The Whisper

March 12, 2010 at 8:19 am (Uncategorized)

When I proposed this blog network idea, I had planned on updating my own blog every day. I hadn’t counted on the 18 hour days that offer little to no time for reflection and reporting. I’m up at 7 a.m., or 5:30 if the bus stop just outside the mission is particularly busy that day, and then I’m out and about until 5 or 6. Dinner is at 6, then I take about an hour for data collection and organization, and then we circle our chairs up in the loft and debrief each other. I could do with an abridged debrief, but it does force me to deal with the non-media people, which would otherwise leave them tragically absent from my life. I wasn’t even attempting sarcasm; some of these kids are neat. Then the media people have their meeting, and by the time that’s done (circa 11 p.m.) I head downstairs to try and write a blog post…..unless I get into a multiple hour conversation with Kat or Phil or Russ. Let’s just say that my long conversations outnumber my blog posts.

I’ve decided the best way to tell you about what this trip has exposed me to is not, as it turns out, to write 1,500 word entries describing every footprint that I leave in the Jinotegan dust. Here’s the fun-sized account of the past three days.

Frankie (far right, in the Texas shirt) is a cowboy. He handles his cowboy duties exceptionally well: he rides, he herds, he wears spurs. He’s also 11 years old, and shy for about 10 minutes before he basically adopts you on the spot by taking down every family photo in his modest brick and tin home and parading each one in front of you. He had met Phil a year ago, and this year it was time for us to meet the family. Benjamin, his father, is in his 60s, though you wouldn’t guess it from the property he keeps. Or his stately mustache. Dozens of cows, chickens, dogs, a few horses, and 25 acres of land are what he has to worry about when he goes to work, but Frankie and his little brother Ulises help out. Both ride horses and play sports at their school in Jinotega. We all decided that little Frankie was basically a hoss, and his father confirmed this by telling us that, rather often, little chicas come down to the fields looking for Frankie with baskets of food for him.

We, being about 8 or 9 American college students, got to eat dinner with the family Thursday night. I spent most of it talking to Benjamin, and for a guy who has so much to be proud of, he was extremely generous and humble. He also walked out of the makeshift shower in his backyard in front of our whole group, wearing just a towel around his waist. He walked over, talked with us a bit about his cattle, then went inside to put some pants on. He is basically the distilled essence of Man, and he’s raised a stellar family out here, far from any government programs or modern jobs. They should have field trips to meet this family.

Driving through Nicaragua is whimsical. You merge with traffic on a whim, you pick up hitch hikers on a whim, and sometimes you stop by the side of the road and buy things from children. On a whim, Chris bought three fish from an 11-year-old girl. Keenly aware of the mission’s policy on bringing in outside food (“don’t”), we stopped the next time we saw Nicaraguans walking by the road. I can only imagine how those two women felt when a van pulled up behind them, and a white guy hopped out and offered them free tilapia. I wonder if anyone believed their story.

When we drove into Jinotega for the first time, I could see gray smoke coming off a cliff in the distance. On Wednesday, we drove into the source of that smoke: burning trash in a dump on the outskirts of the city. Amid the garbage and vultures, Nicaraguans were making a living recycling discarded metals and plastics, and like the Isla de las Flores in Brazil, some of them called the dump home. Not as many as we had anticipated, though, since the city had come in and cleared out most of the squatters.

I’ve written this paragraph several times over and deleted it just as much, because I have a hard time deciding how I feel about the people who live in this materialist graveyard. Part of me respects them and wants to emphasize their dignity, because they could easily leave the dump and spend their days on the roadsides, loitering, waiting for someone with a job to buy their next meal. The other part realizes that the cost of living in the dump is nowhere near covered by the man in the big white truck who buys their salvage every day. These people are victims of an economic and political situation that forced them to choose between large-scale dumpster diving and unemployed helplessness. Just because they made the more ambitious choice doesn’t mean their lives are going to be enviable, by anyone’s standards.

[Just a lil’ bit more]

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Periodistas

March 8, 2010 at 9:57 pm (Uncategorized)

Today, March 8, we sat down and attempted to answer the question that our parents, friends and we ourselves have been asking for the past 4 or 5 months: what are we doing in Nicaragua?

The 22 students, most of whom were lured in with the promise of using our majors in a mission context, broke into groups this morning. Most left to do the usual white-people-in-a-brown-country thing: construction, babysitting, light physical labor. None of these things are trivial or contemptible, but….they are a little cliché. I signed up for this “mission trip” because I didn’t anticipate I’d be doing jobs that better-qualified Nicaraguans could do.

Thankfully, I ended up with the media group, “Group 6” if you check out the white board in our cool little loft residence. About 10 students representing PR, print and broadcast journalism, and electronic media production circled up chairs in the corner of a small café on a Jinotegan street. This was our budget meeting. I would say the bad news came out first: we didn’t have a plan, or a product, or a planned product that we were going to leave Nicaragua with. I’m a fan of plans, despite what those of you who have worked with me may think. But Philip, Andrew, and likely some of the students saw our blank itinerary as an excitingly good thing.

Philip explained that what we were aiming for was a static representation of our time in Nicaragua, a “3D jigsaw puzzle” that we would all contribute pieces to. Andrew ran with that idea and said that he didn’t want this puzzle to have a picture on the box, implying that we knew what our final product was supposed to look like. As for the idea of a “final product” (now we’re talking), Philip suggested a self-published book with an accompanying Web site. We’d bring all the photos, video and written stories together in a package that would minister to…….and that was our next question. Who would be our audience?

We left the café with an open-ended mission and about an hour to kill before lunch. Chris, myself, and our translator Brenda decided we’d walk the streets of Jinotega looking for the main Dia del Mujeres (Day of Women) celebration. A small parade of Nicaraguan women had passed us earlier that morning, and we found out that every March 8th is a day where women speak out against domestic abuse and the more disrespectful elements of the machismo/marianismo worldview. The celebration was held in an empty lot, and somewhere around 100 (I’m terrible at guestimating crowd size) women crowded in to watch a rather vibrant and incomprehensible skit and to visit various shaded booths. Among them was a group that seemed to be advocating coffee farming co-ops or some kind of Fair Trade-esque program. Interesting.

Probably the best part of that hour was a conversation about an idea that Chris and Logan had come up with literally minutes after we had left the Café de What We Gon’ Do. What they had seen of Nicaragua thus far had somehow gotten tangled up with the Old Testament story of Elijah on the mountain waiting for God to pass by. You know how it goes: God’s not in the fire, not in the earthquake, but he’s in the gentle whisper that you can barely hear over the din. It was, and still is, a brilliant idea. But more on that later.

So far our Jinotegan experience had been the beautiful mission compound, which really needs its own post, the streets around the San Juan Baptista church, which are dusty but open and flooded with warm sunlight, and the café. I had a milkshake at the café. Somehow I got the feeling I wasn’t getting the true Nicaraguan experience, like this was “the developing world lite.” Little did I know that the real deal was outside my window, just across the street: the Jinotega market.

Phil led a group of us into the melee of stores, which resembled a child’s play fort more than a mall. There were aisles of stores shaded by the sheets of tin laid between their roofs, and at its narrowest points we had to step over products, animals, and small children just to get through. For years the restaurants in the market, little more than stalls manned by two or three people, used open flame to cook their food. It was cheap, but it filled the covered confines of the market with smoke, black and acrid. Some of the vendors we talked to worked over 72 hours a week at their stalls and had spent the entire time hacking and crying. It must have been hellish. But last summer the government stepped in and, over the course of a weekend, bought everyone stoves. The fires were gone, the smoke cleared out, and for most businesses things improved. One woman I talked to said her business had been hurt, since gas for the stoves was more expensive than lighting stuff on fire. Another guy, a shoe repairman, looked like he wasn’t any better off. He worked 7 to 5 or later, 7 days a week, and lived with a huge family in a tiny dwelling. The man was not shy about telling us that his life sucked. He knew it, he knew I knew it, and both of us knew why: there aren’t factories in Jinotega, no Wal-Marts (though Pali is owned by them) or MNCs that have invested enough in this country to give people regular jobs. Underemployment is huge in Nicaragua, and that morning I saw I saw people loitering in a park, outside a church, on street corners. Not begging or looking destitute, but just hanging out, looking rather bored. Those people had clothes, cigarettes, food, and other indicators that someone was taking care of them, possibly family members. This zapateria guy, with almost no teeth and thin, veiny arms, had an interesting mix of desperation and frustration sewn into his features. There wasn’t any hope in his face, in his voice, even in his little 5-foot-wide stall. No matter how much of his life he invested into his little store, his lot would never improve. We got his testimony and moved on.

All in all I interviewed about six different vendors and tried to find correlations between their perceived levels of affluence and their attitudes. The most successful guy we met was a real shark, and our translator Franklin got the feeling that the man was lying about his concern for the market community, as well as his abstinence from personal vices. Kakes asked him to pose for a picture when the interview was over. His “pose” was all business, arms straight, knuckles on the table, body hunched over receipts and reports and other official-looking scraps of paper. Not a smile anywhere on his face or in his mind. The dude was a hardened businessman.

Contrasting him were the kids that zoomed in and out of our interviews and our shots. They were covered in dust, dressed in soon-to-be rags, and looking like it had been a couple weeks since their last shower. But they smiled at our “holas” and invited themselves into conversation with us, normally with the word “photografica” or something similar. They would speak Spanish to us like we were younger than them, and we would stumble along with hand gestures while Franklin helped another group member with an interview. Most of them wanted the same thing: a photo of themselves. We would never even think of this, coming from a developed nation with One Hour Photo and digital cameras, but there was a good chance that many of these kids had never had their photos taken. Two girls from ACU who were working with us (I’m still learning names) had been to Jinotega a year before, and they had ventured into the markets, met the children, and photographed them. Now, with pictures in hand, they went looking for those kids. It was pretty special to watch them show the prints to the other kids and go “Donde?” I heard they eventually chased down one of their old photo subjects had a little reunion.

My own child/camera moment was much simpler and probably a very common experience, but for me it felt like an out-of-character experience. There were three little kids at my knees, for all I knew two sisters and a brother.

They pointed to my camera. I took the above photo and showed it to them, as is the understood custom. But the smaller girl wasn’t satisfied; she reached up and actually put her hands on my camera. That would be the first Nicaraguan I allowed to touch my reporting gear. I would say “the first child,” but Julianne Baker suckered me out of my Panasonic back at the Best Western in Managua. What this girl did next was all sorts of precious, but I hope it also alluded to something. She grabbed the camera and pulled it to her face, then pointed it at her little brother. That’s what she had seen all the white tourists and missionaries do, so she emulated it as best as she could. I saw that and thought, every other kid has been content to be on the opposite side of the camera. I come in, work my techno magic, and they get to see the results on my screen. It’s like a show to them. But this girl….she wants to make the magic happen herself. She sees something unknown and is curious. If that’s totally wide of the mark, she at least thought she was doing something nice for her little brother. But I think, in this place where so many people are passive recipients of tomorrow, she wanted to take control. All this thinking happened over the course of about three seconds; she was still pointing the camera at her brother, not sure about what to do next. The camera strap was still around my neck, so I bowed my head down to give her some slack, then gently directed her finger to the shutter release button. Click.

It’s a pretty good picture, if you ask me. I see a girl who saw something beyond her current lot in life and dared to figure it out. Her ambition is just a little seed, but it’s in a place that has largely given up on growing. I hope that’s the true spirit, the whispering voice of Nicaragua.

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All Aboard

March 6, 2010 at 11:45 am (Uncategorized)

It’s Saturday, March 6. The parking lots at Harding are empty, the dorms are hushed, and somewhere a Chic-Fil-A employee is slouching against a wall with nothing to do. Spring Break is officially upon us, and for the first time ever, I’m not returning to the city of my birth. The city of my family, of garage band jam sessions, of Monday night karaoke, it’s going to have to do without me this week.

That’s not to say I’m not headed south for Spring Break. Just much, much further south than ever before. Nicaragua. Now that I think about it, I’ve never been that close to the equator before, and the map nerd in me is all sorts of titillated at that. A new culture, new people with new skin and new voices, new eyes that I’m hoping to find old stories in. That’s what I’m looking for on this “mission trip”: the common denominators of humanity. Of course there will be stark differences, and I look forward to having my mind blown. But without those subtle threads that bind all God’s kids together, it’s all gibberish. Barbarianism, in the classic sense.

I  joked earlier that this cultural transition will be easier than my last one, when I left Houston after a long summer and flew to Italy. I’ve been in Searcy for about two months now, so unfamiliar language, exotic customs, and barely tolerable food are all business-as-usual by now. Of course, Central America is a different animal. Part of me is looking forward to the shock, to the shift from this padded seat in an air-conditioned airport terminal to the poorest country on the continent. Everyone always tells me that people living in those conditions, the “less developed” world, enjoy life on a transcendent level. Seeing that for myself is going to be a shock, too, a deviation from the destitution I see on BBC and in National Geographic.

In a way, I’m going to place where people have so much less, to see what I’m missing.

UPDATE:

I’ve always been afraid of heights, yet flying doesn’t bother me. I can look out the window as my plane pulls away from the nice, solid ground and banks all over the place and be totally fine; I actually get a kick out of it. Maybe it has something to do with the direction we’re hurtling through the open air: forward rather than down.

The flight from Little Rock to Houston was about an hour, practically a hop,  skip, and a jump. That didn’t mean I wasn’t snapping away like a Japanese tourist, trying to save the moments.

Taking shots out the windows of planes isn’t especially original, or substantive. But it does negate the most frustrating factor of good photography: lighting. In a plane, out from between buildings, above the clouds….you have unparalleled access to the ultimate flash, the sun.

Also, I’m pleased to report that this whole Nicaraguan blog network idea is really being taken seriously. In the airport I was linking in a new blog every minute, and by tomorrow a lot of people will have written their first posts. People are talking about doing video posts, group photo albums – they’re going to create a real multimedia experience! Even Andrew Baker’s kids are getting in on the action. Julianne, Mariella, and Issac (aged Cute, Precious, and Awwwwww, respectively) are each getting their own e-mail accounts for this project and writing their own blogs. Daddy may have to help with the interface a little bit, but the material will be 100% small child.

On the plane, young Julianne asked me if I had some paper and a pen. I dug both out and handed them to her. “What are you gonna make?” I asked in my best motherese. “I’m making a blog,” she responds.

Yes, it says “Blog” at the top. You may now feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

The bigger kids are a pretty fun group in their own right, I’ve come to find out. I’ve only conversed with about half of them so far, but I like what I’m seeing. Logan and LaRell have our video and audio angles down, and Chris brought his crutches, his torn ACL, and his absolute refusal to use the handicapped ramp on the trip. Thomas and Kylie, my partners in crime/people I watch Disney movies with on lonely Saturday nights, are here too. Our media arm is strong indeed.

When the plane landed in Houston, we were supposed to have about 45 minutes before our connecting flight to Managua boarded. That’s what I was told. We had 10 minutes. The resulting dash across Bush Intercontinental was fun and fairly good cardiovascular exercise, but it didn’t give me much time to stand by the giant windows and drink my city in. I miss her so, with her homicidal traffic and polymer air.

The sun was setting by the time we took off for Nicaragua. In mere minutes we had flown south over the Bayou City, over Galveston Island, and into the Gulf. Giant cargo barges appeared minuscule and motionless against the water from our height, like little one-celled amoebas chilling in a giant petri dish. Little Julianne (I had the good fortune of sitting near the Baker children on both flights) said “I can’t see the land anymore.” All that water had a hypnotizing effect on me. My tired eyes made lost continents out of low clouds moving between us and the Gulf. But there was no land, just endless natural (read: muddy) blue and a warm sunset and the cavernous sonic ripples of “Svefn-G-Englar” spilling into my head. Ripples make me sleepy. I was out cold against the window in ten minutes.

A tap on the shoulder and the food cart brought me back to reality. The world outside the window was black. Not dark, but black, a void where I had assumed the world would be. I wasn’t sure whether we were still flying over the Gulf or not, but after some time I saw lights below us. They started as little faint patches of reddish gold, the color of fire, islands of defiance in a black sea. Then we passed over what must have been a major city, though I’ll never know which one. If those little rural patches had been embers, this was a giant conflagration, still the color of tame fire but with visible highways and city sections. It was Tenochtitlan, it was Xanadu, it was the spirit of a lost civilization hemmed in by oblivion. It was a well-lit city in the middle of a country with more people than power lines, but believe me, it was very dramatic looking.

The detail-oriented eye would see the towns and cities as streets and lights and maybe the occasional futbol stadium. But pulling back and trying to take in all the isolated islands of light at once, the landscape far below us looked like something the Hubble telescope would pick up in deep space. Untouchable galaxies of old fire. To add to the mystique, the actual stars up above were coming in loud and clear, and the Big Dipper hung over the land in the shape of a giant question mark. But the galaxies became lit streets and buildings once again as our plane descended into Managua, the capitol city of Nicaragua.

We wasted no time and dove head-first into the environment after stepping off the plane. Flor started conversing in her fluent Spanish, Chris (and I) started sweating in the 90-degree heat, and LaRell took a big swig of Central American water from a water fountain. We’ll see how that goes for him tomorrow. This is Nicaragua! I’m on an international mission trip overseas and am about to indulge some serious transcultural experiences!

We grabbed our bags and walked across the street to our Best Western hotel.

(Waa waa waaaaaaaa)

But this is only for tonight. And Phil managed to get here from Haiti, so I know we’re in for some of that good trouble soon. Tomorrow morning we leave the drunk ex-pats behind and head to Jinotega, where the Mision Para Cristo is headquartered. Tomorrow the real mission trip begins.

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