A sketch of the Casino at Montelimar, Nicaragua – once Somoza’s beach house.
I stumbled across a wonderfully interesting book this weekend; Iguanas on my Roof – Funny, Sad, and Scary OVERSEAS ADVENTURES of a Foreign Service Family in Third-World Countries during the Vietnam War and Watergate Era. I found it on its Facebook Page and then bought a copy from Amazon for my Kindle.
Say what you want about e-books… but to learn about a publication from the web while riding on a commuter train, have it in my hand seconds later, and instantly start reading it – that’s something amazing.
The book is a slim, simple, heartfelt family memoir written by Nancy Stone, the mother of five. I went to high school with two of her kids in Managua, Nicaragua. One son was my age, a grade below me and in a lot of my classes, and a daughter was my little brother’s age. We all ran around a lot together my senior year (I graduated and left for Kansas University in 1974).
I immediately recognized the title – we had iguanas on our roof. I remember when we first moved to Nicaragua trying to sleep with some tremendous racket overhead. I crept outside and leaned a ladder up to the wall, climbing up to find out what it was. There were a half-dozen huge iguanas and an equal number of cats all chasing each other around on the corrugated galvanized roofing. I couldn’t tell who was chasing who – but it was a mess. After I learned what it was up there – it was easy to ignore the cacophony and sleep.
Although I knew the kids well, I don’t recall ever even meeting their parents and I certainly never knew their story. We were military and they were embassy – that didn’t matter to the young’uns, but there was a difference. Their father, Al Stone, was a railroad brakeman in the late fifties when he was inspired by the harrowing plight of hordes of desperate Mexican immigrants fleeing a drought to try and do something. He spent years in education and effort until he was able to go to work for the Department of State and the USAID program.
So the big family was off on a tour of the disasters of the third world. From living in the Philippines while Al was in Vietnam, to Lagos, to Washington DC, to Managua after the 1972 earthquake (where they crossed paths with your humble narrator), the book describes the shocking, the strange, the scary, and the silly of a long, often difficult trip.
I’ve always said that living in the third world is months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
Most of what was in the book was familiar to me, even the sections from the Philippines and Nigeria. There are certain stock scenes common to life in any poverty-cursed tropical place. Every incident brought back memories of similar episodes and adventures from my own youth.
The crest from the American Nicaraguan School
What was most interesting was seeing these recognizable installments from a different point of view. The book is told by an adult – a person where everything is new and strange. Nancy Stone was from California – thrust by fate, love, and dedication into a bizarre world of giant insects, bad infrastructure, iffy transport, dangerous and incomprehensible societies, and odd food. It was all so… foreign. Cultural and work protocols, manners, and etiquette were consummate challenges. But it all comes to an end. The final chapter is titled, “We Went Back Home.”
Where is home? I don’t understand the concept. People talk to me about being “homesick” – I have no idea what they are talking about.
You see, It felt differently to go through a journey like that as a kid. When you are young… it is simply how things are. You don’t know any better.
A few paragraphs of the story were written by the kids I knew – familiar voices I understand.
For me, for example, the place and time where I had the most trouble adapting was when I went to college in the states. My nickname for a couple years was “Banana Boat” – as in, “Bill, you’re an American like the rest of us, but you act like you just fell off a banana boat.” I was so happy to find four students from Barcelona that I could relate to – though I was bothered by their lispy Spanish and the incredible amounts of wine they drank.
I realize that the youngsters were able to assimilate into the local culture in a way the adults couldn’t even imagine. To this day, I’m ashamed of my terrible Spanish – but I learned that if I simply kept my mouth shut I could move around at will without anyone knowing I was an American. As a matter of fact – nobody would notice me at all. I could become invisible. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do in a place like that.
That even affects the memories I try to hang onto in my incipient dotage. For example, there are a lot of anecdotes like those in the book that I am willing to let go as they fade into the misty cobwebs of my crumbling brain. What I hang onto desperately are some of the ethereal emotions of youth, the colors of the country, and the smells of the culture.
For example (full disclosure – I’ve been writing notes about this recently for a short story I’m working on) there is the smell of the third world. It’s a smell of pork grease and wood fires – of sour sweat and homemade soap, of heat and desperation. A few years ago I walked out onto the deck of a ship as it cruised into Montego Bay at dawn. A fisherman in a tiny wooden skiff was off the port bow and I watched him untangle his nets. As the salmon glow of the sun, still hidden behind the mountains, filled the sky we moved into a thin cobalt mist of the morning cooking fires wafting offshore and there was that third world smell. I had forgotten… but it all came back in a rush.
That is what I am desperate to hold on to.
So, I any of y’all are curious enough to read about what it was like, over there, back then, go to Amazon, load up your ereader or wait for the bound paper, whatever. It’s worth your money and your time, trust me. Thanks for doing the work, Mrs. Stone, for collecting the memories, writing them down, and sending them out into the world.
It’s late, so late. I think I’ll pour a little Flor de Caña (I was so happy when that became available in Dallas), get my writing in, and call it a day.
The land of lakes, volcanoes, and sun. A painting I bought on my last trip to Nicaragua.