Nicaragua: Friday

I woke up this morning stiff and tired from the long day of travel the day before. But both my crew and I had to put that aside, for today was the last day of construction for us before we had to go home on Sunday.

Construction on Catherine’s house has come a surprising long way despite our absence. When we left it on Wednesday afternoon, the back wall was almost level with the other building’s wall next to Catherine’s and the front wall was just short of the halfway point. The freelance engineers were already going to use part of the brother’s house as the left wall, so that was already covered but the right-hand was yet to be started. When we came back that morning, the back wall was finished and was being fitted with an electrical outlet. The front wall was now halfway up and the foundation for the right wall has been laid down.

We resumed our usual positions and got immediately to work. Our time was short but productive. When it became time to clean the tools, we managed to bring up the front wall three levels of blocks, just enough to see where the window was going to be. And the right wall was up to knee level.

Before leaving, there was one last thing to do before saying goodbye, a house blessing ceremony. Although the house was not ready to move into yet, we still wanted to wish Catherine and her children good blessings in their new home. Just like in the Belize ceremony, we offered a few gifts to bless the occasion and help out the family one last time. The gifts included sacks of rice, beans, and cooking oil for provisions; a picture frame with a group photo of everyone involved in the project; a photo album of everyone working to build the house; a prayer crystal that embodies all of our love and blessings for Catherine’s family; and I provided a sturdy tote bag for groceries and a Kentucky horseshoe, a symbol of luck and our home to bless their new home.

We spent the remainder of the time on the work-site hugging, crying, and taking as many photographs as possible before leaving for good. I still felt bad leaving such important work half-finished, but our organizers assured us that the house would be complete in one to two weeks. I looked forward to that day.

Tiredly, we headed home for the day. The rest of the day was occupied with lounging, card games, and hosting a pool party with the HHM-sponsored schoolchildren from the youth center. Once again spending some quality time with the future prospects of Managua. Although I still lacked the language, I spent some time with the little ones in the pool playing ball or wading on inner tubes. The kids all had a good time, and so did we.

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(Catherine with her two children, Jose and Kelvin)

Nicaragua: Thursday

Thursday came as a free day for our crew. Today Javier and his crew were left alone with Catherine and her family to work on the house while we went exploring into the deeper regions of Nicaragua.

As soon as we were ready, we set off for San Juan de Oriente, a countryside village in deep Nicaragua. The trip was long and bumpy; the village was about 25 miles from the outskirts of Managua with ill-maintained roads to lead the way. I didn’t mind so much. The smell of the clean, fresh air and beautiful green landscape was enough made my trip relaxing. Along the way we began to see lots of farmhouses. Some had goats mowing the grass, and some had chickens that looked like they wanted to cross the road. As we were getting closer, we started to see more family business shops, most of which turned out to be furniture stores and pottery shops.

When we finally arrived in town, we stopped in front of a potter’s shop with which HHM usually does business. Like all the other shops in San Juan de Oriete, the shop is privately owned and family managed. The proprietor took my group back into his shop and began explaining how he creates his clay crafts.

After our lesson on the effort that goes into each pot, we were given the opportunity to buy from the vast selection of colorful clay art. There were simple clay pots with elaborate designs of fish, birds, lizards, or butterflies in bright earthy colors. There were small cups with decorative borders. There were blowfish pots for incense, sea-turtle flutes, and clay lanterns. I had to temper my enthusiasm with caution when making my selection. So as to (1) not to break anything in the shop and (2) ensure that it could survive the trip through airport security and the ensuing flight.

It was times like this when I wished I had a bottomless inventory pocket like you would find in a “point-and-click” adventure game, the kind where you can store any amount of absurd knickknacks within a coat pocket without fear of being destroyed by an outside force. We gathered and wrapped our new fragile belongings and begun to make our way to our next destination: Mombacno.

Mombacno’s attraction of was its high-ropes zip-lining course, a physical sport that I have had no practice in. If I had, I would have known beforehand how terrifying it was to be 50 feet in the air, walking on a rope bridge from one zip-line platform to another, and have the possibility of being stranded mid-flight

if I applied the brake for my line too soon! Well, despite all of my fearful gripes I could make about my experience, I still had a good time. It was almost liberating to be able to fly through the trees at soaring speeds that I could only experience in a dream.

It was nearing lunch time when the last person in our group rocketed down the last leg of the zip-lining course. We crowded back into the bus and set off for Granada, a bustling metropolis off the coast of Nicaragua Lake. For our first stop in Granada, was lunch. Our leader chose a serene café for its relaxing, open-aired garden and for its tasty lunch specials. This town also proved very accommodating to tourists. Despite that, it seemed like every corner had a vendor trying to pawn off something to an unsuspecting passerby. We did stop for some locally made goods, but not with the street merchants. Our last stop in Granada was the market place, where a multitude of sellers gathered to sell their finest wares. Some sold clothing; others, mugs, wood sculptures, knifes, hammocks, ships in a bottle and other things you would come to expect from a tourist market. It was here I chose to buy a communal present for my family. The other members of my group had similar interests in mind.

The day was not over yet. We still had one more stop to make before going home for the day: Masaya, the home of Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano. For the next hour we traveled through green valleys and on dirt roads. The area surrounding the volcano has remained barren of human encroachment or attraction, and the closer we got to its epicenter, the fewer trees and greenery we saw. Never had I seen a place so vast and so empty.

At last we came to the volcano’s open mouth. Although the volcano has stopped gushing forth lava years ago, it was hard at work billowing white clouds of sulfur dioxide like a factory chimney. The discharge also made the air a little hard to breathe. The only signs of any human influence on this place were the volcano’s warning signs for tourists, the stone remains of a small building, a large metal cross placed high above the smoky crater, and a dirt walk path that leads up and around the opening’s edge.

After some pictures in front of the opening, we started to take the dare and walk around the edge of the volcano to get a bird’s eye view and maybe even see any lava remained in this volcano. The dirt trek didn’t sound so bad at first. As a Boy Scout, I have been on rough hiking trails before with 50 pounds of gear strapped to my back. And as a runner, I have been in races that have uphill courses. So this should be easy! Eh, not so much. The further we went, the more treacherous the trail became. The ground got softer with loose gravel and soot. The path got steeper with 45 degree angle climbs. And the air got thinner and thinner as we climbed. By the time we reached the top, the sun had begun its descent behind the other side of the volcano. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Our missionary group, on top of the world, over an active volcano, and witnessing a sunset that you cannot find anywhere else.

Nicaragua: Wednesday

After each day at the work site, our crew and Javier’s crew reconvenes at the HHM youth center for lunch before continuing with the rest of our day. Today was little different. We still had lunch at the usual place, but this time we had some company, the children of the youth center. Today was our day to play and interact with some of the local kids that HHM helps on a daily basis.

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The festivities started with the kids reading their favorite books to us. Some chose simple picture books that had more cartoon illustrations than words while others showcased their fascination for bugs by reading the contents of an encyclopedia. Through it all, I had a nagging sense of guilt for not knowing how to talk to the little ones. Although I had two years of Spanish under my belt from high school, none of it helped me in this time and place. My little one was reading to me a story about Princess Rosa and that was the only part of her book I understood. I tried to follow along as best I could, but only recognized bits and pieces of the words and I only followed what little I could make out from the few pictures the book had. From my time in Belize, the local’s English/Spanish dependence ratio was about 50/50, and I figured it would be the same here. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

I had time. I could have dug out my old Spanish books. I could have downloaded a learning app on my phone. But I didn’t. And know I will never know what happened to Princess Rosa nor truly appreciate this little girl’s story-telling skills.

After a while we moved on to a different activity, finger-painting. This was an activity I could help with my limited local vocabulary. The kids had their choice of rojo, azul, or amarillo (red, blue, or yellow) to be painted on their hands to make hand-print butterflies and tree leaves as is or they could squish their hands together to make verde, anaranjado, or morado (green, orange, or purple) for their creations.

The last activity for the day (after clean-up, of course) was bubble chasing! A common question that pops up every time I’m on a mission trip that involves a children center is whether or not we could bring the kids something fun to play with. I don’t mean start up a multi-thousand-dollar toy drive, just a few inexpensive gifts (cars, dolls, puzzles, etc.) to show how much we want to be there and how much we care. HHM’s only recommendations were bubble wands and candy, which puzzled me. Even if money or the number of kids weren’t an issue, surely these children would want to play with other kinds of communal toys, like marbles, chalk, plush animals, or wood blocks? As a kid, the cheapest toys I played with were much more intricate than soap and water, and I’m sure lots of other people’s toys were, too.

Such doubts left my mind as soon as a reached for the first wand. I was swarmed with 7-10-year-olds wanting me to either drop the wand or initiate the first wave of sky born suds. They finally settled down somewhat when other members of my crew started blowing bubbles in the more open areas of the center. The children jumped and cheered as they raced to catch as many bubbles as they could before they float to the ground.

These kids didn’t need expensive video games, the latest cellphone, or the most popular toy on the market. They were content with running crazy with their friends and chasing bubbles. Another lesson from Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: Tuesday

Conventional wisdom among vacationers is to always pack their ugliest clothing for the trip. The reason being? If their baggage was ever lost, no big deal. A better reason being is so they can ditch the old clothes to make room in their travel case for more foreign souvenirs. It sounds wasteful, but trading some old socks for some once-in-a-lifetime keepsakes sounds like a good trade to me. That is until this trip.

In preparation for this trip I have been searching various salvage stores for cheap easy-breathing shirts that I could leave behind in Nicaragua and maybe donate to a local clothes drive. However, during the trip’s orientation, my group was told that any clothing (and any other personal property) that I bring into the country I had to take back out of the country. At the time I didn’t understand why till I watched a certain movie on Tuesday evening.

The movie was called Poverty Cure, a series of videos that depict the different nuts and bolts of poverty and what kind of help is needed for each instance. The episode we watched had to do with charity that provides more harm than good. Up till now, I had assumed that any organization that aided the underprivileged was a good organization regardless of name or origin. Never did I realize that a free handout of goods could cause a foreign addiction.

Let’s say, for example, an American organization donates a thousand shirts to a community in Nicaragua. This is a noble gesture, of course. However, this donation in turn eliminates the need for Nicaragua to plant their own cotton crops and make their own shirts and kills the local small market in textiles. They become dependent on a foreign resource and they become addicted to your wallet, which does nothing to help anyone. Instead of healing a wound, you only put a Band-Aid on a broken arm. As it was said in the movie, “A nation cannot rise out of poverty by relying of a foreign resource.”

After watching this video, I have come to understand why the coordinators did not wish us to abandon our own resources for the locals to find. He did not want the locals to become addicted to an income that MIGHT come and he did not want the locals to start calling dibs on our discarded underpants! I have also become warier of which organizations I choose to devote my time and money to. Am I making a long-term resolution or a short-term solution? Will what I do give a man a fish or teach a man how to fish?

Tuesday morning, before getting started with our job at the house site, our coordinator decided to take a short stop at Adrián Rojas Narvaez, a small public school for elementary school students. Though the school itself was small, it’s class size was not. Close to 500 students eagerly come to class here, and they are shared with only ten teachers. Yet despite the complete imbalance of power here, the children come to learn and know what an honor it is to be to come to school each day.

Our visit was met with excitement and enthusiasm. The children greeted us with classroom carols and hugs. They were so excited to be able to meet with American foreigners from another land and greeted us enthusiastically. All too soon we had to say our goodbyes and head back to the work site and add just a little bit more to the house, and bringing it one step closer to being done before we have to leave.

We came, we worked, we left. In a nutshell, this is how our work day goes for the week. We come, we mix more cement, we stack more blocks, we weave more rebar, and the walls get a little higher. I really can’t add much more than that. It’s a slow-moving process. Just like any stone artist would tell you, we can only reach our goal by chipping away at it one piece at a time.

After work, we were given a tour of downtown Managua and get a brief glimpse of Nicaragua’s history, culture, and recreation centers. Some of the places we visited included the Sandino Museum, a memorial site that illustrates the rebellion between the repressed citizens of Nicaragua and their rich oligarchs; the Botanical Gardens that house every known tree in Nicaragua; Revolution Square, a large plaza that has been the site of several iconic historical events in Nicaragua and the resting site of the Old Cathedral that survived the earthquake of 1972; the Managua Mini City, a scale replica of what downtown used to look like before the earthquake of 1972; and finally, the city’s sports park, the very modern and very clean recreation park for the public that features playing field for nearly every sport imaginable.

If time were not an issue, I would have loved to take the tour of each museum and art gallery. Although we weren’t able to take the grand tour of each site, it was still wondrous to see so many of Managua’s iconic places at one time.

Nicaragua: Monday

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            Falling asleep that night was no problem; knowing when to wake up was a little trickier than you would think. By five o’clock, the sun had begun to rise. Where I’m from, seeing the sun in the morning meant two things: (1) you slept in and (2) you’re late! It took me a while to get used to the idea of waking-up with the sun instead of waking up ahead of it.

My mornings start out peaceful and relaxing. Wake around 7am at my own pace with only the sun to greet me. As I walk into the open-aired living room, I am washed over with a bath of cool fresh air and tempered with warm light of the morning sun. Casa Nica sat on top of the hill and so it was on a prime spot to catch some natural cool fresh air.

Breakfast was served shortly after by a local catering group that HHM has hired to take care of our meals for the week. Breakfast each morning was usually varied between eggs, pancakes, and French toast along the daily papaya, watermelon, white pineapple (Highly Recommend!), yogurt, and toast. After we have had our fill, it was time to head out to the work site to fulfill our daily task.

Our newly formed crew consisted of 14 individuals, including myself. While waiting between flights, I got to know some of my new friends. Most of them were new graduates from a local prominent high school for girls. Others were experienced travelers from California, Nevada, and Massachusetts, which impressed me how wide spread HHM influence was. Some were well versed in Spanish because of their day job back home, which came in real handy on more than one occasion, while others had interests elsewhere in the improvement industry, such as forensic science. I had also learned that some of them had also been in the warehouse industry, same as me and had managed to climb the ladder to a prominent manger position and seemed happy with their progress. Not my first choice of dream job, but it was something to consider if my current path leads to another dead-end.

When we arrived at the work site for the first time, we were greeted by the rest of our work crew that week. We met with Javier and his associates. As project coordinator, Javier and his team have been working with HHM for a number of years and were very familiar how each house was to be put together. The crew was also very familiar on how to teach new guys like me how to build project houses. Our tools of the trade this time around included shovels, buckets, and spades. There were no electrical tools to aid us this time. Everything was done by hand and the sweat of our brow. Some of the guys were taught how to mix concrete, while most of the girls were taught how to build the walls, and then some of us were taught how to weave the rebar poles for the house’s support. Nicaragua was prone to earthquakes and without these poles; these houses would have crumbled like a child’s building-block tower.

Working alongside all of us were Catherine and her two kids. The three of them worked as much as we did. I was honestly surprised by their devotion to the project. I was half expecting the mother to only offer assistance by providing drinks to the workers or something. But even barehanded and in her best sandals Catherine hauled cement blocks, shoveled sand, hauled bucket after bucket of sand and water for the cement mixers. At the same time, her kids were helping hauling more blocks, weaving rebar, mixing cement, and laying down layers of mortar and stone for the wall-all before they needed to leave for school that afternoon!

Around one o’clock or so, it was time for my crew to head out for the day. You see, because of the physical endurance needed for this project, we were only allowed to work half days each day. That meant that we work for five hours and played for the second half of the day. After each day of work, the Nicaragua crew would reconvene at HHM Youth Center and have lunch before heading out again. The youth center is a HHM-sponsored learning area where kids from primary to elementary school can learn to read, write, and have fun.

While going on tour to the different schools around Managua, I began to notice something heartbreaking. Here in the US, it seems like all of the kids are fighting to get out of school, because they’d rather go watch the latest movie, play video games, socialize with their friends, or do anything else that is important to a kid. More often than not, American kids do not understand how privileged they are to be able to read, write, and do math. In the meantime, in Nicaragua all the kids are fighting to get into school. A lot of kids in this country cannot afford to go to school and can only attend if they are sponsored by an American client. Those who cannot afford to go to school often become laborers and have no chance to excel in life or fulfill their own ambitions.

When we visited some of the schools, we got a chance to see a glimmer of hope that someday Nicaragua may one day rise out of poverty. Such was the case when we met Mauro. Mauro was a high-school student who our project leader was sponsoring from the States. Because of his hard work and ethics, he managed to earn a place in Instituto Loyola, a local private school. The place was large, clean, and organized. The shape of the school was like a large hollow square and at first glance the building looked like a three-story apartment building, each class room was accessible through an outside walk path. All the class rooms were open and the center of the school had a spacious community area.

Our last stop for the day was visit to a blacksmith’s shop. The shop itself was a class that was offered at Nicaragua Christian Academy, a different private school in Nicaragua. The class taught the students there how to forge iron art pieces for both hobby and profit. My group was given a live demonstration to the art as the blacksmith transformed an ordinary piece of metal into a small leaf destined to be used on a building’s window grate.

To finish the day, the entire crew decided to decompress in Casa Nica’s pool. We were tired, we were overwhelmed, and we couldn’t believe we accomplished so much in just one day. We had done so much and we had seen so much; now all I wanted to do was to relax and ingest all that has happen that day. And to think, I still had six more days to spend in this place and I loving every minute of it!

Nicaragua: Sunday

♪ Give a little bit — give a little bit of your love to me ♫

♫ I’ll give a little bit — give a little bit of my love to you ♪

♪ There’s so much that we need to share ♫

♫ So send a smile and show you care ♪

♫♪ Give a little bit — I’ll give a little bit of my life for you ♪♫

♪♫ So give a little bit — give a little bit of your time to me ♫♪

Roger Hodgson

These were the lyrics I woke to one day in early June 2015. A pleasant tune to hear on the radio first thing in the morning. Nice enough to stir me from a restless night’s sleep and motivate me to my feet. Not to mention fitting, given the awesome task that awaits me that day. This would be no ordinary Sunday morning. This song would be the start of another adventure with HHM. This time to Managua, capital of Nicaragua.


 

-Sunday

Just like my last adventure in Belize, the air traffic commute turned out to be the most stressful part of the trip. If you weren’t crammed into the smallest jet they could find surrounded by complete strangers with no elbow/leg room, you had less than 20 minutes to board your connecting flight, watch your stewardess fly down the isle via turbulence, and worry if your fragile vase you bought at Managua’s pottery village is going to survive the trip. However, against all odds, my new crew and I made it safe and sound in Nicaragua’s airport.

It was dark when we arrived. Dark and humid. There was much I wanted to do and see when we arrived, but that had to wait. The head coordinator of our project, Ed, met us at the airport with a bus ready to take us to our new home, Casa Nica. On the way there, Ed began his orientation of what exactly we will be doing during our stay.

Ed began to explain that the house we will build is for a single mother, Catherine, and her two children, José and Kelvin (ages 10 and 11). Catherine’s brother has recently built a home for his family behind their parents’ house. This, in turn, displaces Catherine with no place to sleep but a well-worn couch in the alleyway between the brother’s house and their neighbor’s house. Yes, you read that right: outside! On a coach that a dog wouldn’t sleep on! The alleyway did have roof and a door for protection, but no room or privacy for Catherine or her kids.

Unlike the Belize project, the new house will be built out concrete blocks and mortar instead of wood and nail. There is a small lot behind the brother’s house surrounded on all sides by other buildings. The only way in or out is through the alleyway Catherine has been sleeping in. This also meant that construction would be slow moving and without any real goals for accomplishment. Our role, Ed described, in this construction project not to finish the house, but to help ease Javier, the project coordinator, and his freelance construction company’s burden. The house will be finished with or without our help; the money we spent on this mission trip has already paid the construct crew’s commission. Our job is only to help speed up the progress as much as possible.

Meanwhile the bus ride to new home was quite colorful. Out the windows, we saw lights displaying private contractors, new products, election campaigns, and stores like that of a modern town back home. I was not sure what level of poverty I was expecting from Nicaragua, but I was sure I was not expecting advertisements of industry and commercial restaurants like Pizza Hut and burger joints. Clearly, Nicaragua has its problems, but it was industrializing and may even outgrow the need for Hand in Hand Ministries.

At last we arrived. Casa Nica, our home for the week: An enormous house, a spacious yard filled with healthy green grass and fruit trees, and a private pool. Casa Nica was once the property of a high-ranking politician and was built in a residential area. No sooner than we walked through the door than we all shuffled wearily to our beds after the long day of traveling and anticipating a longer day of work tomorrow.

(Left: Casa Nica. Right: Neighbor’s house)

I Don’t Care

“Whaaa!?” he responded, like I just gave him an impossible answer.

“I. Don’t. Care.” I repeated.

It was almost like an anniversary now. Right before a mission trip, I have to have words with everybody’s favorite Box Troll.

Ever since the conflict we had a year ago, I kept a wide birth from this guy to avoid another needless confrontation. No talking, no pranks, I even go to a different breakroom than him. This day, however, I was unlucky enough to be assigned as a box maker and he was working as a stock guy, a worker who ensures that the outbound packers and box makers have enough supplies for their jobs by wheeling dozens of pallets of unfolded boxes and other office supplies into designated areas.

Sometimes a box or two would have too much glue and cannot go through the box machine. When that happens, it jams the machine and someone has to manually extract the box. Sometimes we get an entire pallet of flat boxes that can’t go through the machine. In this case, I would pull the entire pallet off to the side to be recycled and open a new pallet and start again fresh. This was the way I was trained to handle these problems and have been doing so for years.

But the Box-troll did not approve of this method. As he was doing his rounds, he saw what I was doing with the problem boxes and decided to instruct me the “proper” method of dealing with the problem. He grabbed the boxes I had thrown out and ordered me to tape them by hand later and to go through the hundreds that were still on the pallet I put aside and check each box for its ability to go into the machine. Having been a stock guy myself, I know how time consuming his job can be. I rarely had time for idle chit-chat. When I make deliveries for box-making, I just drop off the box-maker’s cargo and leave them to whatever method they wish. Why should I care, as long as the job gets done?

The first time we clashed, we resolved our differences by chucking insults at each other and were one step away from killing each other. This time I did my best to keep a lid on my explosive anger in favor of a civil confrontation.

After he ordered me to waste time checking each box for quality, I argued.

Me: “That would take too much time.”

Troll: “You can’t throw out an entire pallet just because of 1 or 2 bad boxes.”

Me: “What about 4 or 6 in a row?”

Troll: Gestures to the pallet itself, “Do you know how many boxes you would be throwing away?”

Me: “I don’t care.”

Troll: “Whaa?!”

For a moment I looked at me like my pants suddenly caught fire.

When I am set to work on something, I always aim to do my best. Even if I do hate said job. I pride myself on diligence, efficiency, and most of all, flexibility. The Troll’s method, however, was borderline obsession. Between my work-rate, bills, and other responsibilities at home, I had no time to ponder the fate of some lone boxes that can’t go into a folding machine easily.

“Why are you even working here?” The troll continued. “If you don’t like working in box-making, say something to the managers.”

Me: “I did. And they still sent me over here.”

Troll: Left to complain to the managers. Undoubtedly to report that I don’t deserve to be in box-making like he usually does. When he came back, he continued to rant.

Troll: “I can’t understand you. If you are so unhappy here, why don’t you get another job elsewhere?”

Me: “If it were that easy, I would have left ages ago.”

Troll: “Anyone can get a job!”

Me: “What about a dream job?”

Troll: Starts cackling like a villain from a cheap cartoon.

Me: Looking bemused. “What’s wrong with having a dream job?”

Troll: “All you need are the benefits.” Still amused by my optimism, he finally walked away.

He was a jerk then and he was still a jerk now. This man was truly my enemy. In fact, my opposite in a way.  He was lame, hopeless, and completely without ambition. In other words, a tool. A minion would raise an eyebrow at this guy.

If this job makes him happy, fine. But the only opinion that the Box Troll respected was his own and he fights to share his dismal existence with the world. He can rot in his cardboard coffin for all I care. I’m going to embrace the warm sun and experience life when I can, while I can.

Nobody has the right to laugh at another’s dreams. Hope and dreams are what fuel our reasons to live and urges us on to continue forward on our journeys. Without those dreams, we would become the pessimist who complain about everything and accomplish nothing with their lives.