Best. Week. Ever.

(88) Flor de Caña is the big player in Nicaragua. They are the rum of choice for bars and locals alike. Try the 25 year old dark if you ever get the chance. They also own Toña, the most commonplace beer. It’s a lager with a bit of bite, more similar to a European pilsner than Corona or other Latin beers. The national cocktail is called the Mácua: rum, fresh guava juice and fresh squeezed lemon. It’s a perfect blend of sweet and sour for sipping in the sun.

(112) There is some argument over the national dish, but secretly everyone knows it is Gallo pinto. Literally ‘speckled rooster,’ it is a combination of rice and red beans and is served with every meal, including breakfast. Official government reports have the average Nicaraguan eating just under 40 lbs of rice per month.

Another common plate is tostada con queso, a fried plantain patty alongside fresh fried or grilled hard cheese (think Haloumi). One interesting twist is Nica Guacamole, which is more of an avocado salad. Cubed avocado is mixed with finely diced white onion and mild green chili, hard-boiled egg and lemon instead of lime. Don’t doubt it ‘till you try it!

(1316)   I am going to tell you a story about a family and a home. Well, a few families and a few homes. What an interesting concept: home. It’s where the heart is, or a place for your stuff – most would agree it is where you were born, where your roots are. With an all new appreciation for the term, I think home is anywhere you want it to be, for whatever reason you wish to define it by.

For the week preceding the writing of this, I called an eco-farm in the mountain community of Sasle, Jinotega Province, Nicaragua, home. This is because it is where a group of friends, colleagues and strangers met on a Friday, and a family left on a Wednesday. We were here with Bridges to Community Canada, a non-profit that comes to Nicaragua a few times a year to build homes, latrines and schools for communities in need. This was my second trip and it was even more world shaking than when I came in the winter of 2015.

Shortly after I arrived Friday afternoon (after a late flight out of Toronto meant I missed my connecting flight to Managua and couldn’t join the group Thursday evening), we went to visit the two recipient families. The family I would be working for was led by Beatriz, 47, a single mother of three, whom has been living in a house she built for the last 35 years. Now, “house” is being generous – a few wood panels nailed together, barely, and some rusted corrugated sheet metal as a roof. The windows and skylights would have been a nice touch, had they been there by design and not because she didn’t have enough material to properly complete the build. Inside she had one light bulb with no cover and one electric outlet to which she had plugged in her two electronics – an ancient, dented, rusted fridge and a radio, the one source of escapism for her and her daughter. As we silently passed from room to room, jaws dragging along the dirt floor, our eyes said to each other everything that could be said.

Her two boys work in the fields providing for all of them, she told us, because she cannot work. She stays home with her daughter, Irma, 24, who was born with leukemia and suffered complications resulting in a massive brain injury. Irma now requires 24 hour care. Beatriz led us through her three rooms, pointing out the kitchen – a grinder for corn, an open fire pit, a dirty cutting board and a dull knife; her boys’ bedroom – mattress on the ground, firewood stacked against the walls, and a few pieces of clothing; and finally her and Irma’s bedroom – another mattress on the ground, a dirty blanket, more firewood and the radio, which Irma was listening to intently. The entire place smelled of stale smoke and the boards in the kitchen were blackened by soot. While in her room, she remained stoic, proud of what she and her sons had built, but looking upon Irma, her eyes turned glassy. “I thank God that he has blessed me with your presence,” spoke our translator, trying not to well-up herself, “and that you are giving my children a new home, a place where my daughter can sleep dry and protected from the wind.” She sat on the bed and embraced her daughter. The mattress was situated in the corner of the room with the most roof covering and least gaps between the boards. Irma squealed with delight when her mother held her.

Sullenly, we all thanked her for sharing her story and for inviting us into her home. We floated out of that shell of a structure like ghosts. I turned to Paul Bauman, a friend from Hamilton and son of Rick, our group’s organizer, and said “nothing can prepare you for that,” unsure if I actually spoke the words aloud. “When I go camping, my set up is sounder than that,” he noted, “and I get mad if my tent leaks for a night. I can’t imagine what that would be like for 35 years.” I couldn’t imagine it either. To think, so many people in the world endure this water torture every night because that is the best option available. It’s unsettling. Suddenly the walls of my apartment felt much larger and gained a value I never knew they had.

The next four days were filled with work. Real work. Work I am unaccustomed to. We laboured long hours helping local masons build 5m x 6m houses – mere rooms that will end up being mansions for these families. The final day wrapped with dedication ceremonies. Beatriz and her eldest son spoke first, offering effusive praise for the work we did and how much it meant to them. Next, each of the masons gave a short speech thanking us for the help. Emotions were stirring like the dark clouds that approached the build site and though it looked like it was going to rain, joy-fueled smiles fought away those clouds, just long enough. Before our team had a chance to speak, a few members of the community piped up, most notably, two young men came forward, the older looking of the two offering an eloquent story about how Bridges helped them a year ago and the wonderful effect it had on his family. Now, most of us had wet cheeks and no one could blame the rain.

Finally, it came time for the volunteers to speak. Spending the week journaling and speaking broken Spanish with the masons, I think everyone assumed I would do the best job. So I took a deep breath and collected myself. Looking around the group I started, “Premierieo,” which is incorrect and got a chuckle from everyone. So far so good. I cleared my throat and laughed at myself, “Disculpe. Premiero, mi espagnol no es bueno.” In the few words I knew, I was able to muster together enough to express our gratitude for the work the masons did and how much it meant to us to help Beatriz and her family out. I looked her in the eye and fighting back emotion, I told her how much it meant to me that Irma would be warm and dry in her new home.

My brother was born with cerebral palsy, has limited communicative abilities and has been confined to a wheelchair since birth. The doctors gave him a year, then two. One was even bold enough to give him 8-10. In April he turns 37. So knowing what this meant to Beatriz and her children, particularly Irma, struck me quite close to home.

Home.

Something Irma will have for the first time in her entire life.

The morning of the dedication I had awoken before the sun. I couldn’t sleep. I got up and sat in a rocking chair in the terrace where we eat. It was raining. I had written the night before, summarizing the events of the day, but also waxing poetic about the rain as it ‘tap-danced upon the tin roof.’ I had not realized then, the seed that I planted in the back of my mind, only to see it fully bloomed by morning. As I watched the sunrise fight through the clouds, I grabbed my pen and started writing:

“It’s shortly before 6AM, our last work day. The rain has continued through the night and as I sit listening to the rhythms of the kitchen staff, I too am listening to a similar percussive drone of droplets on tin. I feel compelled to write because this dawn has been reflected in my own mind, as it has now dawned on me that this will be one of the final nights Beatriz and Irma will be sleeping in the rain.

I’m doing everything I can to not also reflect the rain.”

Welcome home.

-Michael Ashdown

For more information, including the 4500 word version of this story, visit the website: www.hellohashbrown.com

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