Thursday, June 29, 2006

eneyda

Yesterday was a tough day. One of my colleagues/friends came back from the States this week and spent the evening with me, which made me think about all of you, and how much I miss you. I worked hard all afternoon on an invitation to a function for Christians in the arts and media that we are trying to engage here in Nicaragua, and later sat stone-faced and emotionally spent on the bus on the way home, slowly losing interest in all possible activity tonight. I noticed two text messages on my phone, but ignored them. When I got off the bus, I wandered into one of the tiendas on my block to check fan prices and finally made it home, passing my new friend Eneyda with the barest of greetings. Later she came to invite me to a gathering at her house, but I told her I was tired.

At home, I realized I had no motivation to eat so instead I cleaned. I swept the patio, mopped up the rain water, and shined the kitchen floor. Sweaty and out of energy even for manual labor, I turned my attention to my intended blog post. An hour later Eneyda called to see if I was still tired. I must have sounded up for company, because the next thing I knew she was standing at my front gate with her 4 month old Jasmin saying “Buenas”. Eneyda is a 24 year old single mom with 2 young daughters. She is a beautiful Nicaraguan muchacha with a tough life--the father of her kids lives in the States, and just yesterday she came to me in tears over an email he had written to her. In addition, she is not close to her parents, and many of her church friends live on the other side of town.

After some small talk, she asked me about my day. “Other than work,” she asked. Little did I know that this simple question was going to produce an avalanche. I didn't have any energy left to put up a front. I told Eneyda how my friend has just come back from a trip to the States and that I was thinking about home and everyone I missed, and how much I just hope for a single letter or email every week from someone from home. “I am sure someone will write to you soon,” she said. I shook my head, my eyes filling with tears. “I know they have busy lives there...it's hard to remember someone far away.” Eneyda and I sat in silence for a few minutes until I had sort of gathered myself back together.

Then she asked, “Did you receive the messages I left you?” I stared at her. “No,” I answered. She looked surprised. “What did they say?”Lots of things, but the main one was inviting you to dinner with me tonight.” Suddenly I felt even worse. My best friend on my street had invited me to dinner and I had missed the opportunity. “So are you going to read my messages?” she asked. I walked inside to get my phone off the table. Here, dear friends, is what sweet Eneyda wrote to me:

Good morning, my friend. I invite you to dinner with me tonight to have pasta—si or no? Take care much-have a good afternoon.” (That last part she had written in English)

Not only was she inviting me to dinner, but she was inviting me to have pasta—something we had eaten together at my house last week and that I knew she loved to cook. And the next one read:

You know, Pamela, that I feel you are my best friend. You have much care and are a special friend. Forgive me for disturbing you with this message while you are working.”

I wanted to cry even more. I knew she was hurt that I didn't respond to her messages—and disappointed that her well intentioned plan (which included homemade frescos!) did not work out because her crazy gringa friend had a bad day.

What a mess. While I was busy feeling sorry for myself, someone was reaching out to me. I had shoved a blessing away without even realizing it. But, maybe now we're over a hump in our friendship. Yesterday I saw the tears in her eyes. Tonight she saw the tears in mine.

crash course in relief/crashing with relief

At this time last week the headline on the Nuevo Diario read OLAS FUERTES, and indeed there were many strong waves that hit the coast of Nicaragua last week, destroying many homes from Jiquilillo down to Corinto on the northwestern coast and leaving hundreds of people homeless and without food. Within 24 hours, I was given my first major assignment since I began working here in Managua. The task? Travel to Chinandega, the nearest big city to the coast, meet the relief team being organized by a local pastor named Osvaldo and his wife Rosie, represent FHI, document the work done in the community, and send a report to the FHI office in DC which released some funds toward this project.

I arrived in Chinandega (a place I had never been before, I might add) about 8:30am last Friday morning and called Osvaldo who came with his family to pick me up at the On the Run on the edge of town. After a quick breakfast, some small talk, and a visit to a partnering Christian clinic to pick up medical supplies, we hit the road. And it literally felt like we were in fact hitting the road...because the road to Jiquilillo (45 minutes away) is about the most jarring experience I think I have ever had traveling anywhere. Imagine swerving every 50 feet to avoid a pothole, and hitting another one in the process. I was sure the axles on the pickup truck we were driving were going to give out any second, but eventually we made it.

Jiquilillo is a small fishing community of about 200 people who were all evacuated in time to avoid serious injury, thanks to a new early warning system in the area. The destruction was nothing compared to the tsunami or Katrina, but it was still shocking to see uprooted trees and debris everywhere, empty holes where the corner posts of houses had stood, and most amazingly, the remains of cement structures now partially submerged in the ocean.

We brought a bag of non-perishable food for each of the families in the community, coloring books and crayons for the children, and a small medical team (a doctor, nurse, dentist, and pharmicist). It took a little while for word to get out that we were there, as the community is pretty spread out with people living in temporary housing all over the place, but things picked up around 11am and it was non-stop until about 4pm. The whole process was very organized thanks to the presence of a woman from the government's Family Ministry who checked families off as they came, so we knew we were giving the right people food. During those 5 hours, we saw almost everyone in town, from the abuelitas to the babies (94 patients). Some memorable moments...talking with a man who owns much of the property along the new waterfront and seeing a destroyed latrine...meeting a 14 year old pregnant girl...watching people come out of the dental area with clothes over their mouths after having a tooth removed...eating fried fish with lime and Coke for lunch...

When we got back to Chinandega late that afternoon, it was too late for me to travel back to Managua and arrive before dark, so Osvaldo and Rosie invited me to stay at their house...which is rather like a small school/adoption center because of the number of people who live there. But I'm jumping ahead. You might think think that after 12 hours of relief work, the day would be over. In fact, it was just beginning. Rosie needed to pick up the kids from the youth group held at a nearby school, so we stopped there. Then, about 5 other kids needed rides home, so we took a trip down to one of the poorest sections of Chinandega, Limonal. This community is the saddest place I have visited yet in Nicaragua. Sandwiched between a dump and a cemetery, Limonal is the result of the relocation of 100+ people after Hurricane Mitch, since which have been totally neglected by the government. Dirt roads, houses primarily made of plastic, and just a sense of hopelessness overwhelmed me as we drove through. Still, the children smile and play as if they were living on Main Street. Sometimes their resilience floors me. What else can it be but the grace of God, descending on a place that to everyone else is a dark, depressing, abandoned junkyard?

Finally after several more errands and a quick dinner with a friend of Rosie's, we were home. Soon I was showered and with the residue of the day slowly percolating in my brain, I drifted off to sleep.

Did I mention it was about 100 degrees in Chinandega (and there is no air conditioning)? Thus, fans are a common comfort, even at night there. However, in my physically weakened state, I actually got cold, and then as the night wore on, realized that I was probably going to be sick in the morning. I wish it had just been a cold, but it fact it turned out to be a stomach virus that kept me in bed until almost noon, with the except of a few trips to the bathroom.

Thankfully, I eventually felt just well enough to brave the 2 hour microbus ride back down to Managua. It turned out I had just enough stamina to get through that and the 15 minute city bus trip to Las Brisas (where my house is), because I immediately crashed when I reach my bed. I was grateful for the opportunity to meet Oswaldo and Rosie, see Chinandega, and serve those who lost so much, but at that moment, I was most grateful for the opportunity to sleep.

Monday, June 26, 2006

quesillos y tiste

I had to leave Managua suddenly last week to go to the Chinandega area to assist with a mini-relief project (more on that tomorrow), but on the way, I had a chance to stop in Nagarote and try my first quesillo (cheese, sour cream and onion wrapped in a tortilla) and tiste (a cocoa and rice combo beverage). Yummy! (And yes, we drink beverages out of plastic bags here sometimes.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

lakes, volcanoes & 10,000 entrepreneurs

In the USA, entrepreneurs usually take one of two paths. Some go to business school, earn an MBA, and spend the rest of their lives climbing a corporate ladder in hopes of becoming a CEO one day. Others reject the existing corporate structure in favor of starting a business of their own. Both groups (in my experience) seem to earn the admiration of society at large for their courage, innovative thinking, work ethic, and financial savvy. Entrepreneurs occupy an elite niche where I come from.

Not so in Nicaragua. Despite the prohibitive cost of higher education and instability of the economy here in Nicaragua, there is no shortage of aspiring entrepreneurs. Take the dozen or so men and women who walk (or bike) down my street each day. Avocados, limes, cheese, pastries, and ice cream are just a few of the things you can buy from these traveling Nica salespeople. Too tired or busy to walk all the way to grocery store? Just walk around the corner to the neighborhood pulperia. They probably have whatever you need—from basics like milk or bread to exotic fruit drinks. Need some medicine or personal hygiene products? You can get those things cheaper at the corner farmacia than the big stores. What about office supplies? Yup, there is a libreria just for you, that carries all sorts of interesting looking notebooks, pens, and paper products. Want a cheap Nicaraguan meal? I can take you to a dozen comedores run by local families who will feed you for a little over $1.

Thus, entrepreneurial activity seems to carry little prestige here. It's just the way things are. In hopes of surviving in a country where official work is hard to find (unemployment is about 50%), many resourceful Nicaraguan people have staked their financial hopes in entrepreneurial ventures, selling whatever they have to whoever will buy it, sometimes at whatever price they can get. Whether anyone is actually getting ahead is uncertain. The one certainty is that there is no shortage of effort.

Next time I write about economics, I'll tell you the story of Santa Maria, a place in northwest Nicaragua where that effort is bearing fruit—spiritual and physical.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

alone or lost?

I don't know why, but at about 3pm yesterday afternoon as I was sitting in the Nehemiah Center office working, I felt like bursting into tears. I don't know if I was just tired and thus unreasonably emotional, or if this is part of the cultural stress process. But it's so odd, because everyone here has been nothing but kind to me.

Hultner has become my very first Nicaraguan big brother (he's actually my age, but I think of him as older), helping me house hunt, helping me learn the bus system, inviting me to things at his family´s church, showing me around the neighborhood, and even going with me to compare bed prices and buying me little coffee crackers at the farmacia we stopped at.

Leonor has treated me like a sister, and instead of making me feel inadequate about my Spanish, she asked me to speak English with her to help her learn better, and commented that we can learn from each other. Today she offered to go out to lunch with me when I didn't have food, and in the middle of it, she told me that “me das confianza”. You give me confianza, she said. Confianza is a rich Spanish word encompassing the ideas of confidence and trust.

Then there is Iskra, the other totally bilingual member of the Nehemiah Center staff (Hultner's English is great too), who expressed admiration for me today, for being the “bus lady”. (I have been told that many Nicaraguans are semi-afraid of the buses, as they can be kind of treacherous if you don't pay attention. I almost got injured today trying to board a bus—it started moving before I got on! Hultner shook his head after I had safely regained my footing, and asked "¿What are we, animals?")

And the Americans...Shannon and Kathy, who have opened their home to me, provided advice and transportation in my process of getting settled, and encouraged me with their words of affirmation. And of course Anne and Heather who both immediately befriended me in Leon—who shared meals with me, showed me how to survive in their city, and made me feel like I was not alone for my first month here.

Perhaps that is what I felt...a sense of loneliness. For the first time since I got here, I spent a Friday night alone. But it's more than that. I'm not physically lonely. I'm emotionally lonely. I feel unable to convey my feelings in Spanish, and I have few people to share them with in English. Perhaps what I have felt is not just about being alone, but about being lost. Time is passing, and things are happening, but suddenly I feel a lack of direction. I don´t really know where I am going or what I am doing.

O Lord, Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. Jesus, I pray you would show me what to do, what to say, how to spend my time and energy each day. It all belongs to you. And help me receive the kindness of others as a gift from you. You're the source of all the good things I know.

Friday, June 16, 2006

strange bedfellows

Only one thing could unite the vehemently opposed candidates vying for the Nicaraguan presidency (the election is in November): the defeat of Daniel Ortega. As the Miami Herald reported on Monday, 3 of the 4 major candidates debated their respective agendas in Florida this week, arguing that the future of Nicaragua will only improve if Ortega is kept out of office.

Does anyone else out there think it´s strange that these Nicaraguan political leaders were invited to debate one another in the United States???

Ortega has some support here, but many people continued to be disillusioned with the outcome of the Sandinista revolution (and some even say openly that things were better under Somoza), and do not want to elect anyone who might bring back the radical Sandinista policies of the 80s. The political climate here is polarized, the people have little confianza in their leadership, and the economic situation continues to be precarious. No one has risen to the task of uniting a diverse voting public, or presented a compelling vision/agenda to the people.

After reading that last sentence, it occurs to me that the same things are true in the United States, 3,000 miles away. Truly, people and politics are the same everywhere.

Friday, June 09, 2006

the prettiest tree in nicaragua

It´s hard to tell from this picture on a gray day, but the brilliant reddish-orange blossoms on this tree are simply stunning. I might just take up sketching to try to capture its elusive beauty.

new house, hot shower, learning the hard way

A moment I have greatly anticipated is finding the place I will call home in Managua for the foreseeable future. In hopes of completing this quest, I left Leon (for the first time on my own!) in the cool morning drizzle in a microbus (advantage: faster than big buses; disadvantage: less leg room). When I got to 7 Sur (shorthand for a highway location where people change buses) in Managua, it was still raining, so I decided to take a taxi from there to the office instead of waiting for the bus. I had arranged to meet Hultner, a Nica who lives in Las Brisas (a cute, quiet neighborhood I had visited with him and Kim, my jefa, 2 weeks ago) and also works with the Nehemiah Center, to go look at some of the places for rent there. I am discovering that it makes a big difference when people here realize you have Nicaraguan friends. I got to the office before he did, so Kim wound up driving me back down the hill and over to Hultner's neighborhood where we proceeded to walk around in the drizzle and look at houses. After 2 hours of looking, the first house we saw still appeared to be the best. (It was 2 houses down from Hultner and his family, which made it attractive.)

BUT, God saved the best for last. Kim drove us over to see a place for rent across the street from someone else who works with the Nehemiah Center. When we arrived the owner wasn't there but there were some men working on the place, so we took a look around. In the front there is a ¾ wall topped with some nice ironwork that encloses the front patio (which includes an area for a car to be parked inside the gate). When you walk in the door, there is large living area with one dark wooden wall and rest white. The kitchen is off to the right and has a nice set of cabinets above the sink. Inside the kitchen area is plenty of space for a stove, fridge, and non-perishable food storage racks (all of which we'll have to buy). Down the hall are 3 medium sized bedrooms and a bathroom. Each of the bedrooms has a closet with storage space. Behind the house there is an outdoor area that will be great for drying clothes in the sun and another room that most likely would have belonged to an enpleada (household staff) of a past owner. We were all wondering what a place like this might rent for. So we called the owner, who was en route, and found out it was only $350/month! (This was after looking at 3 other places much less impressive in the $300 range).

After talking it over with Kim and Hultner, I decided that this was probably a gift from God and I should call the owner and arrange to meet him again to seal the deal. So I did. Then I spent the rest of the day in meetings with Nehemiah Center staff and the evening with FHI staff Shannon and Kathy Ahern and some guests of their family who happened to be in town. I also had my first hot shower in over a month! I had almost forgotten what that feels like...

Back to the house. We had arranged to meet again this morning at 10am. Unfortunately, being totally new to Managua, it was a challenge giving accurate directions to my friend Kathy who was driving me there. However, Senor Cesar Valle is a very nice man and was very forgiving of my being late to our meeting. When we arrived, he responded to my apology with a smile. “Nicaraguans are not very punctual, so we always say “mas o menos” when we set any appointment,” he explained. Don Cesar spent his career in business/HR and is now retired and managing property. He spent some time in the States and speaks English as well as Spanish, so that made our discussions this morning easier. I took a look at the house again and got to see the contract, and everything looks good, so I am going back to Managua on Monday to officially sign it and hopefully move in that very day! It is really gorgeous (a ganga, Kim called it), and I am excited about the possibilities that having a larger house will open up for me and Andrea, my future roommate, to be hospitable to our neighbors and teams that come to town.

After that, Kathy dropped me off at 7 Sur, where I was hoping to catch the bus back to Leon. I was a little nervous about this, since I had never caught a bus back from there before, but I felt confident that it would work out.

90 minutes later, after watching every city bus go by twice, letting one Expreso bus to Chinandega (that also stops at the bypass just outside Leon) pass me by, seeing every conceivable edible thing for sale, and hearing Losing my Religion, and Funkytown played at the bodegas behind me, it occurred to me that maybe the Expreso to Leon didn't stop at 7 Sur.

I was tired of standing, tired of people giving me looks (and trying to sell me stuff), and definitely wishing that I had eaten lunch. I wanted to go home (well, to Leon, I mean). My frustration almost got the best of me as my eyes welled up with tears. I tried to hold them back—the last thing I wanted to do as a gringa alone on the streets of Managua was to make a scene. “This is ridiculous”, I thought to myself. I just need to call a friend and figure this out. So I called someone and left a message. Of course, within 10 minutes, another Expreso to Chinadenga came roaring by and I scurried on board with great relief. I'm back in Leon now (glad to have beaten the rain this time) and proud that to say that I managed to survive my first trip between cities on public transportation alone. But I definitely learned the hard way this afternoon.

(Interesting side note about public transportation here: when I first got here and started traveling, I couldn't figure out why the buses-which by the way, are all really old school buses from the USA-are staffed with multiple people, and why one of them yells out where the bus is going at every stop, when most of them clearly say on the front what their destination is. Then, in the course of a conversation with another staff member, she reminded me that a large number of people here probably cannot read the names of the places on the buses because they are illiterate, and this is a majority oral culture. Duh. Suddenly the whole system made a lot more sense.)

Monday, June 05, 2006

El Nicaraguense

The other day I was at the most famous bookstore in Leon (Don Quixote) and picked up a book entitled, El Nicarag├╝ense (in Spanish of course), which is a series of fascinating essays by Nica native Pablo Antonio Cuadra, analyzing various aspects of the Nicaraguan identity. Here is a rough translation of an excerpt from the first essay in the book.

"The dual signal of the 2 profetic volcanoes [refering to Ometepe, an island containing 2 large volcanoes near the center of Nicaragua] was made for Nicaragua. There they were established since the 8th century to the present time. And it is interesting to observe that the new indo-hispana history of Nicaragua also starts exactly in front of these 2 volcanoes through a dialogue, a conversation between Cacique Nicaragua and the conquistador Gil Gonzalez Davila in 1531. There begins the fusion of a new duality. Two blood lines, two cultures, together a symbol of the 2 volcanoes, and on the earth there was born a human being with a dramatic duality of identity. Could it be that the Nicaraguan is a person divided by doubt? Indecision? For in the "du" of "duda" [Spanish word for doubt] lives the same idea of duality.

Nicaragua is located in the center of what was the new world. The flora and fauna of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres grow here. The cultural influences of Mexico and Columbia are present here. Nicaragua was divided into two parts by the conquistadors--east and west. Nicaragua was dually governed from Leon and Granada (two different cities) for much of its history until Managua became the new capital. We are a country of but two seasons, winter (rain) and summer (dust).

The Nicaraguan is born in the shape of a Greek "Y", that obligates us to constantly unite, fuse, and dialogue with one another."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

a smile in any language...


...looks the same. At left, Carolina, one of the girls in Santa Maria (a community of 350 families, 30 minutes north of Leon) I have befriended after weekly visits there over the last month, joyfully creating a bouquet for a church mother´s day program.

A cultural note: the flowers in the picture are Nicaraguan favorites. The white is sancuajuche (the national flower) and the red is ajenciana.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

living history

Yes, the man you are looking at is a real live Sandinista, who fought in the revolution back in the 1970s (the picture he is holding which you can´t see is him during his combat days).

Diniseo Romero now has his own personal museum just west of Leon´s Parque Central on the first floor of what used to be a Somoza Palace and then Sandinista HQ, but is now a secondary school (the top 2 floors, that is). Se├▒or Romero lives to tell the story of Sandino and how the FSLN (Frente Sandinista) was formed and overcame the Somoza dictatorship. This "museum" is comprised mostly of enlarged photos and text from books on the Revolution, but also includes a stack of stones from one of the walls the army built, and some of his own personal collection of photos. Romero is an unassuming, gentle man, who turns passionate at the mention of Sandinista presidential candidate Daniel Ortega and the future of his country. Now a peaceful patriot, he proudly showed me the book where he keeps the names and countries of every person who comes to visit his selfmade museum.

baile folklorico, nica style

One of the students who participated in a Mother´s Day program I attended last week in Poseltega, which is about 45 minutes north of Leon.