Friday, March 19, 2010

The Good Stuff

After the last blog many of you wrote to question or commiserate, and I thank you for your responses. Having lived abroad before, we know that there are distinct phases, and that sooner or later, the “disenchantment” phase was bound to arrive. Somehow, being able to vent helped, as does knowing that in just over a month we’ll be back in Homer for a good long stretch. We’re not finished with Nicaragua, and in no way are we finished with Sprout; rather, we need to figure out a way to balance our time here, and a way to live productively when we are here. It may take some time, and perhaps even some time away, but we’ll figure it out, eventually.

In the meantime, having my mother down here for a week reminded us of the many things we love about the country, namely its natural beauty and many options for experiencing it. One of the best parts was the Toyota Hilux pickup we rented for the duration. We were especially gratified to note that the key ring contained a bottle opener, a must for any vehicle operated on Nicaraguan roads. It was a bit of a whirlwind, as we wanted to expose her to as much of SW Nicaragua as seven days would allow. We began up at the Laguna de Apoyo, at our friend Fred’s place, then headed down into Granada. Tourists flock there for its colonial charm, and we dutifully wandered about, taking in the sights while gently (and at times not so gently) refusing to buy hammocks and clay whistles. In the afternoon we hired a panga, a long narrow fiberglass boat with a canopy, to put-put us around The Isletas, a collection of 345 or so tiny islands on Lake Nicaragua, just off Granada. Over the years, rich people have built vacation homes on many of them, including the Pellas family (they own Flor de Caña, both breweries, and the Toyota franchise, along with masses of land); the Chamorro family (it was the Somoza-ordered assassination of one of its members, and outspoken journalist, that helped launch the ’79 Sandinista revolution, and his daughter went on to be the first post-Ortega, non-FSLN president. They are originally from Rivas where they have a huge, usually empty house in the middle of town); and assorted foreign bigshots, ambassadors, etc. from Canada, the US, and Europe. Before heading out, we stopped by El Monasterio San Fransisco, converted into a beautiful museum and public space, and exhibiting everything from modern art to dioramas of indigenous Nicaraguan pastimes.

Then we headed for Mombacho, one of the country’s larger volcanoes. We drove up about halfway, intending to drive all the way up—a 40% grade!—but then along came a big truck with benches in the back hauling other visitors so we stowed the truck, much to its relief, and clambered aboard. Once up there, we asked for a guide. A young man told us (in Spanish) it would be $5 for a Spanish-speaking tour, $10 for English. Mom preferred English, so he went off, presumably to find the bilingual guide. A few minutes later he returned and said (in English), “OK, I am your guide. Welcome to the Vulcan Mombacho. Please follow me.” He didn’t say much after that, other than to point out the occasional plant or heat vent, but toward the end, when I complimented him on his English, he became almost garrulous, chatting away about his work and how difficult the Australians and Brits were to understand… It was not a long walk, but the path was uneven and steep in places, so it took us about an hour and a half to do the circuit. Along the way we saw some cool orchids that grow on stalks, out of the ground (apparently not typical orchid behavior), an information board describing some sort of salamander that only lives on this volcano but only emerges after dark—seemingly it can re-grow not only its tail, but limbs and even its head; a useful skill for any creature; and towards the end, the guide enthusiastically indicated a smudge of greenish-gray fuzz up in a tree and said, “It’s a sloth!” We grinned and nodded and later admitted that neither of us had seen it.

After a respite in Rivas, we headed for Ometepe Island. Although we had tried to prepare my mother for the state of the roads on the southern half of the island, I don’t think it was until the third or fourth time her head nearly made contact with the roof of the truck that she believed us. We tried to make her feel better by going on about how much worse the trip was in the jeep, but I don’t think it helped. (We, however, were relishing every moment we hit a rut and emerged with our kidneys still attached.) On the way to Merida, where we would spend two nights at our friend Cindi’s, we stopped at a little roadside kiosk in El Peru, known far and wide for its excellent local honey. “Sorry, no honey.” said the woman behind the counter. “Oh, when will you have honey again?” “We won’t. No more honey.” This was a bit of a shock, mainly because the place was situated on the corner of the land of the beekeeper Kyra, Pat and I met two years ago, who had so impressed Kyra with his knowledge of beekeeping. Remember, faithful readers? A man in his 30’s who told us his father had been a beekeeper up in the north country when he was hired by Somoza to come to the island and manage his extensive hive production. After the revolution, the Sandinistas transferred the land title to him, and they have produced honey ever since. So I had to ask, “What happened to the man next door, the honey guy?” “He was my husband,” she said, “but he died six months ago.” “What? How? He was so young!” She nodded, looking miserable. “Yeah, he was. He was struck by lightening while pruning a tree.” With two young children and no local family, she’s selling up and returning to her people in the north. Very sad. She sent Pat down the road to a neighbor who sold him half a plastic liter bottle filled with thick, golden honey…but it wasn’t the same.

Our second day we were headed back to the northern end of the island when Pat looked out the window and said, “Jesus Christ, the volcano’s erupted!” Sure enough, there was a great plume of smoke and ash gushing into the clear blue, while a strong easterly wind carried it across the island and towards the mainland. Unable to determine how serious it was, we continued into Moyogalpa, the main town at Concepcíon’s base. At first it appeared no one else had noticed, but little by little people started to look up, and soon many people were out in the street, craning their necks to see. There had been some earlier, minor spitting, and the Army had gone over to pound Evacuation Route signs along the one major road, and even executed a few drills in which they flung old women over their shoulders and trotted with them to safety, so people were not entirely unprepared. We bought some provisions, tried to cover the truck’s intake valve with panty hose but due to its ludicrous design were unable to access it, and hightailed it back to the other end of the island. By the next day, the only sign anything had happened was a thick blanket of ash spilling down the western slopes of the volcano and lightly coating everything within a couple miles. We got back on the ferry feeling we’d been lucky. Well, lucky not to have been turned into latter-day Pompeii victims. When it came to the previous night’s dinner, our luck ran out. A local restaurant told us they were out of fillets of fish, but had whole fish. We puzzled over this for a minute, until Pat volunteered to fillet the fish for them. Oh no, they could do it for us. “Fillet” in Spanish apparently translating as “slice fish in half, leave bones intact”. Bear in mind we’re talking about a fish the size of my hand…

On the way back to Managua, the day before my mother left, a cop waved us over. We assumed it was a standard document check, but no, it was a standard fleece the gringo set up. He told us we’d crossed the yellow line (we had not), and that we were speeding (we were not, and in any case, he had no way of knowing as all he had in the way of official equipment was a pen.) We made a half-hearted attempt to talk to him, but he actually cut us off and told us—most unusually—we could settle it here rather than through the bank. (Generally they wait for you to make that suggestion.) $15 later we were on our way, Pat and I steaming, my mom wondering what the hell just happened. (We were again pulled over yesterday outside Rivas, again in a flashy white pickup, driven by a visiting friend. This time, the cop had to work hard to find a transgression, first telling us the insurance document wasn’t right (it was), then accusing us of not having the regulation traffic triangle (it was behind the back seat),and finally telling us that Pat, in the back seat, not wearing his seatbelt was a violation. I said, Nicaraguan law says only the driver and passenger need to wear belts. He said everyone had to and it would be a $20 fine (keep in mind, cops are paid $5-7/day). While Dennis was ready to settle it, I was pissed (not showing it of course) and said, Well, last year when we were stopped and I didn’t have my belt on the ticket was $5. “Really? $5? OK, $5 then.” And he held out his hand. Grrr.)

Back in Buenos Aires, it was time once again for the annual Hipica, or fancy horse parade. I’ve written about it before, but it never fails to entertain. The Toña girls had new, even skimpier outfits as they jiggled about in the back to the giant beer truck, and there were little kids on little horses trotting around between the big boys. The neighbors set up a restaurant/bar on their end of the porch and hired a DJ and sound system, deafening us from 10am till 8pm. Other than a few drunks trying to rip each others’ heads off towards then end of the event, a good time was had by all. It’s not hard to remember why we love this place…

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Honeymoon's Over

Apparently, it’s near the end of February. Funny how time passes when you’re in a hot place without a pressing schedule. And hot it is, after a couple of reasonably temperate months, the mercury has remembered it’s time to begin its ascent, resulting in daily double digits beginning with a “9” (but not yet, thank god, ending with one). To add insult, the winds are slackening their pace, barely hitting 10mph, whereas for most of January and February, it was not unusual to feel gusts of 20, 30, even 40 on the really insane days, the days we’re sure the roof is about to relinquish its tentative hold and soar free. Days when so much dust and dirt and (though we prefer not to dwell on it) an intoxicating mix of insecticides, ash from burning tires, and unidentified aromas swoop and swirl around us, causing our eyes to pinken and our faces and bodies to blacken. I like to think of it as a sort of gratuitous sunblock… But that’s all behind us now, as we sit in front of our Chinese-made “industrial” floor fan, elbowing one another for the best spot, dripping sweat on the bare concrete floor after returning from a daily bike ride into town. Returning to this house is like voluntarily walking into a pizza oven. Even the kittens (now over 5 months old) appear to have been strewn carelessly abut the place, sprawled upside down, legs in the air, barely breathing. Not even the jingle of their favorite toy mouse can entice them until after 5pm, when the air at last begins to cool.

In spite of all this, we cycle daily, sometimes just the few miles to town and back, where we do our daily shopping—the fruit and veggie stand where they know us and spare us “gringo pricing”; Palí, the sole supermarket in town, now 49% owned by Wal-Mart which gives us guilty pause, but has the cleanest meat section in town; and once a week or so, San Carlos Mercadito, where we can find over-priced coconut milk and olive oil. We then stop at the Eskimo shop, a sort of Baskin Robbins but with food, where they have two cable TV’s and hand Pat the remote when we enter so he can catch whatever European or British soccer games are on. Our last stop, a couple times a week, might be one of two panaderias, bakeries, each of which has its specialty. Then we saddle up and head back to the oven, avoiding maniacal taxis, unconscious drivers, and packs of school kids, generally arriving home unscarred. Other days we feel more inspired, and head out to the lake, or through the neighboring town of San Jorge, making a loop of around 15 miles, sucking down water and Gatorade with a vengeance.

So what are we doing with ourselves? Well you might ask. Those of you who receive the SPROUT newsletter will know that this, our second year in operation, saw considerable growth, resulting in uniforms and school supplies for nearly 150 children K-12, and eleven post-secondary scholarship students. The language school has diversified as well, now with an adult English class, a kids’ English class, and as of this month, an adult Spanish class. Several other ex-pat women down here, friends, have been badgering me for a while to work with them on Spanish, and finally I agreed. I was reluctant, understandably, for several reasons: namely, as we’re in a foreign country, surely a local would be a better choice? Probably so. The problem is, in our area, there don’t seem to be any professional, bi-lingual Spanish teachers. The women who had tried studying with local people were frustrated, wanting someone to explain things in English, and someone who had some teaching experience. My second objection was that I’ve just been learning/speaking Spanish myself for three years, and only part of each year at that. Sure, I can communicate, but even I’m aware of the huge gaps in my language skills. But they were undeterred, pointing out I was in any case doing better than they, and any help would be better than nothing. And so we began. So far, it seems to be going well. The time flies, and they all swear they’re learning a lot. We’ll see how far we can get in the two months remaining.

Last week as we rode through Buenos Aires, we saw what appeared to be a circus tent, surrounded by several smaller tents, a once brightly-painted but now chipped and faded school bus, and a dozen or so scruffy men, women, and children setting things up. We stopped by Reyna and Edwin’s to get the scoop. “Looks like a circus down the street,” I said to Reyna. “Mmm.” She replied. “So, are you guys going?” “No.” “No? Why?” She looked at me with a look I’ve come to know all too well, a cross between the sort of patience reserved for particularly backwards children and barely concealed amusement. “It’s not worth it.” “Why?” “It just isn’t.” A few days later, in the kids’ English class, two of the girls were talking about it. I asked if they wanted to go. They looked at each other and giggled. “What do they have?” I asked. “Are there animals?” (Pat and I had already determined via daily passings that there were no animals, save for a mangy dog, and hypothesized that perhaps the performers were adept with hand puppets. Rawr!) Rosa said, “They have a pig!” Morelia said, “They do not!” “They do so!” “Uh-uh, Chira went last night and she said nothing about a pig, only a woman with yellow hair dancing and some men telling dumb stories.” “I heard there was a pig…” “No pig!” So, I guess we’ll give it a miss. Wouldn’t want to besmirch our warm memories of the first circus we saw in Rivas back in ’07, with the ostrich and the Teletubbies…

We’ve done next to nothing out at the house on the lake. Primarily due to financial limitations after last summer’s spectacularly feeble showing, but also because we’re trying to figure out what we want to do with ourselves and how much time we want to spend in Nicaragua. The months we are here, we’ve come to realize, between Sprout and the language school and what passes for our social life, are best spent in Buenos Aires, roughly four miles from the beach house. Since we rely on our bikes for nearly all our transport needs, and since it is generally not recommended to ride out that way much after dark, it may not be the most convenient location. However, it’s a beautiful spot, it costs us next to nothing to keep, and after several years, we finally seem to have won over Julio, the neighbor who serves as our caretaker, to the extent we are now actual human beings and not ATM’s disguised as Gringos. In exchange for his respect and friendliness, Pat put a concrete floor in his house, and we’ve handed over the water pump so he can have water down to his place whether we’re there or not. Oh, and we encouraged him to plant as many and whatever fruit trees he wants on the land, with the assurance that he can sell anything he harvests. He is VERY enthusiastic about this, so April should see him out there digging away.

It’s not that we’ve soured on the place, but rather wearied of it to some extent. While it’s a great place to visit, to kick back and relax, spend some time and not much money, catch up on your reading, swimming, and if so inclined, drinking, when it comes to actually getting things accomplished, man, it can leave you so frustrated and irritated you’d have to be up there with the Dalai Lama not to feel the stress. It’s not so much the whole “mañana” syndrome; we’ve more or less come to terms with that. What has worn us down is the prevailing attitude of “As Gringos, you SHOULD help us; as poor Latinos, we DESERVE it”. Starting Sprout was a very good move, not only as it enabled us to do something useful, but also in that it acts as a buffer between us and every local who knocks on the door wanting us, expecting us, to fund their projects, needs, and desires (my favorite being the family who asked for money to buy a satellite dish as they weren’t getting good enough reception on their TV. Their 30” TV with sound system perched precariously on an old table in their dirt-floored, tin-roofed shack.) This way, I politely explain about the foundation, and tell them if they have kids who need uniforms, please give their names to the school director and we’ll consider them for the next school year, but beyond that, we’re unable to fund individual projects. 99% of the time, this is well-received. I think once or twice, there was some belligerence…oh, definitely the way into our wallets.

Then there’s the prevailing short-sightedness that acts like a ball and chain on the social progress of the country. The carpe diem manifesto, I like to think of it, wherein anything you can grab today is preferable to what you may be able to achieve long term. Examples range from workers who put in a week, take their wages, spend it all on booze, are too hung-over to show up for work Monday, and so lose their jobs. Extremely common, to the point that employers expect it of a certain percentage of their hires, and have backups waiting in the wings each week. Stealing from the boss is another one. Land a decent job, with a decent wage, but see a chance to take something, be it cash or tools or materials, something fence-able. Sell whatever it is for a fraction of its worth, and lose the job into the bargain. Friends, Nica and ex-pat alike, who have on-site caretakers often report ‘pushing the envelope’ syndrome, wherein the employees ask for more and more from their employers, things like appliances, clothes for the kids, extra days off, etc., then turn around and cheat the owners any way they can, from selling off crops over the back fence, to nicking household items, to letting thieves in when the owners are away, then claiming they didn’t hear a thing…Long-time expats say it’s inevitable, and if you want to live here, you just have to find a away to accept it, and minimalize the damages. Some do; others decide it’s not worth the constant headaches and pack it in.

As for us, we live, thankfully, outside most of these issues by maintaining a simple life. Other than Julio out at the lake, we have no employees. Most of the Nicaraguans we deal with are friends and tend to help rather than hinder us. But even so, it’s become clear that much more than four-five months a year here may not be ideal. Long enough to run Sprout and teach a few classes; to unwind from Alaska summers and Scotland falls; to be on hand to help other foreigners when we can, without getting over-involved; and to stay connected to the good friends we’ve made in our community. Oh, and to be here during those long, cold months when any of you may want to escape and head south, with an open door and open arms, perhaps a bottle of Flor de Caña in each hand.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Feliz Navidad

Happy End of 2009 and Beginning of 2010.

I am not sure how it got to be late December without a blog entry. I’ll blame it on kittens. Two kittens, Leo and Luna, whom I adopted on Nov. 1st and who have more or less distracted me from all non-essential activities for the past seven weeks. (‘Essential activities’ being organizing the uniform distribution for 135 Sprout kids, coordinating a week of free clinics put on by VOSH, a team of visiting optometrists, helping several local friends by translating, teaching English classes, working on an article about Ometepe Island for an e-zine…)

I returned from Scotland on Oct. 30, while Pat stayed on doing a bathroom remodel for his sister until Dec. 9. As I mentioned above, however, Leo & Luna kept me company, as well as two other ex-pat women whose husbands were in the north working (to keep us in the manner to which we are accustomed—ha!). November marks the end of the academic year here, and I was invited to several graduation ceremonies, for kids from 4 to 18. I made it to two, and two that couldn’t have been more different. The first was for Milagro, Edwin & Reyna’s youngest, as she proceeds from preschool to kindergarten. As I had to run all over south-central Nicaragua in pursuit of uniform components, Reyna asked me to keep an eye open for a traditional Nicaraguan folkdance outfit in green or yellow for Milagro’s big day. Well I asked everywhere, and was shown wee outfits in white, blue, red… and had about given up when a friend suggested a shop right here in Rivas. Sure enough, they had one tiny green outfit left for $7.50.

The next morning I showed up at the school at the posted time of 9am and promptly waited an hour and a half until the students, parents, teachers, and photographer also appeared. (I will NEVER adapt to Nica Time, not really.) There were a dozen little girls, every one of which was wearing a white outfit. But rather than being embarrassed at her deviation from the pack, Milagro relished the fact she stood out, and was thrilled to be posed in the middle for all the pictures. It was a scene of mildly controlled chaos and the little flowers ran about the classroom, mothers in hot pursuit to fix a ribbon, or apply a fresh smear of lip gloss. Finally the diplomas were handed out, some folksy music was blasted from a boom box, and the children swirled about in a wildly uncoordinated blur for the next ten minutes. Just before everyone dashed outside for the piñata bashing, the photographer assembled them for the formal portrait. Such angels! Then their true natures blossomed once more as they fought for the stick and took turns beating the hell out of Strawberry Shortcake. She survived about 7 minutes. I fled as the tiny white vultures descended upon the fallen sweets in a frenzy.

The second graduation was for Danny Michael, the high school boy I’ve been privately tutoring since last spring. He comes from a comparatively wealthy family, although his dad is a bit of the black sheep and always struggling to earn a living. Danny’s a great kid, though, bright, obsessed with soccer, and ready to head off to university in Managua in March. He was graduating from Our Lady of Fatima, Rivas’ premier private school. I saw more pale skin and suits and ties than I’ve seen since arriving in Nicaragua, with the women dressed for this 4pm ceremony as though headed off to the Oscars. (I felt like the poor relation in a simple skirt and blouse, lamenting a missed opportunity to wear an actual dress.) The first hour took place in the “chapel”, which was larger than most neighborhood churches, and was 95% Catholic mass, 5% graduation. This was followed by a 30 minute break as the masses (there were only 43 kids graduating, but over 500 attendees) moved to the auditorium, also huge. The ceremony differed from the typical US graduation in that the parents played a much bigger role. While the guests all took their seats inside, the parents lined up outside with their kids. Way down in front, the emcee announced each family, and the parent or parents walked their kid down the aisle, wedding-like. I liked that, as it showed that the student hadn’t gotten to that point on his or her own, but through the support, love, and assistance of the parents.

Once everyone was seated, it progressed like a typical graduation, endless speeches from droning politicians and professors, etc. until finally the three valedictorians, all young women, gave their much briefer, much more inspiring versions. The one by one the names were read, and again, the parents escorted their kids up onto the stage, staying with them as they received their diplomas, shook assorted hands, posed for pictures, and hugged the director. Then, at the top of the stairs, the parents descended while the kids took a seat to the right of the stage. It all finally ended with the kids standing and singing a song of their choosing, accompanied by one boy on a guitar. Very moving, really.

The aftermath was the usual flurry of hugs, tears, photo ops, and handshaking. I actually knew two graduates, and saw a number of other locals I’ve met over the years. It was strange and interesting being amongst them, like being in a parallel Nicaragua from the one I’ve inhabited, with its dirt floors and needy kids. Danny’s father, Danilo, told me the majority of parents had spent the revolution years in the US, returning in the early 90’s after things had cooled down. While many of them detested the Somoza government and supported the Sandinista overthrow, being teens and young adults themselves at the time, their own parents wanted them far from harms’ way and sent them packing. Now, they represent the small but powerful minority of businessmen, large-scale farmers, real estate magnates, bankers and politicians trying to keep the Danielistas (Ortega's brand of Sandinismo) from dragging the country back into the dark ages. At this point, it’s impossible to say if they will succeed, as Daniel is hard at work overturning the country’s term laws in order to stay in office another five years…

A few days later I showed up for Danny’s lesson just as they were securing the trailer, complete with pregnant cow, to the back of their Landcruiser. “Oh no! We forgot about class! We’re headed to the other farm to deliver this cow—jump in; you and Danny can practice English on the drive. We’ll be back by lunchtime.” was how I ended up spending the next seven hours with Danny, his younger brother Jose, their dad, and Molina, their friend and Danilo’s right hand man. The drive itself, to Escalante, took nearly two hours, in part because Danilo, always a slow driver, was especially cautious with his bovine cargo in tow, and because the last 15 miles were over roads more rutted and washed out than in tact. We finally pulled off to the side at a gate, left the jeep, and walked, with the cow, another half mile up to the caretaker’s spread. The cow was led off by a cowboy, and Danilo disappeared to test ride a new horse. The boys and I wandered abo0ut for a while, played games on the cell phones, practiced English, chatted with the two teenage boys who lived there, and waited. And waited. After an hour and a half, I said something about a friend expecting me, and too bad there was no cell phone signal or I’d call to let her know what had happened. One of the local boys said, “Oh, you need to make a call? We can walk to the cyber, the Nica term for an internet café. “Here?” Danny, Jose, and I all said. “We’re miles from anywhere!” “It’s about half a mile, up hill, but it works,” said the kid. And off we went. It was a beautiful climb, following a cow trail up and over several hills, across a small stream, around several huge trees. As we got higher, we could see Mombacho, a volcano to the NE, and further up, a hint of the Pacific Ocean to the west. When we got to the top of a rise, the kid said, “Try it now.”, and we all (because Danny and Jose were desperate to text their respective girlfriends; thoroughly modern boys, going through withdrawal.) Sure enough, as we turned and tilted, one by one we got a signal. I called Carolyn, with the wind blowing 40 and all but drowning me out, adding credence to my story. Then the boys climbed a tree, trying to get a better view of the ocean, and then we wound our way back. Danilo returned soon thereafter, and after a yummy snack of twice-fried plantain rounds, we began the slow drive back to Rivas.

A week or so prior, Shelley, one of the other single wives, invited me to go to watch the sea turtles laying their eggs along the southern Pacific beaches. A bunch of us piled into her pickup and we headed west in the late afternoon. Flash photography is prohibited as it stuns and confuses the creatures, so it’s best to arrive just as the sun is setting. We made good time in spite of more atrocious roads, and hit the beach just as the first turtles were coming ashore. On our way down, we encountered a few young men carrying baskets of baby turtles. They explained that they had collected them, recently hatched, and would keep them safe until after dark when they would place them in the water, thus protecting them during the long shuffle from birds, foxes, and other would-be hunters of these tender young morsels.

We watched the mothers make the trek inland, where they would slowly but steadily dig deep holes in the sand with their back flippers, deposit 30-50 eggs, cover them up, and trudge back to sea. The eggs are vulnerable to just about everything, with man being the worst offender. This time of year it is easy to find turtle eggs for sale in the streets and local restaurants, all very hush-hush. Marena, Nicaragua’s answer to Fish and Wildlife, is attempting to protect the turtles, but they are helpless beyond putting a few armed guards on the more populated beaches. The kid with the basket said maybe 1 in 2000 baby turtles actually makes it to adulthood, and still, they manage to survive.

And now it’s nearly Christmas, the parks are all lit up, and we are awoken every morning at 3:45 by the church bells tolling, calling everyone to the park to celebrate the days leading to up the birth of the baby Jesus. The priest intones, the music, a sort of bastardized version of Jingle Bells blares, and the people celebrate with mortars until around 5am, when it all quiets down again. May you all enjoy an equally festive, if somewhat quieter holiday season, and all the best in 2010.