Stanford in Nicaragua

Stanford in Nicaragua
Stanford in Nicaragua 2016

Monday, March 28, 2016

Let it Go

During our home-stays with families in San Ramon, Nicaragua, the families generously provided a meal and cultural entertainment by both children and adults. They asked if our Stanford group would like to provide any entertainment for them. Moses and his host little brother, Juan, had been singing "Let it go" from the movie Frozen the previous night. So with a delightful display of boldness, Juan, Moses and Abby killed it.

Jueves Santo

Jueves Santo (24/3/2016)
Por Sage y Moses

We started our day with a goodbye, enjoying breakfast with our host families before heading to a nearby art education Christian Base Community (CBC) to meet with the coordinator and an art instructor, as well as to see some lovely art created by the students. It sparked much excellent conversation about birth control, micro-finance, and the potentialities of art and therapy. We were pleasantly surprised to see Daisy from Tuesday’s CBC community meeting.

Tom had a scare when we went to a local coffee shop without telling him (he claims). We saw him sprinting down the street, aflutter. Geoff hailed him from the threshold of the establishment. He calmed down after a cup of iced coffee with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.

We then returned to Matagalpa to meet Ernesto’s boss, Noelia at El Balcón. She spoke to us about the proposed canal that is to run across Nicaragua.

Noelia Corrales and Ernesto Ocampo speaking to Stanford class

The truth is truly stranger than fiction, and the more we learned the more baffled we became. This canal is bad news.  It will be twice the depth and more than triple the length of the Panama Canal, and will cut through indigenous lands in the East as well as constitutionally protected wildlife reserves.  Polling suggests that the canal proposal is quite popular among Nicaraguans, many of whom believe it will bring the country out of poverty.  However, we struggled to find any evidence to support the claim that the canal will benefit Nicaragua, based on the highly unfavorable terms of the contract negotiated with the Chinese company financing the project, even without accounting for the massive environmental destruction.


At lunch, we met Ernesto’s sister, who owns El Balcón, and thanked her for providing us with delicious food and a great meeting space.  Once we finished our meal, we left for Masaya, a couple hours to the south of Matagalpa.  We arrived late in the afternoon at our final hotel of the trip, which had air conditioning and a pool!

We went out to dinner, and on our walk back we came upon a procession for Holy Thursday.  A huge crowd was gathered to hear the story of Jesus’s last day.  Some participants were dressed as Roman soldiers and one as Jesus, and they acted out the story as it was read aloud.

We had begun our day with a goodbye, and another goodbye was on our minds as we went to bed on this final night in Nicaragua.  Our trip, begun so recently, was drawing to a close.  But we still had 24 hours until our flight, and we had confidence that Ernesto would have more adventures in store for us during that time.

Sage & Moses

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Reflections on our Last Day

This blog post is being written from the Houston Airport at 6 am Nicaragua time, during our stop on our way home. Yesterday was an amazing last day! We started off with breakfast in our hotel and set off bright and early at 8:30 am. Our first stop was the largest market in Central America, which we walked to and on the way saw beautiful churches, parks, and enormously high chairs. Unfortunately when we arrived to the market it was closed for Good Friday, but we got to watch a breathtaking procession of people carrying a statue of Jesus with his cross instead. My favorite part of today happened right after when we went to visit a town known for its artisanal ceramics. We visited one of the schools/workshops where they gave us a tour and showed us exactly how they make each pot from the moment that they make the clay from volcanic mud, to the moment they put the last polish on a piece that is ready to be sold. They have been creating these ceramics for hundreds of years and still use volcanic minerals to paint, rocks and seeds to polish, and wood ovens to burn. They even make their paintbrushes out of the hair of the women!

After buying some ceramic souvenirs we headed over to a tourist-y town right on the edge of the lagoon that borders Lake Nicaragua, where we took pictures, listened to local musicians, and ate a delicious lunch. Now it was time to head to the actual lake, which we have been studying as part of our awareness of the interconnectedness of the environment and the oppression of the poor. We arrived in the city of Granada to 3 horse drawn carriages that took us on a tour of the city. Granada was striking due to its incredible history and beautiful churches, although many of them are only there due to the influence of the Spanish. Our carriage ride ended at the edge of Lake Nicaragua where a boat was waiting to take us out.

As we rode through the lake, our captain pointed out all of the private islands with hundred thousand dollar houses on them which belonged to the monopolists of Nicaragua. One of them even owned 3 private islands, with a private helicopter landing pad! It was so striking and sickening to experience this amount of wealth and poverty in such close proximity to one another. After about a half hour ride we reached a private part of the lake and were able to jump out and swim around for about an hour. Floating and looking up at the sky in that lake was one of the most peaceful moments on the trip.

When we got back from our boat trip we drove back to Granada to have our final reflection of the trip as a group. We talked about what this trip has helped us to reinforce that we learned in class, what is something that we regret about the trip, and how we can continue to take what we have learned in this class and trip and apply it to our lives. After a heartwarming and thoughtful reflection we walked to our last dinner together and then headed to the airport to begin a 12+ hour journey back home.

By Gabriela Nagle-Alverio

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Coffee, monkeys, and homestays!

Today (Wednesday) we woke up and had breakfast with our host families. Allie: It was so nice to wake up well rested after a long conversation with my bunk mate, Sam, after spending the previous evening reflecting on the emotions of the day as well as connecting on a personal level. Traveling with others and seeing them in their dirtiest, raw, and most authentic selves does wonders for next level friendships. It was also a once in a lifetime opportunity to have spent dinner and then breakfast listening to the Revolutionary stories of our host mom and seeing Nicaraguan history come to life.

Molly: I, like Allie, woke up incredibly grateful for a good night of sleep and for my host family. Gabby and I woke up with pancakes and fruit waiting for us and we ate with our host mom before she went to do things around the house. It was strange being so comfortable in the home of someone I had met the night before, but it was really incredible to see how people live in San Ramón. The first thing on the agenda for the day was visiting the El Chile community of women weavers. We were both really impressed by the strength, ingenuity, and resilience the women possess as well as the power they hold in their community. They are truly the pillars of their families. Not only were they able to provide for their basic needs, secondary schooling, and community based health insurance, but they were also able to create a fund so that they could travel with their families on an annual family vacation. After talking with the women and trying out the weaving technique, we purchased different products made by them. This was a powerful example of the importance of fair trade and the direct impact it can have in local communities.

Next up we went on a hike to the viewpoint of Cerro El Chile. Before embarking on the steep trek, we had the chance to taste raw cacao. It was surprisingly sweet and slimy. We hiked up the mountain and made it to the viewpoint where we had a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. According to Abby's Fitbit we made it up 71 flights of stairs! Sitting at the top of the mountain was not only physically, but mentally rewarding. After spending most of our trip in traditionally religious spaces, it was meaningful to connect with the environment-- a spiritual haven of its own. When we returned to the base of the hike, we found a sleepy professor in a hammock.

After the hike we went to visit La Reyna coffee cooperative community. When we arrived, we were welcomed by howler monkeys and "Indio Viejo", a traditional Nicaraguan meal. When we were sufficiently stuffed, we learned about how climate change and the Roya fungus have affected coffee production. Unfortunately, many of the crops have been lost and recovery will be difficult and prolonged. We then toured the cooperative and saw the coffee plants doing their thing. On our tour, we encountered more howler monkeys, parrots, sloths, and cicadas. Our favorites were the sloths and monkeys, our least favorites were the cicadas not only for their noise, but because they peed on us, gross!

When we returned to San Ramón that evening, we participated in our nightly group reflection. We
were again amazed by the open, honest, and heart-felt moments we could share with one another. Before dinner we had time to play baseball in the street with a local 11 year old named Juan. Andrea bestowed a few people with nicknames such as "el cougar que no grita" "el sapo que no salta" "el serpiente silencioso" and "el pinguino descordinado." After a few innings it was time for community dinner with all of the host families. At dinner, we ate potluck (comida traje) style with dishes from every family that was hosting us through "Casa Huésped." There was dancing and singing from all ages present. In return, Moses and Abby performed a rendition of "Let it Go" from Frozen and many of the local kids sang along. The last song, sung by Juanita, gave us all chills and really reinforced the sentiment that we will always be welcome and that the world does not always have to feel so divided.

By Molly and Allie

Monday, March 21, 2016

Parades, Feminism and Krak

Today was our first full day in Matagalpa, Ernesto's hometown. We started off the day with delicious pancakes in the hostel, surrounded by the blonde heads of fellow Australians. (Actually not sure if they're Australians, but that's what we've surmised, based off their level of tan and "surfable feet structure.") Fiona had a glorious moment leaving the hostel in which she failed to close not only the first door, but also the second - requiring the front desk attendant to chase after her and show her how to use a basic lock that she should have learned in Girl Scouts.

Really, though, after breakfast we walked through Matagalpa to Ernesto's sister's restaurant. Housed on a cacophonous, colorful street, the restaurant jittered with the caffeine of humanity. It's also worth noting that the balcony provided a panoramic street view - (foreshadowing!)

Here we met with Sergio Simpson, a journalist and commentator on the Sandinista revolution. Sergio has had 26 years of experience in Latin American reporting, and has been especially concerned with the corruption and political movements of the region. We were particularly impressed with his objectivity, as Andrea put it - in describing the Sandinistas, for instance, he said that the Sandinistas easily could have turned out to be disastrous, and that it's always difficult to tell the direction of movements. That's hard to admit. One of Fiona's favorite moments was also when he said, "Lo que es, es," in describing the truth: relating to the world is not about philosophical understanding, or touting knowledge in someone's face, or trying to climb up a ladder to an ultimate Capital T Truth. It is what it is. Observable, emotional, pieces of our daily lives.

We ate lunch in the restaurant, where Tom only ordered rice and beans, explaining that he feels uncomfortable feasting every day completely separated from the locals. We agreed this was really important to take forward with us. (He also quizzed Fiona on Irish slang, although that was arguably less profound - though take note that "krak" means "to have fun" in Irish. E.g. "What good krak we had.")

We then met with a Matagalpa feminist leader, interspersed with watching the Palm Sunday parade below. What stood out to us most from our long discussion - aside from her obvious intelligence and incredibly good humor - was how different the feminist movement in Nicaragua is from that of the United States. In particular, the intense influence of religion changes the conversation: as she said, the most common argument against abortion is the simple phrase "abortar es matar." What are the implications of such an easy, blanket statement? She explained that the feminist vocabulary is so difficult to explain, requires so much backstory and empathy, that easy phrases like "abortar es matar" necessarily overshadow much discourse. We see this in the U.S. as well, and there's definitely overlap with the religious differences, but the terrifying simplicity of the phrase still struck us.

A walk up several treacherous staircases brought us to a sunset, leaking out over all of Matagalpa. We chatted about frostbite and nuns, among other things.

One of the themes that probably comes through from this post is the humor that permeates this trip. Although many of the discussions are heavy and bring up enormous questions of our roles as the oppressor and the oppressed, religious and not religious, activists and yet complicit members of the system (and what "system" are we even describing, amongst many?), the group dynamic has allowed for wonderful moments of lightness.

This is important. As we ended our day with the discussion of what makes us feel alive, laughter abounded in both discussion and reality. We feel thankful that today was full of thinking and painful reflection, as well as joy: they are not so divorced.

- Fiona and Hencye

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Patience and Process

After many delays and shifts to our initial itinerary, we finally arrived to Managua, Nicaragua on Saturday morning. We had two major visits to our itinerary; Casa Alianza (a shelter and resource for young adults struggling mainly with addiction and/or violence) and a meeting with Maria Lopez. At Casa Alianza I played basketball with the kids- by that I mean I was shamelessly beat by one of the younger girls in the program. The young adults are undergoing a long re-integration process to prepare them to be part of society; starting with basic skills, like following a routine and eventually acquiring a technical skill for the workforce and gaining employment.
Once they were done schooling us on the courts and dance floor, we headed out to meet Maria Lopez, the writer of an autobiography about Romero- a Martyr to Liberation Theology. Her success as a journalist was obvious-she doesn't waste a single poetic word when talking. Her views on change were particularly insightful. She began with her interpretation of Romero, as someone who was making radical change not because of the assassination of his friend, but because of his longing to return to his true roots as a poor boy in El Salvador. Her interpretation made me view Romero as someone who was on a journey towards self awareness rather than a reactionary leader.
She continued the conversation by reminding us that as we seek change, we should not lose patience, or 'the emotion or waiting'; that we must remember that change, particularly institutional change, is a process.
As I look around Nicaragua I catch myself being outraged and impatient. Why are we not finding a way to end the root cause violence that so many of these kids are now spending years trying to overcome? How can there be so many unnecessary fake, decorative metallic trees around Managua, when the locals are waiting months for basic medical attention? With Maria's point in mind, I wonder what that process towards change looks like, and how we can begin to think in terms of systemic change here, rather than in the framework of small, instant battles to be won.
- Andrea Martinez

Grab a Window Seat

I always grab a window seat in the van if I can, and try to lose myself in the scenery flashing by us as we go from destination to destination. Every glimpse of daily life in Nicaragua is, for me, a piece of the overall picture of what it's like to live and have lived here--a picture that will for us remain always incomplete, but that we can hope to understand still as much as we can. From class, we've learned the history that produced the society we're exploring this week, and here are just some observations I've made of what little I saw of this society on our first day, from my comfy, air-conditioned window seat.

- As we traveled from the airport to the first destination on our journey, a rehabilitation and reintegration center for troubled youth, we drove by countless building of varying modernity. Along the same road, we passed small "pulperias" (convenience stores, not octopus vendors), large factories, and cardboard communities of homeless people. Most noteworthy among all the buildings was the biggest, most aesthetic factory we had seen in the first several hours in Nicaragua: a tobacco factory.

- There are tons of Nicaraguan flags everywhere. On any random building, in any given car. Also, Central American flags. And images of Daniel Ortega is in excessive supply. Ortega is painted on the walls of churches and schools. A giant light fixture of his profile illuminates the side of a tall skyscraper. His name is written in graffiti seemingly everywhere. There is clearly a lot of loyalty still for a man that one of our first speakers, Maria Lopez Vigil, juxtaposed with Oscar Romero as an example of a negative change in ideology, as Ortega has become "a huge neoliberal."

- Alright, there's another building that's more beautiful than the tobacco factory we first passed by: the Presidential Palace. Typical.

- Inflatable pool vendors are common, great way to counter this heat and humidity. But is it even the hottest part of the season yet? Because I saw plenty of people walking around comfortably in long-sleeves while I was sweating through my light t-shirt.

- Developed, more modern areas tend to be patrolled by officers. 

- Jaywalking is the norm. There aren't really any crosswalks anywhere, and there's enough street vendors in between the lanes to keep drivers constantly aware of pedestrians.

- Horse-drawn carts (not in the romantic American style, but like, for actual transportation).

- The so-called "trees of life" that turn on at night are cool. I don't really get the point of them as anything other than pretty light fixtures for tourists to take pictures of for Instagram, and I think that money could have been much much better spent on the actual needs of Nicaraguans. But they're cool to look at I guess.

- TVs are prevalent even in poor areas. As we drove back to the hotel at night, and by some of the same neighborhoods we had seen earlier composed of houses with more roofing than walls, the distinctive glow of TV screens was unmistakable.

By Raúl Hasbún Avalos