A Longer Life Expectancy for Things

When you break something, what do you do? In my house, usually we attempt to crazy glue it, sew it, or duct tape it. If it can’t be fixed in under half an hour with one of those methods, we toss it and buy a new one. I know this is wasteful in theory, but I expect it’s the practice of most middle class households in the US. Unless you’re an expert fixer-upper, the project seems out of reach and often not worth the time, effort, or price the only mender in town is charging. So needless to say, when I broke my favorite and only work sandals here in Nicaragua just 3 weeks into my 9 week adventure, I was not happy. Now I had to go into to town to find, bargain for and buy another pair I liked all while wearing my house flip-flops outside.

It took my host mother less than a day to notice. In her typical blunt fashion she asked, “Rebecca, why are you wearing your house shoes outside? Those don’t look as good as your other ones.” I explained to her that the others had broken and I needed to buy a new pair. She looked at me like I was insane and asked to see the shoes. “Why don’t you just have them fixed?” she asked. I explained to her that while the program director had mentioned that was a possibility, I had no idea where to go. She took them, marched me to the local man who fixes shoes, bargained a price and had them back good as new in less than a day for under $2. In fact, they were actually fixed so well, they were stronger than when they were new. I was happy to have them back because they matched everything and more importantly because my host mother was no longer embarrassed for me to leave the house in those other shoes. But why was she embarrassed in the first place?

While it is true that Nicaragua is westernizing with its shiny new malls and boutiques, the reality is most Nicaraguans do not have much. If they are lucky they have a concrete house with a few rooms and sparse furniture. Their clothing is often purchased from stores which receive donation bags from the US. This means that Nicaraguans often buy clothes that have been worn, used or torn, may have the logo to a college they’ve never heard of or a saying they don’t understand and yet, they keep them forever. They don’t have heaps of clothes, but they invest in fixing up and wearing every piece they do have. They don’t have a winter and summer selection of shoes, but they do have a pair of shoes for relaxing around the house and a few pairs to wear outside or to work. So, by wearing my indoor shoes out I was violating the main rule of fashion here in Nicaragua. And by wearing them because I planned to throw out my old ones was even worse. If those shoes couldn’t be fixed, I could certainly use them for something else. While in US that seems to be just common practice to keep a cheap pair of shoes for a year or so, to Nicaraguans it portrayed someone who did not respect the things they had and did not invest in their appearance. Now it certainly wasn’t the end of the world, no one was offended or hurt, but when I took a step back to reflect on my host mother’s reaction I realized that while we tout reuse and re-purpose in the US, it more of a trendy ideal, rather than a necessary reality. Many things in Nicaragua, though used day in and day out in harsher conditions, have a longer “lifetime.” They are cared for, fixed, reused and re-purposed.

townOver the last few decades it is clear that in the US there has been a general decline of specialty stores and mom-and-pop-shops due to mass consumer culture, mass production and desire for efficiency. All have noticed the replacement of butcher shops, markets and bakeries with super markets and now even the replacement of super markets with super stores and online shopping. But if you walk down Main Street, or more likely drive down Main Street, you also won’t see many shoe repair shops or umbrella fixers or plastic re-attachers. It is no longer a part of culture to keep those things; especially among us in the middle class who probably only bought their shoes for $15 at DSW anyway. We often think of re-purposing or fixing large scale items like appliances or furniture, but when it comes to the everyday if crazy glue and duct tape can’t fix it, we toss it. As a result, in the middle class we tend not to keep the little things very long and thus our privilege hinders our understanding of what reuse and re-purpose really mean. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. It doesn’t have to result in a “shabby chic” design inspiration. Sometimes it just means holding on to the little things you have, giving them a little more life. Have your outdoor sandals fixed when they’re broken and when they can’t be fixed anymore, use them as your inside ones.

Rebecca Duffy ’16