Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Continued from we're back! and 

Day 11, continued

The road between El Jícaro and our community is not paved.

We walked this road every day while we were building our house, we brag to the kids.

There’s where we took the short cut...
There’s where people drive down to the river to get sand and wash their trucks....
This bridge got washed out in the hurricane...
There’s where Papa forded the stream in his underwear.

As we approach our village, we scrutinize faces of the people we pass. Do we know anybody? We drive by the first house without recognizing it. But then we start to see familiar buildings, and then—there’s Doña Aurora’s gate! Pull in! (We built our house on Doña Aurora and Don Humberto’s property, and we even lived with them for a couple months while we finished up our house.)

We turn in and my husband jumps out to open the gate.

I get out of the truck and here comes Doña Aurora walking down the steps towards us, an incredulous look on her face. We hug fiercely, all of us crying, then step back, look at each other and laugh, and then hug some more.

Within minutes, Aurora is taking us on a tour of the property. She shows us the new well, the fruit trees, the corn field with four different varieties of corn (an experiment funded by an outside group). As we finish up the tour, she hollers across to her daughter’s house, “Guess who is here!”

News travels fast—her daughter yells back, “Jennifer?”

I respond with a loud hallo, and then I’m wiggling between two strands of barbed wire and hugging Jeaneth, her newborn baby wedged between us.

"making" tortillas with Jeaneth

Doña Paula, Jeaneth’s mother-in-law, is in the garden, hoeing. There are more clinging hugs, more tears. “We never thought we’d see you again! We thought you forgot us!” This is what everyone says, over and over again.

My favorite part of this picture? Jeaneth's hands.
Also note, no plastic covering on the diapers.

Just as we feared, no one knew we were coming. Their letters of the last few years never got through to us, and vice versa, so it’s been years since we’ve had communication. And, as no other foreign volunteers have ever returned, they’d given up hope.

What a miracle! they tell each other, shaking their heads.

The men come in from the fields. Children cluster round. The children we left thirteen years ago are now young adults, married and with children of their own. It’s both heartbreakingly nostalgic and gratifying to see that life has, indeed, gone on.

Don Kilo slaughters a kid (a goat kid, not a child) in honor of our arrival.

No small children are permitted to watch the killing, but afterwards they all gather to watch the master machete-wielder at work. Don Kilo’s wicked knife skills impress my husband to no end.

My younger son quickly makes friends with Jeaneth’s boys.

cooking the tortillas over a barrel stove 

My younger daughter becomes bosom buddies with Aurora’s granddaughter.

Soon my children are running back and forth between and through houses, exploring wells, discovering shortcuts, and chasing pigs.

I need to do laundry, so Jeaneth sets me up at the well.

I welcome the solitude, a brief reprieve in the storm of emotions. Afterwards, she helps me hang the clothes on barbed wire and I hope I haven’t just succeeded in poking holes in all our clothes. (I haven’t.)

I visit with Doña Paula while she makes cuajada, something I've watched her do so many times before...

dog on her kitchen floor

David, the youngest of Aurora’s 12 children, shows us our old house which is now his house.

He and his wife and their little girl sleep there, but they have a kitchen (with wood-burning stove) up at his mother’s house.

Thirteen years ago, we were the new family, posing for pictures on that same porch.

Our little house now has green walls, and a peace corp worker who lived there painted some trees on the walls, but aside from that (and minus our pretty lamps, cozy rugs, and rocking chairs, tables, mini fridge, and gas stove), it looks pretty much the same: sturdy and cute.

I am standing in the far corner of our one-room house. 
People didn't believe it was possible to build a second story (loft), 
but we proved them wrong.

David takes us on a walk down to the well where we used to get our water.

In the beginning, we hauled the water up in a little bucket, and later my husband helped them seal the top and add a rope pump, but now the well is used mostly for watering animals. The baby trees that Doña Aurora planted are huge—it’s practically a forest.

Everywhere we go, there are pictures of us on people's walls and in their photo albums.

My parents and younger brother  with Jeaneth's two babies.

And everywhere we go, people feed us.

Doña Paula plies us with large mugs of milky, sweet coffee and fresh rosquia and mango cake (I taught them how to make cake!) from the previous day’s baking. Doña Aurora is dismayed that we won’t be eating supper at her house and shows me the freshly killed chicken simmering away on the stove.

But we’re having goat for supper up at Doña Paula's, I apologize.

What? You’re eating there? But what about all the food I made for you! she says, pretending to be stunned by my "betrayal."

Irritated with her controlling, possessive behavior (she and I have always had a prickly relationship), I refuse to eat. My husband, however, accepts a plate. And then she hands out loaded plates to the children, too. They have yet to recuperate from their big lunch and look at me, panic in their eyes. You don’t have to eat it, I say. Just taste it and then hand it back and say thank you.

That evening, the women’s group and some of the husbands gather for dinner at Doña Paula’s house. Her daughter Silvia has come from up the road, and Teresa has come from a community an hour and a half away.

The women fill us in on all the group's activities:

*After all these years, they are still an active group.
*They have a community “bank” and each year different members take on the role of accountant and president.
*They have guided three other communities in forming women’s groups and starting “banks.”
*They are a registered group, which means that the government sends new projects their way because they know the women of Casas Viejas will get the job done.
*They make braided bread and French bread at Christmas.
*They have taught other women’s groups how to make donuts and the metal cake pans that my husband taught them to make. “We teach anyone who is interested,” they say proudly. “There’s no point in keeping what we know a secret.”
*They tell me, “We have had other groups and organizations come to help us, but you were our base. We didn’t do anything before you came.”

I helped to get them started, sure, but they—these hardworking, capable, intelligent, go-getters—did all the work. I am so, so, so incredibly proud of them.

After supper, we get baths down at Doña Paula’s well, in the dark. It’s ... an adventure.

And then we head over to our little house to sleep. David and his family have generously turned the whole place over to us. I am briefly dismayed by the sleeping arrangements: two beds—one a single and the other a smaller-than-normal double bed—and a hammock.

My older son sleeps in the hammock, just like he did when he was a baby, and  Doña Aurora tucks him in.

The rest of us line up like sardines and do our best to find a comfortable spot on the rock-hard beds.

To be continued...

Monday, July 29, 2013

heading north

Continued from we're back! and 

A year after we got married, my husband and I moved to Nicaragua to work with MCC for three years. Our job was a typical MCC job: learn the language and then work with a partner organization somewhere in the boonies. We lived eight hours (over very bumpy roads) north of Managua, almost to the Honduran border, in a community called Casas Viejas with about 35 or 40 other families. The first year we built our house out of mud. The second year we tried to figure out why we were there, bought a dog, and survived a hurricane. The third year we had a baby. And then we came home. That was thirteen years ago.

Those three years were some of the hardest years of my life. There was no phone, no internet, no running water, and no gringos. We were isolated, we fought a lot, and I struggled with depression. Our work was sporadic. Any job we did, we had to create ourselves. There was no direction and not much inspiration. I started a women’s group and while we had a great time together, our weekly meetings only used up 3-6 hours—I filled the remaining 34-37 hour work week with visiting, doing laundry, and wishing there was a giant TV hidden behind the wall hanging.

Still, we loved the people. They were uneducated, and we didn’t have much in common with them (talking about babies, weather, and corn crops gets dull after a bit), but they loved on us and claimed us as their own. When we left, we were relieved and sad (but mostly relieved). We promised we would visit, but we didn’t know when.

For years, we diligently saved money for a return trip. But we kept having children, and then we bought a house in the country, and swoosh, there went all our savings. We eventually came to terms with the fact that we would probably never get to visit our friends in Casas Viejas again. Giving up that dream was hard for me. I grieved its loss.

And then we got this job in Guatemala. In one of our first Skype calls with our country reps, they said, “We expect you to attend team meetings as well as the regional retreat that is being held this year in ... Nicaragua.” We were beyond ecstatic.

So obviously, we knew from the very beginning that we would be staying in Nicaragua for a few days after the retreat. We had some people to visit!


About six weeks before our trip to Casas Viejas, I sent a letter to our community informing them of our impending arrival. We hadn’t had communication with them for years, so all I could do was give them our cell numbers and hope for the best. I searched for hotels in El Jicaro, the closest town, but couldn’t find any information either on line or in the guidebooks. Did the place even exist anymore?

As the time for our trip drew close, my anxiety levels reached a fever pitch. What if no one was there anymore? What if they had all died or moved away? What were we doing taking four children into the middle of nowhere?

“Look,” my husband said. “Everyone out there owned land. They are farmers. They haven’t gone anywhere. Relax.”

He had a good point. I did my best.

Day 10
We drive to the MCC house to show the children where our older son spent his first days of life.

The same turtle that lived in the back yard is still living in the back yard. It’s estimated to be about 25 years old.

We stop by the lab where I first learned, via a blood test, that I was pregnant. The name of the lab is Inmaculada Concepción, I kid you not.

His was not an immaculate conception, I assure you.

We get donuts and cookies at a bakery around the corner, where I spent hours writing letters and trying to escape the heat. We buy tarp and rope to secure the baggage in the back of the truck, find city and country maps, buy our bus tickets for the return trip, and finally, finally, we head north.

We zip through Estelí and then Ocotál. To our delight, the road to El Jícaro is paved! And it’s gorgeous!

“It’s like the yellow brick road!” my husband squeals, and then, “Look, there’s even yellow bricks!”

Sure enough, where they had to repair the roads, they dug up the bricks and then replaced them so that the yellow line got broken up and dispersed, giving the road a yellow-brick feel.

We see two (or was it three?) rainbows.I am not superstitious, but I take them to be a good omen.

When we get to El Jícaro (about five and a half hours after leaving Managua), it is almost dark. We decide to find a hotel and then head out to the community first thing in the morning. Despite what the guidebooks say (or did not say) we find a hotel. We get supper at a little comedor and then turn in for the night.

Sleep isn’t easy to come by, however. It is the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution and between 12 and 2, the quiet night is blasted to bits with explosives, horn-honking parades, and shouting people.

Day 11
I am up early, chomping at the bit, but it takes us a couple hours to get our act together and move out. We decide to leave our stuff at the hotel since we may, depending on how we find the community, need to sleep there again that night.

On our way out of town, we search for a panaderia (bakery).

(Note: it is a lot harder to buy things in Nicaragua than in Guatemala. On every street in Guatemala, there is at least one store, maybe five. Nicaraguan stores are few and far between, and they are a whole lot sparser. I had wanted to bring fruits and vegetables to give as a gift to the community, but in our excitement we had forgotten to pick stuff up. I figured there were surely be more of a variety in El Jícaro after 13 years—something else besides potatoes, carrots, and onions. But no. There is nothing. And finding a bakery is hard work.)

We weave back and forth through the side streets, following first one person’s directions and then another’s. Finally we get to the spot but see no bakery, only a woman in her housecoat sweeping the street. I approach her. “Excuse me, but can you please tell me if there is a bakery around?”

“Of course,” she says, and then stops short and stares at me. Hard.

I wait.

She stares some more.

I stare back.

She leans in and then says tentatively, “Jenny?”

It is the sister and daughter of our dear friends! We don’t know her well, but she certainly remembers us. We laugh and hug, and when I ask if the community knows we’re coming, she says she thinks not. She’s heard nothing, and her mother would certainly have told her.

She assures us that everyone is there, alive and well. We head out of town, now more excited than nervous, but at the crest of the hill, we stop. There is an old woman who wants a ride. She is heading somewhere else, it turns out, but while we converse, a man jumps into the back.

The kids, who were all sitting in the back, scramble out and climb into the back of the cab. “That man is drunk,” they report worriedly.

We take a look. Sure enough, the man is woozily perched on the tailgate, a large, half-empty bottle of tequila in his hand.

A tense conversations ensues:

Husband: There’s a drunk man in the truck! What do we do!
Me: I don’t know! We can’t take him with us!
Husband: Why did you make me stop?
Me: I thought we could help that old woman!
Husband: I can’t take him to the community!
Me: Make him get out!
Husband: How?
Me: I don’t know! Just tell him to get out!
Husband: How?!
Me: I don’t know! JUST MAKE HIM GET OUT.

We turn off the road and drive halfway around the block. My husband stops the truck, gets out, and says something to the man. The man offers him a styrofoam cup of tequila. My husband declines.

My son hisses, “You should get a picture, Mom!” (I don’t—the moment is a little too touchy for such shenanigans.)

The man drains the cup, shakes hands with my husband, and then follows it up with a first bump. The man gamely hops out and we drive off.

To be continued...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

rest and play: lizards! volcanoes! giant drinks!

Continued from we're back!

Days Six-Eight (July 14-16)
The regional MCC retreat is held about 20 minutes outside Managua at a place called Pueblo Viejo.

When we received the informational letter from the Nicaraguan team telling us that the retreat center was at a higher elevation and would be quite cool, my husband and I scoffed: Managuans! If it drops below 85 degrees, they think they’re freezing!

But they are right and we are wrong: it is delightfully cool! I am shocked. How could it be that I lived in Nicaragua for three years and never knew that there was climate relief only a few kilometers outside of Managua?

the jungle view from our porch

The facilities are amazing. We have our own cottage which is actually more of a house with its full kitchen and two bathrooms.

There are lizards everywhere, and the kids see their first (small) scorpion. Mangoes and avocado trees abound—it feels exotic to see such gorgeous fruit scattered over the ground.

can you find the lizard?

The meals are delicious, and waiters bring out frosty glasses of fresh fruit juice at every meal.

Here’s an example of what’s available for breakfast one morning: balls of fresh cuajada (a very salty Nicaraguan cheese that I adore), tortillas, refried beans, little hotdog/sausage thingies, eggs, toast, yogurt, crema (thin sour cream), pastries, coffee, juice, and assorted fruit. All day long there is hot coffee at the ready and there are mid-morning and afternoon snacks. Plus, the Nicaraguan rep puts out little plates of dark chocolate and nuts at morning break. This small gesture of chocolate love pretty much puts me over the edge. It couldn’t get much better.

We have meetings in the morning and games or free time in the afternoon.

One afternoon, a group of us goes to see the Masaya volcano.

my son and this little girl are best buddies

The volcano is exceptionally smokey on this particular day, so there is no seeing down in the hole which disappoints the children.

They are repulsed by the stink, and they throw stones into the pit and then quietly wait for a long time, waiting for them to hit bottom. This makes me nervous: could a pebble plink be the one thing that sends the dormant beast into eruption mode?

There is a TV crew filming a mostly naked buff guy as he waves around some weights.

I find this immensely entertaining. People are so weird.

Us included.

Afterwards we go to the Masaya market to do some shopping. I am immediately distracted by a stand that sells fruit drinks.

do you blame me?

I convince the rest of the family to forgo the trinkets in favor of enormous goblets of pitaya, melocotón, banana, etc.

They comply quite happily.

The boys both have swimmer’s ear, so my husband finds a pharmacy and then drops the (hopefully) healing potion into their ears.

The fruit drink moves through my younger son’s body at a rapid clip and soon we have a mini crisis.

However, it's nothing that a concrete wall and shady corner can’t fix.

Day Nine
We leave our little piece of heaven and relocate to a guest house in Managua. The pick-up truck we have arranged to rent arrives at the door and the entire family is electrified.

A truck! 
That we can drive! 
All by ourselves! 

My husband is practically giddy.

That afternoon we visit a friend of my husband’s, and his wife and their two little boys.

They live on a farm and grow pretty much everything that there is to grow: coffee, bananas, plantains, yucca, vanilla beans, black pepper, squashes, tomatoes, all sorts of fruit trees, sugar cane, etc. Our lunch and afternoon coffee break is made of things mostly grown right there on the farm: rellenitos from their plantains, pitaya, guacamole, pineapple upside down cake, marvelous coffee, and mint tea. We talk for hours and then finally tear ourselves away in time to get back to the city by dark.

(Note to our Virginia neighbors: the coffee is being sold in Harrisonburg out of our friend’s mother’s basement. It’s ten dollars a pound. It’s not highly acidic, so some people say it’s inferior coffee. The coffee is not inferior (and anyway, who are the coffee gods that say coffee has to be acidic?)—in fact, it’s very delicious. Those of you who are turned off by coffee’s bitter bite? This is your coffee.)

To be continued...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

we're back!

I was awake at 4:30 this morning, my mind a-whirl with the happenings of the last two weeks and all that I want to say. Actually, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night for days now. At first I thought it was all the strange, lumpy beds, but the not falling back asleep part, the racing-mind part, has me thinking it’s just an overload of bottled up thoughts. For a dedicated (read, obsessive) blogger, this is to be expected.

Quite frankly, I don’t even know where to start. I took 807 pictures and that was with me holding back because I had one memory card and no computer to put the photos on. The entire time I had a nervous bubble in my tummy; I was certain my camera would get stolen and all record of our once-in-a-lifetime trip would disappear forever. But nothing got stolen (whew) and now I have to figure out how to process and present.

Part of me wants to just lay it out there, every single exhaustive detail, day by day by day. But another part of me wants to dress the events up a bit, put them in tidy compartments with sharp one-liners. But, as you know, I’ve never been very good at one-liners. I’m more of a paragraph, essay, oh-heck-let-me-write-you-a-book sort of girl.

Hm, I still don’t know what direction I want to take this.

While I ponder, here’s some rosquilla.

 These are the classic Nicaraguan cookie. The cookie dough is made out of the same dough that tortillas are made from, but enhanced with eggs and cheese and such. Rock-hard and crunchy, they taste a little sourly cheesy, a little sweet, and quite corny. They come in different shapes, but my favorites are the ones with a puddle of melted raw cane sugar in the middle.

I bought three (four? five?) bags of these cookies. I have two left and am officially hoarding them now.

Hm, still undecided...

Really, what I want to do is jump straight to the end of the trip and tell you about the very best part, but that feels like cheating. I guess I should just lay it out like it was eh? Photos and book-style explanations and all. (I’ll do my best to summarize the tedious parts.)

Let's begin, shall we?

Day One (July 9)
We ride the Monja Blanca to Guatemala City.

At the halfway stopping point, we buy liquados and get mobbed by a group of high school girls. They touch my older daughter’s hair and admire my younger son’s eyes. My older son has already disappeared back onto the bus (was this intentional? he says no, but I wonder...), and they, upon finding out that we’re living in Cobán, joke giddily that they now have a boyfriend living in Cobán. Their loud, gregariousness is in direct contrast to the K’ekchi’ reserve we are accustomed to. We feel culture shocked.

Once in the city, we unload our bags at Semilla/CASAS and then set out to ride the city buses for the first time. These buses are dangerous. On a routine basis, drivers get shot, people robbed, etc. Plus, we don’t know where we’re going and there is standing room only. My younger kids are entranced by the bars attached to the top of the ceiling so that passengers can hold on to something—the children jump, grab hold, dangle wildly, and then get mad when we order them down.  Other than our monkey offspring, the ride is uneventful.

I stop by a salon and get my hair cut by a scissors magician. Basically, he waves a scissors around my head and the hair falls away. I float home, a new woman.

Back at the “hotel,” we pop microwave popcorn and all pile onto the beds and chit-chat about birth, Fetal Alcohol syndrome, placentas, cutting the cord, etc. You know, just Stuff.

Day Two (and Three and Four)
With the rest of our team members, we drive the MCC van to San Salvador where we pick up another team member, eat a late lunch, and get overcharged (they brought us food we didn’t order, charged us for it, and then played dumb when we tried to explain that we didn’t realize the extra food was extra—we thought it came with the order and so we naively ate it, stupid us).

A couple more hours in the van and we’re at the beach.

We’re greeted with stifling hot weather, crashing waves, deliciously chilly rooms, hoards of vicious mosquitoes, and coffee and cookies. My younger son jumps into the pool and stays there for the next two days.

Really, the pool is awesome. It has different levels and rocky outcroppings and is perfectly suited for leisurely adult conversations, rollicking games of Keep Away, and newbie swimmers and lap swimmers alike.

The beach is lovely, too. But the waves are fierce and no one goes out too far for fear of dying.

so humid the lens fogged up

We eat incredible meals three times each day, plus morning and afternoon snacks. My favorite: the breakfast cheese platter and the soft, white rolls.

We play volleyball. The kids watch TV. We wash our laundry and lay it in the grass to dry. We have meetings and late night gab sessions. There is an ice cream cake.

One team member gets violently ill and has to be taken to the hospital. It turns out to be some weird bacteria and she needs three infusions of rehydration liquid due to severe dehydration (her toes, fingers, and tongue curled up so she couldn’t talk or walk, yikes). The group that takes her to the hospital arrives back at the hotel at 1 am, and we leave an hour later to catch the bus to Nicaragua.

Day Five
We’re up at 2 am and in San Salvador for the 5 am bus to Managua.

The trip takes forever, thanks to three border crossings (which are more like six since we have to stop on either side of each border).

Thankfully, there are movies and none are inappropriate.

We eat when we find food.

We arrive in Managua late, about 17 hours after leaving our hotel that morning.

Another MCC van picks us up and takes us to the retreat center.

Upon arriving, I lug my giant sleeping slug of a baby boy out of the van and sink wearily onto the retreat center’s front steps. A man, who I later learn is the rep (along with his wife) for the MCC Nicaraguan team, approaches me and says, “I have children. You have children. Right now you need two things: food and beds. We will get both as fast as possible.”

Only the sloth on my lap prevents me from leaping up and throwing my arms around his neck.

To be continued...