It was nearly dinner time at the Hotel Ticomo on a warm night redolent of wild gardenias. Anne Rodman, a stocky young woman from New Hampshire, strode into the outdoor pavilion to recite the rules:
"Okay, listen up please!" She clapped her hands for quiet as the crowd of 60 settled into seats. "We start work on Saturday. To make this thing go smoothly, we all gotta stick to the program.
"First, don't mess around with wildlife in the countryside: bees, snakes and scorpions in particular.
Second, "respect the camp perimeters and for God's sake stay away from guns. This is a nation at war.
Third, "be careful of romance. It's a very serious game here. On the last trip a young lady was overly intimate with four campesinos and nearly caused a riot in the village."
"You mean I shouldn't fall in love?" asked a young man wearing a portrait of Che Guevara on his T-shirt.
"I'm just telling you what the Sandinistas have told me," Rodman said, as waves of laughter rippled through the crowd. "If anything like that happens again, we'll all be put on the next plane home."
So began the adventures of the Fifth Brigade, a collection of earnest Americans who ventured to Nicaragua to pick coffee beans in service to the Sandinista revolution. Calling themselves brigadistas, they ranged in age from 18 to 71. Among them were college students, lawyers, carpenters, a jazz drummer, a circus juggler, a railroad brakeman, three forest workers, a Sunday school teacher.
It didn't take much to become a brigadista: all one needed was a readiness to work hard and $660 to cover the airfare, food and lodging. Organized by a New York-based Sandinista support group called the Nicaragua Exchange, the objective was to help the government bring in the harvest and earn foreign exchange for the country's strapped economy. For the Americans, it was a chance to exam- ine Nicaragua six years after the revolution.
My own part of this odyssey -- the Sandinistas and my co-workers knew I was there to report -- lasted three sweltering weeks and I worked harder and longer than I had expected. With the others I ended up at a place called Jacinto Vaca State Farm in a craggy range of mountains south of Managua. There, we arose at dawn each morning and picked coffee for 10-hour stretches, ate little but rice and beans three times a day and slept in creaky bunkhouses visited by tarantulas, scorpions and rats.
Fresh water was so scarce that no more than a half-dozen baths were possible during those weeks. Despite the precautions I took to stay healthy -- purifying water before drinking it, and using insect repellent -- I suffered from debilitating colds and diarrhea.
Coffee picking was just a small part of the adventure. There was much to learn about the people of Nicaragua, the revolution and survival. There were little things: learning to open a beer bottle the Nicaraguan way with my teeth, starting a car with a paper clip. And there were incongruities: learning that in a nation where the government considers Americans named Shultz, Casey and Reagan bitter foes, the people have made heroes of American singers Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. But the most valuable part of the trip came from seeing the revolution from three distinct angles:
*As seen by the party loyalists: Forty Managua schoolteachers joined us as volunteers in the coffee fields of Jacinto Vaca, bringing an evangelical fervor to the harvest. Clad in green military fatigues, the teachers were working to gain full membership in the Sandinista Party and were infused with the revolution's ideals.
*As seen by the peasants: The campesi- nos of Jacinto Vaca worried more about work, pay, food and shelter than political doctrine. Suffering the full brunt of war, inflation and shortage, they went about their lives guided more by common sense than the thoughts of Karl Marx or Augusto Sandino.
*As seen by the Americans: They went not only to pick coffee, but to reap sustenance for their political beliefs. They were foot soldiers in the cause of the left and went with a keen sense of mission. In a society where revolutionary politics influences nearly everything, they evoked a comic image at times, groping for what was politically correct in thought and deed. From love and sex to ice cream and bananas, all was in ideological dispute.
AMID CHEERS AND APPLAUSE we landed at Augusto C. Sandino Airport at 4:25 p.m. on an overcast afternoon. "Welcome to the Fatherland of Sandino," proclaimed a large sign in Spanish above the terminal entrance, where a dozen or so green-clad soldiers stood guard, automatic weapons on their shoulders.
In twos and threes the Americans marched into the packed terminal. When someone shouted, "Let's get organized," they formed a large circle and, with fists held high, celebrated their arrival by repeatedly chanting, "No Pasar,an," a popular Sandinista saying that means "They Will Not Pass," referring to the forces of counterrevolution.
One onlooker clad in shorts, dark glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, who identified himself as an advanceman for ABC, couldn't believe his eyes. "Jeez, why'n hell would anybody wanna come here?" he muttered. "It's the dregs."
When I explained that we were here to pick coffee, he broke out laughing so hard he had to hold his hand over his mouth.
But a few of the natives seemed just as bewildered. Eyeing the boisterous foreigners with suspicion, a young woman soldier with a handgun asked who we were.
"Somos norteamericanos," I replied. Her big brown eyes grew more suspicious.
"Brigadistas," I added.
She nodded and left.
The word "brigadista" carried power. Unlike the Spanish word for journalist, "periodista," which often inspired more questions than it answered, "brigadista" implied work, political support and comradeship.
We rapidly passed through customs, then exchanged paper money printed with the likenesses of Lincoln, Jackson and Hamilton for red and green bills picturing founding fathers of a different sort: Sandino and Carlos Fonseca.
As we waited for several buses to ferry us to the hotel, a rotund, balding fellow with a shaggy gray and black beard emerged from the terminal.
"Jeez, it's great to see you folks here!" he said, his hand raised high in greeting, the words "Los Contra Contras" stenciled on his bright red T-shirt.
"I just wanted to tell you about a sit-in we're gonna have Thursday at the U.S. Embassy," he said. "It's gonna be great! We're gonna tell those suckers this ain't Grenada and we don't need rescuing. No pasar,an!"
There were loud cheers and the fellow raised his fist in appreciation. Then, with a dramatic flourish, he whirled around, peeled off his T-shirt and flung it to the crowd as a gift.
"By the way," he said, before disappearing with a bare belly and a jaunty step, "My name is Abbie Hoffman."
With that, our transition seemed complete.
ON A MUGGY AFTERNOON I toured the city with Jennifer Radtke, a biology student at Brooklyn College, and Ramon Hungria, a Dominican studying education at Manhattan College.
They were typical members of the brigade, both 23 and active in Nicaraguan solidarity groups in New York. Radtke had come to Nicaragua feeling alienated from the political process at home. No matter how much she leafletted and talked to students about the ideals of the Sandinistas, she was rebuffed or greeted by apathy. Her vision of Nicaragua was romantic. Here, she thought, she would find a united people who had wrested control from tyrants.
Hungria's motives were similar. In his hert, he said, he hoped populist ideals would one day take root in his own impoverished country.
As we wandered streets choked with dust and diesel fumes, I was surprised to find so many symbols of capitalism. There were Esso and Texaco stations, and road signs advertising McDonald's and Pepsi-Cola. Hollywood, too, seemed alive and well. The main attraction at the largest movie theater in town was "Cuerpos Calientes," Body Heat.
Everywhere, though, were reminders of war, economic shortage and destruction. Though it had been 13 years since a massive earthquake claimed the lives of 10,000 people in Managua, the city was still scarred by ugly stretches of twisted girders, collapsed building facades and vast expanses of empty lots. We walked through scattered enclaves of ramshackle homes made of plywood and tin, where families cooked over open air fires and children played barefoot.
The city seemed to lack a physical center. Spiritually, it was uniied by gritty revolutionary wall art and sloganeering. Of all the symbols none was more dominant than Sandino, the 1920s peasant leader whose name and beliefs were adopted by a succeeding generation of revolutionaries. In many instances only portions of his figure were scrawled -- his knee-high leather boot, for example, replete with pointy spur, or his wide sombrero. The message was implicit: "After 50 years, Sandino lives."
But if graffiti was a popular pastime, the art of complaining seemed to have reached an even higher form, much to the surprise of my companions. High food prices, gas rationing and government censorship of an opposition newspaper, La Prensa, were at the top of the peoples' list.
At one point we entered a government- owned supermarket packed with people, but woefully short of supplies. A few shelves were stocked with a curious mix of East European goods such as canned lunch meat from Hungary and tins of powdered milk from Czechoslovakia. Most shelves were bare, with the exception of a book department in which the writings of Lenin, Marx and Fonseca were displayed.
There were more than 100 shoppers in the store, most of them waiting in long lines to buy poultry and cooking oil.
Radtke, her brown hair tied in a ponytail behind her head, eagerly sidled up to one young woman to solicit her opinion of the revolution. "See for yourself," the lady replied. "Before, you could just come in, buy a chicken and leave. Now, you have to wait an hour . . . "
Before she could finish another shopper interrupted. "That's nothing. The government says my children should get free milk in school, but there's never any to give out. I have to buy it on the black market, otherwise they go hungry . . . "
"But the war," Radtke countered. "Doesn't everyone have to sacrifice?"
"I understand all that," another shopper answered. "But to me it's just words."
Later, at a sprawling open-air bazaar called the Oriental Market, several old women selling tomatoes reiterated similar gripes before one concluded with a weary shrug, "You can't complain too loudly, though. They'll call you a contra."
It wasn't until the next evening, at a public fiesta honoring President Daniel Ortega's inauguration, that we were finally able to witness the spirit of the movement.
The party was held at the Plaza of Heroes and Martyrs on the banks of Lake Managua. A huge billboard proclaiming the Sandinista Front "The Party of the Workers" stood at one end, a bandstand stood at the other and in between, illuminated by several banks of lights, a swirling mass of humanity celebrated in a smoke-filled haze.
It was an inaugural ball unlike any other, crackling with emotional intensity. There were no tuxedos or evening gowns, just the everyday clothes of the masses, jeans, sweatshirts, skirts and a smattering of military fatigues.
The crowd seemed a reflection of Nicaragua's most telling sociological statistic: 55 percent of the population is younger than 18. Throughout the plaza, the universal teen- age mating rituals unfolded again and again, boys awkwardly approaching girls to sheepishly ask for a dance. Even the T-shirts seemed familiar: "Thriller," "Louisville Redbirds," and "Party Animal." There were smoky smells of hamburgers and french fries.
But it was the music that hit closest to home. The recorded strains of Neil Diamond's "It's You on the Train" were followed by "Running With the Night" by Lionel Ritchie and Men at Work's "Overkill."
Soon I ventured over to a plywood beer shack and encountered Luis Davila, a little guy with a pudgy face, big round eyes and thick bushy hair parted neatly on the side. He taught me how to pry open a bottle of brew with my back molars. Davila was 18, a hotel janitor. He wore faded jeans, running shoes and a blue Adidas shirt.
Davila had hated politics, he said, since 1979, when his oldest brother, a Sandinista Party member, was killed in the streets of Managua during a battle with President Anastasio Somoza's National Guard. Last year, he went on, holding up two fingers, another older brother was killed on the northern frontier fighting rebels.
Politics, he said, meant one thing -- blood. As the male head of his family of seven, he wanted to work and be left alone. Whenever Sandinistas asked him to join the neighborhood block committee or the civilian militia, he declined.
"I always tell them my family has given enough," he said.
He was upset that by law he had recently become an adult. Having turned 18, he said, he was a prime candidate for induction into the People's Army.
"How will they get in touch with you?" I asked.
"A soldier or two comes to the door and hands over a letter," he answered, his voice trailing off.
"What will you do, then?"
His face seemed older as he considered the question. "I don't know. I have some friends who went off to the hills to get away. I know a few other guys who are hidg right here in the city. But I'm not sure I can do that," he said softly. "It's not right."
He turned his attention to a reggae band and began dancing, seeming once again to be a teen-ager, a whirlwind of motion.
In the middle of the song, when Ortega and Cuban leader Fidel Castro suddenly emerged on stage, the crowd responded with a thunderous roar. "Viva Nicaragua Libre!" they chanted, and Luis joined them, his fist held high.
"Everybody in Nicaragua has so many worries," he told me a little later. "You go crazy if you can't enjoy a good time."
THE NEXT DAY we reached Jacinto Vaca State Farm, one of 800 in the country that were nationalized after the revolution. Most belonged previously to the Somoza family and represented about 40 percent of Nicaragua's arable land. Before the revolution the farms were worked by landless peasants and Salvadoran and Honduran migrants.
After agrarian reform and the nation's war with the rebels, there was an acute labor shortage. Last year the government asked Nicaraguan civilians and volunteers around the world to help out. Since 1984, 1,150 American and 1,200 Western European brigadistas have answered the call. (This winter the Nicaragua Exchange hopes to send seven more American brigades.)
Jacinto Vaca was about 40 kilometers south of Managua on the outskirts of El Crucero, a sleepy little village.
From two buses we disembarked and staggered down a ravine, burdened by backpacks and suitcases, past a wooden gate adorned with the red and black stripes of the FSLN, the Sandinista Party acronym. We arrived in a cloud of dust at the center of camp, there to be greeted by three mangy dogs, a brood of chickens and several barefoot youngsters.
Our digs weren't much. There was a plywood kitchen outfitted with an oven fueled by firewood, three large wooden bunkhouses and another building containing a machine that separated coffee beans from their husks. For the entire population there were three sinks and three outhouse stalls. Rusty barbed wire stretched across the property, evoking the disconcerting appearance of a gulag. divided into 20 rooms, each with hardwood "beds" upon which we unrolled our sleeping bags. It had a sloping, corrugated tin roof and air holes near the ceiling for ventilation. These, unfortunately, also provided easy entry for jungle wildlife.
The first thing I saw when I opened the door to my room, which I shared with Daryl Williams, a Harlem cafeteria cook, and Peter Bauer, a graduate student, was a rat. It threw a quick glance my way, then disappeared with nonchalance into a hole in the floor. I was the first to grab an upper bunk.
Upon hearing a loud gasp from a far corner of the bunkhouse, I ran over and found several brigadistas huddled over a black creature that looked like a tiny lobster. It was the first of many scorpions we would encounter.
A little later a spider with long, furry gams sauntered through the door. No one seemed to know exactly what it was until a peasant child wandered past, squashed it with a brick and announced "Taw-ran-toola."
Soon the schoolteachers appeared, a contingent of 40 men and women in faded green fatigues who marched into camp four abreast like a squad of Roman centurions. Their arms and faces streaked with dirt, the teachers were an impressive unit whose weapons consisted of the straw shoulder baskets they used to harvest the crop, and the political slogans they chanted to cap the workday.
"On the frontier! . . . " a voice in back proclaimed.
In unison the rest of the teachers shouted, "They will not pass!"
"Long live! . . . " a voice roared.
From still another corner came a third charge, "If Nica- ragua can overcome! . . . "
"El Salvador will follow!"
As political theater it was moving. The Americans were riveted.
"Welcome . . . to the land of lakes, mountains, poets and singers," announced one of the teachers, a thickset man wearing a wide-brimmed hat. "We are just a small part of thousands of Nicaraguans who are leaving their jobs to bring in the harvest. Each bean we pick means more medicine, hospitals, schools and happiness for our people . . . We are glad you have joined us and hope you will go forward to tell the world that we are a people of peace."
A young man with a guitar then played the Sandinista anthem, a plaintive hymn climaxed by the refrain: "Please comrade, don't fail me now . . . " The teachers stood at attention, hands clasped tightly behind their backs, singing along.
"Long live! . . . " someone bellowed when the song was done.
"The Sandinista Front!"
"Culture is! . . . "
"The artistic weapon of the revolution!"
Then, for reasons unknown, the teachers began cheering and laughing and jumping up and down like agitated jack rabbits, spurred on by a voice whose throaty charge resounded throughout the camp. The Americans looked on in amazement until, seconds later, the translation came back: "Anyone who doesn't jump is a contra!"
Instantly they joined in.
That day marked the start of an unusual partnership between the Americans and the teachers as they worked together in the fields, shared meals and slept in adjoining cobachas (bunkhouses). The teachers functioned much like political cadres for their North American students.
Although representative of Nicaragua's middle class, the teachers believed in revolutionary socialism: unity between intellectuals and workers and peasants. To them there was no finer expression of faith than to go to the countryside to help with the harvest. Together they ate, washed clothes, sang songs and chanted slogans and at night during those three weeks they spread out like missionaries among the Americans.
"Before the revolution, all the textbooks said Somoza was a great man. He and his family built the railroads and highways and brought electricity to the country," remembered Belfia Gutierrez, a 57-year-old grade-school teacher. "Whenever Sandino was mentioned he was always just a bandit, not a fighter against repression. That's what we had to teach the children . . . "
Gutierrez's husband, also a teacher, was thrown in jail in 1975 and tortured because of his involvement in the teachers' union, she said. "Still, as we continued to teach, we organized clandestinely and made connections to the front," she continued. By 1979 more than 2,000 teachers were secret members of the front. Today, she said, "We teach the truth. We tell the children Somoza was an oppressor, a tyrant who murdered many of our people. And we have put Sandino into our history where he belongs."
"Do you have children?" I asked.
"Yes, two. One of them is very sick, though."
"But you're here, working . . . "
"The country needs me," she replied.
"And your husband, how is he?"
"Fine," she said, raising her head with a smile. "He's on leave from his job to fight in the army. He's up north now, leading a battalion against the contras."
To hear the teachers speak of the past and present was much like hearing a Bible Belt minister speak of evil and good. One night a stern- faced educator named Nidia Lopez-Chavez talked about creating a new educational system in Nicaragua.
"A few days after the triumph in Managua," she said, "we gathered up all the old
history books and burned them. Then we set about writing the correct history of Nicaragua."
"What about the science books?" I asked.
"We burned some of those, too. They didn't inspire the students. For example, in the old books it was said that the way to make a tree grow was to plant it. Now we teach about all the elements of biology that play a part in tree growth and the hard life of the campesinos who do the work.
"All human activity is politics," she went on. "If a student is very bright in math, it doesn't mean anything unless he also has political consciousness. In the past it was said in our books that illiteracy in Nicaragua was only 10 percent when in fact it was 53. So you see, even math can be used to form ideas that are false."
" . . . The Cubans come here and complain about how political we are and say we should dance and sing more. We say you must never ig- nore the political conditions that provide for singing and dancing."
Of all the teachers, Alfonso Laytung seemed the most pragmatic. He was 22 years old, a thin man with long dark hair and wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Laytung knew all the chants and slogans and could sing the political songs, but he was realistic about the revolution. When asked why he had volunteered to work in the countryside, he said volunteering was a part of the process to become a member of the Sandinista Party.
The way he described the progression, it sounded a bit like the route a Boy Scout follows to become an Eagle Scout. It includes three levels of standing that eventually lead to full membership, he said. The lowest level is membership in neighborhood organizations and Sandinista youth groups. The second level, which Laytung occupied, is made up of leaders or partisans of Sandinista uth. From that pool the members are drawn.
The progression depended "on the work you do -- picking coffee, serving in health care, joining the militia," Laytung said. "The more the better."
"How do you finally get accepted? Do you apply or something?"
"You don't go to them," he said with a wry smile. "They come to you."
IT WASN'T LONG before many Americans assumed the same fervor as the teachers. An anonymous shout of "Sandino lives!" in Spanish never failed to produce "The struggle continues!" in reply.
To do what was politically correct became a dogma unto itself. We were warned not to give gifts such as worn-out trousers and toothbrushes to the peasants because we would only help foster a community of haves and have nots.
One Saturday night Janine Audet, a 22-year-old Lewiston, Maine, secretary, asked brigade leaders for permis- sion to attend mass at a nearby village church the next day, when we were scduled to work.
Our leaders consulted the teachers and later, in a meeting at the cobacha, relayed their decision: No. "They said if Christ were alive, he'd be picking coffee," said one of our chiefs, as Audet blushed in disappointment and her compatriots erupted in cheers.
The strangest ideological tiff occurred the day a stocky peddler named Ernesto appeared in the coffee fields like a specter from a Federico Fellini film, ringing a little bell, carrying a styrofoam carton loaded with fudgsicles on his back.
Within minutes the famished Americans had bought his entire stock.
That night, in a hastily arranged meeting, the Americans discussed the implications of fudgsicles. Having come to Nicaragua to toil, dwell and eat like typical campesinos, they had been conspicuous consumers. Also, as one brigadista soberly pointed out, there was the spinoff problem of litter: "What're we supposed to do with all the sticks and wrappers?"
"Why don't we try this," Anne Rodman, our leader finally said as the troops, sitting in candlelight, stared up at her from a dusty floor littered with chicken dung. "We'll pretend we're getting paid for every box of beans we pick, just like the campesinos. Whatever we earn, we can spend."
It seemed an ingenious compromise, allowing the workers to enjoy Ernesto's fudgsicles while feeling morally and politically correct. But when Gail McClellan, a cheerful, gray-haired Minnesota housewife, softly pointed out how little the campesinos made, that idea was hooted down as well.
The debate ended in a draw. We retired to our sleeping bags content with the understanding that if we desired the simple pleasure of fudgsicles, we could have them, revolution or no.
NICARAGUA'S campesinos were among the prime beneficiaries of the Sandinista revolution. The new government began land reform, raised peasant wages and made health care and education free. But the 21 campesinos of Jacinto Vaca did not confuse idealism with reality.
"Before the revolution, I had a friend who worked on a farm near here," said Zacarias Castro, a ruddy- faced 52-year-old. "He picked coffee like everybody else. One day he had an accident with a machete and lost his arm. When he came back from the hospital he asked the boss for his job back. The boss looked at him and said, 'All right, but since you have only one arm, I'm going to pay you half of what you earned before.
"That's how it was. You took what they gave you. Now we've got a union to fight for us. If you get hurt, you get full benefits and don't lose your job."
"So life is much better, right?" I asked.
"No, just different," he said. "Before the revolution, they called this place a hacienda. Now they call it a state farm. Me? I eat the same and work the same."
Before the revolution he earned 36 cordobas a day. Now he earns 83. "But a pair of jeans used to cost 600 cords. Now the price is 6,000," he said in disgust. "To buy anything you have to stand in line."
Castro was a jocular sort who looked on all political militants with skepticism. "I understand them pretty good," he said of the teachers. "They're here because they're ambitious. But I don't like it when they talk politics to me. My only belief is work."
Only five of the 21 campesinos were members of the local peasant union, one of whom was a gray- haired, 42-year-old coffee picker named Antonio Serda who said most of his peasant friends "don't like joining anything."
Serda, who had lived and worked the longest at the farm -- nine years -- remembered how bad life was before 1979. "Every harvest time the peasants came from all over the country," he said. "There were no lights, no beds and everyone had to sleep on the floor." But it wasn't until 1978, when he suffered a personal tragedy, that Serda began to play a more active part in the revolution.
He had five younger brothers, he said, who traveled to Managua one day with a group of other peasants to find construction work. They searched all day unsuccessfully and at night sought shelter in an abandoned building.
"While they were asleep, four National Guardsmen came in and started shooting just for fun," he said, his eyes welling with tears. "A few men were able to escape, but all five of my brothers were killed." Every week from that day on Serda marched in antigovernment demonstrations in Managua.
Serda knew the history of the farm. Like many things owned by the government, it was named after a martyr of the revolution. Jacinto Vaca, Serda recalled, was a local peasant gunned down during a battle with the National Guard.
But when it came to the exact history of the property there were many different stories floating about. The teachers' version was the most popular. They said the previous owner was a Somocista who treated the peasants cruelly and fled to Miami.
Serda said otherwise: "He wasn't a bad man at all. His name was Alejandro Evans. He was just a businessman. He paid the going rate like all the other duenos."
"But the government confiscated his land, right?" an American asked.
"No. He sold it. He said he didn't want it anymore."
"But he did run away to Miami."
"No, he still lives in Managua, just as rich as ever. He owns a couple other farms, but now he pays the campesinos what the government tells him to pay.
"I've seen him in Managua a few times since the triumph," Serda said. "We remember each other. We always wave hello."
Unarguably, the revolution had brought improvements to the campesinos' lives. During the school year, a teacher came once a week from Managua to help the old and young learn how to read and write. As a result of a national campaign against polio, the disease has been eradicated, an astonishing accomplishment. In 1976 Nicaragua was averaging 600 cases a year.
But a visit oe night by Dr. Donald Cole, a young Canadian physician doing volunteer work with the Ministry of Health, showed how much was still needed.
"Infant mortality is 80 out of 1,000," he said. "Tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and malnutrition are still the greatest threats to life here. Only 6 percent of the people living outside of Managua are drinking potable water . . . "
"In this area," he went on, "there is one doctor -- one -- for every 35,000 people." Many ailments and injuries that would be minor elsewhere were utterly major at Jacinto Vaca. Peasant children walking without shoes in the camp suffered cuts and scrapes that rapidly became infected because there were few astringents. And the peasants' lack of awareness of hygiene was such that a year-old toddler, naked from the waist down, was allowed to play each day in a dank and squalid room littered with chicken dung, urinating and defecating as he crawled along.
Although conditions at Jacinto Vaca were slow to change, the Sandinista movement had instilled hope there. No one better exemplified that than Reyna Isabel Mendoza, a 17-year-old campesina.
She was a striking woman with short, raven hair and large eyes the color of coal. She was unwed, the mother of a 9-month-old daughter. She worked barefoot in the fielostponing the purchase of shoes to buy clothes for her child.
Her feet were sturdy and callused, but the picking had taken its toll. There were several ugly cuts on her soles that bothered her badly. She had been working since she was 10, she said, standing outside her hilltop cobacha one night. She had picked cotton and coffee and cut sugar cane and expected to be doing such work for the rest of her working life. That didn't worry her. At 17, she said, "I'm too old to change."
Her daughter was another matter. She had big plans for Marciel Carolina. One day, she said, she might have enough money to buy a house of her own, especially if the wages kept increasing. And perhaps Marciel Carolina would someday be a doctor or nurse and live in the city. One thing was certain, Mendoza said: Marciel Carolina would not live the same kind of life her mother had.
She said she didn't know why she felt optimistic and professed to know little about how ad why the revolution came about. She only knew it had something to do with making a better life.
Despite the differences in belief and temperament between the teachers, Americans and campesinos, there was one thing that all shared: the rigor of work.
At 5 each morning we arose, pulled on our work clothes and swallowed a quick breakfast of rice and beans before marching in formation to the hills and canyons. The march was arduous, taking as long as 40 minutes. The landscape surrounding Jacinto Vaca was so rugged that no matter where I placed my feet, they never were on the same level.
The coffee fields were among the oldest in the country, originally planted in the 1890s. The trees ranged in height from four to 20 feet and it seemed the ones highest atop the hills bore the most fruit.
The fields were a naturalist's delight, filled with green parrots, colorful flying insects, wild lilacs, lilies and exotic flowers. Yet there was also danger: jungle-coral snakes, tarantulas and the most bizarre creature of all, the polla, a little green and yellow caterpiller fond of relaxing on the shady underside of coffee tree leaves.
The polla looked benign, but if your hand happened to touch its furry backside, it would release a venom that spread through your bloodstream, up your arm and into your lungs. Throughout each day the woods echoed with the cries of pain from at least half a dozen workers stricken by the polla. The only remedy was an hour of rest.
IT WAS long and dreary work, and to break up the monotony the pickers often sang or told jokes. Politics was an integral part of both diversions and Ronald Reagan served as the brunt of many gibes.
The finest diversion was provided by a bushy-haired fellow in green military fatigues named Noel Jiminez Madragon. Jiminez was the political comandante of the teachers' work brigade, a fiery sort who toted a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson handgun.
Each morning in camp, before we headed to the hills, he climbed atop a cinderblock to deliver a political address on the importance of our work. Several times during those morning declarations, which included diatribes against American imperialism, he resorted to humor, once invoking the names of Donald Duck, Porky Pig and the Three Stooges to show that Nicaragua's great enemy was not very great at all.
One of the perks of his position was that he really didn't have to pick. Instead he moved from worker to worker to share his canteen of rum. His prime duty during those weeks was to be the press relations contact for television, radio and newspaper reporters who made frequent treks into the fields to interview the Americans.
One day a reporter from Barricada, the Sandinista Party daily, showed up in the fields with a tape recorder. When he got to me I told him through a translator, fluent in Spanish, that unlike most of my compatriots, I came not for political reasons, but as a reporter, to learn more about conditions of life in the Nicaraguan countryside.
It was a brief interview, but when the paper appeared the next day, I was pictured on the front page and quoted in an article on Page 5 saying: "We have come to learn the reality of Nicaragua, to see it personally and to demonstrate our solidarity."
The article continued: "He said there aren't many North American reporters interested enough to understand the Nicaraguan reality and that he believes there is a growing movement of popular support in the United States in favor of the Sandinista revolution."
At first I thought the reporter had mistaken my words for someone else's. Most of the quotes from the brigadistas seemed fairly interchangeable, laden with words such as "struggle" and "solidarity."
Before long Jiminez approached with a smile on his face and an outstretched hand in congratulations.
"Thanks, Noel, but I didn't say all that," I said.
"Yes you did!" he replied. "It's right here in the paper."
"No, the reporter made a mistake. I didn't say anything like that." Jiminez became distressed by what I said he had pulled a few strings and arranged a meeting between me and the editorial page editor, Daniel Martinez.
"Barricada is the people's organ of truth," he said with conviction, escorting me to the beat-up beige Toyota that served as his official car. "We'll have to clear this up."
His driver, a beefy fellow wearing a threadbare Boston Red Sox baseball cap atop his head, reached into the glove compartment, pulled out a paper clip and used it to connect a couple of loose wires that were dangling from the ignition.
The car started and 40 minutes later we drove into the parking lot of the Barricada building in Managua where Jiminez checked his handgun with a guard.
Martinez, a pudgy man with a thick black beard sprinkled with gray, wrote many of Barricada's editorials. His office was a cubbyhole in the first floor newsroom, which looked pretty much like newsrooms everywhere before the days of the computer terminal, crammed with desks and trash baskets and resounding with the clatter of typewriters.
Once we sat down, I explained what was wrong with the story. Martinez took notes, occasionally nodding. Several times he tried to turn the session into an interview, probing for my opinion of the revolution and Reagan's policies toward Nicaragua.
I tried to explain that my opinions were personal.
Finally, Martinez said: "I'm terribly sorry, but you know the newspaper business. Mistakes happen. We don't like to make corrections or clarifications. I'm sure you understand. But we could write another story, perhaps, to correspond with your true beliefs . . . "
"No, no more stories," I said. And that was that.
I didn't expect anything to come of the meeting, but the trip did serve one useful purpose. While there the taurant overlooking Lake Managua. After two weeks of eating a mouth- numbing diet of rice and beans, the simple act of tasting a tomato salad was a mystical experience.
SINCE I've been back in the United States, much has changed for the worse. President Reagan has imposed an embargo on all Nicaraguan imports and has banned Nicaraguan airliners from U.S. airports.
Congress, meantime, is still debating a question whose answer could mean further bloodshed in Nicaragua: How to aid the contras?
On and on the war of words between the United States and Nicaragua has raged to a point where the administration and the Sandinistas now see each other as caricatures of their own worst fears. The question of military intervention seems to have moved from the arena of theory to one of remote possibility.
I'm glad I went to Nicaragua, for I returned with a deeper understanding and fondness for the people. As for political leaders, however, left or right, I continue to hold very little trust.
Now, when I hear discussions of the embargo, I think in human terms. I see Reyna Mendoza working in the rugged hills of El Crucero to feed and clothe her infant.
When I read about atrocities committed against civilians in the war between the government and the rebels, I see Antonio Serda and the tears in his eyes when he described how his five brothers were murdered. And when I hear military theorists describe the logistics of invasion, and read of Sandinista call-ups of military reserves, I think of Luis Davila and how he should be free to work and dance and not have to worry about meeting the same fate as his martyred kin.