By Nicole Sheets
Assistant Professor of English
We simplify Simon Says into Follow the Leader. We're not sure of the word for "leader," but we go with jéfe, or "boss." I hop on one foot. Three Whitworth students start hopping on one foot. We ask the children if they want to join us. They shake their heads no.
Now one of the Whitworth students is the leader. She waves her arm back and forth like a tree branch above her head. We do the same. The children watch us and smile.
The fall 2012 group at Whitworth's Costa Rica Center is traveling in Nicaragua for a week. Today we're at the school in La Chureca, one of Central America's largest dumps. La Chureca is home to an estimated 1,500 people. At least half are under 18.
Kids rush the playground in small groups for recess. Outlines of the Pinta, the Niña, the Santa Maria, and Christopher Columbus look on from a cinderblock wall behind a swing set. There's a brown stain on the face of Columbus, as though he's got a runny eye infection. He'd better get that checked out, I think.
The school in La Chureca has been open for 12 years. The teachers tell us that a majority of the kids attend school, though some families insist that their children help them pick through the garbage for recyclables to sell.
On the playground, a girl asks to try on my sunglasses. Another asks to try on my hat. Girls dodge a concrete planter in a fierce game of pato, pato, ganso (the Spanish version of duck, duck, goose). A boy tags my arm, and I learn that I'm the finish line in a foot race.
Smoke from a nearby trash fire stings my nose. Sweat pools and trickles down my back.
The children want to hug us. I'm ashamed that I think twice about hugging the boy in the knit beanie, the one with cuts on his face who's been picking his nose with remarkable concentration. I think of myself as a fairly hardy traveler, but what I want right now is to wash my hands.
What does it mean, I wonder, for us to thank the teachers, donate our box of school supplies, and climb back on our air-conditioned bus? Our Whitworth group will eat lunch on clean white plates. We'll shower and change clothes for a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Managua.
Teaching at Whitworth's Costa Rica Center this semester reminds me that there's no substitute for travel, for navigating languages and histories and currencies and supermarkets and festivals and transit systems that aren't your own.
It's important not only to study other cultures but to experience them en su carne propia, literally "in your own meat." (I didn't learn this phrase in Spanish class, but rather from Sara Miles' fine memoir Take This Bread, part of which takes place in Nicaragua.)
During this week, our Whitworth group has met with fair-trade coffee growers trying to tap into bigger markets. We've spoken with banana pickers sickened by Nemagon, a pesticide outlawed in the U.S. since 1979 but exported by U.S. companies through the 1980s.
On our last day before we return to Costa Rica, we visit Coyotepe, a fortress-turned-torture chamber for political prisoners and now a historical site maintained by the Boy Scouts of Nicaragua.
Coyotepe is a 15-minute climb up a paved mountain road. The air feels saturated, ready to be wrung out by an afternoon storm. From the watchtowers, we can see volcanoes and Lake Managua.
Our guide ushers us in to the first level of the underground prison. Slits in the stone walls maybe four inches wide let in weak light. Bats flit overhead. We're warned not to touch the walls in case of scorpions.
Our guide asks us to imagine what it would be like if we'd been one of hundreds of prisoners in these small, shadowy cells with no proper bathrooms.
In the prison's lower level, our group gathers in a dank room without windows. The guide asks us to turn off all lights. I fight off panic with a deep breath. How could anyone survive this for more than a minute?
Another underground cell has small, high windows through which guards would dump feces. Our guide could not describe the smell.
Then we step into a blank room where prisoners were tortured. The cries and groans must have echoed from every stone.
I leave Coyotepe, like I left La Chureca, feeling dirty. It's easy to wash my hands. It's harder to forget.
Nicole Sheets is currently teaching at "Whitworth South," the university's Costa Rica Center.