Posts Tagged ‘ABYM’

Red Flags come in all shapes and sizes. From relationship red flags, to red flags at work, they are there to help protect you from danger.

Red flags in Nicaragua (and a lot of Central American countries) tend to fall into two categories: conceptual and literal.

Some conceptual red flags include street drunks speaking English, children asking for money (as discussed in ABYM #9), anyone offering help in a market, anyone offering help with taxis, and people telling you there is only one of something.

Eye patches tend to be a dead giveaway….


There are a lot of educated Nicaraguans who can speak English in this country, but there are also a lot of people who live in touristy areas who have picked up English by growing up or living around tourists. Now, this skill should be celebrated, but unfortunately it is most commonly used as a way to mildly scam tourists. As I listed above, normally when people “help” you get a taxi or buy stuff in the market, it is because they approached you with English.


What really happens is many times they will forcibly inject themselves into any conversations with local merchants or taxi drivers and then demand a fee for their “help” from either the tourist, the cab driver, or both. They also can tell which kinds of tourists will be willing to give money and which won’t and so the only real loser is the merchant or the taxi driver.

Pro-Tip: This chicken is dead. Don’t buy it for lunch.


This type of situation generally arises when they ask you in English where you are from, what is your name etc, and most tourists have a strong sense of political correctness and are uncomfortable shooing them away or tell them to get lost. They are aware of this, and the more polite the tourist, the more assertive they are in taking control of any transactions that arise.

It is difficult to adjust to, but similar to telling street children to go away, you need to be very clear, and very confident that they are not needed. If (and usually when) they aren’t responding to the initial confident but courteous no, you just need to be a dick and tell them to leave you alone.


as long as you can juggle fire, English is not necessary

The red flag in this case boils down to this question: “If you can speak English…why are you street hustling?”

English is a very lucrative skill in these countries, Nicaragua especially. Anyone with fluent or near fluent English normally has very little trouble finding work. So their intentions are immediately called into question if they are using this skill on hapless tourists.

Tour guides like this rarely have trouble finding work


The other type of red flag (or pink in some cases) is a flag used by farmers and cowboys to indicate that cows are crossing the highway. This is very important to look out for as often the cattle trains encompass the entire highway for up to a few hundred meters. If you don’t see the flagger (or he wasn’t there in this case) this happens:

We fought the cow…and the…cow won.


In this case, the flagger on the East side was in the midst of the cattle, thereby rendered useless. It didn’t help that the driver was facing a setting sun at 5pm in the afternoon.

This incident taught me a lot about Nicaraguan law. For instance, it is the farmer’s fault if someone hits their cow while crossing the road and it is normal protocol to immobilize the cow immediately to identify its….cow number. I am sure there is a more specific word, but for all intents and purposes it is a VIN for a cow. Let’s call it a CIN.

This is how they should look in Nica


In addition, hit and runs can occur, but not in the way you think. In this particular instance, after striking the cow, the cowboy rushed all the cows (including the culprit cow) off into the sunset, thereby preventing the driver from getting a positive CIN.

Fortunately, communities are small here, and a local community member got a positive ID on the dastardly cow and was able to assist us and authorities to find out who it belonged to.

Look how guilty he looks….


That being said, the cops told us that they are an aggressive family and might come at us with machetes if we don’t send in a 3rd party lawyer first.

So next time you are in a fender bender and can calmly exchange information with the person without fear of violent machete death, take a moment to put things into perspective and be happy you aren’t driving in Nicaragua.

They keep one in the glove box…..always ready



If you had asked me 4 years ago if I ever planned on visiting Latin America, I would have responded with an emphatic no. Maybe it was all of the nature shows called “World’s Most Terrifying Insects” putting 8 of the top 10 somewhere in Latin America, or the stories (read: TV and Movie plot lines) about rampant kidnappings in South America, the whole thing was unappealing.

“Don’t mind me, I’m just crawling casually into your nightmares”

If you had asked me 2 and a half years ago if I would ever go here, after a dejected sigh that can only come from months of underemployment and job seeking, I would’ve said: “I don’t know…..for work I guess.”

So then when I was actually asked to go here for work almost 2 years ago, it was with subdued reluctance that I decided (conditionally) to come down here.

“So what convinced you to come down here? Was it the money?….yeah it was the money wasn’t it.”

Typically, I am reluctant but willing to do a lot of new stuff. I am fully aware that for the most part, I always enjoy new things. Despite that knowledge, I almost invariably need that extra push to try something. This “push” sometimes can be as small as a simple question asking me to try or do something, to more complex incentives.

The myriad of different experiences I have had in the last two years has taught me that one’s openness to new and/or uncomfortable situations doesn’t only reflect what activities they engage in, but defines who they are and in some ways, what they are capable of.

Turns out I am really good at riding apathetic cows

There is no right or wrong way to experience life, and as always, either extreme is usually not the best choice. Someone who lives a simple life who never experiences anything new is missing out just as much as someone who never stops chasing the world is missing the beauty of slowing down to focus on a few things.

Everyone has their own balance. That said, most people tend to be heavy on the safe side of the spectrum, and could do with a little branching out.

There are people I have met that view my life as a toe-in-the-water version of international travel. Conversely, I have met others who revere the very same experiences in a manner that would make you think I was bushwhacking jungles on Pandora. It is all a matter of perspective.

Pictured: Voracious terrastrial testudine with a reinforced plastron dining on a helpless meal

As you know by now, Nicaragua is crazy. Living here has been the coolest, weirdest and most rewarding time in my whole life. There is no single piece of advice I can give to someone that I will stress harder than to go learn another language. I don’t mean learn Spanish or German in a classroom. I am talking about living in a country, surrounded only by people who speak that language. Use a class to prepare, but then just leave it at that. Language is so much more than just a translation of words and sounds; it is a complete projection of who you are, what you are thinking and is framed within the cultural context of where you come from.

When you become fluent not only in the language but the culture of another place, it feels as if you have earned a second life. You can talk and genuinely be yourself yet sound and look absolutely nothing like you do in your original language and culture.

“ehhh ‘oo iz dis Sam joo spek of? Me llamo SannFrancisco Cantorrrr….soy de Nicaragua”

As I come up on two years here, I like to think of the experience to be similar to me trying Sopa de Juevos de Toro (Bull testicle soup). It took me a while to really give it a try. After I did I realized how delicious it is. And even after all this time there are still some lumpy parts with odd texture that you never fully get used to.

What the heck is this?…..

Working in Nicaragua is…..interesting. It is nothing like working in the US. Everything from employer/employee relations to work attitudes, it is simply a different animal. The biggest difference stems from the public education system. If you think the “memorize this and regurgitate on the test” style of teaching can be bad in the states, I can assure you it exists on a whole different level here. In the US people criticize teaching styles that don’t involve enough critical thinking. Here all education involves exactly zero critical thinking. In most places, it is literally “copy these words, repeat them on the test when asked this exact question.” You could pass classes here without even knowing Spanish just by memorizing the letters and their order. One of the Peace Corps volunteers is always explaining to me how impossibly frustrating it is to teach classes here simply because any departure from this system is met with immediate failure.

Cheating: Not necessary in Nicaragua.


This unfortunately translates into a good chunk of the local population that doesn’t think critically, and by extension, employees who don’t think critically.

My bosses explained a lot of these concepts to me when I first started working down here. The boss/employee dynamic here does not, by way of the education system, yield a well managed worker who can solve problems independently as you can find in other places. Instead you have a system wherein the employee carries out any and all demands by the supervisor without any introspection as to the practicality, purpose, logic or function of the task given. This is because the system is built on a hierarchy of responsibility. In many jobs here in Nicaragua, the employee is absolved of any responsibility for any action, regardless of the stupidity, provided the action was EXACTLY what the supervisor told them to do.


“He said turn the crane East. He didn’t specify on which axis.”

A funny example of this is when my 3 bosses were in camp and needed a hotel room in the capital for the night. One of my bosses made an obvious joke to an administrator about how they will all stay in the same room and share one twin bed. Another boss, knowing the consequences of such a joke, made it abundantly clear to her that it was a joke, and that they needed 3 separate rooms. However, because the boss who made the joke has authority over her while the other boss who clarified the situation does not, when they got to the hotel, they of course had only one room, with one bed.


“……..I may have jokingly mentioned it was my anniversary……my bad guys.”

This behavior makes for an exhausting work environment where you will make an excruciatingly specific plan to buy something, build something etc only to not verbalize one seemingly obvious detail and have it left out yielding the whole operation useless.

Printers without ink, with the wrong ink, different cables, more $300 surge protector/power regulators than outlets, duplicate electronics bought by different people, absurd car trips for unnecessary items, sending away a critically important field truck for a week to fix the A/C etc. ad infintum. It is all simply an attitude you have to adjust to. If you were working somewhere else, your level of detail in explaining tasks and requests would be condescending and met with animosity. Here you are simply being prudent and giving the necessary amount of instructions.


“Ok…but you didn’t say DON’T block the road with the tree…that’s all I’m sayin’…..”


At this point I feel obliged to point out how important it is to understand the different cultural context. It has nothing to do with intelligence or stupidity, it is simply a cultural difference. In Japan in some business circles it is considered rude not to get hammered with your boss as it is a sign of how comfortable you are with your coworkers. Staying sober says you don’t trust either yourself or them when you are drunk. Obviously in the US getting obliterated at a work function is highly frowned upon and will usually get you fired. Different cultures, different rules. The Nicaraguan work culture is simply centered around covering your ass. At any moment you need to be able to point upwards and demonstrate clearly: “He told me to do this, I did it. It’s his fault that the request was stupid.”

This hierarchy of culpability manifests itself in several ways. The most common of which is when you are trying to find something and asking for help. Because the office is an area of shared space, everyone has access to a lot of shared items. These shared items are simultaneously everyone’s responsibility and no one’s. Therefore every single time you ask for help finding something you are met with a very emphatic, clear, absolute no. The assuredness of their “I don’t know where it is” is almost unbelievable sometimes. It’s almost as if they are claiming they didn’t know it ever existed, much less who used it last.

“What is this “Stääplorr” you speak of? I have heard whispers of such a device but ne’er in the 22 winters that have passed whilst I live and breath have I laid eyes on this contraption.”

This of course is because the item is a shared item, and if they help look for it, or admit to using it last, it can be construed as their fault that it was misplaced.


The differences in management style notwithstanding, the real concern is who you hire. Between the socialist revolution and land distribution, the annual free handouts from Daniel Ortega, and the neverending stream of foreign aid through NGO’s, many rural Nicaraguans are extremely conditioned to getting something for nothing. Again, all these influences are simply historical events that have affected the way a lot of them view aid. You have local populations who have either never had a job in their entire life, or the only job that they did have was working for a rich landowner who may have stiffed them of their pay, or had them work for practically nothing. This is then complicated by the fact that the only connection to foreigners that these communities have is through missionaries and NGO’s. While kind-hearted, many of these charitable works end up doing more harm than good, as the assistance they provide is often temporary, but the mentality they instill is permanent. Some communities will acquiesce to a simple concept of gringo-dependence, and will forever wait in frustration for more and more foreign aid.


Knowing this, it is not so difficult to understand why a merit-based employment system is such a foreign concept. Work ends up being rationalized as a right instead of an earned privilege, thereby upsetting the most basic tenet of the employer/employee relationship. This leads to tremendous problems when you try and fire someone, as they don’t recognize your right to terminate their employment. It is similar to working for a company and you are the supervisor of the CEO’s son or daughter. You can’t simply fire them like anyone else, the situation is far more delicate and has a different set of rules. Every person you hire has to be considered in two ways, both how they will perform under your employ, and also how they will conduct themselves after you fire them (if you fire them of course.) You have to develop a very keen sense of all the different intents of the people you hire, and whether or not they will try and sabotage your efforts if they don’t feel they are getting what they “deserve.”


“Fired?!!? For what?”


After long enough, your mindset simply settles in to accepting all these cultural differences and you will behave accordingly without even thinking. Like working in any foreign culture, your attitudes and sensitivities have to adapt to the environment, in that respect, Nicaragua is no different.


“No. I don’t care how cool you look in those sunglasses…you can’t drive the truck.”


Go get a pineapple. Right now. It’s ok, I’ll wait.

Ok. So this part is easy, cut up the pineapple into some slices and put it in a bowl. Mash it up a little, but don’t get crazy now. Ok. Now put your semi-mashed up pineapple bowl in the freezer.



Here’s the hard part.

Wait 6-8 hours for it to freeze completely.

6 hours?!

Depending on the power of your freezer, you might need less time. Our freezer in Nicaragua sucks so I like to let it sit overnight.

Ok, now it should look like this.

Helado de Pina…puro magico

Take a knife and stab at that bad boy a bit until you can cut off a piece of it like you would a pie. Put it in a mug or some other reasonable container and enjoy.


This has become my absolute favorite dessert. Something about being frozen makes pineapples even better.

A word of warning. If the container is ceramic and you leave it out for more than a minute or so, the condensation on the bottom of the bowl will build up and freeze when you put it away. This small amount of water is enough to form an ice sheet on the bowl and make it slide around on the counter.

One night, after a fair amount of Rum and Cokes…..I went to get myself some of this fantastic tropical treat. I set the bowl down on the counter and walked two feet to grab a fork when I heard a loud smash. Fortunately I found the frozen sheet of ice laying next to the bowl, thereby relieving my brain of all kinds of crazy scenarios that I had envisioned such as me being drunk and putting the bowl half off of the counter, or Nicaraguan poltergeists playing tricks on me.

Shattered bowl…..shattered dreams

Luck happened to be on my side that fateful night, as the Helado de Pina, being the best dessert ever, was even able to stave off its own destruction by using the frozen strands of pineapple to hold the bowl together, thereby allowing me to eat more of it, and even save some for later.

The dessert lives to see another day…

I don’t always eat fruit that has been on the floor……but when I do…’s frozen pineapple.



Sometimes you have to leave the U.S. to really appreciate all the little things that protect you and make life easier. Everyone in America was raised to “always look both ways before crossing the street.” I remember as a kid thinking “gah, why do we have to stop EVERYTIME only to gape in both directions, obviously there are no cars. This is dumb.” What I didn’t realize at the time was how this repetitive classical conditioning creates the association of approaching a street with checking for traffic before crossing. Even just reading that sentence, it seems so axiomatic that it’s almost not even worth saying. Of course you look both ways, it’s a freakin’ street. Combine this with constant parental insistence on not playing in the street, never chasing your ball into the road, and never getting into cars with strangers, and you have a very comprehensive set of habits and associations that keep you safe as a child and an adult.


How many Nicaraguans does it take to break back into your own truck?


Down here they have none of that. People get hit by cars all the time. It’s crazy. I’ve seen mothers carrying their baby cross a busy highway without looking even once. I’ve been in the car LITERALLY hundreds of times where we had to swerve or slam on the brake to avoid someone absent-mindedly crossing the road. It happens 2-3 times a week minimum, even in the areas where we are always driving. Combine this with the general absence of traffic laws and you get a place with a lot of automobile accidents and fatalities.


There are all kinds of different highway street performers….most of them are fire jugglers or clowns….


In the 19 months I have been here I have seen 2 police cars outside of Managua, the capital city. Traffic is basically self-regulated everywhere outside of there. For the most part, surprisingly, it works. People pass each other like they have a huge bet in Vegas on a fiery car crash, but I think the overall crappyness of all of the cars actually works to keep speeds very low. The speed limits are around 65 kph (~40mph) and a lot of cars barely can even hit the speed limit because they are so busted down (or are carrying an absurd amount of weight.) Also, cars are insanely expensive relative to not only the median Nicaraguan wage, but to U.S. cars. We bought some used trucks for $18,000 each, and that was after some successful haggling. Basically anywhere south of the border has cheap everything, but expensive cars and electronics, so most people here have neither cars nor a lot of electronics. These factors definitely combine to make the actual road fatality numbers a lot lower than you would expect.


One of my guys has this for his driver’s license picture. Yes this is a valid driver’s license. Yes that is a picture of him as a baby.


All this aside, the actual inspiration for this rule came from an epiphany I had whilst we almost hit some lady with our car. But first I will back up.

From my office/house to one of the drill sites it is about 33 minutes in a truck, the road is not very good so we can’t go very fast, maybe 25 mph tops on some of the smoother areas. The last 4 months I have had to make this trip almost every day, and so I found ways to occupy the time. Whether it be buying Harry Potter on tape in German and using that 33 minutes (66 round trip) to try to expand my language skills, sleeping, or by getting to know the locals. One of the locals who I pass everyday is this blind man named Pichardo. Surprisingly enough, he is one of the people who is never in the path of the truck when we are driving to site. It is a gravel road so the truck makes a lot of noise, and he hears it distinctly from about 100m away. He will turn and whistle at us right when we are passing him. This hearing dominant perspective of the world is pretty common with blind people everywhere.

An interesting thing occurs when we have two trucks going to the field. Because it is such a low traffic road (~5 cars a day including us) it’s generally safe to assume that there is only one car. So when we are driving with two he will often get out of the way upon hearing the first car and start walking back to the middle of the road in the path of the second car before it has to honk and alert him of its presence. The overwhelming sound of the first car washes out the sound of the second one.


Nicaraguans, known for their savvy use of space, never waste the roof of a bus

After seeing him walk back into the road after a first car I was keen to see if normally sighted locals do it too. Interestingly enough, over the course of the last several months I noticed that almost everyone locates cars this way, blind or not. Nearly every time we have two cars it occurs where they will hear it coming, get out of the way and without even looking back, walk right back into the middle of the road. The only times they will turn their head and use their eyes is when they need a ride, as we are the only ones who ever gives anyone a ride.

After noticing this I started seeing it everywhere. On the highway, people use the sound of approaching cars to move away but rarely turn back and look. This might be one of the main reasons they tend not to look for cars when crossing the road as they normally check by listening. Of course in comparison, this is a far more dangerous way to conduct oneself around roadways. From noise pollution drowning out the sound of other cars to the simple difference in the velocity of the waves (the speed of light is 873,000 times faster), obviously looking for cars is superior to listening to them.

Really the bottom line is that you can’t blame anyone for this. Most of the people here didn’t grow up around cars like Americans. Cars in America are so ubiquitous it is unbelievable. It is almost perfectly opposite in impoverished countries. In the U.S. it is odd if you don’t have access to a car and even weirder if you don’t have your driver’s license. But down here it’s perfectly understandable why no one talks about street safety or car safety. Even the animals don’t yield the road to cars. You have to drive around all the street dogs otherwise you will actually run them right over, no matter how slow you are going.
This all brings me back to the rule. The few people that do drive, drive like maniacs. No stop signs. No passing safety. No seat belts. So if you do go to Central America or Nicaragua specifically, keep your head sharp near roads and definitely always look both ways.


Oh and always say Guat Zap to the locals.

Obviously, one of the perks of my job is being able to visit other places besides Nicaragua.

I especially like taking pictures from the plane, no matter how many times I get asked “Is this your first time flying?”


I figured I’d post some good scenery shots from different places.

Las Flores, Guatemala



Tikal, Guatemala



Lago de Coatepeque, El Salvador



Mt. Rainier in Washington


San Francisco, California



River over Phoenix, Arizona



Our front porch, around sunset


Somewhere over CO



A perfect example of why you should never forget to put permethrin on your clothes was recently brought to my attention. One of my coworkers, a geologist in his late forties, had recently developed a moderately severe allergy to red meats. It had started a couple months after he began work down here, and had never been an issue at all previously in his life.

It started with steaks and hamburgers. He would eat one and 3-6 hours later would come down with hives, intense itching, rashes and at some times shortness of breath and lung constriction. After several episodes, he determined it was the steak and burgers that were inducing the reactions. Now at this point he could still consume pig products and certain other leaner red meats. Yet as the months dragged on, one by one different meats began yielding the same allergic reactions. Ham…bacon….lamb…..venison. They all eventually came off the menu.

During this time, he had noticed that chicken, turkey and fish did not yield the same reaction, and so they slowly became the main source of protein for his diet.

Busty redheads always have the answers

The underlying cause and sudden onset of this rather severe allergy still being unknown, he simply avoided red meat. Every once in a while he would try a piece here or accidentally ingest a piece there, and everytime it would yield stronger effects.

Several weeks ago after a routine workout he made his normal whey protein shake like he had been doing for years. Unfortunately, this too eventually led to the same allergic reaction several hours later. At this point, somewhat serendipitously (but also out of concern for his health), his wife stumbled upon a bizarre article relating southeastern US (Carolinas, Virginia, etc) tick bites to sudden onset meat allergies. After hearing this from him I found some articles online describing this documented condition as something called an Alpha-Gal allergy.

A link from the article’s frequently asked questions page sums it up nicely:

“When certain people are bitten by ticks or chiggers, the bite appears to set off a chain of reactions in the body.  One of these reactions is the production of an allergic class of antibody that binds to a carbohydrate present on meat called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, also known as alpha-gal.

Galactose-Alpha 1,3 Galactose…..the Vin Diesel of the carbohydrate class antibodies.

When a person with the alpha-gal antibody eats mammalian meat, the meat triggers the release of histamine.  Histamine is a compound found in the body that causes allergic symptoms like hives, itching and, in the worst case, anaphylaxis (a reaction that leads to sudden weakness, swelling of the throat, lips and tongue, difficulty breathing and/or unconsciousness).

This allergy is different from other food allergies like peanut allergy in that the response is delayed.  Unlike someone with a peanut allergy who has an immediate reaction when they eat a peanut, people with the alpha-gal allergy do not start having symptoms until several hours after they eat meat.

“Hmmmm….maybe that 72oz steak challenge wasn’t a good idea…”

What exactly is mammalian meat?

Mammalian meat is any meat that comes from a mammal.  This includes beef, pork, lamb, venison, goat and bison.  Chicken, turkey and fish are not mammals and therefore do not have alpha-gal.”


Beef….it’s what’s causing your anaphylaxis.

At this time, the condition is permanent, with only anecdotal evidence suggesting a decreased sensitivity over time (which includes avoidance of meat and more tick bites.) The allergic reaction has also been known to be triggered by certain dairy products, products in contact with mammalian red meat, gelatin based products (gelcap medications, candies etc) and whey protein powders.

My coworker has not been to the southeastern US in years, and has only had one tick bite in the last several years, occurring here in Nicaragua, weeks before initial symptoms began occurring. Like many others, he reported this tick bite to be unusually itchy compared to previous tick bites in his life.

So what’s the bottom line? Well, in some respects it could be a blessing in disguise. Eliminating all red meats from a diet and replacing them with fish and chicken would be in near universal agreement as a healthier dietary lifestyle, yet the physical obligation to abstain from those foods is certainly undesired. Anti-histamines lessen the symptoms, but from what he says they sound pretty horrific even despite the sweet bliss of a serious Benadryl buzz.

So remember kids, unless you want nature to force you to be a steadfast vegetarian, don’t forget your damn permethrin.

Look at it….look at the horror so you never forget your Permethrin…