Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Helping Moses Stay In School

I was walking across the Granada's parque central late last Saturday afternoon when the kid caught my eye.  Later what struck me was the pure desperation I glimpsed in his eyes.

"Hey, man, hello, how are you?" he said as he approached me.  Thus began a short conversation of small talk with Moses, a 19 year old native Granadan.  He was yet another of several young local men that I met over the weekend who have an excellent grasp of English from their interactions with tourists.

Granada is the main town that kicked off Nicaragua's recently successful experience with tourism, and it shows.  There are so many hotel rooms that it's easy to find a decent one for less than $20.  And there are plenty of "touristy" type amenities such as horse and carriage rides, and restaurants--some with "international" cuisine--that have inflated "tourist prices" to match.

Unfortunately, there are also some of the more unpleasant kinds of things you find in a tourist town, such as an unusually high number of beggars, hustlers and even drug dealers.

So I was already on my guard when Moses approached me.  But he was catching me at a bad time, toward the end of a hot day, when I was on my way back to my room for a cold shower and a nap. And since I sensed he was about to pitch me for some dough, I quickly brought things to a close.

"Listen, it was nice to meet you, but I have to get going now, " I said as we shook hands.  "Maybe I'll see you again here in the center."  And I turned to leave.

Just as I turned onto the street of my hotel, I heard him calling me, half a block behind.  This I really didn't appreciate--he had followed me for a block and a half--but I turned around to face him.

He began to tell me the story of how he is a student who goes to school everyday.  "The school is free, and this is my last year, but I can't afford the cost of the notebooks. . ."  I let him speak in this vein for another 30 seconds.

"Listen," I said, "I'm sorry but I cannot help you at the moment.  Look for me again sometime later in the center, but right now I can't do anything for you."

This was true since I had only a little cash, not even enough for a coffee, on my person.  But I was annoyed that he'd followed me almost to my hotel, and that just wouldn't do in my book.   So he turned away in defeat, still with that look of hopelessness in his eyes, and we went our separate ways.

I didn't see him again on Sunday or Monday but this morning as I was having my coffee and watching the first half of the Uruguay-Mexico match, he spotted me and approached, "Hey man, how you doing?"

"I'm good, how are you?" I said as he joined me at my table.  And he began to tell me his story, that he's a student in his last year of a five year "college" (but I think he meant high school), that most of his family lives in Costa Rica.  "There is more work there, so my mother, my brother and my sisters live there to work.  It's very hard to find a job here in Nicaragua."

He said his father died eight years ago in a car accident and his mother remarried "but my stepfather doesn't like me."   In Granada he stays in the house of a friend's family "but they are very poor.  Basically I'm alone here."

He wants to visit his mother in Alajuela, near Costa Rica's capital San Jose, but he doesn't have a passport.  "I have no visa, either."  His mission now is to graduate from school where he takes "all the subjects:  history, geography, Spanish, mathematics, physics."  He will graduate in November this year, then "when I have my diploma I can start to look for a job as a waiter or bartender or..."

"Tell me about the notebooks."  So he explains that although school is free, he needs five notebooks, one for each class.  "They are too expensive."  He said he skipped school on Monday because he doesn't have anything in which to take his notes.

So I question him a bit.  "When does your school year begin?"  In January, he said.  "So since January you go without notebooks?"  No, but the ones he had are now full.  "What about your teacher?  Can he help?"  The school is already free, he said.  It's not his teacher's responsibility to come up with the notebooks.  "What does your teacher say if you go to school but without the notebooks?"  He says, Moses:  where are your notebooks?  How can you finish your schoolwork with no notebooks?

"How much do the notebooks cost?"  About 110 cordobas for five notebooks at the market, a little more than five bucks.  "That's a lot of money!"  I say, and it's true, there's no doubt about it.  It's about what we in America would pay for the same thing--maybe even more expensive than what we would pay.

"At the library," Moses said, "they are even more expensive, maybe 30 cordobas each."

Five bucks is a lot of money, I thought to myself, but if his story is true I should help him out.  Five bucks is a lot, but not if it helps a kid to stay in school.

I finished my coffee and made a decision.  "Okay, let's go to the market and buy you some notebooks."

So off we went.  It's clear Moses isn't a street kid.  He's clean but ragged around the edges.  His jeans and t-shirt are a little bit old, maybe, but they are freshly laundered.   Like me, he wears open leather sandals, but his are a few years old and worn, probably in need of repair.  I'm sure it's not just notebooks that he needs.

We approached a woman's stall where thick notebooks were stacked up.  Moses has been here before, and he knows exactly what he wants, but I'm not sure what he's asking the woman.

I ask her how much for a notebook.  "Vente cinco."  Twenty five.  So that would be 125 for five, even more than what Moses had said.

But now Moses is picking up only three notebooks, and he seems to be asking the woman for some kind of discount.  Since my Spanish is "pre-Twinkle," I'm kind of lost, but I've already made a decision, and I'll follow it through.

"One hundred five cordobas," says the woman, for the three notebooks Moses has in hand.  I pay her and we leave.  "Will this help you?  Do you have enough pens?" I ask.

"This helps me very much, " he says.  "Thank you for helping me with this.  Yes, I have enough pens."

Was this some kind of "notebook scam"?  Did he have an "arrangement" with the owner of the stall?  Why did she tell me they cost 25 cordobas, but then charge me 30 cordobas more than the 75 total that three should have cost?  The woman had been hesitant to name her price, and I had been in the dark with my limited Spanish.

But I had already made a decision, and I wasn't interested in any more details.  I didn't feel that it was useful to pursue any more info from Moses if the cost of that info required either one of us to lose face.

Besides, when he turned my way to thank me, the look of pure gratitude on his face was enough to set my mind at ease.

We walked back to the center, and we parted ways with another handshake.  "Thank you very much again for helping me with this."

"Buenas suerte, " I said to him, "Good luck in school, and maybe I'll see you again next year if I come back to Granada, and then you will have your diploma and your job."

"Good luck!" he said.  "I hope to see you here again."


  1. You did the right thing. In the end, it matters not what sort of sacrifice we actually made, but the fact that we are willing to sacrifice something for another has an effect upon that person. If it was a "notebook scam", you surely taught him a lesson by your actions that was worth more than 105 cordobas. And even if he did scam you out of 30 cordobas, or a dollar or two of your money, maybe it fed him that day. So I have a question...did you even bring your violin?

  2. Your comment is right on. These are precisely the thoughts I was wrestling with all day yesterday.

    I could have gone back to the market and asked the woman, "Was he speaking the truth?" But even if she answered me honestly, my chances of catching more than 10% of her meaning is nil. The best I could do in any case is rely on my gut, and my gut told me "this kid isn't bad." And while five bucks is a lot (for both of us, I might add), when we compare my station in life with his, five bucks is not a lot at all.

    As for your question: I have not traveled with my instrument for any of my three trips to Central America. I plan to address the issue in depth in another post, so look for that at a later date. . .