Actualización II de Nicaragua: NicarComidaYAgua

Feeding Martin in Nicaragua is both more and less challenging than in the States.

To be sure, Nicaraguans love their packaged foods. Chips, crackers, cereals. Breads. Whatever forms of snacks.

They also love their fresh food. Fruits, vegetables. Fish and shrimp and octopi pulled from the ocean and eaten the same day. (I hate that Martin eats octopi.) By now we’ve been able to locate the stands and trucks with the produce we want. Samara has a favorite fish monger and a carnecería for occasional chicken. Virtually nothing is organic, except some newfangled greens and the occasional imported quinoa. I am comforted by the fact that the food is grown locally, where Nicaragua’s stricter stance (than the U.S.) on genetically modified crops also reduces the presence of especially worrisome contaminants like glyphosate.

Martin’s breakfast is usually grain-free pancakes (say, plantains and peanut butter), or fritters, or eggs with vegetables, plus fruit. Dinner is rice and beans, or coconut-crusted chicken nuggets with vegetables, or quinoa pilaf, or peanut-butter stir-fry, or maybe ceviche. (Samara’s ceviche skills are said to be outstanding.)

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A Nicaraguan breakfast of plantain-and-peanut-butter fritters plus apple. Did you know apples can be grown in Central America? Neither did I.

Weekdays, Martin eats lunch at his camp. That development—eating with the other kids, and mostly what they eat—has been huge for Martin, who’s wanted all year to buy lunch at his school back home, which, of course, would be inconceivable: Have you seen U.S. school lunches? Here, at the camp, lunches are prepared fresh from organic ingredients, many grown on site, with focus on health. I met in advance with one of the camp directors and asked that they respect Martin’s dairy and beef allergies, and that he not be permitted to eat any gluten. No problem, they said. The directors reported that, for the first week, Martin had “lunch worries” and needed to be persuaded each day, anew, that in fact he would be fed. At first, he ate tentatively, mostly Nicaragua’s famous rice-and-beans dish, gallo pinto, or even arroz unadorned.

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The aftermath of Martin’s octopus, rice, and vegetables on the beach.

After the tentative first steps, Martin started taking advantage of everything offered. I mean, everything!, and that’s brought some slip-ups. Even though I pack healthy snacks, he wants the snacks the camp keeps on hand for all kids, which include popcorn, commercial yucca and plantain chips (fried in who knows what sort of refined vegetable oil), French fries, popsicles with food colorings and refined sugar. I don’t like the snacks aspect but am resisting the urge to make the camp pull back; eating at camp, plus the wide availability of fresh seafood and vegetables in Nicaraguan restaurants (not much pizza or pasta getting in the way), seems to be helping to reduce Martin’s food-related anxiety. I hear less, “Can I eat this? Can I eat that?” and more, “Hey, do they have octopus? How about rice?”

We are, however, in something of a popsicle crisis. Now that Martin has tasty a frozen refined-sugar stick, my homemade frozen-fruit popsicles just aren’t cutting it anymore.

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This is a “fancy” breakfast, like we have when guests are eating with us: pancakes and potatoes cooked with shredded vegetables.

The overall picture is that Martin has been eating 93.6% well, and 6.4% sugar and junk food. When I say sugar, I mean those aforementioned popsicles but also potatoes, rice (which also brings arsenic), and fruit. The fruit includes a daily smoothie from our favorite smoothie stand. Martin selects the three fruits he wants (usually pineapple, mango, and lemon), while from behind him I mouth “¡y aguacate!” to the smoothie-maker so that he’ll throw in some avocado, too. Martin professes not to like avocado, so I have to get creative, like sneaking it into a smoothie.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the situation with Martin’s doctor back home. Too much sugar, I confessed. A whole lot of fruit. Smoothies every day.

“You mean fresh, mineral-rich local fruit?” she asked.

“Some of it directly from the fields,” I replied.

“I think he’ll survive.”

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Another breakfast, this time plantain-and-egg pancakes with pineapple and raw energy bars that I made from almonds, dates, limes, and shredded coconut.

Actualización I de Nicaragua: La Ansiedad

As consistent FindingMyKid readers may know, I believe Martin’s primary challenge, these days, to be anxiety. Before I dive back into anxiety, here’s an abbreviated rundown of other challenges and where they stand now:

  • We have the rare night when he’s giggly and detox-y, or too anxious to drift off. By and large, however, Martin falls asleep within 20 minutes and wakes ten (or so) hours later.
  • Martin’s difficulties with social/pragmatic language persist, and his language processing lags; he might transpose “you” and “I” in a complicated sentence, or need a multi-step direction repeated. Other than that, Martin can read, hear, and speak at an age-appropriate level.
  • Energy and “floppiness.” Martin does get tired faster than other kids (thank you, mitochondrial dysfunction!), and when the energy runs out, he becomes clumsy, clingy, and sensory-seeking. This condition is improving and can, I find, be managed by alternating exercise and down-time.
  • As may be clear from the series of school bullying posts, Martin’s interest in playing with other kids has increased—it still isn’t very high, and I suspect he may always tend toward introversion (like I do)—but he has trouble figuring out how to go about becoming involved.
    • Example: In the house next to ours in Nicaragua are twin boys, maybe six or seven years old. We hear them playing in their pool constantly. Martin will creep to the edge of the yard and observe without making any effort to engage them, and he scampers inside when I suggest talking to the brothers. I mentioned this to Samara, who said, “I know. He does not like to be told to play. But I have noticed him getting closer to a few kids from camp.” His interactions are cautious and time-consuming.
  • Martin continues to perseverate, in the sense of “talking endlessly about what interests only him.” The perseveration has lessened from the days when he simply could not stop speaking. Now it’s more like memorizing city skylines and assuming everyone else wants to talk about them, too.
  • Repetitive behavior. As for physically repetitive behavior, occasionally Martin still jumps, or hops three times and runs one direction, then hops three times and runs back the other direction. The difference is that now he recognizes the behavior, and makes explanations, like, “I’m getting my jumps out so I’ll be able to stay still for taekwondo.”

All of that is pretty good—not to mention everything that’s so far gone I no longer think to add it to the list, like echolalia or bolting or lack of proprioceptive awareness.

But then there’s anxiety, the mountain so insurmountable that it’s driving me and Adrian to consider medical marijuana. For months, Martin has been clenching his fists, forcing his lower jaw forward, shouting, crying, opposite-talking (“I’m never using my iPad again! Throw it away! No, Mommy, don’t throw it away!”), and generally controlling our family time with his meltdowns (or threats thereof).

I’ve been hoping that moving to Nicaragua for a few months would alleviate Martin’s anxiety.

Three weeks into our summer, I’m pleased to report that I see progress.

We’ve had two very-high anxiety (and crabbiness) events. The first was July 4. We’d been in Nicaragua only three days. Adrian suggested a trip to Granada, a two-hour drive. Martin hated everything about the journey, couldn’t stop asking what we were doing and when we were going home, whimpered and whined through a boat tour on Lake Nicaragua.

After that, Martin did comparatively well until last Sunday, when he and I and a visiting friend made a day trip to Ometepe Island. Sunday morning was nothing short of a disaster. Even before we boarded the ferry at San Jorge, Martin sank into meltdown mode. The situation worsened when we arrived in Moyogalpa and found the driver we’d pre-arranged for an island tour. In the back seat, Martin lost control. He clenched his fists and jaw, lashed out at me, and screamed in English, “We’re never leaving Ometepe! Now we live here! Now we’ll be here forever!”—to the bewilderment of our driver, who spoke only Spanish. With effort, I got Martin calm enough to proceed through a butterfly sanctuary and then take a hike in the adjacent woods. Thank goodness we took that short hike. Something about the muddy path relaxed Martin. He went ahead of me and my friend (which I didn’t love, because we could hear Congo monkeys barking in the trees, and I had no idea whether they were dangerous) until he reached a clearing with a view of the lake. There he stopped and waited for us, and even posed for a couple pictures before declaring himself the “leader” and heading onward. Although Martin never got comfortable, the day improved from that clearing onward, at least until an arduous and uncomfortably overcrowded ferry ride back, which made him sensory-seeking.

 

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Martin, still unhappy as we headed into out post-butterfly hike.

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The view of Lake Nicaragua that seemed to mark a turning point in Martin’s awful day.

Those two events—Granada and Ometepe—notwithstanding, Martin has relaxed in Nicaragua. Somewhat. He’s still thrusting his lower jaw forward (if I can get him to chew gum, that helps) but not clenching his fists or complaining quite as much. He’s been speaking well to adults, even introducing himself. Day camp seems to be going well. We haven’t had many tears this week.

I’m noodling what might explain the limited improvement:

Limited social pressure. Without school, and especially until day camp started earlier this week, Martin didn’t have the same pressure to socialize.

Relaxed mom. We all know that I’m usually half the problem (if not more) when it comes to anxiety. With less on my agenda (I’m trying to cut down on work for the summer), and plenty of rest, I’m pretty chill.

Environment. There is activity afoot in Southwestern Nicaragua. But it’s nothing like the crowds and traffic and bustle of the Tri-State Area, even in the suburbs where we live.

Health. I don’t love Martin’s diet here. With less variety, he’s eating too many carbs (rice) and other sugars (fruits). On the other hand, I’m pleased with his regular ocean romps and exercise, including day camp, taekwondo, trekking, and pool swimming.

Biomed protocol. We continue treating Lyme disease and babesiosis, and we are ramping up the protocol Martin’s doctor set in June, which includes MC-Bab-2, Sida, and pau d’arco. Often we see improvement as we head into a new protocol.

We saw some anxiety this morning, as today was Martin’s first day-camp field trip—back to Granada, of all places! Stay tuned to FindingMyKid for additional Nicaraguan dispatches, including a follow-up on anxiety.

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This was the happier kid on the second half of our Ometepe hike. Later we had lunch and went swimming in volcanic mineral waters.

Aquí Estamos. Hasta Septiembre

You might want to take a look back at a post from September 2016 titled, “Martin in Paradise.” That post describes how well Martin did during a ten-day stay in Costa Rica, with a clean environment, limited wireless and electromagnetic fields, and daily access to salt-water swimming. The post ends this way: “I find myself questioning whether full and true recovery might require some bolder step, like removal from urban or suburban life. Would I have that in me? Would Adrian?”

Just two days later I posted “Martin Out of Paradise,” which enumerates ways in which Martin crashed when we returned home from Costa Rica. That post ends this way: “Fact. I don’t know what to do with this information.”

Fast-forward ten months, to today. In my last post, I mentioned Nicaragua. In March, I described a conversation Martin and I had about being in Nicaragua.

This is getting obvious, so I will go ahead and say it: I’ve taken Martin to live in the Republic of Nicaragua.

Well, not permanently. We have flights booked back to the States for August 31, in time for Martin to start third grade. We are using this summer to discover whether we can reclaim that paradisiacal magic and kickstart his healthiest school year yet.

It would be cool to tell you that I have the courage to make a permanent change, to roam the world in search of the ideal dwelling place for Martin and then move, for good. Alas, I lack that abandonment. Our biomed journey is financed by Adrian’s job in New York City, and though Adrian is South American by origin, I am ’merican, through and through. I don’t see our family relocating.

At least, not yet.

Pausing for a shout-out to my friend Lakshmi. She and her husband recently sold their home in New Jersey, upended their lives, and returned to India with their two U.S.-born children, in search of a better environment for their son, Partha. I rarely feel alone when I witness what chances other parents will take to achieve full recovery.

But summer! Summer I can do. We’ve rented a house in the hills above the Pacific in Nicaragua’s south, not far from the Costa Rican border. Adrian accompanied us for the first week, to help us get settled. He left yesterday will return for the second half of August. Martin’s babysitter Samara is with us, too, for the whole summer. She’s switching roles to a sort of au pair so that I can work (and blog more!) and seems to be viewing the whole excursion as an adventure. Samara, like Adrian, is South American by origin, and she has never visited Central America.

You might be asking, Why Nicaragua? That’s a good question, given that I myself have never been to Nicaragua before now.

My interest in Nicaragua began last summer. Because we were having family members converging from Boston, California, Texas, and South America, the house we rented in Costa Rica was gigantic, and in a gated/resort community. The rental even came with a “house mother” assigned to keep the place clean and prepare rice and beans, pico de gallo, and guacamole for the vacationers. Contrary to the image “house mother” might conjure, our helper was a lovely young woman named Jasmina. In conversations in my broken Spanish—bless Jasmina for her patience—I learned that Jasmina was Nicaraguan and had left her small children in Nicaragua, with her mother, so that she could work in Costa Rica. When I asked why, Jasmina told me that she could earn much more money working in Costa Rica, even as a domestic.

“Tell me about Nicaragua,” I said.

It’s hard to earn money in Nicaragua, Jasmina told me. But for that, most products are less expensive. The best course is to earn in Costa Rica and spend in Nicaragua.

What is the climate like, and the terrain? Just like Costa Rica, she said. Jungle up to the beaches, which are rocky and sandy. A dry season and a wet season. Consistent temperatures.

Does Nicaragua receive many tourists, like Costa Rica? No. The tourism industry is just beginning.

Are there nice places to stay, and things to do like zip-lining and surfing? Oh, yes! Nicaragua has all those things!

So why are all the tourists in Costa Rica? What’s the big difference between Costa Rica and Nicaragua?

Jasmina didn’t know English, but she knew this word: She replied, “Marketing.”

This conversation stuck with me, when I decided to investigate moving Martin for a summer. Could it really be true that Nicaragua was a discount Costa Rica, perhaps with an even cleaner environment? I gave myself topics to investigate:

* Stability. When I told my mother that we planned to spend the summer in Nicaragua, exactly 14 seconds passed before Sandinistas came up. Memories of the Iran-Contra affair, and the Nicaraguan Revolution, still loom large in U.S. imaginations, my generation and older. In fact, the current elected government of Nicaragua is FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), and I was able to satisfy myself that that nation is politically stable.

* Environment. I had heard that Nicaragua refused to sign the Paris Agreement, or Paris climate accord. (Before the United States’ withdrawal earlier this year, the only other non-signatory nations were Nicaragua and Syria.) Was Nicaragua seeking carte blanche rights to burn fossil fuels and contribute to global climate change? Hardly. I discovered that Nicaragua refused to sign the Paris Agreement in protest, arguing that the climate accord did not go far enough. Nicaragua already sources well more than 50% of its power from sustainable and renewable sources.

* Safety. The U.S. Department of State makes Nicaragua sound like a scary place, albeit mainly in Managua and the Caribbean coastal towns (which are more remote than the Pacific coast). Private websites, however, take a more measured approach and focus on Nicaragua’s recent strides, noting that high poverty levels (not going to deny them) don’t necessarily mean perilous conditions. In any event, I’ve traveled in developing areas before now, and I resided for a while in India before the economic boom, so I know basic precautions to exercise. I never walk with valuables unnecessarily; only what I need for an outing comes along. No fancy jewelry. No partying on the beach after sundown (as if). The house is always secured. And of course, Martin is never unattended.

* Food supply. Organic farming is on the rise in Nicaragua but far from dominant, or even widely available. Most of our food we can find grown locally and small-scale, reducing pesticide risk. Genetically modified food crops are extremely limited in Nicaragua.

* Illness and disease. Nicaragua is jungle, and tropical diseases are present. Then again, I walk around New York terrified of tick-borne illnesses—so, hey, six versus half a dozen. We came to Nicaragua armed with effective non-DEET mosquito deterrents, and we add clothing coverage when trekking, ziplining, or engaging in other activities in dense flora.

* Activities for Martin. I couldn’t expect Martin to do nothing all summer—boredom breeds iPad whining and pattern behaviors. Nor is Martin the type of kid to make new friends on the beach. Fortunately I was able to find a day camp that caters to both Nicaraguans and international kids. The camp has six week-long sessions, and I hope Martin will be able to attend each. Samara also found a local dojang where Martin can continue working on his taekwondo.

We’ve been a week, and Nicaragua hasn’t disappointed. I am still shopping “like a gringo,” i.e., buying too much at the (crappy!) local Palí, as I ask around to discover the best local markets and fish mongers. Martin has been in the ocean every day, whether just wading or floating for hours. He’s sleeping well and has that handsome sun-and-salt appearance. He had his first taekwondo class and managed to work the entire two hours, even though his class at home is only 45 minutes. Day camp is scheduled to begin next week. I’ve met with the director to explain some of Martin’s challenges. Fingers crossed!

As for Nicaragua itself, I could write chapters on what I’ve seen already, but I won’t. This is an autism recovery blog, not a travel-and-adventure blog, however much I might wish otherwise. Besides, everyone knows that my next career will be as a sports blogger for women.

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Look in the distance. See those white sticks? Those are wind turbines, dozens of wind turbines powering Nicaragua.

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Martin on one of our little jungle adventures.

Conversation, Y’all

In my law practice, we work with an attorney from Texas who likes to throw “y’all” into sentences, even in email. She writes, “Think y’all need to flesh out that argument,” or, “I’m going to that hearing, and y’all should too.” As a literary device, her “y’all” is most effective as a lead-in or closer, like, “Y’all, we cannot take that case,” or, “Think that one through, y’all.” The concluding “y’all” is grandiose. When this attorney ends a sentence with a comma and “y’all,” I think, Did you get that? Did you pay attention? Because she was talking to you.

Being New York born and raised, I’d sound silly if I tossed y’all around the way my co-counsel does. So when I do choose to conclude a statement, especially a mono-word declaration, with a y’all, let’s agree that it’s extra-grandiose.

Conversation. Conversation, y’all.

Finally, we’ve got conversation. The kind of conversation that involves listening and responding to the partner.

Our family employs a housekeeper who comes weekday mornings, usually arriving just before Martin and I leave to catch his school bus. One day she was surprised to find Martin playing in the family room, and me away from home. (I had an errand to run, and by previous arrangement would be returning to retrieve Martin and drop him at school; Adrian was in his home office, working.) Given that Martin has always shied away from speaking with her—until recently, he buried his head in the sofa pillows whenever the housekeeper addressed him—she was even more surprised to have this conversation with him, subsequently relayed to me:

HK: “Martin! Why are you at home? Don’t you have to go to school today?”

Martin: “I am going. My mom is coming home to take me.”

HK: “If you want, I can drive you over now.”

Martin: “No, it isn’t allowed for anyone different to drop me off.”

Martin and I are spending the coming summer in Nicaragua. (Remember this post? More details later.) One morning, over breakfast, Martin asked, “How many days will we be in Nicaragua?”, and I replied, “Sixty days. All of July and August.”

Eight hours later, in the car, without additional prompting, the following conversation ensued:

Martin: “July and August each have 31 days.”

Me: “That’s true.”

Martin: “But you said we will be in Nicaragua only 60 days?”

Me: “Good point. What is 31 plus 31?”

Martin: “Sixty-two.”

Me: “So we will be gone 62 days.”

Martin: “Mommy, is Nicaragua going to be the longest trip you’ve ever taken?”

Me: “No, once I was in India for several months. I was studying there.”

Martin: “Will Nicaragua be the longest trip I’ve ever taken?”

Me: “Yes.”

These are conversations, y’all. They involve give-and-take. They require response to what the conversation partner has said.

I’m excited, of course. And there’s a caveat, of course. Most of Martin’s conversations still revolve around what fascinates him: right now, bridges, geography, and names. So while he’s made progress thinking dynamically enough to add to a conversation, he still needs to reduce his rigidity and apply that dynamism to a variety of topics.

Y’all.