Monday, September 19, 2011

Nicaragua: land of determination, poverty and joy

Josh von Kuster is an occasional contributor to The Red Electric. Here is his report of a recent trip to Nicaragua as part of a delegation from our Quaker meeting.

By Josh von Kuster

You take three flights from Portland, spanning 13 hours and finally touch down at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua, just before 9 p.m. local time. Right on schedule. You grab your bags emerging from a fog of coach-class dozing and make your way to the front exit door.

And it hits you.

The tropics bombard you with humidity, heat, closeness and life: a constant presence for the duration of your 11 days here in the poorest country on the American mainland. The sun rises and sets, the rain comes and goes, the birds, frogs, insects and assorted other fauna share the rhythm. The tropicality remains ever-present.

Clearing customs comes with foreboding for gringos. Perhaps due to too many Hollywood portrayals, you have visions of prison guards interrogating you in Spanish in a decrepit stucco jail. Occasionally you are greeted by alluring young locals with flowers and rum drinks. Tonight, you are simply asked to pay the $10 entry fee and are waved on into the country.

You then pile into the short-bus, bound for Ciudad Sandino and the Center for Development in Central America by way of the Pan-American highway. The trip has very few delays thanks in large part to the numerous roundabouts. The ride is fairly uneventful except for the police pick-up hurtling down the road bearing men in and out of uniform standing in the truck's bed. Transportation of all kinds is communal in this country.

The bus turns off the highway onto a side boulevard by way of a U-turn and a hard-right. The street is cobbled and bumpy but far superior to the unimproved driveway up a steep bank leading to the Center. It is a concrete walled compound guarded by members of the security company required to comply with international trade conventions (thank you CAFTA).

The Center’s staff welcomes you as you disembark, and you give your thanks to Chico for the safe, speedy journey. The greeting is brief as you’re exhausted despite sleeping on all the flights. Soon you collapse on your top bunk under two fans, naively optimistic that the sweating will soon stop.

In the morning, you awake to the reality that you are indeed in a Third World country. The bathroom comes equipped with trash bins next to all the toilets with prominent placards requesting you to put your toilet paper in said bin rather than the toilet as it causes the septic system to back up. In case the point wasn’t clear enough, another placard at the door on the way out invites you to return to the toilet and fish out the offending paper with your hands if need be (and then wash your hands “really really well”).

Now the best part begins: superior coffee grown less than 100 miles distant and roasted even closer. Despite its being ground days in advance and its plastic brewer, the coffee’s rich flavor cannot be vanquished. And gallo pinto (pronounced GUY-o PEEN-toe, meaning “speckled rooster”), the national dish, accompanies two meals a day, everyday.

Following breakfast, you discover what blue collar life was like before automation and the assembly line. Your job is to make adoquines (ah-doe-KEY-nays), or paving stones, to improve the driveway. You will become intimately familiar with the pavers over the next week.You soon meet Pedro “the Baptist,” who presides over every step of the process like a masonry maestro.

It is a fairly simple process: mix concrete, pour and then pack it into a steel mould, then stack the formed stones allowing them to set. The trouble is, it’s all by hand. And Pedro is not easily impressed by your exertions, having for years overseen similar projects with countless volunteer teams, including aspiring civil engineers.

The critical step in the adoquine process is wetting the concrete just enough to be able to form it easily into the mould. Pedro expertly and entertainingly sprinkles water over the pile of concrete mix as if he were a priest baptizing a Catholic babe in arms. He blesses each paving stone before it is even formed.

This is life in Nicaragua: arduous labor which you must enjoy or go crazy. You are fueled by rice and beans.

Thanks in large part to the introduction of highly processed foods, you see a number of obese people as do your colleagues at the clinic in Nueva Vida. The refined food is available at the numerous pulperias (octopus shops) or convenience shops run out of residences. The children are often skinny, some showing the reddened hair indicative of kwashiorkor, chronic protein deficiency.

Yet you are not so aware of the problems with society in Nicaragua as you are of the happiness and determination of the people. Through horrendous living and working conditions, the people remain happy and jovial. On the occasions when you get the opportunity to converse with the residents, they all seem alert and aware. They are informed of the futility of the political process (the father of the 1979 revolution is now establishing himself as an autocrat). They know the great odds against their situation improving either personally or nationally.

Surprisingly, greed is absent in clearly defined personal spaces. Every home has a structural perimeter ranging from substantial concrete walls to a flimsy piece of string. But all is shared; that which is lent is returned. Compliment someone’s ear rings and they become yours as part of an exchange of gifts.

Surely the people here do enjoy life. Sara is a member of the Genesis Spinning Cooperative which has been her life for the past 4 1/2 years of unpaid labor. She has seen her hopes of a good job with friends-come-family dashed repeatedly in that time, yet her smile is still as broad as lake Managua.

Pedro struggles to feed a family of 7 on his reliable but meagre income from CDCA but is quick with a joke and brings a majesty to his work.

The scores of children you meet at the national landfill laugh and fight and play and bounce as much as any you have ever met, despite living in and surviving off of the largest dump in central America. Everyone you meet loves their community and works hard with and for each other.

In Nicaragua, the human spirit triumphs over poverty. Along the dirt streets with open storm- and gray-water sewage in front of homes, laughing Nicas sit in the shade on their porches and wave at the passers-by.

We, with our fiber-optic internet and wireless clouds and high-definition, 3D tv’s and glass-smooth asphalt, have paid the price of lost companionship. Walk down the streets of the world's most opulent country and you never see a soul.

After 11 days, your experience comes to an end. You feel this Nica world escaping you as you walk through Augustino C. Sandino airport, with its duty-free shops and manequin-like sales women. As you board the Continental flight, the artificiality of western life welcomes you back with air conditioning.

Josh von Kuster is a Christian Quaker attending Multnomah Friends Meeting. Having completed a 10 years as a Navy pilot, he is pursuing a career in nursing and transnational community development.

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