I’m fairly pleased with the fortuitous serendipity of today. It’s Family Day in Canada (well, parts of it at least. Looking at you, Manitoba…) and I could think of no other story to tell. This is a piece I offered to write for “bird. magazine” after they offered a very generous donation toward my charitable expedition. Unfortunately, 5000 words was slightly above their word limit, so I did an edited version which appears in the Winter 2017 edition of the magazine under the title “Home”.
Best week ever. Not just an MTV show from the mid-00’s. Not just some hyperbolic exclamation made while drunk on Spring Break. But a real thing I’ve experienced – a thing I said and that I meant. The exact moment I am writing this comes at the end of a hard week of work. Real work. Work I am unaccustomed too. Here I am, a bottle of red wine in hand, sitting in front of a lake situated in the 6 km wide caldera of a volcano that has been extinct for the last 25, 000 years. A gentle breeze massages the water against the rocks on the beach and gravity tugs it back. The white noise of bright blue water is comforting to most, myself included, but being situated in paradise has nothing to do with my best week ever. Not in the slightest.
My best week ever started quite auspiciously a week and a day ago when my flight out of Toronto was delayed nearly four hours. I missed a connection in Houston to get to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. I suppose if we really wanted to get to the seed of this journey, we would have to go back to the autumn of 2014 – but I will get to that a bit later. For this particular week, it starts with flight troubles and scrambled attempts at emailing my travel compatriots with whatever free WiFi I could find. Thankfully, I was able to get a message through and one of the volunteers did not have to sit at the airport waiting for a passenger that would never arrive. That same volunteer was there at noon the next day though, ready to whisk me away into the mountains, to the coffee growing region of Jinotega, my home for the next five days.
Home. That’s an interesting concept, isn’t it? It’s where the heart is, some have said. Others consider it a place for your stuff. Most would agree it is where you were born, where your roots are. With an all new appreciation for the term, I think home is anywhere you want it to be, for whatever reason you wish to define it by. I call the eco-farm we stayed at home because it is a place that a group of acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers met on a Friday and a family left on a Wednesday. But that’s what happens when you take a trip with Bridges to Community Canada.
We had a generous host who played mother, Benita, who fed us and housed us and provided plenty of clean water (hot water too, something past travellers made sure we understood was not always the case). We had siblings to look out for us, Jairo and Rose, our community liaisons. We had a wonderful staff of cooks from the community, our aunts for the week, who kept us well-fed with generous amounts of Nica staples. Led by a gentle and delightful soul, Donya Brenda, we were never without.
Food is another interesting concept in this context. I had mentioned to Erin* that I would bring back some recipes for this magazine, as it is about hospitality and the service industry after all [*Editor of “bird.” which, yes, is a hospitality focused publication]. What I can report back is only simplicity. We were in a very poor village in the mountains, so we tended to eat what the locals ate. There were no chains or restaurants for many, many miles. The closest thing to a treat for the people here is if they can manage to afford a packet of plantain crisps from one of the many small stores – Pulperia’s are so common in these villages, they put Starbucks to shame. This is because people are doing anything they can to make extra money, but also so they can help provide for their neighbours. Our big city money meant we could eat well and in large quantities, which was important given the scope of the work we were embarking on, but we wanted to keep it as authentic as we could. What this boils down to is the best ‘Farm-to-Table’ experience anyone could imagine. I mean, we were literally staying on a farm, so nearly everything we ate come from Benita’s land: cabbage, plantains, and other vegetables from the fields, eggs from her chickens, and fresh cheese made from that mornings milked cows. Mornings consisted of light fare, usually fresh tropical fruit salad, rotating egg dishes, freshly rolled corn tortillas, and the Nica staple, gallo pinto.
Unlike the northern Central American countries (Mexico, Guatemala, etc), Nicaragua doesn’t really revere the tortilla. For the very poor, corn is a crop that is easy to grow and cultivate, so tortillas are a necessity. But for everyone, regardless of status, the one thing that appears on every plate is rice and beans – gallo pinto (literally, ‘speckled rooster’). Of the people I asked, this was almost always the answer to “what is the national dish?” During an exercise one evening, we were provided with a government document laying out what the average Nicaraguan needs every month and rice was the first item, at 38 lbs, with the quantity of beans not too far behind. While the mountains aren’t ideal for cultivating rice fields, almost every family we saw with a garden was growing their own beans – a cheap source of protein for long days in the fields.
January in these parts means coffee harvest, so the community was often a ghost town during the day as every able bodied person, regardless of age or gender, was out hand picking fruit – one cherry at a time, from sunrise to sunset, happy to be making 2 or 3 dollars for the whole day’s work. Eight hours at an air-conditioned desk doesn’t sound so bad now, does it? Their work day, while gruelling, does have one appealing facet to me – a two hour lunch. While breakfasts are generally light, the lunches are heavy, replenishing energy from the morning and providing energy for the rest of the day. Salads and slaws, cabbage is plentiful; fried plantains, another easy to cultivate and abundant starch; rice and beans, of course; and for the lucky ones, meat as well. Chicken is quite popular, as they roam the countryside freely. Cattle is one of the chief agricultural exports here, but most people in the mountains use them for dairy, leading to another Nica staple: tostada con queso, a fried plantain patty with a piece of grilled or fried cheese (a hard cheese, not too dissimilar from haloumi).
After a hearty meal, it’s often a chance to enjoy a brief siesta, a stereotype I came to fully embrace by week’s end. Up early to work during the cool morning hours, a quick nap during the hottest part of the day was much appreciated before heading back out to work during the cooler evenings. Dinners, like breakfast, were generally lighter and commonly vegetarian. One of the highlights of our dinners was a Nica twist on everyone’s favourite “yes I know it costs two dollars extra” treat: guacamole. Guac here is more of an avocado salad, with large cubes of avocado mixed with finely diced white onion, mild green chili, and hard-boiled egg. Yes, egg. Protein where you can get it, I suppose. Also, limes aren’t as common in the mountains so the citrus component would either be lemon or sour orange (literally an unripe orange), which gave it a bit less sweetness. It was definitely a fun twist on such a well-known snack. Dessert is fairly uncommon and would generally be more fresh fruit. One treat people may afford themselves is a visit to the Eskimo Man (eh-SKEE-mo) for ice cream; however, he never brought his cart around to our work sites as it was winter and too cold for it (15 Celsius isn’t ice cream weather in Nicaragua).
The work site, what an unparalleled experience. Though my thorough reporting may seem otherwise, I was not here on a culinary adventure; I was here to work. And work we did. Shortly after I arrived Friday afternoon, we went to visit the two recipient families of the houses were about to build. This was the reason a group of strangers came together and flew to a remote mountain village in a little-discussed country – to improve the lives of some families who need it. When we met the recipient of the house I would be working on, no preparation or imagination could have helped me to come up with this story. Truth is always stranger than fiction. Beatriz, 47, a single mother of three, has been living in a house she built 35 years ago. Now, “house” is being generous – an assortment of wood panels nailed together, barely, and some rusted corrugated sheet metal as a roof. The windows and skylights would have been a nice touch, had they been there by design and not because she didn’t have enough material to fully finish the walls. Inside she had one light bulb with no cover and one electric outlet to which she had plugged in her two electronics – a dented, rusted fridge that could possibly have been the first fridge ever, and a radio, the one source of escapism for her and her daughter. As we silently passed from room to room, jaws dragging along the lumpy dirt floor, our eyes said to each other everything that could be said.
Her two boys work hard in the fields to provide for the four of them, she told us, because she cannot work. She stays home with her daughter, Irma, 24, who was born with leukemia and, while she managed to greatly improve her health, later suffered a massive brain injury. Irma now requires 24-hour care. Beatriz led us through her three rooms, pointing out the kitchen – a grinder for corn, an open fire pit, a dirty cutting board, and a dull knife; her boys’ bedroom – mattress on the ground, firewood stacked against the walls, a few pieces of clothing, and some objects they thought important enough to shelter from the elements; and finally her and Irma’s bedroom – another mattress on the ground, a dirty blanket, more firewood, and the radio, which Irma was listening to intently. The entire place smelled of stale smoke and the boards in the kitchen were blackened by soot. While in her room, she remained stoic, proud of what she and her sons had built, but looking upon Irma, her eyes glassed over. “I thank God that He has blessed me with your presence,” spoke our translator, trying not to well-up herself, “and that you are giving my children a new home, a place where my daughter can sleep dry and protected from the wind.” She sat on the bed and embraced her daughter. The mattress was situated in the corner of the room with the most roof covering and least gaps between the boards. Irma squealed with delight when her mother held her.
Sullenly, we all thanked her for sharing her story and for inviting us into her home. We floated out of the shell of the structure like ghosts: pale and hollow. I turned to Paul Bauman, a friend from Hamilton and son of Rick, our group’s organizer, and said “nothing can prepare you for that,” unsure if I actually spoke the words aloud. “When I go camping, my set up is more sound than that,” he noted, “and I get mad if my tent leaks for a night. I can’t imagine what that would be like for 35 years.” I couldn’t imagine it either. To think, so many people in the world endure this type of water torture every night of their life because it is the best option available. It’s unsettling. It erodes the foundation of your reality. Suddenly the walls of my apartment feel much larger and have a value I never knew they had.
In November of 2014 I spent a month backpacking from Antigua, Guatemala down to Panama City. In the middle I met up with Paul and Rick, his wife Sadie, and another friend from home, Bonnie Hamilton. I joined them on a trip into Jinotega and it affected me then too, but not like this trip. I saw poor families. I worked on a home for a grandmother and her six grandchildren. It was moving, but I was spiritually and mentally distracted. I was there for a vacation and it happened to line up with this trip into the hills, so I put my holiday on pause to lend a hand. I was able to take enough away from it to want to do it again, but those 5 minutes in Beatriz’ house had shattered me in a way I’ve never experienced before. I have endured loss, as many of us have, but you need to have something in order to lose it. Beatriz has nothing but her three children and some pieces of wood. She grows what she can and her boys work in the fields. And all the while, she stood there speaking gracefully, with love in her voice, with poise and gratitude. We were watching selflessness be defined. Everything was about and for her children. That night, laying in bed, I had a Grinchian transformation as my heart grew three sizes and my brain told my muscles they did too.
5:30 AM, Saturday morning. Nature decided it was time for us to wake up. Living on a farm definitely has its advantages and drawbacks. One such drawback is that you are at the mercy of the melody and rhythm that floats between the various denizens of the farm. The conductor of this choir is the Sun, and the first soloists are the roosters, announcing in fanfare that morning approaches. Next to join are the cattle, as the bulls wake the cows and calves and they make their slow decent from the highlands, ambling toward the grazing plains. Then come Benita’s dogs, Fiona and Loki, as they bay their hybrid wolf-hound call toward what remains of the moonlight. By now the cooks have arrived and our orchestra has a rhythm section, as the percussive heartbeat of “thud-thud-pause, thud-thud-pause” signals that the tortillas are being rolled for breakfast. Finally the kittens, mewing at the kitchen door, looking for scraps or hopefully, some of the fresh milk brought in by the farmhand, still warm from the udder. I wouldn’t be surprised if Maurice Ravel lived on a farm.
Some of us were prepared with ear plugs, some of us were sound sleepers and some of us were up before 6 every morning (which is where I fell – and now the affinity for siestas makes more sense). The first day started with meeting the masons. These are the guys who deal the real work while we act as the muscle. They lay the bricks that we carry to them. They spread the mortar we mix by hand. Each site was equipped with three masons and each day saw another 8-10 volunteers from the community coming by to help. This is not only because the community is there to support one another, but because many people know how to do this type of work. At one point, we called it a ‘post-apocalyptic paradise’ because if some world-changing catastrophe struck North America, life would continue on here as if nothing happened. If a house needed to be built, it would get built. Cement-mixer? Shovels and muscles. Fine, pre-sifted sand? Chicken wire and the silt from a nearby creek. Laser level? String and nails. Jackhammer? A pick-ax and overactive imagination. Scaffold? Wood boards and a spotter. Brawn and ingenuity are the foundations of buildings here. Lucky for us, the actual foundations were laid the night before we arrived.
After introductions, the morning of day one has three major components – cement, cinder blocks, and steel. The first task is to Henry Ford a stack of 250 cinder blocks from one pile far away, to a pile inside the house. Next, we divide in two teams – one sifts sand and mixes cement by hand, the other, bending steel rebar which will be used as skeletal reinforcement. This continues through the entire day until suppertime, by which point we’ve built half a house. No, I’m serious. The bottom half is built and a rebar reinforcement is placed on top and filled in with cement. It has to dry overnight, so day one is done. They’ve got it down to a science. Day two is the same as day one, but it is the top half of the house we build. Day three is a half-day for us, as the morning consists of prepping the tiles for the floor, painting the steel beams that the roof will rest on and mixing more concrete for the roof trusses. At this point, we are gifted with the one luxury of the build: a professional welder. He spends the rest of day three getting the roof together and secured, while we go off to do some community development (also known as playing with local kids at their school).
The more I write, the more I feel this is becoming a story of asides. But for you to grasp the scope of this picture, you need to stare at the canvas, but also know a bit about the artist. School – a controversial topic here. The people understand its importance for the most part, but they also understand the importance of extra hands in the fields – for extra money in the pockets and for extra food on the table. A household income of $160 USD per month for a family of 8 isn’t unheard of here. Every little bit helps. So attendance may suffer (I learned on this trip that the schools have extended holidays in January because so many children work the coffee fields). However, 4 years ago, the first completed Bridges project was an addition to the community schoolhouse and, much to our astonishment, we were asked if we could help build another one. Since providing the new classrooms, enrollment is at an all-time high. The community has even built a new washroom facility to help with the rise in attendance, and while the volunteers were kicking around the futbol and playing on the see-saws, our management team was meeting with the community leaders about what can be done in the coming months.
Day four is our final work day and it is also a half-day. Hard to believe, but true. With the major work completed, the small things left would just have us be in the way and is best left to the professionals. This day is still quite gruelling as it is almost entirely sifting sand and mixing cement. Inside, they need grout to level the floors and lay the tile. Outside they need a thinner cement to apply as stucco, which helps seal the house from weather. Stucco may be the most underrated aspect of these houses. Driving through the community to the work site, 20 minutes each way, we saw plenty of cinder block homes. Without offence, I admit they look pretty drab. The one overlooked aspect of stucco is not the barrier to the elements, but that it can be painted. And paint equals pride. With a big, toothy grin at the dedication ceremony, Beatriz proclaimed, “celeste y café!” (aquamarine and dark brown). She beamed. And this is how day four ends: dedication ceremonies to officially give the houses to their new owners. We started at the other site, where Ana, a mother of three children under 12, and her husband effusively praised the people who worked there, while her two daughters, Dania, 12, and Natalia, 10, clung to the women of our group – strong bonds forged in four short days. The family spoke, then the masons, and finally our group. Then we all pilled into two pick-ups and went the two minutes up the road to Beatriz’s. Ana and her family came along too, excited for their neighbour.
This dedication was the same for the most part, with Beatriz and her eldest son speaking first, followed by each of the masons. Things started shifting here as emotions began to consume everyone. While the masons were quite reserved for the majority of the week, here the words flowed like water from a broken faucet and they spouted out beautiful soliloquies about our team. The mason I was assigned to, Felipe, talked about me for probably two straight minutes. I don’t want this to seem too much like a brag, but I think he actually said less than twenty words to me all week (all in Spanish), so this was a poignant moment for me, regardless of how much I understood. Even though it looked like it was going to rain, the pride-fueled smile on my face fought away the clouds, if only for a few minutes. And yet another curveball as before our team had a chance to speak, a random old man piped up. He had volunteered for the last two days and no one really knew who he was. He introduced himself as Santana and spoke directly to the white people with our interpreter’s help: “I do not know who you are, but what you’ve been doing has been so life changing, I felt I had to come help.” Slowly but surely, the sniffles started. Next, two young men stepped forward, the older of the two speaking through our interpreter: “I speak for my younger brother when I say thank you for coming to El Mojon and providing families in need with beautiful houses they can call homes for the rest of their lives. We were recipients of a Bridges home a few years ago and when we saw you were working nearby we felt we had to come help. Thanks to you, we have both been able to attend school more regularly and better ourselves. Thank you.” By this point, most people around the group had wet cheeks and no one could blame the rain.
Finally, it came time for the volunteers to speak. Based on the 3800 preceding words, I’m sure you can guess what happened. Slowly, all the eyes in our group came to me. I didn’t know I could read minds, but I could clearly hear what they were all thinking: ‘you’ve been writing all week, clearly you know how to use words,’ and ‘Jairo made sure everyone at the work site only spoke to you in Spanish, so it’s all on your shoulders now.’ I’m pretty sure they also were saying ‘I’ll cry if I have to speak.’ So I took a deep breath and collected myself. Thankfully I had anticipated this exact scenario and had brutally translated some thoughts in my head (also thankfully, focusing on speaking properly helped me to not erupt in joyful tears). Looking around the group I started, “Premierieo,” which, was definitely spoken incorrectly and got a chuckle from everyone. So the ice was broken. I cleared my throat and laughed at myself, “Disculpe. Premiero, mi espagnol no es bueno. Estoy feliz para trabajando (directed to the masons and volunteers). Estoy feliz para usted Beatriz, su casa es seco y calor. Pero, estoy muy feliz para Irma. Este es todo para ella.”
My brother was born with cerebral palsy, has limited communicative abilities, and has been confined to a wheelchair since birth. The doctors gave him a year, then two. One was even bold enough to give him 8-10. In April he turns 37. So knowing what this meant to Beatriz and her children, particularly Irma, struck quite close to home.
Something she will have for the first time in her entire life.
The morning of day four I had awoken before the roosters. I couldn’t sleep. I got up and sat in a rocking chair in the terrace where we ate. It was raining. I had written the night before, summarizing the events of the day, but also waxing poetic about the rain as it ‘tap-danced upon the tin roof.’ I hadn’t realized then, the seed that I planted in the back of my mind, only to see it fully bloomed by morning. As I watched the sunrise fight through the clouds, split between the emerald hills, listening to the symphony surrounding me, I grabbed my pen and started writing:
This really was the best week. Ever.