Hurricane Mitch Follow-Up Tour: Honduras and Nicaragua February 5 - 14, 2000
Saturday, February 5, 2000
This morning I embark on a journey to Central America to visit projects that were provided to people in Honduras and Nicaragua following the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in November, 1998. My organization, The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), provided a cash grant of $60,000 and I am travelling on behalf of the ATA to see how the funds have been applied.
A limousine takes me to the Edmonton International Airport to catch the West Jet connector to Calgary. In Calgary, I board a new Boeing 737 belonging to Continental Airlines and fly directly to Houston, Texas. A very nice flight and a fine airline. Dinner on this segment is a cheeseburger, something I have never had on a flight before. It’s delicious. Continental’s motto is “Work hard. Fly right.” I like that.
In Houston, I gather my one bag from the luggage carousel and clear customs and immigration. Then I phone the Days Inn and ask for a pickup. “Y’all just wait outside and we’ll come git ya,” I am assured by the hotel clerk. And come get me they do for a five minute drive down Will Clayton Parkway to the Days Inn. Check-in is easy and a note awaits me from Diana Gibson, the person in charge of this tour. Diana and my four other companions have gone for a taxi ride to a nearby shopping mall and the note says to meet up in the hotel dining room at 1900.
At the appointed hour, I meet the members of the team in the dining room. Representing CoDevelopment Canada are Diana Gibson, Administrative Director and Lee Bensted, translator and project administrator. Susan King-Wilson represents the BC Government Workers’ Union and she works in a Vancouver hospital. Carol Airey is a Grade 5 teacher and librarian at Twain Sullivan Elementary School in Houston, BC and is representing the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Marcia Hirtle is a secretary on staff with the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union and is representing that organization. And then there’s me, representing the dear old Alberta Teachers’ Association. That’s the group and it seems we will form a close, cohesive crew for our Central American adventure.
Sunday, February 6, 2000
Our Continental flight to San Pedro Sula leaves Houston’s George Bush International Airport on time at 0930. Our aircraft is another new Boeing 737, this time a model 800. A flawless flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, crossing the western portion of the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, transiting Belize and landing finally at San Pedro Sula. Here we are met by representatives of CODEMUH, a Honduran women’s collective. Outside the terminal, little boys are panhandling for money. I give one of them my bag of M and M’s that was part of the in-flight meal service. He’s okay with that! Two small taxis take us into town, our destination being the Hotel Ejecutivo where we check in to very pleasant rooms. Shortly after, Maria Luisa Regalado, director of CODEMUH, collects us in the organization’s crewcab truck and we are driven to the suburb of Choloma and the headquarters of CODEMUH.
This visit sets the pattern for many of our subsequent stops along the way. First we meet with several women who have executive or staff positions with the organization such as the director of health services, the director of legal support services, the director of finances and, of course, the director herself, Maria Luisa. After a tour of the premises, we meet in the lounge with the directors and several members who have come to see the Canadian visitors and particularly Diana and Lee. Both these Canadian women have provided a large measure of support to this organization and their visit is obviously an important occasion. The rest of us are made most welcome and a discussion begins with introductions and what our particular interests in this trip happen to be. I photograph the women in the room and a mobile of a witch on her broom flying across the moon. I ask about the significance of this and am told that the witch’s use of a household broom represents the liberation of women in this organization. No longer a tool of drudgery, the broom, in the right hands, can set one free to pursue other interests in life. I wander out into the back patio area where dinner preparations are underway. Natural wood charcoal is being prepared and that will cook our dinner of chicken, beans and tortillas.
The meeting ends and dinner begins. Out to the back patio we go to take our places around a large table that has been set up. A few chickens, oblivious to their eventual peril, stroll the yard and a dog next door comes to the wire fence to see who the intruders are. Dinner is grilled over the charcoal which is contained in two discarded oil pans from old automobile engines. Lots of beer is served and I have my first and forever endearing taste of Salva Vida (Life Saver) beer. The food is plentiful and delicious and is served with traditional spicy salsa, salads and saucers of salt. We enjoy it immensely.
After the meal, I help clear the table and Susan helps with the washup. Conversation carries on and some of the writings of our hosts are brought out and shared. I manage to take several photographs of individuals and a couple of group shots, the camera being secured to a post for these and set off by delayed shutter release. Our visit draws to a close and we are returned to the Hotel Ejecutivo by our driver. Marcia, Carol and I walk over to the nearby Holiday Inn for a late night snack
Monday, February 7, 2000
Monday morning dawns cool and overcast with a promise of rain in the air. Maria Luisa arrives with the CODEMUH crewcab truck and driver for our journey north to the city of Villanuevo. This city is the home of many maquila factories and has one of the country’s free trade zones located within its municipal boundaries.
The maquilas are factories owned by off-shore interests, largely Taiwanese, Korean and American, that produce garments under contract for international brand names. The factories pay little or no tax, contribute little to the communities they are located in and offer working conditions that are far from ideal. However, they do provide regular employment for a sector of the population, primarily young, single women under the age of 25. Hours are long, pay is minimal and the protection of workers’ rights is all but absent. The emergence of organizations like CODEMUH has had a moderating effect on the lives of the workers and these organizations have served to unite their women members, provide advocacy on the factory floor and develop life skills programs of benefit to all. In Villanueva, about 15,000 members are represented by CODEMUH. Following Hurricane Mitch, CoDevelopment Canada assisted CODEMUH with relief in the forms of clothing, food, mattresses, cooking equipment and medical aid. Nearly 300 members lost homes, possessions and, in some cases, family members during the storm and its aftermath.
Six of us, including the driver and Maria Luisa, fit inside the cab of the truck. Diana and Susan opt for the box and end up having a rather thrilling ride as a result. The driver is a firm believer in the “machismo” approach to driving and he has the truck’s four traction tires humming on the pavement as his speed stays steady around 90 kilometers per hour. I try a quick photograph of Susan through the back window but I’m not sure what will result. Marcia, seated beside me, is becoming a bit fearful of the aggressive driving in general and quite worried about our friends in the box. But the driver is highly competent and we arrive at Villanueva without incident.
Our first stop is at the central park, across the street from which is the city hall. We have an appointment with the mayor, José Felipe Borjas. Inside the city hall, we come to an interior garden and we are greeted by a woman who is sweeping the tile floors. We are escorted into a conference room and the mayor appears shortly afterward and greets us. The mayor is quite a young man and, accompanied by two of his officials and a doctor from the health service, he talks to us about the storm and its aftermath and about the free trade zone in Villanueva and the problems and opportunities this presents. Apparently there are corridors 500 meters wide on either side of the main highway that are designated as the free trade area. The factories there provide no taxation base for the municipality but act as magnets to pull workers into the city from a wide rural area. The population increase in turn causes heavy drains on scarce municipal services. While employment in the factories is a good thing generally, the factories themselves cause worries for the mayor and his administrators. The mayor recognizes the valuable work done by Maria Luisa and her colleagues to better the lives of women employed in the maquila factories.
We take our leave and travel across town to the Villanuevo offices of CODEMUH. Here, several women have gathered to welcome us to the city and to their organization. Chairs are brought from a neighbouring house and eventually all of us are seated in the front room of the building. Introductions completed, stories of the work and support given by CODEMUH begin. The ages of the women range from perhaps late teens to somewhere in the fifty’s. The pride exhibited in their organization is clear and the effects of membership on their lives is reflected in their deeply moving stories. CODEMUH has served to unite a large number of women and has provided opportunities for them to determine ways to improve their lives and those of their families. Again, I photograph everyone in the room and a number of people later out on the veranda of the building. I pause for one last photograph, looking out the back door of the building into the beautiful yard where classes are sometimes held in the evenings. I get the shot but forget to pick up my notebook that contains notes up to this point.
The truck is ready for our return to San Pedro Sula. Our passenger load is greatly increased because a number of women are taking advantage of the free and swift ride down the highway to their own neighbourhoods. We set off at the usual quick pace, stopping along the way to drop off our passengers. At the side of the road, the parting is short but sincere and the driver has us underway again to the Hotel Ejecutivo. Back in the city, we make a quick stop at the hotel to collect our luggage, then the truck takes us on to the bus terminal. This time, I opt for the truck box with Susan and manage to take a couple of shots along the way. We check in at the terminal, load our luggage and after farewells to Maria Luisa, board the coach for Tegucigalpa.
The bus is a modern European design and has the entrance door half-way along the side. Entering through the door, one climbs a staircase to the main level and takes a seat. The coach is air conditioned, has a cabin attendant and comes complete with North American videos. Our route takes us south from San Pedro Sula over some very challenging countryside and our arrival time in Tegucigalpa will be some four hours in the future. Meanwhile lunch is served, even though Diana bought lunches for us at the hotel. The view from the side windows is beautiful and the driving is challenging, to say the least. There is no forward view from the bus as the driver and the entire front section are partitioned off. This is probably just as well and serves to comfort and assure passengers in the front rows of seats. The road is incredibly twisty and is carved through a landscape that doesn’t seem to have any flat and level spaces. It appears that all of the land in this part of the county is either going up or coming down. Susan can see ahead around the curves and gives startled notice of impossible passing situations the driver is about to undertake. We survive the experience in comfort and good condition and arrive in the late afternoon at Tegucigalpa.
The good planning of Diana and Lee continues in evidence and as soon as we step off the coach we are greeted by Carlos Mauricio Lopez and his daughter Norma. Carlos is the past president of COLPROSUMA (the Professional College of Honduran Teachers) and FOMCA (the Federation of Central American Teachers) and has been a visitor to Ottawa as a guest of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. He and Norma both teach in local schools and Carlos is a highly regarded thinker on educational concerns in Central and South America. Diana has provided me with excerpts from some of his writings for the conference on Democratic Initiatives for Education in the Americas. These provide an encapsulation of the history of the area vis-à-vis debt restructuring and the resulting effects on emerging nations. In two station wagons, we are taken into town, following along the Choluteca River where damage during the storm was most severe. Flooding from the storm brought waters up to the second story of buildings located along the river channel. We arrive shortly at Hotel Boston, our home for the next two nights, and we are given time to settle in. Later in the evening, Carlos and Norma return for us and take us to The Patio, a beautiful roofed but open-sided restaurant in a newer part of the city.
The dinner and the setting are most attractive and our hosts are gracious and charming. It’s quite clear that visitors from Canada mean a lot to Carlos. He brings forth a picture of himself and Frank Garrity, then CTF president, taken in the board room of the CTF building on Ottawa’s Argyle Avenue. The picture is of 1986 vintage and is obviously one of his personal treasures.
Marcia makes a presentation to him on behalf of NSTU for the work he has done expediting the shipment of supplies from Nova Scotia to schools in this area. For our meal, we have beef or pork shish kebabs as a main course preceded by cheese, bean and meat hors-d’oeuvres. Victoria Beer is the libation for the evening. The appetizers are served in dishes set atop crockery pots filled with charcoal. This serving method keeps the delicious contents hot for as long as they remain on the table, which in any case is not very long at all. A mariachi band plays for us and an old gentleman returns time after time trying to sell me a large map of Honduras. After dinner, Carlos and Norma return us to Hotel Boston for our evening rest.
The hotel itself deserves some comment. It is of perhaps 1930's vintage and the night clerk, who speaks English, tells me it is now owned by an American who visits from time-to-time. The entrance is set between two front lounges, one for television and the other a quiet lounge for reading or eating brought-in meals. The desk is situated behind the lounges and hallways lead from either side of the desk to the room wings and staircases. Part of the charm of some of the buildings we encounter here is the fact that there is little transition from inside to outside. About twelve paces toward the room wings, one comes to narrow outdoor courtyards with the rooms arranged on either side and going up two flights. The courtyards are open to the sky and the doors and windows of each room are under the eaves of the roof. Any rainfall would carry on down to the main floor of the hotel and be taken away by the drainage system installed in the courtyard gardens. Inside the rooms, the ceilings are about ten feet high and the floors are tiled. Screened windows with shutters open to the fresh outside air and each room has a small bathroom. Quite charming and very practical in this climate. It must have been interesting being in the hotel during the hurricane. I spend about half an hour in the quiet lounge writing up my daily notes and watching a microcosm of the city pass by the window.
Tuesday, February 8, 2000
We arise early and meet in the quiet lounge for small cups of rich Honduran coffee. A large urn of this is kept brewing here for the convenience of guests. As a group, we head out to a shopping area nearby in pursuit of breakfast that we intend to purchase for return to the hotel to eat.
A bakery is encountered and the smell of baking convinces us that our search has ended. Several of us select baguettes filled with refried beans and cream and Diana and Lee make the purchases. Lee ventures on further looking for fruit juices and the rest of us return to Hotel Boston. After breakfast, we have some time before the COLPROSUMAH staff come to collect us and I use the time making portraits of some of the crew in the setting of the hotel.
Today will be a busy day. Carlos and some of the executive members of the teachers’ organization pick us up in their van and we head out of the city to a rural school. This is registration day for students and the school year begins in earnest tomorrow. We arrive at Escuela Leon Alvarado, an elementary school, and are greeted by students sweeping the yard and generally tidying up the premises. Many of them have Ziplock bags containing treasures provided by the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union. The school consists of a row of perhaps five classrooms joined as a single building. Entrance to each classroom is directly from the outside and a wide eave protects everyone from rain and sunlight. The principal, Vilma Quiorz, her staff and students greet us and lead most of our party under the eave shading the entrance of one of the classrooms. In the school yard facing this entrance a welcoming program is about to commence. We are all introduced and Marcia in particular is singled out as the representative responsible for the school supplies. This is a powerful moment for Marcia and perhaps the crowning moment for her for the entire trip. I imagine this is one of those life-changing events she will never forget.
Instead of being in the shade with the visitors, I stand amongst the children and we spend a lot of time grinning at each other. I’m here because this is where the pictures are. The children enjoy being photographed and they are a pleasure to capture on film. By being part of their place, I seem to be accepted by them and I’m happy with the images I see. Of course, Marcia features prominently in some of the shots as I want her to have a photographic record of this day when she returns home.
A rather formal program has been arranged for our benefit. Songs are sung, a speech of welcome is given by a student and dances are performed with the participants in costumes. Photographs all along, of course. After a light lunch, the event comes to an end and I ask Vilma if I may photograph her in her classroom. I also get one of the school boys to take a picture of me sitting on the edge of a planter with some of the school children. His name is Ricardo Hernandez and I think he rather likes having control of the camera. By this time, most of the children are heading home and a group of them wait at the highway for their school bus. I walk up to where they are and photograph them one last time. Our van comes up the drive and collects me, we wave goodbye and return to Tegucigalpa.
This powerful and memorable event consumes only about half the morning. The remainder will be spent at the main office of COLPROSUMAH and our driver heads there as directly as terrain and winding roads permit. Because of the rugged topography of the city, there are few straight roads and many roads are challenged by the heights they have to ascend. The COLPROSUMAH office is located on the top of a ridge and the drive there involves negotiating a series of steep and sharp switchback roads. Attaining the summit, however, is rewarding as the view from the office stretches across to adjacent valleys and ridges.
We are welcomed by several of the staff and Carlos Orlando Zuniga, the general secretary. First, we are shown around the grounds and buildings and then we convene in a meeting room for introductions and presentations on the effects of the hurricane and programs being operated by the teachers’ organization. COLPROSUMAH has about 35,000 members and the organization is a long-time partner of CoDevelopment Canada. This is one of the organizations that put money from Canadian teacher organizations to work assisting members.
After introductions, we watch video footage of the destruction caused by the storm. Fourteen months after the event, the areas we pass through seem to be returning to normal but at the time, the storm must have been a terrifying occurrence. The footage we view was taken shortly after the rain stopped and the flooding and destruction are incredible. Apparently, the hurricane stalled over Tegucigalpa for several hours and the rains simply poured down incessantly. Nothing remained dry and no one could escape the torrent.
The general secretary ends this part of the presentation rather firmly, indicating that the storm is behind them and the organization is carrying on with other important matters. He talks about teacher training and requirements for elementary and secondary teachers. People with Grade 12 education can teach in elementary schools but university degrees are required for teaching in the upper grades. I ask about the feasibility of a Project Overseas team coming to Tegucigalpa and the response seems favourable. It should be possible to find a team of Spanish speaking Canadian teachers who would undertake such a mission, even if they have to be hand-picked.
I will take this up with CTF. Following this meeting, members of the women’s wing make a presentation to us about the work they are involved in across the country. A great deal of effort is being applied to raise the economic status of teachers as well as the professional level of their services. The credit due to all members and their leaders is immense, faced as they are with primitive conditions in many parts of the country and with a force of nature that destroyed everything in its path.
As will happen time and again on this journey, we now go from the sinister memory of the storm to the sublime. It’s time for lunch. After a group shot of our crew taken with the valley view behind us, we are driven to a chicken restaurant downtown for a hearty and delicious meal. In addition to the chicken, we are served salads, beans, tortillas, large pickled onions and condiments and a rice and bean mixture topped with sour cream. Over lunch, we continue our conversation and I ask my usual question regarding the ratio of women to men in leadership positions in the organization and what they think the ratio will be in five years time. I like to ask this question with the men members present just to reinforce how I, at least, think things should be arranged.
Following lunch, we drive to Valle de Angeles, the site of a large handicraft cooperative, where we gather items for those awaiting our return in Canada. The COLPROSUMAH members who accompany us also purchase some carvings that will reappear later in this journal. We count this trip as part of our general education for along the way we see a lot of evidence of the destruction caused by the hurricane. We pass through at least eight washouts along the highway that are still under repair and damage to rural dwellings is still evident. Many of these homes are of the most primitive construction and those that survived must have sheltered people who feared for their lives.
We return to Tegucigalpa in a misting rain and night falls quickly. I spend an hour in the quiet lounge writing up my notes and then we go to dinner with COLPROSUMAH executive members. On our return from dinner, Diana walks with me to the nearby central telephone building and I have a call placed to home. This is the first call on this trip as access to Canada directly from hotels is not possible.
When we get back to the hotel, Marcia and Carol are in the lounge, choking back waves of laughter. They have just had their first up-close and personal encounter with a cockroach. Two cockroaches, in fact, busily making little cockroaches underneath Marcia’s suitcase. Carol said she thought at first it was a mouse with a tail but then realized it was two cockroaches in an amorous embrace. The visitors zipped under the bed and disappeared and the night lady came and sprayed insecticide around the room. Carol and Marcia were waiting for the fumes to subside and were of the opinion that they would have preferred the cockroaches to the spray. The lesson? Leave nothing on the floors of old hotels.
Wednesday, February 9, 2000
On our last morning in Tegucigalpa, we set out again for the bakery and our usual order of bean- filled baguettes and pastries. Along the way, we pass through the market square in front of a city cathedral. We return to the hotel and eat our food in the quiet lounge. The COLPROSUMAH van and staff come to pick us up around 0930 and we load our luggage. After another look at some of the most heavily damaged areas of the city we proceed to the airport for our flight to Managua. Along the way we stop at the city branch office of COLPROSUMAH, located in an area that was heavily damaged by flooding. In fact, the building was completely covered with flood waters and all its contents were destroyed or washed away. Now, it is completely refurbished with new paint and windows and the COLPROSUMAH name proudly displayed on the exterior. Other buildings in the neighbourhood are still in ruins and construction is underway along the river channel to reinforce the walls of the flood channel. I photograph here and local workers indicate to me the level to which the waters rose, several of my heights above me.
We then head directly for the airport and Carlos Lopez is there to greet us and see us off. He has a present for each of us–the wood carvings that were purchased during our visit to Valle de Angeles. There is one for each of us and a different one for each of our organizations. We bid Carlos and his colleagues goodbye and pass through security to the departure lounge. My film, both exposed and unexposed, is kept in Ziplock bags, and is always hand-checked and never allowed through the x-ray machines. So far, there have been no problems with this and I appreciate the time taken by the security people to check my film visually.
The flight to Managua will take us first to San Salvador and then on to Managua. Our aircraft is an ATR 42 operated by TACA, the Central American carrier. The flight altitude provides a panoramic view of the ground below and I take a number of photographs along the route. For much of the distance, the terrain is rough and criss-crossed with ridges and the occasional smoking volcanic cone. As we approach San Salvador, I see the airport on the port side of the aircraft. Our downwind leg takes us across the shoreline and out over the Pacific Ocean. Crosswind and final legs bring us back onshore to a windy landing and rollout. We disembark on the tarmac in front of the terminal building and I note all the modern airliners belonging to TACA parked at their maintenance area. San Salvador is the headquarters for the airline. There is a lot of airline traffic here including United, Continental and American.
We have a wait of about an hour for our connecting flight and I spend the time watching airplanes from my vantage point in the departure lounge. The segment to Managua is on another ATR-42 and the route takes us southeast across the Gulf of Fonseca and on to the southern shore of Lake Managua where the airport is located. On this stage, I read some of Carlos Lopez’ material on debt restructuring and the effects it has on human services in the southern hemisphere.
We are greeted outside the Managua airport terminal by Argentina Meza Rojas, the secretary of international relations for CTGEN-ANDEN, the teachers’ group in Nicaragua. A walk-in bus has been retained for us and it pulls up to the curb to take on our luggage. Diana goes inside the bus and takes all the baggage as it is passed up by the driver through the back side window, a rather efficient way of getting us on our way. Our first stop is at a viewing area on the shore of Lake Managua and the waters are quite impressive to see. Fairly large waves are coming ashore pushed by a strong wind and the water is coloured a deep muddy brown. The water level is high because precipitation from the hurricane soaked the soil and this has resulted in higher water table levels throughout the country. A tour boat tied to its wharf rides the incoming waves in an uneasy fashion. Photos are taken here and then on to the old heart of the city, an area that was largely destroyed by the earthquake in 1972. Volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes–this is a naturally violent part of the world in which to live.
Finding our accommodation is a bit difficult but after asking a number of pedestrians, we find our way to Casa Feidler. My initial impressions are not favourable. The lobby is dark and in one of the sleeping rooms leading off from it an elderly man wearing only shorts sleeps on a stained mattress. Finding my room, I am even less happy. It is small and dark and has only a window looking out onto the hallway. Even that is half-filled with an air conditioner. The ceiling is made of boards and material dangles down from between the planks. Termites, I think. The shower has but one tap and that provides water to a heated shower head, something I have never seen before. Electrical wires lead from the shower head to an old fashioned blade switch high on the wall of the shower stall. Showering here might prove to be an electrifying experience.
My companions seem to be okay with the housing situation but I feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure if Diana picks up on this but later she asks if we should look for something a bit more upscale. I tell her I’m all for that. A search for a new casa will begin in the morning.
Dinner this evening has been arranged at Antojitos Restaurant, across from the Intercontinental Hotel. We are meeting Jack Adams and Daniel Gagnon, both CIDA representatives in Nicaragua. Jack also serves as the Canadian consul and Daniel is a specialist in agricultural development. It’s a pleasant evening and it’s nice to talk to knowledgeable Canadians about their take on many aspects of the country. Jack is an engineer and he began his career working for mining companies in Newfoundland and in British Columbia. Daniel has been in Nicaragua for about eight years and has married a Nicaraguan woman. He runs a farm in the hinterland as well as looking after his CIDA responsibilities.
To return to casa Fiedler, we hail a taxi with red licence plates (regulated by the government) and practice our act of getting six passengers inside a Lada taxi already occupied by a large driver. The drill is that I get in the middle front seat beside the driver and Lee squeezes in beside me at the door. Diana, Marcia, Susan and Carol crush into the back seat. Since I am always immobile in my position, I have never seen just how they arrange themselves. The trips are short and always a bit hilarious so no one minds the crowding. The Lada taxi salsa becomes our standard pattern for taxi travel for the next three days.
Thursday, February 10, 2000
I pass the night in comfort, despite bits of the ceiling falling down from time-to-time caused, no doubt, by the room’s other tenants, the termites. The shower works very well and I feel fit to meet the day. Breakfast is provided and consists of fruit and coffee. Only Susan, Carol, Marcia and I are present as Diana and Lee have gone off scouting for a new home. They return shortly with news of a wonderful find. A souvenir vendor visits us at breakfast and a number of purchases are made. The ANDEN bus arrives with Argentina Rojas on board and we load our baggage once more through its rear window for the short trip to the Maracas Inn Bed and Breakfast. One of my colleagues bids farewell to the Feidler and likens it to being at summer camp. We instantly dub ourselves “the summer camp gang.” At the Maracas Inn, there is only a short time to unload the bus and hand in laundry before heading to the ANDEN office.
José Antonio Zepeda is the general secretary of ANDEN and he welcomes us to the organization. He and Argentina escort us to the rear garden patio that is shaded by a pavilion roof that keeps out the sun but allows in the warm breeze. José provides a good deal of information about the schools that have been rebuilt since the hurricane and about other assistance that has been provided to teachers who were affected by the storm. He explains that a housing project for displaced teachers that we will visit later received assistance from funds provided by the ATA. As well, ANDEN has helped teachers in northern Nicaragua re-establish gardens that provide sustenance for teachers’ families. We learn that elementary teachers earn an average of $55 a month and secondary teachers bring in a little more at $75. The minister of education takes home $5,000 US each month and is provided with all the perks including an automobile. Five percent of the population controls 95 percent of the wealth. There are two classes in society but the poorer class contains people who live in desperately poor conditions.
José believes that one of the things that mitigates against a massive social uprising is the fact that over one million Nicaraguans live in Canada, the United States and Europe and send money home to relatives still in this country. More money arrives in this fashion than the value of the gross exports of Nicaragua. The government demonstrates little interest in improving the lot of the average citizen. As an example, José tells us that the government sent more than 50 delegates, family members and hangers-on to the Stockholm Conference, all at public expense. The president courts Asian investors with tax-free deals for their factories and they in turn provide cathedrals and government buildings. The Asians are not nearly as concerned about human rights as they apply to workers in their factories as are North American and European factory owners.
A trip has been arranged to a school not far from Managua in the community of Cuidad Sandino. The school’s name is Instituto Costa Rica and this is where Carol will hand over the contents of the three extra suitcases she and the rest of us have been moving all over the country. Carol’s students collected the materials and this is a moment she has been awaiting for several days now. I catch the moment and then detach myself to photograph the children in the school yard. Again, I am moved by the beautiful children who appear before my lens and I’m thankful for the generosity they display in sharing their smiles with me to take home to Canada.
About the time we are ready to leave, school lets out. The excitement caused by the visitors and especially the gringo who wants pictures of every cluster of children stirs our departure into a mild frenzy and the bus is trailed down the street by laughing children on their way home for the day. We return to the ANDEN office where José joins us and we prepare to leave for lunch. Before we leave the building, he makes a presentation to Carol that recognizes the contributions BCTF has made to the welfare and collegial development of the ANDEN organization. Then it is into the bus for a ten-kilometre trip to a rural restaurant.
After lunch, we experience one of the natural marvels of Central America. We are taken to Masaya Volcano Crater National Park. Our bus works its way up a steep road built over the lava flow from the last eruption which occurred in the late 1700's. The parking area at the rim of the volcanic cone provides a direct view into the crater which is misted by smoke and gasses that issue forth in a constant cloud. It’s a primeval sort of place and rather intimidating. The explosion that created the huge rock bowl must have been an awesome event and the record it left on the geology is abundantly evident. A set of steps leading away from the cone climb to an even higher elevation of volcanic material and all of us proceed to the summit. Here, a large wooden cross has been erected, apparently in memory of a monk who plunged to his death in the volcanic fissure. In my view, the cross may serve as a precaution against another explosion– can’t hurt, at least. We have a photo session at the summit with the help of some other tourists then return to the bus for our next destination.
A settlement project underway for teachers dispossessed by the hurricane is taking shape near Tipitapa. The project will eventually cover about 20 hectares. Funded through ANDEN with money contributed by the ATA and other teacher organizations, this development has a peculiar quality to it. Each family will eventually be provided with a concrete block shell of a house but the occupants must provide the roof, windows, doors, floors and finishing. Following the hurricane, the residents began building shelters on their lots with whatever materials they could collect from the storm. Since the building project proper got underway, these very primitive shelters have been slowly surrounded by the new concrete block construction and eventually much of the material of the original shelters will be incorporated into the new homes.
Accompanied by José, we begin a walk through the new neighbourhood. Some very ingenious uses have been made of oil drum lids, scraps of corrugated metal and old plywood signs. Regardless of the state of construction, nearly all the homes have gardens started and trees planted and the yards have been fenced with barbed wire. Electricity is being “borrowed” from the main power lines and is distributed over makeshift power poles strung with bare wire. Children and puppies abound along the roads and local entrepreneurs have opened a few small grocery stores in the front rooms of their homes. The ubiquitous Coca-Cola truck arrives during our visit to top up local supplies of the beverage. At one home, young boys play a video game on a television set perched outside the front door.
The last house we reach belongs to Veronica Majorca. She is the single parent of a little boy and a tiny girl and we meet Veronica and her children as she returns home from a day of teaching. The little girl takes my hand and leads me to the well-tended flower garden in front of her house. She talks to me in Spanish about the blossoms. I photograph the family at their front door and then the Canadians and our hosts walk back to where the bus awaits us in the gathering dusk On leaving the development, I catch a glimpse of a little boy sitting outside his house at a table, concentrating on his homework.
On the trip back to Managua, a stop is made at a road covered where a bridge once was by a high and fast flowing river. Parked part way into the current is a large school bus and several children are helping the driver wash the dust of the day from its sides. Some photographs here, and as the bus slowly backs out of the river, a shot of several of the kids hanging on at the front door. Another picture of a fisherman about to set out for his evening catch. Dinner this evening is with Wayne Bradley, a director of CoDevelopment Canada and a union activist, and his companion Liz and her son at the Ruta Maya restaurant. Wayne is here to purchase coffee from various plantations in Nicaragua for a Vancouver collective. Once more, the crew performs the Lada taxi salsa, both on route and on return.
Friday, February 11, 2000
We are on our way to Posoltega. As a passenger in this air conditioned van, sitting in a club seating arrangement, I think back to riding in a car as a child and I experience again the wonder I felt then seeing parts of a new countryside for the first time.
Near Posoltega, we stop and take five additional passengers into the van. These include Wayne, Liz and her son and another Canadian couple who are travelling with Wayne as interpreters. The van groans over the dirt road leading up to the housing project being developed by MEC (Movement of Employed and Unemployed Women, named after Maria Elena Cuadra) with support from CoDevelopment Canada. MEC will build 18 complete homes and the Spanish Red Cross will provide another 130. These homes will be given to families who lost every possession they had as a result of a landslide that occurred on the side of Casitas volcano. The cone of the volcano is visible from the project and a white gash down its side marks the path of the slide where over 2,000 lives were lost. People who will occupy these houses are the most destitute of the survivors.
There is quite a contrast between these houses and those being provided to teachers in Tipitapa. Here, the houses are being constructed by brick layers and other trades. These houses will be complete with floors poured, windows and doors installed and completed roofs built on. Electricity and sewage facilities for each unit are being provided and there are no temporary shelters anywhere on the site. Marta Rivera, the MEC representative, takes us on a walking tour of this impressive new neighbourhood. This will be a safe and comfortable place for those who will soon be quartered here.
We travel next to a nearby emergency shelter where many of the residents of the new neighbourhood presently live. They have been in this temporary shelter for nearly 15 months, since just after the passing of the storm. We have passed by several similar shelter camps on our travels. I feel uncomfortable intruding here, seeming to be an inspector of other people’s conditions and I am reluctant to leave the van. The first thing I do is change my dark glasses for my regular ones and then I detach myself from our group.
The camp is laid out in two parallel lines of shelters, each constructed of a wooden frame with walls made of plastic tarpaulin material. Roofs are made of corrugated sheet metal. Stamps of the aid agencies that provided the shelters are printed on every wall. From shaded entries, the inhabitants watch as yet another group of aid givers arrives to see their shelter homes. This is the part I find difficult and I decide that instead of inspecting, I will just visit.
The first shelter I approach has a bench made of branches situated under an overhang of tenting that forms a sort of veranda. I approach the home and gesture that I would like to sit down. Hands gesture me in and the Spanish, I presume, does likewise. I sit on the bench and there before me appears a little girl of about seven years. She is dressed in her school uniform– pressed, white blouse and blue pinafore. Her name is Sandra, I learn, and I ask Mom if I can take her photograph. Now I am not inspecting, I am visiting. Sandra stands near a bicycle and I take a picture. Lee, Marcia and Susan join us and the conversation begins in earnest. Lee has a very pleasant way with strangers and people take to her immediately. In a few minutes, we take our leave and I go on a bit further, finding other people to drop in on and to spend a few moments with. These include a carpenter and two little boys who are helping him, other children, a woman washing the rough-hewn planks that serve as her kitchen counter, women washing clothes in the central wash stands and an elderly couple who are minding their grandchild. At each stop, I visit as best as I can without the benefit of verbal language. It amazes me how quickly bridges can be built between people of completely different cultures through eye contact, a smile and a touch of hands.
Returning down the opposite side of the camp, I photograph a little boy watching the occupants of a chicken coop, a woman husking rice in her doorway and a little girl of about four who runs up to me and points to a sticker attached to her blouse. The sticker is one of Carol’s giveaways and it has made this little girl’s day. Finally, I reach the gate of the camp and here a few children play, one little boy with a rather effective slingshot. I ask him to demonstrate and he fires a rock across the road. His bare feet leave footprints in the dust and I photograph these as well. The group pulls up in the van and we disappear as we arrived, comfortably in an air conditioned chariot.
The visit, I discover, surprises me. Amidst the quiet lull of lives on hold, I have found much evidence of beauty and courage and an ability to meet the stiffest challenges with dignity and hope.
After lunch, we drop off our five extra passengers and drive on to the colonial city of Leon for a sightseeing stop. The city still retains an old Spanish atmosphere and its architecture remains true to colonial times. We head out from the van in different directions, Susan accompanying me for a walk around a few blocks in the heart of the city. A lovely cathedral dominates the central square and the swirl of the city takes place around it. I photograph Susan posing beside a wall painting of Che Guevara, take pictures of a few store fronts and a battered Land Rover and then we return to the van and the others. Diana is having her shoes polished by one of the street’s shoe shine boys and he does a thorough job. I give him slang expressions in English and he immediately mimics them back to me. We both get a kick out of this. Although he tells us he is 12 years old, he has the size of an eight year old. He applies the polish with the first two fingers of his right hand and I watch the repetitive movement picking up wax from the can, always the same, a very economical movement over the surface of the wax, then rubbing it into the shoe leather. Lee is wearing suede shoes and at first declines his services but he convinces her that he can do justice to her shoes as well. And he does, using a rough cloth to pick up the knap of the suede and dusting the sides of the soles. We bid our young entrepreneur goodbye and with his friend, he takes away money from Diana and Lee, a tip from me and pins from Carol. We take away memories.
This has been a complex and intriguing day. Lee and Diana complete it by taking us to a restaurant owned by the brothers Godoy, both of whom are renowned Nicaraguan musicians. Our supper consists of a number of appetizer dishes and a quart of fine Nicaraguan rum. The rum lasts until 2300, the show a bit longer. Senor Godoy is a fine singer and guitar player and although I cannot understand his comments between sets, obviously a very popular entertainer with this audience. Lee sends up a napkin with a message from “the Canadians in the corner” requesting a song. This gets read out by our host and he waves a salute. After three hours, the show concludes and I purchase three of Godoy’s CDs at the cash counter. One I will keep and the other two are gifts for Diana and Lee from Susan, Marcia, Carol and me. A repeat of the Lada taxi salsa and we arrive at our beautiful Managua home.
Tonight we divide up the plaques given to us by Carlos in Tegucigalpi. Afterward, each of my colleagues sign the envelope containing the CDs and we take them out to Diana and Lee.
Saturday, February 12, 2000
Our breakfast is served on the back patio of the Maracas Inn, just beside Diana and Lee’s room. There is no exterior wall here and when I step out from under the roof I am outside. The front lounge is similar and the flow from interior to exterior is uninterrupted. Breakfast consists of fresh fruit and yogurt, orange juice and coffee–lots to keep one going for the morning. We don’t have to get started until after nine o’clock so things are a bit more leisurely than normal. After breakfast, I go for a walk around the neighbourhood and on the way encounter two men working on a vintage and very well kept Land Rover. A quick visit and then home to the Maracas.
We are driven to the office of MEC to start our official day. This organization was named after Maria Elena Cuadra but I do not know her history. This office serves as the headquarters for the organization and links five branch offices located throughout the country. MEC did a great deal to help after the hurricane and provided particular assistance to storm victims near Tipitapa and Posoltega.
This morning we are addressed by Sandra Ramos Lopez, the executive director. She tells us that MEC was established five years ago to work with women employed in the maquila factories and in domestic service and to help unemployed women as well. MEC hopes to achieve improved status for women by providing a range of assistance including micro-credit programs, health and safety programs, leadership training, human rights training and training for non-traditional jobs. In addition MEC serves as an effective lobby group for the interests of women. The head office is a repository for a wide range of print material and maintains a library of related resources. Several unions in British Columbia provide moral and financial support for the work of MEC.
We meet in a conference room with several MEC leaders. Besides Sandra, we are joined by Josepha Rivera who acts as a promoter and link in the maquila factories; Maria Elena Davila who has worked within the organization since its inception; Esperanza Cárdinas who works in the documentation centre; Patricia Guiterrez who works in administration; and Mabel Aleman, the promoter of the micro-credit program.
In addition to maquila workers, MEC is also working now with tobacco workers who live in conditions similar to those of the maquila workers. MEC is considering reaching out to people employed in mining communities and in particular determining how mining activities affect the lives of women and children and the stability of families.
MEC representatives and members are not afraid of organizing or carrying out research into sensitive issues affecting them. They go inside the factories and talk with managers and workers and are effective in trying to counter-balance the power of the maquilas. They have made progress in improving working conditions while at the same time recognizing the essential economic reality of the maquila factories which have become the chief providers of jobs and salaries in the country. A strong but non-confrontational approach is taken.
When first organized, MEC found that their promoters inside the factories would be fired as soon as they were identified. MEC helped these workers get other jobs. For every promoter who was fired, five more women would volunteer to take her place. The managers finally stopped firing staff for organizing activities. Promoters who were fired maintained their positions within MEC, unlike organizers in unions who, when fired, also lost their union positions. This has helped make MEC a strong organization and an effective alternative to traditional unions.
While MEC does not want to take on the roles of a union, the fact is that it is often more effective. It takes only 20 people to form a union or a branch of a union within a factory and at present only 10 percent of workers in maquila factories are covered by collective agreements.
MEC has an effective educational program in place to support its many initiatives. Small colorful booklets have been published to provide information for workers and to outline steps that must be taken to pursue industrial grievances. Over 18,000 copies have been produced of two titles, one dealing with strike procedures and the other covering workers’ rights. MEC is currently organizing a conference for Central and South America to bring together all parties interested in the rights of workers–unions, civil society organizations and others–to determine what role exists for each and to streamline the civil movement.
Sandra was one of the original founders of the Sandinista Workers’ Union but she left following a bitter confrontation between the executive and the women’s secretariat. She believes unions in Nicaragua are becoming increasingly ineffective and full of internal and inter-union turmoil and strife.
Our morning session at an end, Susan makes a presentation to Sandra of hats and other materials provided by some of the BC unions. We then have lunch in the outdoor courtyard. Shortly after we meet with about 15 women and one man who work in the maquila factories and hear about their lives. For these people, most of whom are quite young, life in the factories consists of long hours, high production quotas and little pay. But all are thankful that they have this employment because it provides steady incomes to support their families. They also recognize that there are simply no other options available to them at this time.
Listening to their stories as translated by Lee, it becomes clear that MEC has provided a source of strength for each of them. The fact that they belong to the same group and that it effectively works on their behalf has given them pride in the organization and a realization of what can be accomplished by steady progress towards realistic goals. Several comment on the benefits of MEC programs that have helped them as individuals.
As the discussion goes on, I stand up to begin photographing our hosts. These are beautiful and powerful faces and self-esteem is evident upon them. As the discussion turns to health and safety programs for women, one of the members rises and walks to a large cardboard box in the corner of the room. She then walks around to each person and hands out a strip of what looks like bright blue foil paper. When she reaches me, she has run out but with the encouragement of her colleagues, returns to the big box and takes out a handful of the strips. Coming right back to me, she hands me about ten of the strips which turn out to be . . . condoms! Great gales of laughter arise and I confess that this is a terrific joke carried out by a very sharp young woman. I tell the group that I am highly flattered and thank my benefactor for her generous consideration.
After our meeting breaks up, I photograph several groupings of the women outside in the courtyard. The offices around us are very nicely decorated and the garden they surround is quite lovely. This has been a rewarding visit and it has provided a chance to meet these active women in a setting that is comfortable for them and that encourages them to talk about their lives as workers in Managua.
Our travel later in the afternoon takes us back to Masaya, past the volcano that we visited earlier. Here we enter an enormous craft market and are somewhat overwhelmed by the array of materials available. If I had more luggage space, I would buy a hammock for the deck at home. I satisfy myself with a few small purchases and wander around with Susan and Carol for a time and later see the items Diana has purchased for the CoDevelopment auction sale. We leave this market and travel a short distance to a colonial-era fortress that is now another craft market. This one is much quieter and doesn’t have the crush of the first one. But there are pictures to gather here as well, my favourite being of Carol teaching little street beggars how to play tic-tac-toe. She is down on the pavement with several of these kids, giving them a moment of childish pleasure in what otherwise might be a rather bleak day. Carol has been the children magnet wherever we have gone. There is something about the chemistry of Grade 5 teachers.
We return at sundown to our casa in Managua and decide to order in pizza. I buy a dozen bottles of beer from the desk attendant and we walk over to the nearby restaurant to pick up the pizza. This is the last evening in Central America for four of us but Lee and Diana will stay for another week at least. We pass the evening eating pizza, drinking beer, telling stories and sharing recollections about the week and what an amazing and rewarding experience it has been. Diana and Lee present each of us with beautiful cards that contain messages of appreciation for our involvement in this trip. Mine has a prophetic message, it will turn out, and among other things it says that I am “best dresser” of the group. We take some final group photographs in the front lounge and then its packing for tomorrow’s departure and we all turn in. Good night, Nicaragua.
Sunday, February 13, 2000
We have hired the driver from yesterday to pick us up and take us to the Managua airport for our departure. He’s not sure of the direction to the airport but finally we arrive well in time for the flight. Check-in is a confused procedure, with everyone catching flights trying to funnel past a single security agent at a set of doors. Those who have successfully checked in return through the same doors and mild pandemonium prevails. When we finally get to the Continental check-in counter, Diana handles all the procedures and makes sure the baggage is properly tagged. As we are handed our boarding passes, the agent says, “Mr Johnston, we would like you to travel in first class as we are over-booked in coach.” This gets the immediate attention of my travel companions and they want to know why I should get such favourable treatment over them. “It is because he is properly dressed,” replies the agent.
Our flight to Houston is wonderful, especially as experienced from my wide, deep and luxurious leather seat. Our arrival there will start a ten hour wait for all of us but Marcia, who has less than an hour to make her connection for Newark and then on to Halifax. Carol and Susan board their flight for Vancouver and I board mine to Calgary at approximately 2200. I arrive at my Calgary hotel at 0415 Houston time for a three hour sleep. Next morning, I complete the final leg to Edmonton and home, arriving at 11 Harmony Place around noon on Monday, February 14.
I have experienced a wonderful adventure and have seen an intriguing part of the world. My travel companions have been grand and the work in arranging and carrying out the tour by Diana and Lee superb. It is gratifying to know that Canada has representation in Central America provided by young women of their calibre. I am proud of both of them and what they are accomplishing. They took very good care of their four charges and introduced us to ways of life that we would otherwise have no way of experiencing. Thank you again, Diana and Lee.
Photographs are sent for processing and copies mailed out, journals are prepared, e-mails are sent back and forth and stories are written for newsletters and magazines. The money provided by my organization has been well spent and I will report that and something of these travels in the summer issue of The ATA Magazine.