Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life on Ometepe Island


 

The Weekly Photo Challenge is Street Life. Ometepe Island, Nicaragua is a rural, agricultural area with colorful street (or volcanic path) life. Join me on a trip into Moyogalpa with our favorite moto taxi driver.

IMG_1894

More street life ahead.Traffic jam ahead.

Colorism Confusion


“One of my theories is that the hearts of men are about alike, no matter what their skin color.” ~ Mark Twain

IMG_3973I noticed our taxi driver’s arm protector on our way to Ojo de Agua the other day. “How cool is that!” I thought. It’s all the rage with the taxi drivers. Lost in my weird wonderings, I thought I could buy a pair to use on my upper arms. Not only would it hold together my upper arm fat wings, kind of like a girdle for my arm flaps, but my arms would look awesome with the stamped tattoos.
Read on! There’s more colorism confusion.

Expat Speed Bumps


“We could do it, you know.”
“What?”
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it.”
― Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

Yesterday, we walked to Moyogalpa instead of taking our motorcycle. “Where’s your moto?” many people asked. “We need the exercise,” I lied. There is no way I’ll admit that I am afraid to get on the moto after taking another spill. Wait! Did I just say that I hit a speed bump in our expat life on la isla?

IMG_3378

More expat speed bumps. Keep reading!

Weekly Photo Challenge: What is This Object?


The Weekly Photo Challenge is Object.  Our photographs tell stories, big and small.”
My mother often made things for our Nicaraguan neighborhood. She made beautiful aprons embroidered with roosters, embroidered dish towels, and quilted purses for my local friends. Each time I delivered my gifts, my gracious local friends would give my mother a handmade gift in return. This crocheted gift had us puzzled, until we figured out its use. We laughed until we cried. Do you know what this object is?

For this weekly photo challenge, it’s not the photography that counts, but the story behind it. :-)

                                Pay it forward! It’s the thought that counts.

Guess what this is

Part Two: Natives With Netiquette


Globalization, as defined by rich people like us, is a very nice thing… you are talking about the Internet, you are talking about cell phones, you are talking about computers. This doesn’t affect two-thirds of the people of the world.
Jimmy Carter

Part Two in a series of travelers vs tourists. The first part was: Codes of Responsible Travelers. In this post, I explore the problems that arise with sustainable and cultural tourism through the eyes of the indigenous community of Los Ramos.

Ten years ago, we gave our cell phone to Francisco of the Los Ramos indigenous community because we were returning to the states. For generations, this community lacked any means of high-tech communication. Grandpa Cabo announced special events in the community with his ancient bull horn.  With my used cell phone and a tall tree, the people could now climb to the top of the tree to receive a stronger signal…and voila…they were connected to the world. Although, it worried Francisco when his grandmother became trapped in the tree and he had to rescue her…picture a cat in a tree meowing frantically… the cell phone signified a new beginning for this isolated community.

DSCN0694Years later, progress in Los Ramos advanced rapidly. With generous donations, they bought an electric transformer…yes, you have to buy your own transformers in Nicaragua…to run a pump from the well located two miles down a long, sloping, dusty path to the beach. Now, they had running water in Los Ramos. Their lives became a lot easier.

Getting water in Los RamosThis agricultural community continued planting and harvesting their frioles, plantains, and sesame seeds. However, they were losing their young people to Costa Rica and other more cosmopolitan places in Nicaragua. There were no jobs to keep this community intact. Something had to be done to help their young families bring in the hay.

Bringing in the hayEnter sustainable/cultural tourism in Los Ramos. With the help of many knowledgeable and professional tourism people…including my son, Cory, and his good friend Sam…they compiled lists of available resources in Los Ramos, developed 12 cultural tourism programs, created brochures and a website, and perfected their programs with ‘fake’ travelers. Zac, the Peace Corps volunteer, helped them create a budget and worked closely with the community to develop an accounting system.

Front page of BrochureWord spread quickly about the authentic cultural programs in Los Ramos. Los Ramos hired their local son, Ever, as their new tourism director. They have a well-organized system of accounting, preparing, and planning for their programs. Yet, cultural tourism isn’t without its pitfalls. This indigenous community has learned that there is a fine balance between providing authentic cultural experiences and maintaining, yet improving their lifestyles, culture, and traditions passed down through generations.

First, they have learned that marketing their programs requires computers, cell phones, and internet access. Grandma can’t climb that tree anymore to call the world. It’s a dichotomy of development… a clash of cultures. The world was suddenly at their fingertips, if they learned how to boot-up the computer.  They had to quickly become natives with netiquette to run their programs.

Second, they experienced language barriers. More travelers passing through their community, meant they needed someone who could speak some English. Fortunately, Ever has the skills to explain their programs, provide answers to questions, and help tourists limited to English only.

Third, more visitors = more money for the community. More money = more ‘conveniences’ for tourists, as well as their own families. Does providing authentic cultural experiences mean that they can’t buy microwaves, big refrigerators, open an internet café, start a smoothie bar, or buy a big flat-screened TV or iPhone? How do they balance authentic experiences with wanting to offer more comfort and ease for everyone involved in their lives? They are beginning to understand the dilemmas they face. Tourists seek authentic cultural experiences, then they complain about lacking a comfortable mattress, a hot shower, wi-fi, or ice cubes in their freshly squeezed orange juice. Where’s the balance?

Fourth, more money coming into the community always partners with jealousy and power. Host families have to offer safe, comfortable housing for their guests. When non-host families see the money coming into their neighbors’ host homes, they want to become host families, too. Yet, their only accommodations are the pig sty behind their house or the chicken coop. Then, little fights break out, feelings are hurt, and jealousies erupt like the active volcano looming at the top of their community.

Sustainable tourism, in my opinion, is a viable option for Los Ramos, especially considering the alternatives…high rise resorts, where the locals become the maids and gardeners…young men moving to Costa Rica to find jobs to support their families left behind…or cleaning houses in foreign gated communities. I have no doubts that this lovely community will be able to resolve these problems…poco a poco. They are resourceful, creative, and oh…the places they can go with a little help from their friends. This vivacious community of natives with netiquette are learning as they progress to…keep their traditions close to their hearts…proudly share their lifestyles with the world…and most importantly, love their neighbors.

Los Ramos Mi Casa es tu Casa website.
Trip Advisor Reviews

The Codes of Responsible Travelers


Ask Nicaraguans taking English classes why they want to learn English, and I’ll bet the majority of them say, “Because I want to be a tour guide.” Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in Nicaragua. It is a people-oriented business, geared to revitalizing local communities and providing many jobs. However, like other industries, tourism has its downsides such as: ecological degradation, locals forced to relocate because of increased cost of housing, food, transportation, and other services, loss of cultural heritage, increased petty crime, and economic dependence on foreigners.

We are victims of our own popularity. We’ve seen the impact mainstream tourism has on our tiny Ometepe Island. Its long-term effects on our local island communities have led many of our expats and local islanders to explore programs offering alternative vacations. The problems that go with mainstream tourism will doom Ometepe Island if left untethered. The proposed Nicaraguan canal could prove to be an ecological disaster. (I’m writing a post about the canal soon.) Sustainable tourism is the perfect alternative for responsible travelers seeking educational and low-impact adventures that will benefit the local communities of Ometepe Island.

Notice that I use the word ‘travelers’ instead of ‘tourists.’ A tourist visits to be entertained by experiences and images created especially for the tourist market. Think…luaus…beach cocktails with paper umbrellas…going somewhere just to check it off the list…white sneakers…camera draped around the neck…you get the picture.  A traveler…blends in with the locals…travels by local transportation…considers a trip a journey or a quest…researches, plans, and explores the culture.

Before developing programs, we need to know what responsible travelers really want, what resources we have available on our Biosphere Reserve, and how we can provide sustainable tourism that respects both the local people and the travelers, the cultural heritage, and our environment. In order to understand the needs of travelers, first, we must learn the codes of responsible travelers.

                                    The Codes of Responsible Travelers

1. Prepare in Advance
Travelers learn about the culture, customs, history, and language of foreign lands long before their passports are stamped. They are avid researchers. Ask a traveler for a list of websites, blogs, and books to read and you’ll be surprised at the number of resources a traveler can recall off the top of his/her head. Travelers tend to be expert packers, too. They have memorized the airport codes and know the best days and times to book a flight, or all the locations of the local bus stops, including a schedule of the times of departure.

Brochure for Los Ramos2. Choose the Right Tour Operator
Travelers choose home stays and locally operated hotels and hostels over expensive resource-consuming international hotels. They select tours that support small-scale projects and employ local guides. They seek tours that are designed with the input of the local community.

DSCN06773. Respect Local Customs, Cultures, and Lifestyles
R-E-S-P-E-C-T…the mantra of travelers. They are sensitive to the intrusion of photographing people and places. They respect the local customs and try to “fit in”. Offensive behaviors such as drunkenness, sexual advances, and improper dress are avoided at all costs. Travelers accept that people have different, not wrong or inferior, ways of living. They understand the myths of poverty and instead of tossing money to beggars, they offer them clothes, shelter, or food.

IMG_23784. Consider the Impact of Presence
Travelers eat the local food, not only because it’s adventuresome, but because the expenditure will stay in the country. They shun McDonald’s and Burger King, instead going for places with names like Pizza Hot or the Mini-Super. They avoid buying products that are made from protected species, never litter, and try to conserve limited local non-renewable resources like firewood or water. They enjoy cold showers…

IMG_0027and local drinks. They are aware of the impact of tourism on the people and places that they visit. Travelers are careful when bargaining that they don’t exploit the local vendors. They walk, run, hike, bike, and explore the country using local transportation instead of large, energy-consuming tour buses.

IMG_52665. Present Yourself Realistically
Travelers learn to speak the language and present themselves as citizens of the world. They share ideas and other information with the local people about their social, economic, and environmental realities in their home countries. They do not glamorize their lifestyles or their culture. They focus on similarities, instead of differences. They empathize.

IMG_02366. Continue the Experience
When travelers return home, they often share their stories…but they DO so much more. They are activists. Travelers are not content simply sharing photos of their experiences. They join human rights and environmental protection groups, volunteer their services, and share their experiences in the hopes that we can all become citizens of the world. Travelers are our eyes without borders, our dreams and hopes for a better future, our voices for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

IMG_0864                                      Are you a traveler or a tourist?

The six codes of responsible travelers were taken from the UNESCO website called Being a Traveler-Six General Principles.

Cultural Lessons from the Ballpark


“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”
― George F. Will 

Nicaraguans are passionate about their baseball. Baseball is their field of dreams…a door to batting a thousand…a chance to bring it on home. So, when we had an opportunity to go to our first professional baseball game in Nicaragua, how could I not jump at the chance to play ball?  For me, it was a cultural experience…a pinch hitter slice of life moment. Covering all the cultural bases, I’d go to bat for Nicaraguans any day.

Cultural Lessons from the Ballpark

1. Nicaraguans don’t take rain checks and neither do we.
We arrived at the dock early in the morning to catch the 9 am ferry to Rivas. The game started at 11 am, and we were sure we’d have plenty of time to buy our tickets. Due to circumstances beyond our control, the ferry broke down, and we had to wait for the 11 am Che. Meanwhile, Francisco (our friendly taxi driver), frantically called us, “Deborah, the tickets are almost sold out. I’ll buy your tickets for you.” Perfect! We’d miss the first few innings, but Francisco would save our seats. Later, we discovered that many of the spectators were buying one ticket, then reproducing the ticket at the local copy center.  Nicaraguans definitely don’t take rain checks…but, neither do the gate attendants take fake tickets.

IMG_11152. Time to play ball!
Nicaraguans are always ready to play ball in the game of life. Crowds never deter Nicas. No obstacle is too big…too overwhelming…too frightening. They are dare-devil risk-takers, scaling fences… hanging from rafters…without a thought of consequences.
The Yamil Rios Ugarte Stadium in Rivas holds…ballpark figure…about 5,000 people. We pushed our way through the throngs to find our cement bleacher seats, only to stand for most of the game. Time to play ball!
IMG_11193. The bases are loaded everyday in Nicaragua.
When the stakes are high, and a chance presents itself to win…Nicaraguans go for the win. Life is one big baseball game. Not only in sports, but in their daily activities, politics, and with positive attitudes…they are winners.
IMG_11244. Nicaraguans get thrown many curve balls, yet they persevere in style.
Nicaraguans are faced with something unexpected or out of the ordinary on a daily basis. They go with the flow in Nicaland.  A family of the Managua Boers was sitting in the boxed seating area. Although, their team was losing, they were having a grand time, laughing, drinking Tona, and blowing the annoying noise makers to cheer on their team.
IMG_11295. Nicaraguans always get to first base with Jesus on their side.
Nicaragua is predominantly Catholic, and they party heavily with their patron saints in each town. So, it came as no surprise to me when Jesus dominated the advertisements at the stadium. Best Western was a close second.
IMG_11616. Nicaragua brings in the heavy hitters to support the local parties.
I wondered what kind of food would be served at the baseball game. Hotdogs, corn dogs, popcorn? Nooooo! The heavy hitter street venders arrived with buckets of cold beer, trays laden with fried chicken and cabbage salad, pork rinds smothered in cabbage salad, plantain chips splashed with vinegar, and refreshing homemade shaved ice with sweet leche dribbling down the sides. With their decorative frilly aprons, the heavy hitters scored a home run with the crowd.
IMG_11477. It’s easy to tell right off the bat, that the Nicaraguans love their children.
Children are the focus of the Nicaraguan society. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles…everyone…tend to the needs of their children first. Junior and I ate our way through the game. He was fascinated by Ron’s white mustache and tugged on it to see if it would come off. Meanwhile, his parents laughed and gently distracted Junior.
IMG_11418. Nicaraguans love to pitch their ideas.
Since most Nicas live in poverty, they are resourceful and creative with what they have. They play hardball with their bargaining skills. Francisco pitched an idea to us at the ball park. His taxi has over 200,000 miles on it. He needs a new taxi, but cars are prohibitively expensive for most Nicaraguans. “What if I could have someone buy a car for me in the United States and drive it to Nicaragua?” he pitched. “Let me see what I can find,” I said.
IMG_11439. Everyday it’s a new ballgame.
Nicaraguans aren’t easily discouraged. They have a remarkable ability to live in the moment. The Boers were down 16-7, but not discouraged. Their flags waved, their mascots chanted, their drums rolled.
IMG_112310. Nicaragua is in a league of its own.
We jokingly call it “the land of the not quite right.” This vivacious, colorful culture of people have fought wars, overcome adversity, and won my heart. By the way, the Rivas Gigantes trumped the Managua Boers 16-7.This was their first year to play professional ball. Their first baseman, Randall Simon, played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2003. If you are familiar with him, you may remember the sausage incident.

Rivas Gigantes are headed for the National Championship. I’m root, root, rooting for my home team. Bring it on home Nicaragua…my home.
IMG_1159The LBPN Professional Baseball in Nicaragua website.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Family Through the Eyes of a Niña


The Weekly Photo Challenge asks us to capture an image of family. I lent my camera to Luvy when her mother returned to Ometepe Island for a short visit. Her mother worked in Costa Rica to support her family for most of Luvy’s young life. “Luvy, take some pictures of your family while your mother is visiting,” I said.

Family through the eyes of a niña…in her words with her photos.
“The night before my mother left for Costa Rica, we slept on the beach together. It was rico.”

DSCN0722“My mother is beautiful. She brings us many gifts from Costa Rica.”
DSCN0750“My brother, my nephew, and I sleep together. They like to wrestle and they wake me up.”
DSCN0751“We have one photo of my nephew, Oscar. He is proud of that photo.”
DSCN0718“Oscar doesn’t like to take a bath. He cries when I pour water over him. This is his favorite truck. I give it to him after I give him a bath and he is happier.
DSCN0621“My Papa is very old. I cook for him.”
DSCN0748“My brother, Julio, wants to be a veterinarian. He takes care of all the sick animals.”
DSCN0626“Julio is very silly. He was very tiny when he was born.” ( Luvy explained that Julio was like their smallest puppy in their latest litter…a runt.)
DSCN0760“He likes eggs. He is very good at finding the chicken eggs in the tall grass.”
DSCN0767“My big brother, Jose, is cool. He likes music, girls, and thinks a lot.”
DSCN0735” Here are my cousins. They live next door. We play together every day.”
DSCN0758“Congreja had puppies. She always has new puppies.”
DSCN0784“Julio took my picture. We don’t have a mirror in our house. I was showing him how to use your camera.”
DSCN0743

Weekly Photo Challenge: One Window of Our Lives


The Weekly Photo Challenge is Window. They are portals into the world’s stories. Glimpses into other people’s lives. Looking out (or into) a window can tell you about where you are — and where you’re not — and mark a particular moment in time, linking you to a physical place. Join me as we peek into one window of our lives on Ometepe Island.

A Barbie doll pink house, a big ole’ cement pila, and a worn window signified the beginning of our quest for a simple and carefree lifestyle culturally immersed with friends and family on Ometepe Island.

IMG_2260When Ron destroyed the big ole’ cement pila our journey began.
knocking out a concrete sinkLight filtered through our window and the only thing we saw was the beauty of things to come.
IMG_2797We pretended we worked in a McDonald’s drive-through, happily dispensing peanut butter sandwiches to our workers through our window. They laughed, not having a clue what we were talking about. Later, we found our sandwiches stuffed in a hole of the Mango tree.
IMG_3080I thought retirement was supposed to be… welI…retiring. Instead, I sanded my soft hands to the bone refinishing the window shutters.
IMG_3118Look! We have a TV!  Steeler football games and a cold Tona after a hard day’s work. What more could we ask for?
IMG_3252As the house progressed, the garden grew. We harvested our first batch of tomatoes.
IMG_3919Then the mangoes began to drop…and drop…and drop. Delicious mango jam is on the menu.
Mango JamThe tropics require drinking lots of water. Ron, I caught you drinking out of the jug again. I won’t nag this time because he built us a pine trestle table in front of the window.
IMG_4044Ron’s table has served us well. Family and friends gather around our table for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even a game of spoons. The table nestled in front of the window houses my collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts and my lending library books.

My cupcake and cookie buddy and I often gather around the window where she displays her marvelous treats.

Life outside our window involves swinging, watching chickens, and making dough balls to trap rats in the garden.
IMG_0527We added a string of lights around the window for a festive look at Christmas.
IMG_1439Our window constantly changes scenes adding to our contentment on our little island of peace. One small portal of our lives, one giant step toward our dreams.
IMG_2626

Marina and Socialized Medicine in Nicaragua


IMG_5793Marina and her family have been our closest neighbors for ten years. We’ve watched her five children grow into loving, responsible adults. Throughout the years, all of her children and their families have lived with Marina at one time or another.  When Jose and his wife and three babies moved into Marina’s one bedroom shack, she just slapped some old tin on the side of the house and made herself a dirt floor bedroom. Every morning, her smoky cooking pot boiled with beans for her grand babies. Every afternoon, she hung the hand-washed bleached white cloth diapers on the barbed wire fence. She’s a hard worker and very proud of her family.
IMG_1441Two years ago, Marina began to complain of a lump in her neck. “Toce aqui,” (touch here) she’d say, while grabbing my fingers to make sure I touched in the right spot. “It hurts,” she complained. That was the beginning of my limited understanding of socialized health care in Nicaragua, and the things I’ve learned through Marina’s fight for equal health care.

1. I’ve learned that Nicaraguans depend on a three-tier health system that reflects the fundamental inequalities of their society. The wealthiest Nicaraguans use private health care, often going to Miami for specialized treatment. A small minority of privileged government workers are served by the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute. The rest of the population, about 90%, is poorly served at public hospitals, usually understaffed, mismanaged, and under equipped. Marina fits in the last tier and her journey has been an eye-opener, for me, into the world of socialized medicine in Nicaragua.
IMG_49772. I’ve learned that the patient can’t choose the doctor in Nicaragua. Marina was shuffled from one doctor to another. There’s little room for shopping around or for switching from one doctor to another when the bureaucrats have to “go by the book”.   She couldn’t afford to go to a private clinic. Her options were limited and so was her economic status.

3. The doctor can’t choose the patient. Under socialized medicine, there are few referrals made to another doctor. Marina needed a specialist, but it screwed up the system. Because medical services are free, demand for them goes up, patients are put on long waiting lists, and doctors quickly become overbooked and overworked. It took two long years before Marina received a specialist who was able to diagnose her problem.

4. The patient doesn’t get consoled or consulted. “Marina, what did the doctor say?” I would ask after every trip to Managua. “I don’t know,” she would always say. “He just gave me a slip of paper for another appointment. He doesn’t talk to me.” My understanding of the role of a healer is to always give comfort, support, and encouragement to a worried patient. This is not the case in a public hospital in Nicaragua. I’ve accompanied several local friends to public hospitals in Nicaragua, and it’s more like going to the Waffle House, where the doctors are short-order cooks, dispensing cheap aspirin in a cookie-cutter, uncompetitive state-run way.

5. The patient doesn’t get well. Marina suffered for two years waiting for an operation when the tumors growing on her thyroid could be removed. She was scheduled for her operation in December, but after a long, expensive trip to Managua, she was sent home with orders to return in January because the hospital was full of patients with Dengue. Don’t you think they could have saved her a costly trip with a simple phone call? The truth is, Nicaraguans go on long waiting lists all the time because the right equipment, or medicines, or doctors are not available when they need it the most. Thus, these patients become chronically sick as a direct result of the above four points.

The only consolation in Marina’s case, is that she received her operation this week…two years after her first symptoms. There won’t be a bill, and her loving family members are gathered around her, tending to her every need. She returned home yesterday, a day after her five hour delicate operation. Julio harvested our basil leaves and Gloria mixed  a refreshing tea bath of basil, alcohol, and warm water. When I walked into her house to give her a warm bowl of tapioca pudding and strong pain pills, her daughters surrounded her, pouring basil leaf tea all over her body. The warm water pooled over the dirt floor, while the girls tenderly bathed their mother and grandmother. Marina’s mother gently walked her to the outhouse, and the rest of the family members followed behind, hands holding hips, as the little train of compassion chugged to the outhouse. Touched by the compassion and loving care of their cherished mother, I tried to hold back my tears.

IMG_5506“There’s a story behind everything..but behind all your stories is always your mother’s story..because hers is where yours begins.”
― Mitch Albom, For One More Day

Observing the tender care Marina’s children bestowed upon her, I learned that our mothers’ stories are where ours begin. It takes courage and compassion to raise loving children. Marina is one of the most courageous people I know, therefore her children carry on her legacy.  It’s a shame that economic status determines the type of health care one receives in Nicaragua. Yet, knowing Marina and her children, I have no doubts that she will recover quickly.