Our first full day in Nicaragua gave us some space to adjust to “Nica Time” as our host, Felicia, calls it. Managua is two hours behind the East Coast of the United States, but minor jet lag isn’t what Felicia was speaking of. “Nica Time” refers more to the change in pace and priorities that accompanies Latin American culture, as compared to the often frenzied, schedule driven mindset that is the default worldview for most citizens of the United States. In Nicaragua, schedules are always tentative. Being present with the people in front of you is more important than keeping an appointment elsewhere. We have a detailed itinerary prepared for each day, and this morning at 9:00 AM we were to meet a local optometrist to demonstrate our mobile system for conducting vision screenings and fitting patients with glasses. We had our equipment setup at the AMOS compound by 8:30 AM. At 9:00 AM, we began wondering when the optometrist might arrive. At 10:30 AM, when we were planning to leave our guest house and move on to the next item in our itinerary for the day, we got word that the optometrist wouldn’t be coming after all — not today, or any time during the week. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Once we did a quick run through of our clinical process for the other AMOS staff and got our equipment repacked, our hosts took us into the city for a visit to the Japanese Park. Nicaragua has benefited greatly from its relationship with Japan. The Japanese government has financed public infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals, water systems and parks for Nicaragua. International politics are complicated, but they can also be as close to home as a child playing on a swing set. After lunch at the park, we were treated to a history of Nicaragua by Dr. Carlos Escobar, who works with the Parajóns at AMOS. Dr. Escobar’s love for his land and heritage shines through, even as he recounts the often tragic history of the Nicaraguan people.
After leaving the Japanese Park, we headed to the downtown market to browse local wares. Everything from fresh produce and meats to shoe repair services and piñatas were being hocked at the sprawling market area, which includes both open-air booths and a large warehouse structure for vendors to set up shop. I enjoyed walking through the market and watching locals pick out cuts of meat, haggle over fresh flowers or just relax with a bottle of Coke.
I didn’t intend to buy anything myself, but the shopping bug is contagious. I was eventually lured in by a pair of boots I saw on the shelf at several stalls. When I finally decided to step inside and ask to try on a pair, I embarrassingly responded to the clerk’s cordial greeting with a broken, “lo siento. Yo no hablo español.” The smile I received in return let me know that I was still welcome. The saleswoman patiently helped me figure out which size shoe I needed, since the scale used to measure foot sizes in Nicaragua doesn’t match up with the US, UK or European systems I was already familiar with. When my particular size wasn’t available, the clerk generously helped me look for the stye and size I was interested in at another vendor’s shop. She helped me try it on and made sure the fit was comfortable.
Throughout the process, she tried to engage me in conversation about where I was from and how I was liking Nicaragua, despite our language barrier. When it was time to check out, the manager of the store invited me over to the register and gave me her calculator so that I could figure up the proper exchange rate and pay for the shoes in dollars, as I didn’t have any Nicaraguan córdobas.
I was struck by the hospitality of the people at the market. I didn’t speak their language. I didn’t carry their currency. Yet, I was treated as a guest, put at ease and made to feel welcome. Yes, of course, I was a customer interested in spending money and making a purchase. I know the business person has an incentive to make a sale. But even so, that only goes so far. The other shop keeper who came to help and swap out inventory with my clerk didn’t have to be so accommodating; he had nothing to gain.
If the tables were turned, if a Nicaraguan visiting North Carolina were to walk into a restaurant and respond to the hostess’ greeting with a broken, “Sorry. Don’t talk english,” would they be treated with such hospitality? Would he be put at ease with a generous smile and made to feel welcome despite the language and cultural barriers? I fear not. But I hope so.
I pray for the grace needed to welcome the strangers who come my way — even when I’d rather not.