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The life of a gringa

June 15, 2011

June 15, 2011: Three and a half weeks down, five and a half to go.

Managua is quite an interesting city. Everyone has very strong opinions about how I should handle the capital, yet they all seem to contradict each other.

In one ear I hear, “Always travel by taxi. But only if they have checkered tape on the side (signaling that they are registered). Try to flag down taxis with another passenger already in it. But not if it is another male. Steer clear of the busses, people get robbed on them every day.”
In the other ear I hear, “Stick to the buses. Taxis are dangerous. Throw elbows to get on, and especially off—otherwise you’ll stand at the bus stop for hours and then ride the bus all day. Always exit in the back. Don’t take the taxis, they will only rip you off and you never know where they’ll take you.”
I have opted for the bus.
Personally, I would rather get robbed than brought to the middle of nowhere by a stranger.
The consequences: Someone stole my rain jacket last week.
My rain jacket (R.I.P. old friend) ranked third in value only after my passport and computer. The rainy season is getting less forgivable every day.
Further preoccupations: Yesterday afternoon a man labeled by the newspapers as “crazy” held up my bus route (no I was not on the bus at the time). He proceeded to rob everyone on the bus until the police showed up and surrounded the vehicle. Everyone was ordered to exit the bus with their hands up, but the man remained, holding the bus driver hostage at gun point. When a police officer attempted to enter the bus and talk with the man, he opened fire on the buss’s gas tank in hopes of blowing it up. Finally, the police shot and killed the man. This happened about a mile past my bus stop.

Some people brag that Managua is the safest Central American capital and that I have nothing to worry about. When I tell them I have worked in Guatemala City for six months, they gasp and ask how I survived the gangs. They assure me that Managua is nothing like Guate. One gringa told me that she has lived in el barrio linda vista (the neighborhood I live in) for five years and has never had a problem. Another gringo warned me that the only place in Nicaragua he has ever been mugged was in el barrio linda vista.
I am reminded never to say hello to anyone even though every person I pass tries to talk to me. The sentences middle-aged men can string together and spout out within seconds never cease to amaze me…“Buenas dias gringita linda, que bonitos tus ojos, mi amor, mi vida, que tal, princesa, a donde vas, adios.” My unfriendliness feels unnatural after spending time in the smaller towns where it is rude not to say hello (or more accurately “adios”) to everyone you pass on the street.

I have found myself struggling to know how to dress. The women here almost always wear skirts, fit tees, and sandals or high heels. The gringos wear cargo pants, t-shirts, and hiking boots or tevas. If I try to fit in with the Nicaraguan women, I get heckled and feel as though even my long skirt is too provocative. If I cover myself, my outfit screams, “I’m a tourist, rob me!” I suppose the moral of the story is that no matter what, I will forever be a gringa, and will forever be heckled.

Okay, enough of the mental tug-of-war. Now for an update on my week.

Last Wednesday through Friday, I went on an accelerated tour of the country with one of my two co-workers, Yamileth. In three days, we spent over 15 hours winding up and down the mountainside on old school busses and visited five different cooperatives that Esperanza en Acción works with. We inspected and purchased jewelry, pottery, and soap stone figurines to bring back to the shop in Managua, and to export to the US and Canada. It was amazing to see each individual working on the crafts that seem ordinary when we see them in a row of 10 identical others just like it.

The women artisans were passionate about their work and about pleasing the foreign market. As an American consumer, the women pestered me with questions about how they can improve their products to appeal to my kind. Unfortunately, my response was one that left them slightly confused and without a strong sense of what I meant. The key word being creativity.

Forgive me if the following description is a broad generalization and/or makes little to no sense. I have been pondering about this a lot recently, but am not quite sure how to put it into words yet.

Nicaraguan education (formal and informal) is often direct, definitive, and career-oriented. Schools are meant to prepare students to make money, to do one thing, and to do it well, and to repeat that thing for the rest of their lives. Within the context of third-world society, this makes perfect sense. Most people are just trying to get by. This is in comparison to privileged US universities where we are taught to use our imaginations, broaden our possibilities, think of the unthinkable and to babble about theoretical bullshit. We attend liberal arts colleges and often study intangible ideas, or topics with potentially no relation to our future careers (says the Latin American Studies major dating a religious studies major).

The Nicaraguan artisans that I have met often copy “safe,” simple patterns. For example, soap stone figurines of two bodies intertwined to form a heart, or a bracelet whose beads spell “peace.” This leads to an international pool of almost identical, seemingly mindless or factory made products.
On the contrary, the Bobo—Bohemian Bourgeoisie—market is in search of the unique, the exotic (I encourage you all to go to the library and pick up a copy of Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks, or at least Wikipedia it). We want our living rooms to state our individuality. We want our clay plate to have a stray blemish that proves that its creator is human just like the rest of us and makes mistakes. We want our coffee mug’s handle to be a bit crooked. These quirks give our possessions character. The last thing we want is to go to our neighbor’s house and see that they have the same textile hanging on the wall.

My job here is to be a culture broker (yes Professor Donna Perry I am using your anthropology buzz words). To make connections between rural villages and the global market, and to inform the artisans how fair trade consumers think. So, what do I tell these women? I can’t teach them how to think for themselves in a two-hour visit. They want concrete suggestions and new patterns. I want them to create their own patterns and ideas. They want to create 100 pairs of identical earrings, I suggest trying a new shape.

My co-worker recently told me, “No design is original.” Perhaps she is right.
I should know better than to try to control the market.

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