2006 Chinandega, Nicaragua
Chinandega, Nicaragua May 6-14-06
Invisible. That is my theme for this trip. All throughout the trip, it seemed as if I was invisible. This is my sixth trip and it seems like the 26th. Things have gotten so consistent, I know what to expect and what needs to be done. I was so caught up in administrative things on this trip, I never even had the chance to dispense a single pair of glasses. That and the fact that there were 39 people on the trip and only two of them doctors, we had way more volunteers than we could have ever needed. I didn’t participate in the clinics, I was purchasing rice, picking up lunch, giving tours, and anything else needed. I had little time to interact with the people, which is where the heartfelt love always comes in to place. None of the 39 people on the trip knew what I was dealing with or what I was doing. I’m sitting back home now fighting a flu/cold probably fueled by a variety of things but mostly from wearing myself down. After a week of intense battles, I am tired and worn down. Even now, I am somewhat…invisible.
As seems to be customary, this trip started way before the day we left for the airport. The preceding four weeks leading up to the trip were filled with 50+ hours spent at work each week along with countless hours planning, confirming, collecting, and organizing things for the trip. There was nothing I was looking more forward to than eight days away from home, away from my ruthless job, and a vacation with the ones I love in a country I love. By the time we gathered at the church at 2:30 am on Saturday, I was excited and pumped. My mom and dad had flown in just a few days before on Thursday and dad went to work doing home improvements and helping me get things ready.
After a full day of activities on Friday, my parents and I finally lay down to get a few hours of sleep at 8 pm. I was up by 12:30 am to take my last shower in the U.S. before we took off to be to the church at 2:30. I was impressed that everyone did a good job being on time and bringing their luggage up to the front of the bus so I could make sure we were not over on pieces. We actually ran ahead of time and were loaded on the bus by 3:15 am. Russ and Laura had met us as is customary for them, providing us coffee and doughnuts, praying with us one last time, and seeing us off on our trip. There was little fanfare with us pulling out of the church parking lot in the bus. As we drove through town, we saw many college students who were stumbling their way home from a night of partying at the bars. There were no cheers or celebrations to see us off on a Christ-filled mission but rather quiet, dim streets lit only by the occasional street lamp that wasn’t burned out. Inside the bus it was just as quiet. College students went back to their sleep-mode in the back of the bus. Only the occasional conversation between my mother and the Hughes’ could be heard….friendships made on the trip before, rekindled and excited to catch up on this next adventure together.
We stopped in Ocala in the desolate parking lot of Home Depot to pick up Paul, one of our doctors for the week. Again, there was no fanfare, but a quick, quiet pickup before we ventured on our way. Little did I know that would be the quietest Paul would be all week.
What seemed like moments later, we arrived at Orlando Airport. It looked like an abandoned one. The bus brought us to the group level, one that I had never been on. Once I flagged down someone who could find baggage handlers for us, I continued on to find out where we could check in as a group. The one baggage handler really helped me out by getting the group department on the same level to check us in. They were just opening and had no one in line. I collected everyone’s passports and had the lady pre-enter all the information they would need for each ticket. By the time everyone and their luggage made its way over to the area, the mouse maze had filled up with a group of Mexican-American soccer kids in the 10-14 year range. They delayed our check-in only by a few minutes before we were working our way to the check-in counter. I was thrilled to have the lady in charge tell me that I was the most organized group she had ever dealt with and she really liked how I operated. I took it as a large compliment. I ended up staying behind with one of the college students, Brian, for 30 minutes longer than anyone else because we thought we had a piece of equipment missing that somehow made its way through baggage already without a tag. Finally the lady told us to go ahead through security and continue to our gate in order to not miss our plane. I had forgotten what it was like to get through security at Orlando. Brian and I were literally running through the airport trying to make up for lost time. The lines in security were excessively long and of course he got pulled to the side for an additional inspection. We arrived at the gate as they were calling the last group of people to board. Nothing like cutting it close. Oh wait! Now I’m being told there are four college students missing….no wait, Todd just called on my cell to say three are boarding now….where’s the other? It seems John, one of the college students, has narcolepsy. That boy would prove throughout the trip how he can sleep in any particular place in any particular way. John had fallen asleep in a chair in the airport and somehow no one woke him up to say we were boarding the plane. A few moments later, he walked on the plane and a couple of us clapped. Little did I know how missing people and last-minute ‘oh crud’ moments would be a resounding theme throughout the trip also.
The flight from Orlando to Miami was the first chance in days that I would be able to relax and try to catch some sleep. I was looking forward to the Miami/Managua flight even more, knowing that would be a two hour flight instead of 45 minutes. Once we landed in Miami, people were re-energized and ready to eat. People took their time finding the gate, settling in for our 2-hour layover and getting various breakfast foods and drinks. I found it amusing that I got a Burger King-equivalent crossianwich from a Chinese restaurant. It filled the cavity and pacified me. By now, everyone had met up in the same gate. We had three people that met us at the Orlando Airport and one that met us in Miami. We were all accounted for and ready to board the second flight. Everyone was still exhausted from lack of sleep and the seven hours of traveling we had already done. Most everyone slept on the flight.
Once we landed in Managua, it was time to kick it in to gear. For the first time, we were to be met by a government official to walk us through customs without a second glance. Maria Alvarado met us with a sign with my name on it right before we made it to the immigration area. Professional greetings were exchanged and we were ready to filter through the $5 immigration process. Next, we gathered all of our luggage and supplies. Maria collected our immigration forms and we literally walked right past the customs agents. It was amazing. I felt like I was able to hold my head high past the ‘red light/green light’ agents and was tempted to stick my tongue out at them for all the hassle they had given us in the past. As we pushed our carts of luggage outside, I saw Sergio greeting Paul in front of me. Although I had yet to meet him face-to-face, I knew that had to be him….who else would embrace Paul and greet him like a long lost friend? Moments later, I introduced myself to Sergio.
Sergio has come to the forefront as the lead guy for VOSH-Southeast. Although he has known Max for five years, I had never met him or used him for trips up until this one. He has an engineering degree, so he is respected within the community. He rubs shoulders with people in power by being in the Esteli Lions Club. He’s been a great asset to us by helping implement the VOSH/UNESCO/VERAS children’s glasses project. Sergio does a lot of the legwork that is impossible for us to accomplish in the United States. He makes at least one trip to Grenada a week, which is the pilot area for this program where all children ages five to six are being tested for visual acuity and being provided with glasses if required. Since both Lester and Dunia are no longer working partners with VOSH, Sergio has become an essential part to VOSH-Southeast missions.
As Sergio and the others organized getting our group and its luggage over to Las Mercedes, I walked across the street to get us checked in to the hotel and see what complications we could run in to this time. I had made the reservations with Lorena Ramirez, the group sales person at this particular hotel this time instead of dealing with the 800-number group sales lady for Nicaragua. My hopes were high. She had told me there should be a welcome letter, a t-shirt, and all our reservations should make for an easy check-in since I emailed her a spreadsheet with the names and passports for each room ahead of time. Although I got my letter and t-shirt, the spreadsheet copy was not in the file and we ended up checking-in in our same usual fashion…slow and tedious as each room had to fill out paperwork. I was happy when later in the week Lorena called the staff on this particular day incompetent and that they had no excuse for being so disorganized. Nonetheless, it was pretty funny when Paul and Dana came back to the front desk to explain that their room had one double bed for two grown men and that just wasn’t going to work. It took several hours for that to be fixed.
Although our famous bus drivers, Isaac and Armando, weren’t meeting us until the following morning, the group had decided as a whole that they wanted to travel in to Managua for dinner. We had checked in to our rooms by 1:30 pm. Most everyone had agreed an early dinner at 4:30 should make for a fun time. Sergio helped me make the arrangements to get us to the infamous Santa Fe restaurant on the other side of Managua. The hotel wanted $80US to take us to the restaurant and back with their van. Not going to happen. Instead, about 15 college students piled inside and in the back of Sergio’s truck and the rest of us fit in four cabs at $7US per cab.
So off to Santa Fe we went and had a really good time. It was the college student’s first taste of Nicaraguan food, and it was at its finest. I think several students were a little shocked at the prices. I later found out that some people brought as little as $95US with them to cover their expenses for the week. Money would be an issue throughout the week for a variety of people…some for lack of planning, some because the value of the Cordoba had dropped again and businesses raised their prices to try and make up for it. We had all agreed that things were more expensive than last time…hard to tell if it was inflation or making up for the $16.30C to $17.35C exchange rate. Lauren, Billy, and Sergio helped people order their food and drinks since the menu was only in Spanish. After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel in groups again. I ended up in the truck with Sergio and he was kind enough to take us past some of the famous landmarks in downtown Managua. The most beautiful was a huge abandoned cathedral. Its stone structure was weathered and bore huge cracks down the sides, a result from the earthquakes felt in the 1970’s. The cemetery-like looking building stands alone, abandoned, never to be used again due to its unstable condition. He took us by an outdoor carnival area, an amphitheater, and a dangerous downtown market, never meant to be solicited by tourists.
Another popular scene was the banners advertising the Mayorga vs. de la Hoya fight. Ricardo Mayorga is the only boxer from Nicaragua who ever made it big. He’s fought some of the best of the best. He is full of attitude and bad habits and was challenging Oscar de la Hoya that night, a fighting legend. Billy and his love for boxing had already professed his commitment to watch the fight and tried to recruit others to join him. I had heard so much about Mayorga and his mouth, I knew I would fight sleep to see this guy get beat (hopefully). Our hotel was broadcasting the fight on several large screens with a lot of people expected to watch. There was a lineup of smaller matches before the main event. I had to pick up Tren, our optician from Canada, from the airport at 9:30pm and we were just hoping it wouldn’t cut in to the main event. By the time 9pm rolled around, everyone else had dropped out and retired for the night. Billy and I were left to watch the fight alone. At 9:30 we made our way over to the airport, finding even the guards at the airport trying to get reception with a coat hanger attached to a pitiful portable black and white TV. The fight was somewhat of a legendary thing. Billy carried his beer right in to the airport. We had to take a picture of Billy standing next to a police officer inside the airport, showing the differences in culture between Nicaragua and the United States. As we waited for Tren, Billy caught glimpses of conversations around the airport about the fight. Tren arrived safely and we escorted her over to her room to meet her roommates. Billy and I made it back to the restaurant area and caught a different table just in time for the fight announcements to begin. The restaurant had really filled up with the rich people of the area by now. What ensued after that was something amazing. Although Nicaraguans are all about their country and patriotism, I learned that night that they will not stick by corrupt people. Mayorga, although married, has a reputation for indulging in alcohol, women, and the like. Rumor was he raped a 15 year old girl. The fight began and in all honesty, Mayorga wasn’t doing that well from the start. Once de la Hoya started throwing some good punches, the crowd around us started cheering and shouting. I couldn’t believe it, but the majority of the Nicaraguans were cheering for de la Hoya, hoping he would beat Mayorga. In the end, that’s exactly what happened. De la Hoya threw enough good punches to knock Mayorga out in the 8th round and he was stripped from his title. The crowds everywhere cheered. It was the first time I had seen Nicaraguans not back up someone from their own country.
The next morning greeted us with a new day and an excitement of what was next. For those who had been to Chinandega before, it was the excitement of seeing familiar faces and places again. For the newcomers, it was the anticipation of seeing the rest of the country and excitement of their experiences to come. After breakfast, we all loaded up on the famous white, green, and red bus since Isaac and Armando arrived right on-time. Sergio was going to stay behind to meet the five people who would be flying in at 11am and take them with his truck to Chinandega. On the outskirts of Managua, the bus was pulled over by the national police. A few explanations and a slip of a $100C tip later, we were on our way, cleared for the rest of the trip. People were amazed at the views, volcanoes, living conditions, and overall scenery. We made a quick stop on a roadside turnoff to take pictures of Lake Managua.
Once we hit Leon, we stopped at the famous Tip Top for lunch. It was long and tedious. Billy stepped up to the plate and stood at the front of the line helping each person order. Twenty-one people later, he was finished and feeling like his jaw was worn out. Somehow I ended up getting my food last…matter of fact, they filled seven orders that had been placed after mine before giving me my meal. To add to my frustration, it wasn’t what I wanted. By the time I got my food, only two people were finishing up their meal. Billy wanted to walk around so he asked me to go sit with some others in our group. Feeling the frustration rising, I took two more bites of my meal and quit. Somehow I had lost my appetite. Before continuing on, a number of us found the Eskimo stand that was inside and got ice cream bars to-go. I found a small cup of cookies and cream ice cream and ate it on the bus, finding happiness in it.
We continued on to Chinandega in our ailing bus. All of us had heard that it wasn’t running quite well. There was also a resounding smell that I wasn’t familiar with. The mechanics of our group soon informed me that the sound was a transmission going bad and the smell was burning transmission fluid. Knowing full-well that a vehicle can not function without a transmission and that they’re pretty expensive to replace, I immediately started drilling questions to the mechanically-inclined, trying to assess the severity of the situation. All agreed it was something that needed to be addressed and they feared it would not get us through the trip. Uphill climbs included all of us crossing our fingers and a few prayers too, hoping another gear would kick in and help us on the incline. Finally we made it to Hotel Cosiguina, relieved.
Checking in was not as painful as the day before. Since I was the jefa (boss) of the group, the new attendants of the hotel kept wanting to give me their presidential suite. It took several attempts to explain to them that Dennis Bamberg was my father, not my husband, and I needed a room with two beds: one for my parents, one for me, not one bed for all of us to share. I would learn later in the week what the presidential suite really was. Dana and Ken’s room air conditioning quit working part-way through the week and they would each end up with their own private rooms. Ken was put in the presidential suite which looked like all the others. A double bed, small table, chair, and bathroom. I had to laugh, thinking about the three beds and much larger bathroom my parents and I shared just two doors down from him. I decided it doesn’t pay to be the important one all the time after all! Billy had a nice surprise waiting for him in his room also. He came back to the front desk after he had checked in to let them know there was a brown submarine waiting for him in his bathroom toilet. They couldn’t believe it. After some discussion, they remembered that the air conditioning repairman had been in that room just the day before. I guess he didn’t like working there too much.
The second group coming in Sergio’s truck from the airport actually pulled up to the hotel the same time we were finishing checking in. It made for an easy check-in process and dinner plans. We all met up within a couple hours to load up on the bus again, headed for Corinto, the port town.
Corinto is that great town we had visited back in October. It’s Nicaragua’s main port town, receiving anything and everything that is imported from foreign countries. The main highway running in to Corinto is always filled with dozens of semi-trucks, and the water’s edge is always filled with pirates, sailors, and foreigners relaxing overnight or for a day or two before they head back out on their boats to the next destination.
Once we made it to the restaurant in Corinto, we realized that Pastor Luis and his wife had not called there ahead of time like we had thought, and the restaurant was scrambling to get tables ready for us. Several of us went down to the rocky waters edge to enjoy the ocean while tables were arranged. I spent some time down by the waves letting them wash over my feet as I reflected on the trip so far. I probably stayed there longer than most. After a few more waves had washed over me, I returned to the group. I sat somewhat alone…not fitting in to any of the groups that had formed, but somehow in an odd corner spot, in-between cliques. The night was long and filled with conversation. People ordered their drinks at the bar, finding the service was instantaneous versus excessively long. Music filled the dance floor and a variety of college students started to dance. It didn’t last long before everyone was sitting down again.
When we first arrived at the restaurant, we had noticed a very strange looking guy sitting on a rock on the beach. He was very visibly dirty and had this look that pierced right through you in to your inner soul. He was almost like a statue since he rarely moved. He sat there with his arms crossed, leaning on his knees. His dark jean shorts and black and white striped shirt just added to his strange look. Somehow that shirt looked like a pirate shirt….fitting for him, a pirate. He was, to me, someone in the U.S. we would say could ‘go postal’. It appeared as if he could lunge right at you out of nowhere and annihalate you. I had to take a picture of him. At one point in the night, he had asked Billy for a beer. Since Billy is intrigued by pirates, he bought him two beers. That satisfied him for a few minutes. It kept his high going. Once we had started to eat, he sat in the windowsill within a foot of us. Then, he started to climb in and we had to have the wait staff stop him and get him to leave us alone. The night was not complete without him asking Billy again for another beer, but alas, Billy was done providing for the pirates for the night.
Our food did take forever (over five hours) for us to get. Dennis had ordered soup as is customary for a soup connoisseur. His seafood soup was something to be looked at, not eaten. We decided it was the ‘whatever is leftover’ soup. It included whole lobster arm clusters, clams, fish tails, and even turtle eggs. Dennis said the broth was actually really good, but he just couldn’t choke it down since every spoonful was full of fish scales…an acquired taste! Barb and I were the last to be served. When I got my fish, it was raw. I sent it back to be cooked some more and ate about 7 fries of Billy’s leftovers on the plate next to me. After another 10 minutes of waiting, I had Billy tell the people to forget my food. I had lost my appetite and couldn’t imagine eating a meal. We packed up in the bus and left the restaurant in the dark of night. After a quiet ride back to the hotel, we all unloaded to retire to bed, in preparation for an early breakfast and our first day of clinics.
My first contact of the day was a phone call from Billy at 5:30 am. Apparently all of our preparation work with the staff the day before wasn’t worth it. The staff was still not clear on what we expected to be served for breakfast. Although both of us were half-awake, we couldn’t help but giggle at such insanity. By the time we got down to breakfast at 7 am, they had figured it out. We were on our way to El Viejo by 7:45 am, and ready to start our first clinic day. It didn’t take us long to determine our setup in the one-room church we were using. We knew it would be a hot one with little ventilation and only one fan. Soon we were all working like busy bees getting the stations set up and starting to see patients. None of the areas really needed my coaching and as usual, just fell in to place. BJ ended up turning in to the staff masseuse. She sat in a chair and as people moved down the line, when they were in the chair in front of her, she gave each and every patient a neck and shoulder massage. She asked each person first, and no one ever refused. It was a small luxury for each of those people all day long.
Roberto had met us at the hotel that morning during breakfast. It was great to see him again. Once he got through the line of hugs waiting for him from some of the repeat mission-goers, we had starting talking shop. We knew we’d have a project today and he and I would implement it. Soon after the clinic was up and running smoothly, he and I got a taxi back to town to the main church office. First Lutheran Church had decided from the last trip that we wanted to do something special for the people of Santa Patricia, the refugee camp. The final decision was that we would provide each family with enough rice to last them for a month. Once we arrived at the church office, I had to greet my old friends from the church that I had worked with several times before. Roberto got the church van and he, one of the church women, and I headed to the local market area to buy our rice. The streets were bustling with people, taxis, bicycle taxis, animals, and carts. It was much like NYC rush hour traffic, but with a variety of transportation vehicles. We had to weave through to make our way to the store and for Roberto to find a place to park the van. Like any other Nicaraguan shop, the shop was tiny, but bustling with people doing business. The rice was on display in front in large bins. There were four kinds, based upon the quality. Roberto and the church lady recommended a particular grain to me labeled arroz espiga 60-40. It looked like rice to me. Roberto and I had to decide how many pounds we wanted. There are approximately 150 families in the refugee camp. I wanted them to get a good amount, so we decided on seven pounds per family, making our grand total 1000 pounds. They came in 100 pound sacks and would be loaded for us. The total came to $238.00US. Four young men loaded the bags of rice for us. They work in teams, one man flipping the sacks on top of their heads, the other holding the front corners to balance them. Once they got to the van, they bent their head down and flipped the sacks on top of each other. It was quite an interesting experience. Next, we walked down to the ‘plastic store’ to buy bags to divide the rice in. 150 bags cost about $2.00US. After we drove back to the church, Roberto and another young man unloaded the rice sacks in much the same manner as at the market. They stacked all ten bags in the back for the two women to spend the rest of the day dividing the rice in the smaller bags, ready for us the next day when we would be at the refugee camp. Amongst the Nicaraguans, us Americans became somewhat of a comical joke. They had never had anyone provide so much rice at one time. Most groups who had provided food before would provide just one meal worth. They wondered if we thought we were in China-dega, like the country with all the rice, not Chinandega. Nonetheless, we were proud as heck to be doing it.
Once Roberto and I got back to El Viejo, things were moving right along. Most people didn’t even miss us. Two other translators had showed up and were working. In talking to Roberto, I soon learned they were told they would be paid $25 per day! I had a fit. There were four translators there: Roberto, Antonio (Sandor’s son), and the two other guys. I made a deal with Roberto to get rid of the other two guys. I gave them each $5.00US for the few hours they had spent there and sent them home, thanking them for their service. Between Billy, Lauren, Sergio, Roberto, and Antonio, I knew I could get by for the rest of the week.
I soon noticed that Billy was gone. When I asked someone where he was, they had said he left with Junior, the pastor of the church and said he would be back with a surprise. I was a little upset since we were very short on a translator, but knew him well-enough to know he was up to something. Soon enough he returned with three fans they had bought down the street. Everyone cheered him as a hero. It gave each station a fan to use and made it slightly more bearable for everyone. Everyone took turns standing in front of the fan, trying to evaporate some of the sweat rolling off of them.
Many volunteers had brought clothes to distribute to people. My mom had brought a pair of tennis shoes that my 11 year old nephew had simply grown out of since last summer. My mom spotted a little boy who looked like he just might be the right size. We asked him if he would like to try them on and see if they fit. He was a little surprised and shy, but very willing to do so. Once he put them on, I could tell he still had some room at the end of his toes before they would fit perfectly, but he fell in love with them. When he was asked if he wanted to keep them, he smiled from ear-to-ear and said yes. He immediately threw his black school shoes at his mom and told her to hold them and he proudly laced up and tied his new tennis shoes, still in very good condition. He hugged my mom so tight, just the way she loves hugs. She was in heaven, and so was he. He gave me a hug too since I had helped determine if they fit well. After he had gone through and saw the doctors, he was also prescribed glasses for distance. The ladies in the dispensary hooked him up with some very cute black framed glasses. He gave hugs to every person in sight that had anything to do with his experience that day. He couldn’t stop smiling and was so grateful for the kindness we had showed him.
There was a strange noise that we sporadically heard coming from outside. At one point, I decided to check out what it was. On the porch across the street and one door down was a very drunk man. He was laying there, covered in dust and dirt. The only thing he wore was a pair of dusty shorts, the same color as the cement porch. Except for his black hair, he very much blended in to the porch because he had rolled in the dust so much. Every couple minutes, he would yell and moan out loud, sounding like an animal that had been stabbed and was dying a slow death. As the day progressed, he would move as the sun moved, choosing porches that were in the shade. At one point he ended up under our bus and Isaac had to get rid of him. He also attempted to get on the bus. Not good. Near the end of our clinic day, I saw him standing up, stumbling on himself. He had just finished relieving himself on the porch he was standing on. There was an abstract design of wet streams in a small area on that porch. He was known as the town drunk and everyone said to just ignore him.
The day continued with many people in need. There were so many volunteers, it was easy for people to rotate in and out of their areas and take a break from standing and the grueling temperatures. Armando asked me to take a picture of him with the woman in the house across the street. In my broken Spanish, I thought he had said it was his daughter. Several days later, I found out he has no daughters in El Viejo. It must have been just another woman he was flirting with. There was a woman in a wheelchair who had to be lifted up in to the church and back down again once she was done. Isaac and Armando, my workhorses, lifted her with safety and ease, keeping the woman comforted with their strength. There were babies galore and Dick soon got lost in the sea of ninos. He became the official babysitter once again and pretty much forgot about the autorefractor area so he could be the official photographer of children and built-in grandpa.
At one point in the afternoon, the power went out. All of us immediately realized how much we appreciated the fans we had just moments before. The autorefractor, running on power, only had a battery that would last another 45 minutes. After that, the doctors’ jobs would get a lot more time-consuming. Luckily the power outage was only about 30-35 minutes and we were all back in business with the autorefractor never giving up on us. The day finished with many people, young and old, having been served by us, 152 in total. The pastor and deaconess of the church had a brief gathering to thank us for our work we did there. We left behind two large bags full of clothing for them to distribute amongst the local people. I also told Pastor Junior to come by the hotel the next morning and we would have more clothes for him. In total, he ended up with ten paper grocery bags full of clothing.
That evening, the vision group rejoined with the college group for dinner at the hotel. Everyone enjoyed their meals and each other’s company. After dinner, the vision group had our standard wrap-up session. I informed everyone what Roberto and I were able to accomplish with the less than $250 we had spent for the rice. My dad, feeling very moved by his experience in October and the day’s events, spoke up. In a very quivering voice, he expressed how he found it amazing how the people of Nicaragua require so little. He further explained that his experience that day was no different than the last trip and it seems so menial to know that $250 could feed an entire refugee camp for a month. My dad then made a proposal to the group: to drink one less drink that week, to eat one less expensive meal, or however we felt necessary in order for everyone in that room to chip in another $5 or whatever they felt appropriate. He wanted to send us back to the market to buy more food for these desperate people. My father could barely get all the words out of his mouth before he broke down crying again, something I had seen on the previous trip. Within moments, my hands were starting to fill with dollar bills of various denominations. By the time it was all said and done, I had another $100. I suggested we use the money to buy the beans these people so desire, have more nutritional value, but often can’t afford. Everyone agreed. My daddy cried. For people who hadn’t been to Santa Patricia before, at this moment, they could not have been more excited for the next day to come and envelop themselves in everything they had heard about.
When Roberto showed up the next morning, I quickly told him about the money that was raised the night before and our plans. He put things in motion to buy us 300 pounds of beans for the $100 I gave him. The rice was delivered first thing in the morning to the refugee camp and the beans delivered by noontime. The school administrator, Julia, and several other volunteers were very systematic in their dispensing of the items. Since they know each family so well, it is easy for them to know and track each person who picked up rice and beans. People who picked up rice in the morning would get a follow-up visit with the beans to make sure it was all distributed evenly.
College students and vision team members alike were pumped that morning and ready to head in to the refugee camp. Breakfast couldn’t be over soon enough. There were four people: Dennis, Tren, Jenn, and Barb that decided to stay back at the hotel. All were feeling sick except for Barb who was hired as the nurse to stay with them and keep watch. The rest of us loaded up and headed out. As we entered the refugee camp, repeat mission-goers’ hearts filled with joy. Newcomers were filled with anticipation and amazement at the same time. As soon as the big bus started making its way to the school, children started forming in groups and running after us in the bus, ready to greet us. Our fun was just about to begin.
After initial greetings with Julia again, we were ready to look around and figure out how we were going to set up in this partitioned one-room church/school. Once again, within minutes, we were up and running, ready to see the patients. The patients were spread out and at a slow, steady pace throughout the day. Many people didn’t come until after they were done working for the day. It made it nice for me to be able to take people in groups of 5-7 on tours within the refugee camp. Tours always included looking for animals and children. There were kids galore and they were always willing to show us their houses and ask for candy. They learned early on that we had brought candy with us. The most difficult part was remembering which faces you had given some to already as to not show favoritism. Throughout the day, we saw chickens, ducks, a turkey, pigs both black and white, dogs, cats, parrots, and even a rat! Many children were without any clothing or shoes. Although it was a norm, it didn’t make it easier to accept. One little boy, 2-years old or less was playing in the middle of the dirt road with a homemade game. BJ sat down and wanted to play with him. He had an old cardboard egg crate and had placed bottle caps in each of the compartments. Once he filled it up, he would dump it and start over. Such simplistic things to keep children entertained.
There were babies sleeping in swinging hammocks and others getting baths in the sink used for food, clothes washing, and baths. Each drenched child was just as cute as the next. They liked seeing their picture on our digital cameras and always offered up a smile after viewing it. Tortillas were being made at what seemed like every-other house and beans were brewing throughout the village also. There was one pig that had gotten slaughtered that day. The meat was being cut up on the wooden table outside the house used for everything and the skins hung on the clothesline to dry. By afternoon when I brought another group around to see the pig, it was all gone…every part of it. Most family members and neighbors had eaten good that day. There is no refrigeration system for them so if they slaughter an animal, it all has to be eaten the same day.
Some of the college guys had joined in a heated game of soccer that had formed. Lauren had brought a couple balls with her and found out a soccer ball is the highest commodity item in the area. Although we thought our college students were going to pass out from dehydration several times, it didn’t stop them from playing…until the ball deflated from hitting a barbed wire fence. The game was intense and involved over a dozen people. When the game was finally over, John and Brian, the college students, were drenched in sweat, dirt, and even a little sewer mud. We asked them to stay away from us for the rest of the day.
There were two houses that were very special for me to go back to. One was the house on a corner. I had taken a picture of it in October and used it for my Christmas card. It was a pitiful, typical shack with a mother and four kids. Only the mom and oldest child was clothed. It would be any American’s worst nightmare. When I found it this time, I was pleasantly surprised. There was a father with the family. All of the kids were clothed, at least partially. In addition, the mom had a small vegetable stand set up in the corner of her lot. She had a variety of fruits and vegetables for sale to the local people. One of the smallest children was gnawing on a mango. The house itself seemed to have more permanent hard plastic walls instead of garbage bag material. It warmed my heart.
The second house was Roberto’s mom. We had visited her there last October. When we came this time, she had Roberto’s sister and three of her friends doing homework at a table in the front yard. As always, they invited us in again. Their two dogs were running around again. I had always liked Cookita (little cookie). He was a funny yipper dog. She had a special surprise for us this time though. Roberto’s sister went and brought out their pet rat, Pinky. It’s an albino white rat, clean as a whistle. Although I would never touch it, it became a landmark and a reason why I brought every group to her house to see. Pinky lives in a cage, hanging from a tree in the back yard. He has an old tattered silk negligee for a blanket and is fed cheese and tortillas for food. Hard to believe such a thing would exist in a place like that, but everyone was as intrigued by Pinky the rat, as I was. Roberto’s mom was prepping some corn to get ready to make tortillas in the morning, and by afternoon, she had cooked it all, mashed it, and was forming and baking the tortillas on the top of a 55-gallon drum lid over an open fire, just like all the other women. They make the tortillas and then have other family members go to town and sell the items on the curbs of the streets to anyone who passes by.
There were several intense games of marbles going on throughout the camp. One in particular caught my attention and I watched for a few minutes. In all the dirt, I couldn’t figure out how they kept the marbles so clean until I saw the answer. One boy was up to ‘shoot’. He popped the marble in his mouth to clean it, THEN shot it. Oh boy. The places that marble had been.
By late morning, a news reporter from TV 22 and a cameraman had shown up. They wanted to interview me and have coverage for the 7 pm news. I asked Ken to join me to cover the ‘Christian’ questions a little more profoundly. Lauren and Billy, acting as our translators, joined Ken and I for the interview. Only a few questions were asked, and most ended up on Ken’s shoulders, but nonetheless, we got First Lutheran Church and VOSH’s name out there in the community again. We had asked if we could get a copy of the tape and she said she would arrange it and return in the afternoon. I’m still not sure why, but she did return in the afternoon and re-interviewed us. I think she just tried to re-enact what she had done in the morning and gave us that tape. It was fine, nonetheless. Public coverage of our work and getting VOSH’s name out there is always a plus.
In a place so sparse and desolate, it’s hard to believe that they could have such things to offer us foreigners. It was amazing, as the day progressed, to see the things offered up to us by the local people. Hugs were abundant and so was the laughter. Coconuts were also offered with a young man shimmying up the tree to knock a coconut down for the pastor to cut the top with a machete and stick a straw in to drink it. As we took tours throughout the camp, we would always compliment the women of the household on their beautiful dainty gardens and few flowers growing. Children were often right by our side during these tours since they just wanted to be around us. As the day progressed, the women of our large group were offered bouquets of simple but beautiful flowers from the girls of the camp. I couldn’t name them all, but it was like being a tropical paradise with peaches and mangos and fuchsias and whites and cranberrys and pinks and reds and lavenders all meshing together to form beautiful headpieces, bouquets, and boutonnières. Right after lunch time, Roberto had gone back to the hotel to pick up whatever sick people were well enough to return. Everyone but Jen returned, and all were greeted with flowers, much like a Hawaiian lei greeting.
It seems that Ken must have looked extra good that day. Early in the morning, he had noticed a young lady at the house right on the corner across the street from the church. She was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, doing her standard household chores. She looked at him and smiled and he smiled and waved back. Thinking nothing of it, Ken went about his normal business in the clinic. A little bit later while videotaping the children playing outside, he realized that young lady looked different. Looking over, he noticed she had changed in to a black sleeveless shirt with white lace around the wide-brimmed neck. She was wearing a black skirt, and had pulled her hair back in a sweeping ponytail and had put on a significant amount of makeup topped off with brick-red shimmering lipstick. She could not stop smiling and looking at Ken, batting her eyelashes, and acting shy in a flirtatious kind of way. When Ken informed me of his newly formed fan club, I had to see for myself. Sure enough, she was cooking rice across the street, smiling away. I told Ken that we must capture the moment and we both walked over to her house and asked permission to enter. She was very excited for us to enter her yard and show us her cooking area, in a lean-to against her house. We made pitiful broken Spanish small talk about the food she had, what she was cooking etc. We found out her name is Concepcion (how appropriate) and nineteen years old. She looked more like 35. I then motioned to her that we needed a picture of the two of them together and she jumped at the opportunity. Their picture together shall forever go down in infamy as Ken and his Nicaraguan esposa.
One of my favorite patients of the day was a girl twelve years old. She had a simplistic beauty to her that reminded me of cousin. Her skin was flawless, her hair pin straight. It was bobbed at the shoulders and pulled back in a simple pink headband. Her wide eyes and mouth was common to many of her neighbors, but somehow prettier. She had been with a group of girls that had walked around with us earlier in the camp and when we returned to the church, she approached the steps with a very scared look on her face. I had asked Antonio, the closest translator, to find out what was wrong. Just the day before, she had a barbed wire snap back and hit her in her eye. When I looked in to her eyes, I could see the one was very red and irritated. Both of her parents were working and could not escort her through the clinic. She had never been to a doctor before and didn’t know what to expect. I had Antonio tell her that I was going to personally walk her through the clinic and make sure she was taken care of. Her nervousness never went away, but I think she was slightly comforted by me being there. I told Julia and the girls at registration to register her and she didn’t need to pay. I walked her through visual acuity, on to the autorefractor, and then took her over to see Dr. Greg. Sergio helped Greg in translating her situation. Although Greg and Paul were not able to bring many meds with them, Greg had one more bottle of antibiotic drops left. He applied a dose to her eye and had Sergio give explicit instructions as to how she was supposed to put these drops in her eyes four times a day. Also, she was not to let ANYONE else use or have these drops for any reason. My heart was filled with warmth when Greg told me that if she had not been treated by him that day, with the drops, that redness would have likely turned in to infection and caused blindness for her. Her vision was perfect. What was more amazing is before we loaded on the bus at the end of the day, I found her in the crowd of kids, took her over to him, and showed him how much her eye had improved in just a matter of hours. She had already given herself her next dose she was supposed to and the redness was almost completely gone. A young, sweet girl whose eye was saved by a doctor, but mostly by luck.
Probably the most interesting patient of the day was an old, shriveled-up lady in her 80’s. She couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds, and appeared very frail and weak. The church was hot, just like any other place. As she was making her way through the clinic, she started to show signs of distress. By the time she made it through the autorefractor station, we knew something had to be done for her. We sat her down, put a fan directly on her, and searched for some water. It was visually apparent her breathing was labored. I found Billy and asked him to help me find out what her ailments were. We gave her a little water and I found one of my bottles of Gatorade. I knew no matter what her situation, that Gatorade could do nothing but help her if she was dehydrated, exhausted, or otherwise. She stubbornly drank it in tiny sips, trying to tell us she would be okay. After some discussion, Billy determined that she truly is not healthy. She had just recently spent three days straight in bed and could not get herself up, she was too weak. Our little lady was suffering from asthma, as she had before. Two of our college students immediately offered their inhalers and one of them gave it to her. She did her version of using an inhaler which the college students said was all wrong and they tried to have Billy explain to her how to use it properly. After another round of improper use, they had her stop, knowing she could do more damage than good if she overdosed on the inhaler. After she calmed down somewhat, we helped her through the doctors and in the dispensary, only to find out that all she needed was a pair of +2.75 readers. She walked away with a Gatorade, an inhaler, and a new pair of glasses. Aaron, one of the college students, was instructed to carry of all her items and walk her home to make sure she made it okay. She did.
After we were done seeing our 152 patients for the day, we all gathered at the front of the church towards the altar. There were thanks to give and gifts to present. When we were there last October, Judy, like many others, was so moved by the people and especially the children of Santa Patricia. She had made a vow to herself that she was going to give a suitcase full of school supplies to the church. Although Judy was not able to go on the trip, she did have not one, but two suitcases full of markers, colored paper, glue, paints, crayons, musical instruments, Spanish storybooks, and so much more. So much in fact that we had to beg for room in people’s suitcases to carry it since it was over the weight limit for the airlines. We had laid out all of the items we brought the school and it covered a 3×20 foot area. In addition, I had brought down some old scrub tops from my work and had approximately 100 scrub tops to give. Roberto translated as the pastor and Julia said their thank-you’s. Julia was almost speechless and definitely had tears in her eyes. No one had ever donated school supplies to them before. I had Roberto explain to them that we, as a group, were so thankful that they were willing to invite us in to their homes, their community, and their church. We felt privileged to serve them and it was as meaningful to us as it was to them. When I turned to our group sitting in the chairs, there were tears streaming down a number of people’s faces. We had given that community rice and beans for a month, lots of clothes handed out throughout the day, scrubs, school supplies, candy, glasses, and a lot of love. It somehow didn’t feel like much at all. As we all filed out of the church, we decided to walk around the camp one more time. Although we had walked by some of the houses dozens of times that day, we just wanted to stay longer and envelop the people more. There was what seemed like thousands of kids laughing, holding our hands. They were interspersed with us gringos and we were in heaven. As we made our way back to the bus, we gave lots and lots of hugs to kids, filing on there one-by-one. I was the last one on the bus and had to swallow hard to keep from crying. I turned around and took one last picture of the kids before telling Isaac to head out and wave to all my friends. We all must have said adios a thousand times as we waved out the windows and watched the kids. Most of them followed the bus all the way to the entrance of the camp, knowing their boundaries. It was something you would see in a movie with kids running after the bus, screaming adios as they wave with both hands, not wanting us to leave. One girl in particular caught my eye as the bus approached the pavement at the entrance. She was smiling and waving, but fighting back the tears that were streaming down her face at the same time.
There wasn’t much talk on the way back to the hotel. I think everyone was just taking in what they had experienced that day. We were all filthy dirty from the dirt and sweat. It didn’t matter. We knew we would have luxury in just a few short moments compared to what those poor people live with every day of their lives.
Our dinner at the hotel that night seemed extra good. We enjoyed our dinners and had a wrap-up session afterwards. It seemed all the experiences we had that day were varied, but yet the same. It put each one of us in check. All of us had done an assessment of our lives and determined that we didn’t need half the things we possess. Dick and Barb had inquired as to why not all the kids were in school uniforms. It was explained that although school is free, you must wear a uniform in order to attend. Many of the families in the refugee camp can not afford the uniforms. Each uniform costs somewhere between $14-16US. Barb found it a personal mission to look in to this further and see if we can somehow provide the children of the refugee camp with uniforms so that they can go to school. It is just a tragedy to think that the only thing possibly holding these kids back from getting an education and bettering themselves is a $14 uniform.
Wednesday was our day off. We were scheduled to go to Leon to see some of the sites and have dinner on the beach. Jen was finally feeling well enough to join us so our group was once again complete. The college group was working that day so the vision group was able to spread out on the bus and enjoy the extra space.
Once in Leon, Antonio became our tour guide. First stop was the Ruben Dario Museum. He is the most famous person to come out of Nicaragua, and more specifically, Leon. His poetry is world-famous. The museum opened in 1964 and has been open ever since then. The building is actually part of the original house he lived in with his aunt and uncle. It appears his parents were not around. He was quite a smart guy. He was baptized and started reading at the age of three. By the time he was 11 years old, he was known as the kid poet. In his glory days, he lived in and traveled to dozens of countries, being an ambassador at one point. He did move back to Nicaragua before he died on 2/6/1916. His body remains in a marble crypt inside the Cathedral in downtown Leon. He had outlived six wives, seemingly marrying one as soon as the previous one had died. Once the long-winded tour guide had stopped, we moved on to the next stop.
We continued on to the cathedrals: San Francisco built in 1643, Concepcion Maria Cathedral constructed in 1747, and La Merced built in the 18th century. All the churches were elaborate, beautiful, and just as I had remembered them from when I visited them two years ago. Our group took tons of pictures and really took in the cultural differences of Christianity, worship, and décor. Many of us sat within the pews of the cathedrals meditating, praying, and soaking it all in. Many of us had lots of things on our mind and felt comfortable taking a small break to talk to God. If our thoughts would have been audible, I think it would have sounded like when Muslims pray and bow to Allah….a low mumbling of words and phrases that you are not able to decipher individually, but together sounds like disorganized chatter.
By the time we had seen all these places, we were ready to eat lunch. We had made reservations for us at the famous El Convento hotel. I had been here so many times before, it felt like a second home to me. As we walked up the stairs, it was comforting to recognize all the faces of the staff that I knew so well. They recognized me too. They had made a beautiful table for us with arranged vegetable baskets for centerpieces. El Convento has some of the best food around, but no one said they were fast. Even with having made reservations, it still took us two-and-a-half hours to have lunch there. Not too many people complained since we were out of the heat in the ice cold air conditioning, the food was indulgent, and the view was spectacular. People took their time walking around the courtyard, exploring the hallways filled with artifacts, and snapping pictures of everything in sight.
Instead of seeing more cathedrals and the like, the group decided they were ready for the next part of our day-long adventure. We loaded up on the bus, heading out to the beach at Las Penitas. I had tried to have Billy call the night before to Suyapa Beach, the restaurant and hotel we had eaten at before. They are right on the water with a beautiful view and good seafood. The phone numbers we had were not working so we were stuck with the suggestion of the front desk guy. He suggested we go to this other place right down the road. He said it was just as good. I told him his reputation was relying on it. When we pulled up to the place in the bus, I knew things were bad. The beach was across the street versus right at the restaurant and that itself didn’t look too promising. Roberto, Antonio, and I all knew it wasn’t going to work. We pulled in to the beach across the street and everyone unloaded and either walked down to the water or found refuge in the classic palm branch covered cabana right there full of Tonas and Victorias. Roberto and Antonio decided to take the bus to go down to Suyapa Beach and see if they were open. In the meantime, the United Nations room (Tren from Canada, Boski of Indian descent, Cathy of Vietnamese descent, and Allison from Illinois) along with a few others jumped right in to the water and started riding the waves. I took the opportunity again to walk down the beach alone. As I walked down the beach, I let the waves wash over my feet. I noticed that the sand was so different there than in the U.S. It was much coarser and darker than the beautiful Florida beaches. I found a spot quite a ways down from the group and just stood there looking out in to the harsh waves. Those waves were strong enough to scare me. A few minutes later Roberto and Antonio returned with a full report. Suyapa Beach was opened and ready for our business.
After gathering everyone back up, we headed down the street two miles to the famous place. The rest of the day and evening was wonderful. Most everyone ordered drinks and chose their menu items early so they’d be ready when we wanted them. I changed in to my bathing suit and decided I needed those powerful, scary waves to knock some sense in to me. Alone, I walked down to the water. Suyapa Beach has these amazing rocks just a few yards down from the restaurant. I went there and chose a spot on a rock that I thought was stable enough for me to get wet on my legs, but hopefully not more. As powerful as those waves were, I got jerked around and knocked off that rock a number of times with my sunglasses wet and hair dripping at the ends. My lips tasted like salt and my butt felt raw from being scraped along the rock. I decided to get up and look at some of the intricate shells that were displayed along the waters edge. Before long the United Nations showed up. I will be forever grateful for those guys. Although I was in a ‘mood’, they kept at me until I joined in to their fun. Just like the bathing-beauty movie stars that they were, I was taking pictures of them in groups on the rocks. Allie and I had left our cameras back at the table and soon I was running up to grab them. I think people noticed my attitude change because when I came up, I was on a mission and in a good mood. I was having fun! Cameras in tow, Tren, Allie, Cathy, Boski and I climbed up on the tallest rock with a lot of encouragement from each other and had Paul and Greg take pictures of us. Of course I think I look fat as heck in the pictures. Always do. We had a great time looking at black crabs, tadpoles, and snails swimming around in pockets between the rocks. Once we encouraged each other back down from the rock, we searched for more shells, just because. Cathy, Greg, and I ended up standing on one of the rocks and having the first real conversation I was able to have with Greg all week. It was a great discussion about optometry programs at different universities, VOSH-Kentucky (Greg’s the president of the newly formed group), VOSH-Southeast, Nicaraguan mission efforts, and just that general eye stuff that most people would be bored with.
We headed back to the group just in time for dinner. Everyone indulged in a variety of seafood dishes ranging from lobster tails to a full fish. The restaurant was playing some classic 80’s songs to which most of us knew the words. Some of my favorite moments that evening was when Ken was serenading Billy, singing along with the songs. Billy started to get a little nervous, seeing how ‘in to it’ Ken was, but nevertheless, it was all in fun and games.
Once we left that night, we knew our bus had been sounding horrible all week. Sergio finally explained to me that indeed the transmission was going bad and about to break. Isaac and Armando were planning on replacing it with a new one the next day. I was a bit nervous knowing that is not normally a couple hour thing, and more than that, this is Nicaragua. What would take 2 hours in the U.S. takes 2 days in Nicaragua. They were asking for a $300 advance on their payment so they could pay for it. No problem, as long as it fixed it. I don’t think there was a single person on that bus ride that wasn’t happy when we made it back to the hotel. The bus was whirring and grinding and smelling and just not good the whole way back. There were several times we thought we might have to get out and push.
The next morning we were having our clinic right around the corner from the hotel. It made it very convenient for everyone. I got a little nervous when Sergio and I walked up and the gates were locked and no one in sight at 8 am. Within a few minutes, Roberto, the administrator had showed up and we were ready to set up. As usual, in record time, the clinic was up and running, registering patients to be seen. First thing in the morning I noticed the VOSH banner was not around. After interviewing several people, it was decided that it was left in a corner at the church in Santa Patricia. Roberto and I hopped in the church van and headed to the refugee camp. I’m always willing to look for an excuse to go back there. I just love being amongst those children. When we pulled up to the church, school was in session for the four and five year olds. Julia was teaching some of the children and very happy to see us again. I beamed when I saw the children were playing with the puppets, storybooks, and musical instruments that we had given them just two days before. The second class was cutting turkeys (you know the kindergarten thing where you trace your hand) out of construction paper and pasting them on to other paper. It was so neat, knowing these kids had none of this just a few days earlier. Julia had kept the banner in safe keeping at her house. We gathered it up and headed to the gas station to order pizzas for the crew for lunch later.
Back at the clinic I saw things were hopping again. By now, everyone was experts in their own area. I wasn’t needed for anything. The autorefractor area was so accustomed to their task; they hadn’t used a translator in several days…only in special cases. Barb had expressed her interest to go back to the refugee camp if an opportunity arose. She had a little girl she wanted to check up on. Roberto and I took her with us to go to the camp before we picked up the pizzas. The first house on the left as you drive in to the camp was home to the bicycle repair shop and Daisy. Daisy was a three year old girl that Barb had met on Tuesday. She was suffering from Impetigo, a common skin disease that looks like black-blue permanent marker on the face. Daisy had been peppered with this and pustules all over her face on Tuesday. Barb, being our wonderful nurse, recognized and diagnosed the highly contagious disease and acted on it. She had Roberto take her to the local pharmacy and bought antibiotics that cost Barb less than $2US. She dispensed the medicine to Daisy on Tuesday and was coming back to check on her prognosis. I had never seen Daisy on Tuesday, so seeing her for the first time was a bit of a shock to me. Barb was happy to see that she was improving, although she hadn’t improved as much as she had hoped. The pustules had started to dry up and the markings had not spread any further. Barb felt comfortable that she was on the road to recovery.
We left there and headed over to the gas station to pick up the pizzas and head back to the church to feed everyone. The afternoon was filled with patients, as was expected. We
had taken a slightly higher caseload for the day with the intention of having a few less the next day in order to head back to Managua at a decent time. As the day went on, I often wondered how the bus was doing with its transmission issues. Sergio checked in with the bus drivers several times, and it was always the same…they were working on it.
In the afternoon, there was a little boy named Jorge who stole my heart. I first noticed him because he was acting up as he and his mother were making their way through the line. She tried to keep him entertained but he just seemed to be irritated and fussy. I figured I would go over and see if I could keep him from having his outbursts and trying to pull away from his mother. Within seconds, I found out that this cute little six year old was a deaf mute. Immediately, I made it my goal to take him under my wing. My mind raced, trying to think how I could entertain him. I couldn’t speak to him and his mother didn’t seem to use sign language with him…only sweeping hand motions of over there, here, etc. I pulled out my camera and sat next to him. I turned it on and went to the review mode. Knowing how many pictures I had taken the days before of dogs, cats, birds, pigs, etc., I knew I could entertain a six year old with that. As I started scrolling through the pictures, I could see Jorge relaxing. He went from tensed-up to the look kids get when they’re watching cartoons. When I got to a puppy, he’d point and smile. It warmed my heart that we were somehow communicating. As the mother was being moved down the row of chairs, I followed them. We went through all of my pictures on my camera one-by-one. He even giggled at a couple of the pictures and motioned to me if I skipped over one. He knew if I did. After the picture show was done, I looked for one of the stuffed puppy dogs Greg had brought with him. Two left and I got one of them. Jorge’s face lit up when I handed him the puppy. He rubbed the ears in-between his fingers. He rubbed it on his cheek. He liked it a lot. By the time it was time for his mom to be seen at the autorefractor, he was curious. As his mother was tested, he watched and looked. He even got brave enough to walk around to the other side and look at what my dad was seeing when he was testing her. He stood in amazement, taking in the whole experience. Once they were done with her, we thought we might try and test him. Without any translators, we motioned our way for him to sit on Dick’s lap as they tested him. Although it was impossible to tell him where to look or to keep his eyes still, they were able to test him. His vision was very good, that of a typical six year old. Jorge then continued on with his mom to the doctor’s station and the dispensary. I had already been looking for a pair of sunglasses for him in the dispensary and found the smallest pair left. By the time they left, he was smiling, posing for pictures with his shades and puppy. What a change from the boy who was acting up just a little while ago. What really struck me about Jorge is I don’t think he was a deaf mute. When he giggled and laughed, his voice tone was normal. I have worked with and known a number of deaf people in my life and their voice tones are always higher pitched than normal. Jorge wasn’t. I wonder if he’s just not educated and taught how to communicate. He was wearing a school uniform, so I could only hope that someone is teaching him. I inquired to Roberto about schooling for deaf people. He said there was a specialty school where kids were taught sign language and other skills, but many people didn’t know about it, even though it was free. It made me wonder if Jorge’s mom knew about it since her motions were not anything close to sign language. I wanted to do more, but could only give Jorge a tousle of his hair and a wave goodbye as he and his mother left.
Roberto and I made one last trip out while the clinic was running. He was going to take me to the new Canadian-Lutheran church headquarters that was being built on the edge of town, towards Leon. The church we were working in is rented. The new church was funded mostly by the Schwann Foundation….yes, that famous Schwann truck. The owner is a Lutheran and known for giving thousands of dollars away for charitable organizations. They had quite a large tract of land that had the offices and a huge chapel being built right next door. Eventually they planned on building barrack-style quarters for mission groups to come and stay in bunk-beds for an inexpensive rate while doing mission work in the area. While I was there, I was able to see some of the items that are donated to the church and then distributed to the families in the area. There were rows and rows of rice, beans, oil, and buckwheat. It was wonderful to see all of the items, knowing Orphan Grain Train was behind most all of it. It was going to a good cause.
Back at the clinic things were still under control…mostly. Much like Jorge earlier in the day, there was another young boy who was screaming almost at the top of his lungs. He was spooked and scared to death. We just didn’t know what from. Like many kids, he had never been in a clinic setting or seen a doctor before. His mother wanted him to be tested, but he was scared out of his mind. Billy was the first to make an attempt with Douglas. Somehow, Billy’s demeanor worked. He said, “Hey! What’s wrong?” He continued to talk to him as he gently rubbed his head, his back, in short, quick strokes. As he continued to talk to him, Douglas seemed to calm down long enough to listen to Billy. Billy continued, “Hey, what are you afraid of? It’s just letters on the wall. You see it’s an E and a star and….” A connection had been made. I asked Billy to follow the boy all the way through the clinic since he had made a bond with him and trust was built. At the very end, Douglas got the last dog. We asked him to name it, and he did. Douglas and Clifford lived happily ever after.
The clinic day finished out with a young lady, Sochil, and her brother. She was about 16 and her brother 14. She ended up needing -9.00 glasses making her blind as a bat without them and his vision was perfect. It was a strange combination, but a wonderful thing to see Sochil seeing well for the first time in her life.
After another great meal at the hotel and a bunch of showers, we had all decided to go to the local discothèque that night. It was Mariachi night and we hadn’t heard one all week! We agreed to pay Sergio a few bucks for gas in order to drive us in groups there. The bus was dead and we were only hoping it could be ready by the time we were ready to leave the next day. Once at the discothèque, we could tell we were early, before the local crowds had arrived. It was only 8:30 after all. The college students congregated to one side while most of the vision team congregated on the exact opposite side. Leave it to BJ to be asked by a local to have the first dance. She cut up a rug on the dance floor showing everyone in the place how it’s supposed to be done. Most people had a good time and some even more. The Mariachi band played two sets of four songs each. The band itself was a typical Nicaraguan Mariachi band with their tightly fitting clothes and tarnished instruments. The real highlight was the singer though. He was Nicaragua’s version of Elvis. While everyone else was in maroon, he was in a white with black embroidery outfit…almost a one-piece like Elvis used to wear. Although he carried a sombrero with him sometimes, he never put it on for fear of messing up his greased back hair. His voice was one of trying too hard to be Elvis and Julio Iglesias at the same time. It was funny. The night was eventful to say the least, but we all made it back to the hotel in one piece. We had our last day of clinics tomorrow along with traveling back to Managua.
The next morning we were back at it again. Several people had mentioned to me their desire to go back to the refugee camp, if we could arrange it. Jen had never made it there since she was sick in bed the whole day on Tuesday. Dennis had missed half a day and wanted to experience more. BJ can never get enough of the kids and Barb wanted to check on her little girl Daisy again. Since the college students were helping us in the clinic again, we had more than enough people to cover. Roberto loaded us up and headed us to the camp. First stop was Daisy’s house. She was looking better again and it made Barb happy. She had known she was being drawn to come back on this trip which was sooner than what she and Dick had planned, and now she knew why. Not only had she changed Daisy’s life (and maybe saved it), she had also nursed Tren, Jen, and Dennis back to health. She was our hero by all of our standards.
Kids found us almost instantly as we had entered the camp. Once we were done with Daisy, we drove a couple blocks over to the church. From there, we were greeted by a multitude of four and five year olds again who were in class. Julia was so glad to see us again. The kids were so excited with joy to see us again this time; Julia couldn’t retain control of her class. We apologized and said we were going out in the camp. As we did the walkabout, I could see how it was affecting Dennis and Jen. Before long, Jen was surrounded by children, having her picture taken, holding hands, and all the kids fighting for their attention. Dennis slowly took it all in and pondered what he saw. When we went back to the church, the kids wouldn’t let us leave without singing a few songs for us. They were so cute as they clapped and sang two songs proudly, belting them out. It was wonderful. When we started saying, “Adios!” they chimed in and instantly made up an adios song. So cute, we had to literally pull ourselves in to the van to leave. All people in the van were truly grateful for that one last opportunity to experience something they may never see again. It felt good.
The rest of the clinic went smoothly. Our biggest worry was the bus. An hour before we were ready to leave, the bus was still not 100% confirmed fixed. Sergio called Isaac and told him if he wasn’t in front of the church at 2 pm, we would find another bus and he wouldn’t get paid for the week. On the dot, the guys were there, sweating. The bus was miraculously fixed and ran like a top for the rest of the trip. It didn’t keep them from stopping half way back to Managua to buy some transmission fluid and pour it in as the engine ran on the side of the road. It was quite a sight since the engine is accessible from the inside of the bus. We thought it was hot before, but when they lifted the lid, we thought we would melt! Nonetheless, a little liquid, and we were on our way to Managua.
We were greeted at the hotel by the group sales lady I had been working with in the prior weeks. She apologized for all the trouble we had earlier in the week and made the statement about them being incompetent. Check in was smooth and everyone was happy. We had agreed that a small group of us should get together and head in to town for dinner. Ken hadn’t been with us when we went to Santa Fe and he didn’t want to miss out. A group of eight ended up going and having a blast. We negotiated $7US taxi cabs and fit in two. One being a Sandinista and the other not. The conversations between the taxi cab drivers and Billy in one car and Lauren in the other was comical. The Sandinista cab had spinner hubcaps on a tiny white car with the pictures of the two leaders of the Sandinista party pasted on the back by the license plate. Once we arrived at the restaurant, Ken and Dana decided they looked like the two guys and had to have their pictures taken with it. The taxi guys liked us so much; they waited for us to be our drivers on the way back too. We were entertained as much as they were. The whole group had a great time at the restaurant that night, enjoying each others company and the lack in numbers. It was good, clean fun where we didn’t have to worry about other people or things. After another adventurous ride back to the hotel, we all called it a night in preparation for our shopping excursion the next morning.
9:00 am Saturday morning and we’re on our way to the famous Masaya Volcano that I had been to two years prior. Admission prices had almost doubled since last time, but it was a good experience again for people to see the massiveness of it. People explored the trails, perimeters, and banyos before taking a group picture in front of the famous wooden cross up on the hill, meant to exorcise the devil. Next stop was the even more famous castle market. Once inside the castle, most people wanted to venture out on their own. Billy did an amazing job translating for about a dozen people throughout the couple of hours. I bought up as much as I could in the time I had, shopping for the church auction again and trying to remember a thing or two for myself. Billy was ecstatic when he finally got a pair of red cowboy boots. His day could have ended then. Everyone spent their last few dollars they had at the market gathering up anything and everything their pocketbooks could afford. I could have spent the whole day there, but was limited by the people and time as always.
By a majority vote, the group decided to take a trip to Grenada instead of Carolina. This was a new adventure for me since I had never been there even though all of my VOSH co-horts had run mission trips there. Sergio took us to the ‘Boricua’ (Puerto Rican) restaurant to order our food and have it ready by the time we returned. We continued on to the boat rides. For $13US a boat, we were given a one hour tour around the lake in Grenada seeing some of the most beautiful and rich houses in the country. It was interesting to see an orange and blue one (owned by Floridians), a house with a rebel flag hanging, and several others with flags from various states within the United States. The boat guide answered all of our quirky questions about how much that house was or who lived there or what were they building there. We also saw the former Nicaraguan president’s house. Half way through the ride, we were taken to Monkey Island where two families of monkeys live and graciously display themselves for tourists to see. When we asked about a cemetery, he said that’s where all the tourists who act up go. Funny guy. We enjoyed our trip and tipped our driver directly so we knew he’d actually get it instead of it ending up in his boss’ hands.
Once back at the Boricua restaurant, we had to fight off gnats. I had never seen them in such numbers and it was a challenge for everyone to see if anyone had tricks to get them away from their table. Gnats included, we finished our meals. Most college students didn’t eat because they had no money left and/or wanted pizza back at the hotel. Loaded up, we headed through downtown Grenada so we could see some of the beautiful architecture and buildings there. The saddest place was this beautiful, huge, old building. When we asked what it was, Sergio said it was a nursing home. At one time it was a business, but they shut it down and that’s basically where you took people to die. It did not have electricity or air conditioning. I couldn’t imagine what the inside of it looked like or the people in it. I didn’t want to know.
We continued back to our hotel. On the way, we stopped in Tipitopa for one last stop at a grocery store. Many still needed to buy coffee, rum, and vanilla for souvenirs. The grocery store closed in ten minutes and wasn’t very large. Our choices were limited. In addition, when we checked out, the cashier seemed to have her way with us gringos as she charged us 14 cords to the dollar instead of the 17.35 that was standard this trip. Most of us didn’t even realize it until later.
Once back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to Sergio, Isaac, and Armando. It had been one heck of a week with them and they were all happy to head back to their families. Part of our group had agreed to meet later that night for ‘show and tell’ of all the goodies we had bought. There was a wedding reception at our normal patio hangout so we had to meet in the lobby. Billy showed up with his red boots, shorts, rock t-shirt, and a UF baseball cap. Everyone found him comical. I added my red leather purse to ensemble and he looked like a little-boy-who-just got-his-new-boots-who-was-so-proud-and-wanted-to-show-them-off-to-everyone! A lot of oohs and aahs later along with ‘where did you get that?’ and ‘I want one!’, we wrapped things up and headed to bed. We were to meet in the lobby at 4:45 am so we could head over to the airport and check in for our early flight.
What seemed like moments later, we were in the lobby, checked out, and ready to head across the street. The bellboys loaded all the luggage and equipment on a box truck and most people walked across the street while the rest were taxied by the hotel van. No one told us that the airport attendants for American Airlines don’t show up to work until 6 am. By the time it was time for us to check in, over half our group was sitting on the floor. With very little problems, we checked in and headed upstairs to get settled in to our gate. Most ended up in the coffee shop for some early morning coffee and pastries made famous by the airport. Soon we were on the plane back to the United States. We all had a relatively easy time getting our baggage, running it through customs, and finding our second gate to take us back to Orlando. Before long we were in Orlando and on the comfy, cushy bus with air conditioning, padded cloth seats that reclined and foot rests. It was heaven. It had been a long week, that was for sure. More stories than the average human could consume. By the time we got back to the church, we were ten people lighter from prior drop-off destinations. It was still light out when we arrived back, something I had never experienced before. The few of us that were left just stood in the church parking lot, breathing in the pure Gainesville air that seemed so clean and healthy. The sky was beautiful, and we weren’t sweating! When the last of us pulled out from the parking lot, we knew we had one eventful trip with stories fit for any ear that was willing to listen.
I may have felt invisible in parts of the trip, but I was already feeling the fact that I would be very visible at work in a day. They would be wanting me back in my same routine, conquering problems and solving crisises. It’s funny how you often want what you don’t have, even if it’s to be visible, or invisible.