The Scholarship Program Funded by You!

The ability to change the direction of your life–the opportunity to choose a different path–is what it means to be free.  It means being able to leave a job you don’t like to pursue one you do.  Freedom means we can dream of a better world and make it so. 

To be free we only need a few things.

We need to know we’ll survive.

We need education.

We need credit.

We need accountability.

Here’s how your donations helped bring more freedom to a large group of children in Nicaragua, and how you can help deepen that impact for years to come.

 

A playground in the relocated community of Villa Guadalupe

20k in my pocket

The first time I went to Nicaragua, you sent me down with $250.  The second time you sent me with $775.  We did some cool things, and we learned a lot about the people. 

This time, you sent me with a whopping $1,440, donated from 27 people, ranging from PayPal transfers to upturned coin jars.  I was astonished and humbled.

Finding somewhere to donate those funds was a challenge, bigger than ever before.

I could give $275 to three people and not have a lot of questions to consider.  I could give $775 to a few people directly and the rest through a nonprofit and feel great about it.  Over the past few years, I’ve studied many nonprofits and fell in love with the idea that a donation can become so much more than that donation, if it’s used well.  $100 can make a small or a big difference, for good or for bad, depending on how its given.

$1,440 would pay rent for a family in the US for one month, and maybe put some groceries in the refrigerator, but in Nicaragua it equates nearly 9-months of income for the average person (according to the World Bank).  Put in terms of the US economy, where the average individual income is $26,695, it would be as if I were walking down the streets of Austin with $20,000, looking for someone to give it to.

(disclaimer: my economics isn’t perfect here.  I’m comparing the amount of time it takes to earn a certain amount of money, not how much goods that money will buy.  Put in terms of PPP, $1 in US is $10.36 in Nicaragua, so $1,440 would be $14,918.   My point is that I went down with 9 months of income). 

 

Carpenters in the Mercado Oriental, one of the biggest markets in Central America, making doors.

 

Roots of the program

Three years ago, on that second trip to Nicaragua, I met Rosa.  She was working in La Chureca as a nurse and a social worker, and she requested my help to send a couple of children to private school outside of the landfill.

She said it provided a much better opportunity for the children–smaller classes, more discipline, periodic drug paraphernalia checks, English lessons, a computer lab, and exposure to life outside La Chureca.  We looked into it, and in conjunction with the jewelry cooperative, in which we would sell jewelry made from recycled materials by women of La Chureca, we determined we could make a commitment to support two or three children long term.  I wrote about their stories, and some of you sponsored the children.  Four have been going to private school ever since.

 

Rosa, buying paint for the classroom in the Mercado Oriental.

New opportunities

Rosa never rests.  On this trip to Nicaragua, she had a new vision for the children in the community.

La Chureca has changed.  The people have been moved t Villa Guadalupe, a large neighborhood of concrete housing built specifically for them and other groups of the extremely poor.  They were given a home, streets, police safety, playgrounds, and an occasional health clinic.  Some of the most bitter parts of the cycle of poverty have been removed, but they still face many challenges, including education.

 

One road among many in the Villa Guadalupe community

In a highly competitive country where childhood education isn’t mandatory, only 9% of children complete secondary school (the equivalent of Middle School and High School in the USA, grades 7-11).  Many children drop out to help support their family, and often school is seen as a drain on the family’s resources.  Uneducated, they’re less able to respond to their environment, and often follow the same occupational path as their parents.  They have children early, have to find a way to support them immediately, and become stuck economically.

Private school alone doesn’t beat the 9% statistic.  It helps in a massive way, but there are more obstacles than the classroom, and Rosa knew that.

Rosa doesn’t rest

Rosa wanted to rent a room outside of school where the kids could study and receive help with their homework.  She wanted them to have a computer, internet, a printer, some books to read.  She wanted to have a place where she could check on them daily.

I said I’d think about it.  With higher fixed monthly costs, it was going to be more difficult to find sponsors who were able to support the kids; this was a large ongoing commitment; I wasn’t involved enough to give it the oversight it would need; and I wanted to find a way for the families to pay to be a part of the program.

I met each of the kids in person, and talked with some of the parents.  After talking with a mother and father of the youngest girl on scholarship right now, I wrote in my journal:

“These are strong people that want the best for their daughter.  That is the best agent for change, and a place to study is superfluous.  We can give opportunity by providing scholarships, but it is up to these families and individuals to make the most of it.  If having this room provides a 10% increase in opportunity, but having private school provides a 75% increase, it makes more sense to use donations give more kids the opportunity for private school.”

I took a few days away from Managua to think things over, to consider why it didn’t feel right.  I studied, wrote, talked with mentors, and let it settle in, not willing to make a large ongoing commitment without believing in it 100%.  I knew the funding would be available, from the generosity I’ve seen from you all in the past.  The question was in missed opportunities, engagement from parents and children, and effectiveness.

I didn’t want to just help the first people we ran into, and ignore the rest.  I didn’t want to give something away for nothing in return, because I knew that when people pay for something they not only value it more but it’s also more effective.  I didn’t want to start something we wouldn’t finish.  On the other hand, in saying “yes” I would be responding to a strong “voiced need,” both from Rosa and from the students and parents I had talked to, and that’s the way I like to do things.

I had stalled for as long as I could – the trip was almost at an end.  I had a whopping $1,440 available to me and didn’t think I’d be able to find a place for it, but I was OK with that.

I said no.

Rosa had been thinking, too, and together we made some tweaks to the idea that brought everything into place.

We increased the program to 10 students to offset the increase in fixed monthly costs, and still make the scholarships accessible, and Rosa came up with a great way for the students to “pay.”

So now I present to you our work, Rosa’s vision, and one of the nonprofit organizations I hope you’ll choose to support continually.

Unidados en Esperanza (United in Hope)

United in Hope is an educational program that reaches out into an entire community, providing opportunity for those who want it the most.

We will provide Private-School scholarships to ten children in Villa Guadalupe.  There, they will receive more personal attention, more discipline and structure, exposure to life outside their community, and overall a better and more safe education than they would in the community’s public school.  They’ll learn English, they’ll have access to computer labs, they’ll be surrounded by children who value school as much as they do.  They’ll also be known in the community as a recipient of this scholarship.

To be a part of the program, a child can apply with Rosa.  To stay in it, they must keep their grades above 80%.  Best of all, and the reason we’re able to reach much farther than 10 children, each child will spend an hour every school-day tutoring other kids from the community.  If anyone needs help with their math homework, they’ll find Hector waiting there, willing to help.  If anyone needs help with a writing project, Cristina is there.  With them all, Rosa is there to help whoever she can and oversee the program.  Each student will be able to give their unique talents to help other kids in the neighborhood.

 

Ana Yanci tutors another child from the community
Ana Yanci tutors another child from the community

We rent a small room in Villa Guadalupe, part of one of the concrete houses built in the relocation program.  While I was there, we spent a few days equipping it with what they would need: paint, book shelves, a computer, a printer, a portable wifi signal, a door to close it off, and a lot of supplies.  Later, Rosa and the kids painted it and made it look great.  The building is rented to us by FunjoFudes, who, among many other things, provides pharmaceuticals to adults and children in the community.  It has a good courtyard in front where kids can sit, and a big playground next-door.  We also provide a decent compensation for Rosa ($100-$150/month), who will be traveling to the community each morning to work with the kids.

 

Three students and some of their parents, the core to the informal scholarship program over the past few years.
Three students and some of their parents–the core to the informal scholarship program over the past few years–posing before working on our little study room.

“United in Hope” was the name chosen by Rosa and the students, and I think it’s perfect.  All of us–students, parents, other kids in the community, Rosa, and us donors–are acting together to help bring children in the community the future they hope for, whatever that future may be.

Scholarship costs are $70 per student per month.  We would love you to join with us by providing a full or a half-scholarship for one of these children on an ongoing basis until they have completed their secondary education.

If you’d like to sponsor a student, write to me here (click).  Within the next couple of weeks, I’ll post the applications of the students and help match you with your student.

Look for an update within a few days for a specific breakdown of what your $1,440 paid for, and thank you so much for joining me in this experience.

 

Ana and Gretel starting the paint on those gray brick walls!
Ana and Gretel starting the paint on those gray brick walls
Rosa, her taxi-driver friend, and me, driving around to pick up supplies
The courtyard in front of the study room, where kids can pick up the wifi signal, study, and receive tutoring help.
Picking up Wifi!
Loading up the bookshelf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What do you do?”

To the ubiquitous question asked at wedding receptions, cocktail parties, Church, and literally everywhere we’re forcecd to talk to someone  we don’t already know, we all answer in pretty much the same way.  “What do you do?” may as well be said, “What do you do to earn money?”    

If I forget about that for a second, and answer more literally, I do a lot of things.  

I build fences.  

I hang out with my wife.  

I take care of my dogs.  

I spend a ridiculous amount of time laying down trying to avoid doing anything productive.  

I eat food.  I then poop it out.  

I talk to strangers about what I do and give far more literal answers than they were looking for.  

I have a better qeustion.  

What do you do with new information?

I’d love to know.

Myself? I ask more questions, but it’s never that simple.    

 The problem is I am rarely satisfied with incomplete answers: nuance creeps its way into every opinion I have, if by the end of my process it can still be called an opinion.

And that’s why . . .   

I have little for you but questions, at this point.  I process new information by writing, but by writing privately first. 

Letting it ferment 

One of the books sitting on my “Favorites Of All Time” shelf is Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck.  In it, he takes a three month trip around the United States in order to understand America again.  It’s fantastic.  

He, like me, brings too many things he knows he won’t use.  

“I thought I might do some writing along the way, perhaps essays, surely notes, certainly letters.  I took paper, carbon, typewriter, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaires, a compact encyclopedia, and dozen other reference books, heavy ones.  I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.  I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them.  I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event.  It has to ferment.  I must do what a friend calls “mule it over” for a time before it goes down.  And in spite of this self-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes.”

This trip to Nicaragua has brought the curiosity I’m used to, but a much greater reluctance to come to conclusions.  I have a separate notebook for each trip, each filled with thoughts and questions and profiles of the people I meet.  This trip’s book is the same, but it holds few conclusions.  If there is one conclusion I’m happy making it is that poverty is complex and solutions are incredibly difficult to come by.  

  
I’ve had the pleasure of being forced to make decisions about programs to begin, and in that decision-making process I’ve had to refine my philosophy toward philanthropy.  I’m excited to relay those thoughts, and the results of those thoughts, but can’t do so yet.  

Over the next few weeks I’ll be “muling it over,” and making sure I don’t let too much time pass so this trip falls into the shadowland of memory, so I can continue to ask questions about the things I saw and learned.  

  
To do that, I have to write.  To think clearly, I have to write privately, for myself.  Once I’ve dealt with the issues enough privately, I’ll be able to publish them publicly, receive feedback, and further adjust my views in response to what you all have to say.  

That is my process: writing to myself first, and then to you, and then back to myself again.  

  
Some people are Prayers, others are Talkers, others are Runners, or Gymers, or Cryers, or Gossipers.  

I am a Writer, dear reader, but not yet to you.  We have so much to talk about, and I hope we’ll be able to do that soon.  

Cheers, 

Writer

UPDATE:

I kind of missed the point at the end of this article, which is perfect because it illustrates what my process is.  It’s not always true that I don’t come to conlusions.  Without temporarily accepting an idea, it’s hard to test it.  

Writing helps me express temporary conclusions, then balance those conclusions with opposing thoughts, and eventually, perhaps, come to some clarity.  

Phase 1: write to myself

Phase 2: wait some time, then write to myself some more. Edit, refine.  

Phase 3: write to others

Phase 4: receive feedback, further explore ideas I missed.
I’m a Writer because I wouldn’t process information nearly as well without the four steps of this process.  That’s why blogging is important to me.  #3 creates a challenge to think things through clearly in #2, and the existence of #4 helps me learn from others perspectives and find more to write about.  

The trick is in the waiting.  If I post early, I’ll often wake up the next morning and think, “Well that wasn’t very true, was it?”  If I wait too long, I lose the energy of the idea, and it all fizzles incomplete.  

Donate to a Nicaraguan Through Us — Round 3!

Hello, strangers!

 

It has been a long time, and time creates distance.  Some of you may be trying to place me in your memory, to remember why this blog sounds familiar.  Allow me to help.

 

IMG_2229

 

I’m a guy who travels and writes when he can, exploring the world and asking questions to those who give.  I’ve been to Nicaragua twice, and some of you came with me.  Together, we did some pretty cool things.  We got a wonderful man a new bed along with some baseball swag from his favorite team, we placed four (now five) kids through private school for the last three years, we bought and sold jewelry made by the women of La Chureca to help them create a new source of income, we bought a bike for a girl with Polio so her dad could take her to her therapy sessions, and we did a lot more as well.

 

We did what we could with a little of what we have, and we were all lifted because of it.  Those who received our gifts got something special – care and love from strangers thousands of miles away, in ways that helped them in their daily lives.  And we, in return, learned of their stories, received some of their strength, gained inspiration from their courage.  We connected, and we were all made more happy because of it.

 

Mariselda

 

And now it’s time to do it again!

 

Britney and I leave for Nicaragua in a couple of days, and we’d again like you to come with us.  With $250 on the first trip we did some great things, with $775 on the second we did even more.  My goal for this trip, like last time, isn’t to raise a certain amount of money, but to involve as many people as possible.  On our last trip we were joined by 33 people.  This time, let’s shoot for 40.  Donate $5, 10, $25, $100, it doesn’t matter how much.  Remember that 100% of your donation goes straight to a Nicaraguan.

 

Here’s how it works.

  • Donate:
  • Let me know that you donated so I can keep a tally and let you know where your donation went!  Click here to send me an email.
  • Share it on Facebook, email, or whatever you want.  Let’s see how many people we can get involved with this!  Something like “I donated $25, you guys should check it out and donate too!” with a link to this article so they can read what it’s about.
  • Subscribe to this blog, if you haven’t already, to receive the followup articles about the people you helped.

Thank you for everything!

 

Jefferson, The Weekend Philanthropist

 

“My mission is to experience the world of charitable giving through study and direct involvement in order to find an under-served people and arrive at a clear, informed, and bold focus that will define the organizations I help create. Oh, and to have an amazing time while doing it.”  

Reddit Posts, Trolls, and Why the Internet Sucks.

Confession time.

A few months ago, I wrote an article that I was really excited about, spammed it all over the web, and crossed my fingers.  What happened over the next few days affected me more than I’d like to admit, but here we are at the confession booth.  I guess it’s time to drop my ego and do some self-expression so I can move on.

What went down

After writing my article, I posted this picture to Reddit and imgur of a girl I had met in La Chureca, who I had written about in my blog post:

Smiling girl in La Chureca

I love this picture.  This moment, caught on camera, expresses something I felt throughout this trip – a close connection with the people I met.  Here is a happy little girl smiling shyly after I said she was very pretty.  She lived in the largest landfill in Central America, “La Chureca,” with over 1,000 other people.  They collect and sell trash every day, making an average of $2 a day.  Their homes are made out of materials they find, they bathe in a toxic lake, many of the girls enter prostitution, and drug abuse is high, among many, many other problems.

Yet here is this little, smiling girl; shy, but happy to have heard me say she’s very pretty.  Little things like this inspired me to do more to help–and to do so more urgently–if I could find a way.

One way was to tell her story.  So I wrote the article, posted some pictures, and linked to Reddit and Imgur with a short, but attention-grabbing title that would quickly express the story that made this picture meaningful to me.

Front Page!

Others thought it was meaningful as well and my photo received a lot of upvotes, enough to move it up to the front page of one of the biggest forums on Reddit: a forum that has about 7 million subscribers.

Not everyone logs onto Reddit every day, and pics is a forum every Reddit user is automatically subscribed to, but we’re still talking about a massive audience of people.  My picture was viewed more than 670,000 times, received more than 10,000 upvotes, and on the day I posted it 833 unique people searched for my blog and looked around (for a total of 1,225  page views).  I was feeling pretty great about it!

But . . . 6,397 people down-voted it.  No big deal, but it was still shocking to me since I thought it was such a harmless and cute picture.  And then there were the comments.

Sometimes, negative things drown out the positive.

“White adventure.”

“Yeah have you ever read a more pretentious title than “The Weekend Philanthropist”? Trash dump? This is just oozing sheltered hipsterism.”

“Slum tourist.”

“The weekend philanthropist?  I can smell the thinly veiled narcissistic smug from here. These are people, not animals in a zoo. If you feel you need to help, do so and shut the fuck up. Don’t run around snapping 1000 pics for Facebook in a weak attempt to seem like a good person.”

There were a lot of others, some of them more laced with cynicism than others.  Some people were offended that I called her home a trash dump, thinking I was just using that phrase euphemistically and not realizing that she literally lives in trash.  Some people were just trying to be funny.  Others attacked me pretty hard, pointing out specific phrases I used in my article and showing how pretentious or naive they were.  At first, these negative comments were getting the most up-votes, and therefore were seen by more people.  As usual, for me, I responded in a cool-headed way at the time, but the negative comments stayed around, bouncing around in my head and annoying me for a while.  I couldn’t get them to go away and they began to affect me.

Others defended me, of course.  If you read the comments on the Reddit post now, you’ll see many more positive comments than negative.

“I’m gonna go ahead and apologize to you for those people who lack the moral and ethical backbone to apologize to you for the stupid things they’ve said. “I’m sorry”. There. They feel better now.  You’re doing good work, stranger. Don’t let fools on the internet bother you.”

“It’s nice to see people covering aspects of my country. It’s a wonderful photo! And to people getting all uppity these people literally live on a dump site that was exacerbated by the earthquake in the 70s. But they’re usually the most humble, caring people you can find.”

What I told myself

Despite myself and the things I said to keep myself positive about it, and despite all the positive attention and comments my post received, the negativity affected me.  I started editing my blog posts more closely, thinking about how anyone might interpret it in the wrong way, and taking a longer time between writing and posting.  That can be good, but it can also paralyze you if you let it go too far.  It took a couple of months to finish the travel memoir that I was going to finish in a couple of weeks, and even then I continued to hear the echos of some of those negative comments.

I created a story, a story that is very probably true, that the online world favors satire and pessimism.  Being positive comes off as naive.  Now I knew that philanthropy not only doesn’t have shock value, but it can actually be more controversial than many of the other topics.  In America we admire the entrepreneur.  I can start whatever kind of business I want and be applauded for my ingenuity, even (and especially) if my business is based on a clever sales gimmick.  The second I start to work for free, though . . . the accusations roll in on how I could do it better.

I was a small, untrained voice on a corner of the internet that thought too highly of the affect anything I write will have.

Yeah, it was negative.

It paralyzed me from writing in the confident and easygoing way I had before, over-analyzing everything I wrote so it couldn’t be attacked.  I thought no one wanted to hear about what I had to say anyway, that they’re too busy watching videos and easily-consumed media (kitty kats, yay!) to sit and read a long-text article.

Explain to me how anything, anywhere, is supposed to compete with this ...
Explain to me how anything, anywhere, is supposed to compete with this …

But that’s not true.  Not completely true, anyway.

The Party is Life

This analogy comes from How to Stay Sane, which is a friggin’ fantastic book by Phillipa Perry about the stories we tell ourselves and how that affects us.

If I walk into a party with my head held high, with the optimistic attitude that everyone is pleased to see me or would like to meet me (and I them), I will catch someone’s eye even if, hitherto, everyone in the room was a stranger to me.  I will ask them about themselves and they may ask me about myself; we will probably find some common ground and I might learn something from them as a bonus.  But more than that, I give myself the chance of forming what feels like a connection.  It might last just a few minutes, or it may be the beginning of a long friendship, but in that connection I feel deeply nourished.

If, on the other hand, I walk into a party with my eyes on the ground, neither interested in meeting anyone nor thinking that anyone would be interested in meeting me, I will not catch anyone’s eye and I will not enjoy the party.  I will be thinking about ways to leave it.  I will not be fully present at the party.  Instead I will be present only with my prejudices; I will be projecting a fantasy, or an experience of the past, onto the present, and relating to that, instead of to what is going on around me.

The party is life.

At first I read this and thought, “Meh, I always walk into parties knowing I’m going to meet some cool people.  I have my head high, I know I’m interesting and I know others are as well.”  But then I realized that my online view wasn’t the same.  Over the last few months I’ve been “walking into the party” with my head down, feeling like I don’t have a voice, like others will be critical of it, that it’s easier to not say anything than it is to say something that might be used against me.

I’m done doing that.  Yes, I’ve told myself to not let others affect me for my whole life; it hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now.  What others say does affect me, whether for good or bad.  But I’m recognizing that the story I’ve told myself about writing on the internet is just a story, that it has lead me to stop expressing myself, and that I don’t like that.  By recognizing it as a story instead of a fact I have the ability to change it.

To focus on the negative is to ignore all the positive things have happened as a direct result of writing – all the people I’ve met, all the conversations I’ve had and the ones I’ve started, the money I’ve raised, the trips I’ve taken, and so much more.  I met Leo, Travis and Sophie, Jon Thompson, Liana, became more involve with Tab’s nonprofit and Chuck’s yearly donation event, and had great conversations about philanthropy with so many others.  I raised over $1,000 that went to many people in Nicaragua, started selling jewelry in partnership with a women’s cooperative and have purchased $1,100 of it from them so far, and so many other things.   A great business, Blush Box, just purchased 100 pieces of the jewelry to add a little philanthropy to their summer box!  (More details to come on that!)

And that’s just this blog.  On my philosophical blog many other things have happened.

So, the internet doesn’t suck as badly as I’ve been telling myself it does for the last few months.  The party is life, and I’ll walk into it with my head held high. 

Here’s to a great second-half of 2013.

Chapter Five – Rio Blanco and Home

Nicaragua's mountain interior

No trip to Nicaragua would be complete without going into the mountain interior.  The problem is the bus system.  Buses leave to Rio Blanco every four hours, they’re packed, and if you’re late you might have to stand for the whole ride.  The solution is to bribe a taxi to break a bunch of laws so you can get to the bus station on time.  Oh, what $4 can buy . . .

Now, this probably wouldn’t be a problem for you at all; you’re a responsible traveler, no doubt, and would know when your bus was going to leave weeks before your trip started.  I am not.  I think travel, like life, is best when not stuck to a strict plan.

Since I didn’t know when our bus would leave and no one could tell me, and since I didn’t want to stand for our five-hour ride if we got there late, I took a taxi to the station by myself, early in the morning, so I could find out.  The ride to the station and back took about an hour with the taxi driver stopping and picking up other passengers along the way, and by the time I got back to the hotel Britney and I didn’t have much time.  We grabbed all of our stuff, got out the door as quickly as we could, and then I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do, but have never have wanted to pay for.

After hailing a taxi I asked the driver how much it would cost for a ride to the bus station.  “50 Córdobas.”  “Great, our bus arrives in 30 minutes.  If you get us there before then I’ll give you . . . a $100-Córdobas tip.”  That’s $4.

It was the most impressive city driving I’ve seen, rivaled only by my experience with New York taxis, but with more broken laws.  He went as fast as his little car could take us at every chance he had, took detours through neighborhoods to avoid slow parts of the road, and ran red lights whenever he could get away with it.  When we came to a red light and had about 15 cars between us and the intersection, he simply drove on the shoulder of the road until he had passed all the cars, then turned in front of them to wait until the light turned green.  We got a seat on the bus and he got his tip.

Into the mountains

The ride to Rio Blanco is long, the bus is cramped, and the road is pot-holed, which makes it hard to do anything except pop a pain pill and think.  As an 6-foot 2-inch adult, I’m not designed for the school buses I rode as an elementary student.  My tail bone lands firmly on the iron bar of the bench, so I’m forced to slouch or sit with my feet in the aisle, which isn’t an option because of all the merchants and passengers walking past.  Britney could have laid her head back, except for how well the bus’s old shocks transferred every bump through the whole metal structure into every passenger, bouncing and jostling with every hole and turn.

With the jewelry cooperative and La Chureca on my mind–still day-dreaming about the possibilities–I looked around at the other people on the bus, a mask of boredom worn by most of them just like it was worn by me.  I wondered what they were daydreaming about and how their culture influences their secret ambitions.

Outside the bus everything became a shade of blue, green, brown, and white.  The city was behind us, along with its cement and smog, storefronts and graffiti, advertisements and FSLN propaganda, and now it was just mountain and sky, a loud engine, wind coming through the bus window, and my thoughts.

We arrived at María’s on time and prepared a few things so we could leave at four the following morning.  We were glad to have a trusted bed and a bed net – we were now far enough inside the country that malaria and dengue fever were a risk.

The morning came and we started what has become my favorite bus-ride of all time – three hours up into the mountains to the community called Naranjo, which I’ve done on both trips to Nicaragua.  As an outsider, most people act differently around you.  In Nicaragua, especially, everyone is seen as a potential customer.  In the mountains, that stops.  From the darkness before sunrise to the heat of mid-morning, Britney and I were flies on the wall – strangers in a foreign country observing the daily routine of Nicaragua’s humble farmers.  These are cowboys returning after selling milk or livestock in town; young students going to school for the day; families going home with a baby in their arms and a toddler on their lap; and elderly men returning from the city after trying to buy a new horse, but finding out it had a gimp leg.

There was a boy in the front-right seat who had a space available next to him that he wouldn’t give up, even to elderly passengers, until a cute girl got on the bus.  I had talked with a young guy on my first trip, on this same bus-ride into the mountains, who had asked me how many girlfriends I had.

“Uh . . . one,” I said.

“Only one?” he asked.  “I have a girlfriend in every town!”

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I’m sure he was just boasting, but as I looked at the two young people in the front-right seat of the bus I wondered how much of this was a daily routine and whether or not she was happy about it.  Were they dating?  Did she like that he saved her a seat, or was this just something he did to pick up on cute girls?  His family owned the bus, so he stayed on it all day going back and forth into the mountains – were there other girls along the route that he saves that seat for?  Naturally, as a camera-happy American, I took a picture so I could journal about it later.  I’ve been watching chick-flicks and reading love stories my whole life, but they’re all depicted in American settings.  I was thinking about the love story of the future, as America no longer dominates culture and as Nicaragua and other poor countries find their own two feet.  This could be the setting for a chick-flick in Nicaragua – two young people flirting on their morning ride into the mountain-farms above Río Blanco.

Guanagua Cafe

Since the ride is long and the bus drivers do this route all day, every day, we stop halfway in a little town called Wánawá.  Here there is a café with no sign, but known by everyone anyway, to which bus passengers quietly shuffle to eat whatever is cooking: usually fried chicken, hand-made tortillas, slow-cooked beans, and fresh cheese, along with your choice of a few different “frescos.”  The smoke rises slowly towards the windows and gaps in the roof, which creates soft rays of light as the sun passes through.  The walls are decorated with newspapers and framed photographs of graduations and weddings that are placed on backgrounds of Disney Land or palaces, never against the natural scenery around them.

Decorations in Wanawa

Our cultures continue to interact in ways I don’t fully understand.  Americans take as many pictures with natural scenery behind them as possible – it’s our proof that we were there, with our faces stamped into the photograph in front of the Eiffel tower or mountain scenery to prove it.  These Nicaraguans like to place themselves artificially in American or European destinations.  They wear American clothing and watch American movies dubbed over in Spanish.  The fantasy is an American one, not Nicaraguan.  Though certainly they’re proud of their country–they all know how beautiful it is–I wonder when little things like the backgrounds for pictures on the wall will change, when their culture’s appeal will be stronger to them than America’s.

Guanagua

It’s early, but it’s the weekend and it’s Nicaragua – there’s work to be done.  Plus, sleeping in isn’t really an option when you’re surrounded by roosters, not to mention to insects and birds of the jungle.  Here, farmers talk in the foreground and kids play soccer in the background.  A Claro dish can be seen at the top of almost every one of the houses in this little square.  Cellphones are new to the area and people need to refill their minutes often.  Someone started selling  them first, it went well, and everyone else copied.  Now you can get your refill anywhere you’d like.

After our little break in Wánawá, it was another hour or so until we arrived in Naranjo.  We were there to help give a survey (the director of the program, Tab Barker, wants to start collecting data so he can to measure how much a good school and access to clean water affects education) and we were there for María to meet with the adults of the community so she could coordinate the rest of the work that needed to be done to finish the school.  We were also there to dance, to laugh, to eat, and to learn.

To laugh, to eat, and to learn

There were two surveys, one of which was for the kids.  Britney stayed with María in one of the houses by the school and Manuel and I walked from home to home to asked our questions.  Each time the whole family would come around, bring us a drink and something to eat (again, some of my favorite food – hand-made tortillas and a fresh white cheese called guajada), and we’d chat.  One of the questions was meant to determine what the kids liked to do, and Manuel always asked it in a way that made it fun: “I’m going to give you a list of things you could do, and I want you to tell me which things you like to do the most, OK?  Do you like to work, go to school, go to church, or play the most?  Work?!  Well, this one’s going to be a hard worker, isn’t he?!  OK, so out of the rest of the three, which do you like to do the most – go to school, go to church, or play?  Church?!  Well, he’s a serious boy!”  I got the feeling that many of these kids were answering with what they thought their parents would like to hear rather than what they’d actually do if they had the choice – some parents even answered for their kids.

Survey in Naranjo

Other questions were meant for the adults, to determine their level of income and to survey how many children they have, etc.  Tab wanted me to help get these surveys started and report back to him, and I was very interested in helping; this was a good excuse to ask questions I was already extremely curious to know about anyway.  It also made me feel like a pampered fool for complaining about my job.

Naranjo cleared field

Take this field for example, which has been cleared and is almost ready to plant.  First, the trees were cut down; then, organic beans were planted to choke out the rest of the vegetation; and then a man came through with a machete, stooped low so he could reach, and cut everything down as it is seen in this picture.  That man was paid 100 Córdobas a day by the other farmer who owns the land, which is $4, something I make in less 15 minutes of sitting down in an air-conditioned room, often googling pictures of cats or complaining that my work isn’t meaningful.  My grandma could barely get me to mow her lawn for $35 when I was a kid even though all I’d have to do is walk behind a lawn-mower that moved itself, turn it when I got to the end of a row, and listen to music.  It took about three hours to mow that lawn, so I made $11.67 an hour.  Then my brother and I would complain about how strict she was when she’d take us around the lawn and point out all the spots we missed and ask us to finish it up or grab the gas-powered leaf blower to blow the grass off the sidewalk.    A pampered American, indeed . . . .

Britney’s secret mission

In Nicaragua, dogs are there for the same reason they came around us to begin with – they stay because we have food and we let them because they’re useful.  They keep away the snakes, rodents, and everything else that creeps around in the jungle, and warn us if anyone else is coming close.  But if they eat the chicken or get in our way, whack. They get pretty good at staying a few feet away but still begging, and they don’t like to get very close.

Dogs in Nicaragua

Britney, with her feminine sensibilities (*bracing for a slap), and being the American that she is, made it her goal to gain the trust of the little dog you see in this picture.  She slowly came closer and closer, and Britney would hold on to the food until she came as close as she would, and eventually she even ate right out of her hand.  It was quick, though, quick enough to be hard to catch on camera, and this was the only picture I got when she was close.  Britney had a friend and the dog had a new source of food, and both felt pretty good about the whole arrangement.

When I feed my dog at home, he, also being a pampered American, lets it sits in his dish until he feels like eating.  With three or four other dogs around, as well as pigs and chickens competing for the scraps, these dogs on the farm don’t hesitate and they don’t chew.  I tossed them some grilled meat I couldn’t finish (having been fed about eight times that day) and it was gone in a second, the dogs swallowing as quickly as possible so they’d have room in case anything was left, and then looking up at me with their round eyes to see if I had anything else to give.  I suspect that having round eyes and eyebrows is one of the gifts of evolution that have kept dogs fed for millenia.

Mountain time

Sleepin in hammocks

Things go at their own pace in the mountains; clocks don’t dictate what a person does or send them anxiously running so they can be “on time.”  We had told every family to meet us at 4:00 in the school for a community meeting and we had showed up a little early.  4:00 came and went, and people straggled in and chatted or watched the movie someone had started on the TV, and no one did anything.  5:00 came and went and I got nervous about wasting people’s time.  I didn’t want them to be upset about missing out on the work they needed to do because we had told them to come to a meeting.  I asked Maria and she smiled at me and said, “Oh, that’s what we call mountain time.  We say 4:00, but people come when they come.  When everyone is here we’ll start.”  I wonder if I could convince my boss of this philosophy the next time I’m written up for being late.

TV is amazing when you haven’t watched it for awhile.  Its pull is almost unavoidable, even if it’s a kid’s program that’s on.  When I was a Mormon missionary and I hadn’t watched TV for over a year, I had a companion who was completely useless if a TV was playing in the house – his eyes would be pulled towards it and there was no way to get him back, so I’d have to go on without him.  So it was with Britney, and, I suppose, with these people who had only recently obtained electricity and probably hadn’t watched more than a few hours of programming in their entire lives.  The movie was Kungfu Futbol and I highly recommend it – after a few weeks of not watching TV it’ll become one of your favorite movies of all time.  Britney’s zombie TV-watching face can attest to that.

Everyone finally having arrived, the meeting began.  María is an excellent community connector and she’s also pretty blunt when things aren’t being done as they should be.  In this community, there were still some things that hadn’t been take care of (the name hadn’t been painted on the school and the floor hadn’t had a second layer of protective coating placed over it) and María did what she does best and called a few people out on it.  The response was good.  Everyone came to agreement, some plans were set, and the meeting was done after about an hour.

Project Schoolhouse school

Dancing

The day’s tasks done, this trip was complete.  The next morning we were to travel back to Rio Blanco early in the morning and then catch a bus from there to Managua – eight hours of bus travel in total, before sleeping in a hotel and then leaving by airplane back to the States.  We had one night left here in the mountains, away from commerce, away from everything we had to do and that we wanted to become, a night to take a shower outside as the sun set, to chat in the dark with no natural or artificial light to distract us from where we were, and to enjoy Nicaragua.

Sun set in Nicaragua mountains

Without any city lights around for a hundred miles, it gets very dark and the stars all come out.  As we chatted outside the home we were to sleep in, María, Manuel, Britney and I, along with a couple of the farmers, darkness fell, but our conversation continued.  It was fun, talking and laughing with friends you can no longer see.  I think it always is.  It reminds me of having sleep-overs when I was a kid and has that mischievous energy we used to get when we did something we weren’t supposed to (“Turn out the lights and go to sleep!”).  With people of a different culture, and while speaking a different language, some of the obvious differences between us were taken away with the setting of the sun.  We couldn’t see skin color, clothing, or even the mountains and the huts around us.  We could have been anywhere and anyone.  We were just friends and acquaintances sitting on our back porch and talking.

As the sun set, the fireflies came out.  They were larger than any I’ve seen before.  Britney had never seen fireflies at all and was completely enamored with them.  We went into the large clearing next to the home and tried to catch some of the fireflies with our hands.  After failing for a few minutes, Manuel came to help us.  Smiling, as he often is, he showed us that the bugs were attracted by light.  That’s why they lit up in the first place, he said – to attract mates.  He used my cell phone’s flashlight app to get a few to come near and, sure enough, caught a couple for Britney to see.

I felt, for a moment, as if we were in some enchanted forest, the kind we read about when we were kids, and imagined that these were some sort of magical creatures around us, fairies or something else.  I grabbed Britney’s hand and placed my other hand on her waste, and told her I loved her.  We rocked and turned, laughed and sighed, and smiled against each others’ faces.

In the middle of Nicaragua, a recently engaged couple danced in the darkness, a shifting blanket of fireflies below and around them, stars above.

The long road home

We woke first to the sounds of the mountain farm (roosters, dogs, insects, birds) and then, finally, to the light of the sun.  It was cold, and fog had settled in the low points of every part of the mountains, making for beautiful scenery.  I snuck back to my cot before the others woke up (it gets really cold at night and Britney and I both had only one thin blanket).  We packed our things, Manuel grabbed the desk from the school, and we headed out to the place on the road where the bus would pass and pick us up.

One thing Britney had not yet done, because for some reason the buses we had ridden so far wouldn’t allow it, was to ride on top.  When we got to Wánawá, the driver told us it would be OK and we joined four of five other passengers for the hour and a half of the ride we had back to Rio Blanco.  This is, I think, the best way to travel, as long as you make sure to duck under the power lines and tree branches.

The sky was cloudless and the sun was warm.  We were in that perfect place where the wind from the bus’s movement took away the sting of the heat, but the sun kept us from getting cold.  A group of 20-year-old kids were on top of the bus with us, sitting on a spare tire, a chicken inside a bag placed in the tire’s hole.  One of them picked up old cocoa beans that had collected in the grooves of the bus’s metal roof, unzipped his friend’s bookbag, and put them in without him knowing.  Then he looked back at us and laughed.

We were tired.  This was the end of our trip.  We lied back on the bags of cocoa beans and alternated between napping and looking up at the trees and clouds passing over head.

The world looks very different when it’s upside down and moving past you, and when you aren’t looking ahead to see what turns you’re about to make.  It’s nice just to live in that moment and enjoy it, thinking of how glad you are to be there.

On top of a bus in NicaraguaSleeping on top of the bus

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Thanks for reading!  If you’d like to read from the beginning, here’s the intro.

I’d love to hear what you think – if you have any feedback, let me know!  Or if you’ve gone on a similar trip and want to reminisce about it, I’m all ears.

Also – if you need any help with traveling to Nicaragua, or if you know of any great nonprofits down there that I haven’t talked about, let me know.

Happy travels, friends.

Christmas in La Chureca: Be Awesome and Buy Some Jewelry!

When I think about developing countries, one of the first things that comes to my mind is busy, hectic markets, people haggling for lower prices, and some serious pressure to buy every single thing from every person you pass.

Millions of different people search for their own ways to make a living, copying each other when someone finds something that works.  A guy hops on a bus to sell soda, riding with the bus for a few kilometers and shouting “Gaseosa! Gaseosa barrata!” over and over again, then gets off and rides another bus back, making a profit of 4 to 8 cents from each soda he sells.  People copy him and soon there is a vibrant market around buses: people selling nuts, ice water, bandanas, jewelry, candy, packets of fruit, everything you can think of.  (It’s a simplistic way of viewing it, but you get the point).

La Chureca

The tough and highly competitive economy is one of the things that drove people to the trash dumps to find a living – some of them went there and found that they could sell enough trash to survive, and others copied.  After a huge earthquake in the 70’s which left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, some people went to “La Chureca” and many have stayed ever since.

They’re at a crossroads now: the dump has been closed and one person from each family has been given a job at a recycling plant.  It’s very exciting!

But . . . there are still many problems, the largest of which is that they’ll actually be making less money per family than they were before.  They’re working hard to find new sources of income . . . and you can help.

Four months ago, Manna Project International brought some of the women together, paid a Nicaraguan jewelry-maker to teach them to make beautiful jewelry, and gave them supplies to start.  So . . .

This Christmas, buy the gift that keeps on giving!

Ha, I almost died putting that cliche on the computer, but . . . it works.  I’ll show you how.  With every piece of jewelry you buy, you:

  1. Help these women in their goal to find new income.  I really liked the jewelry I saw from them and want them to do well.  The more of these that sell in the States the more income these women have available to them, the more opportunities they have to get better at jewelry crafting.
  2. Are connected more to their story.  With how unique this jewelry is, people are going to ask you questions.  It’s a great chance to let more people know about poverty in Nicaragua and one great way of helping them pull out of it.
  3. Um . . . well, you look awesome, of course.

Every cent of revenue I get from this will go back into the community – either by buying more jewelry from them or by donating to Manna Project International.

So there ya go!  Be the awesome flower child you are, buy some amazing jewelry, and help out some of Nicaragua’s poorest (and great) women at the same time.  What more could we ask for?

Here’s my attempt at an awesome phrase for this whole thing . . . are you ready?

“Buy it because it’s beautiful.  Wear it because you’re . . . beautiful?  A hippie with some amazing taste in jewelry?  Awesome?”   Um, well . . . ya, that’s where my awesome jingle comes to an end.  I’m still ironing out the details, as you can tell.

Click here to go to the store:

Since you’re awesome and you made it this far in the blog post, here’s a coupon!  Use the code “ChurecaBlog” and you’ll get free shipping on anything over $18.  Yes, $18 seems random.

Some pics for your viewing pleasure

🙂

Do you want your jewelry shipped straight to someone else for Christmas?  Send me an email when you order and I’ll do that, include whatever personal message you want, and even gift wrap it for you.

Whew, giving just got easy.