The Departed

CemetaryJust when I thought I’d finally mastered the art of hanging laundry during the rainy season, I woke up last Sunday to my damp clothes folded neatly in front of my bedroom door. It was half past 4am and the house was already alive with strange Spanish voices. On the front porch, chairs had been arranged in rows underneath the clothesline; laundry removed to clear headspace for the nearly 1,000 visitors that would trickle through to pay their respects to my host family over the following 36 hours.

Chilo, my host mother, had spent the two previous nights in the hospital at her mother’s bedside, before returning with blood red eyes and a collapsible stool in her arms. Nearly out of breath, she explained that because the hospital lacked benches and chairs, she hadn’t slept for more than a minute or two– in order to here her, I had to jog through the house behind her as she scrambled to find buckets and shovels so her brothers could start digging their mother’s grave at sunrise.  I felt terrible for her and asked if I could join them, but she said I’d be more useful if I stayed home and helped the women tend to the guests.

ChefsThe other women I live with stood around a fire fueled by tree branches and plastic bags, stirring massive quantities of ketchup into a giant wok filled with enough rice, carrots and chicken to feed the entire village. As I rested between bucket trips to the shallow concrete well next door, the women explained to me that in small communities of pueblos like ours, it is customary for the family of the departed to host friends and neighbors for a full day of food & mourning, followed by an entire night of coffee & laughter. Apparently, close to 100 people stuck it out until the sunrise prayer, though I can’t really be sure because Diego and his cousins were using my lifeless body as a pillow on the kitchen sofa.

After I lost my spot on the sofa...

After I lost my spot…

On the long walk to the cemetary...

On the long walk to the cemetery…

When I initially signed up to live with a local family for the duration of my stay in San Juan de la Concepcion, I never would have imagined that they’d eventually ask me to help carry the casket of their departed abuela two miles down the road to the cemetery. But then again, it’s experiences like these that surpass all expectations and reveal just how different life in the Nicaraguan pueblos is from that which we regard as normal in the United States. Just last week, I ate breakfast next to Diego and his great grandmother, each representing one extreme in four generations of family living under the same roof out of necessity. I typically had a tough time understanding Abuela because she spoke very quickly and quietly, but I’ll never forget the mornings we spent laughing at Diego for spiking his breakfast on the kitchen floor or showering in the rain with Pepe the pet parrot on his shoulder. I’ll also never forget the little car that drove through the neighborhoods all day and night broadcasting the funeral schedule over the loudspeaker with the ‘Titanic’ theme song blaring in the background. More than anything else though, I’ll never forget the sheer solidarity of the people in the pueblos, forfeiting a night of sleep and a day of work to turn one family’s tough times into a party for the ages.

Chilo, thanking her students for stopping by to offer their condolences.

Chilo, thanking her students for stopping by to offer their condolences.

Who wouldn't want ice cream after a funeral?

Who wouldn’t want ice cream after a funeral?

I'm pretty sure Diego thought the whole event was an early birthday party in his honor.

I’m pretty sure Diego thought the whole event was an early birthday party in his honor.

Funeral Flowers

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