the Nicaragua posts: Day Three

I woke up with conflicting feelings. It was our last day in Managua, the last day with all of these kids I had grown to know (and attached to).  Yet I wanted to get home to my own kids as quickly as possible. It was depressing to ride out to House of Hope, knowing that it was our last day.

And while I don’t think the kids really knew that it was our last day, I think they could tell based on our moods. Out of my group, there were some that were in tears just about all day.  Others took it relatively well.  For the majority of the day, we played. And again, we played hard.

One of the key moments for me was in giving the kids the books that I mentioned in this post several weeks ago. The way they looked through them and carried them around made it obvious that they cherished them. It was very cool for me to see one child pointing out the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are (or, in this case, Donde Viven los Monstrous), and just in awe of them.

One member of our group also brought a few puzzles which the kids played with for hours. It was really cool to see how they worked with us, not being able to speak much Spanish, in putting the puzzles together.   The day, in all honesty, was a big blur to me. It went by far too fast. My ribs ached a bit from all of the hugs these little kids gave me and for the next day as they ached, I couldn’t help but smile.

I had been wrestling with the idea that to these kids, the young girls in particular, we were just another group of Americans that came down, pretended to care, and then left. But they basically killed this idea on the third day.  One girl that I had spent quite a lot of time with over the last two days drug the translator over to me and had her tell me a bit of disheartening news.  Now, with the expression on her face, I knew it was a joke but all the same, it stung.  The translator sort of giggled and said “She says when you’re gone, she’s going to be sad. She will cry and cry.” Another quick round of translation and more giggles added on: “She’ll cry a lot.”

We did everything we could to slow down our departure. One more hug here, one more high-five there. Then, as I was walking to the van, doing a pretty good job of not breaking down, I looked back and saw perhaps the most touching thing I had seen on the entire trip.

One member of our group was sitting on the ground, her back propped against one of the home’s boundary walls. She’d been sitting there for about half an hour before with two kids in her lap, singing with them and playing. Now there were four kids sitting around her, one hugging on her in a way that I think only parents can really understand. I felt bad for her because it was clear that she was really struggling to not weep uncontrollably.

And as I watched, she finally broke and cried. The children, rather than being weirded out and leaving her alone, hugged on her tighter. Another girl even cupped her face in her little hands and wiped away her tears.  It was that moment that brought back a comment our team leader had told us during our planning meetings a few weeks before: We go down there to help them, but they end up doing so much more for us.

A thought went through my head which was later echoed by this member of our group later that night. As that little girl—probably no older than eight or so—wiped this woman’s tears away, I thought: Wow, that’s backwards. Isn’t this supposed to be the other way around?

Then, feeling the tears coming on, I made it back to the van without becoming a blubbering mess.

I understood her tears although maybe not as powerfully as a woman would. You cry because you know you may never see these children again. You’ve come to show love for them and are now leaving them to their lives where, ultimately, our few days with them did nothing to change what has happened to them in their past.  It really is an overpowering sort of feeling.

We left with half of the van in tears. It was the largest silence between the twelve of us since leaving Virginia four days before.

Back in the airport in Atlanta, I ended up somehow on the phone with my grandmother and she asked “Did you enjoy it?”

My answer was “Yes.”

“Would you go back?” she asked.

“Today, if I could,” I said.  And it was that comment that almost had me sobbing in the middle of the airport.  Yes, I would have missed my family and the folks at work would have been pretty angry, but in that moment I didn’t care.  I wanted to be on a plane, headed back. The ache in my ribs agreed and seemed to actually flare up a bit in response.

We came home. I shared stories and digested it all. Already, I am trying to figure out how to make another trip down there within the next sixteen months or so.

I took away a lot of lessons and personal stories which I won’t share here, as they are too personal. But I keep thinking back to that last scene—the little girl wiping away the tears of an American woman that had only experienced that lifestyle for three days—and it gives me a certain sort of peace. Those young girls, despite their past, know that they are loved and valued beyond what their pasts have taught them.

Credit it to God or good will or whatever you want…but this trip was proof to me that love and hope can thrive even in the most dismal of places.

One of the reasons women come to House of Hope is to learn trades that will allow them to earn enough money to finally break away from prostitution. This is a group of women and young girls creating jewelry which they sell in the market. If they do well enough, they are given micro grants to start their own small businesses.

the Nicaragua posts: Day Two

We woke up the next morning, excited and tired. The previous night, as mention in my last post, a water line burst (well, not a line, per se, but a mini-water tower type structure bolted to the top of our guest house) and put a nice amount of water on the floor of the main room. So everything was damp, but it didn’t stop us from eating breakfast and debriefing on yesterday’s events and what to expect in the next fifteen hours or so.

We piled into our van again and bumped our way through Managua, headed to House of Hope. When we arrived there, we weren’t the only ones. Headed down the poorly maintained dirt road to the home, we saw many women walking to the home from elsewhere in Managua. As we unloaded from the van, we were hugged/attacked by several of the children we had met the day before.

We were then allowed to enter a mid-sized covered area that serves as the hub of House of Hope.  Here, once a week, House of Hope holds a morning worship service of sorts. More than two hundred women attended this service while we were there, all of whom are living in prostitution or had suffered sexual abuse in their lives. Many walk as far as five miles to attend. Others are picked up in a bus that Oscar (that mountain of a man I introduced you to from Day One) drives through Managua and the outlying areas. The women come here to seek comfort, to hear motivating stories, and to seek a way out. They sing songs and pray and share their stories among one another.

The worship service was pretty amazing for me to experience. Seeing these women and knowing the hurts of their pasts, it was crazy to see them singing songs to God, lifting their hands to the sky and worshiping. The musical accompaniment consisted of a tambourine and clapping hands, but it was just as powerful (if not more) than a traditional American worship service in a church of 700 or so.

This whole event was extremely moving for me because one of my big issues with becoming a Christ follower was wrestling with the concept of “Why does God allow bad things to happen to innocent people?” It was, in fact, one of my big weapons-at-the ready to assault Christians with when I was a non-believer.

In many ways, I got my answer that day. See, the answer I have always been led to was that there is a greater and significant purpose of some sort to all pain. I saw this firsthand as I watched these women together. Many of them are in prostitution because they have no other choice; it’s the only way they can make money. Others have been sexually abused and are looking for freedom from it.  Yes, these women have all been dealt a crappy hand. But their stories serve to uplift one another and motivate them to come to House of Hope, in an attempt to change their lives.

Their pain and horrible histories are a commonality among them all. So when one woman shares how faith and the teachings/lessons of House of Hope have freed her from abuse and sexual slavery, there is hope in that. And the other women that are “on the fence” or have never experienced a feeling of self worth notice this.

Once the service was over, the home became a flurry of activity. Women sat together and talked. Kids started going wild. This, of course, was my group’s cue. We played tag, soccer, and many piggy-back rides were given. Then my group made the mistake of pulling out the bag of water toys we had packed to give to the kids.

World War III ensued.

I kid you not, a water fight of epic proportions broke out. I am not even exaggerating when I say this fight went on for about two and a half hours. Water guns evolved into water cannons. Water balls were then incorporated. After a while, someone broke out several buckets. It was the most fun I’d had in a very long time. I got beyond soaked. I also made the mistake of wearing my sneakers. They got drenched and never properly dried. They reeked when I took them out of my luggage after returning home and were promptly thrown away.

This was also the day I realized that these kids—not just the girls but some of the younger boys, too—make connections to you pretty quickly. One little boy in particular stayed by my side most of the day. When he asked to be picked up, I’d pick him up and he’d cling to me as if he was afraid I’d put him back down and run away. It was explained to me later than the majority of the boys at the home have never had any sort of father figure. So when men pay any sort of attention to them, they milk it up as much as they can. I saw this same sort of thing with the younger girls and the women in my group. It’s one of those things that is both sad and inspirational at the same time.

I also found myself spending a lot of time with the same two kids more than the others. The language barrier made it hard to really interact with them, but our translators helped. The kids asked tons of questions about where we are from and wanted to know about our families.

With the two children I had made a connection with, I kept my questions to them rather simple. I was afraid to know too much about them. I didn’t want to know the details of their histories. I didn’t want to know if they had been abused…particularly the five year old girl that latched onto my leg as we tried to leave that afternoon. (Note: If there were no laws, this little girl would have easily fit into my duffle bag and there would now be three children in the Napier Household).

The day sped by and I honestly didn’t want to leave the home. We went out as a group and had dinner, where I passed on the local delicacy of bull testicles. I replayed the day over and over in my head and I kept asking myself  why I didn’t show this much compassion and love for my own kids. That, quite honestly, is one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with since getting back home.

When I crawled into bed that night, I was quite possibly more tired than I had ever been in my life. Just before I fell asleep, I realized it was because it was the first time in my adult life that I had been both physically and emotionally exhausted at the same time.

I fell dead asleep but woke up several times in the course of the night. In total, I got about four hours of sleep before it was time to start day three.

the Nicaragua posts: Nicaragua Day One

I kept saying I was taking so long to share my experiences in Nicaragua because I had to process it all. While this was true, there was another reason behind it, too: I was hesitant to share it with people that were not my immediate family or close friends.  But I also know that the issues I was faced with while on my trip to House of Hope in Nicaragua are ones that need to be made public as much as possible.

I’m to the point now where I think I can talk about God stuff on this blog without being apologetic. I know full well that a good mix of people read my feeble little posts: other believers, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists alike. But what has blown me away is that members from all four of these groups have shown interest in the trip and the cause. I’ve even had people that had never read this blog (to my knowledge) e-mailing me to ask about the trip.

Those of you that know me well enough see this as a safe place, I guess. You’re not going to be attacked or questioned. See those four groups up there?…I’ve been a member of all 4 at some point and as a believer, I think it would be stupid to be in-your-face and drive you all away.

Anyway, all that to say…I’m ready to talk about it now. I actually have a seven page document with the entire trip written out. I have decided to not post the entire thing, but to divide it up by days. So without further delaying (did you sense that I was stalling?…) here’s the first of my Nicaragua posts.

I’ll skip the travels down there for the sake of interest. We left on a Sunday morning, from our church.  Lynchburg to Raleigh, then flying out of Raleigh to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Managua.  We arrived in Managua right around 8:00 p.m. Managua time.  The plan was to meet a man named Oscar and his family. They would take us from the airport to our guest house in downtown Managua.

Oscar is roughly the size of a mountain and serves as basically the strong arm of House of Hope. He has three children, one of whom is an older son that lives in America. He, his wife, and his other son have not seen his American-moved son in nearly two years.

Seeing her son for the first time in over 2 years

So it was a great privilege to be part of the group that actually surprised Oscar and his family by bringing his son with us. They had not been expecting it at all and there were many gasps and tears and hugs.

Five minutes in Nicaragua and I was already getting misty eyed.  This was not good…

The truck Oscar picked us up in was an old work truck with an open back cab. A few support bars ran along the top of it. The thirteen members of our group crammed into the back of the truck, some sitting, some standing, some holding on for dear life, and drove through downtown Managua at about 9:00 at night. It was actually a lot of fun and also a unique way to see the lay of the land.  It was also an eye-opening way to see how extreme the poverty is in certain areas of Nicaragua. One block would boast old houses and deteriorating yet habitable apartments while the next block featured shacks of wood, tin and anything that might hold them together, all tucked away behind concrete walls and trees.

The sitting area/den…before the flood.

So of course, I instantly felt guilty when we arrived at our guest house. The construction was new and we had a lot of conveniences that the majority of areas we had passed often go without: air conditioning, a fridge, hot water, clean sheets.  Karma did pay a visit on a few occasions though; the water heater burst and partially flooded the den area, there was no water pressure for about a day or so, and the entire men’s floor was flooded with about an inch of standing water when the shower in the adjoining bathroom began to leak.

But enough with the woes of the spoiled Americans…

DAY ONE

Day One had us traveling in a cramped van to the Managua Zoo. There, we were to meet the women and children of House of Hope and take them to the Zoo. When we got there, we discovered that the zoo is closed on Mondays. So after hanging out in what I assume was the zoo parking lot for about an hour, we decided to take the kids and women (an entire busload of about sixty or so) to Lake Managua. There, we accompanied the women and children on guided boat rides of the lake. This was a little bit of overload for me. It was quite difficult to split my attention between the kids and the sights. Lake Managua is enormous and most rich people from Managua and Granada have extremely nice houses along the lake. That, plus the beautiful sights of the lake’s wilderness and Mombacho (a huge volcano just south of Managua) setting in the background.

It was also a wake-up call to realize that the vast majority of these kids had never touched a boat, much less ever ridden on one. I was glad to be a part of it, even when I was asked to sit at the front of the boat and catch most of the waves that splashed up over the sides when the driver hit rough wakes.

This was followed by about two straight hours of playing with roughly thirty-five children on a playground just off the shore of the lake. Now look…I have 2 children, one of which is a 3 year old boy who has reserves of energy that baffle me at times. But within this 2 hours, I got more exercise than I had in the past 6 months. I got dirty and dusty. I got cuts and scrapes and bruises. I had bug bites (I guess that’s what they were anyway) and sore spots on places I didn’t know could get sore.

But it was fun. I had an absolute blast. It was also here when I was forced to get over myself. Knowing what the majority of these girls have gone through before the age of ten, it’s difficult, as a man, to know how to interact with them. Apparently, the girls are used to this and they take initiative. If they want to be hugged, your discomfort is a non-issue. They will hug you. And if you resist at all, you will be attacked with a bear hug. If they want you to put your arm around them as you walk from the swing set to the slides, they will take your arm and put it around their shoulders themselves. The first time this happened to me, the nine year-old girl in question actually looked at me and sort of rolled her eyes …a get over yourself expression if I’ve ever seen one…

We then had a late lunch of fried chicken with the group from House of Hope. The chicken lunches were from a fast food place called Tip Top. As a rule, I’m not the biggest fan of fried chicken but Tip Top was amazing (a good thing since I’d encounter it a few more times during my stay).

After this, we traveled to House of Hope. Stepping onto the grounds for the first time was sort of dizzying. It’s a place I’d heard about, a place I knew was helping so many women and young girls escape abuse.  But now it was real. It was like reading about a place for years and then being able to physically manifest it and touch it. We got a quick tour where we learned more about Casa Esperanza (House of Hope). Our guide went over some of the basics, some of which I already knew: most of the girls in the home have no actual families. Some were even sold into prostitution by their families for meager sums of money.  At House of Hope, the girls live in a dorm-like environment that barely holds the 27 girls that are currently living there.

It was odd to hear the guide explain the abuse and torment these girls have gone through, some from as early as six years of age, and then to see those same girls running around with smiles on their faces, playing and trying to grab our attention. It was my first confirmation that House of Hope was more than just a nice pleasant story of girls finding healing. Contrasting those stories with the joy I saw in some of them was polarizing in a way, but I left there that day with a better understanding of how God and faith truly can help to heal and redirect pain towards something better.