Being Broke (with 5 Kids) in Nicaragua Taught Me That Pursuing a Dream is Worth It
“Certain environments, certain modes of life, certain rules of conduct are more conducive to inner and outer harmony than others.”
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gifts From the Sea
Three mosquitoes buzz inches from my face, unable to reach me through the net creating a safe haven around my bed.
Husband, five children, plus my pregnant self, are particularly attractive to mosquitoes. I thought I’d imagined they liked us more than most people. Years later I discovered these little pests actually prefer type O blood type.(1) We’re all type O.
Living in a $200/month house in a dilapidated beach town in Nicaragua provides little protection from mosquitoes. Or any critters for that matter. Dogs, birds, and bats enter through iron-barred doors, open windows, and holes in the roof.
But the mosquitoes are the worst of all. There is little escape. Like forts you used to build as kids, we erect makeshift tents from mosquito nets in the tiled sitting room. All day, we huddle under them to play, work and read. At night, we scramble into our mosquito-net-covered beds.
Still, it isn’t enough protection. We soon look like we have a skin disease.
Motherly instincts to safeguard my children from potential harm — malaria, dengue? — plus a personal dislike for itching and bumps send me on the offensive. I become a mosquito hunter, ears tuned to hear the unmistakeable whine, ready to slap. I live to kill mosquitoes.
In reality, there is little else to do. Mosquitoes and worry have become my life — the all-consuming focus of my days and nights.
But I worry about more than the mosquitoes. We are broke. We spent 1.5 years living in Guatemala. There we invested all our time, energy and money into co-founding a non-profit. But then it came time to move on, to focus on the next step in our lives — having this baby.
Moving on had brought us to Nicaragua (explaining why would need a separate article). But doing that had used the last of our funds. We were now what I considered to be destitute and living in appalling conditions.
Five kids, a baby due in two months, no money, no income, living in a run-down house in a run-down beach town in a developing country with an expiring visa that meant we would soon have to leave. But you can’t leave when you have no gas money or food money or border-crossing money. Our situation was dire.
And I wasn’t happy, as might be any expectant mother with no safe and comfortable conditions to build her nest. Where would I have this baby? HOW would I have this baby? Who would help me? These were questions I was unable to answer.
Fear and doubt led me to cling nostalgically to the past or clutch greedily toward the future. Anywhere but here and now and this living hell.
Thankfully, daily responsibilities became my lifeline to reality. Feed our family, devotionals together, schooling and work, then feed them again. For all it’s worries and unpleasantries, life was pure, simple and unencumbered.
Evenings followed the same routine . Dinner together, then walk along the beach at sunset — gathering shells, chasing waves and building sand castles.
It isn’t far to go for these sunset walks. The back door opens onto the sand. I don’t realize or admit it, but these walks become a meditation. A welcome existence in the present moment, with all its vividness and purity. Like gifts from the sea, they become my therapy, teaching lessons I resist learning.
No matter the time of day or night, the beating of waves against the shore is unceasing. More astounding is the awareness they’ve pounded on this beach for ages, and will continue to do so long after my life is erased. What are my current worries and troubles, but footprints in the sand on the sea of life?
Expanding beyond the horizon I can see, the ocean reaches out across the earth to other worlds. Countries and continents filled with civilizations. Independent of my concerns, continuing in their course of life, oblivious of my existence. I am less then a blip on the radar of consciousness to most of the universe.
No matter if I label the day as good or bad or somewhere between, the sun unfailingly does one thing. Set. Sink into the ocean, only to continue on
On first arrival, I collected shells like a beggar would coins. They were there for the taking, to stockpile as I wished. Yet as weeks pass, I realize there is no point in continuing to gather. What will I do with them all? I’ve made jewelry and crafts and baubles galore. And yet there were more — in fact, too many — more than needed, wanted or desired. More than I could use, appreciate or admire. More than enough.
One afternoon we went grocery shopping in the town of Leon, spending the last of our cash. We had no bank accounts, no credit cards, nothing. That was it. The last of it. The last of our money. Once we ate the groceries we’d purchased, then what would we do? We would then be out of money and food.
A few days later, we’re uncertain of what we will feed our large family for dinner. Until we receive a visit from a local neighbor who lives on a dirt floor with a tin roof. He’d brought us a gift — his catch of the day — one very large red snapper and several lobsters. Refusing our offer of (delayed) payment, he explains that he will catch more tomorrow. The ocean abundantly provides. And people with less are more generous than me.
Christmas Eve, father, mother and children gather around the table. We feast on rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes and pie.
The past few months have been rock bottom. Yet compared with the living conditions of neighbors living in houses of tin and dirt, even at it’s lowest point our ‘rock bottom’ is luxurious. Ours is the high life.
At dinner I realize that we have not only tile floors, but psychological floors as well. Boxes around our beliefs that keep us from descending too low. I knew no matter how bad things got, we would never end up living in a tin shack. It was beyond our reality. Our low was low to me because I compared it to U.S. living standards.
But our low would never descend to the level equal to the daily existence of a majority of the world’s population. That wasn’t the paradigm I’d grown up with.
Also, our low had been a touchpoint of our story — a place we hit briefly only to rise again. I didn’t know it, but by February I would be giving birth to a healthy girl while living in a mansion in the mountains of Costa Rica. By the time she was two we would fly to Europe and tour for two years (and give birth to my 7th child, in Germany).
But for our neighbors in Nicaragua, living in tin shacks was their story. They’d lived that way before we’d arrived ‘destitute’ and ‘despairing’. And they live like that still, caught in a cycle of poverty from which they’re unable to break free. Yet many of them live in happiness, joy and generosity, above what I was experiencing, despite all my ‘luxury’.
INSIGNIFICANCE & WHAT MATTERS MOST
Pursuit of our ‘crazy’ dream — full-time travel with a family, and building a ‘passion business’— had led us to this low point. But now we questioned if that dream was possible. We questioned our sanity. We seriously considered giving up and moving home.
We decided not to. We made a conscious decision to keep going. Rock bottom gave us clarity about what mattered most. And what mattered was living our life on purpose. Even if it was hard, even if it was ugly, even if we looked crazy. It was better than living an ‘okay’ life in the safety of social conditioning and steady paychecks.
My gifts from the sea taught me of my insignificance in the world. Many of us evade feelings of unimportance and seek to emphasize our importance. But I found power in realizing where I stand on the ocean of existence. Feeling small, my problems came into perspective and became even smaller. Insignificance empowered me to overcome challenges.
So we got creative. We analyzed our abilities and put them to work. Slowly, I built an income using my online business skills as a virtual assistant. Slowly, our flickering dream began to shine once more.
Life is different now, five years later. I write from my iMac while living in the USA (for the first time in over seven years). We soon fly to Mexico for five weeks of connecting with and presenting to traveling families. On the agenda next year is four months in Guatemala reconnecting with friends and the non-profit we co-founded, and two months studying martial arts in China.
Recently rereading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea led me to reflect back on our penniless time in Nicaragua. But as I look through photos and video, what surprises me the most is the number of incredible experiences we had. Experiences I’d forgotten about because I’d been so focused on the troubles.
Surfing lessons; releasing baby turtles; exploring bubbling fumaroles; cacao smoothies at the market; the colonial town of Leon; local festivals; and of course lots and lots of sunset walks on the beach. It was an adventure filled two months, despite the lack of money.
But lacking money and having material things stripped away left us only with what mattered most. These were family time, nature, and the opportunity to decide if pursing a dream is worth it.
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