January 2011

The town water system in León was shutdown for nearly 48 hours last weekend.  Rumors were that an electical plant failed to provide the energy needed to pump water.  The water stopped before dawn on Friday, and didn’t come on until late Saturday night.

Luckily, I live in the Sutiaba neighborhood – the old indigenous part of the city – and we are already lucky enough to have a water cut nearly every single day.  I’ve learned well the Nica habit of filling up tubs and and plastic trash cans every night before I go to bed while the water pressure is good.  If I don’t make it out of bed by 6:30 am, I’m bathing with a bucket and a little plastic bowl.  Since I often work outside the house, it’s not such a big deal.  A nuisance, but it’s necessary to have patience with these things living abroad, and it’s not like I’m alone.  Sutiaba is a rather large neghborhood of León, a city of 150,000, so I am accompanied every day in my bucket baths by hundreds of other folks dealing with the same.

48 hours is different.  For the first day, all is well.  Blissfully ignorant, while the rest of the city panicked we just used our barrels of water like we do every day.  Until when the problem wasn’t fixed, we discovered we couldn’t fill them up again that night.

Rumors flew – the farm six blocks south and 3 km west was giving out water if you bring a truck and barrels, the neighbor’s brother-in-law’s cousin has a well two blocks north, the town paid for 5,000 gallons of water for the hospital but aren’t doing anything for the rest.  Trucks started passing in the street shouting, “Water for sale!” while the pulperias on the corner spiked the prices of bottled water.

What’s the first thing you think of when you realize there is no more water?  Drinking.  I need water to drink.  If not, I’m paying for whatever I drink – soda or bottled juice or drinks.

Bathing – Nica’s are impecably clean, very aware that the combined effects of the hot tropical sun on skin pores leads to sweat and unpleasant stink.  No one ever leaves the house before bathing.  I wonder if perfume sales rose during the 48 hours?

Washing – well, the dishes in the sink sure gathered flies for two days.  I half expected the health ministry to close the downtown restaurants and bars, but they stayed open.  I consulted a friend and found they paid to have water trucked in from outside the city in barrels in order to keep business up and running.  And the laundry can wait, for a little while at least.

But Flushing Toilets can not wait.  In the photographs published about the situation, I wonder how much of the water, refered to as “the vital liquid” in one of the national newspapers, ended up being used to flush?  The joke became that even precious rum became more valuable as a potential liquid to flush toilets than as a drink.  The situation in public restrooms was dire.

Only 0.63% of the world’s water is potable at any given moment; the rest is held in salt-water oceans, ice caps, glaciers, bodies of organisms like us and plants, and in vapor.  When there were five people in my house during the water cut, half of our saved water went to flushing the toilet.  All of a sudden a difficult situation becomes desperate – do I drink and hold it in, or be thirsty but relieve myself?  What a terrible decision!

Our solution was clear – go to Achuapa, where the community we visit not only has water but also has dry composting toilets.  A much more technified and improved version of an outhouse, the dry composting toilets separate urine and feces, eliminating odors and allowing the feces to dehydrate and compost faster.  Not only did they have water in Achuapa (they all have their own wells) but the toilets don’t need any water anyway.  Hand-pumping your own water certainly helps you get your priorities straight – water for drinking please, not for the can!

Many people say the next world war will not be fought over petroleum but over water.  Clean potable water is already a scarcity in many tropical countries – without increasing the amount of water uban dwellers flush away un-drinkable.  If the 48 hour scurry for water in Leon lasted any longer, there would have been a serious hygienic disaster.  And our continued contamination of potable water makes that frighteningly  not so far in the future.

On a recent trip to the isletas in Granada, I nearly completed my quest to find every fruit and flower mentioned in Carlos Mejia Godoy’s famous song, Nicaragua Nicaragüita (lyrics at the end of this post). Someday I will have the opportunity to try some “mielita de Tamagas” (honey from Tamagas) and then the song will truly be complete for me.

While we were on a boat touring around the islets, I asked about large coconut sized brown fruits hanging off of a tree I didn’t recognize, and our tour guide Ramon told me they were Jilincoche. Later, he pulled the boat over underneath one and broke off this long yellow spike that looked like a mangrove seed.

No one knew what it was. He pinched the top and the petals magically disconnected themselves and opened, revealing a tangle of crimson stamen inside. The crew of tourists appropriately “oohed”, and then the drama was over and the banana-peel like petals flopped down.

The attention-demanding presence of the dramatic Jilincoche flower differs greatly from it’s floral partner in the first verse, the “siempre viva” (ever-bloomings). Siempre viva is the common name for globe amaranth, or Gomphrena. The spanish name is very appropriate, as the dry globular flowers will maintain their color for over a year after they are picked. With my limited florists background (limited to arranging dried flowers to sell at a farmstore), I would never pair Jilincoche and siempre viva together in a bouquet.

“La frutita de tigüilote” is a very small translucent berry, sweet and extremely slimy in texture. I gagged. The branches of the tree will sprout roots just by sticking them in the soil, and they are often used as living fence posts. The leaves and berries are a popular herbal remedy for parasites.

“Jocote tronador” is a variety of the very locally popular Nicaraguan Jocote fruit, similar to a small dry plum with a big pit. Tronador (from the same root as trueno, thunder?) refers to the fact that this variety of jocote has particularly crisp skin and sweet softer flesh, so that when you first bite into the fruit it makes a very satisfactory cracking noise. I have only found this particular jocote variety in the market once, and I love them.

“Pejibay” are palm fruits, botanically miniature coconuts. The coconut equivalent is a round inedible rock hard seed, surrounded by an orange fibrous flesh that would be the thick pithy rind around a coconut. They grow on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, and are cooked in salt water. A “cogoyito” refers to the way they grow, in clusters like grapes. The taste is something between an artichoke heart and chestnut, nutty and starchy. I could eat them for hours.

“Granito de Maiz” is a grain of corn, essential to Nicaraguan cuisine and health. They are sown in the furrows of nearly every single Nicaraguan farm with great hope and faith in their harvest.

Marañon is cashew fruit, and it’s juice is indeed “dulce y elaste” (sweet and elastic).” It also has the most bitter aftertaste imaginable, and completely puckered my mouth up the first and only time I have tried it. Check out the elastic drop of Marañon juice hanging off of Edgar’s hand.

Which leaves me at the final verse and my last remaining challenge, the mielita de Tamagas.  Together, the pictures unite some of Nicaragua’s most exotic and most common fruits and flowers in a sticky, sweet and colorful image of Nicaragua.


Ay Nicaragua, Nicaragüita

Recibe como prenda de mi amor

este ramo de siempreviva y jilincoches

que hoy florecen para vos

Cuando yo beso tu frente pura

beso las perlas de tu sudor

mas dulcita que la frutita del tigǖilote

y el jocote tronador.


Ay Nicaragua, Nicaragüita

mi cogoyito de pejibay

mi pasion se enterro en el surco de tu querencia

como un granito de maiz

tu saliva es dulce y elaste

como la sabia del maraňon

que restaňa con alegria

todos los días

mi rebelde corazon

que restaňa con alegria

todos los días

mi rebelde corazon


Ay Nicaragua Nicaragüita

La flor mas linda de mi querer

Abonada con la bendita, Nicaragüita,

Sangre de Diriangen.

Ay Nicaragua sos mas dulcita

Que la mielita de Tamagas

Pero ahora que ya sos libre, Nicaragüita,

Yo te quiero mucho mas

Pero ahora que ya sos libre, Nicaragüita,

Yo te quiero mucho mas.


Carlos Mejia Godoy