Wednesday, October 31, 2007

But it's Just a Baby!

So the next time I see a spider in the shower and I say it’s a big one, just believe me.

I’ve never lived a long time in an area with tarantulas before and so I guess it never occurred to me that they would show up trapped in your bathtub like their smaller cousins.

My general philosophy with bugs is just to leave them alone and they’ll generally either leave or die. But when I mentioned the spider in my bathroom to a friend, he went after it with a broom without hesitation. It was probably a good thing that he did, I think everyone appreciates a showered co-worker more.

I have been assured not to worry, however, the 4 inch one in my bathroom? Just a baby. Great.

Happy Halloween!

And one more note, having been inspired by my brother in law, Kamo ( and friend Leah (, I started up a Flickr account. Most of them are photos you've already seen on this blog, but some of them are new (or should I say old?). You can check them out at

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

This is what they do.

This is what we do.

And that is how a well is dug.

The well has been dug. The water is down there. Now we just have to finish up so we can get the water to where it will be useful. You know, not 320 feet deep in a hole.

A ‘caseta’ or small house (the literal translation from Spanish is hut) is being built to house the electrical panel for the connection to the pump. And Union Fenosa, the government entity that controls all things electrical in Nicaragua (or the lack thereof) is said to be close to giving us our permit for this work.

We have the first review of the houses completed and the architect is working on the revisions. Given that we started over with a new architect only three months ago who would actually work with us and the terrain that exists on the property, the progress has been astonishingly fast.

Clockwise starting with upper left corner: Lorena Zamora (our architect) and Gunther discuss sightlines, flowers on the finca, potential location for two personnel houses, my new rubber boots with skulls and crossbones and a whole lotta mud.

We’ve reroofed the existing building, added toilets and a shower, made extensive repairs and changes to the city water we receive (which is still too contaminated to drink) and generally gotten the site ready for the workers when they arrive to start construction.

But I am easily reminded as I glance around my office at paperwork for later stages of the project how much there is yet to do.

When we finish with this project we will have roads, walkways, a school, therapy offices, sport courts, a church, administrative offices, workshops, parks, an industrial kitchen, a dining hall, nearly 30 houses for 20 people each, a clinic, housing for visitors, housing for staff, housing for volunteers, store rooms, farmland, farm animals, drinking water, sewage treatment, electrical, phone and internet networks, all in the middle of a developing country. Phew!

When you think about all the resources needed to raise a child, the buildings, the materials, the caregivers (and all that the caregivers need as well) that is what we’re trying to plan for, only in our case, it’s 500 of them at the same time.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Carts and Their Horses

I noticed upon my arrival to Nicaragua (as in, right away, first thing on the drive from the airport) the pervasive use of horse drawn carts. It was a sweaty April day (on average, April is the hottest month of the year) and the end of the dry season. Virtually every horse looked like it could keel over at any moment and I could easily count their ribs, from the car, at 60 mph.

Once the rainy season was in full swing, most of them fattened up, but with their drivers still cracking the whip, the last thing in the world I would ever want to be is a Nicaraguan horse.

Horse drawn carts in the tourist town of Granada are beautiful and have carriage wheels. Once you leave there, however, the real Nicaragua kicks in where everything has to be practical for survival. The carts are simple wooden boxes with rubber tires and a wooden board across the middle to sit on.

Pretty much everything is somewhat makeshift. Reflectors on the back of the cart made from the play side of a CD, blinders on either side of the horses head fashioned from cardboard and a pile of old cloths underneath the boards on their back to lessen the rubbing from the weight of the cart.

The driver in the video (who you don’t ever get to see because I was sitting thisclose and I didn’t want to get that kind of close-up with him) is the cousin of a friend. He's 15 years old and drives the cart around delivering milk and sour cream in the countryside where he lives. The horse is directed by the popping sounds you hear in the video that the driver makes with his mouth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Contrast to Atlanta and San Diego

It's been raining pretty hard over the last few weeks and I promise, I'm not the only one who thinks so (here's someone, and someone else, and another person).

We at NPH continue to be incredibly fortunate in our circumstances and haven't had any damage due to the flooding. Apart from having 25 new little neighbors in the three rooms next to mine last week after another orphanage in our community flooded, it has hardly been noticeable to me.

Many people, however, are not nearly so fortunate as I am. Aside from the major damage on the Atlantic (Caribbean) side caused by Hurricane Felix, a major tropical depression dumped enough rain for the Nicaraguan Rio Grande to overflow it's banks. Nine people died in this flood, 124 rural villages are still unable to be contacted because of road damage, large areas of crops were damaged so that the price of beans has risen significantly and disease has increased among already impoverished vulnerable populations.

It's strange to have this happening in this country while in the US, another country I clearly have a fair amount invested in, fires are raging close to my family in San Diego County after a record dry year.

Why the incredibly disparate weather that is so out of whack? Why has there not been a more concerted effort to find the root causes and change them? Is it because until recently, these disasters have more often hit already impoverished areas?

As I'm sure you already know, I only wish I had the answers to those questions. But our own personal involvement in climate change, however small, in these devastating events show us the power of our decisions as a group. And it begs us to ask, do I want to continue to be a part of that?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Man’s Best Friend, Ellen Degeneres’ Scandal, or Security Alarm

Americans have an ever evolving relationship with the animals around them. While a deep attachment has been part of the human experience with working animals for hundreds of years, I know plenty of people for whom this has become something more akin to a human family member.

I met this very patient chihuahua on my flight from Seattle to Houston, and yes, not only are her nails painted, she's wearing a skirt.

In Nicaragua, however, life requires a bit more practicality. Sometimes dogs are pets, but they are nearly without exception the security force as well, and sometimes that’s all they are to their owner. Whether large enough to actually do harm, or simply an alarm to events in the night, dogs are in most every home I’ve been in here.

They also are a ubiquitous presence in the roads and alongside highways. Strays are everywhere because neutering and spaying seems to be a foreign concept. It was only here that I realized that dogs get saggy after breastfeeding their children like every other animal.

Sometimes they’re lucky and have a good home, sometimes they're not. But it’s all really pretty simple, just like the people, they have to fend for themselves.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Of Rain and Floods

So it’s the rainy season. I’ve been experiencing it for a few months now, but coming from the Northwest, it’s not really been that big of a deal.

October, however, is a different story. It rains a lot, every day. Suddenly, like in Seattle, I’m making plans according to when it may or may not rain. But it’s still hot too!

The first twelve hours of yesterday were heavy rain and when people finally started arriving for work, all they were talking about was the incredible flooding.

A new orphanage that was built over the summer flooded (we’re currently housing 25 of the kids in the three rooms next to mine). The streets flooded. And Günter’s house (the engineer with whom I’m working on the new construction) flooded. He never made it into work because they were taking care of water a meter high in their house.

Here at the offices we’re apparently high (although not really dry), so fortunately we haven’t had any problems.

In Seattle, temporary construction provisions are built to withstand the worst storm recorded in an average 25 year period. Permanent construction is to be built to withstand the worst storm in 100 years.

So I asked, how often does it rain this hard since it’s obviously so damaging to the community? Oh, just about every year, they replied.

Of course, you don't just get the water, you get whatever was in the water too, and in Nicaragua, it's pollution, trash and sewage.

Between the local deforestation, the increase of people living in undesirable locations because of an increase in poverty and global climate changes, it doesn't just happen every year, it actually gets worse every year. And Nicaragua, at least, has yet to see a way out.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Developing a House as a Home

It’s a process familiar to any developer. How much is too much and what is too little?

When the people you are building for come from nothing, anything solid is better. But does that mean that you build for little as possible? Especially when the more cheaply you build, the more people you can house with the same amount of money? That, of course, is not the goal.

To raise children in a quality environment is the goal, and that can’t be done with just a floor and a roof. But how much quality is too much?

How many kids should we squeeze into a house? Should each room (with four kids in it) have its own bathroom so they can have some privacy?

Should they have a kitchen to learn to cook, or just cupboards and a sink since meals will always be available from the General Kitchen?

How much more upfront cost is ok if we’re providing natural daylight and ventilation?

How big of a common/living room space is appropriate for 16 kids to play and study? Or should their study areas be in their room, more quiet, but more difficult for the Tios and Tias (caregivers) to supervise?

How do you place bars over windows inexpensively without it appearing prisonlike?

These questions and more are the ones we are currently encountering and trying to answer. The group involved is big, it includes Günther and I, the architect, directors, tios, tias, NPH International, NPH Family Services and others. And we all have our own opinions about how raising children, architecture and the culture of NPH should interact.

But things are moving forward! We’ll get through it as thoroughly and efficiently as we can with Nicaraguan schedules, power outages and floods in the meantime.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Real Reason to be in Nicaragua

Sometimes I forget why I’m here.

I forget why I’m working far from home, friends and family. I forget why I live in a little room with a bathroom instead of an apartment with storage space. I forget why I volunteer to fight with subcontractors instead of getting paid to fight with subcontractors.

And then I am reminded.

Last night I was in my office later than usual and everyone else was gone. Marlin (one of the social workers) walked into the building with two kids to give one of them a pair of plastic flip flops because he didn’t have any shoes.

I said hello to the first girl, who was about 12, and she hung back in the dark office where Marlin hadn’t bothered to turn on the light, so the only illumination was from the hallway. She didn’t say a work, didn’t smile, she just looked at me.

I said hello to the second boy, who was about 8, as he bounded towards me and wrapped his arms around my waist.

These were our new arrivals. I have no idea what their lives were like 24 hours before. I don’t know if they have parents or other siblings. I don’t know what level of poverty they lived in, they pretty much all just come with the clothes on their back.

I can’t imagine what fears or hopes they have as they enter a place so foreign as NPH. I can’t imagine leaving my family in a culture where family is absolutely everything. But I can’t imagine how much I would desire the promise to be regularly fed, clothed, sheltered and educated if I had spent my life without enough of any of those things. So they’re brave, even if they don’t realize it yet.

And for some reason, I get to be a part of it. I get to help make a home for them. I not only get to help them change the trajectory of their lives and therefore their communities, I get to see it happen.

Some may think that it was a sacrifice for me to give up all that I have to be here, but really, I am simply so blessed.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Mind That Won't Be Squandered

He is four years old, his older sister is 6 and his younger brother is 2. Their mother is so intensely sick that she has been put in the hospital. He visits her once, and remembers the trip, but not her face, nothing else about her, and after one month, she has passed away. She hasn’t even reached her 30th birthday.

His father doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t have work and he is desperate… so he leaves.

The kids crowd into a small home with their aunt, and her children, and other cousins, but there isn’t much money to feed everyone. That’s where NPH comes in. Maudiel, his big sister, little brother and two cousins apply to NPH and become five of the original NPH Nicaragua children. It is 1992.

Here in 2007, Maudiel will turn 19 next month and he is working at the offices for his year of service. He has grown up with family, brother, sister and cousins, who are all still at NPH attending school. Maudiel plays league soccer each weekend with a group of guys from the neighborhood and is dedicated to the work he does every day in the office.

But there is even more to Maudiel than just how he currently fills his hours. He is incredibly intelligent and because he didn’t grow up working on a farm or selling gum on a streetcorner to help support an overflowing home like so many children in Nicaragua, he has an education that will allow him to go to a university when he finishes secondary in two years..

Because of NPH, his natural talent and hard work, he not only made it to the present, he is among priveledged few in Nicaragua that actually has a future.

One side note, in some of my earlier posts, I called Maudiel by his middle name - Alejandro. He had originally introduced himself by that name because he knew it was easier to remember for us gringos.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Indulgence

Depending on how frequently you read this blog, you may or may not have noticed that I’ve been gone for the past few weeks.

Wandering through the avenues of St. Paul's historic district where I was staying.

I spent some time in Minnesota helping the Friends of the Orphans Office in St. Paul get the word out to their donors about what is happening with construction of our new home in Nicaragua (FOTO Offices around the US in conjunction with similar offices in Europe fundraise the huge majority of NPH’s income and make it possible for the rest of us to concentrate on our jobs). All the events went well thanks to the hard work of the staff and I had a great time getting to know all of them!

Mt. Rainier from Ft. Lewis, with a lot of zoom!

The presentations continued into Washington State (we always have a great time with some good food and wine!), but the majority of my time was really seeing friends and family in Spokane and Seattle (and the surrounding area).

Pike's Place Market in Seattle

There was a little culture shock (I forgot what it was like to be able to speak my native language to anyone I wanted), I ate everything I wanted (which was quite a bit!), acted like a tourist (a picture of apples? Absolutely!) and saw many many old friends (a thank you to all of them!).

I received a tour of local Catholic churches (since I'll be building one soon) from a friend in Seattle.

Whidbey Island beach and the hill with metal horses just east of the Columbia River.

I drove across the state a couple of times, slept in and only checked my work email a few times! I was very happy to be back, and fortunately also (secretly) hoped that nothing major with the construction project would happen while I was gone.

It's so nice go back home, but it's also nice to realize that you miss work too (especially when it takes complete commitment).

Mt. Rainier from the plane taking me back to Nicaragua.