Margaret and Dick   

     

    
April '10: Nicaragua


"Nicaragua?" friends asked.  "Why? Isn't it dangerous?   Is it still a leftist Sandinista dictatorship?"

Okay, there have been (still are) some turbulent politics.  Colorful murals recall the bloody suppression of student liberation demonstrations by a former right-wing dictator.

But after eight days on the ground, warmly welcomed in charity projects and tourist activities alike, we just have to share with you some impressions about a country that is arguably Central America's poorest country but also arguably its safest.

We went to visit our sponsored child Yenis and the sites where Mundito Foundation is helping to install toilets and hygienic latrines in elementary schools.  We left with a fond impression of the country and its people.

Welcome to our Nicaragua Chronicles.

    Friendship is better...
    My little rays of sun
    Boom time
   
Hygiene niño-a-niño
  



 Friendship is better...

After bumping along a dirt road in rural Nicaragua in the 4-wheel-drive Planmobile, we arrived at the simple village of our sponsored child Yenis.  Frequent readers will recall that we are enthusiastic supporters of Plan USA, through whom we have been communicating with our various sponsored children for 25 years.  Our monthly contribution helps Plan (through the global network of Plan International) build self-sufficiency in this community.  Yenis and other children exchange letters and photos with their respective sponsors, and both parties are enriched by the interaction.  Repeat the process for one million sponsors around the world. It’s a great funding model.

We previously visited our sponsored children in Guatemala and India, and the moment of arriving at the site is always the same experience.  Gulp.  This is not life as we know it.  Thoroughfares are dirt.  Housing is very basic.  Is there electricity?  Plumbing?  What if they offer us something to eat or drink?  How poor will our family be?  What will we talk about?  Are we up to this?

The fanciest village houses, such as that of Yenis’s family, appear to be two-room cinder-block structures with tin roofs and outdoor toilets.  Some lucky villagers are able to draw water from wells, but half must make a half-mile hike to the river and carry their water home. Some homes have electricity.

Yet folks in the village are all well dressed, the schoolchildren in crisp sparkling-white shirts and dark pants (boys) or skirts (girls).  Education is available, and every child can get six years of primary school right here in the village.  Motivated children can go to high school in a nearby town, walking a mile and a half in the morning and again after eating lunch at home.


Upon arrival, we were escorted to a small shed that serves as the village center.  We arrived earlier than expected and found several students in a flurry of activity preparing for our visit. We were introduced to the community leaders, all women, as the men are off working in the fields or in Managua.  Maria, the senior member of the gathering, told of her lifelong efforts to shape local leaders to improve the community.  To see her is to know that hers has been an interesting life.  We wished that we could spend an evening listening to her story.

Plan International has been in this village for 17 years, helping accomplish priorities established by Maria and other community leaders: improving the soil, improving food security, improving education, and preventing epidemics.  Children are involved in the planning under their Niño-a-Niño (child-to-child) model.  An urgent need drives the NaN method: with 65% of the population under age 25, the children will soon be running the country.  The children’s major priority for the village is to institute an adequate and reliable water supply.  So now Plan is working to establish a storage tank and pumping system to supply 1,000 quarts of water per day to this village of 150 families.  That’s less than two gallons per family per day, but it will liberate time and effort that can be devoted to activities more productive than shlepping water from the river.

Yenis and her mother entered the community center, and we immediately recognized them from the photos that Plan had provided.  “I didn’t know we would see you this morning!” Margaret said. “How were you able to get out of school?”  The locals all laughed.  Because she’s hosting the visiting dignitaries from America!

We visited the elementary school and came to understand that our visit was a very big deal to the village.  All schoolchildren assembled in the courtyard.  They sang songs and recited poems, many written in honor of our visit.


The signs above read:

"Thank you for collaborating in the development of our community."
“Friendship is better than all the wealth in the world.  Remember this!"


Yenis is in high school. At 15, she loves learning Spanish, history, and science – math, not so much.  After graduation, she may work at home or in a trade, will probably marry soon, but will almost certainly have fewer children than her mother’s five, a side-benefit of educating girls in developing countries.  Good thing: improved health care has drastically lowered the child-mortality rate in Nicaragua, causing the population to explode from two to five million in just two generations.

Ambition and hard work can help a family get ahead.  Yenis’s father runs a business selling wood and charcoal on the streets of Managua, an hour’s drive away.  He has a truck – a real sign of prosperity – and works long hours to advance his family's financial situation.  The family plants corn in the backyard farm, and chickens produce a steady supply of eggs.  They have a well for water supply and twelve cows on twenty-five acres, so they can have milk and make and sell cheese.  They buy rice, sugar, and some vegetables.  Fresh fruits are in abundance and virtually free.  Nobody in the village looks undernourished.

We spent a couple of hours visiting with Yenis and family at their home.  Yenis is shy but warms up in time.  Mama is not in the least shy, and she and Margaret hit it off tremendously.  She offered a glass of chingre, a home-made drink of corn, milk, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla.  Our Plan translator Alexander went wide-eyed when Margaret appeared likely to accept, but when we established that the milk was thoroughly boiled, he accepted a glass as well.  It was delicious.

Yenis’s father arrived, mopping his brow after running two miles from the Managua bus to join the festivities.  A brother and daughter-in-law joined the party, and their toddler moved from lap to lap. Margaret visited the kitchen for a portrait of the family.  We promised to keep in good contact with Yenis and to remain her sponsors until she graduates from the program at age 18.  At that time, we'll be able to continue contact without Plan as intermediary and escort.  We explained to Yenis that it’s possible to use computers to write and send letters instantly, and that even her village will one day have a cyber café.  What a small world we now live in!  We hugged, said fond good-byes, and promised we would meet again.

After 25 years of working with Plan, we continue to be more impressed at every interaction.  We ask villagers what other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active here.  None.  Plan has sixty sponsored children in this village alone, hundreds within a ten-mile radius, and its funds have recently built ten schools in the area.  Build it, and a government-paid teacher will come.  Our monthly contribution is less than our monthly coffee budget.  But put our funds together with sixty other sponsors from around the world, and suddenly the village children have a school, a water supply, and a real future.

Our takeaway?  These people are just like us. They cook, they eat, they visit with family and friends.  They go to school, they work, they plan for the future.  Yes, there are some differences in resources.  But, like the poster said,

Friendship is better
than all the wealth in the world.
Remember this!









 My little rays of sun

In our visit to Yenis's village, the schoolchildren composed and performed several songs and poems in honor of our visit, which we share with you here.  Spanish-speakers will please forgive our clumsy translations.


 

Mis rayitos de sol

 

Un hermoso dia en la comunidad,

Desperto la mañana con un hermoso sol y con sus tiernos rayos mi comunidad alumbro, sus rayutos traian caricias de amor y en las tiernas caritas de niños y niñas feliz reflejo la immense alegria al recibir a la senora Margaret y al senor Richard en nuestra comunidad y asi estar juntos y poder compartir los cantos, los juegos, los bailes, la risa y todo aquello que nace de un Corazon que quiere vivir content y feliz, creciendo robust para ser el future de uno prospera nacion.  Las flores bailaban, la saves contaban, el aire corria, las nubes traviesas iban y venian y el sol son reia de ver a los niños y niñas saltando y jugando todos como hermanos.

 


My little rays of sun

 

A beautiful day in our community! 
I awake this morning with a beautiful sun
that lights up my community
with its tender rays. 
Its rays lovingly caress the tender faces
of boys and girls,
faces that reflect immense happiness
upon receiving senora Margaret and senor Richard
in our community,
to thus be together and be able to share
the songs, the games, the dances, the laughter,
and all that that is born of a heart
that wants to live content and happy,
growing strong by being the
future of a prosperous nation. 
The flowers danced, the birds sang, the air flowed,
the mischievous clouds came and went,
and the sun smiled to see the boys and girls
jumping and playing all as brothers.

 


 

Avancemos promotores

 

Avancemos promotores para el cambio de nuestra comunidad.   

Impulsemos el proyecto y hagamos un compromiso para nuestra bienestar.

 

Avancemos promotores para nuestra desarrollo cultural y con nuestras experiencias romperemos las varreras que impiden nuestras metas alcanzar. 

 

Todos debemos trabajar por nuestra comunidad.

 

We push forward

We push forward for change in our community. 

We push forward and we make a commitment for our well-being.

 

We push forward our cultural development and with our experiences

We will break down the barriers that prevent us from reaching our goals.

 

We all must work for our community.

*****************************************

La Hermandad

 

Que viva la hermandad!

Que nos da felicidad

a todos por igual

sin tener desigualdad.

 

Niños blancos, niños ricos,

Niños grandes y morenitos

Todos juntos si podemos

Ayudar aunque sea un poquito.

 

La distancia y el color

No deben ser fuente de separacion

El esfuerzo y el amor

Son elementos que mueven nuestro Corazon.

 

Demos mucho o demos poco

La importante es la hermandad

Que nos une poco a poco

Y nos da paz y libertad.

*****************************************

Brotherhood


Long live brotherhood! 

May we be given happiness

To all equally

Without having inequality.

 

White children, rich children,

Big children and little dark-skinned children,

All together if we can,

Help even if only a little.

 

Distance and color

Should not be a source of separation.

The effort and the love

Are the elements that move our hearts.

 

Give we much or give we little,

The important thing is brotherhood.

May it unite us little by little

And bring us peace and liberty.




 Boom time

Granada at our B&B, Saturday 4am, still dark.  BOOM!  Not like a gun, thankfully not like a volcano.  More like rockets?  Five minutes go by, then BOOM!  After a half hour of booms of increasing frequency, Margaret rolled over, turned on the computer, and Googled “Nicaragua mortars”.  Soon she was watching a video of Sandinistas rioting three days earlier in nearby Managua, firing primitive mortars towards a Holiday Inn where the opposition party was meeting.  Now we were wide awake.  Had we bumbled into a Central American revolution?  

Wait a minute.  This doesn't make sense.  The Sandinistas are rioting?  The Sandinistas are in power!

We had fielded lots of questions before our trip.  Nicaragua – Isn’t it dangerous?  Isn’t it a dictatorship?  No, and no.  After years of struggle against the three generations of right-wing Somoza dictatorship, the leftist rebels installed a socialist government, headed by Daniel Ortega, in 1980.  During their ten years in power, and despite efforts by the US to the contrary (remember Reagan’s buddies the Contras?), the Sandinistas helped spread education and medical care to the population as a whole.  Their decade of one-party power wasn’t entirely rosy, however, as the overall economy suffered from overspending, state control stifled business, and US sanctions and trade embargo took their toll. In 1990, Ortega was encouraged to hold multi-party elections and was surprised that his party lost. 

Three successive conservative presidents followed in 5-year terms, then Ortega and the socialist Sandinistas returned in 2006, this time democratically elected.  Conservatives and entrepreneurs once again complain about government rules and regulations, and street demonstrations are the norm on both sides to protest issues.  (Sounds like France!)  Ortega is maneuvering to remain in office past his legal term limit, the opposition is, well, opposing, and the Sandinistas are rioting in protest.  Let’s hope Nicaragua continues the recent alternation of conservative and socialist presidents (like France) and the politics might average out to pretty good.  And what about our 4am explosions?  Keep reading.

We heard another question before our trip and, indeed, we hear it frequently about our travels in general:  Doesn’t the poverty depress you?  The question is, to us, a little confusing.  The poverty exists whether we see it or not.  Of course the existence of poverty is depressing.  But the visit can help break down some of the barriers that cause the condition.  Our tourist dollars (especially when spent in small hotels, restaurants, artisan shops) stimulate the economy and provide employment.  Our discussions with local cabdrivers, businessmen, and tour guides help us to understand the appeal of both right-wing and socialist governments.  And a visit to a “poor” village reveals a thriving and loving community full of people just like us, doing what they can to get ahead.  Finally, as Directors of Mundito Foundation, a visit gives us clear ideas on future projects we can undertake to change lives.
All this to say:  don’t let negative images from decades ago keep you away from Nicaragua.  Nicas are warm, friendly, and genuinely happy to see tourists.  Prices are very low, particularly if you avoid the big tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants, and the tourist experience is blissfully free of the hucksters and hustle of many destinations.  The scenery is magnificent, from coastal beaches to huge inland lakes to towering volcanoes.

Don’t rent a car, for heaven’s sake.  You can get just about anywhere by the excellent, if chaotic, system of public buses.  For somewhat greater comfort and speed, the 14-passenger minibuses are only slightly more expensive than the ubiquitous orange “chicken” buses that stop everywhere.   You can hail a bus on the road (destination written on the bus and confirmed by a shouting conductor), but boarding at a major bus terminal guarantees a seat.  Taxis are efficient and inexpensive if you remember to negotiate the fee in advance.  A taxi ride isolates you a bit from the Nica experience, but it certainly saves you time waiting in the heat.


Most visitors should simply skip Managua.  It’s confusing, large, has no apparent tourist interest, and was the only place in Nicaragua where we felt unsafe.  Our small hotel, located in a residential neighborhood, had a round-the-clock security guard, as did many homes in the area.  And during one crazy cab ride with a driver who was either drugged or berserk, a would-be thief reached in to grab my fanny-pack.  Luckily our Atlanta training paid off:  if the window’s open, the pack is attached.   

Granada was our favorite place in Nicaragua and served as our base for five days.  Just a $40 cab ride from the Managua airport, it can (will!) even serve as a weekend getaway from Atlanta.  Besides enjoying the Colonial charm of the city, visitors can take day trips to the natural and manmade wonders of the area: 

  • At crater lake Apoyo, stake out a table at a thatch-roofed restaurant at water’s edge for a day of swimming;
  • Take cloud-forest hike around one of the craters on the Volcan Mambacho, which towers above Granada and Lake Nicaragua;
  • Kayak silently amongst the water lilies and birds on Lake Nicaragua between tiny volcano-created islands of the archipelago Las Isletas;
  • Visit the artisan market in nearby Masaya. 

All can be accessed by bus, or you can arrange a tour from one of the many tour companies in town.  (We used Tierra.)  You would think, from all the densely-packed tourist attractions, that Granada would feel like Disney-does-Nicaragua.  But no, it’s very Nica, and the people in those cute horse-drawn carriages are locals going about their business.

So back to the explosions.  By 7am, the explosions were tapering off.  We walked down to breakfast and asked our host if the Managua riots had spread to Granada.  He hadn’t heard about the Managua riots.  "That doesn't make any sense.  The Sandinistas are in power!" 

But no worries, he assured us, those booms were just the local priest showing kids how to fire mortars (bombas).  It’s almost May, and they’ll be waking people up this way for the whole month to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus.  This is just a rehearsal.

But of course!  How better to show your devotion?  A ceremonial procession that evening confirmed that the local passion is religious, not political.

And yet again, Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.


***************

You can read Margaret's reviews of all our hotels at TripAdvisor under the user name audace11.




 Hygiene, niño-a-niño

Install toilets and improve public hygiene in rural schools in Nicaragua?  Not the most gripping project that Mundito has ever undertaken, we thought.  Plan USA had presented us with a proposal from the village of San Pedro de Lovago wherein children had rated toilets and latrines as their top priority.  Clearly a worthy project, we decided.  It ended up being the most successful Mundito campaign to date, exceeding our target and allowing us to expand our commitment to Plan and the village of San Pedro de Lovago. 

We had wanted to visit Nicaragua and our sponsored child Yenis, so the hygiene project gave us the perfect opportunity to go beyond hotel-and-restaurant touring and meet the locals, including some of Nicaragua’s future leaders.  

Niño-a-niño (child-to-child) education amplifies the instructional capacity of a school, and the technique is put to extensive use by Plan in Nicaragua.  Together with various corporate supporters, Plan has developed instructional materials that provide young student leaders with visual aids to deliver the gospel of hygiene even to illiterate members of the community.  During the course of our day in San Pedro de Lovago, we saw countless demonstrations of niños teaching niños in classroom charlas (chats) about the do’s and don’ts of hygiene, from toilet to table.  With only pictures on the front and “cheat sheet” verbal cues on the back, the best of these young presenters got other kids to chime in with “what’s good” and “what’s bad” about basic human functions and malfunctions colorfully portrayed on story boards.  The kids were confident, articulate, and entirely comfortable delivering the message:

      “Don’t let your cow poop in the stream where you get water.”
      “Get the drinking water upstream from where anybody dumps garbage or washes clothes.”
      “Wash your hands after you use the latrine.”
      “Keep flies away from your food.”
You get the picture.  We certainly did, as flip-chart demos were repeated at each of the three schools we visited.  We could probably do it by heart now. 

You wouldn’t want to navigate to San Pedro on your own.  The previous afternoon, the Planmobile had driven us from Managua through Nicaraguan cowboy country to the town of Juigalpa.  Horses and riders are a standard means of transportation amongst the grassy plains.  Juigalpa isn’t on the tourist loop, but this cute cow town won us over quickly.   We settled into our gorgeous colonial-mansion-turned-hotel Los Arcangeles, the lap of luxury at $35/night, and our hostess Rosalpina recommended the restaurant Palo Solo.  Margaret decided that Nicaraguan cow country was the perfect place to try huevos de toro – yeah, just what you think it is – and reported them to be delicious.  Son Chris and I squirmed and passed on her kind offer for tastes.  We loved the restaurant and the guitarists who charmed us with songs of Nicaragua.

Now back to San Pedro de Lovago and the latrines.  We met the municipal engineer who had designed the upgrade of the school’s sanitary facilities.  He had determined that they could install four flush toilets within the budget – fantastic news.  We were given a brief (thankfully distant) look at the existing facilities to drive home the message that the kids really deserved an upgrade. 



We visited two more schools whose physical plants were even more modest.  At the second school, the engineer had run into a problem in planning the new latrines.  The elevation of the aquifer that provides drinking water is not far below that of the school, and, as any student in San Pedro de Lovago can tell you, the integrity of the water supply must be protected.  We discussed the possibility of fitting a septic tank into the budget, and we hope that this upgrade will be possible.   

The third school, a one-room structure on the outskirts of town, serves children from the surrounding rural area.  Parents, mostly farmers, had recently added walls to the classroom, which was earlier just a roof on posts.  After school, these kids go to the dump to find recyclable items to sell to help cover school expenses.  (Mundito fans will recall our 2007 project, again with Plan, to help ragpicker children in Delhi.  Funny how life loops around on itself.)  The children’s passion for education is palpable here, and they understand their efforts will result in a higher standard of living.     

We were pleased to see a Mundito project moving from concept to implementation.  Our donors deserve to know that their money is being applied efficiently and effectively.  Happy to be again working with our friends at Plan USA / Plan International, we again observed the intelligence, dedication, and effectiveness of local Plan staff.  Their leaders at the national and regional levels apply the global perspective of Plan International to the specific challenges of development in their communities.  These folks have been around.

Nicaragua is a country of contradictions.  Ask cabbies, tour guides, or vendors their preference among the political regimes of the last forty years and you’ll get a range from ultra-right (better for business) to ultra-left (better for workers).  Ask whether the textile factories are a good thing or a bad thing and you’ll either hear about better jobs or wage inequities.  But ask anyone how they feel about education for their children, and you’ll get just one answer:  it’s the most important thing we can do.

Click here to learn about what Mundito is up to now!






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