Nicaragua Part 1: Once Upon A Time…

It seems like everybody around the school where I work wants to learn English, with the notable exception of my students. Most of the kids seem to not care one way or the other about my native tongue. Not counting a small, hard core of dedicated students in my classes, most of them seem to goof off, not study at all, and attempt to get by on the English that they’ve learned in the first few years of elementary school. Aside from my students, though, I’m surrounded by people who want to learn English: the parents of my students, the administrative personnel at the school, the other teachers, the cleaning staff, and even random strangers I meet on the street or on the bus. One of those people is Samuel, the security guard at the school.
Samuel is contracted by a private firm to carry out the security detail at the school, which includes a 12-hour-at-a-time shift, since the school is guarded 24 hours a day. He presents a welcoming but reliable face for the school. He wears a purple uniform with a prominent 9-mm pistol on his belt, and when he smiles, which is often, one glimpses a mouthful of gold-capped teeth, including an incisor with a little gold star in the center. He’s good-hearted, friendly, hard-working, and, as it turns out, Nicaraguan.
I found out about his citizenship as I was giving him an English lesson in my break one day. He had said that since he was working at a bilingual school, he wanted to be able to say at least a few phrases in English to the parents or visitors that came to the school speaking little or no Spanish. He asked me if I could give him a private class outside of school, and offered to pay me something. I told him I had little time outside of school, but if he’d take a quick lesson here or there when I was drinking my coffee, I’d be happy to accommodate him, and he wouldn’t have to pay, either.
Samuel is not the fastest learner when it comes to English, but then again, he’s 37 years old, which is a relatively late age to begin learning a first foreign language. But what he lacks in language skills he makes up for in commitment and motivation. I often scold my 7th, 8th, and 10th graders, chiding them because their parents pay tons of money for them to get a good education and learn English, despite the fact that they usually don’t even put forth the smallest effort. Samuel, on the other hand, has independently dedicated himself to improving his life in any way he can, including learning English, which can open up many possibilities in this country. I tell my students that Samuel is my best student because even though he’s not perfect, at least he tries. My students glance up, and then go back to day-dreaming about their cell phones I confiscated earlier in the class.
In any case, when Samuel and I were covering the basics of English, we came upon the question, “Where are you from?” He answered, “I am from Nicaragua.” For me this was surprising, although that is probably just because I’m not from around here. Every person I’ve mentioned this to since then has said, “Of course he’s from Nicaragua. Just look at his gold teeth and listen to the way he talks.” Guess I missed that. Then again, let’s see these guys attempt to distinguish a Texan from a run-of-the-mill hick, and see if they can nail it. Still, I’m getting off track. The point is, Samuel is a “Nica,” a term that is used by both Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans and doesn’t seem to have any negative overtones. I think it’s just easier and quicker to say than repeating “Nicaragüense” over and over.
I had last entered Costa Rica on April 8th, which meant that my visa would expire on June 7th or 8th, depending on whether one considered the 90 day visa as exactly 90 days, or a cool three months. Either way, June 7th was the day of my wedding, and I didn’t want to get deported for my honeymoon. Although I hold the Costa Rican migratory authorities in the absolute lowest esteem and continually doubt their abilities to operate efficiently, I still didn’t want to risk any sort of fines or illegal status while I’m still waiting for the approval of my permanent residency, so I decided that I should leave for the 72 hours, just to be safe. Plus, I needed a little vacation.
I came up to Samuel about a week before I was planning on leaving to go somewhere, and I casually asked him, “Hey, you’re from Nicaragua, right? When’s the last time you went back there?” Well, it turned out that he’d not been back to see his family for about two years, partially because his passport had expired, and it would have been a hassle to go to the Nicaraguan consulate in San José to renew it. Plus, he informed me that his family was pretty poor, and since his family came from the part of Nicaragua in the far north near the Honduran border, it had just been too far and too expensive to make it back there frequently.
I proposed a deal. I told him that one way or the other, I’d have to leave Costa Rica for 72 hours, and the best option up till that point would have been to just cross to a Pacific resort on the other side of the border. However, if I could stay at the small house he told me he still had in Nicaragua, I’d pay for his passport renewal and his bus tickets, which together only came to about 50 dollars. I told him that I’d probably pay at least that much for a hotel for three nights, but that I’d much rather have an authentic experience with a person from the country, instead of just sitting alone on a beach and not actually seeing anything of the country I was supposedly in. He agreed, and we decided to set off on the following Saturday and return the Tuesday after that. It’d turn out to be a whirlwind tour far more “authentic” then I could have ever imagined.

Samuel took this picture of me, and I guess that it’s the only proof that I have that I was in Nicaragua…besides memories, that is. Awwwww….

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