We arrived in Nicaragua late on Friday evening to rain. The day before Hurricane Ida had arrived but missed where we were to stay in an orphanage, about a half hour drive outside of Managua, where we had landed. Prior to arriving, I had heard reports of twenty inches of rainfall, a Nicaraguan village that had been all but destroyed by the hurricane, and warnings of possible life threatening mudslides. I of course was very relieved to find things in such good shape. The orphanage was on 100 acres of land with an armed guard at the gate, and two armed guards at night. Initially it felt safe for the most part but had I have known what we were about to encounter I don’t think I would have gone. Not knowing was a good thing though as it was an adventure that I am thankful to have not missed.
There were eleven of us in our group from Boston. On Saturday we settled in. My youngest and I spent time at the children’s orphanage that was about fifty steps from our dorm, while Tom and the other guys and some of the boys from the boy’s orphanage started building a walkway. There were fifteen kids at the children’s orphanage ages 8 months to age 5 and they greeted us almost immediately with open arms and warmth. I was struck by their happiness and how well taken care of they were by their seven Nicaraguan nannies. It seemed to me to be more like a day care center that never closed than what I had imagined it to be. They were clean, well fed and dressed, and certainly very well loved and taken care of. They were also all very sweet. The orphanage itself was the nicest place we saw during our ten days in Nicaragua.
The average Nicaraguan makes about $35 a month. The unemployment rate is 40%. Minimum wage is $100/month. The nannies at the orphanage made $175 a month, just to give you a partial idea of what the economy is like. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, next to Haiti.
On Sunday we went to church, which was above a very small strip of stores, about a 15-minute drive away from the orphanage. Evangelicals ran the sermon. It was attended almost entirely that day by the older boys from the orphanage, the folks who run the orphanage, and our group. There were about thirty of us in total. There was a lot of singing in Spanish but the sermon itself was spoken in both Spanish and English because they had someone translate for us. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it as I think most were. After church we went back to the orphanage for a typical meal of beans and rice and then about 25 of us piled into the van and a car for a trip to the beach, about 45 minutes away. The beach was a real treat as the storm had pretty much made its way north through Honduras and in its wake high heat and humidity had settled in. We swam and body surfed in the very warm Pacific Ocean and had a delicious dinner of freshly caught red snapper, and beer. Surprisingly there was iodine floating on the top of the water that had risen up from the ocean floor. It gave my hair a not so nice orange tint that is just now finally washing out.
On Monday I awoke wondering how I was ever going to make it seven more days. The heat and humidity was terrible, making my energy low, and there wasn’t any relief in sight. Not a pool or water to jump in, and no trip planned outside the orphanage until Friday. We were taking at least two showers a day, and on several days, three. I was also concerned about one of us getting dengue fever, which you contract from mosquitoes in early hours of the day. Someone who had visited the orphanage a few weeks prior to our arrival had gotten it and had such high fever and pain (“bones of fire” they called it) that they ended up in the hospital. Plus, I had already heard how bad the hospitals were with people sitting on the floors waiting to be seen, and very poor hygienic conditions such as shots being given without first swabbing with alcohol and needles being used repeatedly. On top of this, Tom had to sleep in the guy’s dorm when I had hoped that we were going to be able to stay together and have more time to reconnect. We thankfully had a room to ourselves the second night only to have to give it up the next day because a woman and her two young daughters were brought to the orphanage. The woman was a paraplegic who had lost both of her legs while washing clothes in a river up in the mountains several years prior. A rock had given way and crushed them. Two men had to bring her down the mountain in a big sling that day. Her daughters we age two and five, and had never even worn a pair of shoes. Another one of her children had died somehow. The next day the two little girls were to start living at the orphanage for three months while their mother went to a hospital for reconstructive surgery and eventually prosthetic legs. I could see the fear and sadness in all of their faces. The youngest girl had not even been weaned yet. I quickly decided that I was going to help the girls through their transition even though I hardly know a word of Spanish. A nanny was assigned to them but they needed more than her. The two-year old just cried and cried and yearned to be rocked, and her older sister was sad and shy and basically just looked down at her hands. The nannies discovered lice in their hair which creeped me out but I decided to also check their hair as it reassured me that we were gaining control over the lice which I am quite sure we did. De-licing them also helped to create a bond between us, which was very sweet. It wasn’t until three days later though that they discovered that both girls also had scabies, a very contagious skin disease caused by a mite that burrows under the skin and lays eggs causing terrible itching. Oh my god! But luckily by then both girls were appearing to be much happier as they were smiling, and I think, growing to enjoy their new temporary home and schedule, although I am certain that they were still missing their mom very much. They had been outfitted with a nice fresh wardrobe and shoes. It struck me that they were being Americanized.
By this point in the trip we had also encountered several other worrisome situations. A scorpion was found in the boy’s dorm. Not as poisonous as some but still capable of making the orphanage’s driver, very sick with a high fever and a numb tongue for 3 days after getting bit by one. A day or two later I saw two more scorpions out in the storage barn and one of the orphanage directors, told me that she had just seen a very poisonous snake scoot away from us. There was also a bat flying around in the boy’s room one night, and two-inch long cockroaches crawling around in our dorm. In addition to this there was a case of impetigo at the children’s orphanage. The worst thing for me though was that the older boys, without any hot water or soap and probably not enough supervision, always washed the breakfast and dinner dishes. How’s that for good hygiene?
The orphanage was also having a problem with one of the boys who was having behavioral issues. Among other things, he was breaking into the dorms and cars and stealing things- and then running away for days at a time. After one of his break-ins, my oldest daughter and I were asked to come to have a look because it happened in a room that we had been working in. My daughter accidentally dropped a ping- pong ball and it rolled under one of the beds. When she knelt down to get it whom do you think she was shocked to find hiding under the bed??? The boy who had broken into the room through the screen. That night in the girl’s dorm we had Tom on high alert in case he came back again. Thankfully near the end of our stay a psychiatrist took him away to the other orphanage up north where he use to live.
During the day we were all very busy which was good. Between all the showering, and meals, we got a lot done. I was in charge of organizing bin after bin of clothes that had been donated to the orphanage by US church groups. Before dinner, the boys from the orphanage and most of the people from our group usually had a game of soccer and after dinner people played board games or cards in the dining hall. After this, one of the men in our group would sneak out of the compound to a nearby gas station and bring back cold beer which was such a relief, and reward, in the intense heat of the night- even though it was clearly against the rules.
Friday finally came and the eleven of us took a trip outside the orphanage, which was like a journey into the pages of national geographic. The main road from the orphanage is full of potholes and the driver had to maneuver around the potholes while at the same time trying not to hit anyone on the side of the road, or other cars coming from the opposite direction that were doing the same thing. For some reason I felt safer on these roads than the ones in Costa Rica which were narrower and much more mountainous, with many more blind turns, but in both countries there didn’t seem to be any rules and certainly no street names or speed limits. Totally crazy. During Friday’s journey we all looked up to see a big yellow bus coming directly at us. We screamed but at the last second it swerved out of our way. It was just going around a pothole. When I asked the driver about it later in the day he said he was pretty confident that the bus wasn’t going to hit us. Anyway, aside from this, the day began happily with a visit to a small school. It was set up for about sixteen kids of all ages as a sort of tutoring program to get the student’s skills up to a higher academic level so that they could join in at a regular school. There was a campfire lit out back when we arrived with a big kettle of beans cooking. They had what they called a “feeding program” at the school where these 16 kids plus about another 25 of the most needy from the neighborhood were fed rice and beans for lunch every day. They all came with their own spoon and bowl. We went out and bought individual cartons of orange juice and cookies to add to the meal and fed the kids through the kitchen window. They were delighted to have us visit. They loved when we took pictures of them on our digital cameras because they could immediately see themselves. It was as though a party had come to town and they hugged us and sat on our laps and didn’t want us to leave.
While we were at the school I asked our driver, who was twenty-four, about his childhood. He had grown up in very poor neighborhood similar to the one we were in which is typical in Nicaragua. He was the oldest boy of six kids and was nine years old when his Dad up and left the family. His mother was left to raise them on the $120 a month that she made working very long hours at a clothing factory. He said that he had learned to weld from his Dad who was a welder, and in his father’s absence began to make guns to sell to a neighborhood gang in an effort to supplement the family income. What eventually happened was that he wasn’t able to leave his block because all the other gangs in the neighborhood would have killed him for selling to the gang that he supplied. Fortunately for him he met the woman who had started the orphanage where we were staying at a feeding program when he was about twelve. She is from the US and brought him here to get him away from the terrible situation that he had created for himself. He learned to speak English very well, earned a high school diploma and eventually went back to live on the orphanage and work as an interpreter. After he finished his story he confided in me that out of the forty-six boys his age in his neighborhood only four are alive now. He sadly said that the guns that he made are what killed some of them. I thanked him for sharing his story with me. I said that he was a very lucky boy to be able to get out of there. He agreed. He said that when he found himself in the US in a nice home and at a good school he couldn’t believe what a stroke of luck he had had. He said that he kept asking God, “why me?”
Our next stop on Friday was to a HUGE dump that had burning piles of garbage, was very smoky, and smelled absolutely awful. But here is the worst part: it is home to hundreds and hundreds of families who have had to move in and make their life there. They spend their days sorting through the garbage and eating what they can and recycling anything that is valuable such as plastic or metal. We drove through only a portion of it but I felt we had no business being there. It of course wasn’t a tourist site but there we were in a tour van taking it all in. It just struck me as such a personal thing for these families to have outsiders see. I put my camera away. I felt as though we were intruding on their privacy. I saw such things as a woman on the side of the road amid horrendous squalor checking her child’s head for nits, and small children going through the trash praying I am sure to find something to eat. The whole experience overwhelmed me. The craziest thing- and the best thing- was that in the middle of the dump a school had been set up and we visited it. It was actually a fairly normal looking situation aside from the smell. While there we met the first of two kids to graduate from the school who had begun his first year of college.
*** From the dump we headed into Managua to visit a big marketplace that I found very interesting although I wasn’t feeling much like buying anything after what I had just seen. After the marketplace we drove past another very sad situation called Tent Town. After hearing his story about Tent Town I will never buy Dole foods again. Dole came to Nicaragua- as I am sure they go to many tropical countries- to grow bananas. What happened though was the pesticides that they were using on the bananas were so bad that the Nicaraguan banana farmers got cancer -primarily of the kidneys I think he said but also many other problems like infertility etc. Then the banana farmers went on strike and said that they wanted to be compensated for the disease that Dole was responsible for. Dole ignored them and left the country so in protest hundreds of the sickened people set up makeshift tents in Managua, outside the government offices and said they wouldn’t leave until the government sued Dole. They have been there now for three years without any help. The driver said that the saddest thing is that as time has gone on there are fewer and fewer tents not because people have given up, but because they have died of cancer.
I realized as our trip went along how very fortunate the twenty-eight kids at the orphanage are. It became increasingly clear that they are probably far better off than many children in Nicaragua even though they are without their parents. The older boys, some whom have been at the orphanage now for ten years or so, were really wonderful kids- kind, thoughtful, grateful, helpful. In some of the boys you could already see that they had a strong sense of themselves. One was a talented artist. Another was hoping to go to med school with funds from a family. One boy was so smart and had so much charisma that it will carry him far in life if only the opportunities could be there for him. The problem is that there currently isn’t a plan for these kids. They are allowed to stay at the orphanage only as long as they are in school. There isn’t money to send them to college or even a plan for their next step yet. The issues run much deeper than just financial ones as so many parents are dealing with drug problems (glue sniffing), teenage pregnancies, lack of education, and a plan.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what I personally brought home with me from this trip. Initially, all I could really focus on was that I had put my family and myself in harms way. Our youngest returned with sore red rashes on her forearms that were blistering and no one seemed to know what they were. The second doctor we saw seemed a bit appalled that we didn’t bring our own sheets to Nicaragua. It honestly never crossed my mind and seriously, what would have been the point with so many things crawling around? Thankfully a rash is all that has shown up so far and after a biopsy the doctors think that it was just an allergic reaction to the malaria medication we were on. Anyway, I knew before leaving for Nicaragua that I would return more grateful than I already was for all that we have, especially each other, and this was certainly true. I have had moments though when I’ve looked around and felt embarrassed by how much we do have as well as by how much significance we give consumerism in our culture. I’ve bought into it like so many people but I didn’t need to go to Nicaragua to realize this. I also knew before leaving that the work that we’d be doing there would be very gratifying, which it certainly was. But for me I think the key thing that I brought back with me was a reaffirmation of how immediately accessible love can be, especially for children. I felt love at first sight there. There were many children at the orphanage that I could have taken home and back into our life as blindly as we took our own two girls into theirs. I felt that we could make it work if we brought them back here, similarly to how I was able to step outside my comfort zone and make it work while I was there. So what does this all mean? I have no idea. I think we all got a different slice of the world while we were there when you boil it all down. It made me feel good to do it and to brave it. I can’t imagine that in years to come that I’ll look back on this trip with fuzzy memories like I already have for some of our other trips. I looked at life through a different lens in Nicaragua. I think the images we saw, and felt, might be imbedded in our hearts for a very long time.
Most photos by Caroline Fernandes
Most photos by Caroline Fernandes