Friday, January 30, 2009

Gray Water

Grey Water

This is gray water about to be recycled, am I the only one who thinks the picture is prettier when you don't know what it is?

Update: By the way, this picture starts to look prettier again (or at least advantageous) when you're on the city's system and you have been without water in the house for 24 hours.

It's less common than it used to be, but still happens with enough frequency that they don't feel a need to issue an explanation or notification of when it will be turned back on. Can you imagine if that happened in the States?!

Happy Friday!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I Have a Favor to Ask of You

A women selling grave flowers on Memorial Day weekend (it's not actually called that, but it's the day everyone goes to their family graves to picnic).

Correction: When I tried to vote again today it wasn't allowed, so I contacted the company to say hey! what's with that?! Of course I put it better than that :)

They just wrote back to say, Oops! We wrote our rules wrong! Sorry! You can only vote once!

So, I'd love your one vote, and then a vote from every computer you have access to (since you don't have to register, it's really one vote per computer) and if you feel like spreading the joy, feel free to send this to whoever you feel comfortable asking to click their vote!

Thank you so much! I'm already in second place! But I have a ways to go for first!

Original Post:


It's everywhere.

It touches everything.

Some people think it IS everything.

And it is part of an audacious project I will take on someday.

In the meantime, I am applying to business schools to earn an MBA in non-profit management starting the fall of 2010 (yes, for those of you who don't know me at all, I like to plan ahead).

And you can help me go.


I hear confusion. Yes, you can help me go. In more ways than one, but the one I am asking for right now is very simple and is free.

Please go to MBA Tour (click on the words to take you there). Click on the picture (the same as the one above) that says 'Developing Countries Skipping Ahead'. Click on the button that says vote.

If you really want to help, you can vote for me EVERY DAY!

I'm not going to tell you how good the chances are that if you vote, I will win a prize worth over $6,000! Ok, I will, chances are very good.

To be accepted into an MBA program at an accredited university, I have to take the GMAT, it's like the SAT for high schoolers. This prize of test preparation help will take me a long way towards getting into the schools I am hoping for.

Here's a hint of how much I'm hoping to win... I already voted for myself! And plan on voting every day until February 10th!

Happy voting!

Here is the web address if the link doesn't work for you -

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Neighborhood Mentality

Barrio Pedro Joaquin
Neighbors' Houses

I currently live in the neighborhood Pedro Joaquin. It's kind of a rough and tumble neighborhood as I've described to you before.

There's always someone going by, a person walking, a dog marking its territory, an ice cream vendor, the tortilla lady, the woman selling cleaning supplies (brooms, buckets, etc).

Peaceful calm at six in the morning.

There's the guy who stops by to panhandle to help buy drugs (no, he doesn't ask like that). There's the guy who wants to sell what he's stolen.

There's the neighbor who washes clothes for a living to come by and visit. There's the a group of little girls who have become fascinated with 'the gringa' living in their neighborhood who yell their hellos as they go by.

Burning Trash
Roberto's mom burning yard waste.

On the one hand, it's the most dangerous neighborhood I've ever lived in, but on the other hand, there is always someone, not only willing, but available to help if the need ever arises.

I've met more neighbors here in one month than I did in my last three years in Seattle, and I chose that Seattle neighborhood in part because of it's community.

Horses eating breakfast on the baseball field across the street.

So I feel fortunate to get to spend my last weeks here, on a nondescript, average Nicaraguan street. Because behind the tough looking, iron covered facades are families who come out to sit on street corners and chat with each other, who share food among one another, who give and receive as needed.

Our House in the Middle of Our Street
Our house, in the middle of our street.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sustainable Energy in Nicaragua

Good Weather for a Windmill
Windmills in Nicaragua close to the border with Costa Rica.

Nicaragua has a relatively good relationship with Venezuela. For that reason, we receive pretty much all of our petroleum from them.

The generators in Managua which power Nicaragua with electricity run on Venezuelan petroleum. These are the same generators which regularly shut off a year ago in planned black-outs, saving petroleum and government money, but costing the country's economy.

A different view of the same windmills, this time from the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Photo by Kamweti Mutu.

Someone, however, apparently realized that was no way to run a country long term and the Nicaraguan goverment has been investing in sustainable energy!

I am shocked! In a good way!

The windmills are in an agricultural area. Photo by Kamweti Mutu.

Suzlon in India was contracted to build the windmills and I can personally attest from my time in the house that Germans built that this lake front is a great windy place.

Windmills and Volcanos
Windmill with Volano Maderas behind.

The windmills form a network expected to generate 40 MW of energy, or 6% of Nicaragua's energy use. Coupled with geothermal plants and ethanol from sugarcane, Nicaragua's government hopes to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil for energy needs to 3% by 2013.

But you don't have to take my word for it. BusinessWeek, EnergyPortal24 and MSNBC is much more information on the project and Nicaragua's advances in alternative sources of energy.

Windmill Construstion
Windmill construction.

I can't leave it at that, however. I do have to mention that in what seems to be par for the course in Nicaragua, a small bridge collapsed while one of the generators was being trucked to the site. It shut down traffic between Costa Rica and Managua for the day. Let's hope that's all that goes wrong!

Friday, January 23, 2009

In Memory of Milton Rojas

Baby Amelia

Amelia is my first dog. I'd never had a dog growing up because of my dad's allergies, so I didn't really know much about them.

I was so excited about Amelia. I'd noticed little bugs on her during the car ride home, but there are bugs on everything here, so I didn't think much of it. Her little belly was unusually large for her body, but I just figured that was her baby shape.

Amelia's Paunch

As soon as we got back to the office, I took her directly to Roberto and proclaimed "Isn't she beautiful?!". He agreed that she absolutely was beautiful, but that given her fleas and with so many worms in her tummy maybe we should call the vet sooner rather than later.

That is how, later that afternoon, I met Milton.

Milton was on the track team with Roberto in high school. After they graduated he received a scholarship from an American woman who lives part time in San Jorge. And so, although he came from a poor family, he began working his way up to a financially secure and rewarding life.

Every time I saw him, whether running into him outside his wife's store, or an appointment for Amelia, he was always so wonderfully even keel. He never looked for attention, but was always so helpful and kind with a smile and a chuckle as he would joke with me while giving Amelia a shot.

Last week I met with him and his wife, Dania after work to present a couple of options for their house addition which they had requested from me. We talked about where the bathroom should go, the room for their son, the room for their future child already planned for, their room and a study room (very unusual for a Nicaraguan house, but Milton had one year of study left to receive his Masters in Veterinary Science).

So given all this, you can understand why it didn't seem real when Roberto received a call Sunday night from his grandmother (his grandfather was the track coach) saying that Milton had been killed.

It took us five minutes to gather everything and leave on his motorcycle and another 10 minutes to get to his house. It was 15 minutes of refusing to cry, 15 minutes I was sure that it was a different Milton, that someone had gotten confused, that the rumor had simply gotten out of hand.

And then we turned onto his street and saw the people outside, the beginning of mourning.

When we got there, the police were guarding the door, finishing their investigation. Less than two hours before, Milton had still been alive. Less than two hours before, for reasons still not fully understood, Milton had chosen this day to come home from hanging out with a couple friends, enter the bedroom, lock the door and shoot himself.

Afterwards, however, is terribly clear in my memory. Roberto, his grandfather, grandmother and I stood outside the house with a hundred other people as the preparations began.

Dania, Milton's wife, called my cell to let me know what had happened. She was inside the bedroom with the curtains drawn, so I let her know I was already outside. I was sure she had many more calls to make.

The police left and three chairs were arranged to hold the casket in the living room while the body was being prepared in the bedroom.

Plastic chairs were rented for all those waiting outside. Teenage cousins were charged with handing out plastic cups of soda and refreshments. The mood was hushed, but people chatted in their groups.

We stayed until almost midnight, sitting and talking. I stopped inside to give Dania a hug before we left. She was putting pajamas on her little boy who was blissfully oblivious.

Before we left a hired car with loud speakers began its crawl through the neighborhoods announcing the death and time of service for 4 PM the next day. Funerals are held quickly because bodies are not preserved with chemicals.

The following afternoon arrived with haze and a warm sun as people gathered at Milton's house. The casket was loaded into Milton's truck which he used to visit farms for his work. From there we walked behind the slow moving truck to the church Las Mercedes.

Procesion de Milton
Procession to the church.

Milton en la Iglesia
Milton's casket being carried into the church.

After the service, the crowd then walked to the cemetery where Milton was placed in a brick and concrete tomb, the most common form of burial in this area.

Intierro de Milton

Life is not easy here. Milton achieved more than most, but possibly because he took the pressure to heart more than most. He was 27 years old and leaves behind his parents, four sisters, a wife and a four year old son.

Funeral Berries

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Audaciousness Header
The old audaciousness blog header from a lifetime ago. Photo taken during my first trip to Ometepe at the beginning of 2007.

February 27th will be my last day with Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos International.

This is a long considered decision.

My time here has been a worthwhile sacrifice. Any choice we make involves a sacrifice of the alternatives, but we make those choices because we believe they are the best for our lives.

And it was.

But the sacrifice is no longer worth it. I am tired.

Inefficiencies, frustrations and low professional standards in certain areas existed within NPHI since my first day. But I dealt with them because I saw them as cultural differences, normal non-profit difficulties and the challenges of growing into a multi million international organization.

The difficulties, however, have grown over the last several months and worn me out with the constant struggle.

The lack of response by those who authorize the projects over the last several months has left me unable to my job.

The lack of communication from those who have decided to do my job for me has left my work of the last few months with little worth.

The lack of consistency when the need for saving is preached, but the action of spending, giving steep raises and hiring unnecessary staff is taken.

The lack of professionalism where the value of donors is extolled, but donations are lost in the system.

Don't get me wrong.

NPHI is an organization with a wonderful mission. My struggles were not 100% of the time, nor with all of NPHI. That it has flaws is to be expected as it, along with all other organizations, is made up of human beings.

While two years feels like a long time to me right now, trustworthy others who have been here many more say that over the long view, NPHI really is improving, and I believe that.

But it is time for me to move on to another audacious project.

I have another month and a half here, so I'll let you know what this new project (a.k.a. job) is when I figure it out. If you have any ideas, suggestions or contacts, feel free to let me know.

I hope you stick with me for my last posts from Nicaragua and beyond.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Change Day!

Photo taken by Roberto on our trip to DC last October.

Happy Inauguration Day!

My brother-in-law's office is a few blocks from the capitol and last night he, my seven months pregnant sister and hundreds of others slept in that office so that they could get up in pre-dawn hours and stand in the cold. I wish I was there!

All to witness the moment of Change!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Programa Amor

Homework at a New Home
Approximately 50 kids visited the property for a few days. Here they are completing homework at one of the tables in the living room.

A little over two years ago, Daniel Ortega was elected president and brought with him the FSLN party. Some things have changed, some have not.

Medical care is now free to all, including most medicines. This is a huge gain for the very poor and the very sick who couldn't afford the attention they needed before. Small wounds no longer necesarily become amputations. Less women will die of cervical cancer because of late diagnosis.

On the other hand, I have a friend who broke his leg badly almost a year ago. The surgeries were free, but the doctors didn't install the screws very well. He is 24 years old an will walk with a cane for the rest of his life.

School is and always has been technically free to all. But with the new Sandinista government, school supplies, uniforms and other costs that had previously kept the poorest children from attending are free.

However, schools still lack quality teachers. Teachers who not only show up every day, but also understand their subject matter enough to teach it. Nicaragua has won a great battle against basic illiteracy, but do the people have enough knowledge to leverage themselves out of poverty?

The government started a program last October called "Programa Amor", the Love Program. One of it's aim is to get more children living in families, off the streets and out of orphanages.

It's a wonderful idea that children who are not able to be raised by their own parents due to death, addictions, abuse, mental illness and extreme poverty can be raised by others who can give them the love, attention, education and support they would otherwise be lacking.

The New Home
Girls hanging out on the porch of their home.

However, in returning 17 children from Casa Asis in December to their original families that had been previously deemed incapable, and the lacking evidence that other substitute families (more or less foster families) who are paid to take in the children are really providing for the children better than NPH, I question if in the reality of Nicaragua, this program of love is really more loving.

In the meantime, rumors have been running rampant since October when this portion of the program was initiated that NPH Nicaragua would be shut down. While the national director has been assured by the Family Services department (Mi Familia) that this is not the case, the rumor still persists in the community the house is based in.

And due to the particular interest the program has in children 15 and under, when the new school year starts in February, the new property will have approximately 50 kids 16 and over living in the first four homes.

Card Shark
The kids keeping occupied in one of the new homes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Crossed Connection?

Ingenio Telephone Connections
Telephone lines at Ingenio, a sugar processing company, one of the largest employers in Rivas.

Do the lines of communication sometimes feel like this in your office too?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Giving Shelter

Alfredo's Team
The Team - Efrain (former NPH maintenance worker), me, Alfredo's two little girls, Carolina (Alfredo's wife), Alfredo, Daniel (NPH maintenance worker).

Alfredo is a special friend to me here in Nicaragua. More genuinely kind and friendly than most, he welcomed me to Nicaragua while I was a stranger, without knowing if I would stay or become one of the many who pass through. Here he is with his guitar singing me Happy Birthday!

He works as a gate guard/landscaper at the NPH offices making about $150 per month and until she was laid off this week, his wife worked as a caregiver at Casa Asis, the babies house.

Alfredo's Corner
Rebar columns and beams form the simple skeleton of the house.

Having a home has long been a dream of Alfredo and Carolina's in a country where you have to save and buy outright. Mortgages and credit are generally kept for the rich.

But as has been known here for a long time, and as we are learning in the US, there are investments more important than those you have in the bank.

alfredo's house
Outline of Alfredo's house - the kitchen/living room is on the right/front, two bedrooms are on the left/back, and the bathroom is in the corner farthest from the camera for a total of under 500 square ft.

Alfredo and Carolina have devoted much to those around them.

And as their return, they are receiving multiple donations for their new house. Some are giving labor, some are giving a bag of cement. Virtually everyone from the office has donated something, even those who are making the same minimum income as Alfredo.

Mixing Concrete
Efrain and Daniel mix concrete by hand.

Wedgwood Community Church (my home church in Seattle) has donated 16 sheets of zinc (the whole roof) and 5 steel beams for a grand total of $300.

The donation was given with such love and generosity by the small neighborhood centered church. And it was received with sincere appreciation for the fulfillment of such a basic need. I felt fortunate to watch the connection made.

Hardware Devilery Truck
Offloading the zinc from the hardware store delivery truck to a neighbors house until the walls are ready.

From everyone on the team - Thank you Wedgwood Community Church!

Alfredo Bussing Bricks
Alfredo continuing to earn his home.

A Prayer For Shelter

Lord, on the night you were born, there was no room in the inn.

May we remember those who do

not have a place to sleep tonight.

Jesus, you were born in a stable.

May we be builders of decent homes.

Lord, you wandered in the desert, fighting temptation.

We seek direction and your strength as we strive to do your will.

Jesus, you ministered to all those in need of decent housing.

May we work tirelessly for all those in need of decent housing.

Jesus, you came that we might have life.

We offer ourselves to be your hands and feet in the world.

God of all, give us the courage to speak out for those who have no voice.

Help us remove the obstacles that stand in the way of all our children

having a simple, decent place in which to live and grow.

Give us strength to take action.

We ask this in Jesus' name.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Planning Ahead in Design

Hot Sun, Paper Windowshades
In the NPH Nicaragua Construction Department (a room approximately 10'x10') we recycle old plans as window coverings.

The NPH Nicaragua office was built about 10 years ago like a concrete bunker when the mentality was to build cheap and quick. The windows in all but the front offices are tiny and the concrete block walls are thick enough to hold and transmit heat, but not insulate from it.

Cool breezes in this semi tropical clime are precious. So it's important to design buildings to capture natural cooling in whatever way possible.

Traditionally, Nicaraguan homes are very open to the air. Windows are generally covered with metal bars for security, but often nothing else, especially in rural areas. And roofs are generally zinc set on top of concrete walls, where every wave in the zinc leaves an open space for air to pass through.

The homes on the new property have been designed as well as sited specifically to take advantage of consistent easterly breeze and natural lighting (without the heat of a lot of direct sunlight).

But due to the financial crises happening in the US and Europe, all NPH countries have been instructed to cut their 2009 operating budgets by 30%. The preparation started at the beginning of December with NPH no longer providing lunch for their workers and continues with a round of layoffs to happen this week.

Even though we're not part of the operational budget, this has impacted us as well on the construction of the new homes. Not because we don't have money, we have many very generous donors and nearly a half million in the bank (with additional funds currently being promised). But because over the last several months the emphasis that we have been receiving has changed from 'what's the best long term plan' to 'how can we save money in construction right now because we don't know when the money will stop'.

A different design for the home has been proposed and strongly recommended by NPHI, and while not a bad design in general, it will cut down on natural lighting and ventilation causing an increase in electricity usage for lighting and fans.

In the meantime, here in Nicaragua we were also working on revising the plans of the houses previously built to lower costs, but keeping the core values the same.

The problem is that our house design is approximately $3,000 more expensive than the other (approximately $58,000 to $55,000), so I'm not sure what will be the final decision.

Marlon (the National Director) returns from his holiday vacation in Honduras this week, so hopefully he'll have time to make a decision soon.

And hopefully, this time, the decision for natural ventilation and lighting will be seen as a long term value and not just an upfront cost.

In the meantime I'll sit here sweating in front of my computer hoping for a breeze!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Nearby Earthquake

For those of you reading about the 6.2 earthquake in northern Costa Rica, we did feel it here in San Jorge, but there were no damage reported nor injuries.

Because of the volcano so nearby, I feel tiny earthquakes on a fairly regular basis (and I think I inherited my mother's earthquake supersense, she felt the 2001 Nisqually earthquake about 300 miles away in Spokane). But this one was much bigger.

So we're all fine here, but please keep in mind all those terribly affected.

A Little Home Construction

Bricks in the Wall
Blocks for the security wall

The whole property used to belong to Roberto's grandparents, but over the years, it has been carved up as each child has built their own home.

Carmen, Roberto's mother, is developing her part of the property a bit more and putting up a 3 meter concrete block wall. It will have barbed wire and broken glass at the top with a sturdy metal door for access.

It will also have a security system named Amelia (she is a good alarm, but not much else) and (Roberto's dog) Chitrin (an alarm and the armed security guard).

Hopefully that will keep out whoever broke the lock on the back door a few nights ago trying to steal the rebar for the wall. Chitrin got a little bloodied in the process, but valiantly defended the homestead.

Septic Hole at the Gata's
Future septic system of the neighbor (the hole has been there about a month so far)

One reason for the extra security is that the neighbor has a tendency to buy stolen property, so there are people coming and going into the night offering anything from electronics to construction signage. The floor of her house is made from concrete blocks that were used to pave the road out front a couple months ago.

There is also a number of drug houses in the neighborhood. They don't all sell, some of them are just runners on the long trip Columbian cocaine takes to get to the U.S.

Fortunately they all know Roberto and his mother and so they're safe (and me by association). But the addicts wandering through are a different story. The culture of it is a little different when drug houses are established families and not displaced addicts.

In the meantime, our contractor, Jose, comes most morning to work. Often, but not always, with a helper (even though unemployment rates are high, it can be tough to find someone willing to actually show up).

At the halfway point, Jose was paid the agreed upon $200 for about 7 days of work for him and his helper. He kindly signed the receipt of payment slip even though he doesn't read.

No permits or contracts were signed or even considered. In a world were no one can afford to take anyone else to court, it isn't paper that protects you.

Backyard Construction
Rebar overlooking the concrete blocks and trash burn pile

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Values?

Granada Vendor
A streetside vendor in Granada with his very own set of values.

Values change.

From culture to culture, religion to religion and person to person, values change.

From now to later, beginning to end and start to finish values change.

Before I left the US for Nicaragua, I knew values would be different here.

I knew my tendency to plan ahead for maximum efficiency would not be appreciated (it isn't always appreciated in the US either, type A is the nice way of putting it).

I knew my desire to receive information or see work accomplished the day agreed upon would not always be respected (the most common phrase used in daily repetition is 'mañana', tomorrow).

I knew that the children of NPH would not be raised as the middle class child I was with time outs as discipline in place of field labor (in a largely agrarian society, it's really the equivalent of my parents making me mow the lawn).

And I knew some of the differences of values would rub off on me, change me. But I've been surprised by how many are stubbornly the same.

Here are some that I can't seem to let go of:

1. It's OK to question authority.

2. Late? Alright. Three hours late with a cell phone? Not alright.

3. If you agree to do a job, you do it to the best of your ability.

4. Flip side of #3, whoever asked you to do that job has to let you do it (unless you're doing it all wrong in which case they need to let you know).

5. When dealing with who did what, truth is not relative.

This is not to say I don't celebrate the differences between us all, I do! You know, as long as you let me know in advance if you're going to be three hours late to the celebration!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Recycled Water System

While we haven't been starting any new projects in the last few months, we are still finishing up some old ones.

Just recently completed is the water recycling system to re-use grey water.

Recycled Water Cistern

Potable water from the main water tower is used at the sinks and showers. From there it drains away to a grey water septic tank where it is treated in the standard septic system (someday we'd like to have a second step biofilter).

Once the water is clean it gravity drains to a cistern. From the cistern, it is available to be pumped to another smaller water tower.

Once in this smaller tower, it is ready to run to the toilet the next time there is a flush.

Recycled Water Tower

From the flush, the water drains to a second septic tank specifically for black water. Again it is treated in a standard septic system and when clean, drains into the ground.

This particular system was designed for 14 homes which is the girls' half of NPH Nicaragua.