Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Hallowed Ground

I had often wondered if what attracted me to Granada, Nicaragua’s cemetery—one of my favorite places in the world—was nothing more than morbidity. In other words, perhaps I had an unhealthy fascination with unwholesome thoughts or feelings, particularly about the subject of death and dying.

But last year, while visiting the cemetery yet again, I learned that what lures me there is the call of those I once knew and are now gathered together in one place. As I escorted my mother through the maze of tombs, helping her search for the final resting places of loved ones, I was stunned to discover how many names were intimately familiar to me—many of them role models during my youth. (To read more about these admirable folks, click here.)

And my mortality became all too evident that day.

That was not an unpleasant experience, however; especially because the realization took place in such a serene, comforting setting. At sunset and with the majestic Volcán Mombacho as background, to rest eternal in Granada wouldn’t be a dreadful destiny.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fodder for Fiction

Novelists can be somewhat heartless when it comes to appropriating real people and their experiences in order to recreate them as fictional characters and incidents. In this photograph, taken in the summer of 2010, my wife and I went to visit Maria Auxiliadora Pavon, in the town of La Curva, who played a vital role in the creation of Meet Me under the Ceiba. The novel is based on the real life murder of Aura Rosa Pavon, Maria Auxiliadora’s sister.

Every time I go to Nicaragua I stop by Maria Auxiliadora’s house to pay my respects and deliver a few gifts. Unfortunately, this time she was at work. I did, though, manage to visit briefly with her two daughters, who are also, of course, Aura Rosa’s nieces.

On the magical day, back in 2002, in which Maria Auxiliadora told me her sister’s life story, which provided the foundation for the novel, her two daughters were adolescents who wandered in and out of the house while I sat in the living room, absorbed by the tale and furiously taking notes. Because of this, in the fictional universe that developed afterwards, they became characters: Gema and Nubia.

Oddly, since I have yet to discuss the novel with anyone in the family, they’ve yet to discover their existence as literary characters. What’s more, they are more real to me as the personages I created for the book, than as the persons they really are.

This is a peril, I guess, of coming in contact with a writer.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Surviving The Rapture

Approximately two months ago, about an hour outside of Panama City, I was travelling along the Pan-American Highway in the company of my wife and a couple of friends. We were chatting away when I spotted this billboard announcing the arrival of Judgment Day on May 21, 2011.

Never having seen such a dire roadside advertisement before, I quickly turned to my fellow passengers, exclaiming, “Did you guys see that?”

It turned out that I was the only one who had. I informed them about what the billboard said, and they greeted my interpretation with disbelief. “Maybe you read it wrong,” one of my friends said.

Soon afterward the incident became surreal, and I started to think that I had, indeed, imagined the entire thing.

But recently the news reports—as well as this photograph taken by another friend—confirmed that what I had experienced that day had been real.

I tip my hat to the 89 year-old genius who mounted this monumentally successful publicity stunt: Harold Camping, founder of Family Radio.

I, for one, am glad that his prediction was wrong. And since we all are still here, I plan to hire Mr. Camping in the near future to promote my books.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hanging Out with a Villain

After living almost 10 years in the Republic of Panamá, I finally made it to Panamá Viejo—the historical site where the city of Panamá was originally founded in 1519, only to be destroyed by pirates serving under the Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan, in 1671.

In this photograph I am standing next to a bust honoring Pedro Arias de Ávila, better known in history books as Pedrarias Dávila. He is the founder of Panamá City, hence the tribute.

What prompted me to pose alongside Pedrarias is that, in Nicaragua, the idea of paying any sort of homage to the Governor of Castilla del Oro—as the southern half of the Central American isthmus was known back then—is inconceivable. In Nicaragua’s tortured history, in which dastardly personages abound, Pedrarias Dávila’s name ranks at the top of the list. His treatment of the indigenous population was decidedly genocidal and to a great extent is held responsible for the creation for Black Legend, which haunt Spain’s conquest of the Americas to this day. And Pedrarias’ own countrymen were not exempt from his wrath, as witnessed by the beheading of his own son-in-law, Vasco Núñez de Balboa.

The leadership of the Panama Viejo Historical Society dedicated the monument as part of their attempt to rehabilitate Pedrarias’ historical image. In response to this, I wrote “When Historians are Correct,” which appeared in The Panama News. (Click here to read)

Monday, May 9, 2011

(Re)Viewing The Wire

We don’t have cable television at home. My wife is absolutely against having it installed. She claims that I wouldn’t get much writing done, saying that I’m a television addict.

And she’s right about this. If I had cable I would sit all day on the couch, remote-control in hand, surfing the vast wasteland. (I am indebted, of course, to Marshall McLuhan for this expression.)

We do, however, have a television and a dvd player. We also have dear friends who collect excellent television series and they are kind enough to loan them to us. Among the shows we’ve watched—and we’ve seen many good ones—The Wire has settled at the top of our list of favorites.

I had seen the series before, over a year ago, during a school vacation in which my wife was travelling. The Wire hooked me early on and I was so touched at the conclusion of the final episode that I wrote the piece “The darkness beyond our front porches: on viewing The Wire,” which appeared in The Panama News (click HERE to read).

I spoke so often about The Wire that I decided to borrow it and watch it again, this time in my wife’s company. This excellent show—because of its outstanding writing, acting, and production—gained another fanatical convert after we watched the concluding episode of the fifth, and final, season.

It’s needless to add, but I shall do so anyway: We highly recommend The Wire—this series embodies the best traits of imaginative and intelligent television.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The View from La Merced

This photograph was taken from the church bell tower of La Merced, in Granada, Nicaragua. The scene faces south. The (supposedly) extinct Volcán Mombacho looms large in the background.

I had the great fortune of spending my adolescent years in this colonial city. The setting was a wondrous one in which to study Nicaraguan culture and history. I believe that my obsession with Nicaragua—as a writer, that is—is due to the enchanting spell Granada casts on every person, whether a resident or a visitor.

The sight of this volcano is one that greeted me every day I lived there. That's because seeing Mombacho is unavoidable as it is visible from every south-facing street. Its presence is imposing, majestic, and I find the name itself—Mombacho—every bit as magical as García Márquez’s Macondo.

With regard to the bell tower, I had never been to the top until a few years ago. I always had wanted to climb there, but it was prohibited in the days of my youth because of the deteriorated state of the stairs. Today, however, with Granada having become Nicaragua’s top tourist attraction repairs have been made, and anyone willing to donate $1 and exert the energy to ascend the approximately six-story challenge of steep, winding stairs will be rewarded with an unobstructed view of the city in every direction. Without a doubt, La Merced’s bell tower is the best place to gaze upon Granada.

One more note: I had always wanted to climb to the top of the bell tower because it was there that as an adolescent, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, one of Nicaragua’s most important literary figures of the 20th century, used to meet with his friends to read his poetry out loud.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Recollection

Searching through my archive of photographs this morning, I ran across one that brought back memories of my first trip to Rio Hondo—a Wounaan community in the far reaches of Panama province. A group of students and a few teachers from Balboa Academy, where I teach, ventured into this remote jungle village to deliver school supplies and to learn about the lives and culture of the Wounaan.

The only way to arrive to Rio Hondo is a seven-hour boat ride along the coast, then transfer to “pangas” for another two-hour voyage upriver. We slept in tents or in a dilapidated guest-house, fought off insects, seldom had running water, and I will restrain from describing the bathroom facilities.

But every single hardship we experienced was worth it. We shared three magical days with the Wounaan and learned much in the process—about them and about ourselves.

In the picture above two Balboa Academy students, who were seniors at the time, Juliet Goveia, with the boy on her shoulders, and Erica Mutoh, enjoy a playful moment with a couple of Wounaan children. (Juliet now attends college in British Columbia, and Erica in California).

I was so touched by the trip—as well as by this particular moment that I wrote the piece "Bupkún: Outsiders among the Wounaan," which was published a while back in My Latino Voice.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Somber Beginning for Tropical Perceptions

I start Tropical Perceptions on the day that many of my US compatriots are rejoicing over the news of the death of Osama bin Laden.

I have to confess to conflicted feelings over this event. On the one hand, I am satisfied that someone as intransigent as bin Laden is no longer able to inflict pain upon anyone, ever again.

On the other hand, the part of me that believes in a loving, compassionate world in which we all co-exist in relative peace still sees a long, difficult road ahead. Since September 11, 2001 the US has become engaged in several wars, all with the expressed purpose of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. And now that the most extreme brand of retribution has befallen “Americas #1 Enemy,” will Muslims, Christians, and Jews be able to sit at the table to negotiate a lasting peace?

An honest, open, sincere dialogue between people of all nationalities and creeds is the only means through which we can achieve the end of armed conflicts. But as long as the citizens of one nation gloat and celebrate the loss of life—even of a person as bitter and misguided as Osama bin Laden—this cherished dream is unlikely to become reality.

The images being shown throughout the world of the joyous celebrations of Americans—which, I must admit, is an impulse I also feel in my heart—will only distance us further from millions of Muslims who unfortunately will now see us, as we see them.