¨Is there a war there?”
I’ve been asked by more than one person whether Nicaragua is currently in a state of war. The uprisings that led to the Nicaraguan Revolution began in the 1970’s, the Sandinistas seized power in 1979, the war between the Sandinistas and Contras raged until the Tela Accord was signed in 1989, and the Sandinista’s political party, the FSLN, ruled until 1990, when the UNO party won the election.
So yes, Nicaragua´s ¨civil war,¨ if you want to call it that (some don’t), was fought more recently than the U.S. Civil War. But it ended 25+ years ago. I understand, though. That’s the only news about Nicaragua U.S. folks ever got to see.
People who haven’t lived in a developing country might have some inaccurate perceptions about conditions here. Living in a poor community can also be baffling to some folks who haven’t. We all picture ¨normal” through the lens of our own experiences, and when we know it’s something else, we sometimes paste on images we’ve picked up from random sources.
Life in Nicaragua is challenging, and in a different way than it’s challenging in the U.S.
Life in Nicaragua is challenging, and in a different way than it’s challenging in the U.S. But we´ve noticed that a number of things are actually easier for us here. To be clear, we´re not living on $200 a month, which is an average income for about 80% of Nicaraguans. How we experience Nicaragua is often not how Nicaraguans experience their own country, even though we live in a poorer barrio. As I’ve said before, we live among the poor, but we do not live in poverty. Gringos who think they are experiencing poverty by being next to it are fooling themselves.
Easier: Starting a business. Nicaraguans do it with a folding table and some produce. I have no idea how many businesses are “off the books” (that’s a little hard to quantify), but let’s say many.
Harder: Getting paid livable wages at a job. When unemployment is 50-70%, the conditions for employers are similar to that of hiring illegal immigrants–there is always someone else willing to work and if you don’t like the conditions, find another job. It’s a baffling contradiction to us that some of the laws here highly favor workers–“if” someone steals from us, we’re better off letting them go and paying the big severance they are always owed than trying to fire them for what they did wrong–yet workers are used horribly. Our friend was required to buy his own uniform and tools to work for a motorcycle repair shop, and then given too few hours in a month even to start to pay for what he’d bought. He quit.
Harder: Keeping a car alive. Road conditions shake cars apart. When we lived out in the country in Washington, we had a very rough driveway until we finally had it graveled. The road we live on now is about that rough, and many are worse. That’s just one of many things
Easier: Getting a car fixed. Mechanics charge a few dollars an hour for their labor. You can get a major repair done for a hundred dollars, if the parts aren’t too hard to find. As long as parts are available (Toyota, Kia, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Suzuki), repairs are very reasonable; if parts are not readily available (Honda, Ford, Chevy, anything upscale like BMW or Mercedes) then repairs are astronomical. Many times, I’ve seen gringos searching for someone who is flying to Nicaragua soon so that they can ask them, “Will you bring this small car part for me?”
Harder: Dishwashing. We don’t have a dishwasher. I don’t know of anyone here who has a full-on dishwasher. I’m sure some people do, but I haven’t seen it. You might say, “Yeah, I do my own dishes, too,” and without sounding like I’m trying to compete, I need to add that we don’t have hot water in our sink. We have a very strong dishwashing soap that comes in a little tub as a solid, and we stick our sponge in that soap and then scrub the dishes and pots and pans and silverware. We try not to think too hard about whether they’re getting truly clean and sterilized. They aren’t.
Easier: Buying produce. I’ve mentioned before that fresh fruit is one great argument for living in the tropics. I used to dislike mangoes–they had the strangest aftertaste–until I experienced one cut straight from a tree. I strongly suspect that the aftertaste isn’t actually from the mango itself. Sorry.
My wife likes mangoes so much, she frightens me sometimes.
Likewise, fresh bananas are a completely different experience than bananas that have spent several weeks on a boat and have been sprayed with something to make that work.
But it isn’t just that fresh tropical fruit rocks, it’s the availability of that fruit. There is currently a fruit stand about 8 blocks from our house (remember about Nicaraguans starting businesses). For a while, the neighbors directly across the street from us ran one. We were sad to see that go. In addition to all the great arguments for buying local, helping the small (and I mean miniature) businessman or woman, and letting that money impact the neighborhood, which is all multiplied in an impoverished community, it’s just wonderful to be able to walk to get fresh fruit instead of getting in a car to drive to get not-fresh fruit. The woman whose business we frequent sells bags of mint leaves, I mean freshly picked this morning with huge leaves, for about twelve cents.
Easier: Getting pulled over. All you have to do is drive on your usual route and do nothing wrong and you will still get that opportunity. If you are visibly gringo, you’re probably several times more likely to get it.
Easier: Not getting a ticket when you get pulled over. I’ve been pulled over about 20 times or so since we moved here–Kim is about the same–and between us we’ve gotten one ticket. Mostly, the police would like a bribe so as not to give a ticket. We don’t do that. We just wait politely and apologize for what we did wrong; when they see we aren’t going for the bribe, they let us go.
Harder: Dealing with the ticket when you get one! Except that one time, when they didn’t let me go. That’s the force behind the threat that gets them many bribes.
Harder: Paying bills. From having the bill delivered on a tiny scrap of paper that someone sticks in your gate (hope it’s not raining) to standing in a line for The-Almighty-know-how-long to try to pay to having the power or internet company tell you that you haven’t paid for the last three months, it simply is not a smooth process here. Missionaries have quit over this.
Once, our good friend Jairo, who is Nicaraguan and well-organized, was told by his internet provider that he had skipped the last three payments. Jairo laughed, turned to the other customers in line, and asked, “Would we still have service if we hadn’t paid our bill?” They all agreed, “No, no you wouldn’t.” Jairo then proceeded to open the metal box he carries for such occasions and show his receipts for those three payments. It’s important to keep receipts here.
Easier: Living on less. Over half of Nicaraguans live on two U.S. dollar a day or less. Consider that. They are surviving on rice and beans as their staples, with very little money left for anything else. Frequently, this looks like a tiny one- or two-room house with five, six, maybe nine family members who pool what they earn.
So when I say “on less,” I mean by our very fortunate and comfortable standards. We have a nice, comfortable house for which we pay $350/month rent. It’s cheap because we live in a slum. If you buy and eat only local food (rice, beans, tortillas, those delicious local fruits I mentioned as well as local vegetables), your grocery bill is a pittance. Gas is expensive (closer to $5/gallon, converted from cordobas per liter) but Managua is a relatively small city and, if you are committed to buying local, you don’t necessarily need to drive that much, depending on how far you have to drive for work. Insurance is cheaper, utilities are mostly cheaper–except power, which comes from coal plants and is both dirty and pricey, especially for Central Washington folks who enjoy hydro power at the lowest rates in the country–and decent medical care, from going to the local missionary clinic for basic care to getting x-rays and even surgery, is a small fraction of what these cost in the U.S. HOWEVER<all medical care is cash up front, turn in the proper forms and receipts to the insurance company and then wait for reimbursement…and sometimes wait and wait. Yes, that includes surgeries. A friend of ours underwent heart surgery here. I believe it cost $16,000.
Harder: Getting exactly what you want. The saying goes, “The people who are happy do not have what they want, they want what they have.” That serves well in Nicaragua. Many things you might think of as staples–you might unconsciously think of them as required for survival–can’t be bought here for any price. Some ridiculous number of my friends talk about Chick-fil-A as the first thing they race to the moment they step off the plane. Silly friends. Obviously, the first thing you want is a trip to Trader Joe’s.* But neither can be obtained in Nicaragua, unless someone is kind enough to
smuggle courier them in for you. Starbucks. In-N-Out. Jack-in-the-Box Karl’s Jr., KFC, Chipotle, etc., etc., etc.
But it’s not just fast food cravings. Finding actual books in English is tough. Deciding that you need a specific book in English, well, that’s just setting yourself up for frustration, unless it happens to be a world-wide bestseller which is hot right now. Then you’ve got a chance. I am a convert to Kindle, just because otherwise I couldn’t read new books. As I’ve described elsewhere, you can have nice athletic shoes (mostly Nikes) for 150-200% of what you’d pay in the U.S., or you can buy cheap, knock-off shoes that will last 3 months. There is little in-between, the best of which is buying slightly used shoes from the US at one of the many stores that sells used clothes from the US.
When we first moved here, I went to buy a shower caddie for us and discovered they cost forty dollars. A good, sealing kitchen trash-can was closer to $150 dollars. You think I’m making that up. If you have a favorite chocolate or a juice or coffee drink of choice, you might have to learn to love another. Likewise clothing or shoe brand, electronics, and don’t even make me laugh about things like furniture. If you insist on having exactly what you want, the thing you had “back there” or that you’re used to, life gets expensive really fast.
Harder: Keeping the wild at bay. In the U.S., we would freak out if one of our dogs got a tick, a single tick. We’ve had tick invasions in our house here. Sometimes bugs got in back in our home in the U.S., but pretty much everyone here has the tiny ants that simply can’t be kept out. The chikungunya I enjoyed so little was the gift of a mosquito, which is going to get you here unless you soak yourself in Deet-laced bug spray 24/7. (I don’t recommend that.) Scorpions visit sometimes. They like shoes. Tarantulas stop by, some the size of…yeah, you get the picture. Oh, and we had a possum fall through our ceiling. But that was another story.
Easier: Getting used to bugs. If this is going to gross you out, skip it. When I first got here, I had a fit about how the ants were getting in and swarming all over the counters, attacking the honey, acting like they owned the place. Later in this same lifetime, I discovered that quite a few of the little rascals had found their way into a box of cereal and I still wanted that cereal, so I just pulled the bag out and put it in the freezer. They froze. I ate the cereal. Kim is tougher. She skips the freezer part.
Ticks are gross and I really dislike them as much or more than any other bug here (no, I hate roaches more), but after you’ve killed your first thousand or so, the shock wears off. I have no idea how many thousands of ticks our family has killed in our tenure here.
I have no idea how many thousands of ticks our family has killed in our tenure here.
I know, Lyme disease. But that’s just what I’m telling you–they aren’t avoidable. If we live here, we deal with ticks. I have yet to hear of a single case of Lyme disease here. I pray we don’t have one.
Harder: Not getting robbed. As Kim just described, things just disappear. They go. Likely, they often end up in other people’s homes. Though I can’t say I always feel open-handed about the money Annalise saved up to visit her Grammy Pat, for example, in general it’s hard to forget how fortunate and comfortable we are compared with virtually everyone living around us. Stuff is going to get taken. People have their cars broken into on a regular basis, even in what seemed safe parking lots. This video was posted by a good friend who leads and teaches worship music for our high schoolers. It is actual, live footage of their getting hit by some conniving thieves. You kind of have to see it–twice–to believe it.
Easier: Not competing with the Joneses. I consider this one of the biggest blessings for us personally, living in our barrio. I hope that we are a blessing to the people living here, too. But when I look around, very carefully, it’s clear to me that the Joneses don’t live anywhere near this neighborhood. And I can’t say that I miss them. Our children rarely tell us about all the things they don’t have. They do report what the other kids in the neighborhood don’t have sometimes. I’m not saying they never act entitled, but that beast consistently takes a beating living here.
Those are just a few. For me, personally, none of these touch the hardest things about living in Nicaragua. But I’m guessing they address some of the stereotypes people might have. Not much of this falls under “suffering” for us, and you can see some even qualifies as blessing.
Anything else you’ve pictured about living in Nicaragua or somewhere similar? Or you could just come see for yourself. The ticks aren’t invading right now.
*Trader Joe’s, for those not fortunate enough to live near one, is the best grocery store in the world, imho.