Monday, November 11, 2013

The Competitions

It’s the beginning of November, which means that most small biz development volunteers have been running around trying to organize local and regional business competitions for the entrepreneurship course we work with.  My biggest worry for about a week was whether or not there would be chairs at my local event since the location I booked did not have any.  Just another day in the life of a PCV!

The competition is the culmination of a year’s worth of work in the schools.  We work together with our counterpart teachers to teach the entrepreneurship course each week to hundreds of high school seniors.  Most sections have around 40 students in them, and each week we work through part of the curriculum starting with idea generation all the way to finances and the final business plan.  To provide a bit of motivation, we hold competitions at the end of the year where the student groups compete based on their products and business plan. 

The local:
My local competition was pretty small.  I told each teacher they could bring one group per section of the class they taught for a total of eight teams.  The mayor’s office let us use the Palacio de Cultura to hold the event.  I thought everything was going to be great until I found out that the Palacio de Cultura does not have chairs, or more specifically, it did not have chairs available that day since they were being rented out for another event. 

For about a week, I wondered if I would have chairs or not at the event as I went to both the municipal and departmental delegations of the Ministry of Education trying to get some help with the chair debacle… all to no avail.  The day before the event I got the final “Sorry, we can’t help you,” and set about trying to find some on my own.  Through the power of networking and asking everyone I knew, I found out a pharmacy also rented chairs and they quoted me $3 for 50 chairs.  The only catch was that I needed to transport them myself to and from the event.  Through another round of calling people I knew, one of my teachers talked with a girl in his class who’s dad owned a truck and agreed to help us with the transport.  Crisis averted in the nick of time!
My private school came out in force and brought the whole class. 

This group made an aloe shampoo and demonstrated using it. 

Defending their product. 

We were a bit skeptical on this product. 

I was afraid the table was going to catch on fire. 

The winning group!

The regional:
The winners of my local competition advanced on to the regional level.  We spent another round of edits on the business plans, taking into account what the judges at the local competition had suggested.  The mayor’s office donated about half the cost necessary to get us to the neighboring city, and with some funds from generous friends of mine, I covered the other half. 

The two groups I brought had very different product offerings.  The first, “Bolsos Creativos,” offered a line of purses for women.  A big selling point was that they could make any design you wanted as long as you had a picture of what it was.  
The team along with one of my counterpart teachers, Alex. 

Some last minute presentation advice.

The second, “Cerenutrín,” offered a powdered drink mix made from cacao, coffee, and a few other toasted grains grown locally.  They ground up the ingredients and made a powder to mix with water or milk for a nutritious beverage.  Both were pretty good products.  Perhaps not the newest ideas out there, but both ideas that have a bit of demand here in my site. 

A la desnutrición le pone fin!

Cerenutrín took third place thanks to their energetic marketing pitch during their presentation.  I wish I had a video of it because Marvin, the “Director of Marketing,” was hilarious as he pitched “Con Cerenutrín, a la desnutrición le pone fin. Con fuerza, sabor, y energia.” Or in English- “Put an end to malnutrition with Cerenutrín.  With strength, flavor, and energy.”  His huge smile and enthusiasm totally sold it. 
Marvin at his finest. 
They were really psyched about third place.

So that’s the end of the competitions for me.  I’ll be attending the national level competition in Managua on the 22nd of November, but just to help out since my groups didn’t advance.  The Nicaraguan school year ends at the beginning of December, and my teachers have already finished teaching the curriculum and are now using the class time to catch the kids up on other subjects where they are behind, so I’m transitioning into some other activities.
A bit disappointed at a tough loss. 

Both my teams.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Summer Camp

I realize my update schedule is a bit… erratic.  Sorry grandma and Aunt Jackie!

Growing up in the U.S. with a relatively well off family, traveling around my own country seems normal.  Yea, we went camping instead of staying at classy hotels sometimes, or we drove instead of flying all the way from Vermont to South Carolina a few times, but I was still able to see different parts of the States.  It’s not like that for many Nicaraguans.  Quite often they rarely get out of their town and surrounding area.  They might see the capital city for a few things, but, for the most part, they see very few places beyond their hometown.

At the end of July, I was able to participate in a summer camp that was funded with USAID grant money via an fhi360 sustainable tourism project in Nicaragua.  The guide I work with and I, together with another guide in Leon, applied for funding to take kids from the Leon area to the North of Nicaragua.  I helped out a lot at the beginning during the application and acquisition process and then as things were being planned, another volunteer in Leon came in to help with the camp planning itself.

The theme of the camp was “Developing Potential” and each day had a series of challenges that the kids had to overcome.  They were divided into groups and had to learn how to work together while accomplishing the different tasks.  We took them fishing and bird watching.  They learned about the very long process of coffee cultivation (3+ years from planting the first seed to getting to the final cup of coffee).  We went ziplining, which was a huge step for a lot of these kids.  We finished out the event with a tour to the canyon and camping.  They ate s´mores for the first time and talked about all of the things they had done over the week. 

I enjoyed seeing the process they went through over the five days.  Many kept saying, “I can’t do it” when trying to climb a “mountain” (it really was more of a steep hill), but afterwards described it as if they had summited Everest.  It reminded me a bit of the first times I did similar things at summer camps as a kid.  Those high ropes courses terrified me, but I felt like superman afterwards. 

On the organization side, most of the grant funding went to buying new equipment and improving safety conditions.  I think they learned many lessons about how to implement an event like this in the future.  Ideally, the foundation is in place so they can continue offering this product or something similar now that they have the appropriate equipment. 

We’re hoping the event continues and improves on this pilot run and eventually could become a staple event for high school seniors in the country.  There aren’t many similar product offerings out there right now, and it’s a great way for kids to see a different part of their own country.  There is a good market with the private schools in Managua.

Overall, I’d say it was quite the success.  There certainly lessons learned along the way for all of the businesses involved and plenty of room for improvement. None of them had much experience working on a U.S. Government funded grant and were a bit shocked at all of the steps and hoops to jump through.  The best part of the project is that it was Nicaraguan led.  We just kind of helped along the way to make the idea a reality.  Ultimately, that’s the goal of this whole thing called development.

I became de facto photographer once I picked up the camera on the first day and took around 2,500 pictures.  Here are a few to show a bit of what happened:


We stuck Ernesto, one of the volunteers, in this small boat.
He was a good sport about it. 

Evelyn and Lauren, two of the volunteers. 

The rewards of the hard work. 

Resting after a long day's work.
 Bird watching and Coffee Plantation:

Free promotion for fhi360.

Gerald, the mastermind, directing.

Learning about the coffee growing process.

The kids had a challenge to make a cup of coffee and then we judged them.
Let's just say it was pretty Nica style- loaded with sugar. 

Some got nervous and slowed down too soon. 
 The canyon:

More updates coming soon.  I promise. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013


A view from the lookout.  I take no credit for this picture.
(c) Namancambre Tours, 2013
My life here in Nicaragua is one of stark contrasts.

A few days ago, I traveled to Cusmapa, a town about two hours away from my site. I went with a local NGO with which I’ve done some work and the Irish group that has been in town.  We were looking at potential projects for them in the future, and the NGO has a project they are starting right now. Their plan is to either repair existing homes or build new ones for the identified families depending on the state of the current home.

Several people had told me that I needed to make it out to Cusmapa to take in the view, so I was excited to take advantage of a free ride out there.  It’s considered the highest town in Nicaragua, and I loved the views as we drove up.  The climate cooled off and the vegetation changed the higher we climbed in elevation.  By the time we got to the town, I wasn’t sure if I was still in Nicaragua. Surrounded by soaring mountains, the area was incredibly green and covered in tall pines.  It vaguely reminded me of Vermont or Asheville, NC, but perhaps with taller mountains.

We drove down a small dirt road around curves and corners that zig-zag down the other side of the mountain and stopped in front of a small hill.  “Up there,” the project coordinator, Jose Luis, said.  We hiked up to the top and were greeted by an amazing valley to the West looking out towards the Pacific.  On clear days they say you can see the ocean, but that day was a bit hazy.  Nonetheless, the view was still quite impressive.

We turned from the view to a house that was maybe 10’ x 15’.  Two rows of sticks for a frame and rocks shoved into the spaces served as walls.  It had a dirt floor and, from a quick peek inside, was just one room.  The roof?  Sheets of plastic held down by rocks and large tree branches.  We met the woman who lived there with her two children and a husband who worked the fields. Jose Luis confirmed some details with the woman about the project.  He pointed to an even smaller house, “Over there is another.”

We walked over, all the while taking in amazing views from the hilltop of the surrounding mountains, to meet the woman’s sister. The house looked like a strong gust of wind could blow it over.  Her walls were made of long thin branches, and I could see through many cracks into the room.  She had a small bed made of cords stretched across the frame for a mattress.  Her roof was only a plastic sheet that didn’t even cover the entire house.  She had a baby in hand and another by her side as we spoke. “When it rains, I lie on the bed with my children and wrap us up in a sheet of plastic so we don’t get wet.” I was speechless.

“How does she get food?” I whispered to Jose Luis.  “She gathers firewood and then sells it in Cusmapa,” he replied.  Where she lived was easily a 30-minute to hour-long walk uphill to town where she sells her firewood… at one córdoba each.  We learned that she sold about 20 pieces a day, so 20 córdobas a day if she is able to sell all of it; it’s enough to buy two pounds of rice and not much more. $1 exchanges at almost 25 córdobas.  That’s $.80 a day.

She explained that her son had medical issues requiring her to go to Somoto.  The bus costs C$25 one way, not to mention food or lodging if she has to stay.  She most likely doesn’t eat on those days, not to mention that she’s not at home to gather firewood and doesn’t make any money on those days. 

The NGO had identified nine initial homes to start the project, and we saw all of them.  I thought of my life back home, and how different it was.  I thought of my life here with my own apartment, decent access to food sources, and amenities like running water and regular electricity.  Even my life as a volunteer didn’t compare to the situations these families were living. 

On our way back, we stopped at the lookout point in town and looked out on the view again.  It was picturesque, worthy of a postcard or “Visit Nicaragua” advertisement.  The stories of the families ran through my head as I admired the view.  What these families live on for a year is what I live on for a month as a volunteer and what the average American consumer spends in two to three days.  As a server, I regularly waited on people that had higher tabs in one night. 

“That’s the house of the woman we met,” Jose Luis said and pointed down the hill.  I peered down to scan the mountainous scenery and could see the small home below, its plastic roof still flapping in the wind. 

Contrasts. Every day.

Monday, July 01, 2013


At the beginning of May we had an in-service training (IST) with our counterpart teachers.  It marked a year in country for us, so the training also served as a bit of a retreat in a nice hotel… nice for most of us.  The six of us guys ended up getting kicked out of our super big room to make room for counterparts and then crammed into what must have been the smallest room on the compound.  We took it like champs though.  We’re PCVs. We take whatever is thrown at us in stride.

After the IST, most of us stuck around in Esteli and spent the weekend hanging out.  My buddy Gonzalo came down again and we did some exploration of two new sites that have some potential for tours.  La Estanzuela is a waterfall just outside of the city that many people already visit, but we threw in the added adventure of rappelling down the waterfall.  Who doesn’t want to do that??  The next day we explored another “canyon” off the Panamerican in between Esteli and Somoto called Cañón Cucamonga.  It was pretty fun to scramble over large boulders and end up and a sheer cliff face.  In the rainy season it is most likely a waterfall, but at the time we visited it was still pretty dry.

The rest of May flew by.  I went to Managua a few times for charlas with the new group, but I didn’t take any pics (sorry).

The big news recently is that I’m moving!  I signed a lease and got the key to my new apartment yesterday and am super excited about having my own place.  I love my host family here, but it has been different living with a family again after living with roommates or alone for several years.  I have never really felt like it has been “my” space.  More like I’ve been using the space of my family.  I’m excited to have my own space.  I think it will be great for my mental health during second year of service.
old room. it was tight. 

Things I won’t miss from my current housing arrangement:

The number of animals in my backyard.  I told Maria recently that it was like an animal chorus in the morning.  She just laughed and said “Oh Aaron…” Chico’s response was “It’s a good alarm clock right?”  Whenever I call someone from home they usually ask, “Where in the world are you???” because one of the several roosters is crowing in the background.

Sebu, the “family” dog.  Technically, he belongs to my host brother, but my family takes care of him.  The dog has lived his life chained to a tree stump and has no idea how to react to people coming near him.  He and I get along, but I won’t miss him barking incessantly.  Especially at 5am.

Roosters.  Contrary to what the cartoons tell you, roosters do not just crow at dawn.  They do it all the time.  It doesn’t really matter what time. They live outside my window and at 5am they like to wake up.

The new turkey.  My host brother apparently decided that buying a turkey was a good idea, so he went for it and then threw it in with the other chickens that the family has.  As with the roosters, the turkey does not make an endearing “gobble gobble” before quietly going away.  It makes noise all day.  Also starting at 5am.

If you’ve noticed, there’s a trend.  5am.  The world wakes at 5am.

Things I will miss from my current housing arrangement:

My host mom, Maria.  She’s hilarious and laughs at my stupid jokes in Spanish.  Here’s a video of her making tortillas one day.  For those of you who speak Spanish, sorry my math skills are terrible in Spanish.

My host dad, Francisco, or Chico. He loves this shirt, especially once I told him what “Old Fart” meant.  He walks around now usually saying something that sounds like “Ode Fart” when he’s wearing the shirt.  He thought it was hilarious and lives up to the part.  He has been a great host dad for the last year and we have spent hours talking about everything from coffee prices to the ridiculousness of some beauty pageant that I had to sit through at the high school. 

Exposing my host family to new foods.  I’ve made cookies, hummus, pita, banana bread, tacos, nachos, pizza, and a few other things. Each time I’ve let them try a bit of what I’ve made.  It’s fascinating enough to see a male cooking, let alone trying the food he makes.  So it has always been enjoyable to see their reactions to what I’ve made.  Usually it ends with, “You’re very inventive, Aaron.”  I just kind of go with it, even though I know that the things I’ve made are pretty common place in other areas of the world.

Luckily, Somoto is not that big, and I’m moving just over a block away from where I currently live, so I can always still stop by and shout “BUENAS” the window and then sit down for a visit.  It’s a very Nica thing to do to just stop by for a chat, maybe a cup of coffee or glass of juice, and then be on my way.  I’m also glad that they seem to understand my reasoning for moving (basically I just want some more space).  When I told them they were very supportive, so that either means they really do understand or were getting tired of me being in the house as well.  I’m hoping for the former over the latter.  ;)

My group and I passed the one year in country mark on May 9th, which means we are right in the middle of the 11-15 month phase of the mid-service crisis.  I certainly feel it, and I know from talking to several friends that they are feeling it too.  Progress seems slow and seeing any kind of results from our efforts is scarce.  It is easy to become discouraged and apathetic about the whole idea of international development. 

According to a handy “Lifecycle of the PCV” handout that Peace Corps gives us, we can expect: impatience with self, program, and system; place blame on the program; lethargy; doubt about program role, self, and government; disillusionment and confusion in resolving frustrations versus victories.  In other words, a lot of wondering, “What’s the point?”

That’s kind of the latest on how things are going mentally/emotionally.  In a word: frustrated.  It’ll get better.  Or I keep telling myself that.  I’m realizing that I only have a year left, and I’m doing my best to keep going with the projects I have and not get discouraged about the projects that have fizzled in recently months.  I’m at the mid point of service.  It’s all downhill (or uphill?) from here…. So poco a poco things keep moving.