Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Little Bit Of This......A Little Bit Of That PART II

As I mentioned in PART I, this Blog series is meant to offer a bit of insight into my Nica life. Below are three short stories involving my work, the struggles of the locals, and another average day. Enjoy the insight.


As I’ve mentioned before, I spend most of my volunteer time with the “feeding program” through NicaHOPE. I’ve also mentioned some of the changes I’ve initiated around there with respect to such things as sanitation, etc. I’m happy to report that the level of sanitation has gone up DRAMATICALLY in our little school cafeteria! I haven’t seen a rat in weeks, the cockroaches have stopped congregating in their usual gathering places, and the flies, fungi, and germs have apparently moved on in search or more fertile lands. AND, with the success of the sanitation came requests to improve the program in other areas. Requests from whom, you ask? The MAN…..the SUITS….the BOYS UPSTAIRS……the TOP BRASS. We’re improving the QUALITY of the ingredients, we’re improving the QUANTITY of the portions, and we’re working to organize the volunteers to ensure good and consistent help. The results? Well, the program is without a doubt on an upward trajectory toward excellence. It’s just that it hasn’t exactly come without a price. Remember my friend Hazel who technically “coordinates” or “runs” the program from “inside” the kitchen? Well, Hazel has been a bit “less than supportive” of the improvements, and I have suddenly found myself taking a more “active” role in the daily operation of the program. More accurately put, I’m finding myself running the program from a position located somewhere between the encouragement of the folks upstairs and the discouragement of the boss in the kitchen. Since I’m technically a mere volunteer who carries (nor wants) no real authority, things have gotten a bit………sticky.

I WISH I could describe the conflict between Hazel and I as something from one of the local Spanish “novellas”.

“What???? Are you completely INSANE? That’s the STUPIDEST things I’ve EVER heard!!!!!!”

“Oh yea?? Well YOU’RE STUPID! In fact, I find you utterly REPULSIVE! DETESTABLE!”

“That goes DOUBLE for me!!!”

………..without warning, they are suddenly locked in a passionate embrace. Dishes are flying in all directions. The beans on the stove are burning intensely, not unlike the passion within their hearts.

“I hate you SO MUCH!”

“I know! Me too! I hate you with every fiber of my being……I hate you with all the blackness in the soul of humanity……I hate you so much, you’re absolutely………absolutely……..IRRESISTABLE!!!”


Cue lights…..cue wind machine……XXXXXXXXXXXOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Yes, I’d love to report a story like that. Unfortunately, not unlike the novellas, it would be complete and utter fiction. The GOOD news though, is that in the midst of a bit of job related friction, I’ve been increasing my proficiency in two KEY areas…….conflict resolution in the workplace…….and……..arguing in a foreign language.

Camp Acahualinca

UNLIKE Colorado, where there are four beautiful and distinct seasons, this part of the world enjoys only two……WET and DRY. Currently, we are in the WET. To be more accurate, over the last week or so, we seem to be in SUPER WET. What happens when ALL of the water from the surrounding area drains into Lake Managua? The lake rises, of course. What happens when you happen to live in the low lying area AROUND the lake? Exactly…’s time to relocate.
I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking something along the lines of:

“What’s wrong with these people? It’s just like parts of the US! People build their houses on flood plains, and then act surprised when it floods! What a bunch of morons!!!!”

Unfortunately, it’s not QUITE that simple. In Managua, unlike many parts of the US, the property located around the shores of the lake is not exactly the most desired. The lake is horribly contaminated, filthy, and by definition the lowest point in the area. You’ve heard the expression. It’s true. It literally DOES flow downhill. So who inhabits the LEAST desirable land in the area? Of course…..the POOREST people in the area.

When the rain didn’t stop, the water rose. When the water rose, the people were forced to evacuate. When the people evacuated, my “place of business”, Acahualinca Elementary, experienced a sudden transformation from a school into a place of refuge (think a cross between a homeless shelter and a refugee camp). Over the last couple of weeks, we have had as many as 350 people and as few as 30. Right now, as I write this, we are somewhere in the middle. Camp Acahualinca is certainly “no frills”. There are no “uncomfortable beds” or army-green cots. There are no food and water stations or portable showers. There CERTAINLY aren’t volunteers in brightly colored t-shirts walking around, serving in various capacities. What there IS however is whatever you happen to have brought with you and a space on a concrete floor. Didn’t happen to bring a pillow, blanket, basic essentials, etc.? Sorry. You’re out of luck. Here’s your piece of concrete. At least it’s not raining in here.

The government brought rice, beans, and a bit of milk. As for getting them cooked, the people were on their own. Tthis is where I come in. The good news for the flood victims around Acahualinca is that although the school doesn’t have showers, it DOES have a cafeteria. Over the last week, I’ve taken off my “lunch lady” hairnet and put on my “disaster relief” cap (hey, I suppose there IS one volunteer in a brightly colored t-shirt…….minus the brightly colored t-shirt). The overall operation has been organized primarily through a handful of “community organizers” (no, that’s NOT a reference to Obama). I simply help out on the food and water side of things, ensuring that they always have WHAT they need, WHEN they need it. I’ve enjoyed my new role. It’s sort of like entertaining guests.

Tomorrow, for the first time in a week, there are supposed to be SOME children returning to the school. Although the rains have subsided dramatically, the lake has continued to rise. There are reports of alligators eating dogs, a new infestation of snakes and mosquitoes, and more rain on the way. I actually took a tour of the affected area today, and all I can say for now is that (to borrow a phrase from a friend) I feel as though I was just PUNCHED IN THE MIND. As I write this, the thunder in the distance has rapidly grown closer, bringing with it the familiar sound of rain on the metal roof above. As for how long I’ll be wearing this particular hat, I suppose it’s anyone’s guess.

Another Day In The Life

The day started around 6:30 with the sounding of the cell phone alarm clock, and after going a couple rounds with the “snooze alarm”, I was up making coffee while listening to the bustling sounds of the street outside my room. As I’ve mentioned before, the #7 and the #54 (bus routes) start REALLY early, and that’s to say NOTHING of the roaving street venders, taxis, and pedestrians all rushing about in an effort to arrive to their respective destinations on time.
NEVER in my adult life have I had a regular or daily schedule. To be quite honest, even though I’ve worked full-time for years, I’ve never had what would be classified as a “regular” job (some would say I’ve never had a REAL job). Ironically, as I’ve left the work force and assigned myself to official volunteer status, I’ve suddenly found myself living the life of the daily grind. It has certainly taken some getting used to, but really hasn’t been all that bad. There are some real advantages to a regular schedule, and I prefer to focus in THAT direction.

The first hour and a half were spent drinking high quality coffee (one of the luxuries I allow myself), eating a “pico” (sort of a cross between a donut and a croissant), reading, writing, and contemplating the world. I call it “easing into the day”, and it’s a time I’ve grown to appreciate greatly.

After being properly adjusted (and subsequently regulated, thanks to the coffee……yet another advantage of keeping a regular schedule), I was off for the school. Lunch-lady duty generally lasts most of the day. If I’m lucky, and if there is a sufficient number of volunteers that day, I can be out by three. After a short meeting over at “the office”, it was time to head for home.
The water is turned off daily from 5-11. The goal is to always be in and out of the shower by 5 (side note… most folks in the country, there is no such thing as a HOT shower in my current world). If I catch it as it’s in the process of shutting down (the city generally lowers the pressure gradually over the course of 30 minutes or so), there is water to the sink AFTER there is NO WATER to the shower. With a bit of creativity, I can still get in a pretty decent rinse. If I miss it altogether, it’s a late night bathing session. For the most part, I have no problem with the water schedule. When the city randomly changes the schedule however (relatively common), I curse them with great fervor.

Fortunately, I made it that day. After a quick shower and a ridiculously large slice of papaya (my new favorite fruit), it was time to reach out and touch the world. I’ve mentioned the word “adjustment” a couple times already, and the internet is another area of such an adjustment. I really couldn’t care less about having a TV in the house. Conversely, I’m not sure I would function particularly well without the internet. To have excruciatingly slow speed is one thing (welcome to the world wide web from Nicaragua). To NOT have “home internet” is another. Both have taken some getting used to. Fortunately though, there are several “Cybers” in the neighborhood, all within walking distance (yes, I’m still carrying the laptop through the neighborhood, contrary to the persistent warnings of the neighbors). The average internet session is one hour and runs about fifty cents. That day was no exception. I checked my emails, got a quick fix with my new addiction called Facebook, and greeted “the regulars” staring randomly into the various magic boxes.

After catching up on the latest political gossip and being properly connected with the world, I made a quick trip to the video store (got to avoid those late fees) and then stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few key ingredients for that night’s dinner. The cooking was minimal, but the dinner turned out quite well. And, since the youngest little sister (16) needed help with her English homework, there wasn’t much time to digest. The next hour or two were spent tutoring in the area of elementary English. Hopefully she learned a thing or two. I know I did. We finished the assignment nonetheless.

Dishes……more visiting with the family and neighbors…….it was now time to wind things down and debrief the day with the older little sister (18). We sat on the stoop in front of the house and enjoyed a brief recess from the rain. A bit of listening about recent boy troubles…….an encouraging word here and there……maybe some counsel when solicited. Basically, it was just hanging out and enjoying the cool of the evening.

Since it was getting late, it was time to call it a day. On the average night, the street is officially deserted by 9 or 9:30. I think this is mostly out of fear or concern for safety. Regardless, it’s probably best to go with the flow on that one. AND, since I was engrossed in my latest literary undertaking (reading a really good book, that is), I was looking forward to knocking off a few chapters before officially waving the white flag of surrender.

I finished the day in the same manner it began…….relaxing…… reading….thinking…..looking for a good story or a bit of inspiration……..easing into the night. And that was pretty much it. Of course, I left out PLENTY of details amidst the daily grind. Weaving their way through the general outline of the day are no shortage of humorous anecdotes, cultural mishaps, challenges of all types, confrontations with the world of poverty or the process of finding my way in a foreign land, and various fires to put out in any number of areas (the figurative kind these days). It was a good day, an average day. It’s certainly wasn’t a glamorous or particularly riveting 24 hours. But as the title implies, this one was just “another day in the life”.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Little Bit Of This, A Little Bit Of That.....Part I

I haven’t written in the Blog for a while. Not because I don’t want to. It’s just that there never seems to be enough TIME. TIME????, you say? How can there not be enough TIME????? You’re a volunteer in Latin America who doesn’t even have a real JOB! Well, that’s technically true. What is also true though is that……..well, more on that later. The point I’m trying to make is that I’m taking this opportunity to simply catch up on a bit of writing I’ve neglected over the last month or so. As the title implies, it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, stories stemming from everyday events that should offer a bit of insight into my current Nica life. For the sanity of all of us, I’ll break it up into a couple of parts. And since I left off in my last entry with a story of crime and punishment, I’ll continue with that same theme in this, the FIRST of another two part series.


In my last Blog entry, I wrote about a late night visitor I had to my little oasis in Barrio Atlagracia. Well, although I thought my sealing of the window would be the end of THAT, my late night friend decided to return the other night……or maybe a friend……or a colleague……or LEAST someone in a similar line of work. The story goes like this:

It’s Saturday night, about 6:30 PM. The mom, two little sisters, and boyfriend of the younger are eating dinner at the kitchen table. The “dad” from the house is at work. Me? I had just left for a movie. The front door is open. The front gate is closed. The boyfriend is startled by a noise and gets up from the table. It is suddenly realized that a “ladron” (robber) has taken the liberty of letting himself in and is leisurely making his way through the house. The boyfriend grabs and detains him, as the girls call the police. The ladron doesn’t resist in any way, and claims that he was simply looking for something to eat. Since the police don’t show up for an hour and a half, there is obviously a long wait. The ladron sits in the corner quietly, awaiting his escort to the local police station. More family members are called…….more arrive. As more family members arrive, more and more neighbors arrive. Before long , there is a bit of a mob scene. When one of the uncles shows up along with the dad, things take a downward turn for our friend, the ladron. Fortunately, the “golf club” is unable to be located. Unfortunately, a “metal pole” fills in quite nicely. According to reports, things get pretty ugly at this point. As the angry mob screams “dale dale” (literal translation…..give it to him), the little sisters scream hysterically to stop, and the “victim” cries for mercy while trying to shield his body and cower in the corner, the dad and the uncle use fists, feet, and the metal pole to give our new friend the “Rodney King-style” beating of his life. Yep, it’s often a completely different world down here. The movie was the absolute WORST I’d seen in a long time. I’m glad I went.


With any developing nation, the area of “law enforcement” takes on a particularly different meaning than its equivalent in the US. “Los Policias” here in Nicaragua are NO exception to the rule. As for the “traffic police”, the general procedure is to stake out a corner somewhere on a random street, stand out in the street, and simply wave people in to their little makeshift detention area. If they are really advanced, they may have a cone or a reflective vest. If they’re SUPER advanced, they may have a vehicle (i.e. a way to get there and home……..or perhaps “pursue” someone who chooses not to stop). Usually, they have to thumb a ride. What do they do exactly? Well, usually they just check your registration, insurance, and license and send you on your way. I say “usually”, but not always. I’ve been pulled over a number of times. Many times they have checked the documents and sent me on my way. Others though, I’ve had to pay them bribes ranging from 5-15 dollars to avoid having to spend the following day getting my license back. Regardless, I’m ALWAYS very courteous and compliant. ALWAYS, that is, until the other night.
It was dark and raining, and I wasn’t particularly enjoying being out on the motorcycle that evening. We had received an incredible amount of rain over the last several days, and there had been much flooding in the city. I was driving very slowly and cautiously, simply trying to get home and relax. After making a right hand turn (with turn signals, etc.), I arrived at the red light less than a block from the corner. An officer walked out from the sidewalk, looked me over a bit, and waved me over to the curb.

TC (Traffic Cop)…..Documents please.

J(that’s me)…..Sure officer. Here you go.

He walks away and reviews the documents. Upon returning, he asks me to turn off the motor and follow him.

TC…..Are you aware that you committed an infraction back there when you made that turn? You made a right hand turn but upon completion of the turn, entered the left lane.

J…..OK. Sure, I can understand that. But the right lane is not a particularly viable option tonight. There is a LARGE amount of flood debris in that lane at the moment. AND, in addition to the flood debris, there is an ENOURMOUS hole (think somewhere between a pothole and a sinkhole…….easily large enough to swallow the moto). The lane is completely obstructed…… I said, not a good option.

TC…..Yes, I understand that, but that doesn’t matter. You still broke the law.

As I said before, usually I’m very cordial and compliant. That night however, I had apparently had enough.

J…..Are you kidding me? REALLY? SERIOUSLY????? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve EVER heard! I’m lucky I didn’t CRASH with all of the debris in the road! And YOU! What are you even doing out here in the rain? NOTHING! All you’re doing is standing out in the street ripping people off and trying to take advantage of them!!!!! It’s totally wrong! YOU know it, and everyone out here knows it!

TC…..Are you saying we’re corrupt. We’re NOT corrupt (that’s one of their big slogans)!

Jason remains silent and gives him the look of “hey, if the shoe fits, buddy”.

TC…..You better be careful. You better respect the authority of……blah blah blah blah.

J…..Whatever! You do what you have to do. The whole thing is completely ludicrous, and YOU KNOW IT!!!!!!

The next thing I knew, after being given another warning about respecting the authority of the police and having my documents returned cordially, I was on my way…… ticket… nothing.

“Have a nice evening”, he said. “Drive carefully.”

I suppose he picked up on the subtle clues pointing to the fact that regardless of the outcome, I had NO intention of paying ANYONE ANYTHING that night. Maybe it’s not such a bad strategy after all.


AND…..since we’re STILLL on the subject of criminal activity and law enforcement, I’ll conclude this section with one final story. As many of you know, I am technically a “tourist” here in Nicaragua. In other words, I have what is known as a “tourist visa” that is good for 90 days. What happens after the 90 days are up? Well, it’s certainly a renewable tourist visa. I just have to leave the country and stay “gone” for 72 hours. Upon crossing back into the country, I receive a stamp that is good for another 90 days. Recently, I took a trip to Costa Rica to see a couple of friends in San Jose. We had a nice time, and I got my new 90 day pass upon crossing back over. BUT, while talking to a different friend the other night, it dawned on me that my “recent trip” to Costa Rica may have been a bit “less recent” than I thought. Upon checking the stamp in my passport, my suspicion was confirmed. Just HOW recent was that trip? Uh….about 100 days ago recent. Uh oh.
I had visions of the Nica version of the INS showing up at the door (hey, do we still have that metal pole around?)

Are you Jason Jones?????


Come with us.

Uuummm…….Do you guys work within the same bribe system as the traffic police?

I had visions of being driven to the airport in shackles and thrown into an unmarked cargo plane. My passport would no doubt be revoked. I would be branded an international criminal and barred from ever returning to this part of the world. If I chose to return, I would have to do a reverse border run from Texas or California.


NO AMIGO! I’m trying to get INTO Mexico!!!!!

The next day, I found out that I would need to go down to the local immigration office to get things sorted out. As a precaution, I had a Nica friend call ahead and find out what was going to happen. In other words, if I walked INTO the office under free will, would I ever be able to walk OUT? The information sounded a bit too promising………it could be a trap.
Well, I’ll say it again………things down here in a developing country are often done a bit differently than the way some of us are accustomed to. I walked into the office, paid three dollars in fines, bought another three months for $15 more (MUCH cheaper than taking a Costa Rican vacation), and walked out a free man. The worst part was having to go to 74 different windows to receive erroneous information at each and every one. Of course, I expected that, so it was really no problem. So once again, all was well that ended well. And as Sting said back in the 80’s, “I’m an ALIEN…..I’m a LEGAL ALIEN”. It’s nice to be back.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Life Of Crime Part II.......Things That Go Bump In The Night

As I’ve mentioned before, I rent a room in a neighborhood called Altagracia. It’s a simple room with two doors (one that opens to the inside of the house…….one to the street), a bathroom (no door there.....good thing I live alone), and a small window. The window is approximately 12” X 24”, is located just below the ceiling, and is covered only with bars on the outside (better at keeping out PEOPLE than mosquitoes, bright lights, or the ungodly decibels of the #54 bus). Directly below the window is the V-shaped mattress on which I sleep. Between the bed and the window is a small ledge. Because I have no closet or place to hang clothing in my rented paradise, this ledge below the window works quite nicely. As a result, when in their rightful place, the clothes dangle a mere 12-14” above my snoring profile.

Because I was planning a small excursion to Granada the following day with some folks from the neighborhood, I called it a night at the early hour of 10PM. After all, I wanted to make sure I received ample beauty sleep, something I can certainly use more of. The first hour of sleep was a bit light, interrupted on several occasions by housemates returning home from a night on the town. By 12AM however, I was sleeping like a baby, dreaming no doubt of Spanish beauties and eternal beach fiestas. But it was also around the 12 o’ clock hour that things took an unexpected turn.

The first thing to come was an unusual sound. It wasn’t a particularly LOUD sound, just unfamiliar. To be quite honest, I’m not exactly sure WHAT my subconscious mind registered as the source of such a strange noise. But the second event came in the form of something much greater than a sound. The second event was an object. To be entirely accurate, I should add that it wasn’t simply AN object but SEVERAL objects. And these objects were not just ANY random objects in the space-time continuum. They were objects falling ON ME!!!!

It was at this point, the point at which random objects were suddenly raining down upon me as I slept, that my subconscious uttered the initial wakeup call. I mean the subconscious mind can only do so much on its own. It had already begun to process the events. It now needed the rest of the brain to figure out what exactly was taking place. So far, the sub had processed that objects were raining down upon us. It had also processed the fact that this made absolutely no sense, being as though we were sleeping peacefully, alone in a room behind locked doors. Beyond that though, it had processed that exactly TWO such objects had fallen upon us in the still of the evening. But as strange as that seemed, it was the third and final piece of information that seemed perhaps strangest of all. One of the objects was particularly furry. FURRY????? Yes, VERY furry. And with that, the subconscious sounded the emergency alarm and declared a level of “code ORANGE”. WAKE UUUUUUUPPPPPPP!!!!!!

The next thing I knew, I was flailing about in my bed, trying to free myself from these uninvited guests as quickly as possible. What could they be? How many were there? I thought of the cat that walked above me in the ceiling on a nightly basis. Had the feline enjoyed a particularly large dinner and FINALLY fallen through the ceiling tiles? No, I wasn’t sure HOW I knew it, by I somehow knew that whatever IT or THEY were, the entrance had NOT been the ceiling. The entrance had been the window above me. Perhaps it was the injured bat that had been in front of my room just a few hours prior. Could it have made its way through my window in search of fresh gringo blood? No, that didn’t make sense either. After the encounter with that vehicle, the bat couldn’t even fly. And whatever this was, it was SIGNIFICANTLY LARGER AND FURRIER than a bat.

And so it was at this point, still in that foggy state between sleep and reality, that the subconscious sounded the alarm for “code RED”. We were now well beyond the point of needing to wake up. It was now time to PANIC!!!!!!!!!!

Panic. Now THAT is a word with which NO ONE really wants to be associated. I am certainly no exception. I mean I’ve been working in emergency services for the last 10 years, and I generally pride myself on taking an “OK, let’s look at this for what it is…..let’s not overreact and make matters worse……everything will be just fine” approach to life and crisis. I typically enjoy a natural personality that lends itself AWAY from such things as panic or hysteria. And if I’m honest, I would have to say that I can be a bit critical of those who choose a different, more dramatic path. On that night however, I wasn’t given a choice. The internal alarm had sounded. We were now in “code RED”. It was now time to panic, and that was exactly what I did.

I continued flailing about in my bed, trying desperately to free myself from the fury of this creature (or creatures). And although I still remained primarily in the world of the subconscious (never have been one to wake up particularly easy), I realized that things didn’t seem to be improving. I realized that the more I struggled, the more I flailed about, the more intertwined I became with the beast. My current actions of mere struggling did not seem to be effective. It was now time to invoke the second half of the panic strategy. It was now time for the historically tried and true method of……screaming like a little girl.

I think it was the screaming that actually did the trick. That is, I think it was the screaming that carried me through on the final leg of the race to the world of the conscious. Because as I officially woke up, freed myself from the no-doubt rabid beast, and jumped out of bed with a gold medal performance, I realized that the screaming was indeed coming from me.

Several moments later, the screaming had thankfully stopped. I stood motionless, breathing heavily in the darkness next to my bed. I took an inventory of myself. There didn’t SEEM to be any teeth or claw marks on my body. Was it possible that I had miraculously escaped this attempted mauling, unscathed? I waited, primarily for movement. Where had the beast gone? Was it still in the bed? Was it hiding in the shadows? Was it crouched in a concealed location, UNDER the bed perhaps, planning the second attack? I continued to wake up. As I visually inspected the darkness in complete stillness, the theories continued to build in my head. I assessed the facts known to that point. I KNEW that at least one animal, most likely two, had fallen upon me. This much was clear. I also somehow knew that it or they had entered through the window above me. And as I looked to the window, I noticed that there was indeed something unusual about my small portal to the outside world. There was still something in the window. To be more exact, there was something halfway IN the window and halfway OUT of the window.

It was in THAT moment that I realized exactly what had happened. It absolutely made perfect sense. I was SURE. I had been the unfortunate recipient of a cruel prank. Someone had trapped some type of animal, put it in a pillow case, and injected it into my room through the available opening of the window. There in the darkness of the night, it was clear as day. I still hadn’t located the animal, but there was the pillow case, halfway IN and halfway OUT of the window. I was officially awake. The mind was firing on all cylinders. I had solved the mystery.
But despite the facts that backed my air-tight case, two lingering questions remained to be answered. First of all, although I had stood in the darkness next to my bed for a good five minutes now, I STILL hadn’t found whatever furry creature had been dropped into my sanctuary of peace. AND besides that, it didn’t make much sense that the pillow case, still in the window, seemed to be made out of the exact same material of a shirt I happen to own. Was it possible that there was more to this story than I had figured out?

It’s funny what the mind does, especially in a state of SUB or UN consciousness. So as I stood there next to my bed, finally realizing what had ACTUALLY taken place several moments prior in the REAL world, I had to laugh a bit, not only at the situation, but at myself. Sure enough, that “pillow case” in the window WAS INDEED my shirt. And as I turned on the light and offered a closer inspection, I realized that in addition to this one shirt, most ALL of my hanging shirts, pants, and jackets seemed to be in the process of making a hasty exit. In fact, the only hanging items that WEREN’T on a journey to the outside world, were lying motionless on my now vacant mattress. There they were, one pair of jeans……..and that furry, no-doubt rabid beast known as…….my black Patagonia fleece jacket.

The neighbors had warned me about the window in the past. I had just chosen to ignore their advice, claiming that the window was high enough to pose NO viable security risk. Without climbing the bars, one couldn’t even see that there were clothes immediately to the interior. That night however, someone HAD climbed the bars and subsequently reached through the window in an attempt to steal whatever happened to be in reach (i.e. my clothes). Unfortunately for him (or her….let’s be fair), in the haste of this well planned heist, several of the garments had fallen upon me from the ledge above. It was most likely my screams of terror that brought an interruption to the crime. As for what had brought an interruption to that beach fiesta? I’m going to have to go with the jeans. After all, they’ve got some real weight to them. But the real problem wasn’t the weight of the jeans. The REAL problem, as it turned out, was that black fleece jacket. It’s just so soft and “furry”. The more I struggled, the more “the beast” and I became mutually intertwined. It was truly a hopeless situation.

I spent the next hour or so hammering boards over my “once a window to the outside world”, as if preparing for a future life on the Gulf Coast. What I ultimately lost in fresh air and outdoor access has more than been made up for in sleep-conducive darkness and silence, not to mention the additional security for my classic collection of hanging garments. Once again, as was the case of the Panamanian bus, all was well that ended. The would-be thief returned home empty handed, and the only thing I lost that night was a bit of valuable sleep. And sure, I’m a little embarrassed over the events that transpired on that fateful Saturday night. But you have to laugh at yourself from time to time. I mean without that, you might just look a little ridiculous…….flailing about in the night.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Life Of Crime Part I.....Panamanian Bus

Most of the local buses in Latin America are retired school buses from the US. Because American children between the ages of 5 and 18 don’t tend to carry large suitcases or enormous sacks of rice, grains, or beans to school, the buses are not designed to accommodate such loads. For this reason, when these buses are used here in this part of the world, anything larger than a Sponge Bob lunch bag gets stored in the BACK of the bus, or the space located between the emergency exit door (utilized of course as a primary entry/exit) and the last row of seats (those coveted so highly by the elementary/middle school ruffians).

Generally there is no problem with the above system, and the respective valuables of the passengers are left in peace. A few months ago however, as I found myself slowly waking up from a short siesta while on just such a bus in Panama, I realized that something could be amiss. You see, like everyone else commuting between Boquete and David that day, I too had stored my backpack in the area to the back of the old yellow school bus from Anywhere, U.S.A. And as the bus made one of its regular stops by the side of the road, I looked up in my foggy state to witness several passengers making their way off the bus.

“hmmmm…..that guy has a Dana Design backpack just like mine.”

“How nice.”

“Wait a minute……That’s MY Dana Design backpack……And it seems to be hitching a ride with that Panamanian!!!!!!!”

Fortunately, this final thought was enough to jar me from what remained of my slumber. I woke up, told my traveling companions that I’d be back shortly, and quickly made my way to the front of the bus to retrieve my belongings. Fortunately, I caught up to the pack just as it was making its way down the stairs of the bus. I grabbed the pack, the would-be-thief continued down the stairs, and as the bus lurched forward in a continuation of its journey toward David, I found myself standing in the front of the bus, holding what consisted of most of my Latin American possessions.

“Close call”, I thought. “I suppose I better hold on to this for the rest of the trip”.

I discovered later that the guy HAD taken a few things out of the top pocket of the backpack before attempting to de-bus. But the headlamp was on its last leg anyway, and I was actually more than happy to get rid of the bag ridiculously large coins from Costa Rica (my least favorite form of money in the region……who designed that stuff?????). All was well that ended well, and the rest of the year has gone pretty well for me in respect to preservation of personal property.

Unlike Panama, which despite the aforementioned exception to the rule seems to be a relatively safe nation, life down here in Nicaragua is a different story. Rather than being the exception, crime is often accepted as the norm, simply a part of life in the second poorest nation in the region (second only to Haiti). So, if you put a $2 light bulb in the porch light receptacle to have better lighting for a post-death wake, it will be stolen in the night. If you park your vehicle without someone watching it at all times, things like exterior bulbs, windshield wipers, antennas, and lens covers will mysteriously disappear almost immediately. Forget to install the obligatory “decorations” (i.e. jagged glass in cement) around the upper portion of your wall, someone will most likely climb the wall and steal brooms and mops from your patio…….all true stories from recent days in the neighborhood.

For the most part though it’s just petty theft, something common to many countries in the world. And although I’ve known 4-5 people personally who have been robbed at knife or gunpoint in the last several months, I’ve never had much of a problem in my home city. I take the usual precautions, try to stay alert, keep the laptop insured and regularly backed up on a second hard drive, don’t carry a credit card or large amounts of cash, “generally” heed the warnings of the locals, and follow the “never stop at red lights after dark” rule when riding the motorcycle. Of course my favorite strategy, one that has already saved the laptop on at least one occasion (but that’s another story for another day) is the MAKE AS MANY FRIENDS AS POSSIBLE in the neighborhood rule. After all, in my book, more friends equals a more secure living environment.

It’s not a PERFECT system. I mean NO system is really a perfect system. Regardless of its sophistication (or lack thereof in my case), all such systems are, by definition, mere deterrents. But without trying to sound arrogant, I have to say that my short list of simple strategies has served me relatively well over the last 6 months of living in Managua. It has served me relatively well that is, until last night.

…….to be continued.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A NEW DAY HAS DAWNED Part II.....Operation Sanitation

There are some who feel like they can attack us there. My answer is……Bring em on! We’ve got the force necessary to deal with the sanitation situation.

As I mentioned in my last entry, the axis of evil had been identified, and “all things of filth” was its name. MINED, the branch of the govt. that had donated the food to our program, returned with six of the largest Nicaraguans I had ever seen in order to remove 42 bags of beans, rice, and cereal from our storage area. We were given a written reprimand along with instructions to bury the “contaminated food”. Not 5 minutes after their departure, the blame game began. When asked, I stated very plainly that it all seemed quite obvious to me. The food had arrived in perfect condition, yet after several months of being under OUR care, it was contaminated. It was clearly our fault. Who else COULD we blame? I also explained that we were a TEAM, and that we ALL shared responsibility for what happened (or didn’t happen) in our program. I explained that the last few days had been an excellent learning experience for all of us, that some problems had been identified, and that it was now time to move forward in some very positive directions. The response?

“’…….well it wasn’t MY fault!!!!”

I think we’ve reached a critical point in the struggle between sickness and health.

Things had indeed reached a critical level, and I now had the green light from our parent organization and other members of the staff to use whatever force necessary to fight such an evil. The time for diplomacy had ended. It was now time to act. And with that, an official declaration of war was issued.

I think it will go relatively quickly……weeks rather than months.

I needed to meet them where they were hiding and where they were breeding. I needed to hit them fast and hit them hard. I needed shock and awe. But where does one turn to in times of such difficulty? Where does one go to find resources for such an intense and overwhelming struggle? Desperate times called for desperate measures. I went to Cosco.

My weapon of choice was an advanced piece of “smart technology” by Shop Vac. It was sleek, powerful and able to handle both wet AND dry forms of evil. The people of Nicaragua had never seen such a weapon. Children ran in fear. Adults stood at a distance and looked on with eyes of suspicion. I wielded the E85 with glee and exuberance.

“You’re not such a BIG CUCARACHA now are ya!!!!!!!

Everything was removed from the kitchen/storage area and scrubbed from top to bottom. We purchased additional security in the form of storage bins, bleach, and antibacterial soaps. We scrubbed high, we scrubbed low, and we followed the enemy into the very holes where they lived. The E85 performed flawlessly, and although the enemy attacked its core, or hepa filter, on the night following the first day of major combat operations, they were successful only in breeching the outer perimeter.

Progress has been steady. I believe the insurgency is in its final throes.

So it’s been a tough couple of week. We’ve fought brave, we’ve fought hard, and all of us have been called upon to make personal sacrifices for the health and betterment of our program. The good news is that we’ve made significant progress and many of our SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) have been changed to maintain and build upon our new state of sanitation. We still have a ways to go, but I’ve already had a banner made in preparation for a special event I have planned for next week. On the banner is written “mision cumplida”. I plan to stand under this banner and address the students and citizens of Acahualinca. On that day, as the school band plays the national anthem on their flutophones, I will proudly read the following statement:

Thank you all very much. Major combat operations in Acahualinca have ended!

…….uh.....can someone please step on that cockroach?

Monday, September 1, 2008

A NEW DAY HAS DAWNED Part 1......Zen and the art of third world living

I’ve noticed something about living in a third world country, and that is that those who are the happiest and most well adjusted EXPATS are those who simply surrender their first world expectations and accept a new or different way of life. No one “showing up on time to ANYTHING”? Struggling with the “toilet paper DOES NOT GO IN THE TOILET” rule? Finding that “the people down here just don’t know how to ANYTHING RIGHT”? Can’t find ANYWHERE to buy your favorite…….? NO PROBLEM. You’re no longer living in the land of plenty. Accept it…...find a peace within it….and move forward. Aaaaahhhhh ………sweet third world serenity.

As I’ve mentioned before, I spend most of time helping out with a “feeding program” in a local elementary school. Although the food is donated primarily through the US government, the Nicaraguan government, and several small NGO’s, it is ALL stored and cooked on-site. This means that we run a fully functional “school cafeteria” that feeds around 500 kids per day. This also means that there is a LOT of food to cook, a LOT of food to serve, and a LOT of food and dishes to clean up.

For the most part, I’ve done pretty well with the above “Zen and the art of third world living” approach around my new workplace. I mean sure I see things around the feeding program that are CERTAINLY NOT the way I would do them if I WERE IN CHARGE. But I remind myself that “I AM in Nicaragua”, that “they do things differently down here” with “different standards”, and that “I’m not here to come in and change their operation. I’m just here to help and support the program in whatever way possible”.


I don’t really know what was particularly different about that day last week. I suppose that things had been building for quite some time, and that it was simply the final straw. So as I watched the small parasitic worms swimming around in the water we had been using FOR EVERHTHING (yes, EVERYTHING does include “serving in beverage form”), I found myself abruptly arriving at my limit.

You see the actual goal of this program is to GET AND KEEP KIDS IN SCHOOL. And because this school is located in a horribly impoverished area of the city where child labor is more the expectation than the exception, this can be quite a challenge. On one hand, the food is simply a bribe to get a kid to come to school. Beyond that though, because malnourishment is such a problem in the area (and subsequently the numerous associated health concerns), the food serves as, yep you guessed it, NOURISHMENT. So simply put, the program exists to improve the overall health and education of a whole bunch of impoverished kids. If our practices cause or perpetuate illness in any way, then the time has come for a serious re-evaluation.


I’m not a germ-a-phobe. Really, I’m not. Yes. It’s true. I DO keep a tidy house, I DO believe that everything for the most part has a place, and I CAN have a tendency toward excessive order and cleanliness (did I mention I’m an “excellent driver…..excellent….excellent….driver”?). On the other hand though, I’m a BIG believer in the 5 (or 30) second rule of “food in contact with ground/floor”, I believe that expiration dates are generally a marketing tool used by food manufacturers to increase sales, and I view the avoidance of washing hands prior to meals primarily as a way of strengthening the immune system.

“HAZEL, do you notice anything unusual about this water here?”

From the water, we began our tour. We looked at the thick layer of mold in the sink, we examined the grease, grime, old food, and dirt covering all parts of the kitchen, we checked out the PILES of dead insects in all of the cabinets, the holes that the rats had chewed in most every bag of stored food, and the absolutely UNBELIEVABLE amount of rodent feces covering literally EVERYTHING in the storage area (not to mention the carcasses of a few that didn’t make it…..I’m pretty sure they just over-ate). Of course, as we were taking our little tour, we were noticing the cockroaches scurrying about.

After the tour, we talked about various practices, in addition to the general sanitation makeover, that could improve the overall cleanliness of our program. For example, as great as it is that the kids want to wash their hands before eating, it’s probably not the best idea that they come directly from the bathroom to wash their hands IN the water we are using for drinking/dish washing……….just one example.

I knew that a number of changes needed to be made. I also knew that without the support of Hazel (the director of the kitchen) and the other volunteers, I would find myself alone in the kitchen at night, armed only with an arsenal of mouse traps and scrub brushes. Fortunately, Hazel endorsed all of the ideas and agreed that we could begin working toward some much needed change.

Interestingly enough, a group from some branch of the govt. showed up at the school THAT SAME DAY to give a presentation on “clean water practices”. If that wasn’t enough of a coincidence, a group from a different branch of the govt. showed up the following day to inspect the food they had donated. As you can imagine, they weren’t terribly thrilled by what they found.

… be continued.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Brief Intersection

In 1925, a baby was born into a family of 8 in a rural area surrounding Managua, Nicaragua. She followed a relatively traditional path of marrying in her later teens, bearing 6 children of her own, and spending her days as a wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. Although she did do a bit of traveling within the Central American region and the US (Florida primarily), she never stopped calling Managua her home. She lived through a number of hurricanes, two devastating earthquakes that destroyed the city, and a substantial amount of political instability. In 1979, in the midst of the “The Revolution” here in Nicaragua, two of her six children were killed. From that day forward, she never renounced her loyalty to the Sandinista Party.

In May of 2008, a local volunteer from the US showed up at her door to inquire about an available room she was renting out. The house, which she had lived in since building it with her husband in the 1960’s, was a very simple house in a very middle class neighborhood in central Managua. After coming back several times and asking a ridiculous number of questions, the volunteer decided to rent the room. In mid June, I moved in.

My first run-in with Dona Coney took place on my first night at the new place. Upon returning from the “parking lot” down the street, I informed her that “all was well, and that I had lined up a place to park my motorcycle in the evenings” (leaving any type of vehicle outside after dark is not an option if you want to keep it). She nodded disapprovingly and said “OK”. Approximately one hour later, she informed me that she needed to discuss something very important with me. She asked me to sit down and proceeded to explain to me that she just couldn’t understand why I wanted to park the motorcycle down the street. More specifically, she just couldn’t understand why I wanted to park the motorcycle in the parking lot down the street when I had a perfectly acceptable place to park it here at home……..i.e. in the living room! I explained to her that the motorcycle was dirty, had the potential of smelling like gasoline, and that I didn’t want to mess up the house. She didn’t accept my rebuttals. She insisted. I conceded. From that day forward, the motorcycle has called the living room its home.

My next run-in took the place the following day. Upon leaving for the internet café, she asked where I was going with my laptop. I informed her that I was heading down the street (about 3 blocks) to the local “cyber”, and that I would return shortly. The response was effectively:

“What are you, nuts???!!!” “You can’t carry a laptop around in this neighborhood……take that thing back inside…….that’s CRAZY!!!!!”

I assured her that it would be fine, and that I would be especially careful. She waited outside until I returned home an hour or two later. Following that episode, we pretty much had the same conversation each day, as I walked down the street carrying the laptop. I never conceded on this one. Neither did she.

For the next several weeks, we would have our daily chats about the history of the house, the neighborhood, the family, or my work in Managua. Although she expressed very little compassion for the community with whom I spent my days, she regularly helped “those less fortunate” in OUR neighborhood with plates of food, etc.

Despite being well into her 80’s, she was EXTREMELY active and had virtually NO health problems outside of cataracts. Mentally, she was very sharp and held the unquestioned position of being the matron of a large family. She was always up early, sweeping the house or cleaning something that was probably already clean (she couldn’t understand how I could sweep without subsequently mopping the floor). Since we shared a wall between our rooms, I would regularly hear her working on various projects, sometimes late into the night. She would bring me dishes (the NEW….BEST dishes) or small furnishings to use in my room, she would ask me each morning how I had slept, forced me to take her special cough syrup when I was sick, worry if I was out late, and seemed quite intent on finding me a “nice Nicaraguan girl”. All in all, she showed me a great deal of kindness over the short time we knew each other. I appreciated that.

Several weeks ago, while I was on a bus, returning to Managua from Costa Rica, Dona Coney got out of bed to answer an early morning phone call. Upon doing so, she slipped, fell onto her left side, and fractured her hip. She lay on the floor for the next two hours until someone finally discovered her. From there, it was off to a local hospital by ambulance to await surgery for the next week and a half.

Despite the EXTREMELY strict visiting policy of the local hospital (one hour per day……one visitor), I was able to visit her one time prior to her surgery. Not surprisingly, she asked about the motorcycle and the laptop, and instructed me numerous times in regard to my personal safety. I gave her the usual assurances and directed the conversation back to her current health situation and comfort. I told her I would see her in a few days, back at the house. Despite her previously active lifestyle, she was going to need a considerable amount of help in the coming weeks. I assured her that we would all be playing a part in that.

The following Tuesday, I spent most of the morning dealing with logistical aspects related to my recent auto accident. Since it was the official “surgery day”, I spent the afternoon hanging out with “the little sisters” at home, awaiting news of the outcome. About 4PM, while I was sautéing vegetables for that evening’s dinner, the girls left the kitchen to answer the door. From the screams and tears that erupted in the following moments, I knew what had happened. Dona Coney’s time had come. Although the surgery had proven to be successful in the repairing of her left hip, she died of a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung) shortly after.

And with that, the short intersection of two VERY different lives came to an abrupt ending. As for me, I’m still renting out the same room in the same house in the same middle class neighborhood in Central Managua. As for Dona Coney, well, the adjacent bedroom is now strangely silent. Immediately outside my door though is a small table. Atop the table are several bouquets of flowers, a burning candle, and a photo of the recently deceased matron of the family. This small memorial is all that remains after yesterday’s conclusion of the “official two weeks of mourning”. It’s a symbol that Dona Coney, wherever she may be now, continues to live on in the hearts and minds of her family and friends. It offers a bit of peace and comfort to those who continue to mourn her recent passing. And it’s a tribute to the special person that she was, proudly placed to be the first thing one sees as they enter the home. Proudly placed, that is, just a few feet from that motorcycle in the living room.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Although I haven’t taken all that much time to blog since arriving in Nicaragua, I often find myself thinking “yea, I should Blog about that……that would be a GREAT Blog theme” as I’m going about normal life in a foreign country. AND, one of the themes that has consistently been at the top of my mental Blog list over the last few months is “the culture of driving” here in Nicaragua. The lunacy surrounding the driving habits of taxis and buses, the venders that loiter in the lanes, the pedestrians that simply walk or stand wherever they desire, the missing manhole covers (definitely a hazard for the motorcycle), the enormous potholes large enough to swallow a truck, the overuse of horns, the blatant disregard for traffic laws, the unwritten rule of “ignore all traffic lights after sunset”, the “bigger always wins” rule (definitely closely tied with the buses), and the absolute disrepair of the majority of vehicles on the roadway. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.

Anyway, although my intent has been to Blog about the actual ADVANTURE of roadway survival, how it’s ALWAYS crazy but can also be kind of fun, after Sunday night I unfortunately have to write from a different angle. Hope you enjoy it.

El Choque

Mary--“Hey Jason, can you help Lori with a flat tire? She’s at Km 14 on the South Highway”.

Jason--“Sure”, I say. “But since it’s raining pretty hard and I only have the motorcycle (my new motorcycle, that is), can I borrow one of your vehicles to drive up there?”

Carey—“Sure, you can use my truck. Since you’re doing Lori a favor, I’ll do YOU a favor”.

Jason—“Funny…’s like that “Pay It Forward" movie.

......10 minutes later, I’m driving Carey’s pickup, looking for Lori and her flat tire. It’s dark (about 8:30 PM) and raining a bit.

Jason (thinking to himself)—“Man, it’s REALLY dark out here. I feel like I’m driving into a black hole. I can’t see ANYTHING.”

………7 seconds later……..WHOA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!............screeching tires……..explosion of metal vs. metal………silence in the world.

Jason (to himself again)—“well…..I think I’m OK…… pain……don’t appear to be bleeding…..seem to be thinking clearly…….better find the hazard lights before this gets worse……..where ARE those things?”

……….another 30 seconds passes.

Jason—“Hang on…..hang on…..I’m looking for the hazard lights…..I know…….I’m sorry……give me just a minute, I need to turn on the emergency lights!

“Well, I’m sorry…..I never saw you guys….you had NO LIGHTS IN THE BACK!!!!!!!

After finally locating the hazard lights, I’m now out of the truck. I’m finding myself in a sea of people with more still climbing down from the truck I just ran into. “Where did all of these people even come from”, I think?

“Is everyone OK??????”

NO response…….only looks of anger and resentment.

“I’m sorry…..I know I just hit you guys, but I just happen to be a paramedic. Is anyone injured?????

Again…….nothing but accusations.

“Well, I suppose everyone’s OK….that’s good”. “Hey look, that’s my friend Lori driving by…….apparently she got her tire fixed………”Hey LORI!!!!!! Lori!!! Hang on a minute!!!!!!!”

…….10 minutes later…..

Other driver—“So what are you going to do for me?


OD—“Yea, you hit US…….look, the bottom of my truck is damaged…..what are you going to give me?

Jason—“Let’s just wait for the police”.

So that’s pretty much it. I ran into the back of a large cargo truck on the Pan American Highway. The police came, a report was filed, one small white light magically appeared on what was left of the truck bumper, they changed drivers for the police report (I assume the real driver didn’t have a license), stories were changed several times for the official report, I took lots of photos, the police hit on my friend Lori repeatedly, there was looting of debris on the highway, and I finally left the highway after about 4 hours. I also learned that an accident in Nicaragua is very much a “self-service” operation with regard to such things as traffic control, cleaning up (and guarding) debris, towing away your vehicle, etc. etc. etc.

As for what will happen from here, I’m still getting all of that figured out. Over the last couple of days, I’ve hired an attorney, I’ve run around getting documents of EVERYTHING, and I’ve apologized to Carey about 7,649 times for literally destroying her pickup. Tomorrow AM, I’ll be going to the police station for the official ruling on the accident. From there, things could go any number of directions, but it’s a strong possibility that I’ll be buying Carey a new pickup.
I suppose that as always, the most important thing is that everyone was OK. As for the explanation behind that sea of people? Well, after the accident, I learned that I had hit a large cargo truck filled not only with food, but with people. Apparently, sacs of produce act a pretty good insulator. Looking at the pickup, it’s also pretty spectacular that I walked away LITERALLY without a scratch. Call it God, the universe, fate, karma, or just the technology behind the seatbelt………pretty amazing.

I suppose for my first real accident, it was a pretty good one. And you know, maybe I CAN end this Blog entry with my original premise of driving in Nicaragua. It may not be quite as “fun” as it was a week ago, but it’s ALWAYS an adventure.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What The #%$@? Part III.....Recurso Disponible

So one day, I’m over at the Fabretto office (other local non-profit) and this lady asks me the standard “oh, so what do YOU do here in Nicaragua” question. After answering her with my usual “oh, a little of this, a little of that…….I help here, I help there”, she says “Oh, so you’re like an AVAILABLE RESOURCE”. And with that, the name stuck. Of course it sounded much cooler in Spanish………”RECURSO DISPONIBLE”…….but regardless, it became my new title.
What does a “recurso disponible” do when he’s not getting in the way over at the medical clinic or spilling hot oil in the school cafeteria (see previous Blog entries)? Here’s a sample:

Alvaro is probably in his later 20’s, Nicaraguan, and grew up in California. He spent a number of years working on oil rigs in Texas and California before being deported a few years back. Now he’s trying to get to Canada (legally) to get a job in the booming Canadian oil economy. What did I do for him? Well, after researching the job opportunities and Visa requirements online, he asked me if I would help him with his resume. We put together a nice resume and a cover letter that he sent to Shell, BP, Esso, etc. As far as I know, he’s still in Nicaragua, so maybe he needs something more than a RD.

Another non-profit from the US has decided that they want to help Nicaraguan children in a very specific way. That is, they want to sponsor (i.e. give money to) local pre-schools. To get the ball rolling, they want to find the FIVE pre-schools in Managua that have THE MOST need. Enter Recurso Disponible. I basically just provide the “driving ability” on this one, but I, along with a local Nicaraguan teacher, drive around Managua and look at pre-schools. We get a feel for the neighborhood, we inspect the building (or lack thereof), and we chat with the teacher(s). We still have a number of schools to go, but it has been a GREAT way for me to get to know Managua…….and it’s endless amount of poverty.

Occasionally, medical groups in the area pack up a truck and head to the “country” for a day or so. The idea is to provide medical care to those who don’t have access to such a thing (or at least REGULAR access), so they set up a mobile clinic for a day or weekend. I’ve helped out with these on occasion, basically just playing “nurse”. It’s pretty basic stuff, but again, it’s a great way to get to know Nicaragua and some areas outside of Managua.

NicaHope is the organization with which I spend most of my time, and their focus is MOSTLY in education (of various forms). One of the things they do is to provide computer classes to children in the area of Acahualinca and La Chureca. By giving these kids a tool in the form of computer education, the hope is that they will use these skills to have a life OUTSIDE of the trash dump. With this in mind, someone had the idea of setting up a “Sponsorship program” for the kids in these classes (think World Vision for computer classes instead of food). I basically just helped with the initial stages of this program and the associated literature. It should be launched ASAP.

And that’s pretty much it. As a “Recurso Disponible”, I basically just act as your friendly, neighborhood volunteer, helping out wherever I can. I’ve done a bit of painting (walls….not art), I’ve given out medicine, and may even have some bicycle maintenance in my near future. I try to be open to wherever I can be of service, and generally only say NO to the teaching of English classes (a popular request)……..everyone has their boundaries, right?.......or things COMPLETELY outside my scope of knowledge (Blacksmithing, for example…..THAT was an interesting one). The good news is that I have found that I can pretty much be as busy as I want to be. The bad news? Nobody seems to be open to the Fire Dept. schedule.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

What the #%$@ AM I doing in Nicaragua? Part II.........Lunch Lady

Let’s say that you are a kid living in La Chureca or Acahualinca (area just outside of the trash dump). The idea is that you would go to school and get some type of education, right? I mean the school is right down the street……and it’s FREE. So why would you NOT go?

Well, let’s start with this. Sure the school is technically free……..except for that a few years ago, there was suddenly this new rule from the government making it mandatory for every kid in Nicaragua to wear a nice little school uniform……a nice uniform that ISN’T free (but quite nice I have to say……blue and white…..really quite lovely). And then there are those other little things that aren’t free…….like any “supplies” you may need for your reading, writing, and arithmetic. And then there is the whole OPPORTUNITY COST of attending school. I like to call this one the “hey, I know that you’re only 7 years old…..but you’re a part of this family and we need EVERYONE to contribute…….so as terrific as going to school would no doubt be, we need you to go spend your day digging through trash or begging in the street……we’ll pool our resources at the end of the day…..who knows, maybe there will be dinner tonight” factor. Oh, and let’s not forget the concept of “School? Why would I want to do THAT? I’m young (like 10). I’m hip…….cool…… tough. I have unlimited freedom and friends in the neighborhood. Nobody’s going to make me go? Uh….yea…I don’t think so.”

Enter El Comedor. The MAIN idea was two-fold. First, since malnutrition is such a problem in the area, they wanted to provide the kids with ONE good meal per day. Second, by providing these kids with this one meal per day, that’s all many of them get. If they come to school, they get fed. Put another way, if they sit through classes each day (hopefully getting some sort of education in the process), they are rewarded with lunch. School=Food, and it’s a great way to bribe kids (or their parents) into getting an education.

So with these ideas in mind, NicaHOPE (in partnership with various other NGO’s) built “El Comedor” (i.e. the dining hall) about a year ago. The dining hall has a large seating area, a small kitchen, an even smaller area to store food, and a little sink out back to wash dishes. The staff consists of a lady named Hazel and….well…..Hazel. There are supposed to be “mother’s from the neighborhood” that show up and volunteer their time with the program. Unfortunately, only one of them comes on a regular basis. That means LOTS of work for a VERY FEW people. As for the food, it is donated collectively by USAID, the government of Nicaragua, and a couple of small NGO’s.

The good news? Well, the good news is that the program IS functioning and 300-600 kids per day receive a plate of relatively nutritious food (no frozen pizza or tater tots for THESE guys). The other good news is that after the implementation of the feeding program, registration at the beginning of the year was UP (i.e. initial success)! We’re hoping it stays that way.

So remember that lady from the school cafeteria? The one who was older, heavier, less than attractive (probably at least one large facial mole…with or without hair…….on the mole that is……the hair on the lady was anyone’s guess), ALWAYS clad in white, and NEVER caught without her crown (that would be the hairnet)? Four days per week, I am she…….she is I…..we are one. Yep, in addition to being the nurse’s aid in La Chureca, I’m the LUNCH LADY (self-titled, of course) at Acahualinca Elementary. Four days per week, I cook, I serve, I visit with the staff and kids, and I wash a LOT of dishes……like a LOT of dishes.

But in reality, one can only stay in the mailroom (or in this case, dish room) for so long without finding opportunity for advancement. At least, that’s what I’m finding with my lunch-lady duty. So despite the fact that I’m perfectly content chopping vegetables, pouring soy beverages, and getting pruny digits in the sink out back. there are often times bigger fish to fry (yes…pun intended). For example, what happens if you have 500 kids in a school with no water? I mean not being able to cook or drink anything is one thing. Even 500 kids doing the old #1 can be manageable on a good day. A few hundred….uh…..#2’s? Now we have a problem. So what do you do? Cancel school! Ah, but wait a minute! Wait a minute! There’s actually NEVER any water during the day (one of the little inconveniences of living in a third world city). The water is only on for a few hours in the night and early morning! So what do you do? Well, you install a large storage tank that can fill each night and then be used during the day. What do you do when the pipes break or the tank doesn’t fill due to lack of water the night before? Like I said before, you cancel school! But wait! Wait! Wait! Before we do that, there may be one other option. Let’s call Jason!

Yea, the water problem has certainly become one of my main projects at the school, and I seem to be finding different solutions on different days. My best one involves “borrowing” water from one of the neighboring storage tanks by running a system of hoses a couple of hundred feet across the road and then directing (at times, quite vigilantly) traffic around the hoses. I’ve also been meeting with contractors to come up with a better solution for the long term. That being said though, I do wear a number of hats around Acahualinca Elementary besides the stylish hairnet (OK, so I don’t ACTUALLY wear a hairnet either….standards are a bit different down here), and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a low profile behind the endless mounds of plastic wear. AND, when I’m not running around the kitchen or solving the daily water crisis, I’m loading a pickup truck with large sacs of beans and rice (I seem to be the only guy around with a drivers license), picking up cleaning supplies from the Ministry of Education, and answering to “Hey Gringo” from all sides.

As for the future? Well, I have a meeting with the official boss tomorrow. I’m learning more about the ordering procedures, the menu planning, and how things magically get done behind the scenes. There are also attendance records to analyze, that whole water problem to solve, the current infestation of flies in the kitchen(think PLAGUE), and the guys who want me to teach them how to watch porn on the school’s only computer. I’m swamped, I tell you……absolutely swamped.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What the #%$@ AM I doing in Nicaragua? ........Part I

I got an email last week from a friend that I haven’t talked with in a while. I told her that I was down here in Nicaragua and planned to be here until the end of the year. Her response?

Hey Jones! What the #%$@ are you doing in Nicaragua?!

“Excellent question”, I thought. “Excellent question”.

The medical clinic in La Chureca (if La Chureca doesn’t ring a bell for you, check out the Blog entry from January) has been in operation for just under five year, and although it was originally constructed and funded by a charitable organization from Belgium, it is now operating through a group of physicians from Austin, Texas. The staff currently consists of two doctors, a nurse, and a pharmacist, with a dentist and an OB on the way (all Nicaraguan). The structure itself is simple but adequate, with a couple of exam rooms, a small office, and a separate small room that functions as a pharmacy. The porch in front acts as the waiting area and is relatively full most every morning from 9 to 11 AM.

Who are the patients and why are they coming? Well, the patients are the people of La Chureca, and the clinic is a “free” resource for the community. As for WHY they are coming, I think it would be comparable to the average Primary Care Physician’s office in the US. Due to the environmental factors associated with living in smoke and garbage, skin conditions and respiratory ailments abound in the community. There is also the occasional “trauma” associated with “machete fighting”, the burns or lacerations that result from walking through smoldering garbage without shoes, and a few AIDS patients that call La Chureca their home. The most common ailment though? La Gripa…the word that seems to refer to your general cold and flu symptoms. So after waiting on the porch for a few minutes and then having a short “consulta” with one of the docs, the average patient gets a shot or nebulization from the nurse (along with vital signs, etc.) and then walks out of the pharmacy with a small bag of antibiotics in hand.
In addition to the daily operation I just described, the clinic also acts as a “base of operations” for numerous other programs in the area. There is a child-sponsorship program, there are weekly health talks, and there are English classes taught several days per week. Want to have a “de-worming-drive” for the area (yea, parasites are quite popular as well)? Care to vaccinate the entire community? Have a medical “brigade” from the US that wants to set up shop for a day or two? Everything flows through this clinic. In fact, the clinic really isn’t even called a “clinic” but rather the “Casa Base De La Salud”……..or Base of Health.

Perhaps the obvious question then is………“what in the world does a gringo paramedic from Denver do in the medical clinic of La Chureca”? Well, the answer to THAT question would depend on the day. The good news is that I’m realizing more and more that the clinic really doesn’t NEED my help. They are functioning quite well on their own, and seem to be on a continual path of improvement. When I AM there though, I basically just fit in where I can. Sometimes I act as a nurse. I administer various medications through injections or nebulized breathing treatments. I clean and treat wounds. Sometimes I act as the “nurses AID” by weighing patients, taking temperatures and vital signs, etc. Sometimes I act as the janitor. I sweep the floor. I clean and organize the exam room. I try to keep the place tidy. And sometimes I help out in the pharmacy with the monumental task of taking pills from the BIG bottle and moving them to the SMALL bottles. Brilliant……I know…..brilliant. Beyond that, I chat with the folks coming through, hang out with the staff, and run the occasional errand.
And that’s pretty much my life at the clinic. In the earlier part of the year, I was spending as many as five days per week over there. I’m currently down to one. And as for the other days of the week? ………………to be continued.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's Good To Be Back

1993. It was the fall of that year. I was returning to San Diego after spending the previous three months working on a ranch in the mountains of Colorado. I was playing tennis again (this time for the university), my girlfriend of the summer had just broken up with me (for the FIRST time), I had recently discovered this NEW WORLD of outdoor recreation, and I officially declared myself to be an “all of the above” guy. I say “all of the above”, because as I read the logic behind it all…..the environmental degradation, the numerous health concerns, the countless ethical questions, etc. etc. etc., the way of the vegetarian just started to make sense. “OK”, I thought. “I think I’ll really give this thing a shot…..we’ll see how it goes”.

15 years later, I found myself sitting in an open-sided restaurant in Nicaragua. Mangoes were falling from the trees, the heat of the dry-season was at the peak of its intensity, and I had just completed the first week of what was to be my new life for the next year. There were probably 10 of us in the restaurant that day, and we had been brought to a very SPECIFIC place to experience a very SPECIFIC food by our host. The idea of the meal was to honor his guests (i.e…..US). To turn down what had just been placed in front of me would have been a significant insult, something I had always sworn against. So there it was……perhaps the largest plate I had ever seen, containing perhaps the largest slab of beef ever intended for a single individual. And as I stared at the enormous CHURASCO before me, I found myself uttering those familiar words from a decade and a half earlier. “OK”, I said. “I’ll give it a shot…..we’ll see how it goes”.

Another three months has passed, and I’m sitting in a small town in the mountains of Panama. I’m essentially taking a vacation, as I needed to leave Nicaragua to renew my travel visa. The rainy season is now in full swing, and the avocados are the current fruit falling from the trees. A new season…….a new world. So as I sit here on a porch, watching the rain, I’m ending my little hiatus from the Blog. In the next few entries, I’ll be filling in a few gaps as to what the last three months have entailed. I’d like to explain what I’m doing in Mangaua, a bit about why I’m doing it, and some of the high’s and low’s of it all. I do hope you enjoy it. It’s good to be back.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


“Wow….I’m so sorry to hear that…….that must be very hard for you”.

This is what I told her as we sat in the hostel one day. I mean what else could I say? I certainly couldn’t solve any of these problems. I saw no way to intervene and “fix” things. All I could do was listen, show some compassion, and try to understand. Sometimes though, even the best intentions are met with less than favorable outcomes.

Marta was the lady that worked at “El Refugio del Rio”……the place where I enjoyed living for about 6 weeks in Panama. She lived across the street with her family (husband and son) and spent her days doing “domestic” work around the hostel (cleaning, laundry, etc.) She was Ngobe, which meant that she was of “native Panamanian” decent (i.e. the people who were around BEFORE the Spaniards showed up). It also meant that Spanish was her second language, and that I had a REALLY hard time understanding anything through her thick accent. This was the primary factor that kept the conversations to a minimum for the first few weeks. There were, of course, the daily greetings…….”Hello”…..”How are you”…….etc. etc., but nothing beyond that. But the longer I was around the hostel, the more I began to notice her sadness and regular crying during the work day.
Initially, she would just say “nothing” in response to my questioning. I mean how many times could I walk by someone in apparent misery with only a cheerful “good-day” and a smile? After a while, you have to at least ask “what’s wrong”, right? Well, eventually her “nothing” answer changed to “OK…you really want to know?” “Sure”, I said, and with that we sat down for a chat. The conversation that followed involved primarily a description of her difficult living situation…….how her husband was on his 7th girlfriend (very openly)……how he was regularly abusing her……how she wanted to leave but was very fearful and had no place to go…….how her family lived far away……how she wanted to go live with them but couldn’t see a way to do that…….etc. etc. etc………..unfortunately, an EXTREMELY common story around there. It also seemed apparent to me that she had no real community to speak of… friends…..nobody to hang out with......just the husband and the kid (and some random hostel guest named Jason).
As the days went on though, I began to notice a change in her responses to the “what’s wrong….you look really sad today……why are you crying” questions. Rather than the “oh, my husband is hitting me again” or “he’s out with his girlfriend again”, or even the “you’ll never understand”………..there began to be an increasing number of questions for ME. “Hey, where are you going? What time are you going to be back? Got class today? Whacha doin’ now? “ Or “so HOW long are you staying at the hostel? How many more days?”
Hmmmmmm…….was it possible that I was misinterpreting the new vibe in the air around Refugio del Rio? Let me rephrase that…..was there ANY HOPE that I was reading this situation incorrectly? How about this…..Let’s say you “hypothetically” ask someone why they are “down” on a particular day……and let’s say that they “hypothetically” say that they are sad because YOU weren’t around that day. UUUUUHHHHHHh……is there ANY other way to interpret that? Nope….I didn’t think so.
At this point in my life though, my greatest source of frustration suddenly became my greatest ally. Because if you spend enough of your time “not understanding” things, it’s not too much of a stretch to PRETEND you don’t understand things. And at that moment, my level of linguistic ignorance took a dramatic and purposeful turn in an upward direction……….thank you “language barrier”…….my old and faithful friend.

In the end, after a couple of weeks of keeping a very safe distance, playing ignorant, graciously declining the occasional offer for some random social outing, and tip toeing through the hostel, I caught an early bus out of town. The night before, I said a very light-hearted goodbye to the hostel staff, as I gave her kid a video game (we had also become friends), gave my email address to crazy Armando (I’m sure he forgot who’s email address was in his pocket within a 10 minute window), and took a little journey back the fourth grade, as Marta handed me a small scrap of paper folded 2,937 times into something the size of a tic tac. Her instructions were to not open it until I got to “David” (town about an hour away) and were given to me with a look of humiliation and a hasty exit.

That was pretty much it for my time in Panama. I spent the final night hanging out with some friends from town, packed up my room in the hostel, said good bye to Boquete, and caught the 6AM bus out of town. Looking back in hindsight, I’m sure there were things I COULD have or maybe SHOULD have done differently. And YES…….I know…’s true……I really DID care (what can I say). As I said before though, I suppose that sometimes, even the best intentions result in some less than favorable outcomes. Lesson learned.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Final Farewell.....Part 1

Panama was pretty amazing…..OK let me say that again. Panama was REALLY amazing. As I mentioned before (I think), I LOVED living in a small town that required a mere 10 minute walk to reach its farthest border. I loved walking through the “downtown” and seeing someone I knew on nearly EVERY occasion. I loved the hostel by the river. I loved going to Spanish school, I loved the great coffee of the region, I loved the pancakes at Panama Roasters, I loved the climate, I loved the recreation, I loved the food, and I loved the community of people I found in this little spot in the Panamanian mountains. The only problem was that when it came time to leave, it was much easier said than done. “Do I really HAVE to leave?” That became my primary question as I anticipated my Saturday departure. And as much as I wanted to answer that with a resounding NO, I knew that there were other things on the horizon. I knew that there were new adventures to be had and many a Blog entry to be written. So as sad as it was, I left.
BUT I can’t just leave it at THAT!!! I mean, there were LOTS of things that took place between my little gastro-intestinal-adventure (last Blog entry) and my actual departure from Boquete. I thought I would mention a few of them before saying good-bye to the Panama section of the Blog. Here it goes.

Quetzal-rific: One of the things on my list of “to-do’s before leaving the area” was to Hike a very famous trail called the Quetzal Trail. For those of you “non-bird-watcher-types”, the Quetzal is just a bird that lives in this part of the world. In fact, it’s actually a pretty famous bird. I don’t really know anything about this bird, but I’m pretty sure that the word "quetzal" was originally used for just the Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, the famous long-tailed quetzal of Central America, which is the national bird of Guatemala. In fact (and don’t quote me on this) I think it still often refers to that bird specifically but now also names all the species of the genera Pharomachrus and Euptilotis………………………….but I digress. The main thing is that it’s big and colorful and hard to find in the woods. In fact, according to all of the guide books AND people in the area, as cool as the name is for the trail, the birds are RARELY seen along the Quetzal Trail. Oh well, at least I would get some exercise, right?
Anyway, one week before heading North, I rounded up a couple of friends and caught the 7AM bus out of town. After transferring to a different bus in the town of David, riding for another couple of hours, and then hiking up a road for 45 minutes or so, we found ourselves at the Southern terminus of the famous trail. The weather was perfect and we were feeling good, so we hit the trail in good spirits. Somewhere between four or five hours later, after passing through a number of different types of forests and temperate zones (i.e. woods that looked kind of different), seeing some incredible views, crossing multiple streams/rivers, swinging on vines, chatting with a film crew working on a TV show, and EVEN SEEING TWO QUETZALS, we caught a ride back into town and called it a day. The trail was spectacular, the company was great, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. All in all, a pretty terrific day.

Hot Springification: Next on the list was something called “Los Pozos Termales”, which translates to “The Thermal Pools”. Or, to generalize things a bit more……Hot Springs. I thought Sunday sounded like the perfect time for this little endeavor, so not unlike the day before, I rounded up a couple of locals (one of which happened to have a car…..which made things MUCH easier) and headed out for yet another highly anticipated excursion. Keep in mind, I’m from Colorado…….so to me, I have a certain image in mind when someone utters those two beautiful words in unison…..HOT SPRINGS. I think of perfect natural pools atop scenic vistas……I think of crystal clear water at optimally warm temperatures…..I think of mountain beauties soaking in the natural ambiance of the……Yea Yea…I know…this one never ACTUALLY happens, but there’s always hope right? Anyway, upon arrival to “Los Pozos Termales”, it dawned on me that the literal Spanish translation may actually be much closer to “hole dug in ground filled with hot dirty water……in the woods” (or something to that effect).
So it didn’t look EXACTLY like the majestic image I had in mind. How bad could it be, right? So with that attitude, I properly treated my milky white skin, stripped down to my stylish beachwear, and faced the murky water with great determination and gusto. Maybe it would have been slightly more enjoyable if I wasn’t thinking about everything BELOW the surface that I couldn’t see……..or maybe it would have been nicer if the outside air temperature was less than 147 degrees (minus humidity, of course)…..who knows, maybe it would have been different if those mountain beauties could have filled in for the VERY LARGE Panamanian men that became my soak-mates. Maybe….maybe not. In the end, I actually had a really great time. And as I drove out of the parking area (always a relative term, of course), I had to smile at my newly acquired layer of filth and pruny digits.

Not the Best, but It Ain’t No Mullet!!!: Another thing on my list of “MUST DO’S” was to Get a haircut before catching the bus out of town. So after taking an exhaustive survey of the best “SALA De Belleza’s” in town, I decided that it was time to make friends with a nice lady named Claudia. Perhaps I’m actually a bit more vain that I would like to admit, because despite the number of times I tell myself “hey, it’s only hair….it ALWAYS grows back”, I consistently find myself feeling a bit of uneasiness upon heading to a new BARBER……OK OK….BEAUTICIAN in this case…..I know……just don’t judge me…..she came highly recommended!!! AND, because I still considered myself as having a limited Spanish vocabulary, I knew it was going to be quite the little adventure trying to describe the perfectly fashionable “DO” for my sweet weave. In anticipation of this fact, I really tried to brush up on some key hair-related words/phrases before stepping into the salon. That’s what I TRIED to do. But no matter how much I practiced, I just couldn’t imagine a scenario like:

He walked into the salon…..ruggedly handsome……mysterious.….dapper… need of a trim . The hair? Shaggy……tussled….disheveled in just the right manner. There was an air of confidence about him as he inquired about the necessity of an appointment. “Who WAS this tall drink of Gringo water”, thought Claudia, as she glanced across to the manicurist with a knowing and playful grin. “Just a little off the sides”, he said, while slowly settling into the comfort of the swiveling chair of beauty. “A little off the sides…..careful with the front……maybe introduce a few layers up top……and make sure those sideburns are even”. Claudia got to work…..a maestro….an artist with her craft.

Yea……I just couldn’t imagine that it was going to go like that. Rather, I was anticipatingsomething more along the lines of:

Claudia rolled her eyes as yet another gringo doofus stumbled uncomfortably into her salon. “….uh….horse court……uh…I mean…..Hair CUT”, he stated very loudly while, with great animation, pointing to his head repeatedly with his left index finger. “Have a seat”, Claudia said, while looking at the manicurist with a “I REALLY don’t get paid enough for this” sort of scowl. “HERE……MORE…..LONG…NO!....SHORT!!!....SHORT!!!.........CUT……THANK YOU……PLEASE!!!!” Claudia didn’t bother listening. She had long ago lost her patience with these types of clients. This guy would get whatever type of style she wanted to practice that day. This guy was at the mercy of Claudia’s whims. He had no choice. He had no power. Heck, he didn’t even have any style to begin with. ………”and you know?”, thought Claudia, while casually picking up her blades of choice, “today suddenly feels like a MULLET kind of Thursday”.

Well, the good news was that I ended up getting a pretty decent haircut for my hard earned $4 ($5 with tip….call me crazy). So maybe it wasn’t the BEST haircut I had ever gotten. And maybe there was a LITTLE bit of misunderstanding as to the AMOUNT of hair to be taken off. BUT ”at least it ain’t no mullet”, I thought to myself, as I walked back to the hostel, five dollars poorer and a WHOLE lot lighter.