León, León

This last week  I visited my permanent site of León, León. It was very very hot. The second hottest place in Nicaragua, in fact. Like sitting in place, not moving a muscle, yet still sweating so much your shirt is soaked through-wet hot. And I’ll try to make that the first and last time that I complain about the heat.



However, something that I will never tire of complaining about is the Nicaraguan diet, nutritional habits, and my general dislike for the food. To most appropriately express my views this week, I give you an excerpt from my journal. It is regarding my new host family in León:

May 6, 2014 – León, León

They just gave me a white bread sandwich with a slice of baloney and Russian dressing for dinner. Then my overweight host mother, while holding a glass of Coke, told me that they don’t like to eat fatty foods or processed foods in the house. OMG they just said they were gonna make broccoli and chicken with mayonnaise tomorrow night. I put the kibosh on that.

Now that I’ve gotten my angst out, let me a paint a picture for you of my week and the city. Basically, all I did this week was get accustomed to the city and meet all of the different people I will be working with. These people included:

  • My host family in León
  • The principals, vice principals, and home and careers teachers (entrepreneurship is taught in 10th grade and 11th grade in the Nicaraguan equivalent of our home-ec classes) at five different public high schools in the city
  • The superintendent of the city schools and her deputy for high schools
  • The other five Volunteers in León (one from Small Business Development, who will be leaving in July, two from the Health sector, and two from the TEFL sector, all of whom are young women)
  • The director and her deputy of an NGO that provides micro-loans and other financial assistance to young people, the impoverished, entrepreneurs, and people living with AIDS or that are HIV+
  • The directors of the city’s Department of Small Businesses
  • A few other community members and small business owners

My first impressions:

It’s a nice city. Very colonial. Many of the houses are protected for their historical value with very pretty wooden interiors. There are also a ton of churches (baroque, renaissance, etc.).

The Cathedral

The Cathedral

León also has an interesting history. It is one of the oldest cities in Central America, founded by the Spanish conquistadors. And it has spent time as the capital of Spanish lands in Central America as well as of the country of Nicaragua. In 1610 León was actually moved from its original location at the base of Momotombo Volcano for obvious reasons. León has traditionally been the home of the liberal faction of Nicaragua, and its arch-rival, Granada, is the home of the conservatives. Since independence from Spain the two cities often fought for domination of the country and the prize of being the capital.

Now, while León was re-locating itself to avoid the occasional rumblings of Momotombo, Grananda was dealing with its own pirate problem. Granada is on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua, which is the largest lake in Central America. It is linked to the Caribbean Sea by the Rió San Juan. During Spain and England’s occasional warfare throughout the colonial era, England would hire pirates to raid Spanish holdings. Captain Morgan (seriously, the guy’s name was Henry Morgan) made the most famous raid on Granada by sailing all the way up the Rió San Juan, through Lake Nicaragua, and then burning Granada to the ground.

This riverine route from  the Caribbean to Lake Nicaragua also happens to be why there has always been so much interest in a transcontinental canal through Nicaragua. At the city of Rivas, which is on the lake, it is something like only 16 km to the ocean. Dig a ditch through those 16 short kilometers and your work is done. Then you just take the Captain Morgan route to the Caribbean and you’re on the other side of the world within a day. They’re supposed to start work on a Chinese-backed canal in November. However, there has been talks of a canal literally since the 1500’s and no one is holding their breath down here.

In 1856 the leading liberal and conservative families of León and Granada decided that enough was enough with their fighting, the volcanoes, and the pirates, so they decided to move the capital halfway in-between, to what was then the small city of Managua.

And now you're starting to get the picture why the Peace Corps is in Nicaragua

And now you’re starting to get the picture why the Peace Corps is in Nicaragua

It just so happens that Managua is the Fukushima of Nicaragua, and it has been plagued by devastating Earthquakes ever since. Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash bringing relief to Nicaragua after the 1972 earthquake, which was the most recent devastating earthquake (and the people are really scared that the next big one could be soon). So scared, in fact, that there hasn’t been any school in León since April 10, when there was a 6.2 earthquake. Since then León has been on “alerta roja” and the kids have gone four whole weeks without classes. They are resuming this coming Monday, but it still goes to show how scared they are. The class suspension also made it exceedingly difficult for me to meet my counterparts, since the teachers were officially “on vacation” during the alerta roja.

That was a bit of a diversion from my first impressions, but I am glad with the work arrangements that the Peace Corps Small Business Directors have set up for me. Four of my five high schools already have at least two years of experience with the Peace Corps and entrepreneurship curriculum, so they will not require a ton of my time. That will allow me to focus on the fifth school, which is implementing the curriculum for the first time. I will also be offering teacher training to teachers in schools that do not have the opportunity to work with the Peace Corps.

Through the city’s Department of Small Businesses I will hopefully be able to identify small businesses and entrepreneurs that would like some advice on their businesses and ideas. I’d really like to do some advisory work since I was working as a consultant before coming to Nicaragua.

The name of the NGO that does financial work with young people and the marginalized is Fundación León 2000. The work that I could do with them seems endless. Since I used to work in banking credit risk I could dive into their data and see if I could divine anything useful for them. I could offer financial workshops to their clients. And the idea of working with their AIDS/HIV+ clients is appealing as well. When I was with Ernst & Young I liked looking at my clients’ niche practices (military lending, specialized products, mortgage modifications, etc.). I just see AIDS/HIV+ clients as another specialized market, and one that is extremely marginalized in both a societal and financial sense, based on what I heard from the NGO leaders this week.

Lastly, León is known as a city of universities. There are at least six, public and private, that I know of. I have the prerogative to work with them on projects that fit in with the Peace Corps and Small Business Development goals. I think it might be cool to inspire them to form an Investment Club, like the one that I was a member of at the University of Delaware.

And all this talk of Small Business Development seems to have rubbed off on my host sister, Mindy, who is 12. When I got home from León a few hours ago she told me that she started her own business this week. She is making and selling her own ice cream and chocolate covered frozen bananas and selling them from the house. It sounds like she made a lot of money this week, since they live near a school and she got a lot of business every day when the students let out.

Only two weeks are left now before I become a Volunteer and leave for León permanently. We’ve got a lot to do in training though. I have my final language interview on Tuesday where I hope to advance another language level or two. The four of us in San Juan de Oriente also have to give a 25 minute “Readiness to Serve” presentation, in Spanish, on Wednesday. And Thursday is the small business competitions where my little jelly entrepreneurs will be facing off against the youth groups from the other training towns.

I’ll be sure to share more on the end of training later this week and more on León in a few weeks when I move there permanently. Right now though, I’m going to bed. I had to get up at 5:30 AM this morning (not as rough as my training host family, who started watching their daughter/aunt’s wedding in Spain via Skype at 1:00 AM).

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3 Responses to León, León

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