The year we lived in Costa Rica, our kids’ school had a year-round calendar. Hannah, Harry, and Ivy got a month off at Christmas and one in June; the rest of the year, school ran in six-week sessions with a week’s break between. This worked out brilliantly for traveling purposes, getting us down the mountain and out to explore Central America at regular intervals.
We’d been in Monteverde six weeks and a day when, in early September, the kids, their dad, and I headed out of Costa Rica for a week of intensive Spanish in Nicaragua. My criteria for selection had been “the least expensive school in Nicaragua that we can reach by bus in a day.”
By then, we’d lived in Monteverde just long enough to get a blast of what many Ticos—a friendly, non-pejorative term for Costa Ricans—feel toward Nicaragua and its people: disdain at best, hatred at worst. Ticos we knew seemed to feel that Nicaragua, with its poverty and its dictators and its poverty and its lack of infrastructure and its poverty, poverty, poverty, was an embarrassment to all of Central America. They wished Nicaragua would get its shit together. They wished Nicaragua would educate its citizens, brush its collective teeth, and stop being so poor all the time. They despised the Nicaraguan immigrants who sneaked across the border to steal the crappiest Costa Rican jobs, use Costa Rican social services, and molest Costa Rican women.
The kids’ Spanish tutor in Monteverde, provided by the school to help them until they were fluent enough to get by, scolded anyone she caught lazily dropping the terminal s from words:“No somos Nica!”
Ticos say “Nica” the way Arizonans say “wetback.”
We’d come from Seattle, where two full-time jobs plus three full-time kids had equaled a joyful yet frenetic life. My husband Anthony and I wanted to slow it down. Plus, there were things we wanted our kids to know that our current life wasn’t going to teach. Everything from “happiness is attainable without Select Soccer” to Spanish. A few months back we had quit our jobs, crossed our trembling fingers, and jumped. The money part wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly doable. Cost-of-living differences worked in our favor, and we were able to rent out our house for more than our mortgage payment. If we could keep our expenses to that difference, we’d come out of the year even (jobless, yes, but even). And here we were.
Going into the year, I’d wanted us to learn, learn, learn. Our vacations would be fun, natch, but also educational; we’d use these one-week stints to learn the history, current events, and culture of Central America. We’d see what needed changing in the world, and we’d be on fire to start. Possibly, we’d have Central America fixed right up by the end of the year. Nicaragua seemed like the perfect kickoff.
And so, against the advice of our new Tico friends, we went.
We left Monteverde at dawn. A rickety public bus bounced us down the rocky mountain road, dropping us at a small, unlabeled bus stop along the Pan-American Highway. We waited there for the air-conditioned, higher-end coach that would take us across the border at Penas Blancas. With the help of a boy about ten years old, we negotiated the border process and changed our Costa Rican colones for Nicaraguan Cordobas. As soon as our bus got under way, it was clear we were somewhere else. Nicaragua seemed hotter. Dogs ate garbage at the side of the road. Back among the trees, we could see houses constructed of tarps and scraps of tin.
Ivy had climbed on to Anthony’s lap. “Look! Doggies! They’re so cute! I want to pet them!” she said. Anthony looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say, either. The dogs looked exactly the way I’d always imagined the rabid dog that Atticus shoots, just a little to the left of right between the eyes.
“Sorry, Sweetie,” Anthony told Ivy. “But the bus doesn’t stop for another little while.”
We arrived in Masaya, in Southern Nicaragua, in the late afternoon. From there a taxi took us to the school. Harry had just enough Spanish to tell the taxista where we wanted to go.
The main school building turned out to be a large wooden house that overlooked La Laguna de Apoyo, a creepily warm, pondish kind of thing.. A concrete outbuilding would house our family for the week, bunkbeds in a bunker about twelve feet square. Given that the North American school year had just started, the school was virtually empty, and our family would be the major voting bloc. For the first two days we shared breakfast with another couple, who were replaced toward the end of the week with three backpackers.
Each morning, we practiced Spanish with individual tutors for four hours—although for Ivy, at five, “tutoring” was mostly learning perro and gato and getting piggyback rides around the grounds. In the afternoons, we went on school-sponsored excursions to see artisans and living conditions in the surrounding area. (The school either shared my vision for how rich tourists should experience Nicaragua, or they got a cut of whatever we spent.) After field trips, we swam in the awkward lake, or visited the sprawling mercado in the nearby town of Masaya. I had an uncomfortable moment when I encountered Danilo, my teacher in the morning, selling Chiclets outside the market in the afternoon.
On the first day’s field trip, we watched a twelve-year-old girl make a basket out of dried palm fronds in twenty-two minutes. She sat on a stool in the family’s living room, an area bound by corrugated roofing lashed between trees to form walls. I hated to think how long it had taken to gather the fronds—the surrounding area was largely denuded, most trees having been sacrificed to cooking fires. I watched Hannah watching; our eldest was exactly this girl’s age. If the girl noticed Hannah at all, I couldn’t see it. She finished her basket, set it aside, and picked up more fronds. Her brother was toddler sized, but he didn’t toddle; he sat quietly at her feet, scratching in the dirt with his hand. A fellow student snapped his picture. The boy seemed used to it. Ivy, who never met a small child she didn’t want to play with and generally treat like a doll, moved behind me.
That afternoon in the mercado, we saw we could buy a palm-frond basket for less than a dollar.
In the evening, an almost-cool came on the breeze, and for half an hour we were almost-comfortable. We lay in hammocks and marveled at the bats, swooping black shadows against the darkening sky. We cheered them for eating the mosquitoes.
But then the breeze was done. At bedtime, the five of us tossed and turned stickily in our sweltering bedroom. We stayed on top of the sheets. We tried to think about popsicles, and the chill of Lake Washington, even in August—and not about the spiders and geckos that would, if we snapped it on, scurry out of our flashlight’s beam.
Ivy whimpered all night, her eczema inflamed by the heat. Anyone thinking about what we’d seen that day didn’t want to discuss it, although Hannah alluded to it, once.
“At least this will end,” she spoke in the crawly darkness. “For us.”
In the morning, Ivy told me she’d dreamt about feeding people.
After the week of intensive language training, educational field trips, and the awareness of sweat pooling in our bodily creases twenty-three and a half hours a day, we taxied to Masaya and caught a bus to Nicaragua’s tourist gem, the colonial town of Granada. Not to be confused with Grenada, the tiny island off the coast of Venezuela that the U.S. “conquered” in the eighties, this Granada is the oldest European settlement in Nicaragua, established in 1524; it seems to have been conquered about twice a week during the Somoza/Sandinista troubles of the 1970s and ’80s. It is, even after those years of war, a beautiful town. The face Granada shows tourists is so darling you almost forget how hot you are. Granada is famous for meticulously restored Baroque and Renaissance buildings. Narrow, pre-automobile streets meander toward a central plaza filled with fountains and flowers.
As we got off the bus, Hannah said, “It’s like the rest of Nicaragua, but not.”
By the time we got there, the kids were so overheated, so exhausted, and their minds were so blown, we couldn’t bring ourselves to keep exploring. So instead of hauling them—or ourselves—through the Sandinistas’ network of underground tunnels, or learning about Francisco Cordoba, the Spanish conqueror who founded Granada and then later got his name on the currency, Anthony and I surrendered.
We gave up on history and architecture. We led no thoughtful, age-appropriate discussions about privilege and power and how we could justify our lives in the face of all we’d seen. Instead, we hung out at our hostel, a converted Colonial beauty with fountains and courtyards and air conditioning, and played in the pool. The kids shrieked and splashed. We dripped our merry way across the charming courtyard to the blissful cool of our two (!) rooms and watched (missing one quotation here) “La Vida de Jerry Seinfeld,” a weekend-long marathon hosted by the Nicaraguan equivalent of Nick at Nite.
It wasn’t bad parenting, though. For every episode they watched, Harry and Hannah had to write down three Spanish phrases they learned from the episode. (Estos bocadillos me hacen sed! = “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”)
There were bats in Granada, too, and as they began their mosquito-eating swoops, the only movement on our walls were the flickering shadows of Jerry and Elaine, George and Kramer. We lay between cool, smooth sheets. It was bliss, yes; but we were no longer ignorant.
Wherever we went that year, people were forever asking me about our motivations for moving to Central America. When you get the same question over and over, you tend to develop talking points. One of my favorite talking points was that I wanted to eliminate some of the lectures. Lectures are the absolute worst part of parenting. But if you don’t find ways to get the important messages across, you’re sunk and your children become awful.
Hang up your backpack. Manners matter. Here’s why we share.
My parental lecture series had many installments. In moving to Central America, I hoped to dodge a few, living them out instead of yammering on. First up: You guys have no idea how lucky we are.
Nicaragua did the trick.
Nicaragua was an onslaught. The troubling images and the huge questions were so numerous and so upsetting that my weak, defensive brain ended up blending them into a single desperate muddle. So much so that the only question I could muster was How was it that everyone we met there was so clean?
I never did figure this out. By no means did we get a complete view of the country, but the parts we did see were a living, groaning, sweating, Alan Alda–narrated PBS special on poverty. No running water, unless you count the rivulets through the living rooms when the rains came hard. Kitchens were outside firepits or cookstoves, and everything we saw seemed to be coated in children, chickens, dogs, garbage, and flies. Yet our teachers sparkled when they arrived at school each morning, their jeans dark blue and pressed (never shorts, no matter how thick, how hot, the air), hair still a little damp, shoes perfect and dust-free.
Back home in Seattle, our family was armed with two showers, a washer/dryer, and unlimited hot water. Our paved streets and sidewalks meant most of our dirt lived in the garden, parks, and the occasional sports uniform/detergent commercial. Nonetheless, at least one of our Seattle clan was as likely as not to start the day with a crunchy spot on some bit of hair or clothing.
But when we were taken to peer into classrooms at the elementary school near La Laguna, not a single white shirt had a smudge, although their owners had as likely as not walked a kilometer or two on unpaved roads to get here.
In English I have a decent variety of words at my disposal, but I still couldn’t form any of them into a tactful execution of my terrible question: How do you manage stay so clean when your country is so hot and so dirty, your house has no floor, and there are dogs everywhere?
In Spanish, I mostly smiled, nodded, and tried to tip very, very well. But by the end of the week, my tutor Danilo and I had covered enough topics in the course of our sessions that I thought I could broach the subject.
As I asked him about it, I shook my head and gave a slight laugh at how trashy many of the tourists, including my family, looked. I wanted Danilo to know that I had the sense to be embarrassed.
He spoke slowly, as always, so I could pick up the Spanish.
“When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something,” Danilo told me, “you pay attention to be clean.”
That made sense to me. I and mine, we had a lot of ways. My children never questioned their innate worth, and nor did anybody else—we didn’t need to worry about crunchy spots.
The desperate muddle of Nicaragua reminded me of what I already knew, what we all know: As a country, and even in recession, America is ridiculously wealthy. And Northwesterners are, by and large, ridiculously wealthy even for Americans. And while Seattle does know poverty, my family did not. If Harry needed new cleats, we bought them. We lived less than a mile from a library, but I’d buy books for Ivy four at a time for the convenience of not tracking due dates.
But our incredible wealth rarely resonated down to my bones. Lord, pretty much everyone we knew had a nicer house than ours. Friends went to Italy and the Galapagos and on safaris for their vacations; our family went mostly to the Oregon coast. Our lack of an island retreat or a yurt in the Methow valley set us apart among our closest friends.
Seattle, of course, had been packed with the so-legendary-they’ve-become-tiresome-even-though-many-of-them-are-lovely-people-high-tech jillionaires. Our family lived, quite literally, in their shadow—on the bottom slope of the hill that many of them live atop. We schooled, soccered, played, and worked with perfectly normal people who had amazing resources. If you hang in our circles in Seattle, having a very reasonable amount of money can feel downright poor.
The unreality of our situation had been driven home to me a few years back. Through the tireless work of many parents (many of them the at-home wives who spent Microsoft millions), the sweet little public school in our neighborhood had recently become attractive to the many high-high-high-end families in the area.
One spring day, Hannah was invited to play with a new classmate. In our ancient but entirely serviceable Toyota Previa, I drove her up one of the curvy, leafy streets whose homes overlook Lake Washington. Stunning Colonials and Victorians mixed with glassy ultramoderns, but even the diverse architecture came in just one size: Efuckingnormous. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed among Japanese maples in the artfully artless front gardens. Hundred-year-old oaks presided in the expansive parking strips. It was the kind of neighborhood you want to drive to just to take a walk. Birds chirped. Joggers were toned and tanned, and they wore fabrics that wick moisture.
Hannah had reached the age when I could drop her off rather than doing the whole mom-chat inside. I double-checked the address and drove into the circular driveway.
I leaned over and kissed Hannah on the head. Such a big girl, all of a sudden. “Have a great time, sweetie. I’ll pick you up at six. Be sure to help pick up.” I ducked down to see out the passenger window so I could wave a quick hi/thanks at whomever answered the door.
Hannah didn’t move. “Okay, but which one?”
“Which one do they live in?”
“Honey, it’s right in front of you. You’re sitting ten feet from the front door.”
Hannah’s voice took on the edge that meant she was being very, very patient with me. “Yes, but which apartment do they live in? I need to know the number, to push the buzzer!”
I explained that just Maddie’s family lived in this house. Hannah looked up and down the street.
“In all of these? No apartments? Every single house on this street has just one family?”
It’s one thing when your kids are surprised by that kind of wealth. More insidious, for me, was when mine started taking it in stride. Hannah was embarrassed by her mistake that day and would never make it again.
When your children think they come from a needy family because two of them have to share a bedroom, it makes you think a minute. At least, it did me. I’d been proud of the way we’d been able to live; still, in our neighborhood we mostly wore cotton T-shirts to go jogging.
I might feel middle class in the States, and even in our new home in Monteverde, where our growing community of friends included many who lived beautifully but hadn’t worked for years—expats one and all. But I could not avoid the truth in Nicaragua. Nicaragua launched a full-on truth assault until I couldn’t take it anymore. I hid away with my kids, from the flies and the dogs and the sadness and the air that you have to do the breaststroke through. Eating pretzels and watching Jerry Seinfeld reruns in an air-conditioned room, I hid from the truth of the poverty in which too many people live. And I hid from the truth of my own, unimaginable wealth.
I think that most of us who never go hungry (unless it’s on purpose) do know how fortunate we are. But I forget. Why do I keep having to remember and re-remember this thing I know I know? On the sweaty bus ride back from Nicaragua, I swear to God, I caught myself whining because we wouldn’t be able to afford to get to Ecuador at Christmas.
I’m confused by issues of having and not having and I’m not sure what to do. I know I want to raise conscious kids. Our Seattle was a dream world, where wealth was assumed and want was nonexistent. I would see it as a failure on my part to not expose us all to a bigger reality. But I want my children to be aware of suffering, not inured to it. What a terrible backfire it would be to raise children who have seen so much poverty that they think it’s unavoidable and unaddressable.
I’m pretty sure even Jesus had some class issues. On the one hand, He was clearly very big on feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on. On the other, there’s that one disturbing story, when Judas got so snotty about Mary Magdalene—that slut!—anointing Jesus with oil. Judas thought the oil should have been sold, and the money given to the poor. Jesus defended the extravagance, saying “The poor will always be with us.” I’ve always thought that was a fairly dickish statement on His part.
But I understood it better, in Nicaragua. Being anointed in oil was the Jesus version of an air-conditioned hostel.
So I don’t feel bad about letting my kids laugh at the television that whole weekend. They had seen a lot, and they couldn’t fix any of it. They’d lived the lecture.
What we saw in Nicaragua will percolate and distill, and become part of who we are. I want us to have the will and the energy for baby steps, and then bigger steps. Sometimes we’ll give deeply, and sometimes we’ll give ourselves a break. That one weekend, I surrendered my plan to learn and grow and be educated citizens of the planet, every damn minute of the trip. I shut up, and we all ate pretzels.
Author’s Note: Publishing this piece terrifies me. Is it nothing but a big fat rationalization? Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for the world is to grow loving, caring people who will enter and transform it. And sometimes I think anything short of giving all we have is a crock. And sometimes I think—this should come as no surprise—What’s for snack? I settle at last in a place that’s very centrist. Between hedonism and abstention, between fruitless navel-gazing and militant benevolence; that’s where I live, and where I want to raise my kids. With gratitude, humility and things that go crunch. There is nothing more perfect to me than a line in the Wendell Berry poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts. Yes. Exactly. I start there. I move outward.
Brain, Child (Spring 2012)
Margot Page’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child and the Huffington Post. She is the creator of the popular “Dear Drudgery” column on the Brain, Mother blog and writes about Pope Francis, travel, and things that amuse her at www.margot-page.com . Follow Margot onTwitter, friend her on Facebook, and check out her memoir Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains. Margot lives, works and writes in Seattle.
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