An American Abroad

Nicaragua 2008: La Catedral de Granada

The cathedral of Granada is surely the most photographed building in town. It’s impossible to miss. No matter where we were in Granada, we could see its cheery neoclassical yellow towers in the distance.

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The original church at this spot was built in 1583. But when the American filibuster and conqueror of Nicaragua, William Walker, came to town in 1855 and began his mad attempt to take control of all Central America. His troops destroyed that building and much of the rest of the city the following year. Construction of a new cathedral began in the late 19th century, but was halted several times due to lack of funds. It was finally finished in 1915.

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Because Holy Week preparations were going on, we were unable to get any further inside than the reception area just past the exterior doors. But there, taped to a wall, we spied this charming admonishment.

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Even with my kitchen Spanish, I was able to understand this and appreciate its gentle humor. It says:

When you come to the temple and bring your cell phone, turn it off, because here you don’t need it to talk to God. The only phone you need to speak with God is prayer. Thank you.

Nicaragua 2008: Good Friday Parade

As night fell on our first day in Granada, we heard the sounds of a crowd and the buzz of a small engine coming from the street. I grabbed my camera and went out to see. The streets were aswarm with people. Considering their numbers, though, it was a pretty quiet affair. A long line of people passed quietly by us.

We saw the focal point of the evening toward the end of the subdued parade line. A wood and glass coffin, surrounded by flowers, was being carried atop a cart. The coffin was lit by spotlights powered by a portable gasoline-powered generator, which was sitting on another cart riding behind. Inside the coffin was a female department store mannequin which had been, shall we say, repurposed to resemble the popular image of Jesus: soft features, long curly locks, beard, white skin, and an almost effeminate countenance. Compounding the androgynous appearance was the fact that the figure was wearing a white lacy skirt. His (her?) body was streaked with blood-red gashes. Behind the coffin were two angels and a large cross draped with white linen.

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Not having been raised in a Catholic neighborhood, I wasn’t sure what was going on at first. Then it clicked with me that this was Good Friday, a holiday about which I had only a dim secular humanist awareness and understanding. I soon figured out that this parade was a reenactment of Jesus’ burial. I wasn’t sure what was cool to do. Could I join in the parade? Could I take pictures? I didn’t want to piss anyone off on my first night in Nicaragua, so for the most part I stood curbside and watched.

I was struck by the immediacy of the proceedings. This was not the abstract American Jesus; this was a bloody, mutilated likeness. It was the barbarous act of crucifixion made real. It wasn’t a priest saying “Jesus suffered and died”; it was showing, not telling. My son and I appeared to be the only gringos in the crowd. I felt privileged to be there.

Later that evening, when Spencer and I ventured out for a beer, we saw this figure (Mary? a local saint?) apparently waiting to be seated at the café.

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Strange big-headed blow-up dolls also circulated among the throngs of Good Friday celebrants.

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The religious procession by this point had given way to more secular concerns of eating, drinking, and relaxing. Strolling musicians came by and parked at our table for awhile.

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Tired from our travels, but feeling delighted and welcomed by the parade we had just witnessed, we then returned to the hotel and a sound night’s sleep.

In Memory of Those Killed in Paris Today

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The right to free expression includes the right to satirize and make fun of religion. And for this basic principle, twelve people were slaughtered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine.

Sheep Everywhere

As Eid al-Adha approaches, sheep are everywhere in and around Sousse. Sacrificing a sheep or other animal is a symbolic acknowledgement of the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Ishmael because god commanded it, and god’s last minute provision of a lamb to slaughter instead.

As I walked to work the other day, I passed through a herd of about six dozen sheep, a dozen goats, some dogs, and three shepherds who were on their way into town. (I now have to mind the sheep dung as I walk through my neighborhood.) As I was driven south to Mahdia, I saw many enterprising shepherds selling their animals by the roadside. I also saw individual sheep in the back of trucks taking their last rides.

Sheep are expensive. A decent-sized one goes for between 500 and 700 TND ($275 to $390), an enormous sum in this developing country.

Even electronics stores try to cash in on the upcoming festivities. Check out this ad circular for televisions and laptops:

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As both an animal lover and a meat lover, I’m of two minds about slaughtering sheep. I feel sorry for the sheep patiently waiting by the side of the road to be purchased, brought home, and ritually slaughtered. It seems barbaric. But how hypocritical of me, a guy who likes his lamb chops as well as well as the next man. I’m used to buying them shrink-wrapped in a grocery store. At least Tunisians know what’s on the end of their forks.