Thursday, July 5, 2007

Cinco de Julio

No electricity, yet again.

Sometimes having no power feels romantic and prehistoric, reducing me to my essence in a most welcome way.

Other times, when the romance of the situation fades, having no power feels downright irksome.

Currently, I feel a bit of romantic irk.

A bit in between, I suppose; for right now our room is nearly dark as the last bit of dusk settles away and the hum and twang of Adam’s guitar is the only sound filling this space. Nico the kitten lies with a full belly in the crook of his arm as they both sit on the bed with no expectations for the rest of the evening.

If only our whole day was this tender.

Only a few blocks away from our house, at Café Chavalos, chaos abounds. Frantically, a disorganized, unequipped group of people are getting ready for a big, big weekend with no lights and no running water.

A crew from LA has been filming a documentary about the Café Chavalos venture, which they will be entering in the renowned Sundance Film Festival. Tomorrow and the next day the crew will be filming a mock opening of the restaurant.

The irksome part: without running water, the floors cannot be mopped, the paintbrushes cannot be rinsed out, the dishes cannot be washed, the toilets won’t flush, the cement-removing acid on the bathroom floors cannot be soaked away, the hands preparing the food cannot be sanitary, and of course the food itself cannot be prepared and cooked.
Without electricity, the power drills won’t work to bore cavities for the stove’s gas hoses, the kitchen appliances won’t function, the bathroom cannot be painted in the dark, the menus cannot be printed, the refrigerators cannot preserve the food and, of course, none of the lights or fans will switch on, not to mention the power needed for the film crew’s lighting and recording equipment.

In 24 hours the building needs to look like a fully functioning restaurant and it still looks like a construction site.

Beyond the ”outages”, numerous exasperating issues have thwarted the opening of this café. As I’ve mentioned, theft is a colossal problem in this country, and the café is no stranger to the slide of hand. As soon as something is scratched off the “to-get” list (a coffee maker, cleaning supplies, a hammer, table cloths, ladders, etc.) it disappears. Even Adam and I wasted an entire afternoon searching for and lugging around a ton of cleaning supplies (the right supplies are very hard to find here) only to discover a day later that they were stolen during a late-night robbery.

Also, months ago Lilly ordered a $1000 worth of kitchen equipment from a company in Managua and, when she hadn’t heard from them, she called only to find out that the salesman had run off with her check and never put the order in.

To the theft and the power outages, add the Nicaraguan concept of time, and you’ve got an absolute mess that is literally out of control.

If a delivery man says he will bring the dinner tables today, he really means he will bring the dinner tables sometime this month (we still have no tables). If the repair man says he will fix the stove this morning, he really means he will stop by randomly sometime this week until someone is there to unlock restaurant. If Lilly tells the Chavalos Boys (the cooks-in-training and the sole purpose of this cafe) to meet at the restaurant by 7am to begin prepping the food, they will think that she really means to straggle in sometime before dinner time. No one owns a watch and no one wishes they did.

Training the Chavalos boys is a complicated matter all together. Lilly is a brave woman to be schooling a bunch of psycho-delinquent teenaged boys how to run an upscale restaurant. The most difficult part is remembering where they came from. They grew up in the barrios (neighborhoods where the poorest families reside) with houses made of tarp and aluminum and little access to clean water and food. For example, in their homes there are no refrigerators. Because they do not know the difference between a freezer and a cooler, they have been known to put loads of fruit needed for the next morning into the freezer overnight! Also, in their homes there are dirt floors. Because they dump buckets of water to clean everything there, they have been known to clean the entire kitchen by spraying it from top to bottom with a powerful blast from the nearest garden hose. Also, in their homes the family owns only one knife. Because that one knife is used for everything from killing the dinner chicken to cleaning under fingernails, the boys have seen no problem with using the restaurant’s fancy $80 Global cooking knives as ice picks. Also, in their families, the main goal is the big picture of survival. Because the goals of food and shelter require an immediate day-to-day mentality, concepts such as detail work, future consequence, planning ahead, and aesthetics are beyond their understanding. Adam and I spent the entire morning crouched on the floor of the café’s bathroom painstakingly chipping hardened cement from elegant stone work (using butter knives!) because the boys were so sloppy in their attempt to cement the bathroom walls. This afternoon even, the boys wanted to test out the new stove after the gas was hooked up, so they put a pot on the burner, a little food in the pot and stirred away – with the stove’s delivery plastic still wrapped all around it! Needless to say it melted the blue plastic right to the stainless steel. No common sense, I tell you!

They also completely lack business sense and have no concept of profit. For instance, when Lilly was teaching them basic food cost mathematics, the boys were absolutely appalled to find out that the menu was charging the customer a whole 10 cordobas more than they spent on the materials to make the meals. “How do you expect me to pay your salaries?” she would ask them. I think they understand now.

Adam and I have adopted the frustrations because it has become our project too, but when it is exactly out of our hands, we can really only grin, bear it, toss our watches over our shoulders and pick up a butter knife.

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