Friday, June 28, 2013

Day 6

On our last full day in Nicaragua, we went to several locations. First, we went to the Mombacho Volcano. There, some of our group decided to ride in the back of a truck and a few were in the inside of the truck. The temperature drop hits you almost instantly. The wind starts to pick up and the atmosphere gets thinner. Halfway up, we had some local coffee and wow, was it delicious. I’m not a big fan of coffee but there was something magical about the coffee we had. After, we hooped back onto the truck and arrived at a higher area of Mombacho.

The following picture is of a crack through Mombacho, which created a tunnel. This is picture is when you look up.

Goofball self taking a picture of all of us! Notice the mist behind the rest of the gang. 

When we finally made it to the top, it felt as though we left Nicaragua. Everything was foggy and the winds were incredibly strong. I never would have imagined being in a tropical rainforest so high up. It was amazing. The echoes of the native monkeys, along with the screeches of birds allowed for a magnificent orchestra of nature and mystery. We walked through a trail that was about a mile and despite the fact that we couldn’t really see anything from afar because of the thick clouds surrounding the top portions of Mombacho. As we were walking through the forest, we kept running into this tour guide, who happened to live in NY for a while and towards the end of our self guided tour (he was guiding a couple), he introduced us to what I think was the coolest thing ever. He brought us over to this hole and we put our hand in front of the entrance of the hole and we could feel the warm steam from Mombacho. He then took us to a bigger hole nearby. This hole was probably five feet in diameter and with the amount of steam that came out, Dr. Sama could have dried her hair. After the intangible experience, we were headed down Mombacho.

We all rode in the back of an industrial truck and with us were a bunch of teenage Nicaraguans and few other Americans. Truthfully, I enjoyed the consensus of this trip down being like a rollercoaster, so I chimed in each time we went down a steep curve with a “WOOOOOOO!!” Along with the excitement created, I was able to engage in conversation with the Nicaraguan woman next to me. Out of all places, it turns out she lived in the same community were Jon Thompson is located, Atolla. After a few questions about one another, we finally parted ways and then we were off to Volcano Masaya. Before getting to Masaya, we had a brief lunch and took a few pictures.

Masaya was breathtaking. The contrast between Mombacho and Masaya are great. Masaya is an active volcano in Nicaragua and around Masaya: molten rock and ash and Mombacho a tropical forest. Getting to an open creator of the volcano was relatively easy. I was a bit weary by the signs advising cars to park facing away from the volcano, in case Masaya were to erupt. The smoke here was very visible and it’s a long drop to the lava, hidden away by the smoke and depth of the crater. The sight was beyond surreal. A small wall with the exception of a small area bordered some of the volcano; where you get the best view you could possibly get of the seemingly endless hole.  After a few pictures and goofball antics, we made our way back to Managua.

Wonderful sight of the inside of the open creator.

Another picture of the open creator.

Dr. Sama and Co. running for their lives.

Before going back to the hotel for our last dinner in Nicaragua, we made a stop in the old Managua, the Managua that was pretty much destroyed by the earthquake back in 1972. One could see what now is the parliament building. Before the earthquake, it was the national bank and was the only building to fully withstand the earthquake. Along with its endurance, it is also the tallest building in Managua, soaring 13 stories high. We drove by and we ended up at the old church, which was also next to the national assembly.

Building that survived the earthquake. 

The old cathedral in Managua. It is blocked off and guarded due to the possibility of the cathedral collapsing.  

Afterward, we went to Lake Managua, where we briefly stopped by in the beginning. We hung out for a bit, realizing that this was our last full day in Nicaragua. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Day 5

This day felt like it was two days with the amount of objectives we completed and the amount of traveling we did. We enjoyed a wonderful breakfast at the Hotel Colonial, where we stayed the night. Then we were off to Managua again. We arrived at Hotel La Pyramide after an hour or so of driving to drop off our bags and then we went to Agora Partnerships.

We arrived at Agora and met Veronica Castro, one of the Agora associates. She introduced us to THRIIVE, one of the Agora Projects. This was probably one of the most distinct projects out of the whole batch of microfinance institutions and non-profit organizations in Nicaragua. THRIIVE aimed to aid small businesses (Businesses that are usually family run or around 6-10 employees). THRIIVE gives out loans that are specifically going to be used for equipment. Once that equipment has been purchased, the AGORA associates go to the businesses that are near and in Managua and inspect the business, the equipment, and the business owner. It was quite a twist in the type of work; we were expecting similarities between Agora and other microfinance institutions. Nevertheless, it was an interesting concept and soon after, we parted ways with Veronica and left to drop by on Global Partnerships.

We had a fiasco trying to find the right building that was home to Global Partnerships in Nicaragua. Once that was all settled, the whole team greeted us and we were served lunched. After our meal and brief introductions on our behalf, they took the floor. My goodness, the accomplishments and the actual research they’ve done, incredible. Global Partnerships is has a presence in 9 different countries throughout Central and South America with a grand total of 25.5 million dollars throughout both of these areas. They are a NGO, which invest in microfinance institutions, and these institutions also have other roles or services that make them dynamic and eligible for investment. These guys knew what they were talking about and were extremely pleased with the mission of GLOBE and also expressed joy in the fact that the students were able to be in the field. I was truly impressed by this group and after they answered a few questions in regards to the location of their current funds, we were on our way to the community where the Daughters of charity were.

We arrived at the school where the Daughters served and we didn’t know what to expect. The Daughters and roughly 18 women, curious and ready to ask us questions, greeted us. At first, I thought that perhaps this was a class that ended and the women were hanging out. Then we were told that they were the group of women who the daughters believed would benefit from a microloan. After a formal introduction, we were bombarded by questions from all directions. Among the questions asked, interest was a worrisome topic for some of the women. No one wants to enter a life of infinite debt. Along with the topic of interest, these women had already given lots of thought about what they would use a loan for. Among with small businesses, such as a bookstore that would also have school supplies and a mini-market with homemade artisan crafts. There were other ideas to improve living as well. For instance, there was a group of women who didn’t have a home to live. As a result, they could band together and obtain a group loan for a living environment and they already know each other relatively well, so why not?

These women were very friendly and at first seemed skeptical about our intentions. They were really curious as to why the interest rate was so low and what actually occurred to the interested rate. We kept reassuring that our intention was to aid them with the loan and that GLOBE kept the interest and repayment within the community. I kept explaining that GLOBE wasn’t here to send loan sharks after them and after repeating that a few times, I finally was able to sit down and really get to know some of the women.

Another women, who had an idea of what kind of business she wanted to start, had cancer. Her and her daughter had been selling homemade crafts and some goodies to help the cancer struck woman with her treatment. She sometimes even has to fly to Mexico in order to have medical treatment and I can imagine how costly that can be. I don’t even fly to Mexico; I have to drive to go. So this woman would really benefit from it. For her and her daughters sake; she is just 16 so the daughter can learn how to manage the business and support the family as well.

I really enjoyed this part of our trip. Just getting to hang out and really know what kind of lives everyone is living. One of the women, who had the idea of the bookstore, explained her reasoning for the bookstore. She mentioned that in her part of town, there weren’t any stores that sold school supplies or books. No one felt motivated to go to school because materials were a little hard to come by. She also explained that she recently gave birth, so she wouldn’t be able to work. Having her own business would be beneficial because she would be able to stay at home and be ab to run according to her own schedule. She then explained how everyone was just trying to get by. Some more chitchat and curiosity from the women about my background, we were given a few snacks and a delicious mango. We then were shown around the school and then on our way.

P.S. I didn’t have a chance to take pictures of this day because of it’s hectic nature. Cheers. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Day 6 Managua

Our last full day in Managua was enjoyed doing various activities. We kicked off the day with some healthy breakfast of avocados, fruit and mango juice. The new found secret!

After breakfast we cruised over to the inactive volcano Mombacho and we took the rain forest tour up there. We were not dressed appropriately and thus we paid for it. By the time we were done with the 1.5 hour hike up and around the rain forest we were soaked, cold, hungry and a little tired. But we werent complaining. We enjoyed lunch by Lagoon Apoya the sight was breathtaking and on the bottom of the lagoon there are hotels.

Next lunch we visited the town of Katerina which we bought more souvenirs and I impulsively bought a leather bag...All the items were of quality and most handmade. Katerina is a quint little town and they had these statues of this women posing and she is suppose to represent the women of the area.

We finally made our way to the Masaya Volcano and much of the roads were closed off but we were able to see an active crater and it was amazing. The sulfur smell was not that strong but at one point I did take in some gas and started to cough like crazy. The other side of the volcano closed because of a forest fire that started at the end of the rainy season.

By the end of the day reality was creeping in on us. We were sad to see our time end in Nicaragua but I will always remember this time with the other fellows, Dr. Sama, Dave Grossman, the Daughters, Latitude Sisters, Manfred and all the locals Nicas we met. Saying goodbye is never easy but memories and photos are things we will always have.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Day 4: Granada, colors everywhere.

Everyday just kept inspiring me more and more. After two days, we left Maderas Village after breakfast and we traveled to Granada. We drove for about a hour and my goodness, this town is beautiful. 

Everyday just kept inspiring me more and more. After two days, we left Maderas Village after breakfast and we traveled to Granada. We drove for about a hour and my goodness, this town is beautiful. 

The houses were very colorful and colonial. Everything looked so homely and it felt as though we went back in time. We saw the central park and dropped our bags and after, we traveled to Mi Museo, a museum in Granada, owned by Peder Kolind. Peder Peder has established himself as a major influence in Granada; from an education complex to creating a community to just giving advice on life and business. He takes great joy in his education project called Carita Feliz. He had an arsenal of ideas that really have moved the town of Granada. He implemented his ‘own currency’. By this, he created “Caritas” which allowed mostly children exchange for Cordobas or goods. In order to make Caritas, children have to serve the community or follow certain rules. This way, they became responsible and mature at a young age.

I thought this was an interesting way of giving incentive and teaching. Peder was definitely an inspiration. He too believed that in order for people to succeed in philanthropy or any kind of poverty alleviation, the needs of the people must be addressed. He also mentioned how important it is for Nicaraguans to know their identity and have dignity. He established this museum for the people to understand their history. Through this knowledge of history, the people would then know their culture and distinguish themselves from this culture that involves handouts. How was he able to accomplish this? Well, he was the person who invented the security system for homes. With that money, he opened a luxury hotel and is able to sustain these great works. He mentioned that we didn’t have to invent anything but rather understand what is missing in an area and ask if people want what is missing.

We enjoyed an awesome lunch at Tres Ojos and then made our way to Masaya, where the active volcano is and where there is a tourist market. We visited the market and saw many handmade items including: leather wallets, bags, masks, and pottery. A lot of these vendors probably know that there are tourist coming all the time and usually price everything around the same. We had a few successful deals because of the market’s popularity. After a hour or so, we traveled to Carita Feliz. 

At Carita Feliz, we witnessed a variety of programs. There was a computer area where children were learning how to use the computer. In another area, there was a skit for Mother’s Day, which the kids absolutely enjoyed. After this skit, there were adults who came in for zumba classes. The skit was bizarre; it’s based on a song, where there is a cheating husband and the wife and the husband hit each other throughout the skit. This is supposed to be the Mother’s Day skit. But it seemed fine with the kids, but as they grow older, hopefully this mindset is different. However, it’s impressive what Carita Feliz does. It provides supplementary learning, nutrition, and most importantly, love for children from ages 3-15. One of the administrators who was taking us around the facility described how sometimes the parents might not be around because of work and then the kids don’t feel as encouraged to pursue an education. 

After the tour, we were invited to dinner. This dinner sometimes serves 1000 students and this occurs everyday throughout the school week with the exception of Wednesday. We were all humbled by the invitation. We gave the administrator our supplies that we had and they gave us a poster with the 1050 students that currently attend. We exchanged goodbyes and we were off to the Central Park of Granada.

Culture is very important and in May, Nicaragua celebrates the Virgin Mary, wrapping up with Mother’s Day. There was a big celebration going on in central park and we were able to visit the cathedral before the congregation entered the church. I was completely impressed by the celebrations and just how everyone seems to love to be around the park, together. 

Day 5 Managua

Close to the end of our trip now and what was a light Friday became one that was booked with many meetings.

First we met with Agora Partnerships. Agora has a subdivision known as Agora Thriive and this program's purpose is to give out loans to entrepreneurs that they have selected. Instead of having the entrepreneurs repay the loan with physical money the loans are repaid by giving what ever good the company makes to the community. Thus the company really becomes social minded and learn about social responsibility. This is a new model that is successful, different and really pushes for establish business to give back. Not only are the businesses benefiting but also the community is too, thus its a real sense of paying it forward. Often times the business will continue to give back even after their loan is repaid and that is what Agora Thriive is really trying to establish in giving out these loans. The women whom took the time to speak with us is Vanessa and she has only been with Agora for 8 months yet she is very knowledgeable about the mission and vision of Agora Thriive.

Following Agora we had lunch with Global Partnerships. Global Partnerships was very interested in GLOBE and our mission and visions. They had many questions and were eager to give us insight and feedback. I really enjoyed spending time with them because of this.

Global Partnerships is a NGO that invest in other micro-loan institutions. They are currently in 11 countries but are expanding and seeking partnerships in Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. The interest rates to these micro-loan institutions are about 10% and the sums are quiet large. Thus if the micro-loan does not follow the guidelines set they can be drop from the Partnerships. The members of Global Partnerships all handle different countries and each one is very knowledgeable about the organization and what they have to do to make sure that their loans are repaid.

Finally after the meeting with Global Partnerships we met with the Daughters of Charity. The Daughters of Charity rounded up everyone they knew. Most of them being females. These women were ready and eager to find out more about GLOBE and what we had to offer. In particular one women, who teaches math at the School of St. Louis de Marillac wanted a loan to further her education and go to college. Another women wanted to open a library/school supply store because currently mothers have to travel far to get these goods. Then there was another women whom needed a loan to start a business so that she can get treatment for her cancer. All of these women had ideas and basic education, in turn they were able to figure out the interest rates of the loan and most had ideas for a business. Furthermore, it was exciting to see all these women at the school filled with questions about GLOBE.

After that fantastic and successful meeting we head back to the La Pyramid Hotel and had dinner and planned our last day in Nicaragua.

Day 4 Granada

After two relaxing days in the Maderas Village we boogied on down to Granada, the city of Granada had the feel of a small colonial town, it is a very charming place. I have been to another Granada, the one in Spain and it did not disappoint and this one did not either. 

In Granada we met Peder Kolind whom runs Carita Feliz. He is a very successful businessman whom obtain his fortune building up the security alarm industry. He is retired yet his entrepreneurship and his creativity has not ceased. Other than his security company his fortune also comes from his luxury hotel. He invited us to visit the school which we did later in the day.

After lunch at Tres Ojos we drove to the town of Masaya the home of the active volcano and market. We spent a little time in the market and where we were able to buy native art such as the indigenous masks. The market is set up in a old fort and it is a very touristy location and thus there was little bargaining.

Following the market we went back into town and visited the school Carita Feliz. The school was just on the outer part of Granada and the space was huge. The schools boasts about 1050 students and every evening dinner is provided with the exception of Wednesday. The students range from preschoolers to secondary schoolers.

Upon our arrival we were able to watch them perform a skit for Mother's Day. The play consisted of a man cheating on his wife with another women and he goes onto beating his wife. I was a little shocked to see that the children were exposed to this but, this little piece could be a part of a bigger story. We hope so.

At the end of our visit we gave them our school supplies and in turn the Director gave us posters with the faces of the 1050 kids. They also invited us to stay for dinner. Back in town we took a quick stroll through their Central Park which was a plaza and visited the cathedral. In celebration of Mother's Day at the end of the month their were fire crackers and flares, this reminded me a lot of Fallas in Valencia.

To top off the night we went to an authentic Nica restaurant called La Zanguan, the garage, and the steak was amazing and so was the decoration and service. I will forever remember this place.

Day 5

We woke up early to travel back to Managua yesterday and started our day with a visit to Agora Partnerships.  Vanessa Castro greeted us and told us about Thriive Capital, a foundation that makes interest-free loans to businesses that are too large for microloans and too big for commercial loans.  Thriive allows borrowers to use this money to purchase machines or equipment, and encourages payback by putting the title to the machines in Agora's name for the first year.  Businesses repay these loans through goods or community services instead of cash.  In this way, Agora promotes the greater good of the community.  For example, a baker might donate bread to a local school, and the retail price of this bread will be deducted from the loan balance.  A basket weaver might offer a workshop to a group of local women in order to pay back a loan.  Thriive encourages loan recipients to offer workshops so that community members are left with a lasting skill that they can use in their lives and their businesses.  Vanessa told us that Agora has found that once loans are repaid in full, recipients tend to continue helping the community because of the satisfaction they feel when providing these services.

After Agora, we went to Global Partnerships, an impact investor that works with Microfinance Organizations in several countries to help those living in poverty.  They focus on five key areas: health care, rural livelihoods, microentrepreneurship, green technology, and women's empowerment.  They told us about their model and we told them about GLOBE, and they offered some advice for operating in Nicaragua.

Finally, we revisited the daughters of charity that we had met with on our first night in Managua.  We entered a room of about thirty women, all potential borrowers and recipients of GLOBE funds.  They were enthusiastic about the program and very smart.  Some of the women were calculating interest on a declining balance and asking us questions and others were telling us about the businesses they wanted to run.  One woman wanted a loan to study mathematics in the local college, and told us the cost of tuition, books, and transportation.  Some of the women were concerned about running businesses because they thought they needed to run them out of their homes, but they did not have houses.  Another woman was there with her nine year old daughter.  Her daughter wanted to start a crafting business to pay for her mother's treatment for ovarian cancer.  We promised her that we would review this application with a priority, and were moved by the family's need and determination.

We left feeling very optimistic about Nicaragua.  There is so much need here but so much potential.  We hope that we will receive several loan applications from the area and that next semester's class can establish a great presence here.

Dia trés

The night before, I was curious as to who was going to take us around to show us the Latitude Project, a Non-Profit Organization that addresses the needs of communities near San Juan del Sur but are difficult to get to because of rough terrain and flooding during the rainy season. It turns out that two sisters, Jennifer and Alanna, founded the Latitude Project, and they’re quite the inspiration. They started a couple of years back and believed that the importance of helping is to listen and to understand the needs of the community. Many of these families had inadequate roofs and needed a bigger place for students to go to school that was nearby. Through their own funding and determination, the sisters acquired the resources and the people of the communities they were in had to decide who really needed the roofs. The roofs were then put together and placed by the community to make sure rain wouldn’t damage homes.

As for the education, the sisters created a small school for younger kids and a preschool. This community was interesting, especially the children. They’re not used to having visitors. Everyone knows everyone in this specific community. The children were very shy. They were very surprised about having strangers in the room. We tried to engage and eventually got some of the kids to engage.  We gave the kids stickers and despite the shyness, they did say bye. On this note though, I really have to commend the sisters. Alanna mentioned how the kids had a similar reaction when her and Jennifer arrived and now the kids were really happy about seeing them both. Aside from creating these educational areas, they also take the children to the beach. Despite being near a beach, hardly anyone has a vehicle. There is probably one person with a motorbike in the community and that’s it. Everyone probably has horses. Horses in Nicaragua are cheap compared to other places: $200. Even so, that is still a bit expensive for some of these families.

We walked over to several houses, all of which greeted our hosts with open arms. The sisters and the people in the community got along so well, it was quite beautiful. The sisters were checking on the community because they were leaving. The sisters maintain the project with their own funding, working several jobs for several months and then coming back to Nicaragua. So much effort put into helping this community and a few other communities, it's quite an enormous feat. I really admire their work and hopefully good fortune is in their while trying to find donors. 

Towards the end of our tour, we walked into the house of a family, which had doubled the size of their house within a month. They're quite a big family, 8 or so, trying to squeeze into a house. They had little decorations and a tiny garden in front of their door entrance. That's one thing I think that gets lost with having too many things: appreciation and making the best of what you presently have. Despite the little they own, the family painted a few things and added a few pictures to the house. It was lovely taking a look at everything and just seeing how they were still happy. They welcomed us and they were sweet. The sisters took note of the decor and we followed suit. The family members smiled as they said that they drew some of the artwork on the house. 

We met the little girl in the preschool the sisters had created. She was very shy and at one point we thought that maybe she thought we were after her bag! The family then decided to show us the inside of the house and the reality is that beds are what consist of the inside of the house. There are no doors, rather, a curtain or a blanket separates the doors and even the bed spaces. We bided adieu to the family and we walked back to our truck. A long day in the sun and we didn't let that get in the way of embracing all of the information and effort the sisters have put into this community. We returned to our vehicles and left a few things for the school, and left them with a little piece of St. John's with the string bag. 

We then parted ways with the sisters in San Juan del Sur. They have a few things to take care of and we had sometime to take a look at things and we decided to take a trip to Christ of the Mercy. This Christ stands at 79 feet tall. An awesome view and an amazing sculpture which shows the faith of the people of Nicaragua. 

Afterward, we headed back to the hotel and had pizza for dinner. This pizza was special because it was made by a man from Rome and it really reminded me of my days abroad in Rome. Very thankful for that experience and this one. After several slices and stories, we were off to the hotel, to rest for the next day.