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.
I have a tolerate-hate relationship with taking taxis. I’ve probably walked about half the time this semester. About one out of three times I’m in a taxi I have some manner of less-than-ideal, remind-me-I-prefer-to-walk interaction with a taxero, ranging from “did he start early today?” to “he’s trying to rip me off,” to “we could have died right there,” to “Man, I should NOT offer critiques of the government to a stranger who is driving me somewhere!” I’ve also had some great conversations.
But I will tell you something that I know is slightly irrational: since my accident, I have not been willing to get into a taxi. Yes, I was driving when I got hit. And it was (at least significantly) my fault. Not that I remember it. I guess the getting smashed into and blacking out ripped away that veil of “other people have accidents here.” Some taxi drivers are very aggressive. I can’t face that right now.
I don’t dress appropriately when I walk. I’ll just say that straight out. I wear my running shoes, comfortable athletic shorts and a wicking (dry-fit) t-shirt. Problem is, only kids and teens wear shorts in Nicaragua. Grown-ups aren’t supposed to, in public. Well, they don’t much. Men, anyway. I see more men of the wealthy class wear shorts when they are out. But I’m inappropriate. I tried. I wore slacks and jeans and pants my first three years here, just to look right. But I felt like it was killing me. Slowly, with sweat. And lots of chaffing. I would never wear shorts to a Nicaraguan church. When the setting feels more formal, I’ll take the bullet. But walking four kilometers in mid-day heat and humidity?
As I leave the house, our dogs bark like crazy. That’s a mixed deal. Kim hates having our dogs bark too much, because she doesn’t want to be that neighbor with the annoying, incessantly barking dog (our dogs are barking as I type this). The other side is, our three dogs provide significant home security, simply through their daunting presence. We need them to bark and jump around and froth once in a while, to remind people not to come wandering in uninvited.
Once I am out our gate, forcefully keeping the dogs from following me–not as trivial of a task with a broken rib–I’m on our sidewalk, which is concrete, next to our road, which is dirt and bumps and holes. Usually I cross about forty feet from our house so that I can say “hello” to our group of borrachos (men who spend their days on our street drinking) from a friendly yet not-convenient-to-stop-me distance. When I’ve walked within a few feet of them, almost every time one of them stands up and asks if I have some money. If I pass by at five feet plus, I can greet and bless them and continue. There are other times to stop and chat.
Next is the ice cream cart with the two very small children whose father is often drunk. Going to school isn’t my favorite time to buy an ice cream, so I usually just try to say “¿hola, como estas?” get a high five from the little guy, and let them know I’ll purchase something later. They almost always set up shop half a block downhill from our house, so I’m confident there will be a later.
Usually, after waving to a few more neighbors, that takes me out of range of people I know by name. At the top of the hill, I’ll turn right at Hosanna Sur, the large church and after-school center. Once I make that turn, I’m more alert for the next couple hundred meters. None of us have ever had troubles on this road, but we’ve been warned repeatedly by our Nicaraguan friends that this area is more dangerous. Striding confidently during daylight, I’m fine, but it’s not a walk I make at night when I can help it. Usually there are groups sitting around, talking, watching me pass. Once in a while I will hear a comment about the “chele” (light-skinned person).
In the course of the next three-and-a-half kilometers, I will exchange, on average, thirty to forty greetings. It could be a lot more if I made a point of speaking to everyone I pass. Usually the exchange is
We don’t say “hello” to someone here first, we say “goodbye.” That would sound strange on a U.S. sidewalk: as someone walks up, you say, “Goodbye!” But actually, I think we’re more saying “to God.” It feels more like a blessing than a farewell to me. Go well. Go with God.
If you greeted forty strangers, what would your rate of response be? All but one or two people say something on my walk. Most often it’s “adios,” though sometimes it’s “dale pues,” or “¡nos vemos, chele!” Schoolkids often want to bust out some English. “Hi!” “Hello!” “Goodbye!” Today, an older man reached out and took my arm as he said, “Dale Pues, Gringo.” I thought he might be hoping for a handout–it’s a frequent tactic, since taking the arm gets one a captive audience–but he just looked me in the eye, let go, and kept walking.
I always walk the same route to school–there aren’t obvious alternatives–so I’m certain that I am an object of interest to the folks who live on my route. First, few other gringos live within…fifteen kilometers. Second, only one takes one to three strolls per week past their home at mid-day. Third, this one dresses like he’s twelve or playing sports, but all he does is walk and sweat. I’ve had people ask me if I’m going to the gym, going for a run, going to play soccer.
Occasionally, I’ll pass a few youth with caps turned sideways and sleeves rolled up to show off home-inked tattoos and the odds are, these guys may not say “hello.” But sometimes they surprise me, too.
En route, I’ll pass many stray dogs, horse carts, ox carts, chickens, more motorcycles than I can count–often carrying a family of four or five–new shiny trucks, old beat up trucks, flatbed trucks carrying twenty people back. There’s a lot of trash on the ground, especially in certain sections. During the rainy season (now) there’s water flowing in little rivulets, but the colors always concern me. Because water is supposed to be clear. Or at least a nice, muddy puddle color.
The first fifteen minutes of my forty-ish minute walk are on residential and back roads. Then I reach the highway. To get across the four lanes–and this is the intersection where I got hit–many Nicaraguans will walk out into the middle and stand on the center yellow line, waiting for a break in traffic. I will only do that if I can see that there is an opening coming more or less immediately. If pedestrians have the right of way in Nicaragua, I have yet to see evidence. So you cross when you can.
Once I’ve gotten across, I’m on the right side of the road going toward our school, which means there’s always a chance someone who knows me will stop and pick me up. So I try to remain visible, walking on the side of the road. This is a section where the roads are now nicely paved–a big upgrade since my early visits to Nicaragua–but there is limited or no sidewalk. This part undercuts my “safer” option. We’ve heard multiple reports of people hit and killed on the side of the road after a collision or even by a bus or truck getting a flat or malfunctioning. So I try to walk very alert–available to get a ride while also ready to bail. But some of the stretches are just too narrow, too close to the edge of the highway, and have too many people walking there. I pass a number of bus stops with little crowds of people standing, so that leaves only the road to walk on. I pray that no vehicles go out of control when I step onto the highway or where all those people are waiting.
I pray a lot, in fact. One big reason I prefer the walk to the taxi ride is that I like to have time to pray and I enjoy praying while I’m in motion. I’m easily distractable–there’s way too much activity in my brain–and somehow having my body active can help my brain to focus better. If I’m not walking or hiking or shooting baskets when I’m praying, then I’m almost always writing in my journal. It just works better for me that way.
I talk a lot with God about Nicaragua while I walk. I see a man and a woman on a motorcycle with a two-year-old and an infant, and I pray. I try to pray for the people I pass. I pray about the impoverished, broken education system here. I pray for my kids. I discuss with God what I’m doing here and if it still makes sense to stay. I pray for all the young people I mentor. I pray for God to give me hope.
Today, on the way to school, I passed someone who looked familiar–then I yawped in surprise. It was Esteban. In our first two years here, we’d worked a lot with Esteban, trying to help him to find employment. He came over for help a lot. We were still new here and trying to figure out how to help. We bought him some tools. We gave him shoes. We “loaned” him money for medical expenses. Then he started showing up at our gate drunk. We realized, much as we wanted to help him, we weren’t. We didn’t really know how and we weren’t connected with a community yet. Later, we brought him with us to church, Nueva Jerusalen, where he met some of our friends and received prayer. But he didn’t go back.
So today, while I was already tight on time–did I mention I’m not quite 100% for speedwalking yet?–there was Esteban, looking clean-shaven and sober and dressed in a decent shirt. We passed each other and he would have stopped, but I didn’t.
“¿Como esta, Esteban?” I asked as I passed.
“Bien,” he told me, and nodded his head.
“¡Buenos! ¡Gracias a Dios! ¡Gracias a Dios!” I emphasized, and continued on. Maybe I should have stopped. I feel a little guilty that I didn’t. But there can be no “stop for a minute.” It was either the pass-by greeting or I would be ten minutes to hear how he had been, and possibly another five to build up to a request. I couldn’t do it and make my class. So I blessed him and prayed for him and kept walking.
I told myself I was going to grab a taxi when I had only a kilometer left, so that I didn’t overdo it and could guarantee my punctuality. But I couldn’t. I physically couldn’t force myself to signal one driving by. So I kept walking.
My back didn’t love the walk. It wasn’t killing me, but neither was it thanking me. My legs were pretty grateful, though, and my lungs, though protesting deeper breaths, in the long run were likely pleased, as well
During my walks, I’ve gotten all manner of rides from friends, from the backs of motorcycles and scooters to fancy cars and SUVs with AC to the bed of a truck made of wood planks. I’m pretty much always grateful to get a ride, since by then I’ve been walking for a while. I’ve never been picked up by a horsecart, though I’ve been tempted to ask. The horses always seem like they’re working plenty hard without me, though.
By the time I come within sight of school today, I’m well past soaked. I always bring my teaching clothes–yep, long pants, a shirt with a button or two somewhere–in my backpack so I can change once I stop sweating and get a chance to rinse off. The guards, who have all become friends, shake their heads, bemused, and greet me warmly. They want to know if it’s hot. They think I’m loco…but they seem to like me. They don’t mention how inappropriate my clothes are. They always seem taken with how active I am at my advanced age.
That feels ironic today as I’m creaking along, trying not to get too horribly out of shape, trying to be patient with my healing to get better enough before I try to get back into shape.
I get to school, I get to class, I remember how much I love these young people and how sad I’m going to be when they graduate in a couple weeks. And we talk about the God I was just talking with.
Back is different. Back is getting in the car–even now, when our car is badly damaged and getting repaired, some people have loaned us a car–and driving on that same highway. The kilometers whiz by. Sometimes we witness what seems to us insane driving–sometimes much closer than we’d like–and we shake our heads and comment. But there are no greetings. No one looks me up and down and wonders why this gringo thinks he’s a teenager. We drive home, the tiny percentage of people wealthy enough to have a functioning car in this country. We’re tired after teaching and coaching and student-ing. We debrief the school day and talk about dinner and evening plans. We do what a lot of you do and what we would do if we lived in the U.S.
I am the privileged class here. To pretend otherwise is denial. As I’ve said, we don’t live in poverty, we live near poverty; that difference is inestimable.
I like walking, though. I like getting to greet and bless my neighbors and the strangers who think I’m strange. Most Nicaraguans take the bus. Transportation takes a long time. Walking takes me a long time. I get to be with God. I get to see and pray. I get dirty and sweaty. I get to exercise. I get to interact, even if it’s brief.
I get to be here.
Three crucial addenda for this experience to be related accurately:
1) People honk a LOT in Nicaragua. Cars, motorcycles, taxis, trucks, BUSSES, semis. A lot. As I was walking today, I realized that this has become normal for me, but it is also constant.
2)Multiple times friends have gone out of their way to give me rides, actually seeing me on the other side of the road and turning around so they could come back and get me, go the other direction to drop me me off, and then get turned around again to go where they were going in the first place. Generous and kind hearts are showing, people! Thank you!
3)It would be wrong not to mention that a certain student has given me MANY rides home this year, especially after basketball practice. So when I describe “Back Again,” a whole bunch of times it’s been in his car.
Thanks, Gabriel, the anonymous student!