Reporting on 10/2/06
I am living in San Marcos, Nicaragua (close to Managua). I am working with an organization called Los Quinchos that shelters and rehabilitates street kids. I plan to research why some boys choose to enter the Los Quinchos program, and why some do not. I’ll be here until July or August 2007.
I’ve been living in San Marcos for two and a half weeks. I can’t believe that so little time has passed. So many things have happened. I’m going to try to summarize in the rest of this email what my life is like here:
I live with my boss and his family. Carlos is one of the long time administrators of Los Quinchos, and I met him twice in Nicaragua before deciding to apply for a Fulbright. He helped me throughout the entire process, and continues to help me everyday. He is pretty much one of the most remarkable men I know, and I am so glad that he acts not only as my boss, but as my Nicaraguan father.
His family is amazing as well. His wife, Patricia, is sweet and funny and very endearing. Two of his children, his two daughters, still live at home: Gema, 12 years old, and Silone, 5 years old. Gema is a beauty pageant queen. I don’t think she’s ever lost a competition. At least not since she was very young. She has a pageant coming up on October 20 and I am very excited to see it. Silone will also be competing. She is absolutely adorable. Always rambunctious and always trying to climb onto my back, she is very playful and, somehow, never annoying. I really do love my family here, and although I had planned to move to Managua after the new year, it will be difficult to leave their company and home for an apartment building. Plus, I eat SO well here. I can’t imagine cooking for myself now. So we’ll see what happens.
I haven’t really done any work yet since I’ve been here. At least not in the traditional sense. I don’t plan to start interviewing kids or administrators of Los Quinchos until I get to know everybody a little better. So I’ve basically been hanging out and taking notes. Sometimes I help Los Quinchos kids with their homework, sometimes I teach them a little English, and sometimes I help to serve them meals. But mostly we just play. Or talk.
The hardest part is going to see the kids in Managua. On Mondays, I go to Managua to visit the kids in the largest trash dump in Central America. With every step you encounter a new nauseating smell. Burning garbage constantly fills the air with toxic fumes, smoke, and dust. Today was particularly bad–I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front of me because of all the dust and smoke. There are miles and miles of garbage, and people spend all day sifting through the garbage for food and things (like plastic bags) to sell. Overhead are hundreds of vultures and there are a few makeshift family shelters in the dump but absolutely no shade. Not a tree in sight. And it is hotter than any other part of Managua, potentially hotter than any other part of Nicaragua. It literally looks and feels and smells like hell. I know that I’ll never get used to going there.
Los Quinchos serves lunch to children at a small daytime shelter in the middle of the dump. The kids are sometimes more attractive to the flies than the garbage. Most haven’t bathed or washed their clothes for weeks on end, and many have open sores on their bodies and faces. While they wait for lunch, sometimes I draw pictures with them. Or if they want, I help them with homework. We mostly talk or joke around. But most of them are still wary of me. One of them called me a bitch today. I wasn’t upset, just surprised. He was completely unprovoked and said it in a very nonchalant way.
I haven’t seen the worst parts of the dump yet. A Quincho worker, and also a friend of mine, told me that he’d take me farther into the dump next week. I can’t even imagine how it can get worse.
Tuesdays are pretty bad as well. In the morning, I visit the kids on the streets of Managua with Quincho workers. We distribute food and medicine. Most of the kids (along with the trash dump kids) are unabashedly high or sniffing shoe glue in front of me and everyone else. The glue is an incredibly popular, cheap, and toxic drug amongst Nicaragua’s poor. The irony is that many glass containers of glue are old Gerber baby food containers.
In the afternoon, I hang out with the kids that have just entered the Los Quinchos program. Many of them have severe behavioral problems from life on the street. These kids live in a small shelter in Managua called the “Filter” shelter. Since kids self-commit themselves to the program, Los Quinchos wants to make sure they are ready for the transition from street life to Quincho life before they transfer the kids to more permanent shelters. So they tend to stay in the Filter for a month before they are transferred elsewhere. The mainstay rule of the Quincho program is that you cannot sniff glue in a shelter. So the month long stay in the Filtro is also kind of a detox test as well–some kids decide to go back on glue, and so they go back on the street.
The rest of my week is a lot less emotionally draining. On Wednesdays, I visit the 7-14 year old boys in a shelter in San Marcos. These boys have been with Los Quinchos for a fair amount of time, so they are sometimes less obviously psychologically distressed. Their shelter is truly incredible compared to life on the streets or the trash dump–they have acres of land to play on, farm animals, daily lessons in woodwork and hammock making, teachers to help them with their homework, and plenty of good food. They all go to school as well and they are really fun to hang out with.
On Thursdays I hang out at the only girls’ shelter, also located in San Marcos. Many times I feel as though the girls are much more guarded and hardened than the guys. They are also very, very mean to each other sometimes. But I read to them or help them with homework or talk to them, and little by little, I am learning more about them as well. And I truly enjoy spending time with them.
Fridays are my favorite day of the week. I get to go to the most beautiful shelter of them all–the Los Quinchos shelter in Granada for 15-18 year old guys. The shelter is on Lake Nicaragua, and the boys go fishing for food, swimming, to and from school, and have a spectacular view of the lake from their cabins. They are also taught specific classes by Los Quinchos staff on electrical and mechanical engineering. At first, these boys just made fun of me a lot, but now we’re getting to know each other better and they’re teaching me how to make bracelets and hammocks. This Friday, they’re taking me to go swimming in the lake.
I’m slowly making friends within and outside of Los Quinchos. Many of the young men on the Los Quinchos staff were once program participants, and some of them have invited me to a couple of parties. They have incredible stories to tell and really insightful perspectives on life. I enjoy being with them, joking around, and talking about politics and such. Sometimes when I’m with them I feel like I’m in college again.
I’ve also met a few gringos as well. I went to a party in Managua last Friday, and half the guests were gringos. I also ran into a Peace Corp volunteer that lives in San Marcos. Oddly enough, I didn’t really connect with him or the gringos at the party. So far, my Nica friends are my best friends. I guess that’ll help me learn more Spanish, at least.
Un gran abrazo,
Reporting on 10/30/06
I was not going to write another dispatch until after the Nicaraguan presidential elections (Nov. 5), but I feel somewhat obligated to let you all know about the tragedy that occurred this past weekend.
Between approximately 3am and 5am on Saturday morning, one of my first true friends in Nicaragua, 22-year-old Juan Carlos Lanzas, killed himself. He was found hanging from a tree by his best friend, brother, and a few other members of the Los Quinchos community. He hung himself just a few blocks away from the house that he shared with his 18-year-old brother, Berman. He left behind 10 brothers and sisters.
Juan Carlos Lanzas was one of the most impressive people that I have ever met. He has been a part of the Los Quinchos community for the past 12 years and he was their most cherished success story. He had overcome a traumatic past as a street child and become an extremely smart, charismatic, respectful, motivated, and loving young man. He had a passionate spirit and a sensitive soul. He was a poet – he had an entire notebook of hand-written poetry that he showed me a few times. And he absolutely loved to read. I loaned him a book last week, but I have no idea if he finished it. He also loved music, and he asked me a few times to burn him a CD of Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. He particularly liked the song “The Sound of Silence”. He also wanted me to write out the lyrics for him, but I never got the chance.
As a child, Juan Carlos suffered from physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother. Someone told me at his wake that she had sold him for 500 córdobas (between $25 and $30 U.S. dollars) and then gone to the police to claim that he had been kidnapped. At the age of 9, he tried to kill himself.
Also at age 9, he and Berman (age 4) left their mother’s home for a life on the street. On the street, Juan Carlos became addicted to shoe glue and he and Berman joined a band of street kids for protection. Juan Carlos told me proudly last week that he was no ordinary street kid. For starters, he owned tennis shoes while many street children are barefoot. He and Berman also paid a woman to wash their clothes for them so that they could roam the streets more easily, free of suspicious glares from local merchants. He entered Los Quinchos with Berman by chance. The founder and director of Los Quinchos, Zelinda Roccia, met him and his brother for the first time in a hospital where Juan Carlos was receiving treatment for an infection. He and Berman only planned to be with Los Quinchos for a few months, but they soon became an irreplaceable part of the Los Quinchos family.
Since graduating from the program four years ago, Juan Carlos had worked as an integral part of the Los Quinchos mission. He worked on the streets of Managua every day and ran a soccer league for street children on Sundays. He played games with the children and motivated them to enter Los Quinchos themselves. He distributed food and medicine daily, and he took kids to the Los Quinchos shelter in Managua to bathe and wash their clothes. In the areas which he worked, everyone knew and loved him. The kids called him “professor” or “papi” (daddy). When I worked with him last Tuesday, I remember thinking that he looked like the Pied Piper – kids just flocked to him as soon as they saw him and they obediently followed him wherever he went.
On my first day working on the street, I watched as he began to clean a woman’s wound (without wearing gloves – he said that the gloves would offend people more than they would protect him) and asked me if I wanted to clean the wound myself. I told him I didn’t know how and he said “You’ll learn quickly.” I never worked with anyone else on the street except Juan Carlos. I wrote in my journal that although the work was difficult, being with him made it easier. He made everyone feel so safe and hopeful. I remember asking him once, in a teasing way, “You’re everybody’s best friend, aren’t you?” and he smiled and said “I try.”
I also jokingly asked him once if he was going to be the next Carlos V. Carlos is my host father and Zelinda’s right-hand man. But Carlos is getting older and his health is starting to fail him. Juan Carlos responded “Maybe,” but everyone expected him to take over. I never fully realized how much everyone counted on his leadership until Carlos told me yesterday that he had been training Juan Carlos to take over since he was 18 years old. There is no one that can ever replace him, and everyone knows it.
He left a five page letter to his family and friends. The majority of the letter included personal goodbyes to specific people and a will, but he also explained briefly why he decided to cut his life short:
He wrote that he had lost his spirit and happiness to a selfish life. He explained that his existence had been consumed by material preoccupations. He wrote that his debts and financial worries had become his life and he hated himself and others for it. He explained that he was too much of a coward to continue living in a selfish way.
It surprises me that he felt that way, since he was not naturally driven by material desires. And he was one of the least selfish people I’ve ever known. During my first week in Nicaragua, I went to his house for the first time to celebrate his birthday, and he spent a long time telling me about how much he loved the place he called home – a one- room shelter, about the size of an average college dorm room for one person. The only furniture in the room consisted of two twin beds – one for him and one for Berman – and a small camping-style gas stove top. The house does not have electricity or a bathroom. An outdoor area for bathing and a latrine are nearby. Juan Carlos told me he wanted to live in that house forever – he didn’t want any other creature comforts, and he didn’t understand how anyone could possibly want anything more.
Unfortunately, these are not the greatest photos of him. In reality, he was much more handsome. And to my eye, he looks much younger in the photos. The last year must have aged him significantly. But I didn’t think I had a photo of him until I found these last night, so I am very grateful that I found them. I took them when I visited Los Quinchos last year with an NGO called Witness for Peace. It was the first time I met Juan Carlos, and something about that particular visit made me decide to apply for a Fulbright. I spoke with Carlos V. that day and he told me he would support me. The rest is history.
Something about Juan Carlos contributed to my initial decision to live here for a year. And I plan to honor that by staying and not giving up. One of the most painful parts about Juan Carlos’ death is the question that everyone in the Los Quinchos community is now asking: if even Juan Carlos couldn’t fight his demons, how can we expect any of the Quinchos to truly overcome their pasts?
I believe that Juan Carlos recognized that it is insufficient to encourage children to personally overcome street life. He was critical of the unjust socio-economic and political systems that directly contribute to the displacement, abuse, and neglect of children. And he knew that only a change in the system at large could truly save street children from the lives that they live. It should not be the responsibility of an individual child to seek a healthy and happy life – the system should guarantee it.
In Juan Carlos’ memory, I only ask that each of you take a moment and reflect. Reflect about the people you love and the suffering that you’ve witnessed. If you are not currently doing something to correct what causes that suffering, please think about what you could potentially do. And please do it.
Reporting on 02/07/07
I apologize for giving some of you a scare by not writing since Juan Carlos’ death. I am fine, although things have been very difficult for the past few months. Los Quinchos has suffered greatly from the loss of Juan Carlos and the association is not the same. There is a lot of grief that is still palpable, but I am hoping that the New Year will bring a New Beginning for the Los Quinchos community.
You all should also know that I moved to Managua shortly before Christmas. I now live in a very nice house with two other North American women (one is Canadian, the other from California). Both are wonderful housemates, and the house itself feels luxurious, especially in comparison to my first three months in Nicaragua. On some level it feels like I am starting over again: getting used to a new neighborhood, new people, a new lifestyle. But I am happy to be here.
I know that I should try to summarize what has happened since my last email, but it all seems so overwhelming. I will try my best to summarize, starting with the elections.
On November 5, about a week after the Juan Carlos tragedy, Nicaragua held its presidential elections. Oliver North came to visit for a day and meet with one of the candidates a few days before. I was horrified, but most people just shrugged their shoulders at the news. Nicaraguans aren’t usually surprised by U.S. arrogance.
In the end, Daniel Ortega won the elections, despite North’s visit and several manipulative U.S. government statements. Ortega is the contemporary face of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), a political party that evolved to represent revolutionary interests in Nicaragua. After the popular overthrow of Anastasio Samoza Debayle (one of many long-time U.S. backed dictators), Ortega became Nicaragua’s president. However, in 1989, Ortega lost his campaign for re-election, and since that time, Nicaragua has had a litany of more conservative presidents. For the first time since the 80s, the FSLN has control of the presidency again.
My host father, Carlos V., is a die-hard loyalist to the Sandinista party. He fought in the war and he owes his professional training to the party. He earned a full scholarship to study psychology in Russia as a result of the Sandinista affiliation with the Soviet Union. He has remained an active member of the party since the 80s, working within San Marcos’ FSLN dominated local politics. The night of the elections, he and other local party officials stayed up all night tallying election results and watching the news for updates on national election results.
I had been told by many that we probably wouldn’t know the official election results for a few days, so I went to bed on the night of November 5 assuming that we would not know the winner for awhile. At 2:00am, my cell phone rang and woke me up. It was my host brother, Carlos V. Jr. (who incidentally currently studies medicine abroad and only came home to Nicaragua for a week to vote in the elections). He shouted happily over the phone “Come outside right now! Look down the street! We’re coming!” At this point, my host sisters were awake, too, and we all rushed outside (still in our pajamas) and followed the noise. A caravan of pick-up trucks was cruising down the street, each truck filled with people celebrating and making as much noise as humanly possible. Carlos V. Jr. was in one of those trucks, and he waved gleefully as he passed us. The first set of national election results were in and the FSLN was winning!
Over the next two days, my host family’s television was on constantly, watching for further waves of election results. The FSLN was still winning, and every night there were more spontaneous public demonstrations in the streets. When it was finally officially announced that Ortega had won the election, there was a huge public party in Managua at one of the city’s major round-abouts. The FSLN sponsored the party; Ortega spoke and there was an impressive (excessive?) fire-works display. I was there, as were many Quinchos, and we watched floods of people and hundreds of red and black flags (FSLN colors) swarm the streets.
Many people hope that the Ortega presidency will mean beneficial change for Nicaragua’s poor. Unfortunately, the truth is that Daniel Ortega is a different leader than he was in the 80s. The FSLN is also different. The world context has changed and now Ortega constantly speaks about the importance of “reconciliation.” That word formed the base of his campaign, promising peace and unity between former Contras and Sandinistas. In true symbolic form, Ortega chose Jaime Morales Carazo, an ex-Contra, as his running mate.
The Ortega of 2007 wants to be everyone’s friend. He is working with Hugo Chavez in order to get more and cheaper gasoline for Nicaragua (his solution to the electricity crisis), and at the same time he is working towards having a genial relationship with the United States. Ortega officially took power on January 10, and since then has moved to make education free for everyone in Nicaragua and he has also significantly reduced outlandish presidential and congressional salaries. The new salaries are still substantially inflated, but at least less so than before. Ortega has also consolidated executive power over the national police force AND the military, which makes oppositional political parties nervous.
Only time will tell whether the Ortega government will substantially better the desperate social and economic realities of Nicaragua. But Ortega is no longer working within a revolutionary model, and the FSLN is no longer a revolutionary party. That is certain.
There is also a lot of valid criticism of Ortega and his party. Only a few days before the elections, the Nicaraguan Assembly (Congress) *unanimously*passed a resolution that makes abortion completely illegal in Nicaragua, sending the country back over 100 years in terms of abortion rights. Many FSLN representatives make up the assembly, and Ortega himself had publicly spoken against abortion before the official vote took place. Ortega is no fool – he strategically allied himself with the Catholic Church on abortion issues in order to better his chances in the election. Before the vote, “therapeutic” abortion was available at the very least, providing women and girls the right to choose if they had been sexually abused or if they would risk their own health by carrying a baby to term. Nicaragua is now the third country in all of Latin America (next to El Salvador and Chile) to have prohibited all forms of abortion.
In recent history, Ortega was also tried for the long time rape and abuse of his step-daughter, starting when she was 11 years old. He was acquitted of the charges, which doesn’t really mean much in Nicaragua’s biased and corrupt judicial system. Between his current views on abortion (which differ significantly from the FSLN’s stance on the subject during the 80s) and the substantial evidence that suggests he is a child-molester, it is fair to say that Ortega is not “pro-woman.” The small and feisty feminist movement in Nicaragua continues to criticize him and the FSLN at every turn, but there is not much hope that women’s rights in Nicaragua will make significant advances during his presidency.
Although the length of this email may suggest otherwise, the last several months of my life have not been dedicated to Nicaraguan political analysis! Most of my emotional energy has been spent on the Quinchos, and following the Juan Carlos tragedy, I began to lose myself in the organization.
The children had begun to trust me, and more and more they began to voluntarily share with me horrific details about their past and current realities. The older boys had gotten to know me better, and many of them have used that insight to play with my mind and successfully manipulate me. (The anti-social and sexist behavioral tendencies of many older and former Quincho boys continue to make working with the Quinchos extremely difficult at times). And to top it off, I became cruelly aware of the fact that my host- father was a binge alcoholic.
I spent several days in Managua seeking refuge with friends and staying in a cozy hostel called the Quaker House (one of the Managua’s best kept secrets). Then my dad came to visit over Thanksgiving and we traveled a bit. His presence was very comforting. But I gradually began to realize hat I needed to live outside of San Marcos. I needed to take care of myself better. And most importantly, I needed a life outside of the Quinchos.
After a few weeks of email exchanges and phone calls, I finally found a new place to call home. As I already mentioned, I am living in a great house in Managua with two fabulous women, and I am very happy. I have made more friends outside of the Quinchos and I feel much more grounded. It is good to be here.
In early January, I also spent 10 days in the U.S. visiting with family and friends in California, and if I didn’t get a chance to catch up with you, I am sorry and I hope you will write to me. It was a short visit, but I returned feeling much more relaxed and confident than when I left Nicaragua.
I am now brainstorming new ways in which the Quinchos as an organization can generate more income. Many of the older boys and former Quinchos are very talented breakdancers, and although they usually perform for free, they are definitely good enough for hire. After consulting with Quincho administrators and the boys themselves, I’ve been spending some time trying to find the boys paid gigs. They had their first two last weekend, and they ended up earning over U$150!
I am also hoping to help the organization earn some money off of Quincho artisan crafts. Quincho boys of all ages make hammocks, bracelets, and colorful ceramic whistles, but for the most part, the organization has only sold these crafts to those that visit the shelters. Obviously, the shelters are not primary tourist destinations, so I am working with others to help them sell the crafts in fair trade shops, the Quaker House, and other sites that tend to attract people with disposable incomes and a soft spot for ex-street children.
So, life is busy! I am working constantly on my Fulbright research, playing with the kids everyday, acting as the Quincho dance manager and craft supplier, and I just joined a Latin dance class! I am truly enjoying starting to feel settled, useful, and effective.
However, those positive feelings are somewhat haunted by ever-present complicated experiences. I am also beginning to work in the dump and on the streets again, which is something that I’ve been avoiding since Juan Carlos’ death. As I’ve written before, he was the only one I ever worked with on the streets, and I didn’t want to know what it would be like without him. Today was my first day back at the dump. My first day back in the heart of raw, human suffering. It was, needless to say, very difficult. A few snapshots:
Children running barefoot through shards of glass, metal, and unidentifiable ominous objects. A two-year-old boy limping behind them – a metal nail had punctured his foot.
A 14-year-old boy named Elieser wore a metal brace to hold his broken shin intact. He had been hit by a garbage truck several months ago.
When asked about his plans for the future, 20-year-old Sergio said that he didn’t have any. Not one. Tears formed in his eyes, but he quickly wiped them away. I don’t think he realized that I noticed.
An older woman named Patricia who had suffered a deep leg laceration at the hands of a market merchant. He had hit her with a rock, and the gash had become severely infected. Flies swarmed around her wound. Vicente, a Quincho worker, began to clean the wound, and she screamed in pain. I offered her my hand as a small gesture of comfort, and without hesitation she gripped it tightly.
My time in Nicaragua thus far has been hauntingly beautiful. And I know it has changed me. I’m just not sure how, yet.
Below are pictures that I took with the Quinchos in Achuapa. In mid-December, I went on a week long trip with 20 Quincho children to Achuapa, a beautiful small town in Northern Nicaragua. Some of the Quinchos go home for the holidays, but others do not have viable family situations to which they can return. So, the organization generally sponsors trips over the holiday season.
I had an amazing time in Achuapa. The Quinchos found a way to play in at least one of the area’s various rivers every day and we were all introduced to the culture, beauty, and revolutionary history of the area.
Reporting on 06/25/07
It is time for another long overdue update from Nicaragua. It’s funny to think that I had originally planned to write these emails once a month, as time seems to pass so quickly here and life just gets busier. So much has happened. Too much to summarize, but here are the highlights:
I was originally scheduled to finish my research by July, but I applied for a grant extension in February and my new proposal was luckily accepted! Because my research was delayed by the emotional consequences of Juan Carlos’ death, I have been granted an extra three months to finish my project. My grant is now set to expire in October, but I’m not planning to move back to the U.S. until December. I’m hoping to travel and see quite a bit of Central America in the time between.
I got to take off two-weeks from the Quinchos when my mom visited in March. We traveled to some of the most beautiful and remote areas of Nicaragua, including Apoyo Lagoon (a volcanic crater lake), the Solentiname Islands (extremely remote islands that were formed from volcanic earth and are home to some of the most passionate martyrs of the revolution), and Little Corn Island (off the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and home to Creole English and many ex-patriot scuba divers). We had a wonderful vacation, and upon returning to work, I began to conduct interviews with Quincho staff and children at a much higher rate.
I now have over 50 interviews completed and very few left to do with Quinchos. I am interested in interviewing people from outside the organization as well, such as representatives from the Nicaraguan government’s Ministry of the Family and directors of NGOs that also have a vested interest in supporting street children. I have begun to conduct those interviews, but most of my current time is dedicated to sorting through interview transcripts and extracting the best quotes and information. Before the end of my time in Nicaragua, I am planning to organize the opinions reflected in the interviews and submit them as a report to Quincho administration and staff. I am hoping to promote reflection and conversation by anonymously citing many thoughtful perspectives on the part of both Quincho staff and children. I have found that there is very little communication between administration and staff, and so I am hoping that this report will at least act as a step towards bridging that gap. When I return to the U.S., I plan to translate my work into English and add to it substantially with an eye towards publishing. I am also eager to submit articles on my work and experience in Nicaragua if I find that there’s a market interest.
I got my first chance to present my research in an academic setting at the Central American Fulbright Scholars conference held in El Salvador. In May, all of us were flown to San Salvador for an all expenses paid week-long stay at a beach resort. It was absurdly luxurious, but I was very impressed by the work of all the other Fulbrights in Central America. There are 22 of us total, and I believe 20 of us attended the conference. A few of us have recently finished our undergraduate degrees, but many have been out of college for a least a few years and quite a few are doing post-grad work. The diversity and of all our research topics blew me away and I found myself truly fascinated by everyone’s work! I was especially grateful for a chance to receive feedback on my project – suggestions, criticisms, compliments – and it was refreshing to vent with like-minded people that have found themselves in similarly frustrating situations. On our last day in El Salvador, we were given a tour of San Salvador that specifically highlighted the city’s recent violent and tragic past. We visited the sights were Jesuit priests were martyred during the country’s civil war and visited Monseñor Romero’s memorialized casket in the basement of San Salvador’s Cathedral. I also got to do a bit of sight-seeing when I arrived a day before the conference to visit a friend that I met through Juan Carlos Lanzas. It was great to see him and comforting to be able to talk about Juan Carlos openly with someone who knew him as well.
But life here is not all work. Not by any means. A great example: I completed almost half of my interviews with the Quincho kids while on Easter vacation with them in San Juan del Sur, the most popular beach town in Nicaragua. When there was a moment in between bobbing in the ocean, playing in the sand, sunbathing, and eating freshly cooked fish, I found time to interview those that were interested. It was an unforgettable week, and I had an amazing tan by the end.
Later that month, I traveled with a large group of solidarious foreigners and ex-patriots to the site of Benjamin Linder’s murder to participate in the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of his death. Ben was the only U.S. citizen killed during the Contra War in Nicaragua. He was an engineer that was helping to build hydro-electric dams in rural Nicaraguan communities with no potable water. He was targeted specifically for helping such communities, as the Contra strategy was to prevent progress under the revolutionary government.
Ben was killed near the rural northern town of San Jose de Bocay, where he was stationed to begin his second hydro-electric dam project. We all arrived in Bocay after far too many hours of travel (by car: 6-7 hours, by bus: 10 hours). The day started with a caravan of trucks through the town, promoting a vaccination drive in Ben’s honor. I rode in my friend’s car following the caravan and the views were breathtaking: jungles and mountains sporting every different shade of green imaginable. The type of revolutionary landscape featured in Che Guevara’s writings. Nature so seemingly untouched and pure, but witness to so much bloodshed in the not so distant past. Then everyone gathered by the local church to listen to music, speeches, personal testimonies – all about the legacy that Ben left in the town of Bocay. The dam he had begun was completed, and the program that he worked with continues to offer important engineering work in rural communities. We next made the trek to the site of Ben’s murder, a relatively short distance from the town but a very difficult hike involving dense jungle, steep terrain, slippery rocks, and zigzagging across a stream in water up to our knees. The people of Bocay jetted past the gringos on the “trail”, women in high heels and little boys in flip flops alike. I would not have survived if a 9-year-old boy had not offered me his hand for support the entire way up and down! We all laughed together about how “it takes a village to get a gringo up a mountain,” and when we made it down the last bit of the particularly difficult terrain, a bunch of us were so relieved that we jumped in a lake with our clothes on and laughed some more. Bocay was an absolutely unforgettable and priceless experience.
Many of the people who traveled to Bocay live in Managua, and they are a major part of the reason why I feel at home here. I am surrounded by an incredibly supportive socially conscious community in Managua, and I have made very good friends. Many of the other Fulbrights at the conference confessed that they felt lonely in their host-countries, but I feel fortunate to say that I am anything but lonely. In May, seven of my closest girl friends and I celebrated my birthday at my favorite spot in Nicaragua – the Apoyo Lagoon (Laguna de Apoyo), a volcanic crater lake that’s located about an hour away from Managua. We had a great time taking in the sun, the naturally warmed water and the spectacular views. It was one of my best birthdays yet, and I will never forget it.
Before closing this email, I would like to mention three incredible things that have happened to me in the last few months:
1. Ants ate my favorite shirt! I awoke in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and when I turned on the light, there were hundreds (thousands?) of enormous, disgusting ants covering the floor of my room, and they were chewing holes in the shirt that I had left on the floor. I must’ve spilled something on the shirt while cooking, because I have since learned that no ant will eat fabric unless there is something tasty absorbed in it. But at the time I had no idea what was going on and I was horrified! Some of these mutant ants even had wings. I find winged ants completely unacceptable. I immediately soaked the shirt in my bathroom sink hoping to drown the ants, and withstood many a painful bite in the process.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I had nightmares for the rest of the night. When I awoke the next morning, the ants on my floor were gone, but the ants in the sink had survived the attempted drowning and were still eating the shirt!
The ants came back the next night looking for more food. Apparently they’re nocturnal. I have to say that usually I’m very hesitant to use insecticides because I don’t like the idea of having toxic fumes in my living space, but I was not hesitant at all to use as much spray as possible to annihilate these ants.
The ants are gone now, but I am still traumatized. And there are still large holes in my shirt.
2. I went clothes shopping for the first time in Nicaragua. Some of my Nica girl friends guided me and other friends through the confusing streets of Managua’s largest street market and led us to the choice areas to shop for clothes. Then another friend took me to a store outside the market that sells used U.S. clothing. Guess how much I bought by the end of the day? One dress, three skirts, four shirts, and a pair of flip flops. Guess how much I spent? Less than $14 (U.S. dollars)! Nicaragua brings a whole new meaning to the term “bargain shopping.”
3. The Nicaraguan national bird, the Guardabarranco, is exotically beautiful, but also very difficult to spot. They are rare birds and they shy away from any foreign noise. I was on a mission to see one at some point during my time in Nicaragua. But it always seemed that when someone said “Look over there! A Guardabarranco!,” the bird immediately flew away before I got a chance to see it.
One quiet and sunny day, I was walking to one of the Quincho shelters in San Marcos, when suddenly five brilliantly blue streaks flew across my path. The birds then perched in a nearby tree and stared at me, unflinching. Not one, but five Guardabarranco! They were so close that I could see every colorful detail of their features. We stared at each other for about five minutes before a garbage truck rolled by and scared them away. But those five minutes mark my favorite solitary moment thus far in this country.
My last few months here should be quite busy. I have many things to look forward to besides finishing my research. For the first 10 days of July, I have been hired to work as an assistant at a guest professor’s seminar here in Managua. The seminar is entitled “Revolution and Neoliberal Reform in Nicaragua” and many of the lectures will be offered by famous Nicaraguan intellectuals. My sister is also coming to visit at the end of July and I am excited to travel with her, especially because we will be attending the annual Achuapa International Music Festival together. The rural northern town that I visited with the Quinchos last December is becoming more well-known for this increasingly acclaimed festival, featuring artists from all over Central America and beyond. The Quinchos performed at it last year, and apparently they brought down the house!
I expect that the next few months will go by just as quickly as the last nine. I suppose that’s what happens when you truly feel at home. Come December, it won’t really be goodbye. I know I will never be able to deny myself Nicaragua.
Reporting on 7/20/08
Dear Family and Friends:
I cannot believe that over a year has passed since my last email. Time has completely flown by and I have felt increasingly guilty about not writing. This has all been self-imposed guilt, as no one has chastised me for failing to write (of course). Know that I have very much appreciated your emails, and I haven’t written back because… well… the thought of writing back has been overwhelming. There is so much to say! Although I know rationally that brief personalized replies would suffice and no one would mind if I didn’t write a final mass email, I have been a bit obsessive about making sure that I send out one more detailed account of my experiences. Think of it as my OCD version of “closure.”
So, with a smile and a sigh of relief, I am finally sending you my final update on life in (and after) Nicaragua. Yes, I am now back in the U.S. and living in San Francisco (Why San Francisco? Find out at the end of this email). Of course, now that I’ve finally found time to write this letter, I feel sheepish about its length. As hard as it may be to believe, I am doing my best to *summarize* the last year. So many incredible people, experiences, and opportunities have presented themselves… and I just have to share it all.
I last wrote in June 2007 when I was eagerly anticipating working as a Faculty Assistant during an educational conference on Revolution and Neo-liberalism in Nicaragua. Hosted by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the seminar invited professors from the United States to Managua for an in-depth exploration of the aforementioned topic. A former professor and friend from Chile hired me for the job, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. I had missed academia so much! For a week, I spent everyday with engaging professors from all over the U.S. In the mornings, we listened to a variety of Nicaraguan based intellectuals, politicians, economists, and activists discuss the political, economic, and social factors that contribute to Nicaragua’s current reality. In the afternoons, we played. We traveled to various cultural points of interests and ate good food, listened to good music, and enjoyed craft shopping in artisan markets. It was fun to get to know professors of many different backgrounds, absorb their insights, and help answer their questions.
It was very refreshing to be surrounded by people that appreciate stimulating thought. In general, I had to let go of my attachment to my intellectual identity in Nicaragua; my ability to analyze really well didn’t impress the Quinchos very much. Working at the conference reaffirmed my desire to pursue a graduate degree. Not sure what I’ll want to study yet, but I know I’ll be going back to school eventually.
Upon returning to work with the Quinchos, I discovered a new way to entertain the kids – I began to read to them. It started when a friend gave me two Shel Silverstein children’s books to donate to the Quincho library. I took them with me to a shelter, and they were a big hit. Kids asked me to read them over and over again. Some would memorize passages and recite them with me as I read. Even the older boys were intrigued; a few would silently approach and stop to listen from just a few feet away. Most of these kids had never been read to before in their lives. I started picking up new books from the Quinchos library and bringing them with me to the shelters. As soon as I arrived, kids would ask me what I had brought to read! Everyone developed their favorites, so there were always requests. I was asked to read certain books so many times that I have them memorized. In the end, it was especially gratifying to hear from the Quincho librarian that the kids themselves were stopping by and picking out books to read on their own.
At the end of July, my sister and I got a chance to travel together for two weeks! Allie had been working in medical clinics in San Salvador, El Salvador for a month, and I met up with her at the end of her program. Here are some of the highlights from our trip:
– We met up in San Salvador and spent our first night at my friend Juan Carlos’, cooking, laughing, and dancing with him and all his fun roommates. We then enjoyed an overnight in the cute artisan town of Suchitoto before heading back to Managua. We perused cute small shops, ate at some yummy restaurants, and mastered the art of walking on cobble stone roads.
– We took an 11 hour bus trip together from San Salvador to Managua and then we traveled to the Isla de Ometepe (Ometepe Island). Ometepe is a small island that is shaped by two picturesque volcanoes, one at each end of the island. It is a peaceful, rural, and relatively isolated part of Nicaragua.
There is only one main road that winds its way around the island, and traveling on that road, Allie and I watched in awe as we passed by incredibly beautiful tropical landscape, where butterflies dance on the sides of the road in abundance. During our several days there, we played cards and laughed hysterically with European tourists, saw jaw-dropping sunsets EVERY evening, enjoyed scenic, quiet walks, and spent hours kayaking to explore an elusive (and, it turns out, impenetrable) swamp.
– The last stop on our trip was San Juan del Sur: Nica’s more famous surf haven. Allie and I got away from all the tourists by seeking out the calmer (and to us, more beautiful) beaches. A Gringo-Nicaraguan family from Managua took us in for our last night in San Juan del Sur; they were staying in a private house on one of the more serene isolated beaches. In sum, we took lots of photos, watched more gorgeous sunsets unfold, deepened our tans, and got some boogie boarding in, too.
The weekend after Allie’s departure was the weekend of the Achuapa International Music Festival. I had visited the seemingly sleepy and picturesque town of Achuapa with the Quinchos in December 2006. I had not been back since. My gringo friends from Managua and I returned with much anticipation for this small town’s annual music extravaganza. For the past 7 years, many have made the long trip to rural Achuapa to enjoy the festivities; since the town has no official hotel or hostel, families open their homes to the visitors and offer free lodging. Then, for two nights, there is non-stop music in the small town plaza, featuring bands and music from as far away as the island of Sardinia!
The Quinchos very much look forward to performing at the Achuapa Festival every year; I had been informed that in August 2006 they had been one of the favorite acts. But two days before the festival, I found out from Carlos Vidal, my supervisor and host father, that the Association did not have the money to finance the trip. I immediately got on the internet and started sending out emails. Within 24 hours, I raised enough last-minute funds so that at least 15 Quincho children could make it to the show and perform. And it was well worth it – I hadn’t seen many of the kids have that much fun in awhile.
In September, I attended the wedding of Ricardo, one of the Quinchos’ favorite success stories. Ricardo was one of the first boys in the Quincho program; you might even call him one of the founders. He lived on the streets for many years until he entered the Quinchos program as a pre-teen. He is now a university student and studying in Cuba on scholarship. He and his bride, Lisette, had been dating since high school. They decided to marry over his summer break when he came home to Nicaragua.
The wedding was truly special. The bride looked gorgeous, Ricardo looked handsome, the priest was loud and entertaining (as Evangelist priests tend to be), and the pride of the Quincho community glowed in everyone’s merriment. Only a week or so after the wedding, Ricardo returned to Cuba. He planned to finish up his studies and write his thesis; he was set to graduate in June. Last I heard, he was planning to return home to his bride after graduation.
Another highlight of September: the Fiestas Patrias (Independence Celebrations). The battles of September 14th and 15th were the final fronts against the Spanish in declaring Nicaraguan independence. And parades, parades, and more parades seem to be the favorite Nicaraguan way of commemorating the occasion. Every town has at least one parade, and in San Marcos, the Quinchos were chosen to *lead* the parade! The excitement was overwhelming. The kids practiced their routine every day, all day, for a week straight. All the boys participated in an organized marching band, dutifully playing several memorized and impressively synchronized tunes. The girls performed several different choreographed marching dance routines. All were decked out in new matching uniforms, complete with cowboy hats and fake Ray Ban sunglasses for the boys. I could not have been happier for them as I followed them along the parade route. They were all jubilant with pride.
Once September came around, I started to panic – my Fulbright grant was set to expire on October 15 and I had scheduled my project to end at that point. I was leaving so soon! The thought was heart-wrenching. I felt at home in Nicaragua and was not in a hurry to leave, yet I knew it was time to move on. I spent the next two months getting in as much traveling as possible, as much Latin dancing as possible, and as much time with friends as possible.
During the work week, I divided my time between writing and playing with the kids at the shelters. I was determined to write a synopsis of the results of my research for the Quinchos. The project’s purpose revolved around supporting the Quincho program. With that vision in mind, I planned with Zelinda, the Quincho director, to present my final report in a staff meeting scheduled for mid-October.
Zelinda also wanted to review the report before sharing it with any members of the staff (subtext: she wanted to make sure she approved of it before she would allow anyone else to see it). I cannot remember if I mentioned this in previous letters, but Zelinda is the founder of Los Quinchos and the only paid staff member who is not Nicaraguan – she is Italian. She is an incredibly impressive person, having built Los Quinchos from the ground-up, but she also has her faults. One of them is that she is rigidly defensive of her methods and unreceptive to criticism. While many commented on the positive aspects of Los Quinchos in my interviews, there were also some common critiques. I felt a need to include all the relevant opinions of those I had interviewed, and that meant including the positive as well as the negative. I was very concerned about Zelinda’s reaction to any constructive criticism, so I wrote the report as carefully and diplomatically as possible. I cited all of the quotes anonymously. I tried to soften the harsh edges around the critiques while also maintaining their original message. It was a delicate operation.
The report revolves around the quotes of those I interviewed; I wanted to keep my own biases out of the report as much as possible. My vision was to reflect back to the Quinchos their own ideas and perspectives. I hoped that some of the quoted opinions would spark reflection and discussion, leading to new-and-improved strategies for the future of the organization.
After finishing my first draft of the report, I met with Zelinda and presented to her a brief summary of my findings. Much to my surprise, she loved it! The following week, I presented the report in a staff meeting that included the heads of each shelter and the psychologists at each shelter. Just as I had hoped, the opinions reflected in the report provoked a lot of discussion. A success! I cannot express how relieved I felt.
For those of you who read Spanish, the final version of the report is attached. I do not plan on translating it to English. I am eager to translate parts of my research into English, but I wrote the report specifically for a Quincho audience and I think I must write something different for an English speaking audience. I am hoping to look towards publishing in the near future.
The day after the presentation, Los Quinchos threw me an impromptu and surprise *despedida* (goodbye party). I was honored; a friend had previously told me that the Quinchos never threw *despedidas* for volunteers and that I should not expect one. But it seemed that Zelinda pulled it together at the last minute. She organized all the kids at the shelters in San Marcos together, and, as most of us sat as spectators, a few of the kids put on their matching colorful dance uniforms and performed. Zelinda, Carlos Vidal (my supervisor and host father), and a few of the older kids said a few very kind words about how much they would miss me. Of course, as I choked back tears, they asked me to get up in front of everyone and say something. I blubbered something about how much I would miss them, too, and then one of the older boys stopped me before I burst into tears. The next few hours were filled with ice cream, piñata busting, and spontaneous dancing. The kids also spent a lot of time huddled around a photo album I gave Zelinda. It contained the best photos I had taken that year of all the kids. One of the staff members lamented to me early on that Los Quinchos does not own a camera, which means that they never have photos of the kids as they grow up. After that, I designated myself the unofficial photographer of Los Quinchos. I included over 200 photos in the album.
The *despedida* fun didn’t stop there. I also took my host family out to dinner and they welcomed me to spend the night with them one last time. A night later, my friend Julia and I threw a joint *despedida* together. She and I had independently decided to leave Nicaragua on the same date. All of our closest friends from Managua and beyond were invited, including a musical couple that had formed their own folkloric/revolutionary band called *Guitarra de Madera Azul* (*Blue Wood Guitar*). They played our favorite songs throughout the entire evening. Everyone danced, sang, and drank. At the end of the evening, the tears started to flow as we hugged many friends goodbye.
I didn’t return to the U.S. immediately after leaving Nicaragua. I still had some Fulbright grant money leftover and so, naturally, I decided to travel. I spent a month and a half touring Central America, meeting up with friends along the way and exploring some areas on my own. I traveled through Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, and an island-that-will-remain-unmentioned-over-the-internet. Some highlights:
– I didn’t see much of Costa Rica. It was pouring pretty much the entire time I was there and I was anxious to get to Panama. But I did make a point to stop in a small, isolated town called Sardinal. I had spent a summer volunteering in Sardinal when I was 17-years-old and, as the years passed, I lost touch with everyone I had met there. Located in the northwest of Costa Rica, the town was almost directly on-route as I made my way by bus to San Jose. I decided to make a slight detour and see if I could locate any of the people that had made that summer such a memorable experience.
It was pouring when I arrived in Sardinal. I was the lone gringa on the bus. With my foreign looks and traveler’s backpack, I was the subject of much unwanted attention. As I dodged muddy puddles and struggled to recall the location of my host family’s house, I started to wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into. But, somehow, my memory guided me to the house. No one was home. Defeated, I started to wonder what to do next. At that moment, a taxi cab pulled up to the house. It was my old host brother, Chalo! He had recognized me as I walked down the street. He excitedly escorted me inside, explaining that his elderly parents (my host parents) had each passed away, his mother only a few months prior. The first thing he showed me as we entered the house was a photograph on the mantel. It pictured me, a fellow volunteer, and his parents. A photo from 2001 that they had kept displayed since then.
I stayed several days in Sardinal and it was one of the most touching experiences of my life. When Chalo wasn’t working, he drove me everywhere in his taxi and we spent a couple of evenings living-it-up in Liberia, a large town nearby with some excellent cuisine and nightlife. He also took me to see his beautiful sister, Lenia, and her children. I remembered Lenia and her children well, as I spent much of the summer playing with her children. Much to my surprise, Lenia and her children remembered me! And they now all speak fluent English! Lenia had married a gringo ex-patriot (who, incidentally, did not speak a lick of Spanish), bore him a son, and gratefully sent all her children to private schools with his financial support. Lenia tearfully disclosed to me all the difficulties of her marriage while I spent a day at the beach with her youngest children and Chalo. I was truly amazed by her strength and sense of maternal obligation. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to be in her situation.
I visited with several other old friends in Sardinal, and each reunion was as amazing as the next. Everyone made me promise to stay in touch and visit again. And I plan to do exactly that.
– I planned my trip to Panama around a fellow Fulbright friend’s photo exhibition. My friend Rose had researched the history of the Afro-Antillian community in Panama; their livelihood and culture has been the subject of much discrimination in mainstream Panama. In an effort to celebrate and reaffirm the importance of Afro-Antillian culture and history, Rose compiled a photo display with the proud portraits of many Afro-Antillians, complete with captions describing each individual’s family and personal history. It was, needless to say, a remarkable exhibit.
For the record: the Panama Canal is beautiful and fascinating. The beaches of Panama are breathtaking. Panama is nothing like the rest of Central America – the vibe is more Caribbean and, in Panama City, more cosmopolitan. I spent a little less than two weeks traveling with Rose and Sabrina, another Fulbright friend. My time there was too short and I know I have to go back.
– I spent the majority of my time in Guatemala traveling alone. I saw all tourist highlights, including the awe-inspiring ruins of Tikal, the historical city of Xela, and the picturesque beauty of Lago Atitlán. I only had 10 days to travel in Guatemala, and so I did not have much time to spend at each destination. So, of course, I have to go back.
The best part of my trip to Guatemala was visiting another Fulbright friend in isolated Chocolá, a small, rural town of deep Mayan ancestry. There is strong speculation that a plethora of Mayan artifacts lay beneath the ground in Chocolá. As you walk along the town’s dirt roads, you will intermittently find pieces of ceramic artifacts in your path.
No one has recently had a chance to explore Chocolá’s archaeological history because the town will not allow any outsiders to dig in their lands; they angrily ran the last group of archaeologists out of town! Rural Guatemalan people have a right to be defensive of intrusion, as the government and foreign outsiders have repeatedly jeopardized indigenous survival.
My friend Anne is a graduate student in anthropology and archaeology. She has spent many years getting to know the people of Chocolá, living off-and-on with the same family. Her Fulbright project focused on how to bridge the communication gap between the community and outside archaeologists; how to best allow digging on the community’s terms and to the community’s benefit.
It turned out that Rose, my friend from Panama, had also planned to be in Chocolá at the same time. She and Anne had decided to work together to organize a photo exhibition on Chocolá’s history. Rose and I were welcomed to stay with Anne and her generous host family. I spent the next few days following Rose and Anne around and learning a great deal about Chocolá’s history. On Thanksgiving Day, all three of us *gringas *decided to cook a traditional U.S. meal for Anne’s host family. It was the first time any of us had attempted to roast a turkey, let alone in an old, simple stove with no thermometer apparatus. It was hysterical. None of us had allotted enough time to cook the entire dinner. But, by 11:30pm or so, we had a full Thanksgiving meal on the table.
I returned to the U.S. on November 28, 2007, just in time to see my sister’s award-winning modern dance choreography performed on stage at Santa Clara University. I spent the holidays visiting with friends and reuniting with family. Within a week of being home, I found out about a compelling job opportunity – a paralegal position for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. It sounded too good to be true, but I applied anyway. And then I was interviewed. And then I was called back for a second interview. By mid-January, I had been offered the job! I hurriedly began preparing to move again. After a long and exhausting search for apartment shares on Craigslist, I finally found a place to call home. I now live in the Mission District of San Francisco. I love the Mission, I love my job, and I am very grateful.
Nicaragua has been constantly on my mind. Smith College, my alma-mater, invited me back to campus to deliver two talks in February: one on my research and one on my Fulbright experience. I was very honored by the positive responses I received from former professors and peers. Their enthusiasm has motivated me even more to work on publishing parts of my work.
I will be returning to Nicaragua to visit over the first week of September. That’s only a little over a month from now and I am so excited to reunite with the Quinchos and other friends. I plan to continue to return to Nicaragua routinely throughout my life. The country has gotten under my skin and I will never be able to resist it.
If you have made it to the end of this email, I am extremely impressed. Thank you for your interest in the last year of my life. Please write. Better yet, come visit me in San Francisco! *Mi casa es tu casa*.
All my love,