SchoolBOX Trip to Nicaragua: Part 1

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SchoolBOX is a charitable organization founded in 2006 by Almonte’s Tom Affleck. Its executive director is Sarah Kerr, also of Almonte. Its mission is to see all Nicaraguan children finish primary school. To date SchoolBOX has helped build 64 new classrooms in the country, and has delivered nearly 80,000 education packages to students and teachers, which included over 300,000 notebooks.

Local resident Maureen Dagg recently completed a volunteer stint with SchoolBOX in Nicaragua. In this series she describes her experiences there.

Part 1: March 12 – 13 2015

I am back. Back to my modern, middle-class Canadian life. Unloaded the suitcases, unpacked a few treasures, shared a few stories.   Did some laundry in my automatic, modern clothes washing and drying machines. Did some cooking.   Everything looks the same, but I don’t feel quite the same.   Not yet. Maybe I will soon, as memories fade and I get all caught up in my daily life. That’s why it’s so important to write this down now. Before I forget and it all fades back to my modern, middle-class Canadian life.

Thursday, March 12

MeiLing and I had arrived at the Ottawa Airport at around 6:30 am … for a 9:15 flight – such is the fun of airport security nowadays, along with weather uncertainty in a Canadian winter.   Ottawa to Washington. Washington to Miami. Miami to Managua.   We arrived at 8:30pm EDT, which, as it turned out, was only 6:30 Nicaragua time.

We were met at the airport by two smiling, diminutive men by the name of David Pavon and Hector Ortiz, who would host us and be our translators.   They embraced us warmly, and we left with Hector in the SchoolBOX van, driven by Franklin Urbina. David stayed behind to collect the other three members of our group: Kyle McCulloch, Scott Laird, and Amelia Douglas – who were arriving on two separate flights.

Note the size of the street lights compared with the size of the tree!

Hector took us to Doña Haydee, a restaurant close to the hotel, where MeiLing and I each got a sampler of Nicaraguan foods, and hibiscus juice. On the way there, Hector immediately began to tell us all about Nicaragua, how happy he was to have us there, and some of the things we would be doing (even though we had an excellent itinerary sent to us). He asked us what we’d first noticed about Managua, and of course it was the “trees”: from the airplane, as we approached Managua, we’d both noticed these tall, brightly yellow lit structures, tall trunks with curly branches on top.   Well, we were informed that the current government wants to line a main boulevard with these trees, and that people aren’t too happy about it – Hector said that each tree cost over $15,000 USD to build, and we later found out from David that they each cost more like $70,000 USD!   This is from a government that spends about 5% of its money on education and infrastructure. We could easily see why people wouldn’t like the “Trees of Life”, as the government called them.

Surprisingly to us, it was dark in Managua at their 6:30 pm – like a Canadian December, but without the cold and snow. We got our first glimpses of palm trees, traffic (modern-looking at night, though there ­were a few horses pulling carts), as the van sped us towards our dinner and then to Hotel Los Pinos, where we’d be staying for the duration of our trip.

We were exhausted from the 14 hour journey (and me with a head cold, which had made flying less than ideal), so we went straight to bed without waiting for the others to arrive. We found out the next morning that they’d gotten in quite late, so it was a good thing we didn’t wait up.

Friday, March 13

Friday morning, we came downstairs to find ourselves in a comfortable, simple and beautiful hotel – it felt much like someone’s grand home, and we enjoyed ourselves and felt incredibly at home there during our entire stay.

We ate a breakfast of coffee, juice, scrambled eggs, toast and beans and rice. There were slight variations on this during the week – even pancakes once – but mostly simple, tasty and high protein breakfasts. The coffee here was perfect –smooth and velvety; and fairly strong. Even those among us who normally would have put sugar and/or cream happily drank it black.

Hotel Los Pinos lobby

We jumped into our private bus – which just seemed to appear whenever we needed it out of nowhere – to head out to visit one of the biggest and first schools built by SchoolBOX. This was the Brett #1 School in Managua. We drove into a shabby little suburb, where the houses were mostly spindly log frames with rusty corrugated sheet metal over top, and a few concrete block houses here and there.   In Nicaragua, the homes are either shacks of corrugated metal, or concrete cinder block with parging over top. There is not a lot of wooden building, since termites are a huge problem in this part of the world. Windows are not glass, but on the concrete houses they are rectangles of beautifully wrought metalwork, often painted white. Then some of the concrete houses are painted in gorgeous, bright colours such as aquamarine, pink, red, blue and yellow.   People will also occasionally cover their houses and/or the area in front of them with tile work, sometimes broken tiles worked like mosaic into the concrete.   Splashes of bright flowers such as hibiscus poke over metal fencing or through metal grates. Sometimes, there will be a cactus “hedge” in front of a place.

Amazingly, especially with the shacks, people emerge wearing nice clothing, and the school kids are proudly dressed in crisp, white shirts and black skirts or pants. Even if they’re barefoot. People take considerable pride in their appearance, for the most part, and smiling faces are everywhere.

We got out of the bus in this community, and were first gathered under a tree in the dirt, with a shallow, flowing ditch running right by. There were a few rocks there too. This, we were informed, was the original school. Kids would bring their own chair/stool, or would sit on rocks, in a circle under that tree, and the teacher would give them their lessons – how to read, write and work with numbers.   A couple of little boys crept up to us shyly and listened to the Spanish version of the tale.

Then, down the street a ways, further into the community, where we stopped at a vacant lot, now full of garbage and weeds, and surrounded on three sides by concrete.   This was the “second school” of this community, where the teachers would stand back-to-back to teach the kids, as there were now more of them.   Obviously, they couldn’t go to school on the rainy days, but it was hot, sunny, dry and windy there today – more like their regular conditions. Dust flying past, the kids would hold onto their pages in the hot sun so as not to have to chase them down the street. If they didn’t have pages to write on, they’d scratch out words in the dirt with sticks.

David Pavon and kids at Brett #1 School

Finally, we came to a blue and white concrete wall with large, blue steel gates. When the gates opened, we entered another world:   Two long, single-storied buildings ran down the sides of the enclosure, and there was a large concrete space in the middle. The buildings were simple structures with the metal window inserts and metal grid doors – each door and set of windows looked into a different classroom facing the middle space (courtyard).   Kids were lined up outside to greet us and – wow! They sure did! They proudly showed us their classrooms, each with its own whiteboard, desks, etc. Little people followed us as we made the rounds from class to class – some sang us a song, some recited things to us. A few birthday songs were sung …. I found myself feeling quite emotional.   At first, these kids were just like Canadian kids at Canadian schools – there were your typical little imps, your shy types, your class clowns, your boys showing off, your giggly girls … and then there was this enormous pride that they had such a nice school to go to, even though, by Canadian standards, it was about as bare-boned as you could imagine.   I think that there were about 8 classrooms total, plus actual built-in washrooms for boys and girls (I didn’t go in to look at them). There was a library, which consisted of some shelves of books in cases. All of this was built through SchoolBOX; and SchoolBOX continues to send supplies to these kids. Every time SchoolBOX builds a school, enrollment skyrockets. There are now over 600 kids attending this school, so there are two shifts of school each day!

We were really impressed with the teachers and the kids … and, eventually, we all said goodbye and got back into the van.

The food we ate throughout this entire trip was excellent! The restaurants were all pre-chosen by the SchoolBOX people, since they wanted to ensure that food preparation was done with careful consideration of our lack of exposure to their local germs and/or pathogens. All water we drank was purified. Earlier in the day, Hector would pass around a chart for today’s restaurant, where we would each check off our choice from about 5 different meals. When we got to the restaurant, we’d just have to order drinks.   I tried as many different types of juices as I could, and found some great combinations.

Anyway, this day, we went to Ola Verde for lunch, where MeiLing and I each had excellent vegetable curry, and I had a wonderful blended drink of pineapple juice with parsley and celery.     This restaurant was owned by a woman who spoke formal Spanish, who seemed to be pretty diligent about following a philosophy for her restaurant – locally sourced ingredients to support local farmers, seasonal food choices etc.   As for her Spanish, I had guessed correctly that the formal Rosetta Stone Spanish I’d been learning up to a few weeks before departure was a bit different from the Nicaraguan Spanish (much as Canadian French is different from Parisian French).   The biggest thing is the pronunciation of the letters “ci” as “thi” in formal Spanish (“thinco” instead of “sinco” for the number 5, for example), and Nicaraguans often leave off the final “s” in words (“bueno noche” instead of “buenos noches”, for example).

After lunch, we headed out to Granada, which is a more tourist-oriented city.

A”backwards tricycle” – you can see that all the big part is at the front. The driver sits on that seat over the one back wheel.

We noticed that there are lots of dogs in Nicaragua, almost all of the same breed, a mid-sized, short-haired, tawny coloured (though some are black or darker brown) breed of dog. Most of the dogs were really skinny – bones quite noticeable. Also, there were quite a few people travelling in carts pulled by boney horses (in the rural areas, the horses looked much healthier).  I only ever noticed a couple of donkeys, and saw one cart pulled by two oxen in the rural areas. Other interesting transport included very colourful school buses, which in Nicaragua, are repurposed as city transport.   It was unusual to see a “school bus yellow” bus – most of them had great paint jobs, some quite intricate. Trucks too were often painted bright colours. It’s as though paint is the best way to be noticed, and I loved it! There was also a lot of graffiti everywhere in the cities we visited. It was colourful and vibrant. It sure made our transport and homes look boring by comparison.   There were also these really cool “backwards” tricycles – one wheel at the back, where the driver sits (up high so he could see over the front), and two at the front. The front was covered in a big, squarish tent frame that extended a canopy back over the driver, and the front might have a bench seat across (like a taxi for up to three passengers); or it would contain wares for sale – an amazing array of things being hawked by the driver.

People would walk down the streets with stuff on their heads – no hands! Once, we saw a guy carrying a case of beer like that, just balanced on his head while he strode along the street. People would weave in and out of traffic stopped at lights, selling things or cleaning windshields for money. A huge variety of stuff being sold right in traffic – watches, food, drink, jewellery, hats, sunglasses …

In Granada, we walked along through the central park and then down a market street that was quite touristy, while we waited for la Torre de la Merced to open. It is a tower in a cathedral (La Merced) that commands a good view of the city.   Everywhere we walked in Granada, we were within earshot of music being played somewhere, lending the city a real festive feel.   On our walk, we saw the first church built in Central America, around the 1500’s. Later, when la Torre de la Merced opened, we climbed up very steep spiral stairs to a nice view of the city, and chatted with other groups of people who were in Nicaragua for other building projects.

We were grateful to pop back onto our air-conditioned bus – amazing how Hector and/or David would just text Franklin and our van would show up just as we needed it – so we could head out to Lake Nicaragua, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Right away at the dock we noticed a sign that said “Island for sale – with or without house!” Sure enough, a person can purchase one of the many islands on this lake: one that we saw had a price tag of $180,000USD, and the homes were nice too – some mansions (though I guess those islands would have been a lot of money). Imagine your own gorgeous tropical island for $180K…..

Pancho the Thief

One of the islands is sanctuary to some spider monkeys, rescued by a wealthy veterinarian who then purchased an island just for them.   Hector coaxed them down from the trees with Cheetos, and the bold alpha male (Pancho!) came just far enough onto our boat to steal a towel off of it. He ran away chattering, and we saw another monkey wrapping himself in the towel minutes later.

I bought a handmade cricket from a kid at the dock for $1 after watching him create one out of palm fronds in about two minutes.   It’s the coolest thing, and one of my favourite souvenirs. I managed to bring it home in my large sunglasses case, completely undamaged.

Dinner at another excellent place, called Villas Mombacho, with a birthday cake for David. This one overlooked the lake, and we ate on the second level of a wooden pavilion with a thatched roof. There were large concrete water troughs with caiman and turtles in them, as well as lobsters.

Back to the hotel, it was already dark – not late though – and we developed a habit that lasted all week: drinking beer – while sitting in the rocking chairs around the table under the roof by the pool in the lovely courtyard. The air was always warm and soft, beautiful on our skin. Telling stories, joking around. A couple of geckos joined us nightly, crawling along the ceiling. Bats would fly past our faces into the lobby, silently and incredibly quickly. One evening, when Hector and MeiLing decided to swim in the pool, I joined them at the side and we were chatting as a bat flew back and forth over the pool, dipping down for a sip each time he passed.