The Gift of Words

Our bus skidded to a stop and with a sigh of relief I peeled my eyes from the side of the road and the drop off to the valley floor below. As the dust settled on the single, gravel lane I took in our surroundings. To the left a short, barbed wire fence stood guard before the two huts making up another of the homes in the Sontule community. On my right, a second road branched off of our lane and disappeared into the trees. We had just come from a meeting with the women’s coffee cooperative of the UCA Miraflor region after which our group of students had been divided into pairs and sent to stay with different families around the community. Glancing at Modesta, our host mother, for confirmation that this was our stop, my travel partner Emma and I grabbed our bags and exited the bus. Two other pairs of students also followed their hosts off the bus. One group was led through the fence on our left and the rest of us set off along the path to the right.

Modesta was a full foot and a half shorter than me and the wrinkles on her face told me she had seen many years. She seemed small and fragile and I was reluctant to hand her one of my bags when reached out to help. Her thin arms, however, were not as frail as they appeared and she hoisted the duffle with ease. I knew it wasn’t the first time she’d carried heavy objects long distances. As we wound our way along the ridge, the trees often parted, revealing stunning views of the northern Nicaraguan mountains on either sides of us. Though not nearly as extreme as the Montana Rockies, they were beautiful just the same. Skin slick with sweat from the high, twelve o’clock sun and stomach rumbling with hunger, I was grateful to finally arrive at what would be my home for the weekend. Modesta showed us to our room, set my bag on the table, then left to prepare lunch. Emma and I lay down our bags as well then went to explore.

The building our room was in had two other bedrooms and a dining/living room. It was here that we ate lunch with Modesta and two of her grandsons. The other building on her property was the kitchen. Inside, pots, pans, cups, and silverware filled the shelves. A clay stove in the corner sent smoke spiraling up and out through the space between the tin roof and the wooden panels that made up the walls. A stone-lined path led the way down the hill to an outhouse and a view of the far off town of Esteli. Throughout the day, dogs ran in and out of the buildings and a kitten was always darting between feet and around the flower pots. People came and went. Sometimes there was a horse tied up to the fence and sometimes there wasn’t. It was hard for me to tell who actually lived there and who was only visiting. Thinking back on it now I don’t think anybody in the community lived in one house alone, rather the community itself was home and they all shared the buildings with everybody else.

Late that afternoon, Modesta’s grandson Hanir led us back to the first house our group had met at. Along the way we picked up our classmates as we passed their houses. Once all together, we were taught about the process of growing coffee. Afterwards, we hiked to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sunset and hear the story of a local man and his family’s experiences during the Contra war of the 80’s. By the time six o’clock came it was already dark. Hanir brought us back home for dinner and we went to bed early.

The next day, May 30th, was Mother’s Day in Nicaragua. Rumor had it Mother’s Day was a big deal in this part of the world but with that in mind, nothing could have prepared Emma and I for the day we had in store. At breakfast, Emma and I wished Modesta a happy Mother’s Day. Her deep eyes and wrinkled checks exploded into a smile as she gave us hugs and a chorus of “Gracias mis niños!!!” She told us she’d be hosting a mother’s day party that evening and with that we finished breakfast and took off down the road again for the school. There, we learned about how primary and secondary school worked in the community. Three teachers taught all 12 grades. Each teacher had their own, one room building and set of supplies. However, they were extremely lacking in many of the basics. It was amazing to me how they could organize their day in such a way that all the age groups received the attention and lessons they needed and that the children could understand their teachings with such a limited supply of pictures, diagrams, and maps. Nevertheless, Sontule’s children made do with what they had and were happy. They had never known anything different so how could they not be?

With a basic understanding of how the school system operated, our group of students from the University of Montana spent the remainder of the morning preparing a set of geometrical garden beds for the kids to grow vegetables. From there, we left to another community to learn more about the coffee industry and some of the flora in the Miraflor reserve. Back in Sontule, Emma and I hurried up the road to Modesta’s. We were late and worried we’d missed the forewarned party. Upon our arrival, however, we saw the party was just beginning.

The night began with Emma and I being introduced to several of Modesta’s children and grandchildren. Twenty-some people from the community and from Esteli mulled around the yard chatting with each other. Everyone was related to Modesta one way or another. I was delighted to discover one of her grandson’s, Uriel, had gone to university and learned English. At long last I was able to converse with someone other than those in my class! Although Emma was able to translate a bit for me, there was still a lot she couldn’t say and it was frustrating not being able to converse directly with most people. After dinner with Modesta and a few of her relatives, we socialized with the family, and then were herded into the living room with everyone else. I don’t know what I expected was going to happen but the following events surpassed anything I could have imagined.

Once the last of the family had trickled in and claimed a chair in the circle that filled the room, Uriel gave an introductory speech. When he was done he told Emma and I he had thanked everyone for being there to celebrate Mother’s Day and to honor Modesta and that to start things off one of the grandsons wanted to dance for Modesta. A couple guys fiddled with a radio until a local station began to play. The young boy began to dance in the center of the circle. People laughed and cheered and clapped as he moved to the music in the flickering candlelight. After a minute or so he stepped to the side, grabbed my hands, and pulled me into the circle with him. I smiled and laughed with the rest as I tried to mimic his footsteps. We danced for a while and then he grabbed Emma and danced with her too. He finished up with another solo and then the family transitioned to the next event of the night.

One of Modesta’s sons grabbed a guitar while several grandsons clustered around him. He began to play and the boys began to sing. Eventually, those sitting in the circle joined in, their voices ringing together as they sang the praises of Nicaragua. I’m sure if someone had stepped outside in Esteli that night they too would have felt the pride and love poured into those songs flowing out over the mountains. As I listened a grin begin to spread across my face until my cheeks were frozen in a permanent smile. What an experience! To be here, in this little hut with this beautiful family and to be able to listen to them singing the songs of their nation and their culture. When their voices faded Emma and I joined the others in shouts of “Otra! Otra! Otra!” and they came together to sing one last song. I didn’t want the music to end but it was time for the main event, the reason we were gathered here tonight, to begin.

Uriel stood up again and thanked those who performed. He then either gave some instructions or everyone just knew what to do from there, for one by one, each member of the family stood up and gave a short speech to Modesta. I can only guess what they were saying but with putting together their tones of voice, Modesta’s tears of joy at their words, and the fact that it was Mother’s Day I’m pretty sure they were thanking her for everything she did in the family and sharing reasons why they loved her. After each son, daughter, and grandchild spoke they gave Modesta a hug and presented her with a gift to a polite round of applause.

If it was possible for my smile to grow any wider it did. Tears filled the corners of my eyes as I watched and listened. I was in awe of what I was seeing. Here were these people, who lived in the deepest kind of poverty, who slept in huts and baked in clay ovens, who pumped their water from wells and hadn’t a spare penny to spend on themselves. Yet they had all gone out of their way to save up and buy their mother/grandmother a gift for this special day. I suddenly felt very aware that Emma and I hadn’t brought anything to give. I did a quick, mental scan of everything I’d brought with for our weekend in the mountains but none of my belongings seemed fitting as a gift. Yet I wanted to give Modesta something. Suddenly I realized a gift didn’t have to be physical. I could give the gift of words. Leaning over I whispered to Uriel, “If I wanted to say something, could you translate?” He nodded yes and when the last of the relatives had spoken and presented their gifts he stood up and announced that Emma and I would like to speak.

Emma went first and, after saying a few sentences in Spanish, I stood up and faced Modesta. “Hello,” I started. “I’m sorry I cannot say this to you in your own language and I’m sorry Emma and I have brought nothing to give. But we give to you our gratitude for allowing us to stay in your home.” I continued on, thanking her for her hospitality, for sharing the food on her table and the beds under her roof. I thanked her for her kindness and for welcoming us into her family and letting us join in their celebration of Mother’s Day. Uriel, standing a few feet behind me, translated my words after each sentence. When I was done everyone clapped one last time as Modesta gave me a hug and we resumed our seats.

The remainder of the night consisted solely of conversation and the passing of the guitar between one another. Little by little family members wandered out the door and headed down the road. We bade farewell to Uriel and various other relatives we had spoken with over the course of the evening and when all but a few were left, we made our way to bed. As I lay awake beneath my mosquito net that night listening to a baby cry and the fading whispers of the remaining guests, I replayed the last couple hours in my head. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been there for such a special occasion, such a unique, cultural experience. What an amazing experience it had been! Listening to the traditional songs, seeing the kindness and selflessness of the Nicaraguan people and of those who had so little yet gave so much. And perhaps most memorable of all, despite the language barrier, still being able to give a gift myself: the gift of words.

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