There and Back Again


I am still recovering from getting hit by a white Toyota Prado.  My broken rib still hurts when I try to do too much or move the wrong way…and that’s how I learn what “the wrong way” is.  My brain seems relatively clear after my concussion.  And I’m starting to go stir-crazy for lack of exercise.  I’m afraid that was predictable.

So today, I walked to school again.  It’s between four and five kilometers.  I probably wasn’t quite ready for this walk, but I’m not ready to go insane, either, and if I have to pick between the two…   I walked. Continue reading

Something I Hate


All names and a few contextual details (location, time frame) are changed.

Our friend Maria is a beautiful thirty-eight year old woman.  She has three children.  She has a charming husband, Ezequiel.  We like them both very much.  But he is a severe alcoholic.  We didn’t really know that–I should say we hadn’t seen that and thought he was further into recovery–when we first knew them.  The other day, I said to Kim, “I know all kinds of people suffer from addiction, but he seems like such a great guy, when he’s sober.”  Yes, a lot of addicts are great people, or appear to be great people, when they are sober.

But Kim told me the story.  Maria met Ezequiel when he was out visiting her little pueblo in the campo.  They fell in love.   After a few months of visiting her, he proposed to her and she said, “yes.”  They celebrated their wedding in her little church, then she left her family and moved to Managua to start a family with him.

Maria had been in Managua, in her new home, for about two weeks when a woman approached her.  The woman walked straight up to Maria and slapped her across the face, knocking her backwards.  Maria had never seen the woman before in her life.

But this woman was Ezequiel’s wife.  Not his ex-wife.  His wife.  I don’t know if they were legally married, but he had two children with her already.  And when Maria told him what happened, he told her, “She’s my wife, they’re my family, you’re just going to have to live with it.”

She’s nineteen.  Her parents had not really approved of the marriage, though they went along with it because she convinced them.  Maria didn’t feel she could leave him after two weeks and move back home with them.  So she lived with it.  And not long after that, she found out that Ezequiel had, and has, a drinking problem.  He may go a couple of weeks sober, but then will disappear for three days, five days, two weeks, and when she goes to track him down, she will find him filthy, in urine-stained clothes, maybe covered in his own vomit, unable to stand.

Maria is a strong woman.  She has started her own businesses.  She provides for her children.  When Ezequiel is sober, he works two jobs and does his share.  The problem is, when they get ahead, he they get money, sooner or later he takes it and begins to drink.

We didn’t know this pattern because Ezequiel was sober for the first six months we knew him.  He had survived a horrible, near-fatal accident and was forced, during his rehabilitation, to sober up.  When we heard he had a drinking problem, we thought he had been sober for some time.  But the near-fatal accident occurred because he was drunk.  Of all the tragedies of this story (and don’t even think of saying it’s not a tragedy because he has made his choices–for Maria and her children, it certainly is), I think the worst is that he had gone six months clean and had a real chance, maybe the first in twenty years, to live a different life.  But then he got a chance to work for a month at a very high paying job (relative to our context) outside the city.  They really needed the money, so he took the job…and came back without a cent.  He drank it all.


My friend Jacqui, who I have known since my first visits to Nicaragua, seemed to have a great marriage.  She and her husband Huberto have one son, whom they cherish.  He struggles to stay employed, but that is the normal state of life here, where there are more people who need work than jobs to hold.  I love them both.  She is more extroverted, so I would say I know her better.  They’ve had me over for dinner many times.

I thought they had a wonderful marriage.  But one day, she told me that Huberto had begun to rage at and threaten her.  He kept accusing her of having an affair.  Jacqui is one of the most determined people I have ever known.  She is working her way through high school as a thirty-something, which means all day school every Saturday, on top of her regular job as an empleada (cooking and cleaning for another family).  She has committed to learning English so that she can find a better job and help her family.  She wants to become a teacher.  She is deeply involved in the life of her church, leading worship, teaching, reaching out in her community.  She was not having an affair.

However, Juaquin was.  His irrational and increasingly threatening accusations began causing their son to have nightmares, then health problems due to anxiety.  Finally, after months of this, it came out–not through his confession–that he had been carrying on an affair for at least two years.  At one point, I was on call for Jacqui to help her flee if she decided she was in real danger.  I offered to find her somewhere safe to stay, but she refused.  I remember asking a friend here–a much bigger, stronger friend–to cover for me when Kim and I were going to be away for a long weekend.  That’s a serious favor: “Can you intervene in this case of domestic abuse?  Can you respond immediately if she calls and get her out of the home before her husband does something horrible to her?”  I have some amazing friends, and this one said “yes.”  Jacqui didn’t call.

This story has a hopeful current chapter, if not conclusion.  Jacqui’s husband became a Christian last year.  Juaquin ended the relationship with the other woman.  Their son has healed a lot and has grown close to his father again.  They appear stable and she seems happy.  I pray. but I can’t help holding my breath.

Third story.  Our friend Beatrice has been married since she was 17.  She and her husband, also a friend, tried to conceive a child for six years.  That’s a long time here.  Poor Nicaraguans don’t have the resources to try alternatives when they face infertility.  They finally were able to have a baby boy, and treasured him.  They threw him a huge, blowout birthday party, on a scale we have never approached nor considered.

Nine months ago, Beatrice found out that her husband was cheating on her.  He had been coming home very late from work, disappearing without explanation for long stretches, and finally started not coming home some nights.  When Beatrice confronted him, he acknowledged it, but let her know that he planned to continue in both relationships.  She was five months pregnant with their second child.  Beatrice can read at about a second-grade level.  She has run a small business out of her home, but really does not have the means to support herself, especially with a toddler to care for and a baby on the way.  Her husband simply decided that she didn’t have a choice.

To Beatrice’s great credit, she said “enough.”  She told her husband if he chose the other woman, he could have her, but even though she loved him, she didn’t want him back home.  He callously said, “Oh, that’s Beatrice.  She’ll come around.”

Those were hard months.  We shared our meals with Beatrice and her child and Kim spent hours listening to her and crying with her.

Again to her credit, she didn’t “come around.”  She took her stand.  Finally, he asked her forgiveness, committed to ending the other relationship, and came back home.  Again, so far, so good.

I know people commit adultery in the U.S. and the divorce rate is high.  But I heard it expressed this way by a Nicaraguan: “When you get married, you are competing with every other woman to keep your husband.”  Implicitly, when you get pregnant, the competition gets harder.  A friend in ministry here for many years told me that she asked her women’s group, “Which of your husbands have had affairs.”  Every hand went up.  They then asked her when her husband had cheated on her.  When she told them he hadn’t, they didn’t believe her.  They felt a little sorry for her; she was still in the dark.

Living in a different culture, one of our biggest challenges is to embrace what is different, rather than judging it negatively.  Driving in Nicaragua is different than driving in the U.S., and that will be worth it’s own discussion at some point.  It’s very easy to say–okay, shout, “Why do they do it this way?”  Meaning, of course, whey do they do it wrong?  A crucial step in clearing the hurdle of culture shock is when we stop feeling angry, disoriented, or both that they do everything “this way,” and start to adapt to life the way it is, not the way it should be.

But just like the U.S. has some monstrous, God-denying aspects to its culture, so does Nicaragua. We have to oppose the degradation of women here.  I haven’t lived in other impoverished countries, so I’m only assuming that anywhere women have so much financial stress and food insecurity, they also suffer from these ghastly choices.  Do you want to have money to eat, or do you want to take a stand against your husband’s infidelity? “If I keep providing for you and our children, I’m also going to keep cheating on you.”  Nicaraguan culture is highly machismo.  You could argue that other manifestations are even worse, like the selling of little girls, often by family members, or the fact that the average girl begins being prostituted here around the age of nine.  I think these problems are related.  They are rooted in poverty.  They are rooted in a view of women as being powerless–ironically, since often the women are the ones keeping the homes together–and of having to accept their treatment because they have no choices.  They are, fundamentally, rooted in a view that women are lesser.

I’ve described three cases, all of close friends.  This by no means describes all of our friends here, but these three are not the exceptions.  These are individual anecdotes of a problem that is rampant, even systemic.  What are solutions?  Girls being taught their own value? Girls being educated?  Improving the educational system overall?  Increased employment opportunities?  Job training for women?  Boys being taught to value girls?  Boys seeing models of men valuing women?  Marriage upheld throughout the churches, meaning confronting rampant adultery and ministering to husbands and wives to help them strengthen their relationships?  Recovery ministries for people in addiction?

I’ve seen seedlings of all these things.  There is a long way to go.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”


Questions without Answers, Part 1


Today I got ripped off by a taxero.

Context:  I live about 10 minutes drive or 45 minutes hard walk from the school where I coach, teach, and mentor a bunch of students.  My wife works there and my kids attend there.  So I make the trip there quite often, and about 5 days a week the rest of my family has already gone in the car, so I find alternate transportation.

I used to avoid taking taxis here, because there are horror stories of people getting kidnapped, being held and forced to give up their debit cards and PIN’s, and most of the stories come from someone who knows someone who knows the victims.  But…I’ve grown a little bolder, because 45 minutes power-walking in Nicaragua sun and humidity along a busy highway doesn’t always appeal, sometimes I don’t have the time for that form of exercise, and sometimes I don’t feel like arriving at school to mentor or teach looking–and smelling–like I’ve just played 3 hours of ultimate.  While getting bathed in exhaust.

So now I take taxis, sometimes.  I pray.  I walk.  I see who comes along.  Sometimes a friend will pick me up on the highway, so I walk 1/3 or 1/2 of the way.  That’s not bad.  Kinda stinky, some exercise, lower risk of disappearing.  The typical rate for a taxi if I get picked up within 1/2 a kilometer of my house is 70 cordobas.  I’ve had them ask 80, I’ve had them ask 60.  The current exchange rate is 27.66 cords to the dollar.  So if I pay for a ride to school, I’m spending about $2.50.  Not a lot, but if I do it five days a week it’s not nothing, either–especially when you consider that my wife’s pay for being the teaching coach at school is about $700/month.  Yes, life is cheaper here, but not consistently, not across the board, like with those tires I mentioned last time.  I usually tip 20-30 cords, because I know most people are living on much less than I am.  Honestly, most of them seem surprised and thankful for my tip.

Today, I needed to get to school as quickly as possible.  I flagged the first taxi I saw, and just as he stopped, some dear Nicaraguan friends of mine passed, but going in the opposite direction of what I needed to go.  Had I waved them down, they probably would have gone out of their way to give me a ride.  I didn’t.  I just called out “Amigos!” and went to the taxi.  I explained where I was going, then asked,

“¿Cuánto vale?”

“Un y media.”

One and a half.  This took me a second.

¿Cien y medio?”


So he wants 150 cords, double then what I am accustomed to paying.  But I’m in a hurry.

“Cien,” I counter-offer.

“Cien viente,” he says.

I’m irritated.  I don’t want to pay this much.  I say okay.

He talks on his cell phone the entire ride.  I think he makes three different calls.  So far, I’ve ridden with a young kid who really wanted to race everyone else on the road, two different taxeros who looked and acted like maybe they were a little happier than ideal for driving, though I didn’t realize it until after we were underway.  So having a talking while driving, though not my favorite, isn’t the most dangerous thing I’ve experienced on the road.  But I’m already not thrilled with this experience, so it grates.

When we arrive, I hand him 150 cordobas because I have three 50-cord bills.  He takes it and makes to leave.  I ask him for change.  He shakes his head and tells me he needs a tip.  I tell him no, I want my change.  He tells me he wants the tip, and he is hungry.  I ask for my change.  He gives me twenty cords back, effectively short-changing me, and then stares at me to see if I will challenge him.

And I get out of the cab.  As I go, I say, “Precio gringo,” which translates quite nicely as “Gringo price.”  In other words, I tell him he ripped me off because I’m a gringo.

One more crucial piece of context before I get to the point, beyond a simple story about Mike and the Taxi Driver.  Finances are tight for us right now.  For four years in Nicaragua, we enjoyed relative financial ease, low stress, and have had plenty to give and share.  This year is different.  Two major circumstances have conspired to slam us solidly in the red each month; if things don’t change, we won’t be able to stay.  So there’s that.

Now, the question:  Is it right or wrong or backwards or sideways to quibble with a Nicaraguan taxi driver over paying $4.70 instead of $2.50 for the ride?

  1. $2.20, the difference between what I wanted to pay and what I got charged, is not a huge deal for us, even with the tightest budget we’ve experienced, maybe ever in our married lives.
  2. $2.20 may be a big deal for the man driving the cab today.
  3. If $2.20 is not that much, then the extra 10 cordobas are even less that much.
  4. Feeling ripped off is never pleasant.  Feeling targeted to be ripped off is less pleasant still.
  5. In this culture, unlike in U.S. culture, there is an expectation to haggle.  Much commerce happens in mercados where prices are less fixed than they are in U.S. stores.  There are many stores here, too, where it would be nonsense to try to get a different price than the one the scanner tells the register.
  6. There is a difference between haggling and short-changing.
  7. Feeling like you’re getting ripped off really screws with your desire to be generous.  Well, with mine, anyway.
  8. Tips are voluntary.  In the US and in Nicaragua.  Perhaps customary, but voluntary nonetheless, and the expectation for tipping here is actually much lower than it is in the States.  Sometimes we tip wildly high because the expected tip seems ridiculously low to us.
  9. The man may have been hungry.  Or he may have been manipulating me.
  10. I live in a country in which 90% of the people dwell in some level of poverty.  It is the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and 50-70% of the population is unemployed or severely underemployed.  In the simplest view, we live here because it is such an impoverished country.  We are seeking to do what we can to empower people to rise out of poverty. If you want to understand our approach, you can read about the Eight Signs of a Transforming Community.
  11. Our work here is both focused on developing deep and long-term relationships and on working for systemic change.  It’s dubious that paying the man an extra $2.20 will contribute to either.
  12. Grrrr.
  13. After I feel Grrrr, or maybe alongside it, I feel guilty, because I don’t want to value money over people.
  14. Jesus says,
    “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Luke 6:27-31
    Does this apply?

I could go on…and on.

Here is the gist:  we have more money than most of the people here.  We came here to try to contribute to positive change.  That sounds great in the Big Picture.  What does it mean in the daily grind, the details, the daily taxi rides of life?

Or, to frame the question biblically:  How do we live justly among people in poverty?

“How do you like it?”


I met a man in the grocery store tonight.  To be precise, I met a gringo with his two sons in one of the nicer grocery stores.  We talked about what he considers Nicaragua’s best export (that would be rum), then swapped info, as often happens in these conversations:

“How long have you been here?”

“Two years.  You?”

“This is our fifth year.”

“Huh.  How do you like it?”

“It’s taken a while, but it feels like home now.  You?”

“I’m ready to go.”

He proceeded to tell me about some things he dislikes:  driving, power outages, customer service (oh, wait, that was me), and then we compiled a list of good things about living here: lower cost of living, less demanding pace of life (he said he had 80-hour work weeks in the U.S.), our kids becoming fluent in Spanish.

I tried to share with him our informal motto, “Flexibility and humor,” encouraging him that getting angry when things don’t work the way we expect really does not help, but learning to laugh and roll with it really does.  He seemed unconvinced.  If I had to summarize his position, it would be “This place DOESN’T WORK RIGHT!”

Saturday, yesterday, was a day that Kim jokingly described as “The Universe conspiring against us.”  She said it with humor because she said it today.  Yesterday, no one was laughing.  Trying to leave for ultimate, we discovered that our van had two flat tires.  One of our dogs had vomited everywhere, including all over the trampoline (you know how trampolines aren’t actually a solid surface?  Yeah.).  All the lights and outlets inexplicably stopped working in the kitchen and nothing we did with the fuse helped.  Our internet was on day 4 of being out.*  We have three phones and none of us could even make a call (we buy calling time by the minute, and we had all three run out).  I was trying to finish a sermon that I stepped in last-minute to cover for someone else, and I was not experiencing precisely the peaceful, meditative mindset that lends to efficient sermon writing.  I was not experiencing a mindset that lends to any sermon writing whatsoever.

My son started begging me to play Stratego.  I initially rebuffed him, explaining “Dad has lots of work to do, and blah, blah,” then amended that to “Sure.”  Because a)he had helped me clean up dog vomit, voluntarily, and b)composing a sermon in that frame of mind might have led to my excommunication.  So we played.  And had a blast.  And he came close to beating me.

Kim came home from successfully buying new tires, which really weren’t in our budget, but neither was having a blowout followed by a head-on.  To our great surprise, the massive communications multi-national corporation sent their repair guy out five hours into their promised forty-eight hour response time–this after Kim had fought through three levels of “customer service,” mind you–and we were back online.  That makes sermon writing easier, especially when you live in the land of I-can’t-transport-my-reference-library-here.

By today, the dog had stopped vomiting, the kitchen power is–again inexplicably–working just fine, no steel belts are showing on our tires, I can work on this blog, and we can even make phone calls.  The sermon went fairly well, I think, though God gets to make that judgment.  Someone gave us a gift, totally out of the blue, that covered a chunk of the tire expense.

Ready for the connection, you who noticed that I went on a big tangent?  I hated living here in Year Two.  I mean, really hated it.  I probably told people, in conversations like that, how ready I was to move back, and certainly I told myself in my head, if I didn’t say it out loud.  I could see exactly where I was then, reflected in his eyes.  And now I’m here.  We have The-Universe-Lays-Siege days and by the next day, we’re laughing about it.  I didn’t laugh during year two.  Maybe twice, and both times bitterly.  If I’d had a longer conversation, I think I might have told the guy all this, an extended version of “hang in there.”  But that may not be right for him.

Here is what I know today:  I no longer expect for everything to work the way “it’s supposed to.”  I don’t go cheerily along while cleaning dog vomit or frantically trying to change a tire while I and my daughters are scheduled to be playing ultimate–I NEED my fix–but it no longer reinforces a mindset that everything just sucks and I would gladly leave in approximately the time it takes me to pack a suitcase and drive to the airport (barring tire blowouts).

We’ve bought four (I said “four”) sets of tires in less than five years here.  I’m not counting the ones the van had when we bought it, so two new sets, two used sets.  A set of new tires costs $500 here, and those are nice Firestones.  We’re putting maybe 6,000 miles a year on our car.  The roads eat tires.  Ravenously.  And the driving surface in front of our home now would likely not fit many folks’ definition of “road.”  I give you this as an example of how differently things work here.

I don’t think things have changed that much in Nicaragua since I’ve gotten here.  But something has changed in me.  Maybe several things.

I don’t feel entitled as much as I used to.  I believe, I mean really believe in my bones, that I am very fortunate, regardless of how difficult things get for us here, because I have seen what real suffering looks like, and it wasn’t our Saturday.

This probably needs its own post, but I have learned to live around suffering without having it make me insanely angry, guilty, or miserable.  I might be getting calloused, but the thing is, if you can’t find a way to bear it, you can’t stay.  I think I’ve found a way to bear it that isn’t numb or indifferent.  So that is a breakthrough.

I’ve internalized “flexibility and humor.”  It took a long time.  I said it a whole bunch of times while I was actually seething internally, but I knew I needed to believe it.  I’m not saying I roll with every punch or laugh off every mishap, but this is my general mindset:  It isn’t going to work the way I expect, Plan A is a fantasy, and I may as well laugh about it because ulcers and high blood pressure just don’t help.

I know some people got to where I am in much less time, and likely far beyond.  Other people left.  It took me a long time to say this, but I’m glad I didn’t.


*We lost our internet because someone arrived outside our home wearing shirts that said the name of our internet provider, proceeded to set up a new connection for someone living close by but in an area unlikely for anyone to be paying monthly for internet, and somehow that zapped ours out of function.  It was clearly cause and effect.  We asked the workers to see about making ours reconnect and they nodded and said okay, and then left.  When Kim described this on the phone while making her push to get it fixed, the person confirmed that was the problem and explained, “Oh, those were vendedores.  If you see that happening again, take a picture of them and give it to us.”
Uh-huh.  We probably won’t do that.