I traveled to Nicaragua during the last week of June, only my second journey there this year. When the frequency of site visits is so limited, I become especially eager to travel there and interact with partners both new and old. In the course of such meetings I anticipate adding to my knowledge and understanding of culture and realities there; in fact, my education at the feet of my Nicaraguan teachers has provided some of the most important lessons of my life. So my Sunday flight to Managua was filled with even greater expectations than usual. Unfortunately, that was among the last good feelings I experienced all week!
I got sick. For the first time in my eight years of travel to and from Nicaragua. I could feel the headache developing by the time I boarded my connecting flight in Houston, and by the time I landed in Managua, I knew what was coming. I checked myself in to the hotel with the growing dread of one being assaulted by the familiar sore throat-cough-congestion combination that has power to make life miserable even in the best, most comfortable circumstances. In my case, though, it was an “assault en route” amidst plans for driving great distances among our planned stops for the week.
Monday morning awakened me with confirmation of my own diagnosis. By Tuesday, my voice was completely absent, just at the moment when we were to be participating (verbally, of course) in a special workshop of nearly 40 coffee producers. Any comments I wanted to make had to be written down so that Mark could add voice to them. Maybe more importantly, I’m sure that I was only half-present. I really wanted to be in bed to nurse my misery.
If there was any sympathy among my classmates, it surely emerged during any of the mealtimes. I could not even contemplate breakfast. Lunch afforded little better appetite, and the few things that I might have eaten were far from accessible at our rural site. Dinner was a celebration, of sorts, held at the home of one of the participants and I found myself rudely unable to eat, drink or converse in any meaningful way. I’m certain that most of my time was spent fantasizing about getting into bed for a full surrender to the lack of energy that consumed me. One of my worst days ever!
Wednesday dawned with slightly better voice but with little additional energy, even after a long night’s rest. By now I had acquired some cough lozenges, though, so I had hopes of at least croaking out some thoughts in this final day of the workshop. And in fact, Mark and I were both able to contribute independently to the forum and by the end of the session I felt as though I had given up whatever energy I had, as small a consolation as it was. Although another unwanted meal awaited us at the conclusion, I had a new objective in mind to keep me going: cough medicine.
By three in the afternoon I possessed the cherished cherry potion. I don’t know whether its efficacy was due to its medicinal properties or a psychological boost, but at least my cough calmed itself for a few hours. I checked into my hotel by four o’clock and I was asleep by four-thirty.
Two weeks hence, I still nurse a slight summer cough and what remains of a sick sinus; sometimes these things just seem to feel permanently at home in your chest and head. And I find myself reflecting on a week where I could offer very little of myself or whatever energy I might bring to WPF work; was there anything redeeming or instructive in the experience of being sick in Nicaragua?
The answer, of course, is yes. First of all, no trip to Nicaragua is in vain. If one is only breathing, there is ample experience to take in from the everyday people met. Just sitting in a meeting space for two days and listening to people who are trying to strategically envision their plan for meeting basic life needs through their work is a humbling and yet strangely energizing feeling. The human spirit is moved when face-to-face with needs of intensity; it’s no less true in the face of illness. I have little doubt that had I been home bed this week I would have felt worse and strengthened slower than I did surrounded by my Nicaraguan classmates.
Second, there is something redemptive in persevering in one’s work despite an illness. There is the value of being able to tell stories about it or write blog posts to tout one’s determination and resolve, of course. But there is also value in being required to push oneself, even if at half-speed, and to recognize that the world is full of people pushing themselves daily against circumstances that render them even less than half-speed. A cold is one thing; hunger, want and despair are far greater illnesses being fought.
Third, I will not soon forget that during the final, verbal evaluation of the workshop, as participants were relating their most important “take-aways” from the workshop, at least four of them cited ideas or lessons that either Mark or I had shared. For these people, at least, our presence was not a waste of time or exercise in futility, but rather an important component in their struggles to understand how their cooperatives, their lives, might be made to work better.
I’ve got to constantly remind myself that trips to Nicaragua are not about me or how I feel, but about those who seek to learn….