When the flight attendant invited me to move up to a spare seat in first class, I thought I died and went to heaven.

While settling into my luxurious setting, I silently thanked God with promises  of never uttering another foul word or telling even the littlest and whitest of lies for as long as I lived.

I reached for the complimentary magazine in   the seat pocket in front of me to search for its crossword puzzle. My cup of cappuccino would be coming soon. It doesn’t get much better than this, I thought.

Hey, so I was wrong.

It was the stranger sitting next to me who actually elevated my day to First Class status. He started with the  usual non-essential chatting: did I live in Nicaragua or was I just visiting? Where was I heading?

I answered politely, eyes fleeting back and forth to my crossword challenge. Then t he stranger extended his hand and offered, “I’m Alexis Arguello.  And you are….?”

To this day I take pride in my unbelievable self-control and not screaming, “Holy CRAP! The famous Nicaraguan BOXER???”  Instead I somehow managed a hopefully casual, “Pleased to meet you.”  And was I ever! I closed my magazine and prepared for a most interesting flight.

He said he was going to Canastota in New York where he had been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in years past. THe words seemed foreign, coming from this well-suited, elegant man. This world boxing champ could have easily passed for a diplomat or a Gentleman’s Quarterly model.  So much for assumed stereotypes.

“And,” he added with a wide smile, “I’m going to visit my family.” The wistfulness said that this was even more important than any Hall of Fame.

We talked all the way to Houston, Texas,  the flight s first stop, then while  inching through the long U.S. customs line. Once our passports were checked,  we would go our separate routes. I would be heading for Pittsburgh, PA.

Finally it was his turn to step up to the U.S. custom agent’s station. I would be next, but he would be gone by then.  “Have a good one!” I said with a wave. He smiled and waved back, then greeted the uniformed agent in front of him as he handed over his passport.

I silently wished my new friend a wonderful journey as he was about to enter my country to see his family again after dozens of years.

But the U. S. customs agent wasn’t with the program. He managed to topple the spirit of that moment with a scowling glance at Mr, Arguello’s passport. “Where did you say you’re going?” he demanded.

“New York.”

“For what? Why are you going there?” There was a squint in this man’s eyes that said he was looking for a lie.

How strange. I had never been asked this question, or any others for that matter, except whether I was bringing tobacco or alcohol into the country?

The agent’s voice became louder and argumentative: “You haven’t been in the U.S. for twenty years. Why not?” His tone was angry and accusatory , as though he already knew the secret answer.

Mr. Arguello answered with the Boxing Hall of Fame explanation. He was invited to the festivities of new boxers being inducted in its hallowed halls. The same honor that was bestowed on him in years past. But that made no impact at all.

Now the man was screaming at him, demanding a better explanation.  I wanted to scream too, to tell Mr. Arguello, “Hit the bastard! Knock him out”  Heavy words for one who protests wars, hates violence, never watches boxing matches. But Mr. Arguello, though he may be a killer in the ring, was  a true gentleman in the real world. He kept his cool…a calm voice, his hands at his side.

“I just want to visit my family, sir.”  This time he didn’t mention the International Hall of Fame.

I took a deep breath of pure relief when I saw the scowling agent slam a stamp on the passport and shove it back to him. The champion smiled at the agent, thanked him and walked away.

I moved up to the window and handed over my passport. I couldn’t contain myself. “That man is a famous boxer, Sir.” Then I added, “Alexis Arguello. He’s a champion.”

The agent shrugged his shoulders, stamped my passport and told me to move on.



Farida and her polar bear.

Farida…ready to leave Cleveland Clinic after successful surgery.

It was in January 2001 that I met Luisa Morales and her 4 year old granddaughter, Farida Ramirez. They sat in my living room, Luisa stoically posed like a cadet, holding the little one on her lap. The child’s bright brown eyes were trained on mine. But the pale blue that circled them and her lips was the forecast for their visit.

Luisa was placing before me a challenge that I doubted could be won…a  child teetering on the edge of death.  Farida had been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. A damaged pulmonary vessel could no longer carry sufficient oxygen from her lungs to her heart. And then there was the hole between her heart chambers needing to be repaired.

The two had covered a lot of ground, searching for help throughout Nicaragua. But it was the same story again and again—-help for Farida does not exist in Nicaragua.

Luisa held up a tiny hand to show me even more solid proof: pale blue beneath the baby’s miniature fingernails. I had more than enough evidence of Farida’s need for help, but I didn’t know where I could find it.  There was no choice but to promise I would try. I would send copies of Farida’s medical records on a journey of hope to the  U.S.  What I didn’t mention was the long shot that we would get answers.

It was my close friend, Ann Savage living in Cleveland, Ohio, who moved us a giant step forward when she cornered a senator at a party. Having grown up in a show-business family, Ann knew how to use theatrics to get her point across. The senator listened with a sincere interest  not usually attributed to politicians. And so, through a congressional grapevine, Farida’s story reached Cleveland Clinic. Within a week I received a message from Dr.John Rhodes, a pediatric cardiologist on the hospital staff, inviting Farida to be a patient and to receive full surgical services.

The specialised surgery would be performed by Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb, a young South African who was surgical director of pediatric cardiac and lung transplantation.. Because he was scheduled to leave Cleveland Clinic to join the staff in another hospital, we would need to be at Cleveland Clinic by January 5 for surgery on the 7th.  Farida’s chances of survival were looking better with each day. Our hope was beginning to overshadow our fears.  Another flurry of email “begging letters” brought an offer from Bob Jack, a Texan retiree who spent his days doing exactly what we now needed for Farida. Free air flights for both child and grandmother through Continental Airlines’ charitable arm called CareForce. Bob Jack was their one-man volunteer who worked out of his home, arranging flights for distressed children from Latin America to U.S. hospitals.

We landed in Cleveland on January 2. Luisa carried the bundled child from the plane into a wind-blurred wintery world that she didn’t realize existed. By now the blue hue had turned into a noticeable bruise-like blue. We hoped that curious onlookers didn’t see us as child abusers.

Ann met us at the airport, then whisked us to her home in Mayfield Heights, conveniently close to the famous Cleveland Clinic. Luisa and Farida woke up the next morning to view their first snowfall, both of them hypnotised by soft white flakes floating past the window.  “I saw this snow on TV before,” Luis said. “But I didn’t think it was real.” This was the first time I saw Luisa smile since she entered my life three weeks ago.

A whirlwind of diagnostic tests filled our next few days. And then the hour was on us. Luisa, Ann and I watched a small child wheeled away from us to a foreign place that held the possibility of a miracle.

Seven hours passed slowly, seeming like seven years before Dr. Drummond-Webb emerged from the surgery suite. He spoke only for a few moments, explaining that he had just completed two surgeries back to back and had not slept for nearly 24 hours. He left us with little information, except that the six and a half hour surgery was much more difficult than anticipated, but an artificial artery now reached from her heart to her lung. The hole between her heart chambers had also been repaired. Farida was alive! ….But the next 24 hours would be critical.Though Ann and I took turns between sleeping and sitting next to Farida, Luisa never left the child’s bedside. She refused to take a turn to sleep and chastised herself if she happened to doze for just a few seconds.

As children do, Farida regained her strength quickly, and at times we found ourselves surprised to see a bright, lively child in our midst. The “blue” was fading as oxygen entered into its rightful place in her little body.  We returned to Nicaragua a week and a half later with a child who would soon run and play with her friends, her face flushed with happiness.

dr jonathan drummond webb

Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb

As for the surgeon who performed this miracle, we never saw him after he left us for his much-needed sleep though we had hoped to thank him for giving us Farida.

It was three years later in December 2004 while working at my computer with the TV in front of  me that I heard the news. Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb was dead. Depression pushed him over the edge.  Apparently the doctor was mentally ravaged by the loss of the few children that he was unable to save. But he never spoke of the hundreds who were alive because of his outstanding surgical capabilities.

Farida Morales Ramirez, once just weeks away from her own death, is among them. Though she never met the man who saved her, she  knows who he was and will never forget him.


Kathy and Junior

My friend Kathy Johnson made her decision that it was time to leave.  She died, by choice,  early Thursday morning.  I know it was early. I received an email message from her at 12:30 a.m and we found her body at 6 :20 a.m.

She decided to end her life when her depression won out. The battle was over when she took her pistol with her to her car and used it.


Ironically, just two weeks ago  our veterinarians had borrowed the same pistol to euthanize a horse with a broken leg.  That was traumatic too, but – as with Kathy—it ended the agony of pain.

All the warning signs were there, just as we read about them in novels and news reports.  In her final email to me, she wrote,   “Donna, nothing I can say will ease your anger or pain, but I know you would want for me the things I would want for myself. “

She was so right on about so much….but no, I never would want this. Never.  Kathy, you were so very wrong on this one, Girl!

Then, because humor was part of what and who she was, she added:

“You are everything I wanted to be, minus the kid/husband thing. You know how I feel about you and, no, everybody, we are not girlfriends. (Donna told me to write that).”   

Reading it made me laugh and I knew that her humor was meant to soften the mental pain I would surely feel. This time she was right.

There is still much to happen ahead of us before we say a final goodbye.  Kathy will be cremated on Tuesday, her ashes placed in the pauper’s section of the Granada cemetery as she requested.

Her Sandinista flag will leave the doorway in her house to join her on her grave.  Political differences will be laid to rest along with Kathy.

On Wednesday, we will honor our friend at her favorite Granada bar, Kelly’s, toasting and sharing so many memories of good times together that they are beyond counting.

Her home companion, Spotty the cat, is safe now with his vet who is Kathy’s dear friend, Dr. Marielena Solorzarno. Kathy dearly loved Spotty.  The fact that she would leave him behind in this world was proof that her desperation was so strong.  We needed to know this.

Kathy and Donna’s cats Fellini and Dolce Vita

And so Kathy moved on.  She knew it was okay to go.

Saturday Diary: Nicaragua is beauty and ugly, braided like hair

It’s with pleasure that I present the following newspaper column by  reporter Diana Nelson Jones to my blog.    Diana, my long-time friend, is also a  three-time visitor to Nicaragua. Here she captures the essence of  Granada as she writes of her most recent visit.

–   –   –  –   –

Written Saturday, March 06, 2010
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Our driver to the airport couldn’t believe anyone would go to Nicaragua on vacation. He assumed we were on a humanitarian mission.

Many people think Nicaragua is still a hot spot, but there hasn’t been a revolution there since the Pirates last won a World Series. (Granted, there was that decade of fighting afterward, thanks to the Reagan
administration’s “Contra” subversion efforts.)

As it is, with the Sandinistas in and out of power over the past 30 years, life is better for some, the same or worse for most. The tourist might be a victim of airport baggage kleptos, the occasional carjacking or police shake-downs for gringo money, but these pose no more risk than on any trip to the Third World.

The hardest part is the heartbreak. UNICEF reports that 65 percent of the people are poor or extremely poor, 40 percent have no access to health care, a third have no reliable source of drinking water and 24 percent of children don’t attend school.

And then there are the hungry street dogs.

Photographer Annie O’Neill and I left on Feb. 8 for 10 days. It was her second trip and my third to Nicaragua. And while it was sort of a vacation, we went with the purpose of someday publishing the story of Donna Tabor.

A former Pittsburgh TV producer, Donna joined the Peace Corps in 1996 and stayed in country. With support from Building New Hope, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, she directs the work of two schools, a music program and an animal clinic. She also serves as the nonprofit’s face for a colony of coffee farmers whose organic beans are sold here under the Building New Hope label.

I’ve had a slew of little adventures with Donna in and around Granada, a colonial city of 110,000 founded in 1524 as part of the Spanish empire. On my first trip, we saw a street vendor attacked and robbed, and I tagged along as Donna, in her tornado-ish way, whisked the guy to someone with a car and to the hospital, where his head bled into a cloth in the waiting room.

He was making a few dollars a day selling flimsy jewelry spread over a sheet on the street. He had no health care coverage. Donna made a contribution.

Many Americans think we’re struggling. In Pittsburgh, we’re worried about the police pension fund. In Nicaragua, the police make so little that their “pensions” are supplemented by roadside stops.

At an intersection near San Marcos, an officer wiggled his finger for Donna to pull over. We were DWG — Driving While Gringo.

He asked where she lives and what she does. When she said one of her jobs is overseeing two schools, the officer said, “My daughter needs notebooks for school.”

“How much?” Donna asked, shielding the opening of her wallet. He accepted 100 cordobas, about $5. At least in Nicaragua, bribes are cheap, like everything else except school.

School is a luxury for families who can’t afford supplies, uniforms and, most of all, their children’s time away from earning money. Children shine shoes and sell cigarettes and Chiclets, of all things, to tourists. Donna raises money to give parents so their kids can attend the schools she oversees.

At the animal clinic, peasants who can’t spare two cordobas drop them in the basket while some gringo expats leave nothing. The young Nicaraguan vet and vet tech make less than burger flippers make here in the States.

One day during my visit, a woman called the clinic to report a dog near death nosing around the language school where she is learning Spanish.

Claudio Mayorga, the vet tech, grabbed a stretcher and a muzzle and we piled into Donna’s Jed Clampett pick-up to troll the streets for a listing, almost hairless, skeletal creature. We saw him along a rubble sidewalk and jumped out. He began a furtive jog away. I was 20 feet from him when a taxi coming toward us swerved and hit him, just hard enough to roll him over the concrete.

Too furious to think in Spanish, I screamed at the guy in English as the dog kept jogging and turned the corner. I knew I wouldn’t catch him, but I ran as hard as I could, forgoing a ride from Donna and Claudio. With aching legs and a face streaked with tears, I burned with that aching sense of injustice I remember as a kid.

The dog headed up a dirt-packed hill between shanties and disappeared.

Back in Pittsburgh, I got an e-mail from Donna. They finally caught the dog and had to put him down. I picked up my own dog, Nica, and buried my face in her thick, shiny fur. She had looked as bad as that dog once, before her plane ride in a bag on Donna’s shoulder.

In 2001, when I first alit from a bus in Managua, arriving from San Salvador, the smell of burning garbage burned into my memory. Obnoxious at first, it has become a nostalgic odor, like the awful perfume of my grandmother.

I can now summon that smell and the feel of the air there and the cacophony of clanging church bells and clopping horses and yelling fruit vendors.

Nicaragua is beauty and ugly braided like hair: flowering vines spilling hot pink over corrugated-tin shanties; a peasant’s hand cupping the ear of his hound as it lies in the clinic under a drip bag tied to a rusty fire escape; a pharmacist strumming his guitar and singing love ballads with his door open to a deafening street.

The country is firmly in my heart by now. It’s a place where vacation sometimes can’t avoid becoming a humanitarian mission, however brief.

Puta de Los Angeles

I gave her the name “Puta” 12 years ago when she was just a kitten.  As soon as she discovered the outdoors, she’d saunter next door to her nighttime haunt, Hotel Granada, then sashay back to me in the morning. Thus, the name Puta seemed to fit. It was later that I discovered that the good people at the hotel would feed her the good stuff…..leftovers! Not Whiskas in a can which, by comparison, must have been terribly boring.Just to dignify it a bit, I added “de los Angeles”.  So, Puta de Los Angeles was her name for most of her life.

Precious Puta

Sadly her life ended today.

Three days ago, Puta de Los Angeles limped home, dragging her hind leg.  It was broken, hanging by what seemed to be a thread.  At first I suspected a car. But no, she wasn’t known to venture into the street. Only from my house to the casita in back…just a few steps away, at the most.

Perhaps a fall, though she is a cat and therefore surefooted.  Now I believe she was injured on purpose…with a stick,or stone, or baseball bat.  For some, this is a pasttime sport. Today, Dr.Jasson, our Casa Lupita vet, euthanized her while I held her. She died so peacefully, and as difficult as it was to let her go, I’m thankful that we were together, that she feels no more pain or fright.

For those who had the pleasure of knowing her,  I wanted you to know.

Godspeed, Puta de Los Angeles!

Milo, The Story of a Survivor

Milo, Granada's Survivor

Milo roamed the streets of Granada and, like most street dogs, had a mysterious past. He was fortunate to meet up with ex pat Thalia Drori here in Granada who took him into heart and home, After several  years, Milo’s past came to light. Let Thalia explain:

Hi All!  Just wanted to share a great story with you. I just sent my laundry out for the first time to Mapache Laundry Service. The owners came to pick up the laundry and as I already knew, their business was one of my dog Milo’s hangouts when he lived on the street. 

What I didn’t know was the story that Jairo, one of the owners told me:

He found Milo six or seven years ago on Calle Santa Lucia near what is now Hotel Con Corazon, when Milo was a puppy. Milo had been hit by a car and his spine was fractured. They took him to the vet and the vet said he had little or no chance of survival and that he would certainly never  be able to walk.

Jairo and his family looked after Milo a/k/a Chago, for 5 months and slowly but surely Milo recuperated and they worked with him to help him walk again.The family is happy that Milo is in a home and off the street, since they always had to keep their doors open and didn’t have a way to keep him in.  But they always fed him and looked after him when he did come around.

Jairo had tears in his eyes when he said that Milo was the most special dog in the world to him, that Milo always stands for the Nicaraguan National Anthem! He said the only thing Milo doesn’t know how to do is talk and if he did speak, he’d be a lot more intelligent than most humans!

Besides the integrity of this family, their service is fast and great and they pick up and drop off your laundry. If you have visitors asking, tell them Mapache off La Calzada, near Roadhouse, is the best!

Sorry to be so long winded.  So many crappy things happen here, it’s nice to hear some good stories once in a while.



This was written in the summer of 2000 when another American, Brett Copple, and I served as unofficial advocates for street kids, patching them up, plying them with vitamins, hauling them to doctors and dentists, feeding and clothing them. We steered countless young boys from the streets to Cristo Sana, a safe haven from the dangers of life without rules. Luis and Bosquito were two of those many boys that we loved very much.


There is no proper starting point for this, except to say that little Luis Davila is dying.  Brett and I who visit him in Hospital Japonese can’t say these words to one another… that losing him is inevitable. But the reality looms larger each day while Luis’ body grows smaller and weaker.

Luis has been in a semi-coma for the past month, the victim of a savagery that we don’t want to believe could happen with children who live on these streets.

This time it was child against child.

Luis, a sweet, docile 11- year old, teased 13-year old Conchita who lives with her mother and brother on a street corner where they sell newspapers. The next day,  Conchita’s older brother took retribution.  He attacked Luis, knocked him down, and kicked him. But it was the swing of Conchita’s shovel against Luis’ skull that finished him.

Perhaps Luis knew at that moment what we’re still trying to accept; that his life is over. His last words were exactly that….”I’m dying.”  His best friend, Bosquito, witnessed the attack.  He tells us through gasps and tears how he tried to help Luis to stand up but couldn’t, how local business people ran to his side to try to help him, then finally called an ambulance.

Doctors tell us that he’ll never walk or talk…if he lives.  And that’s not likely.  Still, we hold on to little bits of hope.

Sister Ana Rosa  who heads Cristo Sana, a center for street children, visits Luis every day.  It is her idea to take Bosquito to the hospital to see him.  Bosquito approaches his friend with fear and doubt, confused by the tracheotomy tube in Luis’ throat, the feeding tube in his stomach, the fresh, huge scars on his head, and the atrophy settling in his limbs.

He sits on the edge of the bed, close to his friend. The two boys lock eyes for minutes.  Perhaps Bosquito expects Luis to talk, but all Luis can do is grind his teeth. Then, as though on cue, the two boys begin to sob simultaneously.  Bosquito’s pain for his friend is overwhelming, and he buries his head in Brett’s chest to find some comfort. Harsh thoughts run through my head. Is this cruel to do this?  For both of them?

But composure takes over,  and then Bosquito reaches for his friend.  Grimy fingers gently touch Luis’ arm to say he is next to him.  He wipes Luis’ face, and he chases away the flies that flock to the tip of the trach tube.  Whatever has to be done for Luis, Bosquito wants to do it.  Sister Ana Rosa knows her kids.

Luis’ mother, oblivious to the mechanics of a feeding tube, shows up with soup in a dented sauce pan and attempts to pour it dribble by dribble down the small hose.  A nurse comes in the room and yells at her.  But the mother doesn’t understand what wrong she has done.  She just wants to feed her boy.

More boys from Cristo Sana join Bosquito and Sister Ana Rosa on their daily visits. They sit with Luis, believing that he feels their presence. They tend to him in whatever way they can.  Before they leave the hospital, Sister leads them in singing to him “You Are My Brother.”  This reaches so deep into my heart.  I need to cry, and I leave the hospital room.  But I stand close to the open door to  listen to their voices.   Street boys, glue addicted, little thieves. They are singing from their souls to their friend.  Angels, I think.

But today is a turning point that points downhill. The hospital powers-that-be are sending Luis home in the morning.  Home is a small, sweltering, dirt-floor shack in a dusty barrio.  He’ll have neither medical care nor physical therapy, though he has very little in the hospital at all.

Sister Ana Rosa arranges for a hospital bed to be moved to the shack.  But arrangements for tube feeding, draining the tracheotomy tube, physical therapy are not in motion. It’s doubtful that they will go with Luis. There is a prevailing opinion: the boy won’t live long enough to need all that.

A hospital employee informs Luis’ mother in a loud, authorities voice that they “have a box ready for him when he dies.”   Sister Ana Rosa scolds the woman for speaking thoughtlessly in front of Luis. He can’t talk but he can hear.  His face begins to twist. Tears fill his eyes.  Bosquito runs to him to hold him and to wipe his eyes.

We need time to reflect on what’s happening, to try to problem-solve as much as possible.   But time never seems to be on our side in these situations. Since this has happened to Luis, all of us have had our personal ethics bubble to the surface . Is it is fair to hope for Luis to hold on to his life?   Is this the life we wish for someone that we love?  It certainly feels right to wish that a quiet death would take him away from this living Hell.

We just don’t want him to be taken away from us.


Luis Davila died early this morning.  In this world where embalming is a luxury, he was buried today as well.

In spite of the pall over the day, we are privileged to witness the outpouring of love and respect for this child.  Poverty denies people so much of the good in life,  but Luis isn’t wanting for love during his terrible ordeal. Throngs of people crowd into his family’s two-room shack to give their hearts to Luis’ mother.

Feeling useless and a bit like the “outsiders” that we are , Brett and I search for ways to help.  We buy Luis’ only floral bouquet… a white plastic crucifix swathed in red roses.  Brett makes an emergency run to the Esso Tigermart for the traditional coffee and bread that the family will offer the visiting mourners.

The ecumenical feeling of the day takes the morbid chill away and warms our hearts, at least a little.  Sister Ana Rosa leads the Cristo Sana boys in saying the rosary and singing songs. Then members of Luis’ local church, evangelistas, pray and sing as well. The Nicas are fond of their saying…”All rivers lead to the ocean.”   We all pray to one God.  That we know.

Sister Ana Rosa and Luis’ mother both ask me to take photos of Luis in his casket. (The hospital made good on its promise)    I make a quick run to my house to load my camera.  Back at the funeral, there are five minutes of the most uncomfortable feeling to ever overtake me as everyone wants photos taken with Luis and his casket….even Sr. Ana Rosa.  I shoot Luis’ friends at his casket, saying their final goodbyes to him.   The last photo captures a young girl, his cousin, lying across the coffin, hugging it, crying for him. Her tears leave moist streaks of sadness on the shiny wood.

The entourage to the cemetery is long, in spite of the distance and intense heat.   Bosquito proudly leads the way, marching like a little soldier, carrying the floral crucifix high so that onlookers can see it.  Even as it wilts flower by flower in the dead heat,  it is still beautiful.  Everyone walks most of the way until the hearse, a patched together pickup truck….late for the occasion in true Nica fashion….catches up with us just a block from the cemetery.

We are directed to the fresh grave, passing the ornate marble tombstones, cherubic angels reaching heavenward and doves of peace perched on crucifixes.  We tramp on to a section with just a few knee-high wooden crosses, leaning in every direction . It is clearly for paupers.  Yet it is so very beautiful. Serene, with a graceful tree giving Luis’ resting place a respite from the hot sun, and Volcan Mombacho in the far distance, lending its majestic backdrop,

Luis, our sweet Luis, would have said that this is just fine.



Feb 11, 1997  (with 5 months of Peace Corps service under my belt)

I’m on the move again. That “great house deal near the lake” that I was renting wasn’t what you’d call a day at Chataugua.” At this time of year, swarms of mite-sized bugs called chayulas invade the place. The owner of the house failed to mention this.

Millions, maybe multi-millions of them, invade the house, inside and out. How small are they? They can easily fit through mosquito netting without touching the sides of those teeny little holes. Small enough for you?

They don’t bite, and for this I am thankful, though not enough to want to stay and smack at them all my waking hours. They die within the hour which is the only plus side of this that I can think of at the moment. But they are relentless and just won’t quit coming up from the lake, just two blocks from the house.

They’re in my clothes, in the refrigerator (dead, but so what?), on my toothbrush, in the toilet, in the shower, in my morning coffee, and….when I applied moisturizer this morning…they were, as the saying goes, IN MY FACE! Stuck there. How very attractive.

I swept the veranda this morning and accumulated a huge pile of the little dead chayula bodies. It looked as though someone had sheared a grizzly bear. The bodies were stacked in one huge fuzz ball of dead bugs. I tell you, it’s not to be described.

So I found a more suitable haunt. Same price, but OJ-free and bug-free.  For these ‘bennies’, I’d even forego a roof. Maybe not the Peace Corps grit of the movies or TV, but I get enough of that on the streets and in my job here.

Meantime I found a looney ex-pat from the States, Richard, to take over the chayula-house that I’m vacating. I didn’t want to just bail out of it since it is owned by an American working in Europe and he’s not able to find a renter from the other side of the ocean . This Richard person  has been bouncing around Central America for 15 years and doesn’t seem to mind the chayulas at all. I already said he was looney. I rest my case on that assessment.

Richard is setting up a…well, he calls it a “project”  which I wouldn’t exactly put under the heading of community development. He’s matching Nicaraguan women with American men who will marry them and take them to the U.S. I doubt that most of them want the “married” part of the deal, at least not with what’s available in  Richard’s cast of male lovelies. But these women do want to get that ticket to ride to the States; they need to put up with the charade to get there.

What do I think of this? A bit disgusting. But who knows what I’d do if I were poor, desperate, watching my years fritter away while I’ve enjoyed nothing of life.

Okay, I’m hungry.  I’m going to go forage for food. Whatever I find, it will be without a chayula topping.

The Pega King

I wrote the following about Cirillo back in the late 90’s.  Cirillo was a classic huele pega — a “glue sniffer”. Continually high from sucking in the pega (glue) fumes. Cirillo reigned “high”  and mighty among glue sniffers on the streets of Granada.  It was written with respect for this exasperating kid that  I loved.   I couldn’t imagine him being anything other than The Pega King. This was what life had handed him. He lived it the best that he could.


He’s ruthless, manipulative, lawless. He snarls when he smiles. Yells rather than talks. He steals, he lies, he drops dead bats on dinner plates of tourists at  outdoor cafés. It’s payback for not sharing their meals with him.  Rocks are his weapons, and he aims for the head. Even those of the cops.

This is Granada’s Pega King.  Cirillo, age 16.

The Pega King

He gulps the pungent glue fumes with great aplomb, the baby food jar full of amber goo, pressed firmly over his mouth  while he stares me down. This is his personal message to me. No matter how much he cares for me, his glue comes first.

He’s got style, no doubt about it.  He has a home somewhere in the bleak Barrio Posentepe. But his real home is the streets where he has reigned long before I met him. He was only eleven then.

I don’t kid myself. Cirillo likes me because I have something to offer. I was his best friend for at least an hour when he brought his street buddy Humberto limping to my house.  Humberto had stepped on jagged glass, an occupational hazard of the barefoot street dweller.

Sensing my lack of ability or stomach for medical triage, Cirillo took over the job. The glass came out easily.  He rummaged through my first aid  kit for some Betadine, then for gauze to wrap Humberto’s wound. He checked his work with the eye of a surgeon. Satisfied, he helped Humberto hobble off into the darkness. They didn’t look back. My job was done.

More recently the two showed up again at my gate. This time Cirillo was hurt, bleeding hard from a head wound. Blood washed over his face. It was obvious that there were serious lacerations under it all.  Fire shot from Cirilo’s eyes as he told me that I’d need to fix him.  Cirilo doesn’t ask.

“Who did this?” I demanded. I carefully washed blood from the gashes while working hard to hold back some stomach wretches.

“Moises,” Humberto answered quickly, probably not sure that his friend would rat on the perpetrator.  “He hit him with a broken bottle.”

“Why? Why would he hurt you,  Cirillo?”  Moises was one of the huelepegas of their inner circle.  I was having a hard time believing that even- tempered Moises would take a swing at anyone.

“Because he was sniffing glue,” Cirillo explained tiredly.  This was the matter-of-fact logic of the streets.

We took a taxi to the local hospital, sopping blood with gauze on the way. Cirilo never flinched through the ordeal of 18 stitches. Even Humberto was wide-eyed, impressed with his friend’s valor.

Finally released with a handful of prescriptions for pain and infection, we headed for the pharmacy. I was designated keeper of medicine. “I’ll come to your house to take my pills,” Cirillo informed me. “And remember. I have to take them with meals.”  Then he was off again into the dark.

There was the day that the Pega King whirled through the park, wearing his heart on his ragged shirt sleeve and he announced that his mother, Socorro, was in a Managua hospital.  Could I go with him so that he could visit her?  “She has cancer,” he said.  “We have to go there and take her some crackers and juice, “ he ordered. “And you might have to buy her some medicine.”

“I guess we could go tomorrow.” It was a reluctant offer; I wouldn’t be looking forward to this trip. “ Carlos will go too.”  Carlos Urbina is a volunteer tied to the cause of doing what he can for his country. I’d need Carlos’ support for this trip

“So will Humberto, “ Cirillo said. That being the final word, he was on his way, a mass of tattered, dirty clothes with bare feet.

The next morning we four were on a bus heading for Managua, sharing the aisles with chickens and an iguana whose legs were tied to the bottom of the seats.  Cirillo and Humberto hung out of the backseat windows, yelling and waving at their cohorts in the streets, eager to be seen in the luxury setting of a public bus.

Five years of living in Nicaragua didn’t prepare me for the ordeal ahead of us.  Finally at the Berta Calderone Women’s  Hospital, we stood at a cyclone fence that would have been much more appropriate for a maximum security prison. Cirillo was required to buy a ticket to enter the wards to visit his mother. When I gave him the money, I wondered how the other people in line, as poor as Cirillo, could come up with the 25-cent fee to enter these dilapidated portals.

We stood in a line, broiling in a hot sun, waiting our turn at the ticket counter. Only Cirillo would be permitted to go in while we perspired outside. But when we reached the counter, after someone searched through a box of tattered index cards, we learned that Socorro was no longer a patient there. She had been sent home. Cirillo couldn’t have known that;  He lived on the streets  far from the barrio.

Still, the answer didn’t rest well with The King. He demanded proof. He led us to another side of the building, to yet another line, even longer than the first. He was sure Socorro was in there, and he was going to see her. We continued our bake-off in the sun while we waited our turn once again. Carlos explained to the guard that he was positive there had been a mistake; She was waiting in the hospital for her son’s visit. Please, could the boy be allowed to go inside to look for her?

“She wants her juice and crackers,” Cirillo snarled at the guard.

The benevolent gatekeeper, perhaps a parent himself, allowed Cirillo, attitude and all, to slip through the gate. We watched him strut into a dingy, bleak hospital corridor, a little boy looking for his Mother.

But again, no luck. She wasn’t there.

Carlos and I tried to soften his confused disappointment with an invitation to lunch. We headed for a nearby restaurant where Cirillo and Humberto stared wide-eyed at our tray full of hamburgers and fries. We ate and we talked.

“What do I think will happen to my Mother?  She’s going to die.  She’s waiting for death. I saw her the last time in the hospital being sad.. But she told me she would rather be there than at home with my brother. My brother is 32 and he’s been a drunk since he was a teenager. He tells her that the food that she cooks is shit and that he’ll feed it to the cats.
“”Once when I was home, he tried to choke my Father. I cried, but I tried to fight him. I managed to throw him to the floor, and my Father ran out to try to call the police.

What will I do when my Mother dies?  I’m going to go with her. I can kill myself.

Humberto lunges wildly across the table, eye to eye with Cirillo. “”You can’t do that!   You’ll go to Hell….then you’ll never see your Mother!”

“I need you here, Cirillo. I’d miss you terribly if you weren’t here anymore,” I tell him.  Cirillo gives a rare smile and snakes an arm around my neck, but he says nothing.

“Cirillo is dumb. He doesn’t read the Bible, or he would know not to kill himself,” offers Humberto who at 17 is also illiterate. Cirillo ignores him.

Then he bows his head, stares at his hamburger while he explains: “”When I’m with my Mother, I’m so happy. But my brother messes it up. He’s drunk all the time. With my brother there, I have no power in that house.

“So you see, I can’t live at home.”

NOTE: At this writing, ten years later. Cirillo is in a penitentiary, serving a life sentence for killing his brother.


Notes from the past: July 2001

Considering what U.S. hospitals charge for a Band Aid, you’d think they’d have enough cash in their coffers to save a dying child.

The chances for medical help were looking pretty slim for Jesus Mayorga Guademuz. He needed a delicate heart surgery that couldn’t be done here in Nicaragua. He was only four years old,  but he had illnesses that should have required a lifetime to develop.  He had been diagnosed with Ebsteins’ Anomaly, a malformation of the tricuspid valve and an atrial-septal defect. I judged its seriousness by the fact that it would take the implantation of a pig’s heart valve to remedy it.  That’s way off the radar of being normal.

And the double whammy: Jesus also suffered from Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare congenital heart defect that also demanded surgery if he were to live past childhood.

His doctors here in Nicaragua had to give up. Their final words:  He needs to receive treatment outside of Nicaragua. So I spent some long nights at my computer, designing messages to move the hearts of any hospital personnel that might read them. I told them all about Jesus: He had been abandoned about two weeks after birth….birth mother was a young prostitute and drug addict…left him at the side of a dirt road in the small Nicaraguan community of El Paso.  Sabena Mayorga, an elementary school teacher with a family of her own, took Jesus into her home and raised him for those four years.  Jesus’ birth mother was never seen again.  His father was never known.

I  hoped that my touching portrait would soften the passionless medical report that I would send with it.  I hoped that all who read it would see a sweet little boy who would die without their help.

Jesus at home in Nicaragua

My emails went to U.S. hospitals coast-to-coast, carrying Jesus’ story and photo. Then with time running out,  I  began to feature not the child but rather the medical problem, Googling Ebstein’s Anomaly experts rather than hospitals. This took little time because there were so few. But the message that landed in the inbox of one Dr. Coburn Porter, an expert in this abnormality, opened the magic door to Mayo Clinic, the world-class institution in Rochester, Minnesota.

And Jesus was invited in.

His surgery and after-care would be costly, but everything would be covered by the  hospital in an effort to save his life.  Now we needed to get him and his mother to the U.S.

An email went to CareForce that day. This small group of retired Continental Air personnel arrange  international flights for children to hospitals willing to provide health care. CareForce volunteer, Bob Jack, from his one-man home office in Texas, arranged for 103,000 air miles to fly Jesus, Sabena and me to Rochester, Minnesota.

How the next step evolved can only be explained as “miraculous”.  I wrote to friends, asking for help in finding a safe place for the three of us to stay in Rochester.  In a matter of days we were embraced by a family that stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. David and Sue Dripps invited us into  their beautiful, warm home just blocks from Mayo Clinic. Their extended family — sons, daughters, grandchildren.. All became our family as well.

Shea, the same age as Jesus, became his new best friend.  Jesus loved his new friends, their family dog, and their swimming pool.  A modern kitchen amazed Sabena who put it to use preparing a Nica meal — gallo pinto—for her new family. But it was the fatherly, easy-going Dr. Coburn Porter that  put us all at ease and in a positive mind frame. He knew his stuff and that included Ebstein’s Anomoly and Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. It didn’t take long to trust that Jesus was in capable hands. Then it was THE day: Jesus in his pre-op suite, early in the morning, watching video cartoons on a TV monitor. His pediatric nurse, Cindy, outfitted in her O.R. garb splashed with smiley Teddy bears, was at his beck and call. They smiled at each other constantly, wiping out the language gap until words didn’t matter any more. I was tapped to go into the O.R. with Jesus until he was under anesthesia. I held his hand as they wheeled him in, as much for my sake as for his.

Jesus at Mayo Clinic with his nurse, Cindy, prior to his surgery.

“Ask him what flavor anesthesia he would like, would you, Donna?” A question came from behind a face mask. The voice rattled off the choices. “Tell him he can have chocolate, strawberry, bubble gum flavor, vanilla, whatever he’d like.” I bent my head to Jesus’ ear to list the flavors. “Chicle,” he slurred. But sleep took over before the flavor hit his taste buds. He was out in a minute, a tiny bundle of hospital white circled by colorfully-wrapped heads, all bent over him to do their job.

Jesus was returned to his hospital bed hours later, though it seemed liked days.  From the doorway, his little friend Shea reached out from her father’s arms to  get a better look at her friend and to blow a kiss across the room. “Hello, ‘soos”,” she said, very quietly so that she wouldn’t wake him. Jesus recovered quickly, as children do. His heart would be in working order, as close to normal as possible.. He would return to his community to restart a life that would be free of the fear of ending before it should. We returned home to Nicaragua and to our separate lives.

I moved on with my duties, and, with no means of communication, lost touch with Jesus and Sabena. Then, nearly three years later, I accompanied a U.S. medical team, VOSH Northeast, to a community far north of Granada that took us along the same dirt road that would pass the even smaller road led to El Paso.  Riding in the back of the pickup with the doctors, I mentioned that little Jesus lived “just over there.”  And within seconds,  I felt the truck swerve off the main road and saw that we were heading toward Jesus’ and Sabena’s house.  I couldn’t believe it.  Deja vu!

Kids playing on the dusty road, recognized the “gringa” who knew Jesus. They scrambled through the dust to find him up the road. Then, there he was, running toward us, taller, energetic, now a manly 7 years old!

We hugged.  Sabena joined us. Cameras clicked to record our spontaneous reunion. I couldn’t believe I was hugging Jesus!  He was alive. He was healthy. He was beautiful!

More years passed. Then in 2008, I was honored to be selected as one of six Citizen Diplomats by the Center for Citizen Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. One request from the Center was for photographs that would point out our work in our respective countries.

Among the photos that I submitted was  one taken from the back of the pickup when our medical brigade visited with Jesus.  The one of a shy, smiling Jesus in the shelter of my arm was published by national newspapers and made its way around the globe.

One Little Boy With A Life To Live

One little boy with a life to live. How easy it would have been to die a needless death as millions of children in these countries do. But the coming together of the right components saved him:  Nicaraguan doctors who saw the need for sophisticated measures to save Jesus; ; a world-class hospital that took him in; an American family that became HIS family…

And perhaps  the most important donor of all: A pig with a heart.

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Donna and Friend

Donna Tabor blogs about life in Nicaragua.