Back on the road with El Porvenir, a national NGO, we travel the Pan-American Highway, trashed with plastic bags and bottles, through Nicaragua to Sebaco and check in to one of the only hotels. We are in the breadbasket of the country. Fields of sugarcane, rice, beans, peanuts, tomatoes, and at higher elevations, coffee, surround the valley. Semi-trailers and buses carry workers, animals and vegetables to and fro. The town is a trade center disguised as a truck stop with lots of banks, prostitutes and gas stations on a contaminated river.
The afternoon is free so Bob and I hike into town for some local color. We hail a bicycle taxi and ask for a tour. To alleviate drabness the storefronts, though neither colonial nor quaint, are painted in gorgeous bright colors, especially pink and purple. The market, filled with friendly vendors, is a profusion of mounded fruit and vegetables shining in the afternoon sun. We return unharmed from our rich experience to admonitions of “Stay out of Sebaco! It’s a dangerous haven for robbers, gangs and prostitutes.”
The next day we’re off to Casas Viejas on a rutted dirt road rough enough to break an axle. Stark serene mountains on both sides frame the dry dusty terrain clotted with brown stubby trees. The tiny village is far enough away and hard enough to reach that it is isolated not only from the crime and politics of the big cities, but also from the ‘basic necessities’ of potable water and sanitation. And that’s what we’re here for.
The village has been approved for a project by El Porvenir. Three latrines and a hand washing station with piped in potable water will be built by community members and volunteers (us) before school starts. All materials and training are supplied by El Porvenir. We are greeted by the teachers and children the first day. We volunteers do mostly grunt work along with the children – carrying sand for cement, rocks for the drain field. There’s no electricity so everything is hecho por mano, done by hand. The locals like to see and get to know the volunteers and vice-versa. We four Gringo volunteers and two El Porvenir staff drive up two plus hours each day to help. Jose is the local foreman and his wife Chepita cooks lunch for us at their house. Walking through the village we get a view of the valley below, meet the neighbors, check out the mud/thatch houses, doors flung open to catch the light and breeze. I’m surprised to see the contented, though not easy, lives they lead. A teacher says, “the children like to work, they want to help. They’ve been raised that way.”
Casas Viejas has almost 500 inhabitants, approximately 6 per house. There is a church, a primary school with no water or sanitation, a clinic open only once a month, and no stores. A truck with a bench along one side for riders comes once a day from the closest town, Dario. After six years of school hardly anyone continues their education. It’s too far and costs too much ($1 ea. way).
Learning to live and work together is inherent. Older children take care of younger and all have chores: in the garden, feeding the chickens, milking the cows, grinding corn, washing clothes. The women and children handle the stuff of life in the village. Most the men are either non-existent or have work far away. Self-sufficiency is a necessity. If a job is available, average pay is only $2 per day.
On the third day of construction I hurt my back and can’t dig or carry. I become the Pied Piper and gather the children together for English lessons. They are thrilled and eager. With only the occasional cry of a baby, the children are happy and busy. Siblings don’t fight, parents don’t scream. Talking with them I find that they’d like to continue their education past sixth grade. Young Jose, who comes every day, takes a liking to Bob and me. He says sadly, “This is my last year of school. We don’t have enough money for the trip to town.”
Check in next time – Getting to Know You Nicaraguan People.