Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nicaragua: On pilgrimage without walking

Last week I was in Nicaragua to visit Augsburg College's house of studies in Managua. As part of a semester-long immersion in Central America, students travel to Guatemala to spend four weeks learning Spanish, moving on to El Salvador for more formal course-work in Latin American culture, politics, and liberation theology, and finishing up with home-stays and more course-work in Nicaragua.

As part of its commitment to global education, Augsburg's president Paul Pribbenow took a team of board and cabinet members to Nicaragua to share in our students' experience. If global education is a College-wide commitment, then it's important not just for our students, but for people throughout every facet of our common work. It's the only way to crack institutional culture open to global realities.

The trip also resonated with a key commitment of our pilgrimage grant, which seeks to understand the symmetry between international immersion trips and the ancient practice of pilgrimage. Fellow-traveler and co-researcher Lisa Fullam and I found lots of similarities. Both experiences feature a kind of intentional dislocation. Pilgrims and immersants consciously step outside the familiar. Both experiences involve surrender to situations that can be neither foreseen nor controlled: a sudden rainstorm, a flat tire, an appointment that begins thirty minutes late, still "on time" according to Latin American standards, but messing with the tightly packed schedule we were given for the day. Finally, both experiences demand receptivity, not the relentless productivity most of us strive for in our various vocations. There's nothing you can do, except let the experience wash over you -- and keep telling the stories. Pilgrimage and immersion share a lot in common.

But I ran into one glaring dissimilarity my first afternoon in Managua, when I tried to leave the hotel for a walk around the neighborhood. The look of terror on the concierge's face gave me pause: she vigorously recommended against it. How was I going to be a pilgrim in a place where I couldn't even go outside for a walk?

Another member of our group elected to go with me. He'd grown up in Colombia and knew how to read the streets. We stripped off our jewelry, left our keys at the desk, and ventured out. The neighborhood seemed safe enough -- though we observed that most houses had "guardianos," armed guards at the entrances of homes and businesses, and that they sat inside, and not outside, locked gates. We found a busy street, seeking safety in traffic.

But when my friend sighted a gang of young boys a block away watching our approach, he balked: "We're heading back." When we arrived at the hotel, the concierge greeted us with evident relief. How to be a pilgrim without walking?

I remembered the trek along the Camino, where we made shrines for everything we had to leave behind. Apparently, I was going to have to leave even the walking behind. It seemed ironic, but necessary. I shifted all that physical energy into observation instead.

And in that week without walking, here's what I saw.

The gang of young boys on the street had probably come to the city from rural areas where their families had farmed. Trade agreements displaced these campesinos, along with weather patterns that brought to their fields now drought, now deluge. People streamed into the cities, where they contributed to a population that was, as we kept hearing, not so much "unemployed" as "underemployed." The government provided education for everyone through the sixth grade, but private schools offered the only option for further schooling. Private education cost more than the average urban peasant could afford. Money was as scarce as clean water, as looking out over the polluted waters of Lake Managua reminded us daily. Kids in cities were too young to work in factories, but old enough to get into drugs, find gangs, make babies. The street scene mirrored the harsh economic and educational realities of the country -- and so many other countries around the world.

Being on pilgrimage without walking taught me a truth more painful than the Camino's blisters. The only thing to do is tell the stories.

This is one of them.

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