Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nicaragua - Blog Post 4 - The Volunteer House

Life at the Volunteer House (Sunday through Friday)

Besides our time in the classroom and out sightseeing, the volunteer house provided many memorable moments.  Because of safety concerns, Outreach360 stipulated that volunteers could not leave the house without a chaperone.  Granted, there were many occasions in which guided activities got us out of the house.  But, at night we were stuck.  It was not such a bad thing.  We became extremely close as a group, playing games for hours.  Most evenings we also had to prepare for our lessons for the next day, which involved lots of construction paper and markers.

Bonding with Volunteers

I had come to Nicaragua with ten other IU students.  None of us had met prior to October, when we convened for the trip logistics meeting.  At midweek in Nicaragua several of us admitted to being anxious about the trip.  Some worried that because none of us knew each other well, the trip would be awkward and uncomfortable.  However, not long after our arrival we became extremely close.  I attribute the environment in the volunteer house as one reason we bonded.  Locked up for the evenings with limited internet and television, we resorted to games for entertainment.  Of course, it helped that Kristin, our site leader, was “obsessed” with games.  Everyone bought in because of her enthusiasm. 

“Catchphrase” became the game of the week.  It allowed everyone to participate, and its “hot potato” dynamic fueled laughter and competitiveness.  It is funny how personalities heighten during games.  It also helped other volunteers apart from the IU group to come into the fold.  The Outreach360 administrator, Coco, was also sold on playing.  The game united us.  By the end of the week we were also playing “Mafia,” a role playing game that was even more fun because we had become so close.  All of us were saddened by the prospect of leaving.  But, I anticipate future reunions on campus this spring.


One of the best surprises for me was discovering two Nicaraguan mothers working as the volunteer house cooks/maids.  They made us homemade Nicaraguan meals three times a day.  Since we knew they used purified water in all of their cooking, all of the tropical fruit and fresh vegetables were assured to be free of parasites.  The coconut and watermelon we ate were the most flavorful I had ever tasted.  We were introduced to one native vegetable, the "chayote," which looks like the flesh of a kiwi yet tastes like squash.  Above all, we indulged every day in the region’s most delicious food: the plantain.  We ate them as long-thin chips, fritter patties, and fried sweet in slices. 

Among the native dishes we enjoyed, three stand out: First, we had “pinol” for breakfast one morning.  It tasted like hot chocolate, but made with corn water.  Second, we were treated to local delicacy “yacatamal.”  It is a tamale (cornmeal with rice, vegetables, and pork) cooked in banana leaves.  Third, the corn tortillas were outstanding, especially when combined with fresh salsa and freshly squeezed lemon from the lemon grove in the backyard.  Of course, most meals incorporated local rice and beans (and at times, fried eggs, a personal favorite of mine).  I had wanted a cultural experience when it came to the food.  With our Nicaraguan mothers taking care of us, it could not have been better. 

Reading "Unfinished Revolution"

Every time I travel I become fascinated with the history and culture (and food) of the place I am visiting.  Nicaragua was no different.  Prior to leaving IU for vacation I borrowed a library book on the modern history of Nicaragua: “Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation.”  It examined Nicaragua’s colonial past, its period of dictatorship under the Somozas, its 1979 “Sandanista” revolution, and its continued struggles with democracy and corruption through 2009.  The book made the entire vacation more relevant and relaxing.  I hardly noticed the time pass on our travel days to and from Managua.  And, since I could not leave the volunteer house during our hour-long daily siesta, I sat on the patio and read my book instead. 

Topics discussed by the book were all around me.  Throughout Jinotega the Sandanista red and black colors decorated street posts and tree trunks.  Propaganda-like campaign posters of Daniel Ortega, the country’s revolutionary leader turned president turned pseudo-dictator, dotted the highways.  The sustained poverty and absence of capital investment were evident with every personal encounter.  I have since been introduced to other issues in Central and South America.  Had I not gone to Nicaragua, I would have never been interested enough to care.  Given that I would have struggled to point to Nicaragua on a blank map prior to the trip, it is amazing how much I have learned.

For picture from my entire Nicaragua trip, see me "Nicaragua 1-1-2012" web album here:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Nicaragua - Blog Post 3 - Cultural Visits

Culture Day (Friday, January 6)

Women’s Black Pottery Cooperative

On Friday the Outreach360 team treated us to a day of guided tours.  We began in the morning by visiting a nearby cooperative where craftswomen live and create pottery distinct to the region.  The lead sculptor explained each stage of the pottery-making process.  At the manual (not electric) ceramics wheel she effortlessly made a small vase.  She invited several of us to try the wheel; what we produced looked more like ashtrays or soap dishes.  

This interaction, along with the prior day’s coffee demonstration, was valuable to me because I could listen to the Spanish accent of local adults.  The most distinct feature of Latin and South American Spanish is the use of “vos” as a replacement for the second person singular “tú.”  It applies to addressing people with different degrees of familiarity.  It is strange because I have never been taught “vos” formally, yet I can understand someone who uses it in most cases.  Otherwise, I would describe the accent as more clear than Southern Spain. 

Selva Negra

Our next stop was Selva Negra, a coffee plantation owned and operated by a German family outside of Jinotega.  It was an earthly paradise.  I was thrilled to learn it is an organic, sustainable, bio-diverse farm (similar to Traders Point Creamery).  Here processes are designed so that nature can augment the quality of the products and efficiency of production.  The farm produces coffee, chocolate, fruit, produce, meat, and dairy.  Every element plays a role; and the diversification protects the farm from price fluctuations in any of the products.  Selva Negra sells its premier coffee brand to North America, including some Whole Foods.

We began our visit at the plantation’s restaurant, which is attached to a hotel it has opened as well.  The setting on the porch was picturesque.  Tourists from North America and Europe sat at tables surrounding us.  The feast began with fresh juice and a cheese plate featuring cheese that had been produced from the plantation’s livestock.  The flavors of fresh/aged cow’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses were amazing.  The fruit juice equaled the quality.  I had been encouraged to try the region’s fresh juices, but was also told that they might make me sick.  One taste of my passion fruit juice and later my fruit punch made it worth the risk.  Then our main courses arrived.  I coordinated with two others to share samples of our dishes.  I had ordered a fried pork loin stuffed with ham and cheese (a decadent combination). The two other dishes I tried were chicken with wine sauce and chicken with mushroom/onion/bacon.  Everyone was stuffed by the end of the meal.  Most of our food had been grown/raised on the farm.

Manuel led us on a guided tour.  He was the most educated Nicaraguan we had met.  He was fluent in English, having gone to Managua for a college degree in tourism/communications.  He explained the symbiotic relationships of the farm’s products.  Here is a simplified version of the logic:  Among the coffee plants are tropical fruit trees that provide adequate shade.  The livestock on the farm produce meat and cheese for sale in the restaurant and outside the farm.  The livestock’s manure is used in two ways.  First, it is the basis of the fertilizer for the coffee plants.  Second, the manure’s biogas is captured and transferred to the workers’ kitchens as an energy source.  The produce grown on property feeds the plantation’s workers and guests at the restaurant/hotel.  The beauty of place has made it a prime wedding location as well.  The extraordinary chapel charmed all of us.

The concept of “Agricultural Tourism” is exactly what Traders Point Creamery follows.  For those interested in “going back to farm,” they can stay overnight, eat the farm’s food, and tour the premises.  Later in our tour with Manuel we saw the goats and cows whose cheese we ate at lunch.  To make parallels to Traders Point even more pronounced, Manuel announced that the herd we were admiring was primarily Brown Swiss cattle (same breed).  I was struck by how perfect this visit was. It is as if Outreach360 knew I was coming and planned this visit for me!

The last notable point of interest was the housing for the temporary workers.  Young adult men and women move to the plantation every November and remain there through January (per the coffee harvest schedule).  Even though Selva Negra pays the workers only about seven dollars per day, the fringe benefits are extensive: housing, medical care, food, and others.  Therefore, the workers ultimately save money.  Not all plantations provide nearly the amount of benefits.  

Along the highway that day we also stopped at a lookout point.  The view was more breathtaking than our peak in Jinotega.  Our jaws dropped; and many pictures were taken. 

It had been a “Culture Day” that exceeded all my expectations.  I came to Nicaragua thinking our sightseeing would be limited.  But, Outreach360 truly gave us an insider’s tour. 

For picture from my entire Nicaragua trip, see me "Nicaragua 1-1-2012" web album here:

Nicaragua - Blog Post 2 - Jinotega Sightseeing

Jinotega Sightseeing (Sunday through Friday)

By New Year’s Eve we had arrived at the Managua airport.   Stepping outside at 10:30 pm in the evening we were struck by the heat (75 degrees) and humidity (like a Florida summer).  Managua is the lowest part of the country and sits on a lake (the center of which is a volcano).  No wonder it felt like a swamp.  After a night in the Best Western across the street, we met our chauffeurs for a bus ride up to the mountainous Jinotega.  We got on what seemed like a recycled ‘magic bus’ from the 1960’s.  What we would notice during the week is that these hippie-like buses are the main form of transportation in Nicaragua.  The “highway” leading north was a two lane country road winding through the mountains.  The view from the window was extraordinary.  

Neighborhood Tour (Sunday and Monday)

Our destination of Jinotega is nestled in the northern mountains.  Not long after we arrived at the Outreach360 volunteer house, we were led by the site administrators around the town and neighborhood in which we would be working.  The town itself is a city grid, but just off the gravel are dirt roads and hodgepodge slums that make up the neighborhoods.  I was immediately struck by the level of poverty.  Homes seemed to have been constructed of tin roofs, cement blocks, and recycled materials by their residents.  Although I had seen slums on film, being in a developing country for the first time was powerful.  Of course, my first glimpse of the slums had come in Managua.  I was shocked to see the same style of slums across the street from the Managua airport!  I would have thought that an area as commercial as this would be somewhat shielded from poverty.  The other feature was the amount of trash along the roads.  Although I imagine that trash service covers the city grid, there remains a culture of complacency towards trash.  Plastic wrappers, bottles, and banana peels were sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods we toured.  It suggested an attitude of dependency—that “someone else would pick it up.”

Cemetery Tour (Sunday)

One of the more beautiful parts of Jinotega is its above-ground cemetery (like New Orleans, Mom said after looking at the pictures).  We admired the variety of graves, including one extravagant one memorializing the (relatively) wealthy family that owns the majority of pharmacies in town. 

Market Tour (Tuesday)

On Tuesday we went to the central market of Jinotega.  We noticed pickup trucks full of large pink sacks being hauled across the main arteries of town.  Men in their twenties hoisted the sacks over their shoulders at warehouses.  This was our first glimpse of Jinotega’s main economic activity: coffee harvest and production.  We were told that we were in the midst of coffee harvest (which runs from November through January).  Many young men and women leave Jinotega to live as temporary workers on nearby coffee plantations.  Nearly 65 percent of Nicaragua’s coffee production occurs in Jinotega’s province. 


The market was bustling after two days of holiday (New Year’s Day and the Monday that followed).  Vendors set up hodgepodge stands selling daily produce and goods.  Unlike the European markets I had visited, there was virtually no meat, cheese, or seafood being sold.  Rather tropical fruits and bulk vegetables were on display, indicative of the low level of wealth in the area.  The number of people filling the streets made us privileged Americans a bit vulnerable.  We kept our wallets close and maintained a brisk pace. 

Coffee Shops (Tuesday and Thursday)

After seeing signs of the production and distribution of coffee at the market, we would make two visits to Jinotega’s best cafes.  In addition to tasting the coffee, we were treated to a quality control demonstration.  Our host carefully ground the coffee beans and assessed the flavor/after-taste of each sample.  The coffee ships to North America and Europe.  Given both the American and European obsession with coffee, it was interesting to see one point of its origin.

Catholic Mass (Wednesday)

On Wednesday, we put on our Sunday best and walked to the central cathedral in Jinotega.  Spanish words echoed from the altar.  A nativity scene with hokey Christmas lights was a bit distracting.  Instead of an organ, a guitarist sang folk music.  It made for good people watching. 

Climbing a Mountain (Thursday)

By Thursday afternoon we had completed our classroom rotation.  Now we could enjoy the beautiful sunny weathering by climbing the mountain that had been our backdrop the whole week.  Atop one particular peak is a cross, giving the mountain its name, “Peña de la Cruz.”  A local guide and two policemen escorted us up the mountain.  The ascent took us 45 minutes.  Although there was no rock climbing, the path up was steep.  At each resting point we admired a higher view of Jinotega.  At the top, we encountered two Nicaraguan youths who were even brave enough to sit atop the cross.  The blistering wind challenged our balance.  I felt a little uneasy posing for picturing fearing a tumble.  We also discovered a lake just beyond the mountains that we did not know existed.  The descent was perhaps more difficult.  I avoided slipping, but with great care. 

For picture from my entire Nicaragua trip, see me "Nicaragua 1-1-2012" web album here:

Monday, January 9, 2012

Nicaragua - Blog Post 1 - Teaching

For the next several blog posts, I will reflect on my community service trip to Jinotega, Nicaragua with ten other business school students.  We were there from January 1 to January 7 of 2012.  I have organized the posts topically rather than chronically.  The first covers our experience teaching. 

Teaching (Monday, January 2 through Thursday, January 5) - Photos from Bin Yin

The purpose of our trip was to help Outreach360 promote English Education in rural Nicaragua.  During the past several years, volunteers have come and gone.  Outreach360 has hosted them in their volunteer house and directed efforts to transform old homes into “neighborhood centers” where children can come for extracurricular education programs.  Outreach360 also places volunteers inside local primary schools. 

When we arrived in Jinotega, Outreach360 had just finished its latest neighborhood center.  Alma, a Jinotega local who works for Outreach360 and is fluent in English, communicates with town residents and registers their children for the nonprofit’s programs.  For four days, we would host an English immersion program for one neighborhood.

Although we were the teachers, I was amazed by how much I learned from the children that week.  First, I have a new appreciation for primary educators.  The energy required to manage a class of five to ten children was overwhelming.  I cannot imagine teaching larger groups.  I cannot say the children were misbehaving.  What challenged us was balancing two goals: ensuring their learning progress and keeping their attention.  To rely on one teaching method was ineffective.  We had to continue finding new ways of presenting basic English material. 

Second, I have a new appreciation for foreign language educators.  My time in Spain had taught me that the immersion process is slow.  Now the roles had reversed, and I was the one immersing others in my native language.  Outreach360 stipulated that we could not use Spanish during the lessons.  How then could we communicate directions to activities?  How do we ask them to identify vocabulary?  Teaching to a room of wild children with blank stares would require more ingenuity than I had anticipated.  We gradually learned techniques to demonstrate games and “repeat-after-me” activities.  By the end of the third day it seemed the children understood us intuitively.  It was extraordinary.  I was reminded of the time my Spanish mamá Montse told me, “Children are brilliant, able to absorb everything like sponges.” 

Although the lessons were English only, recess and reading time allowed us to practice Spanish with the children.  Reading time was my favorite.  A stash of children’s books (in English and Spanish) was spread across the table.   Many of the children could read well in Spanish, but admitted to having little or no books at home.  Their eyes lit up at “Dora, the Explorer,” “Curious George,” and “Corduroy.”  I would take turns reading every other page with one or two students.  I would also converse with them in Spanish.  I was flattered how well they could understand me.  They even came up to me later to ask me questions, suggesting their acknowledgement and trust that I was fluent.  During recess, we sang English songs like “Bananas,” “Hokey Pokey,” and our new favorite:  “There was a great big Moose…”  The kids also enjoyed being introduced to “Pato, Pato, Gonso” (Duck, Duck, Goose).   By the end of the four days, we had grown attached, making goodbyes difficult. 

For picture from my entire Nicaragua trip, see me "Nicaragua 1-1-2012" web album here: