Managua, Nicaragua, August, 2004
After stripping, I stepped into the small shower stall. Wow, was I looking forward to the cool, even shocking, splash of cold water over a hot, sweaty body.
I had been traveling all day. Into the tropics, to Managua, Nicaragua. The temperature was 91 degrees when we touched down at Sandino International Airport’s only runway.
Now it was evening. After dinner with Dominican friars and a long talk in a hot conference room, I was finally getting to my shower.
I needed it. I was in a Catholic retreat, a place for individuals desiring quiet and simplicity to practice spiritual exercises, to pray, to meditate.
I didn’t expect an air conditioner. A retreat is kind of like a monastery. Air conditioning? In a monastery? In the Third World? Forget it.
Hmmmmm, maybe a fan? Nope. So, a splashing, breath-sucking-in cold shower (no hot water either; who needs hot water in the tropics?) was absolutely necessary to wash off the grime of the trip and cool down. Then jump onto the top bunk and lay absolutely still, praying for a breeze. One learns to pray in the Third World for practical concerns.
I turned the valve. Nothing. Nothing? No water? This can’t be. I tried the sink. No water. I flushed the toilet once. No water. I thanked God for keeping my personal plumbing in shape. Again, travel in the Third World focuses prayer quite specifically.
Hot, grimy, disappointed (at least I still had lights; they didn’t go out until the next night), I climbed into the bunk, and lay dead. Sometime after midnight, after the night birds quieted down and all I could hear was the thumping loud speaker in the far distance thudding away in some Latino rap, the breeze slowly crept through the louvered window into my room.
I finally dropped off into a fitful sleep, my first night back in the tropics.
The next day a group of Dominican priests and friars, nuns in their starched, bleached iridescently white habits, and a few lay people like me climbed aboard our Bluebird school bus and bumped and sped out of Managua. We were all there for a weeklong conference celebrating the life of a fellow Dominican, Bartholomew de las Casas (1485-1566), protector of American Indians. The love and devotion of this group for each other, and towards Las Casas, sustained and lifted me up for a week.
The Third World setting, on the other hand, reminded me of the privilege of my life in America. And I wondered again, why am here?
The answers slowly came into focus over the next five days after the first sweltering night on my hot bunk.
For five days, I Bluebirded, walked, ate, and sat with people whose bottom line is love, justice, charity, peace, compassion, and mercy. For a Christian, this is liberating, no matter how hot the nights.
So, part of this trip was no doubt a bit of God’s grace in my life. On the big Continental jets on the way in and out I met groups of Christians from all over America on their way to build churches, repair orphanages and to devote themselves to doing good. They were Protestants. My Dominican hosts are Catholic. The signposts of Christians however are not found in labels, but actions.
We tend to think of love and remembrance as fleeting emotions, the second lasting only slightly longer than the first. Nonetheless, I was reminded by a tender ceremony of the Dominican friars that we are one with all who came before us, and those who follow.
The Dominicans—priests and lay people—gathered in a small museum room with the tomb of the martyred third Bishop of Nicaragua, Antonio de Valdivieso. It was hot, the tropical sun clubbed us dumb with heat, flies and other tropical insects buzzed around, and it was not a place one wanted to hang around.
But they all crowded in, spilling out of the entrance, chanting and singing a short Salve Regina for their fallen brother Valdivieso, also a Dominican. He was murdered in 1551 by angry Conquistadors who resented Valdivieso’s devotion to protecting the Indians.
Valdivieso, murdered in passion, had been buried in haste, and had not received a proper farewell. Now, almost a half millennium later, his fellow brothers were doing so. It reminded me of the power of Jesus’ church here on earth, to convict all these men and women—ecclesiastics and lay people alike—and strike that spark of faith and remembrance on these hot ruins by Lake Nicaragua.
If my short trip into the Third World awoke once again elements of my life as a Christian, it also reminded me of the privileges we take for granted right here in Alabama.
How about television, radio, telephone, air conditioning, and fans for starters? All of which were missing from my home away from home for a few days. Add in power outages, occasional water breaks, and, for many, a simple struggle to survive in decency becomes paramount.
Lest I calumny Nicaragua, there are televisions, fans, air conditioners, and thousands, and tens of thousands, of cellular phones, stuck in every other ear in the citizens of its boisterous capital, Managua. Internet cafes instantly connect Nicas with the world and the kids listen to rap, drive wildly, and politicians are caught cheating and lying.
The differences between here and there is that somewhere between 40% and 80% (depending on what measures you apply) of the population lives in poverty. Seventy-five percent live on less than $2.00 a day. My witnessing came at many points, none perhaps more frustrating than a fleeting encounter in the city of León.
An obligatory stop at the Cathedral drew the usual swarm of children either begging for a simple hand-out, or selling chewing gum or candy from a hand-held tray. My heart was pierced my by a couple of girls, I would guess around my twelve-year old son’s age, just passing adolescence, not just little girls, and not fully teenagers yet, who beseeched us to buy something.
Their eyes followed us as we boarded the bus, and kept looking for someone to lean out a window and purchase something, give them a few coins that make the difference between success and failure. Thin and desperate, I thought, they were paradigms of poverty and want, so many of them, all across the world, have so little, when so few of us have so much.
After the first night of sweating on my bunk bed with no shower, no fan, I slowly slipped back into the rhythm of the Third World. I was Bluebirded around the countryside where cattle and dogs and people co-habited in equal measures of want. Flies, chickens, roosters, dirt, shacks, rattletraps of cars, motorcycles and other artifacts immediately recognizable as “poor” assaulted me. I almost choked on the fumes spewing from the tailpipes of busses and trucks the first ride through the city. I gasped for air, my mouth working like a fish out of water.
Yet the few privations seemed less and less outrageous as the week wore on. So what if the there was no t.v., phone, air conditioning, or fans? Some moments on the trip were worth the absence of those trappings of civilization we think as indispensable.
We had a presentation by a couple of notables in a little town adjoining the ruins of Old Leon, destroyed by an earthquake in 1610.
It was theater I could not have invented. Two of Nicaragua’s distinguished leaders of the cultural, historic national community sat at a very plain metal kitchen table, under a sheet metal awning covering the bricked over area outside of a small bar/restaurant, disquisitioning on the sixteenth century founding of the colony.
On the dirt streets crossing outside, barefoot toddlers ran by, kids on horseback trotted through on their chores, oxen pulling their carts lumbered along, dogs barked, a cow ambled up to the fence and mooed loudly in approval of the points being made by one of our distinguished speakers, a Coke delivery truck parked right next to us while the Coke fellows made their deliveries, competing with tales of the sixteenth century, largely for an audience that was asleep in the heat of the early afternoon, oblivious to the dogs, the kid on horseback, the oxen, the dogs, the Coke deliverymen, and the cow that seemed curious about the narrative. The cow, like all of us, soon tired of the presentations. But unlike us, tethered by custom and propriety to our hard, metal seats, the cow left, and wandered away, only to return, running, mooing loudly, with a dog nipping at its heels.
I really had taken a trip in time, not just place.
Did I really need to be feeling the instant pulse of the world? A Cuban colleague told me that a couple of hurricanes were stalking Cuba and Florida. Hmmmmm. Back home I follow the news on the Weather Channel with clinical efficiency. Down here, what kind of meat was buried in the stew served for lunch seemed at least equally as important.
So what if my cell phone lies dead in my briefcase? No one can reach me. I can’t reach anyone. I did sneak away from the good friars (jailers?) for a few hours and talked with my wife from an Internet Café. She’s ok. My family is ok. I really don’t want to hear of real or imagined disasters at work. Immediacy falls from my horizon.
In the conference we are speaking of justice and the righting of wrongs. The birds outside our open-air conference room call loudly to each other, occasionally flying through the room. No one misses a beat. We drift in and out of the sixteenth century. Salvation comes to the fore. Were the Spanish justified in enforced conversions to save the eternal souls of the Indians?
I listen closely, then the secretary roaming through the room slips me tomorrow’s van schedule to the airport. I leave the Retreat at 5 a.m. This too is important. I wonder if the water will be on at 4:00 a.m. to take my shower?
Group on the ruins of the altar of the Cathedral in Old Leon, destroyed by an earthquake in 1610.
Author in Granada, dressed for the tropics.