Wednesday, February 16, 2011


One of the things I looked forward to in coming to live alone in Managua was having an independence that I don't get when I'm here on Retreat with the Faithful Fools. I wouldn't have a group's schedule to keep, and most importantly, I would be able to go out alone. When we are here on Retreat, we stay with families who feed us, house us, help us do laundry and expose us to other aspects of how people live here, and show us around the community and the city. It is a wonderful kind of intimacy, being an adult living as someone's child and in their care. There are few people in the world I feel closer to than the three families I have lived with in Managua, though it was only for two weeks at a time. But it has always been a struggle to accept that I couldn't just go out and walk around on my own.

A typical Nicaraguan dinner - Gallo Pinto, Platanos, y Queso
I love to walk – it is one of the main ways I will get to know a place – and because I often walk long and fast, I usually walk alone. In Managua, our families feel a responsibility to care for us, and to keep us safe, and the danger of being robbed is real. Many of our friends here have been robbed, sometimes by people they know in the neighborhood, sometimes at knife-point. It is understandable why our friends are concerned about our safety, especially in light of our unfamiliarity with the area and with the language, and because people often associate gringos with money – which is probably justified. (One year, of the ten of us on Retreat, you were likely to find as many as eight carrying cameras worth at least a month's salary to our neighbors.) It is one thing to have your friend who is visiting get robbed, and another to have it happen to the “child” under your care.

With my growing familiarity with the neighborhood, and with the caretaker dynamic (mostly) out of the way, I figured I could go out wherever I pleased, limited only by my lack of knowledge of the countless unnamed streets and my willingness to get lost in them. After all, as I said to some Nicas the first time I came here, it is my job to walk on “dangerous” streets.

Curry Fried Rice - an improvisation
In my first week here, I was busy running errands to get the house set up and myself settled, and always had someone to show me the way, and sometimes to translate. I also figured it would be good to work on my Spanish more, in case I needed to talk my way out of trouble. So I didn't leave the neighborhood alone. In my second week, while visiting a friend in the neighborhood, she told me how “people were talking” about the gringo walking alone in the neighborhood (I would walk to houses I knew close by), and then told a story of someone being robbed down the street at 7a.m.! I had been relying on the morning being a safer time (I've found most “dangerous” neighborhoods are quieter in the early morning). I then had another friend explain, at length, that I would be safe as long as I was walking with someone, but as soon as I was alone, people would notice me as a target. I took these warnings to heart. In my third week, I would wake up many mornings imagining myself heading off to the market early in the day – slipping out and back before my friends could worry about me, and hopefully before any potential robber could figure out what I was doing. I needed to go to the market – there were so many ingredients I had run out of, and the errands I was running never seemed to fit with grocery shopping. I never managed my early morning escape, and I kept figuring out how to get by with a little improvisation, and the wares available at the pulperia next door and from the vendedores selling produce from horse carts and pick-up trucks passing through the streets.
Vending cart makes its way down my street
Finally, almost three weeks to the day after my arrival, I had no rice, no beans, no cheese – all that was in my refrigerator was a carrot and some onions. I thought about just waiting – I was going to the market to buy more paint the next day, maybe this time I could pick up groceries as well. I certainly could make it through one night and one morning without eating – I have before – but I knew it wouldn't be pleasant. So I grabbed my bag, and my dictionary, and headed down to the corner at Via Flor, the next barrio (actually a colonia, name for a fancier neighborhood) where we go to catch the bus. It is about a mile walk, and the entrance to the barrio is considered one of the hot-spots for being robbed.

As I walked, I felt free, and a part of the neighborhood. I stopped and kicked a soccer ball with a kid I know on the way back. I also thought about how this little bit of hunger I felt was the final motivation to get me past my reservations and fears of leaving the neighborhood alone. What kind of motivation is real hunger, the kind that sits in your stomach for days or weeks on end? Is that what causes the robbery here in the streets, or on any streets? We spend so much hiring police and security guards and border patrol, and building walls and iron grates for our windows and doors, and making weapons that hurt and kill all the more efficiently and frighteningly. We also know the strength of the human spirit – our ability to overcome obstacles – the only stories more common in the news are tales of crime and violence. Is it reasonable at all to think that all the walls and guards and guns that we can imagine can stop a person driven by a deep hunger with no prospect of it subsiding? What other kinds of hunger drive us, and to what ends?

I want to live in a world without bars, where I am not separated from my fellow humans by guards and police and armies, where human touch comes from a hand or a kiss, not carried by the point of the knife or a bullet. Is such a world possible if we feed each others' hunger? Can we afford it? Are we willing to give up the illusion we call “security,” if that's what it takes to have it?

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