A couple of weeks ago, we found 3 orphaned young kittens in the Center. With a little help from a Facebook announcement and animal activist/Center music teacher Nineth, we were able to find homes for all 3 kitties! Ivania, the Center’s psychologist, adopted one herself. Lechita has been accompanying her to the office because he’s still too young to eat by himself. As his honorary tias (aunts), Christina and I have been babysitting him in the afternoons and watching him grow more mischievous by the day. He’s been a much-needed distraction from all the political turmoil going on in the world right now.
Around midday, those of us that don’t go home for lunch gather at a small concrete table at the edge of the Center to chat, eat and laugh. We talk about everything from religion to politics. For me, lunches at the Center have also served as an intensive class in Nicaraguan slang. Over the past year, I’ve picked up a good number of Nicaraguan dichos (sayings) from my co-workers. Here are a few of my favorites:
Literal translation: Boil nacatamales (a Nicaraguan tamale)
Echarse un pelón
Literal translation: Throw a bald man
Meaning: Take a nap
Matar el tigre
Literal translation: Kill the tiger
Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente
Literal translation: Eyes that don’t see, heart that doesn’t feel
Meaning: What you don’t see, won’t hurt you
Se lo digo a Juan para que lo entienda Pedro
Literal translation: I tell it to Juan so that Pedro will understand
Meaning: When you tell someone something to transmit the message passive aggressively to another person present
Hijo del tigre sale rallado
Literal translation: Son of the tiger comes out striped
Meaning: Like father, like son
El que anda con lobos aullar aprende
Literal translation: He who runs with wolves learns to howl
Meaning: You pick up the habits of the people you spend time with
Last week in English, we learned how to express wishes through “I wish” poems. Here is a selection of my students’ work:
Maria with her mother, Odilia
I wish my mom did not have to work in the house
I wish she could study English
I wish she had four million dollars
I wish she could swim in the Montelimar Beach
I wish she could be happy all her life
I wish I could be with my mom forever
I wish I could eat chocolate
I wish I could speak English fluently
I wish I could buy many dolls
I wish I could travel around the world
I wish I could listen to the angels
I wish I could learn to cook
I wish I could travel to Israel
I wish I could have my own business
I wish I were a bird
I wish I could fly high
I wish I could listen to the sky
I wish I were a dolphin
I wish I could dance on the sea
I wish I could have many colors on my body
I wish I were a princess
But I remember
I am a princess!
I wish I could study French
I wish I could travel around the world
I wish I could meet new people
I wish I could help poor people
I wish I had a lot of money
I wish I could live alone
I wish I could go back in time
I wish my mom were here
Josue and Yaoska
We wish we could learn English very well
We wish we could make nacatamal [Nicaraguan tamale]
We wish we had a great job
We wish we could have a good accent
We wish we could speak fluently
Yaoska wishes she had cash
Josue wishes he could have a birthday party
We wish we had a good caponera [motorcycle taxi]
We wish we had our own business
I wish I could visit my cousin Jessica
I wish I could buy a car
I wish I had my own home
I wish I had a big room
I wish I could live at the beach
I wish I had more free time
I wish I had a squirrel
Guillermo and Vanessa
We wish we could learn English very well
We wish we could travel to France
We wish we could go to the gym every day
We wish we had one child
We wish we were rich
We wish we could learn to cook very well
We wish we had a new T.V.
We wish we could sleep very good
We wish we could have our own business
Tortillas have been a staple of the Nicaraguan diet for centuries. Within a 5 block radius of my house in Batahola, there are at least 4 tortilla stands where you can buy delicious fresh off-the grill tortillas. And they’re not the kind you buy at the grocery store in the States, either. For starters, they are made of corn, and are much thicker and more flavorful. Having fresh tortillas with my breakfast every morning is definitely one of the things I’ll miss most when I leave Nicaragua
When Doña Amanda, who has been the host mother to several generations of Batahola volunteers, offered to teach me how to make tortillas, I was thrilled. Last Saturday, I walked over her house with a bag of maseca (corn flower). Doña Amanda learned from a neighbor when she was a girl, but no one else in her family can make them. Below are Doña Amanda’s instructions for making tortillas.
You will need:
Maseca (NOTE: traditionally, tortillas are made through a more complicated process involving boiling corn kernels, but today many people use maseca)
Comal (a round griddle used for making tortillas)
A plastic bag, cut into 2 squares
Cloth for wrapping tortillas
Place the comal over the stove and use the rag to dab a small amount of oil on it. While the comal is heating up, pour the maseca into a bowl, and gradually add water while mixing with your hands until it has a soft, moist texture.
Then, form the dough in to balls about the size of a tennis ball. Place the ball on top of the plastic squares and begin pressing it down with your hand. Then, place one hand on the side to form the edge and your other hand to continue patting down the tortilla until it’s about 1-2 cm thick.
When it is ready, place the tortilla on the comal. After about 2 minutes, flip the tortilla over.
Once it has cooked for a minute or two, use a wet rag to press down on the tortilla. When it begins to bubble up, you’ll know it is ready. Wrap the tortilla in a cloth to keep it warm. Enjoy with a plate of gallo pinto and cuajada (Nicaraguan cheese).
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.
“Physiology of Load Carrying.” Catholic University of Louvain: Laboratory of Physiology and Biomechanics of Locomotion.
Thank you Natalie Woodke, IHM Parishioner and SUA Graduate, for sharing your reflection on the 2015 trip to Nicaragua!
“When I was asked to write this reflection, I honestly didn’t know where to start. There are no words to fully describe how absolutely eye-opening and powerful this trip was. I knew this trip would be incredible, but I had no idea how overwhelming it would become. I didn’t realize what I was feeling until someone else said it, but I have experienced TRUE joy in this country. There’s a spirit that’s present everywhere we’ve gone, and I’m amazed every single day. The people living here have almost Nothing but each other…and that’s enough. Every person I’ve met has been so kind, open-hearted, patient and simply just full of life and passion. It’s so breathtakingly inspiring. I hope to take away the simplicity of this country with me. And the idea of finding God and beauty in everyone and everything around me.
I hope to carry with me the amazing qualities I’ve seen in so many people here, and to become that Christ-like figure in someone else’s life. I hope to continue taking time to step back, and focusing on what’s truly important in life. I’ve learned how powerful it is to surround yourself with good people and that the little things truly do make a difference in the lives of others. 90% of the time, I couldn’t communicate verbally very well with the Nicaraguans, especially the kids. However, some of the most powerful moments I experienced were with these kids. We laughed and played games and make funny faces at each other, and words weren’t even necessary. I saw the face of Christ in every single child I encountered and these experiences and connections will stick with me forever. As our journey comes to a close, I know, I will take a whole new sense of appreciation with me back home. Seeing how hard the Nicaraguans work, and how eager the kids are to learn has completely humbled me. Everything in my life seems so trivial now, and I think stepping back for a week is exactly what my life needed. I hope to continue in service work, and pursue my love for helping others, especially kids. I hope to always follow my passions, and never put money or material goods over what truly makes me happy.
On a spiritual level, this trip has given me so much reassurance in my faith. I’ve encountered Christ more times this week than I ever have in my life, and the fact that this happened in a 3rd world country is so inspiring to me. This proved to me that God will always be present where He is needed, because these people need Him more than anything. However, despite their situations, the faith of the Nicaraguans was always present, and absolutely contagious, which is something I truly admired. I can’t say enough how blessed I am to have been exposed to this country and its people. I know I will be able to go back to my journal and re-read it when I’m having a bad day, because just the thought of it makes me so happy. The combination of the Nicaraguans, the culture, the beauty of the country and the wonderful people that came down with me has forever changed my life, and made me a better person.”
Thank you Bryanna Maxey, IHM Parishioner and McNick Student, for sharing your reflection on your 2015 trip to CCBN!
“If people were to ask me how was my trip, I would respond with complete honesty. My response would be that this trip to Nicaragua was hard for me. Don’t get me wrong it was one of the best times I have ever had in my life, but it was extremely difficult for me to see that vast poverty of the country. The word that comes to my mind is overwhelming. How is it possible for people to live like this? It breaks my heart to see anyone living the way that most people are in Nicaragua. However, my heart breaks even more for the children living in the poor conditions. These children are not getting the proper nourishment or education and it makes me realize how blessed I truly am. My bedroom alone is bigger than some people’s entire home. The poverty was just very hard for me to see. It’s not like it was only in one part of a city, but it was everywhere you look. I just want to be able to help these people even if it is something very small. This trip definitely opened my eyes not only about how I am currently living my life, but most importantly, how I want to live my life in the future. This trip helped me to fully recognize how much I love to serve others. Even though I am still not sure what I want to do with the rest of my life, this experience has shown me opportunities I didn’t even know existed. This trip made me realize that the rest of the world is much different than the bubble the U.S. is in. This just makes me want to be able to go anywhere I can in the world to help the people who need it most. I want to be able to leave this earth and say that I made it a better place in some way than before I got here. I don’t expect to save the lives of hundreds of people, but if I can truly help at least one person on this earth, I would call it a successful life. This trip makes me want to go on more like it and maybe even potentially go on a 2 year service trip. I definitely have a lot to think about regarding my future. No matter what, I want to choose a career that is centered around helping and serving others. It doesn’t matter if I own nothing, if I can serve others and meet these amazing people my life would be amazing. I don’t even necessarily have to do something globally. There are people in my own community who suffer greatly. One small action or project could surprise me and become something much greater that will not only benefit me, but will benefit the people who need help and want a better life. Yes, this trip was difficult, but it was eyeopening and I can’t wait to see what the future holds because this past week will definitely factor into the decisions I make.”
Thank you Lauren Wulker, IHM Parishioner and teacher at McNick, for sharing your thoughts on your 2015 trip to Nicaragua!
“In this very moment THIS is what I am living for- shared moments with today’s youth that offer a sort of ripening of the soul that comes with challenge. Up until last year the only traveling I had done to Central America was for myself – to learn Spanish, to volunteer, to be a tourist on vacation, to study conservation in the field, etc. My reason for being here this week is one of giving, sharing this experience with all of you. Sure, I have an arsenal of hilarious OK teachable moments that have taken place on McNick’s campus, but the richest and most profound memories of teaching that I will carry with me are the result of service outside the classroom – in the “real world” so to speak. Most of that revolves around accompaniment or solidarity in some way, e.g. Slidell, LA building houses after Katrina; Appalachian service retreat; Kairos, where perhaps for many of us we learn to accompany one another in our shared human suffering for the first time – and of course now in Nicaragua. Being with you in the face of challenge, love, laughter, bug spray, Spanglish, Mangues, rocky roads, street dogs and prayer is who and what I have been living for. Where I go from here – where all of you go from here will undoubtedly also be a place where community, service, and education stand as pillars.
An experience like this moves us, shakes us (like a sand shifter), until suddenly we experience a new kind of “awake.” It is our choice to live without dead time. It is our choice to choose the road filled with crowded buses, feces, hustling of good, poverty, rocks, chickens, and “adios.” It is our choice to say yes to the challenges this brings, the big questions that leave us wondering who we are, who we thought we were and who we want to be. Thank you all for saying yes. Vamos caminando.”
Thank you Sally Daoud, McNick Student and Visitor of CCBN Summer 2015, For Sharing These Beautiful Thoughts on Your Experience in Nicaragua!
“I want to live to love those around me and give them the love they deserve. We are born with different physical characteristics but we are all human, the same being. While poverty, distance, and injustice may divide us, love unites us. We were born with no thoughts of hate, cruelty and sadness yet we experience and witness it everyday. However that is when we must rise and give all of our love and kindness. If everyone could simply live in love and harmony we could lessen the bad in the world. There will be poverty. There will be injustice. There will be distance from our brothers and sisters around the world. But love is universal. It’s not something you acquire, it is something that you are born of. You were born out of love and it seems only fair that you share love with all those around you. So I want to live for love. Love for those who have harder time receiving it. Love for those who do what they have to do to make ends meet. Love for those who give so much and expect nothing back. Live to Love.
Words are not enough to describe this experience. What I have seen with my very own eyes in one word would be love. You expect the people and the environment to be sad and lonesome but you would be very surprised. The kindness and sense of community that I witnessed first hand at the Cultural Center in Managua is beyond me. Everyone shows nothing but love to one another. You see no hate, among the people, as if all they know is how to love. It is an example to everyone. They make the most of their situation and what they have and I heard no complaints. It was the most eyeopening experience I will probably ever have. It changes your perspective and outlook on life. You not only look but you really see. You listen not just hear. You feel emotions and have thoughts that have never occurred to you before. It’s renewing in the sense that you are not so different from them after all. We say that money, living situation, and job stability are what separates us, but take all that away and we are left with our thoughts, words, and emotions. You can connect with anyone you meet if you think that you are no better than them. We are all one, we are all united, we are all capable of loving one another.”