You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you. -Frederick Buechner
It started with homesickness. Except, I hadn’t even left home yet. In fact I hadn’t left my house for eight days straight. The day before, Sunday, May 9th, had been my graduation party, and I almost didn’t make it. I had spent the previous nine days clawing at my abdomen, and that day I writhed in pain on the floor. My undiagnosed vomiting condition has forced me to reexamine what is important to me, so my decision to board a plane the next day to rural Nicaragua should not come as a surprise.
Severe nausea has a way of breaking you down. Yet, I knew that if I remained at home, my grief would far exceed the physical pain that I felt. It is peculiar to feel the weight and exhaustion of homesickness while in your own home. So I got on the plane on Tuesday the 11th desperate to get away from myself. Although the scabs on my stomach still haven’t yet healed, my body has proven itself resilient time and time again. It was my mind that needed a distraction, and the last minute trip to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua provided exactly that.
Back in mid-March my friend Jacob and I were scheming in his kitchen as usual. Our conversation that day turned to the service trip to Nicaragua we both volunteered with in 2008, and we laughed about how funny it would be to surprise this year’s group in Puerto Cabezas. By 4pm the next day, we had booked our tickets and were plotting our entrance. My mother was not thrilled that this week-long excursion to rural Nicaragua would leave me with just two weeks at home in Tampa, but I cajoled her saying that the trip to Nicaragua would serve to calm any nerves I might have about the big move in May. I don’t know if I just made that up on the spot to convince my mother to let me go, or if I genuinely thought I might be anxious in the weeks leading up to my departure to East Africa. Regardless, my week in Nicaragua was the right diversion at the right time.
Puerto Cabezas, or Bilwi as it is known in the indigenous Miskito language, is part of a semi-autonomous region along the eastern coast of Nicaragua (Región Autónoma del Atlántico Norte, often shortened to RAAN). This being my second visit to the area, I was able to grasp how neglected the land and the people are by the central government in Managua. It is culturally, ethnically, and linguistically unique from western Nicaragua. Although Spanish is widely spoken, many locals in Puerto Cabezas speak Miskito, Creole (different from the Creole spoken in Haiti), and English. While the west was colonized by the Spanish, the eastern coast had a British colonial presence. Former slaves originating from West Africa also made their way to this coast, and today their descendents makeup roughly 9% of the Nicaraguan population. Another 5% of the population is Amerindian.
During the week I spent on the east coast of Nicaragua, I along with the rest of the group of UF students visited a Miskito village called Krukira. Krukira, which is located northeast of Puerto Cabezas and is about a 45 minute bus ride from the town, is exemplary of this forgotten coast. In 2007, Hurricane Felix decimated the coastal village which was in the direct path of the hurricane. It is now three years later, and Krukira still has not recovered. While on a tour of the village, a man told us that he was never able to rebuild his house. I asked where he lived, and he pointed at a one room shack with no windows constructed from corrugated tin. The land was still strewn with uprooted trees, and as we walked through what used to be a small park one caught a glimpse of the hardships that these people must have endured. I was hardly surprised when they told us that they had received very little aid following the disaster. Still, there was a subtle charm about the place. Springtime had brought with it blossoming mango trees, and abounding newborn pups, calves, and colts. Despair and lack juxtaposed with an abundance of life.
We spent the late morning and afternoon eating young coconut and playing dominos while lunch was being prepared. Krukira probably doesn’t get many visitors, and it is likely that our group of 26 Americans was quite the spectacle as we made ourselves at home. I remember laughing when I heard the stories about the hog underneath the outhouse, and exchanging smiles with the village children whose eyes glowed with a shy curiosity. I cannot forget that village and the humble sincerity of the people I met.
The rest of that day deserves an entire blog post itself, but I will say that it involved two speed boat rides that were several hours long, during which we nearly ran out of gas in the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night. Fortunately, however, we did make it back to our hostel in Puerto Cabezas safely and soundly. Our hostel in Puerto Cabezas, called Dulce Suenos (or Sweet Dreams), became my safe haven and the lovely owner Doña Eufemia, became like a mother to me. While at Dulce Suenos, one of my favorite things to do was to observe Doña Eufemia and the other ladies in the kitchen. Three times a day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they chopped up heaps of cabbage, kneaded great mounds of biscuit dough, and prepared meals that steamed, crackled, and sizzled like music to my ears. Perhaps it is because I grew up waking up nearly every morning to the smells and sounds of my mother’s cooking, that the kitchen is a place of great comfort to me. One afternoon after watching her stir an immense pot of potato, rice, and chayote stew, I made up my mind to cook a dish for Doña. I first asked her permission to use her kitchen, reminded of how territorial my mother can be, and then set out to the market to pick up ingredients.
Part of the fun of cooking for me is to be resourceful. Some of the best dishes that came from my kitchen in Gainesville resulted from culinary ingenuity. I have to admit that I was slightly nervous as I stepped into Doña Eufemia’s kitchen, as I did not want to disappoint. The women in the kitchen patiently made room for me as I clumsily maneuvered around the 12 by 4 foot space. I was delighted by how interested they were in my cooking, asking questions in “Spanglish” which I tried my best to answer. After an hour and a half or so, I had created a main dish of rotini pasta with sautéed vegetables and a white cream sauce, as well as an Indian desert called payasam. I left the food to cool, and returned a couple of hours later to find that the women had eaten everything, leaving just enough for Doña Eufemia and her husband.
Preparing for my journey, I have realized that the people and places that I love are very much alive inside of me. My time in Nicaragua reminded me that what makes us feel at home is not what is around us, but what is within us.