(The following was submitted by RMU senior nursing student Lee Folk, who recently returned from Nicaragua, where a group of nursing students travel twice yearly to provide basic health care to residents in the barrio around the capital of Managua. The trip is led by Carl Ross, university professor of nursing at RMU.)
The ferry eventually reaches the dock, and it continues to bob on the waves of Lake Managua as we make our way down the plank. Having spent the past forty-five minutes on the top deck of the boat, leaning into the fierce wind, I am glad to be back on solid ground. We climb the vibrantly painted steps of the pier toward the parking lot where our driver is guarding the van. It’s late afternoon on our first full day in Managua. The murky brown waters of the lake are now disguised by the growing radiance of the sinking sun. I snap one last picture of the rolling waves behind me and climb into the van.
The driver takes us directly across the empty parade grounds of Managua. While these grounds now lie silent, they have been witness to many magnificent celebrations in recent decades. Dr. Ross directs the driver across the square and points him toward the Old Cathedral and La Casa de Los Pueblos. The Old Cathedral was the grandest church in all of Nicaragua until earthquake and revolution stripped it of its glory and left it to the winds to decay. Now it stands as a bullet-strewn skeleton of concrete and glass. The construction is still magnificent, with lofty arches and two great bell towers stretching toward the sky. A clock on the right tower remains frozen at 12:35, never to move again.
On opposing sides of the square lie the executive residences of the Nicaraguan president. There is the traditional Casa de Blanco, whose name is taken directly from America’s own White House. Upon his ascension to power, President Daniel Ortega decided to construct his own mansion, despite widespread public outcry. He called it La Casa de la Pueblos, or “House of the People.” The high gates that surround the perimeter seem to contradict that title.
The children are everywhere. From the moment we step foot in the square, kids are all around us, trying to sell us little crafts made out of fern leaves of some kind. I watch a young boy working fiercely to finish the construction of one such leaf. He fashions the leaf into an incredibly accurate replica of a grasshopper. I know the consequences of such an action, but I take out a dollar anyway in exchange for the boy’s unique work of art. He smiles and takes it from me quickly. Sure enough, three or four more children instantly appear on either side of me. “Sólo uno más?” they plead with me. Just one more?
I remember Dr. Ross’ advice. Sometimes you just have to say no. But there is one little girl who is extremely persistent in getting my attention. She never stops working with her leaves as she follows me across the square. I decide that my first grasshopper will get lonely without a friend. I ask her to make me another. She immediately goes to work crafting another grasshopper. She tells me her name is Ruthia. I pull out a dollar bill and hit ‘record’ on my camera to capture her amazingly honed talent. The competition for tourist’s spare change is fierce in this city square. Several boys stand off to the side and try to divert my attention from the industrious girl. I notice that Dr. Ross is standing behind me, watching closely. “Those boys will beat her up for the money she makes as soon as we are gone,” he tells me under his breath. I look up at him in disbelief.
“She won’t be able to hold onto this money?” I ask him.
“Not likely. And what’s worse, if she doesn’t return home with a certain amount of money, she will be beaten again by her parents.”
The tone of the unfolding scene has now shifted from merely curious to absolutely heart-wrenching. Ruthia’s hands continue to fly over the leaf, and the shape of a grasshopper emerges. She holds it out to me with pride, and smiles. I hand her the dollar, the dollar that will be taken from her as soon as I walk off the square. And she hands me grasshopper, the grasshopper that is now sitting beside me on the nightstand. To her, I was just another American tourist with a dollar. To me, she was the girl I’ll never forget.