2005 Matagalpa, Nicaragua
January 22-30th, 2005 -Muy Muy, Matagalpa, and Tipitopa
Sientese aqui! There seems to be a theme to every mission trip, and that was the theme for this one. It doesn’t reach its full comical effect unless you have Pastor Ken say it. You see, Ken, wonderful man that he is, sounds like he is from East L. A. in a Cheech and Chong movie when he speaks Spanish. Don’t know if it’s his personal voice tone, inflection, or sense of humor, but even when he is trying to speak kindly, it still sounds like a Nazi sergeant screaming to the poor prisoners to SIT HERE RIGHT NOW!! This caught on so well during the trip, that we, as a group, even wrote a song about this great phrase. Please, if you have the opportunity, ask someone from the trip to perform it for you. It’s possible that we, as a group, will perform this masterpiece at our church when we present our trip to the congregation…not exactly what I would call a traditional Lutheran hymn.
Speaking of non-traditional, that’s exactly what this trip was. I know on my last trip, I had lots of controversy, people backing out, and utter chaos. Well, this trip held up to that theme also. The whole thing snuck up on me since I came back from my last mission trip only two short months ago. A lot of planning goes in to these mission trips, trying to make things run as smooth as possible once we step foot on the Nicaraguan soil. I was actually planning much of this mission trip simultaneously with the November one since they were so close and I was spearheading both of them. Originally, I anticipated maybe 15 members of First Lutheran Church to sign up. In the end, due to many scheduling conflicts, only nine people including myself signed up to go. I was slightly sad, but not really stressed knowing I had John Gehrig, Nelson, the OD from Texas, and John, the tech from New Hampshire, meeting up with us along with Dunia and Oscar from last trip. Knowing I had my docs and God on my side, I knew he would provide somehow to service over twice as many patients as we saw in May with half the amount of volunteers. Did you know that God has humor? He does.
I can’t recall for sure when it was I got the phone call from John Gehrig, but I know it was less than a month before we were scheduled to fly out and I had already bought all the tickets. I consider John my sidekick, my confidant, my mentor, and also a father-figure. I feel the same way about Max, but already knew Max wasn’t coming on this trip since he was still having health issues from his Peru trip several months back. As long as one of these two guys are with me, I have every confidence in the world. They’ve been on what seems like hundreds of mission trips and know the in’s and out’s of all of it. Although I’ve been thrown in to this Mission Leader position quite soon in my ‘mission career’, I didn’t know I would be thrown in with fire! John had called me that night at home to tell me he couldn’t go on the January mission trip. I thought for sure he was playing some sick joke on me. Unfortunately, he was serious. He was still having complications from a surgery he had months ago, and it simply wasn’t safe for him to risk needing treatment in the unsanitary Nicaraguan hospitals and clinics. He himself had visited hospitals down there and seen the mold growing on the sides of the instrument trays. Devistated, I sat numb for two days. How in the heck was I going to run a mission trip as the only experienced VOSH representative?? The walls of my life seemed to be closing in. Eventually, I picked my chin up off the ground and thought, you know what, I can do this! I’ve got God, and I’ve got Lester; two keys to making anything happen in Nicaragua. I found confidence once again and I continued to make last minute plans as our trip slowly approached. Then the next phone call came.
With less than a week to go before we were scheduled to fly out of the country, Pastor Ken called me at work to tell me about the Hugheses. Dick and Barb Hughes were probably most excited of anyone going on this trip. Dick recently retired (the reason they waited until now) and they were going to experience this wonderful excursion together. It seems that Dick had been doing some woodworking the night before and had a run-in with one of his saws, almost completely severing his finger off. After emergency surgery, pins, and stitches, he could no longer go on the trip, therefore both of them were backing out. I am sure everyone in my department at work heard me say, “WHAT????” at the top of my lungs. I could not believe what I was hearing. This left me with nine people coming down from the states, two of those serving as docs. We were scheduled to see 1,400 patients with seven volunteers, knowing one of those was a translator?? Yikes. One more monkey wrench to throw in. At the last minute, Oscar’s boss wasn’t going to let him have the time off to work with us. This determined our final crew. Three docs, seeing 1,400 patients with two translators, and six volunteers (none of whom speak enough Spanish to save their life). I TOLD you God has humor. Honestly, once I got over the shock of all of this, and after I put it in God’s hands, I was totally calm and stayed that way for the rest of the week and through the entire trip. I just kept praying, God, I KNOW that if I am doing your work, you are not going to let us fail. I know you will provide for us because we are helping others and doing your work. Remember that? I know you will be by my side and make this successful. I have faith in you.” He heard me and he must have agreed with me.
Our very tiny crew consisted of two people meeting us down there: Nelson Rivera, OD from Texas and veteran of missions, just never in Nicaragua; and John Randazzo, a certified tech who does refractions all day long at work, but doesn’t have the OD signoff. He also had been on mission trips before, just not Nicaragua. Our Gainesville crew consisted of: Pastor Ken, somewhat of a veteran of mission trips since he was on the May trip, but our sole reliance for running the auto refractor now; BJ, better known as Grandma BJ, also a veteran from the May trip; Tess, BJ’s granddaughter who met all of us for the first time since she’s not yet a member of our church; Nancy and Joyce, both first-timers and members of the congregation; myself; and Billy. Billy is another small story showing how God works in mysterious ways.
The first Saturday in December was the day I decided I would accomplish all the Christmas shopping I had to do. With sweat pants, baseball cap, and tennis shoes in tow, I went to the mall to brave the crowds. As always, being totally prepared, I had already decided I was going to buy my nephew a watch for Christmas. When I approached the watch counter at JC Penney’s, I heard someone say, “Can I help you?” It was Billy. He says he’s a great watch salesman, I say I let him think he made the sale. As we were discussing watches, etc, I looked up at him and said, “Do you speak Spanish?” I could hear an accent. He then had to display his Puerto Rican pride by revealing his PR tie and pin on his nametag. I told him I run mission trips in Nicaragua, and somehow two days later, he was signed up to go on the mission trip. Billy is a really unique individual, caring deeply for helping others in need and being truly giving. He had been asking God for direction lately and then mission trips walked in to his life. The fact that he grew up Pentecostal and knew nothing about Lutherans, the fact that he knew no one going on the trip, the fact that he had never been outside of the US didn’t phase him for a moment. He had gotten a part-time job to pay for some repairs on his hot rod, but instead, ended up using that money to pay for his trip. He felt it was money better spent. All I knew when he signed up is that I HAD A TRANSLATOR! In mission terms, doctors and translators are like gems in the rough. Without them, you can’t execute a mission trip. Little did I know how much of a gem he would end up to be.
At 5:00 am, our small group of seven met at the church. I had asked everyone to bring large pieces of luggage so we could cram more supplies inside our personal luggage. With only seven people going, we were very limited on space, knowing we had to bring down the majority of glasses and medications we would be using. It was a dreary, misty morning, not making for a cooperative packing session. It all seemed more pleasurable though seeing Russ and Laura. They, being the generous people that they are, had gotten up several hours earlier to see us off with Krispy Kreme doughnuts and coffee. They so wanted to be going with us again (they went in May), but due to scheduling conflicts, simply couldn’t make it work. After several sessions of sitting on luggage while zipping it shut, re-sorting, packing, arranging, and crossed fingers, we had everything loaded in our two mini-vans we would be driving the six hours down to Miami airport. Before we left, we held hands in a circle and said a prayer in the misty rain before singing a verse of “Que Sera Sera” and loading up. Billy and I were in the luggage van which was filled with bags from front to back, top to bottom. Ken drove the other van with all the other ladies. Thanks to Ken borrowing some walkie-talkies, Ken and Billy talked about cars, 80’s rock songs, and general guy stuff for the long drive down there.
Once we got down to the airport, we unloaded the luggage and the guys went to return the vans. It’s always interesting to be in Miami airport since most people don’t speak English. After some broken conversation, I found out we were going to have to have all nine of our luggage duffles shrink-wrapped due to our airline’s strict luggage size restrictions. $63 and a lot of blue shrink-wrap later, we were ready to check in and Ken and Billy were back. It was also at this point that we realized we were still counting as if we had nine people going, not seven. We had one extra piece of luggage! We started asking around for other people going on the same flight as us if they had room and were willing to check it in under their name. Soon we realized that what we were doing is what the overhead announcements are about…sounding like terrorists trying to get people to tote their goods. Oops! $100 later, we had the extra piece of luggage flying on standby and we were making the long walk through security and down to our gate. A pitiful but expensive excuse for lunch later, we were ready to board.
Here’s another side note: Two days prior, I had gotten a phone call from my mom saying my dad had been in a bad snowmobile accident in the U.P. of Michigan and he was in ICU in the hospital up there, over seven hours away from her. Supposedly he was going to be okay, but to me ICU doesn’t mean okay. I had been worrying and thinking about him ever since that phone call, making my nights sleepless and my days nerve-wracking. I wanted to hear a positive update about his condition before I left, knowing I may not have access to a phone or email for days on end. My mom had promised to call me with updates, but by the time we were in the airport, there was still no change. Everyone in our group knew it was bothering me as I started to pace by our gate. All of a sudden my phone rang. It was my sister! She said, “SuzIjusttalkedtodad!He’sstillinthehospitalbuthewantstotalktoyou!Hewasaskingifyouhadlefton yourflightyetbecausehewantedtotalktoyoubeforeyouleft!Callhimcallhimcallhim!Thenumberis
***-***-****.” I was overjoyed, but still trying to comprehend what she was saying. She was talking so fast, but the overhead announcement was being given that our flight was starting to board. I hung up with her and called the number. Busy. Again. Busy. Now I am in a serious panic and everyone can see the sadness in my face. Billy offers to start calling also. We simultaneously were re dialing this number. As the last group of people were standing in line to board the plane, the phone rang through! “Daddy!” He responded with, “Hi Ralph!” At that very moment, I knew everything was going to be okay. That’s his nickname for me. I could feel the love gushing out of my heart, through the phone, as I tried to keep my voice from trembling. I didn’t want to cry but yet I had so many emotions running through my body at once: relief, happiness, sadness, nervousness, admiration. I talked to him just long enough for both of us to know that everything was going to be okay and the next time I talked to him, he would be back home. As I waited my turn to step on the plane, I said a little prayer and thanked God for letting me talk to my dad and for laying his healing hand upon my father. I boarded the plane as the happiest person by far on that flight.
All of us were so exhausted from lack of sleep, long hours driving, and the anticipation of the trip to come. We all took advantage of the 2 ½ hour flight sleeping or simply resting. As soon as we stepped off the plane, I clicked in to leader mode and started instructing our group to help get us through customs and baggage with as little trouble as possible. As we walked in to the luggage carousel area, I looked over in the reception area where it was wall-to-wall people waiting to see their loved ones arrive. Somehow, amongst the sea of people, I immediately picked out Lester. We made eye contact, smiled at each other, and I gave him a wink as we proceeded on to collect our luggage pieces. I was a bit nervous about us getting all of our luggage through customs due to the contents of some of it. Not only were we carrying over 1,000 pairs of glasses, I had an entire suitcase dedicated to prescription medication (BIG no-no), a CPU and a printer for Dunia. These are hot ticket items that could be easily confiscated. I was the first through and the guard waved me right through. Whew! That meant the med’s and printer were through. Whew! I had proceeded on to greet Lester with a huge hug and to immediately meet John for the first time. Introductions and meetings were short since I realized the rest of my group was deferred to the inspection area. Lester and John watched my stuff while I went back in with my official looking paperwork on VOSH letterhead. The security was tearing apart all the shrink-wrapped duffles, pulling out boxes, and opening up sleeves of glasses, trying to determine what they thought of it all. Billy translated for me as I handed them my paperwork listing our inventory explaining we were running a mission trip. They weren’t convinced. This forced me to pull out my big gun. Down in Nicaragua, a business card of someone important means everything. I pulled out my business card of Carlos A. Sobalvarro Ruiz, the Prefecto or guy overseeing all of the penitentiaries in the entire country. That did it. The lady in charge, with a look of disgust, waved them all through. YEAH! We were home free. Everyone proceeded to where Lester and John were so we could do proper introductions before we loaded up on our school bus and headed across the street to the Las Mercedes Hotel.
Check-in should have been easy since I set everything up with group sales, but I should have also been suspicious when my group sales rep went from utter confusion to saying everything was fine. The hotel had our reservations all mixed around, and didn’t have any reservations at all for the rest of the week. After much deliberation, we got everything straightened out and we were on our way to our rooms.
We all agreed we were tired and exhausted so quick food and relaxation was more important than going to a fancy place to eat. Tip Top it is! We loaded up and went down the street to the Texaco so we could purchase our Tip Top chicken meals and beverages of our choice next door at the gas station. Soon we were back at the hotel, eating our fast food poolside, getting to know each other and relax after a grueling day.
Lester and the drivers had left after dropping us off at the hotel to travel to Jinotepe, where Dunia lives. We knew she had all of our backstock of glasses that we needed for this trip, and had no way to get them to Muy Muy. Neither her nor her son’s cell phone had been working in over a week, so it was a shot in the dark by sending them there, but we knew we would be in trouble if we didn’t have those glasses. Over two hours later, Lester called to say he was outside of Dunia’s house, but no one was answering the door. Frustrated, I told him to come back. Just as he was about to leave, her son, Francisco came to the door, having crawled out of bed. Lester and the drivers quickly packed all of the supplies (at least 10 boxes worth) and headed back. We, back at the hotel, wanted to wait up for them to return from the long trip, but we were all simply too tired. We slowly peeled off of the group one by one to retire to bed since we would all have to be up very early to leave for Muy Muy the next morning. Lester and the drivers returned back to the hotel after midnight.
Day one in Nicaragua and we’re running behind. Nelson is flying in this morning and is to give us his luggage to take with us to Muy Muy while he does some sightseeing during the day. He’ll catch up with us later that night. Unfortunately, his luggage didn’t make the flight and he has to wait for the next flight to come in, later in the afternoon. A message is relayed to us at the hotel front desk and we are on our way. We are to try and be to Muy Muy by 10:00 am to participate in an Evangelical church service. Not going to happen. Que sera sera. All the newcomers to Nicaragua enjoy the bus ride to Muy Muy taking in the countryside and seeing how the majority of people really live. Our bus ride was over 3 hours long. We finally make it to the municipality of Muy Muy and everyone’s faces light up at the sheer excitement of what they are about to experience.
We pull up to our hotel and I see Joel. I squeal like a little kid and run up to him giving him a hug. Joel is a Peace Corps volunteer in Muy Muy, having lived there for two years. His term is up April 1st, so this will be our last mission trip working with him. We soon check in to our rooms and unload the heavy-laden bus. Not to worry about the church service. They knew the gringos were coming, so they haven’t had it yet, waiting for us to arrive. We walk several blocks over to the small cinder block church with the tin roof. It is only 11:30am, but the tin is already so hot, we can feel the heat radiating down on us inside the tiny church. The congregation consists of 30 adults and 40 children. They are trying to focus on teaching their members about drug prevention, English classes, and music classes. The service was designed specifically for us. Kessler, a barber, music teacher, English teacher, and fill-in pastor, spoke some English and ran the service for us. It was filled with children singing and performing for us, solos by other church members, introductions of each of the gringos, and a lot of clapping and dancing while the people sang. Kessler even taught us how to say “Via con Dios” and taught the Nicaraguans the English version, “Go with God.” It was very moving and truly could not be described. I can’t wait to go to my next service.
During the church service, I was sitting in the front row. At one point, I had turned around and saw Dunia standing in the back row. As soon as it was over, I pushed my way through the crowd to run over to her and hug ‘mi Dunia’. She is like a big sister, close friend, and all around wonderful person to me. I almost cried out of excitement of seeing her again. She looked radiant as always. I introduced her to all the new people she had not met before and we started to make our way back to the hotel. The bus picked us up and took us over to Eduardo’s for lunch.
There was a huge birthday party going on at Eduardo’s, but he had set up a beautiful place for us behind the restaurant. We enjoyed hearing the Latino music booming from the party up front, and getting to know everyone some more. I had to walk inside and greet Eduardo himself once again and let him know I was there. It was like something you’ve seen in a commercial where there’s two people running in slow motion on the beach towards each other. He speaks no English, and my Spanish is very limited, but we greeted each other with a huge hug and seemed to talk for five minutes. He was glad to see me again, and I felt the same about him. Lunch was awesome, as always. Eduardo outdoes himself. Here is where we met up with many of the same volunteers I worked with in November along with the outgoing mayor, Dr. Lillian Garcia, and incoming mayor, Dr. Uben Rodriguez.
We all enjoyed our lunch and socializing before heading back in to town to the mayor’s office. There, we were to have a dedication ceremony of all the items VOSH, First Lutheran Church, and the Michigan Rotarians had donated to the municipality of Muy Muy. Dunia acted as the master of ceremonies for our special ceremony. Both the mayors, Dunia, and Joel took turns giving small speeches of thanks and appreciation along with letting us know the effect we were making on Muy Muy. By the time our brigade was completed this week in Muy Muy, more than 1,000 people will have been seen and treated in our eyeglass clinics. The municipality of Muy Muy consists of 30 rural communities and ten close to the center of town, totaling 40 areas. There are approximately 16,000 people in the municipality, all serviced by the one hospital and ambulance that they have. The ambulance is less than a year old (having been donated by the Japanese along with the hospital), but yet the tires are bald. The money that was collected from the eyeglass brigade in November was given back by myself, as a representative of VOSH, to the hospital to provide new tires for the ambulance. After looking at the ambulance myself, I could understand their desperate need for new ones. It is the only ambulance that services 16,000 people, having to travel through rivers, mountainous rocky trails, and the like to access all of the people. They use this vehicle not only for emergencies, but also for a mobile vaccination clinic when the government gets such things donated to it.
The people of Muy Muy are such a welcoming group. Every one of us sat back and soaked in all of the beautiful traditional dances performed by local school children ranging from kindergarten to high school. The gratefulness in the people’s eyes when they presented us with certificates of appreciation was heartwarming. As they were ready to finish up the ceremony, I stopped them. We had already promised money was coming for the tires and a dental chair was sent down in the cargo container sent this fall, but we had stuffed a small pile of medical supplies amongst our personal luggage also. I went up front and had Joel translate for me, letting everyone know that we had brought more children’s vitamins, soap, latex gloves, gauze, and hand sanitizer for the hospital. Dr. Uben took the time to explain that the hand sanitizer alone makes the difference between a healthy birth of a child, and a risky birth with possible infection. We felt like we made a difference. I also had Joel explain that we were not responsible for purchasing the tires for their ambulance. Each person who had participated in our clinic in November had made a small donation which in turn payed for the tires. There was looks of amazement and happiness when Joel explained for me that the people of Muy Muy were the ones who actually bought their own tires. All of the people felt like they had actually made a difference in their own community, and they truly had. After I thanked the people once again for inviting us in to their community and being so gracious to us, the ceremony ended. We loaded up on the bus and headed over to the hospital so everyone could see what conditions the people of Muy Muy have to work with.
It was great to see the dental chair we had donated sitting proudly in place where a dilapidated chair used to sit. The old one actually sat at the entrance to the hospital, functioning as a sitting place and doorstop all in one. All the gringos snapped away with their cameras trying to capture the tiny hospital that looked like a clinic. A little girl had just been brought in by the ambulance with a bloodied arm, screaming in pain. The emergency room was off limits. People found it amazing to see the pharmacy. There was one shelf this time that was full….full of the donations from November’s trip. The rest of the shelves were still bare. Before we left, we took a group picture right outside the hospital, including any of the people in the hospital, showing off the hand-made banner hanging above stating, “Welcome Lutheran Church and VOSH.”
We were about to go back to the hotel and relax for a bit before dinner, but I HAD to see Dunia’s parents. Ever since I met Francisco, Dunia’s father, I just can’t resist him! Everyone ended up getting off the bus at their house so they could get a grand tour of the beautiful house and hardware store. Francisco greeted me with a smile and huge hug as I gave him a kiss on the top of his head. “Francisco es mi amor!” He giggled and said something about agreeing with it. Dunia’s parents were cordial as ever giving us tours and offering Coca-Cola’s or waters with ice. Ken even bought a pocket knife with a picture of an alligator engraved on it (a high commodity item back home in UF gator country). After stories of old, pictures, hugs, and goodbyes we were off to the hotel to relax before dinner at Eduardo’s. Most people took advantage of the time to recuperate from the busy day and freshen up with the freezing cold showers for those who had running water. Hot water doesn’t exist in Muy Muy, so it’s always an interesting experience to bathe.
Once we were at Eduardo’s, we realized the birthday party was still going on. I guess it fulfills my stereotype of Latino’s really know how to party. The music was still blaring and kids were still running around full blast. We sat in the back once again and enjoyed a great meal including fish (a rarity in Muy Muy). Eduardo must have remembered how much we loved his fish last time we were there in November.
Just before we were about to start eating, a man walked through the back door and said he was looking for VOSH Southeast. I said we were it and asked who he was. It was Nelson! I would have never guessed in a million years, since I was expecting a dark-skinned, short, Puerto Rican man. It took a few minutes of talking to him to realize that this was truly the great guy I had talked to on the phone several times before the trip. He had made it just in time to join us for dinner and start getting to know the wonderful people of Muy Muy.
Earlier, when we were at the hospital, we had seen the man who played guitar for us in November. I asked him if he was coming to dinner that night and bringing his guitar. After he confirmed that, I told him Billy plays guitar so if he had an extra one, he should bring it along. Sure enough he came with two guitars in tow that night. It was awesome. He played several Nicaraguan songs and Billy caught on quickly. Then they changed to some classic American songs like Stairway to Heaven and Hotel California. Lester and I sang along as the two of them jammed the songs out on the guitars. It was awesome. I think we sang 14 verses of Hotel California gathering an audience sometime during the rendition. I think it was verse 10 when the entire city of Muy Muy lost power. I thought it was just Eduardo’s place until we started looking around. There was only a sliver of the moon out, but it stopped no one from having fun. You would have never known there was no light. Kids kept running, people kept talking, we kept singing and playing.
Eventually, we headed back to the very dark hotel. As we walked in, they provided each room with one tiny taper candle about six inches tall and a box of matches. That was our power for the night. We all soon learned how to ‘tag team’ with our roommates with using the bathroom and searching our luggage for clothes. Sleeping wasn’t the most comfortable conditions either. Mosquito nets were provided for almost all of the beds, but according to Ken, the mosquito’s ignored his net anyway’s. The roosters cock-a-doodle-doing and the dogs barking and fighting all night long kept most all of us up most of the night. It seems the animals are nocturnal there. Just when you were getting used to the drone of chickens and dogs, someone would come at mock-10 down the street right behind the hotel on a horse. It would sound like it was going to come straight through the wall because it was so close! In the early hours of the morning, the snorting and oinking of the pigs wandering the street joined in, making for a regular charade. This added to the men that I think are paid to drive through the streets starting at 4:30 am to honk their large truck horn to wake up the neighborhood and start the day made for interesting sleep or lack of. Did I mention the beds were mostly a 3-4 inch mattress on a ½ inch of plywood? I think we would have all felt better in the morning if we could just take a shower, but that wasn’t going to happen either. No power, no water. We all got up and took ‘wet nap’ baths and ran our fingers through our hair ready to face our first clinic day.
We worked in the same high school I had worked in back in November, right in town. Once we figured out our logistics of what rooms to use, we went to work setting up our stations and trying to organize things. People were already lined up inside the school yard when we had arrived. One lady told us she had been there since 4:00 am. I guess she had nothing better to do anyway’s since you surely can’t sleep well with the chickens and dogs and pigs and horses and trucks!
Before long, we were all working like busy little bees and not even realizing how smoothly our clinic was running, considering how few of us there were and this group of people had never run a clinic together before. Dunia’s two daughters helped us in the visual acuity area. We had a number of volunteers from the community that assisted us in registration, crowd control, and other areas. Dr. Uben had told me he had a surprise for me that day. His surprise was Elida, a beautiful Muy Muy native who is studying at the University in Leon to become a surgeon. She’s one of those naturally beautiful natives that looks like she should be in a Miss Universe pageant. She spoke no English whatsoever, but somehow Joyce and I communicated with her perfectly. It was amazing to see how we could cross cultural lines, and not only communicate for eyeglass purposes, but also casual conversations. Elida became a very important asset to our team.
Nancy, Tess, Dunia’s daughters, Joel, and a couple of local volunteers ran visual acuity. Ken and Billy ran the auto refractor. Although Billy didn’t know the first thing about it, by the end of the day, the two of them were having contests as to who could ‘zap’ a patient faster. Anything to pass the time. Dunia, Nelson, and John did a great job with refractions for all the patients and and BJ assisted people from room to room along with being the entertainment for the children. Joyce, Elida, myself, and Lester worked in the dispensary cranking out the numbers, even with the extremely difficult prescriptions we were being handed.
It seems that the worst of the worst had truly been weeded out for this clinic. Everyone we saw needed glasses, and needed them badly. Things that are unheard of in the states was very commonplace down there. It seemed everyone had high cyl, meaning they had excessive stigmatisms. Young to old, everyone’s vision was poor. We truly felt like we were serving the people who needed our help the most. We saw cowboys, children, the elderly with cataracts, and a number of people with eye injuries.
I felt so bad for this one very young man, only twenty-seven. He had to be led in by someone. You could see immediately one of his eyes was completely whited over. It was as if he almost did not have a pupil. The other eye twitched and jumped constantly, as if he was searching to see and focus, but he just couldn’t. I still to this day feel sad about that young man. Sad, because there was nothing we could do to help him, not even surgery. He had the one eye that was basically blank due to a severe eye injury several years before. The other eye that twitched and moved had some type of disease, disorder, or condition that could not be reversed. The man was going blind. Imagine how disappointed that man was to find out the very little sight that he has now, which is basically only seeing shadows of things, will soon be gone. After he was seen by the doctor, he sat over to the side, all to himself. He had to wait for someone to lead him back home. His leader was making their way through the clinic so that man sat there for several hours, looking down, eye twitching and fluttering. I wanted to go over and talk to him so badly, but what could I possibly say? It was frustrating. He was the only person we could not help.
There was a beautiful three-year-old girl that came through with her parents. She was very shy and I don’t think she really understood everything that was going on. Dunia spent a lot of time with this little girl and her parents trying to determine the eyesight of this little girl. Much like Eduardo that we saw in Las Marias back in May, this little girl was too young to know letters, numbers, colors, or shapes. It made understanding her needs very difficult. Once Dunia determined what glasses she needed, I had to try and find a pair for her. It’s not that she had an excessively difficult prescription. What was difficult was finding a pair of glasses for her tiny little face. Everything seemed huge. Finally after some long searching, I found a pair of glasses for her. She sat there very quietly while I inspected how the glasses fit her face and looked behind her ears to see where the glasses rested and tighten them accordingly. She was beautiful. Her mother and father were so thankful for giving their little girl the gift of sight. Although the girl was shy with me, by the time they left, I saw the little girl interacting with her mom and talking to her about her new glasses with a smile on her face.
We had seen so many people that day, but we also knew that we had to travel the 2+ hours to Matagalpa that night and run a clinic the next morning. A little after 5 pm, Billy and I walked through the line of people waiting to see the doctors and screened the people based upon their v.a.’s and a.r. readings. A few people didn’t even need to be seen because their vision was so good. There were approximately 30 people left that we explained to come back in several weeks to the same spot. Dunia had arranged to come back and screen those people herself so we could get on the road. I felt confident that Dunia would take care of these people, not only because she’s a wonderful and caring person, but also because this was her hometown.
We were loaded up in the bus and on our way to Matagalpa by 7 pm. It seemed like a road that continued on forever. All of us hadn’t had showers in what seemed like days and we were all very hungry and tired. We arrived at the St. Thomas hotel close to 10 pm. Much to our surprise, the hotel had kept the food waiting for us I had planned so many weeks earlier. Dirty and exhausted, we all sat down for a good meal together, feeling way too dirty to be sitting on their beautifully upholstered chairs. This hotel was such a change from Muy Muy, we all had a hard time taking it in. Everyone so overtired, the food seemed to fill the cavity more than nourish us. We appreciated our hot showers and warm beds that night.
Breakfast on Tuesday was at 7 am. Everyone could have used another several hours of sleep, but yet we were just thankful to have had a night of sleep without the sounds of the local animals. We were off to the largest high school in Matagalpa, scheduled to see mostly students and teachers from the school. We set up our clinic very similar to the one in Muy Muy, but with less volunteers. Pastor Hector Morales, from the Lutheran church in Matagalpa, came to see us there. We would be seeing people from his church the next day, but he brought a young man named Yader to us. Yader is going to seminary to become a Lutheran pastor, but also knows English. He stayed with us both days of the Matagalpa clinic to help translate for us and ended up being another huge asset. At the same time, Elida had decided to stay with us for the entire week to help us with our clinics. She roomed with Dunia and helped us in the dispensary, becoming more of an expert every day. Originally, Joyce or I would have to pull the glasses for her and she could then explain them to the patient, but by the first day in Matagalpa, she was pulling the prescriptions herself and only verifying with me that what she pulled was correct. She was awesome.
Once again, we saw people of all ages. All of the children were getting glasses for the first time to help them see the chalkboard at school. Most children did not need glasses for reading. There was still a good amount of stigmatisms, but not nearly as bad as in Muy Muy.
There was one woman whom John helped. She had severe cataracts and had not seen pretty much anything at all in over two years. Nevertheless, with a pair of glasses as thick as our bed mattresses in Muy Muy, she was able to see four feet in front of her! She didn’t even really know how to react to seeing again. Her eyes had a hard time adjusting, but yet she was very thankful. She is one of the patients that we referred to have cataract surgery.
We cranked through the day, seeing patient after patient. What amazed me the most is visual acuity became so good at their job, they rarely needed a translator to help them with their area. Ken was such an expert at ‘sientese aqui’, that he rarely needed Billy’s help in the autorefractor area. Lester had to spend a lot of time coordinating different things going on in the clinic, that he wasn’t able to help us in the dispensary very much. Somehow, Joyce, Elida, and I had communicated so well by this point, we spent most of the time dispensing glasses without having help from a bi-lingual person, and only grabbed Billy or Yader when needed.
We finished out the day by 4 pm, welcoming the early finish. Our bus ride back to the hotel was a spectacular one. As the bus turned to go up the extremely steep street leading up to the hotel, we saw a large truck broken down in the street. There were several men underneath it trying to fix it. The streets in Matagalpa, like many other cities, are very narrow. Our bus driver now had the challenge of trying to fit our full-size school bus between this broken down truck and the houses lining the street. Like the tourists that we were, we all snapped away with our cameras capturing the task. The first attempt didn’t work so well since the bus accidentally latched on to the front bumper of the truck, yanking it loose. The second attempt, with less than three inches to spare on either side, was a successful one. We praised Issac’s ability with ‘we’re not worthy’ chants.
Once we were back at the hotel, everyone took their time relaxing and cleaning up before we met for dinner that night at the Italian restaurant in town. Yader, our great translator, met us there for dinner. We all had a GREAT time at the restaurant enjoying the outstanding pasta and pizza, and the fellowship with each other. I got to know Yader a little better since he was always working in the other room of the clinic. I found it interesting to talk to him to see how they train their Lutheran pastors down here in their version of seminary. He thought my Spanish was amusingly pitiful (like most people think) and he was able to practice his English with me. I couldn’t help but tell him I thought he was going to be the best looking Lutheran pastor out there once he was ordained. He found that funny. Of course the night would not be complete without Billy finding a guitar to play somewhere. As we were getting ready to leave, a Mariachi band was in the front part of the restaurant. Billy started talking to him and before long, he was tuning their guitars and playing with them. As he talked to them more, we found out that two of the band members were brothers to the guy he played guitar with in Muy Muy. Small world!
Instead of taking our large bus around town, Issac picked us up in his pickup truck and took us to and from the restaurant that night in two groups. Ken, Billy, Lester, Elida, and myself were in the second group. As we were coming down the street the restaurant was at after eating, Ken eyed a pool hall. One word uttered, and we were all piling out of the truck to go there. This is where the ‘machismo’ started pouring out! I’ve gotta give you a little background. Supposedly both Lester and Billy are quite good pool players. When each of them got wind about the other, a challenge was made that they would play a game of pool down in Nicaragua to see ‘who was the baddest’. It was only natural that we hit the pool hall that night since this challenge had been sitting over their heads. Elida and I just looked at each other with ‘the look’ like these guys are such boys. The best part of the night happened next. Neither Lester nor Billy knew that Ken is a POOL SHARK! One of my favorite pictures of the whole trip is Billy and Lester discussing logistics, rules, regulations, etc. while Ken sets up the balls, breaks them, and starts clearing the table like nobody’s business. Elida and I could only laugh at the situation. About half-way through a cleared table, Lester and Billy finally realized what was going on and maybe this was going to have to be a three-way challenge. The rest of the night was filled with the three of them taking turns playing each other and just having good clean fun…that was until the Mariachi’s showed up. Another band showed up, with at least half of the members drunk. We didn’t much care since we were doing our own thing. The problem was when they started playing. This band had a trumpet player whose trumpet looked like it had more dents in it than a golf ball. When it was his turn to play, being one of the drunk ones, I think he felt he had to play louder than everyone. That horn was so ear-piercing, we all cringed and made faces. Soon afterwards we left, but not without referencing that Mariachi band the rest of the week as the loudest, worst band ever.
The next morning, Wednesday, came as early as the previous one, but we were pumped once again. We were scheduled to see the people from the Lutheran church in Matagalpa that Pastor Morales had arranged. He did a good job choosing people who needed vision care the worst. My first picture of the day was of a nine-year-old boy who needed a very strong prescription. After finally finding a pair that worked for him, I was relieved and happy. Then I looked up and saw his brother and father sitting next to him with their sheets, showing their prescriptions were just as bad! Later on, we also saw the mother of the family whose eyes were also poor. Unfortunately the entire family was plagued with poor vision, but we were able to provide glasses to all of them.
There was another sweet little boy, approximately seven, who needed glasses to see the chalkboard. He looked so cute in his new glasses and smiled a beautiful smile when I took his picture and showed it to him on my digital camera. A few minutes later, I saw him with his mom. She was feeding her new baby a bottle. That little boy intrigued me because he was such a little helper to his mom. He carried the diaper bag (something I had never seen in Nicaragua) for his mom and assisted her with the baby like a nanny would. He was truly a sweet little boy.
Billy found a boy he wanted to adopt as his own son. Once again, it was a cute little boy with a sheepish little smile. I found him a cool pair of glasses for his prescription and he loved having his picture taken with Billy and looking at it on my camera. The funny thing was Billy had to explain to me why this boy was so cool. Someone had brought a bag of candy to pass out to the children, but somehow a single comb had gotten thrown in to the mix. This little boy fished through the candy bag and picked out the comb. Apparently the boy was more concerned about looking good than having a few moments of sweet satisfaction. Billy said it reminded him of himself as a child. You can’t help but laugh at something like that.
BJ had a great time all day long entertaining the children with patty-cake, peek-a-boo, and any other game she could think of that could cross cultural and language lines. She was entertaining the daughter of one of my patients while I was finding an extremely difficult and strong prescription for a young mom. Finally, John and I found success and this mom could now see her beautiful daughter’s face clearly. I had no idea that the little girl, Maribel, existed, let alone, she was part of the fun that BJ was having in the corner. Soon, I found out that Maribel needed glasses too. I couldn’t just take her prescription and go to work on it right away…Maribel was just too entertaining and cute as a bug! She was a five-year-old firecracker with pigtails and a smile that would light up a room. Obviously she had her mom’s vision problems since her prescription was also quite strong for a five-year-old. After several minutes of searching, I found something that might fit, but much like the little girl from Muy Muy, my biggest challenge was finding glasses that were small enough for her very small head. When I came back over to Maribel, it’s almost as if she knew she was supposed to have glasses. She stopped playing patty-cake with BJ and sat very still on the table as I placed the glasses on her. They were crooked and oversized, but she didn’t care. I leaned back and said, “Bien? (good?)” and she smiled. She started looking around and said, “I can see EVERYTHING! I can SEE everything! I CAN see everything!” She was so adorable, I just wanted to hug her and swing her around the room. Maribel was very patient while I pulled the glasses off of her, adjusted them, put them on, inspected, and started the process all over again about four times in a row. Once her glasses were adjusted properly, Maribel stated that SHE wanted her picture taken with BJ. I obliged and showed her the picture. She giggled with glee as BJ gave her a big hug goodbye.
We finished the day up early again, having seen all the patients that had come to see us. Back to the hotel for relaxation and showers before it was dinnertime at La Pradera restaurant. I don’t think any of us thought we could have had more fun that night than we had the night before, but little did we know the entertainment value of ourselves! It started out with Billy ordering the huevos de toro, also known as bull balls! Yikes! Not only was it the most disgusting looking appetizer, the look on his face made it seem painful for the rest of us. Ken, Elida, and Dunia ended up trying it also, but it’s definitely something I would never try. Ever. Then, we found out that Dunia had ordered the lengue con salsa for her entrée, also known as cow tounge with salsa. You’d think that they’d at least cut it up so it doesn’t look like Gene Simmons’ tounge lying on the plate, but nope. Two cow tounges spread out on a plate covered with salsa. I had the pleasure of sitting in-between Billy and Dunia. I kept my fish all to myself.
The restaurant was playing great music over their speakers, so we couldn’t help but get up and dance since we were in a separate room all to ourselves. Lester and I showed off our moves together and later Elida tried Lester’s smooth dancing moves also. Ken and John got up at some point doing what looked like the alligator to who knows what song and Dunia and BJ danced with each other too. We had so much fun that night…and then the Mariachis showed up. To quote John, “They’re re-LENT-less!” The guys whom we had seen at the Italian restaurant the night before somehow found us at this restaurant and wanted to play for money once again. We wrapped things up and headed back to the hotel. The next day was our first day off in three days and we all needed a break.
Thursday morning and I’m sick. Not sure how to describe it, but it was a combination of several things. Dehydration, lightheadedness, swollen glands, and overall yuck pretty much describes it. I even went back to bed to lie down and sleep while everyone else ate breakfast and had morning devotions. Lester eventually came in to my room with six Gatorades. He was so sweet. Everyone pulled together to heal me back to health that day. I was taking all kinds of medications that Dunia and Elida were giving me, some making me feel better for a while and sucking on Gatorades all day. I pretty much had a roller-coaster day, feeling pretty good at some points, and like dirt at others, but I survived thanks to the entire group pulling together and being attentive to me.
We went to Selva Negra, a famous German-settled coffee plantation, in the morning. I had stayed there in November and knew of its beauty, but never really had any time to explore it while I was there. Everyone enjoyed the beautiful flowers, trails, Alpine décor, and general beauty. After touring part of the plantation on foot, we gathered back at the restaurant to enjoy a cup of fresh coffee and slice of orange cake, both made fresh there.
Next, we headed back in to town to stop at the place that sells black pottery, one of Matagalpa’s famous items. As some people went to buy black pottery, John, Nancy, Joyce, and myself went with Lester to go meet the mayor of Matagalpa, Nelson Artola. He had just recently been elected in to office and there were banners and signs with his name and picture all over the city. When we were escorted in to his office, it was like meeting someone famous since I had seen his picture so many times before. The local news and newspaper was called in to his office. We were recorded and taped while we talked to him about our accomplishments, our future goals, and what our organization was all about. He extended himself as a personal contact for any future mission trips to the Matagalpa area. All of us got our picture taken with him before we left. Success again for VOSH!
From there, we stopped and grabbed lunch before making the long trip back to Managua. We went back to the Las Mercedes hotel and ate Pizza Hut and Tip Top poolside. It was a long day of touristing and traveling. I was still feeling extremely run down and not so hot. It didn’t take much for any of us to call it a night and go to bed.
Day seven, Friday morning, last clinic day. Breakfast was early as usual before we loaded up on the bus. We were off to the Tipitopa penitentiary outside of Managua. This pen is the largest of all eight prisons in the country. There are 3,000 inmates, all men. We were scheduled to see 250 of them. Of all of the places we had worked this week, ironic that our facilities at the pen were the nicest! We were all in one big room that was somewhat air conditioned. It did get hot very fast with all the people in it, and with little ventilation, we appreciated the fans the guards set up for us throughout the room.
I was still not feeling 100%, so I had to do a lot of sitting and resting and only fill in when patients were getting backed up. Things were moving along quite well all day long with a steady flow of patients all the time. All of the prisoners were very kind and never intrusive or making us feel uncomfortable. Many wanted to tell us their story…why they were there, how they were innocent, or even their poor living conditions. One man who spoke very good English, told me about why no one ever wants to be put in prison there. He said where most of them live, visitors can never be taken there. In their barracks, there are two rows of bunk beds, much like a military camp. There is only enough room to squeeze between sets of bunks since personal space means nothing to the guards and authorities. Running down the length of the barracks is an open type of cistern, grated, but not enclosed where all of the waste dumps in to. The inmates have to smell and see this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. On December 1st, the warden had gathered all the inmates together to tell them they were getting a surprise the next day. The inmates started to get excited, thinking maybe they would get a special meal to celebrate the Christmas holidays or maybe some entertainment. They thought maybe someone was finally going to do something nice for them. The next day, just as promised, they found out what their surprise was: the guards flushed out the ‘sewer system’ leaving a 1 ½ foot pool of waste in their barracks. This was literally within inches of the bottom bunk mattresses. The only way to get around was to wade through the waste. It took almost a full day for the waste to recede. I could tell from the way this man told his story that he was not lying.
There was another younger man that came through the line while I was sitting down resting. I was sitting next to BJ, in the visual acuity area. Nancy was helping this young man, telling him to cover his eye and read the chart. When she told him to switch eyes, he used the same hand, but covered the other eye, making it look awkward. I stepped in and told the man, “No, the OTHER arm.” The man put his hand down and turned towards me. He had no other arm!! My mouth immediately dropped to the floor as I responded, “Lo siento!!” I am so deeply sorry! He started laughing, as did BJ and Nancy. To show my remorse, I stood up and covered his eye with my own hand. I couldn’t believe what I had just done, but yet that inmate found me as entertainment.
We saw a lot of people with serious vision needs there. One man in particular that stood out was a man in his mid-thirties. He could not see more than four inches in front of his face, but somehow he had adapted to his disability quite well. Once John had tested his vision and determined the high prescription he needed, I went searching once again through our picked-over boxes, trying to find anything that could help this man see better than he was. I was not able to find a perfect match, but something that helped him to at least see six feet in front of him. As John and I were trying the glasses on him and talking to him, we realized something amazing. All of us had noticed the charcoal drawings throughout the room that were pitifully framed and hanging on the walls throughout the building. The drawings themselves were very elaborate and detailed. This man had drawn every single one of them. He would have to get two to three inches away from the paper to see, but yet he drew them all without any glasses. Imagine what he will be able to do now!
The day would not be complete without Billy playing the guitar, right? We all had started to get to know one of the inmates who had hung around with us all day. He was in for drug trafficking, couldn’t be more than 25 years old, and was scheduled to get out in six months. He had earned the right to work in the prison, and did so, working as a physician’s assistant in the lab. For every two days that he worked, he was able to take one day off of his sentence. While he was in prison, he had learned how to play the guitar and wanted to play a few songs for us. When we finally took a break for our granola bar and water lunch, he played a few songs for us and sang. Of course Billy had to tune his guitar and play a few songs himself. The day was now complete.
It took a little longer for us to pack up this time since I had to have a complete inventory of our glasses down there before I left them behind with Dunia. Everyone pitched in though, counting each sleeve and documenting it accordingly so I could pass the info on to my VOSH co-horts when I got back to the states. This would save us a great amount of time in the future when deciding what glasses to take on future missions. We were all ready to head back and have some down time after our long day at the penitentiary. More than that, we wanted to celebrate the number of people that we had served throughout the week, almost 900 people total. Back at the hotel, we cleaned up quickly so we could head in to Managua for dinner at Santa Fe, a great Mexican restaurant.
Everyone had a blast enjoying each other’s company once again, and relishing in our conversations with our new-found friends and some old ones too. We knew this would be our last dinner together before we all started parting our ways. Dinner was amazing and so were the bathrooms! The ladies had figured out by now that restaurants in Nicaragua are rated based upon their bathrooms or the conditions of them. This one had a bathroom that looked like any you would see in a nice restaurant in the states. A luxury by Nica standards! Everyone had great food and fun. On the way back, Ken, Lester, and Elida stayed out and went to a club to go dancing with Dunia’s son and girlfriend while the rest of us went back to the hotel for the night. Although we had fun, we were also still very tired.
Saturday morning and time to say goodbye to Dunia and Elida. It was so sad. I always get that way when I have to say goodbye to Dunia, usually holding back tears. Everyone had gotten to know Elida throughout the week and had grown to love her. When we were done giving hugs goodbye, I looked over at Elida and saw tears running down her face. She wiped them away, trying to hide them, but it was no use. Of course all of us women started crying instantly because that’s what we do! I was actually shocked to see that we had touched Elida’s life so much. I had to hug her again and tell her how great she was. As the two of them left, the rest of us solemnly walked to the bus to head to Masaya. Today was the day we were going to do our souvenir shopping!
I’ve been to Masaya twice, but this time, we were going to a different market than I had ever been before. This one was much more crowded and packed, but also cheaper. It was an event for sure. While most of us went shopping, Lester, Issac, and Armando traveled to Jinotepe to drop off the glasses at Dunia’s house. We thought it would be difficult to spend three hours in that market, but time flew. Ken, Billy, and I were a team, going from vendor to vendor, pooling our items together to buy in threes so that we could barter and get items cheaper. We did awesome! Ken and I found several items we thought worthy for the silent auction fundraiser back home. We all had arms full of bags by the end of the day, filled with our personal treasures, souvenirs, gifts for loved ones, and otherwise. I bought more stuff than I ever had before, but yet didn’t spend much money either. I was elated, not to mention this was the first day that I felt well enough to eat an entire meal!
After stopping at the ever-famous Narcy’s for some fried chicken and great bathrooms, we headed off to the lagoon. That place is always beautiful. Everyone thought it was breathtaking as soon as we got off the bus. The beautiful strong breezes and cool temperatures are always a welcomed treat after spending days in the heat. John noticed right away that they had horses that you could pay to ride. It took no time at all for Lester and John to make their way down to the horses and to be led down a trail by young boys. The rest of us muddled around, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. Before long, John was coming back from his ride, at a pretty fast clip with his guide running behind after him. It had appeared that John had ridden a horse before! He exclaimed to all of us that it was so much fun and he had to go again! When I found out it only cost ten cordobas (about 61 cents) to ride them, I actually thought about riding them. It looked fun, and although I’m not a big fan of horses, I saw a little tiny one, that didn’t sit too far off the ground. My thinking was, if I fall, it’s not that far to the ground. Billy and I decided to join in with John and hit the trails. I made it abundantly clear though that I wanted my guide (who was all of eleven years old) right next to my horse the entire time! By the time Billy and I loaded up, John was already full speed ahead, without a guide. Apparently the guides felt comfortable enough with him going off on his own.
As the guide led us down the trail, I snapped away with pictures. There were views that you can’t get from the regular vantage point that are only accessible by the horse trail. It was absolutely beautiful. I squealed every time my horse started veering off the trail or I couldn’t see my handler, and he came running. Billy could only laugh at me and my reluctance to relax. Somehow, I was still able to enjoy it all. Once we got to the top of the hill, one of the guides took Billy’s and my picture on our horses. I figured this may very well never happen again so I must capture it. Once we came back down, I couldn’t help but do the princess wave to all of our group. Nancy snapped a picture of it, and I now have it proudly displayed on my desk at work. In the meantime, John was now on his fourth trip, and he now had the whip! He was like a regular cowboy, barreling full speed ahead on his horse. He was true comic relief for the rest of us! Once we finally peeled John off the horses, we had a group picture taken with the lagoon in the background. It truly captured all of our happiness.
After strolling through a few more gift shops along the strip, we packed up and headed back. It had been a long, but beautiful day. We finished the night off with pizza by the pool and good conversations reflecting on the week. By the time we left the next morning, we were all sad to go, but also anxious to get back to our families. It was sad once again to say good-bye to Joel and Lester. They had both been such assets to us once again. Joel would be finishing up his tour of duty in a few months and heading back to California in April, after a very long stint away from the U.S. We would no longer be working with him on any future mission trips. Lester is always the man in charge and the guy who gets things done. He’s a comfort zone for me when I’m there, and everyone else too. We always know as long as we have Lester, everything will be okay. It was going to be weird to not have him by our side anymore.
I could go in to how long our day was, traveling back home. I could discuss the grueling hours on the road, driving back from Miami to Gainesville. I could tell you how sad we all were that we weren’t able to give proper good-byes to John because of mixed up confusion at the airport. Instead, I’ll just tell you that seven people met up with two more Americans and a handful of Nicaraguans for a week and none of us will ever be the same. We all experienced a week of extensive memories and friendships that we will never be able to ignore. Our lives are changed forever. Life is good. Thank you Lord.