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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Peace Corps, Nicaragua, September-December 2000

by Marney and Bob Komives

Mid September, 2000 

We adjust to the stifling heat, thuge, powerful thunderstorms, findi ur way around the city. We enjoy the 4-day holiday weekend. Thursday was celebration of Battle of San Jacinto and Friday was Independence Day.

After studying up all the materials on Disaster Preparedness from the previous Crisis Corps volunteer on Wednesday and Thursday, we took off on a Microbus toward Granada, the lovely colonial city south of Managua that sits on the huge Lake Nicaragua. We stayed at a hospedaje (A Little Peace of Heaven) run by a former Peace Corps volunteer who just liked it and stayed here after her service. We walked miles around the town and along the lake through a nice park filled with restaurants and Nicaragua families enjoying the day by the lake. The smells, sights, and sounds (people singing, horse carts clopping thru town, music coming out of houses, street vendors hawking wares, buses are familiar to our other Central America experiences.

The most amazing coincidence occurred on Saturday night in front of the TV where we were staying. While catching Amy Van Dyken in her relay on the Olympics-- during the ads we were flipping the channels and came to the Discovery channel in Spanish and saw footage of the Fort Collins flood on a program about desastres. Couldn't believe far from home yet so near. Also over the weekend we kept running into PC volunteers --145 now in Nicaragua-- and had ample opportunity to hear about their experiences and frustrations and to explore their interest in disaster preparedness training for their communities. It has been a productive weekend in figuring out how things work here. We are loving gallo pinto --rice and beans-- cold showers to cool us off, bouganvilla in bloom, and the warmth of the volunteers and Peace Corps staff. It feels as if the 33 years since our last Peace Corps experience has collapsed. The more it has changed, the more it remains the same. --off to a medical meeting and then out to our site to find a place to live and to meet the defensa civil folks.

Late September

We sweat our way around the pacific coast; we see and experience worse conditions than we had in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Yet, the people have been good, both the Nicaraguans and the Peace Corps.

We discovered yesterday that the job we were sent here to do is being done better than we could do it by Save The Children, an organization using funds from USAID to help communities with disaster preparedness. We look to find a role. In this region it may be to get the few volunteers in the area involved with the Save The Children effort if the individual volunteers wish to. We could support them in various ways. In another region, in the mountains of the North where we hope to visit next week, there are many volunteers and we are not sure of the status of programs in other agencies. Perhaps there is more need/opportunity for us to mount workshops there --while training interested volunteers.

Before we had evaluated the need here we had contracted for a primitive two room apartment at a nice little house in El Viejo, down the road from Chinandega. We move in today. We do not know how much we will be here, but it will feel good to be out of our luggage and into a space we can call our own. Our commitment to the space is a month. the woman, Veronica, who rented it to us is very nice. There are talkative parrots, and we are on the last block of the street that is paved with cement pavers. 

For the past three nights we have stayed with a new Peace Corps volunteer in his more spacious place on around the corner on an unpaved street. We have managed to sleep in hammocks, a new experience for us. Greg, the volunteer, is from the Los Angeles area and will work on small business projects. He's been a good host. Marney has cooked the food each night which he has enjoyed. 

Early to mid-October

All over El Viejo clothes hang on lines (including ours). Over the rainy weekend we were in Esteli, and on Monday went north to visit Juanita, one of the volunteers in a very rural community that had the feel of El Rosario, our Peace Corps site. She has already begun with her community to do disaster preparedness and share experiences with us. This will be invaluable as we head out.

We decided to move to the North, to Ocotal, to have better access to volunteers who are interested in pursuing disaster preparedness. We hope to form a team that can continue the training after this project ends. It was a hard decision, but with time so short the commuting is impractical and time consuming and the weather would not make it better. So off we go again on Monday. It has been hard to tell people in El Viejo that we are leaving so soon, but there are so few volunteers on the coast that it really does not seem to be time effective to work there.

We were sad to leave our new friends, on the coast, but they understood our situation. The last weekend, Veronica and Eric, the people we were renting from, took us to the coast for the day--black volcanic beaches...beautiful, but lots of evidence of hurricane damage to beach and buildings close by

You think that elections are complicated in the states. this week we read in the local paper that in order to get 16,966 packets of electoral materials around Nicaragua for the Nov. 5 alcalde elections this is what is needed: 4.325 horses or mules,180 motorboats, 938 large trucks, 773 pickups, 437 buses, 22 motorcycles, 2 helicopters, 22 tractors to open roads, and 2 oxcarts with their teams.

So think of those tractors opening roads as you go to vote. Democracy at work in Nicaragua!

We are now in a cooler clime in Ocotal, not far from the Honduras border. We are renting a nice room in a great house of a woman who has cake-baking business. She and her employees produce 50 cakes a day plus ones for special occasions. The room is comfortable, has kitchen use, place to wash clothes by hand of course, lovely patio with beautiful plants, and a desk for us to work.

We already have a couple of workshops scheduled. This area was heavily affected by Mitch so there seems to be lots of interest in Disaster Preparedness Training. We have our first course ready to go. Bob has designed a carrying case with some plastic pipe for our visual aides. We have purchased rubber boots for trekking up the muddy paths to small communities. So we are ready for our first course on Wednesday. We will probably have to refine it based on what goes over well and what flops. should be fun.We are excited to finally have a clear vision of our work. The PC volunteers are wonderful, committed young people and it is great to be around them. Makes us old folks feel even very young again. A great group.

October 21 

Another Saturday in Esteli at Cyber Place, surrounded by other volunteers here to send and receive mail. With the Peace Corps discount, cost is 35 Cordobas per hour —about three dollars. 

Our first course was Wenesday afternoon. in Quebrada Arriba. It is a small community of about 300 people. We hiked in about 45 minutes, straight up the steep path that the same community came down in the rains of Hurrican Mitch when they, on their own, in the middle of the night, evacuated everyone. They were proud to tell us that no one died in their community. We were accompanied by the PCV, John Rethans, who works with this community and 5 other volunteers who came along to observe to decide if they wanted to have us come to their sites. With such an audience we were, of course, rather anxious. But this worry evaporated when we began and saw how eager and responsive the commmunity is. They kept saying over and over how honored they felt that we had come into their community to share this information. 


The dinamica we had designed about getting the chicken, the fox, and the corn across a bad bridge to help an isolated community was a big hit. The community members played roles and really got into it. The point of this interactive exercise is to illustrate the importance of planning for emergencies. We return to the same community on Tuesday to assist them in making a community map which will graphically illustrate the danger areas and the community resources that now exist. Then again on Wednesday we return to do the final two hours on how to organize their emergency committee and choose tasks to start work. We were very impressed with the thought they have already given to their precarious situation living at the head of a steep watershed. We will build on what they have started.

We were so happy to finally be off the drawing board and out in the campo again to make it a reality. We got rave reviews from our audience of volunteers and now have plenty of courses scheduled to fill up all our time.

So time is moving quickly by and we finally feel productive and useful. Had a great Sunday at the small coffee farm owned by our landlady and the family that we lived with in El Viejo. They had left at 5 in the morning and drove 4-plus hours to come see us in our new place. So we all went up to the finca together. It is located about 4 km from the Honduras border. We barbecued chicken and had a great feed. The hurricane damage in that area is very visible and that whole section of road is being replaced. Riding in the back of a pickup with all the dust is a messy experience.

November 2

We completed our training at Quebrada Arriba. It ended as well as it started. We hope this community of special people in a difficult place in land and history. We hope this is not already the highlight of our experience. They will be hard to top. As we left the third meeting with them they were organizing their committee--something they could have put off till another meeting.

Our mapping session with them was especially fun. The school was closed so we walked up higher on a precarious trail to an adobe pre-school they built this past year. We were trailed by twenty kids. Our session which was to be with four or five of the community had at times twenty people watching as five or six moved stones around on a piece of paper to locate every house and feature of the community. The stones came to mind on the way up the trail and proved to be an excellent way to get reluctant people into a mapping process and to keep the ink off the paper until most features were in place. The final product is no art winner, but we were all proud. The final step is to map the hazards. They could not find a place within their steep confines that is not hazardous, so the map is covered with arrows and markings in irridecent yellow highlighter showing the directions of danger. 

Rio Abajo

We have since done the first class in two larger-but-still small communities. The volunteers, worried about a small turnout were overwhelmed by the 80 or more that showed up at each. The second, in Ducuale Grande, had room in a double classroom. The first, in Rio Abajo, had as many people outside as in. We encouraged them as gently as we could to select 25 or so to come to the final meeting, and dour or five to the mapping meetings. Both will happen next week. 

We will go to one. John Rethans, the volunteer from Quebrada Arriba will help the volunteer at Rio Abajo. We are trying to gradually delicate work to those who will be left when we leave.

We are in Managua yesterday and today, All Saints and All Souls day because they are not days to schedule meetings in the field. Work is intense from here. By the time we are done we hope to have trained 8 communities, held 22 sessions in communities, 1 session for existing Peace Corps Volunteers, 1 for those in training, and three days of training for our team of volunteers that will take over. We will see how it goes.

Probably the most exciting time we have had is the day of our last meeting in Quebrada Arriba. We got to the volunteers house as Bob realized he had left the backpack with all our materials on the bus. Thanks to a heroic woman truck driver, a cooperative taxi driver, and honest bus personnel Bob was back with bag in about 40 minutes, in plenty of time to head up to the meeting. The bus had gotten to the final destination. The truck driver let him off at the station to inquire. She took off. Bob hopped in a taxi. By the time we found the bus they told me the truck driver had taken the bag backto the station for me. She's awfully cute. Bob told John, (who has developed a crush on her from seeing her often during his hitchiking but never ridden with her) to give her some flowers and chocolates --at his expense.

Rain is tapering off as we head into the dry season. Coffee is appearing on the large concrete slabs they use to dry it after soaking off the outer layer.

Somehow the hospedaje we stay in today and stayed in our first nights in Managua seems to have improved as has the neighborhood around it. Of course, it is we who have changed. We notice more of the good and less of the disagreeable than we did a short time ago.

We had fun last Friday going to the site of two volunteers a couple of hours northeast from Ocotal, Ciudad Antigua. The church was built in 1611. Aparently pirates came up the Rio Coco and established Ocotal as a base from which to rob the church of its gold. On the way we passed, we are told, a place where Sandino ambushed and killed many US Marines early in the century. Of course, much of this North saw intense fighting in the 70s and 80s.

The occasion was an Olympiada for all the kids of the school. Several volunteers were there to help as 11 groups of students spent the morning going from station to station garnering points for their arbitrarily assigned countries. (Australia won.) Bob worked the one where kids had to run, pick up a bat, hold it to the ground and to their forehead and rotate around five times before drunkenly running back. Marney worked the 3-legged race which was intense work --tying untold pairs of legs together with cloth that was to fragile for the task.

It was so well organized by Melanie and Aimee the local volunteers. Teachers and kids seemed to have fun from the moment they marched in to the beat of their drums to their departure three hours later. Of course we did it all on a baseball field with permanent, small grandstand and 350 feet down the left field line to a high cement wall. It says something about the passion in the sport that the grandstand is enclosed in wire and the dugouts are really farouts --located well beyond first and third base and out of danger from the crowd. 

November 20

Hi all and very happy Thanksgivings to you all. We hesitate to get excited about our homecoming too soon as we fear it will slow us down and we have much to do to wrap everything up neatly here.

By Friday last week we had completed courses in 5 communities (2 to 3 3-hour sessions in each) and were warmly received in all by the volunteers and the community participants. One, Ducuale Grande, is a community with a 10-year-old women's pottery cooperative and our last day there we walked out to the bus with great recuerdos. In Ducuale Grande and in Meme Mckee's site, El Porcal, we discovered some talented individuals who did beautiful jobs on the community maps they made in both places. The detail was incredible and as they presented them to the rest of the community, they were so proud as well they should be. The community maps are used to record the risk areas for emergencies and the community resources that can be used in an emergency. People are adding each family's house, name, and in El Porcal the drawer even put the adobe houses in red and the block houses in blue (red indicating more danger for collapse after continuing rains). We will photograph some of these maps to bring home with us. The dinamicas (situations that involve the community members playing roles) have been especially well received. 60 % of the people do not read or write so this gives us another teaching tool for the key points. All in all, we have just been having so much fun --something we had not anticipated, but delighted it has turned out this way.

So today we are starting the all volunteer conference which happens once a year. A nice hotel across from the airport in Managua. All the volunteers who want to come can participate. There will be conference sessions of which we are giving one tomorrow on our Disaster Preparedness courses, and lots of socializing. It will be a nice time for us to see some folks for the last time before we leave. 

Adi a Peace Corps Volunteer (who lived in the house we lived in) and his new Nica wife Erenia leave for Pittsburgh tomorrow- he has finished two years as a business volunteer. she is scared, speaks no English...I wish them well but think the adjustment will be a real challenge for them both. It is incredible the number of US-Nica marriages that have happened in the last three months. It has been interesting talking with volunteers about the dating scene.

We have almost simultaneously with US national elections had elections for alcaldes (mayors) here in Nicaragua. Given the historical election mess in the states (which we have followed in local papers and on Spanish-language CNN) it is interesting that they are still counting disputed votes here.

Other tidbits: Very early Sunday morning walk out to Pueblo Unido, a new community being built west of town --post Mitch. The families work on their houses on Sunday and it is all looking pretty nice. We had planned to help a friend work on her house, but her sister had a baby so she stayed at home to help. Another Saturday we went to a birthday party for the 2 yr old son of Gladys who works in the house where we live. Mothers and children seated around the sala, everyone served arroz con pollo and a refresco, music and some children dancing, a hired photographer took 3 pictures and then people left and the cake was not cut...maybe just for the family afterward. Bob was the only male and the 2 year old cried when his mom wanted him to have his picture taken with us. Our favorite Nica food so far is the nacatamal (much like the tamales that we all loved in Costa Rica) so we get them on Saturday nights at the fritangas (food cooked outside on barbecues) and savor them --corn masa with rice, veggies, pork and wrapped and steamed in banana leaves-- what a taste treat.

December 11

Our transportation has included the very efficient buses, Russian-model open trucks with shade roofs with benches on each side of the bed (oh yes, dust!). This system is amazingly reliable. Despite a few problems we had, we never stopped being impressed at the consistent on-time departures, and the more amazing on-time arrivals with the many stops and slow-downs along the way. We did pay $15 for a taxi to one site one day when the express bus we had planned to take told us they would not let us out on the highway. That is a reasonable policy for an express bus, but we had managed to work it out with others. It will feel very strange to drive a car and not think about schedules of buses. It has stopped raining in the north and the dust on the dirt roads and highways (still being repaired from Mitch) is in constant motion.

To celebrate Thanksgiving we decided to head south from the All Volunteer Conference to the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua for Thursday and Friday. We booked a cabin in a small resort where many volunteers take their parents. It was a beautiful warm, windy, blustery time with our comfortable cabin right on the shore and good food in the lodge 100 feet away. We are mostly relaxed while proofing the first printouts of our effort to get the hand-written course guide into a more compact and readable form. Marney took a long walk on the beach. We could have taken the bus all the way to the lodge, but we had been told correctly that it was faster and more pleasant to walk in the last three miles from a crossroads. We did, and it was beautiful, with tall Ceiba trees, banana plantations, a gentle rain, some sun, a stop for a coke, and a chance to use the backpack straps on our travel suitcases. It was a great arrival. We left on the 5:15 bus in the dark on Saturday morning and were back in Ocotal that night.

Three more training sites remained on our schedule, but we only got to two. 

We planned to split up and take two training teams out on our last two Mondays to do two sites on the same day --volunteers would assist and learn. However, the Sandinistas blacked our way out of town on Monday protesting the delay in the government declaring the winners in the municipal elections they knew they had won. We managed to reschedule one, Malaladera, for Monday the 4th and Tuesday the 5th. We both did part A on the 4th.

On Tuesday the 5th we did our emotional good-byes to everyone at our home in Ocotal. Marney took the 9:00 a.m. bus to Managua to prepare for our final official act, a talk on Wednesday the 6th to the volunteers about to finish training and go into the field. She also had to get things organized for resources we were to leave in the Peace Corps library. Bob took an earlier bus to Palacaguina and walked to Malaladera to do the mapping in the morning and part B workshop in the afternoon before heading to Esteli for the night and on to Managua on the morning of the 6th. He had a chance to say good-bye to some fine volunteers though he was distracted by having done less well than he had hoped going it alone and tired.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the 29th our team of seven volunteers come for three days of training in Ocotal. Most had seen the pieces before. This was a chance to go over the details so they could do the course after we leave. They were pleasantly surprised when we presented them with a nice folder with all the modules printed up, diagrams inserted, and giving a general sense of professionalism to something that had seemed spontaneous. We had not expected to have the pieces in anything better than hand-printed form, but we found access to computers at a computer school in Ocotal and were able to get all the pieces typed in there, printed in Esteli, proofed on Ometepe, and printed again during a Tuesday trip by Bob to Esteli for that purpose. We put them up in a hotel in Ocotal, went over part of the course with them each morning, gave them some time to set up their follow-up plan, and went out each afternoon to the community of Dipilto Viejo, about half an hour north of Ocotal and close to Honduras.

Dipilto Viejo had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch. The turnout was not enough to get a representative group ready to form an emergency committee, but it still proved to be a good training ground for the team members. They will go back to finish training at a later date.

By the time we stood up to talk to the new volunteers on Wednesday the 6th, we were exhausted but satisfied. The enthusiasm of the communities and the volunteers kept our spirits up --plus the chance to get out into the campo, walk and soak up this country.

In Managua we made a few final adjustments to the Facilitators' Guide, printed and bound a couple of single-sided copies for the library and Volunteers who wish to make copes. We then wrote a brief final report to Peace Corps, slapped it onto the front of the Facilitators' guide as a preface, added a table of contents and continuous page numbering, and wound up with a double-sided, compact final document. We made copies of it for ourselves, our volunteer team, and for the library. We did not think we would get it bound because Peace Corps was closed tight on Friday, December 8th, the feast of the immaculate conception. The Virgin Purisima is Nicaragua's national virgin, so December 7th and 8th are major holy holidays. Fireworks resound around the city every six hours, but especially at midnight. As we sat in our pension or ate in a restaurant charred paper would float in an on. Groups of children go around as we do on Halloween, singing "Who causes so much happiness? The immaculate conception of Marie!" and people give them food, candy, or toys.

Since we couldn't work, we did some tourism in Managua which was not very satisfying. We visited the modern Cathedral which already looks worse for wear. A craft faire was a bust because not much was open. We managed to see Charlie's Angels movie at a modern mall, Metro Centro. The movie was fun, the mall was a reminder of home we did not need.

We planned to go to Masaya to do our final shopping for typical items on Saturday, but went by the office first. We found two staff people there who gave us access to the copy machine and to the binding machine and supplies. In a few hours we had everything copied, collated, and bound. Nothing fancy, but very satisfying.

We made our trip to Masaya on Sunday from Wembes terminal. At the terminal we explored the market which we found to be as good as the two markets in Masaya about 45 minutes south of Managua. All three were interesting enough to supply us with more than we needed and to help us kill our final full day.

Now, we feel like the folks who finished their exams early but are still on campus to make everybody feel bad, as we hang around the office chatting and waiting to go the airport at noon for our trip back to Colorado. The timing could not be better. We feel good to have been here, ready to leave, and eager to get home.

Abrazos, Marney and Bob (Margarita y Roberto)

(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins 

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