Cholera. Malaria. Dengue Fever. Leishmaniasis. Hepatitis. Rabies. These are the greatest health risks for traveling to Nicaragua, according to the U.S. State Department’s Center for Disease Control. They don’t mention the most debilitating disease in the world, the one my friend, Patty, suffers from watching her father wither under Alzheimer’s – loneliness. I can cure this. Before leaving, I am vaccinated against Tetanus and Hepatitis A. If you don’t get bitten by a mosquito, you won’t get malaria, a cheerful preventative medicine pamphlet tells me. My doctor starts me on Chloroquine Phosphate, anti-malaria medication, two weeks before my trip, just in case. It should be taken for six weeks total (including two following my return to the States.) Armed with modern medicine, I head to Central America.
Stepping off the plane at eleven in the evening, my hair curls and sweat forms in a pool in the center of my back. Under my breath I breathe, “Whew, it’s hot.” A woman behind me says, “Get ready for the daytime because this is NOTHING!”
It’s dark and rainy on the flight from El Salvador to Managua, so I keep my window closed and try not to think about it. People speak lively Spanish with each other and my ears catch about every third word. The ride gets bumpy and everyone becomes really quiet right before landing. Thunder and lightning come quicker and quicker while the wind challenges our pilot. He wins with a big bounce of the plane followed by a smooth landing. Everyone cheers and claps and yells “Amen!” while making the sign of the cross. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Patty is waving from behind Uzi-armed guards and a glass wall. Her hair is long, black and shiny as always, and her big smile overwhelms her thinning face. It’s still beautiful. Her once voluptuous figure is gone. She drives us back to her house aggressively, and I notice she’s not stopping at red lights. She says when she first moved back, a policeman pulled her over and told her a woman shouldn’t drive alone at night. She told him she has to sometimes because she’s taking care of her ailing father.
“If you have to, then never stop at a stop sign or red light,” he told her. “And think about buying a gun.”
There are bandits who carjack and rob. The roads are rough, even in the main city of Managua, and most don’t have street signs or names. No doubt the result of “the big earthquake” of 1972, the revolution in 1979, ten years of communism, and most recently, Hurricane Mitch. Patty’s mailing address is – four meters west of the Department of Defense. White house. #4. Managua.
White house #4 is a white bungalow with iron bars over the windows and garage door. It’s long and narrow inside and smells like mothballs. She calls this “the little house” because they still own the big one she grew up in, but have been renting it out to tenants since her dad got sick.
After we turn off the lights, a loud clucking comes from inside my room and all over the house. I yell to Patty, “What is that noise?” She says, “It’s the lizards. They come out at night. Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you.” Lizards! There had been no government warnings about lizards. I yell back, “I’m scared.” She giggles. I get up and run to turn on the light just in time to see a little white thing with red eyes scampering across the ceiling. Oh well, if they want to crawl into my mouth while I sleep, I figure there’s nothing I can do about it.
Every day starts with a cold shower, as there is no hot water in the house. Even though Patty’s family is better off than most before the war (they were doctors), she says even rich people don’t bother buying hot water heaters. Patty offers cornflakes for breakfast, but the milk has to be boiled to get bacteria out of it, so I choose a bagel and guava jelly.
Instead of going to the bank to change my money into local currency, Patty takes me down some side streets where men stand all day changing dollars for Cordovas and vice-versa, right out of huge wads from their dirty jean pockets. They scan the road from side to side. It feels pretty shady but she swears this is the way to get the best exchange rate. I have to believe her.
My first day is spent at Volcï¿½n Masaya. Estranjeros pay more than locals to get in to the National Park built around the volcano. It turns out to be well worth the forty cordovas (about US$5.50). Blue sky and fake white clouds are the backdrop to nature’s painting. The volcano’s giant, gray elephant torso rises out of dense forests of oak, pine, cedar, balsam, mahogany, rosewood, wild rubber trees and violets. There are at least one hundred shades of green here. Hummingbirds flit by our heads. Patty and I stand at the edge of the volcano’s mouth, staring into the sulphuric steam oozing over us as wind whips our hair into one another’s faces.
Later we take a rickety boatride around Las Isletas – 365 tiny volcanic islands, with a single little house on many of them, all in the middle of Lake Cocibola. Cocibola, better known as Lake Nicaragua, houses what they think are the only freshwater sharks in the world, though I don’t see any. Some of the islands have a few trees and twisted vines covering them. Small realtor signs on others remind me this won’t stay untouched forever. One island has a plaque and a crumbling nineteenth century fort with part of a cannon on it.
A skinny gray monkey swings from a tree while we’re heading back. We drive to Granada, which is supposed to be one of the oldest colonies in Central America. The homes were built in the 1800s. Some look like Civil War buildings from Gettysburg or Virginia, with machine-gun holes in their sides instead of cannon damage. We eat at a fancy old hotel, outdoors on the patio. My vegetarian diet and fear of the water limits my choices, but I still get very full on fried plantains, salty fried cheese, rice and beans (pinto gallo) and some tasty salsa-like stuff the locals call chilli.
Two boys wander up to us as we sip strong Margaritas like ladies of leisure. They ask us to buy gum and handmade bracelets. The waiter starts to shoo them away but Patty and I talk with them. I give one boy the rest of my bottled water and Patty gives him her leftover food. The shirtless older boy looks about twelve. He tells us he’s sixteen. He is fascinated with my tattoo, and shows me his – a huge simple skull and crossbones on his upper arm. The younger boy, probably eight years old, sees me using my antibacterial lotion and asks for some. I squeeze a drop onto his little hand and he rubs it up and down his arms, asking Patty, “Will this make me white, like her?” He has sores on his lips and Patty tells me these are burns from sniffing glue. She says they do that to keep from being hungry.
On the drive home, we run into a protest – a march against the current president – who, according to the protestors, is just as corrupt as the last. It looks like a very serious parade. Most marchers wear black bandanas around the lower halves of their faces. Some wave the Nicaraguan flag. A few boys, no more than ten years old, carry hand-made guns. I add political demonstrations to my mental list of travel treacheries just as Patty says, “This is good. You used to not be allowed to protest or say anything against the government. This is progress.”
It rains hard as soon as we get home. I finally meet her dad. He is little, bald and wearing glasses. He looks like Ghandi, well-dressed. He is sitting in his rocking chair in front of a television blaring “The Simpsons” with Spanish voice-over. She hugs and kisses him thousands of times and gets little response. She introduces me but he hardly knows I’m there. There’s a nurse with him at all times and she gives Patty an update on how he’s been while we were out. There are no old folks’ homes, that’s why Patty’s here. It’s too expensive for him to get care in the U.S. and she wants him to die in his own home.
She is giving up a good job, a fiance, and maybe even her newly-won green card to be here. “He can easily live another five years at the rate he’s going!” she laughs bitterly. I agree. She hired a maid and nurses help with his care. She did everything herself at first but couldn’t handle changing his diapers and bathing him on top of all of the other responsibilities. Santa Patricia.
The next two weeks are day-trips to the crowded public market, lunches in local restaurants and visits to Patty’s relatives. They all live in low houses with large square holes cut out of the ceiling for the rain to pour in. In one, eight rocking chairs are placed in a circle around the square floor of earth directly below the rain hole, and we all sit rocking. Kids run around while the men joke about their fat bellies, and people walk in off the street directly to their kitchen to buy Nacatamales – Nicaraguan tamales wrapped in giant green plantain leaves. They’re filled with pork. I wonder if I can just eat the leaf.
On one of our drives out we’re stuck in traffic. A guy comes up to the window holding a monkey, who is collared and chained to the man’s hand. I rush to roll down the window. Patty says no – they have fleas- which spread typhus and plague. I keep the window rolled up, staring into the animal’s bulging, innocent brown eyes.
One day we drive an hour north to Pochomil, a beautiful deserted beach. I swim and try eating rice and beans from a local merchant, but the beans taste like pork, so I don’t eat too much. Emaciated dogs gather around our little table near the beach, while two pre-teenaged kids bring matted ponies up to us, asking if we want rides. Patty jokes and shooes them away. I lay my beans in foil on the ground for the dogs and the hacienda owner comes out yelling while the kids laugh. “They don’t want you to feed the dogs.” Patty states the obvious. “They’re like rats here and people don’t want them around.” Yes, we are in the Third World. Why feed stray dogs when kids are hustling pony rides? I’m an idiot.
We take a ferry over to Omotepe, two volcanoes that form an island. We’re going with Patty’s cousin and a group of his friends from Rivas, a coastal town. No one speaks English, so I quietly observe at first. They all pour rum and Cokes on the boat and things get louder. These government workers talk about their hope for Nicaragua’s improving tourism industry. I think of the McDonald’s and Holiday Inn we drove by in Managua and wonder if that is progress. Will every green leaf eventually be gone?
We reach land just as night takes over. We grab our backpacks and pile into the bed of a waiting pick-up truck for a fast, bumpy ride through town – screaming with every bounce. My fingers hurt from holding on so hard and my butt leaves the seat with every pothole. People step outside of their storefronts, waving and screaming back. Everyone inside and out is celebrating – what, I don’t know. Patty’s smile is the biggest I’ve ever seen. Even though I’m scared, I don’t want it to end.
We mosey back to Managua along the coast, dodging beautiful amber floppy-eared cows, people on rickety bicycles, people walking shirtless and shoeless in the pouring rain. I am in love with the cows. They’re huge, as in tall, and skinny like the cows in India, with giant dewey eyes and nostrils like coffee cups. Their hair is short and they come in black, warm browns and beiges. I want to pet one but Patty says they can be mean. They wander everywhere, and all traffic stops if one or two happen to be on the road. No honking. People just talk and eat and wait casually, Nica-style, until they leave. I ask how can they just roam like this and Patty says they belong to farmers who own land on either side of the roads. The farmers are not far off but I never see anyone, and wonder how they don’t get stolen.
Dogs run wild here. Homeless. Ownerless. Scavenging for anything. Surprised if you pay attention or try to pet them.
This morning we drive north to Leon. A tourist brochure made it look ancient and elegant, but it’s old and run down. It’s Patty’s first time here, too. Ruben Dario is buried here. He has a poem that says something about this land “trembling with hurricanes and trembling with love.” The insides of the churches look better than everything else, and the outsides are decaying elegance. The doors to churches are all wide open so you can see the masses going on.
We watch a boxing match between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield via pay-per-view at a friend of Juan Carlos. Ten of us gather on a big porch around a gigantic television broadcasting the fight. People eat tortilla chips and salsa and American potato chips and pretzels all night – drinking, talking and stopping occasionally to yell at the television. At least ten armed guards stand at every corner of the property throughout the party. Their Shepherds are the only domesticated-looking dogs I see on this whole trip. They’re clean and fluffy. Healthy-looking. But they don’t look friendly, just like the guards.
Seems like the people with money here all have government jobs, like the owner of the house who works for the Department of Tourism and owns the Chinese restaurant Juan works at. He says food delivery is the hot new thing in Managua now. His wife is a gracious hostess in heavy make-up and bleached blond hair. Their kids are in bed, she tells me. She doesn’t speak English very well but a guy who does wants to talk all night about anything and everything he can think of. I don’t know who won the fight.
I notice my arms are sunburned just before my plane ride home. About an hour into the ride, I realize my sunburn is actually a rash that’s quickly making its way over my entire body. I am hot and cold, hot and cold, over and over again. I didn’t drink the water, taste any ceviche, touch monkeys, pet dogs, swim with sharks, or get shot while in Nicaragua. Why am I suffering now? Am I dying of malaria? I can’t wait to get back to the States, land of good plumbing and clean hospitals.
At my local Urgent Care they give me Ibuprofen to bring the fever down and topical cream for the rash. Doctors run every sort of test available to find out what I have. They’re going to get to the bottom of this, they promise. I assure them I didn’t eat or drink anything I should not have. I was careful. I was good. In three days, the fever is gone but the rash is worse. The third doctor I see suggests I stop the anti-malaria medications. The rash disappears immediately. They say I had an adverse reaction per the small print on the bottle. Betrayed by my superpower’s pharmacology, betrayed by my body, and betrayed by my faith in modern man’s medical establishment, eventually I find comfort in chocolate ice cream, and the relief in knowing that at least I don’t have malaria.