The rain is tap-dancing on the corrugated roof 10 feet above my head, and I’m getting tangled in my mosquito netting. It’s 3:30 a.m., and I really want to pee. But the toilet — yes, it flushes — is two buildings up the hill, and it’s muddy and my raincoat is in Matagalpa.
Now it’s 4:30 am and the rooster choir begins, with the soloist crowing outside my window and the backup chorus echoing down the road. It’s so dark I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed.
But I really have to pee, so I get up, put on my aircast boot, shoe and headlamp, and start up the path. My host appears out of nowhere, dressed and ready to help me up the hill.
That was partway through a 10-day visit to Nicaragua in February. It was organized through Matagalpa Tours for my church’s Transformational Travel team. Our goal is to learn from the Nicaraguans. We don’t go down there to paint schools that other groups have painted three months before, as happens too often. Instead, we stay with families on various rungs of the economic ladder. Most don’t have much, but none of us considered our host families “poor” in the American sense.
My first homestay was in a barrio in Managua. It was overrun with grandchildren when I arrived, all very curious and active. What joy! What noise! They didn’t all live there, and by dinnertime they had mostly cleared out.
Dinnertime, I found out, was not a sit-down family affair. The daughter spoke English quite well (she’d studied in Iowa), and she had to tell me three times that dinner was ready. I didn’t realize the whole family wouldn’t head for the dining table. It was one plate of food, just for me.
The family lived near a cultural center that offered adult education, vocational classes, music, dance, health care and other services and amusements. The walls were decorated with murals, including a large one behind the stage that pictured Nicaraguans and their allies in peace and revolution — including Che Guevara.
The rest of the group had a dance lesson, and we had a tour of the Batahola Center before being taken to meet our host families.
One surprise was a group of signs scattered throughout the complex with quotations from Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe, whose longhouse is in West Seattle not far from where I live.
Chief Seattle, or Sealth, is known for his words of wisdom on the environment … “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
The mother didn’t speak much English, but she could read some. I’d brought three books as hostess gifts, two small picture books of views of the Puget Sound area and one of those cardboard baby books called “Good Night Seattle.” I immediately knew this family would be the one for “Good Night Seattle.”
In the morning, the hostess was slowly reading through it. I think she understood everything until she got to “Good night, Seattle. Sleep tight.” She didn’t know what “sleep tight” meant, and we had a hard time explaining it!
After posing for pictures, the daughter walked me to the Batahola Center. As we stood out front, she told me “I love this neighborhood. I can go two blocks in any direction and know almost everybody. When I lived in the dorm in Iowa, I didn’t know anybody.”
The second family lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Matagalpa. The hostess worked hard to make sure my CPAP could be plugged in (Nicaragua electricity is just like ours, when it’s working). “Mi casa es su casa” (my house is your house) said a plaque on the bedroom wall.
The dog stood patiently outside the back door, large and quiet. This house was on a hill above a very steep street. The patio had a good view of the city of Matagalpa.
Again, dinner was without the family, although the hostess seemed to enjoy looking at the photo book I’d brought, showing my family (two cats, a brother, a sister, their spouses and kids) explained by Clarke Reid, who is fluent in Spanish. He and his sister Carolina, also fluent, also stayed at this house.
Here the living room furniture was fancier, the house had a nice yard with a concrete table and stools on the patio, and the kitchen was bright and modern, and that’s where we spent most of our waking hours.
Much simpler were the farmhouses in the coffee collective of La Corona in the mountains above Matagalpa. Most of the red-brick houses sat alongside a road of packed dirt. The farms were in the hills behind the houses. The town had a school and a clinic.
My host appeared to be something of the mayor of La Carona. His wife made school uniforms for the local children. Two sewing machines, one old, one new, both electric, stood in a corner of the living room. The television was in another, and a large table with a plastic cloth and plastic chairs stuck out from a wall. Another corner had a kitchen counter, refrigerator and water purifier. The cooking kitchen was out the door and up a short path, in a separate brick building.
That’s where we had lunch. Most was cooked on a concrete woodstove. A bottled-gas stove handles the short-cooking dishes, but wood is cheaper, so that’s where most of it is cooked.
A little further up the hill were two more brick buildings, one containing two bedrooms and a bathroom (flush toilet, with a bowl floating on a rain barrel for filling the tank). Above that was what appeared to be a storehouse.
And of course there was a chicken coop, with exit door so the rooster could crow outside my window well before the break of dawn.