I Went to Jail

You may have noticed that I have not posted in two weeks or so… Continue reading

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At a Crossroads

Every year the Peace Corps has a series of regional meetings on Safety & Security. The León/Chinandega meeting was last week while I was on Ometepe, so the Peace Corps kindly asked me to attend the meeting in Estelí. The meeting was yesterday morning, and I left with one overwhelming feeling: Who were all those people? There were a lot of Volunteers, especially from the two new groups, that I did not know. And during the meeting, the Country Director mentioned the Close-of-Service Conference for Nica 62 – the group that entered Nicaragua directly before my group. I can’t believe that they are leaving soon. I look at them as my misfit older brothers and sisters. Once they go, we are next! But nonetheless, I left the meeting having realized that we have seen the ascent of Nica 63. With 62 in their twilight (sorry guys, but you are lame ducks), and us right at one-year, we are the alpha dogs. 63 is the group leading committees, 63 is being asked to present at workshops, and 63 is in full project execution mode. We are now asked to give training sessions to the new groups that come in, not 62 so much anymore, and not 64 yet. But despite our position, I personally feel like I am at a bit of a crossroads. I don’t feel unguided or lost; I just feel that now being more than halfway up the mountain volcano and having the summit crater in sight, I have a number of paths ahead of me, and I need to decide which to take and how I will get down afterwards. Let me try to explain:

Peace Corps training is a mix of language classes, practical application, training sessions developed by the local staff, and DC-mandated training sessions. Take a guess at my opinion of the DC-mandated sessions.

I do not remember the exact session, but in one of the DC sessions they talked about our mental state of mind and how it would fluctuate. They even handed out of graph showing how we would feel at each month of our service. It looked like a roller coaster. I found it asinine. How could they know how I would feel at any given point in the future!? Peter facilitated the session for us, so I took to calling it “Peter’s Cycle of Misery.” One thing that stands out on the graph is the profound dip in happiness at the one year mark. I doubted that one just as much as the other ups and downs, but other Volunteers did warn us that they all had a rough time at the one year point.

Bruised Face with DrinkWell, it’s true. I alluded to it in a post two weeks ago. My particular dip came literally right at a year in country, after I got back from Florida. A few things conspired to make me unhappy. It lasted for about two months. I’ve certainly bounced back though and I am feeling good about my year to come (it’s really only 11 months now, and from what I hear the wind-down at the end can have a long tail). However, I do feel like I am at a bit of a crossroads. Although I feel good about the year to come, I don’t exactly see it clearly. Looking back, I’m glad about all the people I have met and efforts I have made toward my project goals. However, I definitely want to see sustainable results, which is what I am considering as I look forward. I feel good to know that I made it over the “one-year hump” and I have a whole other year to meet goals.

So what sort of projects do I see in my future:

  • In regards to my three cooperatives, transitioning from training them to helping them transform themselves into successful enterprises that are putting skills to use and can continue to do so into the future
  • I love giving my monthly teacher trainings. It is one of my favorite projects. However, they are highly theoretical. I always give teaching tips, but I have no idea if the teachers are actually using a practical methodology. I am going to try to visit, in the classroom, as many of the teachers as possible. It will be difficult from a purely time perspective, but I am going to try.
  • Maybe try to do some more financial education/community banking – and I actually got a lead on this today (I have a lot of thoughts on these topics, but I have been saving them in the hopes that I get some more experience and can share more fully developed thoughts)
  • Offering sessions on marketing and online marketing for the León tourism industry (there are a lot of great local offerings, but the functionaries lack the marketing skills to attract tourists). I would just need to find a counterpart to work with on organization and strategy, as well as a qualified co-trainer.
  • Follow-up with some of the more remote business owners from the tourism development workshop last week, plus work with Dave and his client in Mateare to connect them with tour agencies in León that would like to offer tours to Momotombito
  • Leverage the work done with my university counterparts to see if I can help incubate more value-added production/manufacturing in León

And I will give credit where credit is due. Looking over my mid-service feedback from our Program Director Georgia, she doesn’t stimulated a lot of these ideas. She’s good. She’s very good.

Isla Juan Venado Salinas Grandes Beach Volcan Cosigüina Volcan San Cristobal Volcan Telica Momotombo Momotombito Nagarote León Viejo Jiquilillo Beach Wetlands of Chinandega Climb the Cathedral Ruben Darío Museum (which is a block from my house) Myths and Legends Museum Botanical Gardens

Eric and Georgia are on the map!

My overwhelming preoccupation with all of this is balancing the time needed with my work in the schools, especially when things ramp up before the business competitions in the second semester (we have inter-semester vacation in two weeks, and after that we will be kicking into high gear to plan and get the student groups ready for the competitions). Juggling my projects earlier this year got a bit rough, especially with my need to study (I have an official August 7th test day now). However, it is also motivational to see that my only preoccupation is time. A year ago it would have been social and communicative. How would I have built the network to execute projects and successfully handle communicating with everyone? So overall, I am optimistic.

Despite my optimism, I think that some people in my group are still having a hard time. We recently lost two members of Small Business 63 (we came in with 17 and now we are down to 11), and their departure is definitely hurting their closest friends in the group. A number of other members have recently lost family members, and other people are having problems in their communities. Another guy broke his wrist in a rain storm, plenty of other people are experiencing health problems, and it seems that a particularly virulent strain of jock itch is plaguing a majority of the male members of the group. Recently, I’ve been trying to stay in touch with a few members of the group a bit better just to help group cohesion and make sure everyone is doing OK and doesn’t need any help.

And I don’t just have work goals for the next year. I also have travel goals. Once I get past the GMAT I will definitely be spreading my wings (as much as the cramped buses allow). As I mentioned last week, the longer I am here the more I want to see and experience.

I still have the Occidente Bucket List, first formulated with my dearly departed site-mate, Joanna:

Mangroves with Trainees 65Sadly, Joanna never completed the list, and I doubt I will either. Since I have been to the mangroves in Poneloya I have less desire to go to Isla Juan Venado or the wetlands of Chinandega. I hear they are very similar. Plus, I haven’t exactly heard great things about the San Cristobal hike other than the sheer thrill of conquer, so I doubt I will actively search for a way to make it up there. I definitely plan on making it to the other locations though.

And I also have a list of other places in Nicaragua that I want to visit outside of my region:

  • The department of Boaco and the site of my fellow Blue Hen, Tom Ford
  • My friend Joe’s site, which gets rave reviews up in Matagalpa (I want to make my way up there on July 4th)
  • A few more outings in Estelí, especially Miraflor (cooperative of farming and tourism cooperatives in the moutains)
  • El Crucero (pleasant eco-lodge area in the highlands of Managua)
  • Caribbean Coast (December trip in the works)
Tom and Nicaragua's BFF Jimmy Carter

Tom and Nicaragua’s BFF Jimmy Carter

And those are just on my essential-gotta visit-list. I’ve also got a secondary list:

  • See the sites in Managua a bit more so I don’t think of it as so much of a dump anymore
  • Isla Zapatera (petroglyphs!)
  • Department of Nueva Segovia and hiking the tallest mountain in Nicaragua (both waaaaaay up north nestled up against the Honduran border)
  • Plus a number of places I want to visit/explore again
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Nicaraguan Folk Music

Five posts in five days. Here is the last one. It was a good and fun-filled-fun packed week.

Over the last two months León (which I will never tire of lauding for its quality and frequent offerings of cultural events) has had two concerts from popular Nicaragua folk singers/bands. First, Katia Cardenal, came around for a free show, and just tonight Carlos Mejía Godoy and his brother, Luís Enrique, were accompanied by Carlos’ band plus a guitarist and collaborator of Luís Enrique.

I have put together a YouTube playlist of their music, if you are interested:

Katia is the niece of Padre Ernesto Cardenal, and originally sang with her brother, Salvador, in the Duo Guardabarranco (the Guardabarranco is the national bird. I’ve been trying to get a good picture, because it is a beautiful bird, but very energetic and always flying around.). Unfortunately he died of a rare blood disease, but she continued to sing and record, often with her daughter on the guitar. Her songs are usually about love, the environment, and sexual-domestic abuse.

The Mejía Godoy brothers are much older and have been performing since before the Revolution. Originally they were Sandinistas, but after the Revolution they began to disagree with the Sandinista government, and now they are politically opposed to the Ortega regime. Their music touches traditional themes, politics, and religion.

And believe it or not, Luis Enrique played an entire song about Charco Verde, Ometepe, where our tourism business development workshop was held this past week. I can’t find a YouTube version of the song, but it is all about Chico Largo, a local Charco Verde ghost/legend. Apparently if he is unhappy with you he will turn you into a cow. Luckily I did not get on his bad side last week.

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Day Four: Tourism Business Development Workshop, Ometepe

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Day Three: Tourism Business Development Workshop, Ometepe

Everyone was a lot happier this morning than yesterday morning, since the electricity was running last night so the air conditioning and fans were keeping our rooms cool. The sessions in the morning were dedicated to accounting, and in the afternoon Robert and I gave a presentation on customer service.

Giving the customer service presentation was pretty difficult. I think that customer service is one of the aspects of business administration that everyone thinks they are doing right. I can tell you from personal experience in Nicaragua, they are not. So you need to try to remove the participant from their own personal reality, have them see the truth, and then plug them back into their business so they can identify room for improvement. We didn’t quite get there this time, but we’ll keep working on improving this presentation in the future.

Working with the business owners for going on three days now, it has become apparent who is more outspoken and grasping the concepts we are teaching, and who is more or less struggling. There are two participants in particular who have literacy problems. One of them is doing a great job though, despite his personal limitations. The other one, not so much. Others still are just quieter people and less willing to ask questions or ask for help. But all of the other Volunteers are doing a great job and rotating around the business owners as much as possible. I definitely think that for some business owners this workshop has been excellent and they are going to bring a lot of great skills back home with them. However, I also think it is imperative that the Volunteers follow-up with all of the business owners. Nearly all of them, with the exception of one business owner way up north, have business owners nearby, so it will be easier for us to follow-up with them.

When the technical sessions wrapped up at 4:15 this afternoon we took a trip to El Ojo de Agua, a local natural spring that is extremely popular to visit and swim in. The water was nice and everyone, Volunteers and Nicaraguan business owners, had a great time. I’m glad that we went there, because I did not visit El Ojo de Agua when I was here with my parents in December. And of course, yet still, I find things on the island that I want to do. On Volcan Madeiras there is a waterfall that I am told is an excellent hike and destination. There is also kayaking around parts of the island, and a shallow submerged peninsula where you can walk out into the lake and feel like you are walking on water. Plus, of course, more petroglyphs to find.

Even though we are leaving tomorrow, I have a feeling I will be back here for at least one more visit in the next year.

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Day Two: Tourism Business Development Workshop, Ometepe

Day two of the workshop started a little rough. The power went out last night (a common occurrence on Ometepe) so our rooms had no air conditioning or fans. The rooms were very hot all night long. Ometepe is not as hot as León, but I’ve become extremely accustomed to sleeping with a fan seven nights a week, so I was very uncomfortable last night.

On the other hand, the workshop is going very well. We started the day with a talk from a tourism expert on the tourism situation in Nicaragua. The most recent estimate put Nicaraguan tourism business at $800 million per annum. This is compared to the Central American behemoth, Costa Rica, at $2.5 billion per year. A PC Volunteer who had a blog post featured on the official Peace Corps blog had this to say about tourism in general:

In international development circles, tourism is hot. More than one billion people traveled internationally in 2013, accounting for nine percent of global GDP and one in every 11 jobs worldwide. For development professionals in developing countries where there are marketable tourism assets, these numbers should make you smile.

After the tourism talk a Nicaraguan business consultant who has collaborated with the Peace Corps before, María Luisa, came to talk about strategic planning. Her talk and technical assistance to the business owners was absolutely excellent. It helped the business owners a lot, and it has also helped me to develop my delivery techniques and the tools that I will use with my business advisory clients (for instance, the fish processing cooperative, who is not present at this taller, could greatly benefit from the goals-strategies-activities worksheet that María Luisa used with the participants). We recently got word that two of the three Small Business Development Volunteer Coordinators from the office in Managua are leaving the Peace Corps (both for masters degrees in the US), so the Peace Corps is going to be looking to hire two new members for the SBD team. I am definitely going to send in an e-mail to the directors recommending María Luisa.

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After lunch the sessions were on marketing and building a professional network, followed by two hours of technical assistance, in which the business owners work on their business plans, and the Volunteers rotate around assisting them. It is actually very challenging work. There are around 20 business owners and only seven Volunteers. And every business owner comes from a different background, regions of the country, and tourism experience. I’ve noticed some other business owners, in addition to one that I brought, who have a hard time reading and writing. During the technical assistance we have to overcome those barriers and help the participants put pen to paper so that they can head back home on the ferry with at least a preliminary plan to share with their business partners.

Working with the President of the Cooperative at Cerro Negro, as usual, has been very challenging. On the one hand, the strategic planning session was perfect for her. The President is such a pathless visionary that she has lost the confidence of the other members of the Cooperative. The rigid plan-making structure of that session was ideal to force her mind to think in an orderly and deliberate manner. But for someone whose head is usually in the clouds, it remains difficult to get her to apply herself to the new tools she now has in front of her. Nevertheless, I see glimmers of hope. She is thinking about plans, and we’ve talked about how we can stimulate the other members of the Cooperative into positive action. To be honest, I have had so much trouble with this business, I had already wanted to dump them. Georgia, the Small Business Volunteer Coordinator, convinced me to keep trying with them. And I am glad that I have kept trying. However, this is the last effort that I am going to exert. If I can’t move ahead with the Cooperative after this I am not going to keep proactively reaching out to them.

Flor, from the Cerro Negro Cooperative

Flor, from the Cerro Negro Cooperative

IMG_4202IMG_4205As I was strolling around the grounds of Charco Verde I saw these light posts. At first they just seem like crappie painted lamp posts. But really, they perfectly encapsulate Ometepe. Ometepe is known for its rock carvings, called petroglyphs. And often, a spiral design appears on these carvings. It is an unofficial symbol of Ometepe, and perfect also for the hippie vibe.

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Being so deeply involved in community tourism this week, I couldn’t help but thinking of a future business idea: either writing a series of community tourism guidebooks or having a community tourism website. I like the idea of community tourism. Community tourism is tourism side-by-side the daily lives of locals. It is locally owned and operated. It interweaves agro-tourism and eco-tourism into a “non-traditional” but “authentic” tourism experience. I think a lot of backpackers set out for this kind of experience, but unfortunately they wind up getting caught up in much more mass produced gringo trails and lose sight of what they set out for. I think there is a market for helping people keep their community-based focus, and it would probably be a lot of fun righting the guide books too!

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Close Encounters of the Howler Monkey Kind

[Apologies for the lack of pictures and videos. The internet is very slow on the island and I don’t particularly want to be up past midnight tonight uploading files. I will add the photos and videos when I am back in León. I did link-in two YouTube videos though. I think they somewhat express some things that I talk about in this post.]

UPDATE, Sunday, June 21: All photos and videos are now up

One truth that has become evidently apparent to me over my 15+ months in Nicaragua is that the longer you live somewhere or get to know a place, the more you find that you want to see and do. For me this is true of New York, Northeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Washington DC. There are very few places that I have ever been (Camperdown, Victoria, Australia immediately comes to mind as an exception to the rule) where I wouldn’t like to see and experience more.

And this truism couldn’t be any truer for Nicaragua. Before finding out I would be heading to Nicaragua I knew frighteningly little about the country. I knew three things:

  • William Walker
  • Ortega
  • Iran-Contra

I didn’t know the full William Walker story, I didn’t know who Ortega was, and I barely had the slightest understanding of Iran-Contra. And I certainly did not consider Nicaragua as a vacation destination. I remember that when I was planning my Central American graduation trip with Tom and Ty we considered, momentarily, Nicaragua. Tom mentioned that it would have loved to “rough-it through Nicaragua” for a few weeks. I literally imagined bushwhacking through jungle, stopping at occasional remote towns and tourist destinations. I had no idea what Nicaragua was actually like, or that there is a somewhat well-established tourist trail.

And now, I am a fount of Nicaraguan factoids. I can tell you about William Walker and his connection to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, I can give you my opinion of Daniel Ortega, and I can extemporaneously talk about Reagan, and his Iran-Contra Affair. I also can tell you how to get from León to Somoto in one morning, or if you can hike Cosigüina Volcano without staying the night at the base.

And of course, the longer I am here, the more I read about Nicaragua, the more I travel, and the more people I meet, the more I found out about, and the more I want to see, do, and experience.

Which takes me to my current whereabouts – Charco Verde, Ometepe Island, Rivas, Nicaragua. Last August I didn’t even know that Ometepe Island existed. I knew that Lake Nicaragua existed. I had seen it on maps many times, and remember having to fill in Central American maps in high school. And I suppose I had seen, if not consciously noticed the small dot on the map, corresponding to Ometepe Island. Looking back on it, Ometepe is sort of like that island in the lake in Game of Thrones in the Riverlands; I think it is called the God’s Eye. Or at least that is the name of the lake. Could Harrenhall be on its shores? Anyway, back to Nicaragua/Ometepe. Although I must have seen Ometepe on maps, I certainly didn’t know the name of the island. Or its volcanic origins. Or its wonderful natural beauty.  But now, after getting to know Nicaragua, I love Ometepe, and find myself here for a second time. And the more time I am here, and the more time I spend in Nicaragua conversing with locals and other Volunteers, and reading about the country, the more I find out there is to see and do on this little volcanic island. In some ways it is good that my time in Nicaragua has an expiration date. It forces me to take advantage of my time, make lists, and check things off of them. Without those expiration dates, sometimes we just leave things until it is too late.

Approaching Ometepe by ferry

Approaching Ometepe by ferry

This particular week I actually find myself on Ometepe for work. The Peace Corps Nicaragua Small Business Development Program is hosting a tourism business development workshop here at Hotel Charco Verde. I personally invited three clients from León to the event:

In addition, we are joined here by a number of other tourism operators from around the country:

  • Hammock craftsman and salesman
  • Convenience store owner
  • Eco-tourism from El Crucero, Managua (I’ve heard the area is beautiful)
  • Café in El Rama, a way-point to reaching Nicaraguan’s Caribbean Coast
  • Restaurant and guest house owners from San Carlos, Río San Juan
  • Two different hotel operators in El Sauce
  • A home stay and community-based tourism cooperative from El Sauce as well
  • Miraflor Reserve in Estelí, which is known as one of the best run and organized rural agro/eco-tourism offerings in Nicaragua
  • And I think even more business owners are joining us tomorrow

Throughout the week they will be receiving talks and consultations on strategic planning, administration, marketing, networking, and customer service (along with my colleague Robert, I will be facilitating the customer service session). I think tomorrow a government official is coming to talk about tourism in Nicaragua, in general.

Concepcion, back in December, before it started erupting

Concepcion, back in December, before it started erupting

15 months I didn’t even really know that Ometepe existed, and now I am ecstatic to be back on the island (whose active volcano has registered more than 2,000 eruptions/emissions in the last month and a half). Ometepe is the only place in Nicaragua where I’ve felt that tourists are so welcome, or just so commonplace, that they just blend in and seem like local wildlife. No shoes, no shirt, no problem. In León the locals think so badly about foreign backpackers that I get asked why Americans never shower (I politely tell them that it is the Europeans that don’t shower – they have just given all White people a bad reputation). In Granada tourists are like herds of cattle being shuttled along by the ranchers. They’re happy the have the cattle, but would simply prefer that they didn’t smell so bad or poop everywhere. Even in Río San Juan, I got the sense that they were extremely happy to accommodate the tourists that are arriving in greater and greater numbers every year, but they were still uneasy and unsure about what the ‘gringos’ want.

But Ometepe is nothing like that. A local carefree attitude suits backpacker tourism well. This is, after all, an island that was ordered to evacuate during the Somoza-era due to fiery eruptions on Concepción. Boats were sent, not a single person left, and consequently, not a single person died. With that attitude, I don’t see why they would mind some shoeless hippies walking around, or to come up with some cool restaurant concepts, like vegetarian, or all-organic pizza.

I call nispero the brown sugar fruit, because the flesh is very sweet, brown, and reminds me of brown sugar

I call nispero the brown sugar fruit, because the flesh is very sweet, brown, and reminds me of brown sugar

We’re staying at Hotel Charco Verde, which is a nice hotel on the beach. One Volunteer broke his wrist and unfortunately could not come to the workshop, and I was going to room with him, so I actually have my own room, which is a rarity in the Peace Corps. It reminds me of being back as a consultant and having hotel rooms all to myself, the bed next to mine completely unoccupied except for my dirty clothes. However, if I stepped out of my room now, I wouldn’t be greeted by another room across the hallway, but instead a sky filled with starts (unfortunately, we really don’t get many stars in León since there are a lot of lights at now). And during the day, there is a nispero tree about a hundred yards away with rapacious howler monkeys swinging around and tossing unripe nisperos at us if we get too close to the tree.

[Sorry, but the monkeys proved photogenically elusive]

Across the lake, on the coastline, there is a long line of large wind-generating windmills. And they are set with blinking red lights so that low flying aircraft and UFO’s don’t strike them. However, from our-point of view on the island and with the wind blowing, the turbines block the lights in weird patterns. It looks like aliens are trying to send us a message in morse code. It reminded me of the universal tonal signals from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

So that’s what I’m up to this week. I’m lucky enough to be back on Ometepe for work this time (which means my trip is funded by taxpayers and our Chinese bondholder-overlords). And in terms of work, other than having an excellent workshop, I have specific hopes for each of my clients that are here. For Haldor and his massage business, I hope that he can formulate on his own a coherent plan for growth in the future. For the Telica Cooperative, I hope that Alfredo (the member accompanying me) creates a vision for how he wants his cooperative to operate, plus that he benefits from the experience of other business owners with similar enterprises in other parts of Nicaragua.

As for the cooperative at Cerro Negro, I have had a lot of trouble organizing them and convincing them to work together on a project or goal. In addition, their President, who is here with me, is all vision but no plan. I hope that first, she can come up with a plan for some projects she would like to see in their future, and more importantly, that we can work together to unite the cooperative to work together to realize the plans that she will hopefully be putting together.

And so I leave you all, my friends, family, and stranger-readers, with some advice. Get out and experience what your home has to offer, whether it be natural, cultural, or both (unless you are from Camperdown. If you are from Camperdown leave. Get out. Get out now while you still can.). You don’t need to try to visit as many places as possible. It has been just as fulfilling for me to experience as much as possible in just one place. Maybe you too will have Close Encounters of a Howler Monkey Kind.

As for me, I will be here until Friday, when we head back to the mainland. I will probably stay in Managua on Friday, but I will definitely be back in León by Saturday night for the Carlos Mejía Godoy concert (expect a blog post on Nicaraguan folk music coming soon).

A mini photo gallery of the cruise over to Ometepe:

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The Blogs of Others

Sometimes my friends just say it better than I can:

1 Year as a Peace Corps Volunteer
By Thomas

Playing. Learning. Coloring. Facilitating. Competing. Applying. Moving around. Sharing.
Also by Thomas

My new love: Bachata
By Jessica

Otavalo, Ecuador
By Isabel, my dearly departed site-mate, who is no longer in Nicaragua, but if you read this you will see the connection. She’s completely right, by the way.

UPDATE:

Also, I forgot to add Jessica’s exceptional description of the hike to Telica. I may even steal that Land Before Time video one of these days for one of my own blog posts.
splorin the volcanoes, part II: Volcan Telica

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Machete-Wielding Hitchhikers on Active Volcanoes

My former-but-always-and-forever-in-the-cuadra-of-my-heart site-mate Isabel is traveling through South America at the moment, and reading her blog is bringing back excellent memories of my short time in Ecuador, studying abroad in the winter of 2009. In particular, Isabel was recently in Baños, which reminds me of a particular incident on the slopes of a volcano back in that formative January. Looking back on it now, after a year in the lesser-developed Nicaragua, I wouldn’t even blink if this happened to me now, but it is still worth recounting.

2247_1055395869544_3009_nA group of us were in Baños, a fun Ecuadorian town in the mountains, nestled under the active Tunguragua Volcano. One day we decided to rent ATV’s and take them up the trails of the volcano to soak it in and get a good view. On our way up my ATV was having trouble, and we had to pull over to figure out what was wrong. None of us had any idea, but luckily a local was walking along the road and he offered to help me out. And sure enough he was able to fix whatever was wrong and get us moving up the road again. After fixing it he asked if he could hitch a ride up the volcano on the back of my ATV, and I obliged.

As we were heading up further the volcano I couldn’t hear the other ATV’s as close behind me, so I turned back to check on them. They were keeping a distance from the hitchhiker and me, going slowly. When they saw me, they started making scared faces and chopping at the air with their hands. That when I saw a glimmering machete blade protruding out of my cargo’s backpack. There was nothing I could do at that point though, so we just kept on going.

Clearly, he was not a deranged machete murderer. We made it to a lookout point, and he even watched our ATV’s when we hiked up a little bit to get a nice view. The view was great at the top, and my friend took an excellent picture of me climbing a tree which looks like it is perched at the side of a precipitous volcanic precipice.

As I recall, after that we drove back on down to town without incident, volcanic, mechanical, machete-violence, or otherwise.

Incidents of Travel Past:

Part 1: Frankfurt, Germany

Part 2: Quito, Ecuador

Part 3: The Greek Isles

Part 4: Escape from Cobán

Part 5: Stopover in Honolulu

Part 6: When North is to the South in Hungary

Part 7: Lima

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Prototype Day, 2015

Every Small Business Development Volunteer in Nicaragua shares one work activity in common: entrepreneurship education in high schools. In Senior year of the Nicaraguan equivalent of Home Economics class, the curriculum is based solely on entrepreneurship. However, many of the teachers do not have business experience, so Peace Corps Volunteers team up with these teachers to help them teach the course, in the hopes that they continue doing so effectively after we leave.

The class is part theoretical, part practical. The practical aspect involves the students, in groups of roughly six, developing and selling a product or service. Step one is helping them think of a good product or service. And this can be difficult. The product needs to be new to the local market and can’t have alcohol or tobacco or be an arts and crafts. The students also need to package them and sell them, so they need to keep accessibility of packaging and costs in mind. Lastly, the products need to reflect the abilities and skills of the students. One group told me they wanted to make a ruler that transformed into a triangle. It’s a great idea, but seeing as none of them knew anything about plastics or mechanical engineering, I had to help them come up with another idea.

Taking all of these requirements together, sometimes it is difficult for the students to come up with a good project. At the beginning of the class we spend a lot of time on creativity, production, and idea generation so that they students can think of their own ideas (and with some of my teachers this year I identified that as a deficiency that we are going to work on next year and in my teacher trainings). And sometimes, the teachers and I let the students slide through with a crappy product, just for the purposes on moving along and letting them have something that they can work on for the rest of the year.

Around May/June, after all of the idea generation and design, it is time for the student groups to present their prototypes. And my last class (I am working directly with 10 sections this year) presented yesterday. Here is a list of the products this year:

  • Insecticide
  • Coconut hand soap
  • Caffeine free coffee made from soy beans
  • “Pink Sauce” – a ketchup and mayonnaise based sauce for sandwiches, snacking, and sauce bases (the only product that I did not try this year)
  • Coconut candles
  • Piña colada yogurt
  • Fish prepared like Nicaraguan chopped meat
  • Carrot chips
  • Natural grains-based drink with lots of iron for people with anemia
  • Hibiscus jelly
  • A machine to cut styrofoam (one of my favorite products of the year)
  • Seasoned breadcrumbs made from plantain
  • Mango cake (dry – the cake at a party that one person eats a sliver of and the rest just sits there all night)
  • Solar cellphone charger
  • Hand soap made from guanacaste (a type of tree) seed pods
  • Milkshake
  • Natural cream for stretch marks
  • Syrups for Nicaraguan style Italian ices
  • Yogurt for diabetics
  • Perfume made from ginger (it smells quite nice and nothing like ginger and is one of the products this year that I see the most potential in)
  • Coffee yogurt
  • Ready to throw in the blender packages of fruit for smoothies
  • Hair gel made from flax seeds
  • Japanese style face cream made from rice
  • Dual-headphone splitter
  • More gel made from flax seeds (every year tons of group have this idea and think they are blowing everyone’s mind with something innovative)
  • Paint made with wheat flour
  • Condensed soy milk
  • Anti-inflammatory skin gel made from eucalyptus and coconut oil
  • Waste-paper basket in the form of animals
  • Carao milk (Carao is a native plant with a long, wide seed pod that has a paste inside that contains very healthy properties. Milk mixed with this syrup tasted pretty good and this is one of my favorite products right now.)
  • Tortilla-flattening machine (this one has great potential too)
  • Carrot sucking candy (I think it is still stuck in my teeth, one day later)
  • Chocolate for diabetics
  • Lalosla-Nica (worst product of the year award. The product is indescribable and this is the name that the group came up for the company. Basically, it is soggy tortilla nachos.)
  • Stuffed tamales (tamales in Nicaragua are quite different from Mexican tamales, and I’m not always a fan, but these came out pretty well)
  • “Appel Jelly” (yes, that’s how they spelled it)
  • Fried chicken wontons (these were excellent and it seems like the group is already working on a plan to preserve and sell/distribute the product)
  • Carrot candy bars (these were also excellent – the hit of the class in fact)
  • Cream to take away skin-spots (I’m not convinced)
  • Another insecticide
  • Another body spray/perfume (their teacher thinks they just bought it)
  • Fruit smoothies with chunks of fruit
  • Cacao ice cream (was good up until the moment I actually tasted it)
  • Cramelized fruits (tasty)
  • Flour to make crepes
  • Vapor rub (when I asked the group why I should buy their product instead of the competition, they had no answer whatsoever. Uphill battle for this one.)
This group decided it would be a good idea to present with one group member wearing his backpack and headphones, and another texting during the presentation
 
My best friend on Prototype Day

My best friend on Prototype Day

There are plenty of groups that don’t bring a product on the designated prototype day. Or they have a severely underdeveloped product/idea. Some of these groups suffer from lack of cohesion and/or motivation, but I’ve also gotten some eye-opening reasons when talking to these groups. In one group, the only girl in the group is the real anchor, pulling along the boys. They didn’t bring anything. When I asked her why, she said it was because her baby was in the hospital for the last two weeks. Another group (same school and section) told me they had difficulty meeting up because two of the girls are young mothers as well. And in a different school in just one group there is a girl who has a newborn baby, and another girl is on indefinite bed-rest because she is underweight and due in a month. That can certainly complicate things when you have a group school assignment to work towards. These were never issues that I had to deal with in high school. And in another school, my teacher-counterpart banned clapping after the presentations, because that’s unprofessional and only something we do for Jesus (he is a devout Evangelical Christian).

The students are also slightly obsessed with giving their products English names. Usually they just translate the product description into English. This has given us gems such as “Gel for Hair,” “Rice Cream,” and “Appel Jelly.” One of the perfume groups wanted to call their product “Mist,” but somehow they got Mist confused with “Mits.”

Going into the prototype presentations I knew that a lot of the products, as they were, weren’t quite what we are looking for. Some groups take the opportunity to create a product and simply prepare food, not thinking about the realities of food processing, packaging, and distribution. Nicaragua is chock full of micro-batch food producers that sell out of their homes or out on the street, door to door. I can hear women (and just a few men) walking up and down the street all day yelling “Tamales! Tortillas!” or “Frescos! Pan!” And they purposefully yell in an elongated nasally voice so that it penetrates into peoples’ homes. “Tamaaaaaaaales! Tortiiiiillaaaas!” Next time you see me, ask me to do an impersonation. The Nicaraguan economy does not need more of these producers, nor are they exhibiting entrepreneurial best practices (although they are certainly entrepreneurial).

Appetizing?

Appetizing?

I will give an example of what I would consider a bad idea on the part of a student: smoothies. A lot of groups want to make smoothies. First of all, I don’t find them very creative at all. Throwing peanuts in or topping it with chunks of fruit really hasn’t blown my mind yet. But secondly, smoothies are a nightmare to preserve, package, and sell. The students don’t have the money to rent a storefront in the center of town, so they need to make them in their homes. If you make a batch of smoothies and freeze them they will turn to rocks, and if you put them in the fridge the ice will melt and you will be left with goopy juice.

Smoothies are simply a no go in my book. And the challenge in advising a group with a crappy product is two-fold. On one hand, you don’t want to tell them to just change their product, because then they will basically shut down for the rest of the year. They aren’t going to invest the time in coming up with a brand new product, plus they would have to re-produce all of the work that they had completed up until that point for the new product (feasibility study, SWOT Analysis, Mission/Vision, etc.). And on the other hand, you can’t tell them to look for ways to change the product, because without guidance they unfortunately do not get very far.

Last year, when I encountered products like these, I would simply tell the students to “investigate other ways to package it” or “think about ways to distribute the product.” But for the most part, Nicaraguan high school students do not operate in that manner. They need clear cut instructions and suggestions, and a firm timeline, or nothing gets done, especially in a group setting. This year I had a plan for all of the smoothies, peanut butters, and “all natural” face creams made from Vaseline. I partnered with the agro-industry and entrepreneurship professor from a local business university to work with his students. We planned an array of activities with his students:

  • I would work with agro-industry and marketing students on how to give presentations and consultations on their fields of expertise
  • They met with my teacher training group and gave them a presentation on value added production and how to teach it to their students
  • The student groups of the teachers in my teacher training group will compete at the university’s entrepreneurship competition on August 30
  • They initiated formal consulting with my fishing cooperative at Poneloya
  • Giving presentation to all of my high school classes on value added production, and informally consulting all of the student groups

Working with the university students has been a challenge, but I think it has been rewarding for everyone. Sometimes they exhibit the same frustrating behaviors and thought processes as my high school students. But we have made great progress, their professor is very pleased, and their work so far with my clients and students has been great. We even came up with a methodology to “back-up” from a final product and create a superior intermediate product (think cake mix instead of cake itself). The methodology, as well as a lot of the focus with the students, is on food, drinks, and other “organics,” but that is simply because 50%-80% of my students come up with those types of products anyway. I’m just as happy, if not more happy, when a student great innovates a non-food item, a service, or something industrial in nature.

  1. Start with a final product (like a smoothie)
  2. Think about the product in terms of it component parts (fruit, sugar, ice, etc.)
  3. Instead of marketing the final product how can we take the component parts and preserve them for a longer period of time (preservatives, refrigeration, dehydration, etc.)
  4. Finally, how can we take this intermediate good and package it to ensure that it stays fresh and can be distributed for sale

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Aaron, plantain chips model

Aaron, plantain chips model

One concept that I like to stress in class and through all of my work is the importance of value-added production for the Nicaraguan economy. We hear all the time in America the importance of manufacturing jobs. It is the same thing here. Before the Revolution Nicaragua did have some production. There was even a light truck called the Pinolero produced in Nicaragua. However, the country’s manufacturing base was destroyed during the Revolution, and for the most part it has not returned. The Nicaraguan balance-of-trade is extremely lopsided towards importing. Even basic processed foods, which could be made in Nicaragua because of an abundance of crops, are typically imported. One infamous example are the ubiquitous plantain chips (very tasty and popular). Nicaragua is bursting at the seams in plantains. So rather than making the chips themselves, the Salvadoreñans buy up the harvest, truck them up to El Salvador, make the chips there, and then ship the finished good back to Nicaragua. That is a very economically wasteful arrangement on Nicaragua’s part.

The value of the Nicaraguan Cordoba. No bueno.

The value of the Nicaraguan Cordoba to the US Dollar. No bueno.

As a result, the Nicaraguan currency is constantly losing value against the dollar, and the country is accumulating debt, not income. The capitalistic response is to produce more internally, and I like the teach the importance of  production to my students (and of course stress it to the teachers that I work with). One of the reasons that I like working with the fishing cooperative so much is because they actually are engaged in value-added production. Basic food items are fairly cheap and easy to transform (unlike woods, metals, and plastics), so naturally, foods and other “organics” like cosmetics and creams are popular among the students. And that is fine with me. However, as I’ve mentioned, they don’t have the vision to process an intermediate good that can be packaged and distributed. Instead they gravitate towards the final consumable goods, like smoothies or nachos. I assume this is because they are less familiar with and accustomed to the intermediate value-added goods. Some of these kids don’t even have refrigerators in their homes.

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The groups that presented to me yesterday were the most combative. I guess it is just the school culture (I’ve definitely noticed differences among the schools, and incidentally that school is named República de Cuba). Every suggestion or criticism I gave they argued with me (and looking back on it now, I think that’s great, even though it frustrated me and my counterpart at the time). The tamale girls were indignant when I suggested they look into packaging their tamales for distribution and sale. Tamales are steamed in plantain leaves (they are made in corn husks in Mexico) and get soggy and cold after only a few hours. If you want to eat them later on you will have to steam them again (I suppose a microwave may work, but even fewer Nicaraguans have microwaves than have fridges). The leader of the group told me that she would be proud to sell tamales on the street, because her mother is a mobile tamale saleswoman (door-to-door street sales is a sign of poverty in Nicaragua).

They were completely missing the point. Door-to-door street sales(usually)women are poor because they are not providing a lot of added value to their clients and the physical nature of their work makes it difficult to mass produce and access a lot of people. Sure, someone who sells breakfast breads in the morning (known here as cosa del horno – “oven thing,” and sopa de leche – “milk soup;” I have no idea why these names stuck) buys the flour and makes the bread, then brings it to you, but the real value-added processing is in the grain milling and the milk pasteurization. Plus, their product will get stale in a matter of hours. Someone could just as easily buy a quality product at the supermarket that lasts longer. Really, these women are simply earning a “convenience tax” for doing the baking and bringing it to their clients’ doors. And they are constrained by the size of their ovens and how far their feet will take them. Not to mention an abundance of competition keeps margins extremely low. I had to explain to the tamale girls that they could be a lot more successful with just a little more innovation. I think they will at least take the idea home with them, whether or not they act on it (the good thing is, the university students will be meeting with them in two weeks, and hopefully that experience will stimulate some more thought in the girls).

Using the value-added production “back-up” methodology we have helped a lot of students groups. One of my milkshake groups is now going to produce a milkshake mix instead of the milkshake themselves. The consumer will just need to add ice and/or ice cream (plus have a blender). And all of the student groups have gotten informal consultations from the university students on everything from packaging and preservation to marketing and ingredients. I’m happy because the products are better, the university students seem to be enjoying the experience and learning, their professor is happy because the new experience is helping his students, and my teacher-counterparts are happy because they are a competitive bunch and they think that they will now have an edge come the entrepreneurship competitions in October.

Now that all of the prototypes have been presented, the next section of the curriculum is marketing. The groups will execute a market study, keeping in mind the profile of their perspective clients, and using this information, create a logo, slogan, and packaging for their products.

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