3 Medical Cases in One Day

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[Waiting room, Clinica AMOS El Samaritano]

Nicaragua Journal, Day 48

As we began today, our son had conjunctivitis (pinkeye), a daughter could not hear out of one ear, and another daughter still limped from a knee injury she suffered Sunday.  By the end of the day, I’d done a clinic visit, a hospital appointment, and a good old homeopathic treatment.  

We ran to the clinic for Annalise, who still can’t hear properly, first thing this morning.  We were the second people to arrive at the clinic and waited about 40 minutes for our appointment.  It was completely full by the time we left, with all the seats taken and folks sitting outside.  I was glad we’d gone early.  

El Samaritano Clinic is run by a medical ministry here, AMOS Health and Hope, which is directed by friends of ours.*  Samaritano is always our first stop here when we need medical care.  It’s clean, well run, and inexpensive.  A while back, they raised the fees for foreigners.  A doctor visit became $10 (300 cordobas).  I was pleased to pay all of ten dollars for a reliable doctor and, in a small way, to help Nicaraguans afford decent medical care.  

During our vist, we were the only patients who had driven a vehicle.  Though I can’t be sure, it’s a decent guess that we were the only patients there this morning who own a vehicle.  In the doctor’s office, while Annalise described her ear discomfort, I read the sign in front of me that explained the benefits of family planning (in Spanish), which included “You can choose how many children you have” and “having fewer children means more time and money for each child.”  This was addressed to someone who might never before have considered these benefits.  There were signs for new mother support groups and lists of all the prenatal services available.  

As I said, I am happy to pay $10 to receive competent medical attention at a clinic that cares for the poor.  Today, I’m not sure why, we were charged only 80 cordobas for our doctor visit.  She told us Annalise’s ear is not infected, which is good news.  She prescribed some ear drops, which we purchased at a nearby pharmacy (the third we tried, as it turned out) for 30 cordobas ($1).  Our entire medical journey cost us less than $4, plus a little fuel.  

Conjunctivitis is raging through our school and neighborhood like wildfire.  Our neighbors have been suffering it and we’ve tried desperately not to catch it.  We’d succeeded until this morning.  Corin woke up with an itchy, sore eye.  It wasn’t hard to diagnose, especially when we heard that the boy he was guarding at his elementary school basketball program yesterday had it.  Bummer.  

We talked with Phyllis, our school nurse and a close friend, and she told us there is a viral and bacterial strain and it’s hard to tell without testing which is which.  She said the ophthamologist at Metripolitano, the best hospital in Nicaragua, is prescribing antibiotic drops with steroids.  We’ve experienced that medical personnel here are quick to prescribe, often giving us four or five different medicines to take for any condition we or our kids are suffering.  Phyllis said that another parent had tried essential oils tea tree oil combined with lavender, and had quick, positive results.  We decided that was worth a shot in case we could skip one extra antibiotic with a steroid.  We’ll see.  Corin’s eye seemed better when he went to bed tonight.  

Then, this afternoon, I took Aria to Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pelas see Dr. Dino Aguilar, a well-known orthopedic surgeon here.  Another player had run into Aria on Sunday while Aria was jumping for a disc (that she caught for a score, in fact) and the collided knee-to-knee.  Aria’s knee swelled up and she couldn’t bend it much at all.  My daughter loves playing soccer and ultimate and is in the middle of her soccer season right now.  We gave it a few days to see if the swelling and pain would subside on their own, and decided today it was not improving very quickly, so we needed to find out if she had torn her ACL or miniscus or suffered some other structural damage to her knee. 

We’ve gone to Metropolitano for every serious medical issue we’ve faced, from my concussion and broken rib to Aria’s 2-month ear infection (after we tried another specialist and she was misdiagnosed for 6 weeks).  It’s a full-size, high-tech hospital, nearly everyone visiting there drives nicer cars than we have, and the waiting rooms are huge and air-conditioned.  We waited perhaps ten minutes for our appointment, which we had managed to secure this morning (and we felt very fortunate).  

Dr. Aguilar, who is a very kind and soft-spoken man, ran an ultrasound on Aria’s knee.  We were immensely relieved that he found no tears, no breaks, no indications of internal damage, simply severe bruising.  He told Aria no activity for another week and then come back to verify that she is fine and can play again.  Thank God!  

As we left, I discovered that I’d done our visit in the wrong order and was supposed to have gone through insurance first (not sure why the information desk didn’t suggest that, but they did answer my question, which was, “¿Donde esta la oficina de Dr. Aguilar?”).  So we sat down to find out that we had actually done the process completely wrong.  According to insurance policy, we were supposed to have taken Aria to the emergency room immediately, at the very latest within the first 24 hours after her injury.  Failing to have done so, we now had to pay for everything gastos de bolsillo (out of pocket) and we could then try to convince the seguro (insurance) to reimburse us.  

As you might imagine, my efforts to explain that we had been waiting to see whether the injury actually required this level of medical attention did not inspire a change in the insurance policy.  As they explained it, since we didn’t report to the emergency room and file our insurance claim immediately, they couldn’t be certain it had happened on Sunday.  I suppose that’s true.  Or, we could have reported to the emergency room on Sunday about an injury Aria had sustained some other time.  If they lacked confidence in our veracity now, why would they be certain on Sunday that we’d told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?  I didn’t press that point.  

Out of bolsa, it turned out, was $60.  That’s not meaningless for us, but to see an excellent orthopedic surgeon and get an ultrasound, that’s an amazing deal.  In truth, had we gone to an emergency room, we would not have gotten to see Dr. Aguilar and Aria likely would not have received an ultrasound, especially if we went to any other hospital.  

Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pellas

Clinica El Samaritano

Today was a medical day and it was a strange day, yet the strange that has become normal, seeing the opposite ends of the spectrum consecutively.  But that is only on our spectrum–Samaritano is a lovely clinic and most poor Nicaraguans experience a much lower, much less professional (and sanitary) level of care.  I’ll save those stories for another time.

We’re grateful for medical care we can afford.  Yet again, I’m reminded that these things we can access when we need them are far out of reach for many of those living around us.  May we never take them for granted, ever again.  

 

*I’ll dedicate a whole post to them sometime.  They’re amazing.  

Best Taxi Ride Ever

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 46

I don’t like taking taxis in Managua.  I would rather walk 5-6 kilometers in the heat and humidity than take a taxi.  Some of that can be attributed to my own personal version of crazy.  But there are various other issues, from feeling taken to experiencing my least favorite turn in the passenger seat while a stranger decides when it’s safe to go.  I do ride in taxis here, sometimes three times a week.  But I prefer to avoid it, when I can.  

The best taxi rides usually happen when the taxero is friendly and wants to talk a little.  I almost always ask how long they’ve been driving and if they like it.  The neutral ones occur when they don’t want to talk but we just go straight to my destination safely.  Sometimes they pick up another passenger and we take a circuitous route, once or twice I’ve offended the driver and gotten an earful (I do try to learn from my mistakes), and more than once I’ve had a strong hunch that my driver would not pass a breathalyzer/substances test.  I do pray a lot on those rides.

Then today happened.  Raindrops were falling on my head.  I signalled, the taxero stopped, I explained where I needed to go, he asked me how much I thought, which might have been a first, then tried to overcharge me.  I told him that was too much and offered 20 cords less, which was still more than I should pay, but I’m not here to haggle cordobas and I needed to get to school.  He tried to insist and I told him that my offer was already “un precio gringo,” a gringo price, meaning already inflated and an attempt to overcharge me.  He accepted my price.  I got in.  

Then I saw the taxero’s daughter.  

She started talking to me instantly.  She smiled at me.  She laughed.  

For the next nine minutes, I fell in love.  

“Cuantos anos tienes?” I asked.

“Cuatro,” she said, holding up five fingers, then four, then five again.    

“Tres,” the driver told me.  

“Como se llama?” I asked.  

“Naomi, Naoooomi, Naomiiiiii!” she exclaimed.  

Naomi’s father has driven a taxi for 10 years and Naomi has a brother who is 18 months older.  The best part of the best taxi ride ever was when her father encouraged her to practice her counting in English.  Naomi can count to five, and on five, she gives you a high five.  

I have had some nice conversations with taxeros.  I’ve met a few very strong believers and really enjoyed our brief conversations about God and faith and Nicaragua.  I’ve enjoyed several of my rides.  But only today was I sad it was over.  I tipped enough to give him his original price.  

I wish I had a picture of Naomi’s smile to share with you, but that would have felt invasive.  I’ve just got this image in my mind of her beaming and talking and telling me about the tooth she just lost.  You’re going to have to trust me what a beautiful child she is.  

Now it’s Nicaragua, so everything is a mixture of joy and sadness.*  Naomi rides with her dad every day from 2PM to 3PM because her mother gets off at 3PM from her job, so she spends an hour each day making friend and brightening people’s lives (that’s my loose translation of what her dad said).  In Nicaragua, the people in the front seat must wear seat belts.  If there is a law regarding baby or child car seats, I’ve never heard it nor seen it enforced.  Naomi was standing between us the whole way, her feet in the backseat but her little body hovering between the front seats.  

I’m used to Nicaragua.  It will freak you out to know that we don’t use seat belts in the back seats of our cars, but we don’t.  Our van–that is not currently running–has one out of the back five that works.  I tell you that knowing I’m going to get lectured, but you need to get that this man wasn’t doing anything unusual.  We see tiny babies riding on motorcycles between Mom and Dad.  We see little ones holding onto Dad’s waist on the motorcycle.  I’ve seen a family of five on a motorcycle here.  Those scare me much more.  

But it reminded me today what a bad idea this lack of seat belts is.  The same way I feel whenever I see a baby sitting on a lap in the front seat here, which is too often.  

Every day for an hour going through traffic all the time.  

Thanks, Lord, for the beam of sunshine you gave me today in Naomi.  Please keep her safe in her daddy’s taxi.  

Amen.  

 

*Maybe that’s true everywhere.  It’s true here.  

Friends Come Back

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 45


Sorry I haven’t posted lately.  I don’t live in delusions of grandeur that people sit around wondering why I haven’t posted.  I do imagine that, eventually, someone notices.  

Sometimes the darkness overwhelms me.  I tried to write a post about the school shooting in the Spokane area and about a horrible response to the young woman who was murdered in Charlottesville by a white supremacist who attacked a group of pedestrians with his car.  If that’s not an act of cowardice, I don’t know what is.  Someone from our county posted a meme mocking victims of such violence on an official county law enforcement page.  I dug for a response but couldn’t find it.  Maybe I will.  


Today, we had brunch with friends, the Whitings.  The Whitings lived here and served as missionaries with Servant Partners.  Then the Whitings moved. 

But the Whitings came back!

Part of missionary life is learning to live with the revolving door of gringo friends.  I’ve had three sets of what I would consider best friends here who all moved.  (Yes, it might be me.)  Now that just sucks.  Developing the trust and openness and honesty, figuring out if you’re safe to be honest and open, finding those people who will love you back and have your back and laugh at your stupid jokes, that’s hard.  And costly.  

I have some close Nicaraguan friends. Some of my Nicaraguan friendships continue to get closer, 7 years later.  Praise God. Very few of them have moved away.  

But these stupid gringos keep coming and going again.  Plus, as I’ve described, I do student ministry, so I’m setting myself up to say goodbye to young adults in whom I’ve invested my heart, time, and energy every single year.  That’s just the cost of using the gifts God’s given me.  

Today, though…today we celebrated good friends, great people who love Nicaragua who had left but came back!  Their story isn’t mine to tell–

Who am I kidding?  I’m a writer; we steal everyone’s story.  They left because their situation here was not working for their family.*  We grieved their departure.  It came as a shock.

Here is the normal process:  People decide to leave.  They either have a clear idea of where God is calling them “back home” or they don’t.  If they do, it’s easier to bless them, though not always easy to let them go.  Often I’ll have a conversation with them about how they hope to come back to Nicaragua.  We pray for them, they leave, they’re gone.  

One of those stands out as the epitome of these conversations:  a gal who had been working with girls rescued from prostitution told me how heartbroken she was to leave and described her plans to return. She had done a fantastic job of pouring out God’s love to those girls.  I gave her my advice about keeping that connection from a distance and the focus that she would need to come back.  Not long after that (by my time) I saw she’d gotten engaged.  She got married.  She had a baby.  She’s not coming back.  

I’m not criticizing her.  She went on with her life.  I trust she’s following God.  My point is, gringos rarely come back to Nicaragua once they’ve moved away, even if they think they will. 

Except that our friends did!  You learn how things work, you adjust your hopes and expectations, and then–surprise!  

When these friends left, they were also heartbroken.  We talked together and cried.  They knew they had to go, but they were miserable about it.  The fascinating thing is, they did need to go. We didn’t even talk about their coming back because that didn’t seem possible.  

As we talked today, as I got to hear the whole story of their coming back and not merely the Facebook messages version, it became clear that there was no route from where they were to where they are now without going back to the U.S.  They had to leave for this to work.  

In their case, they knew they loved Nicaragua and they had developed profound relationships here, but they needed a clearer sense of purpose.  We’ve experienced Nicaragua as wonderful at times and overwhelming most of the time.  There are too many people you can’t help.  To live here as a foreigner in the midst of such poverty, you must either find a way to make a difference or learn to look away and ignore the suffering around you.**

I’ve certainly experienced depression living here.  During one dark period, we seriously discussed leaving; I would have quit and left at a moment’s notice.  One of the things that helped most, perhaps my crucial turning point, was reaching the point at which I could accept my limitations and focus on doing what I do well rather than on how badly I was failing at what I don’t do well.  

Our friend had gotten discouraged.  He needed to return to the States, find his way back out of the darkness, and then let God show him how to use his gifts here.  They’re going to live in a poorer barrio again and he’s going to start an ESL program.  He’s going to help people learn English so they can get better jobs and he’ll try to give them a glimpse of God’s love in the midst of that.  

It sounds like a simple decision, to return.  It isn’t.  We live here primarily on financial support from individuals and churches.  Leaving the nation and the work for which you’ve received support, explaining to your supporters why you needed to leave, then explaining how you feel called to go back and asking for support again, that in itself seems miraculous to me.  Simply considering logistics, it’s not surprising how few people come back once they’ve left.  

Now here’s the truth:  I prayed they would come back.  It seemed like a stupid prayer.***  But I knew they wanted to be here.  I couldn’t see how it could work, but they’d left so prematurely, so abruptly, under such difficult circumstances…and I wanted them back.  I figure God knows best and we can pray for selfish things that are out of our power to control.  I didn’t tell them they were wrong for leaving–we all figure out how to deal with our own struggles–but at the first hint they might consider returning, I jumped up and down.  And I admitted I’d been praying for that.  

Having them to our house for brunch today felt a little surreal.  When people go, they go.  

But the Whitings came back.  They remind me that God can do more than we imagine–we were just talking with them about this today!–and just because I’ve seen things happen a certain way here doesn’t mean things always will.  That way lies cynicism.  

So welcome back, Whitings!  Thanks for the hope!

 

 

*This story is stolen with permission.  

**I’m oversimplifying, of course.

***Are there stupid prayers?  I’ll leave that to you to answer.  

Seeking a Level Playing Field

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(Samuel and Julio.  Samuel and I were teammates, Julio was the opposition.  Selfie credit: Julio)

Nicaragua Diary, Day 39

I’m going to say some simple, perhaps obvious things about one of my favorite topics. Perhaps you have not thought of them in this way.  

Today [Saturday] we had a “hat tournament,” an ultimate tournament in which people sign up and then are divided into teams that are roughly equal (that’s the idea, anyway).  This is different than a team tournament, in which pre-established teams sign up together to play other teams.

We played at Kaiser University in San Marcos.  They have a beautiful campus and maybe the nicest fields I’ve played on in Nicaragua thus far.  They really are level!  It is a very upscale college in Nicaragua. They were a wonderful host.  

I love playing ultimate in Nicaragua because 1)I love playing ultimate and 2)playing here almost always means playing with a mixture of Nicaraguans and gringos.  I like that cross-cultural experience for myself, for my daughters who play, and for our Nicaraguan friends.  In the last pick-up game we played a week ago, my daughter and I were each the token gringo or gringa on our teams.

Many of the Nicaraguans who played in the tournament today live in poverty.  A few who played are closer to middle class and maybe a couple are better off.  The most athletic player on our team played in tennis shoes all day and still outjumped and outran the competition who were playing in cleats.  That wasn’t a strategic decision; he can’t afford to go buy cleats.*

I have a drawer full of quick-dry sports shirts.  In fact, I have two drawers full, because the nicer ones I wear for my daily life, while the stained and aged ones I wear for sports (have I mentioned this is the tropics)?  For our Sunday games, I often bring 4-5 white ones and 4-5 dark ones, so that when we play light shirts against dark shirts, the Nicaraguans who don’t have a spare light or dark can borrow them.

A wonderful thing about sports in general, and about ultimate in particular, is that it takes no account of socio-economic standing.  If you can run, throw, catch, and play defense, you are an ultimate player.  If you can do those things well, people want you on their team.  Everyone can improve at those things by practicing.  Not everyone is naturally or temperamentally inclined to play ultimate, but for those who are, it’s a great leveler.

Today we had quite a mixture of players on our team.  I know some of them come from abusive homes.  I know some of them don’t always get enough to eat.  I can’t solve those problems in a Saturday afternoon.  But I can play hard with them and high five them; I can affirm them and share life with them–one of my favorite parts of life.

Trying to build relationships with other people always has its challenges; trying to build friendships with those who live in poverty can be even more complex.  This needs to be its own post, but the constant awareness of inequity, the vast difference between having some margin financially and surviving day to day brings another set of hurdles to authentic, mutual understanding and trust.   Sports don’t magically erase those, but sports do allow a space in which they can be set aside while we connect.  Running to exhaustion while chasing a disc together bonds us.  

I love that my daughters play and keep getting better.  I love that we got to be on the same team today.  I love that they get to be part of this intercultural experience.

I also play fútbol (soccer) with Nicaraguans sometimes, but I’m not very good.  That means I don’t have the same currency to spend as I do playing ultimate.  If I tell a Nicaraguan teammate in soccer, “Hey, great play, you’re amazing,” he or she is thinking, “Uh, yeah, thanks, Gringo, you suck” or “isn’t that cute?  The old gringo thinks I’m good” (except in Spanish).

But I’m good at ultimate.  For the level we play here, I receive a certain level of respect because that’s how sports work.  This means I can spend that currency of respect given to me to puff myself up or to empower and affirm others.  I’m an enthusiastic teammate.  A teammate of mine in the U.S. once declared, “You’re the adrenal gland of the team!”

A fellow gringo player here once speculated on how many high fives I’ve given out in my life– on every point I play, I almost always give every person on my team a five after we score. Usually I give a few when we get scored on.   Often I’ll give them to opposing players as we’re passing to prepare to start the next point.

These are the obvious things I’m saying: First, sports works in a developing world cross-cultural setting because they offer everyone with athletic ability (or even just cussed determination) a chance to participate.  Today’s was a tournament particularly geared toward new Nicaraguan players put on by an organization called Breaking Borders.  The entry fee was 60 cordobas ($2).

Ultimate is particularly cheap because you can play the whole game with no special equipment other than a round piece of plastic which you can get for $5 to $8.  Cleats help but you can play without them.

Second, ultimate offers me the opportunity to build others up, to encourage and affirm and teach them.  Is it a big deal if someone is good at ultimate?  I’ll answer the question with a question:  is it a big deal if people feel loved and accepted and empowered?  Ultimate may be the only place in some of my teammates’ lives where that happens.  I’m 48, I’m slowing down, I’m not cool, and my Spanish still sucks.  But I can try to be the face of Jesus to a few young people because I can throw a disc well.

I like winning and sometimes I get a little distracted from what’s really important in being on the ultimate field.  I do play hard because in sports I believe this is respecting yourself and your opponent.  But today was a good reminder of what else ultimate can offer: a chance to be on equal footing in a country, in  a world, where people are valued for what they have and not who they are.  

 

 

*Playing ultimate, which requires sprinting, cutting, stopping, and jumping on grass, works better in cleats. 

A First (For Me)

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 33

I preached yesterday.  It went well, thank God.

Before I preached, I had a first.  

I’ve been preaching for a long time now.  I’ve had a flat tire when I needed for church.  I’ve been pulled over on the way to church.  I’ve left my zipper down and had my wife point it out right before I went up for the sermon.  I’ve had a printer fail to produce my sermon manuscript and gone without.*  I’ve misnumbered my manuscript pages, spilled water on them, had the wind blow them all off my lectern.   

I’ve jettisoned the sermon I’d written and preached on something else entirely, on the spot, I believe at God’s prompting.  

And fairly recently, I all but face planted while walking up to preach.  

So I start to imagine that I’m running out of new experiences for what can go wrong or make those last, already-nauseating moments right beforehand even more exciting.  

At International Christian Fellowship, we have headset mics.  They work pretty well.  I always struggle to put them on right.  It’s just one of those things. One of my worst preaching experiences–not at ICF–I put the headset on wrong and spent the entire sermon tugging it back down while the mic tried to climb up my temple.  So I’m always a little nervous to get them on correctly.  Even though I’ve put them on a bunch of times, I always get them on wrong at first and then I’m wrestling with them and trying to adjust them. 

Consequently, I’ve stopped using the men’s restroom in the auditorium where we meet to make these adjustments/have this wrestling match because I’ve learned that a)it always happens, b)having other guys walking in and out, watching me, maybe saying, “Good luck up there, you’ll need it,” does not, in fact, calm my nerves.

Instead, I grab my wife’s keys–ICF meets at our school–and head to the administration building where I can let myself in, have a restroom all to myself, take as long as necessary to put my mic on wrong then relearn how to put it on correctly, and triple check my zipper.  I usually go during the offering song so  that I can hear the progress, plus we’ll have another song before the sermon, the one we sing while the kids are racing off to their Sunday school classes.  

One final detail:  Kim’s keys are on a long, red loop string, basically a shoelace with six keys on it and no ends.  An eternal circle.  

I had the keys and the headset in my hand, I was hurrying to unlock the admin door, and just then I noticed that the key string had somehow closed in a perfect knot on the headset cord.  I mean beautiful, the kind of knot I could have instructions to tie and would still fail.  

Now understand, if you’ve never preached before, that the last 5-20 minutes before preaching I forget why I enjoy my calling and work very hard to keep down my breakfast.  Sometimes I feel exactly the same as when I’m on a boat on choppy water–and I’m badly prone to seasickness.  

So when I noticed this lovely knot, my reaction was not, “Hm, that’s not good, I should carefully examine this and untangle it in the exact same pattern but in reverse, because that would be a good, rational strategy.”  No, I thought, “Oh, Dang!’ and pulled on it.  The headset cord is attached to the little box you clip to your belt.  The ends of the headset cord are these flimsy little wire-and-plastic hooks that go your ears to position the mic correctly.  There is no proper end anywhere that you can just work carefully through the gnarl.  I did learn, though, that the hooks can somehow make the knot worse, since the cord runs off in two directions to meet up with them, lots of slack but nothing small enough to thread through.  

If you’ve ever fought with Christmas ornament hooks or old wire hangers, you probably know the sensation I experienced next, which is “This isn’t possible.  There isn’t enough available material to make such a huge tangle.”  Somehow the sum total of shoe lace and mic cord had tripled and most of it was now in a ball that tightened no matter which direction I pulled or pushed.

I suppose now is a good time to mention that, while God bestowed upon me the gift of gross motor skills which enable me to catch a disc and a baseball and shoot a basketball, I did not receive fine motor skills in equal abundance.  Or any abundance.  My handwriting is atrocious, I despise playing Pictionary, and art was the class I came closest to failing in grade school.  Threading a needle, for me, is the equivalent of hitting a bullseye on a dartboard from fifty yards away.**

Did I mention that I could hear the song being played back in church?  It was now half over.  I’m still standing outside the admin building, wondering with that stupid part of my brain how this will look if someone walks by.  I finally fumble for the keys so I can unlock the door and go inside to face my Gordian knot. 

Oh, yeah, one more thing.  Yesterday was the first Sunday of the month, which meant there was no Sunday school nor Sunday school dismissal song…which meant when the current song was over, I was up.  

Have you seen the movie Dunkirk?  It’s excellent, truly a work of cinematic art, in my opinion, though very violent and disturbing.  No spoilers, except this one:  the soundtrack is a masterpiece.  A ticking begins when the conflict starts and it exacerbates the tension.  I heard that ticking in the bathroom.  

Song is now nearly over, I’m seriously considering leaving Kim’s keys and this ball of disaster and just getting one of the handheld microphones, which would appear bizarre to the sound crew but perhaps slightly less bizarre than having a red shoelace keychain jingling between my chin and chest while preaching.  

Tick, tick, tick…

At this moment, with less than sixty seconds before I need to be walking up to preach, it occurs to me:  I can unplug the cord from the little box. Yes, I’ve been praying–fervently–this whole time, and yes, that thought just hit home.***

…tick, tick, tick…

The next forty-five seconds are a blur of clumsy fingers and wires and string and keys.

…tick, tick, tick..

And then somehow, the keys disentangle and fall to the floor.

…tick, tick, tick…

I’ve got maybe 15 seconds and my mic isn’t on yet.  Slam it behind my ears and hope it’s right the first time, this once.

…tick, tick, tick…

 Snake that blessed cord down through my shirt so I don’t catch it when I’m gesticulating and have it rip the headset off, like that one time.

…tick, tick, tick…

Back through the doors, last note fading, musicians just starting  to exit the stage, and I’m scooping up my Bible, manuscript, and water bottle as I stride by my seat and my kids to (don’t puke) stand up in front and, 

“Good morning.”  

 

And the sermon went really well.  God’s funny like that.  

 

 

 

*Of course, once that happened, I never left printing to the last minute ever again.  Yep.  And once I realized it was embarrassing to be late, I was never late again.  

**Okay, that’s hyperbole.  Forty.

*** In fairness to me, some of the headsets unplug and others I’ve tried but those cords would not come out for me.  They probably all unplug, but some come out so hard it feels like I’m about to rip the wires out instead of the plug, so I don’t try.  

Horse Cart

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(Typical horses and carts here, not the horse we saw.)

 

Nicaragua Diary, Day 26

 

Today we saw a man beating his horse.  It was a nightmare, the kind of thing you hope never to see, much less have your children see.  

We were on our way home from church.  We’d turned onto “the narrow road,” which is exactly what you’d guess–people frequently drive with two wheels on the sidewalk to be able to pass oncoming cars.  As we turned the corner, we saw that vehicles were backed up.  That’s not unusual; sometimes large trucks take the narrow road and the going becomes very dicey. 

Today, though, we saw a horse cart ahead of us.  Horse carts are very common here.  When walking to school, I might see one or I might see five.  Kim describes the cart horses here as “bullet proof.”  Nothing seems to startle or spook them, in spite of how “lively” and unpredictable traffic can be.  

This horse was different.  It was balking and pulling one way and then the other.  It kept turning sideways in the road.  The driver of the cart had a homemade switch with which he kept striking the horse.  The horse was not responding well.  Now cars were backed up ten deep in both directions.  

The man jumped off his cart and started whipping his horse with the switch, very hard.  Another man, I’m going to guess drunk, walked up and tried to push the horse in the right direction with his shoulder.  

Then we saw the horse rear.  It stood on it’s back legs for three or four seconds.  Kim said, “I’ve never seen a horse rear here.  Ever.”  

While this was happening, people on both sides of the street were watching, appalled.  But no one seemed to know what to do, how to help, or whether to intervene.  A few cars had honked at first–honking is very popular here–but the scene grew too ugly for petty impatience.  

Then the man took a board from his cart, maybe a 12″x6, which he grabbed with two hands and swung at his horse.  

Kim, in the driver’s seat, simply said, “That’s it” and jumped out of the car.  

Now freeze the frame for a moment.  My wife is hurrying toward the man who is violently attacking his horse.  We’re the only gringos on the street.  The street now feels full.  Is the man drunk?  She didn’t discuss with me what she should do, and now she’s twenty yards up the road, twenty yards from the man.  I’m sitting in the passenger seat which doesn’t open from the inside.*

I shout, “I need to get out of the car!”  I’m seeing bad scenes in my head of what happens next.  One of my kids jumps out and opens my door.  I go running after Kim.

She approaches the man and tells him, calmly, that the load on his cart is too heavy in the back and it’s causing the strap under the horse’s belly to pull up–it’s cutting him across the belly.  

The man doesn’t seem drunk, at least not obviously so.  The horse is small, young, and bleeding from multiple points I can see–two different places on her nose have been rubbed raw to open wounds.  Oh, and I figured out the horse is female.  

Kim is right and the man, to my surprise, responds to her instructions.  She helps calm the horse,  The man redistributes the load in his cart–it’s full of some plant I don’t recognize.  They get the cart pulled over to the side so some cars are able to pass (after going around our car, abandoned forty yards back).  

Kim talks to the horse.  She helps calm it down.  The man finishes getting the load balanced and climbs back into the seat.  He’s blamed the horse, not himself, but he hasn’t been belligerent or even defensive.  He thanks us, more or less.

And now this scene is ending, Nicaraguans on both sides of the road still staring, Kim’s hands and church clothes dirty, my adrenaline still blowing like a geyser.  Kim says, “I had to protect the horse,” to which I respond, in my best we’re-married-a-long-time-and-respect-each-other-voice, “I had to protect you.  A man who would hit his horse with a board might hit you.”  

Our children all said, “Great job, Mom! Way to go,” when she got back in the car.  We drove home, quietly debriefing what we just saw.  That included this statement:  “We should buy that horse.”  

When we got home, it quickly became apparent we weren’t done.  Kim told me she wanted to go find the owner.  The narrow road is a little over a kilometer from our house.  We know a few people there by sight, but our only friend is the woman who owns the fruit stand we frequent.  

So Kim and I change out of our church clothes and start walking.  Anytime we’re alone for even a matter of seconds, one of us will say, “It’s like a date,” because raising four children has trained us to seize any moment we’re not surrounded by kids.  We have a little walking date.  

We discuss what happened, and Kim says, “You don’t want your kids to see that, and you really don’t want your kids to see that and you not do anything.”  

We talked about why the man responded relatively well to us.  This is a machismo culture, and a woman coming up to tell a man what to do in a difficult and stressful situation often would not be well received.  

We asked a few people, including a guard we know at the church on the corner, if they’d seen this cart.  Then we reached the fruit stand our friend runs and, not surprisingly, she knew everything.  She told us yes, he’d come by, and now he’s back home, drinking, of course.  Kim explained what happened and what we were thinking and our friend told us that the man probably feared we would call the police, because “If a gringo called the police, on your word they’d probably come and arrest him.”  

She then started shouting at a man down the street.  The man turned around and walked toward us. He was either the horse cart driver’s partner or brother–we’re still not sure which.  Our friend told him we are interested in buying the horse.  Kim explained that it needs to rest.  The man then told us the horse is young and named a price three times higher than reasonable.

Our friend looked away and gave this priceless expression, a combination of “That’s ridiculous” and “We’re not having this conversation anymore.”  It’s a non-confrontational culture, so she didn’t say, “That’s ridiculous!  Don’t be stupid!”  But she communicated just fine.  The man shrugged and left.  

Freeze frame again:  No, we don’t need a horse.  No, we don’t have extra money to buy a horse; in fact, our budget is very tight and I’m hoping there’s money for me to get paid this month.  With all the suffering around us, on one level thinking about buying an abused horse seems crazy.  We would simply try to find a rescue or a farm where it would be cared for and, God-willing, nursed back to health.  On the flip side, these things don’t always have to make sense and God can provide the money to rescue a horse.  We see a lot of suffering we can’t change.  We try to help where we can.  This might be one we can change.  

Kim thought “the horse is young” justified the outlandish price, while I thought it explained away Kim’s suggestion that the horse needs to rest.  We all agreed that he had offered el precio gringo, the gringo price, i.e. “how much can I overcharge these rich and ignorant foreigners?”**  She told us she would talk with the owner later, by herself, and let us know in the morning if he would consider a price we might pay. 

So we’re praying about saving a horse.  

There are three more things I need to tell you:  

Being around suffering is dangerous because it can make you numb.  Kim said, as we walked home, that she used to feel sick every time she saw a horse with all its ribs sticking out or a starving street dog, but she’s gotten used to it.  On one level, you have to; on another level, we don’t want our hearts calloused to the misery we see.  

Poverty inflicts suffering, grinds people down, and allows people no margin against disaster, but in itself it neither makes people evil nor saints.  This man was abusing his horse, not because he is poor nor because he is Nicaraguan, but because his heart is hardened and sick.  Judging by our friend’s description, it may relate to his alcoholism.  Abusing animals is evil.  Many Nicaraguans take great care of their horses, even though they have little money to spare.  When I tell ugly stories in this diary, that means I’ve seen ugliness in individuals.  Nicaraguans are beautiful people.  They are people.  

Finally, we know this man will probably buy another horse.  Buying this injured, abused animal from him won’t mend his ways.  But sometimes you just have to show mercy.  Kim has always loved horses–she bought and trained one on her own when she was twelve, which still boggles my mind–and she really feels we should try to save this one.  Maybe that’s how God speaks. 

So we’re going to try.  

 

 

*Our car has a LOT of personality since my accident.  We’re hoping it hangs in there a little longer.

**Getting the better of a rich and foolish foreigner is a sport in itself here that will need its own post.  

Freezer Space

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Nicargua Diary, Day 25

I have several purposes in creating this Nicaragua Diary.  I hope to convey some of our daily experience living in Nicaragua.  I’m trying to give a glimpse of life in an impoverished country, especially for people suffering poverty, which, to varying degrees, is the vast majority.  And, of course, I’m aiming to get rich and famous through my writing.  That one’s a longer-term goal.  

I’ve described before how one of our neighbors in her twenties had never seen a microwave before.  We also have a freezer, separate from our refrigerator, which some would call a “chest freezer” and others a “deep freeze.”  We got it from friends who gave it to us because it had stopped working and they didn’t want to pay to repair it.  The repairman charged us 2,000 cordobas (almost $100).  I thought that was a gamble, but Kim believed it worth the risk.  She was right.*

In a place this hot, cold=good.  We freeze a ton of fruit, have bags of ice, and I have an ice-pack for old man injuries that one of my daughters uses almost every night to cool off so she can sleep.  We also stock up on different foods that can be frozen, like fish and…fruit.  A lot of fruit. 

Most of you reading likely think this is “normal.”  Everyone knows you save a lot of money by buying in bulk and life is much more convenient when you have the groceries you need already on hand.  

Most of our neighbors cannot imagine this “normal” of ours.  They buy their food daily, or at best every two or three days.  A family who lives very close by and has 11 people, mostly children, living in about 200 square feet, sends one of the smaller children past our house every day to buy rice, beans, or oil up the street. 

If you don’t have electricity, you don’t have a refrigerator, much less a deep freeze.  If you need the 100 cords (3 dollars) you earn today to help you buy food for today, you aren’t stocking up.  

We live in a barrio that you would call a “residential area,” and it certainly is not what any of us would think of as zoned for business, yet there are probably 12 homes within a 3 or 4 minute walk that sell food and drinks.  Maybe more.  Some of those tiny pulperias stock mostly junk food, but at others you can buy staples: eggs, tomatoes, peppers, flour, and of course rice, beans, and oil.  

These businesses work largely because few of our neighbors have cars.  It’s much easier to walk next door or three doors down to purchase today’s groceries than to walk ten minutes to wait ten minutes to ride a bus twenty minutes to a larger grocery store, especially when you don’t have that much to spend…and will need to make the same trip tomorrow.

 Much of the economy in our barrio is local because 1)most of our neighbors don’t have the means to stock up, 2)some people don’t have any way to preserve left over food, and 3) very few have cars, a few more have a motorcycle, but most have no motor transportation at all.  

When I say we live next to poverty, not in poverty, I mean this.  Our deep freeze is a beat-up, rusting cube that in the States you might get off of Craigslist for $40 in working condition–or from Freecycle for nothing.  But it’s saved us many times over the $100 we paid to have it fixed.  It has made life here more convenient, bearable, and enjoyable.**  It also gives us more opportunities to share food.  

We don’t see ourselves as living in luxury here.  We make many choices to live simply.  When I compare it with a middle-class U.S. standard of living, I can convince myself this is true.

But our freezer space is a luxury I’m remembering not to take for granted.

 

*Not the first time nor the last.  

**I’m not using hyperbole; for example, freezing one papaya would take up about half of our fridge’s freezer space, and the aforementioned ice pack that helps one of our children to sleep better would take the other half.  I’m also not trying to sell old, rusty deep freezes.  

Baseball in the Rain

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 20

Saturday wasn’t the best day.  I did some things wrong, made some mistakes, and some parts simply didn’t work.  It reminded me of a prayer I heard the first year was a Christian. I was counseling at a summer camp, excited to tell about Jesus but completely unequipped to take on middle-schoolers.  We were having our Sunday worship service, during the 28 hours or whatever it was that we didn’t have eight kids each week.  One of the camp leaders prayed that God would give us patience and peace for the inanimate objects that didn’t work as we hoped.  I’ve always remembered that and tried to stay conscious of it.  

But Saturday I failed.  Neither animate nor inanimate worked as I hoped and I lost both my patience and my peace. Of course, so much of life is how we respond to our negative circumstances.  Saturdays are supposed to be a rejuvenative day for me but by the afternoon I had to take a few hours away from my family to restore what the day had depleted.  

My wife had gone away for the weekend and my daughters here had an overnight planned with a friend.  (Note: All plans were made previous to the weekend, meaning they didn’t go just to escape me–though I’m sure they were glad to have those plans.)  That meant once I dropped them off, I had just my 10-year-old son for the next twenty-four hours.  

While we were in the States for the summer, we’d seen a couple baseball games together. Having shown only mild interest previously, my son decided he now loves baseball.  I absolutely loved baseball at his age–and still do.  We “played baseball” a few times back there, meaning hitting practice and playing catch.  We’d committed to playing twice a week here because he enjoys it and wants to improve.  

I’m sure no other parent has ever experienced this, but I’d failed to keep that commitment thus far.  Circumstances, busyness, “I can’t right now,” all the poor reasons that feel, logistically, like they make it impossible at that moment…and then all the moments add up.  I carry some serious regrets for things I planned to do with my kids at certain ages that didn’t happen or barely happened–again, I’m assuming I’m unique in this.  

So Saturday was it–baseball as soon as we dropped off the girls.  

“Yaaaay!’ Corin shouted when I told him.  

But I got delayed coming back from my recovery time, due to a traffic accident.  The police rarely move cars off the road after an accident here, prefering to investigate and question with the scene exactly how it happened–which causes a few problems for other drivers.  A semi had hit a car or vice versa. No one appeared injured, but they were taking up most of the highway and the rest of us were trying to merge and squeak by.  

It was getting later.  Nearer the equator, days are all nearly the same length and it gets dark quickly; night falls, hard.  But I got back with some daylight left, stopped to pick them all up and grab our baseball stuff, and drove quickly to the friend’s house, passing the school.  My son begged me to drop them off at the gate instead of driving in to the house.  I think he might have suggested going straight to school and letting them figure out the last several kilometers on their own.  

Then, just as we got back to our school where there is grass(ish) and space to play, rain started falling.  Hard.  Huge drops coming fast.  

But Corin and I didn’t blink.  Actually, that’s not true; we had to blink the water out of our eyes.  In fact, I had to wipe away the rain pouring into my eyes.  Nonetheless, we ran out and played.  No one was competing with us for the space.  The light was fading, the rain was pouring, lightning was striking: “One, tw–” BOOM!

But we played baseball.  He just hit the whole time.  

My dad, who had health problems and various issues, showed me love by spending hours and hours playing baseball with me.  I’ve tried not to push the sports I love on my kids–and feel like I’ve erred both ways, letting my enthusiasm get the better of me, failing to teach them so that when the time came and they wanted to, they were too far behind.  

It’s a tribute to the effectiveness of my restorative time, to answered prayer, or both that, instead of getting frustrated with more challenging circumstances, I just made the best of what we had.  The last pitch he hit more by reflexes than sight.  The rain stopped in the middle of our session, then started up again and was absolutely pouring by the time we made it back to our car.  The drive home was scary; I could barely see the cars in front of me.  We got to park in our own driveway for the first time since our road construction started–two months ago?  

The rest of our father-son time we had a blast.  We watched a little baseball,* made chocolate-banana-peanut butter smoothies, and played Lego Star Wars for hours.  In the morning we made pancakes together.  

I don’t have that many parenting moments that I’m confident I get right.  Parenting isn’t an easily evaluated vocation.  I think we’ve served our children well by providing the opportunity here for them to learn Spanish.  I believe living here has been good for them, but they pay costs in terms of extended family, especially. Parenting is making the best decision you can and hoping it was right…or at least redeemable.  

But baseball in the rain, that one was good.

 I asked my son, as we were running back to the car, “Did you have a good time?”

“No, I had the best time.”  

 

 

 

 

*We tried to tune in a game here but it didn’t really work so we ended up watching some highlights from Saturday’s games.  

Hope for the Future

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 16

 

I don’t know what you’re doing to make the world a better place.  You may be doing a lot.  I hope so; the world needs a lot of help right now.

I just had the opportunity to spend time with two of the young adults I’ve mentored.  They’re both in college now.  One of the funny things about my life here is that I live with a foot in two different world.  We live in this barrio where many kids don’t go to school at all and spend their days selling tortillas or tending their family’s ice cream cart (while the father might be off drinking) or worse.  I buy tortillas from a woman who makes 200 tortillas every day, which means if she can sell them all she  earns 400 cordobas, or $13 for about 5 or 6 hours work–but that’s not what she clears, that’s only gross profit.

On the flip side, I’m mentoring young adults going to Duke University, U Penn, and Hult International Business School, all on full-ride scholarships.  Yesterday, I got to hang with two of my favorite people because they haven’t gone back to college yet.  They went to high school here, spent part or all of their childhood here, but their lives are shockingly different than the kids in our neighorhood.  Unless God does a mind-boggling miracle–which God certainly can–none of the two- and three-year-olds in Kim’s preschool are going to end up at any of the schools these young adults attend.

Sometimes the contrast gives me vertigo.  Sometimes when I’m coaching or teaching or just spending time with kids at school, I realize that many of them have less exposure to poverty in Nicaragua than we have.  More than one of our children’s friends have had issues (i.e. their parents have had issues) with driving to where we live.  From what I can see, many of the kids at the international Christian school where we work and our children attend come from wealthier families than any of the ones at my school in our little Midwest U.S. farm town.  It’s weird to go and be surrounded by privilege, where I walk from what feels like one world into another world.

But words that I read from Paul Farmer, well before we moved here, have never left me.

“I learned about the resistance to tyranny and violence offered by many members of the church and thought: same church, same world. Not two or three worlds, but one.”*

There aren’t three worlds.  There aren’t two worlds.  If you leave downtown Manhattan to get on an airplane to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, there is never a moment when you depart a world and enter another world.  Yes, it feels like that, but Farmer, who goes from Harvard to Haiti and back, points out that this view, this terminology, takes us off the hook.  “We have no responsibility for those people; they live in a different world.”  There’s only one world, in which some people are starving while others are feasting.  When Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus collapses those worlds “different worlds” so that the rich man literally steps over Lazarus, who is lying at his gate.

A debate exists between relief and development.  Do you rescue drowning people because their boats are sinking or build better boats so that more people don’t drowned?  Do you rescue girls out of prostitution or feed and educate girls so they don’t ever have to start into prostitution.

The answer, of course, is “yes and yes.”  These should not oppose each other, and anyone who cares about other people wants to see both happen.

But the question becomes more pointed with a little italicization:  “Do you rescue drowning people or build better boats?  Do you rescue girls from prostitution or prevent girls from entering prostitution?”  Where do you spend your money?  On which do you invest your time?

We believe both should happen and we trust that while we engage ourselves with one, God has people committing to the other.  Education is development (though it can also serve as relief).  Mentoring is development.  Mentoring gifted, compassionate high school and college students who feel called to use their gifts to make a difference in the world, that’s my answer.  That may be where I best spend my time.

My two heroes I met with yesterday–and don’t tell them they’re my heroes, it might inflate their heads–are studying public health and…deep breath…Operations, Information, and Decisions / Social Impact and Sustainability / Minor in Cultural Anthropology, respectively.  One described the possibilities of impacting a community’s health conditions in a city or a rural area, and concluded, “Maybe I’ll come back here.”  She started out studying nursing, but realized public health fit her passion better.  Our calling is where our passion intersects the world’s need.  There is plenty of need in this one world.

The other goes to one of the most prestigious business schools in the U.S., and describes being surrounded all day, every day, by peers who express in words and action the primary motivation to amass wealth.  But this summer he spent a month in Guatemala working with United Way.  He got an inside glimpse of how wonderful and painful a non-profit can be, how full of wonderful, compassionate people, how desperately over-worked and poorly organized.  We discussed why not many of his fellow students work with non-profits and how sometimes those inclined to non-profit work may not be the most gifted organizationally (and I did not take this personally at all).  Most delightfully for me, he told me of getting to take real responsibility in a short time–smart people who are short-handed and recognize ability will delegate quickly–and of recommending some changes that are now being considered throughout the region!

I love what I do.  I could not walk into the United Way office in Guatemala, spend a month, and introduce systemic improvements.  I won’t be able to improve community-wide nutrition or prenatal care.  I’m passionately for those things that I can’t do.  So I invest my life in those who can and will.  I listen.  I support.  I cheer and encourage and make myself available at 1 AM when it all falls apart (or feels like it does).  I live in an impoverished barrio but spend a good portion of my days with intelligent, privileged young adults who get the crazy notion that trying the impossible to help others might be the most fulfilling life–that they can change the world, .

And, God-willing, they will.  

 

 

 

*If you haven’t read Paul Farmer, I highly recommend him.  I’d begin, though, with Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, which is a biography of Paul Farmer.

Sharing Soup

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 11

Yesterday was a beautiful day.  I was absolutely exhausted, but in the right way. 

We played ultimate in the morning which, if you don’t know, is a passion of mine no matter how old and slow I’m (refusing to admit that I’m) getting.

I wrote yesterdays diary post, Our Road, before the game because it excited me too much to wait.  Not many things come before my Saturday ultimate game, but that did.  We came home afterward to our lovely, smooth new road, and the next section being poured and smoothed.

The work crew, as Kim commented, had a youthfulness to them, both in their playfulness and energy, and in their approach to their work.  

Our neigbhor, Mileydi, had arranged with her church to provide lunch for them.  Several women in the church spent the morning making a huge pot of soup.  We were able to help by covering the cost for the ingredients.  And finding about 20 bowls–or bowl-like containers in our kitchen. After I’d showered and worked on my sermon (for today), I walked across the street to see how they were doing.

They were so happy.  I’m not sure what your experience has been in regard to whether or not there is, in fact, a free lunch.  I’m not sure how often these young men had been fed a free lunch.  But they were laughing and joking and seemed simply delighted.  They gave me huge smiles and thumbs up when I came in, though I had done none of the actual preparation.  I used the opportunity to tell them how much we appreciated their work and how much they have improved our neighborhood.

But as happy as the road crew was, Mileydi was happier.  She kept praising God and we agreed, repeatedly, what a wonderful opportunity this was to serve these guys.  

I think the best part, for me, was the spirit of gratitude all the way around.  No one was seen as above, handing down.  Yesterday was sweltering–35C and probably “feels like” 115F–and the road crews’ “half day” went until 3PM.  I told them that was not half.  They had worked hard all week in the heat.  Later, Kim brought them coffee and water. Again, they didn’t take it for granted or act entitled to what we shared with them.  

Who knows how those small acts of kindness impacted them?  I strongly believe in the seeds God plants.  We may not see them grow, but we know so little of the impact we have on others.  But God is working in their lives.  That small thing may have been exactly what one of them needed to see.  They left knowing that a church had cared about them and served them in return, even though their service is paid (and well paid, relative to Nicaragua).  

The rest of the afternoon, we helped some gringo friends move from their house to a house at the end of their street.  I think that might have been hotter than ultimate in the morning.  Helping out feels good, even when it includes feeling woozy from the heat.  

Finally, last night Kim and I went with our friend Kelly to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Occasionally, one of the theaters here will show a vintage movie.  Last year, Kim, Kelly and Lydia saw Grease.  By then it had been a full day for me–physical activity, brain and spiritual focus, social interaction with people I barely knew, more physical activity–but somehow Eighties nostalgia revived me.  

To complete the story, I then had my first bout with insomnia since I’ve been back in Nicaragua, not my favorite timing, but God gave me strength and was powerfully present for my sermon this morning.  

I don’t have many days here that go as well as that.  I was on a high for much of the day, alternating with “I might pass out.”  But as I look back on it, the workers smiling faces stand out, grinning at me, gesturing, saying “Gracias.”  

For soup.