Thursday, June 30, 2016


We are hard at work here in Altagracia!
We had our first workshop on Tuesday, 28 June, with 18 guides attending. When we asked a couple weeks ago about what topics they wanted, we heard loud and clear that they wanted to know about "La Cultura Turistica," or tourist culture - basically, what do tourists want?

We discussed a lot about professionalism, and cultural differences between Europe, the US, and Nicaragua. Stereotypes and exceptions to stereotypes, machismo and sexism, being there to assist vs. harassing passersby - there was a lot to discuss. These guides are somewhat self-selected, of course, so those who attend trainings are often already aware of cultural differences. But some things die hard. For example, at the end of the workshop, they wanted to ask one of the female guides to serve the juice and donuts provided. That made for a teachable moment about  how in the US, it would be unethical to specify that they want a woman to do the serving in a work setting. So they put the question out there, and of course the women volunteered. But at least there was a discussion!

Another repeat visitor to the island who had toured with Arlin, the president and founder of the group, had come back with five pairs of quick-dry hiking pants as a donation. They drew names from a bag to choose who got them, and the winners were pretty happy:
We are also working with the kids at the before- and after-school care center of the project Si a la Vida, who talks to teachers to select students who are at risk of falling behind, or have a particularly tough home life, or learning deficiencies of some sort. Our contribution is to teach some environmental education classes like we do in the US. We're pretty surprised at how well they work here.
 The kids have so far drawn habitats for birds, played a memory game of local bird species, and talked about the food web of the lake. Jeff's food web demonstration, for example, had them jumping up and down to give examples of animals that might eat an insect, and then animals that would eat that animal, etc.
It is always nice to get that kid time. Not only does it rejuvenate the environmental educator in both of us, but it's great Spanish practice. Kids are so willing to correct mistakes without any self-consciousness or worry that they'll offend. And they get excited about *everything*.

Soon, our friend and coworker in the Everglades, Jen Lopez, is coming to visit for about a week and a half. We'll be putting her to work, for sure.

Dale pues!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Settling in

Greetings from Altagracia, Ometepe, Nicaragua! We're getting settled in here, and have been through a flurry of meetings with local groups who work with tourism and ecological development in the area. Many of these meetings will look familiar to anyone with an office job anywhere:

Even down to the powerpoint presentations!

We're impressed by the amount of work already being done, and the awareness of people here as to the challenges they face and the willingness to put the work in to fix the problems. For example, the above photos are from a meeting with a new group of hotel owners, tourism experts, and environmental professionals who are organizing to improve access to Volcan Maderas Natural Reserve. We are honored to be included in the group.

Less common in most professions is the rocking chair meeting, but this is the type that we will be doing most of the time:

The group of guides that we are working with have meetings like this all the time. We attended one last week to discuss topics for our workshops and trainings, and to distribute and discuss the equipment we brought down. There was much posing for pictures:

We got down to business, though, and made the following list of topics to cover:
- Tourist culture - what do the tourists want? What do they consider professional?
- Activities to use during tours
- What in the US park service we call interpretation - how to make a tour make an impression
- Resource knowledge: geology, plants, insects, birds, etc.
- First aid practice - hopefully, there will be a Red Cross training as well

We've spent a lot of time working with this guy:

Arlin is the one we met in the park in Altagracia all those years ago who was organizing a group of tour guides and wanted training, who we have been in contact with ever since via email, who has done an incredible amount of work to improve the work of and resources for the guides of Ometepe. We look forward to much more work together.

But, of course, it's not all work. A cousin works for United Airlines and was able to help us carry all the gear down here, so we took a couple days to enjoy the island with her. A huge thanks to prima Becky!

And we've had the challenge and the fun of finding a place to live. There is no or classifieds section down here like there is in the US, so we had to network to find places for rent. We asked anyone and everyone - the guides we work with, local gringos like Peace Corps volunteers, and ultimately anyone we met at shops and restaurants around town. Surprisingly, the market is quick in this little town, so a couple of places got snatched up before we could see them. But ultimately we found a very interesting option and went with it.

Si a la Vida is a group founded twenty years ago in Managua, the capitol and Nicaragua's largest city by far, to get kids off the street. For many years, they took kids who had difficult enough family lives (or no family at all) to be sleeping on the streets or begging in the markets and put them up in a home with regular meals, a good education, and caring supervision. Some they brought to Ometepe to give them a calm, quiet place to heal. Here, they had a plantain farm with two buildings full of rooms for the kids to stay in. A year ago, the government of Nicaragua decided that all children are better off with their families, and required the Si a la Vida kids to be returned to Managua. Since then, the housing has sat empty. Ideas to turn it into a hostel for volunteers are floating around, but they require a lot of time and work - and that's where we come in.

We've moved in and are getting all of the supplies to make ourselves comfortable. The kitchen is now fully stocked, and our room is secure and going to be bug-proofed at some point (time - always we need more time). There's also lots of meeting space for our guide trainings, so lots of them will happen here, I think. The view may be a bit distracting, though...

We needed comfortable places to siesta during the hottest part of the day. That means hammocks, of course, which required a trip to Masaya.

Masaya is close enough to Managua that the craziness of city life and of travel were tough on these two travelers. Happily, though, we're back on the island, and making headway on our project (if not on the bugs). We were reminded that we were almost home on the ferry, where the island's "tranquilo" way of living allows for some bending of the rules:

Quite the fashion statement that guy has with his now-required life vest. Whatever - it floats, right?

A big shout-out to all of those of you who have helped us along the way. Your support is helping make this a reality, and we are grateful!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Off we go!

We're on our way! After a flurry of packing that followed a month of seeing family and getting lots of work done in Washington, we're finally heading out to begin the on-site work in Ometepe. 
Goodbye for now, Washington!
The support we've gotten is amazing. Many people are cheering us on at home, and even people we connected with professionally but never actually met have expressed their support. Our crowdfunding site plus extra donations totaled well over $2000, and we've got the goodies to show for it:
Surprisingly, this all packed into two suitcases - very big, very full suitcases, but just two. And a cousin of mine who works for the airline we're flying is bringing them down for us, donating her vacation time to carry all that gear.

We're pretty excited to bring down good hiking equipment, of course, including some shoes we found barely used and trekking poles to see if the guides feel they help. But backpacks - oh, the backpacks:
We got several different styles to see what the Nicaraguan guides prefer. Frame or no frame? Big or small? Lots of pockets or few? We'll let them choose.

Books and binoculars, though, are really in the most limited supply down there. You may not be able to get really good shoes and backpacks, but you can get something that functions there. Books and optics are much harder to come by. So we're bringing lots of books (see the last post) and several pairs of binoculars. 
In addition to the funding from friends and family, we got a small grant from an organization called Idea Wild, which purchased these items:
The binoculars Idea Wild donated turn out to be pretty fancy, actually, so I hope the Ometepe guides don't get too attached to them - we will have to get really creative to afford (or even find!) lots of those. But it sure is nice to see that our project can get support in the international arena.

Now it's time to see if it gets local support, though, so wish us luck. Especially in schlepping all of this stuff to the island!