Australian Visions of a Nicaraguan Landscape

Photography and Philanthropy in Nicaragua


I couldn’t help but overhear them, and I didn’t try very hard not to either. The first thing they said repulsed me, I wasn’t entirely sure why. The second confirmed my feeling: these people don’t understand Nicaragua.

I don’t much, either, for that matter. The first time I flew to Nicaragua, airplane thoughts became goals in my journal, scribbled questions I might be able to ask people I would meet. I wanted, above all, to leave with an understanding of what it was like to be a Nicaraguan.

“What’s your passion? What do you love to do?”
“What’s your greatest difficulty? Your greatest hope?”
“How much do you make a day?”
“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?”

At the bottom of the list, I summarized the questions: “If I were born a Nicaraguan, what would I think like, aspire to, fear, and regret?”


Nicaraguan kids


As it turns out, those answers don’t come easily from a conversation with a stranger on the street. My ambition was admirable, but understanding a people requires much more than ten days of curious questioning. I wanted to see behind the mask of everyone I met, to see others for who they were.

We do not travel as empty vessels. We do not see the world as it is. We see the world through our own history, our own country’s standards, our own myths. We see the world as outsiders. The goal of good travel is not merely to compare what we see with what we’re used to, but to see the world through the eyes of the people we meet.  Good travel is not easy.

I found myself eavesdropping shamelessly on the Australians next to me and scribbling the agitated thoughts their conversation guided.

“Don’t take any pictures that are too terribly sad,” one counseled the other. They talked of the great suffering of these people, and how sad it was. I recoiled at the tone of it. Feeling certain they saw more suffering than existed, Western eyes grading a developing country by Western standards, giving the people a test they don’t care to take.

Later, “It’s so beautiful here.” “I know,” another responded, “I’m reluctant to put pictures on Facebook because it looks like I’m in a tropical paradise.”

The contradiction of these two thoughts was apparent to me, and I seethed at their attitude towards this place. On one hand, they saw a great suffering but didn’t want to express it by photography or words so they wouldn’t depress others who saw and read. On the other hand, they saw great beauty but didn’t want to express it so others wouldn’t think they were having an easy time in paradise.

Why not just express the truth?

Ah, but the truth isn’t easy to come by. To find the truth we have to become a Nicaraguan, learn their history, lament for their losses, revel in their revolution, awake in terror in the night for fear of assassins, glorify the jungle rebel who fights against all odds. We must smile at the beauty around us.

We must not carry our own country with us, but walk naked through the streets and allow those we meet to clothe us.

That’s what I aim to do.


Survey in Naranjo


Here are some upcoming articles I’ll be doing about Nicaragua.  If you have any questions you’re curious about, send them to me.

  • Anger towards America
  • Contras and Sandinistas
  • History Timeline
  • The Jaguar Smile, a book review
  • With the Contras, a book review
  • Blood of Brothers, a book review
  • Transition from La Chureca to Villa Guadalupe, what it was like for the people
  • Economics – wages of bus drivers, taxis, what tourism does to a city
  • Writing from Villa Guadalupe’s students

Please subscribe, share, and let me know you’re reading!

– Jeff

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









All Four Kids Are Going to School!

Happy news!  All four of the children now have a sponsor and will be attending private school!  Thanks so much to all those who offered to sponsor – we have the great problem of having too many sponsors and too few children ready to receive the scholarships!  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

If you’d still like to help the community out, Manna Project International is doing some amazing work with them.  Also, I may have a few things up my sleeve for later this year . . . so stick around.

More on La Chureca:

Managua Nicaragua La Chureca Scavengers

Two Kids from La Chureca Looking For Sponsors

For the past year, my mom and I have sponsored two children from La Chureca, paying so they could go to a private school outside of the landfill.

The kids worked hard, but private school is difficult and there has been a lot of change going on around them, including the community being moved to concrete homes together with people from other extremely poor areas of Managua.

This year, our scholarship director in Nicaragua, a nurse who has been serving the people of La Chureca for over a decade and who volunteers her time to help administer these scholarships, has two more children who she thinks are up for the challenge of private school – all they need is the funding.

Benefits of private school over public school:

  1. Smaller class sizes.
  2. Higher discipline.
  3. Access to a psychologist, a library, and a computer lab.
  4. Incentives to be the best in their class (half-tuition paid for).
  5. ENGLISH!  This is huge.

Here’s how it works as a sponsor:

  • Just $25 each month for tuition
  • $80 at the beginning of the year for supplies, books, and a yearly fee from the school.
  • You’ll receive letters from your student and progress reports on how they’re doing.

There is a little bit of a time crush – If these two kids are going to attend private school this year, we actually need to get the money to them this weekend . . . . sometimes communicating back and forth via email is a little difficult, so I just received the student’s pictures today.

Without further ado . . . here are the potential students!

Ana will be going into first grade :)


This is Ana, and she will be going into the 1st grade 🙂


Nicaragua Scholarships

And this is Cristofer, who will be going into 3rd grade!

Let me know if you’re interested in sponsoring one of these promising children and I’ll get you some more info!

As you may know, a good education is one of the number one ways to help end the cycle of poverty.  In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Also, a little fact – your donations helped kick-start this whole program in 2012.  Thanks again for your help!

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.

4 Donation Projects Funded By You!

On my first trip to Nicaragua I asked you to donate a few bucks through me; I would keep my eyes open on my trip and get something nice for a random person along the way.  You donated $250 that went to three great people, and that article has become one of the favorites on this blog.  It showed many of us how far even a small donation can go in making someones day a little better and, I feel, connected us to those people in a real way.  When I opened up the donation pool for this trip 33 people were involved–family, friends, and readers–donating a total of $775!  The smallest donation was $5 and the largest was $100, and every one of those dollars counted.  Here are the stories of the four little projects we did we those donations.

Mariselda Bonía Martín

Buying a girl a bike in Nicaragua

Mariselda lives on Ometepe Island in the community of Los Ramos with her two parents and three siblings. She is 10-years-old, loves math and reading, and she also happens to have polio. Polio has affected her ability to walk normally, giving her stiff limbs and tight tendons that don’t respond well. Her parents started taking her to therapy when she was two-years-old, a long and expensive trip across the lake to Rivas.  The treatments went well and she learned to walk on her own, but over time her tendons have tightened again.  She can no longer walk safely, especially on steep and rocky paths around her home.

We approached their house with Ever Potoy, our new friend who was showing us around the community, and sat down to chat.  It took a little prodding to get her to talk with each question we asked, but we slowly got to know her.  After talking awhile with her mom and explaining what we do, I asked Mariselda what she would like us to do for her. She didn’t answer for a couple of minutes, but we waited, wanting to get her what she wanted more than what we thought she should have. I said, “If we could get you anything, what would you want?” At this point I hadn’t used any of the money in the donation pool – though I wasn’t going to use it all on one person, I wanted to do something important for her if I could.

Finally she answered: “To be able to walk.”  We spent the next twenty minutes asking what we could do to help her with that.  What she probably needs is another medical operation that could cure her of polio, but since we couldn’t afford that we went with the next best thing.

We used $184 for Mariselda (4,416 Córdobas)

  •  A new bike so her dad can take her to therapy – 2,000 Córdobas ($83)
  •  A seat for the back of the bike that Mariselda could sit on – 180 Córdobas ($7.50)
  •  A wrench for the bike – 100 Córdobas ($4.20)
  •  A new bed (she was sleeping on a wooden board with foam on it, we figured she deserved something nice just for her) – 1,500 Cóordobas ($62.50)
  • Some spending money for a few other things (tubes for the bike, a charger for her school computer that has educational games and stuff like that on it, and books) – 500 Córdobas ($20.80).

At her young age there still may be a chance that therapy will enable her to walk, but she needs to go twice a week.  With how busy both of her parents are it was impossible for them to do that on foot.  To help you understand their family’s income, every year Mariselda’s dad rents an acre and half of land for 2,500 Córdobas ($104). He plants beans, rice, and corn, and then sells that, earning about 5,000 Córdobas from each harvest ($208). I think there are two or three harvests each year.  Buying that bike on his own is probably something he never would have been able to do.

Mariselda with her bike, Ometepe

My friend Ever is going to continue sending pictures as she goes to therapy. I really hope her therapy works! She is a bright girl with a lot of potential, her family just didn’t have enough money to do this themselves.

La Chureca

The next three donation projects were all in La Chureca, Managua’s city dump, where over 1,000 people live, sorting through trash and selling what they can.  There are already some nonprofits doing great work to assist them with living healthily and transitioning to a different life. There are a lot of needs there.  The following three tell the story of La Chureca well, showing a variety of the issues that confront the people and the things that can be done to help.

Santa Reina

Santa Reina in La Chureca

Santa Reina was 6-years old when her family moved to La Chureca, coming in from the mountain farmlands of Matagalpa shortly after her mother died.  When her father couldn’t find any work they moved onto the trash dump to make enough money to survive.  Her father was abusive and negligent.  Santa Reina and her sisters had to find their own food until they got boyfriends and left home, Santa Reina at age 15, but they didn’t move away from the dump: it is home, it is the life they know.  Santa Reina told me,  “Even though it’s a house of plastic, here I am with my companion and my two children.”

A few months ago, Santa Reina became very pale and started bleeding from her gums.  The bleeding wouldn’t stop, she became increasingly weak, and finally went to the hospital where she stayed 42 days before leaving to be home with her kids.  She was diagnosed with a rare blood condition called aplastic anemia, an extremely dangerous disease in its advanced stages with Santa Reina.  Her doctor believes she only has a few more months to live.

Anemia, in its general and less severe form, is a condition that affects the usefulness of red blood cells.  Sickle Cell Anemia, for example, is a specific type of anemia in which red blood cells are crescent-shaped, inhibiting them from doing what they’re supposed to be able to do.  Anemia is common in impoverished areas.  Without enough nutrients like iron, B12, and folate, our bodies can’t produce the red blood cells it needs to operate healthily.

Aplastic anemia is an advanced and rare type of anemia affecting not only red blood cells, but the production of white cells and platelets as well.  Without enough red blood cells to carry oxygen, enough white blood cells to fight infection, and enough platelets to stop bleeding, those in advanced stages of aplastic anemia don’t live for long without treatment.  While many people in La Chureca are diagnosed with Anemia due to malnutrition, three have been diagnosed with aplastic anemia.  They happen to all live next to each other.

With a probability of 1.5 people out of 1,000,000 for someone to contract aplastic anemia (in the US, but it’s the only stat I have), the likelihood that three people who live next to each other will all contract the disease is almost impossible unless it was caused by a toxin common to all three.  The dump is very toxic, but John Doty, a doctor from Austin who helps fund the clinic, thinks the cause was likely lead.  Residents of La Chureca breathe fumes from burning trash, touch the toxins directly that are left behind on old trash, and have been known to fish and do laundry in the highly polluted pond by their community.

Pond in Managua's trash dump
Decades of trash runoff has accumulated in the pond. The highest toxicity levels have been found in the people who lived closest to it.

At this point, Santa Reina’s treatment is just about trying to help her have a comfortable life before she passes.  The permanent solution to this in the States is a bone marrow transplant or a treatment based specifically on the toxin that caused the condition.  Even with a bone marrow transplant, which would be very expensive, she probably wouldn’t live longer than five years more.

By getting blood transfusions, Santa Reina’s blood is replaced with the healthy blood of someone else.  Temporarily her body all the blood cells it needs again.  Volunteers say she’s instantly happy, energetic, and talkative after returning from the hospital.  As the days pass she becomes weak, begins bleeding from her gums again, and starts to faint easily.

Children in La Chureca
Yoanna and Sarah playing behind me while talking with Santa Reina. Sarah is one of the children with aplastic anemia

We used a total of $271 to fund the clinic in doing the following things:

  • To provide extra medical care for Santa Reina.  Right now she’s receiving a little more than one transfusion a month.  We wanted to help her have more frequent transfusions, if possible.   We hope more transfusions will mean she’s at home with her kids more often, something extremely important to her (when she was hospitalized for 42 days she eventually just got up and left because she didn’t want to be away from her kids for that long).
  • To pay for tests to see what caused the blood condition.  Though Santa Reina is at the end of her life, it’s possible that something could be done for the neighboring kids. With a better understanding of what caused their aplastic anemia more effective treatment can be given.  MPI has a volunteer who is a pre-med student, JJ, who has taken special interest in Santa Reina.  JJ will work with Dr. John Doty, sending him information he needs to do remote tests from Austin, TX.
  • To provide iron supplements, mouthwash, and milk for her and the kids. Iron competes with lead and other toxins in blood cells, decreasing the amount of time it takes for the body to remove toxins, as well as being a main nutrient needed in red blood cells.  Mouthwash is for those times when Santa Reina’s gums are bleeding and she can’t brush her teeth.

This video is eight-minutes long, I didn’t have time to cut it, but just wanted to let you hear her voice and see her personality.  I’ll subtitle it later.

Right now volunteers have been paying for some of the things for Santa Reina out of their own pocket.  She’s technically outside of their mission, but they all love her, she’s very nice and always happy to see them, and they want to help.  Hopefully this donation will help alleviate some of that cost.


Esmeralda is the head nurse and social worker in the clinic within La Chureca.  Being Nicaraguan herself, and with 10 years of experience in giving medical and social care to residents of La Chureca, I’m not sure there are many people who understand their needs better than her.  In our candid conversation about issues in La Chureca she brought up an unmet need – scholarships for promising children to go to private school outside the dump.

Scholarships to 2 kids in La chureca

As she and the principle of the school explain it, going to private school means more opportunity for the children: smaller class sizes, higher discipline, access to a psychologist, a library, and a computer lab.  Also, children are given incentives to be the best in their class – the top student in each class has their tuition cut in half.  They begin English courses from preschool all the way through 15-years old, an absolutely huge competitive advantage for them (there are many telecommunication companies that pay very well in Managua, and more opportunities to come as Nicaragua develops).

We used $210 on scholarships, giving two children the opportunity of a better education

  • $80 each for beginning of the year costs (books, supplies, uniforms, etc.)
  • $25 each for the first month’s tuition

Meet the students:

Scholarships in La Chureca

Judith Mercedes Contreras Betancur – 11 years old, in 4th grade of primary school.

Scholarships to private school in la chureca

Roberto Antonio Martinez Chavez – 15 years old, in 1st grade of secondary school.
We’ve only provided the first month’s tuition for these two students – if you’d like to become one of their permanent sponsors please let me know!  It costs exactly what is above – $25 a month, $80 at the beginning of the year.  Esmeralda will be coordinating all of this in her spare time – I’ll send her the money each month and she’ll send me receipts, grades, and she’ll also send letters from the kids to the sponsor so you can be up to date (again all her idea).  Also, if one of the kids gets the best grades in their class and earns half-cost tuition, we’d like to do something special for them.  Kids have two breaks each year–one in summer and one in winter–and Esmeralda would like to give them the money they saved on tuition as spending money.
The impact of a good education can make a huge difference for a child – consider signing up to support one of these two 🙂

Jewelry Cooperative

Jewelry made in la chureca
Picture courtesy of Manna Project International

There are a lot of challenges facing the people of La Chureca.  With the Spanish program almost at completion, residents will be moving into their new homes shortly.  It’s a great opportunity, but presents a lot of challenges as well.  For example, they won’t be able to bring their animals with them, they’ll have less income, and they’ll have to pay electricity and water bills for the first time of their lives.

Four months ago, Manna Project International launched a jewelry cooperative, bringing women together to learn a new skill and have the chance for more income throughout their lives.  MPI received a $27,000 grant from Walmart to get started, but will soon be self-sufficient from sales.

handmade jewelry from nicaragua

They’re selling the jewelry in local malls and in the Airport, and are constantly looking for new retailers in Nicaragua, but so far haven’t found anyone to sell it in the States.

I’d like to help with that.

Jewelry from Managua Nicaragua
Made from cans and bottles

We purchased $105 worth of jewelry with your donations and brought it back with us to get started, and are working on being permanent retailers, hoping to provide consistent demand for their jewelry to help them have a better life.  More details to come 🙂

Special thanks

First of all, thank you so much to everyone who donated!  I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do.  I’ll do my best to keep you up to date with our new Nicaraguan friends so you know how things are going.

Also, thanks to the nonprofits and people who helped me while in country.  Outmore Adventures, Manna Project International, Austin Samaritans, and the many others I’ve come into contact with since.

If you’d like to help

This trip was part of my continuing goal to understand philanthropy and find the type of nonprofit work I want to focus on.  I’m looking for an unmet need that matches my skill-set, something that I believe in passionately enough to [hopefully] make a long term impact.

I’ll be going on more trips, every 4 or 6 months.  I pay for the trips myself, but open it up to you to donate through me.  100% of every donation goes to the people the donation was meant for – I pay all the PayPal, ATM, and conversion fees.  If you’d like to be a part of it next time just send me an email and I’ll let you know when I’m accepting donations!

Also, if you’d like me to take a look at your nonprofit or an organization you think is doing some great work, I’d love to hear from you!

Check out the album on Facebook

Thanks for coming, and please – share this story with your friends 🙂

Chapter 4 -Poverty and Happiness in La Chureca

Life in extreme poverty
I’ve never felt comfortable with charity advertisements that display starving children with vacant looks in their eyes.  I have yet see a child with that expression.  After going to the mountains of Nicaragua and finding out how little the farmers there earn I thought maybe I didn’t notice those vacant-faced children because of the beautiful surroundings or because kids were excited to see a gringo, but in La Chureca I was left without an excuse.  Here is a place with almost every possible problem of extreme poverty.  Where were the sad children I’ve been seeing on billboards and TV spots my whole life?  I’m sure it’s true, that I don’t see the whole picture, but I have yet to see it myself, even once.

It’s the happiness that moves me the most.  It’s the deeper realization that these people are exactly like me.  It’s playing soccer with them in an alley, saying “Pass it to me!” to a kid named Jeffrey, when my name is Jefferson.  It’s panting to catch my breath after trying to get the ball past Alejandro.  It’s laughing with them and giving high fives.  It’s going by the school and having a little boy I didn’t know come and hug my legs because he wanted me to pick him up and talk to him.  It’s seeing these things in contrast with the difficulties they live in that motivate me.

Playing with kids in La Chureca

But showing happy children, apparently, doesn’t tug on the heart strings of consumers enough to get the donations needed.  While the ad runs over our flatscreen TVs and we watch from our plush leather couches we see see these children depicted as destitute, depraved, down and out, sad and dying, and I don’t think we connect.  To the degree that these tear-jerking ads take away from that human connection they take away from what could be done to help.  They place these people in a world that can’t be understood by us outsiders, we who have never gone hungry a day of our lives unless it was on purpose.  I’m not saying the sad children don’t exist, but that nonprofits use that image too much.

That’s also why I’m not going to claim that the work I’m doing is anything amazing. If you were to go on a trip of your own you’d find that seeing poverty isn’t some holy experience that transcends normal daily routine.  I say that only because most people who return from a trip, when asked about it, get a faraway look in their eyes, shake their heads slowly, and say something like “It was amazing . . . .”  Really, it’s a lot of riding on uncomfortable buses, walking down dusty paths, and talking with normal people.  It’s a lot of normal things, a lot of regular work.  It’s rewarding, yes.  But it’s ordinary.  I travel to other countries to learn about poverty, meet new people, and see if I can do something to help.  If I go to great lengths to brand these trips as something great, I’m such an awesome person, or wow, look at me!, which I think many writers do, I might get more readers or more donations, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth.  If I do take artistic license and exaggerate what poverty is like I’m robbing you of a genuine experience and setting unrealistic expectations for the service you give yourself.

Walking into La Chureca

Walking into La Chureca was the most intimate exposure to poverty I’ve ever had.  Today I’ll take you with me on a tour through the dump, showing you the only images my camera captured – images of happy people just like you and I living in an incredibly difficult place.

Going through la Chureca

We took a taxi to the entrance of La Chureca, Managua’s city dump, and met up with some volunteers from Manna Project International to look around and meet some of the 1,000 or more people who live there and sort through the trash for a living.  As we rode we started asking questions to one of the volunteers who probably didn’t realize beforehand how incessantly we were about to quiz her.  The little taxi bounced over the dirt road, the sun was up and bright, the air cool and dusty, and we chatted about the things around us.

The homes are made from materials scavenged in the dump: wooden frames, if there is a frame at all; walls formed from sheets of plastic, old banners, advertisements, chicken-wire, sheet-metal, or wooden boards; and roofs formed from metal or plastic.  They are clumped together in seemingly random neighborhoods, separated and accessed by dirt paths crossed often by trails of opaque white water, non-useful trash laying everywhere. Dogs, all stunted from quick successions of generations that ate very little, can be found curled up under shade at almost every turn.

Walking around La Chureca city dump in managua

Being pulled in two directions

Within this bleak and destitute setting are beautiful and happy children, smiling, laughing, and playing together.  Britney and I had the unique opportunity of meeting the families – we didn’t just drive around the dump, snap some pictures, and check La Chureca off of our list.  We wanted to understand these people, hear their stories, and see what it was like to be them, as much as possible, anyway.  It was at once humbling to see how little they live on, confusing to see some who wouldn’t participate in programs that were there to help them and their kids, and frustrating to find gaping holes in government aid programs aimed at relocating them and giving them a new type of work.

With most poverty I’ve observed, I recognize it, I hear how little they make and see how little they have, but I still feel like they are normal, they’re doing OK, and they live a good life.  I see how their life is rewarding in spite of challenges.  Nonprofits help them have more opportunity, better healthcare, loans, education, water, all of those amazing things, but they’re still just regular people you can sit down and chat with.

Poverty in la chureca

Those who live in La Chureca give me that same feeling, but embittered with a strong resistance to their way of living.  It’s difficult for an outsider to understand, but many of them choose to be there in the dump.  They have the same characteristics found in every other type of society: pride for their lifestyle, fear of change, and stubbornness in their ways of doing things.  They also live in a highly contaminated area and their children contract stomach viruses from eating bad food and walking without shoes.  Drug, alcohol, and domestic abuse rates are very high.  Living their life is dangerous to them and their kids.

I can see myself in them, understand their decision, and take pride with them in their possessions because I know how hard it was for them to obtain them. The sense of horror at the way they live comes from concern for their well being – an acknowledgement that I, if I were in their place, would have a much shorter lifespan, much more sickness, much less confidence, much more likelihood of being addicted to drugs, and much less education.  I would work hard from when I was young, chastised by my dad if I didn’t.  As a boy, I would be likely to have over a dozen sexual partners in a month.  If I were a girl, I would be likely to become pregnant with my first child at 13, the father would be resistant to providing for it or taking responsibility, I would be encouraged not to use birth control because it’s expensive, I may become a prostitute for truck drivers so I could feed my family, I would be at high risk for HIV, I would have a much higher chance of being a victim of domestic abuse, both as a child and an adult.

bathing in la chureca

So it was that when going through La Chureca, and when thinking about it now, I was pulled by two sides: the basic human connection on one, deep pain on the other.  The first is the side that related with the people, played soccer the kids, picked up a boy who hugged my legs, and turned the camera around to take pictures of myself with four smiling kids who were excited to see their image in the LCD screen.  The second was the side that saw the high number of risks and problems they encounter every day.

These sides make it difficult to approach the problem of philanthropy–you want to give them opportunity, but can’t and don’t want to force change they don’t want–but they also increase the desire to act to help them.  When I found an unmet need, a way I could help the other nonprofits be more successful in each of their initiatives, I was very excited.  I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about it.

Happy kids in la chureca
The little boy who hugged my legs. In this picture he’s correcting me because I couldn’t get his name right 🙂

The Spanish development plan

You would probably be shocked to find out these people have new homes about a half mile away, with a recycling plant offering a job to one person of each household, yet many of them won’t move in.  This is a perfect example of one of the problems with big government aid: they try to solve things right now, dump millions of dollars into the project, and don’t consider all the possible effects.  If we were to give that money to small projects that are doing things that work on a small budget we’d see slow, steady change.  Here’s how it happened:

In 2007 the queen of Spain visited Nicaragua and toured through La Chureca for a part of her trip.  She saw the deep and destitute poverty, was moved by a desire to help, and pledged her support.  Since then, Spain has invested $45 million in three projects: building new housing for residents of La Chureca in two sites, one inside the dump and one right outside; covering all the open trash with dirt; and building a recycling plant.  The project would close the dump and convert it to an efficient recycling plant, giving residents a good job and a good home.

If you or I were in La Chureca, born there and victim there to the many difficulties of that lifestyle, we would probably latch on to that program as soon as we could, right?  Here’s an opportunity for a real home, a real job, and a healthy future for me and my family!

In January 2011 came the first “move-in” date.  The government set the date, told the communities, and then crossed their fingers.  It came and passed without event and officials decided to push the date forward to March, then to July, then to November 15th, and then to November 20th.  At the time of reading this the date will have been pushed forward one or two more times.

New housing in La chureca
The new housing in the back, the old housing in the front, buzzards everywhere.

To the volunteers who have been working in the area for years this has come as no surprise.  There are three main problems with the Spanish project.

  1. First of all, residents of La Chureca currently have water and electricity provided for them by the city, but they’ll have to pay for it themselves when they move.  Besides the burden of increased expenses, they’re going to have a hard time paying a bill – almost all of them are illiterate and have never paid a “bill” in their lives, living on cash with their own internal economic system.  They understand money, but getting them to pay bills will take training to read and understand them first, which is not part of the Spanish plan.
  2. The second problem is income.  The average income of someone who sorts through trash in La Chureca is $8-10 a week, or $34.60 to 43.30 a month.  That means that if a family of six is sorting through trash–the father, four kids, and the mother–they’re bringing in $207 to 260 a month.  Under the new plan the dump will be shut down, but the head of the household will receive a job at the recycling plant with a wage of $100-130 a month (minimum wage in Nicaragua).
  3. The third problem is that residents won’t be able to bring their animals to their new homes with them.  That makes sense since it probably wouldn’t be healthy to have a bunch of animals in those concrete homes, but it’s another quick, forced change of lifestyle.

Other concerns

There are other smaller problems with this quick-change approach.  What will the people do with their homes?  They’ve built them up over a period of years by scavenging valuable materials from the dump.  These are people that value everything, so I don’t see them giving it up.  I think they’ll bring their old homes with them, along with other things, and soon their new homes will be as filled with trash as their old ones.  There is a neighborhood outside La Chureca where others from other impoverished areas have already been moved.  Doesn’t that create a situation that favors the worst in the society?  There is a lot of drug abuse, theft, prostitution, and violence right now, but people basically know who the bad ones are.  Put them in new housing next to strangers in the same economic situation and anonymity favors the worst of them.  It will be a rough transition.

In short, moving into the new homes means more expenses, lower income, and a changed lifestyle.  I’m not sure whether these problems stem from idealistic philanthropy (thinking the people would run to these new homes if given the opportunity) or poor planning (not considering the negative effects of quick change pushed by outsiders), but the Spanish don’t seem to be willing to consider them even now when it’s brought up by the volunteers who are concerned for the people they’ve been assisting for years.  It seems that the already strained nonprofits will have to take on more responsibility to help residents of La Chureca adjust to their new lifestyle.

touring through la chureca

A rare opportunity

The day was done, and we headed back to the clinic one more time before calling in a little taxi and leaving La Chureca for the day.  Esmeralda, the head nurse, came up and said if I had any questions she’d love to help me out.  I told her I’d love to take her to lunch or dinner when she was done with work and she took me up on it.

I was glad to have the chance to interview someone from the clinic about La Chureca–I still had a hundred questions and wanted to see this issue from multiple perspectives–but didn’t yet appreciate how important and rare of an opportunity this was.  I’ve done a few interviews for this blog and have gained a general sense of when someone is saying something important.  In some interviews I left with one quote in mind, often telling Britney, “Yeah, it went great, and I got the most golden quote of all time.”  This informal interview with Esmeralda quickly gained that feeling of importance.  I had the chance of talking with someone who had been working hard in La Chureca for a decade as a nurse and social worker, possibly making her the person with the most experience in La Chureca.  This interview would give me more correct and clear information than weeks of study on my computer.

We got some chicken, a couple of beers, and had a straightforward, comfortable conversation about issues in La Chureca.  She first started working in La Chureca 10 years ago, when it was closer to a living hell than the mild version seen now.  She said the first time she walked into the dump she saw an image that would come to her mind every time she thought about La Chureca: an eight-year-old boy was fighting against a vulture for a piece of bread, the boy holding onto one end and the vulture to the other.  I knew, by the end of our chat, that this was a selfless person with real expectations of what could be done for people in La Chureca, and if I could do something to help her accomplish what she wanted the result would be great.  I wonder what would happen if Spanish developers had consulted people like her instead of trying to solve all the issues as an outsider coming in to save the day?

Two days later we decided on three donation projects to do in La Chureca, helping two promising students, one sick mom, and a group of women looking for a new source of income.  Stay tuned 🙂


Update:  Happily, I was wrong about the move-in to the new housing.  While some people were concerned about these problems (lower income, etc) and afraid of changing lifestyles, volunteers report that most of them were very excited to move into their new homes on December 15th.  The army came and helped them relocate, later destroying their old homes to prevent more people from moving in.  The next few months will be both exciting and challenging for everyone.


Read the rest of this mini travel-memoir here

See more pics on my page’s Facebook album

Read chapter 5 – Rio Blanco and Home 

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