Nicaraguan Reflections – One
David R. Weiss, January 31, 2015
Forty-eight hours in Nicaragua and my mind is a-swirl. I’m not sure what I expected, but not this. (That isn’t bad, maybe not even surprising; it just means this experience is so much more than a little visit to see Meredith [Margaret’s youngest daughter] and Will and baby John.) Rather than try to sort everything out, let me just try to capture some of it.
This is the challenge I face when I travel: I feel and observe everything so deeply that it threatens to overwhelm me. If I don’t process it, I just lose it. So somehow when I travel I need to fight the temptation to just go, go, go because that leaves me no time to write. And, for me, writing is the stitching that keeps me from fraying at the edges.
Nicaragua is noise—everywhere. Horns honking and motors revving mostly, but also the occasional dog bark and bird screech, the shouted salutations and curses between drivers, and the animated exchanges with street vendors. The streets are narrow and almost every building touches the one next to it. So once the noise starts it just bounces down the street and into every open doorway.
And most doorways are open. The air is warm, not quite heavy right now, but these buildings breathe with life and the noisy breeze from the street flows as often as not into a house with other openings to the sky.
Those narrow streets are mostly one way (at least here in León), which is good because the assortment of vehicles and pedestrians jockeying for position is more than enough to overwhelm you without adding in two-way traffic. In the city you have small trucks, cars, motorbikes, motorcycles, bicycles, and bicycle-taxis (a sort of reverse tricycle with the driver providing pedal power from the rear and up to three persons squeezed onto a bench sitting up front)—and pedestrians … all negotiating their movements with the occasional “suggestion” of stop signs and the very infrequent stoplight. Somehow it all manages to be choreographed in a manner that appears to be frenzied but very rarely results in an accident.
There are plenty of full-size shops, but it seems like many homes double as mini-marts as well. It is, as I observed to Margaret, a bit like rural subsistence agriculture turned into urban subsistence industry-retail-trade shops. Everybody is scrambling just to get by, and everybody scrambles in their own unique way, and often out of their own front door.
But “scrambling” isn’t quite right. Everybody is busy … but in a leisurely sort of way. I mean by that, this is their daily life. The ebb and flow of their existence. The waxing and waning of their days. And I suppose there are those determined to get ahead. But the city here exudes a sense of knowing the meaning of enough. You scramble, but not so much (as it seems to me that we do up north) in pursuit of some mirage of “success” or having “made it.” You scramble because daily life IS scrambling, but then it is also leisure, also celebration, also simply breathing. The heat, which is hardly overbearing (at least not in this season) is still sufficient to whisper, “Take it easy.”
Meredith’s life is marked by almost unimaginable simplicity. She and Will (and baby John) share a street front office now largely converted into an apartment with another young couple—also an American woman married to a Nicaraguan man.
You enter through a narrow (2 foot wide?) iron gate that sits on a sidewalk at most two-and-a-half feet wide and then immediately there is the street with traffic whizzing by. You move through a small airy entryway into the “great room” (35’x20’?): a large tile-floor room with a pair of fluorescent lights overhead at either end. This used to be (and still does occasionally serve as) meeting space for a nonprofit serving people with mental illness. There’s a second little area off to the side and then a seldom-used office. Those living in the apartment don’t technically have use of any of these rooms for living space, but they are mostly unused and so easily becomes—as today—overflow living area if people want to spread out.)
Beyond this, another floor-to-ceiling iron grate (12’ wide, 9’ tall) marks the entrance to the apartment proper. Step through the gate into this area and you are in the long living-room/patio, which is open air—concrete floor, cement block wall separating it from the neighbors, and covered by a corrugated steel overhang with downspouts that run rainwater right into concrete canals that make a boundary between the living-room/patio and the concrete “hallway” that runs to the back of the apartment with doorways off into each room along the way. The canals, no doubt become rushing rivers during a hard rain.
The living-room/patio area is multi-purpose space to the max. Right now José is washing down his motorcycle letting the water run off and into the canal. Immediately next to his bucket and dripping bike is the dining room table with its assortment of wooden chairs. Beyond this is a bit of open area (10’ x 10’) regularly used by John for play space. And past this is the zig-zag of clotheslines allowing clothes to be breeze dried while they hang in the afternoon sun. There is a gap ranging from two to six feet between the top of the walls and the start of the overhang, so both breeze and sun live inside with you.
Behind the clothesline is a table covered with assorted pieces of household items that have been used (or are destined for use) to repair other household items. And past that is the laundry-room portion of the living-room/patio. That consists of a couple large metal bays, a shared faucet, and a third bay set up with a metal washboard. It is hardly glamorous, but it has kept all the clothes clean and the colors close to vibrant. I would wager that the visible labor awaiting each item insures that you don’t call clothes “dirty” lightly.
Going back and beginning again at the interior gate, as you enter the apartment and find the living-room/patio to your left, the first room to the right is a small kitchen with cupboards, countertop, and a simple well-worn two bay sink. There are both hot and cold handles to the faucets, but this is merely Nicaraguan irony because there is only one temperature to the water: cool.
The kitchen also features a refrigerator maybe twice the size of a dorm fridge and a compact stove-top (maybe 18” square) with an oven that Meredith has never tried to light. And an odd assortment of dishes, silverware, and implements that would look right at home in the “$5 takes everything” box at a garage sale. Plus a “set” (probably the biggest overstatement I’ve made thus far) of pots and pans whose primary purpose is to entertain John, but which seem to double fine for cooking.
Walk past the kitchen and the first room to the right is a large bathroom used by Sheila and Jose. Besides a toilet, it offers a urinal and a large (8’ x 8’) tiled space to shower. It is probably larger than their bedroom, which is the next room. This room is highlighted by a double bed, a dresser, and room enough to turn around so long as you synchronize your movements.
Beyond these rooms (now opposite the laundry area) is Will & Meredith’s bathroom. It is rather small, just a toilet and a fairly standard shower stall. Neither bathroom has a sink. But you don’t get to use that as an excuse not to wash up after doing your business because there is a hand sink piped right off the laundry sink. No excuses: cleanliness next to godliness. (And when you see the number and the beauty of the Catholic churches that saturate the city you know that godliness is abundant here … so I’m betting the sink is well-used.)
Finally, at the far back of the apartment, now curving like an ell to the left so that it sits behind the laundry area is Will and Meredith’s room. It is even larger than Sheila and Jose’s bathroom, which is good because John’s crib is in here, too.
The whole place has everything you need—and virtually nothing you don’t. (I suppose the wi-fi is not absolutely necessary, but that’s about the only thing that passes for “luxury.”) There is plenty of space (although when, as now, Sheila and Jose have an overnight guest sleeping in a hammock strung out alongside the “great room,” and Will and Meredith have me and Margaret around as daytime and dinner guests, the space fills up with activity quickly.
Here is what strikes me most—and most of all because of Meredith: this is life reduced to life. It is the rhythm of mothering and fathering, working, being married, fixing food, going to the market almost every day or two (thanks to the size of the kitchen and the fridge—and the freshness and nearness of food in the markets) and walking down to city square with many other people almost every single night.
It is not about stuff. Not about entertainment (except as we entertain ourselves and John). Not about being fancy. Not even about being busy. It is about living. And about allowing the rhythm of your life to reflect what is needed … and very little more. It is about being content (at least mostly) when you have what you need, and letting that count (at least mostly) for what you want. It is about the mundane wisdom of seeking simply enough.
And Meredith. She drives this whole simplicity thing home because she grew up with a taste for stuff. I don’t mean this meanly! Just to recognize that she had plenty of “All-American” consumerism in her as a teenager. No more, but also no less than most of us, her life has been groomed to consume. And here in Nicaragua she has learned the wisdom of enough (and not least from Will). You see it in the way she moves through a life so other than the one she grew up imagining for herself, but a life which—for this present moment she so utterly embraces. She is at home here. And that realization says something powerful to me because it bears witness to the potential for simplicity in anyone’s life, not least mine.
Finally, Will. For Will, coming from a home with next to nothing, simplicity is not so much the challenge and the “refinement” of poverty into a life lived with great intention. I suppose I might rather say that in his case the path has been from poverty and want (this is real want; not want as “desire,” but want as the hunger felt by an empty belly) to simplicity. To choices framed by still meager means, but made with a focus on family and love. I don’t speak more than a phrase of two of Spanish, and he not more than a phrase of two of English, but in the way he scoops up Will at the end of the day, or the manner in which he carries and cuddles him in his arms, I hear the love of a father loud and clear. And when we do talk, through Meredith’s translation services, the thoughtfulness of his words comes through loud and clear. An auto-body/auto-paint specialist by experience, with perhaps a 7th or 8th grade education at most, he is a philosopher at heart, speaking with eloquence about the principles that guide his life.
Oh, finally, finally, John. Cresting fourteen months, John is the embodiment of curiosity and glee. Literally. His body totters from pot to pan to climbing the iron grate to petting the ants crawling on the floor to collecting the dry leaves that decorate the living room. He has not yet learned boredom, because no one has told him that life itself, from every inch of his home to every bit of tile, step, hole on the sidewalk outside is not supposed to be the font of endless fascination for him. Wise child. And glee. Meredith says, again and again, “He is such a handsome child, don’t you think?” And she is not exactly being vain, because it is quite true. But more than this, what strikes me about him is that without even realizing it, he knows he has enough—from love of parents to simple but sufficient food to playthings borrowed mostly from the house and the world—enough not simply to be satisfied, but enough to giggle, to twinkle his eyes at, to broaden his smile, to full-throated grace with laughter. Handsome, sure. But curiosity and glee measure the health of this child, and by those measures he is as healthy as can be.
* * *