“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.  

Nicaragua, Day 6 – Impressions of La Chureca

20121113-213709.jpg

Ten years ago, when Esmeralda Diaz walked into “la Chureca” for the first time, she saw something that would stay with her through the years: 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. She didn’t have a camera, but that image comes to mind every time she thinks about the place.

Things have improved drastically over the years, and Esmarelda has been there for most of it, working as a social worker and nurse, but La Chureca, Managua’s municipal dump, is still home to 257 families who live off the trash, sorting through it and selling whatever they can find. They live in extreme poverty and suffer from all its implications – malnutrition, disease, drug abuse, low literacy, teen pregnancy, and other problems, sustaining the cycle of poverty that has marked the area for generations.

Today, Britney and I walked through the community with volunteers from the Manna Project and I saw three things that I hope to always remember.

1) Loving volunteers.

The Manna Project, Austin Samaritans, and FUNJOFUDEES have partnered to provide primary medical care to the residents of La Chureca, among other services like counseling, sex ed, and English classes. The Manna Project also has a direct sponsorship program that currently has the budget to support 50 children at a time, providing beans, rice, oatmeal, and access to doctors, nutritionalists, and medications until the children are 5-years-old. Each child costs $20 a month to sponsor.

One key to their success within the community has been “program directors,” some of whom showed us around “la Chureca” – six full-time volunteers who spend 13 months in the area and divide up the 50 children amongst themselves so they can get to know the families well and develop lasting relationships of trust. They spend a lot of time just hanging out with the kids and parents, trying to learn as much from them as they teach.

The result is some of the happiest pictures I’ve ever taken – children beaming with joy to see their volunteer-friends and volunteers full of love and hope for the kids under their care.

2) Kids can be happy anywhere.

20121113-213907.jpg

The homes of those who live in La Chureca 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.

The homes are clumped together in seemingly random neighborhoods, separated and accessed by dirt paths crossed often by dirty streams and strewn with trash. Dogs, all stunted from quick successions of generations that ate very little, can be found curled up under shade at almost every turn.

Within this bleak and destitute setting are beautiful and happy children, smiling, laughing, and playing together. Programs like those I’ve mentioned help them avoid health problems and early pregnancy, become literate, and find healthier lifestyles.

The picture above is of Jeffrey, with Sarah peaking out of her door. I played soccer against Jeffrey and Francisco, with Sarah on my team. Jeffrey’s team won 馃槈

Later we visited the school, run by a group called Colegio Cristiana la Esperanza. I have some amazing pics of the kids, but they’re all on my camera, not my phone – I can’t post them until I get home.

3) Change is difficult for anyone.

There is a lot of change happening in La Chureca right now. The Spanish government has funded a complete reorganization of the dump. Starting in 2007, they began covering the dump area with dirt, building a recycling plant (with jobs available for qualifying residents of La Chureca), and building new homes as well.

The homes are ready, the plant operational, and the date for moving all families to their new homes has been set for November 15th . . . two days from now. Most likely they will have to push that date back – there are many problems with the changes and residents are worried.

There have been previous programs aimed at job-training to give residents of La Chureca other opportunities instead of working in the dump, but this lifestyle is what they know – it’s their life and they fear not being able to make a living if they left La Chureca or tried something else.

Families won’t be allowed to bring livestock or animals into the new homes with them (an important source of food), only the head of the household will work in the plant (for $100-130 a month) which will mean less income since children won’t be making money as well (those who work on La Chureca, even kids, make an average of $8-10 a week), and residents will have to start paying for water and electricity, currently supplied for free (it’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t know how to read to learn how to pay a bill).

The transition will be difficult, but seems very necessary for good social, physical, and mental health

Spain has funded the big bills for the rehaul of La Chureca, but it seems that the side-effects of those changes may be left to “Los Churequeros” or to the nonprofits who aid them.

20121113-214207.jpg

Special thanks to Austin Samaritans, the volunteers at The Manna Project, and Esmeralda Diaz, the nurse at the clinic who I had the great opportunity of taking to dinner – they gave me the unique opportunity to not just pass through La Chureca as a tourist, snap a few pics, and check it off my list. Britney and I got to follow them around, meet the families, ask a hundred questions, and really get a feel for the place. I’ll be headed out to see some of their other projects tomorrow, and Thursday we have a donation project in mind . . . 馃檪

Also . . . I may have found the first non-profit I want to start – stay tuned!

Nicaragua, Day 4 – Pimps and Other Economics

20121111-185637.jpg

This man is a pimp.

Not in the way we use that word in High School – “Ah, man! That’s so pimp!” Literally, this kid sells women for a profit.

The first time I was in San Juan del Sur, one of the first kids who talked to me called me over and said, “Hey! 驴Como est谩, amigo? 驴Te gustan las chicas Nicas?” (“Hey, how are you, friend? Do you like Nicaraguan girls?”)

Tonight, Britney and I were eating dinner and we saw this fine chap. He came up to the 2nd floor of the restaurant, which we were enjoying just fine by ourselves, sat down, and started making out with one of the girls. He was wearing a ridiculous vest that showed his chest and abs, and, based off my first experience, I assumed he was a pimp and the girls were prostitutes. I faked like I was taking a picture of Britney and I, from different angles, and snapped this photo, and then we asked our waiter. He tilted his head and scowled, wondering why I was asking, but after I assured him I was “just curious” he admitted that he new the guy and was pretty sure he was, indeed, a pimp.

I saw an elderly lady, she looked around 75 but was probably 55 or so, who was sorting through trash to find cans and bottles to sell for 9 C贸rdobas a pound (about $.375). She usually gets between 3 to 9 pounds a day, using a walker to get around from restaurant to restaurant. She doesn’t have any family in the area, but is likely here because tourism makes it easier to survive. I told her to meet me at 5:00 and I’d buy her a meal, chat with her, and pay for her taxi ride to the outskirts of town. I was planning on spending about $25 on supplies for her as well – whatever she thought she needed. She wasn’t there, probably not trusting that I would be either – if I wasn’t, and she waited, she’d have to make the long walk home in the dark.

The girl we helped yesterday – Mariselda – her father rents out an acre and a half of land for 2,500 C贸rdobas a year and makes about 5,000 C贸rdobas a year from his crops – beans, corn, and rice. His seven brothers help him with his harvest and he helps them.

The taxi driver who picked us up from the ferry today made $24 (576 C贸rdobas) to take us for the 45 minute ride to San Juan del Sur (we split the cab with some other Americans). He pays 180 C贸rdobas a month to be part of the cooperative that operates out of the ferry area, and pays them about 30% of each taxi fare as well.

Those are just some random facts, in case you’re as interested as I am.

Many Nicaraguan youth leave their families and migrate to Costa Rica to find work, unable to scratch out a living here.

A million people make a million different decisions based on what they know and what they think will benefit them and their family. A strong economy would do more for these people than any social program. I’m happy to do what I can to help individual people, though I’m even happier to see successful organizations like Project Schoolhouse and Comunidad Connect that have a consistent and long-term impact.

I’d be happier if we all weren’t needed, if the economy were strong, if these people each had opportunity.

Idealism, socialism, and militant control have left deep scars in Beautiful Nicaragua.

20121111-192841.jpg

On a lighter note, the beach in SJDS is absolutely beautiful. As the tide went out and the beach grew, locals grouped together and played f煤tbol until dark. The brief but warm rain made the sand glisten even more against the light of the setting sun.

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

(p.s. – I’m not trying to give a bad rep to San Juan del Sur by pointing out the pimp. This place is fantastic. Tourism, unfortunately, attracts a different type of economics which can be very good, and most often is, but can also be very bad. 99.99% of them are great, sincere, happy, and awesome people and the town is very safe.)

Nicaragua, Day 3 – Mariselda

20121110-230150.jpg

Today we bought a 10-year old girl a bike with an extended seat so her dad can take her to physical therapy twice a week. She has polio, is so cute, and is very intelligent. She’s 10-years old, loves reading, and math is her favorite subject.

The picture is of Ever, a guy we met today who helped us find Mariselda and buy the things we needed. He rode on the back of our rented motorcycle for 14 kilometers to go to town, did the deal so we’d get it for cheap, and held the bike for the whole ride back.

I’m way too tired . . . I guess you’ll just have to wait for the full story when I get back. 馃檪 Thanks so much for making this happen.

Nicaragua, Day 2 – She Said Yes!

20121109-210039.jpg

Today we took a taxi to the bus station, rode a bus for 2 1/2 hours to Rivas, another taxi to the beach, and a ferry to Ometepe – an active volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. We found a cheap hostel, rented a motorcycle, rode to a good beach, rented a kayak . . .

And I proposed to Britney.

That’s right, I popped the question. I love her, adore her, and respect her, and am so excited to see what we become together over the decades to come.

Oh, she said yes, by the way. The 12-kilometer ride back to town, in the dark, was painful for us both – we couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces.

馃檪

Nicaragua, Day 1

20121108-235208.jpg

Flight is completely different when you’re in the aisle seat. Last time I flew into Nicaragua, in April, I looked out of the window for almost the whole flight. The sun was setting by the time I was over the ocean, slowly dimming until there was only blackness below. Once over land, darkness was punctuated by sporadic cities visible by their pulsing lights, mountainous horizons, and faraway storms, my imagination filling in everything unknown with whatever it wanted, feared, or hoped for.

Adventure. Danger. Need. A million secret lives below with secret ambitions and stories. Nicaragua lurked below, ominously heralded by lightning and turbulence.

This time, though, I was stuck in the aisle and missed out on some of the deep thoughts that come naturally from being so high above the world. Instead, I read while Britney read next to me and we alternated naps.

Blood of Brothers is one of the most fantastic books I’ve ever read. It’s by a man named Stephen Kinzer, a freelance journalist who moved to Nicaragua right before the Somoza regime was overthrown by the Sandinistas, and who stayed in the country through it all.

I both admire and envy him – awed by his bravery and jealous of his experience.

It’s time to meet people myself, remember everything I can, connect, laugh, love, learn, and write it all down. The time is finally here. 馃檪

One Day Until Nicaragua . . .

philanthropy in Nicaragua

That’s right, everybody, the trip is almost here . . . the dream is about to happen.

I get to go to work today and think about it all day . . .

Before then, though, I wanted to get out some updates and let you know some of the awesome plans I have for this trip.

Donations update

Last time I flew into to Nicaragua with eight of my friends in my wallet . . . people who donated a few bucks or a lot so I could help out random people I met along the way.聽 This time 26 have donated a total of $645!聽 That is so awesome – thank you so much!聽 With how far $250 took us, I can’t imagine what we’ll be able to do with more, and most importantly . . . I’m really excited that more people were involved this time!聽聽Thank you for making that happen!

If you haven’t donated yet, please do so!聽 Whether it’s $5 or $50, it doesn’t matter – I’m going to try to use it in the best way possible.聽 You can send it by Paypal or deposit to Wells Fargo (Jefferson Cloward’s “Nicaragua Donations” account), but make sure to do it today so I have everything ready to go for tomorrow!

What exactly I’ll be doing this time

While I try to keep a big chunk of my trips open to spontaneity, I do have some great plans I’m really excited for.

  1. Working in “La Chureca.”聽 If you haven’t heard about this place before, it’s the city dump in Managua, and is an example of extreme poverty.聽 There are about 1,000 people who live in the dump and many others who live outside but come in each day to sort through trash and sell what they can.聽 Over half of them are under 18, many of the girls are sold in prostitution to the truck drivers who bring in the trash, and the people suffer from lung failure from constantly breathing smoke, STD’s, injuries, glue addiction, and many other things.聽 But . . . it’s a way of life, it’s what these people know, and they can’t simply be put out on the street.聽 There are a lot of groups who offer education, medical care, support for girls to prevent prostitution, and other training to help them transition to safer and more healthy jobs.聽 It’s an important thing to experience.
  2. I’ll be working with Project Schoolhouse to help their in-country coordinator, Mar铆a Inez, administer the first literacy test to one of the communities.聽 Tab Barker, the director of the program, has been building schools and water systems in the region for years and would love to start seeing more quantitative results so he can gauge the impact they’re making.聽 I wrote an article about the organization, check it out.聽

From there . . . it’s fairly open.聽 I have a few more contacts to get a hold of today, but Britney and I will just keep our eyes open and see where we want to go when we get down there!聽 I love having an open schedule.

What you can expect while I’m gone

I’m going to try to post something daily to this blog, just a picture and a couple hundred words.聽 I’m taking along with me a Zagg keyboard that connects via bluetooth to my phone, so my iPhone is going to be somewhat of a lap top while I’m gone – I’ll be able to type quickly into my journal and also type something up for you guys.聽 I hope you like it!

If you do, I hope you’ll be really annoying to your friends and link and “share” every single post!聽 Seriously though, I’d always appreciate it 馃檪

Well . . . it’s that time again.聽 Ya know, for the daily grind to begin.

I guess I can’t complain much – this is the last time I have to “work” for a couple of amazing weeks.