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….