Monday, July 11, 2016

Back in the USA

We saw and did so much in just two weeks in Nicaragua, that it took a while for me to digest everything from this trip (even though I planned nearly every second of it). Weeks after returning, many different moments still stand out: bushwhacking in Matagalpa, yoga classes facing the Pacific Ocean, horseback riding, attempting to surf, standing beside an active volcano, talking with Sandinistas, making chocolate, hearing Carlos Mejia Godoy, following our great guides, playing at kids' club, meeting the stone carver, and working at our service projects. I can't help but wonder, however, what does it all add up to? Is this list of fun and sometimes challenging activities all there is? What meaning has been captured from those two weeks of experiencing a totally different land and culture?

I know we were all, at one point or another, pushed out of our personal comfort zones during this trip. For some, it was about eating different foods, for others it was about handling an extreme climate, or struggling with how to function in a foreign language. For me it was seeing up close the paralysis of poverty in a country with so much potential.

What do we seek when we travel and intentionally take ourselves out of our comfortable lives? Do we expect comfort wherever we go? Are we able to rise to the new challenges before us? Can we appreciate a different culture and take it in as another possibility for living in this world? Do we hone our foreign language skills and interact with people beyond the tourist industry? Do we seize the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom? Do we take the time to learn about ourselves and reflect on the assumptions with which we live? Do we even come to appreciate the privilege of being able to choose to adventure beyond the familiar?

Ever since I arrived at Elmira College in 2008, Term III courses off campus have been a dream come true ---a way to combine the classroom with the world beyond academia, a way for students to hopefully grapple with the questions I just posed, and a way for me to share some of my most meaningful experiences immersed in foreign culture. I don't disparage the classroom, it is sacred ground for me. But I am grateful for the opportunity to be with students actively exploring new places, as they open to new perspectives, new understandings, new ways of speaking, and new ways of being. May this trip last beyond the blog, photos, and list of sites so that the experiences of the journey impact positively on each traveler's life purpose. Gracias.

Dra. Shaw
July 11, 2016

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Waves of Hope

For this entire second week we have been staying in a small community in Chinandega  right on the Pacific coast of northwestern Nicaragua.  This village contains a  non-profit effort, Waves of Hope, which was  envisioned and created by a group of friends from Canada.  Their vision was to assist and empower the local people in order to slowly create a difference in the community.

Upon beginning their work, these young men knew that they wanted to approach non-profit work in a very distinct way.  Primarily, they wanted to give the community the necessary tools to succeed rather than do the work themselves, so that eventually they could step back and give the community the framework for sustainable success.  Secondarily, they wanted to make a point to ask the town what they felt was needed and start there rather than assuming that they knew what was best for the people.

After establishing these parameters, they approached the community to identify some areas that needed some assistance.  The first was education.  In this rural area, there are very few schools and many kids would have to travel 22 kilometers to attend school.  Given that education was not easily accessible, most families would rather keep their kids at home to work than expend resources getting their kids to school.  So, Waves of Hope took on the project of helping to sustain an elementary school that had been built in the area by another non-profit, which was left incomplete and non-functioning.  The government agreed to provide teachers if Waves of Hope could supply the school with what it needed.  This deal has been held up to this day and there is relatively consistent attendance at the elementary school.  A second education project was the local high school.  Just like primary school, the nearest high school was very far away and many kids were not motivated to attend.  So the next big project for Waves of Hope was building a local high school, which was completed and will have its first graduating class this year!

The second area in which the community identified a need for help was healthcare.  The issue with healthcare is similar to education: the distance to proper facilities poses a problem.  A local woman runs a clinic in the surrounding village, and Waves of Hope does everything in its power to help this clinic maintain plenty of supplies.

The third area that needed attention in the community was employment.  Much of the employment in the area was seasonal and did not allow for the locals to provide consistently for their families.  These four Canadians were able to create stable employment for nearly thirty people in the community.  In addition, Waves of Hope created a turtle hatching program that served the community.  Turtle eggs are often dug up by the locals to be sold in the nearby city at a profit.  These eggs are often eaten, never allowing turtles to hatch.  The solution was for the brains behind  Waves of Hope to buy the eggs from the people who dug them up so that they would still get the money they needed to feed their families.  However, the eggs were then reburied and watched until they hatched so that the turtles could definitively make it to the ocean as they were supposed to.

We learned about all these projects after talking with Earl, one of the founders of Waves of Hope.  Aside from these projects, this incredibly impressive organization focuses on sustainability in the community. I feel proud to have been able to be a part of the difference they have made and will continue to make. 

Meredith Rector

Friday, May 20, 2016

Kids Club

This week, Tuesday and Thursday, our group tackled a new project.  Our challenge: entertaining kids for a couple hours.  Rest easy friends, it was a job we all enjoyed and participated in with ease.  These children ranged from the ages of three to fifteen, and there were about thirty in total.  The majority of the children still attend the elementary school down the road from where we were staying, and the meetings each week were arranged by Waves of Hope as one of their community projects.  The kids, full of energy and laughter, welcomed us into their circle with much anticipation.  We were not the first to join them, and it was obvious that most of them are comfortable with foreigners.  They delighted in talking with us, telling us their names and sharing their young lives. In most cases, the foreigners they meet do not speak Spanish, so it was a real treat for them, and for us.

On Tuesday we started off playing a bunch of group games, such as duck-duck-goose (pato-pato-ganso) and soccer (Colby and Lindsey braved the sun and heat), and drawing pictures (the rest of our group opted for the shade). Everyone shared Spanish songs and poems, and we even played the game of telephone (in Spanish, of course). Our fearless leader for the week, Ezequiel, is a native to the area and has accompanied us on all of our adventures including our time with the kids.  With proficiency and patience he brought everyone together, making sure the kids listened and understood all of the games he suggested. He also made sure their pockets were full of small prizes at the end of the two hours, each of them taking home stickers and pencils. 

On Thursday water balloons we made creative use of water balloons.  We started by playing a game in which a balloon full of water was placed on a chair in the middle of the circle and people from the group were chosen to sit on the chair until the balloon popped, splashing water everywhere. There was much anticipation, waiting to see who would be the next victim, crushing the balloon and wetting their pants.  Everyone, adults and kids alike, couldn't help laughing at the spectacle and the looks of terror on each person's face as they prepared to sit.  You'd be surprised how long the balloons withstood the weight of the kids and even the adults!  Next a balloon toss ensued, and if you dropped the balloon (most likely soaking yourself in the process), you were out of the game. We concluded with ice cream for everyone, more prizes being handed out, and blowing bubbles outside. 

I believe that all of us, as exhausted as we were from this physical week, truly enjoyed Kids Club.  The children were so full of smiles and made us laugh.  We felt loved and part of their lives for a few hours, a reward when working with such adorable children (in this case thirty of them!).  They were patient with our varying levels of Spanish, and appreciated our attempts to converse. We got to be silly and show them that in spite of the ugly history between United States and Nicaragua (which they will someday learn if they don't yet understand), that many of the American people are kind and generous. It was wonderful seeing the kids quickly open up to us and accept us. Hopefully we inspired them with our presence, encouraging their own exploration of the world in years to come!

Dominique Del Calzo
May 20, 2016

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Day 6 Selva Negra

This entire week we have been visiting museums, cathedrals, and Sandinistas. Our hotels were in the central part of town, and our access to wifi was strong. To paint a picture of Matagalpa, replace the locations of interest to hiking trails, the hotel rooms to cabins, and the access to wifi to being surrounded by nature. We experienced life in the fast lane the first half of the week, and now we are slowing down to unplug in the natural beauty that is Matagalpa.

We will be staying in the northern region of Nicaragua at Selva Negra, an ecolodge and coffee estate surrounded by forests. It was established in 1975 by owners of surprisingly German descent, and its European influence can be seen throughout the entire resort. Germans came to Nicaragua in the 19th century and many established prosperous farms in the north. Today Selva Negra coffee is known around the world. 

Today we were spoiled by Lenin, whom you have all come to know as our tour guide from previous posts, let us sleep in until about 10 before we started a long day of adventure. He planned a day of hiking for us and we shortly began a journey that nobody had imagined would be possible. If I could describe our hike in the woods in one word, it would be "¡abajo!" For the less avid Spanish speakers this little phrase means "down!" And down, down we went. But first, I should give you insight on why that phrase had an impact on our day. On the trails, Lenin took us through an advanced path because he has a lot of faith in our physical fitness abilities. We went up, or "arriba" the path through the thick of the woods. At first it was exhausting, and even the shade of the trees couldn't keep us from sweating immensely. When we reached the end of the trail after about 20 minutes or so, we took a celebratory drink of water and headed towards an even more elaborate path to get back without having to take the exact same trail. Having said that, we had to improve some of the trail because there wasn't always a clear path to walk on, and that's where ultimate fun begins. Our first barricade was where some trees had fallen on the path and the only way to continue was to go over them. These trees were dead and wet from the humidity so they crumbled pretty easily. We all hopped on and tried to get to the other side with a sense of urgency so we wouldn't be covered in mulch and moss and tested our true sense of balance. After that, we weaved through some coffee plants and onto a trail that guided us deeper into the forest.

All was easy for an entire 5 minutes until we halted at a ledge. Abajo, was the end of the trail. It was steeper than I had ever imagined, but were all in this together determined to conquer the trail. We decided that side stepping would be our best approach to deescalating the mountain, until our balanced failed us and we slipped. One by one, we fell on our butts abajo y abajo. We stood up and fell some more but all was well because we all laughed so hard all while covering ourselves in the dirt and brush. Meanwhile Lenin, the expert explorer was already waiting for us at the bottom giving to give us tips on how to not fall, while we failed miserably at implementing those tips.
We made it to a road where we began trekking towards our hotel. We hiked for a total of three hours and had in impressive total of 19,000 steps (thanks to Lindsay's fitbit). We walked for about 20 more minutes all discussing the craziness of what we just did and we were intercepted by an ice cream man. We stopped to have a quick frozen treat paid for by the wonderful Lenin, and headed off again on the road. We got picked up in the Green Pathways mobile by the also awesome Elvis, who we were more than glad to see come pick us up and take us to eat at a traditional restaurant that served corn tortillas, eggs, beans and rice. It was delicious in every way possible, and then we got to come back to La Selva Negra to shower and catch up on some reading and relaxation.
Our journey with Lenin and Elvis have come to an end and it's fair to say that we will miss these two guys immensely so we celebrated our last night together with dessert and lots of laughs. Tomorrow we head to Chinandega for the next half of our trip!
Ciao, Vanessa Bauch

Friday, May 13, 2016

Day 5 Estelí to Matagalpa

Today we started our adventure in the city of Estelí.  After another early breakfast we set out to explore the city, famous for its murals, cigars, and location as the entrance to the mountains (an important area during the revolution and the Contra War that followed).  We drove through the busy streets and visited the house of an ex-guerilla Sandonista fighter, Juan Daniel Moreno, also known as "El Retumbo" (the boom). As a group we sat in the living room with Moreno and his wife, listening to him recount his role in the revolution and his service under "El Zorro," a famous Sandinista commander.

We spoke for nearly an hour until we thanked him and his family and hit the streets of Estelí.
We visited a museum commemorating the local Sandinistas who made major contributions in Estelí. Fallen heroes like Francisco Rivera known as "El Zorro" (the fox) had brief biographies under their portraits explaining their contributions and efforts to help the Sandinista cause. 
We then walked around the block to another museum honoring the young Estelían people who gave their lives for the Sandinista cause. Both young women and young men were honored for their efforts. It was saddening to see the number of people close to my age, from one single town, who perished during the war.

After visiting the two museums, we walked farther down the road to a street corner where the remnants of a Somozan bomb were transformed into a statue honoring the Sandinistas. The bomb, a symbol of violence, had been transformed into a piece of artwork located outside of an elementary school, showing the drastic change that has occurred since the fighting ended.
After exploring Estelí, we returned to the hotel to grab our bags and make our way to the mountain region of Nicaragua and the town of San Rafael del Norte. Here we visited the beautiful church where Franciscan Padre Odorico D'Andrea once served. Nicaraguan soldiers and Contra soldiers from Honduras who were fighting in the area during the 80's, came together peacefully to listen to Padre Odorico's masses. 

We also visited a cemetery where Sandino's wife is buried. She was a telegraph operator and helped Sandino's rebels communicate. We stopped to eat lunch at the only restaurant in town and then continued on our way through the mountains to our destination in Matagalpa. The view along the mountain road was breathtaking and the winding sloping road took us to a vista of the valley below where we took a group photo. We stopped briefly in Jinotega where some of us bought bags of coffee beans to bring home. We are now staying at a coffee farm in cozy bungalows tucked among the mountains.
Colby Runk

Day 4 Estelí

We experienced yet another amazing day of travels in Nicaragua today! At 8 a.m., we started off by saying "¡adios!" to León and Hotel Cacique Adiact, packed our luggage on top of the van (with the help of our lovely driver Elvis and our fantastic tour guide Lenín) and headed on our journey to Estelí.

Driving North through the flatlands of León, Lenín interjected from time to time to point out a specific landmark, tell a joke, or provide more information on the history of the place we were traveling through, entertaining and teaching us along the way.

A couple hours later we reached a nature reserve of Tisay in the mountains of Estelí. We took a short hike, witnessed some incredible landscapes, and then walked toward La Granacha, a cheese making community located in the mountains where we tasted some yummy homemade cheese.

Then we headed toward a very remote section of the mountains, where we were to meet a hermit sculptor from the hills of Tisay. This next adventure was nothing like we could ever have imagined! After hiking down a grassy path into a cow pasture, we took in the amazing view of the mountains around us before traveling further downhill into a Lord of the Rings-esque forest path, and then heading uphill to finally meet this man, Alberto Gutiérrez. He greeted us each with a handshake and described to us some of his stories and the people who had come to visit him from around the world.
Then, he beckoned to us to follow him so he could show us his artwork. We traveled behind him along a narrow forest path, with rocks, roots, and beautiful foliage. He briefly demonstrated how he uses chisels and a stone as a hammer to carve the rock. To our surprise he had created animals, people, and objects from Nicaragua as well as Brazil, Africa, India, even NYC. All of these intricate carvings gave life to boulders and a long high stone cliff.

At 9 years old, Alberto had a dream where God placed his hand on his head and told Alberto he was going to work 3 hours each day and then people would visit him. Much later in life, he remembered his dream, and the very first thing he was to carve would be a birthday: "el nacimiento de Jesucristo" (the birth of Jesus Christ). This fantastic altar-like carving is sacred and holy, intertwined with nature in the recess of the side of the mountain. Since then he has carved for 39 years, every morning from 6-9. The cliff he chisels on faces the great expanse of the northern Nicaraguan countryside, where one can  follow the Nicaraguan mountains as they blend into the mountains of Honduras at the border line. The incredible array of carved figures, including whales, elephants, a helicopter, Sandino and Darío (of course), protruding from the mountainside seem like artifacts from a different age.
Not only did Don Alberto introduce us to wild bananas (which were delicious!), he also introduced us to a humble, serene way of life, in which he was perfectly content following God's will and carving into nature's canvas. As he said: "Hay tiempo para todo" (there is time for everything). With this blessing, he intended that we left knowing life is not too short; there is time to fulfill our endless tasks, our infinite ideas, time to see the world, or time to create our own world out of the homes we have been given. Instead of limiting ourselves to an hourglass sense of the world, he taught us that this life is long, this world is large, and there is time to do it all.

After this, we said our goodbyes and traveled to "La Casita", a nursery that doubled as a delicious restaurant. We enjoyed fresh cheese, homemade bread and homemade yogurt, along with "lassi," a yogurt drink with mango.

From there, we traveled to our hotel, Hotel Los Arcos, settled in, went to a superb Cuban restaurant for dinner and then called it a night.

¡Buenos noches! (Goodnight!)
Shannon Dole

Day 3 León

Today was our first real day in León. Upon waking up, ready for the heat fully smothered in SPF 50 with hair high on our heads and sweat dripping down the smalls of our backs, we embarked on our morning filled with history and cultural immersion. Walking around the city we stopped first at a mural in one of the central squares of the city that wrapped around a park commemorating the independence of the country and the victory of the Sandinista revolution in 1979.
Next to the mural is the  cathedral in Leon (the largest in Central America) where we were able to climb the winding steep steps to view the horizon from el techo (the roof). This was no normal view, you see. From the top of this gargantuan white building punctuated with domes everywhere, you could see the chain of volcanos that belong to the Nicaraguan people. I say they belong to them not because they feel at all as though they own them and their actions, but more so that their history is chock full of earthquakes and eruptions that destroy cities and leave ruins in their wakes. These people own the volcanoes because they have lived through the destruction and moved and revived their culture and town.

This view in particular really hit me as our tour guide, Lenin, told us a story of his past. When he was a young chap sitting in his living room he felt a tremor run through the earth. Given the nation's history with natural disasters, everyone was in a panic. They all ran to the streets and looked at each other in horrific anticipation of their impending doom. (Sounds melodramatic, I know, but imagine your entire city-yes city- being demolished by an earthquake) after 5 minutes there was another tremor, and then another. Over the course of the next three days there were over 300 tremors a day. Every 5 minutes the entire city would shake. For three days.
While Lenin told us this we peered out from atop this epic cathedral facing the volcanoes that had caused this disruption. The smallest one to the right of our vision had been the culprit, you see. These three days of ruckus was due to the birthing of the valconcito (little volcano). I'm from a place with beautiful deciduous trees and wonderful mountains, but the concept that the earth gave birth to a new phenomenon like that of a fire-breathing-mountain man in the course of three days completely astounded me.

After this revelation, we headed towards the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs run by the mothers of FSLN fallen heroes. We saw picture after picture, head shots with names and dates. It really put into perspective how this was a people's revolution, and mostly it was the young who fought and died in the streets of Nicaragua to free their country of dictatorship. Meanwhile the US supported the country's genocidal dictator, Somoza, for fear of "another Cuba." There in the museum we got to sit and talk with one of the mothers. She had lost two sons to the Sandinista Revolution.
Then we continued on to the house of Rubén Darío, the most venerated poet throughout all of Nicaragua. Somewhere in the morning's tour we also stopped by the León Cultural Center. There we saw a painting by a US artist, called "La carga" (the load), depicting Ronald Reagan holding a rifle and perched on the back a woman portraying all of Latin America.

After lunch and a siesta we set back out to see the Museum of Traditions and Legends housed in what was once a prison during the rule of Somoza. From there we went to see the indigenous neighborhood of Sutiava and its church that features a mixture of indigenous and Spanish influences. Along the streets were school children in uniforms of white and blue (national colors of Nicaragua) of all ages walking home from schools, or actually stopping in the field to play some impressively good soccer first.

Thus ended the tour for the day and the 8 of us spent some of our free time in the central park trying our luck at haggling (in Spanish) with the local vendors of souvenirs.
Of the 3 cities we have seen so far I have loved seeing this one the most, with its squares and parks every few blocks, its university buildings, and the openness to its feel.
Thanks for reading.
-Jordan Newcomb