This award-winning essay was written in response to my first Bridges to Community brigade experience.
It is a true story.
Nothing to Buy: Tierra Colorada, Nicaragua
We arrive without baggage. Friday, the start of the biggest holiday weekend of the year. Monday is the 19th of July: Independence Day. While it means a great deal to the Nicaraguans, what it means to us is simple: no baggage handling until Tuesday. Our things won’t reach us, “out in the campo,” until Wednesday. Nicaragua takes independence seriously.
The “campo” proves to be a small village in the hills: Tierra Colorada, or “Red Earth.” As we approach, the dominant colors are a wealth of luxuriant greens. Red is reserved for brilliant floral accents. The graded dirt road comes no closer than three miles. The dirt track up into the hills, we are told, is often impassable even to four-wheel drive vehicles. Our truck groans as we inch up steep inclines, whines as we jolt through gullies. The local people have no vehicles. They walk or ride horses.
We arrive to discover the absence of many other things we take for granted: no electricity, no telephone, no running water. Until a Bridges to Community brigade dug their first well in 1992, they took all of their water out of the stream, for washing, cooking, and drinking—the same water used by other villages, both upstream and down.
And one other thing: there are no stores in Tierra Colorada, nothing to buy.
We are surrounded and greeted—shyly—by the entire village, about 175 people, comprising twenty extended families. Beyond them are their cattle, pigs, and chickens. Most roam freely. The chickens are constantly underfoot. The people seem healthy, the animals well cared for. The children, hesitantly curious at first, delight us with their enchanting and spirited energy. Their two-room school becomes our dormitory, which means—on top of the excitement of foreign visitors—a week’s vacation!
By day we help them build a church. Previous brigades had dug the wells for their physical health, and built the school for their intellectual development. Now we were asked to provide a home for their spiritual well-being. Brick by brick, side by side, we raise sanctuary walls, and lower barriers of language and culture. By night, by candlelight, a transcendent peace comes over the construction site. Now we are the timid ones, welcomed into the center of their lives, the cathedral of their existence. The exuberance of their singing fills the shadowy space, brightens the flickering light. When we, in turn, are asked to sing our voices falter. Unable to match their unified passion, we find it harder than laying bricks in mid-day sun.
Through an interpreter, they tell us that our being here feels like winning the lottery. We cannot articulate our own emotions. A week of back-breaking labor, sponge baths, three daily meals of rice and red beans (without salsa!)—and their faith, warmth and generosity—and we feel that we are the ones who have been blessed and privileged. At mid-week, when our baggage finally arrives it suddenly seems like an embarrassing extravagance to have so much stuff. It is sobering to realize how unimportant are all the “necessities” we brought to this village where the houses have no doors, let alone closets full of clothes.
Later, as we ride back into Managua, past the newly built Pizza Hut, and the satellite dishes inside fenced yards, I can’t help wondering if prosperity will accomplish what millions of dollars of U.S. aid to the Contra revolution could not: deflect and suppress the vivacity of the culture. It is a culture which balances independence with community, with a generosity of spirit that enables me to return to the “comforts of home” feeling enriched. I decide that the loss of our baggage is a metaphor, that we needed to cut the cord of our superfluous materialism in order to experience the truth of a place like Nicaragua; a place like Tierra Colorada, where they possess what is essential, where there is nothing to buy.
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