This is the life of an anthropologist
I departed San Jose Costa Rica at 12:30 p.m., the bus ride to Granada Nicaragua, though long, was not bad. This was the first time I took a bus with air conditioning, and it certainly helps during long rides down here. The main reason air condition is nice is not only due to the fact that it is quite hot down here (and even more so in Nicaragua), but even more so that the windows are closed and during heavy traffic (especially heavy during Semana Santa) it keep the exhaust out.
All-in-all it took me about eight hours by bus to leave Costa Rica, go through both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan customs, and arrive in Granada.
I was tired the first night in Nicaragua so, I didn’t do much. I was very hungry after my long bus ride therefore, after I arrived at my hostel, I unpacked and I decided to set out on foot to look for some food. Surprisingly there wasn’t much open and because of that the vendors on the street seemed like my best option. I came across a younger lady selling enchiladas out of a small cart so I ordered one, some rice, and a coke and sat down on a nearby bench and ate.
While sitting there eating, I heard the distant sound of somber music and noticed a small crowd moving toward my general direction. walking alongside an almost life-sized lit up character of Christ that was being suspended in the air by 10 or more people and followed by a small marching band. It was an amazing sight, and everyone around me stopped what they were doing and watched in respect as the procession slowly passed. I too watched in awe as it passed, finished my food, and then continued to the central park.
As the crowd neared, I notice about 30 people.
When I arrived at the central park everyone was packing up for the night. I briefly took a peak at the wares of the local vendors as they packed up and then headed back to my hostel for the night.
I woke up at 9 a.m., washed up, and set out to look for some breakfast (it seems as if I am always looking for food haha). To my amazement, again, very little was open. However, there was a huge market (about five blocks long and five blocks wide) taking place, so I figured I would look around until a restaurant opened. Interestingly, and in contrast to the markets in San Jose, the merchants were selling everyday items like cleaning supplies, hygiene products, Tupperware containers, and the typical fresh fruits and vegetables that are found in nearly all markets in this region.
This was different however, compared to San Jose, because merchants do not typically sell cleaning supplies and hygiene products at the market (not on this scale at least) because they can be found in most indoor markets in and around the city. In fact, after I noticed that they sold products like those in the market it dawned on me that I did not see a single indoor market, supermarket, or convenient store since I had arrived. However, after spending about an hour in the market looking around, I decided to head toward the Central Park to see if the market there was open yet.
Upon my arrival I noticed that a mass was just letting out and that a crowd was forming near the main entrance to the church. As I drew closer, I realized that another procession was about to begin. This time, I caught it from the very beginning and arrived just as the priest was beginning a series of prayers. The priest said several beautiful prayers in Spanish, during which a very large crowd began to form. It was breathtaking, the oration by the priest lasted for about 20 minutes and then after, a small marching band began to play music similar to the somber melody played the night before.
The music acted as a queue and as soon as it began the display, along with the people watching (and of course holding) it, began to move down the street. I was completely immersed in the moment (as well as the crowd) however, my hunger got the best of me so I decided to go see if any of the nearby restaurants were open. I parted ways with the crowd and began to walk in the opposite direction in search of lunch.
I walked for about five minutes and settled on the first aesthetically pleasing restaurant I came across. Interestingly, the place that I decided on was a place completely run by deaf and hard of hearing Nicaraguans. I did not realize this at first however, after noticing the sign language on the walls, the pictures of frequently asked questions (e.g. where’s the bathroom) on the edge of the table, and the specialized menu I quickly put two-and-two together. I ordered a traditional Latin American breakfast (eggs, beans, rice, and fruit) and enjoyed a nice cold glass of pineapple juice mixed with milk (which is delicious) while I awaited my food.
While waiting for my food a couple (a Canadian man and a Honduran woman) turned around and greeted me warmly. We exchanged pleasantries, and then they asked me what I was doing in Nicaragua. I told them I was a student anthropologist, and that I was there to study Semana Santa. They seemed to be intrigued by the fact that I was an anthropologist and after a brief conversation, they invited me to sit and have lunch with them.
(Side note: one thing I noticed during my trips is that when you’re traveling alone people seem more inclined to talk to/approach you and even more so when they found out I was an anthropologist. We discussed the legend of the lost White City at length, which eventually led them to ask me what my focus was in the field of Anthropology. I told them that my research interests lie in human rights and political violence and they immediately, but almost reluctantly, began to tell me about all of the political violence, corruption, and human rights issues currently in Honduras. We all ate out meals while discussing the contemporary issues in Honduras, and as we finished the couple gave me their contact information and invited me to stay in their home if I ever wanted to visit or study in Honduras. We finished our meals, I thanked them, and then I proceeded to walk back to my hostel to relax for a little.
I returned to my hostel, washed up, purchased a bottle of Coca-Cola, and laid in a hammock to write about my day. In fact, I have found that to be one of my favorite things to do while in Nicaragua. I don’t know if it was the heat, the fact that they use real sugar in the Coke in Nicaragua, or a combination of the two, but, I found myself spending a few hours each day in the hammock, with a coke, writing in my notebook. There is just something refreshing about an ice cold Coca-Cola out of the bottle on a hot Nicaraguan day!
I spent the rest of my afternoon and evening talking to a woman from Australia who was backpacking through Central and South America and a woman from Costa Rica who was there on vacation with her daughter. It was interesting because most of the conversation revolved around the difference between the political ideologies and economics of our home countries. We spent several hours discussing varied topics, during which the Costa Rican woman made us some pasta for dinner, and as it grew late, we decided to head to bed.
Although I woke up around 9 a.m., I set out around noon because from my previous day’s experience I knew nothing would be open aside from the markets. I didn’t eat much for dinner Ciudad Blanca. the night before and had yet to eat breakfast so, I was pretty hungry at this time. I decided I would go toward the lake in search of a nice lunch (hopefully in air conditioning). While walking, I happened upon a Nicaraguan sports bar wherein a decent sized crowed amassed to what the soccer game. The food looked appetizing, and there was air conditioning, so I figured it was as good of a place as any to have lunch. I ordered the “special” along with, to no surprise, a bottle of coke and sat there watching the game for about 30 minutes before my food arrived.
It is pretty safe to say that this was the largest plate of food I have had since I have been in Latin America. It was literally 3 times the amount that I could possibly eat –but it was delicious! I finished up (eating about 1⁄4 of the food) and asked the waiter if I could have it to-go and also asked him where everyone would be at today. He informed me that most people would be down by the lake (as I suspected from previous conversations) and took my food back into the kitchen to have it wrapped. He brought me my to-go box and I paid my check and left toward the lake.
While walking toward the lake, I came across a man sitting on a stoop barefoot. I said hello to him and he responded with something that was intelligible (my Spanish is a work in progress) so, I simply smiled and offered him my food. He graciously accepted, and I said goodbye and continued on my way (Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin American but it is home to some of the most beautiful people I have ever encountered. Homelessness and unemployment are very high, and it is tough to see knowing that there isn’t much you can do in that moment to help.)
After about a 10 minute walk I arrived at the lake. Hundreds of people we gathered along the coast. They were swimming, playing games, having cookouts etc; it was definitely a marvelous sight. One thing that surprised me was how none of the swimmers, children and adults alike, were wearing bathing suits; they simply wore shorts and t-shirts into the water. Nevertheless, I was literally overwhelmed by the amount of people that were there. The entire experience was an attack on the senses. Loud festive music could be heard from several blocks away, the smells of various foods were in the air, and the sound of laughter and light-hearted conversation were all that one could hear while walking by the clusters of families and friends. To me this captured, more than anything, the essence of Semana Santa.
Yes, the basic tenants of Semana Santa are to mourn the death and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. However, the cultural significance of this holiday was much more than mourning or even celebrating Christ, it also about celebrating their lives with their loved ones who were willing to travel hundreds of miles just to be with them and reaffirm their strong Latin American family bond.
This would be my final day and night in Nicaragua (for now), and as usual I woke up in search of food! I walked toward the lake again in search of something to eat. This time I asked around to find out where I could go to get a nice traditional Nicaraguan meal. I asked a younger guy if he could point me in the right direction and he actually escorted me to a place. I gave the man a small tip for his troubles and I ordered a wonderful traditional Nicaraguan meal. Eating in Costa Rica, as well as Nicaragua, is typically a process that takes at VERY LEAST an hour.
There isn’t much in the ways of “fast food,” unless you purchase something from a street vendor. In fact, “Tico-time,” or in this case “Nico-time,” is something a U.S. American must gradually get used to. (Tico time is explained to study abroad students in that Costa Ricans don’t emphasize punctuality like we typically do in the US. It is not uncommon for someone, even a professor, to be 10-15 mins to class repeatedly. Tico time is something that holds true in almost any social context e.g. ordering food, going to the post office, meetings etc.
They just aren’t in a hurry to do things like US Americans tend to be. Pura vida!) However, the meal was well worth the wait. In fact, I am pretty sure it was the best food I have had in Latin American (I am certain it was the best food I have had in Nicaragua) to date. After finishing my meal, I decided to head back down to the river since it was so full of life the day before.
Along my way an older man commented on my tattoos, appreciating the art work, so, I stopped to chat with him for a few moments. He was probably between 50-60 years old and had a fairly dark complexion. Interestingly, he spoke perfect English. I was taken aback slightly because he was the first Nicaraguan I had met during Semana Santa who spoke English that well. Intrigued, I asked the man were he learned to speak English so well. He replied emphatically: “I’m Miskito!” It wasn’t until I was home that I fully understood the correlation between him speaking English and being Miskito but, I briefly research the Miskito people and found out that they were primarily colonized by the British. Therefore, unlike the former Spanish colonies who now spoke Spanish, many spoke English as their primary language.
He then explained to me that he was in Granada looking for work because where he is from (near Honduras) is extremely poor (as is much of Nicaragua), the farmlands are infertile, and how jobs are few and far in between. To his dismay he came during Semana Santa and most job opportunities were unavailable due to the holiday. He explained that he was returning home the following day and was upset because he planned on bringing back food for his family. I ask him politely what kind of food he needed and he replied: “beans and rice.” We were very close to the market so I asked him to follow me and began to walk toward the market.
Once we arrived, I began filling a large bag with various small bags of beans and grabbed a fairly large sack of rice and then paid the woman who was working the stand. I then handed him the bags and to my surprise he would not take them. He kindly insisted that we moved away from the masses of people because he didn’t want to take a “hand-out” in front of them. So, we walked a few meters toward a side street and I handed him the bags. He was extremely grateful, and insisted that I let him repay me in some one. He suggested that I come to his home, meet his family, and have dinner with them. Unfortunately I was leaving the next day so, that was not an option.
However, he give me his home address and his e-mail address (I swear everyone has e- mail lol) and told me that whenever I had the chance he would like for me to come visit him and his family and offered me a place to stay for as long as I would like. The entire exchange was very charming, and it truly complemented my stay in Nicaragua. I told the gentleman that I would do my best to visit him, shook his hand, and then continued on my way to the lake.
This time, due to the heat and massive influx of people compared to the day before, I decided on a semi-indoor place (it had a roof and ceiling fans). It was very nice, there was a live band, a DJ in between the bands sets, and dozens of people dancing and eating. I sat at a table near the stage where the band was playing.
Although the food smelled wonderful, I was still overly full from my lunch, so I opted for an ice cold Toña. For the first hour or so I just sat at my table and watch the band play. However, a few women who had been dancing for quite a while eventually came over to me, with big smiles on their faces, and drug me out on the dance floor. It was an incredible experience. The people were truly wonderful and because of that I spent the rest of my evening and night dancing and sampling a few more of the local cervezas! However, it began to get late and I was instructed early on that walking near the lake was not safe for tourists after dark (and it was well “after dark”). So, I decided it was probably in my best interest to go home. I opted to walk along the lake home and reflect on my
experiences in Nicaragua.
I thought to myself: “This is what it’s all about; this is the life of an anthropologist.” Sure, there is a lot of research and hard work involved with being an anthropologist but, overall, this was the essence of anthropology. I was able to go alone into a country that I have never been to before, experience the culture, the food, the people, the fiestas etc. and take away from it an experience that so few people that I know would ever have. It was surreal really, in fact, it still is.