We’ve printed, framed and hung a few of my Nicaragua photos.
Jennifer — the blogger who was on our team — and I have scheduled a phone meeting to plot our next adventure.
I’ve finished my malaria pills and my stomach, after a quite rough week, is back to normal.
We’ve left behind glowing red hibiscus for bare brown branches, 33 degrees Celsius (98 F) for 33 Fahrenheit, soft sunsets for pelting, cold wind-driven rain.
“Real” life begins again.
I wish it wouldn’t!
As many of you fellow travelers and adventurers know, re-entering “normal” life after a profoundly moving, challenging and fun adventure, whether personal or professional, can feel really unsettling. As one friend, who knows Nicaragua well after serving there in the Peace Corps and writing several country guidebooks about it, wrote: “Double culture shock. It sucks.”
My greatest challenge now, after 30 years working in journalism, isn’t money. We have no kids and have saved decently for what we hope will be a retirement with health to enjoy it.
It’s challenge. Or lack of it.
I tweeted the other day my motto: Challenge is my oxygen.
By which I mean, I feel suffocated by the tedium of much of the paid work I produce, even for Big Name publications like The New York Times. I work hard and do it well, but learn very little new about the world, or my craft or myself.
I’m not sure what my next steps will be, or if they’ll head in a new direction or if that will even be financially possible.
I do feel enormously grateful that WaterAid chose me to join their team and tell some of their story. I hope add more of this sort of paid work — overseas, using my language skills, working in a team, working on projects that actually make a real, quantifiable difference in others’ lives — to my life, even a few times a year.
How about you?
Are you ready for — or have you recently made — a re-set in your own life?
American universities should also be sending people abroad, but they are still quite insular. The number of Americans studying abroad has tripled over the last 20 years, but, still, fewer than 10 percent of college students study overseas during undergraduate years. Three times as many foreigners study in America as the other way around. (note: my emphasis added.)
All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.
And it’s not uncommon for Americans, of any age or level of formal education, to speak only one language, English, while Europeans who speak only three or four feel embarrassed by their cultural incompetence.
Canadians grow up in a nation officially bilingual, with every bit of packaging and all government messaging dans les deux langues officielles.
Well, this can be said: somewhere between 11.6 and 14.6 million Americans actually traveled overseas in 2009, taking a trip lasting on average seven nights (students and travelers visiting family and friends stay significantly longer) and usually visiting just one country. These four major geographic areas are our most likely destinations: Europe (35% of all U.S. trips), Caribbean (21% of all trips), Asia (19% of all trips) and South America (9% of all trips).
America’s most popular overseas countries are: England (9% of all trips), France (7%), Italy (7%), Germany (5%), Dominican Republic (5%), Jamaica (5%), Japan (4%), China (4%), India (4%) and Spain (4%). Other significant countries visited include: Bahamas (3%) and Costa Rica (3%). With just six percent of Americans trips going to the Middle East, and even fewer, just three percent, visiting the whole continent of Africa, and two percent going to Australia/New Zealand.
My recent working trip to Nicaragua made it the 38th country I’ve been to, so far; I was fortunate to grow up in a family that valued travel so highly and could afford to visit Europe and Latin America and the South Pacific.
And my own work in journalism, has also sent me — on others’ dime — to places as far-flung as Copenhagen, Istanbul and Sicily. I’ve lived in England, France, Mexico, Canada and the U.S.; each place has taught me something I never knew before.
I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for four months when I was 14, which instilled a life-long love of that country and created the basis for my Spanish-language skills, which I used in Nicaragua once more. The photographer on our recent trip lives (!) a few blocks from my old apartment in Cuernavaca, so speaking Spanish meant I could chat with him as well.
Yes, you can read blogs and books and watch movies, but nothing can really prepare you for the sights, sounds and smells of real daily life in a land far away.
I like the old joke — one fish says to another: “How’s the water?”
Living your entire life in only one country/culture/language is severely limiting. It’s hard to appreciate that you live in any sort of economic/political/religious/social culture, (i.e. accepting and conforming to norms and standards of behavior) until you plunge into a quite different one.
And, yes, it’s scary!
What if you get sick? (Most places have doctors and hospitals.) What if you get lost? (People are generally kind and helpful.) Will the buses be safe? Maybe not. But you’ll figure it out. There’s a kind of self-reliance to be gained from straying beyond the normal and known that creates a terrific self-confidence, especially for women.
Learning to dress and speak and behave in culturally-respectful ways — (never touch a Thai person’s head; don’t ask a French person to show you around their home; present a business card to a Japanese person with both hands) — can only serve you well in a globally-connected economy.
And understanding that owning more than one pair or shoes or books or a television — or eating even once a day — means wealth to millions of people is a helpful exercise in awareness and gratitude.
I’ve come a long way in realizing my dreams. And that was by just going for it. I never did make a plan. Once on the road, with the narrow margins of profit versus costs in travel, I never saved money. Making money while traveling is an exception, not a rule.
Even so, in my mid-thirties now, I have only a few regrets. Chief among them is the people who have been negatively affected by my lack of plan or savings. I’ve overextended my stay on friends’ and relatives’ couches, for example, when breaks between press junkets lasted longer than I thought they would. I’ve had moments where I couldn’t afford a plane ticket home.
But I don’t regret the nights spent sleeping in bus stations or the days without food to save money…It hasn’t always been easy, but I wouldn’t change the decision I made, those four years ago, to leave everything and travel.
I would advise others considering a similar decision not to listen to those who do not support your dream. But do not shame them for doubting, either. We are all different in our levels of courage – and in the way we view how life should be lived.
Last week I had dinner with a young photographer friend, who’s 26 and still in college and $70,000 in student debt and dying to go live and work work in Beirut, Lebanon.
Go! Jose and I told him, without hesitation. The hell with two more years sitting in school, writing term papers on journalism in Chicago; he’s already got excellent skills and we’ve already started hooking him up with people who know the place and have recently lived there.
The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?
I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.
It was the first of multiple culture shocks…
The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.
The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.
Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:
I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.
Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.
Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.
Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.
Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:
I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.
The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathed — and many piles of fresh dung!
We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!
Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.
Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:
Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.
Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:
Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.
The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.
On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women — 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.
My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!
Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.
We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.
At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.
As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.
Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.
That’s eighteen years’ of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.
Have you ever been to a place with no electricity — or refrigeration or candles or kerosene lanterns?
No running water?
No postal service?
A place where ham radio or a transistor radio are the one reliable link to the rest of the world?
A place where the bus comes past twice a day, and a trip in it to the capital takes 24 hours — a 90-minute prop plane 12-seater flight?
We spent one night in Ayhua Tara, a village of 10 families in a part of the country called RAAN; an autonomous region of isolated villages near the northern border with Honduras. To get there meant traveling a washboard road of red dust so thick I wore a kerchief every day to keep my hair clean. (It worked, sort of.) The road was in the best shape it had been for a few years, freshly graded with gravel, but still had multiple dips probably several feet deep for most of our journey, slowing us and jolting us all.
We rode in a small van: a team of five people and all our backpacks and video and camera equipment and lots of cold water.
The families we visited live on land granted to them as members of the Miskitu people. They live in wooden houses high atop stilts, their animals snoozing beneath and around them in the shade — a muddy piglet, a snoozing dog, a hen and and her tiny chicks, a goat or two.
We were welcomed as family. We brought our own food, which they cooked in the dark — with one small boy holding up a flashlight as they cooked on their small clay woodstove, waist-high at the back of the large kitchen.
A few moments:
We met new animals, like the coatimundi chained up at a Bilwi restaurant where we ate lunch one day. Or the turkey at Linda’s house who followed us everywhere, desperately showing off his fluffed-up feathers. And the pavon, an endangered species of bird — with a brilliant lemon-yellow beak and what looks like a very bad black perm — that perched on the wall over the stove while Linda was cooking.
When traveling in hot/dusty places bring plenty of clean cotton bandanas: use as a napkin, towel, mouth-covering, (useful when we visited a live volcano in Managua and the foul steam started to hurt out throats), neck gaiter, blindfold, pillow cover, carry-sack, head covering, neck covering (soaked in cold water as often as possible) — and a bit of style!
Lifesavers are the best! My bag of mint Lifesaver candies were the hit of the week when we were all feeling weary/hungry/thirsty/tired — offering a portable bit of sweet, saliva-producing relief.
Kindness and generosity know no language. We stayed in a home where no one spoke much Spanish, only Miskitu. We worked through an interpreter, but their welcome to a bunch of strangers was warm and touching. We walked through the forest one morning with Linda, her mother-in-law and grand-daughter.
Jennifer was handed tiny orchids and some beans by Exelia, the little girl, while Ailita, 69, wearing rubber boots and a torn, repaired man’s shirt, gestured to me to wipe down my bare legs and arms in case I’d brushed against something noxious.
Water is heavy. Many people here carry buckets of it back and forth every day, multiple times, from a well or river. When you see a tiny child of four or five, (their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition, so they might well be seven or eight), with a filled plastic bucket in his head or in her arms, straining, you’ll never leave a tap running again.
Accessing water takes time and physical energy that might be better used for earning income or being with your family. When you need water in a place like this for any purpose, and you need to get it from a well, that means six cranks of the wheel to get enough to fill a small-ish cup. I watched a youngl girl straining just to reach and turn the wheel; I’m a strong adult and it still took energy — in 98 degree heat, direct sun and humidity.
Then you have to fill an entire bucket, if only for your own use. Now add the needs for cooking, bathing and cleaning clothes for a family of six or more who work in muddy fields and hot sun all day.
Traveling pleasantly and efficiently for a week in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-national team — two Americans, two Canadians, a Mexican and three Nicaraguans, (driver, interpreter and community contact), means being flexible, calm, gentle and fun to be around. I had met Alanna, the communications director, in New York but none of us had met before or worked together until we raced off together on our very first day.
I was happily surprised to see how quickly and easily we fell into a rhythm, sharing water, sunscreen, Lifesavers, nuts. Maybe because we’re all professionals. Maybe because we’d all traveled, and worked, in fairly tough conditions before. Even pushing the dust-encrusted van to get it started every time wasn’t a big deal as long as we were still laughing about it. I heard no whining, despite hot, 10+ hour workdays starting at 8:00 a.m. or earlier.
Focus is energizing. We never touched, or needed to touch, money: our week was sleep, work, eat, repeat. We wasted no time on shopping, laundry or cooking. If we wanted to Skype with our loved ones, we did so at 6:00 a.m., since they were all two hours ahead in time zone.
Passion is galvanizing. Journalism is a desperate business these days, rife with insecurity and peacocking, whining and competitiveness. To spend a week with a team of smart, warm people passionate about social justice, and wise in its folkways, was deeply inspiring to me.
Pre-industrial life has a rhythm we rarely, if ever, live. When it is dark by 6:15 and there is no light beyond a headlamp or flashlight, and your day has been hot and physically demanding, you go to sleep early because you’ll rise before, or with the sun. The soothing chatter of the transistor radio hung on a nail, or the indignant gobbling of a turkey are the sounds lulling you to sleep.
When you walk through the field to weed your crops, why wear a watch? The work itself will tell you when you are finished.
I read Facebook and Twitter, posting when we had Internet access — freshly struck by how many of our “conversations” are purely trivial. That was instructive.
There is beauty in simplicity. I will not romanticize poverty. But I appreciated the smooth, wide wooden boards of Linda’s scrubbed, swept hardwood floor beneath my feet, the children’s tiny stuffed animals hung from nails (no shelves), a bright yellow flower growing in a blue plastic tub, the region’s purple, turquoise, emerald green and mustard yellow painted houses.
In a poor country, concrete and glass are luxury materials. In a week of travel through several RAAN villages and Bilwi, I saw perhaps six houses with glazed windows and few homes made of concrete, let alone two-story ones. Ironically, the most pristine, spotless, freshly-painted building I saw anywhere — new red metal roof, fresh banana yellow walls — was a large church.
We all work. We all struggle. Watching Linda and Ailita head off to work in a dugout canoe, whacking their way through the fields with a machete, claiming the hard-won prizes of enormous white squash and sun-warmed cucumber, felt familiar, even though all of it was new to me.
Work is work.
Fear of economic loss — while theirs is truly dire, and means not even lighting a cooking fire in the worst months because there is no food to prepare — is not unique to the beleaguered American or European middle class.
The Mexican freelance photographer with us told me he’s waited up to five months to see his invoices processed. That, too, was familiar.
I spoke for an hour, in Spanish, to a woman whose 25 year old sister stopped speaking for 18 months. She sold two cows and went to a curandero, a traditional healer, whose ministrations didn’t help. Then they went to a psychologist in Bilwi, then to a psychiatrist in Managua; health care is free, but the cost of distant travel hammered their ever-fragile finances.
“If you want to eat,” she finally said, “you have to work.”
Managing your emotions — and the roller-coaster of beauty/squalor — is…interesting. It was a week of truly dire poverty, with many people living on $1/day with six or eight children in a one-room wooden shack with a rusted, patched corrugated tin roof or walls; Haiti is the only nation in this part of the world poorer than Nicaragua.
You want to cry, but you don’t. It will all be there the next day as well and you’re there to observe and interview, not indulge your feelings and reactions.
Then you stare into the deepest, darkest silent sky-full of stars and want to weep at its beauty, lost once you return to the town filled with light and noise.
A shy, tiny girl hands you an orchid as you tramp through a field of pumpkins with her. Another little girl lets you comb her hair into a ponytail.
You crawl into a narrow, muddy, tippy dugout canoe and pray you don’t tip out into the river.
You sleep under a mosquito net and hope it works; malaria is no joke and the region you’re in is the country’s worst for it.
Trust is key. Trust that the van will start. That the water won’t make you sick. That those weird itchy bites on your ankles are nothing, really. That the food is safe to eat. That the very small plane won’t crash.
That your outraged bowels will calm down soon. That all those long, hot tiring days filling our hearts and heads and notebooks and cameras have gathered valuable useful insights.
That your team is as smart, funny and professional as they appeared to be. That you won’t want to tear each others’ throats out after a super-intense week. (We didn’t, nor did we want to.)
Have you been to a place that changed how you see your world?
Our third day we got back into the van and headed to a small village — 10 families — living near the Wawa River, to stay in the home of Linda Felix, a woman who has been working on sanitation issues there, trained by WaterAid.
Linda, 41, has six children, the oldest of whom is 22, and has a year-old grand-son. She lives, like most Nicaraguans in this part of the country, in a wooden house standing on thick stilts, tall enough for an adult to stand beneath.
Under the houses, including hers, roam: goats, pigs, chickens, roosters, dogs, piglets. A large herd of cattle stands nearby and an extremely friendly turkey even followed us all the way through the forest to the river. We bathed there at 4:30 and enjoyed the relative cool that sets in around that hour.
Her house has two parts — a separate kitchen with a small clay woodstove — and the living and sleeping area, divided into separate rooms for her children. Our team, three women and a man, slept on cots beneath mosquito nets in what is, essentially, her living room — which is bare except for a table.
The spotless home has no electricity or running water and the toilet is reached by going down very steep wooden steps (no handrail) and up an even steeper set into the shack with the toilet in it. I had to dodge a tiny black piglet on my way.
The sun sets at 5:45 and the sky is completely black within 30 minutes, offering a stunning array of stars visible when there is no competing artificial light for miles.
all photos taken by Jennifer Barbour
Jennifer and I traveled this morning by dugout canoe — our seats were bits of bamboo hacked with a machete by Ailita, Linda’s 69 year old mother in law. We scrambled up very steep sandbanks with them to visit their gardens where they harvested cucumbers, watermelon, squash, beans, tomatoes and pumpkins, which the family eats and which Linda takes into Bilwi to sell.
The heat is crazy — 98 degrees. It wipes you out, so we’ve been drinking a lot of water.
I bathed a few times using the well, and a cow came by to visit me.
We were welcomed everywhere with smiles and generosity and kindness.
We saw some of the baseball teams competing for the championship of the Indigenous League.
I chatted in Spanish today with a woman who tried to help her sister’s deep depression by selling two cows and visiting a “curandero”, a traditional healer. Instead, it took a Bilwi psychologist and Managua psychiatrist to diagnose and treat her.
Our multi-lingual, multi-national team has been working in intense heat, long days, translating into Miskitu. We’re having a blast.
Now back in town for two more days, then one final free day in Managua, the capital.
It began with a flight from Atlanta to Managua — that was turned back 40 minutes in for mechanical problems, circled for 60 minutes in turbulence to burn off fuel — and had everyone rush into a waiting aircraft to get going, fast, before the Managua airport shut down for the night at midnight. We arrived at 12:30 and got four hours’ sleep because we had to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight to Bilwi/Puerto Cabezas, a town of about 40,000 on the edge of the Caribbean.
Our team: Mexican photographer Rodrigo, Maine mom blogger Jennifer, media director Alanna and I crammed into a plane with 12 seats. After 90 minutes we arrived, met by Josh, the Vancouver-born country director, and a borrowed van — that wouldn’t start until it was pushed.
Within an hour, we were all off and running in 95 degree heat, driving due west along washboard red dust roads that jolted us every few feet. Our destination? A house whose 48-year-old owners had decided would finally have a toilet, and we were going to watch them digging the trenches and drilling the gray PVC pipe that will serve as drainage.
Our journey took — to go 40 miles — about two hours, and included crossing the Wawa River on a barge. The road was jammed with chickens and pigs and dogs and small children. Cooks boiled food in pots on charcoal braziers. Enormous colored buses pulled up with men sitting on the roof.
We visited a primary school, where the boys were learning Spanish homonyms.
The landscape changed, from scrubby low pines in sandy soil, to lush green hills. The house where we stopped was painted wood, as most are here, and on stilts, with lemon and mango trees on the hill. We watched the team working, spoke to them and to the family, then drank fresh coconut milk from the nuts on their tree, hacked open with a machete.
It’s very hot here, at sea level with the Caribbean ocean nearby — about 95 degrees during the day, dropping to about 82 after the sun sets at 5:45.
Much of our work interviewing and photographing people means we’re standing around outside in the sunshine for a few hours, sweating buckets.
By noon, my hair and clothes are drenched and dripping with perspiration so I cover my head, pirate-style with a kerchief. It looks a little goofy, but it works, keeping the sweat from my eyes and face; my notebook today at noon was so sweaty I couldn’t even use some of the paper.
We drink a lot of water! I also brought a bag of peppermint Lifesavers, which offers everyone a nice blast of sweetness and flavor in noonday heat.
On Tuesday we met and interviewed Cora, a 16-year-old girl who’s acting as GC — a general contractor — building a bathroom for a local man whose house is under construction. Cora is a high-school dropout who WaterAid is helping, (the group sponsoring my trip), teach technical and life skills.
It was amazing to see her self-confidence supervising her team of four male workers. Like any 16-year-old, she wore a sparkly butterfly hair clip, tight blue jeans and a red cellphone she likes to check.
We visited an extremely poor neighborhood near the beach; that’s saying a lot in a place where poverty is endemic, where 0nly 20 percent of Bilwi’s residents have access to running water or any form of toilet in their home.
There we saw a community well and spoke to Nelisha, a shy, freckled 12-year-old living down the street in a bright green wooden house — who used to carry two heavy buckets of water every morning and night for a mile. Now she only carries them about a two-minute walk.
When you’re reporting in the field, the best thing you can do is get away from the official story, in this case, the well we had come to admire.
Jennifer and I wandered a block away toward the beach, where we found a long row of wooden latrines — their sewage emptying into a ditch barely 100 feet from the ocean. This was no tourist beach. This was squalid, dirty and unhealthy.
We ate lunch together at a local restaurant, then drove to Cora’s home to see how she lives.
We walked up a slight incline, red dust clogged with fallen palm leaves and coconuts, the walkway shaded by leaning palm trees. On either side were wooden houses on stilts, some patched with corrugated metal, some raw wood.
Her house is barely a few yards from a chain-link fence, the outer perimeter of the Bilwi airport.
Cora has lived here her whole life and shares her home — 15 by 20 feet, wood, no windows — with eight others, including three children, her nieces, ages 1, 3 and six. They have no running water or toilet. To get drinking water, they turn on a white plastic faucet in their small dirt yard.
But, despite the scorching heat and the thirst of a large family, it offers nothing, as the city only opens its taps a few hours a day, and not every day.
Their well, which her father dug, sits about 20 feet from their house’s open doorway. It has no cover or railing and is about 50 feet deep.
Easy for a tiny child to fall into — which apparently one or two a year do.
We have been here only two days, a group of people who were strangers to one another before that. It’s quite astonishing to join yet another five or six people — translators, staff, driver — and meld into a working, laughing, van-pushing unit.
Tomorrow we head into the countryside where we’ll spend two days, sleeping overnight in a village, using mosquito nets. There will be no electricity.
The left shoulder got the polio shot, the right one got the hepatitis shot. I took my typhus vaccine orally, four pills over eight days, which made my head feel like a block of cement.
Next up, Malarone, for malaria.
I leave today from my home in New York to fly to Atlanta, then on to Managua. Tomorrow morning, we fly in a plane so small we all have to get weighed, 90 minutes northeast to Puerto Cabezas, on the Caribbean coast, our headquarters for the week.
My role on this journey is to report and interview locals and in-country staff about their experiences with WaterAid, then write stories for the group that they can use in any way they find useful — sending them to the media or to potential donors.
I’ve never done anything like this, so I’m excited and honored to be given the opportunity and challenge of making a remote and unfamiliar place, and the work they’re doing there, into compelling narratives.
But the fundamentals of reporting remain constant:
listen, ask thoughtful questions, watch carefully, behave with cultural sensitivity in dress and demeanor, take photos for later reference, soak up the atmosphere so a reader thousands of miles away feels like they’re sitting beside us…
The other remote places I’ve previously been? Rural Kenya, Tanzania and an Arctic village of 500 near the Arctic circle, Salluit, Quebec — all in my late 20s, a few decades ago.
Alanna has warned us that the poverty we’ll see is quite devastating, and will likely affect us emotionally.
I speak Spanish but we’ll mostly rely on interpreters into the local language, Miskitu.
I’ve never been to Nicaragua before but was lucky enough to know a guy in Colorado who writes its guidebooks and referred to me a young woman in-country who gave me ace advice.
This will be the 38th country I’ve been to (so far!)
It’s a working trip, with long days; our one free day is the last one, in Managua.
I’ll be blogging from there, with images, so I hope you enjoy the journey.
The latest slugest over how to find a decent husband is “Marry Smart”, written by a female Princeton graduate, advising women to get married while they’re still in college, surrounded by — she insists — their best choices; i.e. smart, driven, likely affluent men, (or women.)
Nor, she asserts, will women ever again be as attractive. Even better, kids, get plastic surgery to fix all those jiggly/weird bits while you’re still (yes, really) in high school.
Marry Smart, the retrograde pile of garbage that the ‘Princeton Mom’ has sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard and called a book, drops today. That means Susan Patton is currently making the media rounds, questioning the notion of date rape and insisting that she is “not a provocative person.”
…all copies of Marry Smart will be banned from our separatist compound, and our turkey baster parties are just lovely.
Since men, even young college men, distinguish between the women they want to have casual sex with and the women they want to marry and have children with, Ms. Patton devotes much of her book to telling readers how to fall into the second category. Avoid the campus hookup scene—it’s a waste of precious time. Don’t binge-drink—you will do stupid things. Realistically assess your looks and act accordingly: If you are only a “six,” that handsome “ten” knows he can do better than you and is probably out of your league. Lose excess weight. Act like a lady. Don’t swear like a fishwife. Learn to cook. Don’t be a whiny, moody, spoiled, entitled princess (“hothouse tomato” is Ms. Patton’s term). Cultivate a generous spirit and a readiness to forgive. Don’t chase after “bad boys,” especially if they display traits such as drug abuse and physical violence. Don’t be a gold-digger (“earn your own fortune”).
— Not every woman wants to marry, ever
— Not every woman wants to have children
— Many women are too busy learning, studying and planning their lives to put a ring on it after four years on campus
— Who’s to say your “best choice” is a fellow student?
I’d love to see a similarly finger-wagging book aimed at men, but I’m not holding my breath.
I had a great time at university, double-majoring in English and boys. It was a lot of fun, certainly for a young woman who had been viciously bullied for 2.5 years of high school, and doubted any man would find her attractive. Many did. That was a pleasant surprise, and I took advantage of it.
One of my beaux, whom I dated in my freshman year after meeting him the very first week of school, was a lovely man five years my senior, a fellow journalist. A decent and well-raised man, he made marital noises, but I was having none of it.
We later married others — both of whom left us when we were living in foreign countries where we’d followed them — and we have since re-married, each very happily, again.
I loved him dearly and we remain friends, decades later. But I knew, even at 20, this was not the man for me.
Yes, some people are delighted to marry very young, and it all works out.
It struck me as terrifyingly claustrophobic, even as I had several proposals from handsome, smart, hardworking men when I was in my 20s. I just didn’t want to get married that young, and married only when I was 35, to a handsome, smart, Ivy-educated, hardworking physician I had already known for five years.
Who walked out barely two years later and promptly re-married a co-worker.
It took me a long time to find a man who is an excellent husband.
Would Susan Patton have told me to marry him? Hell, no!
We come from different countries, races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. He attended state school on scholarship funds through his father’s church.
He’s a gem. But it took the loupe of mid-life appreciation to see that.
We may not have a clue who’s our best match in our 20s, 30s or even our 40s.
How about you?
What advice — whatever your age — would you offer to a young woman hoping to find a good life partner?
Most dictionary entries for “bossy” provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries’ “bossy, meddling woman” to Urban Dictionary’s “She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone.” Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.
Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. When a little boy takes charge in class or on the playground, nobody is surprised or offended. We expect him to lead. But when a little girl does the same, she is often criticized and disliked.
How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?
Much as I have very mixed feelings allowing corporate cheerleader Sheryl Sandberg to be the mouthpiece for women — hello, anyone else out there?! — I like this leadership and her new website, banbossy.com.
Her goal, and one I admire, is to encourage young girls, and those who raise and teach them, to speak up and speak out, to claim and re-claim their voices, both literal and political.
Certainly the evidence that people don’t typically behave rationally is quite compelling. It’s easy to find examples of behavior which conflicts with economic theory. The problem is that it’s not clear that these examples help us much. I’m pretty much obsessed by when, why, how and where we choose to spend our money. Or save it.
Given how little money most Americans save — here’s a blog post from The Economist about that — it’s a tough decision to postpone immediate pleasures (let alone the daily grind of needs), for groceries, housing and medical care in the future, possibly decades away. What if we never get there?
But what if we do live to be 80, 90 or beyond — and find ourselves broke and scared?
Here’s a frightening post from one of my favorite writers, Guardian journo Heidi Moore, about how older women — because we earn less and live longer — end up in poverty:
17.8 million women lived in poverty in 2012, 44% of whom lived in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty means “income at or below 50% of the federal poverty level”, which amounts to less than $5,500 a year…
What is surprising is that the slide into deep poverty is happening so soon, and in such massive numbers, among the elderly. It’s not clear what could have changed between 2011 and 2012 to cause it.
My mother went into a nursing home three years ago, paying — for a small room — $5,000 a month. Yes, really. That certainly made clear to me the very real cost of getting old, ill and needing costly care every single day. She saved, lifelong and ferociously, so she has the funds for it.
Most of us will not.
Our parents and grand-parents, and a few fortunate folk in specific industries, could look forward to a company pension; Jose will receive one from The New York Times, thank heaven. A few lucky people also get a company match to their 401(k) retirement savings from their employers.
But most of us are now expected and required to save and save and save and save, praying our investments retain and grow in value. I’ve been saving 15 percent of my income every year for a while; it’s finally adding up to a sum that makes me feel like the sacrifice is worth it.
It’s also simplistic to shame people who “spend too much” when millions have lost their jobs, often repeatedly, and have run through whatever savings they might once have had. Millions are also now earning far less than they once expected or hoped to.
Wages are stagnant or falling while the cost of living rises each year — and we’re still human beings who actually want to leave our homes and have some fun!
I splurge on four categories: 1) items or improvements for our home; 2) travel; 3) entertaining friends; 4) fresh flowers.
How about you?
What do you splurge on — and where do you keep your wallet closed?