Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Cashew Girls of Guasaule

   I crossed back into Nicaragua from Honduras yesterday at dusty, dry Guasaule, on my way back home to Leon after a work trip. 
     Crossing a Central American border by bus is often a mysterious, confusing process that involves everyone getting out of the bus in a big herd and wandering to and from various unmarked buildings. So it was kind of nice to see the familiar face of Carmen the Cashew Girl as I descended the Tica Bus stairs yesterday.

     She was wearing the brilliantly coloured eye shadow and matching shirt that the Cashew Girls clearly favour as a strategy for getting groggy, overheated bus travellers to remember them. There is something of the sex worker in the visage of the brightly painted and sexily dressed Cashew Girl, who like a worker on stroll has only minutes to get you to take note of her and decide to buy her wares rather than those of her (friendly) rivals.
     Carmen and I had first met last Sunday, when I’d been a bus passenger heading into Honduras and had emerged from the bus into the stark, dry border zone for the first time. Carmen had blinked her vividly made-up eyes at me, touched my arm and called me amiga to be sure she had my attention, and urged me to buy some cashews from her.
     Marañónes, they’re called here. They’re sold unsalted and home-roasted in cheap cellophane bags at street intersections in Managua, but the Guasaule border crossing in northern Nicaragua appears to be a particularly popular place for hawking the nuts. Carmen says hers come from the Honduras side.
     The Cashew Girls come running when the buses arrive at the border, and there’s at least four waiting at the door by the time you get off the bus. Hence the eye shadow, layered on in stand-out hues of pink, purple and blue, the colours helping to distinguish one Cashew Girl from another in the minds of overwhelmed bus passengers (who descend into a clamorous crowd of money-changers, food vendors, cellphone chip sellers, and scruffy kids begging for money). 
     I don’t know if Carmen is particularly skilled or if her pitch simply works well with people like me; at any rate, I spent $5 last Sunday and again yesterday buying cashews from her.
     I resisted at first. “Not right now,” I told her that first time, distracted by the mysterious border crossing process I was about to undertake and unprepared to consider whether I felt like any cashews right now. “Me recuerde,” she told me as I made my way past all the other Cashew Girls vying for my attention – “Remember me.” The colourful eye shadow and matching shirt helped, I admit, and later I bought some cashews for the bus ride.
     Yesterday she was there again as I got off the bus. Once again, I wasn’t at all sure that I even wanted cashews. But she upped her game, guiding me from one building to another so that I always seemed to be at the front of the line for the bewildering process of crossing the border.
     What could I do? I bought some nuts.
     I would have liked to know more about her. How much money did she make in a typical day? Where did she live? Did she have children? Were the Cashew Girls an informal co-op that shared their profits, or was everybody in it for themselves?
     But just like any working girl, time is money for people like Carmen. She can’t afford to waste time chatting. Once she’d made her sale, she touched my arm one last time, told me to take care of myself, and started making her way toward an incoming mini-bus. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The woman next door

  I’m raking leaves outside our house when she approaches me, carrying an empty garbage can that she says will make it easier to gather the leaves for garbage pickup the next day. Paul and I are renting a house for the month of March in Leon, Nicaragua, and the woman and her family live next door.
    At first, I think she has come over just to be nice, because she has lived a long time near this giant tree that constantly sheds leaves and branches and knows how to make the near-daily task of raking a little easier. But she later tells me that she always tries to engage extranjeras like me in conversation. Too many of us arrive in her country with no knowledge of Nicaragua’s troubled history, she says. She is on a one-woman campaign to change that.
    I don’t know how old she is – mid-50s, maybe? That would make her around 19 on the terrible night of May 4, 1979 when the Nicaraguan National Guard, under the direction of the corrupt and vicious president Anastasio Somoza, showed up at 2 a.m. to pull her two brothers from their beds and kill them in the street outside the family home. Right here in this very street, she tells me, pointing to the home a block away where her family was living when it happened. Right in front of her.
    Brothers Porfirio Rene and Oswaldo Jose Alonso Palma were among four young men killed by the National Guard that night. Within two months, Somoza would be gone – first to Miami, where he fled in July 1979, and later assassinated in Panama. The Sandinista revolution was already well underway by the time the four young men were killed, but victory came too late to save them.
    War and death was a Nicaraguan reality for much of the 1900s - first under three generations of Somozas, then during the Sandinista revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and later through nine bloody years of U.S.- and Soviet Union-funded civil war in the 1980s. The good people of Leon – a community of rebellious university students and cultured, intellectual thinkers – were strong supporters of the Sandinista revolution, and would watch many of their children die in the streets before the fighting finally ended in 1989.
    The leader of the Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, has been part of Nicaragua’s political scene ever since. He led the reconstruction of the country after the last of the Somozas was finally banished, then was elected president for five years in 1985. Then came 17 long years of political banishment before he was re-elected president in 2007.  
    There are those in Nicaragua nowadays who have been deeply disappointed by Ortega’s inability to deliver on so many of the promises made during those revolutionary years. But my neighbour isn’t one of them. She refers to the president and his wife as “Daniel and Rosario,” and it’s clear she feels a very personal connection to them. She says that those who criticize Ortega are either too young to remember how things used to be, or too impatient in their expectations for rapid change.
    In 1979 when her brothers were killed, this little two-block neighbourhood where we live was called Duque. But after that awful night, the city renamed it Colonia 4 de Mayo – the Fourth of May. A small plaque has been placed outside the woman’s childhood home at the end of the block, commemorating the murders of her brothers along with those of Roger Benito Morales Toruño and Noel Ernesto García Zepeda that same night.
    Remember them, she tells me. She scoops up the last of the leaves and returns to her house, called in for dinner by her young grandson. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reflections on the end of another adventure: There's no life like it

The loads are heavier in countries like Nicaragua, but the backs are stronger

A troubling aspect of life: You don’t know what you don’t know. As a person driven to know everything, I don’t like that.
I didn't  consciously grasp when we started this Cuso International work in Central America three years ago that I was longing to know more about what I didn't know. But I was. What stands out most as I wrap up my second Cuso posting is how exciting it feels to be learning again.
The role of a Cuso volunteer is essentially to take your professional show on the road and share your skills with people in less-advantaged countries, helping them improve their systems or their training or their processes in ways that ultimately address poverty and inequality.
But never mind the task. The bigger challenge is dropping in cold to another world in the employ of an organization that is happy to see you, but uncertain what to do with you. They will have no real idea or interest in your illustrious career back in Canada, so you’ll be proving your work cred from the ground up.
It sounds kind of scary, I know. I am 58, and once upon a time was a biggish fish in a smallish pond.  But when I first start a Cuso position, I am nothing more than an unproven and unknown older woman who may or may not have had a career as a journalist in some other country and in some other language. It is up to me to demonstrate that I have value.
But professional discomfort and profound humbling aside, this time with Cuso ranks among the most invigorating, challenging, memorable and life-altering years of my work life (I think my three-year stint as the executive director of B.C. grassroots sex-work organization Peers Victoria still wins out).
Some of the new learning is just straight-up communications culture. People like more colour and fewer words in their documents here. They’re lousy about answering emails, so you really have to try for face-to-face time. They like technology, but anyone over the age of 25 is going to need some time to figure out the wired world.
But a lot of our differences are also value-driven. In Canada, work demands often outweigh family relations. In Central America, family always comes first.
Canada’s approach gets you much better economic development, But Central America’s approach keeps people much more bonded and rooted to family – not just the nuclear family, but a hundred aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, almost all of whom probably live nearby and drop by for a visit often. Who’s to say our way is better?
80-year-old Managua man who repairs and sells old shoes he
finds in the garbage. He gets by on 3 sales a week.
As I've said many times in my blog posts, I see my own country much more clearly from afar. On a lot of fronts, it’s an amazing place.
Our social programs are the stuff of dreams to Central Americans, most of whom will work until the day they drop dead and who are completely on their own when dealing with their disabled children, aging parents, health-care problems, and periods of unemployment. They would be agog at all our workplace regulations and benefits.
 But at the same time, it’s pretty cool to see a work culture in Central America that lets people put their personal relations first. Down here when I run into people I know on the street, I've learned to take the time to talk to them without even a twinge of thinking that it’s almost 8:30 a.m. and I should hurry into work. Work waits in Central America – and when you really think about it, that’s not so bad.
Are developed countries like Canada the gold standard? That’s probably been the question that has weighed on my mind most in these three years. I do have skills worth sharing with the non-profits I've been placed with, but I've also gotten so much value out of what they have taught me. More and more I see the richness of a “poor” country, and question my own Canadian work culture. There is a price to pay for efficiency. 
And while I like that I'm from a country able to give time and money to countries in need, I have a new appreciation for the many other ways there are to live a life - and much admiration for people whose resilience and resourcefulness is awe-inspiring. (Like the young Nicaraguan guy near Casares who fixed our broken-down car with a screw driver and a piece of discarded fishing line he found at the side of the road.)
Thanks to everyone who has supported my spouse Paul and I in our Cuso International fundraising, which is closing in on our goal of $7,500. It really has been a life-changing experience. And if you've ever wondered what it might be like to test your own adaptability by working in another culture, two words for you: Do it. 

I've just finished my second assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world.