This isn’t the tourist’s Nicaragua: On Desperation and Death

As the title suggests, this isn’t my typical foreign travel post. It isn’t going to be the sugar-coated, silver-lining, landscape, beauty of the people post. This is a report from the most destitute barrios;  this is a perspective piece gleaned from my experience with the poorest in Nicaragua. I will be talking about two topics. Both will give you a sinking feeling in your stomach.

Desperation

noun. a state of despair, typically one that results in rash or extreme behavior.

I’m not talking about emergency relief situation or acute issues. I’m talking about what I consider more sinister: the poor’s constant companion. Something that’s rarely felt in the United States. It is a spectre that with even the briefest brush, you taste the sour battery acid sewage and your body and mind react in reflexive repulsion.

The primal desperation felt here in the poorest neighborhoods (La Chureca, or the municipal dump as a prime example) is saddening and sickening. To an outsider like me, it eludes a concrete explanation. Like an eel, it slips through your hands and swims away, but it remains present.

I say this because earlier today in the sweltering heat, as I walked down the dusty street to buy some more minutes for my cell phone, I was told a lie.

Now, a lie does not equal desperation. But paint it in the right context and its dark colors show through.

I approached one of the many pulperias and asked the owner if there was a special promotion today. For those of you that don’t know, the major cell phone companies Claro and Movistar have weekly or sometimes daily deals to double, triple, or quadruple the minutes you purchase. For example, if you buy two dollars worth of minutes, you can get up to eight dollars on these bonus days.

So I asked the lady about today’s promotion. Immediately she and the other woman working the store said “yes, today is double! Double!”

Ok, give me C$ 30 (dollar and a half). So she said its 33 cordobas because she makes a 3 cordoba profit, like most home run stores. So I made my purchase, walked back, and here’s the kicker. There’s no double today. It was just a lie she told. ‘Why would she tell that lie?’ I thought incredulously. My suspicions were later confirmed by a candid friend from the neighborhood: simply to get me to buy the minutes and make a 3 cord profit. Making a profit of less than 20 cents is worth being dishonest to a foreigner. “People here love to lie,” he scoffed contemptuously, “because lying helps them exploit you and puts money in their pockets.”

That’s desperation — when you have to compromise your moral integrity and lie to a foreigner so that you can scrape together enough money to put food on the table — a primal desperation.

It’s something we don’t feel much in the States. For middle-class America, it doesn’t register. It’s a far removed abstraction that you can read about or see in the faces of third world children on infomercials. However, here in Nicaragua, that kind of desperation exists, and in the poorest communities it is very palpable. And the thing is that if you see it once, you can recognize it in other things that people do. Riding a worn out bicycle with flat tires carrying a bag of beans on your head because you want to, need to, make some money. Washing windows at stoplights for a few coins. That is desperation, ladies and gentlemen. It exists, it is real, and its impact is sickening.

A family walking together with the smoldering trash of La Chureca in the background.

Death

You may not realize it, but death is ever present here in Nicaragua. Sometimes it hides around corners and in shadows. But sometimes it steps into the spotlight and begs for attention.

My first impression was formed from the news media. You can show bloody violent scenes on the news at any hour of the day for anybody to watch and there is no censorship. Children are exposed to dismembered bodies early on and it’s just something that everyone lives with. I asked someone at work the other day when they were showing some beat-up bloody person and he chuckled and said it was nothing.

I wonder if it’s a strategy to keep death close so that it doesn’t hurt so much when it happens to someone you know. Everyone in the very poor neighborhoods are dying in one way or another. By keeping death close, does it hurt as much to die?

Bringing death even closer

A woman across the street from my home in the slums died today. 48 years old. Breast cancer. There’s just a solemn gathering of people over there. All the children that usually run around shirtless and in chinelas, or flip flops, have on nice shirts and their hair is combed. No blaring music. No hooting and hollering.

This event changed the lunch table conversation and the 8 and 12 year old kids started talking about who they knew that had died. “Mike, who’s died in your family from sickness?”

That’s just not a question that we ask. But that’s a common question here. They went on to list the people that have died in their family.

How do children assimilate that sort of information into their brains, into their subconscious? I asked one of the kids how he felt when his grandfather died. He said it made him tired, like he wanted to go lie down and take a nap.

What an answer. It was as if his mind was shutting down to the pain and thus made him sleepy so it wouldn’t have to deal with the neural activity in the forms of questions and pains, confusion and shock.

I guess we all cope with death in different ways, but here in Nicaragua, that coping mechanism gets a little more practice.

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