Nicaraguans know money doesn’t buy happiness. 70% of the population earns under $10 for a day’s work. 92% earn under $50 for a day’s work. An average monthly salary for a middle class person is $550. Do they know the injustice of this? Yes. Are they a nation sulking in self pity? No. They’ve created a culture and an ingenious infrastructure around the hand they’ve been dealt. We have a lot to learn from them about what really matters and what’s possible with very little.
Lesson #1 Be happy with what you have.
Not once did anyone in Nicaragua ever apologize for what they had or didn’t have.
In Minnesota you might hear a host say:
- It’s not much, but it’s home.
- I’ve been meaning to replace these old things.
- So sorry we only have white wine glasses.
Minnesotans self deprecate and apologize for everything. There are always nicer, bigger, cleaner homes or fancier stuff to compare to so we apologize for not having that to offer.
Our furnished rental didn’t have enough dishes to “properly” serve guests. I felt self conscious about this, but that was very Minnesotan American of me.
Our favorite place to eat was at a Nicaraguan friend’s house. We met when we stayed with them our first week through a Spanish school, Casa Xalteva.* Fatima made amazing meals in a small open air kitchen for 6 to 12 people 3 times everyday. Cooking utensils were worn to the point half was missing, plates and silverware were odds and ends, larger crowds required couples to share glasses. This never got in the way of enjoying the meal or the company and we kept coming back for more.
It was here we learned a song all Nicaraguan preschoolers learn.
Iba un pollito para la escuela con sus calzones muy remendados.
Iba diciendo viva el maestro, viva la escuela y viva yo.
Un pato blanco muy orgulloso al ver al pollo soltó la risa,
¡Cuac, cuac, cuac, cuac, cuac….. !
-¿De qué te ríes? le dijo el pollo. -De tus calzones muy remendados.
-Pues mis calzones son muy bonitos porque son hechos por mi mamá!
A wee chick went to school wearing his mended pants.
He went saying ‘Hurray for the teacher, hurray for school and hurray for me.’
A proud white duck saw the chick and broke out laughing.
Quack, quack, quack…!
“What are you laughing at?” asked the chick.
“Your pants are all mended up.”
“My pants are beautiful because my mom made them for me!”
Before Nicaragua I was in a constant cycle of upgrading things. Towels, decorative pillows, curtains, dishes, glasses, clothes. If I found something I liked better than what I had and the price was right, I’d replace perfectly good items with slightly better ones.
Post Nicaragua, I think about who I want to be – the happy chick or the proud duck.
Lesson #2 A house is just a house.
A house in Nicaragua is:
- A place to be dry, to sleep, to cook, to clean, to host, to be safe.
- A place to laugh, a place to cry.
- And depending on one’s predicament a source of comfort or discomfort.
But it’s definitely NOT:
- a storage unit.
- a decorative statement.
- an extension of one’s personality or a reflection of one’s values.
- a living history of everything a person has ever done or been interested in.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but early on I wondered why people didn’t paint their walls. To me unpainted walls were a sign of neglect and lack of care for one’s space. My assumptions did not serve me well.
To Nicaraguans, unkempt hair, dirty shoes or ill fitting clothes are signs of neglect and lack of care. Washing my shoes everyday was not a habit I had ever formed, nor custom fit clothing a priority. Our house may have looked nicer, but we rarely matched our neighbors’ grace and style in personal presentation.
I learned buying a can of paint is like buying a diamond in the US – it can cost 2 full months’ salary and serves to show off wealth. Unlike diamonds, however, because of the heat, humidity and adobe walls, the paint barely lasts a few years.
In Nicaragua, food, education, transportation, communication, entertainment, civic responsibilities, clothes and personal care all come before thinking about how a house is decorated.
Regarding storage, nearly everyone has a business in their home, rented or owned. Storing something “just in case” is silly when a neighbor will sell exactly what you need when you need it. My husband had a headache the first week and asked about aspirin. Our host family directed us to a neighboring store. Two minutes later we bought exactly 2 ibuprofen tablets and finally understood why the bathroom didn’t have a medicine cabinet.
Lesson #3 Eat the same thing everyday.
I originally saw this as a negative. Why everyone wanted to eat the same thing – exclusively Nicaraguan food – day in and out I couldn’t understand. I had a change of heart when I realized how much time and money I’d save “going local.”
Silly foreigner that I was, I originally spent 10 times as much on food, walked 3 times as far to get it, and prepared it at home adding heat to unbearably hot days. Observing neighbors I knew I was missing something important. For example, as my Spanish improved I asked how beans were at every meal but no one ever cooked them. At $3 for a can of beans I knew that wasn’t how people were doing it. Turns out every block has a ‘specialist’ who makes the beans and sells it to neighbors. Sometimes there is a sign “Frijoles Cocidos” but more often people just know who sells what and for how much (.40 cents piping hot) – so why make a sign? (This adds a level of difficulty for foreigners. Window shopping isn’t a thing in Nicaragua. You have to ask.)
I then learned the tortilla man walked by twice a day at 11am and 4pm selling freshly made tortillas for 8 cents a piece. Fresh baked bread for .40 cents came by at 5pm. Fresh fruit and vegetable vendors came by multiple times a day. Two neighbors made vigoron daily – one in the morning, one over lunch. On weekends street vendors came out in droves grilling and frying local favorites.
Soon I joined my neighbors – relishing the local cuisine someone else made or brought to my door.
I fantasize how this food culture of super fresh, healthy, cheap, convenient food could be translated to the United States. There are 300 apartments in our building. If we all converted to a Nicaraguan diet, one person could make the Gallo Pinto, one could have the tortilla business, one a bakery, a few grilling specialist, a fruit and vegetable vendor and then the remaining 295 apartments would never need to cook or grocery shop again.
Lesson #4 Hiring house help is dreamy.
This was a guilty pleasure I hope to experience again. Having clothes magically washed and folded, bathrooms cleaned and dinner made (or gathered from neighbors) 6 days a week was easy to get used to and definitely simplified life.
Middle class Nicaraguans enjoy hired house help. The rich hire armies of helpers – gardeners, cleaners, cooks, drivers, night watchmen and multiple nannies. I’ve lived my adult life in two of the richest cities in one the richest states of the richest country in the world and at most people may contract house help once a week for a few hours. Nannies are generally hired only if a family has more than 3 kids under school age. Mostly people do everything on their own.
I know people who would love to hire a maid and I know people willing to do the work. Yet, these two parties rarely connect in America. Here’s my theory why it doesn’t happen: it’s too complicated. When given a choice between a mountain of paperwork or cleaning a personal toilet, it’s easier to just clean the toilet. I know that’s how I feel.
I’ve hired two part time workers in my life, a handyman in America and a maid in Nicaragua.
In America paperwork and payments must be filed and paid with 5 different agencies up to 5 times a year: the IRS for federal taxes, the state revenue department, federal unemployment insurance, state unemployment insurance, and workmen’s compensation insurance. Quarterly reports, yearly audits, and year end W2 filings are so complicated I hired an accountant to do it while I watched and learned. Long term it wasn’t worth it for one part time employee.
In Nicaragua the laws are simpler. Once we negotiated pay, hours and duties with our new employee, we wrote it down and made a copy for each of us. We paid in cash, gave the bonuses and holidays required, paid for sick days and kept a simple ledger we both signed when work was done or money paid. It was easy, provided a much needed job, and I felt like the queen of Sheba for 6 glorious months at $40 a week plus bonuses.
I wish America could find an easier way to connect workers and employers.
Lesson #5 Live and let live.
We are supposed to be the most free country in the world. For people with money and power I believe this is true. For the poor and powerless I’m not so sure.
I saw capitalism thrive in a way I’ve never seen in America. Anybody with any resources can create a micro business. Repair shops, tailors, food vendors, pharmacies, retail stores – they were everywhere. We got a flat tire biking out of town our first week. Our fear about what to do lasted all of one minute. A man on the side of the road was fixing tires right there under an open tin roof shack. 10 minutes and 10 cordobas later (.40 cents) the tire was fixed.
A lucky coincidence? If you are on a bus and thirsty in Nicaragua, roll down your window at the next stop sign. I bet there will be someone waiting to hand you a water for 5 cordobas (.20 cents). All over the country in urban or rural areas someone was there with a business ready to give a ride, sell a refreshment or fix a problem.
All the ways poor people have lived since the beginning of time – by walking, sharing resources, being farmers, sleeping in simple shelters, having small businesses, or owning horses for actual work or transportation – are alive and well in Nicaragua. I marveled at how good the quality of life was (assuming you had a little money to spend) when these elements were valued and allowed to flourish. Yet, over and over I also found myself saying, “this would be so illegal back home.”
I dared to eat food from non-commerical kitchens, travelled in overcrowded vans, lived in a house without hot water, slept 4 to a bedroom, and enjoyed my extreme mixed use zoning neighborhood. The ingenuity to make basic needs available and affordable was incredible.
It wasn’t all paradise. Kids needed more supervision as front yards were shared with traffic. Potholes, dog poo and open fires were regular pedestrian hazards. We added smoke detectors and fixed a few electrical issues before settling into our home. Nights were noisy. Good things can come from regulations and city planning, but we survived all the same.
I blame overreaching ordinances, rules and regulations for the fact that micro businesses are non-existent in America and that housing is unaffordable without subsidies or 30 year mortgages.
We have a lot to learn from our poorer neighbors living rich lives.
The unfair advantage we Americans have, should we chose to realize it, is that if we lived like Nicaraguans, we’d soon find ourselves with money leftover – not in debt and not living paycheck to paycheck.
Perhaps we can build a future with the best of both worlds.
Additional Reading: More Lessons Learned in Nicaragua
*Fatima and Juan Carlos are incredible hosts. I can’t recommend them enough for an authentic Nicaraguan experience and seriously delicious food. Hosting out of towners overnight or just for meals is what they do to make ends meet. They have 3 adorable children. Look them up via Casa Xalteva if you are in Granada!
**If you are looking for house help in Granada I’m sure our Maria would love to hear about opportunities. 🙂 I’ll help get you in touch.