Saturday, March 30, 2019

Weathering the crisis, Winter 2018-2019

Weathering the crisis
Tourism nearly ended in Nicaragua this year. Since ecotourism and volunteering was an original focal point, we had to refocus on the education part of our mission.

Our project's resource center, Centro PUMA, has been staffed by Nicaraguan tour guides since last April. When Jeff returned from his summer job in October, the difference after 6 months of political crisis was stark. Hotels were empty or boarded up,

no tourists crammed onto the ferry, and Jeff found himself one of the few remaining "gringos" in town. But arriving at Centro PUMA, bicycles lined the street; inside it was teeming with people. The project is thriving.

We saw two initial opportunities for education this season, teaching English and leading environmental education (EE) with children. 

Environmental education with kids
Inspired by a "Junior Ranger" program by a partner organization, Paso Pacifico, and by a summer day camp that we ran with Peace Corps last year, we initiated our own "Junior Ranger" program to take advantage of "summer" vacation that kids have between December and February.

We visited Paso Pacifico's program on the nearby Pacific coast, where we were inspired by kids releasing sea turtles from a hatchery to protect them from poaching.

Also, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was evacuated last year decided to finish her EE project through a master's degree program. Kari designed a book of EE activities specific to Ometepe and then returned to her neighboring village, Balgue, to teach her program. In January, with Kari's curriculum and funds that were donated last year through our "Nature Libre" campaign, we began biweekly Junior Ranger events, one class at Centro Puma in Altagracia, and one class at the local grade school in Balgue. In case you didn't see it, here is one of our campaign videos from last year, featuring Kari and Amanda before Peace Corps evacuated:

This year, our Junior Rangers were led by Jeff, Kari, and 5 local guides, Elieth, Arlin, Ramon Ivan, Roxana, and Levis. January was filled with adventures. We held workshops and local walks, learning about plants, animals, and geology of the area. For example, since we live on a volcanic island, the kids built baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes

and used soft boiled eggs to learn about plate tectonics and magma.

On their last weekend of vacation, we took them on a bus excursion to explore their island.

We visited one of the last remaining patches of old growth lowland forest,

saw a bat colony living in a tree,

Visited ancestral petroglyphs,

took part in climbing demonstrations with our endangered parrot researchers,

Performed a trash pickup on the beach,

And, of course, ended the day playing on the sun-soaked beach.

We returned the kids back home by bus, tired but elated.

Summer was over for the kids, and though we are continuing junior ranger classes on a monthly basis, in February we began to focus on English teaching. Our guides speak better English than most English teachers, so when they proposed to use Centro PUMA for lessons, we were able to fill a community education need while employing tour guides.

Our adult English classes are called "English Cafe" where we practice informal conversation with the incentive of free coffee and snacks. Designed by Chelsea, another master's student who partnered with us this year, English Cafe was designed to augment the formal, grammar-based English classes that are offered locally to motivated adults. The local classes generally don't have enough opportunities for speaking and listening on a conversational level. Eventually we hope to have more foreign tourists and volunteers join in, putting the Unidos (united) in Guias Unidos.

English Cafe remains a regular program we offer, but our English classes for kids really hit a community need. As word got out about free English classes, demand exploded, and we had to deal with growing classes with limited teachers.

As Jeff's seasonal stay came to an end and he worried about how to help with English classes (not his specialty) and how to manage the crowds, word got out to the small group of tourists and expats who were slowly repopulating Ometepe. Foreigners with native or fluent English, many with experience teaching second-language speakers, started volunteering with our guides. We are so thankful to all of these people for their help.

Guide education
We haven't forgotten our original project idea: teaching tour guide skills. We led 6 workshops on skills including interpretation, environmental education, visitor needs, and natural resources.

One of our workshops was a birding excursion, led by a local expert, to explore the possibility of leading a Christmas Bird Count in the future.

And Kate came down for a week to help with a class on learning styles, using multi-sensory and audience-centered approaches.

Although much of our focus this year was on education, we are looking at grants and opportunities to work on reforestation, endangered species conservation, and community projects such as healthy gardens and backyard habitats. Our focus for next year will depend partially on where we can secure funding, but we always have big ideas.

A note on the political crisis
We would like to stay politically neutral, a delicate position during the worst political crisis that Nicaragua has faced in over 30 years. We therefore encourage you to do your own reading on the situation to form your own opinions. But the crisis has deeply affected the country and therefore our project and partners. It has also affected us on a very personal level. Many tourism-dependent families are in despair, some falling into mental health and substance abuse problems. We have seen marriages end, friends consumed by alcoholism, and Jeff attended a friend's funeral; one of the few crisis victims on Ometepe happened to be a close neighbor.

We believe that social and environmental projects such as ours can be a light and hope for the future if they are thoughtfully integrated into communities, as we believe we are doing. But during this time, ecotourism income will not be as available for our project as we had intended. We are grateful to New England Biolab Foundation for renewing their grant with us this year, and for all of you who have sustained us with your donations.

Please be a part of our project by continuing to support us! Any donation you can offer makes a difference.  For example, a donation of just $11 pays a sustainable day's work for a local guide or partner, $150 pays our Center's monthly rent, or $800 keeps our entire project running for a month. Tax deductible donations can be made online at this link here. Thank you!