There is one woman I can’t stop thinking about.
Flora Herrera is from Kisaliya, a little village seven kilometers outside of the larger village of Waspán, Nicaragua. I met her as we finished up our final water project during my last week in Central America.
At age twenty-five, Flora met a guy. They got serious; they got married; they brought a shy and beautiful daughter into the world. A few days after Flora turned twenty-eight, they started building a house together. When Flora discovered that her husband was bedding another woman nearby, she cast him out of her home and out of her life. Male fidelity is rare in the macho culture of Nicaragua, although it is even rarer for a woman to throw out her unfaithful partner. Men may be the chiefs in Nicaragua—running the house, bringing home the shekels, and coming and going as they please—but Flora would have rather fended for herself than endure a fractured relationship.
So at twenty-eight, a year younger than I was when I started my one-year whirl around the world, Flora set out to finish constructing her house on her own. Financially broke yet determined, she collected boards and nails one by one and went to work. I’ve seen a picture. Flora was a striking woman then, with a contagious, warm disposition. I imagine the sun on her shoulders as she perches atop a ladder, hammer in her gentle hand, pounding nails with precision.
Then a board fell. It struck her from behind and broke her back. There were no hospitals nearby, and they couldn’t do anything for her at the local clinic in Waspán. Traveling by bus to a hospital twenty hours away was expensive yet ultimately manageable, but in her poor condition, she wasn’t yet up to the task. As I mentioned before, potholes, broad and deep, riddle the dirt highways of Nicaragua. So her brother, a good man, she told me, carried her three excruciating blocks to his house, and put her to bed until she recovered enough to endure the grueling trip to the hospital.
Her back never healed, and Flora Herrera has lain in that bed for sixteen years. Sixteen years. Sixteen years on that same thin, foam pad in that one-room shack. Her old and ragged driver’s license dates her at forty-four years old, and she looks eighty-four. Her eyes are enlarged and protruding from their sockets. Her jawline is bony; her shoulders come to a point; wiry arms hang limp at her sides. She is disappearing, a skeleton wrapped in skin. When I tell you that I’ve seen a ghost, her name is Flora Herrera. She eats a spoonful of rice on rare occasions, but she’s committed herself by and large to a liquid diet because she’s ashamed of the messy bedpan that her daughter would have to clean up. She owns no books, no TV, no radio. Can’t afford them. That dream house of hers, that dream of the twenty-eight-year-old Flora, is a dream long extinguished; her days drag by in a wooden hut, fourteen-by-sixteen feet, with four posters on the wall.
Problem has heaped upon problem, leaving Flora gradually weaker. Her hands are coiled and her feet are gnarled. None of them function. Her eating habits have given rise to painful ulcers in her stomach. Being forced to lie in the same position all day, every day, has birthed further problems in her crippled back and legs. Her speech, though you can sense the passion, slurs. Her jaw has atrophied, and when she speaks too long, her mouth falls open and won’t close without the aid of someone else’s hand to hold it in place. She can’t lift her cheeks to smile. And when I reached down to hug her delicate frame, she couldn’t raise her arms to hug me back.
So there she lies in her bed at forty-four years old, staring at her posters on the wall and waiting for the end. All because of a board that broke her back. Her wheelchair busted long ago, so now it doesn’t matter whether Flora is a sunrise or a sunset kind of person because she hasn’t seen either in many years.
I imagine the sun on her shoulders as she perches atop a ladder, hammer in her gentle hand, pounding nails with precision.
A year after her accident, Flora’s brother got into a fistfight with another guy over some petty disagreement, and the police shot them both dead. After that, during the early years of Flora’s malady, neighbors checked in on Flora, but they trickled out of the picture as her condition worsened. Now, Flora’s daughter, struggling to make ends meet with a family of her own, watches after her mother.
My meeting with Flora, her daughter, and her granddaughter came as a surprise. I was in Kisaliya with Pastor Gener, the mason who directed the water project. One night, after we were done forming the concrete for the cap of the well, we bathed in the river. He turned to me and said there was a woman whom we needed to go visit and pray with. “Cool,” I replied. Flora lay horizontal when we arrived, but her daughter gathered two pillows and propped her at a forty-five-degree angle to face us.
Flora’s indomitable spirit amazed me. This woman was on death’s doorstep, but she, for whatever reason, just wasn’t ready to go. She talked with all of the vigor she could rally about her life, how it used to be and what had happened to her. She asked me to tell her a story, and Pastor Gener translated into Miskito, her native language. I told her how I had spent a dollar on Valentine’s Day to buy Ivana two pastelitos, those beefy minicalzones in Honduras, while Ivana had likewise spent the previous two months secretly learning how to play the guitar so she could surprise me with a song. “You have a few things to learn about impressing a woman,” Flora offered, and we all laughed.
And when it came time to pray, she looked to Pastor Gener and asked him whether he could pray for Sergio, her young neighbor who had a minor ailment of his own.
Tears filled her eyes as we prepared to leave; she looked up at me with a heartbreaking light in her eyes. It felt as if she wanted to reach out, wanted to grab my hand. “I don’t get visitors,” she said to us. “You don’t know what it means to me that you two came here.” With an earnest look, she made Pastor Gener promise that when he returned, he would bring a copy of the picture of all of us together.
I can’t stop thinking about her. I see her tired, sunken face as I sit in the sand, watching the sun rise over a rippling ocean horizon. Her name whispers through my mind when I see a young woman at work atop a ladder, laughing and full of life and energy.
People ask me why I took this trip, and now I know why. This trip is for me, indeed, and all of the good times I am destined to have. This trip is for my seventy-year-old self, sure, but this trip is also for the Flora Herreras of this world, people imprisoned by their circumstances, who will never be able to take a trip like mine.
She can’t, but I can, and I will.
I can’t say for certain which places I will one day revisit. I have loved various spots along this journey, but I’m always excited to spend my time uncovering another rock, writing another chapter. One thing I can assure you, though: one day soon, before it’s too late, I will return to Kisaliya, that rural village outside of Waspán, where a bowl of unsalted white rice is a full meal. I will sit cross-legged beside Flora in her wooden hut, and I will tell her the stories of my trip. I’ll tell her about bullfighting and mustering and volunteering with those children in Honduras—the sweet ones and the bratty ones alike. I will show her pictures of scuba diving and bungee jumping and sailing. We’ll debate Nicaragua’s policies on tourist visas.
And then I will pick her up, carry her gently outside, and place her in a padded chair. Together, Flora Herrera and I are going to watch the sun set.