Thursday, November 10, 2011

It Is...

As my time in Nicaragua slips through my fingers and my departure date gets closer and closer, I feel so keenly aware of the world around me and this place that I love. For the last month, I have been working on compiling a list of everything that Nicaragua is and has become for me, as a way of recognizing what I have here and in hopes to carry it with me. While by no means is the list exhaustive nor complete, it captures what life in Nicaragua is like and briefly highlights life´s daily experiences, both the good, bad, and everything in between. Without further ado, I present to you my response if someone were to ask me “What is living in Nicaragua for you?”. It is...

La vida Nica
Getting to and from work and around Nicaragua on old, crowded school buses donated from the States... and when I say crowded, I mean about 200 people on buses at the height of traffic time;
Vagos (vagrants) on the corner;
Chaval@s (kids) playing in the calles (streets);
Kids escaping from their houses without a stitch of clothing;
Celebrating Purisima, Dia de los muertos, Dia de la revolucion, Navidad, Dias patrionales, y Dia de maiz;
Women mopping, washing clothes in the morning, breast-feeding on buses, and selling tortillas and nacatamales (a traditional Nicaraguan tamale made from corn and cooked in animal fat) in the streets;
Waking up every morning to the neighbor's roosters crowing and Muñeco (our “guard dog”) howling to drown out the noise of the chicken vendor yelling “Pollo, pollo, pollo” into his megaphone;
Hitching rides in the backs of trucks;
Dust in the wind blowing into my eyes and rainstorms soaking my clothes;
Amas de casa (women of the house) watering the dirt in their yards to keep dust down in dry season;
Neighbors cranking up the volume of FSLN (the political party currently in power) music or Las Mañanitas (traditional birthday song) on any excuse for a special occasion...... at five in the morning;
Buenas y adios y que te vaya bien: typical Nicaraguan greetings;
Hospitality: feeling more welcomed in a house with a tin roof, dirt floors, and plywood walls than I felt in the nicest of homes in the States and being offered the largest of four small bedrooms in a home of twelve children;
Dirt roads that are impossibly bumpy;
City corners piled high with trash;
Sitting on a hospital bed with blood-stained sheets and trusting that I`m in good hands as my wounds are cleaned and wrapped with gauze cut by rusty scissors;
Cold showers first thing in the morning;
Getting addicted to crappy coffee;
Fashion statements: jean on jean, leggings paired with any style top, bedazzled, skintight jeans, mesh muscle shirts, and comical t-shirts in English such as a man wearing a sorority leopard-print shirt and a young girl sporting an “I love hot moms” t;
Wearing flip flops as house slippers to prevent the bottom of my feet from carrying the permanent color of dirt;
I'diay, maje, suave chavalo: common Nicaraguan Spanish phrases;
Internet on a time clock and phone convos in the 'phone corner' of the house;
Cleaning the sala (main room of our house);
Motorcycles being used as mini-vans: it is not uncommon to see a family of four or five all on the same motorcycle;
Sufriendo (suffering) in Semana Santa heat and believing that no matter when that week comes it really is the hottest ,most miserable week of the year;
Feeling tired of getting hissed at, blown kisses, and being called chelita, preciosa, sabrosa, princesa everytime that I walk out of my front door;
Diahrrea and sulfur burps;
Not being judged for wearing the same clothes for the last two years or for wearing all my favorite shirts that cockroaches have eaten holes in;
Taxi rides in old cars, ones that would be sent to the junkyard 100,000 miles ago in the States;
Hosting mice, geckos, and many other critters in our home;
Honesty: Nicaraguans tend to be blunt, sometimes painfully blunt;
Always itching mosquito bites and flicking ants off of me;

Pajarito Azul
Regalame tu risa
Fregando (screwing around) with Gabriel and Anke, Pauline, Alexia, and Raquel;
Morning greetings and hugs from Leonora, Hellen, and Luisa;
Drool from Geovany;
Swift hits from Brenda;
Smiles from Gladis, Yahoska, and Jessica;
Visiting Abel in his crib, arms and legs tied up so that he won't scratch his own face or break his leg;
Repeated questions from Pancho;
Tickles from Teresita;
Dirty jokes from Maria del Carmen;
Passing food off to Rudy;
Fearing that Yamileth or Teresita's seizures will never stop;
Walking with Lenin;
Chit-chat with Milagros;
Holding Juana`s hand;
Yoga class and jewelry-making, recycled paper and story time, dancing and swinging, mural-painting and going to the movie theater, Clase de estrellas (Class of Stars) and Casa Base (Base House), massages and coloring, workshops and piñatas, translating and Mass, craft time and snack time;
Watching telenovelas, Caso Cerrado, y Accion 10 (popular TV programs) when I spend the night at the Finca (farm);
Taking a nap at lunch time;
Wanting to run when Joel died and feeling pain when Ramon died because I watched him waste away;
Conversations with the care-takers;
Being Anke and Gabriel´s loyal third wheel;
Meetings with Dona Lorena;
Eating gross lunches;
Just being.

Food and Drink
Somos hijos de maiz
Plates piled high with beans, rice, and fried everything;
Boiling hot soup served in bowls the size of gallon ice-cream jugs (I still wonder why someone would want to eat boiling hot soup in 95 degree weather and in such large quantities but have come to enjoy such a tradition);
Fresh corn tortillas;
Mangos growing ripe on trees and feeling a jolt of alegria when someone gives one to me;
Being offered a chair and a fresco (juice) or gaseosa (soda) the moment I enter someone`s home;
Busy markets in which vendors sell fruit by the basket-full;
Buying eggs and salty dry cheese every week from Karina and never being fully forgiven for missing her birthday party;
Toña y Flor de Caña: Nicaraguan beer and rum;
Frequent trips to the venta (window stores) for snacks;
Coming to enjoy baking and cooking as recreational activities;
Insatiable cravings for American food and drink: strawberries, Kashi cereal, chocolate, ice cream, peanut butter and jelly, lasagna, spinach salad, pizza rolls, bagels, hummus, quesadillas, yellow cake with chocolate icing, chocolate chip cookies, Margaritas, Blue Moon beer, black licorice, almonds, wine… I could go on and on;
Eating food that came directly from Nicaragua: consumimos lo nuestro;
Pride in corn and Nicaraguan dishes.

Mis brotheres
Escaping to MetroCentro with Anke so that we can vent;
Morning breakfast and nightly teeth-brushing with Trucha;
Meeting and forming friendships with people from all over the world: Japan, Germany, Italy, Canada, Spain;
Planning and participating in Community and Spirituality Nights in the house;
Walking around the corner to get advice from Melissa and opening the front door when she came seeking advice;
Going on retreat with the other JV's: Laguna de Apoyo y La Garnacha being two of our favorite places;
Pushing Cecilia's broken-down car 15 blocks of dirt road in the rain as her four-year-old daughter, Junieth, sticks her head out the window and yells, “Dale, Andrea, más rapido!” (Faster, faster!);
Inviting Win and Gioconda to eat Ritz crackers in our house as a way of thanking them for the ride home;
Speaking English, making jokes, and having serious conversations with Gabriel;
Going a year without seeing family and friends from home and being blessed to host a number of visitors throughout my second year;
Having dinners with delegations from the States;
Dancing with Pinol and Jairo;
Learning to drive a stick shift in Gordo's truck and that being the only time I've driven in two years;
Fabiola and Gerardo calling just to say hi and ask me how I'm doing;
Cutting down grapefruits, lemons, and bananas to give to friends and co-workers;
Dinner conversations over yet another plate of rice and beans, pasta, eggs, or stir fry;
Sitting on Heylim's bed as mice ran around my feet and not knowing what to say as she began to cry and show me pictures of her husband who just left her and her daughter in a one-bedroom house;
Masses and wine with Fr. Joe;
Fritanga (very fried Nicaraguan street food) Fridays and Glee.
Closing down the Club;
Feeling at peace at Jeanne and Dianne's house;
Strobe-light dance parties and guitar singing around a campfire;
Laughing at corny jokes, especially my own;
Making lifelong friends.

Ironies and Contradictions
Aunque seamos pobres...
Knowing the feeling of not being able to do something because of money but still having access to funds if I needed monetary support;
Getting robbed twice in one day;
Feeling more connected to humanity when I'm far, far out of the city romping around the campo (countryside) by myself;
Being told I'll get sick if I drink cold water after hot soup, shower at nighttime, or walk on the cool floors without shoes;
Hanging laundry on a line to dry but having the luxury of a washing machine and thus feeling a sense solidarity on the rare occasion that I wash my clothes by hand;
Seeing my own reflection in the eyes of a drunk man who just wanted to be heard and wanting to sit and hold a young pregnant girl walking down the street with two full suitcases and tears flowing down her cheeks;
Living in one of the biggest houses in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Managua and feeling embarrassed by the size of my house even though it's a simple, humble home;
Realizing the impact that the United States has had on Nicaragua;
Seeing the bitter effects of globalization: mo´money, mo´ problems.

Yo no soy quien era
Crying for six months because I didn`t feel at home and now crying at the thought of not living a lifestyle that my heart always longed for;
Feeling joy and pain as I've never felt before;
Standing up for myself and shedding tears afterwards for the other person;
Falling for a Nicaraguan and learning what cross-cultural attraction means;
Coping with the sadness of missing weddings and births and trips and graduations at home, knowing that I missed out in order to fully immerse here;
Daring to do that which my heart tells me even when my head believes I can't: walking away from a best friend, starting new activities and project at work, confronting a co-worker, supporting a struggling community member;
Filling up ten journals with thoughts, reflections, worries, gratitudes, and more;
Being taught to share what I have, whether it´s just a little bit or an abundance;
Burying little loved ones;
Learning the importance of being myself and speaking my mind;
Appreciating the power of presence and accompaniment;
Finding my nest at Pajarito and then being given wings to fly;
Walking confidently and knowing who I am.

The Good Life
Me encanta...
Having daily adventure at my fingertips: climbing volcanoes and jumping in waterfalls;
Riding my bike around town and fearing for my life as I hug the far edge of the street but living for the adrenhaline rush;
Balancing downtime and easy living with being in motion and seizing the day;
Walking into work every day;
Being called Andreita, Andrea bella, Andrea fea, Dre, amiguita, jovencita, Andrea de los angeles, pellibue, Indjria (an attempt at the English pronunciation of my name);
Getting lost in a book;
Relief from heat: baby pools, Toña, ice cream, shade;
Swinging from a tree in Parque de Piedrecitas;
Getting soaked in the rain;
Musica revolucionaria, Misa campesina, y microfonos abiertos;
Bachata, freestyle dancing after a long day at work, ribbon dancers, grooving with arms in the air (the ultímate gringa move), raggaeton: just give me some music and I´ll dance;
Sitting in my room;
Hammocks and rocking chairs;
Getting mail;
Living the moments and loving the moments.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Be There

 “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Annie Dillard
Clear blue, bursting green, sunset orange; lively animals, dancing niños (children), breathtaking scenery. No, I did not go on a jungle adventure with a group of kids; these are the colors and images that greet me every day when I walk into work. Along the wall of one of the buildings at Pajarito Azul, a mural gazes out at the center, exuding its brilliant colors and details. I find myself marveling at the work some days. While its beauty does not seem to fade no matter how many times I walk by, what really stops me is the realization that this mural, this huge work of art, somehow contracted me as its organizer. Beauty and grace had been spinning an intricate web around me, waiting for me to sense them, to fill the gap in the center of the web where I stood. When I woke up to see the glistening strands, I knew that the very least I could do was be there to connect the surrounding threads.
A notable feature of the scenery in Nicaragua is the frequency of murals- there are murals decorating the walls of schools, churches, grassroots organizations, businesses, houses, bus stops, and more. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these murals are worth a million. They provoke thought. They radiate energy. They represent people and places. They inspire.  They unite a well-dressed man working in an office on Carretera Masaya with a woman teaching in a preschool classroom with a young boy selling water at a stoplight. From my first day in Nicaragua, I caught glimpses of murals and pondered the stories that they told. The first strand of the web was spun.
I began my work at Pajarito and entered into a world of animated people living and working in a drab center characterized by manila-folder colored buildings. Totally boring. The physical space did not reflect nor embody the alegre (joyful) environment. Having seen so many murals around Nicaragua, the thought occurred to me that a mural in Pajarito could both illustrate this ambience and further contribute to it. However, I felt that such a task was out of my realm of abilities. I was merely a volunteer lacking artistic talent, access to supplies, and confidence in the possibility. Or so I thought.
Events continued to unfold as time went on and I was still unaware of the beauty and grace that were waiting for me to be present to them. A fellow volunteer coordinated a mural in the school where she was working; I saw that it was actually possible for a volunteer to organize within his or her worksite. But she was an artist herself and who was I to put a paintbrush in my own hand and assume that the results would not be a colorful disaster? A few months later, a mural-organizing group showed up at work to paint the outer wall of the center. As twenty plus painters entered the first day armed with paint, paintbrushes, and ladders, I simultaneously cheered them on for doing the work that I assumed I couldn’t and felt disappointed that they were the ones who were leaving a work of art in Pajarito. In a week’s time, the wall transformed from plain stacked cinderblocks to an inviting myriad of images. The voice of one of the oversized faces states, “El arte es poder” (art is power). These four simple words made me think: If art is power then maybe I could paint. If one mural on the outside of the center can uplift the spirits of those who pass by then maybe another one on the inside could do the same for the residents. I still had no idea where and how to start but the web was forming.
I was on the way to a friend’s house in February and had some time to kill. I stopped in at a cafetin (a small food bar) along the way and sat down to read. A Nicaraguan approached me, addressing me by name, and said that we had met previously. An experience such a this normally puts me on alert, but I felt a sense of trust even though I had no recollection of meeting him. He re-introduced himself, “Me llamo Gerardo” (My name is Gerardo) and inquired about my work. I began to give him the rehearsed spiel, “Trabajo en Pajarito Azul, un centro….” (I work at Pajarito Azul, a center…) His eyes lit up. “¿Lo conoces?” (Have you been there?) I asked him. He responded eagerly that he had just visited Pajarito for the first time in December and, as a muralist, had been dreaming of doing a mural there. Now my eyes lit up. I told him that I shared the same dream. Awestruck, we exchanged contact information and set a time to talk about what the work would entail.
At the meeting, we went over details of where the mural would go in the center, how long it would take, when we could start, etc.  I then asked the dreaded question of how much supplies would cost, fearing that whatever the cost was, it would be more than I could cover as a volunteer. “1200 córdobas,” he told me. I quickly converted the amount into its equivalent of 50 US dollars. I was flooded with relief. In the time between first meeting Gerardo and discussing details with him, four friends from home visited, bringing with them generous donations: books, craft supplies, activity ideas, and $50. There I was in the middle of this web, connecting the strands and beginning to realize what was happening.
While I was largely oblivious of the harmonization of events leading up to the mural, once we began, I felt keenly aware of the gifts that came along with the process of painting. With Gerardo and I being the principal painters, we spent seven weeks laboring in the intense heat of April and May. Both years in Nicaragua, the height of hot season has directly coincided with personal lows: the days feel long, hot, and daunting. This year, however, in the midst of the heat and hot-season blues, I felt inspired. I was learning how to be an artist. I entered work every day feeling as if I was going to an art therapy course- I had little confidence that I could paint and create worthwhile results but Gerardo patiently showed me techniques and gently challenged me to paint what I thought I could not. I would leave work believing in my ability. I mixed a great new color! I shaded a particular leaf like a professional! The steps were small and, in the end, my contribution too was small, but I built up a confidence in myself as an inventor of ideas and colors and encountered my creative side.
Working side-by-side with Gerardo not only brought about newfound self- awareness and confidence but also sparked an unexpected friendship. He and I would pass the days chit-chatting and making connections between our two stories: he had previously spent two months in the States painting a mural, we had a number of mutual friends, and we shared a common vision of life in Nicaragua. Similarly, about halfway through working on the mural, a volunteer from Canada came to Pajarito for two months and just happened to be an artist. She jumped on the opportunity to help and worked wonders. As she joined the mural efforts and spent her time working with us, yet another friendship was formed. What began as Gerardo and I slowly working and getting to know each other turned into a united equipo (team) having fun together and dedicated to the artwork in front of us.

While passing the time with Gerardo and Alexia, I watched as the mural came together through the work of many hands. Residents would pass by talking about the pigeon’s wings or the elephant’s trunk and would ask to help paint. They would add a petal to a flower or a few strokes to the green background, but after they saw their contribution in the grand work of art, the mural suddenly became theirs as well. They were a part of the bigger picture. Fellow volunteers and Nicaraguan friends stopped by for a morning or afternoon to help. Co-workers spent their lunch break with a paintbrush in hand. The mural was coming to life because of everyone’s willingness and enthusiasm.
On June 2, two days after applying the final touches to the painting, Pajarito held a ceremony to inaugurate the mural. The event brought everything together into one special day. As Gerardo, Alexia, and I cut the ribbon in front of the mural, I took in my surroundings and saw all of the residents whom I love so dearly, my new friends beside me, and this incredible work of art behind me. In that moment I stepped out of the web and finally saw from the outside that it was beauty and grace that had been working around me, waiting for me to be present. It had all been there all along: Pajarito, the events leading up to the mural, the friendships, the inspiration, the work itself. There was something greater at work, call it God, fate, or beauty and grace, and it found me and waited for me while I put the pieces together. 
I often stop myself now and have moments of profound gratitude, sensing that the mural was not the only ‘fated’ encounter of my life in Nicaragua. While it is one of the more culminating experiences of my time here, it is merely one among hundreds, maybe thousands. What makes the mural particularly special for me is that is has come to represent all of the sacred moments and occasions throughout my time in Nica. When I look at the mural, I do not just see the twinkle in the eye of a guardabarranco (Nicaragua’s national bird) but I also see the hands that painted it. I remember the first time I saw a guardabarranco. I hear the music of the Nicaraguan singing group named Guardabarranco. I stand staring beyond the images on the wall and, because painting the mural was the poignant experience that it was, I see that all of these moments, big and small, have been interwoven. It reminds me daily that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. “Be there, Andrea,” it whispers to me. “Be there.” 

Getting started!

Community mate, Adrienne, adding artistic touch.

It´s coming together!

Gerardo, Alexia, and I on mural inauguration day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Creo en mi Credo

Last weekend all nine of us Jesuit Volunteers in Nicaragua joined together in a CreedQuest: a retreat dedicated to creating of our very own creeds. We spent time reflecting together, individually, and in prayer and at the end of the weekend, we had all written a creed of our beliefs, an expression of our ever-evolving spiritualities. The process of searching for words to communicate myself spiritually was both empowering and challenging and upon putting my beliefs into poetic form, I overflowed with a newfound ownership of my faith. As a way of sharing the exploration of the retreat and where I am spiritually these days, I share my creed with you. I would also say that if you have time to contemplate your own spiritual life, embrace the opportunity and try to put your beliefs into words, as it can be an incredibly affirming and beneficial process.

I believe in a God…
Who speaks to us in the wind,
Who weeps when we hurt and rejoices in our alegria,
Whose gentle presence imparts comfort and insight,
Whose call is found in the deepest desires of our hearts.

I believe
That my joy is your joy and your pain is my pain,
That our weaknesses are the sources of our greatest strengths
And that, hand-in-hand, we transform our wounds into wombs of new life.

I believe
That each soul sings a song of
Together, our soul’s songs harmonize.

I believe in a world where
We build bridges instead of walls by
Allowing conversation to open our minds
And breaking hatred with the soft touch of a loving hand.

I believe
That there is a time for everything:
That today is our window to tomorrow.
            Greet the sun,
Seek the inner you,
            Wander the streets you’ve always known,
            Get lost in thought,
            Be found in a new place,
Share what you were given,
            Laugh at life’s ironies,
            Cry because you’re full of emotion,
            Love the routine,
            Receive love from a stanger,
            Get your hands dirty,
            Cleanse yourself in a rainstorm.

I believe when I say Amen. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Que Regresemos a la Calle

In 1979 after the Nicaraguan dictator was overthrown, the face of Nicaragua changed and problems that were overlooked or hidden in preceding years manifested themselves. One such problem was illiteracy: more than 50% of Nicaraguans could neither read nor write. Recognizing that this was one of the highest illiteracy rates in Latin America at that time, the new government developed a bottom-up literacy campaign known as alfabetización and the plan was set into action by a man named Fernando Cardenal. After one year of alfabetización, only 13% of Nicaraguans were illiterate.

Although Fernando is most known for his work in alfabetización, throughout his lifetime he has been a prominent figure in Nicaragua’s history, serving Nicaraguans as a Jesuit priest and leader in a Jesuit school network known as Fe yAlegría. The mission of Fe y Alegría (which so fittingly translates as Faith and Joy) is to bring education to the poorest and most underdeveloped areas of the world. Two of the JV’s whom I had lived with last year served in Fe y Alegría schools as teachers and as the year came to a close, we had the opportunity to share a meal with Padre Fernando.

Over dinner Padre asked us questions about our work in Nicaragua and our values as Jesuit Volunteers and then proceeded to share inspiring stories about where his life has taken him, primarily throughout the Revolution. Besides winning my esteem by being the most endearing, good-natured man, within one of his many stories, Padre Fernando left a lasting impression on me by speaking the following words: “Espero que los jovenes regresen a la calle para hacer la historia.” (I hope that the youth return to the streets in order to make history). As I heard this from a man who has made Nicaraguan history and affected an immeasurable numbers of lives, these words took on a poignant meaning. My mind was racing, “Surely such a man knows how to pass on the wisdom of how to motivate himself and others to create history!” I sat across from Padre pondering the greatness and merit in his message and I saw the world becoming a more just, more equal place within in a matter of seconds. Then I caught myself. I came back to the dinner table, back to reality and realized that Padre Fernando’s wisdom alone will not change the world overnight (nor in the blink of my mind’s eye) but, his words do indeed carry a strong, powerful message for the people of Nicaragua.

Life for the majority of Nicaraguans is not easy. The stories I have seen and heard are endless. Jovenes who have to cease studying in the university because their grandmother is ill and the family does not have enough money to pay for transportation. Men working 10-hour days on their feet in zona francas (essentially the equivalent of sweatshops), suffering the abuse of inadequate working conditions because the pay is decent and they want to feed their kids. Single mothers living with their children in a small room next to a trash dump, falling asleep every night with rats crawling across the bed because the rent is cheap for this room. A young girl with Down Syndrome returning to Pajarito Azul because her family realized once again that they didn’t have the money to support her in their home. The injustice, the poverty runs deep. It can be numbing, depressing, infuriating, saddening, and so much more but what brings me consolation is that I have seen the hope of Padre Fernando’s message manifested in la gente (the people) of Nicaragua on a day-to-day basis. In this midst of the difficulty, Nicaraguans still wake up and luchar (struggle) one more day. Yes, tomorrow most Nicaraguans will still wake up with the same problems that they had today but the idea of change is not to destroy the bad but to make the good stronger. Maybe nothing is changed by the solitary acts of taking care of a grandmother instead of studying or working in a zona franca or tucking children into bed at night or bringing a smile to the people’s faces with a big hug. But each action is done out of love, a place of true compassion in which they’re all trying to make the good stronger than the bad. And in my opinion, that changes everything. That’s returning to the calle. That’s making history.

I’ve been keenly aware and observant of how Nicaraguans return daily to their own calles since Padre’s visit to our house three months ago (and yes, I have been slowly working on this blog post since then). While this message is well-tailored and fit to the reality of Nicaragua, I also think that the beauty in Padre’s message is that it is not a call for just the jovenes of Nicaragua, nor for just Nicaraguans: it applies to the lives of everyone. Every day, at every turn in life, just as our friends in Nicaragua, we face difficulties and we can choose to sit inside, or we can take to the streets and make history. I think of my family who recently visited and saw firsthand the realities of life in Nica. I hope that they have returned to their calles in the States, creating their history as they carry with them the sights, sounds, and feelings that they experienced here. I think of countless stories of people being laid off or losing a loved one or suffering from long-term illnesses and in each of these cases, I hope for a return to the calle, a desire to continue luchando. The message is huge, maybe even idealistic or simplistic but I believe it’s possible and I believe in its worth. For some people, their daily mantra is carpe diem, for others, ‘grab the bull by the horns,’ and for me, since that moment in November, espero que los jovenes regresen a la calle para hacer la historia has been my daily mantra… and more. It is a hope that I see fulfilled in the world around me.