Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Hosting Visiting Groups

Laura Jean and I wrote a short article for the Global Ministries website about the experience of hosting visiting groups from U.S. churches.
Receiving groups from Disciples and UCC churches is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our job as missionaries. For us personally, church visits give us an opportunity to share what we love best about Nicaragua, the friends we’ve made and our work here. Helping a new group navigate their way through new situations reminds us of the path we’ve traveled in the nearly three years since we first stepped out of the air-conditioned blast of the airport into the damp Managua night, fumbling over the most basic tasks and gawking at the newness and strangeness of this country we were about to call home.
You can check out the rest of it here.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Midnight Journey to the Other Side (of Nicaragua)

Our bus left Managua at 4:30 in the afternoon, heading for the mining towns of Rosita and Bonanza on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. If all went well, we would be in Rosita a little after dawn the next morning. Thirteen bumpy hours, traveling dark roads through the heart of Nicaragua in a cramped, crowded, converted school-bus. We were traveling with our friend Sonia to the most remote cluster of churches of La Misión Cristiana to participate in the theological education classes in that region. Or rather, Laura Jean and Sonia were going to teach, I was going for fun. Our final destination was called, appropriately enough, El Retiro -- which means "The Retreat" in Spanish.

Fast & Furious, our aptly named bus
Our route took us through Boaco, then a late dinner in Muy Muy, although we decided not to eat or drink much, worrying about the rumored lack of bathroom breaks. As it turned out we did stop in Río Blanco and Siuna, and later along the road when the bus got a flat. Beyond Río Blanco the pavement gave out. Although every seat was full when we left Managua, amazingly, they kept adding more passengers as the night went on. The center aisle of the bus was filled with upturned buckets and plastic stools for the extra passengers to sit on, until every last possible space was filled.

There were chickens and puppies traveling with us, and giant sacks of beans. The bus stopped occasionally to deliver packages to random farmhouses along the route. We traveled the whole night blasting music from loudspeakers, perhaps to keep the driver awake as we barreled through the dark, feeling every single rut and pothole. Almost as loud was the wind from the open windows, which also brought the 2 a.m. cold and the smell of diesel exhaust. By morning I almost could taste it.

It was, as you might imagine, a pretty uncomfortable night. The spacing of the seats was slightly less than the length of my thigh bone, meaning that I was unable to sit normally facing forward and spent the night twisting from one side to another, jamming my knees into cracks, trying to find a comfortable position. Laura Jean's seat was on top of the wheel well, making it even worse. Nothing we tried seemed to help for long. Allegedly I did drift off to sleep at some point because I awoke as the sun was peeking over the horizon, my eyes gunked over and woozy from the motion.

We rolled into Rosita at 5:30 a.m. Our instructions were to head directly to the bus terminal and grab the 6 a.m. bus to Kukalaya. The latrines were locked and nothing was open for breakfast, so we boarded the bus and kept moving forward.

Unfortunately, that bus was stopped in the next town of Susun. It turns out that some local farmers were staging a huelga (a strike or protest). We got off the bus, a little confused, but someone told us that if we walked through the town we could catch another bus on the other side. Upon crossing a wooden bridge we saw a crowd of thirty or so men, armed with machetes and clubs. They had dragged branches and pieces of wood across the road and were stopping and turning around all vehicle traffic -- public buses and private pickup trucks alike. They didn't seem to have any problem with pedestrian traffic and we climbed over with no problems.

(We found out later what the dispute was about. The government has protected a large section of northern Nicaragua as the Bosawas Reserve. Large sections of the park are still pristine forest, home to indigenous groups such as the Mayagna. However, since the government has almost no ability to police the area, other poor landless farmers have squatted on Mayagna land, burning down the forest and planting crops. Tensions between the Mayagnas and the settlers have spiked in recent weeks, leading to the murder of one Mayagna leader and calls for government intervention. Apparently the people blocking the roads in Susun were the landless squatters hoping to force the government to recognize them. You can read a bit more about the conflict here and here.)

On the other side of the barricades we waited for a while at a pulperia with some other displaced travelers, waiting for the mythical bus and wondering what to do. The sun was getting hot, even thought it wasn't yet 8 in the morning. Once we saw that the protesters were setting up new barricades to trap vehicles coming from the other direction, Sonia said that we should set off walking. And so we bought some water and headed out, not entirely sure how far we had to go to reach our destination.

Waiting for the bus.
Our walking companions were a woman named Elizabet and her 3 kids, who looked like they ranged from age 6 to 10. They were heading in our direction and took turns carrying a heavy bag of red beans. They were extremely cheerful traveling companions, the kids were uncomplaining and told funny jokes about how we should just commandeer some bicycles to finish our trek. We knew that we were heading for a cluster of towns called California, El Black or Riscos de Oro, depending on who you talked to. Supposedly the presbitero for the northern region, José Adan, was going to meet us there and travel on farther with us.

We saw multiple buses heading in the opposite direction, but none ever returned to pick us up. We figured that the protesters had stopped them and even prevented them from turning around. So we kept walking. Sonia insisted that we had to keep moving ahead, and it was great advice, although at the time we wondered. We also noticed that this part of Nicaragua, more so than anywhere we have visited, was suffering from a terrible deforestation-- the jungle transformed by slash-and-burn agriculture into broad fields and cattle pasture. Specifically for us, this meant that there was hardly any shade and after an hour or two of walking we were hot, thirsty and sunburned.
Evidence that I've been on a horse!

Around 11 a.m. we arrived at a crossroads and found many people waiting for buses that weren't going to appear. There were a couple of pickup trucks around, but they were charging exorbitant rates, so we steeled ourselves to keep walking, even though the hottest part of the day was coming up. Someone told us that California was a 2-3 hour walk from where we were. Sonia rallied us and we pushed on ahead.

Very quickly our perseverance was rewarded. A pickup truck packed with people approached and in the passenger seat was José Adan. Hearing that we had been walking, he and the other hermanos from the church mobilized some transportation and came in search of us. We had never been so happy to see a friendly face. We piled in the truck and arrived in Riscos de Oro in no time. There we got to sit down and have some lunch with José Adan, meet his family and some of the other church members (who were themselves traveling back to El Retiro from an event at a different church).

After lunch, we piled once more into the pickup and made the hour-long trip to the Río Kukalaya. The pickup somehow managed to hold almost 20 people. It was a surprisingly fun trip, even given that I was exhausted and holding on for dear life. People laughed and told jokes, enjoying the wind and the carefree sense hanging off the back of a pickup. Everyone said that we were traveling norteño style. The landscape continued to show severe signs of slash-and-burn deforestation, and we even passed some fields that were still smoldering. However, one stretch of the road was seemingly untouched forest, and José Adan said that it was owned by a lumber company that was actively reforesting its lands and trying to manage the forest somewhat sustainably.

Arriving in El Retiro.
We arrived at the Río Kukalaya, which was at low ebb, and crossed it in a dugout canoe, pushed by a small boy. On the other side we mounted up on horses (a first for me!) and rode for about an hour to another river, crossed it and found ourself in El Retiro just as the late afternoon sun was bathing it in a golden glow. El Retiro is a beautiful green space, not heavily forested, with wooden houses raised up on stilts and spaced well apart from each other. After traveling through half-burned fields for hours, it seemed like a true refuge in comparison.

We stayed in the house of Pastor Secundino. After 24 hours of straight travel, and 48 hours of being awake, we went directly to the nearby river, called the Río Rarawas, to clean off the dust and the grime. The water was warm, but miraculously refreshing. After that we ate dinner, watched the fireflies come out and collapsed into bed.
The River.