Thursday, January 27, 2011

lost in translation

While studying Spanish at the Mariposa Spanish school I was a good student and I did in fact learn a little Spanish. I showed up with my notebook and pen every morning and dutifully copied down new vocabulary words and tense structures until I"d filled pages and at night before turning out my light I'd peer at the new words and examples and recite them in one quick attempt to commit them to memory.

But after I've long since forgotten how to conjugate irregular past tense verbs, I won't have forgotten (don't begin to name the tense that just flew by!) one of my conversation teachers, who -- like all my instructors there -- easily bridged the distance between us, getting down to real stuff pretty quickly and easily.

On day two, Raul, let's call him, asked what the last present that my husband gave me was. How that came up, dunno. I thought back. Was it my birthday present -- a top from my favorite catalog, presented in its original mail order wrapping? It was beautiful. Don't get me wrong! But I didn't mention the top for some reason, and said something about how travelling to Nicaragua was a joint present to one another. Raul smiled. And what about you I asked? "I give her grapes sometimes, or apples." I think I said "oh." And Raul looked a little embarrassed suddenly, saying "we don't have a lot of money." My "oh" wasn't, of course, about the modesty of his gift. I didn't know how to express how beautiful I thought a gift of grapes was. How sensual to buy a piece of fruit for your wife. How flattered she must have felt! But though we were both speaking English (this would have taxed the limits of my Spanish) I couldn't express it without then sounding like I was making a big deal out of it, which would make it seem like I didn't really mean it. So I said nothing. And that little missed bit of communication was probably the one regret I had during our trip.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

apprender espanol

I get a little distracted while I'm learning Spanish. Interesting things are happening all around us. As I mentioned in the last post, there's lots of animal life, and I can get lost watching a chicken settle into a small self-made trough in the dirt to lay an egg. There are also ducks waddling about, a half dozen dogs, white-faced monkeys, humming birds everywhere, large yellow birds high in the trees called Grees, squawking parrots and men working, doing stuff I can't quite identify. I'm like a six year old. What are they doing, Davixia? Que estan haciendo? (Yeah! Took me more than a year to be able to write that)

Under the thatched palapa roof that covers our small outdoor classroom, for five mornings this week, Davixia, my conversation instructor, and I go about discussing -- whatever. Like two friends, we have no structure to our conversation, although that is mostly my doing. I'm a recalcitrant student. I want to know about an odd, unrelated assortment of things. But one morning I agree to look at the book she's brought -- of old sepia photographs of Nicaragua ca. 1900. Men with puffed out chests, probably medals pinned to them, and large mustaches who I try to place. Only two possibilities I assume. With the Americanos, or fighting them. Nicaragua I believe, after skimming a few books on the subject, has fought against invading Americanos more than any other country in the world. (I ran this by Al, my resident historian (and husband). Nicaragua must have been invaded more than anywhere? He says 'no' Mexico takes the honor. I ask the table of lunch diners who've become my dear friends by now, and one of them counters, no not Nicaragua. Haiti takes the role of the most invaded-by-U.S. country. Someone else mutters -- Cuba)

I don't really care who the mustachioed man is. But drawing from late night reading -- Salman Rushdie's The Jaguar Smile (a fascinating, meandering writer's travelogue which I pulled off a shelf in the very well stocked library) I suddenly want to know about how land was reapportioned after the Sandinistas' victory (1979) I was in my 20's at that time, and remember how my hometown, Brooklyn, became a sister city to a small city in Nicaragua near the coast whose name I don't remember. We'd send stuff down (What on earth did we send? I think it was whatever we got the word was needed) via a member of our small group, who was perfectly bilingual, and very strong, as he needed to be for this mission of riding in trucks and unloading dozens of boxes, and who would describe his trip when he returned home. I remember him saying how beautiful Nicaragua is. I think, condescendingly I'm sure, that the younger people (kids in their 20s and 30s) staying here at La Mariposa Spanish School don't have a clue! We were campesinos! Revolutionarios! Rushdie writes about farmers who came down to offer help -- tractors, help repairing tractors, seeds, and not least, solidaridad. Nicaragua holds the romance of a country that stood up to the bully, magnificently, with guns, song, bravado, and as I learned through Rushdie, with reams of poetry. I may have known, but by now I've forgotten, that Ortega and half the founding council were poets.

I ask Davixia, who's not yet 20, about this history. What happened to the land, I want to know. On a trip up to Managua, we see people toiling in the fields. I hope that it's their land. I fear the worst, that they're tenant farmers and earn meager wages. Davixia tells me that some of the poor campesinos did receive land, which was taken from los ricos (the rich landowners). Rushdie says no. No land was seized. Land was abandoned, though, as the Contratistas fled the country for Miami. I ask my young teacher, who had signed on to teach me English, not history, I realized. I am being unfair. But I ask anyway, in broken Spanish -- Did they work the land collectively? Were there re-education campaigns? Was there an ideology? D seems unsure, and I sense underneath, a little uncomfortable.

Davixia is only 20 and she seems not only vague about her country's history, but far more interested in talking about things much more close at hand. And to her gratitude, I'm sure, we move on to another topic. She asks, will I continue to study Spanish when I'm home? I ask - What is she studying at la universidad (English) And I tell her about my neighbor -- who's from Puerto Rico - whose bright pink lipstick somehow distracts me from speaking Spanish to her in the hallways. Que colore? The same color as your bright pink shoes! Como tus zapatas! We both giggle helplessly.

So, it seems I'm by myself on the subject, but I want to know -- what has happened not only with land reform (the answer to my queries regarding collectives still are answered only partially.) but the whole Sandinista -- thing. I learn from an afternoon's lecture on Post-revolutionary Nica history that the first thing that the elected-with-CIA-assistance President Violette Chamorro did upon assuming office was pave some new roads and sell and rip up the railroad system, and, oh, buy up all the guns. Not a railroad car in the country now. I'm sure that any support for the small, stuggling but very idealistic communal farms up in the north was pretty well squelched by the Chamorro team.

photo (left): Paulette after a new delivery of laying hens.

The question that lingers after all these questions on this tragic past is - what kind of high school history instruction did Davixia receive? Is the Sandinista movement and its victory told? Do they still sing their songs? What about the role of Reagan and the illegal arms deals? (Let alone the drugs for cash deals.) Under another palapa roof, monkeys hopping around in the background, Paulette fills us in on these not quite forgotten transactions.

Equally importantly, how much of this history are the kids in the US in high school classes today being taught?

On our sightseeing trip to Managua, our guide, Berman (photo at right), also the Spanish instruction coordinator, a licensed veterinarian who can dance La Salsa like nobody's business, who'd fought with the Sandinistas, sticks a CD in the audio console of our camionette, and out pours an hour of vintage Sandinista revolutionary songs. Some of it sounds generic, but the a capella songs are heart stoppingly forceful and plaintive. (I found and bought the CDs in the Managua airport) Berman drives us past the modest street in downtown Managua where ( the re-elected) President Ortega lives, informing us, "he chooses not to live in the President's palace." Berman wears this proud, somewhat mischevious grin.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

monkey feet

Learning a language. Al and I have set off for Nicaragua for the second year running to attempt to improve our Spanish, and I confess, to get away from the New York winter. We're in the same place as last year -- La Mariposa Spanish school. Great place! Paulette Goudge conceived of it, and built the eco-compatible building and grounds. What I hadn't realized last year was that our shower water somehow finds its way into large cisterns in the lush grounds which in turn are are used to water the plants. She asks that we use environmentally friendly shampoo and soap. So we're nicely entwined w/ our plant friends. I pored over the label on my beloved hair conditioner. Paulette has rescued all of the animals that live here, including a large cage of white faced monkeys. (They were bound for the U.S. on some nefarious mission. They're not released into the wild for their own safety, not being native to this region.) As I was standing by them this morning, chatting with some other guests, one of them -- the monkeys that is -- put its foot in my cup of mint tea and then sucked it dry, looking avidly at what was left in my cup. Of course I obliged, and this wiley monkey managed to drink it down completely using a combination of hands, feet and tail. Proceeds from the school and inn go to support many worthy projects in the community, which is very very poor. Paulette informs us that some of our neighbors live on less than $2/ day.

I haven't gotten down to convey what it feels like to study Spanish here. I can't seem to do it, really talk about what it feels like in my case to learn Spanish, not till I describe the afternoon I spent last week at a local afterschool program. I'd collected toys, games and stuffed animals from friends and neighbors (who were incredibly generous. More teddy bears than I'd thought existed in Brooklyn) to bring down to the small school that serves toddlers in the a.m. and older kids in the afternoon.

We arrived at the afterschool program at around two. One of the interns, Allison, who had signed up to spend six months here, was my guide and companion. (Allison, reading, in photo)

It's completely voluntary. The kids come if and when they feel like it. The school is simple, white-washed with these amazing cartoon characters painted on the outside walls -- I snapped a picture of a fox who looks like he's about to sell you land in Florida as well a wolf perched on a roof top. The interior is strung with paper decorations, and all kinds of things. The place in its entirety looks as though it's ready for a party.

But no one was there. Then, as if a gang of children were staking us out, they suddenly appeared. From out of nowhere, our small room filled with about a dozen boys and girls -- from mabye 5 - 13. And they took these tiny brightly painted chairs and sat down and began to read, some on their own (the boys). Girls clustered around to hear Cenicienta. Not what I, the feminist from New York, thought I would have chosen. But for some reason I had chosen it. Perusing a shelf of Spanish language books in Barnes and Noble, I'd bought it because of its beautiful illustrations and also because it had an English translation at the bottom of each page. I should have realized that the young girls of the village of Santiago (not a paved road, not a car in sight. chickens and goats in the front yard) were intimate with the story. They nodded and smiled shyly as I began and went all the way to the Prince finding the girl who'd worn the 'cristal' slipper to the ball.

I've been informed that all State funding for Santiago's after-school program has dried up and since then, Paulette has directed some of the profits from La Mariposa Spanish School towards the one teacher's salary.