All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is CEO of the Winds of Peace Foundation

Tentative and Fragile, Part 2

Circumstances continue to become more confrontational and difficult in Nicaragua.  In the aftermath of the events referenced in our previous entry here, “Tentative and Fragile,” no resolutions have been reached and neither side in the conflict has backed down.  (Does this sound familiar? )  The result at this moment is that university visits have been cancelled, uncertainty prevails and tensions remain very high.  In chaotic conditions like this, it’s hard to discover reliable, insightful knowledge of what’s really going on.  But WPF has come across an analysis (with names removed) that gives a pretty balanced report, and we offer it here as a sort of informational post for those who seek a reasonable summary of events to the moment.

The writer quoted below is of some significant standing in Nica professional society, possessing some credibility in terms of his/her knowledge of recent events.

“Today in the morning I was invited to an event where people and sectors participated who will be seated in the dialogue, in case we get to the dialogue. I think that it is worthwhile to summarize what I heard and the positions shared:
1. The dialogue has two principal topics and they are not, nor should be, negotiable: Justice and the Democratization of the State (no re-election and departure of the Regime).
2. The Church will be the mediator and the People the guarantor.
3. The dialogue agenda should not be filled with more topics than the principal ones. Afterwards it will deal with this.
4. The dialogue will not be by sectors as the Government wanted, it should be between the Government and Civil Society, understood as all the actors who want a change.
5. The Government cannot nor should not intervene in the selection of the participants who will be in the dialogue. This dialogue is to look for a way out of a crisis, a change of the system, not a meeting of friends.
6. We demand the entry of international Human Rights organizations and others who want to help in this transition.
7. The Students are organized, they are going to continue in the streets fighting for their rights and ask and demand that we join them.
8. The Peasant movement must participate in the dialogue without exception….
9.  Mechanisms and serious and competent organizations must be created for the investigations [into the now 45 deaths].
10. The Strike/Stoppage is coming and it will not wait for COSEP [Nica business association friendly with the administration] for this, COSEP does not represent the entire business sector.

11. We are facing a civic revolution and it is up to all of us to learn how to take it to a glorious end.

As I was saying this is a small summary of the position of the sectors that will be in what is today a not so clear and possible dialogue, and I believe that we are seeing some light on a topic that has been unfocused. I leave you with a phrase that Dr. Medina [President of the Autonomous University of Managua, and named by the Church to the dialogue] said today:

“I have never seen in my history such a great opportunity to make a change in Nicaragua.”

For the present there are many conditions being required of an administration which has demonstrated little desire to comply with any demands made of it; indeed, intimidation and control through force has been its central tool.  Is it possible that it could capitulate to the protesters’ requirements?  Is a Korean-style reconciliation possible?  There is a large demonstration called for today (May 9th), and the students have asked private enterprise to let their workers off so they can participate in the demonstration. The Peasant Movement has said that they will attend as well. It will start at the cathedral and follow a route which, in the past, the police did not allow them to take. So it will be interesting to see what happens in response to the demonstration.

As usual, U.S. news sources have provided very little mention of the turmoil in this land.  Our country seems to have a boundless supply of disinterest in what happens there.  But the outcome bears close monitoring, for the security and safety of Nicaraguans as well as the stability of our Central American neighborhood.  The U.S. may be courting isolation, but in reality it does not exist….

Tentative and Fragile

I spoke to a university class of business students this past week, citing the universal qualities of the employee-owned business I directed for 16 years and Winds of Peace Foundation, with whom I have worked for the past 13 years.  Such work tenures provide me with a reasonably credible basis on which to make comparisons, which are many in number and deep in similarity.  Since I have been invited to do this presentation for a number of years, I have to presume that it finds interest among the audiences, and maybe even prompts some new thinking about organizations and the people who co-inhabit them.

Following one presentation early last year, a student caught up with me as I was leaving the building and wanted to share with me her own experience in Nicaragua from the previous year.  She had traveled there with her college sports team in an exchange program.  She described her love of the beauty of the country and the warmth of its people.  She expressed surprise at how safe she felt while there, despite pre-conceived ideas about the dangers of Central American countries.  She talked about her surprise at the freedoms that her Nicaraguan university counterparts enjoyed in expressing dissent and opinion on almost any issue.  She felt very good about the fact that Winds of Peace was working in Nicaragua and wanted to say so.  I acknowledged her impressions and concurred with the part about beauty and warmth.

As to her other observations, regarding safety and societal openness, I was not as  quick to concur.  Nicaragua has been stressed in recent years with ever-tightening restrictions on political dissension and public demonstrations.  That posture, along with government control of many media outlets and police, has led to an increasingly difficult environment for expression of any position other than the prevailing party’s line.  Contesting a party line is to risk one’s status and economic opportunity, and even safety.  Any sense of openness and free speech are carefully crafted illusions that are as ephemeral as they are potentially dangerous; it is too easy to believe in something that we really want to be true.

Nonetheless, there was no advance warning about the latest eruption to take place in the country.  This heat derived not from the awakening volcano, but from the streets.  The government announced an increase in the country’s social security withholding, raising it up to 22%.  That, coupled with the 7% contributed by the worker directly and an actual decrease in benefits of 5%, makes for a program that was deemed punitive by many, especially the more socially-conscious student population from the universities.  Demonstrations occurred.  Youth of the ruling Sandinista party pushed back violently, while the police did nothing to intervene.  People were injured.  Some died.  Soon there was panic that the growing demonstrations and confrontations would interrupt everyday activities, such as shopping for groceries and fuel; lines began to form at stores and stations in anticipation of shortages.  Semester study students from the U.S. were sent home early.  WPF cancelled travel into the northern sector of the country.  Overnight, the general peace of Nicaragua had disappeared like a wisp of smoke in the wind, illustrating the fragility that exists between leaders and followers anywhere.  Trust and stewardship are delicate elements of leadership.

One week later, some degree of quiet had been restored.  President Ortega appeared on television, flanked by business leaders (from outside the country, interestingly) to urge a return to calm, and suggesting a re-visitation of the social security action.  Eventually, there was a pull-back on the social security action, for now.  The fuel and grocery lines disappeared.  In turn, travel into the heart of the country resumed.  Citizens desperate for the patterns of normalcy willed the resumption of daily routines.  After a week of upheaval, with scores of injured and as many as sixty dead, this spot of global warming had cooled.  Or at least for the present.

But what occurred in Nicaragua last week was simply a data point, a current event, In a moment of frustration and anger, citizens protested.  The government hit back.  Things calmed down.  And now we wait for the next storm squall, to measure its power and impact, to gain a further read of citizens’ ire, to forecast future storms to come.  For elitism eventually creates a response, whether in Nicaragua, the U.S., Syria or anywhere else.  The reaction may come sooner or later, but it will come: when people are marginalized enough, they will rise up. Consider the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.  Or the women and men of the MeToo phenomenon.  Populace rebellion is a reality that should be well-recognized universally, and perhaps especially in a country like Nicaragua, with its rich history of revolution.

One series of demonstrations does not foretell revolution or even a movement.  It is like the difference between weather and climate change.  Weather is a data point, a measure of what has occurred recently and may likely occur in the short term, while climate change is the story of all the data points put together over a longer period of history.   But they are linked, to be sure.  Eventually, enough weather data points have been collected to constitute the case for climate change.

If there is a pending change in social climate in Nicaragua, or the U.S. for that matter, it will be foretold by the individual data points.  Those occur every day, sometimes in big ways and sometimes imperceptibly.  But they are the early distant warning signs for what may be to come, and ignoring them is governance folly….

 

 

 

 

 

Shadow Steps

We live in an age of walks and runs, and I’m not talking about baseball.  It seems as though nearly every organization will sponsor some kind of event that is intended to get people moving for some bigger purpose, like disease research, feeding the hungry or saving animals.  I generally like the approach of these initiatives, because they involve the potential donor in active ways that money donation alone cannot, and the exercise by itself is a good thing!  But every once in a while, an individual will embark on an undertaking that does not necessarily invite throngs of participants or the clicks of many cameras, but rather demonstrates a kind of quiet commitment, a solitary sojourn to symbolize something important.

A young Korean woman by the name of Kyong Juhn will simply begin to walk.  But it won’t be just another Sunday stroll in the Spring.  Kyong Juhn will commence a journey of 323 miles on foot, starting in Rochester, Minnesota and ending in Bemidji, Minnesota some three weeks later.  The purposes of the trek are several: Ms. Juhn will re-create the long pedestrian migration of her mother from North Korea to South Korea a generation ago, a much more demanding effort; Ms. Juhn will walk, as the event is called, “For Hope and Peace,” an initiative which some may view as naive, but which is something she can do; and finally, Ms. Juhn likely hopes that her pilgrimage will awaken in all who might chance to see or read about her what commitment looks like.

The first rationale of her hike is beautiful in its honor and remembrance of Ms. Juhn’s mother.  I do not know the particulars behind the woman’s journey from North Korea to the south, but I can imagine its dangers and demands and the perseverance required to complete such steps.  I can further infer that the odyssey was undertaken before Ms. Juhn had been born, imbuing her trek with a determination for her future, and whatever child or children  might inhabit that world in the fullness of time.  Ms. Juhn will pay a remarkable homage to a woman who is known to very few of us, but who has earned our deep and enduring respect, and her daughter’s abiding love.

Her second rationale for walking might well be a reflection of the artist who is Kyong Juhn.   She is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) Distinguished Scholar Scholarship awardee, who recently finished her Fine Arts degree at SAIC, where she studied photography and art history.  Self-described as having transformed herself from a first generation immigrant-homemaker to a tenacious artist who expresses the complexities of rediscovered identities after returning to school, Ms. Juhn is a creator.  Through whatever media or motion suits her need for expression, she undertakes this walk because it conveys an image, a story-  several stories, in fact-  in manifestation of a deeply-held worldview.  This walk is her art on display.  Pursuit of peace and hope may be daunting ideas, but the walk is tangible and the act of doing it is an imaginative statement in time which sorely needs personal acts of harmony.

Ms. Juhn will be supported, in part, by the organization Vets for Peace, which will accompany her.  They will follow her progress with a “SAG” (support and gear) vehicle for her safety and immediate needs during the trip.  (In fact, the sag vehicle is a Vets for Peace bus funded, in part, by a gift from WPF Founders Harold and Louise Nielsen.)  With help from VFP, Ms. Juhn will seek all the attention that she can get for the purpose of her walk, so that people like you and me will understand that this is what is required of us: that we have the capacity to make an impact in whatever ways are within us, that we each have a role to play, a responsibility for the good or ill that becomes our collective life together.  But we are called to actually do what we imagine, to actually take the first steps for hope and peace.

She will take her first steps on May 6, according to the route below.  I hope the date does not find me standing still….

Kyong Juhn Walk

 

 

My Name Is Char-les

Mark and I had a particularly interesting dinner last month in El Cua.  I mean, our dinners are usually pretty interesting moments in the day, whether because of the agenda we have just experienced, the menu of a small restaurant we have found, conversation about upcoming meetings  for the following day or just in telling each other life stories.  There’s always plenty to observe and discuss in these dinner moments and I truly enjoy them.  (Not to mention the food, which is usually very basic and very good.)  But this night featured a guest, a boy by the name of Char-les.                                                                           

Let’s be clear about one thing right away: the name is Char-les, not Charles, because he does not like the nickname Charlie.  By pronouncing his name with two syllables, there is less chance that one might make the mistake of calling him Charlie.  Acquaintance with another young boy by the name of Charlie- a peer who is apparently not a favorite of our dinner guest- has rendered the nickname lost forever from the monikers Char-les may adopt over his lifetime.

Aside from the same smiles afforded every young person we might encounter during the day, we had issued no invitation or gesture to encourage his attendance.   He simply drifted over to our table and began to talk.  Maybe it was the unusual presence of two gringos in the small cafe.  Perhaps it was the allure of my broad-brimmed hat (sombrero grande) which suggested a cowboy’s presence.  More likely, it was the pure curiosity of a little boy who, it turns out,  was full of questions and observations about almost everything.

Char-les wanted to know everything we could possibly disclose over the course of a meal, and some things that we could not.  Names?  Home country?  Where is that?  Where is China?  Where are you going?  Why are you here?  Do you know about whales?  Where is your hotel?  Do you have kids?

He balanced the inquisition with some facts of his own:  I’m eight years old.  My mom is in a meeting back there (motioning to a back meeting room in the restaurant).  I like football.  I go to the school that is right behind your hotel.  I like to read.  My mom says that I ask a lot of questions.  I have a brother but he has a different dad.  Some day I’m going to go to Mexico.

Between the inquisition and the exposition, Char-les tended to his job for the night: every time a cell phone rang from among the belongings of the meeting participants, he would dash off to find the phone and take it to the proper owner.  It happened three or four times, and on each occasion, Char-les sprang into action, leaving our discussion dangling until his return.  His reaction to the cell phones made it clear that he not only knew every person in attendance at the meeting, but also knew the ringtone of every phone.  The meeting attendees were both amused by and grateful for this service in telecommunication.  Char-les seemed matter-of-fact about  his duty, but more focused on his interrogation.

“I’m very fast.  Do you know about airplanes?  I have never been on an airplane.  What are you eating for dinner?”  The stream of consciousness hardly paused for those intermittent phone calls and, undeterred by such momentary interruptions, Char-les continued to weave his way throughout the entirety of our dinner agenda.  We were fully engaged in discourse with an eight-year-old orator.  “Is Iowa in Mexico?  You are my new friends.”

With that bond being said, Char-les eventually welcomed his mother to our party and introduced his new-found amigos to her.  She hoped that he had not been a bother to us and observed, to no surprise by us, that Char-les had demonstrated this curiosity and outgoing personality for his entire life.  She described his love for learning and inquiry as exhausting and amazing; we could only concur.  Amidst a continuing flurry of his questions, we bid him a good-night and appreciation for his conversation.

I have been around many eight-year-old children, including our own four as they passed through that inquisitive phase.  But I find it hard to recall an eight-year-old with the persistence and aplomb of Char-les.  Mixed in with such admiration, perhaps there was also the sense of promise that such examination and unpretentiousness holds for his years ahead.  In the center of this rural community, in the center of Nicaragua, in the center of the Americas, is a young boy deserving of every opportunity to learn and expand his understanding, his visions. his outlook for the future.  The need is not his alone.  We all have a stake in the critical importance of listening to the voice of Char-les….

 

 

 

The Unlikely Pizza

I’ve consumed a lot of pizza in my days.  Maybe it’s because pizza came into its own as an entre′ while I was a teen, or the fact that it’s probably my favorite food indulgence.  I’ve eaten more than my share of those pies.  I’ve had them homemade in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was nine years old, I’ve eaten them across Italy and the rest of western Europe, I’ve consumed them in the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Canada, Hungary and even on board a sailing vessel on the ocean.  I’m reasonably certain that I must hold some sort of unofficial pizza consumption record for my days in college.  In short, I am an expert.

But one of the most unlikely and satisfying slices occurred just last month, during my most recent visit to Nicaragua.  Yes, it was the first pizza I have consumed in that country.  But more important than that was the group of young women with whom I shared the pizza.  What might be the odds that on any given day in my life I would find myself having a Chefella’s pizza with 15 female cooperative members in Matagalpa, Nicaragua?  On March 12th, the answer was 100%

I love pizza anywhere, and under nearly any circumstances.  But when we arrived to join this mid-day meeting of entrepreneurs to the announcement that we would share pizza for lunch, I admit to being triply-excited: first, to talk again with these adventuresome women, most of whom were new to the idea of cooperative life; second, at the prospect of my first-ever Nicaraguan pizza; and third, to consider once more the collaborative symbolism of my favorite food.

You see, pizza in my experience has always been a cooperative meal.  When our kids were young, pizza night was a time for all of us to be in the kitchen and contributing our own labors to the creation of something worthwhile, in this case, for dinner.  Katie made the crust, I formed it in the pan, Megan and Molly spread the sauce, Ian added the meat and Nikki sprinkled the cheese.  We collectively watched the baking and timing.  And of course, we shared happily in the end result.

The entire process was one of great participation, involving every member of our family.  The fear might have been that if you didn’t help out, you wouldn’t get any pizza.  But the reality was more that this was something that we loved doing together, and that made the entire outcome- the pizza- even better.  Of course, the process mandated complete transparency.  Some of us couldn’t eat onions; indeed, a hidden agenda here would have resulted in stomach upset! Others didn’t care for green peppers.  One in our family didn’t wish to eat meat.  So we had to be very clear in drawing the lines of content in our pizzas.  Those ingredient boundaries were our respective stakes in the outcome.   And, of course, eventually we experienced the satisfaction and reward of shared effort: taking a piece of the pie.  Collaboration made homemade pizzas tastier than frozen ones, and more cost-effective than pizzeria models.

A pizza with the 15 women did not involve our collective making and baking, but it did connect us in a shared result.  Sitting around the tables which had been laid end-to-end created a loop of continuity, of solidarity,  of oneness for at least that special lunch period.  It will be up to the women members of the cooperatives to determine whether they can sustain that linkage to their ongoing mutual benefit.

Meanwhile, it made that unlikely pizza one of the best slices I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot….

Chicken Feed

This Easter has been a sweet deal for candy manufacturers: more than $2 billion was spent on candy alone this season, and the overall spending on all Easter-related purchases figures to be the second-highest in U.S. history.  (I know that I didn’t receive any chocolate bunnies on Easter Sunday, so somebody else has been taking more than their share. ) But it started me thinking about wants and needs and central Easter messages.

That candy cost isn’t exactly chicken feed.  By comparison, the total amount of all U.S. aid to Nicaragua in 2017 was $31.3 million, 15% of all that candy.  I only offer the comparison here for contrast; neither I nor most Nicaraguans would argue for greater aid dependency on the U.S.  But it’s quite a difference in sums when one considers the two categories: resources for basic human living standards in Nica versus Easter candy consumption in the U.S.   Setting aside such notions as national boundaries, something seems inequitable in all of that, no matter to what political or economic perspective one may subscribe.  Let me elaborate.

I spent a week with my colleague Mark in Nicaragua last month, visiting with rural partners, hearing about their struggles with various harvests, understanding the need for late repayments in several cases, and attending a two-day workshop designed to teach information analysis, so that these producers might go about their work on a more data-driven basis.

Our week did not represent some kind of hight-level financial development.  We lunched with them on rice and beans.  We spoke with some, in impromptu huddles, about small loans and the most basic tenets of our partnerships: accompaniment, transparency, functioning bodies of governance, broad-based participation, and collaboration within the coops.  We described the nature of goals and goal-setting.  They asked us about work processes.  We laughed some.  The interactions may have been at their most basic level, but they were important and appreciated.  Basic stuff usually is.

What does any of that have to do with Easter candy sales?  Simply this: the sweet taste in the mouth from a dissolving Peep or jelly bean is both artificial and temporary.  And it can never take away the bad taste in the mouth from the recognition that we spend more on candy than on the very lives of others who are in significant need for their basic survival.  That bad taste comes from recognition that our own lives are made up of moments, moments of priority and precedence, wherein we have the free will to decide how we will spend our time and our money and our spirit.  Those decisions impact the impoverished in profound ways, and as importantly, paint the portrait of who we truly are.   And they do leave a taste in the mouth, one kind or another.

Last month in Nicaragua I heard the observation of a producer who was considering the raising of a few chickens as a supplement to his coffee-growing efforts.  His words of hesitation were like a fist to the gut.  “The corn that my hens eat,” he observed, “could be food for my family.”  He was not speaking about candy corn.

Easter is a season of resurrection and salvation, of new beginnings and new chances.  It is a time of reflection for many about the life and example of Jesus and the basis of those who claim followership of his teaching.  It also gives me pause to think about the price of candy and the value of corn….

 

 

 

A Gift for Marisela

 

Almost from my first visit as a member of WPF, Marisela has been part of my Nicaragua experience.  Her Cuallitlan Hotel in Esteli is one of the most charming and unique places of rest I have ever encountered, a direct reflection of its owner and the artistic genius that she has brought to its development.  We choose to stay there whenever our agenda allows it.  It’s like stepping into an enchanted forest, with small cottages and lush greenery accenting the trees and exotic animals found there.  Over the past 13 years I have teased Marisela by proclaiming that her lodging is my favorite hotel in all the world.  The claim invariably brings a blush to her face and an exclamation of “oh my God!” to her lips.  She is humble about her achievement with Cuallitlan but appreciative of her guests’ enjoyment.  As she says, “I have made this place my home and I love to invite people in to visit.”  But sadly, no more.

Last week, during our first visit to Cuallitlan in more than a year, Marisela uncharacteristically met us with great weeping.  With her trademark welcoming hug, and through her tears, she exclaimed, “I thought that I would never see you again!”  We protested: even if there had been many months since our last visit, there would always be more to come.  But she punctured that hope by explaining that health reasons were forcing her to sell the hotel.  This oasis which she birthed, nurtured and held close to her heart for so many years, had to be sold for her own well-being.  As it broke her heart to say it, the news was also a heartbreak to hear.  For Marisela is Cuallitlan.  And much more.

In an age long before women had much of a platform on which to claim equality- and especially in Nicaragua, which is to this day still full of machismo attitudes- Marisela blazed her own trails.  While raising her three children, she inherited and managed a sawmill as the only woman in the entire organization.  And once the men began to test her strength and resolve by sabotage and deceit, she met their challenge by dismissing all but one of them.  The resulting legal claims filed by the men were addressed and defeated one at a time.  So much for strength and resolve.

There are remnants of those sawmill days within the hotel grounds;  an enormous cross-section of a tree serves as a table top in the central reception area.  Hand saws and blocks of exotic wood adorn the grounds.  But it’s the hotel that has absorbed the creative talents of this high-energy hostess.  Every vestige of the inn carries a reflection of its owner, from the bath towels folded into animal shapes to the signs of wise and witty sayings that dot the premises.  Marisela has brought unique meaning to the term “destination hotel,” for there is more to see and appreciate than a single night’s visit could ever afford.  

But for me, it was always about reception.  When I first visited the hotel in 2006, I was an anxious newcomer to Nicaragua.  I did not speak Spanish, I carried with me into the country the appropriate guilt of a North American  and I had little idea about the role I might play in coming to this destination.  Everything was new, and all of it held  potential for an awkward loss of confidence.  Perhaps it is difficult for some to imagine such uneasiness, but as one who carried serious intentions of representing the Foundation with familiarity, openness and equality, I saw each encounter as a moment for either connection or distancing.  Marisela ensured that at her home, there would be no chance of the latter.

Always the smile, her absolute joy at receiving her guests.  Always a hug, her recognition of past visits and moments shared.  Always an enthusiasm, her means of ensuring me that I was welcome there.  And even before she had ever met Katie or one of my daughters in later visits, always her inquiry about them, as though she had held a personal concern for their well-being since my last visit.  Marisela possesses the gifts of hospitality and warmth, the values of which eventually relaxed the trepidations of an aspiring Foundation worker  and affirmed for me the expectation of embrace wherever I traveled in the country.  Marisela opened the emotional and psychological doors for me one visit at a time.  And at each visit, I became further affirmed.

I doubt that Marisela acted in these ways with any grand psychological objective in mind.  I believe that she was simply being herself, someone whose personal joys are derived from giving of herself.  Indeed, when pressed about what she might seek to do after her days at Cuallitlan and attending to her own health, she says without definition or hesitation, “I want to help people.”  The notion is deeply embedded in her DNA.

We have promised to remain in touch, to continue sharing photographs and family stories and such stuff of which friendships are sustained.  She has already asked where my next visit to Nicaragua will take me, calculating out loud how long a drive might be required of her.

Future visits will not be quite the same, of course, without the oasis that is Cuallitlan.  But that’s OK.  For the essence of Cuallitlan lies in the heart of its creator, and not solely in its buildings and greenery.  Marisela bestowed a tremendous gift upon those who visited her, and none more than me.  In return, I can only render to her my profound appreciation, for the greens, the cottages and the warmth of her being.  And I hold great anticipation for whatever the next reception may be….                              

 

 

 

 

Grant-Making in Nicaragua

The following reflection was written during my recent week in Nicaragua.  I had the unusual experience of writing it on paper, with a pencil, no less.  It was composed in nearly “real time,” as if for a journal, and only minutes after the experience occurred.  Maybe that’s partly how it came to be such a personal, emotional record.  (And for the record, writing with paper and pencil still works.)

The time is 8:35.  We are overnighting in the municipality of El Cua, in the department of Jinotega.   The mountains of Peñas Blancas are just behind us; indeed, the road from the mountains to El Cua features some of the most beautiful kms anywhere on earth.  The vistas around each corner are filled with valleys and peaks that truly steal the breath away.  Hotel El Chepita is arguably one of the more modern accommodation in the town,  though in order to flush the toilet in my bathroom, I am required to lift up on the back of the toilet until the stopper, which is somehow attached to the tank lid, is pulled up and the flush can commence.

We are a little late getting in.  We arrive to an empty registration desk and even the desk bell fails to summon anyone to receive us.  Mark calls the phone number for the hotel and we can hear the distant ringing of a phone, but it has no more effect than the bell.  A guest from the lobby, impatiently waiting to retrieve her room key,  comes to the desk and bangs on that desk bell with a fury.  But the assault proves to be no more effective than the other summons, so we simply wait and discuss other lodging options.

After maybe 15 minutes, a young woman comes running to the desk with profuse apologies and a promise to get us registered immediately.  She defends herself by explaining that she is the only person working at the hotel in that moment and she is having understandable difficulty covering all bases.  As she records our identities, she does inquire whether it would be acceptable if one of the rooms has no TV.  Since I still do not speak Spanish with any skill even approaching “just getting by,” a TV is of no import to me so the registration continues.

The room, not unexpectedly, is sparse in its appointments.  There is no chair.  No table.  No clothing hooks adorn the walls, the bathroom has no counters, my room looks directly across the narrow street to a discotheque (yes, even in this era) and the music there is only drowned out by the persistent roar of motorcycle and truck engines racing down our street.  I can shut my slat-style windows, but I need the air in my air-conditioner-free room.  Besides, two of the glass louvers are missing from my windows, so the effectiveness in shutting out noise is highly suspect.  But the barking dogs in the property next to ours do take a break every half-hour or so to rest their voices.

My room is dark and hot.  (Oh-oh, there go the dogs again.)  I keep the single overhead light turned off, to reduce the heat and the depressing feeling that overhead lights always convey to me.  The overhead fan tries hard to keep up with the heat in this upstairs room, but the blades cannot turn fast enough to generate any meaningful cooling.  All I can do is to lie on my bed in the dark and read by the light of my Kindle.  I keep the bathroom light on, though, because the 8 o’clock hour is too early to fall asleep for the night, even in weary Nicaragua.

Staring across the room into that dimly-lit WC gives me pause to wonder to myself how I possibly came to be in a place like this on a Tuesday in March.  It is certainly unlike any place I ever experience in the course of my “normal” life.

And that is precisely the point.  The sounds, the smells, the conditions reveal the life of rural Nicaragua in ways that words or even photographs cannot.  At this moment, I would not choose to be in any other place but this.  In a single, isolated moment I am confronted with gratitude for the good fortune of my life, the shame of my self-centeredness, a humility at my recognition of being the most fortunate of men, an anger that I have not shown the strength and wisdom to have accomplished more, a thankfulness for the men and women here who have taught me even as I posed as the teacher, and gratefulness at being permitted to be among people who are at war with the injustice of their poverty.  Ironically, this place and time represents privilege: my privilege at the opportunity to become a part of their lives, if only for a short time.

To be sure, this evening I miss my wife and the comforts of our Iowa home, as I always do when I travel.  But I am filled up tonight in ways that I could not at home.  In this moment, it turns out that the most important grant during this trip is the one made to me….