Our First Trip North in Nicaragua

Glen T. Martin

2 October 2004

            The heat was stifling as we disembarked from our plane in Managua and made our way past the soldiers with machine guns posted around the airport into the racing traffic of the city.  We were met at the airport by the Director of our North American sponsored service project in Nicaragua who lived in the tiny project headquarters in the north.  It was not my first time in Nicaragua but it was to be the first time taking the trip north to our project headquarters. The years was 1996.  I was with my wife, Phyllis, and nine year old daughter, Rebekah.

            The New River Bocay Project had been founded in 1987 by Gary Hicks after he had spent two years documenting Contra atrocities for Witness for Peace.  He had asked to be stationed in a war zone and was placed in the small town of San Jose de Bocay, near the beginning of the Rio Bocay as it snaked northward through the Bosawas Forest Preserve to the Rio Coco on the border with Honduras.   He witnessed the repeated Contra attacks on the town and the terrible poverty of the people.  Determined to address the horrors of this poverty, he had taken a med-tech course and created a support group in the U.S.  Gary had set up a diagnostic clinic to complement the tiny Sandinista Health Center, an immunization program, an ambulance service to the nearest hospital many miles away in Matagalpa, and other programs to give a chance to the impoverished peasants and indigenous peoples of the north.

            That night Gary had arranged for us to stay in Managua in the apartment of a woman who had been a dancer for the Sandinista Army.  She had provided entertainment for the troops during the Contra War.  Beautiful photos of her dancing for the troops covered the walls.  The next morning we took a taxi to the Managua bus station and got the bus for Matagalpa, the last city before the journey into the undeveloped north.  Our former U.S. school bus was packed with so many seats that my knees were jammed into the back of the seat in front of me. 

            It was packed with people as well, with the roof piled with luggage lashed under a huge net.  The suspension system on the bus was gone and we felt every bump as the driver raced around the curves of the road going north.  The air inside the bus was bad, the heat and motion sickening, and soon my wife, three seats forward across the isle, was nauseous.  My daughter and I spent the trip rummaging in our backpacks to find plastic bags that we passed forward to my wife to be periodically filled.

            Matagalpa, steep with hills, was a relief.  A couple of hours of waiting in the hot, sultry air for our bus on the road to Bocay.  The only toilet for the entire station a disgusting make-shift box for which one had to wait in line and pay something for a square of toilet paper. One knew it might be deadly to accept a scoop of the putrid water from the barrel offered to those who used this toilet. Our new “bus” was finally ready to leave.  It was a former Russian troop transport, an open truck with canvas over some of the bars encircling the truck bed, two wooden benches along the sides, and open to the back. 

            It was crowded with people, chickens, a pig, sacks of beans, huge stems of bananas, and other luggage.  People kindly saw that my wife was a Gringo, looking very ill, and made a place for her to sit on the bean bags behind the truck cab.  The choice was there with diesel fumes to breathe, toward the back with road dust and a very bumpy ride, or on top of the bars high up ducking the branches of trees that occasionally swept the top of the truck.  I chose the bars, for the view was incredible from that high up as we ascended into the mountains and began to negotiate hair-pin turns and ever smaller dirt roads heading toward San Jose de Bocay.

            There were no bridges on this dirt road, and we crossed many rivers and streams.  The truck would slow way down, its huge tires slowly rocking over large rocks in the stream beds.  Occasionally we would see another truck or bus lying on its side that had been swept down river on a former journey.  The road was so tiny that it was almost impossible to pass a vehicle going the other way.  One vehicle sometimes had to back up, both had to slow down to nothing. The trip north took all day.  In the developed world, on an interstate highway, it would not have been a long trip. 

            We reached Bocay in the early evening, with the golden sun descending into the hills, exhausted.  We were fed some rice and beans by the Indigenous Indian couple (with two kids) who staffed the Bocay Project Headquarters, and crashed on the rough wooden beds. The Indian woman kindly lent Phyllis and Rebekah the only mosquito net under which they slept.  I slept on the picnic bench at the front of the small structure, with the ever-present mosquitos and giant spiders clinging to the porch roof over my head.  Such experiences help one understand the tremendous difficulties of everyday life in Nicaragua.

            The next day Gary began taking us to visit people he knew in the area – ordinary, poor people who welcomed us with great generosity and openness into their one or two room shanties. Two days later, I made the following entry in my journal:

            Nicaragua, journal entry, 16 May1996.  The level of poverty that we have seen here defies the imagination and leaves one sick inside.  We visited a woman in San Jose de Bocay two days ago with nine children, no husband, and no shoes on her feet.  She works a small plot back in the rugged hills and lives in a dirt floor open air shack on the back side of town.  A tiny, illiterate, hard working human being who lives from day to day, from hand to mouth, who owns nothing, not even an aspirin to lessen the pain of her daily struggle to survive.

            Today we traveled into the countryside to meet Mercedes’ mother. Mercedes is one of the many young people in this area befriended and helped by Gary, who lives in Nicaragua and is serving as our guide.  Today happens to be Mercedes’ birthday.  She was so excited that Gary and his friends (we) were going with her to visit her mother that two days ago she walked the two hours walk out into the country to tell her mother we were coming.

            The poor do not have birthdays here.  There are no records and no one remembers or notices them.  The only reason Mercedes has one is that several years ago, when she was a young girl about 12, Gary asked her to pick a day and remember it every year.  She is now 18 and is proud to be a person who has a real birthday.  Her pride at having a real birthday, I imagine, may be because itis a clue to her that, despite all evidence to the contrary, she has dignity as a human being.

            Mercedes’ mother lives in a dirt floor shack about one half mile from the nearest dirt road and about two hours walk from Bocay.   There is nothing in the house: one stool and two make shift benches.  An adobe oven, openings for doors, ramshackle boards and ragged plastic sheeting for walls.  Electricity or any kind of appliances are undreamed of here.  Her only kitchen tool is an old machete.  There are a few odd cups and dishes.   No food, no cupboards, no sink, not even an outhouse – nothing.  Excretion is done out in the bushes beyond the perimeters of the clearing.  Toilet paper is leaves from these same bushes.

            They carry water in plastic buckets 300 yards from a stream in a nearby gully.  The food they prepared for us and the Kool Aid they served us were all from what we had brought as gifts.  No other food was visible anywhere.   There were a couple of pigs and a few chickens running freely around the house.   All the other shacks dotting this area are basically the same.  This is the way most people in the countryside live in Nicaragua.

            Such poverty, found everywhere we have stayed in Nicaragua – in Jinotepe, Managua, Bocay, and now in the countryside – is a crime against humanity.   It cries out for socialism and is a blight on the existence of all the rich.  By “rich” I do not mean only the big corporations raping the natural resources of Nicaragua and exploiting their poverty for cheap labor.  They are only the obvious ones.  Rather, I mean 60% of the people in the first world, by “rich” I mean you and I, ordinary middle class people whose self-satisfied ignorance of their misery is an integral part of our crimes against humanity.

          The very existence of such human misery as is found in the so called “third” and “fourth” worlds is a moral blight on our existence.   Anyone who supports capitalism and so called “free enterprise” is wittingly or unwittingly complicit in the slow torture and death of these hundreds of millions of people who have nothing and are valued at nothing by the capitalist system.