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….