Tuesday, February 09, 2016

These are the streets I know: A commuter's journey from Los Robles to the far side of Bolonia

    Join me on my one-hour walk/bus to work in Managua through these 19 photos of the people and sights that I see most days as I walk along. It was a fun exercise collecting the pictures, as I'd never asked people's names before when I passed. Using the excuse that I was doing a "project" for my friends and acquaintances back home also made me feel more confident about just boldly asking people to pose, or letting me take a photo of their watch-goose.
    As seen on Facebook. But hey, not everybody's on Facebook.

This is Ricardo, one of the two security guys who work the gate outside our little complex of four houses. Ricardo alternates 24-hour shifts with Guillermo. Security work pays really poorly, so Ricardo has two other jobs.

The billiard hall next to our house, Pool Ocho. Our landlord told us it was a well-run, non-noisy place with no disturbances, and she was right. It's super-popular and every cabbie in the city knows Pool Ocho, but we never hear one bit of noise or trouble coming from the place.

Three of the many delivery guys who do pharmacy deliveries at the general store and pharmacy near our house. There's always so many of them hanging around that I presume they get paid at least a little just for showing up, as well as additional for each delivery.

The quirky stoplight where I now know that the best time to walk is when the little red man says I shouldn't, or wait until the little green man has counted down from 80 seconds to 35 seconds. Otherwise, you're in danger of being run over by cars turning left. 

Cuban restaurant Mojitos, which cooks its meats under the hood of this old shell of a car. It looks a little better when it's open and there are tables out, but not much. We're going to go there one Friday night, when they do a whole roast pig.

Escarlet, the woman who sells me baked goods, usually on my way home. One of my faves are the "encarceladas," which are thin squares of pineapple jam spread on a cookie pastry and covered in lattice pastry (the name means "imprisoned.)

Watch goose at a photocopy store with the owner's house in behind. The owner cautioned me that the goose might bite, but then invited me to open the gate for a better shot. I did get one, but I thought Mr. Goose looked more engrossed in his role as watch goose in this one.

The equivalent of Elections Canada, and the bain of my existence every Wednesday morning, when there is a standing protest against the government outside that is now met by a vast force of riot-ready police. I can't pass through this street on Wednesday to get to my bus because the police won't let anyone through. The protesters contend Nicaraguan elections aren't free and open.

Overpass across the busy street where the buses come and go. I feel slightly vulnerable on overpasses, but it is damn hard to cross the four lanes of busy traffic otherwise

Veronica, who makes the best and most gigantic sugar doughnuts to sell at the bus stop. She charges 11 cordobas each, about 50 cents

The usual scene at my bus stop, where a bunch of us await the arrival of whichever buses we're bound for. My walk to get here is about 30 minutes, then maybe 20 minutes on the bus before I get out for one last 4-block walk. 

And now I'm on the bus, heading toward my office. A good day today - seats for all.

I get off the bus here for the four-block walk to my office. This is a fast-food chicken place, and they are always washing the parking lot and the restaurant floor, including sometimes pulling booths out onto the street for a big washing.

Man and dog recovering from a rough night. While I don't always see this specific guy, or dog, sleeping at this specific place, it does seem that the four-block stretch to my work is home to enough serious drinkers that I will always run across at least one man passed out cold. Sleeping on the street here isn't about homelessness, it's about alcoholism

Jovani, who is an odd duck with a drinking problem who greets me enthusiastically as I go to and from work, pretty much every day. First we said hi,. then we shook hands, now he has taken to hugging, which I'm not too fond of. But hey, so it goes.

Carmen, the cart lady who I help out from time to time. Just before we left the country last year, I gave her $35 for new wheels for her cart. Recently I bought her some basic groceries - rice, beans, oil, salt, coffee. She walks a crazy amount with her cart, collecting bottles and anything else she might be able to sell for a few cordobas or salvage. She has a husband, kids and grandkids - sometimes she has her 5 year old grandson with her.

My office. As is the case with many, many offices in Managua, it used to be a house. There's been a middle/upper-class flight out of Managua's centre to flashier outlying neighbourhoods, and many of the older 'hoods have been converted into office space for NGOs, embassies and the like.

Inside my office. That's Rosita on the right, who is kind of the Jill of all trades for our organization and does everything from staffing the reception desk to making us lunch, maintaining files, running work errands, etc. And that's Ericka the accountant in red.

Can you imagine walking past cages of puppies every single day and not being able to buy at least one to take home? If I didn't know first-hand how difficult and expensive it is to export a dog from Central America to Canada, I'd be tempted. There are three or four dog sellers who sell on one of the streets that I walk home on. They claim the dogs are purebred and sell them for $100 US each. That and another $1000 or so Canadian to get all the permissions, vet papers, and ridiculously expensive flight costs will let you bring one of these sweet little guys home

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The wheels on the bus: Sometimes they roll, sometimes they squeal, sometimes they throw you from side to side

Photo by fellow bus veteran Paul Willcocks
This morning I took the city bus that makes a loud thump somewhere around the rear axle every time it stops. Yesterday I rode home on the one that has three seat backs broken off, which I’m fond of because nobody but me takes those spots and it means I always get a seat.

Spend more than an hour on Nicaraguan city buses every work day and you start to get familiar with their idiosyncrasies. Their personalities emerge. They drive up to your stop looking the same, but then the door clatters open and you realize it’s this one or that one, each offering their own distinct experience.

There’s the one with padded, comfy seats that must be a retired long-distance bus; I’ve only been on that one once, but its cheerful yellow and black seats come to mind often when I’m being bashed around on one of the more typical molded-plastic ones.

Then there’s the bus that always has good tunes playing, and usually a girl curled up on the engine cover near the driver. (A lot of the drivers like to bring their girlfriends along, and I sense a certain status comes from being the woman who gets to sit where no other passengers are allowed.)

I’ve learned to avoid the bus that has had a bunch of seats taken out to create more standing room, because it doesn’t have enough handholds for a rider to stay stable as the driver rockets around corners and lurches to sudden stops. But I’m always pleased to board the one with dark-grey, military-feeling seats- old army bus, maybe? - which are sturdy, fitted, and wide enough that you rarely feel your fellow passenger’s meaty thigh pressed into yours, as is the case on every other bus.

Bus to San Carlos
If I time my commute right, I miss the peak of the rush and get a seat, or at least get a standing spot ample enough to take a wide stance and keep my balance. On the worst days, we are crushed three deep in the aisle, and I am helpless against unpleasantness turns of event like a tall man’s sweaty butt pressed into the small of my back, or a short woman’s head prickling under the arm I’ve got raised overhead to clutch the metal support bar.

(Even seated, you'll likely endure some uncomfortable moments when travelling by bus in Nicaragua. One of my grandsons had a woman’s very ample, bare belly pressed into his cheek for a good while on our trip to San Carlos.)

Everyone puts their bus face on during transit times, and I’ve come to do the same. It’s a kind of checked-out state of being – not blank, exactly, but not really there.  It lets you survive the various indignities of bus rides at peak hours without, for instance, saying something rude to the woman who just tore your shirt by squeezing past you with her giant, bejewelled purse, or going all Peter Finch on the pushing, roiling mob that is fighting to get on and off the bus at each stop. When you’re wearing your bus face, it’s like you’re plankton in the ocean, uncomplaining and accepting as the waves buffet you here and there.

The rules for giving up your seat are obviously more complicated here than in Honduras, where any woman getting on a bus will always find a man willing to jump up to offer her his seat. Here, the only ones guaranteed to be offered a seat are women with babies in arms, or super-old and rickety people. Personally, I really feel for short people, who don’t have the arm length to grab the overhead bar and hold on for dear life, and thus get knocked around more than most if they don’t get seats.

But while the scene can be a bit chaotic on Managua’s city buses, the system itself is smooth as glass. There are loads of buses covering dozens of routes, so you can get yourself pretty much anywhere within five or 10 minutes of arriving at your bus stop, presuming you can figure out the rather busy bus map. The system uses cards that can be preloaded at any big bus stop; I throw $5 on mine from time to time and then just tap it on a machine as I enter the bus to deduct that trip’s fare.

And what a deal: You can ride any route from one end to the other for 2.5 córdobas - about 12 cents. My walk/bus combination trip to work every day costs me $5 for an entire month, which is what I would pay in just one day if I went by cab.

So for those kinds of savings, I guess I can handle a stranger’s hot butt plastered into my back once in a while. I can live with having my breasts crush into the ear of a seated passenger while I'm being squeezed airless by an unruly stream of people working their way to the back door of the bus. I can stifle the scream when I see a vendor with a teetery platter of sticky coconut sweets cram onto a packed bus and push their way through the sea of people, selling as they go.

I’ll just put my bus face on and roll with it.

Monday, January 18, 2016

On the inescapable privilege of privilege

Having worked in poor countries for most of the last four years, there’s a lot about The Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker feature that’s really resonating with me.
    Of course, I continue to attach the most value to pieces that bravely carry the writer’s name, because few things keep you more honest as a writer than putting your stuff out there with your name attached, for all the world to see. But sometimes it’s anonymous or nothing, so I’m cutting some slack to the unidentified writers producing pieces for Secret Aid Worker.
    I’m not exactly an aid worker in my current role of doing communications work for Central American NGOs on behalf of Cuso International. My work experience in Honduras and now Nicaragua has not been that different than it was in Canada, except for much lower pay and a dramatically different work culture. But both home and abroad, I do my work for aid organizations, whether it’s in aid of sex workers back in Canada, or women farmers scratching out a marginal living on tiny plots of land, as it is here in Nicaragua.
    At any rate, the moral dilemmas and ethical conflicts that the aid workers tend to write about in the Guardian feature strike a chord with me. Two recent pieces in particular caught my eye, one about how quickly a person’s idealism to help people in poor countries ends up corrupted by life as a privileged ex-pat; and the other a counterpoint noting that expecting foreign aid workers to “live like monks” is hardly a solution either.
    The Cuso stipend I receive in Nicaragua feels like more or less the going rate for a Nicaraguan communications consultant working in the country. I get the equivalent of about $1,600 CAD a month, which includes up to $585 a month for housing. (Cuso rates vary from country to country and town to town, depending on the cost of living of where a person is placed.)
    You’re working as a professional when you do a Cuso position, and getting a liveable stipend for the work you do is probably important for recruitment and retention. But at the same time, you take a Cuso position because you want to help, not for the money. I think Cuso does a good job of establishing a stipend level that keeps things real for volunteers while also ensuring their safety and comfort.
    But just because I’m paid like a middle-class Nicaraguan doesn’t mean anything else about my experience is the same as theirs. Even if I worked for free, I’d still be privileged just by dint of being born a Canadian.
    Sure, I'm opting to take the city bus to work, and walking in the heat and the dust to Managua’s sprawling public markets with just as much of a desire as any Nicaraguan to score a good price on tomatoes, cucumbers and limes. I’m not going to the pricey restaurants where the rich Nicaraguans eat any more often than my low-paid co-workers.
    But small stuff aside, my life isn’t even remotely comparable to the experience of an average Nicaraguan. (For starters, minimum wage here is less than $500 CAD, and a whole lot of people make nowhere near that much.) However long I might live in Central America, I will never be able to declare that I know how life feels for an average Nicaraguan any more than a comfortable Canadian who spends a night on the street pretending to be homeless knows about how real homelessness feels.
    If there were bugs in my bed, a sickness in my household, a crisis with one of my parents’ health, I could do something about it in an instant. If I hated my boss, I could quit. If I needed a holiday, I could pay for it. If I had to jump on a plane to anywhere in the world to help a family member out of a jam, I’ve got a gold-standard passport that nobody would question, and the credit card and line of credit to make it happen even if my savings weren't adequate.
    If life went sideways on me in Nicaragua, I could pack it all up tomorrow and come running home, to the land of public health insurance, pensions, and subsidized care and bug-free housing. It’s like that line from Pulp’s song Common People – “when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, you could call your dad and he’d stop it all.”
    And there’s the dilemma. I’m innately privileged, with a comfortable Plan B. Yet if I’m here wanting to be helpful to impoverished Nicaraguans, I absolutely have to check my privilege at the door and consciously consider everything as if I were a struggling Nicaraguan with no safety net. Which I’m not.
     I try to remind myself of that every day, because it really matters. Otherwise, you risk being one of those awful people who forget how privileged their world view is and get petulant when the locals don’t see things the same way they do. Otherwise, you become one of those annoying development types who grows sour from years of disappointments and ends up living like just another rich person enjoying the perks of abundant cheap labour. (Check out "The Reductive Seduction of Other People's Problems" to understand more about why good people go sour.)
     I’ve visited some terrific international development projects. But I’ve also seen a lot that feel foisted on the locals because countries with money to spend presume that what worked in their land will work in others. There’s a certain flavour-of-the-month quality to much of the world’s development work, and much time, energy and hope is wasted trying to force square pegs through round holes.
     Ultimately, a country finds its own path toward change. Economic opportunity, revolution and protest, responsible government, guaranteed rights and a healthy justice system – that’s where real change comes from. Foreigners can play integral parts on all those fronts, but their contributions are most successful when they take their signals from those who live in the country.
     Aid works when it’s based on strategies that call on those with privilege not to come to other countries to implement their own ideas, but to walk alongside people who are already bringing about change in those countries and require help to get there. They need us; people of privilege not only hold the purse strings, but can recognize and develop opportunities that countries enmeshed in poverty don’t yet see.
    So yes, a person from a wealthy country who lives and works in a poor country is privileged. But that’s just how it is.  We can’t pretend to know how it feels to be poor and without a Plan B. I think the best we can do is keep that fact top of mind, and strive to follow rather than lead. 

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International. Here's our fundraising site. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A random list of gratitudes, in no particular order

     Having never been one for goal-setting, the end of the year appeals to me more as a time for reflecting on where my life is at than as a start point for setting goals that may or may not be achievable in the next 12 months. As John Lennon so eloquently noted, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. (In the spirit of goal-setting, perhaps I should pick 2016 as the year that I finally get that truth tattooed on me. I've been talking about it for long enough.)
     So I got to reflecting this morning. And I guess it’s not surprising that my thoughts turned to all the things I’m grateful for, given that I’m currently sitting here in my comfy home in the Managua heat, still in love after 19 years, practically giddy to have recovered from two herniated discs in my neck this past spring, and fresh off a terrific two weeks of travelling Nicaragua with a couple of our grandkids.
     Herewith, a list of personal gratitudes to herald the end of one year and the start of another. It’s by no means a complete list – just the things that popped into my head today. I wish for all of you that you find gratitude in the things that have gone well, and the resilience to get through the things that haven’t. Today, I’m grateful…

·         For having been a teenage mother, because what that translates into at the age of 59 is the chance to hang out in Nicaragua with two teenage grandsons when I am still fit and healthy enough to do adventurous things with them like hiking up volcanoes. Not to mention the great joy of having had more than 41 years of being a mother, and a ton of quality grandchild time for almost 17 years now.

·         For having been born and raised in a country with a high-quality, accessible education system, decent salaries, and publicly funded health care, because growing up in a country like that is a lifelong gift that gives you a giant leg up in this world no matter what happens after that.

·         But at the same time I'm also grateful for the opportunity to experience life in countries with none of that, where I have seen that even downsides can have upsides, and that countries where people have no choice but to figure out their own survival are capable of great innovation, adaptation, resilience and compassion.

·         To be part of a vast extended family that definitely gets fed up with each other from time to time but fundamentally understands that family is forever.

·         For whatever mysterious forces drove me to leave my really great private-sector job as a journalist back in 2004 and venture into non-profit work, where people’s stories still make up the bulk of my work but in ways that make me feel much more connected to meaningful change.

·         I am grateful that a lot of people are scared to live in Honduras, because that meant that the first Cuso International post I tried for back in 2011 had sat vacant for the two years prior to that, which in turn meant that my basic tourist-level Spanish passed muster and I got the post. And a whole other world opened up to me.

·         For a four-month strike in 2002 at the Times Colonist that at the time almost gave me a nervous breakdown, but ultimately revealed to me that I could easily live on half my wages. That revelation set me free.

·         For all the people who have opened up their homes, pets and possessions to Paul and I since we become “homeless” in 2012, welcoming us to care for their stuff while they are vacationing and making it possible for us to live as gypsies. (Well, except for our 2002 PT Cruiser. Come on, even a gypsy needs a caravan.)

·         Grateful to my parents and my piano teacher Kaye Wilson for hammering discipline into me at a young age, because I have put that to use in so many ways over the years, most recently to be able to learn Spanish as well as a new instrument (the accordion) that’s small enough to accompany me in my wandering.

·         For being a sickly kid who experienced being teased and judged, because that has made me into someone who never takes her health for granted and feels a kinship with anyone who has experienced being an outsider. And there’s a lot of us.

·         For all the times I failed, felt my heart break, stumbled, erred. Failure has taught me how to get back up again, and freed me from the nameless dread that gets in your way out of fear that you might fail.

·         I’m grateful that even before I knew that the man of my dreams needed to be someone who could help my youngest daughter with math, embrace cheap travel and a life of uncertainty, and be a kind and patient grandfather to my then-unborn grandchildren, I found my way to just such a man. Here’s to many more years together, Paul.

·         For whatever it is in my genetics that led me to be a person who can’t hold onto resentments and disappointments for very long. Life’s too short to be bitter. Happy 2016, everyone.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Casita Copan: The home of Mami Zoila

Casita Copan Home for Abandoned Children

Background and Project Outline

December 2015

The goal:

 Raise $15,000 to cover 12 months of maintenance costs (approx $1,200 per month) at one of the three family-style homes that Casita Copan operates for abandoned children in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. This particular project will focus on the home of Zoila, who has made a commitment to be the permanent foster mom of five children ages 6 to 11 – Maria, Jesus, Estrella, Alex and Rosario – and live at the casita with them until the youngest one turns 18. While Zoila was offered two days’ a week off, she has chosen to work full-time, 7 days a week – just like any other mom. Her own mother, Juana, is a foster mom at one of the other casitas.

Facts on the Casitas:

  • The three homes opened in July 2014 and cost about $15,000 a year to maintain, roughly $1,200 a month, which includes rent, utilities, maintenance, food, water, medicine, salary for Casita mom, school fees, and weekly visits with a psychologist.· Two of the casitas have four children living in the home, and one has five. 
  • There were a number of sibling groupings living at the former orphanage Angelitos Felices (closed down in July 2014 by the Honduran government); these children continue to live together in the same casitas. 
  • Each casita has a permanent foster mom who lives at the home and participates in all the activities that any mom might do for her children. 
  • The children are in their casitas on weekdays from 4 pm, Saturdays from 1 pm, and all day Sunday. On weekdays they go to school and then to Casita Copan (the main center) for tuoring, special activities, etc. This approach gives staff a chance to check how they are, address medical needs, ensure sessions with our psychologist, etc. The Casita model blends the best aspects of permanent foster care with the oversight of a children's home. 

Specifics on the casita run by "Mami Zoila"

The foster mom:

Zoila is from Nueva Esperanza, a small rural community on the outskirts of Copan Ruinas. A middle child in a family of 6 children, Zoila always helped out at home by taking care of her siblings and later her nieces and nephews. Though she loves children, she never wanted to get married because (in her words) she "didn't want to work for a man." She started working at Casita Copan in 2012 and the kids immediately bonded to her because of her calm, affectionate nature and her infectious smile.

When the Casitas opened in July 2014, she was the first person the organization asked to be a Casita mom - a serious commitment since she was asked to care for the kids in her care until they turn 18. (A 13-year commitment in this case, as the youngest child in Zoila’s casita was 5 when the home opened last year). It goes without saying that the kids love her dearly and all call her "mamá." Side note: She is the daughter of another Casita mom, Juana.

The home:

Zoila’s casita is a bright, happy place. The walls are decorated with pictures the kids have drawn, and diplomas and certificates from school. All of the kids help out with the household chores and as soon as they get home, they wash their clothes and help Zoila fold the laundry. Some play with blocks on the floor while others go into their bedrooms to relax while they wait for dinner. The children are usually in bed by 8 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, they like to get out the puzzles or coloring books and play on the patio, watch movies, go to church, or take a trip to the Mayan ruins.

The children: 

Rosario is 11 years old. Her mother died in childbirth and Rosario's father didn't have enough money to care for her, so he entrusted her to the care of the orphanage "Angelitos Felices." He died a few years later. Living on her own at the orphanage, Rosario grew into a fiercely independent, tough, and intelligent girl. The smaller kids looked up to her and relied on her to care for them when adult supervision was scarce. Rosario loves to sing, dance, and draw and really loves to watch music videos. When she grows up, she wants to be a teacher. This isn't surprising since she still loves the role of caregiver and is always helping out the younger kids and teaching them new things. She is going to 5th grade next year. 

Alex is 10 years old and the brother of Estrella. His mother was just a teenager when she had Alex and the police removed him from her custody because of extreme malnourishment. He entered Angelitos when he was about one year old. Alex is energetic, creative, and very affectionate but still struggles with anxiety. But that doesn't stop him from trying. Right now he is very into dance and has incredible acrobatic skill - he can walk on his hands, do crazy flips, and is starting to learn some basic breakdance techniques. In the past he wasn't sent to school regularly so he is only in 3rd grade, but he is a good student and was elected class president this year. Alex is incredibly helpful to his Casita family and always make sure the others are helping out too. He's still not sure exactly what job he wants when he grows up but he wants to have enough money to build a house where he and his sister Estrella can live. 

Estrella is 7 years old and the sister of Alex. She was taken into an orphanage when she was a baby because of malnutrition and later sent to Angelitos. She is a born artist. She is inquisitive, thoughtful, creative, and already shows above age level technical skill in her drawings. Right now she's into drawing butterflies, flowers, and animals and she always draws free hand. Estrella is such a sweet and kind girl that everyone likes to be around her and she has made lots of friends at Casita Copan. She just finished first grade and is doing very well so far. When she grows up she wants to be an artist and when she is "medium sized" she wants to be a ballerina.

Maria is 6 years old and sister to Jesus. Her mother has severe epilepsy and so she was taken out of her mother's custody by the police and placed into Angelitos Felices when she was about 3 years old. Maria is a spitfire. She is bright, bossy, and has a great sense of humor. She just finished kindergarten and was one of the most advanced among her classmates. Maria loves to be around people and you will usually find her at the center of any game (although she will definitely want to be the one to go first, so watch out!) When she grows up, she wants to "plant flowers all around." 

Jesus is 9 years old and brother to Maria. When Jesus entered Casita Copan, he displayed severe behavioral and developmental issues and we were very nervous about how we would react in his new environment. While he still loves to be in his own world, he has changed dramatically. He is incredibly gifted and has a remarkable talent for puzzles and math. Even though he often escaped from his 1st grade classroom to play on the swings, he was one of the first in his class to learn to read and he earned a 88% average. Jesus has now become affectionate and respectful with adults that he cares about and trusts and is turning into a wonderful young man. His favorite thing is to make people around him laugh. At his Casita, he is relaxed and helpful. When he grows up, he wants to "fix things" although I think he may end up more interested in computers since that is currently his favorite pastime! 

Note on Alex and Estrella's birth mom: Mirna has 5 children and his pregnant with her 6th. Only one child still lives with her. She suffered severe physical and sexual abuse as a child and has struggled to maintain a steady job or income. She admits that she never cared for her kids like she wanted to and was sometimes too rough with Alex. She never had a chance to care for Estrella since she herself was malnourished when she had her and didn't have money to feed her. Mirna comes from La Entrada (an hour away by bus) once a month to visit her children now that she has permission to see them. She is shy around them but has the same sweet and helpful personality as her children. She always helps out at Casita when she can and smiles constantly, just like Estrella and Alex.

Note on Maria and Jesus's birth mom: Maria has severe epilepsy that started when she was a child. Casita Copan provides her medication but because of the severity of her condition, she still has seizures and her intellectual development was stunted by the frequency of her seizures and falls. So she often forgets to take her pills and does not maintain a healthy diet which only makes things worse. But Maria loves her children fiercely. She is the only mother that comes to visit her kids every single Wednesday and somehow always manages to bring them food and drinks. She helps them with their homework, draws with them, and always encourages them to behave well and study hard. She would like to be able to care for her children again one day, but her medical condition makes this unlikely.

Bang for your buck:

· Just 5 per cent of donations to Casita Copan go to administrative costs.

· Click here for the Casita Copan web site and more background information. (It's a registered charity in U.S. and Honduras, and Canadian charitable tax receipts are available if donors contact the organization first to arrange for how to make those donations)

· Click here to sponsor a Casita directly 

· Click here to sponsor an individual child for $30, $60 or $90 a month