(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU's nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee's previous trips there, click here and here.)
Dear Lee, Please stop making me cry with these stories!
It’s probably the most common comment I’ve received back from my readers since I began sending out these accounts one year ago. While it’s certainly never been my intent to stimulate the tear ducts with my writing, it has sparked some thoughts toward the cultural perception of tears. Some cultural groups pride themselves on their stoicism. Weeping indicates weakness; stoicism signifies strength. Other cultures dive right into tears. The act of crying, outside of mourning, is seen as the physical emission of love and compassion. Most of us, you and I, fall somewhere along the spectrum.
For me, once I reached my teen years, crying was an extremely rare occurrence, reserved for total physical or emotional distress. However, when I started nursing school, I noticed a change. Perhaps my increased exposure to the sick and dying was making me appreciate simple things to a much greater degree. Or perhaps I was learning how big the world was and seeing simple miracles amidst everyday life. One of my guy friends recently asked me if I would consider him any less of a man if he admitted to crying over some of the stories I shared from the barrio. I told him that was ridiculous. It’s a shame to me that our society molds many men into a mentality like that. A tearful reaction is anything but wimpy. On the contrary, it shows us that are our hearts are still beating. It shows us we still care. We still love. We are still human.
I will never forget my first night home from my first trip to Nicaragua. I opened our refrigerator and saw all of the food we had. The tears started streaming. I was powerless to stop them. This trip has been so different from my first two though. On this trip, the focus has not really been on the healthcare of the people here. We aren’t getting involved to that degree. Instead, we’ve been doing something exciting, something hopeful. It’s been new and different and honestly, a lot of fun. Everyone’s having a wonderful time. To date, this crew, a team of mostly men, has shed very few tears. And by mid-week, I thought it peculiar enough to jot it down in my notebook. “Wednesday morning – still nothing to cry about!”
Throughout the week, I’ve received several emails from my parents and the McCaffertys about the status of my second Nicaraguan family, the Ramos-Medina family. I have seen them, in fact, and our reunion early in the week was one of the brightest highlights of the trip so far. On Monday, as we wrapped up our site-scouting mission, Duane and I had found ourselves trailing behind the camera crew. David was walking with us, so I felt comfortable being on our own.
“Duane, let’s go visit my family from the last trip,” I told him.
“You sure you to go without the crew?” he asked.
“I’d actually prefer to. I really don’t want to barge in with cameras and all that. I want to surprise them.” I handed him my camera as we turned the corner where Alvaro and the family live. It was Santos who spotted me first.
“Lee!” she waved.”Es Lee!” I waved back.
“Buenos dias!” I shouted. I could see Little Francisco hanging over the wire fence, too. He ran out into the street and jumped into me. “Francisco! Come esta?! Oh my goodness, you’re huge!” He just buried his face in my scrubs, obviously still a very shy kid. Walking into the family yard, I looked around for the man of the house, Alvaro. He peeked out from inside the hut to see what the commotion was all about. Seeing me, he ran out into the sun. He said something in Spanish, but it was lost in the monster hug he gave me. He looked exactly how we left him: shirtless, unwashed and unshaven, with gaping holes in his teeth and severely crossed eyes. But he was still the most affectionate, gracious character I had met in the barrio. I called David over to translate because Alvaro was talking a mile a minute.
“Um, he says that he never thought he would see you again, but they never stopped hoping,” David told me. “And they can’t believe you are actually standing here!” Alvaro grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the threshold of the tiny house where Ashlee and I had written our farewell into the walls with a Sharpie on our last day with them. He pointed to the messages gleefully and then back to me. I nodded my head and laughed.
“Tell him I remember very well! And tell him Ashlee wishes she could be here today too.” Alvaro then pulled me into the house. He pointed proudly to the Christmas wreath we’d given him. His face grew serious as he pointed at the mattresses we had purchased for the kids. Already, they were worn down, filthy after just eight months of use. I nodded. Then Alvaro pointed to his face. It seemed he was telling me that the glasses we had given him were gone, but I couldn’t understand the rest of what he said. “David, ask him if he will come to the clinic tomorrow afternoon. Doc and I will be there, and we can talk about his eyesight. And tell him I brought him something that I think will help.” David nodded and explained that to Alvaro. Duane had been shooting photos this whole time outside.
“Lee, we should probably be getting back,” he called into the shack.
“Yeah, you’re right. Alvaro, Miércoles, bueno?”
“Miércoles?” he clarified.
“Si! En la clinica.” He nodded vigorously and wrapped his arms around me again. I really didn’t want to leave so soon after getting there, but I knew I’d be back.
Wednesday’s filming went much later than we expected. I never saw Alvaro show up at the clinic during the time we were filming there. However, just as we were packing up the van with all the equipment, Alvaro appeared at the top of the street atop his rusty bicycle. He waved to me and pedaled down to deliver something. Stuffed into his chest pocket were a pile of papers. He pulled them out and handed them over. There were letters addressed to me and Ashlee, as well as two family photos.
I called Dr. Ross over to see if he could do a quick evaluation of the man’s eyes. Doc asked him what happened to the glasses we gave him, and Alvaro looked to the ground, almost ashamed to tell us. After some coaxing, we got him to tell us. Just a few weeks after we left, Alvaro had been biking home to the barrio after looking for a job all day. The far-sighted electrician was desperate for work to feed his children. It was getting dark when a gang started chasing him, trying to mug him, as if this poor man with tattered clothing would be carrying some great sum of money. His bike hit a pothole, and the glasses flew off his face. They landed in the road, where they were crushed by a passing car. Alvaro returned home that night with no money, no job, and now no glasses.
As he told us the story there in the road, I grew more and more furious with the thugs that live in this place. What kind of heartless skeleton of a creep does something like that to a desperate man like this? I promised Alvaro that we would back in the morning and we would help him get another pair. Then I hugged him goodbye. On the ride home, I tried to look out the window and block out the image of our terrified father pedaling away from a bunch of muggers. And for the first time this week, there were hot tears stinging my eyes.
Sometimes, this place is just simply wretched.
One of the most distinctive features of the Sol y Luna hotel was the circular pit in the center of the hotel lobby. I say was because it’s no longer there. Yes, it’s true. The pit has been filled in and covered with hardwood. All the furniture of the lobby has been rearranged over top. When we arrived on Sunday night, I had stopped dead in my tracks with my suitcase in hand.
“Where’s the pit?!” I cried. Dr. Ross came up beside me.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. The owner fell into the pit a few months back and broke her leg. It finally convinced her that it was a safety hazard. So no more pit.”
“But I liked the pit!” I argued, as if it would make any difference. The pit was where the Christmas tree used to be set up. The pit was where we held many of our post-conferences at the end of clinical days. The pit rocked. But it’s gone now, so I’ve decided to give the new arrangement a try this Thursday morning.
I sit down on the couch to check my email, hoping that the wireless Internet is up and running today. Dino is sitting across from me, looking through photos he’s loaded onto his Macbook. After several minutes, I notice he seems to be worried about something. He’s looked over at the front door seven times since I sat down. “Where are those guys?” he asks no one in particular. “They were supposed to be back by now.”
“Dino, relax, man.” I tell him. “I’m sure they’re just stuck in traffic.” It’s almost time for breakfast, and we’re waiting on Duane and Rob to return with Edgar. They’ve somehow talked our overly gracious translator into picking them up at 6 AM for the past two days to take them out into Managua to capture the chaotic traffic jams that lock up the city streets. It’s the daily bane of many motorists, but for guys like Duane and Rob, it’s a photographic paradise.
“Well, they were supposed to be back by now.”
“Dino, they’re fine. You worry too much.”
“I do worry a lot,” he agrees. “My wife, she always tells me that I’m the Italian grandmother she never wanted. Like I’m always thinking of disaster scenarios. What if they slipped and fell and now they’re in the hospital? What if they got caught in a mudslide? How would they reach us? Our cell phones don’t work down here. How would we know?”
“Okay, now you’re starting to sound like my mom,” I tell him. He goes back to looking through photos. A few minutes later, the three guys walk through the door. Dino looks up. “What happened!” Rob looks at him, puzzled.
“What do you mean what happened? Do you know how crazy the traffic is at this hour?”
“What? Just traffic?” I say with mock surprise. “No mudslides?”
The call comes for breakfast in the dining area. We have to get on the road soon if we want to stay on schedule. Though we will be here in Managua until Sunday, today will be our final visit to the barrio. Our luck has held with the weather, so we will not need to use Friday as a backup “rain day”. Jeff has already shot six hours of footage, all of which will have to be condensed down into 60-second and 30-second TV spots. All of this is good news, but on the flip side, it means an early goodbye for David and all our barrio friends.
David greets us at the gated porch when we arrive at his home. Looking past him into the house, I can see the women of the house scurrying about; making sure everything is as clean as possible. Juliet flies onto the porch and starts making rounds, administering hugs to the entire crew. Mrs. Espinoza ushers everyone into the common room. Anita takes the lead in communicating with David’s mother, explaining to her how tremendously grateful all of us are for his willingness to help us with our campaign. I’m not sure whether David and his mother knew he was getting paid, but the university has written him a check to compensate him for his hard work this week. The boy has earned five hundred American dollars for his part in the commercial. When David’s mother sees the number, she leans her head on David’s shoulder and starts to weep. David is speechless. This check will cover nearly two years of his college tuition in Nicaragua. For this family, it’s a gigantic boost to their tight finances. For us, it’s a tremendous honor to be the ones who give it to him.
I know the guys in this room are attached to this family too. Several of them have slipped cash to David and his sisters. It’s just one small way we can tell them how proud we are of each of them. After a few minutes of tearful goodbyes, we gather for group photos together on the porch. Because this check is so large and the neighborhood is so dangerous, we want to take David straight to the bank to deposit the money safely into his account. We don’t have to say goodbye to him yet, but I will not see his sisters and mother again, at least for quite some time. I’m not sure what his mother is saying to me, but she holds onto me for a long moment before letting go. This woman has turned the entire Change A Life project around for me, transforming it from something I was asked to be a part of into something I want to be a part of. I’m really going to miss her.
We have a few more stops to make after filing out of David’s house. Several girls from previous trips have given me gifts and messages to deliver to their families. People here love to receive photos we send back to them of our time spent with them. On Monday morning, for example, I pulled out photos for Don Pedro that our team took in November, and the man’s face just lit up, particularly at the sight of his faithful American co-pilot, Megan Cowden. The two of them kept all of us entertained the entire week with their hysterically bizarre cross-cultural jokes. It’s great to see that Don Pedro remembers the moments as fondly as all of us do.
I have a big plastic bag with me, filled with gifts to distribute. I need to deliver a Spanish Bible sent from Colby for her mother. Brianne sent back a photo album. I have letters and money for Megan’s family. There is a letter for our family from Ashlee, as well. And since everyone back home will want updates on their families, we stop in at several homes just to say hi and pass along the student’s greetings. I’m excited to get to my family’s home today. I have something special for Alvaro.
Francisco peeks out from inside the house when we arrive. There are more strangers in his yard than before. Larkin, Kyle, and Doug have joined us. I pass off my camera to Larkin to get some photos so that Ashlee will be able to see that everyone is healthy and smiling. Gabriella and Christian are off at school this morning, leaving Francisco and Kathia to accept all the presents. I could only bring small things for them: jump ropes and sidewalk chalk and balls and Matchbox cars. Mom sent down a nice body scrub for Santos. And for Alvaro, I have something to help remedy his eyesight issue. Since he is an electrician by trade, I brought a free-standing magnifying glass that he could use to help him see the wiring of his appliances. His eyes light up when I take it out of the bag and demonstrate how to use it. He motions to his table behind the house and beckons for me to sit down with the magnifying glass. Then he hands me a screwdriver and waves to Larkin.
“Un foto!” he says, grinning.
“He wants to have a picture of Lee at his worktable,” Dr. Ross tells Larkin. Larkin leans forward to take the photo of me pretending to unscrew a blender. My dad will get a kick out of this one. Everyone knows I haven’t the slightest clue how to fix anything. Those genes skipped a generation.
Unfortunately, we have to keep moving through the barrio to get to David’s house. I present Alvaro and Santos with letters from both Ashlee and myself, along with a money gift from their RMU nurses. I urge Alvaro to use the money for new mattresses and eyeglasses and whatever other pressing needs they have. His eyes have already welled up with tears, and he buries his face into my arm. He says something to Dr. Ross. “He wants you to know that you coming to see them means more to them than the money. And they can’t thank you and Ashlee enough.” More tears are coming for me, too.
“Oh, I almost forgot! Tell them that Ashlee is getting married very soon, in October!” Dr. Ross relays the message and both the parents’ faces beam with pride, as brightly as if their own daughter were betrothed. This happy news calls for another round of hugs as they wish the happiest blessings upon Ashlee and tell me to take their love home. They don’t want her to forget them, either. I tell Doc to assure them she never has, and never will. No one ever forgets their Nicaraguan family.
This is my first trip to a Nicaraguan bank. David’s savings account is registered with the Banco de America Central, the major banking chain in Nicaragua. The BCA built one of its continental headquarters just a mile or so from our hotel in Managua, and there are branch chains all over the city, recognizable by their trademark insignia of a red lion’s head. Don Pedro has dropped David, Edgar, and me off at the BCA location in the Metro Center mall, the same shopping center where we often eaten lunch on typical clinical days. As we’re walking inside, we pass a Claro kiosk near the entrance.
“Hey, David! Look, its Claro! Sell me a cell phone!” I tease him.
“Oh no! You will buy one and then call me at the call center only to complain!” he laughs. “Like everyone else!” The kid doesn’t relish his job at the call center. During the course of his night shift at the telecommunications center, it’s typical for him to field the insults of dozens of berating customers per night. Even for someone as positive and upbeat as David, it’s a difficult way to earn money.
The entrance of the bank is flanked by guards, which does not surprise me. Just about every public place in Managua stations guards at the entrance. Even the Peace Park is patrolled by rifle-toting security personnel. However, here at the bank, we are also wanded down by the guard. When I try to walk in, the man stops me, points at my camera, and then toward a locked cabinet. I’m given a card in exchange for the camera. I can pick it up when I come out.
“Wow, this place is guarded like a prison,” I whisper to Edgar.
“Yeah, they really take security seriously here,” he replies. “You wouldn’t believe the things that typically happen here. You’re not allowed to talk on your cell phone in line. Thieves will listen to how much people are depositing, then call their guys outside and describe what they’re wearing so they can mug them when they get to their car.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, it happens all the time. Luckily, the BCA has all sorts of rules now. Like, when it’s David’s turn to come to the window, you and I won’t be allowed to stand there with him. As far as they’re concerned, David could be our hostage and we are holding him at knife point. So they’ll ask us to move on.” Sure enough, when it comes time for David to see the teller, Edgar and I are directed to move to the back of the lobby to wait. There we stand while David deposits his check. Five minutes later, David walks over to us, accompanied with a BCA employee. “What’s the problem?” Edgar asks.
“They say that I have an account only for cordobas. And this check is in dollars.”
“What does that mean?” I ask. “What do you have to do to get it deposited?”
“I have to open an account for American dollars,” David tells us. Edgar sighs.
“How long will that take, Edgar?” I ask.
“At least an hour. Opening a new account is really time-consuming.” I know that we don’t have an hour to wait. We have a limited time to see the sights in Managua, and the film crew is already anxious to get moving. Just then, Dr. Ross appears at the door of the bank. Security wands him and lets him in.
“What’s the story?” he asks. “Did you get it deposited?”
“He has to open a new account to be able to deposit it.”
“Okay. That’s going to take a while, huh?” He thinks for a moment. “What if we gave you money for a cab back home? Are you comfortable staying here to open the account?” Dr. Ross asks. David nods. “Okay, do you have what you need to open the account today?” Edgar asks the bank representative. The employee tells us that all David needs are two Nicaraguan references. That won’t be a problem. Both Edgar and Don Pedro can vouch for him. Dr. Ross leaves to send Don Pedro in. A few minutes later, as our driver and translator are sitting at a table filling out David’s reference papers, I broach the subject of saying goodbye.
“When are you coming back?” David asks bluntly.
“I don’t really know, David. I didn’t know the first two times either.”
“I can’t promise that. You know I have my nursing job starting when I get back.”
“But you will come back as soon as you can?”
“As soon as I can, yes, I’ll come back. But in the meantime, you keep studying, and keep working hard. We’re all so proud of you. Here, take this money for the cab ride.”
Edgar walks over to join us. The forms are all in order. David grows uncharacteristically quiet. “David, you okay?” I ask. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want to tell me in English. He mutters something to Edgar in Spanish in a lowered voice. Edgar leans over to me.
“He says he feels horrible that he has to say goodbye to you in the middle of a bank.”
I understand his frustration. I didn’t want to part ways here in the bank either. I put my hand on his shoulder. “David, look at me.” He reluctantly looks up from his shoes.”Listen, I didn’t want to say goodbye here either. But it’s really important that this money gets to you safely and securely. Okay? It’s your money. You earned it.”
“Yes,” he mumbles. “but the money is not as important as the friendship.”
His words hit me right in my gut. This 19-year-old just made more money in one week than he usually makes in one year. But it seems that he couldn’t care less. He just didn’t want to have to say goodbye in a bank. He hugs me tightly, wiping his eyes with his fists. “Come back soon please,” he says in my ear.
“I will, brother. I will do my best. I promise.”
I retrieve my camera from the security guard and step out the glass doors with Edgar into the main corridor of the mall. David watches me walk away, standing there alone in the lobby of the BCA with his personal check from Robert Morris University. I turn around for one last look. That kid is the hero of the whole barrio, I think to myself. He’s my hero, anyway. I grin and wave at my friend. He waves back, smiling. And then I turn and walk quickly away.
I’ve already stated my thoughts on tears, having settled the argument that there ought to be no shame in shedding them over those you love. I stand by that. And so there’s a simple reason that I didn’t want David to see me cry today.
I wanted his last memory of me to be a smile.