Saturday, July 28, 2007

the little differences

15 months in, I'm still definitely North American. To wit:

1. My friend I. was over here visiting earlier this week, and pointed out that the way our living room is organized is decidely "gringa". "You have the kitchen table near the door," she observed. "Yes," I said, "because it's closer to the kitchen that way. Why? How would a Nica do it?" She replied, "well, we'd put the couch/chairs closer to the door, so that way as soon as guests enter the house, they have somewhere to sit."

2. I went to lunch with a friend from Panama last week, and after opening my soda I started to drink it straight out of the can, when E. said, "No, here, take a straw. You don't know if that's clean."

3. I had company for dinner last Wednesday, and afterwards M. proceeded to do the, when I wash dishes, I wash and rinse each one as a go with the water running. But M. soaped up all of them and then turned the water on to rinse them.

This last one stopped me in my tracks, and made me consider my privileged background, because in the USA I would totally take an endless supply of water for granted, but Nicaraguans conserve it like gold because it is (a) expensive and/or (b) often hard to find.

I think I still have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

hard questions (gulp)

Courtesy of Henri Nouwen comes my challenging thought(s) of the day:

"Often we experience a strong desire to offer our services to our fellow human beings in need. At times we even dream about giving our lives to the poor and living in solidarity with those who suffer. Sometimes these dreams lead to generous actions, to good and worthwhile projects and to weeks, months, and even years of dedicated work. But the initiative still remains ours. We decide when we go and when we return; we decide what to do and how to do it; we control the level and intensity of our servanthood. Although much good work gets done in these situations, there is always the creeping danger that even our servanthood is a subtle form of manipulation. Are we really servants when we can become masters again once we think we have done our part or made our contribution? Are we really servants when we can say when, where, and how long we will give of our time and energy? Is service in a far country really an expression of servanthood when we keep enough money in the bank to fly home at any moment?"
(Compassion, p. 35)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

play day in mateare

That's Mateare behind me, a small town 30 minutes north of Managua...I have made several friends there through my work...above, and below, I am in a small boat (lancha) in the middle of Lake Managua. This lake extends from Managua northward past Mateare and you must drive around it to get to the central mountainous region to the east.
My friend gave me a shirt and hat so I wouldn't get quite so was already hot on the water at 10am this morning! We did enjoy a few minutes swimming in the water as well. Even though the part of the lake near Managua is seriously polluted, this section is more or less maintained by the Mayor of Mateare, so people swim, fish, and enjoy the beach up here quite a bit, unlike in the capital, where the shoreline is basically a wasteland.

That's Volcan Mombotombo on the left (they call the smaller one Mombotombito), one of Nicaragua's best know geographical sits in the middle of the lake, and it is still a perfect cylinder because it has never erupted (yet). After a couple hours on the water, I had a delicious fish lunch cooked by my friend's family, and then some salsa (dancing, not cooking) lessons! It was a fun day.

Friday, July 20, 2007

no words minced

The people writing the editorials for one of Nicaragua's two principal dailies, La Prensa, are angry. As evidence, I give you one of the concluding paragraphs (translated) from today's editorial page:

"It is clear then, that at the end of the government of Daniel Ortega there will be happy “danielistas”, but this does not mean that the problems that confront Nicaragua will have been resolved. It does not mean, for example, that the production and exports will have grown or that the country will have a higher volume of foreign investment and a lower index of unemployment. It does not mean that hunger and poverty will have diminished. It only means that there will be fatter and happier “danielistas”, eager to again give their votes."

Hmmm, let's see. Nope, no words minced there. So why is La Prensa up in arms?

Well, the paper's history is a long and complicated one. During the Revolution, the paper published highly critical articles about the Somoza dictatorship, whose corruption was becoming more and more well documented and heinous. In 1978, its editor, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was assassinated; though never proven conclusively, it is believed that the Somoza regime had him killed. Because of Chamorro's popularity, this incident was the last straw that turned all public opinion against the government and in favor of the Sandinista efforts.

However, after the Revolution succeeded, La Prensa attempted to maintain its stance as an independent (though slightly right-ist) publication, meaning that it took issue with some of the new FSLN government policies; this did not please the FSLN, who (in the name of national unity or security, etc) began censoring the paper's content. Nicaraguans tell me the paper's editors used to post the "real" edition outside their offices on the north highway, showing all the blacked out portions the government had prohibited them from printing.

As the Contra War of the 1980s took more and more of a toll on the fledging Sandinista government, the situation in the country economically reached a point where then-President Ortega agreed to an election in 1990. The widow of the slain Chamorro, Violeta, still a beloved Nicaraguan, led the united front that defeated the Sandinistas that year; interestingly, in the election this past November, Dona Violeta came out in support of her son-in-law Edmundo Jarquin, the presidential candidate for the Reformed Sandinista Party, which had broken off of the FSLN in the 1990s when they felt their attempts to reform the party from within were no longer an effective strategy.

From 1996-2006, Nicaragua had two Liberal party presidents, both of which also received a fair amount of criticism in the press, as one might expect any national leader to bear. Perhaps the biting critiques the FSLN is receiving now that it is back in power are due to some fear that history may repeat itself, and that the freedom of the press may become more limited as time goes on in the new administration. This seems like mostly conspiracy theory to me. This is not the 80s, we are not at war, and the amount of information available through a multitude of diverse sources, both internal and external, is extensive. Thus, it is far more likely, as a right-center publication, that La Prensa's issues are with the leftist policies Ortega regularly promotes in his public rhetoric, as well as some of the international friendships he is choosing to cultivate.

So, just like the un-minced words of a US paper's editorial board, the harsh words of these Nicaraguans journalists merely represent one perspective, one judgment on the new Ortega government.

For most of the country, the jury is still out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

on the eve of the anniversary, a showdown?

As reported by La Prensa (excerpted).

"Organizaciones de la sociedad civil como el Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres y el Movimiento por Nicaragua, entre otros, demandaron ayer el desmantelamiento de los Consejos del Poder Ciudadano (CPC), porque consideran que son violatorios a las leyes vigentes del país, ya que coartan el derecho de la participación ciudadana y violentan los derechos humanos de los nicaragüenses. [Organizations representing civil society like the Autonomous Movement of Women and the Movement for Nicaragua, among others, demanded yesterday that the Councils of Citizen Power (recently proposed by the FSLN) be dismantled, because they consider them in violation of this country's current laws by coopting the rights of citizen participation and violating the human rights of Nicaraguans.]

Las demanda de las organizaciones a la Asamblea Nacional pidiendo la derogación de los Consejos, fue respondida casi de inmediato por el FSLN a través del Presidente de la República, Daniel Ortega y el diputado sandinista Gustavo Porras, quien advirtió que se tomarán las calles y cercarán la sede del Legislativo, si se derogan los Consejos de la Ley 290. [These organizations' demands to the National Assembly were responded to immediately by President Ortega and Sandinista legislator Gustavo Porras, who said that they will take to the streets and head for the Legislative seat if they (the legislature) chooses to vote against the Councils in Law 290.]

Los CPC son el primer encontronazo serio entre Ortega y su oposición, la que por primera vez se une en su contra en la Asamblea Nacional. [This issue is the first serious conflict between Ortega and his opposition, which for the first time is united against him in the National Assembly."]

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, a national holiday here in Nicaragua. Fireworks, banderas rojinegras, and a huge celebratory gathering in the central plaza in Managua will be the order of the day.

But afterwards? Will there indeed be a political showdown? Vamos a ver.

donde la inspiracion viene

Just when I am at the brink of falling irretrievably into self-absorption, I am rescued by the grace of a day like today.

I was in Chinandega and Leon today with some colleagues to interview members of a "Businesses for the Kingdom" group intended to help Christian business people improve their businesses through the application of biblical principles and increased understanding of things like markets and feasability and other business admin 101 kinds of things. It sounds dry...until you know their stories and hear their passion and understand their commitment.

Like Yamileth, who went to dental school, got her degree, got married and had a daughter, but never thought she would be able to have her own clinic...until she became a Christian. Suddenly "out of the blue" the resources needed to invest in the upfront equipment and supplies began appearing...and now she runs her own dental clinic out of her home to help support her husband's income (which is small, since he is a pastor).

Or how about Pastor Wilfredo, who despite having many kinds of church responsibilities, maintains a furniture repair business on the side, and who in the last 5 months has seen the pieces "fall into place" for him to begin growing platanos on a small piece of land. "I told the Lord, everything I make from this land is Yours, just what I need to eat will I keep for myself." Why in the world would a pastor say that? Because he has a dream for his church...that it would be a place that "ministers to fallen pastors, helps them recover and begin again, and where my wife can offer counseling services to our community."

Then there is Margarita, who owns a hotel on the edge of town in Leon. Before she was a Christian, she says, she ran her business just to make money. In the last two years, though, everything has changed. "I decided I was only going to play Christian music and I wasn't going to allow alcohol," she told me. As you might expect, she lost customers, but she was convinced that her material success no longer mattered if she was not running a business that honored the Lord. "My accountant told me, 'do you want to fail? to go under?' I said, 'no, we are not going to go under, because God has given me this business and He will provide.'" And sure enough, after much fasting and prayer, in the last two months, Margarita's reservations and customer base has begun to grow again.

What is so impactful about all of this is seeing people who put their wallet where their faith is, who live depending on God alone, seeking His will for not only their "spiritual" life, but every other aspect of their daily existence as well. Even though one of the pastors I spoke to today told me what a great encouragement our visit was to them, I really believe that in fact the blessing and inspiration came from all of them, the Nicaraguans.

I have nothing to teach them; they have everything to teach me.

Monday, July 16, 2007

just call her abogada

Darling and I, on her graduation night...

Sunday, July 15, 2007


At the risk of stating of the obvious, I offer the following observation: My life is absolutely nothing like the lives of anyone else I know.

Most of the time this is fine. Living in Nicaragua, working in development/cross-cultural ministry, and everything that something I willingly and joyfully chose (and for which God chose me).

Being around a group of people from the States last week in the DR, however, brought home some realities about how I have changed. For one thing, while I follow political and international news fairly regularly, I am totally out of the American pop culture loop. And I don't even care. One of my friends on the trip also noted that I seem to care less about what other people think of me--and in the sense of measuring every word I say against its possible interpretation by those who hear it and how it affects their opinion of me, I'd say that's true. I'm much more comfortable just being who I am here--perhaps because the energy it would take in another culture to create any kind of facade is just too much work to even contemplate.

So I enjoy the opportunities for a different kind of existence that are made possible for me outside my home culture...and then I read the blogs of old friends, many of whose lives are marked by career advancement, marriage, and/or children, and I feel a pang of loss. Which brings me back to my mini-existential crisis. Up until a year ago, the questions, though not simple, of "who am I" and "where do I come from" and "where do I belong" were fairly straightforward. Not so any longer.

Although I was born in the USA, I feel uncomfortable identifying myself primarily as an American anymore. And although one day part of me would like to have the identity of wife, mother, household engineer, and the security of a new generation of a biological family to give me a sense of purpose, a deeper part of me recognizes that this cloak of stability and "normalcy" that I cling to as a future dream is not a full answer to my desire to find a place where I truly belong.

The quotes I chose last week to illustrate my state of mind point to a truth (or truths) that I am trying to accept--that I will never feel truly "at home" anywhere on Earth, nor can I expect to find security in any identity this world may give me.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

a graduation, a dance, and a question

Today I was extremely privileged to witness the graduation of my good Nica friend Darling from law school. The event took place in one of the nicest hotels in Managua--meaning I was freezing to death because the air conditioning went right through my black sweater, and that the dinner that followed was delicious but very American, and served very late (like an hour ago).

One of Darling's friends from the university asked me to dance, and so for the first time in Nicaragua I got my groove on in the middle of the hotel ballroom with a guy I had known for exactly 5 minutes. I was dressed up, which I never am, wearing heeled sandals that I never wear (totally impractical here), and feeling flirtatious, which I never do. And it didn't help that one of Darling's brothers (a med school grad doing his residency in Cuba!) was totally flirting back.

I won't lie. The attention felt good. But is my mini-existential crisis (see previous post and comments) helped by this? Stay tuned for a more detailed reflection on this tomorrow.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


"It's an old Sanskrit word which means "one who lives at the border"...literally, a person who had left the bustling center of worldly life for the forest where the spiritual masters lived...who lived in sight of both worlds..." -Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat/Pray/Love

"If I was old, I might have it together, if I was young that would be my excuse...I'm somewhere in the tell me when will I know where I fit into the scheme of things?" -Jill Phillips

"And they admitted they were strangers and aliens on the earth." -Hebrews 11:13

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

journal excerpt #4 [DR]

After a morning of home visits, translation, and prayer, I spent our siesta time Wednesday cutting out hearts with Emily for a craft activity that afternoon for VBS. (We were doing Joseph's story, with a love your enemies theme.) One of the hearts I cut out freehand turned out so awful that I named it the "evil heart". This of course sent Emily and I into fits of laughter, which we tried to keep to ourselves as the other girls were sleeping.

Everyone is trying really hard, building relationships, using their Spanish (no matter how much they know), and persevering through illness, sore muscles, and bad medicine combos.

VBS started out great. We taught the kids several new songs (one of which we even sang in a round), and Bianca and Emily did a great job reading the story while I asked the kids questions. The kids were amazingly attentive and answered everything I asked! Things started going downhill, however, when we started the games and the craft. Suddenly there was pushing and shoving, yelling, stealing of was just a mess. I might have been able to deal with it all if it hadn't been for the fight (pulling of hair and attempted punches thrown) that broke out at the back of the church right before we were to close in prayer. Some of the older kids broke it up, but I was done. It took everything I had to lead the closing prayer, dismiss the kids, and walk out without completing losing control. My face, though, could not hide how crestfallen, angry, and frustrated I was. After spending an hour talking about love, a fight breaks out in the middle of the church.

After I talked to Fior (FH/DR staff), she decided the kids needed to experience some consequences, so we didn't go out to play with them that night. I felt really bad, because I knew that it was many of the well-behaved kids who were outside waiting for us. Byron and I had a long talk that evening, which really helped me cope with the situation. And he shared an important realization with me, "Imagine how God feels every day when we break His heart with our actions."

It's been a hard day, but tonight I am so grateful for my dear old friend.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

journal excerpt #3 [DR]

Thursday, 1pm

After lunch Tuesday there was only one latrine foundation to do, so I switched to VBS crew (Courtney, Carlos, Susie, Marshall, and Bianca), where we started off with a "silent game" to at least attempt to maintain a little more order than the day before. I basically played a supporting role--helping with a human knot game, singing along with the kids, and praying at the end. It was pretty exhausting, and I wound up skipping out on post-VBS play time to hang out with Susie and debrief the day a bit, after which we had a riot taking bucket showers in our bathing suits together. [I love Burt's Bees! Thank you, Susie!] Later I went back outside to catch the end of the baseball game and I found myself with my arms around two children thinking, this is what it is all about.

Sometimes the kids are frustrating and sometimes they break my heart, but Jesus looked with compassion on the crowds who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And that's what I most need to remember.

Our team devo that night was about being laborers and the differences between how Jesus' disciples were sent out and how we are sent out today. "Jesus sent them with a message, not a project," I commented. "Perhaps we undervalue our message," said Craig.

That night as we all tried to fall asleep, there was a racket coming from the house behind the school and Courtney said, "I will go pay them $10 now and $20 in the morning if they will just turn off that #&*@ radio. [She never did.] At some ridiculously early hour, the roosters began crowing, and the screeching pig wasn't far behind.

Needless to say, we were all pretty tired that day. And it was going to be the hardest yet.

journal excerpt #2 [DR]

Tuesday, 1pm

We arrived in La Meseta just before lunch yesterday, and after the initial period of awkwardness where the team stood together in one area of the school yard and the kids in the shade of the other building, I asked them if they wanted to play, which of course they did, so we got out the baseball equipment and the guys got a great game going while me and Emily played various forms of catch and hot potato with a group of the smaller kids until lunch time. After lunch we had a brief siesta time and then most of us headed to VBS because there was no construction scheduled for the afternoon. Even with all hands on deck, it was crazy with the 100+ kids who showed up. Our activity (tracing their hands and decorating them) took a long time, but I think the kids really enjoyed it and learned something about being made in God's image and how He loves them. One of the kids Willy helped lead singing and Neylin answered all the questions I asked about the Bible passage we read (Psalm 139).

After VBS there were kids running all over the schoolyard and trying to peek into our windows--until finally we had to change the rules and limit the play area to outside the school gate.

That night Byron led devotional and we talked about Micah 6:8 and how it's not about the stuff we bring but who we imitate (i.e. Christ) that will leave the most lasting fruit. I think it was Jim who said it best: "We don't want the kids to say, here come the Americans who give us stuff--but here come our friends who love us and whom we love."

Monday, July 09, 2007

journal excerpt #1 [DR]

Due to some airline drama, I wound up being in the DR a full day before most of my team. Below are some of my reflections from that first afternoon alone in Santo Domingo.

"This afternoon I took a short walk around the area where my hotel is. I saw the palacio nacional, government offices, elegant medians adorned with beautifully landscaped plants and flowers...and as I walked through this high security, wealthy district of Santo Domingo, I was thinking about how despite my sensitivity to poverty and my anger over injustice, I was still able to appreciate the beauty of a well constructed building, a well tended garden, a series of Dominican flags, and a stone monument. I know that some of these 'beautiful' things hide truly ugly realities--the gap between rich and poor, the multi-layered corruption, the colonialism and imperialism that put this entire region at a disadvantage for centuries. Still, my theology is ingrained within me: the Lord truly can make all things new--there IS beauty for ashes, gladness for mourning. And so the beauty I saw today in the streets of the DR--not only in architecture, but in the market, in the artwork, food, sounds, and the people, like the man with a horse and cart full of pineapples--is still beauty worth appreciating.

I wonder if the eye for beauty is a survival instinct when one is surrounded by painful sights and sounds. Perhaps celebrating the beautiful and good in a hard place is the only way to maintain hope and courage.

I feel that my cultural stress here is minimal because I am navigating these two rumbos--privilege and poverty--every day in Managua and in the communities I visit. Rather than feeling "immune", I identify with Paul when he wrote about "becoming all things to all people." So I learn how to walk in the world of cars and air conditioning and fancy restaurants today and how to walk down dirt roads in chinelas, sleep on a sheet covered board, and eat gallo pinto with guajada for breakfast tomorrow.

Neither is entirely comfortable for me, so I find myself "in the middle", in a place somewhere in between gratitude for what I have been given and humility for the areas in which I know I still need to grow."

Sunday, July 08, 2007

DR redux

So I'm back in Nicaragua and trying to catch up on life, the universe, and everything after a wonderful 10 days of learning and serving in the DR with new and (especially) old friends from home, but I am way too tired to write anything substantial tonight, so for now, enjoy a sampling of the pictures. More later.

p.s. The link should work now. :-)