Mikes Gringo Life Home Site

January 2004

Nicaragua’s Update

Mike Cobb’s Nicaragua Report Vol. 2

Dear Friends:

This is the most current of the Life updates and catches you up to the present. It includes details or our adventure along the Rio Coco and the Honduran border for 5 days with the OAS ad the Ministry of Health here. I like "time machine" analogies and this was like going back to the Stone Age. 7 hours by boat from the nearest road. Very primitive and very educational from a cross-cultural perspective. I've included details and basic analysis Enjoy.

Greetings from Nicaragua,

Let me start with the big news. Carol is pregnant and we are expecting in July. We are so excited. Amanda can't wait for her baby "sister" to be born. We don't know the sex and are not going to find out, but Amanda is sure it will be a sister. We'll see. Amanda has come up with a new game called "being born." Carol has to lie on top of Amanda and then get up when she is born. It is now being played on a regular basis. Amanda is fascinated with the idea of a baby in mommy's tummy. I am too for that matter. The miracle of it is amazing.

That means that Carol has experienced some morning sickness and we had a very quiet Christmas here. Except Amanda of course. She was full of energy and thoroughly enjoyed finding Baby Jesus in the nativity set, all her presents, and the day as a whole. Her favorite present was a hoola hoop because she watched Cirque de Sole a couple times on TV and now wants to be a circus performer. We have a swing set in the back yard, and she is out there performing tricks daily, practicing for her life in the circus.

School finished for the year on November 21st for summer vacation and a lot of Amanda's friends went to the States for Christmas. She really misses playing and socializing. Carol hooks up with other moms several times per week for play dates, but I think Amanda really misses school.

Over the holidays, I got to take a more active role in Amanda's activities as I was home and Carol was taking it easy with the morning sickness. We have really enjoyed the time together. I do know she misses the play with other children because when I took her to the Tip-Top chicken place with the playground, she made friends with some other children immediately and we stayed for over 2 hours. School starts for the new year January 21st.

Our big adventure this fall was a trip to the very north of the country to the Rio Coco, a river that is the border with Honduras. It is a very isolated place and is only accessible by boat or helicopter. Much of the civil war in the 80's took place along this river since the Contras were hiding out in Honduras and making raids into Nicaragua. The area is still in the process of being de-mined. It is also one of the areas that was hardest hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The flooding was devastating to the communities along the river. Very few North Americans have ever been to this part of Nicaragua (except the 82nd airborne and even if they were there, they weren't). When we calculated the number of North Americans who may have visited the region, the number was significantly less than the number of folks that have climbed Mt Everest. Basically, we were in the middle of nowhere.

We went the week before Thanksgiving, participating in a medical survey mission with the Organization of American States (OAS), the Ministry of Health (MINSA) and a group of nurses and administrators from Duquesne University, 13 of us not including the OAS folks. The trip was an incredible experience and difficult to describe in words. A couple pictures are attached, but even they don't do justice to the other world we visited.

We left Managua in rugged 4WD vehicles for the drive to the end of the road at the Rio Coco. We left the pavement after Jinotega and spent another bone rattling 4 hours covering the last 35 miles to the Wiwili and the launch point into the Rio Coco. We spent the night there and bright and early the next morning climbed aboard our watercraft.

The boats are 40-45 feet long, 2 feet wide and about 2 feet deep. Basically they were long canoes with an outboard motor in the back and a place for a man with a pole to stand in the front. They had been upgraded to luxury models for us by placing plastic lawn chairs in as seats with the legs cut off about half way so the center of gravity was below the rim of the boat. Perfect for the rivers rapids that we were about to run.

Amanda was ready, outfitted in a life preserver we bought from the States. The rest of us strapped into regular preservers and we shoved off. Everything we needed we took with us, as this was the last civilization we would see for the next week. That might be a bit strong, but the villages we visited and stayed in, bore little semblance to civilization, as we commonly know it.

The first day we traveled for 7 hours down river. The Rio Coco became the border with Honduras at a town called Wamblan about 3 hours into our day. The mark of humans continued on both sides of the river with hills clear-cut of trees for cattle grazing. This is one condition that exacerbates the flooding during heavy rains. We passed evidence of land and mud- slides along the river in many places. The number of settlements decreased and the time between homes gradually stretched out until there were sections of river for several miles without any trace of human life, save the cows and occasional path along the shore. As we entered the Bosawas Reserve, almost all traces of human activity disappeared and we passed in the shadows of tall, sheer faced ridges and virgin forests as far as the eye could see.

Here and there were scattered small settlements and we stopped and visited a village called Yakalpanini. It was the first of the survey stops. Yakalpanini consists of maybe 100 homes on stilts, made from rough sawn logs and thatch roofs. This is the rain forest and the mud in the village is everywhere. Pigs, cows, dogs, cats, chickens and humans all sharing the same 5 muddy acres. It's shocking, but one tries to keep the best poker face possible.

We met the local doctor who serves a population of over 2000 people in the village and surrounding areas. He expressed his difficulties with everything from the sanitary conditions to lack of medicines, but in the final analysis, stated that his most important need is a mule to carry him to the remote villages away from the river up high in the surrounding mountains. It was the simplicity of the request that was most striking. A mule was added to the list of things to obtain. We never would have guessed. Amanda, Carol and I spent some time giving away pencils, crayons, markers, notebooks and other school supplies and joined a game of Frisbee started by Gerry and his son Nate with some of the kids. Not sure if they ever had seen a Frisbee before, but they quickly got the hang of it. Gerry took movies with Nate's video camera and the kids loved watching the playback and seeing themselves in the movies. Dick White brought a Polaroid camera and that was the hit of the week as people young and old lined up for a photo of themselves, families, and kids. Possibly the only photo they will ever have of themselves. Running out of film with 10's of families still wanting their pictures taken was heartbreaking.

Conditions in general were heartbreaking. Signs of malnutrition were everywhere. Some of the children had distended bellies, and tapeworms and other parasites run rampant in the communities. But conditions are to some degree of their own making, or lack of unmaking. There are incredible educational outreach programs delivered by the OAS and MINSA that educate the communities about the need to keep the animal waste out of the homes and off the feet of the children. Simple canals dug around each home would lessen significantly the amount of mud tracked into the homes bringing parasites with it. Yet no one is doing this.

We arrived in Amak, which according to our plan was to be a one-night stop for us. Because of circumstances that we did not know about until our return to Managua at the end of the week, it became home base for 3 nights. Provisions for our group had been stocked in each of the communities we were to stay in ahead of time, and when our plans changed, the provisions in Amak began to run low. Our staple for the next 3 days became rice and beans every meal, with the chicken getting used up on day 2. We felt appreciative to have this much to eat surrounded by so many who didn't.

The following day we made a day trip further down the river to San Juan de Bocay to visit another health office and a women's micro industry facility. The next day we visited a technical school set up by the OAS to train students in agriculture and small business skills. Both efforts are in the right direction, but when you see the incredible need the gap between what is happening and what is needed, you quickly recognize the scope of the challenge.

We continued to give away our school supplies, and others in the group gave away toys, candy, and one of the nurses brought a big bag of toothbrushes and toothpaste. He gave away over 500 of these along the way. It was fun to watch Karl go through the educational process of showing the kids how to brush with our translator repeating in Spanish and the kids going through the motions.

One night in Amak, the community put on a show of local dance and culture. Amanda decided to go behind the curtain and become part of the performance. Next thing we know out she comes with the dance troop and is right there with them. Everyone enjoyed the evening and in the morning, one of the women brought a dress and blouse made of tree bark for Amanda. She had stayed up late that night stitching it together. Really a piece of artwork. Amanda loved it and wore it the next night and gave a show of her own. We invited the musicians back up to play and we threw a party for the community. People danced and sang and we took 5 or 6 rolls of Polaroid's before the film ran out.

There were a few enterprising individuals who approached Enrique about selling produce in Managua. One of them actually came back with us to Managua to make some contacts. His wife was the one who made the costume for Amanda. He is also the person who I purchased my bow and arrow from. He gave me lessons one morning for about half an hour including the sounds to go along with shooting fish in the river. He is a glimmer of hope for his community.

What I don't get is why no one there is taping into the incredible natural resources of the area. It is a subsistence lifestyle. Grow and find just enough to get by. Yet there are incredible waterfalls everywhere that could be harnessed for energy. They pound their corn and rice by hand daily in the wooden bowls about a foot in diameter. A water mill could do the same work for the whole community in much less time, freeing people up for other productive activities like growing more crops and producing a surplus. It's a different attitude about life, but one that makes living precarious, more precarious than it need be. I may never understand and I'm beginning to accept that.

The trip out of the region was a very long 15-hour day that started off with 6 hours of boat ride. We were traveling upstream on a new river, the Bocay, through even more uninhabited land than before. We had to exit the boat twice to ford rapids while our crew (and Enrique nursing an ankle with torn ligaments) rode through them for an exciting thrill. The second ford included a 20-minute hike up a muddy hill to a muddy path, through the front yard of several homes and back down to the river through Cocoa (chocolate) fields.

We continued upriver for another 3 hours seeing Howler Monkeys, Crocodiles, Black eagles and all kinds of other waterfowl. Gradually we began to notice more signs of human life and eventually we reached the town of San Jose de Bocay where our OAS drivers met us for 5 hours of the worst, rocky, rut filled, looks like your driving on a billy goat trail road I've ever been on. We did pass through some of the most beautiful coffee growing areas of the country and were treated to some spectacular waterfalls along the way. 9:00pm we were home at last. The first warm shower in a week. Oh the joy of the little things we take for granted.

After arriving home I began to read stories in the newspaper about a mysterious "disease" in the community or Raiti where we were to spend 2 nights. Apparently people were having spontaneous crazy spells and group hysteria. MINSA sent group psychology experts who spent a month trying to get a handle on it. In the end, they called in a "curandera" from the Atlantic Coast to take care of things. Porcela Sandino is a witch doctor and in a matter of 3 days, she had the problem solved and life in the community back to normal. It's a different world up there and the people live by a totally different set of values. Just one more example to drive that point home to me.

Five days after returning home we enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving meal at the home of our good friends Michelle and Marcos Pierson. After a week on the Rio Coco, we knew we had much to be thankful for. We have also entertained some visitors in the past couple months. Bob and Robin came and enjoyed seeing the country and especially enjoyed riding horses on the beach. Robert Mueller and his son Nick stayed a week over Thanksgiving with us on their first visit to Nicaragua. Carol and Amanda showed them around and they thoroughly enjoyed everything, especially the canopy tour on Volcan Mombacho, gliding from treetop to treetop on steel cables down the side of the volcano. It's really fun to play host in such an exciting diverse country.

It's time to poke fun at myself again. My faux paux this time was reading a wedding invitation wrong. One of our friends here is Ernesto Leal. He recently remarried and invited us to his wedding. He is a VIP here in Nicaragua and the guest list was a veridable who's who including the President of Nicaragua. The invitation was written script form, all times and dates being written out fully and I thought I had it all right. I thought the wedding was scheduled for 6:30. Not being totally sure if weddings here start on Latin time or Gringo time, I figured 6:40 was about right. I showed up and Ernesto was at the end of the driveway dressed casually and welcomed me in. He told me that the wedding had been pushed back by an hour due to rain. Inside I found people hurridly making adjustments for the rain. I thought it was odd that I was the only guest and I hung out for almost an hour until the Brides brother came in and we started talking. It was only then that I realized that I was 2 hours early for the wedding. Sometimes I feel so dumb. Nobody said a word about it to me. The graciousness here is incredible.

Amanda's Spanish is continuing to grow gangbusters. Carol's too. I want to relate something Amanda said which is profound in many ways, yet so simple and innocent. I was telling my Spanish teacher that even though my brain is thinking in Spanish during class, my hands often write the English word when I am taking dictation. Amanda upon overhearing this comment chimes in, (in Spanish) "In my head, I think in English, but in my heart I speak Spanish." I was blown away. She gets it without knowing it, but has a true sense of self-knowledge and understanding. Never underestimate the mind of a child. I am learning.

At the end of this year I am feeling a bit philosophical. It's been a tough year full of challenges, disappointments, and rewarding turn-arounds. A clearer picture of Nicaragua is forming in my mind now as maybe it only can with time and experience.

This country really is making great strides to pull itself back together after the civil war of the 80's. Things that need to happen are happening. The transformation is occurring, but there is just so much to do. In the moments of extreme challenge, I try and step back and think about what our project means to and for this country, and what it will do for the lives of people for many generations to come. It is there I find the strength to persevere and push ahead knowing that each of us does make a difference when we set our minds to it and see the process through.

Along that note, I want to especially thank everybody that made a contribution to the meals program. Something as simple as providing food to kids too hungry to concentrate makes a world of difference in their lives now and well into their future. School starts again at the end of this month and we'll put those funds to good use feeding hungry kids. We'll get some pictures and make sure you get a copy.

For anyone interested in helping the folks in the Rio Coco, you can buy a Mule for one of the 6 clinics. Each clinic needs 2 mules and 3 have been purchased and named to date. Amanda has one named "Bunky", the Whites have one named "Richard," and the Peters one named "Jenny." 9 more are needed. Let me know if a mule is up your alley.

Remember to write and visit when you can. Here's to a spectacular 2004.

Mike, Carol, and Amanda.

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