My life here in Nicaragua is one of stark contrasts.
A few days ago, I traveled to Cusmapa, a town about two hours away from my site. I went with a local NGO with which I’ve done some work and the Irish group that has been in town. We were looking at potential projects for them in the future, and the NGO has a project they are starting right now. Their plan is to either repair existing homes or build new ones for the identified families depending on the state of the current home.
Several people had told me that I needed to make it out to Cusmapa to take in the view, so I was excited to take advantage of a free ride out there. It’s considered the highest town in Nicaragua, and I loved the views as we drove up. The climate cooled off and the vegetation changed the higher we climbed in elevation. By the time we got to the town, I wasn’t sure if I was still in Nicaragua. Surrounded by soaring mountains, the area was incredibly green and covered in tall pines. It vaguely reminded me of Vermont or Asheville, NC, but perhaps with taller mountains.
We drove down a small dirt road around curves and corners that zig-zag down the other side of the mountain and stopped in front of a small hill. “Up there,” the project coordinator, Jose Luis, said. We hiked up to the top and were greeted by an amazing valley to the West looking out towards the Pacific. On clear days they say you can see the ocean, but that day was a bit hazy. Nonetheless, the view was still quite impressive.
We turned from the view to a house that was maybe 10’ x 15’. Two rows of sticks for a frame and rocks shoved into the spaces served as walls. It had a dirt floor and, from a quick peek inside, was just one room. The roof? Sheets of plastic held down by rocks and large tree branches. We met the woman who lived there with her two children and a husband who worked the fields. Jose Luis confirmed some details with the woman about the project. He pointed to an even smaller house, “Over there is another.”
We walked over, all the while taking in amazing views from the hilltop of the surrounding mountains, to meet the woman’s sister. The house looked like a strong gust of wind could blow it over. Her walls were made of long thin branches, and I could see through many cracks into the room. She had a small bed made of cords stretched across the frame for a mattress. Her roof was only a plastic sheet that didn’t even cover the entire house. She had a baby in hand and another by her side as we spoke. “When it rains, I lie on the bed with my children and wrap us up in a sheet of plastic so we don’t get wet.” I was speechless.
“How does she get food?” I whispered to Jose Luis. “She gathers firewood and then sells it in Cusmapa,” he replied. Where she lived was easily a 30-minute to hour-long walk uphill to town where she sells her firewood… at one córdoba each. We learned that she sold about 20 pieces a day, so 20 córdobas a day if she is able to sell all of it; it’s enough to buy two pounds of rice and not much more. $1 exchanges at almost 25 córdobas. That’s $.80 a day.
She explained that her son had medical issues requiring her to go to Somoto. The bus costs C$25 one way, not to mention food or lodging if she has to stay. She most likely doesn’t eat on those days, not to mention that she’s not at home to gather firewood and doesn’t make any money on those days.
The NGO had identified nine initial homes to start the project, and we saw all of them. I thought of my life back home, and how different it was. I thought of my life here with my own apartment, decent access to food sources, and amenities like running water and regular electricity. Even my life as a volunteer didn’t compare to the situations these families were living.
On our way back, we stopped at the lookout point in town and looked out on the view again. It was picturesque, worthy of a postcard or “Visit Nicaragua” advertisement. The stories of the families ran through my head as I admired the view. What these families live on for a year is what I live on for a month as a volunteer and what the average American consumer spends in two to three days. As a server, I regularly waited on people that had higher tabs in one night.
“That’s the house of the woman we met,” Jose Luis said and pointed down the hill. I peered down to scan the mountainous scenery and could see the small home below, its plastic roof still flapping in the wind.
Contrasts. Every day.