Clinic emergency room, Teustepe, Nicaragua in February 1990

Emergency Room, Community Clinic, Teustepe, Nicaragua (1990)

I’ve been sick for the past few days so decided to dig deep into the ‘Illness on the Road’ files for today’s Pic Du Jour.

This is the Emergency room in the community clinic in Teustepe, Nicaragua, in February 1990. A little more than two years after taking this, I was laying on that hard wooden slab desperately waiting for a pain reliever.

The day before, a hammock I was dozing in collapsed, dropping me about five feet onto a concrete floor, and by the next morning everything hurt. Really really bad. As I waited, a little boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, was brought in. He fell off of a pick-up truck, and had dirt and gravel embedded in his head. He was put on a wooden slab next to mine, face down, with his head over a little garbage can. A doctor came, and proceeded to scrape the stuff out of his head with a scalpel. No anesthetic. Every scream from that little boy reverberated through my body. Eventually I got my pain killer, administered through the biggest needle I’ve ever seen.

Teustepe, Nicaragua, Feb 1990


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Old cathedral, Managua

Old Managua Cathedral (Pic du Jour)

This photo, taken in February 1994, is of the remains of the old cathedral in Managua which was heavily damaged in the 1972 earthquake that hit the Nicaraguan capital 41 years ago today. The 6.5 magnitude quake took upwards of 10,000 lives and left two-thirds of the city’s population, homeless.

Through the newly-formed National Emergency Committee, Anastasio Somoza, the last dictator of the Somoza dynasty that ruled the country since 1936, personally administered the tens of millions of dollars of international relief aid that arrived in Nicaragua in the quake’s wake. Predictably, much of it simply vanished and lined the pockets of his political and business allies, creating one of the first major upsurges of popular support for the insurgent FSLN (Sandinista) guerrillas that swept into power seven years later.

Roberto Clemente, the first Hispanic American elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972 while en route to Managua to personally deliver and guarantee that relief reached those who needed it.

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Fleeting Moment, with Mortero

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge theme this week is Fleeting Moment, like the one during which I made eye contact with this student demonstrator in Managua, back in April 1999. He’s holding a mortero, kind of a homemade M-80 launcher. They’re mainly used to make a very loud noise. They succeed with great effect.

These particular demonstrations were organized each April since the beginning of the 1990s to protest proposed cuts to university funding budgets. As far as I know they were still going on as recently as 2009. The Nicaraguan constitution mandates that six percent of the federal budget go towards higher education. Each year through the 1990s there was a threat to reduce it, thus the protests.

A student was killed by the police the day before so there was some tension – and plenty of tear gas. This was taken later in the day; earlier I ran when tear gas began flying in my direction, a reaction that provoked laughter from a student who was helping me as an interpreter. “Why are you running, silly, crazy gringo?” I always thought that crossing paths with tear gas usually signalled a good reason to run.

Along the margins, on both sides of the street, kids stood by ready to sell bottled water to anyone who was gassed. I didn’t need any because I ran.

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#FriFotos: For Sale – Encounters with Commerce

Taking a break for an inning or two. Municipal baseball stadium, Teustepe, Nicaragua, April 1994

I haven’t been around here much for the past week, which is more or less par for the course during the hazy summer months. Missed me? ;)

For Sale‘ is this week’s #FriFotos theme on twitter, affording this quick glance back into when my camera met commerce head-on in various parts of the world. I’m unapologetically anal about tagging photos in my flickr stream but the ones I decided to include here weren’t found that way.

Rather, they were all snapped fragments of memory of buying, selling and browsing that immediately popped into my mind when the theme was announced. Some quite vividly. I was particularly pleased to recall the few shots below taken in Nicaragua –the bottom one, 22 years ago– now that I’m beginning to read up on the country again, trying to catch up on a lapse of nearly a decade-and-a-half. I visited there five times since 1990; my planned return sometime next year will be my first since 1999.

Enjoy, and I hope you’re making the most of whichever heatwave you’re currently a part of.

Lottery ticket seller. Near Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, 14-Mar-2012


Piraeus train station. Piraeus, Greece, 13-Nov-2008

Cigarette seller, Istanbul

Evening shoppers. Nanjing Rd. Shanghai, 24-May-2010

At a bus stop near Mtito Andei, Kenya, along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, 30-Mar-2007

Shop keeper and his daughter, Teustepe, Nicaragua, 23-Feb 1990.

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‘I’ve had cholera. You?’

I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera twice. It’s among my favorite books.

The first time was in the early winter of 1992, when I lived in a small one-room cabin in the woods near Athens, Ohio. At the time I was preparing for a road trip three friends and I were about to take, driving my friend Bob O’s 1975 International Harvester Scout from southern Ohio to Nicaragua. When he bought it for two hundred dollars six months before our late June departure date, it was barely running.

That winter also included research into and writing about a new cholera pandemic that began early the previous year in Peru and which was gradually creeping its way north towards Central America.

By June we were prepared with fully recharged immune systems. We had several booster shots, drank polio juice dispensed from the university clinic, and took our anti-malarials. On the road we were extremely careful with what we ate. We drank and brushed our teeth with only bottled water.

During a seven-hour wait on the border between El Salvador and Honduras, Breyer was the first to get sick. Nausea, some vomiting, diarrhea. I was the first to make fun of her.

It hit me the next afternoon as we were approaching San Marcos de Colon, a Honduran town just eleven kilometers from the Nicaraguan border. We were running late, the border closed at five, so we were forced to spend the night. I could barely walk. Bob O dragged me a few blocks to a small privately operated clinic run by a young Brazilian doctor who, as it happened, was extensively involved in Honduras’ national anti-cholera campaign. And she wasn’t amused. I don’t recall her precise words, but they went something like this:

“I’ve been working my ass off to keep cholera out of this town and you greasy gringos bring it here.”

Cholera causes heavy and quick dehydration. It’s easily cured, but if not treated quickly, it can and does kill. It’s the worst form of diarrhea imaginable, unrelenting. The dizziness is profound, and I’ve never felt that parched or helpless.

We were quarantined for the next thirty-six hours, the first twenty of which where fairly unpleasant. The doctor immediately began treating us as if we had the bacteria swimming inside us, but we still had to provide samples which would be sent to the health institute’s main lab in the capital Tegucigalpa.

We were laying on brand new cholera beds, the kind with precut holes designed to fit virtually any ass size, when she handed us small glass containers. They reminded me of baby food jars. “Here,” she said.

When you’ve lost all control of that bodily function, capturing your own spouting fountain of cholera juice in a recycled baby food jar isn’t easy. It’s also a mess. I really don’t wish it upon anyone. Not even George W. Bush.

We were also advised to not, under any circumstances, tell anyone that we contracted cholera – not in Honduras, not in Nicaragua. The campaigns were effective, the doctor told us, but they’ve also spread considerable fear. People would flood the clinics demanding medicines. Terrified mobs could form to run us out of town. “This has happened,” she said.

Near Teustepe, Nicaragua. What struck me here was that I’d seen very similar scenes in rural Appalachia.

During our unintended stay, we met Mary, a Texan who was born-again a dozen years earlier and who had been coming to San Marcos for the past nine years to help with the clinic.

“I heard there were some sick communists in town,” she said, after storming into our room to introduce herself. I wasn’t feeling particularly talkative.

“Who are you and what the fuck are you doing here?” was all I could manage.

She smiled. “Every American who passes through here is a communist. But that’s okay. Jesus will forgive you.”

I wanted to tell her that Jesus was a communist but I was too distracted with positioning myself just right over the hole in the bed.

Over the next few days she rambled on about lots of things, among them, that a capful of Clorox bleach can cure just about everything. Her anti-communist rants were particularly amusing. “Seventy percent of Mexico is communist,” she said. “Most of Guatemala and El Salvador, half of Honduras.”

For the rest of the summer we called her The Church Lady. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on one thing, but I did grow to like her. We had conversations fun enough to make my vomiting and diarrhea slightly less unbearable. I jotted quite a bit of them into my notebooks. She later inspired a few haiku. Here’s one:

Says she – “I was blessed
Jesus set me up real good
With cheap real estate”

With lots of time to kill, we tracked down the root of our affliction to a small roadside restaurant in the mountains just south of Guatemala City. Breyer and I each had a salad which was obviously washed in contaminated water. Bob O and Jeannine did not.


Bob O’s car got us there, but it never left Nicaragua. He decided to sell it to a friend, Pedro, a former contra squad leader who would later become mayor of Teustepe, our sister city. One afternoon, Pedro and some friends drove into the countryside for what I think was to be a hunting trip. Along the way a spark ignited and the car, loaded with guns and ammo, exploded. No one was hurt.

I traveled overland on my way back north that summer –the other three chose to fly– selecting slightly different routes. Hoping to at least partly avoid the mass confusion, delays and bribes inherent in each border crossing, I chose a less-traveled one from Nicaragua back into Honduras via Esteli and Ocotal.

I got up early, hopped on a pre-dawn bus, and was first in line when the Nicaraguans opened their side of the border at 8 a.m. Soon after waving good bye, I walked the four hundred or so meters to the Honduran gate, which wouldn’t be open until 9. So I spent an hour, with no shade, sitting on the thick line you see separating countries on maps.

** **

Yes, that’s right.
C is for Cholera
in the Blogging From A to Z Challenge 2012.
Check out more participants here.

My explanation for this is here.

*** *** ***

Piran Café will be inaugurating a free monthly newsletter in May. It’ll be loaded with travel tips and wine reviews, updates on CC licensed free-to-use photos, musings on my obsessions of the day, plus an exclusive FREE giveaway EACH month available to subscribers ONLY. Giveaway No. 1:  Sign up now and you’ll be automatically entered to win a FREE major publishing house travel guide of your choice. Drawing is on 1 May, so do it now!

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Photos from the Aftermath of Hurricane Mitch

I finally got around to scanning some slides I shot ten years ago when I visited Posoltega, Nicaragua, in April 1999, about six months after storms brought in by Hurricane Mitch devastated the area. The photo above is of a refugee camp set up in Posoltega, in the country’s northwest.

On October 30, 1998, torrential rains brought in by Hurricane Mitch filled the nearby Casitas volcano, forcing the slope, above right, to collapse. It produced a massive river of mud, at some points more than a kilometer wide, that swept through the area, ultimately killing upwards of 3000 people. It annihilated several villages and smaller settlements, and displacing several thousand. [A good Mitch summary on Wiki.]

Below are some scattered notes from the visit (some are still in a stash of stuff back in the US), but first some quick background:
Nicaragua dominated much of the foreign policy debate in the US during the Reagan years, so it was somewhat predictable that Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s tirade at the recent Americas summit brought the country back into the headlines. When he was voted out of power in 1990, media attention on the country more or less vanished until Ortega regained the presidency in close elections in 2006. By then, after setting up a mutual immunity deal with the right wing Arnoldo Alemán, who was president from 1997 to 2002, he had long since lost support from most senior Sandinista (FSLN) party partners, who left and formed other parties, taking with them countless party loyalists. During its time in power, the Alemán administration quickly became synonymous with corruption and graft. An opinion poll published during my 1999 visit found that more than half of Nicaraguans viewed him as more corrupt than the former dictator Anastasio Somoza whom the Sandinistas overthrew 20 years earlier, and for whom Alemán worked. (Alemán was charged, eventually convicted and received a 20-year sentence, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court in what most view as part of the deal struck with Ortega.)

So, the widespread tales of corruption I was told by people in Posoltega (and in Managua) didn’t come as a huge shock. At an aid distribution warehouse (pictured above), several of the workers expressed their frustration with the federal government which was doing next to nothing to help the municipality, at the time governed by a Sandinista mayor. Bill Clinton visited the area during a Central American tour in March 1999; just prior to his visit housing construction materials were trucked in, along with 2000 bags of cement, a ‘donation’ from the government. After he left, the materials were hauled away under cover of night.

I spoke at length with Posoltega’s mayor, Felicita Zeledon Rodriguez, who said that after the initial influx of aid in the weeks after the rains finally subsided, nothing had arrived in more than two months. Among the numerous problems she faced was that the aid assistance was being taxed by the Aleman administration. Food was running scarce, she said. “The first harvest is in August, and it’s only April.”

Above is Jose de la Cruz Poveda, 17 at the time, who was one of the refugee camp leaders.

In Posoltega, my translator Tanya and I met Alvaro Montalvan, a reporter for Canal 12, who was investigating reports that much of the international relief aid sent to the stricken areas was actually winding up being sold in various markets in Managua. He and his cameraman were heading to the Port of Corinto to check on the status of 28 cargo containers of relief aid which had arrived on March 19 from Los Angeles, and we joined him. We tracked down the port’s container operations chief, who eventually admitted that seven of those 40-foot containers couldn’t be accounted for. They simply vanished. And in the meantime, as the stocks in Posoltega’s relief center were dwindling rapidly, the containers above were sitting port side for more than a month.

More pics, 18 in all, are in a flickr set here.

I know that there are numerous NGOs working in the region, and that a growing number of travelers are visiting that part of Nicaragua. This is a long since forgotten footnote of the country’s history, and I’d love to hear from anyone who’s visited or worked there over the past decade who can share any updates. I’m extremely interested in learning how people in the area have fared.

Bookmark Photos from the Aftermath of Hurricane Mitch