Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Kathryn Fails to Be Nicaraguan...Again

Neko: Where's Michael?
Me: I don't know.
Neko: What do you mean, you don't know where he is? He's your neighbor!

For Neko, the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" is practically not worth asking.

Critters in My House, Part III

The favorite (and only) recurring segment on my blog.

A snake and a tarantula. Only one was successfully removed from the house still alive. Can you guess which one?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Trip to the Clinic

After two weeks of battling a cough, I finally went to one of the main health clinics in Bilwi. Michael, feeling bad because his teas had failed, decided to accompany me. Also because he stepped on a nail and conceded he might need to at least get a tetanus shot.

I spoke with a doctor in a room with two other doctors and patients, all consulting simultaneously with their patients and checking in with each other to see what they thought about their respective clients' conditions. This, combined with the repeated conversation starter "So what are you here for?" led me to suspect that patient privacy is not high on their priority list. After a consultation, I was given a doctor's slip and told to go over to the hospital for a chest X-ray. We did so, and ran into another dancer in the X-ray line, who had been mugged the day before and refused to let his cell phone go without a fight (it turned out he had no broken bones). After they took the X-ray, they pulled it out of the developing water and stuck it on the fence outside. As I sat watching the X-ray dry above the scattered litter and birds bathing in dirty rainwater, I felt part of my sense of mystique regarding the medical profession disappear.

When it was done, they handed me the X-ray and sent me back to the health clinic, where it was determined I was having allergy troubles and prescribed a nebulizer treatment and medication. As I went in to get my nebulizer treatment, an old man walked up to me, smiling, and started talking in a language that most definitely was not Spanish. Fortunately, my hours of studying Miskito paid off in this case. I was able to decide with reasonable certainty that the man was not in fact speaking Miskito, and was therefore probably speaking Mayangna, the much less used indigenous language of the region. I nodded and smiled pleasantly.

Upon leaving the clinic, I felt like something important was missing from my hospital experience. I then realized that no one, not at the clinic nor the X-ray lab, had ever asked me the hallmark question "Is there any chance you could be pregnant?"

With the exception of one of the medications, all of the care was free, courtesy of the Sandinista government.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Day

(Relatively) Locally Harvested Tea

Today our neighbor Michael appeared at the door with a bag full of weeds in his hand. "I heard you coughing, so I hiked for 45 minutes over to Loma Verde and grabbed some of these herbs to make you tea. It'll make your cough go away."

Who ever said an idle brain was the devil's playground?

Worst Graduation Speech Ever

These were the subdirector's closing remarks at the Escuela Maureen Courtney Graduation Ceremony:

"Only 13 of you showed up at the Graduation Mass [as Susan pointed out, the other 15 are probably Jehovah's Witnesses], and I hardly saw any parents. I'm very disappointed in you. I hope as your children move on to secondary school, you will be better, more supportive parents. I thought about canceling graduation, but you're lucky we have hearts of cotton. Congratulations to all those who showed up and those who didn't show up!"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

When Evil Spirits Invade Your Summer Camp

When I am rudely and abruptly confronted with something that is entirely outside my realm of experience and incongruous with my ways of thinking, my first reaction is usually one of hilarity. What a nonsensical world! As long as I keep this reaction under wraps, I have found it an immensely useful one. It keeps me from digging into my way of thinking too deeply and going completely crazy.

I had a chance to practice this reaction quite extensively over the past few days. Susan and I attended a summer camp for 15-25 year olds from the Bilwi area. It began with us regaling Neko, the director of my dance group, about the hummingbird that had gotten trapped in our house. "It's a bad omen," he said. "Something bad's going to happen."

His suspicions were confirmed when, on the way to Betania where we were going to camp, we ran into a roadblock set up by some locals. They were angry that the government wasn't sending money to fix the road, so they were barricading it. Neko and the other leaders talked with them for a while about how they totally agreed with them but were just trying to take some young people up to a summer camp. Then the blockade people responded that they completely understood, but if they let the buses through they'd have to let everyone through and then where would they be? This conversation never resolved itself. We ended up turning around our old school bus from Missouri and heading to Tuapi, a small town on the outskirts of Bilwi. "See?" said Neko. "I told you something bad was going to happen!"

We arrived in Tuapi, who let us set up camp in their school. The guys and the girls each got their own classroom to sleep in. We used the river for bathing, and people from the town graciously let us pull water from their wells for cooking, drinking, and cleaning. There was no electricity, so nighttime activities consisted primarily of guitar playing, singing, and talking.

The second night, as I was coming out of the outhouse and wishing I would remember to go in there during the day so I knew exactly where the toilet was, I ran into a girl named Ingrid, falling into Michael's arms on the path in front of me. "She just fainted."he said. I thought they were playing around, and said, "Seriously?"

"Seriously! Help!"

Several guys rushed over and carried her to the girls' classroom. By the time they arrived, the girl had awoken, screaming and crying. Susan was inside playing with a 5-year-old from the town nearby. "What's going on?" she said.

"Grisi siknis." replied the boy matter-of-factly.

I was sitting with Michael near the classroom, listening to the loud screams that were now filling up the camp, when Xander, one of the other dancers, came over and informed us that the girl had grisi siknis. I had attended a student's senior-year presentation on grisi siknis, so I was familiar with the subject. It's adapted from the English "crazy sickness," and it's a culturally-bound, contagious malady caused by witchcraft. It primarily affects young women. The first symptom is usually fainting, followed convulsions and visions of riders on bloodstained horses beckoning them into the wilderness.

We waited silently in the dark as the directors of the camp brought a Bible to put under her head and pray to cast the demons out. "Why are there so many men in there with her?" I asked one of the women who was watching. "To keep her from running away into the wilderness!" replied the woman, clearly agitated. I sat for a while with Michael and two of the other dancers, listening to Ingrid's cries. In that moment, I was a not-quite-insider, not-quite-outsider. It frightened me, and yet never touched me because it was so far from my world, even while being within earshot. I started running my hands through Xander's hair to keep myself anchored in the moment. Michael moved closer to me, and admitted he was scared.

Eventually, a truck came and took Ingrid back to Bilwi. Neko informed the group that no one was to leave the immediate area of the two classrooms, and if anyone needed to use the outhouse they were to inform their director and go with an escort of two to four men. I later asked him if that was in case the person fainted, or in order to fight off the evil spirits that might attack. "It's psychological," he replied. "If they believe that the men can protect them, they won't be affected." Like many people in Bilwi, Neko is a not-quite-unbeliever in witchcraft. He spoke the language of psychology, perhaps recognizing his American audience, but when push comes to shove, he too ascribed the events of the evening to witchcraft.

I returned to bed shortly after the girls' classroom cleared out. I discovered that the mattress Michael loaned me had been used for Ingrid during the rituals, so I cleared off the bits of herbs that remained and laid down to go to bed. I was shortly followed by a flood of young women who, as I learned the next morning, had been reluctant to return to the classroom after the nights' events and were waiting for someone else to go to bed before they were willing to face whatever evil spirits might still be lurking about.

Later that night, I was awakened by Franci, the woman in the bed next to mine, moaning, "Giddyup! Giddyup!" At first, I thought someone was having sex outside the window, but I soon realized that Franci had also begun convulsing. Neko and the other directors came back into the room, and we rubbed a mixture of herbs and water into her feet and held her down while she convulsed. "Who's doing this, Franci?" Neko kept saying. "Give me a name!" Franci was not as seriously afflicted as Ingrid, and she recovered within the hour.

Neko later announced that he was certain it was one of the women in the group of students that was practicing witchcraft, and he was going to talk to the Solkia, or the primary healer in the community, and get to the bottom of it. Softened by my confidence in the security of my relationship with Neko as well as lack of sleep, I lost my general acceptance of witchcraft as a part of my new reality and snapped at him for blaming a woman in the absence of any apparent evidence. I didn't really expect to convince him otherwise, but it felt good to vent. Ever since I got here, I have been piled up with reasons to feel vulnerable and afraid because of my gender. I had no interest in having another one, and less interest in women beng made responsible for this vulnerability.

Thoroughly exhausted from the nights' events, we packed up our belongings and prepared to leave the next day. Michael no longer wanted anything to do with the mattress that had been used in the rituals, and instructed me to burn it on the trash pile.

As it turns out, grisi siknis is a common summer camp malady here. When a bunch of kids get together, someone in the camp or someone in a local community uses it as an opportunity to try out the magic they've been practicing. As far as curses go, it's a relatively mild one, paling by far in comparison to demon possessions.

Hilarity works as an initial reaction, but now I am left with the work of reconciling my experience with what I had previously known as my world, in which magic and witchcraft were fantastical or academic questions. What is it about culture that has such power to give our beliefs control over our bodies? As an outsider to this culture, I firmly believe that the demons that haunt this place have no power over me. Still, what of the demons that haunt me back home, the ones that followed me here? The demons that we call anxiety, stress, depression, low self-esteem, and all of the physical maladies they cause? If I stop believing in them, will they no longer have power over me? I wish it were so, but I think I would have to be stronger than my cultural upbringing in order to make that true. Is grisi siknis simply one more manifestation of an experience that is essentially human and is bound to appear everywhere, though the circumstances that trigger it and the way it presents itself vary from place to place? If that's true, then maybe I can avoid catching grisi siknis during summer camp, but that won't stop me from buckling in my own way under life's myriad pressures. The possibility of a culturally accepted avenue of temporarily going crazy is actually quite appealing. I have no doubt that I would have fallen into it at various points during my adolescence, had I grown up in this culture.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Two of the generators are out at the local plant and energy is being rationed. As a result, we've spent a fair amount of time sitting around in the dark with some friends from the neighborhood, talking and exchanging riddles and stories. Tonight we were playing Two Truths and a Lie. What is the proper response when someone offers as one of their statements that they were raped as a child? And then when it turns out that it's the truth?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Critters 'n' More

Critters in My House, Part II

1) Hummingbird- They're fast little buggers. We tried for hours to get it out of the house. It couldn't find the door for the life of it. I suppose it's evolutionary: when they feel like they're in danger it goes against their instinct to fly downward to go through the door, as opposed to going upward into the ceiling. Once the sun went down, it went berzerk and tried to burrow into the light. After having exhausted itself in this effort, I was finally able to use a shirt to pick it up by the beak, wrap it in the shirt, and carry it outside. It lay there, prone and shocked, for a moment, as I held my breath, thinking it was dead. Then came to its senses and flew away.

2) Frog- in the bathroom. Not much more to say.

Critters Not in My House, Thank God

On Thursday, we walked down to the beach at night with our neighbor Michael. This is not an enterprise I would have undertaken without a local companion, as everyone claims the beach is full of drug dealers at night. As it turned out, we encountered no drug dealers, but lots of rather large crabs. As it also turns out, Michael is rather terrified of rather large crabs, scurrying about in the dark. He claims one of them pinched him. Susan brought her flashlight, so we were able to scope them out and avoid them pretty well, but Michael still shrieked every time the light illuminated one. I, of course, seized the opportunity to play crab and grab his calf.


Michael is part of a dance group called Swetin.
"It's a word in Miskito," he explained. "It means...it means..."
"Sweating?" I suggested.
"Yeah, that's it!"

I sat in on their practice, and also attended the aerobics/dance class that the group's coach also teaches. It was fun working out to hilariously vulgar songs in English that no one in the room probably understood, as well as a pumped-up version of "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Language notes, etc.

Padre Roger loaned me a Miskito language Bible, and I have discovered that the Miskito has interesting built-in ways of doing gender inclusive language. Like English, nouns and adjectives do not, as a rule, carry gender. Unlike English or Spanish, the third person does not have gender. "Witin" means he or she, and "witin nani" is they. Furthermore, the words "brother" and "sister" function a little differently. The word "lakra" is for siblings who share your gender, and "muhni" is for those of the other gender. Because I'm a woman with two brothers, I have two "lakra," (or "laikra," because they're mine), and no "muihni." If I were a boy, I would have two "muhni" and no "lakra." Because the Miskito Bible uses "muhni" to mean "brothers" or "brothers and sisters," it's normative to the person of reference. For a woman, "If you are giving your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother has some grievance against you," it would actually read "your sister."

It gets really complicated when you have a word for the son of your sister, provided you're a man. I had to draw a diagram to figure out how all the relationships worked.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I sit in when the counseling teacher at Escuela Maureen gives class. Last week, I suggested to her that since the 4th grade class ranges in age from 10 to 15, it might make more sense to divide the class into older and younger groups for talking about sexuality. In my mind, you can talk to 10 year olds as pre-sexually active individuals, but by 15 years old they are definitely already making those choices. She said okay, next week the younger kids are all yours. So I have about 30 minutes on Monday to talk about sexuality with the 10 to 12 year olds. Even better, I probably won't have any more time than that, since the school year is drawing to a close.

To get advice, I stopped by Bilwi's equivalent of Planned Parenthood yesterday. A woman named Mildred gave me some great resources. When I asked if they were going to be giving any workshops, she said she was giving one for sex workers today, and would I like to stop by. "Would I!" thought I.

So today I attended a 5-hour workshop with about 20 women who work as prostitutes in Bilwi. We learned about human trafficking, the morning-after pill, and living with AIDS. I found out several things I didn't know before or had forgotten, like sperm can live in the uterus for up to 72 hours, and the morning after pill works by preventing the sperm from reaching the Fallopian tubes and fertilizing an egg. Neat! At the lunch break, Mildred brought out a camera and took a picture of the group. "Say 'clitoris'!" She said. "Clitoris" in Spanish rhymes with "cheese" in English.

The women were very nice. The oldest among them, whom they referred to as the Mother Superior, invited me to come back for the next meeting. I think I just might.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

a new language

My acquisition of Miskito is going well, though I still get impatient with the tedious process that is learning another language. One of my new favorite quirks of Miskito is that concepts are often created by putting together words that don't really seem to make sense together. For example, "Bili kaiks" means "Wait for me." Literally, though, it would be translated as "Look at my mouth." Some of the combinations make a sort of sense:"Latwan mai kaikisna" is "I love you," or literally "I see your suffering." "Kupia Kumi" is "peace," or "one heart." "To follow" is "nina blikbaia," or "to send name."

These phrases appeal to my delight in the hilarity of the nonsensical, and therefore make it easier to learn. Still, it means I very often understand a lot of the words somebody says, but I can make no sense of them when they are all strung together.

It also bolsters my efforts that everyone is thrilled to death that I'm learning their language. I am only now coming to appreciate the fact that the Miskito language carries their culture. In terms of heritage, almost everyone here is some mix of British, Dutch, African (Creole), mestizo, Miskito, and other indigenous groups. There are people here of every skin tone and other physical markers, and they're all intermixed. Language, not physical characteristics, seems to be the primary marker of ethnic identity. If you grew up speaking Miskito, then you're Miskito. Even if you didn't grow up speaking Miskito, speaking the language seems to more or less earn you some degree of acceptance as an insider. Even with the handful I've learned, some people are already joking that I'm Miskito now. It makes sense; I have heard from time to time, mostly from native speakers, that the language is seen as primitive and illegitimate. This is not generally said with anger; I feel like it may be a view that's been internalized. Hardly anyone who speaks it can write it, since only Spanish is taught in most schools, and it is the primary language in all the schools. Learning Miskito is a way of giving the language, and the culture, more legitimacy in the eyes of those who speak it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Last week was a difficult one for me here in Bilwi. The civil unrest of a few weeks ago blew over with a bunch of people arrested, a few injuries, and one death due to heart attack brought on by exposure to tear gas. School started again, just in time for Autonomy Day and Día de los Difuntos. It all amounts to far too many days off school, especially for kids who struggle with long term recall as it is.

This week also saw the departure of two dear friends. After we moved out of our previous house, I continued to return occasionally to visit Miguel, one of the guys who lived there, and Blanca, the puppy. The companionship of both of them helped anchor me during my transition to living here. Miguel was frequently around to talk to, and he often could commiserate because he had only recently moved here, and Blanca was always around to comfort me if I felt lonely. Last Monday, Miguel told me that he was moving back to his home city of Bluefields, and the owner of the house had given Blanquita to someone else.

Later, after the other housemate Eric had gone to bed, he told me the truth about the puppy. After coming back from a largely unsuccessful fishing expedition, Eric got very drunk and killed her. He said he was going to put her out of her misery because there was nothing to feed her. Miguel loved the puppy, and when there wasn´t money for dog food he shared his own dinner with her. Before he left town, he encouraged me not to come by the house ever again.

I´m grieved by what happened, and haunted by the widespread violence here, bred by poverty. I have acquired several bruises caused by my frequent tripping on the uneven roads here, but no one believes me when I tell them I fell, though only Miguel pressed me about it. I´m haunted by the fact that Blanquita is not the only victim of this displaced aggression. I have no idea how many kids I work with are beaten for similar reasons, but I know it´s far too many. I only see some of the bruises.

Poverty is no excuse for violence. Period. But poverty is its own kind of violence. It twists people and relationships into desperate, horrendous messes. Messes with no easy answers.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Climate Change, Miskito Style

Yesterday, I attended an all-day workshop on climate change with the other teachers of Escuela Maureen Courtney. It focused on the climate change and the rights of indigenous peoples. In Nicaragua and in other places, the government has used "environmental protection" as a reason for appropriating indigenous lands for activities like reforestation. Primary focal points for countries like Nicaragua are adapting to the realities of climate change, which have already greatly damaged the people's livelihoods, and recognizing that they are not the primary cause of this damage. They are looking to foster sustainable development while holding developed countries like the US accountable for their role in climate change.

During the second half of the day, four women who are working in rural communities to help them understand climate change discussed how the Miskito and Sumu women have merged the science of climate change with their own religious beliefs. As they explained:

In the past, the Unta Dawanka prohibited us from hunting more than our fair share. The mermaids took care of the river. The gnome, the eyes of the water, took care of the trees. Every tree had its owner, and one had to ask the owner permission before removing branches or cutting down a tree. If we did not obey, the owners of the forest would punish us. We have lost this way of thinking. We have come to believe that Caoba trees are valued only in money. The owners of the forest are angry.

I'm going to talk with the religion teacher about adapting some of these women's thinking and strategies into the religion classroom to teach environmental stewardship. I don't know how open she is to incorporating non-Christian spirituality, and I know I don't have the knowledge base to do so, but there are people in the community who do. It seems like the job of religion class to impart their knowledge, albeit in a Christian context.

Towards the end of the workshop, they showed us this really cool video. It's in Spanish, but it's pretty easy to follow:


Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The Miskito independence movement Wihta Tara has been marching for about three days, and the entire town has more or less shut down (though some of that may be because it´s raining so much). I heard that there were people throwing stones and pro-Sandinista folks lighting tires on fire down at the central park, but this entire part of town is quiet now. The Wihta Tara headquarters, which is also referred to as the Miskitia embassy, is only two blocks south of our house. There was a police blockade by it earlier. Police were grabbing young men as they walked by and pulling up their shirts to see if they carried any weaponry, but besides that everyone was mostly just standing around and waiting.

The conflict has brought out a lot of the racial tensions in the city. Creole and mestizo folks have very strong prejudices against the Miskitos. On Sunday, we were eating lunch at the house of a mestiza woman we are helping with some English translations when Wihta Tara marched by the first time. She explained to me that they were mostly thieves, delinquents, and people who generally didn´t want to work. Despite Wihta Tara´s emphasis that they are a nonviolent movement, they seem to be widely perceived as violence-obsessed. I think both sides have some truth in their versions. The man in charge of trash collection, whom we had spoken to the day before, explained that Wihta Tara was a bunch of old people who wanted to go back to the days when people hunted with bows and arrows.

He did also make the point that the original Miskito monarchy which Wihta Tara is trying to reinstate was only a puppet of the British government, anyhow. The presence of imperialism on the Atlantic Coast is interesting this way. It has long taken the form of economic conquest, even when political conquest was the primary form of empire elsewhere in the world. However, it is the political conquest of the past 100 years, and especially the last 30, by the Nicaraguan government that has the local people up in arms.

The politics are accompanied by the economic reality that the wealthy here tend to be Creole and especially mestizo, and the Miskito people tend to be poor. This is especially visible in the two schools where we work. The private Catholic school is overwhelmingly Mestizo and Spanish-speaking. Several of the teachers characterize the students as spoiled rich kids (comparatively) who expect to live off their parents´money and don´t feel the need to learn or be respectful. My experience teaching there does not lead me to disagree. The kids at Maureen Courtney, the special needs school, are predominately Miskito (because, according to one mestiza woman, the Miskito parents don´t care for their kids as well).

All of this makes for a mildly uncomfortable position for me as an outsider. Though they do think I am monied, no one really bears any grievances against me as a white person or American. All their resentment is for one another. This is, in the end, the legacy of European imperialism on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Critters in My House

Everywhere. Always in the kitchen. It doesn't matter if you keep the food off the counters or not. Upsetting at first, but now I'm zen.
2) Geckos
Friends! They eat bugs.
3) Cockroaches. They cause abjection, but mostly harmless as far as I know.
4) Mice
In the kitchen and in my bedroom. Quite elusive. They eat clothing and bite, but I don't know if I would be able to kill one even if I wanted to. They're fast.
5) Tarantulas.
Uncommon, but poisonous. Better off killed.
6) Mosquitos (called zancudos)
Of course.
7) Blanquita
The puppy. I'm okay with her in the house, but Eric is firmly against it, so we try to discourage her presence. She is very determined to be in the house, and gallingly audacious about it at times.
8) Beetles, flying insects, other unidentified bugs.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Esther and Cinderella

I wrote a poem last year that I have been working on for awhile now. It's a dialogue between Queen Esther of biblical fame and Cinderella. It just received the "finished" stamp of approval from my writer's group, so I thought I'd share it here. Note: Some of the formatting isn't going through on the blog (the italics aren't working for some reason), so it may be unclear who is talking when. Just know that when the stanza changes, the speaker changes. I'll try to fix that when I can.

Upon the lush throne of accident or destiny,
Cinderella stumbles into a new dance, new partner,
Once upon a new dream.
Not a fairy godmother, nor a prince,
But resplendent in regality all her own.

“I, Hadassah, sprig of myrtle
Thrown to a night sky which kept me, impossibly,
Transforming me to Esther,
the star that knew not how to shine.
But how my people wished upon me!
As you dreamed a wish for a better morning.
I held vigil over the night sky,
Guarding my people against
terror that wastes at noonday”

“Transformation can carry you only to
the horizon of imagination.
What wondrous dream led you to light!
Light spills forth with hidden fantasies
The morning wind still dances last night’s waltzes
As mice strut like broad-chested horses.
Magic surrounds you, dear Esther.”

“The glimmer of fireflies draws your gaze from approaching hellfire.
You need not fear a homely reality,
The greatest comfort lies in the hardiest of shoes.”

“In the vilest reality lies a seed of dream
Waiting to turn the world inside out.
I fear not. I water the seed.”

“I know you, Cinderella,
For I wore your slippers once.
Destiny, rising impossibly to fit the arch of my feet,
Settling into them with the weight of a little girl’s fears.
They were shoes for a road I never imagined.
Down a long, lonely hall,
Towards a king, uninvited,
To woo his power to give life and death.”

“A man who would not sweep the frightened little girl
off those quavering feet, even if he could
Lift her into a heaven she had not dared to seek. “

“He had been the royal man of my fairy tale,
Standing before an endless sea of maidens…”

“His eyes fell to me, the color of morning wind,
With magic equally strong!
In his gaze, not even love, but a dream of love,
Yet it held power to sweep away a thousand dagger-eyes
of a thousand stepsisters. “

“…His eyes fell to me,
Eyes that had long forgotten the difference between
The power of a man to love
And the power of a man to rule.”

“Yet at last attired on every limb
To match the beauty of your dreams.
Freed from coarse, colorless poverty
That stifles the dreamer.”

“Free from the disfigurement of poverty
Into the chains of wealth. I had beauty, perhaps,
But what greater beauty than freedom from the interests of men?
Such freedom I had none.”

“I never had much to do with the interests of men;
The interests of women chained my feet.
But in the shadowland of imagination,
Where dreams and distant memory play as one,
I found freedom in a dance.
I spun gladly, and alone.
Until into the dance came another,
One man with an interest.
From his interest grew love,
And in that love I found still greater freedom.
Love and wealth caught me in one embrace,
But the greater by far was love.”

“There lies a greater love you may yet discover.
Beyond the infatuations of a prince,
Beyond the flitting of your imagination,
Deeper relationship draws you out.
The love of my uncle planted a seed-
A love for a people,
That love called me to freedom,
called me to my feet.”

“Or your knees, in tears, perhaps?
Begging the king to intercede on your behalf?
That is the strength to which you call me?”

“Strength to use what power you have
In the name of love, a power far greater.
Your shoes,
Such fine shoes for one who has not learned to walk.
For what time such as this
Have you come to the place where you are?
Fairy godmother, helpful mice, persistent prince,
Always dancing in the misty haze of dreams,
she never takes the lead.
Stepping lightly, lest the shoes shatter,
Piercing her little feet like nails.”

“Fairest Queen Esther.
Dreams do not deceive my consciousness,
Dreams choreograph my dance.
I worked for years, but not to be loved.
Not for a mother’s love, unearnable.
I worked to survive.
I found love in the overlooked, the forgotten,
in dreams.
You scoff at how daintily I step through life.
But here’s the thing. I lived! I loved!
That is my testament.
I loved through the whisper of dreams.
My dreams grew so strong, they made themselves reality.
They became a mother, watching over me.”

“The world has yet to ask you to look beyond your dreams.
Perhaps I envy you for that.
My uncle I have rescued, his accuser the surrogate sacrifice
Like Vashti before him,
Appeasing the king’s peculiar honor…”

“Prince Charming, indeed!
Poetic justice lends its lyrics to a song no heart should sing.”

“…now a writ the king has bidden me write
To protect my people as I protected my uncle.
Sturdy shoes to guard their tender feet,
Never to be dashed against a stone.
They shall shout light and whisper joy,
Gladness and honor will be their song.”

“I saw love that wasn’t there,
And it appeared before my eyes!
The world is really a wonderful place,
If we only imagine it so.
Is it really so hidden from you, Esther?
A world where no one seeks your harm?”

“Cinderella, magic is not to make dreams real,
But to safeguard the dream
From those who would see it end.
To unite, to defend,
To destroy, to slay
Not only the men who would harm us,
But women who suckle vainglories into
Children bent on robbing the dreams
Of their unwanted stepsisters in the land of Ahasuerus.”

“Like the marching army plowing through
the spider’s elaborate gossamer,
Plans enacted too quickly leave dreams in tatters.
If my eyes fell to the perils that threatened my dreaming,
If I tried to vanquish every foe,
My fear would never end.
I would sleep fitfully until all my fears were gone,
With a kingdom’s power at my feet,
How many dreams can fear destroy?
Endless fears lead only to endless grieving.
Is love your motivation, Esther, or fear?”

“Fear for those I love.”

“Do you love them enough to abandon your fear?
To let love lead you into the fairy tale
which promises to transform the world
And, in its hidden beauty, possesses the power?”

“If I had your vision,
Could I also have your faith in vision,
Or is it the other way around?
I cannot dream when robbers break in at midnight.”

“Then I will dream for the both of us.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reflections of an Insomniac

As I am currently unable to sleep due to a largish nap at mid-morning, I shall begin my reflections on my first week working at Escuela Maureen Courtney and Colegio del Nino Jesus. The schoolgrounds are lovely, located right where the land starts to descend towards the seashore, with a view of the ocean and a nice breeze. Like all the facilities, the grass is maintained by the students, and mowing is a BYOM (Bring Your Own Machete) affair. It was really adorable to see all these 7-12 year old boys with their big machetes from home swinging away at the grass, frequently cutting down to the root and leaving nothing but a patch of dirt.

We spent most of the week sitting in on classes and talking with the teachers. Because the religion teacher was out, I also got to teach religion classes to 3rd and 5th graders at the last minute on Monday. Fortunately, I had brought my Spanish-language Bible with me that day and was able to pull together passable lessons. Though I felt a little bit useless and aimless, sitting in on classes was very important, because the teachers talked very directly to me at times about what they were doing and the issues their students have. I was at times taken aback by how freely they discussed their students' needs in front of them. After this week, I feel like I have begun to develop relationships with a fair number of teachers and understand their methodologies and the functioning of the school a lot better.

As my integration into the school begins, so does my learning Miskito and Nicaraguan Sign Language. I plan to do a fair amount of work with the "Nivelacion" class for students who function are not developmentally delayed but are very behind their grade level, mostly in reading and writing. There are several students in this class who are deaf-mute, and so I have begun to learn how to sign with them. I actually had my first missed communication in sign language just today, when I asked the teacher of the audition classes, who is deaf mute herself, if she was leaving with the woman who teaches the special needs kids. She signed back, "No, we're just friends." Like English, spoken and signed Nicaraguan Spanish use the verb "to leave/to go out" to mean dating.

Though most of the people here speak Spanish and teachers give class in Spanish, they frequently speak to each other and individual students in Miskito. Still, even those with the most dramatic developmental issues have to be bilingual enough to speak Miskito at home and Spanish in school. Because I miss a substantial part of the dialogue and the culture, I am looking forward to further cultivating my Miskito skills. The teachers at Maureen Courtney have decided that they want us to teach them English every week, and have offered to give us Miskito lessons in exchange.

English is not a recent arrival to the Atlantic Coast. It's been here longer than Spanish, and is the linguistic seat of the Creole culture here. As the pastor of the Creole Moravian Church informed me, it is also fast dying out. Young people go to school in Spanish, make their friendships in that language, and speak English less and less. The Moravian Church is the only remaining English-speaking church in the city. All this is to say that I used to see teaching English as a venture with imperialistic overtones, but I think it's different here. In this region, increasing knowledge of English is actually a mechanism of cultural preservation for the descendants of escaped African slaves. It's a small measure, to be sure, but nonetheless important.


This afternoon, the power went out abruptly. This is not a terribly uncommon occurrence here, and I thought nothing of it until I started smelling something burning and looked out the window to see a column of smoke rising in the sky and lots of people in the street. We went outside to see what had happened, and discovered that a house not 100 yards away from our own had gone up in flames. As I watched it burning and the firefighters arriving, I joked to Susan, "I think I'm going to start packing my suitcase." And then I suddenly realized that I wasn't joking after all. I ran back into the house and threw my most valuable items, like medications and the computer, into my backpack in case we needed to leave in a hurry. I then headed back out, and we went over to help people who were moving all items of value (and also lots of random crap) out of the house that was closest to the fire, in case it caught fire, too. It was very chaotic. Some guys removed a hutch that was too large for the door by banging it into the doorframe until the top of the hutch broke off, also smashing an electrical outlet located right above the door. It was a small miracle another fire didn't start. The exercise turned out to be unnecessary, as the firefighters got the fire under control before it spread to any of the other houses (quite fortuitously for us). The power stayed out for a while, and Lee was quite a sight to see, chopping garlic with his flashlight that straps onto your head.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And so it begins...

Last Sunday, I visited the Creole Moravian church in town. They spoke in English and sang hymns I knew, from authentic Moravian hymnals. They had announcements about raising funds and church meetings, and the organist dragged behind and the choir dragged behind worse. It was just like home.

The pastor is a woman from the United Church of Canada named Deborah. She just moved here a few weeks ago with her husband, Don, who is going to work with the prison system. They invited us over for dinner on Sunday. As we stood outside their locked gate (which, like most gates, was about eight feet high), a good distance from their house, wondering how to let them know we were there, a man stopped by and said, "Oh, I'll let them know for you." He then proceeded to climb over the gate and approach the house. We thought, "We could've done that, we just didn't think we should." As we waited, the power on the street suddenly went out, plunging us into darkness outside the locked gate in a neighborhood we didn't know very well. As no one was coming, I expedited matters by scaling the fence myself and going to find Deborah. When I got to her door, the man who had gone to let her know we were there was busy asking her for money. I guess it makes sense to kill two birds with one stone, while he was in the neighborhood.

We got the situation straightened out and the gate opened, and proceeded to have a lovely conversation about life in Puerto Cabezas. Deborah and Don are really neat people, as one has to be to up and move to Nicaragua for four years at 60 years of age. She talked about getting tear gassed in riots in Kenya, and he talked about the appalling state of Puerto Cabezas' prisons, which are severely overcrowded and lacking in food and other resources.

We have also started working this week, but as I must now cook dinner that story will wait for another day.

Friday, September 18, 2009


This morning, Lee, Susan, and I walked down to the shore to watch the sunrise. There were a fair number of fishermen on the beach, pulling in their nets. I didn't see anything in the nets, but one young boy walked away with an impressively sized crab.

For a long time, I was running on the reassurance that I was journeying towards a home at which I had not yet arrived. Any sadness or discomfort I had came with the knowledge that this, too, shall pass. Now that my movement across countries has come grinding to a halt, all of my displacement and longing has drawn into a stagnant pool around me. Tellingly, these feelings are most overwhelming when my body is still. Literal movement has been the best way to dispel lingering feelings of loneliness. It's also a fine way to overheat at mid-day.

As my Milwaukee pastor (also Joyce Rupp) remind me, my home is not in this world; we are always moving onward, whether we have a fixed geographic location or not. I seek to recover my sense of journey, even as I reach out to put roots in the community here in Puerto Cabezas. The latter endeavor remains the more daunting of the two, because I have no idea how one goes about making friends and cementing relationships here.

Despite cycling feelings of displacement and loneliness, I do feel like I'm slowly starting to develop a sense of place. I love walking through the market buying groceries. I'm grateful for the company of Eric and Miguel, our Latin American housemates, who share their music and offer guidance. The power went out last night, and I went out to look at the stars without my shoes because I couldn't find them in the dark. Miguel came out with a flashlight and said, "You have to wear shoes!" He illuminated a spider that was sitting near where I had been. "See that spider. It's poisonous. That's why you wear chinelas (flip flops)."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sexual Tensions

Because we have so much down time now, I'm seizing the opportunity to digest a bit more some of my reflections on my first three weeks, spent mostly in Granada.

All of the sexual tension in relationships is carried much closer to the surface in Nicaragua, and I imagine in all of Latin America. Nowhere was this more evident than in Casa Xalteva, which was staffed primarily by men under the age of 40. It's not that they said things that made me feel uncomfortable or harrassed. It's just that everyone there was much more forward about issues of sexuality in a way that I'm used to among friends, but not in a work environment. My experience of teacher-student relationships have always been colored by the near-paranoia about sexual harrassment that exists in American workplaces, which buries all discussion of potentially uncomfortable questions under layers of "professionalism." It's a good thing and a bad thing, but it's what I'm used to.

Perhaps because of this directness, one day in Spanish class we began to talk about masturbation. I'm not sure how we got there. I had asked our teacher, Sergio, to talk about cultural norms regarding relationships between people of different genders. As he was wont to do, he steered the conversation in a direction that was unforeseen yet perhaps even more interesting. He talked about how masturbation was discussed freely among men of his generation, both now and when they were younger, but adolescent boys did not seem to care to discuss the subject when he broached it with them. He thought they might be afraid of being teased, since so much of the talk among adult men about masturbation is carried out in the form of teasing. I don't blame the adolescents.

I asked him about masturbation among women, and he said that as far as he knew, it was never discussed. He'd once heard of one young woman who masturbated, and he wasn't suprised because she was a mojugata: a girl who acted like an angel with her parents but was really a wildly promiscuous party animal. He also said he believed that masturbation should be a topic men and women could discuss openly. After hearing him talk about his mojugata, I can see why it isn't.

This shows the caveat to the openness about sexuality: I don't think it applies to women. Men can discuss their attractions and sexual experience freely, and perhaps women can discuss men's attractions and sexual experiences, but not their own. It's really not radically different from the US. No one ever discussed masturbation with me until I got to college. The only time I ever heard a male classmate ask a female classmate if she masturbated, her response was exactly the same as that of the Nicaraguan adolescents: "Of course not. That's sick."

I know questions of sexuality will come up in working with high school students, and it will be interesting to see how I deal with them. I'll have to be careful, because I can easily fall into super (dare I say self-righteous?) teacher mode when it comes to sexuality, because I believe accurate knowledge in this area is so important. Despite the fact that, as Sergio explained, almost every conversation in Nicaragua carries double entendre at some point, it seems to me there remains a gaping absence of knowledge, especially about female sexuality. Case in point: During our conversation in Spanish class, my fellow classmate observed that her lesbian friends seemed much more comfortable talking about masturbation than other women. Sergio looked at us and said, "Why would lesbians masturbate? They don't like penetration."

Something inside of me snapped. All of my uncomfortableness with teaching miraculously vanished. I explained that, first of all, lesbians are lesbians because they like women, not because they don't like penetration. I taught him the word "dildo" at this point. Secondly, for women, sexual sensation is derived primarily from clitoral stimulation, NOT penetration. I saw his wife in Casa Xalteva after class, and resisted the urge to walk up to her and say "You're welcome." This is why I should never be a teacher! I can get really arrogant sometimes.

If that wasn't enough for one session, the other woman in the class, a theology major from Creighton, referred to God as "she" that day. After Sergio "corrected" her, we began to talk about feminist theology and the dangers of conceptualizing God as solely masculine. Apparently, this had never occurred to him before. We had to take a break at that point, because, as he informed us, "me han explotado la mente." [You've blown my mind.]

Now the question remains: How will these discussions play out in a high school religion classroom? Honestly, I can't wait to find out.

Patria Days

We have lots of down time these days, because Nicaragua is celebrating its Independence Day(s), so there's no school. I was inclined to feel anchorless and desperate, having no daily routine to comfort me in the midst of the anomie that is moving to a new life. However, I just realized that I really have not had any time to rest for months, and I'm tired. Therefore, I'm relishing these days of rest, and decidedly not doing my damnedest to integrate just yet. There will be plenty of time for that later.

Teaching has loomed like a black hole in my life, slowly sucking me in despite my strongest efforts to resist. After graduating from college, I specifically made it my mission to stay out of school buildings for several years. Somehow, I knew my resistance was futile. Perhaps because all I have at this point is an excess of knowledge and thinking abilities and not much else in the way of practical skills. I was drawn to Nicaragua to work with Cantera, a non-profit that promotes gender justice in Managua. Then, I was going to work on the Coast, with a school, yes, but as a counselor and in extracurricular activities. When we finally met the directors of the schools, we found out that they needed help in the religion and music classes. Great, I said, those happen to be two areas in which I have a fair amount of enthusiasm and expertise. It was only when I got home that I realized I was going to help teach these classes. I'd been had. Tricked. Ambushed. Foiled again! Now there's naught for me to do but stare at my navel and try to figure out why the thought of being a teacher makes me want to stop this ride and get off right now.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Today I begin the sacred rite of church-hopping. This morning, we visited the Central Moravian Church. The Moravian church has a long history here on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. The people I spoke with after the service spoke proudly of the first missionaries who came, risking their lives and sometimes sacrificing them to bring the word of God to the region. They thoroughly identified with the missionaries in the story, it seemed, as opposed to the indigenous people they evangelized. In that conversation, "missionary" did not have a negative connotation at all. Missionaries formed an important part of their heritage and identity. Because there's so much religious diversity on the Coast, they didn't bat an eye when I told them I was a Baptist working with a Catholic service group and visiting their Moravian church.

The sermon had a fierce liberation theology to it. Because the Patria celebrations, or Nicaraguan Independence Day, starts tomorrow, the Scripture for the service was John 8:31-36, in which Jesus says that "The truth will set you free...all who sin are slaves to sin...if the Son sets you free, you will be truly free." Like the rest of the service, the sermon was a blend of Spanish and Miskito, so I only caught about half of it. The preacher didn't focus very much on the metaphorical connotations of the passage, but on the literal practice of slavery as an affront to God. There was a moment when he was talking in Miskito, and everyone in the audience laughed. The woman next to me leaned over and asked if I'd understood. When I told her no, she explained that he said something to the effect of, "Why is it that women take the men's names when they get married, but men don't take the women's names? What does that show about us?"

My favorite moment was when he said "Jesus knew the Jews weren't free. First of all, they weren't free because they were all subjugated to the foreign empire of Rome." Then he talked in Miskito for a while, and concluded in Spanish "And that's why I won't be shouting for joy on Nicaraguan Independence Day tomorrow!" I tried to find him after the service to ask him to go over why exactly he wouldn't be celebrating Independence Day, but I was unsuccessful.

One of the neat things about church here is that most churches have services at 10:00 am and 6:00 pm, which means that I can church-hop twice as efficiently as I can in the US AND I can pick two churches to attend on a weekly basis instead of just one. I'm hoping to hit the Baptist church tonight.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


These last two months, I have visited so many places and said hello and good-bye to so many people. Upon arriving in Puerto Cabezas, I felt like my soul had been stretched over a large portion of the continent, from Milwaukee, Oberlin, Chicago, and Madison to Granada, Nandasmo, Niquinohomo, and Managua, and it was only a hollow shell of me that was actually arriving in Puerto Cabezas. Slowly, I am starting to gather myself back up and bring my entire being here into this present moment. Joyce Rupp's book Praying Our Goodbyes has been my constant companion during this journey, and I have revisited her meditations many times.

It helps my transitioning that Puerto Cabezas is absolutely lovely. The Agnesian sisters have a convent and a garden right by the ocean, and fresh sea breeze is always blowing through. We live about a 25-minute walk away from the convent and the schools, and there are lots of little stores and markets between the two. We can very easily pick up food we need for dinner from the vendors in the market on the way home from the schools.

The owner's son lives in the house with us, and his friend is over all the time. This arrangement may not last, as some of the nuns really want us to have our own space for a variety of reasons. However, it has been very helpful for me these past few days to have people around to explain life here. We don't have a refrigerator, and we have learned that the microwave can double as a storage space for anything that we don't want bugs to get into. They have gently chastised us about leaving the windows unlatched when we leave the house ("Don't they have burglars in your country?").

As our bootleg Internet connection fratzes out, I will leave off there and resume at a later time.