Today in my Ulysses class, Professor Sherry spoke for a moment about Joyce's use of the word Nostos. It's a Greek word, meaning return, or homecoming. It's most common modern relative is nostalgia , which literally translates as the pain of forgetting. It made me think of the time I've spent in Nicaragua over the years: every summer, six years in a row, I would spend about a week and a half to two weeks in a northern village. I wrote a reflection earlier this semester about one summer in which I spent a bigger chunk of time there, and I've pasted it below with photos I took that summer. These were the only ones of hundreds I could find on my computer right now–I wish I had a few of the landscape, or the hacienda.
This is it. I whisper the words softly to myself, standing on a rocky, muddy overlook. Beneath me is a vast sea of green in a lush crater, a scar in the earth. There is a wind that ruffles my hair, and dries the sweat on my brow and neck, strong enough to make my eyelashes flutter. The trees below pulse in a fecund organized dance, leaves tossing in a shimmer. Beyond the green, there are mountains–a pale slate blue from the distance. I am in Nuevo Segovia, a region in the far north of Nicaragua, which is in Central America, which is a long way from my home. I turn around, and I can just make out the roof of the hacienda, the structure I am staying in. It is the central building for the community of Plan Grande Dos, a group of three hundred or so Nicaraguans (or Nicas, as we refer to them). I have been here for three weeks, though only in Plan Grande for two of them. I know little Spanish I am here now with four other gringos with whom I have toured much of Nicaragua. I have been to this community twice before, with a larger group of people from a constellation of Presbyterian churches. The five of us came to Plan Grande a day before they arrived this year, but the larger group left a week ago now. I will leave today, with the rest of my American friends.
My breath, slowing now that I am not moving, still has the dull robust tang of the beans and rice with hot sauce that I ate for breakfast. I don’t know what time it is–I have no watch, and I left my cell phone in America. But it is yet in the golden hour of the morning–I estimate my hike took me about an hour from the village to this point. The earth here is soggy and rich in clay. It is the rainy season, and the ground is usually wet from daily rain. My palms are caked in cracking mud from where I’ve supported myself when I slipped coming up here. Dried sweat and earthy grit lie in a thin layer on my arms and the back of my neck. I take a last look, trying to burn the image into my mind, and turn for the walk back.
I near the edge of the thick verdant sprawl, wet in sweat. Through the break in the leaves, I see thin smoke roiling from Luis’s house. This is good–it means water is being boiled for midmorning coffee. They do not have gas stoves, let alone many electric appliances–there are only two outlets in the whole village center, and one electric light. I could use some coffee–though I could use a shower first. Perhaps “shower” is not the right term–they have no running water, either. Maybe “staggered bathing” makes more sense. The water is collected from a reservoir a hundred feet or so down the southern side of the mountain every morning. So we can clean ourselves, the Nicas place a large barrel of water in, ironically, an old bathroom from thirty or so years previous. You take a dish, fill it with water, and pour it over yourself. The water is not heated. The very first dish you pour over yourself feels, I imagine, similar to being outside a commercial airliner at cruising altitude. You will never scrub your body with more vigor than in this moment, trying in vain to create some warming friction in the icy deluge. In between pours, you shiver maniacally in gelid nakedness. The bathroom itself taunts you–holes where the spigots used to be, a relic from the Nicaraguan civil war. The hacienda used to be a Contra prison, holding the Sandinista nationalists in concrete cells, who were occasionally taken out to be executed behind the hacienda to make room for fresh prisoners. The bathroom is a squalid symbol of the American money and influence that tore this region apart.
After I wash and dry myself, I climb briefly into the comfort of my sleeping bag, bringing my body temperature back up to a functional level. We are sleeping on the second level of the hacienda–downstairs is a covered open area with three machete hewn wooden benches. It serves as a sort of forum for the community. I walk downstairs, perfumed with the rich smell of coffee–warm rosewood and lavender, spiced floral fruit. I am handed a Styrofoam cup of coffee–a reminder that there is a parallel world somewhere out there that I distantly remember living in. Leno has given me the coffee, and he grins, wide and warm. Buenos dias, he greets me. I smile and say the same to him, nodding my head in appreciation. I sit in between Veronica and Mercedes, two of the matriarchs of the community. They are speaking in lively Spanish to some of the men standing around, including Leno. The women wave their hands for emphasis. The men rumble and grunt, guffaw, put both hands out, palms facing the women: oh please, that’s too much! Veronica giggles, lifts her fingers to her mouth, digits gathered in a tight bundle pointing to her lips, and then flips her hand backwards, exploding the fingers to full spread, palm facing her. This means: silly, overblown–or hyperbolically ridiculous for comic purposes. I know this. I know what they are talking about too–Domingo, who is a local jokester and prankster is coming to visit today from his cottage a few miles away. But I do not know what their words mean.
Later, I am packing my belongings into my oversized backpack next to my fellow travelers. The mood is somber–we are feeling already the dreary pangs of heavy nostalgia. We will leave this place at four or five in the afternoon, I am told. Will it be hard to go back? Says Nick, fixing me with a trenchant stare. He is four years older than I, and speaks Spanish almost fluently. I find I don’t know how to answer. I tell him this. His brow furrows, and he is silent. He is thinking of home. Home.
Lunch is delicious–we eat with the five of us and about the same number of Nicas, the leaders of the community. They have slaughtered one of their chicken for the meal–this is a sign of deep respect. They will have one less hen to gather eggs from. The pliant meat is bathed in a spicy sulfur yellow lentil sauce of some kind. We talk for a short while of our departure, how quiet it will be without us. But we are about to hear Joe speak about the war, and the anticipation makes everyone a little demure. Joe is not his real name, but we have always called him this. He wears a wide brimmed cowboy hat, and a yellow button down with dingy khakis–always. I have seen him speak only two or three times before, and never about the war. No one speaks of it–the rift it burned into this community of three hundred or so people is immense. The war was very intense in this region, and there were locals on both sides. Older men still have entry-wound scars, rippling satiny scar tissue in long strokes of machete slashes. Joe is ancient, no one is sure how old–not even he. We finish eating the main meal, and sit for a while eating slices of pineapple that is grown nearby. The women gather our plates as we slide forward on the seat of our chairs, slumping and patting our swelling bellies. We walk outside, where Joe is sitting.
We sit in a vague oval–Joe is the visual apogee, Omar beside. Omar can speak English well, perhaps the only one in the community with this invaluable knowledge. Only the community leaders who ate with us are there from the Nicas, standing apart from the circle, arms crossed or in pockets. Joe has his hands folded on top of his right knee, crossed over his left at the thigh. Everything about him is like paper–his folded wrinkly face, the fragile skin in clumps at his knuckles, the manila luster. He speaks softly, Omar translates only a little louder. Joe stares at his paper hands almost the whole time he speaks. He was in his fifties when the war began, and both his sons fought for the Sandinistas. Both were killed. It was years before the Contras came to my village. Our eyes are fixed on Joe’s slumping form. The Contra soldiers took me from my home, to this place. They had American rifles, automatics. The tortured me for two days, Omar nearly whispering, his voice thick with emotion–he too is aghast by what he is hearing. They cut–Omar trails off, his eyes wide looking at Joe, looking at paper hands, speaking steadily and quietly. He motions to his legs, stomach, and back with his right hand. Joe speaks for another ten seconds, then looks at Omar, who looks at us: they cut… inside of me. Joe looks at us, all of us, with a sad, deploring look. He tries to smile, the corners of his mouth winking, but instead he looks like tattered teddy bear, pulled out from the back of the closet–dusty and forgotten. Why did they do this to you? Says Dick, forty-three and almost bald, stomach pudgy. Omar relays the question–Joe looks at Omar, nods his head once, then looks back at Dick. He does not speak–only gives his teddy bear smile. There is a gentle breeze, children flick marbles nearby.
Now is the time. I hoist my backpack onto sunbaked shoulders, take a long drink of cool water from my stainless steel canteen. I am the last to walk downstairs from the hacienda, into a crowd of the Nicas, all gathered to see us off. When the larger group left a week ago, there were many more, but I know everyone who has gathered to see us off. They are my friends. I hug everyone in sight–Leno, Mercedes, Eva, Miguel, Domingo–who has just arrived–Léon, Tatiana, Omar. My family. Everyone is crying, it seems. I’m kissing cheeks of all the women. I even give Anayanca–with whom I’ve met several times in the past weeks for secretive midnight romance–a light kiss on the lips. She hands me a folded note on spiral bound paper with a heart on the top which I still have to this day. Her friends howl in laughter, Anayanca blushes and brushes a lock of hair behind her ear. I hug all her friends too. I take Joe’s papersoft hand both of mine, and he gives me a real smile–I see his teeth for the first time. He is frail and light, and his eyes are cloudy blue.
Slowly, so slowly, we get into the car we rented for the trip. All the kids are slapping the fenders and bumpers and yelling and jumping–the older women cry silently at the fringe of the group, loving smiles spreading wide on their faces. We roll down the windows, I grab every hand I can see and shake it, saying anything that comes to my mind in Spanish. Eventually the car begins to move, and we stare out the rear window until we have turned left up the hill, and they fade behind tree trunks passing between us.