Denouement

The door has been opened, the road has been walked, and I think I’ve kept my feet but I certainly had no idea where I’d be swept off too. Its been an adventure. I suppose I could make this into a really sappy ending about goodbyes and emotions all very present in the last few weeks but somehow that goes against my discomfort with romanticizing the reality. The parts I saw of Central America exposed me to beautiful places and wonderful people but at times the experience difficult and with scary moments; it, like everywhere else in the world is not a paradise but nor it devoid of the things that make life wonderful, exciting, and rich. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t believe my time in Central America would have had a lasting impact…it just remains to see how. The ending of one epoch is really the beginning of another but at the same time the moments, the experiences, and what has been seen and heard do not pass away with the the passing of the present reality but continue on in memory and relationships and perhaps even continue to change the trajectory of one’s life, of my life.

I want to thank you readers for journeying with me and for your cares, prayers, and letters. It was wonderful to have feedback and many of you provided inspiration and insight. I look forward to talking with you about all that has passed with me and with you while I’ve been away. And tomorrow the road leads back to The Shire, my Shire that is, in a little place in Northwestern BC, also not a paradise, but it is a place that for the present, passing time I happily call Home.

Philippians 3:20-21

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Hay Tiempo Para Todo Debajo El Cielo

Well, the most incredible semester of my life has come to a close. Actually, I should say best semester so far…let’s see what you can throw at me next year King’s. In many ways I very much wish already that I could go back and start it all over again right now, picking up on things I missed, strengthening my Spanish further, doing things I regret not doing, reliving the difficult moments of tough love learning and the moments of laughter. At the same time I am glad it is finished and have been ready for it to finish for some weeks so that the next stage in my life may begin with the new knowledge and experience from this semester that I now cannot unlearn. I am ready to be returning home to see friends and family but also to approach a life at home that consists of perhaps subtle, perhaps not so subtle, changes in attitude and orientation. I have said it before, but at LASP “learning” is defined as a “change in behaviour” and I am ready to prove, to myself more than anyone, that I have “learned” something.

And that in large part is what is sitting at the back of my mind making me uncomfortable, a gnawing presence of having gained the desire and knowledge to do something or to change something, call it ACTing if you will, but being unable in my current context to carry out that desire satisfactorily. We have talked a lot about the importance of this idea of “praxis” as opposed to “practice” this semester: learning through acting and doing, rather than learning first and using that knowledge to act later. This has been our irony, the contradiction that we have acknowledged as part of our time at LASP in Central America. We stress praxis but the reality is that in this context we are so helpless and even damaging when we try to “do” something. Its something that has been a frustrating but also humbling part of my time here that my classmates and I have all felt. Yet it has also been a crucial part of the learning because I now see that my greatest ability to effect change at home or abroad, at least for now, is from home, a context I understand best and can function most confidently in.

However, for me this has resulted in finding myself more often than not thinking about the past, comparing things I experience here to my home context, and thinking about the future. In short, I often find myself neither here nor there but dreaming of things that could be. And on that note, I am now beginning three weeks of independent travel as a sort of denoument to my time here before I transition back to being home, and perhaps you like me are wondering “why”? Why when I am ready to “act”, to initiate “praxis”, or when, please God, that I may see change somewhere that I am a part of be it ever so small? But sitting here in a small town internet cafe on Panama’s Carribean coast one thing my last host mother always said to me in her Portuguese Brazilian accent comes back to me:”Hay tiempo para todo debajo el cielo” which perhaps you guessed is the Spanish reading of the line from Ecclesiastes “There is a time for everything under heaven”. So despite all the hustle and bustle of my thoughts and this world more than a vacation or a suspension of time between two periods of my life this time for me will hopefully be a reflection on what I have seen and see, but more than that a time well lived with the friends, families, and the people I meet here in Central America. If I can learn to live presently in the moments of rest and of enjoyment now then I hope I will have learned well a lesson that I feel is so elusive for people of my age and societal context and the one piece I have still struggled with so much this semester. It is that if I can learn to focus fuller on the present I will be that much more prepared to be effective at doing change when it is the time under heaven to create change than of only and constantly thinking about it for the future.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Photos 4.0 – Rich Coast

Through classes, readings, speakers, and direct interaction and relationships with the people themselves I have been overwhelmed by many of the harsh historical and present realities in Latin America: the wars, the oppression, the poverty, systemic and structural exploitation…there is much to be discouraged and disheartened by. Yet at the same time there is also much from which to take joy and hope. At the moment I have the opportunity to witness and live an alternative way of life that stands as a rock against the current of injustices. What this little family has chosen to do with their biodynamic farm is far from the easy choice. Rodrick says he has chosen freedom yet he works harder than almost anyone I know. But still in many ways he is right, freer than almost anyone I know too. Freedom does not mean necessarily mean living easy, in fact living easy could be indicative of the opposite. Lives attached to phone screens, bank account numbers, and a regular salary are more often than not easy compared to this lifestyle of self-sustenance but are they more free? Perhaps not. Yet despite the long work days, tired bodies, and dirt, sweat, and blisters there is the freedom of being in direct connection with something both physical and spiritual, the relationship with the Earth that has its nexus at the point where hands meet soil to give life. And Earth gives back in the fullness of its riches, in the pleasure of being cared for, respected, and loved in a time when too often it is given chemicals, bombs, and garbage instead of patient hands doing patient work.

Drying Hot Chiles

Drying Hot Chiles

Bananas

Bananas

No middleman required

No middleman required

Chiles

Chiles

To market to market: Nona (sugar-apple), bananas, and dried snakes. Just kidding, that is guaryuna a long seedy fruit that grows in clumps high up in trees.

To market to market: Nona (sugar-apple), bananas, and dried snakes. Just kidding, that is guarumo a long, seedy fruit that grows in clumps high up in trees.

Sample of the produce to be brought to the organic farmer's market. Unfortunately it takes a 3:45 AM wake-up to get it there for Ticos who like to do their grocery shopping at 5:00 AM

Sample of the produce to be brought to the organic farmer’s market. Unfortunately it takes a 3:45 AM wake-up to get it there for Ticos who like to do their grocery shopping at 5:00 AM

Brazilian grapes

Brazilian grapes

Drying Kale Chips

Drying Kale Chips

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

Inside of a greenhouse with, yes, papaya trees

Inside of a greenhouse with, yes, papaya trees

Flowering Coffee Plant

Flowering Coffee Plant

Micah 4:3

“And He will judge between many peoples And render decisions for mighty, distant nations Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war.”

Blisters

Today was day number eight living and working on an organic biodynamic farm just north of San Jose in the province of Heredia. Eight days and almost as many blisters. Student hands trying and hopefully, slowly, painfully, becoming planting hands, weeding sands, sawing hands, pruning hands, shepherding hands, digging hands.

The farm is small. Just over five hectares. To come here and see it, the work of one man, gives one the romantic indulgence of imagination, of a simple life where one grows their own food and derives a peaceful happiness from the deep and uncluttered joys of a land that provides and a family to love. One can see hundreds of deep green coffee plants overshadowed by banana and plantain trees, a greenhouse full of green and other colours with the plants reaching heights only the tropics would allow, and gardens full of all kinds of vegetables known and unknown as sheep graze in cordoned off pastures nearby. To see is easy and so is to imagine. I was at this same farm eight weeks ago, seeing and imagining. “The simplicity, the joy, the peace, they must feel!”

Happiness, joy, peace, simplicity…all these are very present here. But so are blisters. So is getting up at 6AM to work and “finishing” work at 8PM with endless work still to do. So is a family who has problems and arguments like any other family. So is a farmer who believes so strongly in what he’s doing but tells me every day that this kind of life is HARD.

The purpose of these “community immersion experiences” of the program that I and my friends are taking part of all over Costa Rica is to understand and realize different and alternative ways of living being practiced in this country. Here, I am catching the smallest glimpse into what it means to live in connection with the land through small farm biodyamic agriculture. It is a wonderful sight and a hard life. Such alternatives we like to idealize and yearn for are crucial ways of living and, I believe, absolutely necessary, but the physical and mental fatigue that comes along with the rewards are all too real too.

Rodrick, the farmer and his family with whom I living and working, told me a few days ago that “To cultivate the land is to cultivate the spirit”. What a beautiful statement. What a beautiful thing to read. What an easy thing to read. Rodrick has much to say on spirit and the power, the rhythms, the “Christ-forces” in the land as he calls them but I don’t have time to describe it all nor do I understand it all. Yet I am realizing the profundity of this simple statement after a few days having been here. Cultivating the land is a powerfully relational and intimate experience with Creation. But it is not easy: “through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life”. He is rewarded for his labour by full bunches of bananas, luscious heads of kale, and rich homemade-all-the-way coffee but it is by the sweat of brow and break of back. He is a servant of the land. He goes to bed exhausted each night but with the peace in the knowledge that he is interacting and harmonizing with Creation to create of it life, good and right, despite the discords that run through his land and the world. That is his spiritual cultivation. It is not easy either.

We do not cultivate the land. In so many ways our lives (I’m referring to people like me, choose to disassociate at will) are so much easier than Rodrick’s. Yet as such they are so much further disconnected from the cultivation of the land, from the harmonization with Creation if I can paraphrase it that way. Are our spiritual lives that “easy” too? That “disconnected”? We romanticize cultivating the land for a living when in reality it is backbreaking work, perhaps we romanticize and live a romanticized cultivation of the spirit, our life’s work, when it should be mind, body, soul breaking work.

The blisters on my hands are a stinging reminder of the clash of two very different ways of living. They hurt but that is good. Pain helps me to build towards a deeper, broader, more inclusive understanding that there are many different and alternative ways of living but transitioning to practice a different way of life is a hard process as is living that life when it is a transition from the physically comfortable to the physically uncomfortable. I hope and pray for and believe I have felt in my time here the spiritual blisters that are a result of being pushed into deeper waters that call me to look into my own life and be challenged to reflect and react on what it really means to be a Christ follower. Something to think about on this Easter Monday that we reflect not only on Jesus’ death and resurrection but on the example He was in his life, a HARD life but showing us how we can cultivate the spirit, cultivate servant-hood, in how we choose to live our lives.

1 Colossians 1:10

“So that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Beginnings

I suppose every ending merits a beginning.

Tomorrow I end my time here in San Jose with the satisfaction and peace of having experienced something right and good. I will miss it and I will find moments for nostalgia and hints of regret for a time too short or an experience not fully grasped. But time rolls on and a life only looking back and calculating qualitatives and quantitatives and past possibilities in rear-view is a life experiencing things without the full opportunity to revel in and steer as well as can be done the experiences, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the successes, and the shit as they come hurtling at you.

Its been an incredible three months and saying goodbye to this place and these people hurts. I have been living, laughing, and loving in a place with faces I consciously realize I may never see again. But all the better I am saddened by it, for I know that it is a feeling begotten by the joys, anxieties, and laughters that comes from creating relationships with other people even despite language barriers, and that is good.

Tomorrow also begins a new experience, one that I hope I will live as well as and be as saddened by when I leave as the one I am leaving today. Around 10 AM I should, if all goes well and I don’t end up having to dig into the emergency money I’ve been given, be arriving in Heredia province after taking a series of buses, finding a church, finding a phone in the church, and hopefully contacting my next “dad” for pick-up. I know very little of what awaits me but that I will be living and working (a lot harder than I have in a long time I’m going to assume) on a coffee-fruit-vegetable-animal farm. Come to think of it, its a bit of a micro-version of what I didn’t know coming on this grand trip in the first place. If that’s the case I’ve been here and made it through. Three months didn’t send me packing home but it certainly sent me through a maelstrom of challenges and unknowns and I expect nothing less of the next three and a half weeks. Bring it on.

So in the spirit of all that I will remember to remember my time here with this wonderful Tica family in San Jose while looking forward to and living in the excitement, the learning, and the sweat that surely awaits. After that everything is unknown.

My first Tica family

My first Tica family

Ecclesiastes 3:1

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens”

Endings

Today we had our final day of class. To be specific it was the end of our Faith and Practice Seminar which has made up the majority of class time the last three weeks, along with Spanish class. It was, like most of the class learning, not to mention all the other “experiential” learning projects we have had, rather unconventional from a traditional learning sense.

To end this unique semester required a unique experience. And we got it. Our presenters, Julio and Gerti Melara came bouncing in right at 8:00 AM all smiles and radiating a level of vivacity and energy that defied their little frames and graying hair. I don’t know many missionaries but I am glad that the connotations that follow that controversial word now include this wonderful couple. Julio is a native Salvadoran and Gerti is from Austria but they live and work here in Costa Rica with their children.

Yet in addition to being missionaries, perhaps more so, perhaps even more importantly, they are artists, musicians who weave lyrics through their melodies and harmonies that speak to and from the heart of the Latin American poor. If I may rewind to their exuberant entrance again I forgot to mention that adding to their sprightly manner were the guitar and violin bouncing right along with them already in their hands as they came in, the instruments almost personified themselves swaying in the hands of the two small people who carried them. They seemed so happy that the mood in the room which has been weighted down these last few weeks with realities that could depress a rock, audibly lightened. Come to think of it this was the first time that two people reminded me straight away of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry such was their perceived effect. Its possible none of you understood that reference but kudos to you if you did.

What followed was an impromptu concert of Latin American songs written by the Melaras and others that, like so many Latino songs can’t help but be sung along to. So there we were in this little room with the recognizable lively strum of the guitar in Latino style and the vibrant resonances of the violin singing, talking, and laughing, but mostly singing along and listening for two ephemeral hours. It was a wonderful moment, united for a time in the music and joy of these two people and a shared experience, singing together with our voices from El Salvador, Austria, Costa Rica, Colombia, the United States, and Canada but unaware of differences in nationality while at the same time being fully aware of the unimportance of nationality for that moment.

But like all good things the time came to say goodbye to our final guests. I have been so blessed by the people we have been blessed to hear and learn from this entire time and especially these last three weeks. There was John Stam who told us of the importance of praxis in our lives and that “living faith in God has to be born in the heart of each person”, of his theological discussions with Fidel Castro, and who made us laugh with his very own theology by which every time the word “fe” (faith) is written in the Bible perhaps the translation is actually “cafe” (coffee) and thus “Coffee is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 Stam Bible). There was James DeBorst in whom we heard of a kid much like ourselves looking for answers to a man still looking for answers but who spoke to us of breaking paradigms of “development” and “helping” and “Marxism” when labels are applied and intentions wrought that reap nothing but division and lies. There was Silvia Regina who challenged the role of the church to be one of liberation to choose to be bold and controversial by coming alongside Zapatistas, Indigenous movements, and the marginalized created by our own societies. There was Jaime Preito poet and Mestizo theologian who connected the plight of the Ngäbe-Buglé people in Panama with the love and justice required of Christians. There was Carmen Caamaño the professora who gently swayed us with the terrible realities northward migrating Central Americans face behind in their homelands and ahead into societies who prejudice them as “irresponsible”, “criminal”, “subversive”. There was the wonderful Irene Foulkes, who though nearly ninety espoused on the importance of proper exegesis and critical reading of the Bible while challenging us to “transform our life, transform our world” by first looking inward and then into the groups and societies we know and live in and in working from this point do the work of transformation. And then there was today and the two radiant people who sang with us these simple words: “I only ask of God, that I won’t be indifferent to the injustice…”

So concludes my classes for this semester that will in some way unbeknownst though now it may be have upset a trajectory that was only possible in my life that didn’t know and experience what I am knowing and experiencing.

Yet not all is ending here. Things end and new things begin and the next stage of my time in Costa Rica begins this upcoming week with a trip to a coffee farm where a new and different family awaits, where work awaits, and where new chances for learning, for seeing, for hearing, and hopefully later for doing await.

Isaiah 43:18-19

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Fearing Change, Fearing No Change

“Sólo le pido a Dios
Que lo injusto no me sea indiferente”
-Words to the song “Solo Le Pido A Dios” by León Gieco

A pile of books sits on the little table in my room. Some things still aren’t so different from back home. However, the titles and content betray a different place. Oscar Romero’s “The Violence of Love”, Che’s “The Motorcycle Diaries”, “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” a book on the relationship between Latin American politics and fútbol, “Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano, the Zapatista’s “Fourth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle” in Spanish, “¡Ya Basta!” another book on the Zapatista uprising, “Our America” by José Martí, John Perkins “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”, a book on integral liberation theology, and somehow a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories all lay beside the bed in various stages of completion.

Day to day life here isn’t beaches, jungles, and traveling as some pictures might be indicating. This list of books is a better reflection of what I have been engaging in. In some way they all mirror the issues and topics we have been miring ourselves in through readings, class discussions, films, and speakers.

Its heavy stuff. We learn about the damage neoliberal policies have brought to Latin America, about liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor, about La bestia de hierro, the death train that takes Central American immigrants through Mexico in the often futile hope of finding something better in the US. We learn of the Mara gangs in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. We learn about voluntourism and the good intentions of North American short term missions that so often satisfy the desire to help but don’t actually realizing justice. We learn about how so often we fail to live out a Christian life and misunderstand the difference between justice and charity, between helping and “helping”, between tourism and learning, between volunteering and sacrificing.

I realize this might not be much of an explanation but at this point this is almost as much a place to organize my thoughts as to inform you friends and family back home of what I am doing. In the same way I use “we” to refer to myself and fellow students. I leave you to decide if you want to apply that pronoun to yourself.

Yet I’m grateful for an upbringing and education that didn’t hide these things from me. But its one thing to learn about them in an insulated, distanced manner, when its easy to hide it if you don’t want to see it, and another thing altogether to face the people and places who know these things as a part of their life and have the justification to point their finger at me and I don’t have a choice but to lower my eyes. What have I done to perpetuate the injustices I speak of? “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu

In one of our discussions yesterday a teacher posed the question if we had known the challenges to our worldviews and ways of living this experience would have posed if we would have come. Everyone answered “yes” but it wasn’t the “yes” of happy North American students in the excitement of studying and creating memories in a new and exotic place. It was the “yes” of students who realize they will go back to places and people and families that will not accept the new views and ways of seeing and acting they have adopted.

And yet I am grateful. I am grateful for this learning, for seeing and hearing things on this one way street that can’t be turned around to be unseen and unheard. And I am grateful for the people back home who realize this reality, this alternative understanding, who accept a truth that we live well not only while others live in poverty but BECAUSE others live in poverty. Perhaps its not so simple as that but its simply impossible for me to deny that we live in global system of injustice. And I know that I go back home to where there will be among friends and family those who have open ears and hearts to this. My heart goes out to my classmates who won’t have this, who will have to fight to be heard, to be realized, to not be passed off as “crazy”, “brainwashed”, “unpatriotic”, maybe even “communist”.

But maybe its not a fear of things changing that stands foremost for me, but a fear of things not changing. Its easy to sit here and write with a determination and zeal to see things change as life rides this unfamiliar wave of new realities while home is so far away. But I fear too that things that are so real now could be so easily forgotten upon return. And there are things that won’t change. The love of family, the companionship of friends, the beauty and enjoyment of Creation. And these things shouldn’t change.

But I will have failed my time here if something doesn’t change. LASP defines learning as its goal and learning defined as a change in behavior. Under this definition I want to realize that I have learned when I return. For here there is so little I can do but absorb this pounding surf of new realities and wait for the time when I can change something. It is an exercise in patience. Yet the definition of patience is legitimated by a change, by action. So when I return, I pray that things can change, that fears that this will have just been an idiosyncrasy in an untroubled line of my life will be unfounded. So I entreat you reading this to have open hears and helping hands and words of advice be they caution or encouragement. Let it be dialogue and action not blocked ears and shouts to silence as I know some of my friends may face. Please, be accepting to change, be accepting to action. Indeed “it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.” – Howard Zinn

1 John 3: 16 – 18

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

Being led by Nicaraguan hands

I count myself blessed to have had a few periods in my life that I look back on as times I can remember simultaneously as moments of great learning and and yet great tranquility. Living with a family in Nicaragua for six days was one of these times. This is not to say that this time was spent in some wondrous reverie of knowledge and enlightenment, as if reality and the mundane somehow were suspended by the people and environment surrounding me. On the contrary, the un-comforts of Nicaragua were very present: the ubiquitous mosquitoes somehow even within my mosquito netting, the ever-present dust rising in the thirty-five plus degree weather despite the futile buckets of water thrown over the dirt, garbage-littered “backyard”, my metabolism having me sweating for what feels like twenty-four hours a day adding to the sticky cocktail of dust, smoke, bug spray, and sunscreen already layering me, and even the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle displays of machismo rearing its culturally accepted head at different junctures during the day, unseen and normal I feel for many of the locals but an uncomfortable habit for me to observe. Being completely exposed to poverty too was uncomfortable, not in the sense that I had to experience it, but in the sense that I was forced to realize again how insulated we are from it but are still so often its perpetrators. Yet Nicaragua WAS an extraordinary experience and I hope with this preamble you realize not in some romantic ephemeral kind of way but that it was wonderful for me amidst and despite and with the grime and the noise and the problems.

Nicaragua. I am here seeing, breathing, smelling, living it and its as if my senses are being awakened anew in this confluence of unfamiliar sensations. Nicaragua is an upset of pattern and routine. It is an attack on my task-oriented mind, a lock on the door to the place in my head where I make plans for next week, tomorrow, an hour from now. Nicaragua is a wall in front of me that I can’t see past as my forward pace on the treadmill of life unexpectedly slows down to a crawl as I lurch away from the vanishing horizon of hyper speed living in North America.

Its true. Perhaps only one other time in my life have I been so thrown off from the concerns, patterns, and familiarities of my daily life. Living with my Nicaraguan family in the small Northwestern city of El Viejo about an hour from the Honduran border I was the most disengaged from the world at large I have ever been yet rarely so present in the little, but perhaps more real, world in which I was, that of a few neighborhoods, a couple of churches, and fifty or so people.

The Nicaraguans I now know are quite different from the Costa Ricans I know. At first this may seem surprising but the reality is that it should not be. These two countries developed and exist very differently from each other. This plays out into different identities and characteristics between these two peoples, both unique and special as they are. But today I was told by my Spanish professor, a Tico, that he believes Nicaraguans to be the display of the essence of human nature. This was strong and loaded language but I can say I understand in part where this idea comes from:

(Be warned, in what follows I will be making some generalizations but what I write is a true reflection of my experience.)

Nicaraguans are far less vocally expressive than Costa Ricans, Canadians, or folks from the States. Emotions are not paraded or faked, phenomenons so prevalent in our societies. We were warned before we departed that our Nicaraguan families might seem less expressive with words to make us comfortable and feel cared for, less doting, less attached, even less emotional as people. Yet Nicaraguans are some of the most deeply emotional people I have ever met. They are deeply caring, concerned, and spiritual people. If they don’t talk a lot its because words aren’t needed. They aren’t used to make small talk or fill silence. If they don’t say they love you, care for you, or are worried about you its because they understand the power of actions over words. A cooked and served meal, washed clothes, rejected offers of help…in Nicaragua these are more than formalities or obligations but expressions of care and love. This is not to say they aren’t in Costa Rica or back home, they are, but in Nicaragua it is understood that these are sufficient to express something when words add little or only create a facade. Therefore, when I would sit silently in the same room with my Nica mama or papa, abuela or abuelo, for ten minutes or an hour it was not an ignorance of each other bored and simply passing time or looking for something to say to each other as awkwardness grew, but rather a companionship, an intent focus on simply showing care for someone by being there with them. Sacrificing time did not feel like a concept in Nicaragua because time is not first meant to be spent on oneself and one’s own economics but as a gift most fulfilled when it is spent together. Following this then, a smile, a laugh, a conversation in Nicaragua takes on so much more meaning and intent than what so often feels like reaction and habit in North America and to a lesser extent in Costa Rica. The Nicaraguan displays the essence of human nature best not in emotion, or reason, or sin or whatever other characteristics of human nature you can think of but rather in the way that the Nicaraguan does not hide or falsify human nature with a projection of what they want others to think or see but simply by living and expressing human nature in the way that it comes, unfiltered.

This then is part of the reason Nicaragua was such a unique and wonderful experience for me. For one, I never knew what was happening until it happened. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand the Nicaraguan accent (which was a problem at first) but because there was no need to speak of what would happen. Therefore, one moment I would be lying in a hammock and the next we would be walking somewhere with no explanation of where we were going. I didn’t have to know so I wasn’t informed unless I asked. But I tried to refrain from asking when I realized preparation wasn’t needed. It was an experiment in letting go and being led, following the slow-swinging hands of my Nicaraguan friends and family as we crawled along at Nicaraguan pace (a term of my own invention as far as I know).

Learning to be led and being led to learn was my experience in Nicaragua. My family were my teachers. My host dad Marvin quiet and firm but with a smile that would light up the room. He was the pastor of our Iglesia Hermanos en Cristo (Brothers in Christ Church) and I have an image of him painted in my mind of all the children of the church lined up to the back giving him a hug on his birthday as he leaned forward beaming to wrap each one of them in his arms, one by one, a celebration I was privileged to witness. There was my host mom, steadily working but pausing to rest not from tiredness but to make sure others were resting. I have an image of her from my first couple days, silently watching me eat a heaping plate of food, making sure I was enjoying it before going on to serve the rest before she too would eat. Then there were the two glowing bundles of energy, my sisters, Abigail and Noami. I spent most of my time with them playing games in the dirt, drawing, or pretending to eat banquets of mud pies and grass salads. I will remember Noami and her mischievous grin and powerful shouts of indignation and excitement. I will remember Abigail and her pensiveness and relaxed nature that could explode into uncontrollable laughter. There are many others too I will remember. Abuelo (grandpa) with his silent and piercing glance but that withered into a smile as he watched his nietos (grandchildren) laugh and play. Or abuela (grandma) with her shining eyes and touch as she asked how, truly, I was doing. There was little Astri too with her propensity to act like a mother and care for everyone, and Carmen with her hearty laugh and self-depreciation, and Manuel with his fiery preaching. Do not let me forget Nicaragua.

What have I learned in Nicaragua? Our program defines learning as a change in behavior in reaction to new experiences and knowledge. I am not sure what exactly it was yet I learned in Nicaragua but if living with that family over those six days has not impacted and changed me I am not sure much can.

Mama Nica

Mama Nica

Mis hermanas

Mis hermanas

Abigail

Abigail

Noami

Noami

Papa y Abuelo

Papa y Abuelo

Toda mi familia Nica

Toda mi familia Nica

The Church. "Iglesia Evangelica de los Hermanos en Cristo en El Viejo". Two meters from my bedroom

The Church. “Iglesia Evangelica de los Hermanos en Cristo en El Viejo”. Two meters from my bedroom

1 John 18:

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

Nicaragua

Nicaragua. Where do I begin? Sitting back home on my bed in San Jose after two weeks away its hard to believe it all happened. Nothing’s really changed here which seems weird. I remember remembering one of my professors declaring “Nicaragua will be one of the most amazing experiences of your life” and that he was right. But why? My mind is still too much a swirling mess of emotions and contradictions to figure that out.

Let me start off by saying I saw many tourists in the colonial city of Grenada on our last day there, from Canada, the US, Europe…these people don’t experience Nicaragua. Their experience is like someone going to the beach for the first time who touches their toes in the water and declares “now I know what the ocean is and have been there”. Or perhaps more aptly, like a tourist who comes to a country only to spend time at the beach yet claims to have known that country. Yet perhaps my wink of a moment in the grand history of such place as Nicaragua doesn’t count for much better. But then again at least I had enough of a life there to understand I cannot claim to known that place. Because I don’t. I do not understand Nicaragua.

This is called the land of lakes and volcanoes but it is so much more. So geographically close to Costa Rica yet in reality so far from it. But it would be too much to try explain with my limited understanding how the history, the revolutions, the dictators, the foreign intervention, in this country have shaped it into what it is today. So I won’t attempt. Not yet, not in a one-way written monologue.

I suppose however, you are wondering what exactly it was I was doing there if I wasn’t doing typical touristy things. A short synopsis: When we first got there we spent a little over three days in the capital city of Managua where we were kept busy trying to absorb a bombardment of history, philosophy, language, images, emotions, and differing worldviews. Managua is one of the strangest, least touristy capital cities I have ever seen. In 1972 a devastating earthquake destroyed the downtown core, killing 6 000 people and leaving 250 000 without homes. As such from a hill in the center of the city you can hardly discern a likely place as a business district or a downtown or where people would commute into for work because these places don’t really exist as the earthquake altered the typical city layout that would have existed here.

But its not the layout of the city that is important to what I was doing. What is important are the people we heard from and the realities of contemporary Nicaragua we were faced with. During this time we heard from Dora Tellez a leader of the Sandinista Revolution that overthrew the violent, US-backed dictatorship in 1979, and current leader of the Sandinista Revolution Movement political party. She told us of the struggles of Nicaraguans and her personal current political struggle against “the new dictatorship” as she calls it, of her once friend and fellow revolutionary Daniel Ortega.

We heard from an American/Zambian/Nicaraguan organic farmer and his struggles against the industrialization and corporatization of food production that has resulted in so much poisoning of justice and of our own bodies. For him, the only way to be truly sustainable is not through fair trade, which is only a manifestation of the same system, or through simply buying organic, but of turning our lands back into spaces to produce the food we can eat living where we do.

A nun toured us around a church with vivid murals telling a concurrent story of Nicaraguan history and of the Christian story through Nicaraguan eyes. The evocative and controversial murals were only recently protected as a National Cultural Icon against the desires of many to have them painted over.

In the largest market in Central America we witnessed the work of Inhijambia, a Christian organization that is a very bright light in a very dark place. They take homeless children and any who wish to learn from within the market and start by giving them a basic education at a center in the heart of the market. If this succeeds they move them onto a main site outside the market where they continue to educate them, as well as providing children and teenagers with more education to graduate them with knowledge in such subjects and computing and math as well as music, sewing, and dancing that they are provided with the tools to make a living or go to college which many do. They also house at-risk girls in the compound. Members of our group were crying seeing the beautiful compassion and work of these people despite lack of funding and numerous failures.

We saw too a performance of the music of Silvio Rodriguez at the National Theatre, a Cuban folk musician who writes and sings songs of protest. We saw the torture chambers of the Somoza dictatorship turned Sandinista museum. We saw the great paintings and statues of socialist leaders from around Latin America, the great leaders of countries Nicaragua aspires to yet cannot reach.

I realize this is little better than an eloquent list of activities and I hate to write this way. Yet I need to write this way because I do not understand enough to interpret. I do not understand Nicaragua. I do not understand so I describe my experiences. But all of these little experiences were significant to this experience as a whole. Yet these were not even the most impactful part of my time there. When I remember Nicaragua it will be for the six days I lived with a Nicaraguan family in a small city less than an hour from Honduras. But that is a story for later this week. Right now I am tired and quite frankly sick of analyzing all of this so it is a story that will have to wait. And better that is does. Its not something I want to rush.

There are signs everywhere like this. Going into his fourteenth year as president.

There are signs everywhere like this. Daniel Ortega going into his fourteenth year as president. The caption reads “We’re going forward”

Socialist/Revolutionary leaders from around Latin America

Socialist/Revolutionary leaders from around Latin America

The old palace of the Somoza dictatorship now a museum

The old palace of the Somoza dictatorship now a museum

Main street light-up image of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela

Main street light-up image of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela

Plant in the underground torture chambers of the Somozas

Plant in the underground torture chambers of the Somozas

Silhouette in the highest point of Managua of the great Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino who drove out the US marines in the 30s

Silhouette in the highest point of Managua of the great Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino who drove out the US marines in the 30s

Sandino and the rebellion against the US

Church mural: Sandino and the rebellion against the US

The Resurrection

Church mural: The Resurrection

Proverbs 3:5

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding.

Departing Thoughts

Tomorrow morning, at a time when I’m usually in deepest sleep, I will be departing with my compañeros for a trip north to Nicaragua. We will be spending ten days there, hearing from speakers, studying the Nicaraguan context; its tumultuous history, successes, and the current economic and political problems it is suffering from. But mainly we will be living; learning and living with the real people of Nicaragua in various communities around the country.

After having been in Costa Rica for six weeks, far too short a time to be able to claim any real understanding, I can say that the things I have seen and heard are giving me trepidation about this trip. I am excited to be sure, possibly more than I have been at any time since arriving, but there’s subtleties in Costa Rican culture and speech that hints of a very negative stigma towards Nicaragua. In Costa Rica I’ve heard Nicaraguans been described as “very violent people”, I’ve heard “No seas Nica” (“don’t be an idiot”, Nica being slang for Nicaraguan), I’ve seen the Nicaraguans working the pineapple fields under a glaring sun and pesticide spray, I’ve seen the banana plantations where the Nicaraguans labour and live under conditions much worse than the average Costa Rican. I’ve heard tell how Nicaraguans are “ideal” for these jobs because many are here illegally so can’t form unions to prevent the requirements of working twelve, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-four hours straight. Even the wonderful woman we all love who helps to clean are house once a week is from Nicaragua.

I’ve read too. Read of the American adventurer and usurper William Walker, US marine control in the country, the rise of the cruel Somoza dictatorship, the brutality of the National Guard, the Sandinista violent revolution to overthrow the Somoza’s, the “Red Scare” this posed and ensuing US response to fund a civil war backing their puppet army the “Contras” (“those against”), economic alienation by the US and her allies including Canada, and the resulting poverty, crime, and economic depression that still plagues Nicaragua today. There is no doubt that Nicaragua’s history is more than a shade darker than here in Costa Rica.

But the biggest effect on my Nicaraguan awareness have been the conversations with Tico family and friends and the connotations that ripple around the edge of our conversations. Advice to not eat the food if I don’t want to, to put on bug spray everywhere, to be extra careful, to take lots of medicine, to be conscious that Nicaragua is totally different than Costa Rica all rings of sound advice and it is to be sure. But there’s a certain way it’s said that cannot be intoned in writing only pointed out. I feel that there is a sentiment among Costa Ricans that Nicaragua is dangerous, that the people can be untrustworthy, and that Nicaragua in the general sense is an inferior place with inferior people and customs. Many, most in fact, of the Costa Ricans I’ve talked to about it have never been to Nicaragua, a country whose border is less than six hours away from Costa Rica’s central capital and which has a diaspora of around 500 000 living in Costa Rica, a country of less than 5 million.

I am in a difficult situation. One thing I consciously try to do when I travel, especially here in Central America, is to not judge other customs, traditions, and beliefs and rather try to adapt myself to them. I think this is good advice for anyone traveling, to observe and experience before passing criticism which should only come much later if then. I’ve been trying to adapt rather than make the other adapt to me. But now after six weeks I find myself mulling over critical and harsh questions in my mind: Am I experiencing racism? Are Costa Ricans wrongly prejudiced against Nicaragua? Why? Are Costa Ricans as suspicious of their neighbors and immigrants as they seem to be? Do they have reason to be or is that my happy Canadian mind telling me to be accepting? Do I even have the right or ability to evaluate and critique these things after having been here for six weeks, a white, privileged, North American myself?

What is truth? What do I believe and how do I go about choosing what to believe? Perhaps my determination to refrain from judging as long as possible is giving me the false idea that despite the problems I have seen and heard of the people around me are relatively free of the imperfections, flaws, and skewed values I see us North Americans inundated with as a society. I’ve begun to realize just how out of context I really am.

Again this is not to say I have found the right or the understanding to critique. But part of me feels like if I don’t be critical of attitudes, at least going into this trip, I will have a tainted perspective upon entering Nicaragua. Perhaps I do already. Its also possible that Costa Ricans do have good reason for speaking and thinking of Nicaraguans as they do. But I think I’ll try to observe and experience and criticize that for myself.

On a different note, thanks to you readers for your constant companionship and support. I love getting messages of encouragement and word of what is going on at home and many of you (who I think are reading) I think of everyday. But don’t worry, it’s not too much that it incapacitates life here. And in case you were wondering, yes, I will be away from my computer for the next two weeks so there are unlikely to be forth coming updates until after the first weekend in March.

Until then,

John 7:24

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”