One community has lost so many men that it’s now called the Island of Widows. Researchers are struggling to figure out the cause of the disease. Some suspect a popular herbicide.
One community has lost so many men that it’s now called the Island of Widows. Researchers are struggling to figure out the cause of the disease. Some suspect a popular herbicide.
As months turn to seasons, we know that we will have less daily thoughts about our experience. In the meantime, there has not been a day that has gone by that I have not thought about my friends and students nor a grace before a meal that I have not prayed for our community. I deeply miss the life we lived and the experience we had in San Nicolás. ~Billy
On our 2nd to last morning in San Nicolás, I was invited by my colleague and friend, Douglas, to join him and his son for their morning chore of milking their cows. Douglas Jr., who is 12 years old, was one of our standout students and he was excited about me joining him for this daily duty. I walked up the hill to their house at 6:30 and was greeted by the family and a cup of coffee. For one final time I drank the offered coffee, though I am not a coffee drinker. After a few minutes we headed out to the pasture to begin the task. I had to act like I knew what I was doing and that I had not forgotten all the skills I learned in Waslala a year and a half earlier.
I guess it is like riding a bike, because I was a natural. Even Douglas Jr. looked at me with eyes saying, “Where did this gringo learn how to milk a cow?” We finished the few milk producing mothers and led them out to graze. Carrying eight liters back to the house, Marbely had a breakfast snack for me and their usual gift to us of cuajada and some fresh milk.
Before leaving I played some baseball with Douglas Jr. and his brother Yael. I had not played catch with them before, and I realized it was one of those moments that you ask yourself, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” It was a perfect way to spend one of my final mornings in Nicaragua. ~Billy
Shower of Love
Two days before leaving San Nicolás I was “surprised” by a special baby shower, hosted by one of the dearest women at the parish. I had heard rumors of a dinner at Doña Inez’s house, famous for her party hosting, on Sunday night from Billy. However, I thought it was initially just an event for us and a few people from the church. As Sunday drew closer I heard other rumors from people in town that it was a baby shower (yes, it is pronounced “babie chower”in Spanish). Sure enough, Billy returned to the house early Sunday morning, after helping a fellow teacher at the school milk his cows, with an invitation to a shower. He swore that it was for Doña Inez’s niece, but our names were on the card as the recipients of the party - strange? When I pressed him on it he simply repeated, “It’s for her niece.” He later gave in and confessed that it was for us, but I was supposed to be surprised, so act accordingly. Right - got it.
I was completely overwhelmed when we arrived to the house later that evening. They had adorned all the walls and pillars of the house in happy, yellow balloons that read, in English, “Baby Shower.” A table had been set with a large, personalized cake reading “Happy Baby Shower.” There was a gaggle of women swarming the kitchen preparing dinner. As women and families began to arrive I realized that this was not only a beautiful and incredibly thoughtful baby shower, but also a wonderful opportunity to have many of the people that we love in San Nicolás all in one place to say goodbye before Tuesday arrived and we left for Managua. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening; the singing and music provided by Catalino, the dancing with Billy by Midian, the delicious food prepared by a host of women, the games that Jara planned, and really the entire evening hosted by Doña Inez and her daughter Elisa. It was beautiful and a wonderful way to say goodbye to a community I love so much. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to put up a few photos from the evening too and if we could I would post the video of Billy dancing up and down the corridor with Midian. It was awesome and incredibly hilarious!
Thank you to Doña Inez and her family for hosting and gathering so many loving and caring people into one home for a fun evening and one more opportunity before our departure to tell the people of San Nicolás that we care very deeply about them.
June 15, 2013
Queridos Family and Friends,
We are not even 15,000 feet in the air and only 15 minutes from our take-off from Managua, and we are writing for your prayers. Our nearly two-year service commitment in Nicaragua has come to an end, and we are headed back to the States today. As I look out across the plains and volcanoes of this unforgettable country emotions continue to stir in my heart. The landscape that was just brown and dry a few weeks ago, has turned into a luscious green once again with the recent rains. New life abounds, though we depart. We will be arriving in the States with more than we left with, both with the wisdom that was bestowed upon us by friends and strangers, but also with the new life that is forming in Kristin. As we leave Nicaragua, the place we have called home the past two years, we recognize that we leave a piece of our soul in this land and hopefully in the people.
While I do not have a perfect command of the Spanish language, it is equally impossible in English to convey the immense gratitude and indebtedness we have for our community. The last 10 days have been filled with moments of despedida and moments of solitude reflecting on our time here. We have had many conversations with dear friends, expressing in the best way we could, our thanks and love for them. From the special program that was prepared for us by the students at our school on our last day of classes to the surprise baby shower that was thrown for Kristin by a family in San Nicolás. We have cried more tears than there have been rain drops in the last few weeks. Which I must say is unfair for Kristin being six months pregnant as she was already emotional. I blame my tears and emotions on the pregnancy too!
There are a few special goodbyes that I would like to share with you that give a sense of the difficulty we have had in leaving. The first was on the day we left San Nicolás and the truck had arrived to pick us up. Our neighbor Henry, who has become a good friend, was outside and helped load our luggage on the truck. He was silent and solemn. When our final box was loaded, and the inevitable goodbye was upon us, we hugged. Henry began to cry. In the machismo culture it is rare to see a man cry, and Henry was crying so hard he went into his house to gain his composure. We had already said goodbye a few times, but this last one where there was no return in sight, was the real goodbye. His mom, Dina, followed with her tears and slight hug. I boarded the truck, tearful and waving to those in the narrow street waving back at me.
We drove up to school, our last chance to say goodbye to Idalia, the Director, but so much more to us: a mother, a friend, a compañera. The night before, when we had visited her home one last time, she had told us that she did not like “goodbyes” and in fact could not cry. She explained that during the war, she watched her dad get in the back of a pick-up truck, she said goodbye to him, and never saw him again. He was killed along with his three brothers by Contra militia. From that day, she said that she does not say “goodbye”. As we hugged one last time in front of the school, with the gray skies overhead drizzling a light rain upon us, she did not say goodbye, only “we will see you soon.” I entered the back of the pick-up truck, unaware of the irony as she walked out to the street to watch us drive away. Before we crested the hill, I waved my arm so she knew I still saw her, and she waved back, our last sight in San Nicolás.
After spending a few final days in Managua, we arrived at the airport this morning with Chepe, our Central American Coordinator with VMM. When we walked through the glass doors, two volunteer friends, Ana and Sister Kari, were waiting there for us with a banner that read “We will miss you! Come back soon and bring your baby.” We were so touched by their presence and final expression of solidarity. We all hung out in the airport until it was time to make our way through security. I had been saying the past few weeks, in leading up to today, that I just don’t feel ready to leave. Despite the challenges of these past two years, despite the sweat and dirt, despite the cultural differences, I am not ready to be back in the States. So much of me wants to stay here. But, there we were hugging our friends, not wanting to let go because that meant going through the glass doors where I could not pass again. My final tears came, my feet were heavy not wanting to step toward the gate. Nonetheless, we handed over our passports; a certain finality in this process of leaving. As my passport was being slid through the machine on the computer, a 6.6 earthquake struck; classic Nicaragua! We hastily exited the airport with hundreds of others including our friends; a bit frightened, especially after seeing the terror on people’s faces as they ran for the exit. As we waited outside unsure of what was next, I joked that I knew God didn’t want me to leave so soon! Now, less than two hours later we are in the sky headed for Houston.
If you followed our blog you know the people of Waslala taught us to be committed to justice and doing what is right, when they struggled and marched to keep their school open. You may remember that Esperanza taught us what her name means in English, which was to hope beyond hoping. If you followed our blog, you know that Henry taught me what a good neighbor is supposed to be like sharing food across the fence and inviting me to play baseball with him. You may recall that Idalia taught us hospitality by opening her home up to us on numerous occasions including when our family visited. If you followed our blog, you know that Elbin taught us how to share your gifts and talents each time he played his guitar and serenaded us at a dinner party. Doña Inez and Juana taught us to pray deeply and often. Countless others who I wish I could name here taught us more about life, love, friendship, and solidarity than I ever knew.
We are grateful for the experience, grateful for our new friends, and grateful to you for your support and prayers. We ask that you continue to pray for us as we transition back to life in the United States and wrestle with our desire to be with the people of Nicaragua. We thank Volunteer Missionary Movement for giving us this opportunity and for their unending support of us. I would ask once again and probably for the last time to consider making a financial donation to VMM in our name. This would be especially helpful for us since our flight home was so expensive (despite being only one way) and also to help offset the cost of the re-orientation transition retreat that we will be attending this July in Chicago. Plus, your donation will be helping future volunteers like Kristin and I to serve the humble people of Central America.
By now our plane is close to leaving Nicaraguan airspace. I can still see the gorgeous country that was so hard to leave. Departing this bruised land and its scarred people, who manage to find a way to march on, the lyrics from Nicaragua, Nicaragüita by Carlos Mejia Godoy resonate in my tearful heart. In the final line, he sings: “Now that you are free my little Nicaragua, I love you so much more.”
Con Paz y Amor,
Billy y Kristin
To donate to VMM, click here.
After much debate on Thursday, the Nicaraguan Congress voted to approve the construction of a canal in the southern part of the country. This has been a dream of Nicaragua for over a hundred years, long before the Panama Canal. Many say this would bring prosperity, but in reality the “Hong Kong-based company” is one single businessman who has investment interests in the country. Not to mention the environmental disaster that this canal will bring, if it is ever built and completed. This is a very contentious issue right now. If you are interested in reading more, Tim Rogers has a good article in his local English-language news publication, The Nicaragua Dispatch.
Do you think Mother’s Day should be a national holiday in the States with a day off from work? Yes, me too. When Nicaragua celebrates Mother’s Day on May 30th every year, it is considered feriada, or an official holiday from work. While the day has since passed, I wanted to share a few photos and thoughts from the day, or actually the day before.
If you’ve been following the blog you may have seen some of the images that Billy has been putting up as the new park is being constructed in San Nicolás. The inauguration came on May 29th, in conjunction with the celebration of Mother’s Day. There was a large presentation of dances, singing, raffles, etc. on the 29th in order to allow people to travel and visit their mothers on the following day, May 30th.
As they say here, amanecemos (we woke up) to a day that was already broiling hot. I think we could have cooked our eggs for breakfast out on the tile in our corridor. People also will say that when the day is very hot, it’s going to rain. It always sounds odd to me, but usually proves to be true. I made my way up to school for two English classes, then the students were dismissed to attend the acto (presentation) that was taking place in the central park to celebrate their mothers. As I walked down the main street of town I could hear the vendors advertising the tasty treats they had prepared and the folklorico music coming from the park area. Billy and I headed to the park shortly thereafter to wander the stalls set up selling güirila (sweet corn pancake served with salty cheese), enchiladas, and various types of icy fresco (fresh juices). We shared a güirila and wandered down to where our friends from La Garnacha had their booth set up and were selling fresh lettuce, beets, carrots, and artesenia products. After chatting with them for a while we made our way to where the tent was set up and students were performing songs, poems, and dances; all dedicated to the nearly 500 mothers who had come from the surrounding communities.
We were too late to squeeze into a spot under the tent so we found a somewhat shady bench and, with the help of our umbrellas, tried to avoid a serious sunburn. From our spot we could hear and see some of the dancing. We are always impressed with the preparation that the students put in to their performances and are mystified when they actually do practice because it certainly hasn’t happened at school, as we would expect. They had coordinated attire, even the girls had matching hair styles, and big smiles that they proudly displayed for their mothers. There were tables of dishes, flowers, and other give-aways that they gifted to the mothers throughout the day. Towards the beginning of the event the mayor invited four women to join her in cutting the ribbon at the four entrances to the park, signifying the inauguration of the new park. It was definitely an exciting and proud moment for the community, marking a beautiful, new addition to San Nicolás. (This was the biggest and most costly project to come to San Nicolás in over 20 years and was a direct result of the Sandinistas winning the mayoral election last November.)
Around noon the clouds began to form and creep in on the party. We felt like we had enjoyed enough of the dancing so headed back over to chat with our friends at the table from La Garnacha. Not even a half hour later the first few drops began to fall and we headed for the house. Billy ran out to buy a few provisions for lunch and made it back just as the drops turned in to a downpour. We locked Diego (our dog) inside the kitchen with us, so he wouldn’t go trekking through the mud outside and dirty all the floors as well as our clothes, since he likes to jump up on us for a few love pats but doesn’t realize that he also leaves his little prints all over our pants. The rain continued from that point until about 2am. A full 10 hours! We strategically placed buckets in our bedroom under the drops, grabbed books to read, since the power had gone out, and weathered the storm - literally. It was the first, and largest, downpour of the year. Thankfully, the power came on later in the evening, enough to be able to make dinner and charge our computer so we could enjoy a movie, but the rain did not abate.
At the end of the day we were thankful that it at least held off during the celebration and hoped that those women who had come from communities to celebrate the day didn’t get too wet as they made their trips back home. Despite the rain, the day off from work and the honor to the mother’s was a beautiful tribute to the work they do. Feliz Día de la Madre, a las madres de Nicaragua! ~Kristin
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard,” said the character Annie in the eponymous movie. Those who have been following our journey on this blog, know that our initial transition to Nicaragua was very challenging. It’s been these challenges that grounded us deeper into this rich soil and its gracious people. At our orientation before we left, we were told that it would take between 6-9 months for us to feel somewhat “settled.” They weren’t kidding. It ended up being a lot more difficult than we had anticipated. I remember a specific conversation I had with my brother on the phone a few months after arriving. He was the “expert” because he had spent two years in Costa Rica with Peace Corps. Ben’s advice was, “At first your experience will be so difficult that you’ll think you made a mistake and then at the end you’ll have fallen in love so much that you won’t want to leave.” Well, I think it’s safe to say that his words were right on and we’re now at that point. The point where saying goodbye is so hard.
The goodbyes don’t get any easier each time that we have one and part of me wants to do it “Irish-style,” just disappear, as so many tend to do here (read: those who exit in the middle of the night to begin their long journey of immigrating to the States). However, I know that this avoidance tactic would not honor the experience that we have had here, nor would it be fair to the people here to whom we have much to say. We have already said goodbye to a few people from communities who we may not see again, as they rarely come into the “big” city of San Nicolás.
A recommendation that we received from the St. Vincent Pallotti Center was to write thank you notes to people who have played a significant role in our experience and time here in Nicaragua. This has been helpful in putting into words what people have meant to us, and ensuring that they understand the impact they have had on us. It also forces us to spend time with each person before leaving, giving him or her the card, and saying “thank you” in person too.
Many ask when we will return, or if this goodbye is just temporary and we’ll be back to finish teaching the school year here (it ends in December.) The seniors are sad we won’t be here for graduation. We have to explain that we are finishing our contract with VMM, have taken jobs in the States that begin shortly, and are also going to have our baby in the States. This last part is hard because they would all like to meet the child that I’m carrying now. We would love for them to meet our child too, which is why we always respond by explaining we will be back, it’ll just be to visit, not to live, but we don’t know when. We don’t want to make any promises that we can’t keep and we honestly don’t know when we’ll have the funds and the time to make the trip back here, but we do know that we’d like to introduce people to Baby Byrnes. Argentina, our neighbor across the street, says that we only get three months in the States after the baby is born and then we have to come back so that they can meet him or her. I wish this were possible, but I’ll probably just be heading back to work after maternity leave, when we hit that three month mark.
I feel very torn about leaving and I think this is what my brother was referring to when he said “you won’t want to leave.” I believe a lot of my feelings are wrapped up in the fact that I’m pregnant. On a trivial level, I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to a warm shower and bed that doesn’t leave me with a little ache every morning when I get up. More importantly, I want to share my pregnancy with our families and friends. Yet, friends here have become like family in many ways and it would be great to have our baby here too, in order to share this with them.
In some ways I feel like our work here isn’t done. There was a huge fight (I mean physical hair-pulling fight) between two girls at the end of the school day on Monday and both were suspended for the week. What is causing this anger and violence among the youth here? Have we done all that we can to alleviate some of this? Probably not, but then, how can one really measure what we have done here. This is the central focus of accompaniment. We cannot count the number of houses painted, or cement walkways poured during our two years here. We can’t even measure how much English we’ve taught to the students, or what theology lessons the delegados have taken away from our escuelitas and talleres. Our time has primarily been spent in accompanying others; talking with the mom who is in an abusive relationship the day after she tried to commit suicide, asking the student why she is cutting herself, encouraging a student who shows a lot of promise to continue studying hard, and spending the afternoon with a family whose daughter is immigrating to the States the following day. These are immeasurable moments of accompaniment.
At the same time, if feels like it is time to go home. We miss family, miss friends, and miss aspects of the jobs that we left in the States, to which we will return. As they say here, “ni modo (no other way),” we must go, and so therefore must say goodbye. Indeed, how lucky and blessed we are to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
On behalf of both of us, I would like to express my gratitude to all of you for your continued support, whether it has been in the form of simply following our blog and our lives here, or whether it was sending a short e-mail, a care package, or remembering us in your prayers. We appreciate all that we have received from afar while being here and we anxiously await the moments when we can express this gratitude to you all in person. If we could make one last request, please keep us in your prayers in this transition, as we say goodbye to one set of friends and hello to another. I imagine that the return to the States will be as difficult, in some ways, as our arrival was here to Nicaragua. We are not the same and we’re not returning to the same life as before, nor are the people to whom we are returning the same. We have all grown in these past two years. For our part, we will forever be changed by our two years here in Nicaragua.
Muchas gracias y que nuestro Dios de amor les bendiga por siempre.
(Many thanks and may our God of love bless you always.)
Jean Donavan and Saying Goodbye
As I was burning our trash this morning (a twice-weekly chore of mine), I was throwing some old magazines on the flame. One was the Alumni magazine from Santa Clara University, and as I watched the flames envelop the page, I swear to the high heavens that the quote I read and the photo I saw was of Jean Donovan, one of the four North American churchwomen martyred and raped in El Salvador in 1980, saying, “Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
I did not think anything of it until later when I was washing the dishes, for some reason I went back to the image that was seared into my mind from the morning’s chore. Jean Donavan is one of the reasons I am here in Nicaragua. She was the one who among others, inspired me to want to live, work, and volunteer in Central America. It was upon hearing her story when I was in college that I wanted to emulate what she did: be in solidarity side by side with those on the margins. She was a young lay woman, who, amidst war and strife in El Salvador, left her comfortable suburban life in Cleveland to minister and accompany the suffering Salvadorans. She was brutally raped and murdered with three American nuns in 1980, by soldiers trained and supported by the United States government. Hers was a rallying cry to those of us who choose life, justice, and solidarity.
Now, when I think back to the quote I read as it disappeared into the flames and became gray ash, I hear her prophetic voice calling out to me once again. It calls to me as we prepare to leave Nicaragua and the community of friends we have made. It speaks deeply to my heart as I think about the two years of struggle and joy we have experienced. Her words bury deep in my conscience as I bring to a close this opportunity of learning and growing. Her commitment to the people of El Salvador in their darkest hour, re-kindle in me the reason why we said yes to this experience of solidarity and accompaniment.
With just a couple weeks left, we have begun the process of saying goodbye. It only gets tougher and more emotional as each day passes. This past weekend we cooked dinner and brought it over to Esperanza’s house. Our dear friend Gris lives there and they have become like a second family to us. Saturday was a special night as we broke bread (tortilla really) together around their table. We cried a little and laughed a lot. They have taught us so much in our time here, especially when we continually heard about their growing struggles. During dinner we took tons of photos and spoke of some of our fonder memories. Esperanza, who is a seamstress, gifted Kristin a beautiful maternity blouse she had made for her. Like a mother to us, Esperanza, whose name aptly means Hope, gave us a long hug and kiss of friendship before we left.
Yesterday, I said goodbye to Doña Victoria, who attends the herbal and natural medicine shop in the front of our house. She said that while we have not spent much time with her, she was ever-grateful to us for the time and energy we have given to teaching her many grandchildren who go to our school. She started naming them off and said that each one had positive things to say about Kristin and I. She expressed her gratitude for our willingness to “live in solidarity with our poor community.” Before leaving she said there are three things a priest told her once that she wanted to pass onto me: “Focus first on your family, your church, and your health.” Also, she proudly gifted us a remedy for post-delivery pain and healing herbs: cilantro seeds, dried rosemary, honey, and another seed that I cannot figure out what it is in English. Mash with water and take once a day she said. It will cure Kristin up in no time.
On our Sunday morning walk we stopped by Adis’ house, the mother of one of our students who graduated last year. They live in a very simple house, with dirt floors, mud walls, and the simplest of household items. They have a few citrus trees that surround their property, and in the mud that encircles their house like a moat, laid a happy pig. We had promised her we would stop by before we left and she was so excited to see us at the gate to their house. We tied up Diego and sat on the bench near their front door. Within minutes we had a cup of coffee in hand and the offer of fresh tortillas with cuajada (a delicious cheese). She has struggled immensely the past year and we have tried to give her an outlet to share her difficulties and pain. She recently had all of her top teeth pulled, currently suffers from serious oral and jaw pain, and is obviously embarrassed to talk due to her toothless grin. But, she is a happy presence and gives joy to those around her. Like so many others, she has asked what we need before we go. She insisted we stop by her house one more time so she can gift us beans to take back with us to the United States to share with our family. In her poverty, she is the one gifting out of her necessity…not out of her excess. We continue to learn from our community.
These are the first of many goodbyes we will go through over the next couple weeks. It is not easy, but it is imperative for us to try and convey to our co-workers, students, and friends how much they have meant to us and how we will truly carry them with us in our hearts.
Jean Donovan worked and lived in a drastically different setting than we have lived, and she consciously chose to stay amidst the war that was raging around her. Though, as we prepare to leave Nicaragua I wonder the same thing she wrote to her friend, “Who will care for the children and the poor?” I will wrestle forever with what more I could have done and could do to make life better for those in need. This experience has helped some, but it has also opened my eyes and mind to what the reality is like for the majority of our world. Thank you Jean Donavan and the many other prophets who inspired me to say “yes” to this commitment, and thank you Nicaragua for teaching me what I would never have otherwise learned. ~Billy
Our May video in review…Enjoy! ~Kristin