April 13, 2009

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Julia Ferrante, the senior news writer in Bucknell's Office of Communications, joined a group of alumni who traveled to Nicaragua on the Bucknell Brigade's 10th anniversary. She recorded her experience in this travel journal.

Day One: 'Not according to plan'

Saturday, March 28

Our group leader Kristine Kengor, Class of '03, warned us before our trip that things in Nicaragua do not always go according to plan. So it was not entirely surprising that we would run into difficulty getting to Managua for the 10th anniversary Bucknell Brigade alumni trip.

Kristine and I left the Bucknell campus at about 8:45 a.m. with student driver Emily Haley, Class of '09, and stopped in Harrisburg to pick up Ray Prushnok, Class of '01, and his wife, Amy Welch. We headed to Washington-Dulles International Airport, where we met Jim Ritter, Class of '04, and Rebecca Schofield, Class of '05, at the Delta international ticket counter. Each of us checked an extra bag or two of donated medicine, shoes or supplies for the health clinic in Nueva Vida, a resettlement area formed after Hurricane Mitch hit Managua in 1998. The clinic was built with the help of previous brigadistas, including Jim and Ray, and is supported by Bucknell donations.

When we got to the gate, we found out our flight was delayed for an hour. We decided to get a late lunch as we would not be landing in Managua until after 8:30 p.m. Managua time and still had a 30-minute ride to the Jubilee House Community (JHC) headquarters in Ciudad Sandino, where we are staying for the week. After lunch, we learned our flight was canceled, so we headed back to the gate to begin our negotiations. There is only one Delta flight each day from Atlanta to Managua, so our options were limited.

The ticket agent could not find an alternative route to get us to Managua that night or early the next day, so he rebooked us on a 5:15 p.m. flight to Atlanta and promised Delta would put us up in a hotel.

The flight cancelation was not all bad. Our group of six has had a chance to get to know one another a bit. Amy and I have never been to Nicaragua or on the Bucknell Brigade, but Kristine, Rebecca, Ray and Jim were comparing notes about their various trips. Kristine, who last went to Nicaragua in 2005, said things have changed a lot since her first trip as a Bucknell sophomore in 2001. The road leading to JHC has been paved, and the work the brigade does has somewhat changed. Many of the earlier brigades stayed close to Nueva Vida, working almost exclusively on building a dormitory and health clinic. More recent brigades have worked on construction of a spinning cooperative and visited the municipal dump in Managua, where an estimated 1,500 people live and scavenge for food and items to sell. The earlier brigades also did not travel to El Porvenir, a village where a cooperative produces and sells coffee at fair trade prices.

Tomorrow, we were supposed to tour Managua and talk with a group of banana workers who have moved their families and belongings to a tent city across from the National Assembly to protest their exposure to pesticides. We also were scheduled to go to the Batahola Church to attend Mass. Instead, we will be at the Doubletree Atlanta Airport Hotel, which is disappointing.

Several others in our group met in Atlanta and made the flight we missed today. A third contingent, including brigade founder Jamie Cistoldi Lee, Class of '99, arrived in Managua earlier in the day.

Day Two: A stark contrast

Sunday, March 29

Ray and Amy went to the aquarium in midtown Atlanta, and the rest of us headed to brunch at Watershed in Decatur, a restaurant partly owned by Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls. The ride to Decatur was a stark contrast to what we would have been seeing in Managua. Wide, paved streets meandered through miles of manicured lawns, blooming dogwoods and brick mini-mansions.

Watershed is along Ponce de Leon Avenue, a street lined with restaurants, coffee shops and general abundance. Our meal was decadent with selections including a cheddar and Maplewood bacon omelet with a green salad and roasted potatoes, brioche French toast with organic blueberry compote and eggs, bacon and grits. The other Indigo Girl, Amy Ray, actually ended up sitting at the table next to us.

We arrived at the airport at 2:30 p.m. and found that Rebecca's ticket was issued for tomorrow instead of today, although her itinerary was correct. We resolved the problem quickly then boarded our plane at 5 p.m. A baggage scanner was not working properly, so it took four times as long to board the luggage, and we did not take off until 6:30 p.m. We crossed our fingers that our bags would arrive in Managua as we already have dipped into our emergency supplies of clothes, and our packing includes our bed sheets and towels.

After a 3 ½-hour flight, we arrived at the Managua airport, which is much bigger than I expected. Improvements have been made during the past few years, Kristine said. We paid our $5 tourist visa tax and headed to customs, where JHC's Volunteer Coordinator Ben Sommers had the paperwork to get our donations into Nicaragua. We told an agent, "tenemos papels," "we have papers," and breezed through customs.

Ben gave us a mini-orientation on the way to Ciudad Sandino, a municipality outside Managua. He pointed out neighborhoods including low-income housing built on the ruins of the 1972 earthquake that destroyed much of the city. Houses are constructed in rows of concrete blocks and sheets of aluminum. We passed a few bars, schools and businesses selling beans and tortillas. Driving in Managua is more or less a free-for-all, Ben said, especially after dark. He was the only driver who seemed to be abiding by the rules. Ben joined JHC as a volunteer working for room and board three months ago. He is from Wisconsin and wanted to do more outreach in Central America and improve his Spanish, he said. 

We drove through the JHC gate at about 10:30 p.m., and the rest of our contingent greeted us and helped with the luggage. Our dorm is sturdier than I imagined. It has concrete walls, a metal roof and is enclosed with screens and blinds. The men's and women's bathrooms have several showers separated with yellow tarpaulin. Tarp only partially conceals the toilets. Toilet paper goes in a separate can or we have to fish it out or risk clogging the pipes. Our group of six picked from the remaining bunk beds. Each bunk has an inch-thick cushion covering metal springs and a thin board, so some of us doubled up on the cushions.

The rest of the brigade told us about visiting with the banana workers and going to the super market.  On the agenda tomorrow: A talk with Mike Woodard, a former minister and program director at JHC; a visit with the Genesis Spinning Cooperative; a tour of Nueva Vida and the health clinic; lunch; work; dinner; and music with Guitarra de Madera Azul.

Day Three: Counting pills, singing songs

Monday, March 30

I started my day at 6 a.m. They do not observe Daylight Savings Time here, so we gained two hours. Jeremy "J.J." Snyder, Class of '06, was up, too, and offered to introduce me to Bella, JHC's pet monkey. We took banana chips to Bella's play area next to the dorm. Bella knew J.J. right away but took longer to offer me her hand and climb on my shoulder. Once Bella takes her perch, it's up to her when she comes down. I encouraged her with banana chips, but she did not budge until I directed her to grab hold of a tree.

Breakfast was served at 7:15 a.m.: macaroni and cheese, beans and rice, watermelon, cantaloupe, tiny bananas, fresh bread and coffee. Mike Woodard told us about JHC's focus on sustainable, organic and fair trade businesses, such as a biodiesel processing operation and spinning, sewing and coffee cooperatives. JHC has learned to ask the community what it needs before starting initiatives. One effort to promote solar-powered stoves failed because Nicaraguans are accustomed to wood-burning stoves, which give rice and beans a distinctive smoky flavor.

We toured the spinning cooperative, where cotton will be de-seeded and spun into yarn for clothing. Past brigades have helped build the spinning plant, which is ready for a roof and final touches, but the cooperative members have halted construction while they hammer out the details of a contract. The co-op members shared concerns about the struggling U.S. economy. How can they make it as a business when people in the United States aren't buying? The women, who gave up their jobs in sweat shops to create their own business, said they are hopeful about President Barack Obama's economic recovery plan.

Next was a tour of Nueva Vida. The resettlement community has much more infrastructure than I imagined, but the roads still are unpaved and full of potholes. An estimated 10,000 people live in close proximity, and crime has become more common. When the first Bucknell Brigade arrived in 1999, residents were living in shelters of black tarpaulin and wooden poles. There was no health clinic. Now, a clinic built with the help of Bucknell volunteers and donations includes a dental suite, a laboratory and a medicinal garden. Many on our trip helped build the clinic and were heartened to see it complete. 

After a lunch of rice and beans, fried cheese and tortillas back at the dorm, we got our work assignments. I went back to the clinic with Jamie Cistoldi Lee and Blakeley Lowry, both Class of '99; Francesca Yango Jahns, a physician's assistant; Anne Griffin, a nurse at Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg; and J.J., Ray and Amy.

Anne and I worked in the pharmacy counting pills and filling prescriptions. We had trouble deciphering the handwriting and Spanish names of some of the medications, so a nurse helped us. We marked dosages in Spanish and checked symbols for various times of the day to show the patients when they should take their medicine, and Anne called the patients to a window to explain. J.J., Ray, Amy and Blakeley restocked the clinic with supplies from the United States. Francesca saw patients as Jamie translated.

Back at the dorm, several dirt-covered brigadistas were digging a large hole for a solids septic tank. Others made concrete blocks and dug up a portion of the concrete floor in the cotton ginning plant.

After a dinner of potato, chicken and bean salads and vegetables, the group Guitarra Madera Azul sang typical Nicaraguan, original and cover songs.

Day Four: Piles of burning trash

Tuesday, March 31

The morning started with potatoes and eggs, rice and beans, fresh fruit and a mix of fruit juices. Economist Carlos Pacheco then talked to us about sustainable development and models for recovering the Nicaraguan economy. There is a common theme emerging. Nicaragua, like many countries, is watching and waiting for the U.S. economy to recover. Carlos said Nicaragua needs to meet the needs of Nicaraguans rather than exporting its goods. The spinning cooperative, he said, is an excellent model.

After the talk, we took the bus to La Chureca, the Managua dump, where an estimated 1,500 families live. Many children "work" at the dump, foraging for recyclable plastic bottles and cans and anything else they can find to sell. We made our way past rows of "houses" in the midst of the burning trash to a pavilion where children are encouraged to find a life outside the dump. The children are fed here and have a concrete swimming pool. They also learn how to make hammocks and crafts to sell.

The children climbed on us and hugged us, grabbing at our cameras and sunglasses. A couple of young men who escaped the dump talked about their experiences. As we watched the children play in the pool and knit hammocks, I couldn't help feeling like we were missing something. All around were mountains of smoking trash and dirt. It was all surreal at the time, but one image stuck with me. A little girl got out of the pool and shook off the water. She reached for a pair of shorts she had been wearing. The shorts were supposed to be white, but they were covered in ash and dirt. She pulled them up, straightened them and pulled on an equally dirty red dress shirt, which she also smoothed out to get rid of the wrinkles.

We went back to the dorm for fried chicken, coleslaw and potato salad and then got to work. I joined a group making concrete to fill in the ginning plant floor. We made the concrete by hand, piling sand, gravel and cement like a layer cake, then shoveling the mixture into large mounds. We spread the pile into a moat and filled the moat with water. We were supposed to slowly scoop the mix along the inside of the moat, but we were impatient and dumped larger piles in the middle. We delivered loads of cement to Cara Anderman, Class of '03, and her sister Devin Burns, who spread the mix then shimmied a board across it to level it. The work was hard, and we were in the hot sun. It gave us an appreciation for the Nicaraguans, who work much faster than we do, but also left us with a sense of frustration. Adjacent was the not-yet-finished spinning cooperative building. It would have been much more satisfying to work on that project.

After a swim in the JHC pool and dinner, Daniel Garcia, whom Jamie met while studying in Nicaragua, talked to us about a documentary he made at the dump. Daniel lived outside the dump and worked there from the time he was 8 years old until he was 23. He saw people killed by large trucks and injured in fights with glass bottles, he said. He now is a freelance journalist with a wife and two kids. 

After Daniel's talk, we had reflection time. Some brigadistas are feeling encouraged about the differences they see in Nicaragua. Others are frustrated that there is much more work to be done. The experience has made some question whether they are doing enough to help others. I felt conflicted seeing the good that had been done but also frustrated about my inability to make a bigger difference. I also am conscious that I have been distancing myself from the experience. As a former journalist and news writer, I am trained to look from the outside in, to observe others and tell their stories. This story, however, has begun to intersect with my own.

Day Five: The bumpy ride up the hill

Wednesday, April 1

After more fruit, rice and beans, eggs, bread and coffee, we piled onto the bus for the four-hour ride to the coffee village of El Porvenir. The first part of the trip was relatively easy. We took a two-lane highway to Leon and stopped at an Esso gas station for snacks. A half-hour later, we arrived at a turn, beginning the bumpy part of the ride. We followed a road that is more or less a dry riverbed. All along the route were modest concrete and sheet metal homes. Men passed on horses, and women carried water and fruit. 

Ben Sommers warned us that if the bus had to stop or someone passed in front of us, we would have to close the windows to keep out the dust and exhaust. That happened three times, and each time was miserable. Eventually, we arrived at a gate where a girl ran to Ben with a key. We continued on a bumpy road until the bus could not continue. There, a family waited with a small tractor and box trailer that barely looked big enough for half of our group.

Mike Woodard and his wife, Kathleen Murdock, had followed the bus in a Nissan pickup. I rode in the pickup for the last leg of the trip because of my tendency for motion sickness. Even at 10 mph, the truck bobbed and swayed over the cobblestone and dirt roads, and it felt like we might not make it to the top. We passed by a water tank and the pipeline that a group of Bucknell engineering students designed and that engineering professor Mike Toole has been working on since 2007. As we ascended, Mike Woodard explained that this was the route the 285 townspeople of El Porvenir use to transport water from a well at the base of the mountain to their village and coffee fields. The water line will expand allocations from 2 gallons per person per day to about 25 gallons per day in the dry season. 

El Porvenir is, to say the least, modest, but it is much more peaceful and scenic than Nueva Vida. The homes have space between them, and children ride around on bikes. A school was built a few years ago.

The others arrived 15 minutes after we did, a bit harried. Ben Colby, Class of '03, joked, "That's an experience you can't pay for." At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Ben was at the back of the trailer. His hands were stained with rust from gripping its metal bars. The tractor stopped twice so the driver could secure the hitch. Many covered their faces with bandanas to filter out dust.

After another lunch of rice and beans, deep-fried eggs, cheese and tortillas and a stop at the outhouse, which Kathleen joked was the only place in Nicaragua we could throw toilet paper into the "toilet," the president of the coffee cooperative, Rene Gaitan, talked about the process of making shade-grown, organic coffee and cacao. We walked to a scenic overlook and toured the coffee processing plant, which is basically is a wooden barn. Coffee is sorted, de-shelled and dried here after the December harvest.

While the rest of us toured El Porvenir, Francesca, Jamie and Anne saw a dozen patients. Urinary tract infections and parasites were the most common ailments, they said.

The ride home was no less bumpy or rocky, but the trip was important for showing us the geography of Nicaragua, the living conditions and the drive of the people to live off the land.

Day Six: Volcanoes and the crater's edge

Thursday, April 2

Today was another long day but a much-needed contrast to all the difficult scenes we have seen in Nicaragua. It was our touristy day. After breakfast, we headed to Masaya, about 45 minutes from Ciudad Sandino. The trip took us through South Managua, an area noticeably more affluent than any area we have seen so far. We passed by two universities, chain restaurants and a mall.

Our first stop was at Masaya Volcano National Park. Ben Sommers, the volunteer coordinator, said he had never seen the volcano so active. Despite the heavy smoke coming from the volcano, the park was open. We walked up a winding stairway for a better look into the steaming crater and fields of lava below. There are several active volcanoes around Managua, so seeing steam coming out of mountains became a familiar sight.

We got back on the bus and headed to the village of San Juan de Oriente, also in Masaya, where potter Pedro Guerrero gave us a demonstration of how to make a clay vase with an impression of a turtle on the side. Many of us bought pieces of his work.

Next we headed to Laguna de Apoyo, a volcanic lake outside of Masaya. We stopped at Crater's Edge, a hostel and day resort that lives up to its name. The water in the lagoon was deep blue. Most of the group went swimming, some practicing diving and back flips off a floating dock. Others went kayaking or relaxed in hammocks. Seeing this beauty and spending time at the resort, which is run by a Canadian woman, was an uplifting experience after all of the poverty we have seen during the past few days. It made me feel hopeful that Nicaragua could build a tourist industry.

Our next stop was the Masaya open market, where some in our group bought hammocks and woven chairs, dresses, wooden toys and T-shirts. Ben Sommers had to intervene when a boy offered to help Anne Griffin negotiate but actually managed to get the shop owner to raise the price of the goods she was selling so he could get a cut. J.J. Snyder, Class of '06, bought three chairs, which he later disassembled and packed in his bag for the plane.

We headed back to Ciudad Sandino and had a dinner of hot chicken salad and pickled vegetables before most of the group headed out to a Managua disco. The disco was outside and on a lake. It was a cool night, so pleasant to sit outside. We danced, sampled the local beer and rum and just enjoyed the fresh air. 

Day Seven: Laying a foundation

Friday, April 3

Today began with a lecture from Mark Lester of the Center for Global Education in Nicaragua. He talked about the history and political conflicts of Nicaragua and Central America and about efforts for sustainable development.

After a short break, we regrouped with the JHC staff to talk about their ongoing projects and their community. The group asked JHC about its successes and long-term goals. Mike said he is proud of his relationship with the coffee cooperative in El Porvenir. Kathleen is proud of the clinic, which she noted would not have been possible without the support and hard work of the Bucknell Brigade. JHC is a bit down about the economy and the delays in getting the cotton ginning operation off the ground but generally optimistic about their efforts.

Kathleen asked the group to talk about how the brigade has influenced them. Many said that after seeing the poverty of Nicaragua, they have begun to think more about their impact on the world and how small changes can make a difference. Some in the group said they adjusted their career paths after the brigade to focus more on helping others.

In the afternoon, we got back to work. I joined the group in "the hole" where the septic tank will be. The task at hand was to lower a set of stone tablets into the hole by sliding them down a wooden plank. Ben Colby, Class of '03, and his dad, Gil, got down in the hole with Pedro Mayorga, one of the JHC workers, who showed them how to level the stone tablets that would form the septic tank floor.

Ben Sommers had to coordinate other projects, so I served as the translator between Pedro and the rest of the group. That added a whole new dimension and satisfaction to the work for me. Pedro joked with us, telling Ben Colby he was not working fast enough or hard enough. 

Jessica Baird, J.J. Snyder and I shoveled sand into a sifter so it could be used as filler under the stones in the septic tank. Jessica, J.J. and Andy Lee, Class of '99, piled cinder blocks to line the hole another day then mixed concrete so we could fill in the cracks between the stone tablets. There was a real sense of satisfaction in finishing that job when the floor of the septic tank was completed.

After work, we got cleaned up for dinner out at Mi Pueblo restaurant in Managua. The restaurant served a buffet of our staples, beans and rice, and coleslaw, beef shish kebob and barbecue chicken. For dessert, we had a dish of unusual pruned berries. 

After dinner, we finished packing our things, settled up with JHC and took time for reflection. We each talked about a high and low of the trip. For many, the low was visiting the dump or talking with the banana workers in Managua. Some found highs in their work or in the beauty of the lagoon and volcano. All of us have grown to really appreciate one another. It's amazing how living together, working together and seeing the bad and good of Nicaragua has made us such a close-knit group in just a week. We all talked about continuing to spread the word about conditions in Nicaragua and about making small changes in our lives.

Day Eight: Saying goodbye

Saturday, April 4

We got up at 5:30 a.m. and had our first light breakfast of the trip. The majority of the group piled our luggage onto the bus to catch an 8 a.m. flight out of Managua to Atlanta and then on to our respective homes in Boston, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The line at the Delta ticket counter was long, so we didn't have much time to get through customs and then to our gate. We said goodbye to Ben Sommers, who really feels to us like part of our group. We boarded the plane, and I promptly fell asleep.

When we arrived in Atlanta and went through customs, I realized I had been rebooked on a 5:30 p.m. flight. Kristine, Jim, Ray and Amy all were on a 2:45 p.m. flight, although originally we all were supposed to be on a 3:55 p.m. flight. Kristine's and my luggage also was checked only to Atlanta. We both went to the ticket counter to get our luggage and flight issues resolved. The agent put me on standby for the 2:45 p.m. flight and told me my luggage may not make it. We hurried to the shuttle and then the gate, and when we got there, I was on the cleared list.

The flight was short – about an hour. We met up again at baggage claim. All the Bucknell Brigade bags had made it! Emily Haley, our student driver, met us at the arrival terminal, and we headed to Harrisburg, where we dropped off Ray and Amy. Kristine, Emily and I continued on to Bucknell. It definitely seemed strange to be back in Lewisburg, but it was good to be home.

I immediately began the long process of washing every piece of clothing in my suitcase and of sorting through my souvenirs. I didn't want to watch television or be exposed to any outside influences. I just wanted to reflect on my trip and not forget any part of it. I looked around my house and thought how fortunate I am to have so much space and so many things. Being in Nicaragua made me want to be mindful of each and every thing I consume. The thought of going to a mall or even a grocery store was incredibly unappealing. 

On Sunday, I was feeling much the same. I wanted to organize my things but also sort through them to find things I may be able to give away to someone who needs them more. 

I feel lucky that for the next few weeks, my job will be to write about my experiences in Nicaragua. There is no way to capture the entire experience in words, which is why the Bucknell Brigade continues. I feel a tremendous responsibility to tell this story with the hope that it will inspire others to participate in service learning and expand their consciousness about world issues and poverty. I also feel lucky to have been part of such an amazing group of dedicated and articulate individuals who were willing to give up a week of their vacation time or, in the case of Ben Sommers, an entire year as a volunteer, to help others. And I am indebted to our hosts at JHC, whose dedication and candor allowed us to see hope in the midst of despair.

Contact: Division of Communications


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