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Each summer the Boston College Intersections program and the Volunteer and Service Learning Center send a dozen faculty and staff on a week-long ‘immersion trip’ to Nicaragua. To what end? The author, an English professor, offers this account
Walls. Topped with barbed wire or shards of glass stuck upright into cement. Pink or turquoise, cinnamon or yellow. gray and peeling, painted over, layered. Can you read (I try, my Spanish weak) the writing on the wall? En Venta. Maria Elena, 8 años, Dengue. Viva Daniel Presidente! FSLN! Patria Libre. Bush Genosida. PLC. From our air-conditioned bus, we see a green wall advertising a “garage university,” “Estudios” hand-lettered in white beside a slightly asymmetrical painting of the globe. And the murals; they are everywhere. The revolutionary Sandinista mother, carrying a rifle while breast-feeding her infant. The Nativity scene with a brown, baby Jesus at the Batahola Cultural Center, and further along this same mural, a nurse dispensing a dropper full of medicine into a woman’s mouth: “Erradicación de polio y Somocismo” (“Somoza was our sickness,” our young guide says, naming the former dictator from the 1960s and 1970s). Walls to tell stories. Walls to keep in. Keep out.
On this trip, I am perpetually unmoored, confused. I am a student, a role that makes me think often of my own students, particularly the ones in my “Writing Across Cultures” workshop, a course in which I ask students to use the nonfiction essay (whether lyrical, personal, or journalistic) to probe cultural differences.
In my fiction workshops I often say to my students, if you’re female, write in the voice of a man. Or vice versa. Or write from the perspective of a very old person. Even if—especially if—it’s hard. (Yes, I’ve grown a bit weary of reading about their childhoods, the navel-gazing that can come from “write what you know.”) Writing has always been, for me, about empathy, imagination, the attempt to cross over. Stretch, I’ve been telling my students for years. Go! Somewhere. Anywhere. Go downtown. Interview the woman who swipes your Eagle Card. Go abroad.
When I designed “Writing Across Cultures,” I hoped to attract students who didn’t need this kind of coaxing, and it worked. Before my trip to Nicaragua, my own world travels had brought me to only two developing countries; I’d written about neither. My “Crossing Cultures” students have returned from a week building houses in Appalachia; from a semester spent living on a permaculture farm in Africa; from work in a Jamaican school over spring break. Résumé builders? Do-gooders? Open, questioning souls? Their experiences are hard for them to get their heads around, their (often expensive) service work even more so. Some come home immobilized, others aflame with idealism and indignation or (briefly) self-hatred. Some are unsettled, uneasy—actively so. They overuse quotation marks: “service,” “developing” (I get it now). More than in my other workshops, I hear complaints of writer’s block.
During my week in Nicaragua, I glimpse firsthand the challenges students face as they try to put cross-cultural experiences—especially brief ones, especially encounters with poverty and service work—into words. Set on familiar ground, writing can, if an author wants it to, have an arc, an epiphany, a narrator who knows whereof she speaks. Here, what shape, what meaning, what language, what conclusion? Maybe no conclusion? Maybe, instead, a tracking of what must, for the traveler, be an experience of ignorance, flux, walls that cannot be scaled. If I come home with a central set of questions about what it means to do—and write about—”service learning” in a developing country, it is this: Who is being helped? Who is being educated? In 1968, the radical priest and educator Ivan Illich addressed the Conference on Inter-American Student Projects, an organization that sent students to Mexico on service trips: “I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously, and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness, and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status, and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”
Our trip is billed as a “Faculty/Staff Travel Seminar,” its purpose to “provide faculty and staff with an international experience that . . . explore[s] how issues of faith and justice are linked to Jesuit mission in higher education in order that these themes might be integrated [into] their work at Boston College.” I’m neither Catholic nor religious. I go because I’m an adventurer and interested in questions of social justice, as well as in how to help my students (and my children and myself) consider how to lead—to borrow from Thoreau—deliberate lives. And Boston College is footing the bill.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country, after Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere. The idealism and desire for autonomy of Illich and others in 1968 has flowered, wilted, and taken root again there in various forms, but despite (or alongside) this, the country remains deeply dependent on outside aid. On our trip, we help nobody, which begets an uncomfortable feeling, given all that we see. Yet it’s appropriate, too: We know so little; we have only just arrived. We will leave, many of us never to return. There’s ample work to do at home. And yet. We visit the medical clinic where Boston College nursing faculty and students annually bring supplies and work with patients and staff. We have dinner one night with a Boston College graduate who cofounded a volunteer program at the Batahola Community in Managua, lived there for two years, then trained two new volunteers to continue the work. Now she’s back, visiting her Nicaraguan boyfriend, who teaches music to kids in Ciudad Sandino, a town enveloped by Managua’s sprawl that is essentially a refugee community of people displaced by hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, dictators.
Do not come to help? I have only the most tenuous grasp on the fraught relationship Nicaragua has had with the United States—with our liberals and conservatives, our missionaries and capitalists, our military and peaceniks, with embargoes and Free Trade Zones and Fair Trade and international aid. The monuments and buildings in Managua are a hodgepodge, many labeled in English: “a gift from Taiwan”; a statue “from the Soviets”; “funded by Venezuela”; and above this capital city, a huge black statue, like a paper cutout, of César Augusto Sandino, who waged guerrilla war against U.S. occupiers in the 1920s and 1930s; and beside that, rusting, an old tank, a gift from Mussolini, and beyond it, a towering, hot pink sign hawking the next presidential election: “Nicaragua: Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria, 2011 Viva la Revolution!” The Left, I gather, is corrupt these days; the Right also; the center, ineffectual. Still, voter participation can sometimes approach 90 percent.
Nicaragua is on mountain time, so we get a bonus of two hours when we arrive from Boston, but we could use much more. Our schedule is packed with visits, and our scarce downtime evaporates as we ask question after question, or heavy rains slow the bus, or keys are fished for, a clinic or school unexpectedly closed (national holidays seem to be declared last minute here). The trip is rigorous and exhausting, but I wouldn’t, looking back, cut one thing out—I finish hungry, wanting more. In the space of a week, we hear from activists, priests, factory workers, feminists, university administrators, artisans, students, farmers, each voice looped from Spanish to English through the wire of our translation equipment, for those of us who need it. Our trip director, Mark Lester, is a Kentucky native who has lived in Nicaragua for 25 years; he codirects the Central American and Caribbean branch of the Center for Global Education, which works with universities, including ours, to develop study abroad programs. Prior to going, we’d filled out questionnaires about our interests so Mark could tailor our trip. When we arrive, he gives us a crash course in Nicaraguan history and then—with respect, calm, and years of accumulated knowledge—he leads us through our days and translates back and forth.
Bueno, begins each speaker we visit, and there is something in the word that I soon come to expect, indeed to crave: the thoughtful pause it brings, the way—bueno, good—it seems a marker of the persistence we keep seeing in the face of so much instability—a kind of faith, whatever its roots (and they are various). Bueno from María Teresa Blandón, quick, strong-voiced, ironic, a founder of the feminist movement, which grew out of the leftist Sandinista Revolution in the 1970s but split from it in the late 1980s. The revolution got scared when it got close to feminism. It broke us apart and forced women to abandon our criticism of machismo within the party. Feminists, she says, have become service providers—of legal aid, healthcare, and education for women—largely unheard as a political voice by the state. Nicaragua is like a pre-republic, she tells us before posing for a picture with the women in our group. Bueno from Fr. Fernando Cardenal, the priest expelled from the Jesuit order because he joined the Sandinista government and wouldn’t quit it; as secretary of education he led a massive, successful literacy campaign and 12 years later was readmitted to the order, the first Jesuit to be expelled and readmitted in 460 years. White-haired, charismatic, he tells us of a young woman who decided to continue to teach in a community where activist women like her were being raped, so strong was her commitment to the literacy campaign: Her center of gravity was no longer inside her; it had moved outside her, into the campesinos. Both Cardenal and Blandón are passionate, direct. Both are deeply disappointed with the current Sandinista (FSLN) government and President Daniel Ortega, with whom they used to be aligned. If there is dissonance in their depictions of women in the revolution—for Cardenal, the revolution empowered women; for Blandón, it eventually failed them—we’re not surprised. We’ve been in Nicaragua for six days and are getting used to dissonance by now. Bueno from the three representatives of the organization Indigenous People of Telpaneca, who speak to us about their struggle over property rights. Indigena is not the right word, the group’s president tells us; original is more accurate. Then, in his next sentence, he uses indigena.
Bueno from the rural women in Guasuyuca, who run an organic coffee cooperative that grew out of FEM, a women’s resource center, in this mountain village where orchids grow wild and green spills into green. The women at FEM have study circles in soldering, electricity, sexual health, math. They are given a production package: seeds, 10 hens, a cow, a pig. When a package multiplies, they make another, pass it on. One by one, the women—young, old, middle-age—stand before us to share their stories. Bueno. I am the mother of 12 children—11 now; one died. I was only a mother and wife, I had nothing else. If the women hadn’t come to organize with us, I’d still be hiding. Now I’m old but I’m young; my children tell me I look younger—really! Then the poet (I catch her name, Yadira Merlo Rivera), beautiful and luminous; her wide smile reveals jagged teeth: When I was 15, my sister gave a box of sheets to my mother for her birthday. I had nothing so I gave her a poem. Since then I have written many others. I have some—she points to her head—here. Would you like me to tell one to you?
Madre: your name sounds like a beautiful mist
Your heart beats with the pain of a child . . .
Madre . . .
Where is your mother, we ask the poet. In the United States with my sister. Where are your children, we ask the woman with 11 living children. In France, Costa Rica, the United States. What do you hope for them? For them to come home with what they have learned. Where are the men, your husbands or partners, the fathers of your children? Working in Costa Rica. Gone; he didn’t like me working. Mine, also gone. A ripple of unsettled laughter, then one of the women speaks: Some of us have suffered a lot for what we have. And from the poet, My husband is watching our son while I speak to you. That—she lifts her chin higher—wouldn’t have happened before.
At home in Massachusetts, we (philosophers, historians, clergy, admission staff, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, white, black, brown; employed with benefits) teach classes, manage university offices. In Nicaragua, we are students, here to learn. We are taken places (may I use the passive voice?), our itinerary planned. We ask a stream of questions of the “resource people” we meet, and they answer in detail—generous in spirit; also paid for their time with us; also hoping—some of them—that we might help. “You are rich,” a dean at the Jesuit Universidad Centroamerica says plainly as we discuss the possibility of institutional exchanges. “And we are not.” Sometimes we buy or donate. We point to our cameras: Fotografia? One boy shakes his head no to me; the rest say yes. We say gracias, mucho gusto. Leave. One night, as we travel north to Esteli in our bus, we begin to sing—show tunes, soundtracks from 1970s sitcoms; only on our last day, on the way to the airport, do we learn that José, who drives our bus, is a guitar player who has made a CD, which we buy.
At night, in the open inner courtyards of our guarded hotels in Managua and Esteli, as mangos flump down from the trees, we reflect together before turning to dominoes and beer, or sleep. Alone in my room for the first few evenings, I write pages about the day’s encounters. By our third day, I am writing less at night, and my daytime notes grow more fragmented and illegible. Where is the story? There are too many, and I know too little to tell even one. I learn from Mark that there are almost no street signs in Managua; directions are based on landmarks, and history: “Go to where the Pepsi Cola factory used to be, then turn in the direction of the lake.” But what if you—traveler/writer/student/professor/gringa—don’t know where the factory was? What if you’re used to, well, signs?
Are the shapes in the mural at the Batahola Cultural Center black birds or planes (U.S. fighter planes, we’re told by Mark after we leave. Also probably birds). Before the Sunday Mass we attend there, I kneel down and talk to a little dark-haired girl—her eyes gleaming, her smile broadening as I show her a photo of my own little dark-haired daughters. We talk; she accepts my broken Spanish and takes me to meet her grandmother, mother, baby sister. After Mass, she circles me appearing, disappearing, Hola! Adiós! As we get ready to board the bus, her grandmother comes over to ask for money, and abruptly, I must wonder: Was my interaction with the child a “genuine” moment of connection, or a setup for an appeal, or both—two necessary economies (the personal, the monetary) in play? I don’t give money; we’ve been instructed not to. I leave feeling vaguely sick. Later, in my room, I review the day’s pictures on my camera and come across one of the girl—a picture I’d forgotten I’d taken. Somewhere in the background, her abuela must have been watching. How many córdobas is a photo worth?
North Americans like to bring solar cookers to people in developing nations. We learn this from Michael Woodard, a founder of Jubilee House, a faith-based, nonsectarian community that has worked since 1994 to help residents of Cuidad Sandino identify their own needs and find ways to meet them. The solar cooker, he tells us, is a pretty cool device: It uses no fuel and costs nothing to run. It helps prevent deforestation, pollution, smoke inhalation. It saves time, labor. Except. Imagine (says Michael) that you’re a Nicaraguan woman used to planning your day around the fire, and the beans you cook on it. You’re given a solar cooker and instructions, left to use it on your own. You’ll need sun; you might need to cut down the tree that provides shade and fruit by your home. You’ll need to watch for burning; the cooker regulates differently than a wood fire. You’ll need to consider if it’s raining out. You’ll have to convince your kids to eat beans that lack the smoky flavor they’ve always known. You accept the cooker gracefully, gratefully, it seems (the Nicaraguans we meet are unfailingly polite), but when the volunteers return a few weeks later, the solar cooker is heaped full of firewood, the wood fire burning steadily, slow-cooking beans.
One morning, Mark takes us to see a potter. A small, thin woman in a pink t-shirt, blue jean skirt, and pink flip-flops, she might be 30-something, or 50-something. Her house/workshop/store in the village of San Juan del Oriente is a shotgun construct with two main rooms, a dirt floor, pane-less windows, an open door at either end. We crowd in. The front room is full of pottery on tables, the walls bare except for some photographs of babies. Two canaries sit on a perch, next to a radio. The woman greets us, then leads us to the rear, darker room, where she takes off her shoes and stomps on a pile of clay until it’s flat. Bueno. The real demonstration begins—the shaping, rounding, heaving of the clay, which comes from the mud in the village. She centers it on a wheel, and her son takes over. He makes one pot, then another. Unlike his mother, who is polite but reticent, he grins and seems to like an audience. He makes a third pot, sets it next to the others in front of the wheel. Behind him, on a shutter, are words in red brush strokes: “Te Amo Mama.”
The mother takes over from the son, paints the pot, destined for Fair Trade export, with green glaze. As she works, children of all ages come and go; she calls for tools. When one child does not answer, she calmly summons the next one; someone produces a wet rag.
She takes us out back to a wood-fed kiln. The air—hot and humid already—is smoky, thick here. I suppress a cough. Back inside, she shows us, with a girl helper, how to etch designs into the pottery. The tools are improvised—a bit of hacksaw blade, a shoehorn, shoe polish for shine—the designs elegant, precise. On the girl’s T-shirt is a faded American flag. After they finish, we ask questions. The potter’s parents were potters, her grandparents too. Her children (12, we learn later from our guide; she is a widow recently remarried) are all learning the craft. Some, she says, are more interested than others. Each helps.
As I stand there, I am moved to wonder, but will not ask: Is this where they are, where they will stay, or a steppingstone to somewhere else, and are they happy; and is happiness a full-enough stomach, or a shape rising up beneath your hands, or constitutional (as in, born that way, as in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)? Or is it not part of the equation? At home, I sometimes dabble in clay and oil paints. My grandmother, a Sephardic Jewish immigrant from Turkey, was a dressmaker, a widow with two sons until she entered into an arranged marriage with my grandfather, himself a widower with a child. Together they had three more children, including my mother, who got a Ph.D. and raised me to find work I love. The pots, the potter tells us, are fragile, hard to export; often they break in the kiln. Before we leave, I ask her a question, which Mark translates: What do you like most about your work?
Todos. She meets my gaze. It is how I make my living.
I buy two small vases, paying in dollars, receiving my change in córdobas. In the weeks following our trip, I will feel humbled, unsettled, at a loss for words. Excited, too—to try to write about the experience and to journey with my students, having been, for a week, after 17 years of teaching, a student myself. Cross, yes, but cross with caution, I will advise them now. Watch for the fault lines, as you travel and as you write. Ask questions without presuming you will understand the answers. Try to read the signs, but expect to be lost, expect to be a student (no matter your age), which is to say that the rainbow you paint on the orphanage wall is unlikely to change an orphan’s life, but it may (or may not) change yours. Which is to say that I took notes during my trip to Nicaragua; I took photographs, and asked, and listened, even imagined (if I were her, if she were me), but I will not, dare not, write a short story in the voice of a poor Nicaraguan potter—not now, probably not ever.
Still, cross, I will tell them. Go. Take notes. And then come back and share your halting words.
Elizabeth Graver is a professor of English at Boston College. Her novels The Honey Thief (1999) and Unravelling (1997) were named “notable books of the year” by the New York Times Book Review. Her novel Awake was published in 2004.
This article was amended on December 2, 2010, to reflect joint sponsorship of the Faculty/Staff Travel Seminar.