Costurera

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 5

Seamstress.  

We have a neighbor about three blocks up the street who has a sign out offering mending and alterations.  

She looks about fifty-five to me, but I’ve been fooled before.  I know people here who appear ten to twenty years older–to me–than they actually are.  Lack of dental care, poor nutrition, too many years of too long hours take a toll on the body.  Living in the barrio can take a toll on the body. 

She has a beautiful smile and, when she smiles, which is frequently, her face brightens.  Her wrinkles are adjusted for smiles.  She is clearly one of those people who has smiled a lot in her years.  

Today, I had to pick up six pairs items, pants and shorts, school uniforms* that she had hemmed for us.  They huge road machinery is still working on our street–paving!–so I had to tiptoe around the work site by the side of the road; a big stretch of the road is now wet cement.  

I got to her house and she greeted and welcomed me, smiled at me, then went through five or six plastic grocery bags, seeking to identify the clothes that belong to us.  She found them and laid each one out for me, showing me what she had done.  I then handed her a shirt that my son had just gotten that had already opened up a hole in the seam at the left shoulder.  She waved her hand and told me that she would fix it but would not take anything for it, that it was nothing.

Then I handed her two hundred cordobas, asking if she had change.  Two hundred cordobas is just over six dollars (30 cords to the dollar right now). She gave me one hundred eighty cordobas in change.  That meant she had done the altering for sixty cents. 

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Shouldn’t it be more than that?”

“No.  And this shirt is nothing.  It will be done this afternoon.”

“Okay.  You’re sure?”

Now even by the standards of our barrio, that is too little.  But she wasn’t changing her mind.  So I thanked her and clasped her hand and blessed her and tiptoed my way back through the road crew and tools and crying concrete.  

About 45 minutes later, our neighbor Mileydi tapped lightly on my door.  

“The costurera is here.”

I went out and greeted her.  She asked me how much I had paid for the mending and I told her twenty cords.  

“Okay,  My daughter asked, ‘Momma, how much did he pay you?  You only got twenty cordobas.'”

“How much was it supposed to be?”

Cien veinte .”  

Fortunately, I still had the 180 cords of change in my pocket.  I took them out and handed her the hundred cord bill.  

She hesitated.  Asked how much the change should be.  I showed her the hundred cords in one hand, the eighty in the other, said, “I gave you cien cords, so veinte more, one hundred minus twenty  is eighty.”  

She kept smiling but didn’t seem convinced.  I walked her through the arithmetic again, then twice more.  Finally Mileydi walked over and, as far as I could hear, repeated the same thing I had said but in better Nica Spanish, without the gringo accent.  

Our costurera smiled at her and closed her hand on the hundred cord bill.  

“Si.  Gracias,” she said.  Then she handed me the shirt, already stitched.  

Nada,” she insisted.  

Now during all of this, I offered all hundred and eighty cords, and then the fifty and then the twenty in addition to the hundred she accepted.  Repeatedly.  She wouldn’t take them.  But she smiled bigger and told me her daughter was right.

“Tell her I kept asking.  Tell her the gringo is not a ladrón!” I said, smiling back.  Mileydi laughed at me.  

And our neighbor walked back home.  

You would imagine, before you entered this culture, that you could just insist on overpaying.  And you could.  And we do, sometimes.  But doing so can risk damaging the relationship.  There are Nicaraguans who see all gringos as rich and seek to overcharge at every opportunity.  And there are also Nicaraguans who refuse to take even twenty cordobas extra, because her price is twenty cords per garment.  She doesn’t do math well.  But she’s rightfully proud of her work and she won’t take more from us than from her other neighbors. 

Because she sees us as neighbors, too.  

There and Back Again

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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

Redemption from Ashes

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Something beautiful happened today.

We stood on the freshly dried concrete floor of our friend Elizabeth’s newly-built home and we worshiped God and prayed for his blessing.

Two weeks ago, Elizabeth’s  home burnt to the grounds home burnt to the ground.  She had to guard the pile of rubble so that no one would steal her last possessions.

Two weeks ago, we barely new Elizabeth.  Kim had chatted with her about kids and dogs and recargas.

Eliza and Bella

Elizabeth and Bella sharing Scripture verses and laughing.

 

Today, we sang songs of gratitude together and prayed blessings for this home; then we shared mini-doughnuts and Coke.  And it struck me–and I hope this doesn’t offend you–that we were sharing communion together.

Now, we know Elizabeth.  She is joining our Mujeres de Shalom (“women of peace”) group led by our ministry partner Bella Ndoro.  She even, somehow, has the tiny beginnings of an inventory of 2 cordoba (6 cent) bags of chips.  Corin is more than happy to be her best customer.

The kids chased a ball around outside while we talked and laughed.  kids in front yardAnd I pictured what I had seen two weeks ago when I walked back to see the site of the fire.

 

I have described in detail the broken infrastructure of Nicaraguan government and social services.  But I watched bags of cement delivered, construction workers show up (whom Elizabeth was responsible to feed; we and some other neighbors got to help with that), and in less than two weeks, Elizabeth has a home again.  I don’t know what you think of socialism, but we’re certainly grateful she is not homeless.

I love the word “redemption.” When I speak of redemption, I mean God’s refusal to let bad things just rot, his absolute determination and willingness to bring good out of bad.

I love the word “redemption.” When I speak of redemption, I mean God’s refusal to let bad things just rot, his absolute determination and willingness to bring good out of bad.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  This does not mean that all things are good; some things are horrible and some are evil.  But in all things, God continues to bring good for people’s lives.

Eliza and Mike

I was standing there, looking at these solid, blank walls and this bare floor, a house that none of us–you reading this and I–would consider luxurious.   It’s one room.  But I doubt I’ve ever seen someone more grateful for a home.

And where we were strangers before, now we have started friendships.  Where she was abandoned by her husband, then left with nothing, in that same place we got to surround her and pray and sing and laugh and eat.  Our close neighbor friends, Mileydi and Juan Carlos, and our Servant Partners teammates have become Elizabeth’s new friends.  

When we first began to sing, there were only a few of us in the Eliza with everyonecircle, but as our voices drifted outside, some neighborhood children and two other moms came in, drawn into the celebration. In this barrio, tensions over the sharing of scarce resources and distrust among neighbors can run high. We lean on God to make part of our witness here modeling a better way of living together, of singing and sharing and holding hands as we pray.  Of learning from Jesus how to be true neighbors.

 

[Kim and I wrote this one together.]

 

House Fire

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Friday, a woman’s house burned down.

I got a ride home from coaching basketball practice to see a huge pile of black waste material being loaded into a dump truck by a Cat.  We don’t see big machinery on our street very often.

“Is that trash?” one of my players asked.

“Or maybe sewage?” I suggested.  We live across from an asentimiento, a squatter village.  Either is possible.

We watched for another minute before I got out.  My wife and young son were there with other neighbors, watching, too.

I came up smiling at them, but no one returned my smile.  Then Kim told me what happened.  Everyone in the asentimiento IMG_0074hooks into the power lines and runs electricity, rigged up however they can, to their homes.  The rigged wire had begun to spark and burned her house to the ground.  The destroyed house was across the street from us and two houses back from our close friends.  I walked down to see the site.  The only things left were the brick fire cookstove and some zinc roofing.

 All her other possessions were now that pile of rubble, ash, and cinder quickly getting scooped up to be hauled to the Managua city dump. Two tiny barefoot neighbor girls were darting in and out of the blackened pile, collecting charred bits of wood for their cooking fires.

Continue reading

Questions without Answers, Part 1

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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?”

“Si.”

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?

Of Ultimate and How I Deal

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We live in Nicaragua; living here is hard. The motto I’ve come up with is “flexibility and humor and grateful for what God gives today.” I could say a lot about that. I will, another time.

This place is hard for many of the same reasons anyplace with extreme poverty is hard: people in desperate situations making desperate and (from our perspective) destructive choices, rampant addiction, lacking sufficient income to cover basic needs.  One of our neighbors, who has a 21-month-old and a new baby of about six weeks, is separated from her husband. He took up with another woman and, in spite of our friend’s patience and grace and continuing offers of forgiveness, he has acted as if he can live both lives. The main reason he seems to believe this will work is that she is completely dependent on him economically—she has no food without him.

We have been doing our best to support her while watching in horror and trying not to interject with our opinions too strongly. If this happened to a woman friend in the U.S who had means to support herself, we would counsel, while hoping for reconciliation, to pull back from the relationship until her husband showed signs of repentance, like, say, stop having sex with the other woman and disappearing for days at a time. We have been inviting her for meals, bringing her meals, helping with groceries, and spending time with her and helping watch her children. Our 15-year-old daughter, who was born with twice as much nurturing in her heart as the average person, takes care of the nearly-two-year-old a lot, purely voluntarily. I have to tell you, that’s beautiful to see, and it gives me hope for the teenage race. Finally, months and months later, our friend has reached her limit. She told him she’s done. She still loves him, but he clearly does not love her. His response is that’s just her, and she will come around (implied: when she gets hungry enough).

So, “when helping hurts” readers, feminists, wise folks all, what can we do here? Here’s what we’re doing: we’re feeding our friend and her babies. We’re encouraging her that she made the right decision about her cheating husband and we’re trying to brainstorm with her about how she can go forward and support herself. I forgot to mention—she can read at about a 2nd grade level and can do only basic arithmetic, and had been in one of our classes we’re offering in our barrio, until her life went haywire. I had the privilege of teaching her to multiply and divide–one my best moments in four years here, when her eyes lit up and she grasped it for the first time…at age 25. Unemployment in Nicaragua is between 50-70% (yeah, with zeros, not single digits), so you can begin to grasp what she’s up against. And we are praying very hard that she will not take up with someone worse. She is an intelligent and practical woman. But the pattern here is for men to have affairs and move on and women to take a new lover until the woman gets pregnant. Repeat. I won’t even get into how these “step-dads” often treat the children. Just imagine the worst, and you’re right.

Yes, we’re trying to establish some clear boundaries in how we help her, so that our temporary solution doesn’t end up making things worse in the long term (what’s worse than going hungry, with your baby, in the short term?). Mainly, we’re trying to love our neighbor as ourselves, and do for her as we would want someone to do for us. None of that turns out to be easy, and we’re at the very beginning of figuring out how to do it well.

So then there’s ultimate. The sport, I mean, the one with the disc and all the running.* We’re not poor. I never will be, unless I fall into some drug addiction or alcoholism and destroy all the support structure we have in place. We live among the poor, but that is still worlds away from actually living in poverty. We give up some conveniences and we accept some potential dangers living here. The greater cost, the higher risk, is our sanity. Living in the face of this kind of suffering can get to you. I’ve been depressed for much of the time I’ve lived here, and truthfully, I haven’t extended myself into the depths of it. Our organization, Servant Partners, is about living incarnationally (i.e. alongside, but much more to say there, so that’s another post, too) in slums among the urban poor, BUT, the key is our phrase, “Sustainable incarnational living.” People can burn out quickly in this work, especially if they are accustomed to a different, more convenient life where things work better and more efficiently and the front gate doesn’t have six or seven borrachos hanging out all day (we like them, by the way). We’re in year five, which means a)we’ve figured out how to survive four years and b) (I think) we’re learning how to thrive here.  “Sustainable” I take to mean we must find a means of living here and doing this work that doesn’t kill us, destroy our marriage, incline us to abuse our children, or ruin our health. No, it means this, too: we can grow into folks who love God and our neighbors more. A great myth of our work is that it will automatically turn one into a saint, to which I say, “HA!” Not so much. At least, I haven’t seen it yet. I sure as heck don’t see it in the mirror.

Twice a week, Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, I get to play ultimate. I love ultimate. Like Top 5 I love ultimate (grouping my children together as one number on that list). But ultimate has changed for me since I moved here, and not only because we play a slightly different version on Sundays and a bit lower level than you’re starting to see on SportsCenter (hooray!). Ultimate has become one of my lifelines to sanity, one of the key blocks of my “sustainable incarnational” foundation. I get to run around like a maniac for about 3-4 hours, throw and chase after a piece of plastic, jump, dive (delightful in the rainy season, “like diving on asphalt covered in broken glass” in the dry season), feel younger, stay in shape, and, for a little while, let the world be about passing and catching that disc up and down the field. For a huge added bonus, two of my daughters love to play.

Playing ultimate relieves stress, gives me a safe place to vent my emotions and frustrations, and, frequently enough, bolsters my self-esteem, which takes a hammering here most of the time. (Go ahead, psychoanalyze me…just don’t tell me about it.) For me, playing ultimate is a form of worship. If you don’t know the Eric Little line, you should stop reading this and go watch Chariots of Fire. That kind of worship. Worshiping God with this body he created, discovering what it can do, rejoicing in his gift of exercise. Plus, kicking ass once in a while. Today, I got a pass that led me so I had to lay out (ultimate lingo for dive), then I got up and curved a throw to my daughter, who made a sliding catch for a score. Yeah, we celebrated. On another play, my other daughter made a terrific catch for a score—but she was on the other team. We celebrated that, too. Just barely, slightly less.

That’s how I deal. One of the big ways, anyhow. To say “it helps” would be a gross understatement. I won’t go so far as to say I couldn’t live here without it, but I hope I don’t have to try. My wife, who loves and understands me, helps me block out this time every week. Like I said, I’m not impoverished. I have choices and disposable income, like for buying discs and cleats and spending gas money to drive back and forth (in our car!) to our school where we play. Those are privileges for which I’m profoundly grateful. Our time living here has taught us many things—like how bloody fortunate we are—but maybe the most important has been how to keep living here. Because without that, none of the other lessons are going to help much. They certainly won’t help our friend and her children.

 

* Some people call it “ultimate frisbee,” but that, too, is a post for a different time (hint: we don’t play with a Frisbeetm).

CRUCIAL POST-SCRIPT:  Since I posted this, our friend and her husband are, astonishingly, reconciled.  We are still holding our breath, but from what we can tell, they seem to be doing well.  I thought about scrapping this, but the description of our experience is still accurate, and there is too much bad news here not to share good news when it happens!