Sunday, 17 March 2013

Conclusions and Farewell

Well, it took me several years to get round to going to Nicaragua and I’m very pleased that I finally made it. It was an extraordinary journey. I did very little conventional tourism and although I would have liked to have visited Matagalpa, Estelí, Granada and seen the ruins of León Viejo (the old city destroyed by an earthquake), the point of the trip was not to see sights, but to visit projects, re-establish links between the city councils of Oxford and León, and to make contacts with the university. It was a success on those fronts and also quite a personal adventure. I met some wonderful people.

A post-revolution mural in Martyr's Square, close to the Cathedral
It was also a humbling experience and it makes me appreciate all the more that here in the UK (as in most of Europe) we do not have to worry about earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions. There is an infrastructure of support systems and resources, all too easily taken for granted. There are many inspiring people working to improve life over there and they deserve our support.

I wish I had:
·         taken a laptop or ipad. I had imagined that wifi access would be patchy and there would be internet cafes around. Even there, the technology was ahead of me!
·         got round to reading some Nicaraguan literature before I went. On my list now.

I’m glad I took:
·         Myself
·         A camera
·         Avon Skin-so-soft lotion: I will never travel without it to any country with mosquitos.
·         The small gifts that Jane Mercer, fellow volunteer, kindly provided to give out when we visited projects. They were much appreciated.

A view of one volcano while walking down another
Highlights (in no particular order)
·         Finally arriving in León after the very long journey there
·         Lots of brightly coloured houses and seeing volcanoes at the end of streets
·         Seeing volcanoes generally
·         Visiting the “finca”/tropical orchard with Andrés. Lots of my favourite things were just growing on trees…
·        An impromptu performance of a couple of songs from La Misa Campesina in the Nuevas Esperanzas centre: Andrew on trumpet, Leo on guitar and another friend on keyboard
·         The lecture in the Medical School
·         Various meetings with inspirational people: many in café La Rosita, a co-operative business
·         The play park in the city and the happy sound of children playing
·         Meeting the biologists in the Entomological Museum
·         The lovely dance performance by children in the NECAT centre
·         The kindness of Aurora and thee restful weekend at her house with her friends and family and the traditional Nicaraguan meals she cooked
·         Exotic fruit juices
·         Views from the roof of the cathedral
·         Chatting with the “sons of the revolution” in the Sandanista Museum. They were astonished to hear that we sing La Misa Campesina (Nicaraguan Peasant Mass) every year in Oxford.
·         Sitting in rocking chairs, in the patio of the hotel, having a chat, a drink or eating mangos
·         Conversations with Andrew about geology, water supplies, biodiversity, subsistence farming, arsenic poisoning, geothermal springs, sulphur, building pipelines, bee-keeping, volcanoes, liberation theology, eco-tourism and more… I learned so much
·         Drinking Pimms with Jane and Andrew at their kitchen table
·         Watching pelicans dive into the sea as the sun set over the Pacific at Poneloya Beach
·         Laughter over lunch with Edmundo the Anglophile and Aurora
·         Sitting in the shade at Agua Fria watching people collect their water from the unit built with funds raised by Oxford swimmers
Special thanks to:
·         Giaconda Peres of NECAT for organising and accompanying us to many of the children’s projects
·         Dr Roger Barrios for permitting me to attend his lecture and for showing me round the Medical School
·         Omar Elvir in the Mayor’s Office for receiving us, organising the visit to the Botanical Gardens and for inviting us to the opening of the Cathedral Square
·         Dr Andrés Herrero for the visit to the “Finca” and the opportunity to try such fresh produce, for the trip to the beach, being shown his department and introduced to his colleagues and others in the university and all his help generally
·         Dra Aurora Aragón for her hospitality, for the lifts, for the introductions to so many lovely people
·         Enrique, Leo and Arturo of Nuevas Esperanzas for being so attentive on the trips. Enrique also set up and attended the meeting with the biologists
·         Deborah, Kate and David of Project Opportunity for showing me their projects
·         My fellow delegates: John, Mike, Jo and Pete for their company, mutual support, fun and sharing the adventure

Cafe la Rosita
And most of all to Jane Longley: for her wisdom, patient responses to numerous emails in the run-up to the journey, being so hospitable when we arrived, showing us around, attending meetings and advising us on local issues, loan of her computer to write my blog and conversations about everything. Jane: it was FUN.

If you would like to make a donation to the work of the Oxford León Association and Trust, please see our Just Giving page.

¡Viva León!


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

My final day: in Agua Fria

I'm back home now, a million miles and another world away in the bitter cold. 
In 2010 The Oxford Leon Association and Trust's sponsored swim raised £3000 to build a water storage unit for the community of Agua Fria. About 300 people live here, on the volcano of Telica, dispersed over a large area and their source of water was a spring that ran to a trickle in the dry season. Neuvas Esperanzas worked with the local people and together they built this storage unit, which stores the water through the dry season, keeping it clean. After last year's swim we donated another £500 so that the community could build a shower close by.
It was so moving to visit this place and see exactly how the money we raised has made a difference to the people here. Most of us in Europe take it for granted that we have running water: uncontaminated water, hot and cold, in our houses. Here people have to walk or ride up to 5km to fetch water.
So to everyone who took part in the swim, whether as swimmers, helpers or sponsors. This is why we do it.
The new water storage unit which overflows into the horse-trough in the rainy season.

 The village well. People gather and chat as their containers fill. The taps were designed by Oxfam for this sort of use. The wall makes it easier to load the containers onto the horses. I just had to refill my water bottle for the walk back down the hill. The water tasted good.
Heading home with a full load. Children seem to learn to ride as soon as they walk and often young children are sent to fetch the water. A horse can carry an adult and two containers or a child and four. 

Building the shower. This is an African design, which avoids using a door (they tend to break), while giving some privacy. A roof will be added and the walls smoothed with plaster. It is positioned so that water flows to it easily from the storage unit a few metres away. However every five years or so, the water levels run low towards the end of the dry season. If and when this happens, water needs to be prioritised for drinking. The relative height of the shower and storage unit means that in this event, the shower will not work.
The second photo is the completed structure, sent to me after I returned home.

To bring the materials up to build the unit and the shower, access is needed for the jeep. Ahead is part of the road that had to be made so allow the project to happen. this is a pretty good stretch. The community all worked on it; access and clean water were what they most wanted. I joked about the state of the these "roads" on my first trip, but they have made a huge difference for the local people and are the unsung heroes of much of the work of Nuevas Esperanzas.
Further downstream, people gather to wash their clothes and their horses. Another two showers are being considered for this spot. That would make three showers between 300 people.
This lad is two years old. Will his life be any easier than that of his grandfather?

Thursday, 7 March 2013

A caballo vamos al monte

Who says I can't ride a horse?

I hope you're impressed, Amy!

The title is the refrain from my favourite song by La Buena Vista Social Club (Cuban 1930s) and means "on horseback we go up the mountain". I confess that we didn't go up by horse. I just had a ride by the spring We went most of the way in a four-wheel pick up with a/c then walked the last 2km. 2km in Oxford is a piece of cake. Uphill, on a dusty path on a volcano in this heat, it isn't. But I made it and it was great to see the project we funded.

Arturo noticed that this iguana was limping. Its foot was badly injured. So he took it the house just behind (out of shot) and gave it to the family for lunch.
Might this catch on at the University canteen?

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The oldest student in town

Yesterday morning 7-9am I sat with c 150 students; 2nd year Medicine, in a lecture about medical responses in disasters and emergencies. Nicaragua is at risk of earthquakes, hurricans and volcanoes, so this is an important theme. It was so interesting! The lecturer was very witty, making serious points using humour. He was very strict about punctuality and gave a hard time to those who were late. Oxford Brookes has a course on Development and Emergency Planning and they are interested in bringing students here. The lecturer here is very keen on this collaboration so we have exchanged email addresses and I'll follow up when home.

He, and the director of the faculty, offered to show me round the Medical School (other tours have been in research units, this was where they teach Medicine). I said that would be interesting, but stressed that I'm not a medic, but a wuss, so didn't want to see anything gruesome. Fat chance. I'll spare you the details and didn't take photos. I did not expect to see such things... It's a surprise a day here.

I moved house and am now staying with Jane and Andrew.

Patio in El Carbon restaurant
Later on yesterday I and Aurora were treated to lunch with another colleague of Aurora's called Edmundo. He studied his PhD in Bath and takes the word "Anglophile" to whole new dimensions of enthusiasm. He has "Sailing By" on his mobile to remind him of the BBC. The restaurant was beautiful (see below) and we had great conversations and laughed a lot. It was fun.

Aurora and Edmundo


It was back-to-back meetings as I also met up again with the leader of the women's rights campaigners. She's very inspirational and I appreciate how lucky I am to be European. Life is much harder here, especially for women.

The vice-rector of the university is also keen to work with Oxford and yesterday's meeting was about students of Spanish spending part of their year abroad here. She fixed up another meeting today with a member of the Spanish Literature department. Lots of emails and reports to write once home.

Gotitas de Esperanza (Little drops of Hope): a pre-school run by Project Opportunity

Today I visited more projects to do with schools and pre-schools, run by retired professionals from Seattle. They were great! One of their projects is teaching first aid to teachers, bus drivers and other groups. Sadly there is a lack of such training here. They said that in Seattle everyone can do CPR so it's the safest place in the world to have a heart attack. The above photo is a newly-built pre-school and is a lovely building. It has very deep foundations and is designed to be "earthquake proof" as far as these things can be, and would be the gathering point for the community in the event of a disaster.

This afternoon was the postponed official opening of the renovated square by the cathedral. Jane and I received invitations from the mayor's office. A shame the others missed it as it was postponed from last week. It was quite a big event with speeches by the bishop, the mayor, the Spanish Ambassador and other dignitaries. There was a minute's silence for Hugo Chavez. His death is big news here.

Now I'll give Jane a hand with dinner. She has made a bread and butter pudding. It's over 30 degrees. But she's acclimatised and wants to make something English for the American guest who'll join us. Much as I love puddings, it will be a challenge in this heat... But then I've had worse challanges.

Monday, 4 March 2013

On the roof of the cathedral

View from the roof of the town hall and a distant volcano.
The curve framing the top is the bell.

From the ground looking up to the bell tower.

Cupolas on the roof. It made me think of Gormanghast.

The ballustrade, rooftops and another volcano.

Museum of the Revolution

The guy in the hat is Sandino.

My guide is pointing to himself, as a guerrilla, aged 19. I asked about the other men in the photo and he told me which ones were killed and which ones survived. He and I must be a similar age, yet he looked so old (then maybe I do to him). But given what he has lived through, it´s hardly surprising.

These bricks pave many of the roads here and they were made in Somoza´s factory. During the revolution, people used these as ammunition when defending themselves against the soldiers. It was all pretty gruesome.

Stairway to Heaven?

The building the museum was in, was surely once very grand but very run down now, as you can see more clearly in the photo below.. Apparently UNESCO have named it a world heritage site, along with the cathedral. The guide seemed to think that this means funds to renovate it. We´´ll see.

View of the cathedral and square.

My lovely hosts

This is the house where I´m staying. Doors are left open to catch the breeze. Colleagues please note that this is Nicaraguan Blue, which is everywhere, and it has nothing to do with the Fens.

These are some of the trees in the back. We ate the papaya for breakfast.

Dra Aurora in a rocking chair.

Part of the University in León.

This morning Andrés took me around his department and introduced me to lots of people. It´s hard to believe that Oxford could be rivalled in international co-operation and research but they are working on projects with universities in Sweden, Canada, the USA, Czech Republic, Germany and more and many of the staff have studied abroad.

In the afternoon Aurora showed me round the Medical Campus, which is out of town. Again I was introduced to any researchers. One of them studied in Bath and he was delighted to meet a Brit. We´re having lunch with him tomorrow.

Tomorrow morning at 7 (yes, 7!) I´m going to a lesson about disaster management! This is part of my networking and I hope to speak to the tutor afterwards about field trips for students from Brookes. Could you imagine students going to lecture at 7am in the UK?