"Nicaragua, dear Nicaragua"
I've been back two full days now and still cannot appreciate all of the amazingness that was Nicaragua: ten days of conversation, exploration, relaxation, observation, and two rather humbling experiences intermixed with many rich emotions. I went away determined not to think about work, but I kept thinking how I might transfer these many lessons back to the classroom. Those of you who know me well will know that I am frequently intense and emotional: I commit 100% to something once I'm committed, and I try hard to live in the present (I know that's a cliche, but it means that if I have your attention I'm trying to not think about what I'm doing next). So while in Nicaragua, I gave 100%: I spoke about 5 minutes of English the whole week, didn't turn down invitations from strangers to interact with them (well, a few times, see below...), and altogether loved my stay in Nicaragua.
So, a few observations after only 10 days:
1- Nicaraguans don't mind littering, and their beautiful country doubles as their beautiful trash can. Well, at least the cities. Not that the cities don't have trashcans on the streets (courtesy of foreign aid oftentimes)... people just don't feel compelled to use them.
2- Nicaraguan food is amazing: flavorful, but not overwhelming; basic but healthy and nutritious. I loved eating beans and rice nearly daily, because they were always served with something else. As a side note, although I bought some "junk food" items (often out of curiousity for how they taste more than hunger or desire) I ate many fewer junky things in Nica than normal in the USA.
3- Bicycles are a major form of intracity transit. People double, even triple, riding aside in a bicycle. Intersections always seemed scary, but maybe those on bike have learned how to navigate them.
4- What Nicaraguans lack in material wealth they make up "in spades" with communal wealth: spirit of community was palpable and alive in each city I visited. Perhaps it was because I was a tourist, or maybe because it was holiday period and families had more time devoted together, but the family/friend unit is strong in Nicaragua. And they aren't hesitant to reach out to strangers, which I experienced several times (although, interestingly, not in Leon... even though I tried once to get myself invited to lunch by a friend... maybe he thought it would be too much an imposition?)
5- Nicaraguans generally are full of life. One of their ways to express this liveliness is baseball. It's a national past-time (well, to watch anyway... I saw few folks actually playing baseball...!) and they are passionate about their home teams, as well as a MLB team or two.
6- Nicaraguans all know about the USA. Some have strong opinions, either in favor or against. Regardless I was treated more than cordially.
7- I thought many times what it would be like to actually live in Leon. I think it would be difficult but fun. The two churches I visited were amazing: very welcoming and teeming with young people & energy.
8- I repeatedly was forced to reckon with just how rich (materially) I am: it was obvious that I have been given so much stuff (or access to buy so much stuff). This was very humbling and caused me to frequently self-assess what I'm doing with it: how am I using what I've been given to serve and bless those around me? This question was hard to answer, because unfortunately I do a terrible job of serving with what I have.
9- In line with feeling like I have a ton of stuff, I had two really humbling experiences. The first was in Granada, on New Year's Day. In the morning I walked about exploring the city, taking pictures of this church and that, and ended up down by the lake (Lago Nicaragua). I started journaling, and the two guys sitting about 30 feet away started talking with me. Over the course of about an hour, we talked at various intervals about general things: how to celebrate 2010, what the park was behind the wall over to our right, ... you know, small talk. Alfredo got this big idea to invite me back to Jose's house to eat a soup that he wanted me to try. So we walked back to Jose's house and Alfredo went to fetch the soup. Jose lives in a very nice house and has several sons in their 20s (he's probably only about 45 himself). Alfredo told me he was 29 but wasn't yet married or had any kids.
When Alfredo returned with the soup, he also had a "Safari" themed tee-shirt he wanted to give me. It's here where the story turns a little strange; I began to get the sense that the guys wanted me to give them money. Alfredo, especially, he mentioned several times how poor he was and how hard his life was. Alfredo had been a cook in a hotel, so had some experience with tourists. After eating the soup and taking various photos, Alfredo wanted me to see his house and meet his mom. He wasn't lying when he said he was poor. His "house" was open at one end (it had 3 walls and a partial roof) and he lived in one room with his mom, aunt, grandmother, nephew, and sister, and maybe others who weren't there when we visited.
Anyway, to finish up the story, they never directly asked me for money, but Jose and I left Alfredo at home when he started throwing a "fit" with his mom. I'm still not sure he was totally sane, and am glad to have left with Jose when we did, but I still feel sorry for him: he is my age but has had a very hard life. They have an "outhouse" but it's inside their wall, dirt floors, some running water, fewer beds than people... and generally Alfredo seems like a cheery person. I've decided the best I can offer him is to pray for him.
- My other really humbling experience took place my last morning in Leon. Each morning I'd been getting up at 6 a.m. to do some exercises: situps, pushups, and a 30-min walk through the city. You might be surprised to learn that by 6:30 there are hundreds of people in the streets getting ready for their day. But despite the company (or maybe because of it?) I enjoyed these a.m. walks: time to think, pray, and begin the day quietly. People in Leon do have city trash service, and they often put out two bags of trash: one with recycling and othe regular. Only the city doesn't come pick up the recycling, rather the poor - often children - come by early with sticks banging on trash bags to see whether there are cans/bottles or anything else recyclable in the bags. Then they collect them and themselves recycle them, collecting a small amount of money in the process.
Anyway I'd been collecting trash in my room for the week and decided to go find a few kids who were collecting and give them not only my aluminum cans but also my spare change (I was flying out the next day and didnt need to bring back much spare change... probably about $2 worth). The kids I gave the cans to were not as thrilled with the can as with the money; they definitely brightened up more with the money than with the can. I suggested they share it and pay for "today's food". But the whole experience really was sad: knowing the life I have in the USA, full of lots of choices and foods and leisure time (but maybe devoid of the kind of community life they have... it is a trade-off)... in comparison with them. It caused me to feel very grateful to my grandparents and parents, who sacrificed a lot for me, and to God himself who has provided me with so many material possessions. As I've been saying in the past few points, this contrast has been the hardest to process: my relative material wealth juxtaposed with their relative material poverty. I'm still working it out.
10- When we landed in Miami the American girl next to me flipped out her cell phone and called one of her girlfriends (she talked about surfing, so maybe it was LA... regardless she was planning how to get drunk and pass the weekend with her friend). Even though her vulgarity (she cussed a lot, and didn't seem to care how much in the public she was) gave me pause, one of her comments struck me as absolutely henious: she was recounting to her friend her past week of partying, evidently with a Nicaraguan friend she knew from the US, and ended her description with something like "I'm so glad to be back in the US, back among civilized people..." I so wanted to call her out on that, to point out her ignorance and insinsitivity and bigotry. In addition to the racist/classist undertone, she's just plain wrong: Nicaraguans may lack many things but they do not lack civilization. Their interpersonal bonds are probably tighter than ours here! Anyway, in the beginning of processing my powerful experiences, I didn't need to overhear some vulgar b*tch (reference
) carrying on about hers.
11- I loved my host family. They treated me with utmost respect, fed me amazingly well, and generally included me in all their activities. I talked politics with Raul, learned about food and clothing from Maria Tereza, and played poker, desmoche (like Gin Rummy) and Nintendo 64 with Gustavo and Markos. It was a great family to live with and I'm sorry it was only for 1 week.
12- Nearly every Nicaraguan I met asked me when I was coming back. They were really interested in hearing not only why I came but also when I was returning. Given that I had such an amazing experience, I'm sure I'll be returning soon.
Now, for some pictures: