Mosquitoes, Dogs And Rats,
But Nowhere A Cat!

Denise Mainquist

© Copyright 2002 by Denise Mainquist


Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

        As our bus rolled across the darkened beach, waves
lapped at the tires.  Through the smudged window I
could see two volcanoes, huddled together beneath the
full moon.  It was a view that was impossible to
capture on film and equally impossible to expel from
the mind.  At that moment, I decided Nicaragua had to
be one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Then the bus stopped in front of our hotel.  Our
20-year-old escort, Gerardo, called our hotel “casa
del lago” or lake house.   The real name was Hotel Mar
Dulce, but since the front steps were only two feet
from the churning waters of Lake Nicaragua, Gerardo’s
description fit just fine.  When the waves were high,
it was necessary to time that last step, if walking
around in wet shoes wasn’t your thing.   Hotel Mar
Dulce was more akin to a frat house slated for
demolition than anything resembling a hotel.  The
lights eerily pulsed bright to dim as I climbed the
stairs to my room.

        It was an enchanting yet ominous start to my third
service trip with Discovery Service Projects. Our
accommodations on other trips were never 5-star, but
they were always clean and safe.  I never volunteered
so I could enjoy a luxurious resort anyway.  One week
of hard, physical labor under the hot tropical sun
always managed to revive my spirits and put things
into perspective.  This particular trip, however,
caused me to question what is really meant by the term
“creature comforts.”

        As I found my cot and prepared to collapse into bed,
a shrill, birdlike call from somewhere overhead
startled me.  I looked up at the ceiling in time to
see a small white gecko scurry through a crack in the
wall and disappear.

        “They’re good for the mosquitoes,” my already
sleeping roommate muttered.

        “That’s great.  A few lizards aren’t a problem for
me,” I said enthusiastically.

        I crawled into bed and sunk my head into the crispy,
crackling pillow.  Was it filled with rice straw?  I’m
not sure, but at that moment it did not matter.  I was
so tired from the long day of travel, nothing was
going to interrupt my sleep.

        The next morning I rose early to brilliant sunlight
pouring through the windows and the refreshing wind
coming off the lake.  I quietly puttered around the
room while my roommates slept but then nearly screamed
when I glanced in the mirror.  My face was covered
with angry red spots.  The mosquitoes made a meal of
my face during the night.  I silently chided myself
for not remembering to wear mosquito repellant to bed.
As others in our group gathered for breakfast,
however, I discovered I was not the only one plagued
during the night.  We looked like a group of
14-year-olds experiencing an acne epidemic.  It was a
relief to know that malaria was not a problem in that
area. Dengue fever was a concern, but fortunately,
those mosquitoes are day-biters.  Our health wasn’t at
risk but our vanity suffered immensely.

  Day and night, the unrelenting wind off the lake
assaulted us, stirring the waters and whipping our
screenless windows open wide.  Keeping my contact
lenses on my finger long enough to get them in my eyes
was a daily challenge.  It was amazing that the
mosquitoes were able to land on our faces long enough
to bite.

        Lake Nicaragua and the beach in front of our hotel
were a major center of activity, particularly in the
early morning.  Fisherman cleaned their early morning
catches on makeshift tables of a board propped across
a 50-gallon oil drum. Pigs roamed the beach, rooting
for their breakfast.  Families piled into wooden
wagons pulled by oxen or a horse and headed out for
their day’s work.  I even saw a man walking down the
beach with a wild turkey flung over his shoulder.
Animal life in Nicaragua was as abundant as the

        Our project on this particular journey was to build
an annex and renovate a community hospital in the city
of Rivas.  The average family income in Nicaragua is
$480 per year.  Most health services are provided free
to those in need.  The hospital is limited in the
supplies available, but the doctors and nurses make
good use of resources.  It is a daunting task to tend
to the ill.

        I spent the first morning carrying bricks and
arranging them in piles around the worksite.  The
footings were already poured so construction of brick
walls was ready to begin that afternoon.  It was
heavy, dirty work.  During lunch my friend, Tonya,
suggested that maybe it would be a better job to help
paint the patient rooms where we could be out of the
afternoon sun.  I agreed to what sounded like a good
idea at the time.

        As we toted our painting supplies into the assigned
room, we looked up to find patients still lying in
their beds.  With a friendly smile and my limited
Spanish, I told them we were there to paint, “Vamos a
pintar.”  It really didn’t faze them much.  We went to
work and they stayed in her beds until we had to move
it to paint the wall behind it.   I couldn’t help
wondering what would happen back home if a group of
non-English speaking people entered an occupied
hospital room and began to paint.

        We were told the hospital rooms had not been painted
in 15 years.  As I began to prep the room, I wondered
if it had been that long since they were cleaned too.
When I removed the screws on the switch plate dried
bug parts rained down onto my shoes.  There was a
one-inch thick layer of dirt and bugs on top of the
light fixtures.  When I started taping the baseboards
the roaches ran from the cracks.   Those roaches would
move just enough to stay about six inches in front of
my brush as I painted.  They acted like pets.  After a
day of playing it safe indoors, I decided to take my
chances with heat stroke and skin cancer.

        That night, while preparing for bed, we all lathered
on the heavy-duty insect repellant.  Still, there was
little sleeping because I could feel the mosquitoes
covering my face.  I tried to huddle completely under
my sheet, but it was too stuffy.  It was a miserable
night and in the morning we all had even more red
spots.  At least mine didn’t itch.  Tonya’s bites were
causing her hands to swell.

         The role of Discovery Service Projects volunteers is
only to assist with a project, so there is always a
local foreman.  At times, this can be a challenge for
women volunteers who insist on contributing something
to the project besides finding hammers and carrying
bricks.  Ramon, our foreman in Rivas, was a real gem.
He was enthusiastic about teaching all the women to
lay bricks.  His motto for us was:
                Without fear!
                Without shame!
                We will win!
                We will lay brick!

        In fact, Ramon was an excellent teacher and the women
built almost all the walls while the men straggled off
to find “fix-it” jobs around the hospital.

        Our presence in Rivas was big news.  The mayor, who
was also a doctor at the hospital and our host, wanted
lots of publicity about the great work we were doing
at the hospital.  All day long, children and adults
crowded the corridors to watch us labor.  But human
observers weren’t the only visitors to the hospital.
Scrawny dogs roamed the hospital hallways in search of
scraps of food.  Even cows sauntered down the
corridors on their way to inspect our work.

        Preparations for bed the next night included a new
variety of insect repellant as a final attempt to
avoid more mosquito bites.  It didn’t help one bit.
Throughout the night I could still feel them on my
face.  The next morning I counted 54 mosquito bites on
my face alone.  The locals in the marketplace began to
point and stare when I came near.  Tonya was concerned
she may not be able to return to her job as a coronary
care nurse.  We all looked like we had the chicken
pox—or worse.

That afternoon was leisure time so we traveled to the
Pacific Ocean beach at San Juan del Sur.  There was a
market in the town and Tonya and I made it our mission
to find mosquito netting.  Fortunately, we found three
single-bed-sized nets.  We gave two to the others and
kept one for ourselves.  We pushed our cots together
and overlapped our “mattresses” just to get that one
small net to cover both of us.  We giggled as we
crawled in each night, carefully tucking the edges of
the netting under our mattresses and switching on the
flashlight to check for any mosquitoes trapped inside.
 We felt like kids crawling into a card table tent and
playing survival in the jungle, only this time we
weren’t pretending.

        The nets worked wonderfully.  That night we all slept
perfectly for the first time since we arrived.  It was
a great relief to look in the mirror and see that the
myriad red spots on my face had not increased during
the night.  Even though Tonya and I were packed in our
bed, head to toe, like pickles in a jar, we decided
mosquito netting was a fantastic invention.

        I was awake earlier than most that next morning, so I
wandered downstairs for a relaxing cup of coffee.  The
landlord was at the hotel, busily making some
household repairs.  I relaxed back in my chair just as
Barbara, our director, leaned in close to whisper
something to the landlord.

        “You need to bring some traps or cats over.  The rats
are eating all our food.”

        Oh great.  I saw pigs, turkeys, geckoes, horses, cows
and dogs, but not once did I ever see a cat in

Denise Mainquist is a freelance writer in Lincoln, NE
who enjoys getting dirty on service projects, but
hopes her next trip has fewer creatures.

Contact Denise

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