I sit on the steps of my son’s house in a small town in Nicaragua watching the world go by, and wonder what I am to do with it all.

I have learned the rhythms of this tiny house that he shares with his cousin—and whichever of the young people they have known from the street project over the years who need a place to stay or something to eat. I sat with my son the first morning as he washed clothes on the concrete washboard in the back, early in the day when there was still running water, then hung them on the barbed wire line to dry. I have gone to the tiny storefront down the street to buy soap, jam, or a couple of eggs from his neighbor. I have helped cook the rice and beans that are part—or all—of every meal.

He is doing okay. There are others who seem to be doing okay here as well. The car mechanic has steady work. So does the barber, a short old man with unruly curls around his bald top. An old friend has gotten a job at the bank. But what about all these people who are passing by—the man whose horse-drawn cart has such a small load of firewood (I worry about him—and I worry about the trees), the old woman walking by with a small basket of food on her shoulder, or the man with a shovel fastened on the back of his bike? I watch a man with a big basket on his head ease it down to negotiate with the woman who sells soap and eggs to her neighbors. How can they survive on such tiny margins? (I’ve heard the official unemployment rate is 75 percent.)

Humanity streams steadily by: Japanese minivans that serve as little buses, where people are packed in like sardines, often hanging out of open doorways; the big yellow school buses that could no longer pass inspection in our country put to service as the fleet of Nicaragua until they fall apart; cars; motorcycles (carrying whole families); three-wheeled pedicabs; horse carts; ox carts; carts pushed by small children; lots of people of all ages, in all combinations, carrying all manner of burdens, on foot.

I am witness to the journeys of these people who live in of one of the poorest countries in Latin America. What am I to do with what I see? Our son wants to show us more of the country, so we drive to a small city in the north. (I’m acutely aware of the luxury of the car; we watch a bus pull away from a stop with four people still hanging out the back, gradually pushing in till the door can close.) Now I watch the countryside pass by—some cattle; the bare fields of the dry season; coffee spread out to dry (world coffee prices have plummeted—the farmers are in crisis); desolate little schools, all bravely painted white and blue; impossibly poor houses. How can they survive? After only five days here I have seen almost more than I can bear.

Our hotel in Esteli has a narrow courtyard down the middle (full of laundry) with two stories of cubicles on either side, and one common toilet, shower, and washing area. (I continue to be thankful for running water, even as I struggle to remember that the toilets can’t handle any kind of paper.) Our eight-by-ten room has barely enough space for the double and single bed, each covered in mismatched, threadbare sheets. It is enough.

Early the next morning, I sit at the window looking out at that narrow courtyard, and I find the beginning shape of a response to the question that has haunted me all week—what am I to do? Esteli was a stronghold of the revolution in the ’80s, and there are signs of it here that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The walls are covered with murals—some from back then, others created more recently by a young people’s mural project. There is an ecology-oriented park for children, with broken-down playground equipment and cheerful, handmade signs on the trees saying how each one enriches our lives with its oxygen, shade, fruit, and wood. There are buildings that house the women’s employment project, the public health program, and the office of the environment. Perhaps I have missed these signs in other cities, but for the first time I feel a sense of community. People are caring for one another, thinking together about the whole.

My body relaxes. I realize that my time spent sitting on the steps watching people pass by, my time in the car, was all linear—one individual, one mile after another. But in Esteli, I am reminded of the web of connections. The question of what I am to do has lost none of its urgency, but much of its loneliness. People here care too. We all belong to one other. Our lives and the lives of others around us go better when we can remember and act on this truth.

Chino, a close neighbor of my son’s, is an engaging young man, an aspiring artist, struggling with a stepfather who wishes him elsewhere. He has claimed my son as his friend and brother, and me, by extension, as his mother. (How strange to have acquired a 19-year-old in the blink of an eye. Yet I notice how it matters. Both of us are prepared to love, to make up for lost time. We look for opportunities to be together, we labor to understand and be understood.)

Roberto, who grew up on the streets, is now getting help to be an auto mechanic. He pores over an engine diagram in a magazine my husband has brought down, eagerly explaining internal-combustion principles to my now bilingual son. Donald, also from the street project, is studying to be a construction engineer. He dreams of being an architect, doesn’t have money for food, hates the constricted opportunities of his country.

My son has had me as a mother all his life; Chino has just claimed me. Personalities have begun to emerge from the throng. Roberto is eager, Donald is mad. There are more. They are all mine. They are all ours. We are all theirs. Whatever we do, we do it belonging to each other.