"I cannot believe how fast time went by. I am very excited to come home, but at the same time, I am finding it hard to prepare myself to leave. I am certain that coming home will entail a lot story telling, though I am not sure if I could do justice in recounting the "eye opening" experiences I've encountered in Nicaragua." - Noemi Peredo, Class of 2006
January 19: I arrived in Managua on January 14 (Saturday), with a great excitement occupying my entirety. One of the CRS employees picked me up from the airport. He then drove me to my host family's house. On our way to Batahola (where my host family lives,) we passed by the streets of Old Managua - the capital of Nicaragua before the big earthquake hit in 1972. Overall, this part of the city was clean, but the existence of poverty cannot be denied. There were about 3 to 5 street vendors per block, selling little snacks and drinks. Many of these street vendors consisted of children and older people. About 3 miles from the airport, we passed by the slums. There were children running in this part of the town, many of them did not have shoes or complete clothing. The houses in this area seemed like put-together scraps of wood and roofing materials.
A couple of miles more and we finally arrived in Batahola. I met my host family. They are very kind and hospitable. I immediately felt like I was home. That night, my host father, Don Isaac, gave me a whole lecture about the history and politics about Nicaragua, from 1970s up until today. My host mother, Doña Cony, sat with us as well, confirming the facts that her husband was telling me. After almost three hours of talking about politics and history, we called it a night.
The following day, Doña Cony's son, Jorge, drove me to the money changer, then to the grocery store. My luggage did not arrive with me, so I had to buy some toiletries and other personal items. Since it was Sunday, the airline was closed and I would not be able to retrieve my luggage until Tuesday.
Exchanging currency was a very quick business. The local money changers were similar to street vendors. They stand in the streets, holding a small box. US $1.00 was equal to 17.10 Cordobas when we did the transaction. After that, we went to "La Colonia," a big supermarket in Managua. I was surprised by how expensive the goods were. A pack of three bar soaps cost about $ 2.60 (32 Còrdobas), which normally would only be US $ 0.99 at Rite Aid.
My host mother and I went to a Catholic mass that afternoon at the Community Center. It was an open area with benches and a full roof. It was not the typical Catholic Church, but the people were grateful to have the opportunity to hear the words of God. Many of the community people attended the mass. One of the choir members said that they needed help, so my host mother volunteered me and herself to help out with the communion. I ended up holding the cup of wine for people to dip in their bread (something that I've never really done in the history of my existence.) It was a very lively ceremony, and I could almost feel the joy in these people's hearts while singing and praising God.
That night, I had another long, yet very interesting, conversation with my host parents. They told me that poverty is quite severe in this country. A teacher, on average, makes about $ 22.00 per month. A doctor, who has to study for almost 10 years in order to earn his license, makes about $50.00. The list went on and on. My host mother told me that in some ways it is almost not worth it to earn a college degree because there is a big scarcity of jobs. Thus, even if a college degree holder finds a job, their wage is so low that they could hardly survive with that income. I went to bed that night still in shock about the wage gap between North and South America. We learn about poverty and wage gaps from the news, books, newspapers, and our very own university. In short, it is not brand new information to us. However, being faced with the cold reality of these social problems, these people are no longer just some stat numbers, GDP over time graphs, and news that we see or read. There are real people behind those numbers.
January 26: Today is a very special day for me. Not only does it mark my 5th wedding anniversary, but it is also my first day in the fields. I have spent the last week and a half in the Managua office, editing the CRS' 2005 APSA (Annual Program Summary of Activities) and also doing some document translations. Today, we are going to San Dionisio (about three or four hour drive away from Managua - the capital) and its neighboring communities to conduct social impact interviews on the DAP-Salud (Development Activities Program-Health care), a health care program provided by CRS to provide prenatal care and health education services to mothers in rural areas.
We begin our journey from Matagalpa, where I have spent the night before with Stephanie (another IDIP intern) and Dr. Susan Jackels (a Seattle University Chemistry Professor), both of whom are working hard with the a coffee project. Sara Vargas, (the director of healthcare program who is based in Matagalpa), Nora (an employee from CARITAS- a local NGO in Nicaragua), and I began our journey. The roads in Matagalpa are paved and it is a smooth drive. However, the roads after this city are really bad, as it is not properly maintained. There are big holes everywhere. The scary part about is that there are children everywhere, with their shovels and bags of dirt, trying to fill in the holes and gaps in the road. Then, they ask commuters to stop and give them money for the work that they are doing. I am not completely sure of what to make out of this situation. I am too scared for these children because they can get hit by a car any minute. However, it is a reality in Nicaragua that many parents cannot make enough money to support the entire family, so the children have to pitch in and make money somehow.
As we are getting closer to San Dionisio, the road pavement gradually disappears. There is a good distance where we are passing by nothing but rocks and dirt. Soon, we reach our destination.
Our first stop is the Centro de Salud De San Dionisio, a public health care clinic. There are many patients waiting outside and inside the clinic, many of whom are mothers with their children who seem malnourished. The doctors went on strike last week in order to pressure to the government to increase their salary. As a result, there are only 2 or 3 nurses that are running the clinic, possibly with an assistant or 2. We began our first interview with Gregoria, a nurse of 22 years for this clinic. She told us of the food and vaccine shortage problem in their area, and how CRS, together with other local organizations and diocese, helps provide what the government cannot.
After that, we went to several houses of the people who are directly benefiting from the health care project. The majority of them live in the same conditions: house made out of mud, scraps of wood, plastic and newspaper. They have no electricity or potable water. They have about 3 to 7 children, and their husbands work as farmers. All of the families we interviewed only live with one small income, as the wives have to stay home to take care of the children. When we asked one of the wives if they could raise animals as supplement income, she told us that they barely have enough to eat, and raising animals would be very difficult, as it would require food as well. However, despite the hardships they are faced with, they are grateful for having their families. Many of them also give thanks to God for their blessings, including the help they are receiving through DAP-Salud.
That night, I went home and reflected on the day I had. It is very hard to think that many people are forced to live like this, with the type of houses they have, with a very low income, without access to electricity and potable water. It makes me think, how is it that a "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" exists, but it seems that it does not apply to all people? Article 25 of this code states that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment..." but it clearly does not reach the people of San Dionisio and its neighboring communities. I went to bed that night with these thoughts in my head. This is probably the most emotional wedding anniversary I will ever have in my life.
February 13: I am back at the Managua office today. I have been out in the coffee farms and cooperatives most of last week. Last Monday, there was a delegation from the US that arrived at the CRS office. The delegation consisted of activists and coffee business people, most of whom would like to learn more about the effects of the coffee crisis in Nicaragua and possibly conduct business with Nicaraguan coffee producers. Perhaps the biggest theme last week was Fair Trade, a growing movement in the United States and around the globe. Fair Trade is an alternative way of engaging in international trading- one that is based on human dignity and economic justice.
Nicaragua, a Central American coffee producing country, has been experiencing a coffee crisis- a big drop in coffee prices in the international market. As a result, many producers are forced to sell their coffee for a low price, thus further increasing poverty rate in the country. This is where CRS plays an important role because it helps farmers to get access to credit and receive technical assistance. CRS motivates farmers to strive for better quality of coffee that would earn them a fair salary through the Fair Trade campaign. Furthermore, the organization helps farmers to survive in today's competitive international market.
We went up to a coffee farm called La Lagunita, located in San Antonio- a good 3 to 4 hour drive away from Managua. We met the rest of the delegates in there, in the house of Doña Petrona, the president of the cooperative, along with some of the coffee producers. After eating the delicious lunch prepared by Doña Petrona and her daughters, the delegates, coffee producers, and CRS employees sat in a big circle and had a really interesting conversation. The coffee producers described to us their typical day; how they get up at the crack of dawn to work on the fields; how they hope that every year, their coffee quality is better in order to receive better price for it, how coffee is not just source of livelihood for them, but also something that also defines who they are. Then the delegates also shared their thoughts and hopes for the Nicaraguan coffee producers.
I found it very rewarding to sit and listen in this conversation between Central American producers and North American consumers. Both groups are certainly learning from one another. I am really happy for the opportunity to be an intern for CRS, for the organization's mission of connecting coffee consumers with the producers, and their commitment to social justice. It certainly gives coffee producers the hope to earn a decent living and have a better quality of life.
February 22: I just returned from Las Nubes, a community located in the high mountains North of Managua. I went up there with Stephanie and Dr. Jackels, where we conducted social impact interviews with farmers who are currently participating in CRS' agricultural program. It was a long and rough drive to get there. Once we arrived in our destination, we had to hike up the mountain and cross a couple of mini-bridges to get to one of the farmer's homes, Pedro Pablo Ortiz Velasquez, where we would be spending two days and two nights.
After a mile or two of hiking (or what seemed like it), we finally arrived in Pedro's house. As I was trying to catch my breath, we were welcomed by his wife, children, father-in-law, and neighbors. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality, though my eyes still cannot believe what was surrounding me. Like the other homes I've visited during my field work, Pedro's house does not have electricity, or concrete flooring. As night time approached, the place became really cold. The children did not have enough layers to keep them warm. Again, I was faced with the harsh reality of poverty in Nicaragua and I felt helpless.
The following day was spent talking and interviewing coffee producers of Las Nubes. As I looked in the eyes of every single one of the coffee farmers, I could see the joy in their faces as they told me how much they love being a coffee farmer. However, earning a little over $ 1.00 per day is barely enough for them to survive and put food in the table. But many of them were optimistic that their newly formed cooperative and working with CRS to get their Fair Trade certification would increase their earnings in the upcoming years.
The next morning, we had to get up early to catch the bus to go back into the city. It was a very emotional goodbye. I took off my jacket and handed it to Pedro's wife. I asked her to give it to her little boy, who loved wearing it. He was still sleeping, so I didn't get the chance to say goodbye to him. Then, Pedro's father-in-law held my arms and gave me his sincerest blessings and gratitude for spending time in their farm. I told him that I am the one who was thankful for their hospitality, and that they inspire me in many ways to come back to Nicaragua someday.
March 3: I have less than two weeks left with my internship. I cannot believe how fast time went by. I am very excited to come home, but at the same time, I am finding it hard to prepare myself to leave. I am certain that coming home will entail a lot story telling, though I am not sure if I could do justice in recounting the "eye opening" experiences I've encountered in Nicaragua.
I know that there are many things that I will miss when I leave, most especially my family in Nicaragua. I am no longer calling them my "host family" because even in the short time we've spent together, we feel like we are now related by blood. I will also miss my neighbors in Batahola Norte; Eduardo, who sells fresh pork rinds early in the morning; Merlena, who is the most talented masajista I've ever met in my life; and the rest of the neighbors who buy La Sopa and Arroz con Leche from us on the weekends.
I could not be more thankful for having experienced what life in Nicaragua is like, and for being an intern for Catholic Relief Services. In the short time I was here, I have learned so many things, including:
- Knowing what the phrase "Sit down and enjoy a nice cup of coffee" truly means
- Patience is a virtue, especially when driving in the streets of Managua, where one could hear someone honking every 15 seconds
- All of a sudden, getting accepted to Graduate school and paying back student loans does not seem to be the biggest problem in life
- Experiencing what the life of a working class Managuan is really like
- Heroes are not only those who fight to defend liberty and freedom, but also the small-scale farmers and working class people who works hard to earn an honest living everyday
- Learning more about development work, and that the world could be a better place - one sustainable project at a time.