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.