A La Chureca Christmas

My friend Michael popped into my office. When he told me he couldn’t make it to Nicaragua this year for the Los Quinchos Christmas party, his tears welled up. My wife, Pam, operates two beauty schools in Managua, and he knew that in a day or two we would be traveling there so she could officiate at the annual graduation. He took a deep breath, looked straight at me, and said, “As a personal friend, please promise me that ‘all my babies’ will get presents; it will be a great party, and you’ll bring back plenty of pictures.” I agreed, at least to the part about the pictures; but in my heart I knew that I would have to overcome some considerable disappointment from “Mike’s babies.”

The Los Quinchos he referred to is a refuge for children in the mountains of Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of the projects that are supported by Pro-Nica, a Quaker-sponsored organization in which my wife and I play a part. It is not a place for folks who have a passing interest in helping those less fortunate—it is a much tougher place than that. Los Quinchos is a place that, by its nature, melts the hardest of hearts and at the same time demands disciplined dedication. The children who live there were found alone on the streets of Managua, the country’s capital. Until they arrived there, they had lived a child’s life without love, and many of them are addicted to the glue they inhale to quell the pain of hunger. To them, “Papa Miguel” is a combination of father figure, rock star, and generous benefactor. He is their real-life Santa Claus, who visits in December each year. When he arrives, it’s officially Christmas at Los Quinchos.

I accepted his request, but I knew success would be in God’s hands.

The two beauty schools Pam operates teach a less dangerous way for young women who have been forced to work in the sex trade to support themselves. It is a big job, and Pam had traveled to Nicaragua several days before me to help the staff prepare for their annual graduation ceremony. When I arrived a few days later, she had already learned that the traditional Christmas party at Los Quinchos would not be carried out this year. The powers that be decided to do something different, and she knew I would be worried about my vow as a personal friend to “Papa Miguel.”

Los Quinchos has several campuses, and the usual procedure was to pick the kids up at the larger campus in San Marcos, take them to Lake Nicaragua, and let them swim, open presents, do a lot of hugging, wish them a “FelĂ­z Navidad,” and get them back to San Marcos.

This year’s plan was that a busload of kids from La Chureca, in Managua, would ride up to San Marcos, where they would join the other kids and they would have a party together. Sounds simple enough, but look at the arithmetic: about 30 kids from La Chureca would join about 40 kids from San Marcos.

Yes, that’s a lot of kids and Christmas presents that weren’t anticipated. It would also require several additional piñatas filled with loads more candy and a score of other details. If we could get those chores done in a few hours, there was also the part about the two-hour bus ride on unmarked mountain roads, followed by a 30-minute walk through the rain forest with a horde of Spanish-speaking, affection-starved kids who, shall we say, “don’t get out much.”

San Marcos is a small town some distance outside Managua. “La Chureca” is not a town. It is a burning, smoking mountain of stinking refuse within the city itself, about the size of a golf course. It is also home to many of God’s poorest people. I am not sure that there are any census takers in Nicaragua, but if there are, I am certain none would be willing to walk around and count heads in such a terrible place. It is estimated that more than a thousand souls find themselves there. With a life expectancy of only 35 years, by default, most of them are children. They make their way in life, sifting through trash for recyclables that can be sold, garbage that can be eaten, and “johns” who will pay meager amounts of money to exploit the women and children sexually.

When Jesus attempted to describe hell, he used the name Gehenna, which was the place south of Jerusalem where the ancients took children to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. During his time, it was a city dump that was constantly in flames. It is said that if a proper tomb had not been donated, after his crucifixion his body would have been left there as refuse. La Chureca is the modern-day equivalent of Gehenna.

Fortunately, the people of Nicaragua adapt to changes in schedules with ease. I am not sure how it came about, but somehow presents were bought, piñatas were loaded with goodies, and I, on Saturday morning, found myself sitting on the porch of the ProNica residence, “Quaker House,” having a casual morning coffee on the not-so-quiet residential street when a bus load of children arrived a full 15 minutes early (perhaps a Nicaraguan first). I have always wondered what it was like inside those white buses that the prisoners ride in when one pulled up in front of Quaker house. I realized I was going to have my chance to find out.

Unlike the ones at home, this ancient, smoky, recently hand-brush-painted white bus wasn’t filled with prisoners as we normally know them. This bus was filled with prisoners of life: children, from one who was a few months old (accompanied by her three siblings and her 24-year-old mother) up to one about 13, as best I could guess, who by bad luck were born into a life of impoverishment at La Chureca.

Most people confuse poverty with being impoverished. That’s because most of us spend our lives in a culture that deeply believes in the American dream of success. As such we usually can’t accept as fact that the basic structure of some economic systems perpetuates poverty. In other words, these individuals live in poverty with no chance, no ability, and no hope of change; they live in a world where the concept of upward mobility is absent. Their condition exceeds that of poverty; they are impoverished. A very few, I will admit, do escape—with scars, but nonetheless, they do escape. Then again, some of us end up on MTV, getting money for nothing, but I don’t know any of those people personally. I suppose that given six degrees of separation we all are connected to someone living in both of these extremes, but they are still intangible.

The bus squealed to a stop in front of me with all the noise and commotion of a freight train arriving at a depot. It took me so by surprise that at first I didn’t notice that all of the windows were open or absent and peering thru every one of them was a child who was thinking, “Donde estĂ  Miguel?”

I took a moment of silence and reminded myself that I had put this whole thing in God’s hands. I got on the bus, smiled, waived, and introduced my wife, “Pam Ella” (in español) and myself as “Hereberto.”

The arrival of the bus a full 15 minutes ahead of schedule was a situation so rare and unexpected in Nicaragua that our translator had not yet arrived.

In my panic my mind briefly went back to my arrangement with God, reminding God that this is in God’s hands, and since that’s the deal, now would be a good time to tell me how I inform 30 children who are raging with yuletide excitement that Miguel can’t make it, Pam and I will have to do, and —oh yeah—they have to sit there and behave for 15 minutes, and God, please remember, I don’t speak Spanish.

I am here to tell you, that God delivered on God’s end of the deal. God reminded me that way back I acquired a few very poor juggling skills (I mean that literally), so a set of keys over the shoulder and caught behind the back, got us through. I guess I should mention that the kids’ fascination with my movie star-looking, blonde, gringo wife being on the bus with them put them a little bit in awe and bought me at least half of those 15 minutes. I just know they were wondering if they had ever seen her in a movie.

By being the world’s clumsiest juggler, I had produced a half dozen howls of laughter mixed with finger pointing when a motorcycle shrouded in a cloud of carbon monoxide pulled up and stopped, and off stepped a rider who even with a helmet on, is easily understood to be female. As if she’d been born on a motorcycle, in one sweep she dismounted, removed her helmet, shook her head, and revealed her long, flowing, raven black hair.

She walked over to us, gave Pam a hug as they had met before, and looked at me and said, “Hi, I’m Carmen, I am going to be your translator.” My secret voice inside my head is saying, “Thank you God, again.”

Back in the world outside my head it was clear that it was going to be a far from ordinary day.

Now everyone was aboard the completely full prison bus, and, there being no seats left, I was perched on the very warm engine cover riding backwards, looking at a busload of adorable urchins who were looking at me.

I smiled as my senses abruptly informed me that this year Santa was not the only one who was covered in ashes and soot from head to foot. The 30 elves I was about to spend my day with, spend their life that way, and guess what, every one of them wanted to take a turn sitting in my lap. Oh well, there was plenty of time. I had a pocket full of Purell. God had already proved to be paying careful attention—so, I thought, as they say, let’s “dash away, dash away, dash away all.”

We don’t think of poor people as being pleasing to the eye, but that was the reality with these children. They lived inside magnificently beautiful brown skin, with bright eyes augmented by long eyelashes. By the time we arrived in San Marcos, we all smelled the same, and I was in love with every one of them.

I was filled with the sheer joy of it all, and my inside voice was saying, “Thank you, Michael, with God’s help you have given me this day, and I am very grateful for that.”

Although I noticed that none of the dashboard gauges work, and we always had to park on an incline because the starter doesn’t work either, the prison bus did its job and after an hour or so we arrived in time for lunch at the Los Quinchos Pizza Parlor.

Every time I hear the oh-so-popular expression, “Teach a man to fish . . .” my mind conjures up an image of a skeleton on a small deserted island, long dead, but still clutching a fishing pole. But I must say that this point of view is alive and well at Los Quinchos. The pizza parlor serves as local restaurant and a vocational program for the kids who work rotating shifts from 11 to 7 every day. They prepare the dough, wait on tables, etc. It’s a potential occupation for them, it puts money in their pocket, it makes money for the school, and it doubles as the bakery for the kids’ meals. I should mention it is considered the best pizza in all of San Marcos, a town of maybe 100 people.

I was intrigued and took my place at the grownups’ table, my mind reeling with potential names for the place: ‘Pizzas for Peace, a slice for a life,” or maybe, “we knead dough,” and on and on.

I didn’t have time to find out why we were served bologna sandwiches at a pizza parlor because we were late getting to the party, which began with disappointment. The kids were led to believe that they would be able to swim in a real swimming pool, as opposed to the drainage ditch back in the city. However, when we arrived, the pool was still being cleaned, there was no water in it, and there would be no swimming.

When you live in a dump that is constantly on fire in the relentless heat of Central America, not getting your annual chance to swim in a real pool is a big disappointment. But to my amazement—or should I say, “But what to my wondering eyes should appear”—in front of me were 30 kids who took it in stride and moved the whole party over to the soccer field and quickly chose up sides. Once again, I was reminded that these kids are in many ways very special, and in case I was doubtful, I was reassured that God stayed on the bus and was still the guest of honor at our party.

Things went well; there were soccer, dancing, piñatas, smiles, laughs, and lots of presents, all of which required batteries. What a feeling of being a grandfather to these kids as the director of the program, Carlos, and I put battery after battery into the toys while long lines of children patiently waited to find out what the toy actually did once powered. Oh yes, note to the powers that be: Even though they were joyously received, Quakers don’t do toy guns. Next year we need to stipulate a peaceful alternative, strange as that may seem to some.

Everyone was enjoying themselves, and nothing was wrong, but I felt that something was lacking. Something inside me said that we had not achieved that special status the Christmas spirit demands. Little did I know that the spirit of Christmas within us had just begun to do its work.

Suddenly an idea popped into my head that was so radical I felt my inside voice screaming “Oh, no! Please God I know you have been helping out all day, but please don’t lead me to that traveling Mexican circus we saw back in Managua! We can’t do that, it’s too much, over the top, beyond my ability, and way too scary.” I must have sounded like Moses saying God had the wrong guy, and there must be some mistake.

I calmed down a little when the inside voice said, “The bus driver probably won’t go for it, maybe that will stop this foolish idea in its tracks.” No such luck. For 50 U.S. dollars and a ticket for him and his son, the bus driver had plenty of time. Rats! What other possible deal breakers can I find? How about we can’t afford it! The inside voice quickly reminded me that I had a garage full of motorcycles, and taking these kids would cost less than a few of my motorcycles getting an annual oil change; okay, maybe a new engine.

“Okay, God, maybe you can stop being so helpful. I want to remind you that once a bus full of deprived kids stops in a parking lot anywhere near a circus, there is no going back.”

With that thought, the Spirit reminded me that earlier in the week I had received word that a friend of mine had suddenly lost his son, Andrew, during what should have been a routine operation. This friend had shown a genuine interest in these kids from the dump. I had been thinking all week about what I could do to honor my friend’s son. This idea was so far out that I knew in my heart I was being led to do this. God was up to mysterious ways again. And way had been put in front of me. Perhaps I had simply lost my mind, but I felt that Pam and I were being led by the spirit to take 30 beautiful orphans to a circus in honor of my friend’s son and we were now on a “mission from God.”

If I live to be 100, I will not forget the look on the guy’s face at the ticket office. He looked at me, he looked at the long line of obedient but excited ragamuffins standing behind me, then back at me and his eyes said, “Okay, let’s see if I get this—you’re from the United States, and with your movie star wife, you are going to take 30 poor Hispanic kids to the circus, and in case that isn’t enough, you don’t speak Spanish?” Shaking his head, he handed a fist full of tickets to me, and I could have sworn I heard him say, “May God’s love go with you.”

I thought it would be real grandfatherly to be the one to show these kids their first acrobats, magicians, and white tigers—and it was.

What I hadn’t counted on witnessing were the things that will stay with me forever.

The first thing that hit me was that for perhaps the first time in their lives they were in a large crowd of people. Not only was it a large crowd, but in this crowd everyone was well dressed and wearing shoes that fit. These are children who live their lives either outside or in small shacks with no windows. Now they found themselves inside the largest indoor space they had ever seen. A tent! To them it was magical! One little girl kept looking around at the roof and the stage and the lights and the seats, repeating to herself, “Big top, big top.”

Pam and I were trying to understand why, regardless of what was happening on stage, they kept running to the door in what seemed to be a panic. They would take a quick look outside, and then run back to their seats. We could only guess that being inside was such a new experience for them that they constantly had to reorient themselves. They weren’t just experiencing a circus; incredibly, they were sitting in their own seats legitimately. They hadn’t conned anybody to get there; they hadn’t sneaked in; they hadn’t stolen the tickets. No one was going to throw them out and they were free to enjoy the show just like anyone else. They weren’t sure it wasn’t a dream.

Pam and I constantly held back tears while the kids showered us with a constant stream of questions about what we have long since ceased to appreciate. (Did you ever try to explain cotton candy to a kid who relies on dogs to sniff out a snack in the garbage?):

“Why are people clapping their hands?”

“Where does the poop go when you flush a toilet?”

“What is a concession stand?”

You have never been humbled until you have watched children, who should be old enough to know better, follow the popcorn vender, pick up whatever falls to the floor, and eat it as naturally as other kids eat French fries at McDonalds.

I realized that I was watching children who had honed the skills they needed to survive inside Gehenna; but once outside, they were nearly helpless. It was breaking my heart but Pam and I were witnessing the process of impoverishment. It was no longer a theory to me. All I could think was, “Thank you, Lord, for the blessings you have given me today.”

When the show was over, we moved cautiously among the throng and made it back to the prison bus. The Christmas party now seemed complete. One little girl of about three fell asleep in my arms on the way home, and as she did, I came to sympathize with Angelina Jolie and Madonna. In her sleep she would cough every few minutes; it was tough to give her up and I will always pray that she got well, and lived a good life.

The bus stopped outside the dump by waiting parents. There were 30 adioses and 30 graciases, and then it was over. It was starkly sudden. I wanted to hug them one more time and tell them things like, “It will be okay if you work hard and do well in school; I will always love you.” But all too suddenly, it was over.

Now, as I sit tapping away at my computer, it is late, I am alone, and I no longer need to push back those tears. Tomorrow I will be back in St. Petersburg wondering if all of this really happened. But for now, Merry Christmas, muchachas and muchachos; rest in peace, Andrew; thank you, Michael; and God bless us every one.

Herb Haigh

Herb Haigh, a member of St. Petersburg (Fla.) Meeting, is president of Ameri-Plus Select Services, a Medicare Select hospital network. He and his wife, Pam, are available to talk about the work of ProNica to monthly meetings and other interested groups; contact through http://www.pronica.org.