Sunday, July 29, 2012

What I see from the rocking chair

I sit in my host family´s living room, and a chicken wanders across the floor, pooping in the middle of the tile. From my seat in a rocking chair, I can see a tree full of young yellow coconuts that the family will later eat, a rooster about to crow, a pig tied up in a pen, being fattened for Christmas barbecues. I switch my seat to a hammock, which sways in a breeze that flows through the gazebo-type room. I think about how different, how controlled American homes seem. Their living rooms are carefully air-conditioned, animals limited to a small number of cats and/or dogs, windows shut to keep out insects, everything set up to maintain order and silence inside the house. It will be strange when I get back to sit in my house and feel the cool silence, to hear no roosters or horses. Here in Limay, I think constantly about what I miss, the things I´ll have when I get back home. But what I need to remember now is what I won´t have when I get there, the juice I won´t have from fresh fruit, the bicycles I won´t see laden with excited children, and especially the chickens I won´t see walking through the living room.

Graveyard in Limay

Dear Bob,

My first reaction to the cemetery was jealousy. You are buried in such an ugly place. The graveyard in San Juan de Limay is bright. Painted and overgrown. I think, “The forest eats itself and lives forever.” Barbara Kingsolver said that in a book I only read half of.  All that ate you was well-manicured grass. I remember the first time we went back to North Vancouver to see you.   In my mind there were going to be large gravestones sticking out from the grass. Yours would read, triumphantly, “Bob.” I also remember we bought roses. I wanted to bring a red one but mum said we had to bring white ones because they didn’t have thorns. I didn’t know if that was for the sake of my own hands or symbolism.

When we got there all the graves were flat against the grass. You didn’t even have one yet, just a neon orange pylon to mark the place. I was disappointed. Mum explained they were flat to make it easier for lawnmowers. It was a matter of convenience.

Today we found the graves by accident trying to kill time before lunch. Hundreds of thick cement crosses painted all variations of blue, turquoise and purple. Hidden under ivy or plastic flowers. A remarkable number of graves from the 1970’s and 80’s.

We sit on the edge of the yard watching a man lead his horse through the river. Sitting deliberately far enough away from each other to have private moments for people who shouldn’t be dead. We both cry and sit there for a long while.

The a bird shits on my shoulder and I accidentally smear it all over myself. Making a mess of my and overalls.

You still have a sense of humour, don’t you?

¡Que tuani!

...says Tyrone.

It's the small phrases like that that you really need the most. An "Adios" to a man riding by on a horse or a "Buenos Dias" on your way to sculpt marmolina in the morning. As many "Gracias"s  as you can give to your host family, and a "¿Puedo Ayudarle?" every now and then as well. After having spent a while here, I feel like I've gotten decent at piecing phrases together (considering I knew no Spanish beforehand). 

I can't discuss any complicated subject in depth, but now I can talk with my host family about what I've done during the day, ask about the different characters in the novellas they watch, and translate some of the lyrics in their English music from the U.S. for them (some of it they're better off not understanding).  They've listened to it for a while before I got here, y solamente para el ritmo. Funnily enough, I've done the same with the Spanish music I've had on my computer. We've at least got that and a handful of Spanish vocabulary words in common. Que tuani.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Marmolina in Limay

Marmolina is great. When we went the first day I was a little intimidated when we were handed a rock and told to begin. Luckily we got a lot of help, and after I finished my first piece, I was hooked. I'm facinated by the way that rocks become pieces of art, and that if you set yourself up, almost anything is possible. My favorite part is the first stage, where you determine the form, and you get to hack at the rock with a machete. I doubt I'll ever get to do that again and have it turn into something beautiful. The detail work is more frustrating because I don't know how to weild the tools to get the right result, but I'm learning. Also, Oscar and all of the other people who work in the shop are a huge help. I've finished three marmolina pieces, and have started my fourth, I would love to make more, but I don't know how I would get them all back to the U.S. in one piece.

Teaching in Spanish in Limay

I have plenty of teaching experience, but I have never taught in Spanish before!  Each of us are giving hour long workshops to the students in Limay.  We usually have a group ranging in age from 8 to roughly 17.  A few days ago, I taught my lesson which was on wax resist landscape paintings about sacred spaces.  I had a prepared statement about the conceptual part of my project but I was able to introduce myself in Spanish and work through a lot of my lesson with mimimal help from a translator.  To clarify, I had a lot less assistance speaking than I ever thought would be possible before coming to Nicaragua.  I love practicing my Spanish and the kids were very patient with me while I read my written description.  It felt really good to make the effort to speak their language rather than surrendering to speaking English and counting on Maria and Fabienne to translate everything.  I´m very happy with the outcome of my lesson, but mostly because I believe that both teachers and students should be learners in the classroom.  I think we accomplished that through our lesson with great success and it was very fulfilling.

Breakthrough moment in Limau

Before we arrived in Limay we were told that we could do Marmolina workshops which is carving sculptures out of stone. It didn't sound very fun to me and I figured I would be pretty bad at it if I ever even got around to trying it. Well I decided to try it and it was a blast. After the first day of carving I realized I was pretty good at it, this was my breakthrough moment in Limay. My first impressions of Marmolina were completely wrong and I'm glad it ended up that way.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Breakthrough Conversation Limay

I usually communicate with Coco with choppy sentences and grandoise hand gestures. And by nodding and saying "si" a lot. The other day we sat on the back porch and were somehow able to have a verbal conversation. If I didn´t understand a sentence I would pick out the word I didn´t know and ask her to rephrase it. She limited her vocabulary though, so I could understand better, and I pieced together sentences with terrible grammar. We were just skimming the surface of basic concepts, comparing the U.S. and Nicaragua and whether we were happy. We coldn´t talk in-depth, but I felt closer to her afterwards. Although it´s difficult for all of us, my host family and I are understanding each other better each day.

The Languages of the Still Image

I would have say that the one tool that has help me breach the language and culture barriers the best during my time here in Nicaragua has been my camera. Where ever I bring my camera there are always  people that are willing to be photographed. When I walk down the street to my host family's house during the day children come running from all directions and crowd around me to have their picture taken, and when I show them the image on the back of the camera they laugh as though I am performing magic every time the shutter clicks. I swear they never tire of having their photographs taken. I enjoy taking their pictures so much. I love my host family and although it is hard to communicate through language we seem to connect instantly every time I take out my camera. Sometimes I wonder if the children in the neighborhood actually think my name is "El gringo! La foto?!" This seems to me to just be more proof that photographs really do speak in every language.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Breakthrough Moment

My breakthrough moment came last week while I was interacting with the children in the band.  I was mid-way through my week of Spanish classes and I wanted to ask the kids questions so I wasn't just pointing a camera in their faces.  All of a sudden, the word "tocar" (to play) popped up in my head and suddenly I found myself formulating a sentence and asking the children how long they had played their instruments for.  It was so exciting because I had taken Spanish in high school and through my conversation with the kids, things came back to me as they patiently waited for me to formulate proper sentence structure.  I am determined to speak this language to the best of my ability, and with the help of patient listeners, I will continue to try my hardest to communicate.  Here are some of my favorite pictures of the band members.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

all in the name of god

I just spent the past three hours under my bed holding my breath,
Thinking of what they would tell my parents,
And how they would tell you.
It’s 4 AM and my roommate Amelia asks me if that’s what a gun sounds like.
She starts to slip under her bed and I roll back over, chuckling internally, thinking how Canadians don’t lock their doors.
And then six more blasts shatter any semblance of sanity in the air. The sound of sawed off shotguns echo so close to where I lie.
And my heart pounds.
And I know the door is unlocked.
It’s just something sad in the neighborhood, but damn, it’s close.
Two more shots thunder right outside and I start to think she’s on to something – I slide under my bed, gripping the ground with white fingertips. My languid limbs protrude casually; safety in doubt still lingers in my mind. Just a laughable precaution.

Roosters wail in the distance.
Just roosters, not a heartbroken family.
Just roosters.
Then a siren – almost church bells –
Not quite.
Amelia notices something, so I start to listen.
A motorcycle rumbles to a stop out front. And then a car engine.

And two more blasts puncture my last hope.
I don’t know how long it is between them.
Long enough for every time I think it’s almost maybe safe to crawl from under the bed, they return to liquefy my nerves.
Always in twos – a funny coincidence – just how many people sleep in each room.
Always in twos, and nothing else.
Just tiny footsteps.
Sounds of dragging.
Bags or bodies, I don’t know.

I imagine everyone who is left in the same position as myself: now under the same bed as Amelia, suctioned to the wall behind a blanket. Hoping that maybe, maybe they won’t see us. Just take the bags and go.
My final happy thought now is the lack of screams. They must be good aim – one shot – no hostages.
A big diesel engine rolls up out front. Hopefully this is the truck for our bags.
I think about which would be worse for me and for you and for my parents – to die instantly, or to be a tortured captive with hope of freedom. My dad’s fears echo in my mind and it floods with visions of dark cells and my piercings being tied to a pickup truck, running until I stumble. Always stumbling. I await the bursting open of the door. I have to watch because my blood pressure is deafening. Every blast ricochets through every muscle, bringing with it uncontrollable spasms.
Footsteps sound in the courtyard in front of the wooden box we call a room. A tiny knocking sound: Amelia thinks it’s Maria telling everyone it’s okay.
I don’t think so.
Maria and Aleks stayed at a different hotel. This is a foreigner hostel. No one staying here has phones that work, or who would I call, even if I did?
No one has anything to defend themselves with.
No one has anything.
No one can do anything.
We’ve been parading ourselves around town with all our fancy cameras like a fucking procession, from studio to set, every person’s hands filled with expensive equipment. They watch us all day. They know where we sleep.
The sun is coming up.

Fireworks, says Amelia.
That hissing, there? They are fireworks.
There is no dragging. No bags, nor bodies. Just the muffled crackle of a dynamite wick. A motorcycle drives away. Then two more. The shots stop.
I hear water running.
Someone has made it to the shower alive.
I creep out from the bed to peer out the window. I start to hear the noises of the cleaning lady, probably, just bustling. It takes twenty minutes for the geriatric to bathe and exit and not get shot and my heart to realize I might not be dying tonight.

It takes another hour to find out that those murderous roars were just ceremonial sounds drifting over from the church. My death bringer, my life bringer, my 4am heart stopper, just your average every day break of dawn church cannons. All in the name of God.

(How animal is fear, when God is near.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Break On Through

       My moment of clarity came to me during the 33rd annual celebration of the liberation of the city of Esteli. During the chaotic celebration I began to slow down my rapid fire photography and put my camera down and look at what was actually happening around me. I ceased photographing the event and began to focus on the people involved in the event. The event was of course very much a celebration that much was obvious but there was something deeper going on that I was picking up on as well that the photographs revealed to me later as well. The event was obviously very political in nature due to the fact that it was celebrating the Sandinista revolution which is the current leading political party in Nicaragua but there was more to it than met the eye. The event was very much controlled by a solid and present police force and the fervor that was being riled up for the revolutionary celebration was being funneled into the upcoming political elections and the reelection of Daniel Ortega who is already known to be slowly twisting the politics of Nicaragua so that he may remain in power at his own will. The emotion that the Nicaraguans felt for their revolutionary ancestors and for their country was being used as a manipulative tool to reelect Ortega. The crowd would continue to put their hands in the air with two fingers raised up as though displaying the universal hand signal for peace, but in reality they where proudly showing which ballot they would check off in the next election. Children raised and waved FSLN flags with pride and intense elation and I wondered... about the direction of the Nicaraguan political future.


 These feelings and emotions I experienced during this day of celebration where reflected in the photographs I had created that day and sparked my inspiration for the personal work I would create while in the country. I began to create a short but compact and in depth photo essay in my head and on paper about my speculations and observations of the direction of Nicaraguan politics and the role the Sandinistas and the revolution played in all this. I plan to begin to compile first hand information from the friends I have made in the country as well as research that I have collected on my own prior to and during my stay. Using this information I will write my essay with a clear point of view backed by concrete information. I will then back up the essay with first hand photographs taken on 6x7 120 film illustrating my point while providing artistic and journalistic substance to the work.

Nuevo y Diferente

Since we arrived in Nicaragua, I've seen and experienced many things I'd never come in contact with before. For example, our second day in the country was spent at an active volcano (the first active volcano I've seen up close in real life), Volc√°n Masaya.
 Before this trip, I had never seen a cave formed by lava, 
or stared down into a crater as smoke poured out of it. 
We didn't see any hot lava up close, but given that we were only allowed to be next to the crater for 5 minutes and require to wear a hardhat the whole  time, I'd say it was active enough for me. Our tour guide was amazing, and told us to imagine we were the indigenous, who had met in the cave to decide who to sacrifice to the volcano. I was declared chief, but we never did settle on a sacrifice. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

I had never seen a private island inhabited by 
 monkeys before this trip, but now I can check that one off my list as well. Each of the first few days seemed like a surprise, even when I knew in my head what was coming. This place in its entirety is new to me; I'd never seen the soil, plants, culture of Central America before this trip. 

     The difference from home was underscored by a festival in Esteli marking the anniversary of the city's liberation from the Somosa dictatorship. It seemed to start normally enough. But quickly, the event took on a theme: Daniel Ortega. The songs blasting from the speakers were popular US tunes rewritten to glorify Nicaragua, and then more specifically, El Presidente himself. 
In a clever (but creepy) political move, Ortega was funneling the enthusiasm of the people into support for his continued reign as president. The songs even told the people which box to check off (#2) when they vote. I've witnessed political demonstrations and rallies for both ends of the spectrum in the US (which I had thought were a little too hive-mind for my taste), but none of them demonstrated the type of politicking I witnessed here. People came out to dance in the streets to celebrate the freedom of their town, and left dancing to celebrate Ortega.


It definitely made me think. Which, ironically, was the opposite of the intention. I left worried about the political state of Nicaragua, but hopeful that the people might ultimately see the difference between the idealism and the reality.

Until next time, 
this is William Spitler, 
signing off.

finding strength within myself

This is a drawing of something that happened on the first day of shooting at the Cultural Center. I was the director, something I´d never done before, and I had to make decisions about where and how to shoot our interviews. I couldn´t decide where to have Santiago interviewed, and people kept suggesting locations. Edy especially thought it would be best to interview him on the deck on the second floor, with a view of Esteli and the mountains in the background. I´ve had a lot of problems in the past with being assertive and telling people no, but this time I had no hesitation, I just told him no, that we couldn´t film outside because it was about to rain and I didn´t want to move the shoot in the middle of the interview. We found a great indoor location and as we filmed, I felt that great sense of happiness, of knowing that I had trusted myself rather than letting other people making decisions for me.

Breakthroughs and Revelations

I was writing a letter yesterday and this thought occurred to me.
"I have the luxury of a sadness the people here don't have time for. My sad story is the stuff of decent fiction. The resilience in Nicaragua is a wake-up-at-five-in-the-morning kind of burden."

Coming out of my shell

I tend to be a quiet person, and meeting new people isn't something I enjoy. I tend to stick to people I know, and I rarely strike up a conversation with strangers, because I never know what to say. Meeting the rest of the group was relatively easy because we were all experiencing Nicaragua together, we already had a common bond. Meeting the people from VIMAU was a little bit harder. Not only did I have to switch languages, but what we had in common was also limited. Although we had spent the first week working on the documentary, it wasn't until we went dancing and hung out with our Nicaraguan partners outside of the project that I really felt comfortable around them. 

This week working on the project has been a lot more fun. Even though it's not perfect, I feel like the group isn't split by language barrier, and at dinner we voluntarily mix it up. It took me a little while to come out of my shell, but now I'm a little sad that we have to leave so soon. I'm sure Limay will be great, but I would love to stay in Estelí with the people I have just started to get to know.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Before I came to Nicaragua and the first few days I was here I had no idea how I was going to learn any spanish or come to understand anything. I thought it was going to be so difficult and impossible. After a few days of just being here and being immersed into the language, I realized I knew a lot more words than I thought I did. Then, after a few days of spanish classes I realized learning this language was a lot easier than I had thought and that once I listened to people’s conversations I could easily pick out certain words and understand a bit of what people were telling me or talking about. Having Maria translating at Vimau has also helped a lot as well. Even though I know very little spanish still, and cant form that big of sentences, I know a lot more and can understand a little bit which, I feel is a big accomplishment for me considering I had thought I wouldn’t understand anything at all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Today we took a city bus to this restaurant called La Casita, the bus got in a wreck half way so we had to walk the rest of the way to breakfast. I was thankful that we got the opportunity to walk because we got to see so much more land and so much more of the city on foot. After breakfast we took the bus back to the hotel and a dance party broke out between several little girls in the middle of the bus, everyone was clapping and cheering and singing and the bus driver put on some catchy music to encourage the dancing. That is something I have definitely never seen before. It was exciting and something that I feel like would never happen on an american city bus.

los caballos de nicaragua--something i've never seen

When we were first driving through Masaya, I couldn't stop staring at the horses and the horse carts. I drew them in my sketchbook and I wrote a long journal entry about them, asking why do people still have to rely on horse carts? How is the poverty so extreme that horses are still the main mode of transportation? 

horse carts in Masaya

But after spending two weeks in the country, i've started to see that at least in the country, horses are part of the culture, part of a tradition that's full of pride and passed down from father to son. I think of the photo Meagan took of a young boy sitting on a horse wearing his hat and boots, happy to be part of the groups of men riding through the town. I think of the horse tied up outside of a store in esteli, standing calmly in its saddle while motorcycles roar and women shop and taxis beep their horns.

un caballo en esteli

I assumed people not using cars was a sign of depravity, of being sadly excluded from the modern world of technology. I see now that my tendency to pity people and wonder at the differences was a sign of all the things i don't know about this other world that is Nicaragua. I need to listen to Nicaragua, and see the wonders that are here instead of the things that are missing. 


There is beauty in the rawness – the authenticity that comes from having to work for your life. When you’re given everything from birth, you never learn the drive for survival. Your instincts boil around, dormant and muddled, shaping a convoluted sense of purpose.

(This is my life, riding the privilege to philosophical cynicism ‘art school’, wondering why I have the right to pander in institutional irony.)

And now I find myself here, insufflating the balmy aroma of fire and livestock, not fermented by industrial squalor but filtered through lush vegetation. I breathe the air, which tastes of hardy rural cleanliness - dirt and earth, not grime – and think on all the biological threats I’ve been promised.

As we pass shanties built -true 3rd world DIY – from any of the tiniest scraps, rusty metal and planks, I notice no overwhelming layer of trash. I see innumerable stray dogs, skeletal cattle and horses tied to light posts, but not one dead. No roadkill.

I think, how can this country be so toxic?

My own certainly seems to emanate more poison.

 This feels alive.

Letter to my High School Band Teacher

Dear Mrs. Bailey,

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about playing in the band. In the past few days it has all come back to me quite clearly. I’m in Nicaragua for July taking a summer community arts class. We came to Esteli with the intention of making a short documentary. When it came time to decide on a subject we voted nearly unanimously for the Youth Orchestra we had visited the day before. 

There are around fifty students taking lessons and playing in what used to be government buildings under the Somoza dictatorship. I thought about you yesterday when we interviewed the conductor, Santaigo. Watching him teach reminded me of all the hours I spent in the trumpet section.

Even though I haven't pursued music I will never forget how wonderful it felt when we finally played something perfectly, I felt so proud telling people I played in a jazz band. Improvising terrified me and made me feel invincible at the same time. I think I’ve managed to find that same feeling in the visual arts, but the things you taught me are completely irreplaceable.

Music still has a place on my bucket list and in time I’m sure I will return to it. I think the four years I spent in your classroom reinforce why this documentary is so important. In Esteli, the band represents and incredible social transformation and the capacity of music to change the course of history. Generally speaking, an instrument is a profoundly powerful weapon to give a child. Whether we carried it or not you gave us such a brilliant beginning.

Sending hugs from Nicaragua,

Emma (Amelia)

First Impression

When we first arrived in Managua, the first place we stayed at was a hotel with cabins in the rainforest on the shore of a lake that was actually a volcano filled with water. I was taken aback by how beautiful Nicaragua was, I was not expecting it to be this beautiful. Going to Esteli after Managua was very different and hard getting used to at first. Esteli is a very lovely small city though. The language barrier can be very difficult and frustrating at times but it has definitely been a positive learning experience so far. Everyone in Nicaragua are very nice and friendly and hospitable. I’ve come to learn that for a small country Nicaragua is full of pride and interesting history and background.

Something I've Never Seen Before

            I’ve never seen someone herd livestock before. When went to swim under a waterfall, our bus dropped us off on a farming family’s property. The path to the waterfall went through their fields and grazing land; at the top of the path there was a herd of grazing cows. Nicaraguan cows look very different from North American cows: they’re a creamy color and they have solid lumpy bodies with large dark eyes.
            A matronly woman guarded the path’s entrance with her pre-teen daughter and three or four-year-old son. When we were waiting for the bus back she walked out into the middle of the path making a “Duck, duck, duck” sound at the cows. In response, the herd (about five animals) came out of the trees and gathered onto the path. The woman tied up a calf and led the adults away with her voice and a switch. The little boy watched her intently from the path, occasionally imitating her “Duck, duck” sound.
            It was fascinating to observe the cows’ relationship with their owner. They recognized the woman as their superior and obeyed her, but were also intimidated by her. In America we emphasize humane treatment towards animals to the point of treating them like children. Here animals are a means of survival and people cannot afford to coddle them. Even children, whom are kept safe obsessively by North American parents, aren’t coddled here. The mother left her little boy alone with us foreigners as she went off to herd the cows. Leaving a young child alone with strangers is unheard of in the United States.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hello, I Love You (Nicaragua)

Everything about this place is lovely.  Everything.  Now that I have learned some Spanish, I am so enjoying spending time with our Nicaraguan video partners at Vimau.  They are so kind, funny and inviting, and the language barrier is becoming non-existent as we bond over our shared passions and strong work ethics.  We are making a video about the children's band at the cultural center and I'm extremely excited to see the finished product.  Thanks to technology, I know we will stay in touch via Facebook and I would love to come back and teach them traditional darkroom photography, which is something they would like to learn.  Though this would be a difficult task because of logistics, in Nicaragua, where there is a will there is a way.  I also embrace that outlook in the States and I feel like with some joined efforts we could make it work.  My father always told me the harder you work, the luckier you get, and so far throughout my entire life he's been correct.

There are many things in Nicaragua that I have never seen before, but the most captivating thus far has been the view from the bottom of the waterfall.  I live in Philadelphia and I don't leave the city very often to venture into nature.  When we walked to the waterfall yesterday and finally arrived at the clearing where we could see it, the view took our breath away.  The water was very cold but we all talked each other into going in and swimming to the waterfall.  Maria and I and some others were scared, but we had the strength to swim there because we did it together.  As a team, this group functions very well together and as we all swam toward the falls I felt as though we were kind of moving as one being.  Being behind the waterfall was surreal, it was someplace I had never been before.  Alison warned me that if I was going to swim through the falls, I would feel like it was hard to breathe.  Again, I was scared but decided to go for it.  As I swam through the forceful waterfall I felt myself lose my breath a bit, and I felt as though the water was holding onto my body - I definitely had to swim faster to pull away from it.

The most beautiful, priceless moment occurred as I rolled onto my back while emerging from the falls.  The water was rushing toward me, so powerful and amazing, and the little drops fell so slowly, as if they were suspended in time.  Watching the waterfall from that perspective made me feel so present and alive, and it was as though the water was a metaphor for my trip to Nicaragua.  It reminded me that I must take every opportunity to slow down and watch for the precious moments that are suspended in time.

Sharing My Passion For New Experiences

Well my last post was a bit lengthy and wordy so I have decided to keep this post short and simple. This post is about sharing things that I have never seen or experienced before. Here are a few key images of things that really struck me when I witnessed them. Enjoy.

A woman washing her clothes in lake Nicaragua while her children swim close by.

The shutting down of a main street in the city center to host an impromptu soccer game in front of the oldest church in Esteli.  

Seeing a panorama of the city of Esteli from the roof of an old Somoza building that has now been converted into a community arts center. 

An active volcano that used to be used for human sacrifices hundreds of years ago by native Nicaraguan indians. 

A very large waterfall in the urban farmland of Nicaragua, perfect for swimming under to escape the intense heat of the hour long hike it takes to get there.

More to come soon. Hope you enjoyed the images.