Sunday, October 26, 2014

Nicaragua versus Honduras: One survived violent past, other still living in it

On the malecon in Managua
    There's nothing quite like the smell of tropical air. We got off the plane in Managua, Nicaragua last night and there it was, that delicious aroma of heat and humidity that I have come to associate with our new life in Central America.
      My partner and I are back here for our second round of Cuso International placements, having completed two-plus years in Honduras in April and eager to do it all over again in Nicaragua. On the rainy ride to our hotel last night, Managua looked much like Honduras's two big cities where we passed a lot of time during our time living and working in that country. But within minutes of starting into our city tour this morning in Managua, I was already seeing a lot of differences.
       Hugo Chavez, for instance. There's a huge monument to the late Venezuelan president on the boulevard heading into the centre of Managua, a reminder that we are in a country with strong socialist roots and a long history of bloody revolutions and uprisings. On a hilltop high above the city sits a memorial to the many campesinos who died trying to wrest Nicaragua from the control of the powerful Somoza family and their very good friends in the U.S. government. Honduras, on the other hand, is not a country prone to revolution or to much left-leaning political activity.
      The colorful malecon - waterfront walkway - that runs along huge Lake Managua is also very different from anything we saw in  the big cities (or the small ones, for that matter) in Honduras, where the concept of beautiful and accessible urban public space remains elusive. It will take time to gauge just how much support the Nicaraguan government provides for public amenities like the malecon, but it already appears to be a darn sight more than the Honduran government cares to pony up for.
Viva la revolucion. A painting of  Augusto Cesar Sandino,
the father of the Sandinista movement
     And then there are the children's playgrounds, which are for the most part large, well-maintained, and perhaps most importantly, not sealed off behind locked gates. Nor are there armed guards in anywhere near the quantity of our former homeland, or dramatic and depressing vistas in every direction of barbed wire, electric fencing and cement walls topped with broken glass that were so common in big Honduran cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
      Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, which came in at around 85 per 100,000 people in each of the two years we were there. Nicaragua's murder rate is 11 per 100,000. That is one heck of a difference for two small countries that share a border, a language and so many cultural attributes.
       I don't know how Nicaragua and Honduras ended up with such differences in their cultures around violence and crime, but even just the act of fearlessly pulling my camera out in one of the big public squares we visited today - and carrying it around boldly! In my hand! - was something I never felt safe to do when we were in Honduran cities.
    This is not to suggest that everything is rosy here. Today we passed a scratchy little collection of "houses" made out of cardboard, corrugated tin and duct tape that was poorer than anything I saw in Honduras. In the 2014 United Nations ranking of countries based on human development, Nicaragua ranks 132nd out of 187 countries, behind Honduras. It will take time to grasp what the big problems are here, but I have little doubt that they will be significant.
     For now, I'll just take Nicaragua at face value: Pleasant, warm, and friendly, with way less guns or horrific news stories detailing a constant stream of assassinations and vendetta killings. I know a lot of hondurenos who are dreaming of the day when all that can be said about their country, too. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

And the Cuso volunteers ride off in search of new adventures in Nicaragua....

     Almost seven months have slipped by since my partner Paul and I returned to B.C. from our two-plus years in Honduras. That should have been enough time to do all the things that I thought were important when we were planning our return - enough time to see all the people I wanted to see and jam in loads of family time.
     Yet Oct. 25 approaches, the date of our departure for our next Cuso International stint in Managua, Nicaragua. And I never did tick off everything on that to-do list. There are numerous friends I still haven’t seen. Walks I didn't go on. Favourite foods I didn't eat. The time just got away from me, perhaps because of the constant shuffling from one housesit to another as we attempted to remain unencumbered with household effects, but mostly because seven months is long enough to feel like there’s no need to rush, that there will be time enough to fit in everything.
     What we did accomplish was seeing two daughters through their weddings. We also gardened and pet-sat our way through nine housesits, jetted off for a week in Florida (for one of the weddings), spent a great two months in the Comox Valley hanging out with my two oldest children and their families, and ate a lot of meals with my mother. We got in our first family Thanksgiving in three years, and before we leave, will have celebrated Mom's 89th birthday with her as well.
     One of the toughest aspects of our time at home was finding work. I had been self-employed for three years leading up to our departure for Honduras in January 2012, and I guess I hadn't thought through just how long it might take to click back into my clients’ lives when I returned. I have renewed gratitude for PEERS Victoria, which welcomed me back with both friendship and paid work, and Douglas Magazine, which invited me back as a freelancer. Paul and I want to continue this exciting new life doing work for Cuso in developing countries, but it’s clear that we've got some work ahead to figure out the hard realities of the times in between.
     Unlike provinces like Ontario, B.C. has no provisions for suspending medical coverage during extended absences out of the country, so that threw us for a bit of a loop as well. There’s a three-month waiting period and a $250 fee for a B.C. resident needing to get back on the medical plan, and never mind that we were off doing good deeds in Honduras during our time away. This next trip to Nicaragua is short – four months – so we have decided to stay on the medical plan this time around to avoid another $250 penalty next spring, even though we’ll be paying $125 a month for nothing while we’re gone. (Cuso provides us with medical coverage during our time in other countries.)
     Life without many worldly goods has been a bit of a challenge, and we did end up buying a decent used car a couple of months after we got back to B.C. I suspect we would have gone quite mad without it. If your life is going to be about shuffling from one housesit to another, trust me, you will want a car to carry the rather pathetic collection of backpacks, totes and overstuffed plastic bags that now constitute everything you own. That does mean, however, that we now have a car to deal with before we leave.
     A surprising joy for me these past seven months has been bike riding. I’ve loved cycling for a very long time now, but two years of being away from it brought me back to a full-on obsession. When we looked for a suitable car, one that would fit a bike was a priority, because I wanted to take my beloved, ancient Trek everywhere I was going. I’ll really miss cycling now that we’re off again, but am comforting myself with the thought that I would have been hanging up the bike soon for the winter anyway.
My fave photo of Paul from our Honduras time,
coming back from a village on a rainy, muddy day
     As for what we’re heading into in Nicaragua, I am really looking forward to a return to living and working in Central America. I've missed the people, the language, the amazing fruit and the heat. I’ve missed the challenges of the work, which is so different than anything I’ve gotten up to in Canada.
     I will be working to resolve various business problems and improve communications on behalf of the FederaciĆ³n Agropecuaria de Cooperativas de Mujeres Productoras del Campo de Nicaragua, a union of women’s collectives set up by the Sandinistas back in the late 1990s. (Remember Daniel Ortega? Well, he’s still the man in Nicaragua.) Paul will be working with the Associacion de Productores y Exportadores de Nicaragua to find new export markets and improve business practices for small producers,
     With only four months to get our projects done instead of a leisurely two years, we will have to be on the mark from the day we arrive. But at least we are more or less fluent in Spanish this time around, and have a better idea of the cultural barriers we will face in doing our work. I've been faithfully reading nothing but Spanish novels since our return, hoping it would keep my language skills strong during my absence. I guess I’ll find out soon if the strategy worked.
     Please visit our Cuso fundraising page here, and if you can, support us with a donation to a great organization. I can’t say enough about the benefits of working with Cuso, both in terms of putting your professional skills to work for some very good non-profits in the impoverished and challenged countries where Cuso works, and for personal development. I came home from Honduras with a whole lot of skills I didn't have when I left and am a changed person, seeing with fresh eyes that which is good about Canada but also determined not to return to the over-consumption and grousing about comparatively tiny problems that are so common in wealthy, privileged countries like ours.

     To my friends who I never did get to see, catch you next spring. And stay tuned for my blogs from Nicaragua as the adventure continues.