- I know for certain that God called me here.
- Spending 10 cordobas (30 cents) on tortillas every day makes a difference in my neighbor’s life.
- I can walk across the street to buy fresh tortillas every day.
- I’m a mentor to a significant percentage of the young ultimate players in the country. Let’s see you do that in the States.
- It’s never winter but is Christmas for a month, yet Christmas is tranquilo. (Loud from bombas, but tranquilo.)
- I spend more of my time seeing what others don’t have and thinking about how I can help than seeing what others have and thinking about how I need more.
- I’ve learned to be grateful for running water.
- I’ve learned to be grateful any time our car runs.
- I trust our mechanics.
- I’ve gotten to know God better through people whose faith is stronger than mine.
- I get to use all my spiritual gifts here.
- It’s green. All. Year. Long.
- Yes, it’s hot, but I’ve noticed that the heat and humidity are actually great for preventing muscle pulls and other injuries.
- I can play ultimate year-round.
- The elderly woman who sells me avocados smiles at me and hugs me.
- I get to help my neighbor prepare her sermons!
- Talking about God, being grateful for what God has done, praising God, is part of every normal conversation.
- There are cool lizards everywhere.
- I get to encourage young adults to follow Jesus here.
- I get to live among people living in poverty and be their neighbor, not someone offering charity.
- Our children assume that people look different than we do, come from different cultures, speak different languages, live at different means, and this is all normal life.
- The elderly man on the corner always greets me with his toothless smile as his “Amigito,” little friend, though he is 5-foot nothing and can’t weigh a hundred pounds. His smile and greeting always lift my day.
- We’ve seen miraculous healings here.
- Kim has done extraordinary work here and has grown in her boldness and her leadership.
- Kim and I, for many of the Nicaraguan staff at NCA, are the gringos who serve as the bridge people. We’re the ones they trust and talk to.
- I don’t feel like I’ve done a great job and I’d like to do better.
- Inexpensive, incredible local produce: limones, piñas, bananas, papaya, sandia, pepinos, mangos, hierba buena, etc, etc.
- I didn’t make this a list of individuals I’d miss, but some people dear to my heart who have changed me through our friendship.
- The sheer beauty of this country.
- Seeing God’s face every time I walk out my door: in the borrachos who hang out by our house, in the children who come to our preschool, in the teeny neighbor girls who love me, in the strangers who will return my greeting and blessing…
Nicaragua Diary, Day 124
My neighbor, Mileydi, asked me where in the Bible it talks about La Roca. The rock.
The Bible is a big book. I’ve read it and I can search Google, but we’re still talking about a big question.
My mind went immediately to Jesus’ parable of the bad workers in the vineyard because it concludes with Jesus’ saying to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees:
“Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
I read this whole passage through for her–yes, in Spanish–and explained how Jesus is telling this parable about the very people to whom he’s telling it.
But that wasn’t La Roca she was looking for. So she talked a little more about what she remembered of the passage and it finally clicked–“Oh! Building on La Roca!”
So I read to her:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
She was thrilled. Bouncing up and down excited. Yes, this was the passage! She high-fived me several times. I’m a big high-fiver. We both agreed that nos encanta this passage–we love it!
Then she explained that she wanted to preach on it in a few days. “Oh!” again!
So we talked through the passage. I told her that, to me, the most important word is cuando vino una inundación, “when a flood arose,” because people need to understand that the flood rises for everyone, whether sooner or later. Not “if the flood rises,” but “when.” We discussed the contrast between building on rock and building without a foundation. Two houses might look identical from the outside, but the difference when they get hit by the storm will be absolute–one will still be standing, the other will be gone.
We talked about how she’s experienced that since she chose to make her life about following Jesus in the last year plus. She told me she was nervous but felt strongly that this was the passage God had put on her heart to preach.
Mileydi reads, but not at a very high level. We went through the words in the passage, and this was my moment, perhaps more than any help I’d offered interpreting the passage. I’m not fluent in Spanish. Mileydi’s first language is Spanish. I’m reading to her and clobbering some of the pronunciations. “Clobbering” as in mangling. But she doesn’t sight read easily. So together we’re getting the words that she of course knows but doesn’t always know when she sees them in print.
We went over it twice together. She told me she was nervous but would practice a lot before the time came.
Mileydi preached last night. I was sad that I could not walk the three houses up the street where their tiny church meets to hear her sermon.
I couldn’t because last night was also Corin’s school Christmas concert, and every parent knows you have to go to the big school performances. It’s funny, because it’s four minutes of your child performing in a three hour evening. But even as we drove there, Corin asked why his sisters weren’t going with us. I’ve missed a couple of these in my tenure of raising four kids. Even though I tell myself it’s just a few minutes, I always regret it and feel an emptiness. Now, especially, as we near the end of our youngest child’s elementary years and performances, I can’t miss one.
This morning, I got to ask Mileydi how it went. She didn’t say “fine.” She recounted her sermon to me. Not word-for-word, but more than the highlights.
Have you ever had that moment when a friend is telling you something and it’s not the information but their joy and enthusiasm that knocks you over?
Mileydi described how she told her church, “This is what I know of building my house on rock.” She talked about being part of church, about how she knows she can’t do it on her own, about really praying with her heart and not just her mouth.
In the three years we’ve lived in this barrio, we’ve seen this transformation. Kim has loved and mentored Mileydi as they’ve run the preschool together. We’ve watched God redeem her marriage. We’ve seen her grow in parenting. We witnessed God physically heal her. And we’ve seen God provide for their family each day.
I’m a more experienced preacher. I have a seminary degree. I’ve studied and preached on this passage I don’t know how many times while Mileydi didn’t know how to find it in the Bible.
As good as I am (or like to believe I am) with words, I’d rather hear Mileydi’s sermon on Luke 6:46-49. But God, showing me great love and sheer extravagance, let me be part of that sermon. Then I got to rejoice with her.
Mileydi said, “I was really nervous before, but when I started to preach, I was fine. I wasn’t nervous anymore.”
I told her, “Me, too. Every time. Before we start it’s awful, we feel sick. Then we stand up and God’s spirit is with us and we’re fine.”
She thanked me, but it was both my pleasure and my calling. When you’re a preacher, you help other preachers.
Mileydi is a preacher.
Nicaragua Diary, Day 119
This morning I got up before I usually do, before the rest of my family did, and drove to the vela for my friend Jose Manuel’s grandmother. I didn’t know her. She died on Thursday and his family held her vela Thursday night, then celebrated Jose Manuel’s son’s graduation from colegio (high school), then returned to observe another night’s vela before proceeding for the funeral this morning at 8AM.
That means they had not one but two all-night memorial services for her, with a graduation celebration in between.
I’m a gringo. Not that many people mistake me for Nica, and if anyone does, they get that misconception corrected the instant I open my mouth. Even though it’s an all-night service, just before 6AM is not the time to arrive for a vela.* But, I believe, I was given the gringo pass, i.e. I was doing something slightly culturally inappropriate, but I’m a gringo, so my Nicaraguan friends don’t say ,”Dude! INappropriate!”
Instead, Jose Manuel greeted me enthusiastically. I was offered me a cup of coffee and a seat. I’m sure they’d sat up all night but no one else was sitting now, but Jose Manuel sat with me. About half a dozen people were puttering around, stacking up the chairs they’d rented and piling them on a truck, damping down the dust with a hose, and generally looking busy. I asked Jose Manuel if he’d slept. Yes, he told me, he’d returned from the graduation about 9:40PM and slept from four to five AM Maybe it was 3:30 to 5:30. It wasn’t long. This was his second full night up.
But here’s the thing: he was glad to see me. Not, “Okay, I can handle one more visitor,” much less, “You’re kidding me, but it’s a gringo so I have to put up with this.”
No, this mattered. We don’t understand Nicaraguan culture in a lot of ways, but we grasp this: showing up matters. We’ve had enough conversations to know that our friends remember who came to a vela. When being present is all you can give, it counts.
His grandmother raised Jose Manuel; in truth, she was his mother. She died at 87 years old. He is grieving. I came and shared his grief for an hour. We talked. I told him about Isaac’s death, about our Miracle Girl, Annalise, and about losing my father. He told me how having this woman raise him had shaped his life.
He shared a little about her life and some things about his growing up and their family. We talked about death. We talked about life. We talked about what hope in God means, how God is faithful and you can see lives change, yet sometimes babies die and how do you explain that? We talked about how often grief and joy come together, inseparable, side by side. I told him how Aria’s birthday is the day after Isaac’s birthday, which means every year we remember our son who is gone and then turn around and celebrate our daughter who is here with us.
I’m not a morning person and last night, like so many nights, I slept poorly. I promised myself I would get up and go to the vela and then spent hours awake during the night. Nonetheless, I was awake again at 5:15 and decided it was worth it, anyway.
It was. It was one of the better hours I’ve spent in a long time. I don’t think I made a huge difference. I don’t think I said anything profoundly comforting or insightful, even if you translated it into English.
But I was there.
*Kim went at 5 AM the morning before, after the first night’s vela, and I think got a similar pass.
Nicaragua Diary, Day 107
Today has been a great day. I don’t know how many great days I have. Not as many as the struggling days. I embrace the struggle and try to share it openly, even when it sucks, even when I might throw some people with the depth of my inner turmoil, because I know there are others who need to know they’re not alone in that fight.
But today, I’m going to tell you about my great day!
Corin got baptized today. That was, undoubtedly, the highlight of a great day. We’d been talking about it for a while and he had expressed interest, but we were giving him space to make up his mind. As I was sitting in church, waiting for my time to preach (meaning sitting there with my stomach going crazy and trying to focus on God and breathe deeply), Kim pointed out the door and said, “Go talk to Corin” in her serious Mom voice.
Okay. Corin’s in trouble. In trouble for what? No clue.
So I’m out in the corridor with Corin and I have to ask, “What did you do?” because I’m responsible to take care of this.
“Dad, I’ve decided I want to get baptized today.”
Ohhhhh! I almost start laughing out loud, which if you’ve heard me laugh, you know isn’t the best idea within 100 feet of a worship service in progress (or is that yards?).
Shift gears. Move nerves to backburner. Laugh with son quietly over misunderstanding. Get serious and talk about baptism.
He gets it. He really has made up his mind. We talked a little about what baptism means, about how going under water symbolizes not just being cleansed, but dying with Jesus and then being raised to life with him. We talked about why we need that. He got it.
Some part of my brain thought “how did we get here already?” But I’m thrilled that he means it, that he’s ready. For all our kids I’ve trusted that they would know when it’s time and I’ve never wanted to push them. What we want to do and what we do as parents are sometimes different. For this one, I’ve really tried to be careful; making someone get baptized makes no sense.
So I got to tell a couple of the other elders quickly and then I preached. I’ve posted quite a few sermons here but I don’t think I’ve ever described the experience of preaching. That needs to be its own post. I preached on Isaiah 58, the Kingdom of God and breaking chains. I preached hard today, perhaps the hardest I’ve ever preached. By that I mean I may have expressed what I understand to be the truth more forcefully than ever before. That’s a little weird and I felt strange afterward, but encouraged, as well. God always sides with the oppressed and calls us to take their side, too. Impoverished people’s bad choices are not the sole, nor even the main, cause of poverty. I said some other stuff, too.
The people whom I knew would like it told me they liked it and the people who didn’t like it didn’t tell me.
Then we rushed home to get clothes to get wet in, because I didn’t dress for preaching and baptism.
The baptism was beautiful on so many levels. Nine kids and Corin’s teacher got baptized today! Each one is a story in itself, of course. I got to stand in the water with my friend Dave while he baptized his son who miraculously survived a horrific head injury earlier this year.
And we baptized Corin. When asked if he believed in God, Corin declared, “Absolutely!” When asked if he knew that he needed forgiveness for his sins and if he had repented of his sins, he carefully parsed the questions, answered, “Yes…and sort of.” Everyone laughed, of course. But you know, I’m going to argue that, though not the classic answer, my son gave the theologically and pastorally astute answer. Have I repented of all my sins? Not do I desire to or would I like my heart to be in a place where I have, but have I?
So we laughed and then we dunked him and prayed and rejoiced.
We finished up the baptisms and the kids all swan dived (swan dove?) back in the pool and started splashing around. Then a twenty-seven-year-old, a friend of one of our elders, decided to get baptized, too, right there and then. He’d been thinking and praying about it and said, “Okay, it’s time.” Like I say, I think people know when it’s time. He did. So we did!
Afterward, we headed home, I snuck in a nap*, then zoomed off to play ultimate. I love ultimate. I got to play with some Nicaraguans I love and love to have as teammates, notably Zeke and Andy. I’ve talked about Zeke before. Andy is a 15-year-old rockstar ultimate player who should get a full ride scholarship to play college ultimate…when such things exist. We had a mighty comeback victory in which I made a pretty decent layout (diving) catch for an old guy. Then we got trounced but still had fun and made some good plays. No kidding, I love ultimate. Oh, and Aria and I got to play together. I love playing ultimate with my kids!
We zipped home, cleaned up, and hurried back to our annual International Christian Fellowship Thanksgiving Celebration,always held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, always one of our two biggest events of the year. I emceed, which is not my gift. I’m a better preacher than an emcee. But it went great. Hundreds of people, gringo and Nicaraguan (mostly gringo but a good number of Nicaraguans), feasted together on traditional Thanksgiving food, sang of God’s faithfulness, shared around the table about what we’re thankful for, and a few gave testimonies, including a poem of gratitude to a loving husband and a journey-in-progress of a young woman whose sister is recovering from cancer.
It was a beautiful day. Corin and I prayed together at his bedtime and already his prayers are more mature. We pray together almost every night. I’d never heard him pray like this before. He’s thinking beyond himself, bigger picture.
I thought my cup was full and seeping over the sides. Then a dear friend I’ve mentored for years wrote me and overflowed completely. Mentoring is a painful joy and a joyful pain. You invest your life in someone and become invested in their progress. You remember the bigger picture but you also suffer the ups and downs. Yes, like parenting, but different, too.
Here is joy: “I forgave people who hurt me, I reconciled, I made deeper relationships with others who will encourage me to seek God with my whole heart. And oh, yeah! God used me in this crazy way to bless a guy I just met whose estranged father recently died but turns out I knew the father through work and could tell the guy about his father things he would never have heard otherwise!”
I officially declared him a Jedi. That cool. That nerdy cool.
I love mentoring. The best part, the very best part is when you get to step back and say to a guy who used to be a lost, confused kid, “Okay, adult to adult, father to father, friend to friend, you are there. You are living this life to the fullest, God is bursting through you, and I’m just grateful to have seen it all up close.” That was this weekend. That was tonight.
In the midst of this, I cannot fail to say, Kim once again demonstrated what an incredible wife and partner she is, what a servant and mighty woman of valor, and I’m reminded how lucky/blessed/freaking fortunate I am to have her in my life.
Tomorrow, my self-doubts will come crashing back in, I’ll dig in, pray hard, and return to the daily battle. There will be small moments of grace and some ugly reality I’ll need God to overcome. That’s fine. That’s life on this side. But today?
Today was beautiful.
*Did I mention I slept very poorly the night before? It’s kind of my normal now, but there are more and less convenient days for my insomnia.
Nicaragua Diary, Day 103
Picture your most challenging day at the DMV, the day you were most tempted to express profanity in public.
Now picture the hottest classroom in which you’ve ever sat, wondering why this school can’t have air conditioning.
Add that the people sitting behind the glass get to decide whether you stay in the country or not.
Welcome to Migración.
Yesterday, my children had an appointment to renew their cedulas. Cedulas are the Nicaraguan version of U.S. Green Cards, the identification card that means you have legal residency in the country.
Many of us in the U.S. have experienced a moment at the Department of Motorized Vehicles that felt like a Catch-22. Or we’ve just sat for what felt like an insane amount of time for the simplest request. Gringos are not good at waiting. We’re not trained for it and we’ve been inculcated with sayings like “Time is money,” so that sitting and doing nothing for extended periods of time for no evident reason hurts us. Irritates us. May even infuriate us.
If you can’t endure sitting and waiting for no obvious reason, I’m going to recommend not moving to Nicaragua. Sometimes, that is just life here.
La Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería is such a place and yesterday was such a time. In fact, every visit I’ve ever had to Migración, as we fondly refer to it, has been such a time.
Now let me say here that I am an advantaged gringo. Our school, Nicaragua Christian Academy, International, walks us through the process of getting our cedulas, keeping them renewed, etc. NCAI employs one person, Jairo, whose job is largely to keep the working gringos legal and squared up here, and God bless him. I’ve talked with friends who were visiting Migración without the benefit of such expertise who looked like they might blow all their fuses. The section for nationals always looks even busier.
One of the biggest challenges with remaining a legal resident here is that the rules keep changing. Maybe they’re always changing. Last year, we were unable to obtain appointments to renew our cedulas–including that we had several appointments scheduled which were then cancelled–and I had to travel to Costa Rica twice with an expired cedula. I was warned that an official at the frontera might confiscate it. Would that make getting it renewed even more difficult? It was expired anyway, I was told, and I’m already in the system, but no one knows for sure and I would be walking around without any form of legal ID to be in the country.* Though I got raised eyebrows and warnings, especially at the airport, no one took my cedula.
The kiddos’ appointment yesterday was to get theirs renewed from when they expired last January. Understand, this is with our friend Jairo, who knows the system, doing everything in his power to get them renewed. For about six months, none of the teachers had been able to get renewals and we were starting to worry that the government had decided to stop granting them. We’ve seen other signs that the government is getting stricter with foreign workers. Again, the rules change, usually unwritten, and then you try to adapt.
That’s all big picture. Small picture, we came in, took our seats, and waited. The girls do pretty well with their books–one even took a nap–but it’s a long stretch for my 10-year-old. There are vendors inside, ice cream and “American Doughnuts,” among others, and then rows of little food tables and stands outside. We have a “you get one thing” rule for Migración days and we try to bring snacks and plenty of water. Did I mention it’s hot?**
Mostly, it’s just enduring the wait–time may be money, but if you lost your flexibility and humor, you’ll also lose your mind. After about three hours, I went out for a walk. Though being inside Migración feels different than any office I’ve experienced in the States (the bathrooms are notably rougher), the walk outside really drove home that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Imagine very busy sidewalks, bustling with people going in both directions and dozens of food stands selling fruit, baby formula–I mean towers of formula cans–pop, snacks both packaged and being fried, signs for fotocopias scattered throughout, and then at least half a dozen little stands looking no different than the others except they had signs advertising “Abogados y Notarios.” I bought six buñuelos (fried yuca balls), but I could also have stopped and gotten a consultation with a lawyer.
Of course, this felt discordant to me, because we have different images of lawyers in the U.S. (“different” doesn’t always mean “better”), but it also speaks volumes about the situation: Nicaraguans trying to find their way through the red tape labyrinth.
We succeeded yesterday. It took about four hours of waiting (we left school about 12:30 and got home a little before 6) but the bar is very low for a successful visit–if we leave with our ID’s, we win!–and we’ve waited longer than that without success. The action of the appointment was this: we waited two hours, the kids got their pictures taken, we waited two more hours, we received and signed for the new cards. And truly, we’re grateful to be received here, to follow God’s calling in a place that has no obligation to host us but has allowed us to call this home.
Oh, and they each had a doughnut. I just had the buñuelos.
PS I hope the tone has come across that, though this is a challenge of patience, as long as we’re allowed to stay and continue our work in Nicaragua, it isn’t a serious problem. In contrast, the crises over legal, long-term residents in the US being deported are very serious problems.
*Yeah, I could carry my passport, but it doesn’t give me the rights a cedula does. Frequently, when making any transaction–banking, purchasing, getting insurance–the first question is “may I see your cedula?”
**To be fair, I don’t think it’s as hot as the police building where I had to pay my ticket. That was more uncomfortable, but this has more at stake.
Nicaragua Diary, Day 86
Our car has spent a lot of time in the shop recently. I mean a lot. We had it in for six weeks (cracked head), drove it for four days, then sent it back again (starter went out). Now the clutch seems to be going. Consequently, I’m thinking about used cars today.
Q: Is it cheaper to buy a used car in Nicaragua, the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, or in the United States, a vastly wealthy country?
A: In the U.S. By far.
I don’t know a lot about cars. People who know me well might see this title and think, “Really? You know nothing about cars.” That is not literally true. For being 49 and having driven for 33 years now, it is true I’m impressively immune to automotive knowledge, as if I’m teflon and that stuff just does not stick to me. But I’ve had to learn more living in Nicaragua, including a smattering of spanish vocab for car parts–frenos, llantas, bujias, and clootch (I may not have spelled that one right). And I’m not writing about fine points of maintaining cars, but the experience of buying and owning used cars here.
When I started coming to Nicaragua on short-term trips, I had the brilliant idea that we could raise money and instead of renting a car or a bus, we could buy an old, used car and give it to a pastor here who works out in the campo. I knew a motorcycle ministry whose members drove bikes from Oregon to Nicaragua and donated those bikes, then flew back. This seemed similar. I figured a thousand dollars or so could get us a decent car.
The missionaries here laughed at me. I mean, kindly, but it was definitely “Ha. That’s not remotely close to enough.”
I’ve driven some less-than-pristine cars in the States. I am probably above average in the category of “cars received as gifts or purchased for $5.” In the U.S., you can buy something ugly but drivable for $1000-1500. It may have issues, but it will keep you on the road for a year or two, sometimes five or more. If you are immune to ugliness and know a bit about tinkering, you can likely pull that off for $500. That’s always been my experience and I don’t think it’s changed. Tell me if you think I’m wrong.
In Nicaragua, this part of the used car market seems not to exist. You can pay $3K-4K for a non-running car that will require several thousand more–or mechanic abilities and an inside connection on parts–to become a running car again. I am still astonished at what cars can be kept running here. There are regulations for road-worthiness and emission levels, but everyone here knows that paying the right person will get you those stickers to put on your windshield and que sorpresa, you passed your emissions test, regardless of the black cloud billowing out behind your vehicle.
A functioning, higher-mileage car starts at $5000. For a truck or SUV, more like $6000 to $7000. That’s entry-level price. Paying that much does not guarantee you have a reliable vehicle. Two different close friends recently bought cars that within the first two months needed major repairs. It’s very difficult to know in what condition you are purchasing any given vehicle. Carfax? Ha. In Nicaragua, you’re doing well if you can get the title of the car you just bought in your own name…because the person selling it to you may not have it in their name.
Some variables for buying used cars in Nicaragua:
Roads beat the crud out of cars here. The infrastructure is improving and one clear sign we see are nicer main roads. Nonetheless, if you drive anywhere other than those main roads, your car gets hammered. Unless you live in a very poor area of the US or go four-wheeling and seek this for sport, you probably remember that one time you hit a pothole so hard it jarred your teeth and hurt your car. It stands out because it happened once or twice. That happened here yesterday and will happen again tomorrow or next week, even though we’re trying to be cautious. And we know we’re trying to be cautious, which we cannot guarantee for the owners of that car you may buy next.
If you have limited funds to fix your car, you get it done any way you can. Many mechanics here understand that position and immediately assume that you want things done as cheaply as possible. You might even think you want that–until you realize how cheap “possible” can be. Therefore, when buying a used car, you can assume that if repairs happened, they happened with used (or even questionable) parts, cut corners, and “Okay, that’s good enough.” Likewise, did the vehicle receive routine maintenance? Anyone’s guess.
Accidents happen and cars get pasted back together to get back on the road. We bought our minivan in great shape at a great price and with low kilometers. We thought we’d gotten an amazing deal. But later we realized it had almost certainly endured a severe wreck before we got it. Our first clue? When we had troubles with door locks and windows, a mechanic took the door apart and discovered that it had been repaired…with drywall screws. Now that’s my level of knowing there’s a problem.
Of course, after that many other tell-tale signs appeared. But eventually I got hit and now it’s impossible to know from which accident any given problem started.
A few thoughts on all this:
Being poor isn’t cheap. You imagine it is, because people in poverty have so little money that they must be spending the least possible on everything. But often it does not work that way. I described this with buying food. If you are poor and could somehow afford a car in the first place–and most can’t–you will constantly be spending money to keep it on the road. We aren’t poor but have limited funds and lately seem to spend most of our “disposable” income on fixing our car. My friend Juan Ramon explained to me long ago that our car is “mi familia segunda” (my second family). Many missionaries begin by buying a used car, have a terrible experience, and decide to buy a much nicer, newer (or brand new) vehicle to avoid those headaches.
I think the US has so many more cars in its market, with so many people upgrading or buying new, that the used car market becomes plentiful. That never happens here. The demand for decent, or tolerable, or seemingly acceptable cars stays higher than the supply. As long as demands stays this high, prices will never go down. Oh, and there is a 100% tax on privately imported cars.
Of course, all this is playing in my head right now because our minivan lately reminds me of a bucket with holes in it and we keep pouring more in… The threshold for “it’s not worth fixing” is higher because we’d do well to get a replacement for $10K, and once you’ve already sunk money into fixing it…this song sounds the same in any country.
On the opposite end, most repairs here cost a small fraction of what they would cost in the U.S. Unless you drive an unusual or exotic car here–a Honda Odyssey or Accord, a Subaru Legacy or Outback–parts are cheaper and labor charges compare with most other work here, i.e. paid so low most in the U.S. would laugh at the suggestion. I feel very fortunate and blessed that we have found trustworthy and competent mechanics, including some great friends. I think this process might drive me insane if I were also constantly wondering whether or not we were getting ripped off.
I was going to add this as post-script, but today I think I need to conclude with it: our clutch needed only an adjustment, for which they charged us nothing.
Nicaragua Diary, Day 51
Last night, I was sitting in our living room when I felt something brush my right foot. I thought it was a mosquito and looked down to see if I could swat it. It wasn’t a mosquito.
It was, however, a tarantula.
We’ve lived in Nicaragua for over six years now. I haven’t had that many tarantulas brush up against me. I haven’t found that many scorpions in my shoes or towel or sports bag. But there have been some. I wouldn’t quite call it commonplace.
My response last night was “Whoa.”
Insects are a way of life here. They’re such a constant that we take their presence for granted.
I remember when we first moved here, probably my first week in the country, and our kitchen was covered with ants. At least, it seemed to be seething with insects to me. This was the tiny, red variety we call “psycho ants” or “spaz ants” because they dart back and forth randomly, looking like they’ve lost their miniscule minds. When I say tiny, I mean just above microscopic. I’m not exactly a clean freak (my wife is biting her tongue right now), but seeing these bugs zipping all over the where we prepare our food upset me. How could we be so slobby?
Now if you hate insects–and are reading this the way other people watch horror movies–prepare yourself. Cue the creepy organ music.
Kim and I barely notice little ants anymore. But we do notice them. If I find, for example, that a box of cereal has been discovered by ants, I pull out the bag…and put it in the freezer. The ants die. We eat the cereal.
If that freaks you out, Kim sometimes won’t do that. She’ll just eat the cereal. Certainly if she sees a few ants in her coffee, she’s not about to sacrifice a nice cup of Nicaragua coffee–they grow excellent coffee here. “Just a little protein,” she declares, and drinks it without another thought. In case you think we’re exceptional–or exceptionally gross–I’ve swapped this story with many other missionaries. Almost all of them have some version to tell, the adjustment and the laughable newfound ability to disregard these critters.
We do, however, each have our weak spots. I have a lifelong loathing of cockroaches which Nicaragua has not cured. I’d rather see a tarantula than a roach. I know that’s not rational, but we all have our kryptonite, don’t we?
There may have been a day–whether in legend, myth, or history–when I killed a Randall but did not remove it quickly enough from the kitchen.* In retaliation, one of my daughters who is not squeamish may have thrown a live cockroach at me. And hit me. And I may have made a sound that some would interpret as a gasp or scream, though I’m certain it was more of a manly bellow.
Mosquitoes and ticks are another subject. Mosquitoes have caused us more misery here than anything else (except a few people**). The Big Three that mosquitoes carry in Nicaragua are dengue, chikungunya, and zika. I’m guessing you’ve read about zika, and it’s probably worse than you think. A doctor friend recently told me that we’re still discovering what effects zika has on newborns whose mothers have the disease, and microcephaly is the tip of the iceberg.
For others, the danger appears minimal and the symptoms hurt much less than dengue or chikungunya. But zika is also asymptomatic for many–possibly up to fifty percent of those who have it–and worst of all, zika can be sexually transmitted. All humor aside, for expecting mothers, zika is a nightmare and I would urge pregnant women to avoid countries with high reported incidence of zika…then pause to remember that poverty means expecting mothers here have no such choice.
I’ve described chikungunya. Remember that Princess Bride line, “Wallowing in freakish misery forever”? No, not forever, but Kim continues to feel the effects many mornings when her feet ache as she climbs out of bed. I don’t recommend it. Dengue comes in second place, agony-wise, unless you get the hemorrhagic variety, which I also don’t recommend.
So mosquitoes are the actual worst. But if you’re a genuine bug-hater, ticks win the day. There are many times when I have to bite my tongue because living in Nicaragua can make it easy to play the one-ups game. “Oh, you think it’s hot there? Let me tell you about hot!” “Oh, you think the driving is bad where you live? Try living here!” I’m sure his technique is featured in “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” So I try hard not to diminish other people’s experiences by one-upping them. Someone finds a tick on their dog and posts about it. A tick.
So I don’t sound like I’m exaggerating here, I’ll tell you this story. One day at a previous house, the back door got left open and one of our dogs came in and laid down on the tile. I was very annoyed–okay, angry–and for the heck of it, decided to count how many tiny little ticks I had to kill that had come swarming in off this dog. That day, that one day of the six years and three months we’ve lived here, I killed over 800 ticks. No typos there. I don’t know how many ticks I’ve killed since we’ve moved to Nicaragua, but if it turned out that I’ve killed 10,000 ticks off of dogs, I would not be surprised.
No, our lives are not endangered by these icky creatures from hell. I’ve never heard a report of lyme disease from anyone we know here, and statistics show it is extremely rare in Nicaragua. Thank God for that. The nastiest bug experience we’ve had was when we had a tick infestation in our home. They were an army, attacking in waves, and of course seeing ticks crawling all over your floor makes you feel like you have ticks crawling all over your skin. You’re probably feeling them right now, just reading this. You’re welcome. We finally found some anti-tick medication for our dogs that works, and for the last year have seen very few. Thank God for that, too.
There are a few other insects I should mention, though they are not such regular visitors for us. Fire ants, so named for the burning sensation their bites cause, are tiny red ants that look like the ones that frequent our kitchens. Some of them live on the field where we play ultimate, so now and then, especially if one of us decides “what the heck, I’m going to walk here barefoot,” a hopping and thrashing and desperate self-slapping occurs. Everyone knows what it means. Fire ant stings burn for 5-10 minutes, though some people are more sensitive and get huge welts to go with their burning.
Our good friend, Jeff, once got bit by a bullet ant. I’ve never heard of anyone else here seeing a bullet ant here. But for perspective, Jeff is our friend who last year competed in Fuego y Agua, a race that is, frankly, insane. Probably the description “24+ hour endurance survival race” tells you all you need to know. Jeff said it was the most painful thing he’d ever experienced and hit him almost instantly. He experienced waves of pain and nausea the rest of the day. Jeff told us that after it bit him, the ant swaggered off, as if to say, “Yeah, I’m a bad ass.” Jeff was in far too much pain to argue.
I know this has probably made a few of you vow never to come visit us. I understand. Though bugs are a constant in our lives, other than when they are giving us nasty diseases or invading us, they are not an influential part of life here. They’re another example of how you really can get used to almost anything.
PS After I’d started writing this, I went outside to feed the cats…and found another tarantula. The cats had already killed it.
*Reports vary. Remember that not all narrators are trustworthy, and some trustworthy narrators aren’t entirely objective.
**Wait–did I type that out loud?
[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.
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.
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.
*Maybe that’s true everywhere. It’s true here.
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.
*This story is stolen with permission.
**I’m oversimplifying, of course.
***Are there stupid prayers? I’ll leave that to you to answer.