A Heavy Load

IMG_3244Pete Jensen

I hate alarm clocks. I really do, and I’m one of many ‘not a morning person’ types that puts more work into hitting the snooze button than just getting up. Testament to this are the hundreds of fancy alarm clocks and alarm clock apps on the market that are sleek, slim, follow your REM patterns, plug into your ‘iLife,’ and wake you up ‘naturally.’ Mine, however, was $3.99 at a thrift shop without a power cord and isn’t travel friendly. As I prepared for my trip to Batahola Cultural Center in Nicaragua, I knew I’d need one since I would be teaching morning English classes. However, upon arrival, I discovered that in Nicaragua, an alarm clock is not something I need on my travel list…

Alarm clocks are everywhere here – just not ones we’re used to.

They walk, talk, and don’t have the same sleek and slim look. They also don’t have any beep noises or radio, and they are painfully reliable. Every morning at 5:30 AM, these alarm clocks are walking through the streets yelling the names of fruits, vegetables, and daily food staples. Many sweet dreams have been broken by, “AGUACAAAAAATEE!!!” (avocado) “HAY PIÑA, PIÑA, PIÑA!!!” (we got pineapple) By the way, they don’t take weekends off and no, there is no snooze button.

Even though they halt your sheep count early, these vendors are more impressive than any alarm clock can ever be. First of all, they don’t need batteries or a cord and they don’t turn off. Many make trips selling, restocking, back out selling, etc… until late afternoon when houses have what they need for dinner that night. Second, they seem indestructible. They can carry loads of 50-70 kg of food, sometimes 70% of their body weight. To give perspective, this is the equivalent of the sherpas of Nepal. If that doesn’t help, I myself weigh about 200 pounds so that means carrying roughly 140 lbs of weight all day. Third and most impressive, they carry all this weight on top of their head. No straps, wheels, or fancy systems. Just plopped right there on the noggin.

For a Norwegian male from Minnesota, I can count the number of times I’ve seen people carrying loads on their head in the Midwest without hands. We straddle our weight on shoulders and hips in expensive backpacks or suitcases with wheels. I would look like someone getting punched repeatedly in the ribs if I were trekking around the street with 140 lbs for eight hours while vendors here have the posture of figure skaters. This is curious, so after a little research, I found that people who carry heavy loads on their head do it for good reason – more than just tradition or economy. Studies done on women in Africa, for example, conclude that they can bear loads on their head of approximately 20% their body weight with no increase in energy consumption. This would be the equivalent of a high school backpack. In fact, “[A person] can carry a load equal to 70% of her body weight at 3.5 km/hr for 50% less energy that an American army recruit with the same load in a backpack.” Even more striking is the fact that carrying weight directly on top of the head mitigates the posture, back, and shoulder pressures related to modern backpacks.

Still not impressed? It’s also an art that is anything but easy. To see why, grab a book, put it on your head, and try to walk down the hallway. Did you make it? Now imagine walking through narrow and crowded market streets with something 20 times the width and 35 times the weight. Regardless, the street vendors here make it seem easy. I can even have a conversation with one of them while they’re working.

And…what do the vendors earn for such amazing biodynamic feats? Mostly, a few dollars a day. Their cargo isn’t monetarily worth that much compared to its mass. For example, mangos are pretty dense fruits but they sell at three for 10 Córdobas (about $0.35 USD). Squash is also heavy but again only sells at one for 10 Córdobas. Avocados are dense and are slightly more expensive, $1 USD per unit. And tortillas…a mere two Córdobas (three cents) each. Because the vendors usually buy the food directly from the producer, they get it cheaper and are able to charge slightly more when selling in the neighborhoods. But if someone only makes one penny for every tortilla they sell or maybe 1.5 cents for every mango…think about how much they have to sell to make a dollar per day! A good day brings a profit of around 100-150 Córdobas – just enough for daily food, electricity, and water costs for the family. They use the remainder for transportation to buy tomorrow morning’s supply and start again.

In Minnesota, I can buy an avocado for (strangely) the same price they sell here. The difference is that the cost to daily income ratio is literally hundreds of percent larger for me than for a vendor in Nicaragua. Buying an avocado may require 20% or more of their daily income! That’s not even the case for my hourly income and my small teacher salary qualifies for subsidized housing. Imagine the discrepancy between an average middle-class income, upper-class, and then the one percenters! The inequality is not only staggering, it’s incomprehensible. Vendors here can’t have their cake or eat it.

It seems that Nicaraguan merchants are bearing more than the weight of their baskets – they’re bearing the weight of an economically segregated global market that puts me at the top of this food chain (literally). That avocado on the shelf in MN carries the external costs of growing, picking, cleaning, shipping across seas, taxes, stocking, and selling. That total is more than what the average middle-class person pays at fractions of a percent of their daily income. We can’t get something for nothing – someone has to pay for that avocado… so who is it?

The vendor does. Ironically, she is paying for the very avocado she sells.

For the Nicaraguan, it doesn’t make any economic sense, but hundreds of years of exploitation in Central America have brought it to this point. On a general scale, two major historical influences were A) colonization which enslaved indigenous peoples to build and produce for foreign bodies and then B) the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 where the U.S. claimed this area as its own backyard to ward off trade deals with other countries. For Nicaragua specifically, the last 100 years has entailed various periods of economic and political instability heavily influenced by foreign interests. I invite the reader to examine these on their own time as it soon becomes clear why poverty prevails. A large part of the citizens’ livelihood is either exported at low prices or affected by politics that the commoner doesn’t have a voice in. The saying, “el pobre más pobre, el rico más rico” *the poor get poorer and the rich get richer* continually manifests itself (in the US too!). This causes forced migration for Nicaraguans looking to provide for their families. In fact, 1.5 million of the 6 million total population has left for Costa Rica, Cuba, the US, Spain, and other countries to find work and send money back to their families. Some believe that that is one of the few stilts supporting the 99.9%.

This cycle reminds us that it’s not really my dollar paying for an avocado or a pound of coffee from countries in situations like that of Nicarauga. It’s actually the oppressed majority. They have faces and names, but are intentionally kept invisible by US markets and media that connect our personal value to consuming. They have voices, but we can’t hear them amidst the race for the golden calf brought about by big banks that subtly destroy our relationships and desires. They have beautiful lands, but we can’t dream of them amidst our systemic policies that wrap us in racial and economic chains before we can even vote.

Among many things, being in Nicaragua is a wake-up call. To be honest though, I’d rather not hear the alarm, rather not open my eyes to the harsh sun that illuminates the hidden interconnectedness of our brothers and sisters a continent away. But regardless of whether I open my eyes or not, the vendors are still there every morning carrying weights that I can’t even imagine. It might be 60 kg of tortillas for some and 50 kg of pineapples for others, but every one of them is carrying the weight of economic segregation – and unless I do wake up, I just keep loading their basket. Indeed, these vendors may be the most important alarm clock I’ve ever opened my eyes to.

Pete Jensen is a teacher and graduate student of theology in Minnesota. In the summer of 2016, he volunteered for five weeks at Batahola Cultural Center which supports the local community with social services and a prolific education program for students from pre-k all the way through college. Offering these services with a mostly female staff and in solidarity with the needs of the Batahola neighborhood, the center combats social inequality in Managua, Nicaragua. To learn more about the center or volunteering, visit http://www.FriendsOfBatahola.org

“Timeline: Nicaragua.” Stanford University. Online: http://web.stanford.edu/group/arts/nicaragua/discovery_eng/timeline/ Personal Interviews. Managua, Nicaragua. July 2016.
IMG_3244.JPGIMG_3244 “Physiology of Load Carrying.” Catholic University of Louvain: Laboratory of Physiology and Biomechanics of Locomotion.


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