Monday, January 24, 2011

Welcome to Nicaragua

All in all it was a long day getting to this country. One hour and a half drive from Oakville to Buffalo Int. Airport, one quick flight to Chicago, one 30 or so minute wait in O'hare Int. Airport, one 3 hour flight to Miami and then almost missing my flight from Miami to Managua (I was the third last person to board the plane, the air attendant informed me as I rushed through the tunnel to board.) Oh, and all I ate all day was a Timmy's bagel, a hot chocolate, peanut brittle and mouthfuls of granola here and there. But man oh man was it ever nice to arrive in 30 degree balmy weather. I was greeted and driven to my homestay by a nice man by the name of Gonzalo, who works for La Mariposa as a driver and as a tour guide. The streets of Managua were loud, filled with salsa and meringue music, clad with topless teenage boys wondering the streets, vencinos (neighbours) chatting on their dimly lit porches and a couple riding a motorcycle whilst holding a baby at their side by its waist. WELCOME TO CENTRAL AMERICA.

Right now I am sitting in my little room with concrete walls and red and white speckled tiled floor, in what I will now call my home for six months. This home, I will have you know, was built from the ground up and paid for by Jamy and her grandmother. I live here with 4 to 5 other people; Jamy my host mom, the sweetest lady who loves to laugh and is open to talking about anything; Marco her hijo (son), 24 years old who studies Chemical Engineering in Managua (45 minutes North of San Juan); Paola her hija (daughter) , 17 who is in her second year university…children start earlier here; at times with Paola's esposa (husband) Alex, 26 who studies in university and works occasionally driving moto taxis, shifts which start anywhere between 2am and 4am. Alex is in and out and takes permanent residence at his mother's house which is also in San Juan. The fourth permanent resident of the house is la abuela, the grandmother. Yep, haven't actually found out her name yet. Cute as a button, this lady is, and eager to inform me about regional delicacies and anything Nicaraguan. I have already learned so much living with this family, and it's only been a week.

When I first saw my room, I have to say it didn't look the way it looks now. I had a small single bed, the mattress on which was deeply indented and when I went to sleep on it, the springs dug directly into my back. I had no closet, simply a stainless steel rolly cart for all of my toiletries and desk with a plastic chair. I can definitely say I barely slept that night what with the roosters a crowin', the birds a chirpin', the perros (dogs) a barkin' and the sounds of endless Latino celebrations i.e. men on loudspeakers and music that goes on forever. But I am here, whew. I spoke with Alex, a fellow intern and explained the bed situation. I was afraid to bring it up with Jamy as I didn't want to offend my family on the first day. She advised me to speak to her and explain the situation, and that it was no big deal. All I said was "the bed I am sleeping on is a bit uncomfortable" and within the hour, Jamy and Marco were heaving my mattress out of my room and exchanging it with a brand new double mattress, complete with a beautiful wooden frame. At that moment, I realized that it's true what they say about Nicaraguans, they are happy and willing to help you out and will go out of their way to do it. The desk was replaced with a ropero hecho de madera (wooden closet) which fits all of my clothing perfectly.

The first week of work has been tiring and it has taken me a full week just to sleep for a whole 8 to 9 hours as I slowly adapt to outside din. I have a window in my room with no real sound barrier, so it's permanently open. I've already started to think in Spanish a little bit and I'm slowly adjusting to the pace of life here. Living in Ecuador and already having a good grasp of Latin culture and the language combined with all of my past experience traveling, and being away from home has really helped me to ease into adjustment mode. I am less shocked by cultural differences than I would've been if I hadn't lived in another Latin country before.

The girls I work with have been helpful in bringing me up to speed. Alex is from Ottawa and went to school at Mcgill. She is 24 and has been working for La Mariposa since June. Her Spanish is excellent and she definitely knows her way around the community. Alison arrived at the beginning of December. She hails from Calgary, where she went to uni, and now lives and works in Whistler. She spent five months in Mexico six years ago and so it has taken her some time to get her Spanish in gear. Both girls have taken me into La Concha, about 10 minutes from the hotel, the capital of the region of La Concepcion to see where to make photocopies, post office , the farmacia, and Pali, the grocery store (which funny enough, is owned by Wal-Mart!)

Work days are relatively slow so far as I'm in training and will be for the next month or so. Alison is still getting the lay of the land and she has been here for almost two months. The first few days were all about information overload as the girls and Paulette, my boss, explained the many different systems, as I call them.

System one is volunteer management. Guests come to stay at the Mariposa to do three things: 1 to learn Spanish, 2 to volunteer at one of the hotels many supported projects and 3 to participate in weekly activities, i.e. visiting projects and sightseeing. Daily activities must be posted on the information billboard, guests must be checked on as they arrive and if any kind of emergency comes up, i.e. stomach bug (which I am just getting over myself) Once in a while I might be asked to be a tour guide for the volunteers, but this is a rarity and only occurs if the local guides are unavailable. I might be asked to do some translating for group tours and development charlas (talks/discussions), which take place in the hotel, if one of the teachers is unavailable.

System two is comprise of the homestays. Interns will always know who is living in a homestay or in the hotel and for how long. We keep track of when every guest leaves and arrives. Basic hotel management, really. If there is an issue or problem with the homestay, we must go talk to a member of the family to discuss and resolve the issue in the most delicate manner possible. We are also responsible for explaining the basic expectations to the homestay and guest. I think I still need some time to improve my Spanish to do this.

System three entails managing community projects. The projects have been put on the backburner as it is high season and the hotel has been booked solid and will be at least until June/July. Now that there are three interns, the hope is that one of us will be able to pick up the slack in terms of managing the projects. This means we will be visiting them to make sure everything is running smoothly, resolving any issues that are communicated to either Paulette or to the three of us. Examples of these issues could include the lack of funding for the afterschool program to a teacher at a local school who is not managing the library correctly.

What have I learned so far? Managing is all about problem solving and seeking out the appropriate strategy. As I get to know the community and understand the culture, I'm hoping strategies will come to me a lot more easily. My role as an intern, as I'm discovering will vary. One day I might be visiting projects, homestays and monitoring guest arrivals and exits, the next I might be editing the website and blog, and the next I might be organizing the gift shop in the hotel to make it more presentable.

The birds are still chirping, the dogs will never stop barking and the breeze flows endlessly. Oh and every other night I hear what sounds like gunfire, which I've been told by Jamy is just people celebrating… every other night. This is the lovely part about living in this part of the world. The not so lovely part? The constant smell of burning garbage, the endless traffic din, the children screaming outside my window and the adjustment period, in general. Oh the adjustment. It is the coming –to-terms with the fact that this is what my life will be like for the next six months. Another adventure has only just begun…

To learn more about La Mariposa Eco-Hotel/Spanish School/Non-Profit Organization, and current volunteer and intern opportunities see the website at

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