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.