Big Worlds in Small Places

El Sauce
El Sauce, Nicaragua


Every year for the last four, I have taught Humanities to college students for a month in El Sauce. I have lived in a variety of hotels and apartments but, regardless of the accommodations, El Sauce makes me feel at home year after year. El Sauce is a small place that has welcomed me into a bigger world of good food, music, and friendships that will last a lifetime.

The Enlace Project (www.enlaceproject.org) hosts our class and arranges all the logistics including home stays, food, excursions, safety/security, classroom space, ground transportation, etc. This year, I have been living in the future office of Enlace. I mentioned in an earlier blog that my neighbors own a parrot that begins shouting “fresco” every morning around 5:30. The parrot joins a chorus of chickens and other city birds in busy urban chatter. The new office is located across the street from the Casa de Cultura where traditional musicians rehearse beautiful songs and young Nicas study folk dance four to five nights per week. Mix in the banter of some old men at the store next door, some giggles from the young dancers, and the song of a lady selling avocados, and you get a pretty good idea of my neighborhood soundtrack.

Like most Nicaraguan towns, the public spaces are paved and the private spaces are green. You must go inside to find nature. At my place, the rooms surround a tropical backyard filled with lime and bitter orange trees. The kitchen is outside as well. Practically speaking, who wants to have an oven blaring out heat inside when it is already 90 degrees or more? This home design, like the design of ancient Roman villas, provides natural air conditioning. It is necessary because the electrical grid is not built for the heavy energy load required for all the artificial air conditioners, electric heaters, electric stoves, big freezers, and refrigerators we have at home. These inner, natural spaces also provide a stage for music, laughter, and good conversation.

Back in the US, we build walls that insulate the inside from the outside. Our home design is largely driven by the need to seal up artificial heat and cold. Our homes are fortresses to protect human comfort against all kinds of weather. Not here in El Sauce. While there is the necessary protection from the sun and rain, inside and outside are in regular conversation with each other. The ecosystem outside is intimately connected with the ecosystem inside. Geckos eat the small bugs. Birds and bats occasionally visit my room to eat the big ones. I feed the birds my leftovers of gayopinto (Nicaraguan’s special version of rice and beans) and tortillas. The parrot is my alarm clock.

Since my current abode is the future home of Enlace, it has not yet accumulated all the amenities of most Nica offices and homes. The rooms are empty, awaiting the arrival of desks, chairs, bookcases, copiers and other office equipment. The outdoor kitchen isn’t equipped yet, so I have been cooking on a table-top, propane stove and using water from the backyard faucet. I have a table and chair for eating and working and a single bed with fitted sheets that don’t quite fit. I hand-wash my clothes on the days the cleaning lady works elsewhere. The shower is cold. There is no Wi-fi and sometimes the power goes out for an hour or a day. This simple place is a work-in-progress much like my study of Spanish.

In the last week, I have been re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. This book explores what it means to live simply. He built the original “tiny house” on a wooded lot next to Walden pond. He deliberately abandoned the comforts of civilization in Concord, Massachusetts to live in a one-room cabin, fulfilling all his needs from the surrounding forest and pond. He wanted to escape the noisy clutter of the world to sort out what is important and what is not. My life here, in my not-quite-finished home with no Wi-Fi, feels a little like the cabin on Walden Pond. I have abandoned the noisy clutter of cable news and social media in exchange for a symphony of singing birds, chattering teenagers, laughing old men, trotting horses, and the ever-present dance music of Nicaragua. It is still noisy, but it is a joyful noise shared equally by humans and nature. While I am not taking dance lessons, I share their music. While I am not a parrot, I live in between his conversations with the chickens next door. While I am not Nicaraguan, I join Alfredo Rivera and his band to play Nica music. I reside within the complex soundtrack of the neighborhood. I cannot remove myself by “unfriending” my human and animal neighbors. There is no “mute” button.

For all the ways that our digital technology may connect us to the global community, we tend to use it to isolate ourselves. We can choose a cable news channel that conveniently frames national events with our personal bias while ignoring alternative interpretations. We can silence uncomfortable voices by activating a couple of tiny muscles in the one finger necessary to push the “delete” button. We can fill every unscheduled moment with internet surfing that makes us look busy but doesn’t teach us anything new. Facebook and Twitter can become fortresses against self-discovery. Our digital world promises a vast, bulging world of connections but it delivers a small, ever narrowing world populated by our individual whims. It replaces the unknown consequences of real conversation with the predictability of sameness. Like a fast-food hamburger, it may not be the best burger you ever tasted, but it is what you expect.

Over the years, my Facebook feed has been filled with travels to exotic places like Ghana, Haiti, Antarctica, and Nicaragua. My blogs have been peppered with spider monkeys, volcanos, penguins, glaciers, and bizarre foods. It is easy to write about exotic stuff. However, I have not done the more difficult task of thinking deeply about my less-than-exotic domestic life. I have rarely written blogs about home.

By contrast, Thoreau wrote about his journey to a small wooded area just down the road. His life in a one-room cabin seems more challenging than my global wanderings. Furthermore, his deliberate choice to live simply seems exotic as compared to my life back home brimming with middle class technology and predictable privilege. Thoreau reminds me that the most important things can be found by removing those privileges and the distractions that come with them. Once the material worries of physical and intellectual comfort are gone, only important things remain: friends, family, and the desire to use my limited time on this Earth to do something good.

I returned to El Sauce yesterday after a three-day excursion to the beautiful city of Granada. My group stayed in a very nice hotel with two pools, air conditioners, hot showers, large beds, 24 hour Wi-Fi, and impeccable service. We dined from exotic menus at restaurants adorned with Spanish colonial artwork. We shopped for souvenirs and gifts. We indulged in many of the luxuries Nicaragua offers to tourists. While I enjoyed our stay, I didn’t sleep well.

After dropping off my students at the Managua airport for their journey back to the US, I returned to El Sauce. It was hot and dusty. My apartment still has the same temporary kitchen, a cold shower and no Wi-Fi. The power still goes off for an hour or a day at a time. I still hand-wash my laundry and negotiate with the birds and bugs that share my space. I still get a little bit sick sometimes. The backyard is still a peaceful place for good conversation. My friend Alfredo is still playing music across the street. The parrot woke me up again this morning, but, last night, I slept very well.

Traveling the globe or the internet does not guarantee that we end up discovering a bigger world. That requires careful attention to small places, gentle moments, creative discomfort, and the beautiful boredom that invites us to sort out what is important.