Travels : Church and Waffles

We walked through the streets of the little town we weren't familiar with, passing families on bicycles, children playing in the road, and old women sweeping their porches. Sometimes, a stray dog would follow us for a stretch, but I think even they began to realize we were lost. Getting around Granada on foot was... difficult. We quickly discovered that street addresses aren't a thing in Nicaragua, and most homes and buildings don't have numbers on them. There are street names, but when they sometimes stretch on for a mile or two, you really need to already know where you're going if you want to get there on the first try. Directions are given by landmarks, so if you want to get to the grocery store, it's about 4 blocks toward the lake, next to the pharmacy. If you're looking for a salon, you need to walk 3 blocks that way, and it's across from the Bolivar family's home.

That's perfect if you know the Bolivars. We, however, do not.

It was Wednesday, and we were headed (we hoped) to a church called El Puente. The owner of Bicimaximo, Baker, told me about El Puente when we Skyped just before our trip. He had come to Granada several years ago for a short-term mission with the organization and is now a part of the church that has sprung out of it. The way Baker described El Puente and what they were doing in Granada convinced me that I had to see it for myself. So Wednesday morning, we woke up early, took another look at the "directions" to the church building, and set out. We walked half a block in the wrong direction, then turned around and set out again.

We found ourselves in a residential area, a side of Granada we hadn't explored yet, and one with a 0% population of tourists. The homes were simple, with small yards, concrete walls, and tan faces looking at us like we were clearly not in the right place.

We were walking for what felt like way too long before deciding to stop and ask directions. I dreaded that, simply because my Spanish was usually only good enough to get me and the person I was speaking to thoroughly confused. I felt a little like Troop Beverly Hills tromping through their streets in my bright purple running shoes and Patagonia backpack, but the Nicas were kind and helpful and overcame my Spanglish and the palpable American-ness that annoyed even me.

Note to self: All your super cool gear makes you look like a privileged fool in the real world.

We were pointed in the right direction (several blocks back the way we came) and eventually were stopped by someone else asking if we were looking for the iglesia. We breathed a sigh of relief and thanked God that Nicaragua was taking care of us.

We were met outside by Bethany, an El Puente staffer from Springfield, Missouri, who spent the day showing us around. The building didn't look like a church, but when we walked inside, it felt like one.

We walked through the building to a courtyard in the back with trees, beautiful flower bushes, and a few small structures strewn around the yard. One was a workshop, two were housing for their volunteers. A gaggle of kids about 8 or 9 ducked under my arm and ran shrieking and laughing through the yard as we stood and took it in. This was a place full of life. I told Bethany it felt like a little oasis in the dusty city.

One of the older kids rang a bell on the back porch and we started ambling into the main building where the service was about to start. We found seats near the back, and I was taken aback when I recognized a face - our Bicimaximo tour guide, Francisco. He greeted us with the same warm smile he'd worn the entire day before.

A small band was set up in the corner of the room playing songs in Spanish. We recognized some of the tunes and sang along in English when we could, but I mostly just watched. It brought me so much joy, after seeing some of the hardness and poverty of Granada, to see a roomful of people singing and clapping and dancing together with huge smiles on their faces. This was a special place.

After the service, we walked back into the yard and started talking with Mario, the man who had pointed us to El Puente's doors. He explained how much El Puente meant to him and his family, and how it really changed his life. As he spoke, I noticed his accent was hardly detectable. I sensed a story and asked him to please tell me what it was. Two sentences in, I asked him to stop and start over, so I could let you hear it first hand.

This is Mario's story:

After our morning with El Puente, we hit up an amazing waffle house with Bethany. Rob had met the previous owner, an American man in his 70s maybe, while eating breakfast at the cafe where we stayed. Kathy's Waffle House is named after his late wife, and now this fellow lives in Nicaragua on his own - although he's sort of Granada-famous, so he probably has lots of friends. All I could picture was my grandpa living alone in a foreign country, and I wanted to give him a hug. I also wanted to stay an extra week and write a story about him because he seemed totally content but also still a bit sad and tired.

Bethany and I had the most enormous, comforting bowls of oatmeal I'd ever seen, and while we ate, she told us about life in Nicaragua. She's been in Granada for two and a half years, after what was supposed to be just a four-month stint with El Puente. That seems to be a trend... She handles a lot of the administrative and operational tasks for the organization, and she has a smile that makes you smile. While she has so many stories of sweet friendships and breakthrough moments with women she's mentoring, her experience hasn't been all roses and cervesas. It's been hard and lonely and sometimes feels like an uphill battle to invest in a city that's full of struggle. But the love she has for Granada is contagious, and I got up from lunch feeling like maybe we should move to Nicaragua for, like, a month or two. Or maybe forever. I could get used to breakfast at Kathy's.

Our next stop with Bethany was a small community called El Pantanal on the outskirts of Granada. Translated, it means 'the swamp.' It's an area of town that floods with every heavy rain, so the streets are mostly dirt with large potholes filled with murky water.

We took a taxi to the neighborhood, where El Puente is doing weekly outreach programs. Just behind the last row of homes, and behind a gate watched by a guard and a lazy dog, the buildings disappear and we looked out over acres and acres of open land. In the distance, Volcano Mombacho was breathtakingly humongous and intimidating.

Bethany pointed to a structure a few hundred yards out and told us it's the site of El Puente's pre-school. Eventually, the area will be the site of the Granada Christian Education Center.

El Pantanal has some of the worst education statistics in Central America. Primary school dropout rates in Nicaragua are somewhere around 50%. Can I say that again? About half of kids in Nicaragua don't finish elementary school. In the poorest areas, like El Pantanal, those numbers are even worse. El Puente hopes to bring education closer to the neighborhood, and hopefully encourage kids and families in El Pantanal to stay in the system. With poverty rates as high as they are there, it will be a challenge. Finding ways for every family member to bring a little bit of income to the home often becomes a higher priority than education, and I can't say I don't get it. If it's food or books, what would you choose? But there is much that can be done to help, and El Puente, and other organizations like it, are doing all they can to revive El Pantanal.

Check out this video or head to the website to learn a bit more about it.

We spent an hour walking the site, and I tried to picture what it might look like with dozens of kids squealing and playing, and with teachers huddled around desks teaching reading and writing and art. (When I imagine school, I like to imagine it without math.) I pictured those kids going home with full bellies and minds and being excited to tell their siblings what they learned at school. It gave me so much more hope as we walked back through the streets of El Pantanal. This is the hub of crime and poverty in Granada, but there is no place without hope.



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