Nicaraguan Reflections – Three (final chapter) David R. Weiss, February 2, 2015 Sunday morning we took a taxi over to Will’s parents’ home, about a mile south of where Meredith and Will live. It’s a neighborhood of brightly painted row houses, each with corrugated steel roofs, flow-through “air-conditioning,” and open-to-the-sky patio out back. The ground between these rows of homes has aspirations of being a street, and it seemed to convince the taxi, though I had my doubts as we bumped—that is, BUMPED—along to a stop. It’s a simple but very clean home. One large room, maybe 35’ x 15’, used to be the entire home, sub-divided into sleeping areas as needed by plywood and curtains. They’ve since added on a bedroom shared by Karla (Will’s younger sister), her husband, and their three boys (you heard right, that’s one bedroom). The only sub-division still in place off the main room is where Estela, Will’s mom sleeps. Then there’s a small bathroom at one end, and a kitchen, which used to be simply an open-air over-hang but has since been closed in. It features a small refrigerator, stove, and washing machine. The kitchen opens into a small cement patio with its own overhang where the two-bay sink is and chairs for lounging. Beyond the patio is a small (30’ x 20’) dirt yard with a zig-zag of clothes lines and a pair of trees—one of which is a large lime tree. The backyard is closed in by cinder block wall rising six feet on all three sides beyond the house. It opens upward, however, all the way to the sun, moon, and stars. We brought some gifts for Will’s mother & sister. A made-in-Minnesota spoon rest and dishtowel, and two bars of pine-scented soap, homemade by a friend. This is not a culture or a family with much need for loose stuff, so we tried to find gifts with a Minnesota twist that would be at once useful and sentimental. For the boys (ages 4, 7, 11) we brought some Minnesota-made chocolate bars (entrusted to Karla for distribution), three Minnesota-themed crazy-straw drinking cups (immediately put into use), and a Frisbee and small Spirograph set. Both toys were big hits and displayed how easily language can be surpassed in hands-on playful activity as we showed them how to throw the Frisbee and how to use the Spirograph. At the same time, spending the afternoon with Will’s mother brought home how much language can be a barrier when you each know whole worlds … through other words. I’m sure it was exhausting for Meredith, the only bilingual person among us, to hear-translate-listen-repeat—all afternoon. We made largely futile attempts to use hand gestures and simple words to made connections. But even there we mostly failed and I, quite honestly, felt rude to be so unable to communicate. Granted, back in college I used to be casually conversant in German and quite fluent in New Testament Greek. In graduate school I studied enough to pass reading-competency exams in both Latin and French. But the one language that would most benefit my own family remains utterly unfamiliar to me. This will change, but by now I wish it had changed before this trip. I owed the people of Nicaragua—but especially Will’s mother—more than I was able to offer. These are our children and John is our shared grandchild, and we could barely broker more than smiles and nods on our own. We managed to share some good stories of our lives, but only thanks to Meredith’s longsuffering role as intermediary. Will’s mother is 58. She and her husband share five children and a home, but he often works in Costa Rica. Having lived through some long years of estrangement, their marriage seems to work best with a bit of distance built into it. Estela worked for many years at a bakery, most of them pre-union, meaning her work week consisted of six 12-13 hour days. Now on disability (due to a bad back) and a partial pension, she is retired and a fulltime grandma. It’s clear that she is happy when Will and Meredith come around. And she was clearly very glad to meet us. I think she already aches for Will’s departure (not knowing yet exactly when that will be) and for the miles that will be too many between her and Will and Meredith and John. Estela fixed an incredible vegetable soup for us—a soup served traditionally for Easter. A tomato-based broth over BIG piece of green plantain (very firm still), ripe plantain (ready to fall apart), yucca (like a baked potato), squash (like large zucchini), and cheesy dumplings (like fried heaven). It was delicious. And so we spent a full four hours trading gifts, playing with kids, visiting with Estela and Karla, and feasting in the home of our newly met family. It could not have been a better day. I had been “instructed” that it would be “nice” to bring along a pair of nicer pants and a nicer shirt to wear for this meeting—first impressions and all. So in the Nicaraguan heat I wore long pants and a button up shirt. I looked sharp (if I might say so). And I’m not complaining, but it is only fair to observe that this was the only day I saw Will in shorts. I guess it wasn’t “first impression” day for him. Then we rode the bus of death home. This is Will’s nickname for these full size school buses converted into street legal thrill rides. The driver stops only long enough for the last foot boarding to leave the pavement, at which point he accelerates as though his life depended on it—and you become keenly aware that your life depends on his. There were a few moments of heart-stopping turns and merges, but since it was Sunday the traffic was a bit lighter and our driver was perhaps a God-fearing man, the ride did not quite live up to its nickname. We arrived back at Will and Meredith’s a few minutes later still in five pieces—exactly as many as when we boarded. After collecting our beach things from the bed and breakfast, we called a taxi to take us to the beach, about thirty minutes away. We spent Sunday afternoon lounging on the Pacific coast. Strolling along the sandy shore collecting seashells for the grandkids. Resting under the shade of the thatch-roofed huts. Chatting with each other about Will’s family now that we had faces to match with names. Following John around with our eyes and feet. Enjoying the afternoon on into twilight and then savoring the sunset. I hear tell that a couple hundred million folks were tuned in to the Super Bowl on Sunday. We completely missed it—then again, we didn’t miss it at all. We made it back to Meredith and Will’s by 7:30 and once John was settled into bed the four of us shared a last lingering conversation. Meredith again translated back and forth between us and Will, although this evening it was as much an emotional as intellectual feat. We shared our highs of these too short days, voiced gratitude for hospitality, and talked about future hopes. I think all four of us came close to (or slipped over into) tears at some point, but all the words had to cross Meredith’s lips, so she really carried everyone’s feelings which I imagine must have been a bit much. Late Sunday night, back at the bed and breakfast, we each “enjoyed” our last cool water shower. I had come almost to appreciate them; Margaret not so much. And we packed our things, squeezing both souvenirs and memories into between the clothing and toiletries we’d brought with us. Monday morning, along with Meredith and John, we toured the roof of the cathedral in León. It’s a fairly ancient building with an interior that is hardly a match for the St. Paul cathedral but is majestic by any measure here: the height of the ceiling, the yawning arches, and the multiple altars, statues, and paintings. The exterior is all an apologetic white, that is, streaked by dirt and dotted by mold. But NOT the rooftop. You pay a small admission fee and climb a series of narrow stairways to reach it, but when you step onto the roof you are greeted—no, slapped—by brilliant white as blinding as a fresh Minnesota snowfall on a sunny day. Just freshly repainted (visitors must leave their shoes inside on the top landing and venture onto the roof in bare feet or stockings), this roof bears witness to the architect’s original vision that the cathedral, like the moon for the sun, be a pure reflection of God in the midst of the people. As you wander the domes on the roof you’re treated to panoramas of León and the surrounding countryside in all directions. Heading back to Meredith’s, we stopped by a French bakery for a sweet treat. Margaret and Meredith both enjoyed coffee. John got iced tea to put in his sippy cup, and I got iced mandarin juice. Meredith gave John bits of her flaky croissant, and a savored a buttery raisin roll that looked huge in the case but disappeared far too quickly as I ate. Going by the bed and breakfast on our way, we collected the rest of our luggage and walked it the two blocks over to Meredith and Will’s since the taxi would collect us right from their doorstep at five for the drive down to Managua. Meredith hoped to send a suitcase of things with us as well, which was just the afternoon challenge I needed. Determined to avoid paying for a third checked bag I repacked things so that Margaret’s suitcase was nested inside mine. Granted, this was possible only because I came down bearing diapers for John, food for us, and clothing for another American woman down here—but it was still an engineering feat of some magnitude, and I was pleased to accomplish it. By late afternoon Will was back from a daylong trip to Managua where he had battled bureaucratic red tape to finally get John’s Nicaraguan passport and a certified copy of Will’s own birth certificate. Both are needed for bridging their lives over to Minnesota but have been yielded only very begrudgingly by systems that are at least as hard to navigate as the physical journey itself. Nonetheless, on this day Will returned with both items in hand. With Will home and our luggage all set, we made our last meal together. Will prepared rice and beans. Meredith, Margaret, and I all contributed to the salad. It was good that we had talked at length the night before because this afternoon, with our departure now looming, the air was heavy with farewell even as the food was delicious. Afterwards we pre-“toasted” Meredith’s birthday (actually today) with a chocolate treat and sang happy birthday to her in Spanish. And then the taxi arrived. Not his fault, of course, but I don’t think any of us were ready for him to pull up and whisk us away. The hugs were fierce all around … except for John who was simply happy to hug and kiss. Meredith will probably be back in Minnesota with John in early March, but they don’t know yet whether Will can come with them then or if he will have to follow later—or how much later that might be. They still need to wrestle at least one more record from the red tape and have a visa interview for Will and then wait and wait and wait for final approval of his visa. So while four weeks seems such a short time, the days will fly by with an overabundance of both anxiety and anticipation. Having stepped so briefly, so deeply, so gratefully into their lives for these few days, our hugs held both their hearts and hopes in ours. We managed to say our good-byes balanced on the verge of tears—owing mostly to the readiness of the taxi to get underway. But as we drove off I could feel Margaret trembling next to me and I knew her cheeks were wet. We left León at dusk and reached Managua two hours later in the dark. Our one night of “luxury,” we stayed at a Best Western Inn immediately across the street from the airport. After settling in to our room we found our way across the rambling—and gorgeous—grounds (even in the darkness we could see foliage everywhere) to the restaurant alongside the pool. We ordered salads, fish (to share), and two glasses of red wine. We toasted to our travels—this trip and every other journey we’ve been blessed to share, including those we’re still imagining. The temperature was perfect. The food was fine. The water (3 glasses of it) was ice cold. Ahhhh. And the quiet conversation was all the dessert we needed.