Letter from… Nicaragua

by Seth Kolker:

Over this past summer, I am homeless.  I chose to be like this: my condition was not of necessity, as is the case for far too many others.  I knew exactly what I had signed up for when I began.

I live out of my backpack.  Weekends provide the safe refuge of cement walls and a tiled floor in the city; the rest of my week is spent traversing the wet dirt paths that wind through these rural communities.  I have four villages to visit, one night to spend in each, and always many kilometers of dirt paths left to traverse.  My faded blue hiker’s bag holds an ancient but sturdy cot, the ever-essential mosquito bed net, and a few shirts not yet soaked in sweat.


Right now, I find myself resting in the community of El Matazano, hiding out in the single-room house of Jorge.  The four walls are craftily constructed jigsaws of scrap wood and rusted tin panels; light seeps in through the cracks in the wood, casting a warm glow on the light brown dirt floor.  Rain pounds down on the tin roof.  Smoke glides past the door outside, blown downhill from the kitchen of Jorge’s mother.  Another family’s dog barks as if to guard its house from the weather’s looming threats; Jorge’s son scolds the animal with a half-hearted holler.  The cozy presence of family in all directions makes the deafening thump of the rain on the roof seem a little less menacing.

This is Jorge’s home.  I’ll borrow it as my own, for now.

It falls to me to look after nine volunteers spread out across four villages.  Eight are from the United States, and one of them hails from a neighboring region in Nicaragua.  Living with host families for six weeks, they all find ways to grapple with the tart taste of homesickness as they work on a handful of projects—health classes for the kids, kitchens for the schools, and other initiatives that I know are small in scope, but meaningful nonetheless.

The families here take excellent care of my volunteers.  They leave me with little work to do, really: I have done my job well so long as I bring the volunteers their parents’ anxious letters each week.

And so I keep passing between hospitable hosts, gradually growing more comfortable with each of them, always trying to feel at home on the move.  I love this work: I adore the kind and gentle people, take pleasure in the mundane duties of a supervisor, and even enjoy the rice and beans that I eat for three meals every day.  But I still feel a jolt when I realize that I can never, will never stop moving from one place to another this summer.

My situation is a far cry from the brutally real homelessness that is all-too-familiar in Nicaragua.  Thirty years ago, every corner of the country was enveloped in a civil war that left 150 thousand people without a home; more than twice that many were displaced when Hurricane Mitch devastated the countryside in 1998.  Of the scores of children that flock to tourists seated at the café tables of any Nicaraguan city, few of them have anywhere to go at night when their begging hours have passed.

But in the countryside, home is more constant.  The war and the hurricane were merely visitors here.  Jorge has already told me how the bodies of fallen rebels used to be carried off along the path that passes just outside his front door.  The hill on the other side of his house is one of many that came tumbling down in a mudslide when Mitch struck.  The slide wiped the sticks, blocks, and tin of Jorge’s house of off the face of the earth, but it could not destroy his home.

(Courtesy Caitlin Levine)

Jorge will probably die within a mile of where he was born.  This is true for most of the people who live in El Matazano.  Three generations of his family live here (soon to be four, if his wife is granted her wish for a first grandchild).  The relationships, drama, love, loss, and changes of decades past are thickly lathered on a rich canvas of communal memory.  Neither guns nor mudslides have been able to shake that.

I find this concept of home striking and inspiring.  I had a happy childhood; my home in suburban northern Virginia provided me with an ample supply of rich memories and meaningful relationships.  Yet “home” has always been a launching pad, a base from which I can expand my horizons and move on to newer, more exciting places.  I do not understand what it means to feel rooted to single place, and a single group of people.  I do not understand what home means to Jorge.

Admittedly, Jorge possesses an ambiguous attitude toward his home.  If you gave him a visa and a plane ticket, he says that he would take his chances in the United States without pausing a moment to consider.  Yet, he knows that this dream is just that: a dream.  He looks after his family and his fields as though that plane will never come.  He speaks of his place in El Matazano with the pride and acceptance of a man who expects nothing more from life than a healthy family and a hearty dinner.  I struggle to get past a piercing sense of frustration that life owes him more than that. But he does not appear to care. Unlike so many of us, he seems blissfully content.

I know that I will likely never share Jorge’s mentality.  I am too privileged, too addicted to travel, and too stubborn in my pursuit of the “new” to ever commit fully to one place.  I feel a sense of jealousy for what El Matazano means to those who live there; I sometimes wish I could share in their sense of belonging. But I enjoy the thrill of change too much to ever truly appreciate the beauty of stability.

None of this can keep me from taking part in Jorge’s home, for a time, while he is willing to share.  So I borrow it.  Soon, though, I will roll up my cot, pack it into my bag, and walk along that dirt path to somebody else’s.

Seth Kolker ’14 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at seth.kolker@yale.edu.