamed at. But probably, at least for the time being, they will.


I’ve stopped seeing the charm of this place, Katie tells me as the sun sets on Granada. She sips her red wine and leans back in her chair. All I can think about these days are the guys that I know are going to harass me—on the corner, in front of the post office, across from the pulperia near my apartment. I’m sick of telling them whatever comes into my head—Shut your mouth! What’s your f-ing problem! Show some respect! She takes another sip of wine and laughs, but you can tell that those guys really get to her. I haven’t been in Granada long enough to feel that same resentment, and anyway, my Spanish isn’t good enough to ask for respect the way she does. I don’t yet know how to curse.

For months, Katie considered herself unrecognizable, just another gringa face on the street, talking back. But the other day she overheard a few guys muttering about her as she passed. Don’t bother with her, she heard one tell the other, and the guys leaned back on the steps of the Church of San Francisco and kept quiet. As Katie walked away, she heard the guy add, Respeto, Respeto. She’s always looking for respeto. I can’t help but laugh at that one. Katie, the respect-demanding gringa, the one who stands on the softball field in her shorts and sneakers and threatens to call the cops. I love this girl for that. She drains her glass of red wine and orders another from the cute waiter who, by day, is her personal trainer. Guess they know me now, she laughs, brushing away one of the street vendors who stops at our table to try and sell us a hammock. Cheap price, very cheap, he tells her, crooning, and she rolls her eyes skyward.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Writing the Rain

The sound of the rain on the roof; finally, finally. The birds get noisy in the eaves of buildings, on the rooftops, and from where they are scratching at the thirsty earth. I imagine that are calling for each other, cooing, chirping. Outside, those big drops on the leaves, and now there is thunder rolling above, which sounds like a jet crossing the sky. Dogs begin to bark in the streets I cannot see. The rain comes in waves, first heavy, then light, according to the strength of the wind.

I open the tall blue doors to my room and look out. The smell of the newly wet earth leaches inside. I can see water on the leaves of the banana tree, and the scattered drops on the little stoop. Good; the earth is the color of coffee.

And just as quick as it comes, it is gone. Now all that's left of the rain is the scent of wet earth, fresh and filled with gratitude.


El sonido de la lluvia sobre el techo; finalmente, finalmente. Las aves crecen ruidoso adentro los aleros, sobre los techos, y desde el césped, donde se están rascando la tierra sedienta. Imagino que les están llamando para el uno al otro. Están arrullo; están canto, y afuera, esas gotas encima de las hojas. Ahorita, hay trueno ondulado, y lo suena como un azabache, cruzando el cielo. Los perros empiezan a gritar en los calles que yo no puedo ver, y la lluvia, esta lluvia, lo esta las olas, ahora fuerte, ahora suave, siempre acordemente de la fuerza del viento.

Las puertas azules de altura, yo abrió. Miro afuera. La huela de la tierra mojada filtra adentro. Yo puedo ver agua sobre las hojas del árbol de banano, y las gotas sobre el veranda pequeña. Buena; la tierra esta el color de café.

Pero tan pronto como llega, se lo ha ido. Ahora, todo lo que queda de la lluvia esta el huelo de la tierra, fresca y lleno de gratitud.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Seeing Leon

Hopefully these photos will give you a taste of Leon, Granada's rival city, located three hours north of here. I went there yesterday, stayed the night, and returned today. I loved Leon! It was funky, political, and mellow, at least on the weekend. I found some great colors, some great museums, some amazing food, and some really beautiful wall art. Enjoy!

The following three were taken at the excellent, albeit run-down, Museum of the Revolution.

And on a lighter note, I shall leave you with these lovely ladies, who I found in the market, directly behind the holy cathedral. God bless this nation seeped in Catholicism.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

To my Parents, who will appreciate this.

In a shop window, I saw a Philips poster announcing the arrival of a new messiah, the TV set. Some predicted that this peculiar contraption was going to change our lives forever and turn us all into creatures of the future, like the Americans. Fermin Romero de Torres, always up to date on state-of-the-art technology, had already prophesied a grimmer outcome.

"Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own. Humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era. Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say - it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that."

- Excerpted from The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The novel takes place in 1950's Barcelona.

It's a beautiful book! And a clever one.

Ruiz Zafón/listal.com