Nicaragua: rhyming winds and tropic skies

I AM part of a group of nine artists and performers touring Nicaragua under the auspices of Arts for a New Nicaragua, a grass-roots organization based in Boston. We are joined by five Nicaraguan musicians who perform under the name Groupo Canto Libre. The first day sets the pace and tone for our tour, with performances in an old-age home, a school for children about nine to 12 years old, a military camp, and a prison. Often, our audience also performs, as do the inmates at the prison, where men and women prisoners are allowed to mix. We meet a broad cross section of the people with whom we converse freely everywhere. We receive vivid impressions of the countryside and its many small towns, traveling from performance to performance in the backs of open trucks.

I am awakened by church bells on the second morning in a room at the Alhambra Hotel. Palm trees in a lovely park comb the breeze coming through our window. Heaven: clean toilet, shower, and linens, after sleeping bags on the floor of the Center for Popular Culture the night before.

In the park - Rivas

Ah, a cool breeze.... How I love breezes - and water, water in my face, over my head. Cool breezes are like bathing without water.

A boy about 7, barefoot, an old shoeshine box hanging from his shoulder by a leather strap, comes by and stops before me. I smile. He doesn't respond. I play my flute and look back, and this time we smile together. Clack-!-clack-!-clack-!-clack-!-clack! he sets this sound toy going, two hard spheres, about the size of golf balls, held by a string, which impact repeatedly with a loud noise when set in motion with sufficient skill. You hear this sound wherever there are children in Nicaragua, sure as hearing cicadas on a clear, summer evening. The beauty of the boy's face captures me: dark, smooth skin, just like tiste - a soft drink made from toasted corn - shining black hair and big brown eyes. His shoe box is made of wood and is very worn, the pattern of the grain showing through the paint.

We watch each other. A horse and wagon go by, a few small pickup trucks and an occasional motorcycle rumble past. People, children go by, freshly washed, dressed cleanly in subdued tropical colors - pinks, white, light blue, brown.

``Tu trabajes?'' I ask.

He nods a shy yes. Another moment and he turns and leaves.

A man goes by, also barefoot, with white pants, red bands on his wrists; a boy in pressed jeans, an aqua shirt, and new, white Nike sneakers. Locust trees and some tall palms hush in the breeze. There is no sign of the war tension, only the pleasant, washed colors of early morning. The food stand to my right is open for business, its red boards, washed by sun and rain, a faded coral color, its yellow wooden stools set out and ready, on the counter two precise pyramids of green tangerines.

Melba Ram'irez - Mazatepe

We perform for workers in a shoe factory and a plastic factory, a hospital, a coffee farm, and in a town square and a school auditorium in the towns of Diriamba, Mazatepe, and Masaya. In Mazatepe, I'm invited to sleep at the home of Melba Ram'irez, an aunt of the country's vice-president, Sergio Ram'irez. It is a lovely, one-story stucco house, but the lighting is poor, as it is in most homes I visit. The paint is peeling and the plumbing partly inoperable.

In the morning, Melba asks if I would perform one of my stories, which I have learned in Spanish, and which she had seen the day before. It is one of the fond memories of the tour, sharing this story with Melba, her 87-year-old mother, her daughter, and two grandchildren.

Who owns the earth? - Granada

Waves are running, the wind tossing them. In the sky, too, wind is spreading a fine, white spume. It could be Portland, Maine, where I live. Offshore, at the end of a long pier, workmen load watermelons onto a wooden boat. Watermelon rinds wash back and forth along the shore, and here a water buffalo wades, feasting on the rinds. In the distance is the island Ometepe, with the volcanoes Concepci'on and Madera.

A big woman, her loose, colorful skirt tucked up over the waist and wet to her skin, has walked down to the water and washes clothes. Two small sons romp naked in the waves. They stop and watch as I pass. For a moment, I watch myself as I imagine they might see me.

I become another part of the scene - surf, rinds of watermelon, buffalo, laundry flapping in the breeze - just another of a growing number of strange, migrating birds, part of the rhythm of things, the growing circles around them. Then the moment evaporates, as though it had never been, the boys throwing themselves at the waves, splashing, laughing....

I walk, walk, and wonder, feeling how fragile such places and moments are, remembering, for instance, how in Portland I used to walk to town on a strand along Casco Bay now blocked by Bath Iron Works; or how Sam's Harbor Lunch, the oldest traditional feeding ground for fishermen on the waterfront, has fallen victim to zoning regulations actually meant to protect the ``working waterfront'' from an outbreak of condominiums.

It makes me angry and territorial. It reminds me of something the North American writer Margaret Randall wrote that she once experienced in Mexico: ``The land became mine,'' she says, ``not in the sense of possession, but just something I would share, which no one could take away. My mountains, my light and shadows, my colors, my ... double rainbows, my dark rain clouds slipping around the hollows and crevices in the mountains, my brilliant golden pink light....''

This washerwoman beside Lake Nicaragua and most of the rest of us have something in common. The revolution is here on this small but big strand we all walk to wash, or drink, or romp, or even scavenge for skins of some cast-off fruit. Oh, Nicaragua! you belong to this washerwoman, these boys and, yes, the water buffalo.

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