February 2006 Newsletter

Hello everyone, and welcome to the February 2006 edition of my newsletter.  February is the love month!  You’d have to be living in a cave not to know that.  Even before the last remnants of Christmas paraphernalia were sold off at rock-bottom prices, stores were already packed with valentines and heart-shaped boxes of candy.  Each February, across the country, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. The history of Valentine's Day and its patron saint is shrouded in mystery.  St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.  Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.

One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome.  When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for his crop of young male potential soldiers.  Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.  When Valentine's actions were discovered, he was imprisoned by Claudius’ order and eventually put to death.  While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl—who may have been his jailor's daughter—when she visited him during his confinement.  Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed 'From your Valentine,' an expression that is still in use today.

I’m a little late with my valentine for you, as I’m only now getting this posted…days after St. Valentine’s Day has already been observed.  Although I knew this deadline was approaching, throughout the end of January, I was consumed with business and personal preparations for an international Habitat for Humanity project in Nicaragua, scheduled for the beginning of February.  As a result, writing a newsletter article seemed too big a chore to undertake.  Obviously the article needed to revolve around Valentine’s Day but, after quickly searching my memory banks, the response had come back blank.  I had nothing.  So, I made myself a note and placed it squarely in the middle of my desk.  It would be the first thing I saw upon my return.  The note said, “February Newsletter – Love”.

What a simple prayer that was, yet it was answered in a manner so dramatic, the experience is forever imprinted upon my heart.  You’ll soon read here, my delay in producing this month’s newsletter was not only unavoidable, but also, from all appearances, predestined.

I’ve never heard a Nicaraguan refer to himself or herself as such.  Instead, they say Nica.  And it is with a humble and full heart that I share with you my Nica love story.

 

 

A Nica Love Story

 

By: Rhonda Jones

 

After having become involved months earlier with several staff and volunteers from the Knoxville affiliate of Habitat for Humanity to prepare for an international mission to Nicaragua, we still weren’t sure about our intended destination until only days before our departure.  The emergency contact information to leave behind with our families didn’t arrive until the day before we were to leave the country.  We’d heard about more than one possible destination being considered during our months of waiting and, apparently, all the while some great forces were at work to direct us to Ojo de Agua.

Ojo de Agua (pronounced “óh-ho day áh-gwah”) is a little village located about 45 miles north of the modern-day capital city, Managua, on the way to the ancient capital city, Leon, and sandwiched between Lake Managua and the Pacific Ocean in the area known as the Pacific Lowlands.  Located in the west of the country, these lowlands extend about 47 miles inland from the Pacific coast and consist of a broad, hot, fertile, relatively flat plain. Punctuating this plain are several large volcanoes, many of which are still active, including Mombacho and Momotombo, which I’ve written about in previous newsletters.  The country of Nicaragua consists of essentially 3 regions: the Pacific Lowlands, the Central Highlands, and the Atlantic Lowlands.  The Pacific Lowlands, in which Ojo de Agua is located, stretch the entire length of Nicaragua’s western shoreline, and at their eastern-most edge include the city of Managua, which lies to the west of the Central Highlands region formed by the nation’s volcanic peaks.  There are upwards of 40 volcanoes in the country.

This Pacific watershed region, where Ojo de Agua lies, is Nicaragua’s most heavily populated, with upwards of 30% or more of the nation’s entire population residing in and around the Managua area on the southern shores of Lake Managua.  The country of Nicaragua is about the size of New York state, so this population concentration puts roughly 1.5 million people into this area 47 miles wide and 565 miles long.

Following a 6.0 earthquake and fire in 1931, and another major fire again in 1936, Managua was severely damaged by a 1972 earthquake that took more than 10,000 lives and devastated the downtown area, which was never rebuilt and remains half-empty today.  After lengthy periods in the nation’s history of military dictatorships, the Sandinista regime overtook Nicaragua in 1979, ultimately spawning the Contra War in the early 1980’s.  During that time, much of the country’s infrastructure was damaged or destroyed.  Then, poor administration by the Sandinista’s, and an economic blockade by the U.S., combined with the economic stagnation of the Soviet bloc led to the virtual collapse of the economy.

While the country has in recent years managed to bring inflation to manageable levels and begin to regrow the economy, Nicaragua is a challenging place for its inhabitants to live.  With approximately half of its occupations in agriculture, the average life expectency is only about 64 years, and 60% of the country’s population is under 17 years of age.  Thus, Nica society is very matriarchal.  Marriages occur at a young age and families are started very early, at 17 or 18 years of age.  Education is free and the same for all Nicas.  Elementary education is free and compulsory and promotes the formation of nationals, with the aim of giving them a decisive, scientific and humanist conscience.  You only need spend a few minutes with a proud Nica national to see this in their behavior and hear it in their words.

Excited from studying the country and its culture and spending some time there previously, I arrived in Ojo de Agua, after the cramped one-hour bus ride from Managua, with great expectations.  Nevertheless, my expectations paled in comparison to what I was about to experience in this tiny rural community.

Ojo de Agua is so small; it doesn’t even appear on the map.  The nearest town, which might be designated on at least some maps, is Nagarote (pronounced “nahg-ah-rów-tay”) about 12.5 miles away.  In Spanish, Ojo de Agua actually means “spring,” as in a natural water spring.  Driving into Ojo de Agua we saw evidence of the origins of this name for the area.  The road was made of cobblestones, so that the rains and flatland floods could easily drain away during the rainy season.  Additionally, periodic stretches of even the cobblestones had been removed to create shallow, dirt- and gravel-bottomed ditches in the road to channel the wet-weather streams across the roadways and on through the lowlands to the rivers, which would eventually take them to the ocean.  Even during our visit at the height of the dry season, standing water could be seen in some of the more marshy areas lining the passage into Ojo de Agua,and rivers ran freely.  It was no wonder that the early inhabitants had given it a name signifying the “place with natural water.” 

The name “Nicaragua” itself actually implies a place of water – agua being the Spanish word for water.  At the time of the Spanish conquest, Nicaragua was the name given to the narrow strip of land between Lake Managua and the Pacific Ocean.  Chief Nicarao ruled over the land when the first conquerors arrived.  With Lago Nicaragua being one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, the Spanish colonialists extended the name of the Nahuatl-speaking indigenous tribe and their leader, Nicarao, to describe the region.  One accepted etymology of the name translates into “here near the water.”  Water is definitely central to the Nica culture.  Many named rivers appear on the map of the Atlantic Lowlands region, including the major rivers of Rio Escondido, Rio Grande, Rio Prinzapolka, and Rio Coco along the Honduras border, all of which drain into the Caribbean.  Surprisingly, then, maps of Nicaragua do not actually name the two major waterways that converge at Ojo de Agua, nor the many waterways around which Nica life is centered in the Pacific plains.  They are simply unnamed rivers, part of the watershed system, which continually drain from the Highlands region to the Pacific.

Ojo de Agua was described to us as simply “a wide spot in the road” and, literally, that was true.  On a long, straight, flat stretch of the only hard-surfaced road around, running from Managua to Leon, suddenly there sits this oasis comprised of a small store connected to what I can only describe as a “community center” – a rather large block building with a concrete floor in which meetings and fiestas were held – a pulperia (Nica version of a grocery store), and the iglesia (church).  If you blinked your eyes, you would miss it.  But the feeling of déjà vu quickly overtook me.  The country store with farmers swapping stories on the long, breezy front porch…the cows being herded down the road to pasture in the morning and back home in the evening…roosters crowing and baby chicks chirping in response to the clucking of momma hen…ducks quacking…birds singing…farmers heading out to the fields for harvest with old ox-drawn carts…one central school where all the community children attended together…the smell of fresh-cut hay in the harvested field…cows grazing quietly nearby, while baby calves filled their bellies with milk…the warm sun beaming down on my face from the brilliant blue sky overhead…the sound of young men playing baseball in a field nearby…real live vaqueros and vaqueras (cowboys and cowgirls) traveling on horseback down the tree-shaded dirt lanes connecting them one to another and to their community center, where families gathered together to enjoy food and camaraderie…this was like a scene from America’s pioneer days.  More than that…this was home.

I wasn’t sure if Ojo de Agua was real or a vision from my childhood.  I grew up on a farm spending hot summer days working in the fields, helping my dad harvest produce and crops, helping my mom prepare meals of fresh vegetables, rounding up the cattle on horseback, riding my horse to visit friends who shared my passion for horseback riding, gathering eggs from the chickens, watching my grandmother milk the cow and churn butter, drawing water from the well with the cistern pump, spending lazy Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the baseball field watching the friendly games played between community teams for annual bragging rights, gathering on special occasions at the community center for covered-dish suppers, doing our business in the outhouse…for all its backwardness and simplicity, this is the place of my heart.  And I felt an immediate and visceral connection to Ojo de Agua and its humble inhabitants.

I like to tell people, as a result of the perspective I’ve gained on my formative years, that I have come to realize I learned everything I needed to know about living an effective and fulfilling life growing up on the farm.  Now as I stood in the middle of the pastoral scenes of this agrarian society in Ojo de Agua, I did not see deprivation.  And I did not feel pity.  What I truly felt was envy.  They had something we had lost somewhere along the way and, I have to admit, I felt myself yearning to rediscover it.

I have a favorite metaphor, drawn from my own personal life, which I’ve often used to describe the Nica culture and its people.  When I hike through the forests, with which we are so blessed in East Tennessee, I am awe-inspired by the unusual rock formations.  Weathered by years of wind and water, they possess a sort of otherworld look to them.  Smooth and rounded in some places, pockmarked and dimpled in others, they remind me of an acne-scarred complexion.  In some places, running water has dissolved the sandstone, leaving behind the exposed iron ore.  The exposure of these crinkled veins of iron to air leaves behind a rusty oxidation and verde patina, resembling a slice of rotting cabbage.  One could easily look upon these mountains of rock and see damage…a sad, ugly hill defeated by the elements.  But what I see is beauty.  In fact, it is these very rock formations that draw hundreds of hikers to these trails.  Despite the bombardment of weather over the years, these rocks stand tall and proud.  Every assault has been endured.  The rock has become pliable and has evolved itself in such a way that reveals its many treasures, like the iron ore hidden inside.  Rock houses have formed, which have provided much needed shelter over the years for Indians, runaway slaves, and weary hikers.  Natural bridges, carved into graceful arches, have transported foot travelers for decades.  Smooth, round stone pools have formed to cradle the clear, life-giving spring water.  The trials and tribulations of time have not destroyed the rock.  They have beautified and enhanced it.  Nothing has been wasted.  Everything has been put to good use.  That is how I feel about the Nicas.  They have weathered devastating storms of epic proportions, and they continue to do so each and every day in the environmentally, politically and economically harsh region.  But, like the rock, those storms have simply dissolved the layers with which they might have cloaked themselves, exposing the beautiful treasures they possess…the treasures not on the outside but on the inside…the only real possessions they can be proud of.  Everything to which they have been exposed has served to bring them closer to the pure, simplicity of human existence.  And, in this manner, they have become my primary role models.

Despite the hard work and sometimes crude living conditions, the Nicas of Ojo de Agua have built lives and families centered around a strong sense of community.  They are a happy, friendly and obliging beautiful people.  To me, Ojo de Agua is idyllic.

Some of my teammates from Knoxville Habitat: Jenny McClure, Bill Keeler, Kelle Shultz, Heather Fitz, Tim Butler, Bill West, Susan West, Carol Evans, Ginger Baxter, Jake Hudson, Calis Vernon (Knoxville Habitat Homeowner), Skip Farr, and Lan Seylar, along with Tim’s sister and brother-in-law from Tallahassee, Florida, Martha and John Dozier, might find it humorous that I use the word “idyllic” to describe the time we spent living among the locals.  I suppose it’s fair to say that, despite my instant instinctual and almost spiritual connection to the community, we were all initially shocked by the living quarters we were to inhabit for the week.  We had been told in advance by our Habitat Nicaragua host that our housing would be “in a nice house, 5 blocks from the worksite, with 2 rooms, and a bathroom with a flushing toilet and a ‘dip and pour’ shower” (meaning to shower you would pour water over your head from a bowl.)  That description may have been the biggest exaggeration I’ve ever heard in my entire life.  Maybe they thought, if they told us the truth, we wouldn’t come.  Maybe, to them, that truly was an accurate description.  I mean, compared to some of the other homes in Ojo de Agua, “Ana Isabel,” as it is called, was a very nice piece of property.

It is owned by a gentleman named Don Orlando who runs a farmacia (pharmacy) in Managua.  Ana Isabel is his “farm” and “weekend retreat.”  The house actually had 4 rooms, if you count the room across the back, which had previously been a porch, but at some point had been enclosed.  On the front of the house sat two side by side rooms about 14 feet by 12 feet in size, and I may be stretching it a little at that.  In those rooms, cots and bunk beds had been placed in very close proximity – one room for the boys and one room for the girls – with the overflow of men relegated to the enclosed back porch, 3 of them sleeping on a thin 2-inch mattress laid directly on the hard concrete tile floor.  The so-called “bathroom with flushing toilet and dip and pour shower” was a small room built off the back corner of the girls’ room.  There actually were two water spigots, one over the sink and one over the bathtub, but the bathtub was just sitting in the floor with no drain connected to the outside to take away anything that we might have “dipped and poured” into it.  And, yes, there was a commode, but there were only a couple hours a day that we could flush it.  In fact, there were only a couple of hours a day that there was any water in the lines.  I never quite understood this, but the entire town of Ojo de Agua only has water pumped to it through the water lines during a short period each day.  And those hours were usually when we were out on the job site, so it didn’t do us much good.  Oh, I almost forgot to mention, even if and when we could flush the commode, we couldn’t flush the toilet paper.  We girls did make our nightly pee runs to the bathroom, in the hope and anticipation of being able to flush it sometime the next day; but by the end of the week we had a 30 gallon trash bag full of paper that not even BFI would have touched (i.e., the garbage collection service in Knoxville).

So, needless to say, “thank goodness” there was an outhouse.  (I never thought I’d hear myself say that.)  They also proudly pointed out to us the outdoor shower – a block building looking much like the outhouse, but with a plastic pipe run up the side and into the top of it.  If we had been able to use it, the water would have just run out on the ground through a hole underneath the door.  Maybe you have guessed already that it didn’t work.  There was occasional water in the line, and the caretaker of the property would try to catch water in a barrel sitting in the shower during those times.  We also managed to stop up the bathtub in the house and catch water in it, in case of some kind of emergency where we might need some dirty water.  But there were no showers.  There were no “dip and pour” showers either, because there was no place to dip and pour.  Not to worry, they said!  “There’s a swimming pool!  And we’re going to fill it up, so you can bathe in there.”  I was a little bit skeptical, standing there looking at what Granny Clampett would have called the “ce-ment pond” built of cinder blocks, which had been painted blue.  Given the water situation, how were they ever going to get enough water to fill it?  And, were we going to bathe in that same dirty water – all of us – day after day?  If that wasn’t enough to make me rule it out as an option, learning that they were going to fill it by pumping water from the river located at the back of the property was enough.  Nevertheless, after a hesitant first night in which most everyone went to bed dirty from a day of traveling through the dusty countryside without air conditioning, the first day on the job site in the dirt and 95 degree heat made our path very clear.  There was no other alternative.  We had to bathe, and we had to do it in the freshest water source we could find.  We had to bathe, all of us, in the river.

Don Orlando had created a virtual park along the river behind the profuse mixture of coconut palms, and banana, mimosa, lemon, lime, granadilla, chilamate, vicaro, tamarindo, and mondro trees (and many more unidentified trees), plus African palms and blooming poinsettia, hibiscus, and trinitaria (resembling crepe myrtle and in just as many color varieties) as well as many more unidentified flowers and vines of deep green and vibrant colors.  Beside the “pool”, which lay behind the house (just to the left of the outhouse) a large tin-covered sitting area, open on all four sides, offered two hammocks in which to relax and enjoy the breezes typical of the Nicaraguan dry season.  On down the gently sloping hill, concrete picnic tables, and a child’s see-saw and swing set sat along the riverbank underneath the shade of the huge trees towering overhead.  The river, about 30 feet across, had been dammed up with sand bags to create a swimming hole that ranged from about 2 to 5 feet deep as you got closer to the dam.  An old tire hung by a rope from one of the big tree limbs extended over the swimming hole.  And even as I stood there looking at that water, knowing I had to bathe in it and trying not to think about the parasites and the cattle and horses upstream, I felt another rush of exhilaration.  The only vacations my family ever took, when I was growing up, were camping trips in the The Great Smoky Mountains along the banks of the many rivers and streams found in the park there.  I felt like I was 10 years old again.  Every day I looked forward to coming home and jumping in the river.

Now before your imagination runs wild with you…yes, it probably was the first “group bath” in Habitat history…but we did have our clothes on.  Knowing we were going to stop off at the beach to watch the sun set over the Pacific on our return from Ojo de Agua to Managua at the end of the week, we had all brought swimsuits.  This was one time that the other common name for that type of attire, “bathing suits,” certainly applied.

In Ojo de Agua, we had a cultural experience richer than anything I could have imagined in advance.  Little fishes nibbled on our legs as we soaped and rinsed in the cool river.  Our house was built of “board and batten” and open rafters (much like any barn back home) with “windows” cut out of the wooden siding and swung open for ventilation (also like those I had in the stalls of my horse barn) and locked iron gates over the open doors that protected us from “prowlers”, as if there would have been any in Ojo de Agua.  I don’t know what was supposed to have kept any prowlers from crawling through the open 2-foot square windows, but nothing could stop the entry of the geckos, spiders (big, hairy spiders), mice, and other creepy, crawly things with which we shared our bedroom.  Every night when I crawled up into my top bunk, exhausted from digging out of the sun-baked earth with picks and shovels 2-foot-square and 42-inch-deep holes for the hurricane- and earthquake-proof foundations, I just brushed away all the cobwebs and bugs and “stuff” that had fallen from the rafters and laid down and went to sleep.  We all did.  There was not one uncomfortable incident…not one cross word spoken…not one problem whatsoever.  In conditions worse than any of us had ever endured, I’m sure, the whole lot was the most contented group you’ve ever seen.  We rose early, and before we walked the half-mile to the job site, we had devotions, and walked together to the community center where the most kind and beautiful family fed us breakfast cooked over an open fire in an outdoor kitchen.  At noon, we walked back for lunch, which was served out on the back porch, beside the open brick kitchen where the noonday breezes blew.  Just to our left was the pig pen with 3 little piggies grunting away; right off the porch hens, roosters, and baby chicks rooted away; outhouses sat just beyond the kitchen to our right; and the smoke from constant brush fires and the cook fire filled the air, but no one seemed to be bothered by any of that.  We ate like we were starving and laughed like we were having the time of our lives.  And, even though we soon realized that, along with the main course, we were always going to be served rice and beans, plantains (cooked in a variety of ways), fresh, handmade stone-ground corn tortillas, and fresh juices from often-unknown fruits…for all three meals…we eagerly returned together every evening after our river bath for more.

It was as though the food tasted better.  The air smelled sweeter.  The sun felt warmer.  Stress and worry and problems melted away.  And, even though I was doing the most strenuous work with the crudest implements of my life, I didn’t even experience the usual aches and pains I normally cry with and pop pills for back home.  Yes, there were some sore muscles, but it was a different kind of soreness.  Those tired and strained muscles were our badge of honor, and we wore them proudly.

Maybe our contentment grew out of the quiet evenings we spent visiting on the long front porch in the pleasant summer breeze, facing the iron gate at the front of the property, seeing the cows walking placidly home from pasture, watching the chickens go to roost for the night, and listening to the faint rhythm in the distance of the lively Nicaraguan music the Nicas love so well.  Maybe our contentment was the result of simply escaping the daily pressures of our normal lives.  Maybe it grew out of the satisfaction of knowing we were helping others.  Maybe it was because our trip organizer, Jenny McClure, who recently replaced the beloved Bill Keeler upon his retirement as Knoxville Habitat’s Family Building Coordinator, had planned every last detail to perfection.  Maybe it was because our team was made up of wonderfully gifted, beautiful, and unselfish individuals.  Certainly, I’m sure it was due to all of that.  But those were not the only reasons.

The most powerful reason of all was, also, the most unexpected.  There was a connection that occurred between our North American team members and the Nica residents, Habitat homeowners and paid construction laborers.  It was more than just an emotional attachment.  It went much deeper than that.  Miraculously, in that one short week, our hearts and souls were joined as one, and they became part of us and we of them.  In hindsight now, I can only describe it as divine providence.

I’ve had heartwarming experiences on other humanitarian missions before…but never anything such as this.  That is where my Nica love story truly begins.  And, I suppose, I have to begin that story where it ends…

Francisco nervously rose in front of the group of 50 or more North Americans and Nicas.  Francisco was a young Nica construction worker; wearing a long-sleeve red checkered shirt for sun protection, green camouflage pants, and work boots; with a scabbed-over skin irritation on the left side of his face; and dirt permanently encrusted under the fingernails of his labor-weary and roughened hands.  In his left hand, he clutched the rolled up bucket-hat he’d removed from his head, and with his right hand placed over his heart…Francisco softly and humbly began to recite poetry…and I felt my breath catch in my throat as the tears began to roll freely down my cheeks. 

How, I wondered, had we in just 5 short days gone from guarded strangers, who didn’t even speak the same language, to one completely unified group?

Our mission in Ojo de Agua was to begin 5 of the planned 35 Habitat homes and progress them as far as we could during the week, working alongside the paid Nica construction crews and the future homeowners, who were putting in their “sweat equity” required by the Habitat for Humanity program.  Our team members covered a broad cross-section of occupations, including an oral surgeon, a hospice nurse, an anesthesiologist, an investment manager, housewives, teachers, child care professionals, engineers, media professionals, and company owners—all of whom were either Knoxville Habitat Board members or volunteers—in addition to the Executive Director, Marketing & Communications Manager, and Family Building Coordinator from Knoxville Habitat for Humanity.  All had left behind their typical careers and responsibilities to simply come and help build houses.  Our plan was to put in our own “sweat equity.”  But, we didn’t even get out of the country before it began to become apparent that there was something greater in store for this team.

Flying from Knoxville to Atlanta, in order to board our international flight, we had a very tight connection.  We were all a little stressed about making it, when suddenly our stress level was increased.  An elderly gentleman, seated in the middle of the plane who looked to be in his 80s, went into medical distress.  Flight attendants rushed to his aid.  A woman seated near the man, who happened to be a nurse, went to his side.  And, when a flight attendant rushed to grab the oxygen tank and defibrillator, Skip Farr, the anesthesiologist in our group, rose to follow her down the aisle.  After several tense minutes, we learned that the man’s pacemaker wasn’t firing causing his heart rate to drop dangerously low.  The pilot announced that we had a medical emergency on board and that all passengers behind the gentleman should remain seated after landing until the emergency crew could safely remove him from the aircraft.

Most of our team was seated behind the man.  But we and the other passengers watched in hushed silence, as Skip and the others aided the distressed gentleman.  At that moment, nothing was more important.  This turned out to be a very prophetic moment, for, had we realized it then, it foretold the true nature of our calling to Nicaragua.  We thought we knew why we were going.  We thought we were in control of what we would do while there.

We were not.  There was a much greater plan laid out for this group…a much greater purpose.  We were about to do much more than dig footers for houses.

When we gathered for devotions on our first morning in Ojo de Agua, Kelle Schultz, Executive Director of Knoxville Habitat for Humanity, read from Mother Teresa’s writings and reminded all of us that Habitat for Humanity is about much more than just building houses.  It’s about building relationships...building community, not just locally but globally.  It’s about humanity, human dignity, and human equality.  In a word, it’s about love.  Armed with that perspective, we entered into our first day of work.

We must have looked like a motley crew, when we wandered onto the job site, where the Nicas had already been hard at work for at least an hour or two.  Our group was made up of 9 women and 7 men, plus the two young Nica men, Marlon and his brother Moises, Jenny’s friends from her Americorp and Young Life days who had traveled from Esteli in the Central Highlands to help with Spanish translations.  Keep in mind, with the exception of our translators, none of us were “spring chickens,” so in a country where most people die by 50 or 55 years of age, we must have looked like geriatrics to our Nica counterparts.  They either eyed us cautiously or completely ignored us, as we milled around unsurely inspecting the barren, hard ground in which we were expected to create foundations for the straight line of five closely-situated home sites interrupted only by a tin-covered bodega (storage building) between house 4 and 5.  Finally, our Habitat Nicaragua host located the building foreman, Sixto, and gathered around all the North American and Nica team members.  With no real rhyme or reason, we North Americans were divided into smaller groups of 3 to 5 and assigned to one of the 5 casas (houses).  The Nica homeowners were already working on their own casa, and the construction crews were each assigned responsibility for the building of one or more of the five structures.

Some of these newly formed joint teams got off to a better start than others, mainly due to how much progress had already been accomplished on their casa in advance by the Nica homeowners and crew.  Most of the sites already had at least one or two of the 10 required holes dug (24” sq x 42” deep), and had also started tying rebar for the piers that were to be concreted into those holes.  On those sites, it was relatively easy for our team members to fall in, grab a shovel or pry bar, and begin the teeth-rattling and back-breaking work of pounding away at the hard ground, or to grab a pair of steel cutters and pliers and begin hand-tying rebar.

One of our team members jokingly asked, “Wonder why we’re digging this concrete out of the ground, just to replace it with more concrete?”  It was a funny way of succinctly summarizing the unspoken thoughts of our entire team.  I stood with my hands on my hips looking at my home site, number 4, where not one hole had even been started, and I had only one thought, “Where’s the backhoe?”  To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement.  At least, when I’d help dig fencepost holes back on the farm, I’d had a set of manual post-hole diggers.  We didn’t even have that.  There were shovels, but they were blunt-edged shovels, clearly not intended for anything more than scooping dirt from the hole.  Loosening and breaking up the packed soil, in order to scoop it from the hole, could only be accomplished by grasping the steel pry-bar pole, filled with concrete for added weight, lifting it with both hands as high as possible off the ground, then slamming it into the ground and wiggling it.  “This is hopeless,” I thought, “We will still be digging holes when we leave on Friday.”  I have a feeling our Nica construction workers, after seeing us, had the same thought.  Nevertheless, everyone went to work, some jumping in and disappearing into the holes when they bent over headfirst to scoop the loosened dirt out by hand, and before long you could actually see square holes beginning to appear in the ground.  Already wringing wet with sweat and caked with dirt, which was quickly mixing and turning to mud on our arms and legs, we were more than ready for our first break at 10:00 a.m.  The arrival of Juan Jose with our morning snack was a welcome sight.

We gathered our North American team in the only small shade we could find beside the bodega and dived into the fresh cocktail of indigenous fruits Juan and his wife Iliana had prepared for us.  We were devouring it and enjoying it immensely, when gradually we began to realize this snack had been prepared only for us.  Nothing was brought for our Nica counterparts, and they continued slaving in the hot sun while we rested.  The taste of the sweet fruit began to sour in our mouths.  I’m not sure who spoke first, but the point was clearly made to our Habitat Nicaragua host that we would never again sit down to a break and snack, unless the entire joint team was included.  “If they don’t eat, we don’t eat,” someone in our group said, and we meant it.  To prove it, when the afternoon break arrived, which had unavoidably already been planned in advance to only serve our 18 team members, we served it to our Nica counterparts instead.  One of our team members had circulated before the break, informing us that there probably wouldn’t be enough for all of us, so we wanted to make sure the Nicas received it first.  It took quite a bit of coaxing to get them to stop working and join us, and we slyly tried to act as though we would all eventually be served.  But, when it was all said and done, I’m sure they noticed that our team was only drinking from the bottle of purified water our host had supplied for us.

One day two, our host, seeing that we were going to insist on joint breaks, brought in a large red “Coca-Cola” tent, with an aluminum frame about 12’x12’, for us to erect near the bodega, a 6’x3’ folding, cafeteria-style table and folding aluminum chairs…enough for almost every member of the joint team.  When first break rolled around on day two, we herded our Nica teammates to the tent with us, where refreshing fruit and juice snacks, this time, awaited everyone.  Each day, morning and afternoon, we continued this ritual; and with each passing moment, I noticed more and more changes in the Nicas.  They began to look us in the eye and smile.  They proudly told us about their country and suggested places for us to see and things to do.  They asked questions through our interpreter, listened intently to our responses, and answered our questions in return.  They asked about our country, our professions, and our families.  We joked and laughed together and shared stories and observations about the similarities and differences between North American and Nicaraguan daily life.

Habitat for Humanity seeks to transform lives and communities by giving each individual the dignity of decent housing.  In our pursuit to do that in Ojo de Agua, I’m sure we spent more time “breaking” than you would typically see on a Habitat build site.  But it was during those breaks that the real transformation in Ojo de Agua took place.  I experienced this firsthand through an unusual and unexpected event in which I was involved.

Driving in to Ojo de Agua on Sunday, we’d noticed all the horses and horsemen and women along the way.  I’d previously heard of the rodeo for which Nagarote is known, and in sharing that information on the bus with my teammates, I had mentioned my own youth growing up on the farm and riding horses in the barrel races well into my adult years.  Then before I really knew what was happening, on the afternoon of our first work day on the site, I heard Jake telling the Nica crew leader on his site, Manuel, that I would ride a horse.  Maybe Jake had seen me snapping photos of every horse grazing in the fields and every passing rider.  Or, maybe he just remembered me talking about it on the bus.  I really don’t know what initiated it, but it was obvious that Manuel was extremely amused by it.  Becoming very animated, he laughed at Jake’s suggestion, provoking Jake to insist, “You will ride a horse, won’t you, Rhonda?” 

“Of course, I would,” I replied, causing Manuel’s eyes to dance with delight.  I didn’t have to understand one word of his Spanish to know what he was thinking and saying to his compañeros.  They were planning to get a big laugh out of this episode, as Manuel quickly sent three young boys scurrying to a little shack next door to saddle a horse for me. 

We’d been told, upon first arriving at the site that morning, that the homeowner next door had consented to let us use her outhouse when nature called.  From our distance, it was unclear to me where that property might have ended and the property of the small shack behind it, at which I could see the boy saddling the horse, began.  It appeared to me that the outhouse went with the shack, and since I’d been following directions to keep myself hydrated all day, I suddenly realized, as I stood there watching my trusty steed being saddled, that before I went bouncing up and down on a horse, I needed to visit the outhouse.  We’d been instructed to ask our Habitat Nicaragua host to chaperone us, whenever we needed to go, but glancing around and not seeing him nearby, I didn’t think that was necessary.  After all, they were saddling a horse for me to ride.  They would probably be delighted for me to walk on over, I reasoned, as I began walking down the dirt lane.

When I rounded the bend and came into view of the shack, now about 20 yards away, two women ran out the front and began waving their arms and screaming at me, “No!  No!  No vos!  No vos aquí!”  I really wasn’t certain what they were saying, but of one thing I was sure.  Their body language and tone of voice made it clear they didn’t want me to move one step closer.  About that time, Regan, our Habitat Nicaragua host noticed what was going on, and rather excitedly called out for me to stop and wait for him.

The shack from which I was shooed away was the home of Lilian, one of the soon-to-be Habitat homeowners, and her mother.  So, I’d expected to be received by them with open arms, which, of course, I was not.  This puzzled me but, truly, it did accurately characterize the skepticism with which we’d been received on this our first day at the work site.  Apparently, the “cure” for my indiscretion came right on the heels of it, when I jumped up on the horse’s back and went galloping down the field alongside the 5 building sites.  I'm sure it helped relieve even more tension when Jenny, Tim, and John followed my lead and, also, took the horse for a little trot.

“I wish you could have seen the looks on their faces, Rhonda, when you took off on that horse!”  Jake laughingly reported to me as we walked home that evening.   “I know they didn’t think you would or could do it.  That was every bit as important as digging a hole or tying rebar!”  He exclaimed.

That message was reiterated in many ways throughout the week.  We hadn’t only gone to Ojo de Agua to build houses.  We had gone to build relationships…friendships…which we all pursued actively in a multitude of ways each and every day.  And soon we’d begun to see the fruits of not only our physical labor on the building site, but also our emotional and spiritual labor.

Tuesday afternoon, the day after I'd ridden the horse, Manuel walked over where I was tying rebar with Erben, Romeri, and Pablo.  Every day between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. the wind kicked up, sometimes ferociously, and swept across the flat plains where we worked.  Although it provided a welcome respite from the heat, it wreaked havoc on head coverings.  After having my hat - a white bucket hat with a big orange T on the front - blown off, causing everyone to stop and chase it several times, I finally just rolled it up and stuffed it in my pocket.  Manuel looked at me and, using the sign language we'd devised for when an interpreter was not around, pointed to the broiling sun overhead and motioned for me to put on my hat.  I smiled, shook my head 'no,' and demonstrated for him what would happen in the wind.  Manuel stood there for a few seconds, then said something to Pablo, who stood across from me tying the steel bars.  Even though I didn't understand the words, I understood the intent.  Pablo sheepishly began to remove his baseball cap, while the other guys snickered.  Then Manuel motioned for him to give it to me.  I looked into the sweaty brim of the red and blue baseball cap, which Pablo now extended in front of me, and I knew I had only one option.  I pulled my hat from my pocket and placed it on Pablo's head, as I accepted his cap in my other hand.  My hat fell down around his ears, and his perched high upon my head.  Everyone smiled as we adjusted the head coverings, and Manuel beamed with fatherly pride.

More signs of acceptance continued throughout the week.  In addition to all the warm and lively exchanges we’d enjoyed in our break sessions, on Wednesday afternoon, Escilia, casa number 5 homeowner, presented us with homemade Pinoleo – a traditional Nica mixture - made from corn and natural spices and sometimes mixed with fresh cacao (cocoa) - hand ground into a fine powder meant to be mixed with sugar, water, and/or milk and drank warm or cold.  Escilia explained that Pinoleo is so unique to Nicaragua that Nicas are, also, frequently referred to as Pinoleros – a distinction in which you could tell they were all very proud.  The fact that she had worked to prepare this unique gift for each of us demonstrated how deeply her gratitude extended.

Then the biggest surprise of all for me came on Thursday morning.  At our first break, Lilian, the very one who had turned me away on Monday, invited our entire team to come to her home, where she wanted to serve us homemade Arroz con Leche, which we would commonly refer to as rice pudding.  I knew for sure the transformation was totally complete, when Lilian’s mother, who had slaved over an open fire all morning to prepare the pudding, ran out to embrace us as she and Lilian led us by the hand into their humble abode.  “Welcome to my home,” Lilian smiled, as we stepped over the threshold into the dirt floor structure that might have been used for a tool shed on the farm where I grew up.  A mound of stone in one corner, about waist high, enclosed a roaring fire over which our rice had been prepared.  A large, round-bottom kettle, like the one my great-grandfather used to make apple butter in, sat bubbling over the fire with a water and corn mixture.  I noticed a fat brown hen standing on the stone oven and picking a kernel of corn from the kettle with her beak, as another hen and baby chicks scurried around underneath our feet.  And, despite our concerns about becoming ill, we didn’t even hesitate to consume the pudding.  We knew how important it was to Lilian and her mother and how very important it was to our mission there.  I’d never eaten rice pudding before.  It was delicious, and I’m sure what made it taste so good - at least for me - was the sweet awareness of the walls we’d dissolved between the Nicas and the North Americans during the week.  They had made us part of their families.

There were so many other events, both large and small, throughout the week that surely endeared us to the Nica people and them to us…more than I could write about even in a full-length book.  The amazing welcome reception, meal, and traditional Nica dance and drama presented to us when we arrived on Sunday…a little boy carried to our door in the middle of the night with severely lacerated fingers, which had to be stitched up and treated throughout the week by the medical members of our team…a sick dog…a sick old man…a little boy’s 2-year-old birthday party…the same little boy one night later with a banged up head…attempts from both our North American team members and the Nica team members to learn one another’s language and communicate directly with one another, if only through the written word…sharing our refreshments with farmers harvesting in the field nearby…learning to dance Nica style…delighting them with our stories of bathing in the river…interacting with the Nica children…delivering Spanish books, which had been donated by John Sibley with the Literacy Imperative in Knoxville, to the local school, where we were mobbed like movie stars for our autographs…learning to make the fresh corn tortillas in Iliana’s kitchen…visiting the ladies in the little store every day for “Coke Light” and Gatorade…learning to make Pinoleo…the list of experiences that so completely joined us in brotherhood and unity seems endless, and yet, it happened in just 5 short days.

We did, miraculously, get all the foundations and footers dug and even sank all 50 of the rebar piers.  But, we didn’t see one wall go up.  Yet, our Nica teammates showered us with praise…for our fine, hard work…our accomplishments…and our hearts, as we in turn had members of our team stand to do the same for them. 

It seemed we only blinked our eyes and Friday had arrived, finding us sitting together for one last lunch on Iliana and Juan’s back porch.  But this time, the entire Nica team of construction workers and homeowners was there with us.  It was our Gran Fiesta to celebrate our success.  Iliana had prepared a huge meal of Arroz con Pollo, my favorite; and after we welcomed the Nicas onto the porch with a rousing chorus of “Rocky Top,” they cranked up the music so we could show off the results of our Nica dance lessons.  There were speeches, and we presented each Nica with gifts brought from home, and they presented us with more Pinoleo, and it occurred to me that the Nicas had given us the only gifts they had to give – that which they could make with their hands: the rice pudding, the Pinoleo, the scrumptious traditional meals, their homes; and that which they carried in their hearts: their trust, their families, their wisdom, and their love of country.  More importantly, they had given us the gift of reminding us that it’s not the so-called treasures with which we surround ourselves – careers, cars, homes, clothes – that matter in life.  It’s the treasures we all carry inside, regardless of our social and economic situation, which matter most - compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and love – these were the Nicas greatest possessions.  Thanks to their example, they had become ours as well.

The many letters I received from my new Nica friends on Friday morning proved they had been as deeply moved as we had been.  I will treasure them all, but I think I will treasure my letter from Manuel most:

Rhonda,

Thank you for remembering me, because of your beautiful heart and kindness for humanity.  Like God says, “Love your brother as yourself.”  I will remember you forever, because you are a woman with much courage.  Don’t forget our country, Nicaragua.  All the team are great and special people, and what you do you do with love.  I am happy, and I hope you have a good trip back to your country and your home.  I never believed you were going to ride a horse.  You are a good rider.  I say goodbye, and I will save your gift in my heart.

Manuel Sanchez

I was surprised by the tears that flowed so freely during that final fiesta, not only from my eyes and those of my female teammates, not only from the eyes of my male teammates, and not only from the eyes of the Nica homeowners.  Tears also flowed freely from the eyes of the rough and tough construction laborers…men of steel who made their living by traveling away from their homes and families to live on the ground at construction sites, scrounge off the land, and perform unbelievably strenuous work, for less annual income than some of us would make in one day of work in the U.S.  As I watched this closing drama unfold at the fiesta, I realized the connection that had developed between us and the Nicas superseded all things material.  It was a connection of hearts…a connection of spirits…a connection of humanity.

Now, amazingly, here in front of us had emerged the most unlikely person in the room to become the spokesperson for what had actually taken place between us during the week.  Francisco had been characteristically quiet during our daily sharing sessions, which added to my surprise when we were informed he had a poem to share with us.  And with a beautiful heart shining out through his watery brown eyes, Francisco recited the opening stanza to “Lo Fatal,” a poem by Nicaragua’s world-famous poet, Ruben Dario (1867-1916):

Dichoso el árbol que es apenas sensitivo,
y más la piedra dura porque esa ya no siente,
pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo,
ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.

Emotion swelled within me as our Nica host, Regan, translated:

Fatality…is to be like the tree with hardly any feeling…or like the rock, which cannot feel anything.  To be alive…but not conscious of any feeling at all…that would be the greatest pain.

Francisco’s message was clear.  Our week in Ojo de Agua had been a success, not because we had survived the living conditions, or because we had dug holes, not even because we had made friends.  Our week in Ojo de Agua had been a success because we had “felt.”  Our week was successful beyond our wildest expectations simply because we had allowed ourselves to experience the power of unconditional love.

 

Extraños al llegar, amigos al salir.  Nunca te olvidaré, Ojo de Agua, el país de mi corazón.

 

Strangers when we arrive, friends when we leave.  I will never forget you, Ojo de Agua, the land of my heart.

 

 

Francisco’s recitation of Ruben Dario’s “Lo Fatal” being interpreted by Regan, our Habitat Nicaragua host.

 

 

 

Traditional dances depicting the aspects of life in Nicaragua.

 

 

       

 Delivering fresh milk every morning.

 

Heading to the fields for a day of harvesting.

 

Harvesting is hot, back-breaking work.

  

Herding the cattle home from pasture at the end of the day.