Monday, March 23, 2015

Busca La Cubana

Sometimes, what looks like chaos and disorder is actually the opposite.

One of the more frustrating things about learning to live and work in Nicaragua is that there isn’t much of a postal service. That sounds less dramatic than it actually is. You can’t stick a stamp on an envelope, drop it in a box and easily send a letter to a friend, or a bill to a customer. Traditional (to us) home/business postal mailbox services just don’t exist, at least, not in many of the ways that we’re used to in North America.

Around here, there aren’t even actual numbered street addresses. Because Nicaragua is still emerging out of the last few decades of war, earthquake and systemic poverty, most of the streets around the country are unnamed, or at least, don’t have official posted names. But, in a city of nearly 1.5 million people, how on earth does anyone find anything? When I first arrived, I asked myself that same question many, many times, and frequently stated it more colorfully than I would prefer to write here.

Nica addresses are basically just a list of directions. Here’s an example of a major business address, printed both in the phone book and online.

“Del restaurante Munich 3 cuadras al lago, ½ al oeste. Linda vista, Managua”.
“From the Munich restaurant, 3 blocks toward the lake (north), then ½ block west, in Linda Vista.”

And if you don’t know the Munich Restaurant…?

To us, it’s pretty unthinkable that anyone could get anywhere like that. But Nicaraguans don’t seem to have much trouble with it. It’s their system. In the absence of a functional official public system, they built their own (Also: for a great NPR story on Managua’s street addresses, click here).

I have no mailbox at my house, (which is also without a traditional, numbered street address) and yet my bills arrive at my door every month like clockwork, folded and wedged between the bars of my front gate. Why? Because the companies that send those bills want everyone’s money enough to send a person house to house, folding papers and shoving them into the cracks of people’s front doors. (I now have a piece of PVC pipe wired to the door that they can utilize as a mailbox, if they choose.) Where there wasn’t a working system, people built one that worked for them, and if you know how to use it, it definitely works much better than anything a fancy government committee could design and try to implement from the top.

The other day I needed something we had at our office in Chinandega, but I live in Managua, 3 hours away.  I called Oscar, Palmetto Medical Initiative’s Nica-based Volunteer Manager, and he said, “Ok - I’ll put it on the Interlocal (a system of city-to city minibuses).” Wait. What? Just stick it on the bus? Won’t someone steal it? How do I know which bus? How will I know where to pick it up? Oscar replied, “Just go to the bus terminal near your house, and busca la Cubana (look for the Cuban lady). She handles all the packages.”

So, while I believed that this process would likely be a waste of time (not to mention my hoped-for package), I went to the bus station (a parking lot behind the market) and walked into a seemingly chaotic maelstrom of over a thousand bustling bodies, all trying to get somewhere different, and none of them looking very “Cuban,” to my eye. But, when I asked a group of older men where la Cubana was, five pairs of mustachioed lips immediately pointed in the same direction; at the shortstack lady in a floral dress, anchored in the middle of all the craziness, armed with a clipboard and piles of rubberbanded, manila-colored packages that surrounded her on the concrete floor. Ah. La Cubana.

I walked up to her, she asked my name and what city my delivery came from, she checked my ID and then she promptly handed me my package. Done. Oscar had sent the package at noon, I got it at 3pm the same day. It cost, between Oscar and I both, a total of about three dollars. Just about any way you cut it, that’s way better than FedEx or UPS.

La Cubana doesn’t work for the postal service or a national shipping company. She doesn’t likely have any official authority to do what she does. But what she does have is a clipboard and the near-absolute trust of everyone who uses the Interlocal. They needed a system. She is the answer.

As a foreigner living in Nicaragua, I realize that we often dismiss things we don’t understand, which causes us to miss lots of valuable opportunities. If I had written off the Interlocal system, it’s not just that I wouldn’t have received my package… it’s that I wouldn’t understand and appreciate an important part of the world and people that surround me.

I’m learning that just because something looks chaotic or confusing, it doesn’t mean that there’s no order or meaning in it. Most of the time, it just means we haven’t done the work needed to open our eyes and truly see it.


Dad said...

So true and very well said. There's MUCH to be said for having the private sector do something rather than the government. And, dismissing that not understood is my mode of operation.

Tina said...

Great post! When we open our hearts to a different and unknown way of doing things we then can truly see the wonders of numerous possibilities. Love you blog! Prayers for you and your work.

Summer said...

Several days later, this post is still with me. Really appreciated the perspective and also a peek into such a fascinating social system!