Christmas in La Concha

When Michael and Abe arrived at La Concepción (La Concha), Nicaragua, on December 18, Levi had already been there for a couple of days shadowing various physicians in the Health Center. Soon we were all swept away by the dynamic and joyous atmosphere of Dr Emerson Ortiz’s house, deciding then and there to pass our Christmas in La Concha.

La Concepción is a small fruit-producing village 35 km south of Managua. The people live on small plots of land loosely peppered about the various barrios in the municipality. They take great pride in their nationally acclaimed harvests and even more pride in the impressive unity to which they commit themselves as a community. Dr Emerson enthusiastically showed us each aspect of concheña life and tradition. There was special significance given to every plate of food, every countryside outing, and every familial introduction in the Ortiz house. This left us with a deep sense of Nicaragua and this particular pueblo‘s identity.

The first night we were told that a choir was coming to the house to rehearse and that we could join in. The genial choristers all learned by ear and soon enough we too were chiming in the Christmas carols in the Spanish language. The others knew the majority of the songs and were wonderfully patient in bringing up to speed the three tall basses. Several hymn melodies were familiar soul food for us: a true blessing to be able to sing with other Christians so far from home during Christmas.

In La Concha there are masses at 4:30 every morning during la novena, the nine days before Christmas.  We went to a few, one in which our choir was slotted to sing. However, when we got up to sing some of the songs were new to us and so like we often do on this trip, we just went with the flow. These masses were energetic and well-attended. Kids were reciting bible verses an dressing up to reenact the nativity stories. After all had taken community, a brass band of young guys started playing quasi-carnival music while everyone went outdoors and processed around the city. This happened every day for 9 days at 4:30am with about 500 people present. What a testament to community spirit!

On the 23rd Emerson wanted to give us a real Nicaraguan experience: makingnacatamales. Nacatamales are like your average corn tamales but heftier. They are wrapped in plantain leaves and contain corn masa, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, olives, prunes and heart-stopping dose of liquid lard (manteca de cerdo). It was great to learn how to prepare the dough and ingredients, then fold ’em up and tie ’em tight. After the day-long process we also enjoyed eating several out of the more than a hundred made that day. But a word of wisdom: don’t eat more than one. They sit very heavy in the stomach, as Abe found out.

The evening of the 23rd we went out with the choir to a little village past Jinotepe called La Paz where we sang for the mass ceremony of a quince años, or 15th birthday celebration and rite of passage. In the morning we had more nacatamales for breakfast and then went to something of a Christmas block party where they made a masa de casuela, which was a big vat of cornmeal soup with lots more liquid lard. It sat heavy as we watched children whack open a piñata. It was all super tasty an we justified our consumption by Emerson’s council that we were flacos y bajo peso, skinny and underweight.

For that Christmas Eve the choir sang at another mass. We loved the atmosphere of hopeful, upbeat songs about the newborn in Bethlehem, a triumphant message by the local padre, and firecrackers persistently popping outside the doors. It certainly contrasted with our own Christmas Eve traditions: solemn-faced Swiss-Germans softly singing in a candlelit service. Here Christmas feels a bit like New Year’s and people stayed up waiting for the strike of midnight that rang in the 25th. After the mass were more fireworks. A concheñatradition included toritos encohetados, whereby a young man would carry above his head a pyrotechnic, flaming bull skeleton made of balsa wood and spiked with sparklers and bottle rockets. The brave young ‘uns of the village then chased the bull around, trying to get as close as possible without being touched or sparkled or burned. It seemed to us like it was dangerous and a huge liability, but we were able to suspend our safety-conscious, litigation-fearing gringo mentality and see past into the charm of a rich cultural heritage. At midnight we all exchanged hugs with a big, Feliz Navidad, and flopped into bed.

Another Nicaraguan Christmas tradition is going to the beach on the 25th. Once again we found great contrast between current experience and North American tradition. It felt bittersweet to know that our hearth and home held our loved ones sequestered in their cozy houses with mountains of cookies while we were tumbling through the waves, watching the sun set, singing Christmas carols, and sipping on rum and coke with the good-natured, affectionate Latinos we had come to know.

We also had the chance of visiting fellow Goshen grad Kelsey Schrock, who is living in Managua. She is working at the Batahola Cultural Center, which gives afterschool classes in English, dance, art, and computer skills, just to name a few. We went out for pupusas and saw a concert with local guitar artists. Talking to a Goshen grad from our own year in the Latin American context we’re in is always refreshing.

Saying a tearful goodbye to Emerson and the family, we headed toward the colonial city of León. Michael’s tendency to take the shortest, as-the-crow-flies route led us to the old road from Managua to León, and soon we were dodging potholes along the half-asphalt, half-gravel highway.

Crusted in salt we arrived at the colonial center of León after a snack of milk flan and grefru (grapefruit) from the open-air market. Our plan was to stay with the host family of Michael’s cousin Steph, but only having the barrio name of the host’s house left us stranded to wait for a phone call, twiddle our thumbs, and ponder ways to improve our water filter. As darkness set, we began to worry if our host had forgotten us. Luckily a kind stranger named Miguel saw the troubled looks of the three cyclists’ faces and, after chatting for a bit about the predicament, sent his wingman neighbor to ask around in the neighborhood. Soon enough we located the house of our host Marisol, whose phone was being repaired at a store in town. Over a Brazilian soap opera, Marisol and her daughter Crismar told stories of Steph’s soccer skills and introduction of Dutch Blitz that the family played tirelessly during her time there.

To the sound of workers patting out hundreds of corn tortillas, we left León the next morning toward the mountain region of Nicaraguan coffee and cigars. The day was tough: hot sun, headwind, and the return of long uphills was discouraging. But when we got to Estelí, our host Moisés gave us a personal bike escort (first in the trip) to the house he shared with his older sister, Carmen. The smiling face and easy conversation of Moisés, 22 years old just like us, relieved our anxiety from the long day. Carmen had prepared a delicious meal of rice, beans, chicken and salad and was quick to talk about the Nicaragua-US connections that had brought us here. The family of current Goshen student Irene Schmid (also through their niece Suzanne Miller) got us in touch with Lydell Steiner, youth pastor of Kidron Mennonite Church in Ohio. Lydell met his wife Rebeca while serving with Mennonite Central Committee in Nicaragua and taking language classes in Estelí. Carmen and Moisés Castillo are brother and sister of Rebeca, and their family has hosted groups from Ohio. Lydell, with whom we had only had email contact, called all the way from the States to make sure we got there just fine.

We talked to Moisés about people he knew who have illegally made their way to the US, sometimes returning with empty pocketbooks and even injured. But going legally–even just to visit their sister–can be an expensive and frustrating process. Even though Carmen has obtained a tourist visa before, visited and returned (demonstrating that her intent is not to stay) the US embassy now denies her applications for visas.

Further on in the night our conversation turned toward faith and spirituality. The Castillos are very convicted, sensitive Christians who brought a new perspective to our trip’s faith themes. They were concerned that we were passing unknowingly through so many regions endemic to potentially evil philosophies or indigenous cosmovisions, receiving and buying blessed or cursed food, trinkets, or gestures. As members of the same faith, we listened to their counsel with open minds, though it was obvious we were raised with a different worldview. We found ourselves resonating positively with placing a greater legitimacy in Jesus’s role as an effective, real, and righteous force that manifests in multiple forms. The conversation was a reminder that perhaps North Americans have grown numb toward the vast spiritual world behind the veil of our empirical outlook, failing to acknowledge the way God works against maligned forces. We’ve found this perspective–the belief that the spiritual world directly affects the physical world– in both Protestant and Catholic Christians in Latin America, also a reminder that as “numb” believers we are likely in the world minority.

Most of the Castillo family works in a used clothing store downtown that sells ropa americana, clothes shipped down from the US in compressed containers. Lydell manages the shipping of clothing from Ohio. Walking into the shop felt like strolling through the aisles of a Kidron, Ohio, Goodwill, Ohio State football and ‘Amish Country’ t-shirts filling the racks. Who knew you could buy a secondhand ‘First Mennonite Sugarcreek’ cap in northern Nicaragua.

Leaving Estelí we had the real treat of being accompanied on bike by Moisés and Daniel, a family friend from church. We had invited Daniel, a bike enthusiast, the night before and the next morning he brought over his aluminum road bike to ride with us. Moises grabbed his bright blue mountain bike and we headed out to a sister church in a town 40 km down the road. Sharing that time on a bike–usually spent just the three of us–with cyclists from the area was a lot of fun. We got to share the thrill of biking down hill, the sweat of climbing, and the hunger for lunch afterward. We’re quite excited for joining up with Honduran bikers for the organized coast-to-coast ride with Transformemos Honduras this next week.

Entering Honduras, we struggled a bit to adapt to new words and foods. Tortillas were smaller and directions took a bit longer to understand. We see more guards with large guns than we did in Nicaragua. But new cultural experiences awaited us as well. That night we stopped in a small town where we found a group of conjunto fiddlers, guitars and brass players that resembled a mariachi band. Hondurans in this small town near Tegucigalpa helped us out in the nightly search for a floor, suggesting a community center and water treatment plant before a single man in his thirties, Adalid, offered a room in his family house. He was concerned that the dirt floor and tight space was too humilde for us, and it was clear that we were very special guests for him. Meeting so many people on this trip challenges us to keep in contact and remember the hospitality and moments we shared together that often mean a lot to hosts.

Reaching Tegucigalpa, we have rested up for a few days in the cozy apartment of Hans and Melina Hess, friends from Goshen College.  On New Years Eve, Michael and Abe once again enjoyed a slightly more dangerous display of Central American explosive material while Levi was laid out with a high fever and nausea.  The tradition here in Honduras is making a scarecrow stuffed with thousands of firecrackers, sparklers, and bottle rockets and then lighting a small fire under the figure as the clock nears 12:00 a.m.  When we rushed down to the street to see the midnight display, we were greeted by fire, precariously fired bottle rockets, Hondurans happy for the new year, and multiple exploding scarecrows throughout the neighborhood. The explosions continued for a good 30 minutes after midnight, and it was fun to watch and listen to the city of Tegucigalpa from the rooftop of Hans and Melina’s apartment.

Next up is an organized ride across Honduras from La Ceiba on the northern coast to San Lorenzo on the southern coast. The trip is put on by Transformemos Honduras, an organization that supports education and health development. You can find out more on the trip’s website. We hope to learn a lot about social and community development issues while biking through this beautiful country with those who live here.

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