My first full day in Nicaragua. The night had been a nightmare. My hotel, a lovely choice any other time of year, now at the end of November, turned into a war bunker when the bombas started going off at 2 am. Startled, I stumbled over to my suitcase, donned some clothing and anxiously made it down to the reception accompanied by the sound of ruthless pounding.
“Tranquila,” the tired receptionist managed a smile. It’s the month before Christmas. It’s the time of the Purisima who is about to give birth to Baby Jesus. And it lasts for several days. “Are you friggen kidding me,” I thought. “Yes, Senora, it’s like that all over Central America around this time,” she added.
So when I walked into the Cafe de las Sonrisas (Smiles Café) a few short hours later, I was groggy, annoyed, and resigned to three more nights of these antics. A pretty girl approached, smiled gently and placed a menu in front of me. I thanked her but received no reply. I was too exhausted to give rat’s ass about cordialities. I looked at the menu, found coffee, and then my glazed eyes made their rounds. It was the size of a mini warehouse. Part restaurant, part tropical garden and then an adjacent room filled with hammocks in the making. Agile and elegant fingers weaved in monastic silence. An elderly gentleman a few tables away rustled the pages of his guidebook. And then off in the distance I could hear the town coming to life slowly. And then I clued in. The wall behind me was peppered with sign language illustrations. Everyone was quiet because they were deaf.
Two hours later, with adrenaline running high on the third cup of coffee and yet another cigarette, I am talking with Tio Antonio. They say men can’t multi-task. Maybe some can’t. If there was room in the dictionary for an illustration of multi-tasking, I would plaster Antonio’s face all over it. He is also an ideas machine. And he is the owner of two businesses that employ handicapped Nicaraguans.
In a previous life, he would fly from his native Spain to New York to replace his array of fancy shoes, attended every Bruce Springsteen concert within his half of globe, owned a successful restaurant and probably ran it like a tight ship because the way he manages his way around his Nicaraguan life suggests keen and constant oversight. Then he sold his restaurant. Flew to Costa Rica thinking he would retire with a cigar in his mouth and a roncito in his hand, until his real estate agent handed him a pistol. One more life utensil. Just in case.
He said, “No, thank you,” packed his bags and off to Nicaragua where he literally stumbled into a radically different life. Today, ten years later, he has adopted 8 children of his own, owns two businesses that almost exclusively employ people with physical disabilities. He doesn’t need no stinking gun. He is on fire himself. And he lights fires. Fires of love.
You see, if you are born in Nicaragua, are of humble background and have a physical disability such as deafness, blindness or were born with a limb too many or too few, you are screwed. Your mother is shunned. There is no school to teach a cursed individual like yourself. And you will forever be dependent on your mom – who has also been damned by the God to give birth to an imperfect creature – because you will never get a job. So then you discover Antonio’s project. You start washing dishes. Or you weave hammocks. Or you clean floors. You get paid. You buy yourself a bicycle. You ride it and feel the breeze on your beautiful sun-drenched face. You can buy your mom flowers. You discover that you are capable and indeed, more capable in some ways that the rest of us. This is what Tio Antonio gives people.
But it is not just one person at a time. The man wants to change attitudes. He wants you, yes, you, to never ever again pity a man adorned with a white walking stick, a kid in a wheelchair or a dog with a fake eye. Yes, pity is a bad, bad word in Antonio’s universe. So when I ask why he doesn’t exploit the concept behind his project as a way of encouraging business, he laughs at my silliness and simply replies, “Because people want dignity. Not pity.”