Sunday, December 31, 2006

selva negra

Pictures are supposed to be worth 1,000 words, so instead of 16,000 words about Andrea and I's 3-day wonderful adventure in the cold (!) and beautiful mountains of Matagalpa, I give you 16 photos (chosen with great difficulty). The first photo was taken in the city of Matagalpa where Andrea and I had lunch with the extended Gutierrez family before heading up to Selva Negra. By the way, in addition to the monkeys, we saw lots of geese, ducks, beavers, birds, horses, roosters, donkeys, and even a family of (slightly dangerous) wild hogs.

p.s. Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 25, 2006

the week in photos

Just a small sample...

p.s. to my loyal readers, i will be away from my computer for 3 days on a small birthday trip to Selva Negra with my roommate...check back on the 29th for more pics! : )

never alone

“God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving toward the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent us his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel alone in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us…Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and let him—whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend—be our companion.” –Henri Nouwen

In my weaker moments this past week here in Nicaragua, I believed I was alone, unloved, and forgotten. I believed these lies—lies that originate from deeply rooted fears and insecurities in my life—until a refreshing shower of love washed them away. This love came in many forms, from many people and many places.

From the smiles and affection of the children of Mateare, who I visited Friday afternoon to be part of their end-of-the-year celebration (and give a small biblical reflection as part of the program.)

From my adopted parents in Nicaragua, Francisco and Alicia, who reached out and included me in family activities these past 2 days, including a trip to their children’s university in a nearby town, dinner at a local fritanga, worship Sunday morning, and a “intercultural exchange” Christmas Eve/birthday lunch yesterday. Their family tradition is for everyone to share words of affirmation with the cumpleanera (in this case, me), so they each (all 8 of them!) spoke a word of encouragement into my life before we ate. “We know you miss your friends and family”, Alicia said to me, “but we hope that we have filled a small part of your heart today.” (Indeed they did—until my heart was overflowing with joy and gratitude.)

From a group of my coworkers here in Managua, who (to my great surprise) arrived at my doorstep at 7am yesterday to sing me the traditional Nica birthday song and share café con leche, delicious chocolate cake, and Christmas carols with me (arranged by my sweet roommate of course, who though she was in Costa Rica until yesterday afternoon, had thoughtfully planned this surprise ahead of time).

From my Nica friend Peter, who invited me and Andrea to spend Christmas Eve with him and his extended family. Because of his kindness and the hospitality of his family, I got to see my first Nica Christmas drama at his church, and had not one, but 3 delicious Christmas dinners, including food typical of both Nicaragua and the United States, and the firsthand experience of the midnight fireworks tradition celebrating La Navidad.

And last but not least, from precious friends back home in San Antonio and around the States—you know who you are. Thank you for your calls, cards, packages, and emails over the last 2 days (and what is yet to come!).Your thoughtfulness is an expression of the tender care of our dear Savior Emmanuel whose birth, as Henri Nouwen says above, reminds us all that truly, we are never alone.

Indeed, far from being alone, my home here in Managua was filled with dear friends, much laughter, delicious food, meaningful conversation, and song over the last few days. Once again, God has blown me away with His extravagant goodness and grace in this emotional time far from home. May I trust more and more each day in His love above all things to be my most constant and life-giving companion wherever I am.

Feliz Navidad!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

on not being home for christmas

Perhaps it was only a matter of time.

Despite all of my attempts to manage my expectations and emotions in anticipation of this final week before Christmas, everything fell apart last night.

After a long day out of town with Andrea and her visiting friend Sas, I was feeling rough around the edges because of the stories we had heard in the community of Santa Maria (survivors of the Casitas mudslide in 1998) and in the memorial park up in mountains where the community used to be. I was hungry, since we hadn’t eaten a real meal since our eggs and toast early that morning. And I was irritated because of the ways our plans kept changing during the day and certain things took way longer than expected.

When we finally walked in the door of our house at 6:30pm, I made a beeline for the fridge, grabbed some left over pasta and tried to mood alter up with the help of my warm home-cooked food. But just as I started to dig in, Andrea told me she was taking Sas out to dinner since she hadn’t gotten to see much of Managua yet. I could barely mumble an “okay” before I felt the hot tears forming behind my eyes.

Was it the emotions of an intense day of hearing stories of community history and tragedy? Was it the sudden realization that I was going to be alone for the evening? Was it the dashed hope of a real conversation with someone about my day? Was it the childish desire to be included in their plans? Was it the twinge of jealousy that I didn’t have my own friend to take out to dinner or celebrate the season with? Was it the depressing anticipation of knowing that for most of the next 3 days (including my birthday) I was going to be alone while A&S went off to Costa Rica?

Maybe it was all of that and more. Suddenly my appetite was gone and all I could do was sob. I was a wreck, but I managed to pick myself up and move my broken heart into my bedroom, where Andrea found me a few minutes later. After a hug, she said, “Let’s talk when we get home.” Not having the emotional stamina to stay awake much longer, though, I eventually finished my dinner and returned to my room where I fell asleep to a semi-soothing mix of itunes. This morning I woke up before either of them (they were headed to the beach today), drank some coffee, and left to go check on the house where I am house-sitting for the next couple weeks.

Despite the change of scenery, my melancholy mood remains. “I can handle anything,” I remember sharing with several people recently, “as long as I am not alone.”

These lonely hours are the hardest hours. The hardest hours to accept that, unlike the old carol, I will not be home for Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

18 for the 18th

(Just some things I've been up to lately. Actually, this is how you summarize 4 days when you're feeling lazy.)
1. went swimming in a pool with my coworkers at an end-of-the-year party
2. walked around for 3 hours in Masaya for no reason
3. baked 2 pumpkin breads with spices brought here by Andrea's friend Sas
4. killed 4 cockroaches (in someone else's house)
5. listened to new music by an old college friend Phillip Morrow
6. made spaghetti with my own special meat sauce recipe for dinner
6. read The Jaguar Smile
7. received 2 Christmas/birthday packages and 3 cards [fun!]
8. cleaned my kitchen and living room floor
9. hung a strand of white Christmas lights on our front porch
10. talked to an unemployed Guatemalan man
11. visited Managua's smoky and dusty city dump (where people actually live)
12. discovered that there is plastic recycling here
13. took 7 taxi rides
14. met a woman who left the dump (la Chureca) and now has a better life
15. bought 2 red cinnamon scented candles (now the house smells like Christmas!)
16. got hit on by a young taxi driver with a pimped out yellow pontiac
17. discovered a place where I can buy fair trade artesania
18. saw some 6 thousand-year-old preserved footprints of indigenous Nicaraguans

Thursday, December 14, 2006

thought for today

"Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you yourself shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God. "

- Phillips Brooks

[Behind me, the river Tuma of north central Nicaraguan province Matagalpa]

Sunday, December 10, 2006

h-o-r-s-e, or character formation in el campo

Sometimes, even city girls like me need a break from city life. This was one of the weekends, and so I was elated to accept the invitation of my dear neighbors Francisco and Alicia to accompany them to a finca (farm) of a family friend (Don Cesar) in rural Matagalpa.

We left Managua early Friday morning and drove about 4 hours to a small town called La Dalia in northeast Matagalpa, a town where Francisco and Alicia had lived back in the late 80s working with a public health agency. There we met Don Cesar, and journeyed another hour in the greenest countryside I have ever seen on a remarkably high quality dirt road until we reached the end of the road, where we were met by Don Cesar’s family and a group of horses that we would be riding the rest of the way into the valley where his house was located.

Remember, dear readers, that I had only ridden a horse one other time in my life, and in a small pasture—this, on the other hand, was going to be a serious test of my physical and emotional stamina. What we embarked on was an hour long ride, mostly downhill, through steep, muddy, and sometimes rocky or underdeveloped (meaing no clear path) land.

From the start, then, I was completely outside my comfort zone. But I wanted to be a good sport, so I faked my best smile and mounted the horse/mule mixed breed animal I was given with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. And for a while, everything was fine. Yes, the horse wanted to eat, and sometimes wanted to wander off the trail, but it was quickly reigned in by Don Cesar or one of his sons who was with us.

This all changed, however, when we hit an especially overgrown patch and a sharp branch poked my eye. Instinctively I screamed. The horse, sensing my fear, immediately began to walk faster and I almost got scraped again until I remembered to grab the reigns and pull him to a halt. And then I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I tried to regain control of my emotions, but I just couldn’t. More than the pain, I was embarrassed that I was so inept at this. One of Don Cesar’s workers traveling with us proceeded to take the rope and lead my horse himself. While this brought me momentary comfort, it also intensified my embarrassment and sense of helplessness. And of course when we arrived at the house, I was so eager to get off the horse that I forgot how far I was from the ground and my right foot buckled under me when I dismounted. More pain, more embarrassment, more tears. Alicia came over to console me with words of encouragement and a hug, but all I could think was, “I am so out of my league right now. There is no way I can do this again. What must these Nicas think of me?”

The good news is, after this crisis moment, a tour of the pigpen, a jaunt up the hill to see the view from the house, and a delicious dinner of farm-raised chicken, rice/beans, guajada (a special Nica cheese like thing) and some coffee, I was in much better spirits and hopeful for better things to come in the morning.

And better things did come. After breakfast we mounted the horses again (this time my horse was roped behind Don Cesar’s) for a trip even further downhill to the river, El Tuma. The river was gorgeous—the water was clear and cold, and the rushing current was a healing sound. While Alicia and I sat on the stones with our feet submerged to enjoy the crisp water, the boys played football and the men fished. It was so wonderful to sit and do nothing but enjoy the beauty of God’s green earth and listen to the water rushing by us. Sometimes all a soul needs is a reprieve from ordinary life. And what a reprieve it was.

After a few hours at the river, we mounted to return to the house—at several points the steep incline of the terrain made me wonder how in the world these horses would fare, but never once did they stumble. By the end of this third ride I had a lot more confidence in the whole experience of horse riding and greater understanding of what it means to trust in my mount. We rested briefly at the house and then prepared to leave for Matagalpa where we would spend Saturday night.

Right before we left, Don Cesar said, “Forgive us for whatever we could not offer you.” Such humility from a man with the riches of the land’s bounty at his fingertips! The people of the campo are simple, goodhearted, generous, and kind. Never once did their patience waver with me—never was I not provided for in abundance, in food, conversation, diversion, or beauty.

Reflecting on the day as we drove back into the city of Matagalpa last night, Francisco said to me, “These are the kind of experiences that form one’s character. Sometimes we don’t know why at the time, but they make us who we are.”

Such fatherly wisdom from a man I respect and admire more each day! Indeed, this past weekend was full of many things—adventure, diversion, rest, challenge, opportunity, growth, and learning. All important ingredients of a character-forming experience.

One I will never forget.

Friday, December 08, 2006

the heart smiles when...

...a new friend shares his spiritual journey with you

...a community welcomes you with open arms

...your roommate comes home after a long trip and you sit on the grass and catch up

...a pastor tells you God has given you the gift to work with children (much more on this next week) and a door is opened for a new ministry

...a child approaches you and asks for a kiss

...a family celebrates their son's birthday with an overflow of love (and invites you to be part of it)

.. you dance salsa in the middle of a living room together with a Nica sister

...a tour of the city with neighbors on the night of the Purisima turns into a bonding experience

...a talented and creative young man plays latin jazz to delight others's adopted Nica parents invite you to spend a weekend with them on a farm in the middle of Nicaragua's natural beauty

Yes, the heart smiles.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

no, it wasn't my imagination

There really WAS a (5.4) seismic tremor this morning.

Not to worry, everything is fine.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

a confession, and who defines beauty?

Confession: I bought a Mango Snapple and a box of chicken fajita Lean Pockets today. I know, I know. You are thinking one of two things right now. Either (1) How in the world did Pamela find Snapple and Lean Pockets in the middle of Nicaragua or (2) Why in the world would Pam buy such American products when there is so much good Nicaraguan food to enjoy? The answer to question (1) is simple: Walmart recently became the majority owner of La Union, the grocery store near my house. Thus, in addition to the aforementioned products, you can now find any Equate product, honey mustard barbeque sauce, a ridiculous selection of shampoo and other beauty products, and lots of other American brands (Starkist, Nestle, Dove, Smuckers, just to name a few). The answer to question (2) is a bit more complicated, but can be summed up in two words: culture stress. Sometimes, as much as I enjoy my Nica lunches (typically rice, beans, grilled chicken or beef, and cabbage salad), I just want to eat something that tastes like home. I don’t know if I should feel guilty about that or not, but there is the truth folks. Sometimes I just want to be (and act like) an American.

Rewinding about 5 days, on my bus ride to Chinandega last Tuesday—the fullest bus I have ever been on, I might add—I was sandwiched between a number of women who cook various kinds of foods (ranging from desserts to quesillos, these really neat cheese and onion in a tortilla concoctions) and travel to key points to sell them. I struck up a conversation with one of them who was headed to Chinandega to deliver some clothing and shoes to a store that buys products from her. Pretty soon all the women in earshot were listening to our conversation and wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing in Nicaragua (it’s a pretty rare thing for Americans to travel by bus here, so I was attracting more attention than usual). I was really enjoying these few minutes of small talk with these hardworking Nica woman, but as I got up to leave, one of the younger ones said to me, “Your eyes are beautiful. I wish I could bleach my eyes to be that color.” I was momentarily stunned, but recovered from my astonishment in time to reply earnestly, “Your eyes are beautiful! Why would you want to change them? Brown is a beautiful color.” The girl smiled, but I don’t know if she really believed me or not. In Nicaragua there is this subtle subtext everywhere that “the lighter your skin, the better”. Most of the commercials on TV and the billboards around town feature light-skinned Nicaraguans. But I was still surprised that this beautiful Nica woman would want to change her eye color—that is probably the one thing I have never wished to change about myself. The whole incident brought home another disturbing reality for me—that, sadly, all over the world, women struggle with the social construct of beauty in their culture. Another example: the young woman who comes to clean my house once a week (who is skinny as a rail) barely eats because she doesn’t want to get fat. What’s even sadder about this is that it represents more the infiltration of US cultural constructs than a Nica mentality—here a little extra weight usually means you are eating well and enjoying life. Anyway, the whole incident gave me pause and made me hope that the one small word of encouragement I offered this girl will be echoed by many other people in her life.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

recent random pics

el buen coyote

It’s a rare gray day here in Managua. The wind is howling around my house, which I have had all to myself for the last week as my roommate has been out of town with a team working up in Chinandega. I was up there myself for a couple days this past week to attend a youth leader training event, which left me truly impacted. If you get my newsletters, you’ve already heard a little about this.

One of the sessions was about contemporary metaphors for introducing Christ. My friend and Colombian transplant to Guatemala Jairo talked about how often times in our culture, the familiar words used to describe Jesus (Savior, Lord, Redeemer) fail to make an impact because they do not speak directly into our personal experience or cultural context. Sometimes a new metaphor or image can help people understand the purpose and character of Christ in a deeper way. The contemporary metaphor presented in the session was of Christ as the “buen coyote”. Anyone familiar with the immigration debate and what’s involved in entering the US illegally knows that a coyote is a guide hired and paid to help someone cross the border. The idea originates from author Bob Eckblad. He writes (excerpted):
“A bad coyote may knowingly lead people into bands of robbers, rape women or abandon their charges in the desert. Some will hold people hostage in safe houses until family members pay their fees. Others are known to lock people into trucks or box cars and even abandon them to their deaths. Good coyotes treat people respectfully and fulfill their obligations to guide people securely into the country. This includes guiding people to safe houses where they can eat, bathe and rest. They may carry children, rescue lost immigrants, or provide food and water to stranded travelers…Jesus can be viewed as comparable to a coyote in his embracing--and symbolically crossing--people who cannot fulfill the legal requirements to enter legitimately into the Reign of God….Most broken people assume the Scriptures are only about lists of dos and don’ts and calls to compliance. Reading with people whose social standing, family of origin, addictions, criminal history and other factors make compliance with civil laws or Scriptural teachings impossible requires a deliberate reading for and acting by Grace. The Good News alone must be seized by faith as having the power to save, heal, deliver and liberate. This Good News is no one other than Jesus Christ himself, who meets us through the words of Scripture, the Sacraments and through the flesh of his beloved family of buen coyote followers.”
Like any metaphor or analogy, Eckblad’s description of Christ as the “buen coyote” has its weaknesses and limitations. Still, it was good food for thought and made me consider what other contemporary metaphors might be used to help those on the margins of our world better understand the love and grace of God.

Monday, November 27, 2006


"Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful with remain.
Be still my soul; thy best, thy heavenly Friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end."
These are the words (to an old hymn) my sweet roommate left me with this morning before she departed for a week working with a team in Chinandega. How I desperately wish for His stillness to come...

Friday, November 24, 2006

dear friend...

Your photo sits on my nightstand in a tiny white carved frame, one of 2 I brought with me from home (picture frames were low on the packing list 6 months ago.)

I think about you almost every day, but I haven’t talked to you in what seems like forever.

I’d like to tell you what’s been going on lately—how much fun I have with the Nica women I work with, how one of them gave me a necklace she had bought for herself just to try to cheer me up the other day, how microbuses almost seem like an ordinary form of transportation now, how we’re planning a baby shower for someone, how every day brings a new project or opportunity.

I’d like to tell you what I’ve been struggling with lately—how I’m questioning the way I spend my time, my purpose and if I am making any difference at all, how finding God is often harder here than it was at home, how desperately I’d like to find a small group to join in my church.

I’d like to tell you what I’ve been learning about the people and culture of this beautiful land of lakes and volcanoes through their stories of resilience, patience, suffering, and love.

I’d like to tell you about the things that have made me cry in the last week—events around the world and down the hall.

I’d like to tell you about the roller coaster of emotions I’ve felt in the last two months—fear, excitement, hope, anger, pain, contentment, jealousy, sadness, joy.

I’d like to tell you a lot of things—the deep and not-so-deep, the colorful and gray, the ordinary and once-in-a-lifetime.

And I’d like to listen too.

I may be far away, but I still want to share my life and my heart with you.

Please don’t forget me. I love you.

-pjn 11/24/06

t-day slideshow

a nica thanksgiving

It wasn’t 46 degrees and there was no football watching, but my first Thanksgiving in Nicaragua was definitely a memorable one. I spent several hours the night before baking pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie to share with my coworkers and friends today. It was an adventure trying to make my very first pie crust from scratch—and trying to figure out the nuances of the gas stove, which is made more difficult when one does not have a thermometer and relies on approximate Celcius-to-Fahrenheit conversions like I do. But I am happy to report that despite these retos, the bread turned out excellent, and the pie—well, it looked edible and smelled delicious after an hour in the oven. So I consider that a success.

My Thanksgiving plans happened through a “6 degrees of separation” thing, through which Andrea and I came to know a Nicaraguan woman named June who married an American, wound up living in the USA for years, serves as a Sandinista army captain during the revolution, and now has a huge bilingual family here in Nicaragua. June is a sweet grandmotherly type and yet retains a fire in her eyes and spark in her tongue.

The house was a large, open air ranch style place, with a driveway and a backyard (both rarities here). Typical American furniture graced the living areas, while photos on the walls proudly display June in Sandinista regalia, war scenes, and her children’s milestones. On the table was a huge turkey with all the trimmings that looked like something out of Parade magazine. Family lounged on the couches (some smoking) and on the back porch sipping martinis and debating the latest political news, alternating between English in Spanish with ease and humor, depending on what they wanted to communicate. Like typical Nicaraguans, they treated us warmly and welcomed us like family. Like families everywhere, even though many of them don’t see each other often, they talk like people who have known each other forever.

We had a typical American dinner—turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, a broccoli/cauliflower/mushroom dish, corn, fruit salad, and pumpkin pie. Everyone raved about the food, and June blushed proudly, clearly pleased at her family’s delight.

For the first time in 6 months (and quite possibly the only time), I was in the middle of a serious upper class Nicaraguan party, complete with TV journalists, a member of the infamous Chamorro family, and a bartender/taxista hired by the family for the evening. It was a different kind of culture shock, for sure.

Memorable, though. Definitely memorable. And I am thankful for that.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

nippy in nicaragua!

I knew I wasn't imagining things. Today really was like an autumn day here in Managua (reminding me of the mountains of Matagalpa, where this pic was taken) and here is the temperature record to prove it. I woke up with a chill in my bones this morning, relished my semi-scalding shower, and even wore a sweater to the office. Wonders never cease.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"give them a light"

The translation, as promised to Duo Guardabarranco's song "Dale una Luz", which everytime I hear it, moves me to tears. My Nica friend Hultner says, "We have a saying as Nicaraguans--that we love life so much, we would die to live in freedom." As a student of American history, I told him that it was for that same love of liberty that Americans gave their lives 230 years ago. There is always more that unites us, if we only look for it.

"Give them a light"

In a place the sky cries with tenderness
In a place all is green in festival
In high waters not far from Corn Island and the Bluff
A man-child fishes, a bag in the ocean

In a place burns the sky with stars
In a place it saw me play as a child
I had friendship, a friend that will play no more
But the street, today it is named for him

In a place it rains so much it blocks out the sun
And the quagmire always kisses your knees
An elder is learning his first letters
He has no glasses but he will know how to read

In a place where the water is grand like volcanoes
And the shark made its nest in sweet water
The hurricane gives the forest mortal fear
Trembles the earth, trembles the ocean of this place

Give a light to the people who have searched for
Their freedom against heaven and against mankind
Give a light to this nation which loves life so much
In Nicaragua

What is so beautiful about this song is how it poetically represents the salient events of Nicaragua's history and culture and natural beauty, all in one. Stanza one is a reference to the Atlantic Coast, stanza two to the war that took the lives of so many Nicaraguans in the 70s and 80s, stanza three to the literacy campaign the Sandinistas led, stanza four to Hurricane Mitch (1998), and the final verse to the passion of la gente, that love life with all there is to love, but have struggled so much to find a light in the dark times that have dominated their recent history.

Oh, Lord, let your light shine in this land, in the hearts of Nicaraguans from Bluefields to Pochomil, from Somotillo to Penas Blancas...

Monday, November 20, 2006

the jesus meme

"The Jesus Meme is more than packets of theological information filled with objective rules or objectified rituals. The Jesus Meme is a life-or-death relationship with God through faith practices, stories, songs, beliefs, walks, ongoing traditions, upcoming technologies, and the connectedness of a social brain to the very Spirit of Christ. "

Read the rest of this article by Leonard Sweet.

dale una luz

A few photos of the Nicaraguan group Duo Guardabarranco (sister and brother, Katia and Salvador Cardenal) whose concert I went to Saturday night...below, the lyrics to one of my favorite songs they sing called Dale Una Luz (come back and visit later this week for a translation)

En un lugar llora el cielo de ternura
En un lugar todo el verde esta de fiesta
en altamar no muy lejos de Corn Island y el Bluff
Un hombre niño pesca un saco en el mar

En un lugar quema el cielo las estrellas
en un lugar que me vio jugar de niño
tuve amistad un amigo que no jugará más
pero, la calle, hoy se llama como él.

En un lugar llueve tanto que se apaga el sol
y el lodazal besa siempre tus rodillas
un viejo esta aprendiendo sus primeras letras
no tiene anteojos pero sabrá leer.

En un lugar donde el agua es a volcanes
y el tiburón hizo nido en agua dulce el huracán
pone un bosque en reverencia mortal
tiembla la tierra, tiembla el mar de este lugar.

Dale una luz a la gente que ha buscado
su libertad contra el cielo y contra humanos
dale una luz a este pueblo que ama tanto vivir
en Nicaragua...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

what i saw today...

while wandering the streets of managua today, i grew more in love with the city in which i have been planted...these are some of the things i saw and experienced

The list: Men trimming trees with machetes, a family riding a horse and cart, sharing the road with buses and cars, a university that is greener and more manicured than Trinity, a book on the history of Bluefields (a town on Nicaragua’s east coast), Che Guavara t-shirts for sale, Managua’s new cathedral, which looks more like it belongs in India than Nicaragua, a shack in a vacant lot, tons of palm trees, a Pizza Hut restaurant (where I ate my first calzone in 6 months…mmmm!), a statue of Sandino rising above the Managua skyline, a closed lookout point with a glorious view of Laguna Tiscapa, a monument to the students who carried out the Sandinista literacy campaign in the 1980s, a “Herty Vive” scrawl on a bridge, men playing checkers using chess pieces, a monument that looks like a knot, a coffeeshop that looks just like Starbucks, and a man selling kites. and that's just what i can remember.

i love nicaragua.

subway and christmas

From the "What country am I living in, again?" files...

Subway just opened on the main street near my house...
Christmas tree in the local grocery store--in early November...
(also notice the mountain of Colgate toothpaste...)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Saturday, November 11, 2006

la belleza de las isletas

Hundreds of years ago, a volcano near Granada called Mombacho exploded, spewing volcanic rock into Lake Cocibalca (also known as Lago Nicaragua), creating what is today know as las isletas. 365 of them, in fact (and they all have names!). In one hour today, me, my roommate Andrea and departing FHI staff Heather saw about 40 of them in an hour boat tour given by a sweet Nica man who actually lives on one of them! Now a lush green community, some isletas have houses, restaurants, or schools built on them, and others are totally deserted works of art. Pictures cannot do these marvels justice, but here are a few to whet your appetite for a must-see part of any trip to this country. (Do I sound like a travel agent?)

A hat is an essential part of any lake adventure!

Isn't it gorgeous!?

Even in the middle of the lake, you can't escape politics...if you look closely, you can see the red and black Sandinista flag, and below it, the flag of Nicaragua. This is definitely the order of some people's loyalties here.

Ready to visit yet?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

a book meme

For a change of pace from my all-elections, all the time blogging, I thought I would respond to the book meme idea posted on my friend Amelia's blog:

The rules are: 1. Grab the nearest book. 2. Open the book to page 123. 3. Find the fifth sentence. 4. Post the text of the next four sentences on your blog, along with these instructions. 5. Don't you dare dig for that "cool" or "intellectual" book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest!

Well, the book that happened to be closest was in Spanish. So what follows is a translation, not an exact quote from "La Iglesia Local Como Agente de Transformacion" [The Local Church as Agent of Transformation].

"The historical model of mission that the church should realize we have been given, once and for all, is the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. We could synthesize this saying that the mission of the church defines itself starting with the Kingdom of God and becomes a tangible paradigm in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The mission is not reduced to the transmission of a message but in fact includes concrete action. Passages like Matthew 10:7-8 and Luke 4:16-19 demonstrate clearly how much Jesus and his disciples preached the gospel of the Kingdom, healed, liberated, and demonstrated compassion to the poor,marginalized, and unappreciated."

I swear I didn't go looking for a cool or intellectual book. This is literally what is on my desk right now.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"tranquilo" v. "falsa paz"

Emotions ran the gamut among my Nicaraguan friends today as the reality of the Ortega victory set in. By far the dominant sentiment I heard was:
Tranquilo [No worries]. We will respect the Sandinista victory. We will give Ortega a second chance.
This is a man whose name invokes the full pendulum of nationalist feelings—either of pride or disgust, pain or elation. While he was responsible for leading Nicaragua in a time when brothers fought against brothers, food was rationed, and the economy crumbled, he continues to be a populist figure, a symbol of victory over a corrupt dictatorship, a source of hope for the poor campesinos who were ignored until the Sandinistas took power, and the reason that many people in rural Nicaragua can read today (thanks to the national literacy campaign they instituted, by far their greatest achievement).

But, not everyone is “tranquilo”. On the microbus to work today, I sat next to a man who was reading the newspaper headlines about Ortega’s victory and shaking his head in disbelief. “I take it you don’t like the news,” I commented. “No,” he replied sharply. “Ortega is going to ruin everything. No one is going to want to invest in Nicaragua if he is president. We’re going back to the 80s all over again.”

Last night two Nica friends visiting our house shared with us is that their biggest fear is what the United States response to this election will be. And then this morning, my dear friend Hultner asked me,
How is Ortega going to maintain good relations with the US when he owes Chavez so many favors already? And the [US] Democrats’ victory is only going to encourage Ortega to move further to the left.” He commented later, “Hay una falsa paz…a peace that is so fragile that it could break at any moment.”
While it has been peaceful here, there is indeed a heavy sense of uncertainty-a subdued atmosphere-a muted sense of color (other than the bright pink Sandinista hats around town). In some ways, the uncertainty has less to do with Ortega himself (who has made a lot of conciliatory gestures toward business leaders here and toned down his rhetoric considerably) and more to do with people’s fears about whether or not the country is going to be caught up in another tug-of-war between the United States and Venezuela. No one really knows what will happen. But painting the picture with polarizing, fear inducing headlines like this certainly doesn't help matters.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

with 92% reporting...

Yes, it's all over but the bombas (fireworks), which continue hourly here. After 16 years of the Partido Liberal Constitucional, on January 10th, 2007, Daniel Ortega will once again be this nation's president.

A quick breakdown of the numbers:
Daniel Ortega (FSLN): 38% (854,316)
Eduardo Montealegre (ALN): 29% (650,879)
Jose Rizo (PLC): 26% (588,304)
Edmundo Jarquin (MRS): 6.44% (144,596)

This result, in my humble opinion, was made possible by a number of diverse factors.

1. Most obviously, since the last election, the law was changed to allow a candidate to win with just 35% of the vote, and a margin of 5% over the nearest contender. The bar used to be 40%.

2. The ruling PLC has been best by financial scandals/corruption allegations and has yet to demonstrate an effective strategy for addressing the nation's most pressing issues. Many people were quite possibly ready for power to change hands.

3. Because of a pact between former PLC president Arnoldo Aleman and FLSN's Ortega, the nation's political infrastructure is controlled by representatives of these two parties. This made it difficult for the new dissident Liberal party and the dissident Sandinista party to compete.

4. In previous elections, the Liberal party was united around one candidate, but this year, their vote was almost evenly split between two candidates. The new liberal party, the ALN, was formed in protest to the PLC's pact with Ortega.

For those who may be wondering--were the elections free and fair and transparent? Jimmy Carter himself was here and it was reported in the local media that in his assessment and the assessment of the election watchdog group he leads, yes. Also, today I went to a briefing by elections observers from all over the country, and they all generally agreed that while the process was slow and tedious, anomalies were few and far between (some polling places closed early, some votes were marked null if any ink was on more than one candidate’s box, etc).

So, while it isn’t exactly a mandate, Daniel Ortega has indeed won the plurality. And as the people say, “Asi estamos”. More tomorrow on the mood of el pueblo.

Monday, November 06, 2006

election day pics and a few thoughts

Voting Site in Managua, Sunday morning

Thumbs up to these Nica voters
Just about an hour ago, the Nicaraguan electoral governing body released its third update, in which Daniel Ortega continues to lead the count (now with 40% of the vote tallied) by about an 8% margin. Whether he wins outright with the required 40% or scrapes by with a 5% margin, it appears likely (barring evidence of fraud or a drastic turn in the remaing vote to be counted) that Ortega will be Nicaragua's next president. It remains to be seen if his campaign rhetoric preaching peace, reconciliation, love, and concern for the poor will be matched by his behavior once in office (the new president takes office in January). I honestly don't know what to think. The world is much different now than it was in 1979. The threat of communism is dead. The revolutionary spirit which captured the Nicaraguan imagination 20 years ago is mostly just a memory for this country's young population. On the minds of most people here? The economy, unemployment, poverty, educational opportunity, trade, and infrastructure. How will Ortega's socialist agenda affect these important areas of Nicaragua's future? Will foreign investment dry up out of fear? Will corruption continue to mark government dealings or will there be a renewed commitment to "un pacto limpio", a key component of the dissident Sandinista movement which broke off the Frente recently? Will Ortega work with his opponents in a spirit of compromise for the bienestar del pueblo, or will he ignore the 60% of the population who voted against him? Will he respect the free press even if it critiques him, or will he attempt to shut down media who expose his faults? No one knows.
Many people wrote off Ortega long ago, thinking his place in history was already written. But, perhaps there is a different end to his story. I am willing to wait and see. A quote I read today captures the heart of the matter:
"History will judge societies and governments - and
their institutions - not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless
." (Cesar Chavez)
Whatever happens, Nicaragua and its people are in God's hands. I am not afraid. My faith is in the goodness and mercy of Christ, not the winner of this election.

11:17am election update: waiting game

For those of you not following the minute-by-minute news from Nicaragua, after a quiet day of voting with few notable incidents, a second set of preliminary results from Sunday's elections were announced early this morning at 3:30am. With 14% of the vote reported, Ortega leads with 40.04%, but US-supported candidate Montealegre is still close behind with 33%. However, the Ethics and Transparency Commission has also issued its own quick count results based on 15% of the voting centers, giving Ortega 38% and Montealegre 29%, which would make Ortega the winner. Oddly enough, the official government body that is in charge of the results has not announced any further vote updates since those given at 3:30am.

The media are being very careful to remind the public that the preliminary numbers do not signify any true tendency in the vote, and that it is impossible to extrapolate a winner from this percentage. Nevertheless, fireworks from the neighboring barrios continue, and the Sandinista sympathizers have begun to celebrate all over the country. People have been calling in from all over the country to the local TV stations covering the elections expressing various opinions from vocal outrage to tearful fear to lingering doubt to quiet confidence in the Sandinista victory. [As a reminder, a president can be elected in Nicaragua with 40% of the vote, or 35% with a 5% margin of victory.]

It appears that Ortega may have pulled off an improbably victory, but there are a lot of votes yet to be counted, so take what you read from the international press with a grain of salt. It ain't over yet.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

on election eve...

Some of the best sources of information about Nicaragua's national election tomorrow and background on the candidates and issues:

Circles Robinson, US journalist and blogger
National Public Radio (Reporting from Managua)
Christian Science Monitor (Evangelicals' influence or Ortega v. US)

And, on a lighter note, Andrea and I had the amazing opportunity to go with two of our good friends, Hultner and Tania, to listen to one of Nicaragua's legendary singer/songwriters Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy (whose brother Carlos is a VP candidate for one of the parties this year) at Managua's trendy cultural hotspot Ruta Maya last night. Thus the pic above (Luis is on the right. He may have white hair but his voice is powerful and suave, and his band's songs are creative, fun, and beautiful to listen to. If anyone has any interest in the folk music of Nicaragua, his is the best in the country.)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

christmas in october?

Well, yes. At least in Managua, where the shops are already full of Christmas trees, decorations, ornaments, nativity scenes, and Santa Claus. Unlike the USA, there are no major holidays here in October and November (like Halloween or Thanksgiving) to preclude the Christmas season from starting well before you can even imagine singing the familiar carols or making a wish list.

Unless, of course, you have an Amazon wishlist like I do. Since it takes about 2 weeks to get letters and up to 8 weeks to get packages here, I thought in the spirit of the season I would share this with all of you now. Just in case you're interested. : )

After all, there are only 54 shopping days left...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

one of our fan's many functions

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And this was indeed a desperate time. Down to our last day of clothing, and with no sign of the woman we normally pay to clean our clothes for the last 2 weeks, Andrea and I took matters into our own hands this afternoon (literally). Unfortunately, in the middle of the afternoon came a massive tormenta (storm) that prevented us from hanging our clean, wet clothes outside.

Thus the improvisational drying strategy you see above. Strange, I admit. But effective, as after 4 hours of fan-generated wind, these clothes are practically dry.

Only in Nicaragua...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

saturday in masaya

Music is alive and well in Nicaragua!

Volcan Nidiri (still smokin')
Colorful artesania in the market

Street scene

Friday, October 27, 2006

where did this week go?

Monday's task was patience with the never ending series of power outages that prevent most days from being more than 50% productive. I actually cannot tell you what I accomplished Monday. A totally lost day.

Tuesday's adventure involved a trip to Chinandega, where I saw the physical beginnings of a community garden in the oft-forgetten and impoverished community of El Limonal and interviewed a young, dynamic leader named Fatima for a future story in the Nehemiah Center newsletter (and also helped divide pills into bags for distribution in the community, with the help of Fatima's son--pictured left). This entire day was by far the most rewarding work-related experience of the week, for a variety of reasons I will likely elaborate on in my November newsletter.

Wednesday's daylight was spent in large part in the world of Publisher, finalizing various aspects of the Nehemiah Center's annual report, which I am producing in English and Spanish.

Thursday and Friday's agenda was filled by a taller (workshop) on effective adult education techniques, which I attended in part to learn, and in part to document via photos. The workshop was led by a Nehemiah Center training team member and participants came from communities all over the country to participate. Two highlights from Friday: my lunch conversation with a participant involved in the reformed Sandinista political organization (MRS), and presenting a "practice taller" on pottery making with a group of women, a subject I knew nothing about (but about which my fellow group members were experts). Talk about a learning experience.

And, to wrap the week up with a big happy bow, Andrea and I invited our co-worker/missionary friend Jason and his wife Jess to our house for dinner tonight, which was delightfully light-hearted and refreshing. After an intense week & many kinds of frustrations, two hours with a couple of other young, likeminded, fun Americans (and Jess' yummy chocolate cake) was just what the culture stress doctor ordered!

Monday, October 23, 2006

in esteli

From L-R: Nathan Boersema of Worldwide Christian Schools, Reina Vania and Mercedes of Escuela Cristiana Emaus in Esteli, and me. This school has been part of the Nehemiah Center's School Improvement Program for the last year or so, and is an incredible success story.
In Mercedes hands is the report on their latest project. They are incredibly organized. Reina told me herself, "Planning is so important to determine school priorities and make good decisions. The help we received from the SIP was so helpful." They run a full primary and secondary school, one of only two in the community for a population of over 100,000. Their next project is to incorporate vocational training options into the secondary school curriculum to better prepare their students for the "real world". For this reason over the next year they will add a computer lab and 5 other classrooms to be used for different vocational trades.
Once again, I left this interaction with passionate, motivated Nicaraguans inspired and impressed. So much potential lies within the spirited, creative, and persevering people of this land of lakes and volcanoes. They do not need outsiders to lead them, but rather brothers and sisters to walk alongside them.

i've been book tagged!

(Thanks, Dawn!) So here goes:

1.One book that changed my life: The Sacred Romance by Brent Curtis and John Eldridge
2.One book I have read more than once: The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
3. One book I would want on a desert island: Becoming Human by Jean Vanier
4. One book that I tried to read but never finished for one reason or another: The Gospel According to America by David Dark (it was not at all what I expected)
5. One book that made me cry: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
6. One book I wish I had written: The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis
7. One book I wish had never been written: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (Jane Eyre was one thing, but this was torture)
8. A classic that I love: Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
9. Longest book I've ever read: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Doestoyevsky
10. Booktag five other people: Andrea K., Brett U., Anya, Erin W., Paul S.
11. One book I would like to see made into a movie: The Secret Life of Bees by Susan Monk Kidd
12. My current favorite: anything by Henri Nouwen
13. One young adult book I always recommend: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
14. Genre(s) I tend to ignore: mystery, sci-fi, horror

I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama. Yes, I openly admit I am a fan of the junior Senator from Illinois!

Happy reading!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

education & the kingdom of God

On the way back from a work-related visit yesterday to a Christian school in Esteli, my coworkers and I got into a conversation about sustainable development and education here in Nicaragua. Some preliminary thoughts I’ve been having on the subject:

Long-term development practitioners focus on investing in people and communities who WANT to be invested in, who WANT to change. Therefore, starting new schools in places where there is no existing school but no community commitment to education is unlikely. However, what about the parents without the means to pay for their child’s education in a Christian school? What about the public schools? What kind of involvement should Christians have in the improvement of public schools and the education of students in that system? Does the burden of providing education in communities where no school exists fall on the government or the church?

One root question in all of this seems to boil down to the purpose of education. Is the purpose simply to learn to read, write, do math, think critically, and become a productive member of society? Or does it also include social and moral formation? In both public and private schools, there is academic, social, and moral formation. Most certainly the social and moral aspects of learning found a public school are not always congruent with a biblical worldview. But does that mean that Christians should withdraw from this aspect of society?

Absolutely, the quality of Nicaraguan education can and will be improved through the development of privately financed Christian schools (in this way not abdicating personal responsibility and blaming the government for everything). But it will also be improved if Christians enter the public square and speak out about these issues, or seek public office to address them, in a salt-of-the-earth kind of way.

Private schools need to be privately sustained, and not every family can afford a private school education (Christian or not). Simultaneously, education is a right and necessity of every child. Clearly, it is in society’s best social and economic interests to provide a high-quality education to as many of its children as possible. That means education is a public burden, one that tax dollars should be prioritized to support.

I hope that Christians do not limit their efforts to the formation and improvement of Christian schools but recognize the call to "do justice" and advocate in favor of the transformation of the government’s response to and role in the national education needs of its citizens as a way of bringing the Kingdom of God ever closer in this country.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

inspiration & motivation

Yesterday I made my second trip to the tiny community of El Ojoche (near the northern border with Honduras) with several other staff here for a meeting with community leaders, and later a tour of a "Centro de Salud" in the largest city in the area, Somotillo.

First, the quotes that stuck with me from the meeting of CHE program leaders in the area:

“We are not helpless—we DO have resources.”

“Yes, there are problems, but with God’s help and the CHE program, we ARE moving forward.”

“We are not here to just make believers but disciples.”

These sound like nice sound bites, but what they represent is evidence of real worldview shifts that have happened in these leaders’ lives, which they are now imparting and living out as they walk alongside their communities promoting preventative health, social change, and spiritual development among the people. They believe in what they are doing—they believe in the potential of the communities they serve—they believe in the power of the gospel. As always, I was incredibly inspired to be with Nicaraguans with such an intense level of commitment to the transformation of the lives of others.

Now, to the hospital visit. Because FHI will be receiving quite a few donations of medical equipment and medicine this coming year, we were visiting to determine the needs of this facility—and as the process moves forward, it will be my job to track what happens, and what kind of impact we have on the situation there.

So, the Centro de Salud is more than a clinic, but not quite a full-fledged hospital. It was my first time in any medical facility here in Nicaragua, and it was unbelievable. The place is supposed to be able to service a population of 30,000 people with a staff of 60 (just 12 of which are doctors), a pharmacy with the resources of a corner store, and the bare bones of infrastructure. Totally unsanitary. One antiquated x-ray machine. No intercom system. No restricted area. No operating room. One ambulance that often cannot be used, meaning pregnant women in need of operations travel in trucks more than an hour south to Chinandega. And of course, lots of unfulfilled promises of support from the local mayor.

Even though I was shocked by what I saw, the picture now ingrained in my mind is more than sufficient to remind me why I am here and why my work matters.

Friday, October 13, 2006

a Nobel honor for a noble strategy

Like a prophet ahead of her time, my college roommate Erin saw the greatness, potential, and efficiency of the Grameen Bank long before it garnered the accolades and international recognition it received this week.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee commented, "Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty."

I wholeheartedly concur. Living in a "developing country", I can saw without qualification that one of the greatest needs in economically struggling places like Nicaragua is creative microfinancing for people with good ideas and a strong work ethic but a shortage of available capital, or what non-business people like me call "start-up dollars". One of the most exciting things happening here in this critical area of microenterprise is an initiative called NicaMade, which is providing a regular market for products produced by 4 different communities here (ranging from pottery to metal art to hand-painted cards to hand-embroidered purses). It is amazing what a difference a small amount of stable income can do to change the lives of these communities. Those of you who read this blog and get my newsletter know about the changes I have seen in El Ojoche as the people now take pride in their long tradition of working with clay. In addition, I have talked to a woman in Santa Maria where they have learned to embroider, whose natural business instincts were dormant until NicaMade entered the picture, and now she is thinking outside the box to develop new markets for her communities' work in Costa Rica!

The reason microenterprise matters is because it is not just about money at the end of the day (though for families who only eat once a day if they are lucky, more money is certainly a critical issue). In the long run, though, it's about realizing that we have all been created with gifts, talents, abilities, things to contribute to our families, our communities, and this world. It's about the way microenterprise releases creativity and builds self-confidence. It's about the way it empowers individuals and encourages collaboration. It's about how our identity as "co-laborers with Christ" and "stewards of creation" is nurtured through our recognition that we CAN be agents of transformation, even as we are transformed from the inside out.

Congratulations, GB.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

no hay razon

When you live in Nicaragua, you just have to forget about logic. There is none. Examples, you ask?

Well, there was Sunday when Andrea and I attempted to take a cab to a restaurant and drove around for an hour with a taxi driver who claimed to know where he was going but actually didn't--and the minute we got out of the cab (at our request), we found another driver who knew exactly how to find the place we were looking for. After wasting 90 minutes. You would think that a cab driver would just admit when he was lost, but no. That would be too logical...

Then there is yesterday, when the power went out from 7am-12pm. And then again fron 11pm-4am. And then again this morning at 7am. Supposedly there is a schedule (again, logic) of power outages (4-6 hours in each barrio a day), but then again, maybe it's just a big joke.

And then there is the package I have been waiting 6 weeks for, which has yet to arrive, but a letter (thank you, Anya!) mailed to me on October 4th came this afternoon. Huh?

Logic? I think not.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

signs point to stress

Q: What do a messy bedroom, Guns-n-Roses music, and a perpetual fish face have in common?

A: See above.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

all politics, all the time

[Editor's Note: This is an extensive political and historical reflection. If such things do not interest you, tune in next week when hopefully this space will return to its more personal content.]

Today is exactly one month from the presidential elections set for November 5th here in Nicaragua. The campaigning has begun in earnest (as if it hadn't been going on all along), with dedicated party loyalists taking to the streets to distribute campaign literature, wave banners, and paint any available light pole with the candidate's name or political party initials. Local newspapers publish stories daily, much like in the States, analyzing the relative positions of the candidates, and opinion articles most commonly urging Nicas to consider the potential disaster of another Ortega administration.

From a historical perspective, the passions evoked (in either direction) by the Sandinistas is understandable. In the beginning, the FSLN (as the party is now known) was just a bunch of guerillas in the mountains. But, as the reigning Somoza regime grew more blatant in its corruption and violence against dissenters (including stealing government aid donated after the earthquake of '72 and the assassination of a prominent newspaper editor), it ceased to have the sympathies of even the middle and upper class of Nicaraguans, giving the Sandinista movement strength, resources and momentum.

Thoughtful Nicaraguans like poet Gioconda Belli (who wrote a fabulous book called The Country Under My Skin) recount the stories of those times as terrifying but liberating. The will of the people was overcoming the culture of fear that covered the country with a dark cloud.

Unfortunately, once the Sandinistas had won the war, they had little time to build the new government they envisioned, as almost immediately a US-funded Contra force forced the new leadership into a prolonged war in the northeastern region of Nicaragua. Much of the country's limited resources were poured into this continued violence, and the US intervention and foreign policy of the time gave the new Sandinista government few options other than accepting the aid of their willing Communist allies in Russia and Cuba. Food was rationed for years; young men fled the country or never went outside their front door for fear of being conscripted—several of my Nica friends tell me that was the worst time in the country's history—they say, “at least with Somoza everyone had food and a job.”

People generally agree that the Sandinista's Literacy Campaign following their victory is the strongest remaining positive legacy of the revolution. (As part of this campaign, teenagers from the cities were sent to the campo to live with illiterate families for a year and teach them to read.) Regrettably, the Sandinistas lost many people's favor in the 80s as internal power plays left a small subgroup holding the party's reigns (led by Daniel Ortega), who went on to make some very unwise political and economic decisions, like seizing the land of all former Somoza supporters, redistributing land to people who had no experience farming (resulting in a greater economic recession and lower food supply), and publicly engaging in fierce anti-American rhetoric (thus making it difficult for most Americans to understand that the Sandinista government was really not a new Communist threat in the region, just politically inexperienced, trying to find its way, and looking for some allies).

The Sandinistas have not held the presidency since 1990, but this year looks like their best chance yet to recapture the elusive office. Ortega, while a divisive figure in Nicaraguan politics, continues to lead by a small margin in the polls over US-supported candidate Montealegre. And while the US appears genuinely concerned for the potential alliance between Ortega and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, it appears that its foreign policy may produce the very result it has been trying to prevent for years.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

where lights fade, music plays

Power outages are a normal part of life here in Nicaragua. For as long as I have been here, the lights have gone out for 2-8 hours at a time at least 3 times a week. However, for the last month the outages have been daily (or nightly, depending on what sector one lives in). It makes it hard to keep milk and cheese very long in the fridge, never mind have a full, productive work day. On weekends, though the power outages may mean fan withdrawal and increased sweating, they also present opportunities for community building and relationships. In our sometimes excessively technologically driven world, it is easy to spend all of one's time listening to the radio, watching television, or surfing the internet...and much less time actually talking to the people around you.

So Saturday night when the lights went out 30 minutes into our visit with the infamous Gutierrez clan across the street, any mental distraction created by thoughts of the potential podcasts, email, or blogs I might read later disappeared. I became totally focused on enjoying this experience of sitting around a table with Alicia, Francisco, Karin, David, Dina, and their visitors Don Cesar and his niece. With little more than the light of a solitary candle to give us the faintest outline of one another's forms, we ate raspados and pan dulce and caught up on the last 2 weeks of life in Nicaragua. Francisco had just returned from a work trip to Norway, because his organization (Accion Medica Cristiana) is part of an exchange program with them. David told us about the philosophy class essay he is writing (in English) in response to the question, “What is a human being?” Karin showed us pictures of a recent football game she had attended to support her other brother Roberto.

At some point Francisco disappeared and returned with the family guitar. Music is part of the heart and soul of any culture, and especially in the Gutierrez home, where there is a wealth of musical talent. Handing the guitar to David, a round of worship songs in Spanish and English ensued, as the whole group joined in singing along to whatever tunes David's fingers brought to life on the strings. After a bit, the guitar was passed around the circle, and all who had a tune to share were given an opportunity to lead the music.

When the guitar reached the hands of Don Cesar, though, suddenly we were transported to another world. The world of Matagalpan campesinos whose children's first words are the lyrics to the old songs, the ones passed down orally from generation to generation that never make the tourist guide or the school textbook We heard traditional songs, revolutionary songs, canciones de la patria, and of la Navidad, composed in simple but memorable rhythms. My favorite song of the night was the Nicaraguan adaptation of the biblical story of the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Instead of gold, myrrh and frankincense, the gifts are the well-known foods and artisania of Nicaraguans that are brought as worship to the newborn King. Quaint, perhaps, but the underlying theology is profound. Do not we all bring different gifts to the feet of Jesus?

Three hours later, my heart full of appreciation for the musical tradition of Nicaragua, and my mind struggling to process all of the new knowledge shared with us during the evening of “intercultural exchange”, I drifted off to sleep...once again moved by the love of our Nicaraguan family, and grateful beyond words for the richness of my life here in this little corner of Las Brisas.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

leaf, rag, bookshelf

A heart grows weak
like a trembling leaf
blown hither and yon
by the winds of change
that blow with caprice
through the busy city streets

A spirit grows tattered
like an old cotton rag
bleached and battered
through constant use
cleaning oak, ceramic, tile
til it loses color and form

A mind grows burdened
like an old bookshelf
ceaseless quantities of information
maintained in a finite space
the mounting weight of many pages
could break it any day
could break it any day
-pjn 9/27/06

Saturday, September 23, 2006

what i'm missing tonight

In no particular order (and certainly not comprehensive)...

Chilaquiles, hugging my niece and nephew, homemade meals at Amy's, Wednesday night dinners and music practice for CWS, lunches after worship, evening walks downtown, Trinity House, greeting time, Taco Cabana, the San Antonio skyline, Communion, driving, sermons in english, Madhatter's, the affection of old friends, Beto's, SoulHouse, phone calls, liturgy, books in English...


The tears have came easily today. And my heart hurts tonight, as I remain awake and unable to rest into the early hours of a Sunday morning in Managua.

Oh, friends, how I wish I could see you, hug you, laugh with you, hear the stories of your day, be near you, just for an hour or two. But since I cannot, know that I miss you, I love you, and my thoughts are never very far from you.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

swimming upstream

They tell you in your pre-field training that living in another culture can bring new levels of self-awareness—and it's not always easy--in fact, sometimes it's downright painful. Well, that's been true this week for me.

I have always known that I am a slightly Type A personality when it comes to office environments. I admit it: I like structure, organization, meetings, planning, clear expectations and deadlines. I definitely value relationships (though much more so in my personal life) and take initiative to cultivate them, but I also take a strong interest in getting things done.

However, it's becoming clear that my office here in Nicaragua is Type B—and in fact, the entire country is decidedly Type B, laid back, relaxed and ambiguous in many respects (which is to be expected in a relationally driven culture, but also leads to things like “la hora nica”, wherein every appointment is “mas o menos” and one is only truly late after an hour).

The funny thing is, when it comes to the tangible organization of space (like desks or closets, for example), I am decidedly Type B (as Andrea could attest). But, when it comes to mental organization, I have my own file cabinet with invisible color coded labels for everything imaginable. I never forget things I read or that people tell me, I always remember times of appointments, promises, etc. Even in my personal life, I hate being late—but yet I love spontaneity of plans, like the day Andrea and I decided to randomly explore a new bus route one Saturday.

But perhaps it is something about being immersed in this “extreme” Type B context that pushes me into my more Type A coping strategies for dealing with the stress of the unfamiliar. I crave meetings, plans, prioritized goals, information, the concrete, the knowable to help me navigate this vast ocean of uncertainty in which I live each day. Lately I have felt like I have been swimming upstream, as I suggest/implement a few new features of our office life as part of my role in the area of communications.

The absence of some anchors of “normalcy” in one of my primary contexts of cultural learning and adjustment (my office) lately has led me to this prickly place of insecurity and helplessness where I sit and sigh and wonder: is there a place for a Type A fish like me in the Type B lake of Nicaragua?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

ometepe pics...andrea style

My roommate Andrea is obsessed with picasa, and has already posted a bunch of her photos there and a few of mine from our trip this past weekend. Check it out if you're interested.

Monday, September 18, 2006

3 kayaks, 2 islands, and 1 tropical storm

Just like in the United States, a national holiday is a perfect opportunity to travel here in Nicaragua. Thus, Friday morning Andrea and I left the big city life for a tranquilo weekend in Ometepe (we were also celebrating Andrea's birthday—she turns 26 tomorrow, FYI). In case you don't remember, Ometepe is the giant island created by volcanic activity in the middle of Lake Nicaragua that I wrote about a few weeks ago when I was there on a work-related trip.

And in fact, the majority of the trip WAS peaceful and relaxing. Lazy mornings sipping cafe con leche and watching the light change over the lake as the sun rose, afternoon naps on the outdoor hammocks, leisurely hikes along the foresty paths near our (cheap but beautiful) beachfront hotel Charco Verde, seeing fishermen catch our dinner in gigantic nets, taking pictures every 30 seconds as the sun set over the western sky and produced fiery colors worthy of National Geographic...

There might not have been much to write about, had it not been for Saturday afternoon when our friend Anne joined the two of us for a little kayaking on the lake. Everything started out perfectly normal. We paddled out of the bay, pausing frequently to admire the view behind us of the Volcan Concepcion, the larger of the two volcanoes on the island and veered left around the bend in the trees, where we hoped to get a view of the other volcano, Maderas. Eventually we had both volcanoes in sight, and could hardly believe our good fortune, as both were virtually cloud-free (the combination of the hot volcanic air and cold exterior creates a seemingly endless amount of steam around the top of Concepcion, so seeing its upper opening is almost impossible).

The sky was a gorgeous, perfect shade of blue, and eventually a tiny isleta (island) that we had seen on a previous hike came into view, and we spent a few minutes debating whether we should continue into the more open water between us and the isleta to check it out. Needless to say, we were all very curious about this tiny island in the middle of the lake, so we kept going...not noticing the clouds building in the distance, of course. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We made it across the open water in what seemed like no time at all, and when we reached the isleta, we disembarked long enough to realize the entire thing was totally grown over, and there was no obvious way to hike up to the top, so we (remember we are in bathing suits and flipflops) tiptoed our way back through the weeds and ants (and who knows what else) back to our kayaks, at which point we decided to kayak around the side to see if there was any other entrance we might explore. Finding none and observing finally that the sky appeared cloudier and darker than before, we decided to head back to Charco Verde.

About 10 minutes later, the wind began to rise, and the water grew a bit choppier and we noticed the dark clouds behind us had gotten bigger and darker, and were coming our way. Always the transparent one, Andrea remarked, “I'm scared.” I was scared too, but I tried to reassure her by saying, “Our God is the Lord of the wind and waves. We will be fine.” So with a bit more urgency we pressed on around the first forest-filled corner and headed for the second, after which we would be out of open water and in much safer territory.

However, as we pushed for this second milestone, the waves suddenly became our enemy, as the strengthening wind was pushing them directly against us. And as we rounded that corner (still about 20 minutes from our hotel bay), it became totally impossible to paddle and the rain began to come down. “We have to go for shore!” Anne shouted over the wind. We quickly paddled to some nearby rocks (thank God we happened to be relatively close to shore) where we anchored our kayaks and took shelter underneath a huge tree hanging over the water. At that exact moment, it began to pour.

Then the wind picked up even more, and the water began violently moving toward the center of the lake. Anne, Andrea and I looked at each other and realized we had made it to that point just in the nick of time. Where we had just been, there was no shelter we could have taken, and if we had continued toward the hotel, we would have been caught in open water again.

It poured, and poured. And poured.

Someone mentioned later that there was a hurricane in the area, and these showers might have been a residual tropical storm. Even if there wasn't (it turns out the closest one was in Mexico), it sure felt like one. The rain was pelting us like bullets, and the air grew quite cold...Anne was the first to have the bright idea of holding onto a rock and submerging herself in the lake, which was much warmer than the air. We soon all followed suit, laughing at the absurdity of the whole situation. “We just had to go see that island...good thing we didn't decide to kayak around the whole thing!” I commented.

Eventually Anne left us to go back to the hotel on foot to assure our other companion Sylvia (who had elected not to join us kayaking) that we were still alive and safe. After she left, Andrea and I began to sing hymns and worship songs (“God of Wonders” takes on a whole new meaning when you are personally in the middle of a tormenta!) until the wind and rain finally “ceased” (after slowing down and coming back 3 or 4 times, we decided it was took much to hope for that it would stop altogether, so we settled for “navigable”), then anchored Anne's kayak to Andrea's and proceeded to paddle back to shore.

Needless to say, we were wet, cold, and very tired when we finally set foot on dry land—eer, wet sand—again an hour later. A few minutes later, with dry clothes and hot coffee warming our chilled bones, we were good as new (even cracking jokes about being near death!)...but I don't think any of us will be kayaking too far from shore again (at least not in Lago Nicaragua) anytime soon.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

dias de patria

In case your world history is a little rusty, today is an important day in the history of Nicaragua (so is tomorrow)...the day of the Battle of San Jacinto in 1856 which led to the independence of Nicaragua from the forces of American William Walker, who had declared himself president of the country.

From an editorial in the national newspaper La Prensa today (translated from Spanish, of course)....

“The battle of San Jacinto whose 150th anniversary we celebrate today, is without a doubt one of the most important pieces of national history. According to historians and military experts, what happened in San Jacinto on the September 14, 1856 was not exactly a battle but an isolated fight between Nicaraguans and the band of fighters under the command of William Walker of the United States. The Battle of San Jacinto is not called as such for the strict significance of the word battle, but for its value as a patriotic symbol. It represents the entire national war against the foreign invaders and the recovery of national sovereignty.

This battle also was the first successful military action that Nicaraguans engaged in after the Pact of September 12th, in which the liberal and conservative parties (who up to this point had been disputing each other's political power) laid aside their own interests, their partisan ideas, and joined forces to fight against a common enemy.

In this are two of the most important lessons of the national war and in particular the actions of the 12th and 14th of September—the first of a political character, and the second of a military nature. First, it is always possible for Nicaraguans to unite in the struggle for an objective of genuine national interest, that which is more important than political flags, parties, and leaders. But, also, knowledge of the Nicaraguan identity demonstrated that it is not only foreigners that pose a threat to the country, but also those nationals who act against their own country.

In reality, today Nicaraguans are not fighting an external enemy but are rather confronted by a national one that is seeking to snatch the liberty of his own brother, to oppress him. An internal enemy that must be destroyed with the same valor and resolve with which the heroes of San Jacinto destroyed the forces of William Walker on September 14, 1856.”

Happy Independence Day(s), Nicaragua!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the micah challenge

Last week the Nehemiah Center hosted a training called "Dejate tocar por los pobres" (Let yourself be touched by the poor), led by a passionate Peruvian woman named Erika Izquierdo, which is part of an international campaign known as the Micah Challenge. The Micah Challenge is based on Micah 6:8, and its primary goal is to promote the achievement of the 8 Millenium Development Goals. A whole network of Christians from relief and development and justice organizations around the world have joined forces to advocate for these goals, as an expression of an integrated understanding of mission and community transformation. In their own words:
“Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.”
Micah Declaration on Integral Mission

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sunday, September 10, 2006

the weepies: wow!

Lest anyone fear that living in Nicaragua prevents me from finding new music to love, worry no more! Thanks to the amazing phenomenon of podcasting through itunes, I have no shortage of national and international news and entertainment at my fingertips (most of it free or very cheap!).

Through one recent NPR podcast, I was introduced to The Weepies, and for anyone out there who has any inclination toward the folk genre of music, I highly recommend their stuff...especially World Spins Madly on, Living in Twilight, and Gotta Have You.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

a vela to remember

Earlier this week I attended my first vela (wake) here in Nicaragua. My dear friend Hultner received a call late Tuesday morning at work that his wife Tania's abuelita (grandmother) had died of a heart attack. It was a week of mixed blessings for him and his family, as they just received news a few days ago that they would be able to move into their new house.

My colleague Anne told us that people are buried really quickly here (due to the prohibitive cost of embalming), but I didn't realize how quickly until that night when we found out through our Nica friend and mutual neighbor Maria that the vela was that evening (and the burial would be the following day). I was glad that I had decided earlier to make banana bread for them, which was already ready when Hultner called to give us directions, and Andrea and I took a taxi (at 8:30pm, the latest we had ever gone anywhere at night here in Nicaragua) to the funeral home.

When we got there, Hultner greeted us with sad eyes and a weak smile. It was the saddest I have ever seen him, and my heart just ached for him. But, always thinking of others before himself, he took us around and introduced us to all his family members, including Tania's mom, who was a sweet and strong woman who told us that her mother was a woman of deep faith in Christ, and did not suffer in her last hours, and now was with her Lord. It was amazing to me how many people were there given the short notice (word of mouth must be very effective in these situations here) the big front room there were probably about 60 chairs and almost all of them were full.

About 30 minutes after we got there, there was a service of sorts, in which some of the family members led music/worship and Hultner's dad (a pastor) gave a short evangelical message (“the best way you can honor the memory of this woman is to give your life to Christ”). I was watching Hultner most of the time, whose vacant stare remained for most of the evening...he stood alone in the corner, and did not sing during the music, nor did his facial expressions change during his dad's sermon. It made me very sad to see his grief—in fact, he seemed more impacted than Tania, whose makeup perhaps hid her pain from view.

Even though I did not know Tania's abuelita, I was very moved by the whole experience of being with their family for this deeply personal occasion. Like evangelical wakes in the States, there was lots of talk of the joy of a daughter going home to Jesus, but that did not keep a few people from crying (including me). Finally around 10:30pm, Andrea and I decided to leave, and gave parting hugs of consolation to Hultner and Tania (“buenas vecinas”, they called us). Even though it was an emotional experience, I was glad that we were able to go and support their family during that bittersweet time.