This week my radio story was broadcast on Public Radio International’s “The World.” This was an effort of a reporting project from The Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Please read the excellent article written by Sasha Chavkin and Ronnie Greene for a more in-depth investigation of the story.
The following is an excerpt from the radio piece:
A mysterious epidemic is sweeping Central America – it’s the second biggest cause of death among men in El Salvador, and in Nicaragua it’s a bigger killer of men than HIV and diabetes combined.
It’s unexplained but the latest theory is that the victims are literally working themselves to death.
In the western lowlands of Nicaragua, in a region of vast sugarcane fields, sits the tiny community of La Isla. The small houses are a patchwork of concrete and wood. Pieces of cloth serve as doors.
Maudiel Martinez emerges from his house. He’s pale, and his cheekbones protrude from his face. He hunches over like an old man – but he is only 19-years-old.
“The way this sickness is – you see me now, but in a month I could be gone. It can take you down all of a sudden,” he said.
The story was also published here:
PBS NewsHour online
BBC News in English and Spanish
It is hard for me to let my guard down, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. I am fiercely independent and I value this immensely. I also, up until this moment in my life, have not wanted to sacrifice my own desires to compromise with another person. But fight it as I might, I have fallen for someone and that means letting go a little.
My Aunt Dawn Marie recently said, “Kate, I hope you start blogging about the two of you.” I thought, ‘Oh man, why would I do that?!’ How silly and cheesy. Maybe it is. But then I thought, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ In fact, my blog is a place to share my experiences. Right now, it’s about sharing my experiences from El Salvador and my relationship with this person has influenced my time here. Immensely. Also, I wanted to write something to let him know that he is special to me. Is that a bad?
Chris was just here visiting me. Well his family and me. He is from El Salvador, but left for the United States when he was 18-years-old. He had not been back here in about 7 years, I believe. So this was a big deal for him and I knew that. I watched his emotions as he saw people and places he had not seen in years, with new eyes.
We visited Chris’s old neighborhood in Soyapango- his school, his house. We ate his favorite Salvadoran food. I met a lot of his family. It was great to share all of this with him. He had told me a lot about the country before I left. He has good memories of his childhood here. So even before he came, I saw him in a lot of what I was seeing and experiencing.
He told me so much has changed. His neighborhood is more dangerous, more impacted by gangs. The U.S. influence is more apparent in the higher prices and international businesses that have replaced traditional Salvadoran ones. Friends and family have grown up, gotten married, gotten sick.
I watched Chris face all of this overwhelming change, watched him take in everything that was once so familiar. He has changed too. Still, he tells me, this is home. On his last day we were at his Aunt’s house where he was saying good-bye to a family member who is very sick and he will probably never see again. He was staring out of the open front door of the house with the sun on his face. I asked him what he was thinking and he told me “I don’t want to leave.”
Now I would be completely egotistical if I thought this response was only for me. Yes he would miss me, but I knew he was going to miss all of it. This is the land of his roots, his language. The events that passed here helped shape him. We all know ‘home’ has a significant impact. Whether the thought of home brings happy memories, anger or sadness, it is powerful. It has a way of moving us and making us feel vulnerable in a way nothing else can.
I can’t understand all the emotions he felt or what it must be like to have to leave your country and all you know for a better life. I mean I am still adjusting and I am only going to be here for 6 months. I will go back home. But Chris knew when he left that he wasn’t going to come back again to live.
This is what is beautiful about life. We connect with people from different worlds and we learn from them. We fall in love with them.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I know we have this. This experience. I hope he knows how much I care for him. I respect him. That’s not cheesy. That’s real.
I know my Aunt Dawn reads my blog. She is one of my few avid readers. Thank you for the suggestion. He also always reads my blog so, te amo mi amor.
I arrived in León, Nicaragua. Rainy season here too, rivers of water flooded the streets and people waded through another day. It rains everyday in El Salvador too. I was just telling some friends that I am accustomed to worrying about my clothes drying on the line. It is part of life here to suddenly have to run home, thinking “la ropa, la ropa!”
Tomorrow I go, by motorbike with my equipment (I’ll let you know how that goes) to Chichigalpa and the community of La Isla. I am reporting on a story about the Chronic Kidney Disease epidemic affecting this region. This is also a serious problem in El Salvador and I have been doing interviews there as well.
But tomorrow I meet Maudiel, a young man of 19-years-old, dying of a type of kidney disease afflicting sugarcane workers. Doctors and scientists know this strain of the disease is different from the more common form caused by Diabetes and Hypertension. The Salvadoran government has stepped up to the plate and is funding research about the disease.
Boston University was the first outside organization to be allowed by a sugar company here in Nicaragua to conduct a study.
The mystery remains though. Meanwhile Maudiel and his younger brother are both gravely ill with the disease. Maudiel’s father, grandfather and uncle died of the disease. After he got sick he continued to work under the identity of a woman, because he had no other option to support his family. He is not too sick to work.
Families like Maudiel’s have no money to pay for medical care and once the sugar companies let them go when they are too sick to work, they no longer have access to medical care. I know I am going to learn so much more about this disease and the people it is affecting over the next few days. I will share what I learn. My radio piece will be broadcast on PRI’s “The World.” I have been collaborating with another journalist, Sasha Chavkin, and he will be writing a series of articles. He has been studying this epidemic for a couple of years.
This evening I settled at the Isla Foundation where I will be staying. This foundation was founded in 2008. It was formed to help educate the world community about this disease in hopes of finding a solution.
I took a walk by myself in León in search of some food, and because I figured it may be my only chance to be a little bit of a tourist. Of course, living in Central America, no matter what I am doing or where I am, I take in everything with the eyes of a foreigner. Everything is interesting and new.
I feel like everywhere I go there is a celebration. I have been an on-looker at more than one carnival or parade in El Salvador. Here León I encountered one as well, celebrating the medio ambiente (environment) of Nicaragua. Groups were dressed as animals, plants and other earthly creations. I had a similar experience one afternoon in Usulútan, El Salvador. I woke up from a nap to the sound of cymbals and drums. I walked outside to a procession of cars carrying little girls dressed as princesses and school band playing. There’s always a reason to celebrate and I realize more and more that people in Central America know this.
While I was eating my Chilaquiles for dinner, I was thinking. As I like to do from time to time.
I constantly find myself in humbled by the beauty of the land and the people on my journey thus far in Central America. Yet I am also always aware of the contrast to this beauty that is the extreme poverty, disease and violence that afflicts so many people in this region of the world. But make no mistake; they don’t want pity. From my experience so far, I see people finding strength and a reason to smile through the conflict. It reminds me to shut my mouth and keep moving forward. Maybe if people in the U.S., for example, knew more about the resiliency and richness of these cultures, they wouldn’t be marginalized in the news as dangerous, tragic situations. “Oh those poor people.” Or “How do they live like that?” Guess what? Nothing is ever just one way, one side. I have seen the positive and inspirational characteristics of the cultures here. They also have a lot to be grateful for and they show it. I know this is true for many regions of our world, from where it seems we only hear the ugly. I’m not saying their struggles are insignificant by any means. It is sad, it is depressing and sickening what some people in this world have to fight through each day. We are just missing a lot only concentrating on the dark side. They are not only their sickness, their poverty, their conflict. Maybe I am rambling nonsense. That’s part of who I am too.
Here are some pictures from my evening stroll. More from Nicaragua later…