A visit to San Marcos, Ometepe

“Number 9 across. Pineapple. Five-letter word,” I announced to Dorita, wedging myself backwards to face her in my bus seat. “Is there another word for pineapple?” After remaining stumped for a few minutes and realizing it was impossible to write legibly due to the bumpy bus ride, we moved on to the horoscopes. Dora subtly protested that Catholics don’t believe in astrology, but she gave up with a laugh after I started reading aloud.

“Capricorn: Don’t mix emotions with finances. Love is in your destiny and if you act quickly, you can establish a good future for both of you.” Both Capricorns agreed that the reading wasn’t particularly convincing today, just in time to yell at the bus driver to stop and let us off near the church.

* * *

Giggles spread throughout the crowd as a mother beckoned her small sticky son to join her in front of their new latrine. She used the customary “tsst” click of the tongue to catch his attention, and hurry him along. They stood there, mother and son, in front of their outhouse, readying themselves for the photo I was about to take. As was their tradition now, with the San Marcos community finishing their 106th latrine, this family wouldn’t have dared use their latrine until a representative of the Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Island Association had come to visit and take a photo. At first glance it might appear to be an odd scene – a family posing in front of their outhouse – but their serious expressions created an atmosphere of such pride and dignity, that nothing seemed amiss.

We walked as a group – mostly women, with two male leaders – from house to house. After each photo I took, the women would thank me repeatedly with hugs and kisses. In part, I kindly accepted their gratitude, but I also redirected it to the success of their community, my coworker, and my predecessors.

All that I did was show up that day to take their picture, an act incomparable to the long hours each family had sweat – digging deep into the earth, lugging volcanic rocks from community land, and cooking meals for the mason who finished the work they had begun. They deserved to be congratulated for this project, not me. But Dorita, sensing my discomfort, spoke quickly and simply, “This is their moment. They want to share it with you.”

After eight latrines they invited us to stop for a rice and ginger beverage at Don Julian’s house. Someone turned on the radio and proposed an impromptu dance party, producing more giggling; no dancing however. A distinct clucking sound cut through the music as a boy delivered two chickens to us, one for me and one for Dorita. As far as I knew, these would be the third and fourth chickens San Marcos has gifted to the office, with one currently residing in my backyard.

After our short rest we continued with the final two latrines, our boisterous chickens drawing the attention of onlookers. They pointed out proper-sized roosters, promising to bring me one the following week. One family asked us to wait as they gathered two bags full of dried black beans, still hot from the afternoon sun, their harvest splayed out on a tarp in their front yard. Another family lugged a squash the size of a newborn baby, gingerly passing it to our hands as we began to gather to say our goodbyes.

We naturally formed a circle, Don Julian stepping into it to share his thoughts, then Dorita, then myself. This was our moment now, to share in this circle of recognition. With my new chicken under my arm, I thanked them for their kindness, hoping in some small way to balance the gratitude that had rained down on me.

We boarded the bus that evening with a bounty of gifts. I was still astonished that those families had plucked goods from their very homes, giving them to me, before even knowing my name. But then again, I realized that their gratitude did not need a name. It was the act of giving back that held the meaning for those families, just like the act of taking their picture. These were acts of one community recognizing another community – making the solidarity between us as tangible as the two chickens in my backyard.

Maggie Pettit will be writing a monthly column during her year-long stay on Ometepe Island. Please visit www.bosia.org to learn more about the sister island relationship and how to get involved.

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