(The following was written by RMU senior nursing student Lee Folk, who is currently on his second trip to 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. Click here for a sample of Lee's journal from his summer trip, including his original entry about Ruthia.)
It is a warm day in Managua. The temperature is still hovering near ninety degrees, though there is a constant breeze coming off of the lake. Hurricane Ida deposited her rains here last week and has since moved on, leaving the plants and flowers of this city revitalized in her wake. It is a vibrant color scheme for a landscape, and a welcome change from the barren hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. The Plaza de la Paz is slowly filling with the lengthening shadows of this late November afternoon. Don Pedro brings our van to a stop at the entrance of the memorial as we prepare for the final stops on our sightseeing tour. Dr. Ross admonishes us again to keep one sharp eye on our belongings, and another on the ground we’re walking on. You never know what you are going to find laying around here.
This place is known as the Peace Park, or the Plaza de la Paz. It was constructed as a memorial to the dead at the end of the country’s fierce civil war in 1991. Violeta Chamorro, the country’s first female president, was intent on demonstrating Nicaragua’s commitment to a peaceful future, and therefore decreed that the weapons of the revolution be buried here beneath the park. This historical site was meant to be a safe haven for families of the dead to come and mourn, and so it was, until the takeover of the Sandanistan government. Today, many are afraid to come and show their grief for fear of persecution.
As we enter the park, there is little to see but a concrete wasteland, bathed in graffiti and wreaking with the stench of fermenting garbage. The plaques thanking the United States and other countries for their role in the revolution have long since been ripped from their places of honor. And down a flight of stairs, in the tomb where despotism was meant to meet its demise, its weapons are rising from the grave. Through the years since their burial, the AK-47s that Chamorro buried have begun to emerge from the hillside of eroding concrete. Rusty gun barrels stick out in every direction, straining against the weight of their concrete prison, almost as if they are trying to answer the call of the country’s divisive dictator, Daniel Ortega.
It is an odd place to find Robert Morris nursing students. We are far from home and still adjusting to the culture and the bugs and the heat. But this moment is an essential part of the trip for all of us. In order to understand the health of these people, we must understand their government and its role in their lives. The buried machine guns of Plaza de la Paz tell us the story of an oppressed people. It gives us a sense of the weight of poverty and hopelessness, of the fight for survival and the cost of war. We walk around the plaza in silence, each of us peering closely at the guns. There is a uniformed man with a machine gun watching us, and though he has told us that he is there to stand guard for us, we are still treading softly.
After a few minutes, Dr. Ross calls us back. It’s time to go. There is one place left for us to see yet, and the sun is setting fast. We can see the abandoned cathedral from a few blocks away, with its twin bell towers rising high above the coconut trees. The principal houses of the Nicaraguan government, the Palacio Nacional and the Casa de los Pueblos, stand on its flanks, creating the central square of Managua. This is the place where I met Ruthia, the little girl who captured my heart and the hearts of my friends and family back home. On my first trip to the country in July, she came running across the square toward me and my classmates, intent on selling us her hand-made fern grasshoppers. While I watched her work, I learned that this ten-year-old girl did this to survive, and that she would likely be robbed by neighborhood boys before she could get the money home to her family. The memory of her comes to mind as I walk onto the square beneath the billboard gaze of Daniel Ortega.
We have been seeing signs of Christmas everywhere since our arrival. Here we see a dozen Nicaraguan men stringing colored lights from the towering pole in the center of the square to form a giant electric tree. It is an interesting sight to see such an approach to decorating. After all, there are no evergreens here. It is a much different holiday display from that of Gateway Center in Pittsburgh, but it brings a smile to everyone’s face to see that the Christmas season is universal. Its arrival before Thanksgiving appears to be a worldwide trend as well. There is a worker at the top of the pole, at least ten stories above the ground. He is dangling from a single cable. I am squinting up at him, trying to figure out how he got up there, when I hear Doc calling me.
“Lee! Lee!” I look over in his direction. He’s pointing across the plaza. “Look! It’s Ruthia!”
I turn around and see a little girl running toward us. I can’t believe it. It is her.
The girls in this group have all read the story of Ruthia. Some of them were even able to persuade their parents to let them come to Nicaragua because of this little girl’s story. She runs right up to us and is greeted by a dozen flashing cameras. She does not know it, but all of these people know her already. I am in disbelief. There are many people that I expected to see again on the return trip. But I never thought I would see Ruthia again. Yet here she is. With no traces of recognition on her face, she immediately begins to make me another grasshopper. I look over at Dr. Ross, shaking my head.
“I can’t believe this!” I can tell he is not as surprised.
“This is her life,” he says simply. “This is what she does.” I stand next to him and we watch the girls place their orders with Ruthia. They all want a piece of her handiwork. She is going to be making quite a living today with all of this business. But one by one, the heartache begins to sink in for each of the girls. The boys are beginning to crowd around Ruthia, and they are whispering to each other. They can see how much money she is making. Lindsey comes up beside me.
“They’re really going to take her money?” she asks painfully.
“They’re going to try.” Lindsey shakes her head and sighs.
“It’s so unfair,” she says under her breath. And it is. It is unfair that this beautiful ten-year-old is even in this square, begging for money outside the gates of a dictator. It is unfair for all of these children. Where are their mothers? Where are their fathers? They wander around this city day after day, their existence hinging on the fluctuating traffic of tourists like us. I feel a tug on my shorts. There is a two year old boy clinging to my leg, trying to find the rest of my gummy worms that I’ve been passing out to the growing crowd. I have given him half a dozen already to pacify his crying, but it only encourages him. I pick him up in my arms.
“You’re going to ruin your dinner, pal!” I say as I tickle him. The sobering realization hits me even as the words come out of Dr. Ross’ mouth.
“It is his dinner.”
Half an hour later, we are loading up into the van. Our exit is not an easy one. Every child in the area knows by now that the Americans are here, and that we all have money. Don Pedro’s job is to get all of us into the van and keep the children at bay. Dr. Ross stays outside for a moment with a handful of cordobas to distract them. He instructs the children to form a line. They push and shove each other, the smallest of them clinging to their older siblings. They do what they know to do, keep their hands outstretched until they get something. To the youngest, this is just all a happy game. They laugh and giggle and push each other to get closer.
The last coin is finally given out and the van door closes. As Don Pedro pulls away, I look out the back window. Panic grips me. The smallest girl, not more than three years old, is running behind the van, trying to catch us. She is just inches from the bumper. If Don Pedro slows down for a speed bump, she is going to be hit. She can’t see me pounding on the window.
“Don’t slow down!” I yell up to the front. “Don’t slow down!” Don Pedro accelerates. The girl stops and covers her eyes in the cloud of dust. Then she waves at me. She is still laughing. I sigh and shake my head. There are so many moments like this here; these moments of not knowing whether to smile or cry. We leave our dollars and our hearts here. We leave them here in the shadow of Managua’s Christmas tree with Ruthia and her friends and her bullies. And we drive away with the memories.
It’s not fair.