My Love for Central America

El Grupo

We are all searching for more courage, strength, passion and authenticity in our lives so we find ways to fill our needs and curiosity through books, pictures, inspirational quotes, Facebook and other people to help us on our journey. I never realized that spending a semester abroad in Nicaragua and a week in El Salvdaor would help me find more meaning in my life. Besides experiencing an earthquake, living in a mud house, going volcano boarding and being in the middle of a strike zone, I grew up.

Nicaragua and El Salvador are countries with wounds and the people are living representations of those wounds. This is what I believe makes these countries so rich. They are rich in an energy for life! The people of these countries know loss so they know what it means to gain. They know death so they also know life. As Americans, we have limited experiences.

Our revolution took place in 1775 but the revolution in Nicaragua took place in 1979. The country is still trying to figure out things as it is the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere. However, Nicaragua and El Salvador both have so much to offer. The people want to share their stories and keep giving you food until you can no longer eat even one more bite. The people and their countries are beautiful.

We each have an opportunity in life to learn about the world, the people around us and most importantly, about ourselves. We do not fully learn until we have experienced. So take the opportunity and time right now to consider your life and ask yourself “Have you experienced?”

You can love everyone but do not forget to love some more than others!

The End

I have been back in the United States for about a week now and realized that I need to close the door on my Nicaraguan blog. It is surreal that I’m sitting in the same place where I wrote my first blog. Before I discuss my final month in Nicaragua, I want to thank you for spending the time to read or merely glance over my blog from time to time. I hope one day you or someone close to you has the chance to travel abroad because you not only learn about other people and other cultures but more importantly, you learn about yourself. So let’s jump back about a month to my first week in Waspam where I was in the middle of an energy strike and protest!

Protest

No one could go to work because the businesses were shut down. No one could leave the city because there were blockades so semi trucks entered Waspam but they did not leave. My air plane was the last one to enter and leave for an entire week. Some days, the students did not go to school. The people were protesting in the park and throughout the town because the price of electricity is very expensive. Consequently, we did not have electricity for an entire week so we ate dinner and I read and reviewed my interview notes from the day using candle light.  There was no running water in the house so the strike did not alter my showering (see below) or bathroom use (see below).

Bathroom Shower

The protest and strike had a significant  impact on me for many reasons.  During the protest and strike, I realized how important it is to spend time with people. Without electricity, it forced me and my host family to share stories, exchange ideas and enjoy one another’s laughter! After dinner, the family usually would move to the living room and watch TV but without electricity we enjoyed one another’s company.This allowed me to understand how often in the United States we tend to place barriers between “us” and “them” with technology for example. Sometimes, we pretend to text someone or just “review” our text messages on our phones while walking on the sidewalk attempting to ignore someone walking in our direction because we do not want to exchange a friendly greeting with them. Who else is guilty of this? Every interaction with someone means something and I am willing to bet that we can learn something from a small interaction with another person. So take just thirty minutes to have a conversation with someone in person, on the phone or video chat. Text messaging and emailing does not count!

My purpose for being in Waspam for three weeks was to complete my independent study project or ISP on the right to health in Waspam. Good news! I finished it and it is 43 pages packed with great information. If you can read Spanish, I have attached my paper below. However, if you cannot, let me provide you with a brief overview of what opened my eyes to an entire different world.

The right to health is one of our most basic rights as human beings because without the right to health we cannot possibly claim other rights such as the right to education. If a child is sick and does not have access to health services to get better, how can he or she possibly do well in school. It’s simple, without health there is no life. According to the Nicaraguan constitution, the government has the responsibility to provide free health services to the people living in the country. Before, we can discuss the right to health, one has to understand what I mean by health. According to the World Health Organization (hopefully, my future employer) health is the complete state of physical, mental and social well being  Consequently, there are a lot of factors that impact health  such as the economy and of course, politics.

So what did I find? There are a lot of people working tirelessly for public and private organizations  in Waspam to bring quality care to the people. For example, there is an American pilot who flies patients who are 80% pregnant women to a hospital that would take 4 hours in truck. He saves lives. There is also a group of 21 Cuban doctors and nurses working in Waspam who visit each house in the urban area about four times per year.

Wings over Nicaragua

http://www.wingsovernicaragua.org/

So are you ready for the details? Waspam has 110 communities in the municipality and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health only covers 38 of the municipalities with health centers. Consequently  the government only covers 34% of the entire area of the municipality. That would be okay if the people had access to transportation to get them from their home to the health center rather than walking an entire day. It would also be okay if the country had enough medicine to stock the health centers. The government uses the 1995 census to distribute medicine monthly. Usually after the first week of the month, there isn’t any medicine left. Lastly, 38 health centers would be okay if they were  all open and staffed.

I visited a new health center in a community 2 hours away from the urban area of the municipality where I was staying because the St. Agnes Clinic was conducting a medical brigade where they provide medical services to rural areas. We arrived at the health center which was a gift from Venezuela, one of Nicaraguan’s strongest allies and donors. It was closed and has been closed for months because there has not been anyone working in the center for months. Although outside the entrance, there was a sign that said open “Monday to Friday.” This is sadly the reality. This region is a forgotten one in Nicaragua.

El derecho a la salud en Waspam PUTZ

Read my next and last post about why I fell in love with Central America.

 

What’s Next?

Tomorrow I will start a new journey in Nicaragua. Although it may seem like I’m coming home very soon (which I am), I am beginning my ISP (independent study project) in Waspam where I will be studying The Right to Health. Waspam is located in the north eastern part of the country. It is very close to Honduras. Here is how a guide books describes Waspam:

Waspam, in the far northern reaches of the Miskito pine savanna and at the edge of the mightiest river in Nicaragua, is the gateway, principal port, and economic heart of the Miskito communities that line the banks of the Rio Coco. It is the spiritual home of the Miskito people; it’s about as rough and remote as you can get in Central America. You will be immersed in a community that lives in a very traditional way, that retains a strong cultural identity despite growing mestizo influence, and that is prepared to show you exactly what it is, not what it expects you are expecting. 

I will be living in Waspam with one of the nurses who works at La Clinica Santa Ines (St. Agnes Clinic). How interesting because I was born and still see doctors at St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes sponsor Marian University, the hospital in my community, and the clinic and a few schools in Waspam. It is a great opportunity and privilege that I will have a little bit of home so far away from home. So what will I be doing in Waspam?

During my three week stay in Waspam, I will be investing the right to health. I want to understand what barriers exist for the people in this remote, poor community to access health services. I will do this by interviewing the nurses, doctors, patients, and community members. I want to understand how the social, economic, and political factors in Waspam affect the quality and accessibility of health. Health is a fundamental human right and is violated when inequality and violence exist in a community.

I have been told that while I’m staying in Waspam there will be a medical brigade that goes into areas around Waspam where the people do not have any or very limited access to health services. There is a private donor in New York that gives the clinic money to purchase supplies every coupleof  months. I will have the opportunity to observe the medical brigade at work and the impact it has on the people. Waspam is very indigenous so the people may not speak Spanish but they speak Miskito. Hopefully, I will come back knowing a few phrases in Miskito!

This experience is going to culminate all my previous experiences in Nicaragua. I will search for stories of people as I did in El Salvador, be with people who live in similar conditions as in the campo, and experience another Atlantic coast culture.I might even gather up some adrenaline I used when I was volcano boarding last weekend!  This will be difficult but in difficult and challenging circumstance, there seems to be more hope, understanding, and solidarity that emerges from individuals.

Life is hard for people in Nicaragua. When I signed up for the program, I knew I was not signing up for a Paris or London study abroad experience (although those cities sound fantastic). If I really wanted to understand international issues, I knew I had to go where the most vulnerable people live but also a people that have overcome numerous adversities. When the United States makes any decision, we as citizens need to ask an important question of our government, “how will this decision affect those  living in developing countries who are struggling to make it through their day?” We may not believe that the decisions of the United States impact people in places like rural Nicaragua but they do. I have seen it and hopefully you can see it one day too.

So tomorrow I will get on a small plane to begin my three week research project and a new Nicaraguan journey. The most difficult part about leaving tomorrow morning will be saying good bye to my caring host family in Managua. Love you Mama Eva! I will also have to say goodbye to two of my new best friends- Diego and Janet. However, Diego is studying the politics of baseball and Janet is studying Nicaraguan generations and the political change that has taken place over time. How cool!

Peace everyone!

Take a look at this article where First Lady Michelle Obama talks about the importance of studying abroad: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/01/19/first-lady-michelle-obama-when-you-study-abroad-you-re-helping-make-america-stronger

The Power of Storytelling in El Salvador

It has been over a week since we got back from vising El Salvador. My time in El Salvador made a profound impact on my life and I will never forget my eight day experience living in San Salvador and in Santa Marta. Nicaragua and El Salvador are neighboring countries so they share a lot of similarities but there are also profound differences that shape their unique cultures. Storytelling is deeply rooted in the El Salvadorian culture where it is not in Nicaraguan culture.

When we arrived in El Salvador we were given a detailed overview of the country’s history. The El Salvadorian people like the Nicaraguan people have overcome adversities that I cannot even begin to fathom. The difference being is that the El Salvadorian people share through stories the adversities that took place in their lives in the past 40 years. People like Monsenor Oscar Romero were killed because he stood for the poor and demanded the government to stop killing, torturing, and raping their own people.

El Salvador had 14 families who owned the majority of the land in El Salvador and had strong relationships with the government. The United States supported this system because the country could send its businesses to El Salvador without any problems. However, the workers, students, and farmers which made up the majority of the population had no rights. There were extreme levels of  inequality and students were not offered an education unless you could pay for it, farmers did not have workers rights, and anyone who spoke about human rights were killed or disappeared. Traditionally the church supported the wealthy families and the government because the church did not want to involve itself in politics. However, when Archbishop Oscar Romero saw priests, children, mothers, and fathers being killed without a reason he knew it was his responsibility to speak up.

The war went on for years and the government, the people who were carrying out massacres, was supported by the United States Government. Why? Ronald Reagan believed that if the people, the poor farmers, teachers, union members, and students, triumphed that El Salvador would become a communist nation like that of Cuba. However, the people did not want a communist El Salvador. They merely wanted more rights as humans. This is very similar to the history of Nicaragua.

We heard the stories of pregnant women being taken. The soldiers cut open their stomachs while the women were still alive and took out the unborn baby. This was a story of the sister of our hotel owner’s wife. Stories like this were common in a community called Santa Marta where we spent 2 nights. Santa Marta is located in northern El Salvador. This community is one of the strongest and most determined I have ever encountered.

The people during the war took their lives at risk and migrated to Honduras. They could only travel at night because they would be caught during the day. Once they arrived in Honduras, they thought they were safe until the end of the war. They were safe but not emotionally or physically. They spent many years living in refugee camps. Some of the the members of the community said that the conditions were like a concentration camps. If they would leave the camp, they would be shot by the El Salvadorian military who were waiting for them to leave the camp. There was extreme malnutrition and suffering. Do American citizens know that their government, my government was supporting this?

The people returned to Santa Marta after the war to a whole new community. The people from Santa Marta wanted to rebuild and create a stronger community. However, the new El Salvadorian government (the party in power was lead by the man who organized several massacres during the war and the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero) would not provide them funding for teachers. So the teachers in Santa Marta worked without pay for years. Another interesting fact is that he land in Santa Marta is owned by the government (a little socialist) but the people own their houses. So an individual can sell their house but not the land.

The young people of Santa Marta created a popular radio station called Radio Victoria. The purpose of the radio station is to spread awareness about issues in El Salvador. For example, the mining in El Salvador by companies from the United States and Canada are ruining the environment. The current government has verbally said that the companies can no longer mine for gold in El Salvador. One of the two companies filling a complaint against the El Salvadorian government is from Milwaukee. The people at the radio station discussed the abuses of mining in El Salvador. Consequently, some of the workers at the radio station have received threats but determined, they still openly talk about this important issue any many others.

Migration is a sad reality in El Salvador and in greater Central and South America. Students attend college because the society tells them that they need to attend college or at least graduate high school. However, the students graduate and do not have any jobs. Or there aren’t any technical jobs in El Salvador. Or parents want a better life for their children so they decide to migrate to the United States. However, the drug cartels in Mexico become a problem for those seeking a better life in the United States. The drug cartels know there are migrants seeking a better life in the United States and the drug cartels without a heart are seeking money.

The drug cartels kidnap the migrants. We heard a horrible story about what happens to the kidnapped migrants. They are placed into three rooms. The first room are the migrants who have a phone number of someone in the United States. The drug cartels request money from the contact in the United States. If they get the money, they let the migrant go. In the second room are migrants with phone numbers but the drug cartels are waiting from a response from the people in the United States. If they get a response and money, their fate is like those in the first room. However, if they do not then their fate is like those in the third room. In the third room are migrants without a phone number so they are likely to be killed unless they can find someone with money to pay for them. There have been reports of finding body parts of migrants in metal bins. We met with an organization that travels to Mexico in search of bodies, dead and alive, of family members from El Salvador. So stop to think before joking or judging an immigrant.

So let me get to the title of this blog: The Power of Storytelling. After the war which was marked by a peace treaty in El Salvador the people were told to tell their stories about the war to other El Salvadorians and to the international community. They were told that if they tell their stories, people will remember the war and it will never happen again. The power of their stories are preventing any more civil arrest with one another. Their stories are creating and sustaining a cultural of awareness. In Nicaragua, the young people are not aware of the suffering that occurred during the war in their country but young people in El Salvador know about the war of their grandparents and their parents.

It must be difficult for a person to gather the courage to tell how they saw death, torture, and rape. We tell stories everyday. When we are given the opportunity to tell someone else a story, we feel good and possibly more connected with that other person. For a moment the listener is given the opportunity to see the world through the person telling the story. The story teller lets the listener into his or her life. The listener is now tasked with the question, “What do I do with this information.”

So what do you do with information that is told to you that you believe to be different and impacting?

Seeking Thrill

Yesterday, I accomplished #2 on CNN’s Thrill Seeker’s Bucket List: Volcano Boarding. While I was walking up the Cerro Negro volcano, I was pondering what I was about to do. As many know, I am not too much of a thrill seeker. So why would I walk 45 minutes up a volcano that could erupt at any time, fly down the volcano on a piece of wood, and want to do it again? I came to the conclusion that in life it is easy for us to stay in our comfort zone and sometimes say “no” when we should really say “yes.” There is a lot of space in our world to seek thrill and challenge our expectations. All we have to do is get on that board and fly down the volcano because at the end, it makes a great Facebook profile or cover photo.

Check Out the CNN Article: http://www.cnngo.com/explorations/play/50-thrilling-experiences-116798

Identity: A Culture in Crisis

So you might be a little frustrated that I have taken just a little too long to add a new post to my blog. I apologize and since it has been a while, I feel like I have a lot to communicate. I’m currently in San Salvador which is the capital of El Salvador. I’m not going to talk about El Salvador quite yet but will talk about that in a future post- stay tuned friends!

A few weeks ago, our group took a week-long trip to the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. One might think that the trip is simply a bus ride across the country. However once you get to a certain point in Nicaragua taking a bus or riding in a car is no longer an option because of the lack of roads available. So instead, we all got really comfortable for 2 hours as we sat in a speed boat traveling the rivers of eastern Nicaragua.

When we arrived in Bluefields we no longer heard Spanish being spoken; however, we were hearing English and we had to present our passports. What’s this? Am I still in the same country? The Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua which is split into two regions is so different culturally, historically, legally, economically, and socially. The main cause is that the Pacific coast was conquered by Spain and the Atlantic coast served as a British procreate for several decades. As a result, the people speak English. There has been a big struggle to unite the two coasts but also preserve the Atlantic coast’s autonomy.

Despite getting sick my first night in Bluefields, we quickly left the large city the next day to live in two separate communities. As a group of students studying, we had very limited information about this side of Nicaragua. Our goal was to discover its people and their history through listening to their stories. The group of 13 split up and I went to Orinoco to live for a few days. Orinoco is a small town of about 1,5000 inhabitants. Its culture and history is nothing like I have ever heard before.

The Garifuna people, those who live in Orinoco, have a rich history of overcoming adversity. First, their ancestors successfully took over a slave ship as they were coming over from Africa. They lived on an island for several decades and with the fear from being enslaved, they migrated to Honduras. Something then took place where their culture split up into Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua.  Orinoco is the only community in Nicaragua where there is a large population of Garifuna people.

The Garifuna people lived in Orinoco peacefully until others from surrounding areas began to interact with them. The Garifuna people were discriminated against because they were different. They spoke a different language and practiced different traditions. As a result, the parents of the adults who we talked with decided to stop talking Garifuna and leave behind their traditions. Additionally, the Nicaraguan government made the decision at one point that in order to better include the Atlantic coast into the Pacific coast that Spanish should be the official language. Sounds simple, right? Wrong! This implied, for example, that the students now would have to learn only in Spanish, a language that might not have been comfortable to everyone.

When the FSLN, the revolutionary party, took power in 1979 things started to change in Orinoco. The FSLN gave the Atlantic coast an opportunity to define itself by reclaiming its indigenous and ethnic rights. Nicaragua is an ethnic rich country. As a result, the people of the Atlantic coast began to find themselves again. This manifested itself into Orinoco. The Garifuna people who lost their language are now sending delegations of about 10 students and one teacher every year to live and learn in Honduras where other Garifuna people did not loose their culture because of negative government intervention and discrimination.

One of the ladies who we talked to described going to Honduras. She did not know how to speak Garifuna but could speak Spanish, English, and a little bit of Creole. She was going to represent the Garifuna people of Nicaragua at a cultural event in Honduras. First, many Garifuna people in Honduras did not know that there were Garifuna people living in Nicaragua. Secondly, when she got up on the stage to present Orinoco, the others did not believe that she was Garifuna and she could not speak their language. However, when she and some others started to dance the traditional Garifuna dance, la punta, they knew she was one of them.

I had a chance to dance ‘la punta’ where you really have to shake your body! The Garifuna people are working hard to reclaim their culture. However, at the same time, Orinoco has many social problems that they are also facing. There are no jobs but students are encouraged to graduate high school and go to college. As a result, many of the young people are becoming part of the drug trade as the coast serves as a transit for drugs from South America to Mexico and North America. People do not want to work. Those who do try to work fish in bodies of water where there are fewer fish than in the past. Others spend 6 to 9 months working on cruise ships and send money back to their families. Some simply leave the community for the United States. It’s a sad story but hopefully their history of overcoming adversities will make them stronger.

So, I want to take a little time to reflect on identity because the theme was so strong in Orinoco. Identity is like cultural cues where we attach meaning to whom we believe we are or who society believes we are. I may say that I’m American so I identity with the American culture by speaking English and believing that American’s role in the world is to help others. I believe that one does not truly understand one’s identity or one’s culture before he or she experiences and learns about another culture. I know that I speak English and that America has always helped countries in the past but I didn’t digest it until I realized that my language could be taken away like what happened in Orinoco or that America’s influence in the world might not always benefit the people like during the 1980′s in Nicaragua and El Salvador. What do you at that point when you realize that when your identity that makes you usually feel so comfortable and makes you,YOU no longer might be a good thing? Identity crisis!

One solution to this problem is to communicate your identity. I may be American but I’m Taylor. There are things about me that make me different from other Americans. Through this, it might also be important to recognize that identity is always flowing, always changing. We always tend to think that we can’t change. However, do not give up who you are for other people and other cultures. We will feel uncomfortable at times with our identity but we can practice. Practice by putting yourself in new situations. Why not try by starting to travel.  However, travel with a purpose. Don’t merely travel to travel to enjoy warm beaches but enjoy warm beaches and learning about the new culture you are living in by talking to the locals, reading about their history, and attempting to speak their culture. As Americans, we have created a world where it is to easy to be Americans in new places. Resist this!

In other news, here are some smaller things that have happen recently to me and to Nicarauga:

  • President Chavez of Venezuela will serve another term as President which is great for Nicaragua because he provides Nicaragua with a lot of oil.
  • Some of our teachers have included the President’s step daughters and the former Prime Minister of Nicaragua during the 1990′s. We also learned about social movements in Nicaragua from a staunch feminist.
  • Spanish classes have ended and I have already completed 4 credits of course work.
  • I met with some of the Sisters of St. Agnes in Managua and I will work with them in November in Waspam for my independent study project.
  • I visited Granada which is a beautiful, colonial town in Nicaragua that served as the strong hold for the conservatives for years.

  • We are over half done with the program- time flies!
  • We visited a volcano and spent the day swimming in a lake where the water is warm because it is geothermal as a result of the volcano.

I can’t wait to write my next blog about my time in El Salvador where I will try to communicate the emotions that I have been experiencing over the past week.

PEACE!

The Soul of Nicaragua: El Campo

“An experience worth living” would describe my past week in San Pablo, Nicaragua. From Tuesday until yesterday, I lived in one of the most beautiful but most poverty stricken places I have ever seen. Our academic director explained that El Campo is the “Soul of Nicaragua.” She couldn’t be more right. Although I will never know what it truly feels like to live in the campo as a Nicaraguan, I got a taste. This taste has given me an appetite to learn more about Nicaragua and different cultures of the world!

As a college student, I am constantly being taught by professors who have a master’s degree or PhD; however, this week I learned from people who would be lucky to have at least a 5th grade education and who happily live on $2.00 a day. My time here transcended any classroom lecture or discussion because it was real.

As an American, I hold a lot of value to physical objects such as my lap top, cell phone, and clothing. However, in San Pablo, the individual person and families held more value than what your house looked like or what clothes you were wearing. People were valued so much.

I lived with a mom who loved and devoted her life to her 15 year old daughter and three other sons who all worked hard. There was so much laughter and smiles that filled our time together sharing stories about their life in their community and my life in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Although in the United States and even in Managua, we have technology to make our lives seem easier, the people in San Pablo can accomplish similar tasks like washing their clothes in the river- an experience that is so relaxing!

 

The people of the community including my family were interested in my every move. Although we rarely talked about money, they asked me how much I spent to buy my bug spray and flash light. When I would write in my journal, my two brothers would stand and stare at me as I write every word. I would pull different objects out of my backpack and they would look in amazement. For example, I had to explain the purpose of sunscreen because they had never seen anyone use it before. Additionally, my camera was a hit because they were shocked at how this object could take a picture and then one could see the picture that was captured right after. I asked my family one night, “How many gringos have you seen in your life?” They told me only two. It was common that whenever I passed one of the members of the community that they would stare at me. I would either just smile or say “hello.” Some would say “hello” back, simply smile, or laugh.

Guess what? I have a new name. The people in the campo could not pronounce my name. So the first night, I told them that they could pick a name that was easier for them to pronounce. In just a few minutes, I had not only a new family but a new name. They called me “Lester.” During the first two days, they would have to say my name 4-6 times in order for me to realize that they were talking to me.

Every night about 25-30 children from around the community visited our house with empty bowls and stomachs. My family worked for hours preparing rice, beans, and tortillas every night to feed these children. My family participated in a program that would deliver them food to make for these children who were not receiving enough food at their own homes. My mom was a “helper.” One morning she woke up at 3am to make rice, beans, and tortillas to bring to school the next day. People are dedicated to improving their community.

On Thursday morning, I went to school with my brother, Carlos. I couldn’t help remember back to attending Lakeshore Elementary School in third grade. Of course, school was so different here. In the classroom that I sat in, there were three grades in the classroom and one teacher. The teacher had to balance math, science, Spanish, and social studies in 4 hours between the three grades. This was challenging both for the teacher and the students. The students in the community are not required to attend school but it is the choice of the parent to send his or her daughter to school in a farming community. The students impressed me on how mature and helpful they were to one another. There was only one text book so any math problems or factual information had to be copied word for word by the students.

 

Give everyone a chance. Give them the opportunity to speak and for you to listen. Make connections- share stories. You could inspire someone today or tomorrow.