Jim Palmer, a sturdy man with a rim of hair surrounding an otherwise bare head, is a born and bred Texan and one of four brothers. His closest brother, John, got into drugs as he worked through high school, and it gradually got worse.
“He wasn’t a bum, always asking for money,” Jim told me at breakfast one morning. “More of a con man, though, always coming up with excuses and deceiving his way out of every situation. He didn’t care who he hurt, nor did he care about the effects of what he was doing.
“This was dreadful for me to watch, especially because he and I were always tight.”
After high school, John spent two years in the Navy before faking incurable seasickness and being medically discharged. When he turned twenty, police busted him for possession of marijuana. While waiting to beat the rap, John ran low on dough and caught up with some old friends. Together they made a run to Tijuana. The group bought a little cocaine to distribute for a week’s worth of spending money as he awaited his time in front of the judge. Back over the border in San Diego, the driver of the car ran a stop sign, and the police carted everyone off in handcuffs, cited for possession with intent to sell.
“So, the parole officer calls my dad back in Texas. Says he’s got his son. ‘Now, sir,’ the officer says. ‘I understand you’re a minister, and I’m a Christian man myself, so if you will come out to get him, I can speak with the judge, and, because he’s twenty and a minor in the state of California, I’m fairly certain we’ll be able release him into your custody.’”
Jim’s father faced the most difficult decision of his life. He cared deeply for his son, but John hadn’t responded to any other punishment or penalty. Jim said to me: “‘If I don’t come get him, what will happen?’ my father asked, and the parole officer basically said that he would be sentenced to two years in federal boot camp, probably serve about a year if he acted right.
“So, my father says to the guy, ‘I’m not going to come out to California. This will be good for ’im. He ought to learn the consequences of his actions.’”
After being convicted, John served nine months before being paroled on good behavior. He had meanwhile grown very close to both Jim and their father through a daily exchange of letters.
“So he came back to Marshall, [Texas], started getting in phenomenal shape at the gym, met a wonderful young lady, and held a steady job. He started studying forestry. Wanted to be a forest ranger. Man, he loved the out of doors. The fast life was a distant memory, and we were all proud of him and what he now had the potential to accomplish.”
And then, he was diagnosed with cancer. Rhabdomyosarcoma. This highly malignant neoplasm, in its rarest form, has few survivors, even now. Twenty-six years ago, even as an otherwise healthy young man, John was told he wouldn’t last a year.
“This was devastating, you see,” Jim told me. He leaned back, sighed. His blue eyes were heavy and a little bloodshot. “After this incredible reformation, I now had to watch him go through all the chemo and radiation and surgeries. Of course he is one hundred percent positively convinced that he is going to beat this cancer, but as time passed, reality sunk in. He went from a strapping two hundred pounds to ninety-eight pounds after nine months of treatment. He lost all his hair. Lost all his teeth. He was wilting, knew he was dying. I was living over twelve hundred miles away in Phoenix, and my father calls me and solemnly tells me that I need to come home to see my brother. At the time, I was directing an inner city community center which ministered to Hispanic and black street kids and gangs. I tell my father that I’ve got a few things to finish up, that I can be there by the weekend. ‘Jimmy,’ my dad says. ‘He may not make it to the weekend.’
“So I get in the car. I drove twenty-four hours straight through from Phoenix to Marshall with my wife, and I sat at my brother’s bedside for three days. And those were just about the most amazing moments of my life. John was cycling in and out of consciousness—twenty minutes awake, twenty minutes asleep. Whenever he was awake, we relived every fort we ever built, every fish we’d caught, every girl we’d dated, every touchdown we’d been part of, and every dream we’d ever had.”
Jim paused and took a sip of coffee. He let his gaze rove out the window and over the two palm trees in front of his house, but then he turned back to me.
“As I was leaving, he said, ‘Jim, I don’t know why God has cut my life short, but I believe God is going to give you a long life. Don't waste one minute doing anything but what God wants you to do.’”
Jim left on Saturday morning to head back home, knowing this was the last time he would see his brother alive. On the way home, he pulled over on the side of the road, climbed out of the car, and spoke to God. Kneeling in the ditch with the wind from passing cars tugging at him, he said, “All right, God. Here I am. What do you want me to do?”
Those last days with John and then that night on the side of the highway directed Jim to the seminary and then ultimately to spend twenty-eight years in Central America.
John died two days later, on Monday, and Jim and his wife, Viola, flew back for the funeral, a celebration of John’s life.
Since then, they’ve served the people of Honduras and Nicaragua as Baptist missionaries in various capacities, from education to road construction to installing water pumps. Jim will probably still be making trips to Central America long into retirement. “The infrastructure is weak here, see,” he told me over that morning cup of coffee, “but there can be simple changes: a smoother road out to a rural village opens up the ability to bring goods to market in town; a new school could mean a more solid education and better opportunities for underprivileged children, perhaps even the chance to one day go to college in Tegucigalpa or Managua; and you already know that clean water is an issue.”
A month before, he’d been the lone affirmative respondent to the extra few e-mails I didn’t originally think I’d have to send. He wrote:
Just received your e-mail.
To answer your main question, yes, we always have a place for people to serve.
We work with the Miskito people, an indigenous group who live on the Atlantic coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. We assist the Miskito believers in building churches, training leaders, and developing agricultural and water projects.
Loyd Miguel is our Mission coordinator. He will be in Mexico and the United States for Christmas, returning to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, around January 15. We have a mission compound and a large network of churches scattered across the jungle where we help dig clean water wells.
Let’s work on details and seek the Lord's direction with this project.
I’m not a religious guy, but I know to take an opportunity when it’s the only one on the table. I emailed Jim back, a message spiced with an annoying amount of exclamation points, saying that I would be in Puerto Cabezas on January 16, ready to meet him and Loyd and move forward as they saw fit.
Sparse brown and green spots of grass and anorexic pine trees speckle the Nicaraguan countryside. Villages are scattered around the region, and each member of a community often relies on his or her neighbors for support.
The water problems in Central America are beyond comprehension. Back home, when I get thirsty, I turn on the faucet, I hold a cup under it, I fill it up, and I drink without fear of cholera or cramps or diarrhea. Then, after dinner, I go to the bathroom, I flush toilet paper down the commode, and it flows off to never-never land to be processed.
But in Central America, the first warning people give you is to not drink the water. The water they drink from the faucet is not actually potable, nor do they have the septic system to process toilet paper. So after dinner, you have to wipe, crumple, and place the tissue in that trash can by your right leg.
Back in El Porvenir, when the town’s water supply ran low, they simply shut it off, without warning, for twenty-four hours. The governments of these Central American countries sometimes provide deworming pills for their citizens; other times missionaries will come through with boxes of medication. But by and large, people are left to deal with the gut-churning effects of drinking tainted water. Half of the Miskito population is situated along the Coco River, and the other half is spread along tributaries, always near a source to wash dirty laundry on a rock or draw water for cooking. But few people, if any, have access to safe drinking water.
So I dug. Jim and Loyd and Pastor Gener, the foreman of each construction project, handed me a shovel and directed me to a bare patch of earth that looked no different from any other patch around me. “Start digging here,” Pastor Gener directed. “Two feet deep, one foot wide, and stop when you get over there.” He pointed to some vague spot of land, knowing I wouldn’t make it that far before he came back to give me further instructions.
I thought a lot about Ivana those days outside, baking in the sun. Driving in that spade again and again, I thought about how she was back in Honduras, still running around with those children. About how much fun I’d had with her—cooking dinner, chatting on the beach, dancing. I wiped sweat streaming off my brow before it could trickle into my eyes, and I thought about how the gods of love had handed me opportunity on a silver platter early that one Sunday morning after a night of dancing at the club, and how I had replied, “No, thanks. I’m not in the business of impressing women. I’ll stick to clumsiness.” About how she’d given me more chances.
I e-mailed her. And she e-mailed back. We spoke on Skype as often as possible. I said, “I miss ya, kid!”
Most days in Nicaragua, Pastor Gener and the other workers and I listened to the radio as we dug. They had few local stations, and those stations were very local and generally religious. They were both a source of entertainment and a means of relaying information. One guy ran everything. He’d say in a soft, monotone voice, as if on a classical radio station back in the States, “All right. That sure was a good song. God is good. And up next, we have Alejandra Barteña from the Dia de Gracia Baptist Church. Welcome, Alejandra.”
Alejandra’s voice would scream over the airwaves in Spanish or the native Miskito for a half hour about Jesus. A half hour, straight. I mean absolutely hollering, crying to the heavens; she’d pour herself into it, burn calories: “I’M TELLING YOU THAT JESUS IS THE ANSWER! WE ALL SUFFER FOR HIM! YOU CAN GO TO CHURCH ALL YOU WANT ON SUNDAYS, BUT IF YOUR DAILY EXISTENCE IS NOT IN THE NAME OF JESUS, THEN YOUR PRIORITIES ARE NOT IN ORDER! AMEN! I SAY, I TELL YOU, AMEN! JESUS! JESUS IS THE ANSWER! AMEN!” You can hear her stop every ten minutes or so to take a sip of water—purified, I presume. But mostly, there’s screaming.
Then, the director would return, again in his monotone. “All right. That was Alejandra Barteña from the Dia de Gracia Baptist Church. Thank you, Alejandra. Now we will play a few songs. But first, Tagoberto Gabayo, your mother wants to wish you a very happy thirteenth birthday. Also, Manuel Dinario, someone has turned in your driver’s license, and I have it right here in my hand, so come on down to the station whenever you get a moment to retrieve it.” And then he’d play some songs.
We worked on many projects during the six weeks I spent down in Puerto Cabezas. My time in Nicaragua kept me as busy and productive as I’ve ever been in my life. We measured, dug, and poured the foundation for a battered-women’s shelter. I learned how to drive on both sides of the road as we traveled seventeen hours round-trip by truck, bucking down a pothole-riddled dirt road straight out of the nineteenth-century American West into Puerto Lempira, Honduras. There we operated on an ailing tractor and sawmill at another Baptist Mission. In a remote village, I sat outside a hovel of a schoolhouse and constructed balloon animals to keep children pacified as they waited in line to see one of the missionary doctors. I rode two hours upriver to another remote village with a group of optometrists to distribute eyeglasses to the elderly, people who’d suffered from foggy vision for years. (You’ve never seen so many smiling faces in one place.)
But mostly, we dug. No machines, no heavy equipment, and no Ivana next to me to cheer me on. We worked in two-man groups—one dude hefted a pick to loosen the soil, the other followed behind with a shovel to heave the soil out. I’ve never popped so much ibuprofen so fast or finished so many days so filthy as I did during those days in Nicaragua. My lower back throbbed on both ends of a night’s rest, and mud and concrete caked on my boots. I’ve worked harder twice—negotiating sofas through front doors as a mover in Charleston and then mustering cattle in Australia—but I’ve rarely felt as satisfied at the end of a day’s labor. I knew I offered a teeny-weeny, though perhaps soon-forgotten, role in a family’s ability to drink clean water and in a woman’s opportunity to be housed away from her abusive husband. It was great.
Installing a water pump is a tricky endeavor.
First, I was surprised to learn that a very significant percentage of wells drilled worldwide in the last twenty years are no longer functioning. Lacking both spare parts and the knowledge needed for pump maintenance, primitive villages struggle to operate shiny new technology. One lost washer or bolt usually kills a pump that supplied a whole village, taking with it all hope of drinking cool, clean water again. Billions of dollars of investment over the years amount now to scrap metal.
Also, many of those wells and pumps were dug and built for the entire village, which means that lines of accountability can be gray. “Community wells are a horrible idea out here in northeastern Nicaragua,” Jim Palmer said to me. “Getting people to work together is not easy. What belongs to everyone belongs to no one. Back home, we have a civil government that the Miskito people don’t have. Out here, there isn’t a reliable, centralized system of order. Back home, if someone throws garbage over my fence, I’m going to call the law. In Puerto Cabezas, if someone throws garbage over your fence, you’re going to walk over with your machete and chat with him about it. And this also affects how we install our pumps.”
Jim learned this over his twenty-eight years in Central America. Now, his crew does two things differently: one, they install a simple rope-and-washer pump—the most basic level of technology. A child can operate it. Construction, though arduous, comes with simple instructions: dig a big hole; construct a concrete enclosure; run PVC from the bottom to the top; top it off with a wheelie-thing that pulls water to the surface.
The only thing left to do is grab the handle, spin it clockwise, and fill your bucket.
“I’ve heard other groups, enthusiastic groups, tell stories about their indestructible water systems. Built by NASA. State-of-the-art. Steel construction. Then they get out to these rural areas, and they’re always destroyed. When we come swooping in with our brilliant Western ways, it’s critical that we also work with the current local culture.” A solar-powered water pumping system sounds great on paper but is useless if it’s difficult to manage.
Second, Jim Palmer’s crew doesn’t build a pump for an entire village. They build it for one family. This is an artful process, and a vital one, as it demands ownership and accountability. “Digging the well is easy,” Jim said. (It is not.) “Finding a way to maintain it is tough, and we’ve seen great success with all the people from a village or neighborhood coming to that one family for water. The family runs it, and we work hard to select a family that we know will run it efficiently. So there’s never any question who should be in charge, and we never have to worry about a community well being destroyed or vandalized or neglected when the appointed operator doesn’t feel like walking to the center of the village to open it up.”
Finally, you have to find workers capable of putting forth the effort to get the job done efficiently. The blue-collar Nicaraguan workers I worked alongside for six weeks were the same as anywhere else in the world. I met just as many sloths as I did hard workers. René always had his shovel working, but Marcel kept wandering off to take a leak in the trees or carve some trinket out of wood. Once, he found a dead bird and spent the balance of the morning plucking its feathers and chopping off its extremities so he could fry the meat for lunch.
I couldn’t blame him. They were each—regardless of experience or work ethic—earning a hundred córdobas a day. A hundred córdobas a day. That’s 58.3 percent of the current hourly minimum wage in the United States. Regardless of experience or age. In the States, even if you somehow manage to fall into a job that actually pays minimum wage, you’re quickly given opportunities for raises as the months pass.
This was wild to me. The problems that exist in developing nations make the problems in the United States look simple and easily manageable. And now, here were strong and able Nicaraguans working very hard for rock-bottom pay. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand the idea of such grueling work for such little money. Still, it was important for me to see these things, to witness them personally. Travel is like that, providing an escape from our reality and into the real world.
I asked Ricardo, one of the guys digging alongside me, about this—about this idea that digging could be it for him, forever.
“Something will come up,” he surmised. He picked another patch of dirt loose, and I grunted as I shoveled it out. The intensity of our work disrupted our calm surroundings next to the river—lush trees, still air, an occasional peeping bird—but he stopped, bracing his pick against the ground and leaning on it for a moment. He mopped sweat off his forehead and looked to the sky in contemplation. “Yeah, something will come up. It always does.”
“Why don’t you sneak into the United States like so many others? In just one hour, you could easily make twice what you make here in a day.”
He hesitated, citing his family in Nicaragua, but said that he had connections in Texas and this was a realistic possibility for a six- or twelve-month stint.
“Or five years,” I said. A layer of mud covered my shirt, quickly caking under the sizzle of the sun. I smelled ripe. I consistently shoveled out half the amount of dirt that everyone else did. But even if I couldn’t be taken seriously as a shoveler, I could have a good plan. “In five years, you can save enough to buy your family a house, for cash, here in Puerto Cabezas. You can come back with the funds to start your own business. You’ll be forty-one and never have to pick up a shovel again in your life except to hand it to your son.”
This was a wild idea, I know, but it was one with initiative. Many Nicaraguans skip the border to Costa Rica to work illegally, and virtually the same immigration issues exist along that border as the border separating Mexico from California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Maybe Ricardo, hints of gray already appearing in his hair, had never been taught that initiative or even the ability to see the bigger picture, to dream. Maybe he was content with his life, although the dark expression on his face as he slung dirt showed otherwise. Maybe—and this is a very scary thought—he figured that hustling up a hundred cords a day with a shovel in his hand was as good as he was meant to do. Ever.
El Chavo, in contrast, didn’t want to hear about what he was “meant” to do, and he wasn’t falling into the glittery opportunities of the drug trade. I never learned his name—I don’t think anybody did since we all just called him “the Boy”—but I learned plenty about him in the weeks I worked across the trench from him.
“I got my backpack last night,” he announced to me one day. His already huge ears seemed to perk up a size when he got excited.
I slapped him on the back and offered a giant smile. I was proud of this minor achievement, a major achievement in his world. “Good. What’s left?”
“Notebook, pencil, and a pen.” He had already made his biggest purchase, the required uniform of blue pants and a white shirt.
“Saturday, payday, I will have the two hundred córdobas to pay for my matriculation.” He could go to the second-rate public school for free, or by showing a little financial initiative, he could earn a much more respectable diploma from a private school set up, again, by the Baptist Mission.
Now, let’s pause a moment for consideration. I’m standing next to a fifteen-year-old kid who is spending his school vacation months working in the most blue-collar setting there is just so he can save up to pay for a backpack and school supplies. And his own tuition! At age fifteen, I spent my days on the basketball court and my nights chasing girls around the neighborhood on my bicycle. Any money I saved from cutting grass on the weekends went directly into my basketball-shoe fund or to my Ice Cream for the Ladies fund. I’ll drop El Chavo’s daily pay out of my pocket and won’t spend more than ninety seconds looking for it, yet here he is taking every cent he makes—at fifteen years old—and investing it in his education.
I don’t know where that comes from in the ambition-killing Nicaraguan environment. Who taught El Chavo to be a go-getter like that? His mom? I met her for ten minutes—she was the lady to know if you wanted fresh-caught lobster tails—and that is a possibility. A mentor? The church? Who’s to say? Maybe he was just born with what the next kid wasn’t. Me? I grow up in those surroundings and my third priority might be my education, right after my relentless pursuit of illegal employment over the border and trekking backpacks full of cocaine to a safe house in Honduras.
Cocaine. The drug trade runs rampant on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. All of Central America provides a corridor to run cocaine from Colombia to the United States, but Honduras and Nicaragua are positioned at the halfway mark. A small plane cannot make it all the way from Colombia to the States and must refuel. Boats, the same, and port towns in Honduras and Nicaragua—with minimal funding to staff personnel for the military, coast guard, or police force—are powerless, vulnerable gateways to the north. There are boats on the water, and there are submarines under it.
Cocaine is killing the economy in Honduras and Nicaragua in more ways than you’d think. First, there is the obvious income gap that comes when guys zoom into town with trunks full of cash. (Or barrels: twice I heard an unsubstantiated story of a dealer who didn’t have anywhere to hide four barrels loaded with twenties, so he buried them in his backyard. When he went to dig them up, worms had eaten all his loot.)
Then, these drug traffickers open up “legitimate” businesses—a hotel, a little restaurant on the water, a grocery store in the center plaza—so they can clean their dirty drug money. What they do, though, is set their prices at near cost (since they don’t need to make a profit), and mom-and-pop operations, trying to run legitimate businesses, are undercut until they fail.
Now, here’s the kicker, a factor that shows how the drug trade affects the everyday life of Honduran and Nicaraguan men. Regular dudes—your neighbor, your brother, your uncle—go down to the shore for a couple hours on a day off or after an honest day’s work. They stand around and down a couple of beers. They shoot the bull with other neighbors and brothers and uncles, the whole time keeping an eye on the waves crashing to shore. What are they watching for? A brick of cocaine. The narcos running major weight up the coast by boat or submarine will dump everything at the sight of approaching federal agents. Lost bricks of cocaine, at some point or another, wash ashore, often on the shores of Nicaragua or Honduras. Anybody standing on the beach can snatch it up, hurry into town, and sell it to the right guy for a bagful of cash, all before dinner.
Locals claim you can hear the ocean if you hold a kilo up to your ear.
And these are regular guys! These aren’t drug traffickers. This is that dude who sells you fish in the morning. The man who delivers your gas tank on Saturdays. That gent you wave to when you scamper off to school. These are masons and ditch diggers and guys selling ice cream from the cooler off the front of their bicycles. Your uncle. The drug trade has turned regular guys into dealers. I couldn’t believe it until I passed by the beach myself and Kaveeta, the organizer of the missions groups at Verbo Church, pointed these guys out, groups of three or four settled in cliques within their marked territory. In Puerto Lempira, Oscar told me about a guy who was penniless and drunk three months before. “Adam,” he said, “within a week, he built a house with cash, and he just broke ground on a new gas station.”
Mostly, though, the drug trade puts a moratorium on ambition. Why put in an honest-day’s work in the first place? Why strain every muscle in your body under a glaring sun for a pittance that will barely keep you afloat? Tired, wide eyes peer down the street at that sleek two-story house built by that known narcotraficante who never seems to be working much. I’d like his lifestyle. Why risk it, you ask? Fair question, one I’d think about twice as an American. But in Nicaragua, consider the options.
School is important, but upon graduation, there is little guarantee of finding a job in a specific field. Plenty of guys with college diplomas return home to drive taxis.
Starting a business is a possibility, but with so many regulations, it’s extremely difficult to rival the already established competition. In the United States, if you want to start a business, you need a hundred bucks and a dream. It might take two days to complete the proper paperwork and print some full-color business cards—maybe a little longer if you require specific licensing and decide to sit through all of Suze Orman’s audio books—but in Nicaragua, there can be many months of red tape to work through, and even then, starting a business requires a deep purse and connections.
And if a business is profitable? All eyes shift in that direction. Jason Puracal, a former Peace Corps volunteer living in Nicaragua, was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison for drug trafficking. Prosecutors concluded, upon noting his successful company and fat bank account, that he must be dealing drugs. Despite having literally no evidence, they managed to convict Puracal. The government released him only after many appeals, pressure from the United Nations, and two years of his life spent in a ramshackle Nicaraguan prison.
Working is a possibility, but doing what? Slinging dirt out of trenches for a hundred cords a day? Opening a corner shop to sell snacks and sodas to passersby? Moving to Guatemala to harvest corn on the mountainside?
Lobster divers in Nicaragua make good money, but those guys, not even certified to scuba dive in the first place, are making ten to fourteen back-to-back twenty-five-minute dives to 125 to 150 feet per day (per day!). For fifteen to eighteen days at a stretch. The PADI dive planner says you shouldn’t dive to more than eighty-two feet for twenty-three minutes without spending time at the surface to decompress; the suggested surface time for one dive by a professionally-trained diver at the depths swum by a Nicaraguan lobsterman is twenty-four hours; never mind the suggested safety stops on ascension. Decompression sickness paralyzes these guys all the time.
Mining is the only other lucrative blue-collar occupation, but it’s not entirely healthy. Tremors send faulty tunnels crashing down on top of teams of miners, burying them alive. Even if you escape being crushed or buried, breathing in that coal dust day after day guarantees you an early exit by fifty-five or so, thanks to a nasty killer called black lung disease.
Most guys just go to work building houses or roads under the relentless baking sun for a hundred cords a day. No, gracias.
So let’s think about this: I’ve got a chance—a chance—to run this backpack of cocaine through the mountains into Honduras over two days for five hundred dollars? And if I get caught, I can bribe the police or the judge in Honduras or the warden of the prison in Nicaragua for my release? Hm. Eight dollars a day working in the scorching field, times sixty days, minus lunch money, plus my baby would love one of those Rachael Ray ten-piece cookware sets with nonstick surfaces for easy cleanup…Where’s that backpack, you say? Guys are “escaping” all of the time from prison in Nicaragua. Halfway through my stay, one Colombian trafficker bribed the warden to have his guards take him to the hospital where the Colombian bribed the doctor—get this—to write a little note to the judge that he was in a coma and he would be for the rest of his life. Poof! He disappeared back to South America while all parties continued to investigate his health.
My life in Puerto Cabezas was mundane. Everything. Work and play, both. Though tasty, even the food lacks imagination and is on a flat cycle: rice and beans and chicken with a side of plantain chips; rice and beans and fried turtle with a side of plantain chips; nacatamales; enchiladas. Repeat.
And there is very little personal initiative. Nicaraguans aren’t lazy or indolent, necessarily, but children learn not to dream for the future, that it’s better to merely scratch along day-by-day. This culture lives very much for this moment right now, with little regard for how an investment of time or saved money can improve one’s lifestyle in the longer term. And forget change. “Weed Eaters could revolutionize this place,” one American guy offered as an idea for replacing those haggard young men bent over whacking machetes at the ground, but reality opposed him—there was no one around to service these machines. “Surely,” he reasoned, confused, “one person in this town of fifty thousand could learn. Hell, they keep these retired American school buses running for so many years passed their expiration. Why not a Weed Eater?”
But hope enters the picture, inch by inch. A few people challenge the standard criteria of this middling existence. In the face of appealing yet illicit decisions, El Chavo was making a more sensible one. I heard ambition in conversations with him and Polo and other people who wanted to make honest, prosperous livings. Loyd’s brother played with the idea of opening a small—just two or three employees—fish-processing facility. René was going to school for forestry engineering and wanted to get his doctorate. Aaron had the mechanical capabilities to open his own garage.
I worked side by side with these men, listened to their dreams and their struggles. And as many struggles as they faced, these men were proof that hope does exist in this tiny, worn-out country. With a decreasingly corrupt government under President Daniel Ortega, an increasingly self-sustaining lifestyle, and a slowly strengthening infrastructure—the paved road from Managua to Puerto Cabezas is underway and the second floor of the new school is almost complete—while the seemingly perpetual fight against both the narcos and passivity will wage on.