Thursday, October 26, 2006

Unexpected emotions in Nicaragua

I was wrapping up my fourth day in Nicaragua when I started this. It was the first moment I had to share my adventures with you. That was last Saturday night. It’s now Wednesday night and I finally have a few minutes to write a bit more and maybe even post this thing. But I’ll pick it up from Saturday:

It’s 8:15 p.m. and I’d love to take a short nap, but I’m certain I wouldn’t wake up until they come to wake me at 4:30 a.m.

You see, I have to catch the 6 a.m. ferry that will take me back to the tiny city of San Jorge. From there, someone, I’m told, will drive me to Managua, two hours or so away, and I’ll start my work again.

Since late Saturday night, I’ve been a guest on the Isla de Ometepe, or as the gringos know it, Ometepe Island. If you’re picturing a place in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, you've pictured wrong. Ometepe Island is surrounded by Lake Nicaragua.

The small island pretty much consists to two massive volcanoes: Maderas and Concepción. They’re both active, but Concepción is more active — so active that when it started spewing thousands of tons of ash last November, the folks at Casa Santiago had to evacuate the 300 or so orphans that live there.

And that involved a lot of ferry trips.

When Concepción stopped spitting and started to breathe for a while, the children returned to the island, but the orphanage’s parent organization, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters), started looking for a place to relocate.

It was clear to them that running an orphanage beneath an angry volcano with a short fuse could be disastrous — especially when the only way off the island is by a small, slow ferry.

My wonderful friend, Chris Sisley, is involved with the organization and sponsors a child at one of its other orphanages. When she learned I had an upcoming training assignment In Nicaragua, she baited her hook and threw a line in my direction.

She knew I couldn’t resist the chance to interact with poor children -- children whose parents had either died, had been killed in the war or who had just plain abandoned them.

Before she even started to reel me in, Chris had sent an e-mail message to Father Philip C. Cleary, NPH International’s executive director in Mexico City.

And within a few cyber-moments, Father Phil e-mailed me an invitation.

My assignment in Nicaragua, however, was to help several NGOs (non-government organizations) raise the public’s awareness of campaign finance corruption. What better time to address the issue than ten days before a national election that people all over the world are watching — especially people within the U.S. government.

Former President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, it seems, may very well win the election and, once again, bring his Sandinista Party to power.

As you’ll recall, Ortega was one of the Sandinista revolutionary guerrilla leaders who chased dictator Anastacio Somoza from power in July of 1979.

He rose to the top of the junta that ran the country. He allowed national elections in 1984 and won the top spot.

Ortega became the first democratically elected Marxist leader in the Western Hemisphere. And, as you may also recall, President Jimmy Carter cautiously watched the Sandinistas as they set out to implement land reform, reduce the illiteracy rate and eliminate the use of pesticides in Nicaragua.

And since I’m reminding you of stuff, you must certainly remember that when Ronald Reagan took office three years earlier in 1981, his operatives came up with a plan to help the Nicaraguan people remove Ortega from office. It had to be a very secret and special plan because Congress had passed a law forbidding the U.S. president from spending any tax dollars in any attempt to overthrow any foreign government. Reagan’s people circumvented the law by secretly selling missiles and things, through other countries, to our enemy, Iran. Then his team used the money they received to pay exiled thugs — make that “Freedom Fighters” — to go back into Nicaragua and make things difficult for Ortega and the supporters of the revolution.

By a strange stroke of luck, in January of 1985, I was asked to make a side trip to Nicaragua from El Salvador where I was working on a story. They wanted me to cover Daniel Ortega’s inauguration.

I flew into Managua two days before the ceremonies and got what I think was the cheapest motel in history. Some leftist journalists from Mexico called me at 4 a.m. to remind me to get on “the bus” at five. When I asked what bus it was and where it was going, they hung up on me. It turns out they had misdialed. You see, they were trying to reach the leftist journalists from East Germany who were also staying in the world’s cheapest motel.

None of them were happy when I joined them outside to get on the bus.

Ultimately, the bus driver took us to the Managua airport where soldiers with machine guns invited us onto an elevated press stand out on the taxiway.

A few minutes later, a Soviet-made, Air Cubana plane landed and Fidel Castro stepped out onto the tarmac.

I tell you this story because it’s yet another example of how so many amazing and interesting things fall in my lap — especially when I’m not even looking.

(Time lapse) This is where the story left on off Sunday night. Indeed, I made the trip back to the mainland (if that’s what you call what’s not an island on a giant lake) and immediately went to work preparing for the Tuesday assignment in the city of Matagalpa, about two long hours north of Managua. It went well.

Today, Wednesday, I met with the editor of one of the daily newspapers and then taught a class at UAM, Universidad Americana (American University). Tomorrow morning I’ll meet with newspaper reporters and in the afternoon, maybe, I’ll be meeting with some folks who are creating a brochure for their organization.

On Friday, I’ll meet with another writer/designer to give his brochure a look-see. Then, I’ll have lunch with some other journalists and maybe another meeting in the afternoon.

So as you can see, I’ve had little time to take a lot of pictures or to write a lot about the billion interesting things I’ve seen and experienced here.

What I really want to do, however, is talk a little bit more about the orphanage I visited over the weekend -- and will probably visit again this weekend when my work is done.

It was dark when I arrived at Casa Santiago. It’s really not a house — it’s a massive piece of property that includes a church, a multi-classroom school facility, dormitories for young girls, young boys, older girls and older boys, housing for staff and volunteers, a computer lab, a semi-outdoor meeting facility, a soccer field and fields of beans and bananas and a whole lot more. You have to take a truck to get from one end to the other.

Most of the 300 children were at the covered assembly area watching television and getting things ready for an impromptu talent contest.

When I got out of the truck, the strangest thing happened. Children saw me and ran up to me. They hugged me and held my hand and greeted me.

"Hola, Padre." "Hola Padre Felipe." "Hola Padre."

I told my host and guide, a young man named Ross, that I was impressed with the greeting.

“They’re very friendly to everyone,” he said, “but you see, they think you’re Father Phil. I didn’t realize it, but you look just like Father Phil.”

Apparently lots of the kids remember Father Phil from the last time he visited from Mexico.

When they gathered all of the kids together for the talent contest, they had to make a special announcement that there was a special guest there, a journalist from the U.S. who looks like Father Phil — but isn’t. His name is Don Ray.

Some of the children refused to believe that I wasn’t Father Phil and they continued to come up to me with gigantic smiles and their arms open wide. I finally had to resort to showing them my driver’s license. That, too, was a mistake. They saw my middle name, Philip, and thought that that was proof that I was the head of the entire international operation.

I considered just going along with it and blessing them and stuff, but then I thought maybe they’d expect me to give a sermon or mass or something the next morning.

But I have to admit, it’s nice to be loved.

In truth, though, I must tell you how absolutely wonderful these kids are. I watched them playing guitars and marimbas while other in beautiful costumes performed traditional ballet folklorico dances for everyone, I vacillated between smiles and tears. I smiled when I saw how absolutely happy they all appear to be. Then I would remember that each of them is without parents — either their parent had died or had abandoned the children — and then the tears would race down my face.

The following morning I watched them working in the bean field alongside the director of the facility. They all picked weeds — the children, the staff members and even the director of Casa Santiago.

It wasn’t his first time. You see, when the director and his wife children, they were also orphans in the original facility in Mexico.

The organization is unique in that it never adopts out the children. When a child comes to Casa Santiago or to an NPH facility in any of the other eight countries, the child stays at the facility. They’ll get all of their primary and secondary education there and, if they wish, the organization sends them to college. If they’re not college material, they can learn a trade there at Casa Santiago.

And if the child has serious physical or mental problems, he or she is welcome to stay at Casa Santiago the rest of his or her life.

After weeding the bean field and after breakfast, the children turned their energy to their weekly chores. I videotaped the girls and boys doing their laundry by hand outside their respective dormitories. They allowed me into their rooms — four or five kids to a room — and I videotaped them cleaning the floor and straightening things.

Afterwards, it was free time. Some played checkers, some bounced in the bounce house, some played with Barbie dolls and some played soccer.

In one area, one of the “tios” (Tios and Tias are aunts and uncles, as they’re called in this “family”, who are the primary caregivers of the kids) was teaching two boys how to repair a bicycle. Some older boys were sitting on small bleachers watching a movie while another group of boys watched a soccer game on the big TV in the activities center.

A busload of girls headed off to the beach while a group of boys jogged to the town several miles away with one of the volunteer teachers.

Some of the other girls had a soccer game to play in town. They lost, but they were still happy. In the past, their girls' soccer team went all the way to the top and represented Central America in the big international tournament. A couple of the girls now play for other top teams -- but they remain at Casa Santiago.

When all of the children returned from their off-site activities, they went to their respective dormitories and stood in line and said prayers while they waited for permission to go inside the dining area and eat.

I had been videotaping them all day. When I’d shot enough, I shot them with my still camera.

That evening, when I transferred the photographs to my computer, I looked at one picture of a smiling girl holding another girl who was also smiling and most contented smile. It’s so strange, but something about it brought tears to my eyes. At the time, I didn’t know why.

Later that night I shared all of my pictures with my new friend Wladamir Ruiz Rivas. He’s a photographer and graphic artist who gives hundreds of hours a month to the children. Even though he lives and works in Managua, he agreed to come to the island with me in case I needed anything.

Anyway, as I was showing him the photos I had taken, I told him that there was one he’d soon be seeing that, for some reason, made me cry. When the picture came up, he smiled and told me that that girl who was girl being held — that girl with the contented smile. She was a new arrival. It had taken a while, Wladamir said, for her to adjust to her new family. But, he said, the picture I shot made it clear to him for the first time that she had finally come to realize that she was home -- that all of the suffering she had experienced in her short life was now a thing of the past.

I must warn you to not go to Casa Santiago. Do not meet the children. Do not let them hug you or smile at you or take your hand.

Because you to go there and you meet them and you let them touch you, you will not be the same again.

Like me, you’ll find yourself thinking about them all throughout the day. You’ll finish a good meal and then feel guilty knowing how so many of the children had come to Casa Santiago malnourished. You’ll look at the possessions that have made you so happy in the past and you’ll wonder how these children could be so happy with so little — with donated, used clothing and toys that kids in the United States and Europe no longer wanted.

No matter how bad you’ve been feeling lately — no matter how difficult you thought your life has been — you’ll think of these children.

And you’ll feel compelled to return to Casa Santiago because you’ll feel like family.

No, you shouldn’t go there unless you’re ready to feel things you may not have felt before.

I’ve been as busy as I’ve ever been this week -- doing the work they’re paying me to do down here. It’s three times as hard because I have to do it in Spanish and I have never completed a Spanish class.

But as we were driving along a very poorly maintained road from Managua to Matagalpa, I couldn’t help but notice the poor children standing by the road with their arms outstretched. The are standing next to potholes -- potholes that they have adopted. For them, the potholes in the road are their only chance for survival.

While they should be in school or at home playing with toys, they’re out by the roadside with shovels. Each of these pauper children tends to his or her a pothole and keeps it filled with dirt.

Then they stand by their repaired pothole with their hands out. They’re hoping the people driving by will give them a coin or two as a "thank you" payment for their work.

I wished that I could pick up each one of them and drop them off at Casa Santiago.

You see, when you’ve seen how a loving staff, some loving volunteers and some generous “padrinos” in the U.S. and Europe have put smiles on these children’s faces, you can’t forget it.

I’ll write more about the other stuff going on here in Nicaragua when I get another chance.

But I won’t stop thinking about the beautiful children who think I’m Padre Felipe.

It’s funny. I was kidding when I thought about maybe blessing them.

But, in reality, they have blessed me.

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