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.
1 John 18:
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”